Jesk cast an enchantment to carry Kyyra and Taren.

The faint glowing bands of light lifted the two unconscious girls into the air, levitating them on their backs. It reminded Ben of a gurney, albeit one that floated on weavings of light. Another one of the endless enchantments or spells the people of Izik used in place of modern technology. Right now, it was the only way they were going to get Kyyra or Taren out to safety.

Jesk eyed the sword in Ben's grasp briefly; then glanced out into the corridor beyond. "You know how to use that?"

Ben brandished the weapon outward. He could feel energy and knowledge surging from the tip of the blade, down through the hilt, and up into his mind. The Virid Sword knew there was no immediate danger outside. Ben suspected it would know how to handle any guards they came across.

"No," Ben admitted, "but it knows how to use me, and I think that'll make up the difference."

Amazement flashed briefly in Jesk's eyes. He flicked his wrist, and the enchantments keeping Kyyra and Taren aloft began to follow beside him. They moved out of the demolished throne room and into the corridor. There were no guards to be seen, but the sound of battle outside was growing fierce.

Ben kept the Virid Sword at the ready, waiting for an unplanned attack from guards inside somewhere. But they encountered no one on the short journey down to the dungeons. If there were guards assigned to watch prisoners, they were all summoned to the fight outside.

It didn't take long to find Siessem, Cyasa, and Jillayr. All were unharmed.

"Ben!" Cyasa leapt from her tiny cell the moment the door was open, pulling him into a tight bear hug. "You're alive!"

"Kyyra." Ben glanced over as Jillayr knelt beside her friend. She took Kyyra's hand, frowning. "She has an infection."

"Dark magic," Ben grunted. "I thought I had purged it."

Jillayr looked up sharply, questions in her eyes. Ben didn't know where to begin. The confrontation with Maelor? The Breath of Life? The amazing, wonderful reality that he possessed magic?

"Regardless," Jillayr began, noticing the Virid Sword, "there's still a tendril of it left in her body." She reached over, taking Taren's hand as well. "Same as her. It's weak, but if we don't do something, it might kill them both."

"We do not have the luxury of time," said Siessem. "I fear the bridge between Shadow and Izik is soon at an end. We must leave now."

Ben frowned. Was that what the battle outside was about? Another Dark Lord contesting Maelor's position of control over the Gate? But what would they do to close the Gate? It didn't make sense.

But Siessem had known Ben would triumph when facing down Maelor. Ben had to trust that he had seen a vision of future events. Maybe his Inge held foresight magic as powerful as Taren's. In which case, they definitely needed to go.

"Can you manage?" Jesk asked, checking over the other two girls.

Cyasa nodded. "Yes. Please, can we leave this place? I can't bear to stand it…"

Ben could feel the fringes of Darkness lingering in the dungeons. He wasn't sure if the sword or Maelor's distraction outside dimmed it, but it wasn't as fierce or overbearing as before. Either way, Ben didn't want to be here any longer. It was time to go home. "Let's get out of here."

All the guards were gone. From the dungeons up through the fortress and out to the front grounds, no one remained. Over the low wall surrounding the front plaza, Ben watched the battle unfold in the valley below. At the garrison down slope from the fortress, a large army had gathered at the front gates. Maelor's forces were lobbing artillery shells and gunfire at them, but the sheer tenacity of the enemy was enough to overwhelm the defenses. Arms fire had broken out in the garrison grounds. Above it all, a single black helicopter circled the battle, occasionally laying down fire and dropping explosives.

"How are we supposed to get through that?" Jillayr sounded mortified.

"Hey you!"

Ben whipped around as a guard marched towards them. Crap, he had missed the jeep parked by a small warehouse. Apparently someone was left behind to watch the fortress.

The guard trained his rifle between the five of them. He looked puzzled by Kyyra and Taren's arrangements. "What are you doing out here?"

Ben racked his brain, trying to feel if the sword had a plan. He knew it was powerful enough. It could defend them.

