Many centuries ago, the world was balanced. Manipulators, those who could bend the forces of nature to their will, ruled supreme. Any person could control fire, water, earth, wind, plants and other basic elements. Others had physical skills, like great speed, monstrous strength or the ability to control time. All nations, clans and tribes lived in harmony. No one fought, no one stole, and all were friends.

But all good things come to an end. The Dark Emperor Karsharan came into power, and gripped the world in his iron fist. He used deception to turn enemies on each other, as he sat back and watched his adversaries take care of themselves for him. Several tribes simply vanished when he came to the throne, all of their sacred arts forgotten to the sands of time. Clans that were once friendly turned on each other, and fighting began.

Villages became fortresses for traveling armies, whichever ones could pay. Cities became command centers, rulers became warlords, and brothers became enemies.

Monsters manifested from the anger that gripped the land, and terrorized anyone who traveled outside a village. The monsters ruled the land, the sea, and the sky. Ships could no longer sail unless someone on board could manipulate wind or lightning. Airships were given cannons to beat back monsters in the sky. A fire-mage would also be welcomed, but very few existed. Travel by land was not heard of. To do such was to walk into death's embrace. The nomadic tribes and clans were forced to find refuge in villages.

The world was able to endure this for several decades. But there came a day when the monsters grew more powerful. It seemed nothing could defeat them now. The battle for power between the armies of the world grew fiercer. Airship fleets were always on the horizon, the seas were full of war galleys.

Out of the chaos, seven heroes came forth. They were skilled manipulators, able to bend the elements like none before. Xekrox commanded the wind, and would summon massive gales with ease. He was also gifted with clairvoyance, the ability to momentarily gaze into the future.

Sarona was able to make walls of water rise from the depths, and was able to freeze the entire sea. She was beautiful, but never settled down. She was a sailor at heart, and was never able to stay in one place. No one knows anything about her origins, and no one ever asked.

Karana commanded the very force of light itself, able to exorcise any monster or call down lightning from the heavens. She was always happy and joyous.

Her brother, Crunais, was her opposite. He preferred to stay in the shadows, which he manipulated freely. He could control monsters, bend them to his will. He could manipulate his shadow, and any others into whatever form he chose, a man, a sword, or even a new monster. However, he never seemed to get along with the rest of the Legendary Seven, especially Duranos, the Landmaster, and Pyrrex, the Firespirit. He only joined to watch out for his sister.

Duranos was a master of the Earth. He possessed massive strength as well. He created several of the great mountain ranges to serve as walls to protect villages. He could rip the ground in two to create a bottomless trench. His weaknesses were his temper, his devotion to Pyrrex, who saved his life on many occasions, and Karana, who he was smitten with.

Asuhani was special in that she is the only one in recorded history to manipulate mana, or life force. She possessed all abilities of the psychics, telepathy, telekinesis, and the like, but could also make any natural thing obey her, except for monsters, which were created out of anger and spite, not the purity of the divine will, as other things were. She is always depicted as having a pack of various animals following her.

Pyrrex, also know as Firespirit, is often considered the leader of the Legendary Seven. It was he who united them, and was always on the forefront of battle, bravely leading his troops. His origins are a mystery. All that was known is that while his mother was a human mortal, his father was a fire spirit, a djinn. How this came about, no one is sure, but it quite possibly saved the world. He was incredibly handsome, but never took any interest in settling down, for ever since he was a little boy, he was rushing off to save anything in need, often disappearing for weeks at a time to track down a lost animal or protect friends who were traveling.

The Legendary Seven was able to exorcise many of the major demons, imprison the rest, and soothe and unify the warring armies. They stormed Karsharan's palace, and Pyrrex met the Dark Emperor head on. The armies and the rest of the legendary heroes had to flee Karsharan's den of evil for fear of their lives. No one knows exactly how Pyrrex fought the Dark One, but the Firespirit emerged victorious. He leapt from the window of the palace's tallest tower, and hung suspended in the air several hundred feet above Karsharan's dark fortress as it burned to the ground. He then told his followers that the Evil One was vanquished, and he was no longer needed in the world.

With that, he ignited his body, and shot off into the heavens, never to be seen again. Over the course of five years, the remaining six also vanished, seemingly into thin air.

The last to disappear, Xekrox, the youngest, told his three most faithful followers "One day, the Dark shall again stir. Seven stars must shine a holy light if salvation is to come. But divided, the stars shall not stand a single chance. Only united can we prevail against Drakuas." He vanished the following morning.

No one has ever been able to fully decipher the meaning of Xekrox's Final Prophecy, nor has anyone, even the wisest scholar, been able to figure out who Drakuas is.

Now, the balance of the world once again rests on the brink of evil. A boy arrives at an outpost village with no memories of how he got there, who he is, and what he needs to do. All he has is a sword strapped on his back, and the tunic he is wearing. This boy is fated to save the world.

CHAPTER 1

The boy stared at the dusty town through ragged bangs. His shirt was tattered and ripped in several places. He had a scimitar strapped to his back, a red and gold tassel hanging from the hilt. The scabbard was decorated very ornately, small gold patterns running along the side.

The boy trudged past the first few buildings. He knew that if he didn't find food and shelter soon, he would die. Plain and simple. If the monsters didn't get him, hunger would.

As he walked, he saw all the windows were covered, people obviously hiding, since night, and with it, monsters, would be approaching soon. The boy sighed. He decided to head for the center of town, and search for an inn there.

When he reached the town square, he saw that the village was indeed inhabited. People were bustling around, trying to finish the day's shopping before the sun set. Then, a shout was heard.

"Hey, that wench just stole some loaves!"

A ripple went through the crowd, and voices rose, calling out accusations.

"Oh, it's one of Lifei's brats!"

"Why should they be stealin'? Why not just call it down from above, or grow it from the ground?"

"Don't matter why she would, jus' why she did! Get her!"

A hooded figure ran past the boy. "Please, help me," it whispered, then dashed off.

The boy blinked. He was unsure what was going on. Then, he saw a horde of villagers charging forward from the market.

He did the only sensible thing. He ran hard and strong, for he was sure the villagers were after him. He did not know what he had done, but then again, he didn't even know his own name.

So he ran, ducking into side streets and alleys, trying to get away. Then, as he passed by a gap between to buildings, a hand reached out and covered his mouth. Then a second hand reached around his waist and pulled him into the shadows. He tried to lash out, but some kind of force held his arms and legs together. He knew he was dealing with a psychic. His limbs were locked with telekinesis. Any movement was impossible. And if his assailant was a thief, he was in trouble.

"I'm no common thief!" the psychic said indignantly. It was the voice of a female, close to the boy's age. And since she had heard what he was thinking, she was telepathic too. "A thief is someone who steals without good reason. I steal to feed myself. And my family." The girl said this with an air of purpose and authority.

"So you say," the boy countered. "But if you are no thief, then why am I bound? And what, if I may ask, is your name?"

"You're bound because I don't like the look of the sword on your back, and since I mean you no harm, my name is Kimara, but call me Kim. And now out of courtesy, what is yours?"

The boy looked at the ground. "I… I do not know. I've got no memory of anything up until two weeks ago. I woke up in a village that had burned to the ground, with this sword in my hand, the clothes on my back and no idea how I got there. Well, I had one more thing. I could-" Then something flickered across his face. "M-My name! I think I found my name! It's… its Nicotorex. My name is Nicotorex."

Kim nodded. "It's a good name. No idea what it means though. And since it's kind of long, how about I just call you Nick?"

Nick shrugged. "Fine with me."

Then the villagers found their hiding spot. There was nowhere to run, villagers in front, bricks on the sides and back. Nick shoved Kim back, then growled like an animal in a cage. Then he raised his right hand and brought it up over his left shoulder. In front of the villagers, a giant wall of flames rose up, blocking them from their prey.

Nick glanced over his shoulder. "Kim, that last thing I had? It was my fire manipulation." Then he staggered forward, and fell to the ground. The last thing he saw before blacking out were three hooded figures leap down of the nearby rooftops.

***

When Nick woke up, he realized several things. The first was that he was in a comfortable bed, with the sunlight streaming in through a window nearby. The second was he was in a new blood-red tunic, and his sword and bag were up against the opposite wall. And finally, a youth of about thirteen was hovering next to his bed, wearing a slightly bemused expression.

"Ah, the sleeping beast awakens," the boy remarked, then laughed at his own terrible joke. "My name's Zephyr, by the way. A wind rider. Kim's been going on about you for days. And I don't blame her. That flame wall you made was a real piece of work. Good thing we showed up to do clean-up duty. Anyarana's good with putting out fires. And Seithios was able to hold of those villagers for a little while so we could get you and Kim outta there." This was all said in one breath. "Oh, and what are these?" Zephyr picked two things up from the nightstand, and started to turn them over in his hands.

Nick promptly snatched them from the boy. "You little thief! Don't be going through my bag!"

Zephyr shrugged. "Couldn't be helped. I'm a curious person. Everything's fair game. Wallets, the hearts of the village girls, whatever isn't nailed down, I'm compelled to take. So, c'mon. What are they?"

Nick sighed. "Fine. This," he held up a pendant shaped like a flame, "is my one link to my past. I had it when I woke up with no memories. It's special." He put the pendant over his neck and slipped it in his tunic.

Zephyr nodded. "Fair enough. I was just interested because I've got one that looks kind of similar to that. We all do." He reached into his own shirt and pulled out a pendant with a looping swirl, probably to symbolize a gust of wind. "So what about that other thing?" He gestured to the small, round, golden object in Nick's other hand.

Nick grinned. "It's an egg. I found it in my travels over the past few weeks. I think it's going to hatch soon. Sometimes it twitches a little and I hear a little tapping coming from inside."

"Aww," Zephyr joked. "Nick's going to be the daddy of a little beast. How cute! But seriously, Alexanore and Kim are good with little animals. When it hatches, you should have them help you raise it."

"That's Lexa to you!" a voice called from the doorway. "Lexa, Lexa, Lexa! I hate my full name! Hate. It." A girl entered with very light hair and piercing blue eyes, followed by a raven-haired boy with long unruly curls cascading just past his collar. "I don't see the big deal, Lexa. Tigra calls you by your full name." You could tell by his voice that he was teasing her.

"Tigra's different Lucian! She's just like Leocore. Duh."

"Whatever," the dark haired boy replied, flicking some of his hair out of his eyes. "Sometimes being your brother is a real pain."

Nick blinked. He had absolutely no idea what was going on.

"Hey, Lucian! You leave Lexa alone!" Someone shouted from outside the room. A boy with golden-brown curls, coffee colored skin and a tan tunic dashed into the room. "Listen, Shady." He was addressing Lucian. "I've had just about enough of you picking on my girl!"

"Calm down Seithios. She's my sister. I can poke fun at her if I wish." Lucian's voice had a certain quality that Nick right away knew he didn't like. He would watch this dark haired one.

Then, yet another person ran into the room, another female. She had her orange hair tied back in a ponytail with what looked like a piece of rope. She was dressed simply, in a faded blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up and brown breeches. She looked rather skinny, but there was no mistaking her for a weakling. She seemed to radiate strength of mind and body. Nick felt his face flush as she walked towards him. She stuck out her hand and said "I'm Anyarana. But call me Anna. My name's just to long. Nice to meet you."

Nick just stared at her hand. He was still trying to comprehend the last few moments. Zephyr, noticing his confusion, leaned over and whispered, "Shake her hand, mate. Like this." He put his hand out a little and moved it up and down. "It's a common greeting. Even an amnesiac like you oughta know that."

Nick stuck his hand out and Anna seized it, and then let go. Nick pulled his hand back slowly. This was all very strange.

"So anyway," Anna continued, "You have been causing quite the stir in the village. The fire kid who held off a mob. Big news. We haven't been able to go outside for days."

Nick marveled at how Anna could be so relaxed around a total stranger. But before he could react, Lucian and Seithios had each taken a fighting stance. A black aura surrounded Lucian, and the ground seemed to shake with each of Seithios' fluid movements.

Anna sighed. "I got this. It is my turn, right?" She flicked her hand nonchalantly, and as she did so, water from the basin beside Nick's bed rose up. Anna snapped her fingers, and the water divided. The two streams shot toward the quarreling boys and, once they made contact, froze instantly. Seithios and Lucian were locked in place, frozen solid in an icy prison.

Anna circled the frozen boys for a moment, seemingly appraising her work. Neither Zephyr nor Lexa seemed to notice or care. Zephyr had turned himself upside-down, so that his head was inches from the floor, and his legs waved in the air. Lexa had taken a comb out of her tunic and was running it through her long, blonde locks and humming something to herself.

Anna looked up from her ice sculptures, shook her head, and snapped her fingers again. The ice around Seithios and Lucian shattered.

Both boys were shivering. "A-Anna, why was th-th-that so st-strong?" Seithios chattered.

"Yes, it was rather cold of you." Lucian remarked.

"Wow. That was terrible. Even my jokes aren't that bad." Zephyr shook his head, still upside down.

"Well, Zephyr, how do I put this lightly?" someone from across the room said. When Nick looked, he saw that it was Kim, leaning on the doorframe.

An elderly woman shuffled into Nick's already full room. "I'll tell you how. Zephyr, sweetie," she turned to the upside-down boy. "Your jokes are worse than that. You aren't funny at all. You're a nuisance. Hope I cleared that up, darlings."

Zephyr turned himself so he was facing the right way, his legs now perpendicular to the floor. "Ms. Lifei, if you didn't feed me, shelter me, clothe me, or raise me as your own, I ought to-"

"Yes dearie. We've all heard that rant before. So shut up." Lifei shuffled over to the open window and began to sing something.

Anna, still beside Nick's bed, smiled at him. "Welcome to our little dysfunctional family, Nick. Come with me, I'll show you the rest of the house. But bring your things with you. Zephyr's curiosity may get the better of him again.

