CHAPTER 44

A tense silence dragged on for several moments. Nick fidgeted slightly. Xande shuffled his feet. Stefán and Theodocious exchanged a worried glance. "What do we do?" Nick hissed.

Xande shrugged. "I haven't got a clue."

"I'll tell you what you should do!" Anna said. "Take us with you. We promised to stick together, didn't we? Whatever you say, I'm coming."

Seithios nodded. "You're our friend. You should have told us. We'll stand with you, no matter what."

Zephyr cracked his knuckles. "We started this together. We came this far together. Now let's end it together."

"Nick, we can help. Trust us." Kim looked at him with hard eyes, sad eyes. "We won't hold you back! What harm could there be in being safe?"

Heat radiated off of Flayme. You're my partner. We stick together, through anything, through everything. We'll do this together, or we won't do it at all.

"We all have trained hard for this," Lexa said with a smile. "Let us put that training to the test."

"This is your fight as much as ours. My revenge is at hand." Lucian crossed his arms. "Nothing you can say will make me pass up an opportunity like this."

Ragnar laughed. "I can't believe you would make an alliance without me! Think I'm weaker than you? Count me in! Besides, I'd be a horrible uncle if I let my godkids face down danger all by their lonesome!"

Wulfgar grinned. "I forgot how good it was to be in the army again. You brought purpose back to my life. I'll follow you."

"Where Lord Ragnar leads, I will follow," Gudrun declared. "He is a good man, and I trust him to make the right choices."

"Like I'm going to pass this opportunity up?" Srasha cried. "A first hand experience to the greatest battle since Pyrrex? I'm going to be a story-teller legend!"

Kiren and Jana looked at each other before Jana spoke. "You showed us that we could be so much more than bakers. That we could be heroes if we wanted. We're coming too."

"I think of you as a friend, Nick." Ehren looked down at his shoes. "I hope you think the same way." Then, more confidently he said: "And friends stick together! I'm coming too, whether you like it or not!"

"Where Ehren leads, I follow!" Delia sighed wistfully. Ehren blushed.

Crucius cleared his throat. "Well, the caravan has spoken…"

"And since you never really left the caravan, not really…" Iréa added.

"That means we got your back!" Atticus exclaimed with a grin. "You can count on us!"

Aratis clenched Rose Moon's shaft. "Until you can show me that you have surpassed my skill, then you're still my student, Nick. And a master doesn't let her student risk his neck on a fool's errand. Not without following right after him."

"Xande is my lord, and it is my duty to protect him," Leonidas rumbled. "Besides Nick, I like your style. I can't let you go and get yourself killed before we've had the chance to go one-on-one."

Lady Palla tossed her hair. "Brother, it is highly presumptuous of you to exclude me from this little alliance of yours. Of course, I will be joining you now, and brining Diren along as my escort." Diren looked a little surprised, but then glanced at Zephyr and grinned.

"Theodocious, no matter what your title is, you're still my little brother," Gyoncian said gently. "Besides, I heard what that bastard Nurcroz did to Dentaron. I want to make him pay!"

Gerad nodded. "Stefán, I took a vow to protect you. I can't let you go off on your own like this. Even if you are a grown man and can take care of yourself."

Delphia shuffled her tarot deck. "I had a vision about today. It was hazy, but I could make some things out. A lot is going to change here. I want to be a part of it."

Tempora smiled thinly. "I… I don't like hurting people. But… if I don't… more people will get hurt. And I hate that even more."

Spacio smirked. His chakrams spiraled out of the pair of dice he always carried. "Oh man, this is going to fun! Besides, I gotta protect my sisters!"

"You helped the elves, Nicotorex," Sei said with a serene smile. "It's time to repay the favor."

Drewvetch smirked. "Hey man, Casinoria is my city too. If I wanna fight for it, well, I'd like to see someone try to stop me!"

Draxon polished the blood off one of his silvery swords. "My retirement… was pretty boring anyways. I'm in. A new generation of heroes may be rising, but the old one isn't ready to give up just yet!"

Retäv had been staring intently at Sei, but fixed his steely gaze on Nick. "Look. You got to go off and have a grand adventure while I was stuck here fighting the Church. I'm not going to just stand by and let you have all the fun again."

Kita was purring like a cat as Sei scratched her behind her pointy fox ears, but looked at Nick with eyes that spoke of wisdom beyond her seven years. "Kita is Nick's brother. Sisters keep their brothers safe. Kita will keep Nick safe."