He gasped when Cyasa suddenly stepped forward, her face focused with a severe scowl. "You will give us your car," she commanded, her voice harsh. "You will let us pass."

The guard immediately slackened, dropping his rifle. He turned, walking mildly back towards the jeep.

Ben gaped, glancing between the subdued guard and Cyasa. She continued to stare down the guard with such a fixed gaze that he might burst into flame. Then she started walking, following after him. Ben immediately tailed behind her. He had a dozen questions, but judging from the concentration on her face, now was not the right time.

The guard activated the jeep; then stepped back. Cyasa glanced at the others, making a small motion to get in. Jesk got behind the wheel; Siessem and Jillayr helped guide Kyyra and Taren into the back. Cyasa got in last of all, turning one last time to the guard.

"You will go inside and you will return to your duty."

The guard walked away wordlessly, striding up the stairs and into the fortress. The moment the doors were closed behind him, Jesk gunned the engine, taking them onto the paved road down the slope.

"Cyasa," Ben began.

She glanced at him, her earlier seriousness past. She looked exhausted. "I…it just came to me."

Ben nodded, watching as she sunk in her seat. He knew her Inge dealt with empathy. He had always assumed that meant sensing intent and emotions from others. Perhaps that included a latent control. And suddenly mild little Cyasa seemed so much more powerful in his eyes.

The battle was growing fiercer below them. Ben watched as several of Maelor's legions fell, many of her base structures going up in flame. Somewhere down there, he thought he could see a contest of dark magic against munitions. But the Dark Lordess was nearly invisible in the combat. Wherever she was, her forces were losing. And whatever was strong enough to take her down…

They needed to be far from here.

Jesk steered them on a side road that led to the north, down the volcanic slope away from the battle. "We should be able to slink away from the others. As long as the helicopter doesn't spot us…"

Ben glanced back, but he couldn't see the black machine anymore. Somehow, he had felt Darkness emanating from it. Whatever terrible force had come to fight Maelor…he prayed they never faced it.

0.0.0

Lordess Maelor, tenth daughter of the Dark Emperor, watched as her empire burned.

Her armies collapsed under the force of superior soldiers. Laden with weapons and might gathered from the farthest realms, she watched them break her defenses. She was no stranger to the powerful machines the littered the worlds beyond Shadow. Many resided in her garrison, useful for deflecting armies such as these.

But it was not only the machines and might that her foe brought to bear. His minions surged with Darkness and power unlike anything Maelor had ever tasted. She had heard the stories of the Unnamed One. A Dark Lord, bearing no home and no identity, storming across the far shores of Shadow. There were many like him; young, cunning, and full of ambition. None had wandered to this corner, where Izik's Gate lay hidden for Maelor's purposes.

Yet he had come. He, the one Maelor had dreaded above all others. One who grasped such power, when magic was dying in Shadow as surely as it was dying in Izik—though their pathetic nations could not yet see it.

Maelor grunted under her bands. Two soldiers stood beside her, exercising such Dark might that it shackled her wrists and ankles with unseen tethers. It would have been insulting, if Maelor hadn't felt such terror.

Helicopter blades thundered overhead. The black contraption landed a few scant meters away, whipping wind and ash into the air. From the lower of two cockpits, a short figure rose. He wore an elaborate cape woven in black. His battle armor bore metallic etchings and devices of unknown purpose. His helmet was a dark gray mass of ugly shape, concealed by a pure black visor that obscured the monster beneath.

He was so young. Not only in physical form, but in age. Maelor had encountered nearly all of the old Dark Lords, now millennia in age. This one…he was a child. Barely two decades in mortal reckoning. Maelor had never conceived that new Dark Lords rose in this age.

He could not be of this world.

Maelor swallowed hard. He marched toward her with a determined gait. As he drew near, the invisible bindings brought Maelor to her knees. The Dark Lord towered over her, gazing down with unseen eyes. He paused.