***

A few hours later, Nick sat down at a long table. Ms. Lifei was about to serve dinner. In the time since Nick had left his room, he had seen Ms. Lifei's expansive house. There were two open courtyards, full of all manner of plants, an open-air training area, where the residents could practice their manipulation, multiple bedrooms, a stable, which at the moment only held two creatures, both very strange, unlike any Nick had seen on his travels.

As Ms. Lifei and her "family" entered the dining room, each greeted Nick in their own way. Kim flashed him a smile, Lexa gave a small wave, Zephyr came to sit next to him and talk rapid fire about how Nick would love staying here for a while, and how the house used to be an inn, and was very popular until it became to dangerous to travel. Anna sat on Nick's other side, discreetly reached for his hand and gave it a squeeze. This made Nick blush, unsure how to respond. Lucian and Sethios sat down at the table and glared at Nick, assessing him. Ms. Lifei emerged from the kitchen with a steaming pot. She took the cover off, and inside were eight steaming bowls of soup. When she handed Nick his bowl, she winked and whispered, "I gave you a little extra. You look half-starved."

Nick smiled appreciatively. He slowly began to eat. He could not place any ingredients, but the soup was delicious.

Once everyone had finished eating, Sethios stood up. "I think it's time we gave Nick his initiation. Are we agreed?"

This was met with enthusiastic cheers. Zephyr nudged Nick. "Don't worry, mate. We're just going to give you a little test, see how you fit in. Anna and me, we had to do the same thing when we got here."

"Fine, if I have to, I'll do it." Nick said. "What do I have to do?"

Zephyr laughed. "Oh, that's a surprise."

***

Half an hour later, Nick stood in the training arena. He had taken off the top of his tunic, revealing his bare, muscled chest. At the base of his neck was a tattoo of a flame, in the same shape as his pendant. His sword was in his hand, and he twirled it with a high degree of skill. He cracked his knuckles and rolled his neck. Primal signs of challenge.

The six other manipulators stood on the other side of the arena, conferring amongst themselves. Sethios stepped forward. "Our initiation test is simple. You fight us, and it doesn't matter if you win or lose. We just want to judge your ability. Now, you have a choice to make. You can either fight us one on one, in a series of rounds, or fight all six of us at once."

Nick grinned. "I'll take all six of you. Just save me some time."

Sethios was shocked. Either Nick was a fool, glorifying himself and underestimating Seithios and the other five, or he was really, really strong. After seeing the power behind Nick's fire wall, Sethios thought it was more of the second.

Sethios didn't have to repeat Nick's choice to the other five. They heard, and they were as nervous as Sethios. Anna spoke up. "Maybe we should rethink this. Nick has a lot of power, and he may not be able to fully control it yet."

"Don't worry." Kim said. "Just do the same as we do in training. Sethios and Lucian, you fight on the front line. Zephyr, Kim and Anna, you act as the second line. Zeph, you take center, Anna, right flank, Lexa, left flank. I'll stay back and act as a medic, and long range combat. So, we ready?"

"Affirmative!"

The six took their respective positions, and prepared for what was to be a brutal combat. Nick ignited his inner spark, and flames leapt about his arms. "Ready when you are! The sooner the better!" He called across the field.

***

In Nick's room, the golden egg trembled. A small crack appeared on its once smooth surface.

***

Sethios and Lucian charged head on at Nick, holding nothing back. Lucian's shadow flickered, and moved closer to him. Suddenly, it was gone, and Lucian was holding a midnight-black sword. Dark energy pulsed around the boy, making him seem more sinister than he already was.

Sethios held out his hand, and from the ground, a massive hammer and shield rose, and came to the golden haired youth. He launched himself high into the air, on a piston that rose from the ground. Nick laughed. That was original. As Sethios fell back to earth, Nick shot a fireball at him, sending Sethios to the ground in a heap. Nick shot three more bursts in quick succession at Lucian, but Lucian was able to cleave them in half with his shadow blade.

***

The egg was shaking harder now, a spider web of breaks were forming. The creature in the egg wanted to be out, and it wanted to be out now.

***

Zephyr, Anna and Lexa, seeing Sethios had fallen, and Lucian in a critical position, abandoned the thought of support, in favor of a surprise charge. Nick saw this and laughed. A sweep of his hand and a wall of fire rose up, at least three times larger than the one he had made in the alley. Anna thought quickly, and shot a pulse of water directly at the wall, turning it into a fog of steam.

Any hope of using the blinding fog as a cover for attack was obliterated when Nick ignited his entire body in flames, burning the fog away.

***

Four limbs began sprouting from the egg, and a beaklike appendage began poking its way out.

***

A bolt of energy shot across the arena shot across the arena and glanced Nick's shoulder. Nick looked around to see whom it might have come from. Kim was already preparing another psychokinetic pulse.

Zephyr and Anna began a tandem attack, making a small hurricane brew in the four walls. Lexa raised her arms to the sky, making lightning rain down. While Nick was enduring the wind and rain, he used fire to deflect the lightning away from him.

Sethios had recovered enough to use his manipulation. He reached his hand out and closed it into a fist. Shards of stone shot up from ground at Nick's feet. He gracefully dodged all of the spikes.

Zephyr sent out several blasts of high wind, and Nick ducked behind one of Sethios' pillars to evade.

Lucian had again changed his shadow's form, into a bow and arrow. The black shaft cut through the air between them. Nick saw it coming, and in a display of his speed, ducked out of the way, and grabbed the arrow in midair. As soon as Nick touched it, the shadow dissolved.

Kim had readied her next pulse of psychic energy, and was ready to release it. She had a plan, but it had to wait for the right moment…

Nick was bombarding the other combatants with fireballs, and his strength seemed to be growing with each blast.

As Sethios struggled to his feet, he wondered Will Nick ever get tired?

***

In Nick's room, the egg burst open. A small reptilian creature shook itself and stretched it's small, bat like wings. I cried out several times, searching for the source of warmth it was so accustomed to. It beat its wings, dropped to the floor, and set off down the hallway; it's small talons tapping rhythmically. It could sense that the heat source was close; all it had to do was follow the trail.

***

Back in the combat arena, Kim had gathered her friends around her, as a shield, but also to feel their aura. She was ready to unleash her ultimatum attack. She had combined her psychic energies with the individual powers of the other five. She would release all the energies in one last blow.

"Kim, wait!" Sethios stopped her from shooting the pulse. "What if he dodges again? He's too fast. So here's my plan…"

As soon as the plot was spread to the other four fighters, Zephyr leapt into the air. Several scythe-like blades of wind shot from his hands. They were only visible through the slight ripple effect they made in the air.

Nick nimbly leapt aside and sent a blast of flames at the oncoming gale.

***

The small creature arrived at the door to the training arena as Nick shot his flames. The warmth was the same as the one it was seeking. With a cry of happiness, it set off in a run at its parent.

***

When Nick blocked Zephyr's winds, Sethios saw his chance. He beckoned with his fingers, as if to say, "come here". The ground around Nick's feet rose up and encircled his left leg, just below the kneecap. The earth hardened, effectively trapping Nick in place. He could no longer move to avoid attacks. He was a sitting duck.

Out of frustration, he shot several pulses of flame at his trapped leg. The stone maintained its death grip around his calf.

***

The creature saw Nick's discomfort, and rushed to help him, in anyway it could.

***

Sethios yelled, "Kim, now!"

From Kim's hands shot a brilliant beam of light. Nick readied a barrage of fireballs. It seemed the only way to stop this was with a head on assault. After all, the best defense was an unbeatable offense.

***

The newborn creature sensed a great power emanating from the beam heading for his parent. The time had come for the child to prove its loyalty. The creature sent its soul to Nick. Its untamed, wild power would be added to Nick's own. The creature growled as its essence left its body.

***

As Nick readied his counterattack, he felt a new power well up inside of him. It felt… young… somehow. But the energy it gave was so very powerful. He channeled the energy into the fireball forming in his hand. He fired at the oncoming pulse of light, but instead of the fireball going where he threw it, it rose into the air, and Nick felt something large and ancient join the youthful energy in him. He suddenly felt a rush of energies and emotions that spanned many millennia.

Outside Nick's mind, a pillar of flame rose up around him, and took the form of a giant dragon. It beat its massive wings rising up a wind that made Zephyr's hurricane look like a pleasant breeze.

Kim's energy hit it dead on, but the blast only seemed to make the flame-dragon stronger. And angrier. A great inferno poured from its jaws making Nick's opponents cower in fear.

Sethios thought fast and enclosed the group in a stone sphere. Kim added a physic outer barrier and Anna coated the inside with ice. However, the heat of the dragon's flame was too great.

Kim collapsed when her barrier was shattered. She had used up all her energy in psychic pulses. Anna tried valiantly to seal breaches in the stone with ice. It was all Sethios could do to keep the sphere from melting under the intense heat.

Suddenly, everything stopped. The heat outside was gone. The strain against the defenses was lifted.

Sethios dissolved the sphere, and saw Nick lying on the ground. He too, was unconscious. And there, curled up on his chest, was a baby dragon.

CHAPTER 2

For the second time in as many days, Nick woke to find his body sore and aching. Ms. Lifei was sitting at his bedside, with a plate of food. Nick sighed with longing. Ms. Lifei started out of a daydream, and without a word, handed him the plate and walked out of the room.

As Nick was eating, Anna walked in. For several minutes, Nick was oblivious to her presence, to absorbed in eating food he didn't have to track, skin and cook himself. Finally, the baby dragon coiled in her arms jumped onto Nick's bed, and began eating a piece of meat that was hanging off the edge of the plate.

Nick stared at Anna. "Where'd that come from?"

Anna smiled. "He's yours, we think. He was curled up on your chest last night after the initiation fight. He's probably the cause of that massive burst of power. Dragons are rumored to have that ability when they bond with a human. It grew attached to you as you carried its egg around, and became accustomed to your heat source."

Nick glanced at the bedside table. Anna was right. The pieces of the golden egg were scattered across the floor. "So, it was a dragon egg? This is incredible. The dragons all died out centuries ago. When the Seven Legendary Heroes vanished."

"Maybe," Anna said thoughtfully. "Maybe they didn't die, just, you know, went into hiding, since they weren't needed anymore. But now they are, and they're coming out again. We thought the elves, dwarves, and other magical races were all dead too, but there's an elf living in the village I came from, and the blacksmith was trained by dwarves."

Nick shrugged. Seemed plausible enough. Then he remembered. "I passed out, right? Well, um, how long was I out this time?"

Anna laughed. "Don't worry about it, Nick. You were just out for eight hours. A good night's sleep."

Then Sethios rushed into Nick's room, breaking the moment of tranquility. "Hurry up, and get out here! Some mercenaries are attacking the village!"

***

The seven manipulators dashed out of the inn, Ms. Lifei following close behind. Kim turned and asked, "Auntie, are you sure about this? You haven't fought in-"

"Kim, your care is touching, but I still have life yet in these old bones."

Kim bit her lip. "And yet you choose to throw it away…" she murmured.

They then reached the line of villagers armed with hammers, shovels, rakes, sticks, and even bottles of alcohol. The few townspeople who were manipulators were summoning up all of their power. Nick admired these people's determination to defend their homes.

One man stood before the crowd. Sethios nudged Nick. "That's Grehn. He is the village chief. He's strong but just and fair. Saved my rear more than once…" Nick could tell Sethios admired this man. He exerted an air of power and authority.

Grehn began to speak. "We've fought off mercenaries before. We can do it again. Keep your heads clear. Don't ever give up. Hack them dead 'till they cut your arms off. Kick them dead 'till they cut your legs off. Curse them dead 'till they cut your head off."

The villagers cheered. Grehn's words were simple, yet powerful. Sethios nodded. Twin feline growls made Nick turn around. The two bizarre creatures he saw in the stables yesterday were at Lucian and Lexa's feet. One was a large, jet-black lion. His fur seemed to ripple and absorb light. The other was a white tiger with silver stripes. Her coat shined in the sun. Each was a good ten feet from snout to tail, five feet from paw to shoulder.

Lexa mounted her tiger, and a golden staff appeared in her hand. Lucian did the same, and his shadow sword appeared. Sethios made a double-bladed axe rise from the ground and braced himself. Anna drew twin hunting knives the size of her forearms. Zephyr slid on gloves with sharp metal fingers, almost like claws, and laced up light steel greaves around his legs. Kim strung a bow and prepared an arrow.

Nick drew his sword off his back. He had just made friends, and wasn't about to loose them.

The baby dragon squeaked, sensing the anxiety of the crowd. Nick mentally slapped his forehead. He had meant to leave the dragon back at Ms. Lifei's inn. But on the other hand, Nick thought, maybe we can combine powers again. That could turn the tide of the battle, if it becomes that desperate.

Then the first of the mob of mercenaries reached the first buildings of the village, and all hell broke loose.

The enemy was lighting fire to the buildings. Anna raced off with the other water manipulators to keep the fire from spreading. Lexa and Lucian joined the few villagers with battle-worthy animals to form a ragged cavalry. Among the ranks were a few horses, cyborg wolves, and ostrich-like lasorani birds. The cavalry thundered off to meet the opposition while the infantry cut through back streets to ambush the mercenaries from behind. Sethios, Zephyr and Nick were in this group.

***

When Nick reached the rear of the mob of attackers, the leader of the mercenary band was issuing demands. He was a young man of about twenty. He was a metal-bender, shooting chains from his hands, and warping the villager's weapons into unusable, twisted, masses.

"It has come to my attention," the youth said, "that you are sheltering something I want. A boy who can bend flames. Has a sword. Pendant. About yea high…" He held out his hand. "If you manage to procure him, I shall not massacre you all."

Nick knew the young man was talking about him. He made a mental decision. He charged at the youth head-on. Nick tossed a fireball at a chain the metal-bender was shooting, melting it. The youth turned around, bemused. "Ah, Nick, why so hostile? Don't you remember your good friend Trentioc?"

"Anyone who kills for pleasure is no friend of mine," Nick spat.

Trentioc's smile faded. "I see. That bump on the head must have taken away our memories. Poor boy."