Lady Dorar looked at Nick, sadness in her eyes. "I've seen too much bloodshed these past few weeks. I wish I could stop any more. But I see that is not the way fate has planned to end this battle. I will fight by your side, for the sake of my people."

Necro sighed. "Nick, I know you don't like fighting. You do it because you have to. I know you may not understand just what you're fighting for. I understand that you don't want any of us to get hurt. But we wouldn't be standing here before you if we were incompetent fighters. Even Kita has seen several battles. This is our fight too. You don't have to bear the weight of the world on your shoulders."

A long silence stretched out. Theodocious threw back his cloak. "Fine. I suppose we can't deter you from coming. But… we aren't responsible for any damage done to you."

Stefán nodded. "If you wish to accompany us, then fine. And even if we refused, I suppose you all would just follow us anyway?"

"Right." Anna said. She held out her right fist. "We're in this together." Everyone else extended their fists as well. It appeared to Nick as if an angry mob had simply been frozen in time.

"Let's do this."

This time, Nick didn't run down the street. He strode confidently and with purpose, knowing his friends were all behind him. He felt strangely calm, despite the gravity of the situation before him. He heard a gentle phsssh as Zephyr, Theodocious, Gyoncian, Lady Palla, Diren and Gerad lifted into the air and drifted forward.

Necro picked his way through the crowd and placed a hand on Nick's shoulder. "I'm proud of you," he whispered. "You did it. You raised an army. You saved a city, and probably the world in the process. Even if there's been a mistake and you guys are not the New Seven… you are still heroes. Never forget that."

Nick smiled at the bard. "You know… thinking back, all our troubles started when we met you in the desert. Why did we help you out again?"

Necro smiled back. "Destiny. Now lead your army to victory, hero." He fell back a few paces, and Nick was again alone at the head of the crowd. Xande, Theodocious, and Stefán formed a triangle behind him, with Ragnar following just a pace or so back. Lucian, Lexa, Seithios and Anna flanked him. Flayme and Kim drifted overhead with Zephyr and the other wind riders. The caravan members, Aratis, Leonidas, Delphia, Tempora, Spacio, Sei, Kita, Retäv and Draxon formed a clump in the back. Sei and Retäv were deep in hushed conversation. Delphia caught Nick's eye and mouthed everything will be fine. She winked and tapped her ruby circlet.

The new steel tower loomed up in front of them, casting a shadow on the street. From within the shadow, a large group of people stepped forward. Trentioc, Sinarex, Curo, fifty mercenaries, a century of Church soldiers, twenty Knights, Lord Valentino and all four archangels glared daggers at Nick's force.

Raphael smirked. "Looks like the party's about to start."

Gabriel grinned from ear to ear. "Been a long time since we've all been together, hasn't it?"

Trentioc refused to meet Nick's eyes. "I'm sorry," he muttered, just barely audible.

Uriel smiled thinly. "The time for talking is over,"

Michael, looking hale, whole, and healthy rolled his shoulders. "I'd say it's about time to begin. I'd like to have this wrapped up by dinnertime."

"You bastard!" Seithios yelled, running up beside Nick.

"Stay calm!" Nick warned, but Seithios paid him no mind.

"You're like a cockroach!" the earth manipulator shouted. "And the only way to kill a cockroach… is to crush it!" He raised his hand into the air, and cobblestones shot from the street. They wrapped around his outstretched arm, and exposed the coral bedrock of the surrounding streets. Soon, he had a large pillar, twenty feet tall by five feet across. "I'll destroy you for good!"

He charged at Michael, roaring a Crinshalanese battle cry. Michael drew his swords and answered the challenge with a roar of his own. Uriel unfurled white angel wings from her back, as did Raphael. Gabriel sighed and lazily flicked his tether. Necro, Anna, Lucian and Lexa sprang into action behind Nick. Anna shot a barrage of icicle spears, and Lexa conjured a hail of lightning bolts. Lucian manipulated his shadow into a halberd, and as he thrust it forward, Necro ran along the haft with aerobic dexterity, stabbing his rapier through Uriel's wing. Tigra and Leocore pounced in unison, clawing through armor with glittering nails.

As this happened, Seithios's pillar had collided with Michael's swords. The angel had locked his blades in an 'x' above his head, just barely holding back the giant stone crafting with some kind of superhuman strength. Sweat poured down his face, and his arms quivered. Seithios gritted his teeth, and shot a boulder towards Michael's immediate left. The angel leapt backwards, releasing his grip on the piling.