Then, with sudden ferocity, Maelor felt him plunge into her mind. It was fast, it was hard; it was desecration. Maelor screamed out, feeling his unholy mind rape into hers. Nothing was held back, and in its wake he gleefully violated her. Only the enchanted bindings kept Maelor from collapsing in humiliation.

When it was over, he reached out with gloved hand, caressing her cheek. Maelor felt sick.

"My dear lady," he chuckled, "I must thank you for your secrets. You can't begin to know how long I've looked for the place you call Earth."

0.0.0

The enemy was following them.

Ben swore as he watched over his shoulder. A division of soldiers attacking Maelor's fortress had turned, pursuing them back across the plains towards the eastward mountains. Though, maybe this was an advancing force; making to claim the portal to Izik. Now that Maelor's forces were surely defeated, the next logical conclusion was to take the Gate for themselves.

Ben glanced down at Kyyra. She was limp across Jillayr and Siessem's laps. Her face was warm to his touch; the only sign that she was alive. Taren, by contrast, was sitting up beside Siessem; her gaze was unfocused, her body rigid. Judging from the clammy texture of her skin, she looked consumed by the remaining Darkness in her body.

"Taren," Ben pleaded, "are you still in there?"

He was forced to duck when a hot orange bolt of weapon's fire screamed overhead. He spared a glance back at their pursuant enemies. Many had trained vehicles mounted weapons on them. Further bursts of hellfire orange screamed their way.

"Hang on!" Jesk growled. He took the jeep into several sharp dodges, swinging left and right to make them a harder target. It helped that the valley leading up to the mountains was strewn with boulders and debris. Nearly all of the enemy fire collided with these obstructions alone.

"We're going to have to fight," said Jesk. "When we get to the slope below the Gate, everyone who can must attack."

Jillayr nodded, her gaze hardening. Ben wasn't certain what all she could do, but he knew the Virid Sword would help them. They didn't have to face a Dark Lordess; only a small group of soldiers. Compared to how Ben felt even an hour before, he knew there was a greater chance they would make it.

The eastern mountain slope came up to meet them fast. Further up the ridge, Ben spied the glowing blue ambiance from the Gate. He tried not to think what the newcomer armies would do with control of it. Launch another assault into Izik? Plunge the world into a second Dark War?

His only hope was Siessem's prophecy—the bridge between worlds was coming to an end.

Jesk turned the jeep into a sharp turn, pulling to a stop at the bottom of the slope. He immediately set to work on the enchantments with Taren and Kyyra, helping them up. Cyasa followed, while Siessem remained beside Jillayr and Ben. Together, they faced down the fast approaching wave of jeeps and APCs loaded with advanced soldiers. They were less than a quarter of a mile out.

Siessem placed a gentle hand on Ben's shoulder. Ben glanced over to see one on Jillayr's. "I will bind us three together," he said. "Ben, the sword knows how to use our magic. Trust it."

"I didn't have any better ideas," Ben grunted. He couldn't help but grin at Siessem's mention of his magic. It wasn't all the sword. There was something in him; something maybe that had been there all along.

Is Earth so empty of magic now?

Siessem didn't have to say the words. Ben felt from the hilt of the Virid Sword and intentions in Jillayr's stance when it was time. Focusing on the warmth from within, Ben pulled the energy outward, feeding it into the willing sword. A blossom of bright amber light exploded outward, screaming across the plains and slamming into the advancing soldiers.

The vehicles all tumbled over. Men cried out, and Ben felt as latent energy in the attack detonated explosives on their persons. Several blossoms of fire stretched out. And in an instant, the sword drew in on itself, signaling their time to retreat.

"Let's go!" Ben yelled.

Siessem broke his grasp, and the three of them turned up the slope. It was a hell of a run; Ben was grateful Jesk and the others managed to keep ahead of them. The Virid Sword fueled him with hidden endurance, keeping him going when his lungs wanted to scream out in pain.