Nick growled. "Stop being so familiar. I don't know you, nor do I wish to."

Trentioc shook his head. Then he whipped his hand in Nick's direction. All the weapons in the surrounding area rose up and shot forward. Nick melted them all in a blast of flame. The baby dragon cooed with pleasure, feeling the heat waves.

"Predictable as ever Nick. You make it too easy." Trentioc chided. In his hand appeared a shining steel broadsword, about four feet in length. It reminded Nick of Lucian procuring a sword from nowhere. This sword, however, seemed even more sinister than a blade of shadows.

Nick hacked away at Trentioc, but the man seemed to know exactly what Nick was going to do, and was always a step ahead. Nick readied a powerful fireball as a distraction. The baby dragon drank in the heat.

Suddenly, Nick's pendant began to burn. He launched his fireball, and then pressed his hand to his collarbone.

Although Nick did not see this, Trentioc manipulated his broadsword to become a giant circular shield. The shield caught the fireball, and melted. Trentioc was pushed back several feet trying to endure the blow. The shield melted, leaving him, for the moment, weaponless and severely weakened.

Seithios and Zephyr saw their chance, and charged at the metal-bender. Seithios was chanting softly.

Two of Trentioc's mercenaries intercepted Zephyr, who had rushed ahead. Seithios' chant had completed, and two stone warriors rose from the earth, one armed with a shield and sword, the other, a large war axe. Seithios gave a simple direction, and the golems rushed to Zephyr's aid. The mercenaries fled at the sight of the animatronic warriors.

"Why didn't you do that when they first got here?" Zephyr shouted.

"They take a lot of time and energy to summon," Seithios retorted. "And, well, I panicked, okay?"

"Fine, I forgive you. This time. Just keep doing what you were doing." Zephyr replied lazily, while creating a small cyclone to pick up foes, and drop them outside the village.

Nick had recovered from his initial shock with the pendant just in time to counter a blow from Trentioc, who had created a new sword. Between clashes, Trentioc shouted at Nick.

"Nick, try to remember! You're one of us! Remember those nights around campfires, those monsters we repelled, all the good times we had!"

"Maybe I was one of you before, but I'm a different person now! I want nothing to do with you. Take your men, leave, and don't come back. These villagers have done no wrong!" Nick shot back.

Trentioc tsked. "Nick, I made you sword. I made it so that it would never melt, even under the intense heat of your flames. You owe me Nick!"

Nick snarled. "I owe you nothing!" he yelled. Flames burst forth from his body, his pendant positively vibrating. Nick sensed an odd power sealed inside the small object, as if it was amplifying his strength.

Suddenly, Nick was no longer fighting Trentioc in the village square. He was in a multicolored vortex, standing before a figure cloaked in flames. Two golden eyes were all that could be discerned. Nick thought he had died and passed onto the Void, the life-after-life.

"Use my power, boy." The creature spoke. Its voice seemed to come from all around. "Feel the explosive force burst from your palms. I'm certain you can use my power, but can you control it?" The creature laughed, an odd, haunting sound.

The vortex began to fade, the flaming creature becoming more distant. "Wait!" Nick cried. "Who are you? What are you? Why are you helping me?"

The creature laughed again. "All in good time, Nicotorex. We will get to know each other well, very soon…" The voice grew fainter, as though spoken from a distance.

Nick was back in the square now, the baby dragon sitting on his shoulder, Trentioc coming for another blow.

"Use his power…" Nick murmured. He pressed his finger to the pendant. A flaming vortex erupted in the square sending combatants, both ally and enemy, scattered like leaves in a gale. The baby dragon used it's small wings to lift off Nick's shoulders and float listlessly, basking in the intense heat.

Trentioc struggled as his clothes caught fire and burned away. His sword melted down to the hilt, which crumpled in his hand. He tried to run away as his skin started to smoke, pucker, and burn. Then, as soon as it started, the explosion dissipated, the only evidence it ever existed being small flames crackling on the ground.

Trentioc staggered to his feet. Ugly scars just bellow his eye marred his face. "Nick," he gasped. "Y-you burned me. You said you'd never-"

Nick glowered. "You brought this upon yourself, fiend. You feel the pain of the ones you killed. It's a means of retribution."

Trentioc approached Nick with his hands outstretched, submissive. "Kill me Nick. It's all I deserve. I lost to you. Nurcroz will punish me greatly for failing to bring you to him"

Nurcroz? Nick thought. No time to think about it now. I'll figure it out later. He spat at Trentioc's feet. "No. I refuse to kill you. I won't sink to your pathetic level."

Trentioc smiled. "Ah yes. You always show mercy at the last second. When it matters most." He began to limp away. "You defeated me. I'll call my men off, those that will listen. Don't think, however, this is the last you will see of me."

Nick watched him shuffle off down a street, then turned to see Zephyr and Seithios staring at him.

"What?" Nick cried. "I'm not a sadist! He might as well live to tell his master or employer he failed."

Zephyr shook his head. He pointed his finger above Nick, at the sky. Nick turned and looked up. The baby dragon still hovered there, crooning at the heat that had washed over it moments ago. But moments ago, it had been as small as a common housecat. Now it looked about the size of a large fox, with tongues of flame licking it's body. Nick reached up and wrapped his hands around the dragon's abdomen. The creature's eyes flared open, wild with anger. Immediately they softened when they saw it was its parent that held it.

"You know, I should name it," Nick mused. "I'll call you Flayme. Do you like it?" He asked the little creature in his arms. Flayme purred like a contented cat. Nick smiled. "I'll take that as a yes, then. From now on, Flayme you shall be!"

Seithios stepped in. "As touching as this is," he smirked, "We need to make sure the other villagers are safe."

Zephyr rose into the air. "Seth, I'll make an aerial sweep. I'll give you some kind of signal if I need help." He flew off into the maze of rooftops.

Seithios put his hand on Nick's shoulder. "Can you walk?" Nick nodded. "Good," Seithios said curtly as he started off. "I saw how that explosion of power came from your pendant. I feel that sometimes, too, that my pendant is building my strength." He pulled a leather cord out from his tunic. Attached was what was obviously supposed to be a mountain with a jagged chasm running down it. "I honestly don't remember how I got this," he confessed. "Not a single one of us can. Anna said hers was a family heirloom, but she can't be certain. Zephyr hasn't a clue, Kim was found with it as a baby on Ms. Lifei's doorstep. Lexa and Lucian…" Seithios broke off. "Well, it's not really my place. If they feel you need to know, you'll know."

Nick saw it was foolish to press further.

***

Nick and Seithios continued their patrol, but found nothing out of the ordinary, until they heard Ms. Lifei scream. She, Grehn and Kim were fighting back to back, driving away the remaining mercenaries. Grehn had obtained a large war axe; Kim had found a falchion that she had infused with psychic energy. Ms. Lifei needed no weapon but her cane. Despite her old age, she was leaping around, delivering kicks and sharp swipes. In the short time Nick and Seithios stood watching, she disarmed and knocked out three men.

Grehn noticed Nick and Seithios and roared, "Don't just stand there like the stones you conjure! Help us!"

Nick leapt into the fray, focusing in on just the nearest enemy. He delivered two sharp kicks, and then a pummel with the hilt of his sword. One man went down. The next had his helmet split in two, then turned and fled. As Nick charged at his third opponent, vines sprouted from the earth, lifted the mercenary up, and crushed him. Nick stopped, his mouth hanging open. Just as another mercenary approached, a jet of water shot out, turned to ice, and froze the approaching enemy.

Anna leapt down off a rooftop. "Why're you just standing there? Trying to get yourself killed?"

"But… plants… growing and crushing…" Nick stammered.

Anna smiled. "Yes, we probably should have told you. Ms. Lifei was a tournament level plant manipulator when she was younger. She's still really powerful. As you just saw."

Nick nodded. He wondered if this would be as confusing if he still had his memories. Probably.

Anna slapped Nick on the back. "Nick. Wake up. There's a fight going on here. Time to ponder deep philosophical thoughts later."

Nick smiled. Anna had a point. Time to finish what he'd started. Nick leapt into the fray, swinging his sword with a wild battle cry. He lost track of how many men he disarmed and knocked out. He estimated he was on his twelfth opponent when Grehn and Ms. Lifei cried out. Nick, Seithios and Anna all rushed over. Grehn had leapt in front of Ms. Lifei to protect her from an incoming sword blow, but had been unable to, and had taken the blow. Blood poured from the deep wound in his chest. Just before Nick got there, another mercenary stabbed Ms. Lifei in the side. The older fighters lay side by side in the dust. Seithios whistled and flagged Zephyr and Kim over.

Ms. Lifei reached out and touched Nick's arm. "Please…" she breathed. It was obviously painful for her. "Take the others… to the western road leaving the village. I have… prepared a cart. Lexa… and Lucian… already… there…"

She shuddered, and her soul passed into the Void. Nick turned to Anna. "You heard that, right? Let's go get out of here. Ms. Lifei may have passed on, but we should honor her memory by surviving."

Anna wiped a tear out of her eye. "Yeah… least we can do…"

Kim was shaking her head. "Auntie, I told you this was stupid. Why did you have to waste your life this way?"

***

Lucian and Lexa were waiting by a horse cart. However, instead of being pulled by conventional horses, it was pulled by the odd feline beasts the twins had rode off on earlier. Lucian leaned against the cart, and flipped some hair out of his eyes. "Ms. Lifei's not coming back? She told us you would come in her place if she… you know…"

Lexa sniffled. "Ms. Lifei… we'll all miss you…" Sethios wrapped her up in a hug and kissed her forehead.

"I know it's hard to believe, but it's true. She told us we have to leave here. But we have no idea where to go," the earth manipulator murmured.

Lucian sighed. "I say we go east." Anna and Zephyr nodded in agreement.

"Why? What's east?" Nick asked. He had traveled mostly south after waking up, and had no idea of what else there was in the world beyond what he had seen with his own two eyes.

Anna closed her eyes. "The ocean. That's what lies to the east. There's a great city called Miscoren, which has a big port. We can plan our next move from there, and find a ship to take us to wherever we decide. I passed through there coming to Ms. Lifei's from Élanus, my homeland."

Seithios shrugged. "Better than nowhere I suppose. So why're we just standing around? Let's go, before someone finds us."

CHAPTER 3

N

ick woke up from a nap in the shadow of a tall palm tree and felt the warm sun on his face, Flayme curled up in his lap and Anna and Kim leaning their heads on each of his shoulders. Nick started, causing the two girls to wake up and, after rubbing their eyes and stretching, glared at each other.

Nick didn't want to get caught in the middle of a fight, so he kicked Flayme softly and snapped twice. The small dragon stirred, snarled at its parent, but reluctantly followed. Nick saw Seithios and Lexa sitting by the edge of the water that formed this oasis.

It had been Zephyr's idea to make camp here. The seven had traveled for a full day and night before they judged it safe to find a place to rest. Zephyr had flown ahead and scouted this oasis out. He said the palm tree was a high vantage point for someone to sit in and keep watch, plus, there was water to refill their waterskins.

As Nick approached Seithios, he saw he and Lexa were passionately kissing. Nick modestly backed away. "They've been like that for half an hour, you know," someone muttered behind Nick. Nick turned and whipped his sword out of its sheath. Lucian put up his hands in mock surrender. "Now, now. No need for such hostilities. Simply stating fact. But better a muscle head than a gold-digger."

"What?" Nick asked. "Gold-digger?"

"Fortune hunter, gold-digger. Whatever." Lucian waved his hand. "Did they not tell you? Lexa and I are royalty! We lived a privileged life until… well, another story for another time, yes? Shall we see how Zephyr is doing, and then be on our way?"

Nick could tell the shadow channeler was changing the subject, but didn't press further. He simply sighed and said, "I'll signal him." He shot a blast of flame over the tree the wind-rider sat in.

Zephyr floated down and brushed some dust off his shoulders. "In a rush, aren't we? Don't get your tunic in a bunch, I'm coming. Who's going to separate the two lovebirds?"

Anna walked over, rubbing her hands together. "I will. This is going to be fun… and they're going to get a little wet." Nick laughed. After seeing what Anna did to stop Seithios and Lucian back at the inn, he expected he was in for show.

Anna simply flicked her wrist to make a massive wave of water rise up from the oasis pond. She snapped her fingers and the wave deluged the couple on shore. Lexa shrieked and Seithios recoiled as the water rushed over them. Seithios stalked over to where Nick, Lucian, Zephyr and Anna were standing. "While I admit that probably was funny for you all, you could have just told us we were leaving." The golden haired boy scolded.

Zephyr floated over to Seithios and put an arm over his shoulder. "Sure we could've, but where's the fun in that?"

Lexa trudged over to where everyone was standing, or in Zephyr's case, floating. "It wasn't fun for me, Zephyr! I have to comb my hair again!" She pouted and took Seithios' hand.

Kim whistled from by the cart. "Are we gonna stand around all day or are we going to get to Miscoren?"

***

The cart covered ground at an even, consistent pace. The feline creatures that pulled the cart were slowly making their way. Nick asked Lucian what they were.

Lucian closed his eyes for a moment and spoke slowly and deliberately. "The light colored one is Tigra, the dark is Leocore. Tigra is Lexa's guardian, and Leocore is mine. They have been the guardians of our family for many generations. They may pass on to a new one soon, if they have anything to say about it…" Lucian made a rude gesture at Seithios and Lexa, but neither noticed.

Kim and Anna huddled together in a corner, whispering back and forth. Nick was glad to see they were over the animosity of the morning. Zephyr glided along outside the cart.

Leocore and Tigra needed no one to hold their reins, just spoken instructions from Lucian or Lexa every so often. Nick stood, and with a small command to Flayme, started off to the front of the cart, where the driver would traditionally sit. As he stood up he heard Anna whisper "Now!"

Kim stood up. "Well, um, Nick, Anna and I we talking and, well, you know the Legend of the Seven Heroes, right?"