It crashed into the street, making a deep crater. Seithios lifted it again, and prepared another strike. It became a strange ballet, the pillar crashing into the ground, Michael dodging, and Seithios lifting it back up to repeat the process.

During the confusion, Trentioc had materialized at Nick's side. "Fight me."

Nick drew his sword and whirled. Trentioc blocked with ease. "I don't want to do this, but I need to keep it believable," the metal manipulator hissed. "Let me say my piece, then you can try to kill me."

Nick cocked an eyebrow. "All right…"

Trentioc slid his blade, Maniac, down to Nick's cross guard. To an outside observer, it appeared as if the two were locked in a contest to strength. "Now listen close," Trentioc glanced around furtively. "Nurcroz is on the top floor of this tower. In ten minutes, I'm going to pull my men back. That's when you make your move."

"Why? Why are you doing this?" Nick pressed harder on his sword.

Trentioc pushed back. "Because I need to. I regret the choices I've made, but they needed to be done. Look, I'll tell you what I can. Nurcroz will be hard to defeat. I have reason to believe it is impossible to kill an angel. Energy cannot be destroyed. That's how Michael survived your 'unmaking'. He was scattered, sure, but he just controlled his energy somehow and reformed about an hour later. Nurcroz will do the same thing. You need to get him to surrender, or trap him somehow." Trentioc delivered a sharp kick to Ehren, who had come to help Nick. "Damn it! Okay, look. You're the only one who can do this! Good luck."

As Trentioc turned to leave, Nick grabbed his armor with his left hand. "Wait. Please. Tell me why you're doing this!"

Trentioc's eyes were filled with sorrow. "Because you're my best friend." Then he stepped back and disappeared into the throng of Church soldiers.

Ehren, Srasha and Delia came up behind Nick. "What was that?" Srasha asked.

Nick shook his head. "Nothing. We have to hold out for ten minutes. Then, we'll attack the tower directly."

Nick fought through the crowd, and joined Anna, Tigra, Lucian, Draxon, Retäv and Xande in fighting five Church Knights, Curo and Sinarex. Stefán was wielding the power of earth with his right hand and the power of water with his left. Xande was slashing madly with his sword, but the armor of the Knights deflected the blows.

"Bet you're happy to have back-up now!" Lucian cried. "You'd be dead by now otherwise!"

Nick snorted. "We'd have managed." He shot a blast of fire, superheating the armor of a Knight. He'd learned in the previous battle the armor could not melt, but if heated enough, would bake the wearer like a pig in an oven.

Retäv conjured a tree in the middle of the fighting area, and jumped up onto a strange hollow in the trunk. The tree shook, and the two large branches on the sides moved. The roots broke through the stone of the street, and appeared to be legs. Anna laughed. "Treant armor! Nice!"

Retäv swept his arm across his torso, and one of the branches mimicked the motion. Curo was hit full in the chest, and was thrown off his feet. Working together, Anna and Stefán sealed the half-giant in ice.

Sinarex saw this and screamed. Nick tensed for an assault, but Sinarex had pitched her voice in just such a way that the frequency shook and shattered the ice binding her companion. Tigra bounded over to the screaming woman and pounced on her, claws digging into her leather hauberk.

Nick heard Kim scream, and gestured to Lucian and Retäv. "We need to help her!"

Retäv piloted his treant armor towards the sound, while Lucian and Nick raced alongside its twin trunks. They saw Flayme in a heap on the ground, golden blood seeping from a gash along his side. Uriel, Raphael, and Gabriel all stood in front of the incapacitated dragon. Kim lay on the cobblestones a few feet away, hair in disarray, apparently unconscious. Lucian ran to her side.

Nick would have followed him, but seeing Flayme bleeding out on the ground sent him into a blind rage. Hearing Gabriel's infuriating voice didn't help either.

"I've always wanted a dragon," the boy was saying. "Not the color scheme I would have liked, but I guess I'll just have to take it!" He cracked his tether in front of Flayme's snout.

"No!" Nick gasped.

Gabriel drew the whip back, and lashed Flayme three times. Nick felt his dragon howl in agony, and felt an alien presence infiltrate his mind. Fight it! Nick mentally screamed. Damn it Flayme! Fight that bastard!

I… can't! Flayme moaned. It feels… so good. So… peaceful.