Before he looked, Ben felt from unknown magic that there were enemies on their tail. He didn't look back. Either the sword or new magic in his system told him the full story. A dozen or so had survived the onslaught. They were moving from the wreckage of vehicles and advancing on the slope. Furthermore, Ben could feel the approach of more armies from the west.

Everyone was coming for the Gate now.

Jillayr grunted, raising a fist to deflect a shot from below. The orange weapons fire hit her hand, ricocheting away with a sudden burst of blue light. Several more shots followed.

The Virid Sword took over again. Ben found himself spinning on his feet, swinging the blade in precise movements. He deflected three more shots; then arced the blade around to send them back. The brilliant orange plasma swiveled in mid air, striking home on soldiers down slope from them. Their buddies seemed anxious about that.

They took the hint. Ben resumed running, feeling as the enemies on their immediate tail gave up the chase. But the armies moving out from the west wouldn't hold such qualms. Through the sword, he was aware of several mechanized planes and helicopters rising into the air. That black helicopter would be with them, and whatever Dark force piloted it.

The slope up to the Gate was mercifully short. Ben soon cleared the ridge, spying the swirling blue pillar dead ahead. With the last of his breath, he trailed behind Jesk and Cyasa, Taren and Kyyra floating quickly alongside them. The portal between worlds waited for him patiently.

Ben plunged through.

The sensation of falling between stars engulfed Ben's body. It was over in a split second, but the time felt almost as an eternity. When the blinding blue and white light passed, Ben found himself in the dark caverns back on Izik. Now they needed to escape the army coming from the other side.

"We can't fight them all," Jillayr exclaimed. "But we can't let them through!"

"There are power shifts on Shadow all the time," said Jesk. "The new army can't possibly take Izik."

"What about us!" said Cyasa. "They can still get us!"

"Then I suggest we leave," said Jesk. "We're wasting time!"

"This could be another Dark War," said Jillayr. "By the Aroginis! If we leave now, they'll surge into the dark continents and then to the Eight!"

"And if we do not leave now, we won't be around regardless!"

Ben listened to the debate rage. Jesk was right—they needed to get Kyyra away from here. That was the point of everything. Get her back to Izik. But Jillayr was also right. Could he in good conscience let a conquering force sweep into Izik because they left the door open for them?

Ben glanced at Siessem. He was the only one not wrapped up in the argument with Jesk. His face was calm; serine. He stepped forward, laying a hand on Taren's arm.

"You said the connection between worlds would end," said Ben.

Siessem nodded. "And I thought our enemies would be the ones to end it. But…" He looked up, eying the beautiful Gate swirling in the darkened cavern. It reminded Ben almost exactly of the Gate to his world, Earth. "But perhaps I am the one to do it."

Siessem reached down, taking Taren's hand in his; then he reached for Kyyra's. Both girls opened their eyes, gasping. Ben jumped back, watching as dark tendrils flowed from their body, into Siessem's grasp. His face twisted in pain, no doubt trying to contain the Darkness.

He was freeing Kyyra.

Then, crying out, Siessem let go of the girls' hands, raising them towards the Gate.

Ben knew the rules between Earth and Izik. Kyyra was the chosen Guardian—she held the stewardship to close or open the portal between their worlds. But was there a Guardian between Shadow and Izik? Or was that power relegated to whoever seized it?

Because that's what it looked like now. Using the remaining Dark magic from Kyyra and Taren—magic Maelor had infused them with—Siessem channeled it into the glowing pillar of the Gate's structure. The blue white wash dimmed, pulsed, and then…

Extinguished. The Gate between Shadow and Izik was gone.

Kyyra sat up, gasping for air. Ben quickly knelt beside her, taking her in his arms. She clung to him, her breath ragged. "Ben," she whimpered.

"It's okay," Ben whispered, stroking her hair. "It's over."