Nick nodded. "Yeah. Seven manipulators raised an army to defeat a dark emperor, and won. Then they all disappeared one by one, right? And Xekrox's Final Prophecy about… well, something. But it said the heroes would rise again, right?"

Anna shrugged. "In a nutshell. But… well, Kim and I were talking. What if we were the reincarnations of the Legendary Seven? Wait! Before you say anything, listen. We fulfill all the requirements, and well, you probably don't know this, but the rest of us do. Kim can-"

"Wait!" Seithios interrupted. "We don't know if we can trust him yet!"

"Yes, we can, Seth." Kim shot back. "Anyway Nick… I- I can control mana like… like Asuhani. I think that's a sign. A sign that we are the Seven. We've all thought that for a long time. We were just waiting… for a fire mage to come and complete it. And now, you have."

Zephyr shot in the back of the cart. "Kim!" he shouted. "I heard your telepathy! What do you need? Are you confessing your undying love for me?" He winked.

"No Zeph. We… we told Nick. That I control mana and we may be the Seven."

"Oh…" The boy seemed crestfallen, then burst out laughing. "Ha! Gotcha, didn't I? Sorry Kim, you're not my type."

"You're right," Anna replied. "You're a type all you own.

"Back up," Nick raised a hand to his forehead. "Kim, it's not that I don't believe you, but I just find it hard to believe that you control mana. I just want a little proof."

Kim nodded. "Sounds reasonable enough." She put her hands out, and birds flew to perch on her outstretched arms. Scratches could be heard as small animals buried up from the ground to follow the cart. Kim twitched her right hand, and the birds took off, forming a great looping spiral over their heads. The desert creatures all back flipped in unison and burrowed back underground.

"Okay," Nick put up his hands. "I believe you control the life of all living things. And those mindbolts you shot in my trial battle, normal psychics can't do that, can they?" Kim shook her head.

"Zephyr brought up a good point, Nick. The undying love thing." Anna changed the subject, ending any more questions Nick had about mana. "In the Legend, it reads that Pyrrex had deep, intimate feelings for Asuhani. But there are versions that say he also loved Sarona. So we were wondering," She slid herself up against him. "Who do you like more? Me? Or Kim?"

Flayme made a sound that could have passed as laughter. Nick aimed a kick at him, but the nimble baby dragon leapt up, flipped and avoided the kick.

Kim leaned against Nick's other side. "Nick," she batted her eyes. "You're stalling. Decide, please, and put my heart at rest."

Nick mouthed a silent "help me," at Zephyr, but the boy smiled.

"Sorry, mate! You're on your own here!" Zephyr walked to the edge of the cart and took off, soaring into the sky.

Nick turned to Seithios and Lexa. "Lexa?" he pleaded.

Lexa smiled and fanned herself with her hand. "I'm sorry Nick, but I'm currently not on the market!" She tittered with laughter.

Seithios cracked his knuckles. "You better not be pulling moves on my girl, Nick. I'd hate to have to hurt you."

Nick shook his head. "Lucian?"

Lucian chuckled. "Nick, by this do I presume you like me the best? I'm sorry, but… I don't like you like that."

Kim and Anna turned and punched him, ending that discussion. For a time.

***

The day wore on, and all of the seven dozed on and off. There was a short time where Nick and Seithios were the only ones awake. Much to Anna's frustration, while Nick had slept, Kim had laid her head on his lap, and fallen asleep herself. Nick gingerly lifted her head and laid it on the wood floor of the cart.

He inched over to where Seithios sat. "Seithios," he murmured. "Can I ask you a few things?"

"Sure, Nick," the golden haired boy shrugged. "But first, call me Seth. Anyway, love troubles? Or just confused about the world at large? I'm not so good with the philosophical crap, but I can try."

"No, nothing like that," Nick shook his head. "I just want to know where you all come from."

Seth laughed. "'Bout time you asked. Hey, everyone," the earth manipulator yelled. People started to stir. "Nick finally asked!"

Everyone was up now. They scrambled to form a circle around Nick. When they all started to talk at once, Seth raised his hand to silence them. "Nick asked me, so I get to go first. Nick, sit back, we've all got long stories to tell.

"I used to be a monk at the Southern Earth Temple," Seth began. "I have no idea how I was born or who my parents were. I was left as a baby at the temple gates. I grew up learning prayer and humility. I was taught to value peace and beauty. But I was also taught how to fight. They showed me ancient earth-style fighting techniques. I was to be the next temple grandmaster. Which meant I was to be in charge of all the earth schools on the southern continent of Crinsharlan.

"But then, knights from the Church of the Entity came and attacked the temple for false idol worship. They called us infidels because we refused to submit to their god. Apparently, they only have one god, who's all-powerful, not nature spirits and high-spirits for individual things in nature. Sounds ridiculous to me.

"Anyway, it was a massacre. The monks tried to settle it peacefully, but the arrogant bastards refused to reason. They said we had one day to evacuate before they burned our temple to the ground. Those who fought back were killed on the spot.

"When we left, they ambushed us. Everyone I knew was killed before my eyes. As far as I know, I was the only survivor.

"I wandered around the countryside for weeks. Only the gods know how long. I booked passage on an airship to anywhere. I ended up in Miscoren, and saw the great expanse of desert. For someone of the earth, like me, it seemed like the perfect place to go. I set out, with nothing but a few supplies. I practiced the techniques the monks taught me on monsters who attacked me. I ran into a caravan fighting off a whole pack of scaragron monsters. Think giant, man-eating beetles, walking on two legs, with massive strength. So anyway, this caravan was going to be torn apart. I trapped one in a cocoon of sand, and crushed it. I sent a stone pillar flying up underneath a second. I just punched the third. We earth-shakers also have great strength. Not to mention my training with the monks.

"By now, the last two are wary of me. I've distracted them with a barrage of attacks in front, while as I did that, I lifted up two giant boulders behind them and squashed them like the bugs they are.

"The caravan leader asked if I wanted to travel with them. I agreed, and we eventually came upon the village where you met us. There I met Grehn, who used to be an earth temple monk, but got fed up with all the protocol. I was looking for a place to stay and came upon Ms. Lifei's inn. She took me in, and brought me up as her own son. When I first got there, I was the only other manipulator besides Kim."

Kim nodded as Seithios concluded his story. "Well, I'll go next if there are no objections." Zephyr and Anna both started to speak, but Kim cut them off. "Great. Now, my story is nowhere near as exciting as Seth's. See, I was left on Ms. Lifei's doorstep as a baby. She was the only parental figure I ever knew.

"Ms. Lifei treated me as a daughter, but when I was young, she told me not to call her Mother, as I was not technically her own child. I called her Auntie, but loved her as a child loves her parent.

"When Seithios showed up at our door, I'd lived with Ms. Lifei for fourteen years, and was about that age. It has been two years since then. You appear to be my age Nick, so until we know definitely, let's say you're sixteen." Nick shrugged, and motioned for Kim to continue. He just wanted to hear the rest of the story.

Kim got the hint and started to speak again. "After Seth, Lexa and Lucian turned up, thankfully. If Seth tried to pull another move on me, Ms. Lifei probably would have hurt him. After them, came Zeph. A month later, Anna came to our door, half dead after wandering in the desert for weeks. And then just a few weeks later, you, Nick.

"And now, I guess I'm just as unknowing as you Nick. I really know nothing of the world outside the village I grew up in. Sure, I've read about it, and studied maps, but in all honesty, I'm along for the ride."

Zephyr cleared his throat. "Can I go before Lexa and Lucian? Theirs is going to be so long! Please Nick?"

Nick realized for the first time how young the wind rider was. He couldn't be any older than fourteen, maybe even younger. What had this boy gone through to develop such mastery of his element in such a short time?

Nick nodded. "Sure Zeph. Let's see what you got."

Zephyr beamed. "Thanks Nick!" He made a face at Lucian. "See Shady? I always win!" Lucian shook his head, and manipulated his shadow into a flintlock pistol. He pointed the weapon at Zephyr's head.

Zephyr held his hands up in mock surrender. "Calm down! I can take a hint! Anyway, on with my life in a nutshell. Okay Nick, I was born in a city called Dentaron, the biggest in the world. It's built on a mountain, with the higher classes living higher on the slopes until the lord's palace at the summit. I lived at the very bottom.

"I was nothing but a street rat, a common cutpurse. But when I discovered that I could fly because of my powers, I became a master thief. I would fly up over the city walls, and rob the higher classes. But there came a day when I was almost caught by authorities. I could no longer stay in Dentaron. I joined a troupe of traveling performers as an acrobat, and was able to sneak out of the city unhindered.

"As we traveled, I was split up from my troupe as we passed through a jungle. I was asleep and fell out of the cart. When I awoke, my adopted family had traveled far away. I lived for two months in that jungle, wearing rags, stalking food.

"One day, pilgrims from the Church of the Entity came into the jungle and began to cut down trees. They were trying to build a new settlement, widen the Church's reach. I confronted them, and fought to save my home. They attacked me as I slept one night and dropped my unconscious body off a cliff.

"I woke up at just such a time to activate my powers and save myself before I hit the ground. I retaliated against my attackers by sending two tornados coming from opposite directions. They would intersect at their settlement, and cause mass devastation. As soon as I made sure the tornados hit, I flew away as fast as I could. I flew until I had no energy left, and then plummeted to the ground. I was lucky enough to find enough strength to make a cushion of wind to land on; otherwise, I would have died.

"When I woke up, it was kind of like you Nick. Kim was tending my wounds and filled me in on what had happened. Apparently, I had fallen out of the sky, and crashed in the village square. The villagers were all panicking, thinking I was some kind of invader, or monster. Ms. Lifei had saved me by causing a distraction with her plants. Something about a giant Venus flytrap rampaging through town…"

Zephyr shrugged. "That's all I really have to say. Who's next?"

Lucian and Lexa shared a glance. "As Zephyr so aptly put it, our story is rather long, Nicotorex," Lucian sighed. "Best make yourself comfortable.

"Lexa and I are the twin children of the High Priestess of the Sun and High Priest of the Moon. We lived a privileged life in the world capital of Rinshonan. All was well in our lives. High ranking parents, wealth, and futures as powerful manipulators and the successive high priest and priestess."

"But then the Church of the Entity stormed the city, calling it the epicenter of the Unworthy," Lexa cut in. "Any member of the Church who could hold a weapon attacked the city. They said it was for the good of the world, and purity, and other crap. But how do they explain riding beast-family monsters, and letting humanoid-family monsters fight among them and wear their armor?" Lexa snarled as electricity crackled around her, making her hair stand on end.

"Needless to say, they took the city by surprise." Lucian continued. "None of the city guard were ready to do battle, but those that could manipulate fought their best to hold them off as others hurried to get armed.

"The army of the Church stormed the Great Protector, Rescalo's, palace. Rescalo could manipulate both darkness and light. He was our cousin."

Lexa started again. "Rescalo fought bravely, but eventually that brute Nurcroz got him on a sneak attack."

Nick bolted upright. "Nurcroz?!"

Anna started as well. "Nick, do you remember the name? Is your memory coming back?"

"No," Nick shook his head. "But Trentioc mentioned Nurcroz when I fought him in the village square. I think he may be working for him."

Seithios shrugged. "It seems plausible enough. Mercenaries like Trentioc and his men work for whoever pays top dollar. Makes sense, since the Church is filthy stinking rich."

Lucian snorted. "May I continue?" Nick nodded, as eager as a child. He wanted to know more about his new friends. Lucian smirked. "Good. Now, where was I? Ah, yes. Nurcroz had just killed Rescalo. He had also sent his four most trusted warriors to attack the Temples of the Sun and Moon. Both Lexa and I were with our parents in the temples at the time.

"The four warriors were known as the arch-angels. They are powerful manipulators who control energy itself. It's much like Kim's mind bolts, but the attacks are much more destructive. Their names are Michael, Raphael, Gabriel and Uriel. Michael is a dual-swords master, Raphael uses his massive strength to wield a large hammer, and Uriel has a limitless supply of throwing knives. Gabriel fights with a tether. It's similar to a whip, but those struck with it lose their free will, and follow him blindly."

Lexa shivered. "It was terrible. I was helping perform a ritual with Mother, when Raphael and Uriel attacked. Mother hid me behind the altar, and showed me a trapdoor to escape from. She fought the brutes, but they flew up, and darted away from her lightning. When she stopped to prepare another blast, they swooped down, and attacked her. In her last breath, she bequeathed Tigra on to me."

Nick held up his hand. "Wait. They fly?"

Both twins nodded. "They created their wings from pure energy, to dissolve and create at will. They can make them any size or texture, from small and featureless, to as big as a room and sharp as a blade." Lexa put her face in her hands. "I'm sorry Nick. I want to tell you about it, but it's too painful."

"Looks like I have to do everything, then," Lucian smirked. "As usual.

"In the Temple of Darkness, Gabriel and Michael attacked my father. He told me to use the Cloak of Darkness, and to run away. Cloak of Darkness is a dark-elemental technique that bends the shadows around the user, making them invisible. But I hid in a corner, because crowds of people had spilled through the door, all following Gabriel.

"My father may have prevailed if it had only been Michael and Gabriel he was fighting. But the people of Rinshonan overwhelmed him. He would not fight the people he served. To this day I cannot tell if that is weakness or strength.

"Like Lexa, the last thing my father did was give Leocore to me. Leocore is my trusted guardian. Michael sensed me hiding in my corner, and Leocore fought him back.

When the archangels had killed my father, and sufficiently injured Leocore, they retreated. I healed Leocore with the power of darkness, his element, and fled the city. Leocore and Tigra have a telepathy link, so it was easy to meet up with them. Our parents were old friends of Ms. Lifei in her tournament days, so we decided that her inn was far enough away from Rinshonan to find refuge. And it worked."

"Not a great plan," Lexa shrugged. "But better than no plan."

Lucian, a deep, ancient voice spoke in Nick's head. If Lucian or any of the others noticed, they showed no sign. Nick was positively terrified. He began to create a fireball.