NO! Nick screamed in his head. He charged at the young archangel. "You can try burn this city to the ground, you can try kill thousands of people, but you try to take my partner from me and gods damn it, I'll kill you!" He slashed off Gabriel's right arm, and the angel screamed in surprise and pain.

White wings of pure energy unfurled from his back. Gabriel snatched up his fallen tether and, clutching it in his left hand, He flew off, only to be intercepted by Zephyr, Theodocious and Gyoncian.

"I'll go help him," Raphael said with a sigh. Before he could take off, vines shot out of the treant's left branch, binding the angel.

"You aren't going anywhere!" Retäv cried as he dashed the angel against the pavement. He lifted his right trunk-foot and pinned Uriel to the ground. Both angels struggled, but could not escape their prisons. Retäv was not actively using energy to snare them, so they could not turn it against him.

Nick ran over to help Kim up. She was slightly delirious, but was able to stand with Lucian's help. She tried to draw her sword, but Lucian laid his hand on hers. He blushed for a fleeting second as Kim leaned against him, still a little unsteady. "Stay here," he commanded. "Watch Flayme."

Kiren and Jana streaked by overhead in the form of great horned owls. They were fighting Church wind-riders, screeching and clawing with their talons. Necro, Draxon, Drewvetch, Lady Dorar and Kita were in a rough circle, fighting back to back.

Theodocious and Xande were fighting with Aratis, Leonidas, Gerad, and Lady Palla, trying to overcome wave after wave of Church Knights.

Stefán was engaged in a heated battle with his father. Both used earth manipulation with such a degree of proficiency, they might as well have been earth wraiths. Stefán was on the offense, shooting jagged stalagmites of stone at Valentino, while the rotund lord raised up walls of earth to block them. Stefán conjured an axe of pure granite and charged at his father. Valentino made a shield of sandstone, and easily deflected the attack.

"I'll teach you to side with the bastards that killed your wife!" Stefán screamed. He waved his hand, and ice blossomed around his father's torso, trapping him. Valentino now looked truly afraid of the rage in his son's face. He frantically threw up more earthen walls to stop Stefán's assault.

Across the plaza, Tempora, Delphia, Spacio, Anna and Zephyr were fighting Trentioc's mercenaries. By Nick's figuring, they had to last for three more minutes. Atticus, Iréa, Crucius and the other caravan fighters were closing in from behind, but they too were fighting.

Lexa, Ragnar and Sei were launching ranged attacks into the throng. Seithios was still trying to crush Michael, and the other combatants were giving them a wide berth. No one wanted to be caught by Michael's flashing silver swords, or flattened by Seithios's now considerably smaller earth pillar.

But one of Sei's arrows struck Michael in the back of his left calf, making the archangel pause for a brief moment, face contorted in agony. Lexa shot a lightning bolt that paralyzed him further, and Seithios brought his pillar crashing down on Michael.

The young earth manipulator detached the pillar from his wrist and stepped back warily. Nick knew the angel couldn't be killed, not like that, but he was fairly well trapped in the crater the pillar had made. Only his right arm protruded from the carnage, bloody and loosely gripping a sword.

Trentioc used the opportunity to sound a retreat. His men fled the scene of the battle, dragging their dead and wounded with them. Soon, only the Church was left in the plaza, and they had paused in the confusion.

Valentino also tried to escape with Trentioc's force, but Stefán closed his hand around his father's arm with a grip that could crush stone. "You aren't going anywhere!" Stefán's axe turned into a hammer, which he brought down hard on his father's head. There was a sharp crack, and Valentino slumped down to the ground, his eyes vacant and lifeless, blood spouting from the wound on his head.

"A coward in life, and a coward in death," Stefán spat. He wrenched Valentino's signet necklace from around his throat and held it up. "I claim my birthright, inheritance, and spoils of battle as High Lord of the Province of Romia and the Southern Isles!"

An instant later, a hunting horn sounded.

Nick turned to Lady Palla, knowing she carried a hollowed out ram's horn to sound charges. But she too seemed confused by the three trumpeting blasts.

From a side street, the sound of pounding hooves echoed amongst the buildings. Sixty-six midnight-black horses, each with a rider in soot-stained armor galloped out into the plaza. A three-headed wolf was emblazoned on their shields and breastplates. "Grimsbjorn," Ragnar growled.

The lead rider gestured to the only other riders not wearing armor. Instead, they wore long, hooded cowls. These two threw back their hoods, revealing themselves to be the traitorous elf Phi and the demon boy Tari.