Lucian laughed. "Oh, Nick? Did we forget to tell you? Not only do Leocore and Tigra share a telepathy link, it's how they communicate to us. You get used to it."

Lexa, a more feminine voice rang out. Nick deduced this was Tigra. Lexa, we tire. May we make camp?

Please, allow us to rest, Leocore's voice again rang out. The hour grows late. I sense another oasis just beyond the rise. If we do not stop there, I fear we will find no other place to rest this night.

Lucian looked at the setting sun. "Yes, camp would be a good idea."

"Wait!" Anna cried. "I listened to all of you! What about my story?"

"Why not tell it at camp?" Zephyr proposed. "More one on one, catch my drift?" The boy winked at Nick. Nick rolled his eyes and sighed.

***

Nick sat on the edge of the oasis pond, letting the cool water play over his feet. Flayme was curled up in his lap. He conjured a fireball in his palm, and was slowly mesmerized by the crackling flame.

Across the pond, Anna stood silhouetted by the fire. She had let her long, orange hair down, and it flew out in the desert wind like a banner.

"Beautiful," Nick muttered, unsure of whether he was talking about the flame in his hand or the girl across the pond.

Anna saw Nick's glance, and walked across the pond water to sit next to him. She put her feet in the water as well, and playfully kicked his, splashing water over his flame and extinguishing it.

Nick laughed and made a new one. Secretly, Anna was happy about that. It was too dark to see Nick's face otherwise.

"You know," she said. "I never told you my story. Can I tell you now?"

Nick shrugged. "Why not? Just, no one else is here,"

Anna slid closer. "That's fine. It's not a really good one, anyway."

Nick put his hand on her knee. "I don't mind. Just talk, I'll listen."

"Thank you, Nick." Anna smiled. "I was born on the island country of Élanus, which of off the coast of the Ureono continent. It's far to the north and east of here. We are in the middle of the Sestrazana continent, in case you were wondering.

"I was brought up to be just a hardworking farm girl, marry, help my husband, bear his children, and die when my use had run up. Not that I saw anything wrong with that life, but by the gods, how boring! And when my manipulation settled in, I couldn't stay in my little village.

"I loved my parents, my village, my land, but a water-shifter can't live in a farm village. I set out to the main port of Élanus, to become a sailor. I traveled the seas for several years, but, well, womanhood happens."

Nick raised an eyebrow but said nothing. The look on his face communicated enough of his puzzlement.

"Oh, come, Nick! Think about it," Anna exclaimed. She gestured to her body. "A girl on a ship full of men? Don't you think something would happen? Anyway, the ship I was on docked at Miscoren, and I figured, why not? It seemed like a nice enough place to plan my next move.

"I rented a small apartment, and studied maps. World maps, sea charts, city maps, country maps, anything. I know my way around every back street in every major city in the world. Or at least, I do in theory.

"I was studying a map of the Great Sestrazanan Desert, and saw the little, unnamed village where Ms. Lifei's inn was. I joined the next caravan going into the desert and… the rest is history."

Anna concluded her story and shifted closer to Nick. She rested her head on his shoulder and closed her eyes. "I'm so happy I met you, Nick," she murmured.

Nick was aware of everything around him. Flayme twitched slightly in his sleep. Anna's hair smelled faintly of flowers. Her shoulders rose and fell slightly with each breath. He felt his skin tingle where they touched.

He put his arm around Anna. "I'm happy we met, too." Silently he cursed. Was that the best he could come up with?

Someone whistled from above. "Wow, Flayme, best seat in the house! What I wouldn't give to be you right now!" Zephyr cackled as he flipped backwards in the air.

Anna stirred, but Nick shook his head. "I'll handle this, don't worry." He raised his free hand and shot a bolt of flame where he predicted the young wind rider to be. Flayme was roused by the fire, and shook out his small wings. He blew plumes of smoke from his nostrils, making Anna laugh. Nick thought it was a beautiful sound, and hoped to hear it more often.

Zephyr still flitted around above them, and called down, "I just came to tell you that while I was out scouting, I saw some monsters headed this way. I think I saw about twenty scaragrons and a sand worm, maybe two. Tough to tell, since they have mouths on both sides of their bodies. So, just a heads up. They'll be here in maybe… ten minutes, give or take."

***

A few minutes later, the seven manipulators had formed a battle strategy. Nick, Lucian and Seth would fight on foot, and engage the monsters in close combat. Lucian would direct Leocore telepathically. Lexa would ride Tigra; Zephyr would float above, and barrage the enemies with gales. Anna and Kim would take the back, and strike with ranged attacks.

Nick had instructed Flayme to fly outside of the monsters range. From what he could gather, these monsters attacked with mostly short-range strikes. Flayme, and Anna, would be safe.

As each person went through a nervous pre-battle ritual, the haunting sound of a harp carried across the desert sand. Nick tensed and readied his sword.

"Zeph?" Seithios asked. "Did you see a seiren among the monsters? Or is this just a hallucination?"

"No… that's a harp…" But Zephyr didn't sound sure.

The figure of a man appeared over the dunes. He wore a peaked hat, a simple travelers cape, and carried a gold harp, shaped like a phoenix.

The man staggered over to where the group stood. "Oh, bless you, I implore you, please. Help me defeat these accursed monsters! They have pursued me for days on end, and I have had nary a rest or reprieve. I lack the strength to fight alone, so please, kind travelers, assist me in this matter!"

Nick nodded. "We will aid you, sir. But as soon as we have defeated the monsters, we want an explanation."

The man nodded. "Bless you, bless you! Yes, of course, proper introductions will be in order, but now is nary the time, no? You see, here are the monsters now!" He plucked out a melody on his harp. "Music is said to soothe the savage beast, but alas, this does not appear to be the case with these brutes. At the very least, allow my encouraging anthems to cheer you on. When I gather my strength, I will employ my manipulation in any means I can!"

A shrill shriek sounded, incredibly, uncomfortably close by. Nick whispered a silent prayer to keep Anna safe. The shriek was accompanied by yells in a cackling, rattling tongue. "Hark!" The mysterious bard cried. "The sand worm cometh. Stand firm, comrades, and fight till the end!"

***

As in all fights, Nick lost his sense of time and place. All he heard and saw was that which was relevant to his battle. He and Lucian both targeted the same scaragron beetle, and began hacking away with their swords. For this battle, Lucian had made his shadow into dual katanas. The dark blades made cuts in the beetle's armor, but Nick could tell it was not deep. Not even his flaming scimitar could inflict a deciding blow.

After a long while of constant attacks, Nick was startled out of his battle-rage by Anna's scream. He whirled around, and shot a bolt of flame at the assailant. The attacking scaragron writhed in agony as the flames found chinks in its impenetrable armor. Nick left his current opponent to Lucian, and charged all out at Anna's attacker. He leapt high into the air, and brought his sword down just between the beast's antennae. Anna sighed heavily and blew him a kiss. Nick blushed, and rushed off to find a new foe.

There was only one beetle left without an opponent. Many had already fallen to the other manipulators. Lexa had used the power of light to exorcise several. Lucian had weakened three, but then began chanting in a forgotten tongue. As Nick watched, the beetles turned into dark spheres, and were absorbed into Lucian's outstretched hand. Seth and Zephyr had teamed up to take out five beetles at one, with their balanced strengths. Kim and Anna were shooting mana and icicles from the rear. And the mysterious bard had yet to do anything but sing. Nick shook his head in disgrace. No wonder the monsters chose to attack him. He was an easy target.

As Nick reached the last remaining scaragron, a battalion of skeleton warriors rose out of the desert sands. Thinking this was a new opposition, Nick raised his sword, only to have he bard yell, "No! I created them! I manipulate the dead! Don't destroy them; I'll only have to summon them again!"

The skeletons began to attack the beetle. None of them seemed to be able to manipulate, but they carried all manner of weapons. Some fought with swords, rapiers, hammers, daggers, throwing knives, and others even fought with their bare, skeletal hands.

Although the skeletons could have taken the beast down on their own, Nick felt compelled to do something. He shot a barrage of fire at the beetle, and soon, all that was left was a smoking carcass.

Nick tossed his head and yelled out, "Zeph, didn't you say there was a sandworm? Where is it now?"

Seithios trembled. "Nick… it's right-" The golden haired boy was interrupted as a giant black column rose out of the sand, and destroyed all of the skeletal warriors in a thrash of its body. The savage creature turned toward Nick, and he could count the rows of teeth in the creature's gaping maw. The young fire-mage knew that unless a miracle happened, he was most likely dead. In a desperate attempt to save himself, he shot a great blast of flame from his hands. He heard Flayme screeching overhead, and then an ancient, feral roar. Nick didn't think about what it was, it didn't matter.

He closed his eyes and awaited his fate, for he knew that the flames would not harm the sandworm. He silently wished Flayme well, prayed Anna would find a worthy lover, and bade his new friends farewell.

Nick felt a gust of wind, and heard the beating of giant wings. When he opened his eyes, he saw a magnificent dragon with gold and red scales holding the sandworm back with its front talons. The dragon was slightly larger than Tigra and Leocore, but its outspread wings had to be at least twenty feet, from tip to tip. Fear not, Nick. A voice spoke in his mind, not at all like Leocore or Tigra.

Flayme? Nick thought. Is that you? How did you grow so quickly?

Flayme roared, and shifted his weight to better hold the sandworm back. Yes, it is I, your hatchling dragon Flayme. I grew because you needed my help, Nick. I could not very well hold a sandworm back as I was, now could I? And now by growing, I have inherited all of the draconic skills handed down from my kind through the ages. Do not ask how, for I do not know. Now excuse me, as I dispose of this pest. Flayme opened his mouth, and golden flames poured forth, engulfing the sandworm. When Flayme stopped, nothing remained of the beast.

Flayme and Nick, through their new connection, felt each other's fatigue. Flayme collapsed on the spot, and fell to sleep.

Nick staggered over to Anna, and put his arms around her. At first she resisted, but Nick murmured, 'I'm just picking up where we left off, Princess. In each other's arms."

Anna then returned the embrace, and helped Nick back to camp. When Nick fell asleep, Anna was still next to him, smiling softly, face bathed in the light of the campfire.

CHAPTER 4

N

ick groaned as the cart slowly made its way through the desert. "So bored," he muttered. "Can't… stay… awake…" He flopped backwards, and made snoring sounds. Flayme's laughter echoed in his head.

Why don't you come flying with me, Nick? We can test out my new wings.

Wish I could, but that bard's going to tell his story soon. Seth wants me to listen. If I have to hear one more origin story, so help me I'll-

You could go whisper sweet nothings to Anna. The dragon laughed as Nick made a face.

The bard cleared his throat. "I thank you from the bottom of my heart for assisting me in dispatching those dreadful monsters last night, and allowing me to travel to Miscoren with you all. I shall now fulfill my end of the bargain, so as to earn your trust in me.

"As you witnessed last night, I have the ability to summon the dead from beyond the Void. Because of this ability, the Church of the Entity wanted me to do… well, I'm not entirely sure. But it had to do with resurrecting the flounder, or founder, or something. Yes, I believe it was the Founder, but I would much prefer a flounder. Especially with a hint of lemon juice, and garlic butter…" Seithios cleared his throat.

The bard laughed and sang. "Ah, yes, I, digress," and plucked a few harp strings. "Alas, I did not agree with permanently bringing someone back from the Void. I only summon my spirits for quick sojourns; to aid me in battle, offer advice, the like.

"I managed to sneak out of Vertalia, the seat of the Church's power. Quite a feat, I must say. Though as I was escaping, the high priests must have cursed me or something, as packs of monsters have been following me ever since."

"So, it's true, then." Lucian remarked. "The Church is using monsters. This is all very odd…"

"Hey Mister," Zephyr asked. "What's your name?"

The bard thought for a second, then laughed. "Honestly, I've been referred to as 'You', 'Bard', and 'Infidel' for so long; I do believe I have forgotten it."

Kim thought for a second. "How about Necro? What with your ability and all?"

Necro shrugged. "I like it. Why not, young lass?"

Nick breathed in and gathered his wits. "Now, this may seem to be an odd question, and very off topic, but what exactly is the Church of the Entity? I can figure out bits and pieces, but I want to know the whole truth."

Seithios shrugged. "All right, Nick. The basic stuff first. The Church was formed on the southern continent of Crinsharlan, same as my earth temple. They started off as a radical cult, determined to worship a singular god over our many thousands of gods. They started a settlement, Vertalia, which to them means Seat of Purity. And that was their goal. Purity of humans. They drove the elves, dwarves, dragons, and other magical races into extinction. Or at least hiding, as evidenced by Flayme."

"Over time, Vertalia became more than a village. It became a massive metropolis." Lucian said. "Only those who believe in their One God may enter. It's full of their churches, shrines, and whatnot. In the center, there is a giant basilica, at the top of which stands a statue of their Savior, who will lead them into an age of enlightenment."

"Sounds all good, right?" Lexa continued. "Wrong. See, their 'purity' thing extends beyond the other races. Anyone who doesn't agree with them is labeled Impure. And according to them, Impures deserve to die."

"But most of the world believes in many gods, right?" Nick asked. "So why don't they all send armies to storm Vertalia and destroy the Church at its source?"

Lucian laughed. "Oh, believe me, many have tried. All have failed. The Church has an incredibly strong army. Even stronger when Gabriel uses his tether to enslave half of the opposing force." Nick shuddered to think of the horrible weapon that could destroy the minds of men.

"The Church then attacks the weakened country and takes over, forcing their beliefs on them. They have conquered at least half the world this way." Zephyr piped up. "And in uncivilized areas, like my jungle, they send pilgrims to build settlements and outposts, to increase their reach and power. Fortunately, Miscoren has yet to fall prey to the Church's lies of salvation. But we should use Lucian's Dark Illusion technique to disguise Flayme, Tigra and Leocore as we get close, just in case."

Nick nodded. Zephyr made a valid point. A dragon would cause a big disturbance, and Nick hoped to play it low for a while once they got to Miscoren.

***

Nick, Flayme's voice sounded in Nick's head. Now that you have heard all of the stories, fly with me. I was practicing all through Necro's story, so I promise you won't fall off!

All right, all right. Nick thought back. Walk up alongside the wagon and I'll jump on.

A minute later, Nick was flying. Flayme glided effortlessly through the air, and Nick held on to a spine protruding from the dragon's back.

Nick experimented holding on one-handed, and once he was confident he could do it, he pulled his sword off his back, and waved it around his head. He sent a picture into Flayme's mind of the two of them riding into battle, torching enemies who crossed their path.

Flayme laughed. Yes, we are quite an impressive sight. Now try lighting your sword.

Nick did, and felt the comforting warmth of the flames on his face. I wish I had some armor, you know, Nick said. Just to complete the image. Valiant hero riding into battle on a mighty dragon. Wouldn't that be just amazing? Not even Pyrrex had a dragon!

Flayme laughed again. Nick, your head is so full of daydreams, it's a wonder that there is room for anything else.

Nick grunted, and shifted his weight, signaling Flayme to turn. The dragon made a great loop, and Nick caught something just on the horizon. He spurred Flayme on faster, until he could clearly make it out.

He shifted again and urged Flayme back towards the cart. "Everyone!" Nick yelled. "Hey! Miscoren is close! I saw the ocean and everything! If we keep going we can be there by nightfall!"

As Nick landed he saw Anna beaming. "Finally!" She murmured. "This desert can really bring a water manipulator down."

***

Once the city was in sight from the wagon, Lucian began to chant over Tigra, Leocore and Flayme. While Nick could see no visible change, he knew something must have occurred.

When he asked Lucian, the boy laughed. "I used the Dark Illusion technique. It disguises anything I want to be something else, to anyone I want. I let us in on the illusion, so we'd know which 'horses' are ours. But if you want to see, I'll remove you from my chant…"

Suddenly, the giant cats and Flayme were gone, replaced by two horses and a cyborg wolf. Then, just as quickly, they were back to normal.

"Convincing, huh?" Lucian smiled. Nick nodded vigorously. "And unless I get seriously hurt, and can't keep up the illusion anymore, they'll stay that way."

Nick was impressed. He had a feeling that this technique would be useful in whatever lay ahead.

***

As twilight set in, the cart rattled close to the gates of Miscoren. Nick urged Leocore and Tigra faster, because the city gates were closing.

Necro stood and plucked out notes on his harp. A screech sounded, and a skeletal monster pulled its way from the ground.

The massive skeleton charged at the closing gates, then, at the absolute last second, turned away. The city watch chased after it, yelling war cries.

Necro smiled. "That was the first monster the Church sent after me."

Nick would never again call the bard useless. It took a lot of strength to take down a monster that size.

As the cart clattered off the dirt road and on to the cobblestones of a well-paved street, Nick had to gasp. He had never seen buildings so high before. Back in Ms. Lifei's desert outpost, buildings had rarely been over three stories high. Here, they seemed to reach up and touch the clouds.

Zephyr laughed at Nick. "You think this is impressive? You should see Dentaron!"

In the distance, a hum could be heard. Over the skyline, ships rose up over the buildings. But instead of sails and riggings, there were propellers and balloons.

Anna sighed wistfully. "Those are airships. What I wouldn't give to helm one of those…"

Seithios laughed. "Not all it's racked up to be. Trust me. I couldn't feel the ground beneath my feet. Spent the first few days of my voyage in my bunk." He put a hand to his mouth and leaned over. "You get the idea, right?"

Nick looked at the airship fleet in wonder. "Do you think we could get one of those? I mean, we'd travel so much faster by air than by sea…"

Zephyr recoiled in shock. "Nick, even I wouldn't steal one of those! They're kept under heavy guard, and have a built in alarm system. And chartering one is out of the question. We don't have nearly enough money…"

Anna shrugged. "Anyway, Nick, I spent a year on ships, and navigating one is second nature to me. If we can get a fire-powered one, and have you supply the power, we can travel indefinitely."

"Hate to break up the little chat," Lucian cut in. "But we're tying up the wagon here. While you were ogling over the airships, I haggled with an innkeeper, and got us three rooms."

Nick thought for a second. "Wait. You never left. You were sitting here the whole time."

Lucian laughed and shook his head. He held up a sack of food. "Dark Illusion, Nick. How naïve."

Necro leapt gracefully out of the cart. "As delightful as it was to travel you all, here is where we must part ways. I hope to run into you again. Oh, and Miss Anna, your parents wish you well, and they forgive you."

Anna started. "What? How do you know my parents?" But the bard had already vanished in the night.

"That's where we'll go." Seithios stated bluntly. "We'll get a ship and go to Élanus. Seems better than nothing, right?"

Anna shook her head. "I can't go back. Not yet. I still need to keep that promise to myself."

Seithios started to protest but Nick silenced him. He turned to Anna. "If we are to go back, it's your choice. You know the seas better than any of us, and we'll need you to get us there. But c'mon. It's late. If Lucian really did get us rooms, then let's go. I can't wait to sleep in a real bed again."

***

Nick sat staring at a mug of ale in the inn's pub. Everyone else had already gone to bed. The rooms had been divided up mostly by gender. The three girls took one, Zephyr and Seithios another, he and Lucian a third.

Nick took a long gulp of ale, then reached out and touched Flayme's mind. He wasn't sure how he did it, but he was glad that he and Flayme could communicate.

What is it Nick? Flayme asked.

Just wondering how the stables are. Nick thought back. Sorry you have to stay out there, but it would have been odd for me to insist that my horse sleep inside.

No issue at all. Tigra is very good conversation. Leocore…not so much. Both boy and dragon laughed. Nick, I'm going to sleep. You should too. Long day tomorrow.

Good night, Flayme, Nick thought. He downed the last of his ale, and then went to his room.

***

The morning sun streamed through Nick's window. The young fire-mage yawned and rubbed sleep from his eyes. He started down the stairs to buy some bread to break his fast. As he wandered down the hall, he saw Anna passed out in front of her door. Nick shook her awake and helped her up.

Nick was concerned. "What happened to you?" he asked, shaking her awake.

"Rum," Anna slurred. "Rum happened. My one true weakness. I got thirsty last night, and ordered a mug of rum, and it was really good, so I got…" she counted on her fingers. "Six more. I think. Must have gotten a bit drunk."

Nick laughed. "A bit? Anyway, let's get you something to eat."

When Nick entered the pub, he saw everyone else was awake, and sitting around a large table. Seithios and Lucian were pouring over a map of the world, Zephyr was flirting with the innkeeper's daughters, Kim and Lexa were styling each other's hair.

Nick sat down, and then signaled a serving girl. "A loaf of bread, some fruit, and two cups of tea." Under his breath he murmured to the small girl, "Make sure one of those cups has something for a hangover." Nick winked and slid the girl a copper coin.

The girl nodded vigorously and rushed off to the kitchen. Nick turned back to the table, and looked quizzically at the map. Seithios saw the glance, and pointed.

"We're right here," he tapped a small dot labeled Miscoren, located on the southeastern coast of the Sestrazana continent. "My temple and Vertalia are here," Seithios tapped the continent labeled Crinsharlan. "We plan to avoid that area for a while, since the Church holds a lot of influence. Élanus is here," Seithios tapped a small island off the coast Ureono. "But since Anna has made it clear she doesn't want to go back, that's out. Lucian and Lexa also wish to avoid their home," he tapped Rinshonan on the Duralaya continent. "And although we could hide Dentaron," he tapped another dot on the Duralaya continent, "we really aren't sure of the current state of affairs. Meaning, we don't know if the Church has totally taken over. So we decided to go here," Seithios tapped a location in the middle of the Centralias Ocean.

Nick leaned over and looked. "Casinoria?"

Lucian nodded. "It's a small, independent island nation. They want nothing to do with world affairs. They have their own customs, and their location makes it hard for the Church to reach. They're a welcoming people, and will be happy to shelter us for a time. In theory, at least."

Nick shrugged. "It works for me. Has everyone else given an affirmative?"

Zephyr turned to them. "Yep. Well, everyone but Anna, whose brain seems a little rattled."

Anna whirled and punched the wind-rider on the arm. "I'm sober!" she slurred. "My 'angover's clearin' up a bit." She hiccupped. "Casinoria sounds good. But we gonna need a ship…"

Lexa clapped her hands. That's what we're going to do today. We're going to see if we can book passage on a ship!"

Kim turned, eyes aglow. "And if we can't, we're gonna steal one!"

***

The seven young manipulators made their way to the Miscoren port. Nick was taking everything in, from the buildings, the giant airship port-dome, the street vendors, and the carts drawn by lasorani birds.

"Shut your mouth, Nick, or some bugs will start building a home," Anna joked, now fully sober.

As Nick turned to laugh, he ran into something. He backed away to see an elegantly dressed man with dual swords at his waist. He had piercing blue eyes and a bright shock of blonde hair. As Nick started to apologize, the man cut him of with a wave of his hand. "Just watch where you're going next time, clumsy little wretch."

Nick scowled at the man's back as he walked away. When he turned back to his friends, he saw that they had all shrunk back in fear. "What?" Nick asked. "It was just a noble."

Lucian shook his head. "Nick, do you have any idea who that man was? That was the archangel Michael! The one who murdered my father!"

Nick was shocked. He thought the archangels would be, well, more divine, not just regular manipulators. It was almost disappointing. "If he really was an archangel, what's he doing here?"

Seithios shuddered. "No idea, but it can't be good. We should get out of here as soon as possible."

The other five agreed and continued on their way to the seaport.

Nick saw the towering masts before he saw the actual ships. The size of trees, they towered over the harbor, and made Nick feel small.

The masts of one ship in particular, or rather the lack thereof, caught his eye. He asked Anna about this.

"That's a fire-powered ship, the kind we're interested in. Good eye, Nick."

Seithios and Lucian had started a conversation with the captain, and both parties were waving their hands wildly, gesturing, cursing, and arguing. The earth started to shake, and a black aura appeared around Lucian. Nick rushed over and put a hand on each of their shoulders.

"Calm down! We don't want to make a scene!" he hissed. "Let's just walk away now, and come up with a plan."

The whole way back to the inn, Seithios and Lucian grumbled. "No money, he says. Bad luck to have women on a ship, he says. I'll give him bad luck…" Seithios complained. "I can't believe this! It's an outrage!"

Nick shook his head. "Relax, we'll get that ship." He would have said more, but a whistle from an alleyway caught his attention.

When Nick looked, he saw an old man, and three children roughly his age, a boy and two girls. They were dressed as foreigners, in vibrant robes, silver bracelets and necklaces, and golden rings. The girl in the center had a bronze circlet inset with a ruby.

The old man chuckled as Nick pulled his friends over. "Time to go to work, children," he said in a weak, tired voice.

The girl in the middle shuffled a deck of tarot cards and pulled out a crystal ball. "Would you like your fortune told? We are refugees of the Crinsharlan Desert. Our clans posses special, unique manipulation, and other nations saw us as a threat. That is why we must run. Anyway, your fortunes? Just three coppers."

Lucian laughed cruelly. "Nick, this is false. They can't really divine anything. Just a street act to get some coins for a mug of ale. Con men."

Kim shook her head. "Lucian, these guys are for real. I just poked through their minds a bit with my telepathy; everything they say is true. I can't put my finger on their manipulation, though. It's like nothing I've ever seen before."

The ruby-crowned girl clapped her hands in delight. "So, shall I divine?" Nick nodded, and slid her the coppers. The girl closed her eyes, placed four cards in a certain pattern around the crystal ball. The bauble shone with an ethereal light. The girl began to hum.

"You seven are destined for greatness," she intoned. "Many choices await you on the road ahead. Some good, some bad. Will you make the right ones? Many powerful presences stand behind you, including the seven of ages gone by. They view you as those who succeed them."

"Yes!" Anna cried. "That proves it! We are the new Legendary Seven!"

Lucian nodded. "Even I think that this evidence is hard to argue with, if this prediction is genuine."

The old man chuckled again. "Ah, yes, the original Seven. They were so brash, so sure, so full of life." He spoke slowly, carefully pronouncing his words. "Pyrrex was so vibrant in his young days."

Nick was puzzled. "You act as though you knew them. The Seven lived almost a thousand years or so ago. Even if you were an elf, they only live about five hundred years."

Kim thought for a second. "Nick, how do you know this? You also knew about Xekrox's prophecy without any of us telling you. Anna told me you knew that elves and dwarves were a sparse minority now. But when I first met you, you didn't even know your own name. You didn't know the names of the continents, nor anything about the Church. So how is it you know some things, but are clueless about most everything else?"

Nick hung his head. "Honestly, I have no idea. I guess… some stuff I know, some stuff I don't. I wish I could explain it but… I can't."

Seithios saw that Nick was uncomfortable, and changed the subject. "So, why are you talking about the Seven as though you know them?" he asked the old man.

The old man smiled. "Ah, that is my manipulation. I slow the passage of time and space around me, making me live a hundred times more than an ordinary human. These children are really my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandchildren. They have aged normally, and are roughly your age. Sixteen, seventeen, yes? Good, you are similar. My name is Gratos, by the way."

The boy looked up drowsily. He appeared to have been asleep. "Uh, my cue, huh? I'm Spacio. Nice to meetcha." He promptly fell back asleep.

The girl who had not spoken yet looked up. "My name is Tempora. I apologize for my brother's rudeness." She curtsied awkwardly.

The fortune telling girl smiled now. "My name is Delphia. Spacio and Tempora are my younger siblings." She turned to Tempora. "Do you want me to explain our manipulations? I think we can trust these people, since they are the reincarnations of the Great Heroes." Tempora nodded shyly.

Delphia rubbed her hands together. "Now, as Gramps told you, he can control time and space. Spacio can control space alone, and Tempora time, hence their names.