"Tari," Lucian murmured. "It's time to fulfill my promise. It's time to kill you."

"Phi!" Sei roared. He tossed his bow to the ground and drew his sword. "I'll never forgive you for what you did! Never!"

"That man…" Retäv gasped. "That man, the one Sei called Phi. He killed my parents!" The plant manipulator jumped out of the treant armor, drew his sword and rushed at the elf.

"Retäv, no!" Draxon cried. But he was too late. Phi extended his hand, and Nick felt a pulse of magic energy. Retäv was lifted off his feet and telekinetically hurled into a wall. There was a sharp crack, and Retäv slid to the ground. A bloody stain was left on the rosy coral.

"No! No!" Sei cried. "NO!" Another magical pulse burst forth, this time from the Elvish prince.

Phi threw up a barrier, and an invisible battle ensued. Grimsbjorn removed his helmet. Ragnar was trembling with rage. "Scared, brother?" the dark haired man mocked.

"Not on your life, brother," Ragnar snarled back. He drew his axe. "Lexa, I can't ask you to fight this battle-"

"You don't have to," Lexa replied. She hefted her spear. "Bring it on, Uncle Grimsbjorn. I'll show you what happens to traitors." Tigra, crouched by her master's side, gave forth a feral hiss, like a hot stone dropped in water.

Lucian raised his sword. "I'll stand with you, Uncle Ragnar. This man is a shame to the Ureonen Council. He deserves to be wiped from the face of this earth!" Leocore roared at the end of this declaration, his mane glowing in the noonday sun.

Lucian charged forward, and joined his uncle and sibling. The feline guardians of Rinshonan ran with them. Nick hefted his blade, and followed Lucian. He was joined by Anna, Necro, Delphia, Iréa, Gudrun and Wulfgar. The other fighters were either too weak to stand or were fighting their own battles.

Ragnar glanced quizzically at Wulfgar. "Do I know you from somewhere?"

"I served in your war band on a raid several years ago, m'lord."

Ragnar grunted. "Good. So you don't need me to keep you safe." He pointed his axe at Ragnar. "In the name of all that is good, charge!"

Nick ran forward and shot a wave of flames into the knot of horsemen. Several bucked and fled, occasionally with their riders on their backs. Anna started to cool the air, rusting the black armor.

Iréa's rings slid over her fingertips to become talons, and she used them to rip armor off and slash the skin beneath. Delphia drew a handful of cards and tossed them into the air. Fire, lightning and wind streaked out of the beautifully painted images, wreaking havoc in Grimsbjorn's ranks. Necro flitted around, graceful as a dancer, slashing through chinks in armor. Men fell as he passed by, their forms lying still. Gudrun and Wulfgar plowed through adversaries, wielding their borrowed weapons with ease. Gudrun would encase an enemy in stone, while Wulfgar chopped off his head or burned him alive.

Lexa and Lucian fought Tari and a horde of his monstrous minions. The scaragron Tari used had a slavish devotion to their master, leaping in front of him to take lethal blows. Lexa ran one through with her spear, and was about to do the same to Tari when Lucian grabbed her shoulder. "Wait. Let me deal the finishing blow to him." But before he could act, three scaragron slashed at him with their hooked appendages.

"Look out!" Nick cried and sliced through the beetles. They disappeared into a shadowy vapor that made Nick gag. He fought with one hand on his sword, the other constantly manipulating. He shot fire into the masses, and blocked with his sword. When a strike did get beyond his guard, his dragon riding leathers stopped the blow as good as any steel.

Out of the corner of his eye, Nick occasionally glimpsed Grimsbjorn and Ragnar. Every time they clashed, Ragnar's axe and Grimsbjorn's broadsword created a shockwave that rippled across the plaza. Flashes of black and white popped into existence and disappeared just as quickly around the two Lords of the North.

After a fierce five minutes of fighting, Phi cleared his throat. Without ever taking his eyes off Sei and losing focus on their battle of wills, he addressed Grimsbjorn. "My lord, I grow tired of the insolence of these mortals. May I destroy them now?"

Grimsbjorn clashed again with Ragnar. He gritted his teeth and snarled. "Of course."

Phi chuckled. He raised his right hand in the air. An unmanned airship drifted into view above the rooftops. Phi dropped his hand, and the ship's motors stopped. The airship tipped forward and descended towards the plaza. Nick did a quick judgment in his head and realized the ship would crash directly on top of Retäv, Ehren, Delia, Srasha, Xande and Stefán.