"Spacio can warp around, making it look like he's moving quickly, but really he's traveling through dimensional gates. Look, don't ask, he doesn't even get how he does it. Tempora can stop time, and make it slow down, so she also can travel fast, but she has the advantage of stopping it in order to hide for a while. We still aren't sure just how long she can stop it for, though. We've disguised them as Quicks; you know those who run fast; to avoid attention. I don't think you'd be that surprised to find out how many nations want to control time and space.

"My power is unique, in that it is both spatial and temporal. I call it Prophecy. I am gifted with the True Sight, meaning, I can see beyond the present and into the future, but I can also tweak my Sight, to fit it to my needs.

"For example, say there was to be a raging forest fire that I saw. I could change it so that there was also a massive downpour to douse it. My power is basically being able to see the future, and change it. I could make a plague strike this city, but I won't, at least, not intentionally. This," she tapped her circlet, "and these," she tapped her tarot cards, "keep my powers from going out of control."

"Amazing," Lucian murmured. "I have never heard of powers like this."

Nick was thinking intently. With powers like these, obtaining a ship will be almost easy. Powers that transcend time and space. Unbelievable.

"How would you like to help us in a small venture?" Nick asked. Spacio looked up.

"How much you payin'?"

***

The seven spent the next several minutes detailing how they planned to travel to Casinoria.

"You want to steal a ship?" Spacio was incredulous.

"Actually," Tempora said quietly. "Their plan could work. If we help them."

Gratos stood up slowly. "We will help you in any way we can, Legendary Seven. It is the least we can do for the good of the world."

Delphia held up a hand to silence her family. "We'll help you. But, since we're refugees, we're obviously a little short on money. We'll do it for seven gold pieces."

Lucian grumbled, but reluctantly pulled the requisite fee. Delphia smiled. "Now, how may we be of assistance?"

***

Nick rushed at the port, sword out, ignited, and shooting flames erratically. Seithios followed close behind, twirling twin war axes made of stone. They were obviously very heavy, but Seithios carried them as one would carry a dagger.

Nick shouted a wild war cry, and challenged several burly sailors to scrap with him.

Nick leapt nimbly over their heads, delivering a kick or a pummel with the base of his sword. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed someone load a cannon and point it in his direction.

He stood until the absolute last second, then quickly fled the cannonball's range. More sailors charged with cutlasses, knives, pistols, and even planks of wood. Nick ignited his entire body, and felt his hair fly up. He wished he had a mirror. This had to be an impressive sight.

Nick was satisfied he had caused sufficient chaos, and he shot three rapid fireballs into the air, signaling the others to come into action.

Two blurs rushed through the mob of sailors coming at Nick, systematically putting them out of commission. Spacio and Tempora definitely had the situation under control. Tempora allowed time to return to normal around her, and gave Nick a small wave. Nick saluted, and rushed off towards the target ship.

Flayme! Come to me! He shouted in his mind. He would not leave his partner behind in this strange land. Even if Lexa and Zephyr did carry out their portion of the plan, Nick still left nothing to chance.

As Nick ran up the gangplank of the fire-powered ship, he saw Anna and Lucian crossing swords with the crew. Nick hurried to join the fray, hoping Kim and Delphia were in position.

Nick engaged three sailors at once, using fire for two, and dueling with his sword for the third. One sailor was afraid of this demon boy, and jumped over the side of the ship, into the harbor. Nick flipped his sword, and swept the feet out from under the man, and delivered a sharp kick with his heel, knocking the sailor unconscious.

"W-what do you want with us?" the last sailor asked. "Please, don't kill me!"

Nick grinned. Oh, how he'd waited for this. He put on his best evil face, and laughed, he hoped, cruelly. "You denied my friends passage. We really need a ship to get to Casinoria. Your captain wouldn't take us. So, what should we do but steal your ship? I can power it indefinitely. You are all just getting in the way."

He swung out with his sword, making the poor sailor run off the ship, terrified. As he rushed off, Kim and Delphia leapt down from the smokestacks and yelled "Boo!"

The man screamed in fear, rushing off the ship, and almost running into Seithios as he boarded. Nick did a 360° sweep, and saw Anna and Lucian had dispatched all of the crew, except for the captain. "I'll never give my ship over to you! I'll fight to the death if I have to!"

Seithios shrugged. "Hey baby!" he called. "Now's a good time!"

Zephyr glided down from the rooftops. "Lexa'll be here in a sec. She got held up by the city guard."

As soon as the words left his mouth, someone called "Yoo-hoo! I'm here, honey!" Flayme soared over the port and landed on the ship deck. Lexa followed on Tigra, and Leocore brought up the rear. Nick's jaw dropped. The two felines now sprouted massive feathered wings, and were flying.

"Y-you, never told m-me they could f-fly!" Nick stammered, awestruck.

Lexa gracefully dismounted. "In all fairness, you never asked."

"Be gone, you marauders!" The captain cried, trying to act brave. His sword hand trembled. "If you don't leave this instant I'll- hurck!"

Spacio had materialized behind the captain, and had him in a headlock. "So, what were you sayin', my good man? Something about not letting these fine people use your ship?" He tightened his grip.

Tempora appeared as a blur, and then solidified. "Spacio, don't hurt him. He's only doing his job," she said quietly.

Spacio grunted, and heaved the man over the side. The captain surfaced seconds later, and paddled to shore, spiting and cursing.

Nick help out his hand to Delphia, who shook it. "Thanks for your help. Shall we shove off, then?"

Delphia shook her head. "I'm sorry, but my family and I can't accompany you. Our place is here, with Grandfather. But rest assured, we will meet again. I've made sure of that!" She strode purposefully of the ship.

Tempora hurried after her older sister with a small wave. Spacio scratched the back of his head. "Well, later, I guess. I'd love to go with you guys, but Big Sis is such a control freak." He smiled and winked out of existence, only to appear next to his siblings three seconds later.

"I like them." Zephyr said bluntly.

Seithios cracked his knuckles and rolled his neck. "So, what are we all waiting for? Nick, hurry up and get to the engine room." He pointed below decks. "Anna, take the wheel. Zeph, you're on lookout. I'm not sure what for, though. I'll raise the anchor, and we'll be on our way. Hurry up! Casinoria ho!"

CHAPTER 5

N

ick cooled his body down, moved his hands away from the furnace, and wiped his forehead. Flayme, he mentally roused the sleeping dragon. Can you take over for me for a little while? I need a break, and a little fresh air.

Flayme snorted smoke from his nostrils and lumbered over to the engine. He began to breathe a steady stream of fire into the furnace.

Nick emerged from the engine room and blinked in the sunlight. The sea rushed past the hull, and the sky was like a convex sapphire. Anna stood at the wheel, confident and smiling. Lucian dangled a fishing line over the rail, with Leocore watching intently. As to why, Nick had no idea. Lexa and lounged against Tigra. Looking up towards the smokestacks, Nick could see Zephyr reclining in the crow's nest. The boy caught Nick's eye and waved.

Nick made his way up to where Anna stood. "Where're Kim and Seth?" he asked.

"In the cabins," Anna answered, smiling. "They have the night shift, so they're going to sleep all day. At least they don't have to watch Lucian fish for monsters. He doesn't realize that they won't bite a hook with no bait."

As she said this, Lucian cried out, and pulled his line back. A small, piranha-like fish flew out of the water, became a dark sphere, and was absorbed into Lucian's outstretched hand.

Anna smiled. "Well, speak of the devil! If he any sense, he'll use that Nereus as the aforementioned bait."

Nick looked puzzled. "But, how? Didn't he defeat it? Return it to its essential form? I saw him do the same thing to those scaragron beetles in the desert."

Anna shrugged. "Nah, he never defeats a monster unless he can help it. He 'captures' them somehow, once he's weakened it. That Nereus was really weak, so he didn't have to fight it. I guess since the monsters came from darkness, he has some kind of control over them. Once he captures' one, he can call them up and use them at will. Watch."

Lucian held his hand out, palm up. The fish, the Nereus, appeared. Lucian tied the line around the fish, and tossed it over the side. Five minutes later, he yanked up, and yelled for Leocore to go out. Three different monsters jumped and snapped at the surface of the water. One looked like a turtle with spines protruding from it's shell, a second looked like a shark with two mouths, and a line of spikes running down it's back. The third looked like it could have been a mermaid, if not for it's fangs, and blades protruding from its wrist.

Anna whistled and pointed. "See that one there, that looks like a giant turtle? That's called a Stygan. That shell allows it to take a lot of punishment. The shark is called a Frocas. Fierce little bugger, persistent, too. Doesn't stop attacking 'till it's dead. And that third one is called a Selik. I'm surprised, those are really rare. See how its tail is black? That means it's old and powerful."

As they watched, Leocore swooped over the monsters with his giant, midnight black wings. He slashed at the Frocas, and Lucian captured it. Then the lion targeted the Selik, who was trying to escape after seeing the Frocas vanish. Leocore caught it in his mouth, and dragged it back to Lucian. To take down the Stygan, Leocore signaled to Tigra, and both of them set on the giant turtle. For a tense five minutes, the felines struck at the slow monster, which did its best to fight back. When the monster disappeared into a dark orb, Nick let out a breath he didn't realize he was holding.

"What happened to the Nereus? Did it get eaten?"

Anna shook her head. "Nah, Lucian probably called it back. He'd never let a monster in his employ just die."

The door to the crew's quartets opened. Kim rushed out and threw her arms around Nick's neck. "Hey, Nick! I thought I heard you out here! How's the engine room, sweetie?"

Nick flinched at being called "sweetie". He took a deep breath. "The engine room is… well, it's hot."

"Oh, we're so sorry to have to put you through this Nick, but you're the only one who can power the ship." Kim batted her eyes. Nick backed away slowly.

Nick, I'm hungry. Flayme spoke. Can you get me something to eat?

Yeah, be right there. Impeccable timing. I needed to get off the deck. Thanks Flayme.

"Um, Flayme's calling me. He wants some food. I, uh, yeah…" Nick rushed off, happy for an excuse to escape.

***

Nick shut the door to the engine room. He tossed Flayme a piece of salted pork. The dragon turned away from the furnace, and began chewing it. Nick trudged over to the fire, and stuck his hands over it.

His hands heated up, as fire poured from within him, and fueled the fire without. He knew that this fire would seriously hurt normal people, but he couldn't feel much past the heat on his face.

Nick wasn't sure how long he stood there, hands over the engine. The boat consistently swayed under his feet, lulling him into a relaxed mindset. Flayme had long since finished his pork, and was sleeping in the corner.

A loud crash startled Nick. He picked up a shovel, dumped some coals in the fire, and rushed up on deck.

Day had turned into night, and a crescent moon hung amongst diamond-like stars. Nick looked around wildly, trying to see what caused the crash. His friends were looking over the rail of the ship.

When he joined them, he saw that to one horizon, the sea was boiling and seething, as if heated to incredible temperatures. To the other, the ocean was frozen. Their ship was caught in the middle, where the two opposing conditions seemed to balance out.

As Nick took this in, a crash sounded in the ice. A giant, dull red whale leapt up from the depths. A ridge of spikes traveled the length of its back, and its fins looked like blades. Steam rolled off its body, and Nick suspected that it was the cause of the boiling sea.

From the same hole in the ice, a pure white serpent burst out and wrapped around the whale. It appeared to have an ice crystal on its head, and gave off a chilling breeze.

"I must capture them," Lucian murmured. "Nereus, Stygan, Frocas, Selik, go weaken those beasts." The monsters began to form out of the air.

"No!" Anna cried. "You can't send those monsters to fight Jacorus and Krasthala! It's suicide! I'll weaken them! Lexa, Kim, attack them with projectiles. Zephyr, fly out and distract them, but don't get killed. Nick, Seth, sorry, but you won't be much help against these monsters, since your manipulation is nullified by the water. Just lower the anchor so we don't get tossed around. And see if you can find a cannon. Lucian, standby and be ready to capture." She dove off the side.

Nick looked at where Anna had disappeared. Seithios called out to him, "Hey, help me out with this!"

Nick rushed over to where the earth-shifter held the anchor. Together they hurled it over the side. Seithios turned his head. "I found a cannon on my break today. I carried over behind the cabins…"

The boys pushed the cannon into a good position to shoot at the clashing monsters. Seithios loaded a cannonball, and Nick lit the fuse. The boys covered their ears as the projectile launched, hitting the whale-like monster; the one Anna had called Jacorus.

Nick cheered as Seithios loaded for another shot. But before Nick could light the fuse again, the ice burst open in a giant waterspout. The serpent, Krasthala, was caught in it. The force of the water shot it over the ship, while Kim and Lexa shot it with mindbolts and lightning. It landed in the boiling part of the sea, and wreathed in agony.

It became a shadow orb, and flew to Lucian's hand. Nick realized that if Lucian were to capture both of these, they would have some serious power behind them for any up-coming conflicts.

Jascorus shot a pillar of smoke from its back and rose again from the ice. Now that Krasthala had vanished, his influence was receding. The water that was once covered in ice was melting, and began to bubble. Seithios sighed. "Anna better hurry up down there. It's gonna get pretty hot."

Nick chewed his lower lip. "I wish I could do something. I feel so helpless. I just…"

"Yeah, I know." Seithios patted his back. "Our manipulation is useless here. Let's just get that cannon prepped… Oh shit!"

Nick looked out on the water. Zephyr was shooting small cyclones on the surface of the water, trying to lure Jascorus to the surface. Suddenly, the whale rose from the water, and shot a pillar of flames from his mouth. Zephyr was almost incinerated.

Nick went to light the fuse on the still-loaded cannon. Seithios shook his head. "No time for that! Here, light this!" He held a cannon ball in his hand.

Nick shrugged and made the cannonball catch fire. Seithios grunted and hurled it out over the sea. It struck the whale dead on, and caused him to turn towards the ship. Jascorus blew more smoke, and began to charge at where Nick and Seithios stood.

Zephyr shot a massive cyclone over the water, becoming a waterspout. It rushed up on Jascorus, but the behemoth took no notice. He was so intent on hitting the craft that had injured him.

Bolts of light flashed over the shrinking distance, but they had as much of an effect as flies on an elephant.

The whale jumped into the air, its body becoming white hot. Nick had an idea, but he didn't know if it would work. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He concentrated his inner fire into a small spark at his very core. Then he let all the heat around him fill him up until he felt he was going to burst. He saw Jascorus' skin cool, and the water cease to boil. His friends were shivering in the suddenly ice cold air.

Nick screamed, and could hold back the inner flames no longer. They pored from his hands, making a swirling inferno above the ship. Nick twisted his hands so they were aimed at Jascorus, and poured out all his strength. "Lucian!" He hollered. "Now!"

In the swirl of flames, Jascorus cried out. Shadows were slowly consuming his body, making him a gigantic, dark sphere. He was in a state of pure panic. He was soon engulfed, and the sphere shrank down. It drifted into Lucian's hand, and disappeared.

Nick poured forth the last of his flames, and sat down, head in his hands. Seithios sat down next to him and put a hand on his shoulders. Nick looked up to see the golden haired boy beaming. "Way to go, Hothead! There was some serious juice in that fire you shot out. Without that, we'd be drifting to the ocean floor right now!"

Zephyr cruised down from the sky and skidded to a halt on deck. "I can't find Anna!" he cried, panic in his voice. "I think Jascorus may have eaten her!"

As he said this, Anna burst from beneath the waves, flipped in midair, and landed gracefully on the railing. "Whoa, I was in a tight spot down there. Didn't think that Jascorus had that kind of power. Sorry to leave you all in the lurch there, but if I didn't dive deep I would have been in trouble. Boiled Anna."

Nick chuckled slightly, since he could tell Anna was making a joke. "So, Anna, can you tell us, or at least me, what exactly are those things we just fought?"

Anna nodded her head. "I don't think any of you know of Jascorus or Krasthala. They are the left-behind souls of two rival warriors. In life, Krasthala was a powerful ice master, and Jascorus was a mighty fire mage. They died locked in combat, on two clashing warships. But they had been rivals before that for years. They drowned after they got knocked overboard, but one of them needed to emerge victorious. So their souls passed on to an eel and a fish respectively. Over time, those creatures became the giant monsters we just fought. They probably never meant to harm us; we just got caught in the middle of their centuries old conflict. They will continue to fight until the end of time, or so they say. But now that Lucian has caught them that may change. I don't really know honestly. But don't have them fight side-by-side, at least at first.

"Oh! I should probably mention. I hid really deep down after I launched Krasthala out of the water, and he got captured. Jascorus made the water really hot, but only towards the surface. If I went deep enough, the water was normal. See, I can breathe normal in the water, even really deep. So I could stay down there indefinitely, or at least until I ran out of food. So I shot some currents at Jascorus from a safe distance, not that it really did much of anything.

"When Jascorus leapt out of the water, I had a feeling that was an all or nothing attack. So I started to come towards the surface, either to join you triumphant, or boil with you. As I came up, I saw scorch marks on the hull. Jascorus probably made those. I don't know how serious they were, but it didn't look like they breached the hull, so we may be okay. Just a heads up, though."

Nick shrugged. "We'll deal with it in the morning. Right now, I just want to go to sleep. I'm going back to the engine room. Good night."

***

Nick checked the furnace to see that the coals he put in had cooled. He put in some more, and lit them. He trudged to the corner, and slumped down.

Flayme stirred sleepily. Why were you up? Did I miss something?

The dragon sounded honest. He had really slept through the whole conflict. Nick grunted and threw a shovel at Flayme.

"Your shift, Rip Van Winkle."

***

Nick woke the next morning feeling slightly refreshed. Flayme stood by the furnace. I'm hungry, Nick. Get me something to eat. Or I'll tell Seithios that you're madly in love with Lexa.

Nick started. You can talk to the others?

Oh yes! Anna and Kim are such stimulating conversation. Seithios is a good person to talk strategy with. Zephyr tells funny jokes. With Lexa it's just girl talk, and Lucian won't talk to me. Jerk. Oh, Necro and Delphia were a joy. Necro was talking about all the ballads he knew and Delphia had such vivid mental pictures.

Nick was almost depressed. He thought his mental link with Flayme was private, something intimate.

Flayme must have picked up on this, and quickly said, But you are by far my favorite person to talk to, Nick. No one could replace you!

Nick smiled. "Thanks Flayme. C'mon, why don't you go above deck with me?"

***

Nick blinked in the early morning light. Seithios still stood at the wheel, and Kim was still on lookout. Nick and Flayme were exempt from the other six's duty schedule, and took shifts whenever the other was tired.

Nick signaled Seithios. "Uneventful night?"

Seithios smiled. "After the little mishap, yes. Boring, almost!"

What mishap? Flayme broadcast into their heads. Really, what did I miss?

Nick sighed and filled Flayme in on the events that transpired the night before. When Nick concluded, Flayme blinked in surprise. Well, then. I suppose I am a heavy sleeper.

Nick let the matter drop, and changed the subject. "Anyway, Seth, can I grab a bite? I'm hungry, and Flayme has threatened to divulge vulgar, untrue statements to you if he doesn't get fed soon."

Seithios laughed. "Help yourself. This ship is stocked for a month-long voyage. With a little luck, we'll be in Casinoria in a week."

Nick smiled, and led Flayme to the food store. The door was made for humans, so Flayme couldn't enter. Probably for the better. Flayme would just eat everything anyway. Nick thought.

I heard that. Flayme grumbled. And I would not eat everything! Whatever you could shove down your throat before I got to it, I wouldn't eat that! Disgusting!

Nick laughed and tossed the dragon a bit of pork. Flayme happily gulped it down. Nick grabbed an apple from a crate. It would rot quickly, and it would be a shame for it to go to waste.

Someone knocked on the doorframe. Kim stood silhouetted in the door. She tossed Nick a mug. She gestured towards a keg of ale. "Fill me up."

Nick grinned cheekily. "Got another mug?"

Kim snapped her fingers. A mug flew off of the back shelf, and into Kim's hand. She tossed it to him. "Open your eyes, Hothead. You'll be surprised what you'll find."

Nick smiled, and filled up the mugs. "Cheers," he raised his glass. The mugs clinked together. Both manipulators drank deeply.

"You know Nick," Kim remarked. "That was a really unique technique you used last night." Seeing Nick's look of puzzlement, she elaborated. "You know. Absorbing heat and shooting out again, twice as powerful. I've never heard of anyone doing that before."

Nick shuffled his feet, embarrassed. "I just figured… since I can create flames, why can't I take them in, too? And, well, it worked, didn't it? It kind of hurt keeping that power back, but, it really saved us, didn't it?"

Kim had walked over to where he stood, and stroked his cheek. "Oh, you poor thing! You got hurt for our sake? There was no need to be a martyr, sweetie."

Nick pulled away. "Really, I'm fine! Don't worry about me!" He started to walk out of the room.

Kim grabbed his hand and spun him around. "Nick, darling. It's okay. You can talk to me." She pulled him closer. Nick saw how the sun caught her brown hair, and turned it gold. And how her eyes seemed to change color in the light. He felt the air getting hotter around him, and sparks of flame sprung up and danced around.

Nick knew that if he didn't leave soon, he would ignite, incinerating the entire room, and most likely cause an explosion. He yanked his arm out of her grasp, downed the rest of his ale, and stalked out.

***

Flayme looked at Nick with concern. Everything all right back there? Nick could hear the concern in Flayme's voice.

He took a deep breath. "Flayme," He said. "Time for your first life-lesson. Women… are a major pain."

Flayme's laughter echoed in Nick's skull.

***

Nick had retired to the engine room. He was drowning his sorrows in a sense. Having nothing to do but let fire pour from his hands, he had a chance to think. Flayme was sunning himself on deck, so Nick was all alone.

He wondered why Kim was so intent on clinging to him. He was honestly not attracted to her, but he didn't want to incur her wrath.

He sighed deeply. Life was just so confusing for an amnesiac. At least he could take comfort in the constant that was his manipulation. Fire never changes its nature, and would never surprise him.

He smiled to himself. He liked this small, cramped space that was the engine room. It was kind of like a nest, or an egg. Small, comforting, and secure. Nick was almost happy.

Several hours later, Nick was about to go and get Flayme to take over for him. As he reached for the door handle, a loud boom like thunder sounded.

"What the hell!" Nick cried. "Can't things stay normal for just one day?" More crashes, and a whistling of wind. Nick heard his friends calling out to each other.

Nick burst out on deck thinking they were fighting another sea monster. In hindsight, he wished it had been a sea monster. What he actually saw was much worse.

Undersea volcanoes were erupting simultaneously, waves deluged the deck, wind whistled amongst the smokestacks, and lightning flashed across the sky.

Jagged rocks shot from the sea floor. The sea itself froze, thawed, and froze again. Nick was horribly reminded of the battle with Krasthala and Jascorus.

"What the hell is going on here?" Seithios yelled above the chaos.

"It seems like the world is tearing itself apart!" Lucian hollered as dark lightning sprung from his fingertips, deflecting the natural bolts from hitting the ship.

Kim leapt out of the crow's nest, eyes glowing with internal light. "In a sense, it is. The mana here is imbalanced, so the earth is trying to fix that. Seeing no other way, it's trying to destroy itself."

"So then use your manipulation to do something!" Anna screamed, shooting water at the rapidly cooling lava, trying to divert it from the ship.

"There's nothing I can do!" Kim replied. "Our best hope is to try to get out of its range, and quickly!"

"I'll get on it!" Nick dashed off towards the engine room. As he ran, Seithios tackled him down.

"The heck was that for?" Nick demanded.

Then he saw that Seithios held a massive boulder that seemingly fell from the sky.

"Where'd that come from? I didn't think you could use your manipulation on the ocean."

Seithios grimaced. "I didn't create it. It fell out of the sky." He heaved it into the sea. "Now hurry up and get us out of here, Nick."

Nick, Flayme's voice had a note of panic. I will fight on the deck, and you power the furnace. If you need my power, just tell me.

You got it, partner.

***

Nick poured every ounce of his strength into powering the ship. Sweat poured of his face, and his teeth were gritted. He was breathing deeply, as if he had just run a long distance.

Nick, things are looking bad up here! Flayme hollered in Nick's head. He resisted the urge to cover his ears.

How bad?

See for yourself.

Nick no longer stood before the furnace. Well, he still did, but he didn't see the black iron maw. He was in Flayme's mind, soaring above the deck. The dragon was shooting fire at rocks falling from the sky, melting them before they could hit the deck. He saw giant whirlwinds raging over the surface of the water, and whirlpools underneath. Volcanoes still erupted, rain still poured, and lighting still knifed across the sky.

Nick saw Lucian and Lexa standing back to back, shooting lightning from their fingertips. Leocore and Tigra were lending their strengths, and mimicking their masters. Anna gripped the wheel tightly, her knuckles white. Seithios heaved debris overboard, while Kim fired mindbolts at any missile coming their way. Zephyr was being tossed around like a leaf in a hurricane, but still made a valiant effort to re-direct the cyclones, but to little avail.

Nick saw his friends struggling, and doubled his efforts back in his physical body. Flayme, I'm going back now. Can you lend me some power? Nick asked the dragon.

Anything I can spare.

Nick found himself in the engine room, standing before the furnace. He bit down on his bottom lip, and manipulated the flames for all he was worth. Flayme, anytime now, he thought.

Several more minutes, and still no boost. Flayme, are you there? Nick asked.

Yes, I'm here. Flayme answered. But I can't merge with you. Something's blocking me. But I'm going to keep trying. No sign this is letting up, by the way.

Nick grunted. Thanks. You do that.

After another ten minutes, Nick's head was pounding, and he felt like he was going to collapse. Flayme! He screamed. I need that power NOW!

I'm trying Nick! Really, I am! But it's like there's a wall up in your mind and I can't break through. The dragon sounded desperate. You may be on your own. But I felt something like this back in your fight with Trentioc. Maybe you can use a power like that again?

Nick suddenly remembered. He had caused a huge amount of power to pour forth. If he could do that again, he might be able to save his friends. He closed his eyes, trying to capture that moment, what he'd done exactly…

When he opened them again, he was once again in the swirling vortex of color. The odd flaming creature with golden eyes stood before him.

"You need my power again, Nicotorex?" Nick winced when the creature used his full name. "All right. I'm happy to help. Just put your finger to your pendant, and use my limitless strength. Maybe use a little more control thins time, eh?" It laughed, just as ominous as Nick remembered.

Nick snarled. "No time for jokes. I don't care who you are, or what you are, or what you think. My friends are in danger, and I need your power. So just give it to me, and we'll negotiate a price later."

The creature looked almost shocked. "A price? My dear boy, there is no price."

Nick snorted. "Nothing's free."

The creature appeared to shrug. "You make a valid point. Fair enough. We can discuss a price later. Now, just press you finger to your pendant, and all my power will burst forth! Until we meet again…"

The creature and the vortex vanished. Nick was back to the normal earth. He took a deep breath, a touched his finger to the flame pendant. He felt refreshed with new energy, and fueled the fire with new vigor.

At first all seemed well, but then Nick's hands began to glow white-hot. "No!" he cried. "Too much! We can't overheat! Take it back, take it back, TAKE IT BACK!"

The furnace whistled, and Nick tried his best to contain the escaping energy, but didn't stand a chance.

Damn it! Nick thought. That creature cheated me! He knew this would happen. The he turned his thoughts to Flayme. Tell them all to brace for impact.

Why? Nick, what's going on down there? Nick! Flayme screamed in Nick's head. Nick, whatever it is you're planning, DON'T DO IT!

Nick smiled forlornly. Too late, my friend. Keep Anna safe for me.

Nick let his power burst forth, and saw everything around him explode. The world moved in slow motion. He saw the hull cave in, the explosion grow, his friends being blown into heavens. He closed his eyes and let unconsciousness settle in. He accepted his fate, and relaxed. He knew that somehow, his friends survived, and he could rest in peace.

The last thing he heard was Flayme roaring NICK!