"I'll stop it!" Nick said to Lucian.

"Good luck," the shadow mancer replied.

Nick ran toward the rapidly descending airship. "Be unmade!" he cried. A bolt of red and gold light arched from his palm. It went wide, and missed the ship by several feet.

"Damn it!" Nick hissed and prepared another blast. But he realized with a jolt he didn't have time. Barring a miracle, his friends were doomed.

The world seemed to slow down. Tempora! Nick glanced at the time-manipulating girl. Her hand was outstretched, a blue aura flickering around her body. Spacio protected her from enemy attacks as she concentrated. "Hurry!" she shouted.

Before Nick could shoot another unmaking beam, the ship was surrounded in a golden glow. It started to lift, as though carried by a giant. Nick looked around, offhandedly disarming a Church soldier and sending the man running away, clutching the burned seat of his trousers.

Kim was leaning against Flayme's dusty scales. Her hand also was surrounded in gold, holding the ship up with telekinetic energy. She snarled in anger. "How dare you play with human lives?" she shouted at Phi. "We aren't just pawns! And together… together we're stronger than you can ever hope to be!" She flicked a finger at the elf, and the ship changed it's trajectory. Now it was on a collision course with Grimsbjorn's raiders.

Phi tired fruitlessly to deflect the attack with a magical force, but Kim's mana manipulation was simply too powerful. The ship plowed into Grimsbjorn's fighters, killing fifteen of the surviving twenty. The ship's inertia pushed it forward, collapsing two buildings into a neighboring street.

Using Phi's lapse in concentration, Sei had drawn a silver throwing knife, which he hurled with unerring accuracy into the older elf's eye. "That was for hurting my brother."

Retäv stirred slightly from his broken heap. "Br-brother?" Obviously, Sei had not told Retäv his true heritage.

Sei's gaze softened as he looked at the broken form of his half-brother as Phi clutched at his now-blind eye. "Yes. Brother. Now relax, companion of my soul. There will be time enough to talk later. Moving will only expound your pain."

The older elf finally seemed to realize what exactly had happened to him. He howled in pain and fury. "I'll not forget this day, my Prince! You will regret ever harming me!" Then he turned to Grimsbjorn. "We must retreat, Lord. The attack has weakened us."

Grimsbjorn, again locking blades with his brother nodded. "Take the men and Tari, and get far away from here. I will deal with my brother."

Phi signaled to the men and raced away. Sei started to pursue him, but Draxon held up a hand. "Let him go. The battle here is won. The Church is defeated. For now."

"And my brother will soon be defeated as well," Ragnar growled.

"Not on your life," Grimsbjorn sneered back. "You'll never beat me alone."

"No," Lexa replied in a voice that gave Nick goose bumps. "He probably won't. But he doesn't have to. He has Lucian. And he has me."

The two twins clasped hands, and shot a bolt of lighting that was both black and white. The bolt struck Grimsbjorn's sword, and the electricity jolted through his body.

Grimsbjorn's spine arched, and his eyes rolled back in his head. He screamed in agony as the true fury of his niece and nephew coursed through his veins. He fell to the ground in a heap.

A moment later, he shakily climbed to his feet. "This isn't over," he rasped and fled down the same street his decimated army had retreated on.

Lexa and Lucian slumped over, exhausted. Nick glanced around. Everyone seemed tired, or hurt, or both. Seithios could barely stand, the effort from trying to crush Michael was finally taking it's toll. Zephyr, Diren and Gyoncian were leaning against a fallen building, trying fruitlessly to hover.

Lady Palla was being helped to her feet by Xande. Stefán stood nearby, still in shock about killing his father, and taking the lands that were rightfully his. Leocore and Tigra were inspecting each other's wounds, cleaning the silvery ichor that pumped from their veins.

Ehren and Delia were healing the other members of the caravan. Crucius had taken several nasty wounds trying to defend his charges. Atticus had an arrow through his leg, but that hadn't stopped him from using his manipulation to keep an unconscious Kiren safe from harm. Jana was binding his wound to prevent infection from spreading. Srasha was leading Gudrun to a shady place beneath the crumbling façade of what was once a tall, proud skyscraper. Ragnar placed a hand on Wulfgar's shoulders and dropped a signet ring into his palm. The lord winked and murmured a few words to the blacksmith, before giving him a gentle push to join his wife.

Tempora was inspecting the wounds of her siblings. Spacio, ever the reckless one, had jumped in front of several swords to save his sisters. A few he had been able to divert, but three long slashes formed an 's' like pattern on his chest. Delphia looked pale, as though she had just run ten miles in a headwind. Apparently, her manipulation required more energy than she led people to believe.

Anna was dripping water into Iréa's mouth. The metal manipulator had taken a nasty side wound defending Anna from a halberd, and now the water manipulator was repaying her debt.

Lady Dorar and Drewvetch were supporting each other, and surveying the damage to their city. Neither was seriously wounded, but both were fatigued. Kita was licking Retäv's face like a cat. She and glanced expectantly at Necro, Sei and Draxon, all muttering to each other, obviously expecting the grown-ups to set everything right. That was what they were for, wasn't it?

Nick walked slowly over to where Kim lay slumped against Flayme. The dragon was unconscious, but breathing. Kim looked only slightly better. "I guess I used a little too much energy," she said as Nick approached. "Probably should have thrown that ship sooner, instead of monologing."

Nick shrugged, but then winced as he discovered a sore spot on his shoulder. "It was a good speech."

"It was, wasn't it?" Kim grinned. "So. Nurcroz is just up there, huh?"

Nick nodded. "Yeah. I'm going to take him down."

"All by yourself?"

Nick looked at Kim. "I had a vision last night. That tower is going to explode into a pillar of golden fire a little after midafternoon today. How many fire mages do you know that control golden fire."

Kim sighed. "Just you."

"Right. I don't want anyone to get hurt. My own flames won't burn me. I'll do this myself."

Anna staggered over to them. "You can't be serious! That's suicide!"

"It's what I have to do. Besides, I'm the only one here in any shape to fight. Trentioc's men left me alone, and no soldier really scored a good hit on me."

Anna gestured to her own body. "I'm fine! Let me go with you! I can protect myself from fire!"

Kim cocked an eyebrow. "Anna, you can barely stand! And you don't even have enough energy left to make an icicle spear, let alone a construct!"

"But I just can't let Nick throw his life away like this!" Anna's hand slipped into Nick's. "I don't want you to die," the water shifter said plaintively.

Nick's mind flickered to his vision for an instant. The Church surrendering. The Vice flying away. "I'm not going to die. Nurcroz is."

Anna seemed slightly reassured by this. She went back to tending Iréa's wound. Kim, however, was not convinced. "You're afraid. I don't even need telepathy to see that."

"I've never gone into a fight alone before," Nick admitted. "Ever since I've met you guys, someone has always been there with me. Even in the desert, I had Flayme's egg. The battle with Jascorus and Krasthala, Kita's island, the start of the siege here, Aliter, Myst, Jinford, Romia, hell, even on the road with the caravan, I would have been hopeless without someone there watching out for me.

"I'm just one person."

"Sometimes, one person is all it takes," Necro sighed. He had come up behind Nick without the fire mage noticing. "A butterfly can make a hurricane, if it flaps hard enough. A person can do incredible things with the right motivation.

"Nick, everything you've done, you did by your own power. Yes, people helped you along the way, but you were always the one in control of your actions." The edges of the bard's mouth ticked up in the ghost of a smile. "And you're never alone. Everyone here is right behind you. Even if we can't be on the front lines fighting with you, we're cheering you on from the rear." He placed a hand on Nick's shoulder. "Remember that."

Xande fidgeted with his cape. "A hero isn't someone who kills hundreds of other people. A hero is someone who fights for a noble cause, against tall odds, for people he"- Lady Palla cleared her throats. "Okay, fine, he or she cares about. And Nick, you've never gone into battle with the intent to hurt people. You aren't bent on bloodlust."

The lord smiled broadly. "You've made yourself into someone that any man-" Lady Palla stepped on his foot. "Ow! Any person would be proud to call a friend. I bet pretty soon, every beggar on the street corner and his-" This time Lady Palla slapped him upside the head. "Gods damn it! I get it already! Every beggar on the street corner and their grandmother will know your name! Come on, Pally, did you have to do that while I was giving a speech?"

The two siblings squabbled for a moment, and Nick knew it was just to ease a little of the tension crackling through the air.

"You must be crazy!" Lucian hollered at him. "I'm coming too! I don't care what you say. Nick, this man killed my brother and my parents! I've sworn revenge on him every day since I was ten years old! Don't deny me this chance to get even!"

"You're blinded by rage," Nick said. "You may even be lapsing. And that can make you blind to the larger picture. No, for your own good, you're staying here."

"Gods damn you Nick!" Lucian hollered again. "It's because you think I'm weak, isn't it? Because you think I'll get in your way? Am I not strong enough? I've been through the same trials as you have! This is my fight too!"

Nick signaled to Seithios. The earth manipulator nodded grimly. He silently came up behind Lucian and knocked him in the back of the head. Lucian fell silent and tumbled into Seithios's arms. Nick wasn't happy to do it, but it was a necessary evil. Leocore picked his master up by the back of his hauberk, like a lion with its kitten, and carried him into one of the adjoining streets.

"Nick," Zephyr's voice was weak as he stood up and staggered over. "I know you won't let me come with you, and I see the logic in that. But at least let me help make the burden a little easier to bear."

The wind rider laid a hand on Nick's shoulder. Nick noted that Zephyr had grown a few inches in their travels. His shirtsleeves were getting a little too short, and his greaves ended an inch above his ankle. Zephyr muttered something, and a sweet-smelling breeze tickled Nick's face.

He suddenly felt energized, and his wounds were no longer sore. In fact, they were closing even as he looked at them! Nick realized Zephyr must have used the West Wind to heal him. "Zeph!" Nick cried. "You shouldn't have done that! Save your strength!"

"You need it more than I do," Zephyr replied. Then he wrapped his arms around Nick's neck. "You're the best brother I ever had. I don't want to lose you." He backed up and stared at his feet, feeling a little awkward.

Nick looked at all of his friends. Some of their eyes were glistening with tears. Kita blinked up at him. "Come back safe, Big Brother."

Sei glanced at Nick. "When you're fighting Nurcroz, don't worry about blocking slices. The riding leathers are tougher than steel. They'll serve better than any armor. But if he comes at you with a cudgel of some kind, then block. I've enchanted that suit with several magic wards that should protect you against his energy manipulation.

And they won't burn either, so you don't have to worry about that. It wouldn't do for a hero to achieve glory stark naked!" Then the Elvish prince shuddered and fell backwards. He leaned against a building and closed his eyes. "I think I'll just rest here for a bit."

Leonidas clapped him on the back, and Aratis shook her head. "Come back safe, y'hear?" Leonidas rumbled. "If you die in there… we'd all miss you a lot."

"You're always welcome at my hearth, Nicotorex," Aratis said with a sad smile. "Your training isn't over yet. I hope we can continue it soon."

Necro and Xande walked with Nick to the gates of Nurcroz's tower. Xande looked down. "Well… good luck in there. You still have my signet ring, right? Good. If anything goes wrong, come to Aliter. That ring makes you a count in my lands. Get to my palace. From there… we can figure something out."

Necro stared at Nick for a moment before speaking. "You have one hour. I'm pulling everyone back a few streets, so use as many big, wide range manipulations as you want for an hour. After that… we're gong to presume you're in trouble, or dead. Then, we come in after you. Understand?"

Nick nodded. "Count out the seconds. Just like at the tournament."

Necro's lips tweaked up. "Oh, think you can do it in five minutes again?"

Nick playfully punched the bard's arm. "Why not?" Then his face hardened, the moment passed. "An hour seems like long enough. Make sure a healer sees everyone. No one should be facing Nurcroz at anything less than one hundred percent."

Necro laid a hand on Nick's elbow. "I know. Well, see you in an hour then?"

Nick nodded, and the two men backed away. The young fire mage stretched his right hand toward the imposing tower doors, each one twenty feet high and ten feet wide. He used his left index finger to tap his pendant twice.

A breathtaking blast of fire shot from his right hand, melting the doors clean off their hinges. Nick glared into the gaping black maw of the tower before him, clenched his fist around the hilt of his sword, and strode confidently into the lion's den.

A/N: There are still three chapters of this story, though you will not find them here. If you wish to read about Nick's battle with Nurcroz, I am afraid you will have to actually purchase the book on Amazon. The link is on my profile. As much as I wish I could share my stories with the world with no better compensation than a feeling of warm satisfaction, I am in desperate need of the funds my book sales provide.

Dear reader, there is nothing to stop you from moving immediately on to Scattered Sparks and trying to piece together the story from there. But I would very much appreciate if you would support me and my work to see this tale's ultimate fruition.