The ashen-haired man stared at the cave before him. He knew that somewhere inside the cave, his sister was in trouble.

"I'm coming, Fay. Hang in there," Connor said.

A chilly February wind blew his long hair behind him. An omen, telling him that once he entered the cave there would be no turning back.

Turning back wasn't an option for him anyway. Connor wouldn't give her up for anything in the world.

Knowing what lay in the cave made the man sigh. The odds of him rescuing his sister and making it back alive were slim, but this wouldn't stop him. No, it wouldn't even come close.

To this stubborn fool, odds weren't necessary. His was a simple mind that merely knew what had to be done. When something needed doing, he did it. Challenges and obstacles to his goals just made him sweat more.

Impossible is just an excuse for people who don't have guts to get it done, the man thought, reciting words his mom used to say.

He looked around, familiarizing himself with the forest he was in. From the small evergreens all the way up to looming cedars, this forest and the mountains to the south and east isolated the cave. That is what they were meant to do, after all. He was about 20 miles north of the tiny town of Dover in the southern edge of the Ozark National Forest. This was but one of many rural parts of The Natural State. The man stood in front of a cave that housed a local legend.

Connor had read the note his sister left inside his half-eaten bag of barbecue chips (it was the only place she knew he'd find it) with a little info on the cave. There was something about spirits inside feeding on the life essence of unsuspecting visitors. A few went missing every decade around here, blah blah blah. Fay had probably included some other vital information in the note about why she'd left and what Connor could expect should she not return right away, but he just skimmed the paper.

"Middle of nowhere, dark cave, evil ghosts. Got it," Connor muttered.

Dover is a small town likely not on the radar of most Arkansans. It isn't on one of the interstates like Russellville or Atkins. If someone did know about Dover, it was usually because their school played them in football or basketball. Other than its school, Dover mostly consisted of a bank, a decent barbecue joint, and a pirate-themed pizza shop (modeled after the school's mascot, the pirate).

Of course, some people came to Dover to see the infamous lights.

Lots of locals were dazzled and lured in by the fabled Dover Lights. On misty nights not far from Long Pool, drivers could pull into a small overhang on a windy mountain road restricted only by a tiny rock wall. If they waited long enough, luminescent dots might appear and dance through the fog among the trees in the valley below.

Some souls were so captivated, they trekked down into the valley and through the forest to find the lights. Few eventually did find them, and they were the unluckiest ones of all.

Death was the ultimate cost of those who just had to know the secret behind the mystical lights that sometimes danced through this valley under starry skies.

"Fay, you stubborn girl. You should have waited for me to get back instead of charging in, but don't you worry. Your big bro is coming."

He tilted his head to the left and right, popping joints in his neck. The wind had died down, and an eerie quiet fell over the valley he was in.

"That's right. Connor the Red is here, and he's ready to kick some ass, assuming you ghosts still have asses. . ." the man said, pondering for a moment.

Connor took one last moment to examine the massive amounts of dark magic leaking from the cave. It felt like a liquid blanket to one whose senses were fine tuned in the ways of sorcery. This wasn't the first time Connor had invaded a location that permeated such death.

He hated fighting spirits. They feared little because they were already dead, and it took quite a bit of magic to dispel them into the afterlife. Once the energy surrounding their soul was depleted, they moved on to the next world. Spirits do not belong in the land of the living, but a few cling to cursed objects, possessed souls, and bedeviled locations.

The feeling was faint, but Connor could also sense his sister's life barely clinging to her body. It threatened to be blow out at any moment, like a flickering candle dancing on a chilly October night. Determined though Fay may be, she would not last much longer.

The ashen-haired sorcerer looked down at his hands, and they radiated a red warmth that had made him famous in the world not observed by most humans.

In response to the radiating heat, a sharp blast of air flew from the cave. It was filled with a negative energy that cracked the very ground it flew over at breakneck speed.

Leaves and cedar chips the air touched didn't blow away; they simply dissolved.

The 50 spirits of this cave weren't to be trifled with, and they were making that clear. As the wave was inches from Connor, his eyes shot up, wide and alert with rage. Uttering one of the few defensive spells he knew, Connor steadied himself and glowed red.

The energy flew over him, and the moment it touched his superheated flesh, an explosion rocked the valley.

What birds had remained in Connor's presence now fled the noise. It was the gunshot that started this battle, and Connor aimed to respond in kind.

When the smoke from the explosion cleared, Connor stood next to rubble that had previously been a large boulder.

He exhaled smoke and looked into the cave, his earlier gaze unbroken by the negative energy.

The sorcerer pulled his shoulders back and gritted his teeth.

His fire magic was potent, but had he not been prepared, his body would have certainly dissolved from the dark magic that had been launched at him.

Realizing this did not distill his confidence. It merely fueled his anger and stoked the ever-burning fire inside of him.

"You 'conquistadors' had better whip up something much more potent than that. I almost feel bad that my foolish sister was captured by such pathetic spirits," Connor yelled.

A piercing shriek came from the cave, and Connor's left ear started to bleed a little. A tiny drop of red fell from the ear onto the sorcerer's shoulder.

He looked down at the stain on his long tan trench coat.

"That smarts," he muttered.

Wiping the ear with his hand, he understood the spirits' message.

It was their way of yelling, "Come say that to our face."

"With pleasure," the sorcerer muttered.

He reached into the inner left pocket of his trench coat and pulled out a matchbox. Inside were 30 red Birch Butch toothpicks. The sorcerer pulled one out and stuck it in his mouth, biting down hard. He rarely started a task without one in his mouth.

He chewed on the tiny piece of pointed wood and took one step toward the cave.

Looking down at his jeans, he noticed a large tear on the right side of his knee.

"Dammit, I'm not made of money. Thrift store clothing or not, these ghosts have no right to go tearing up my digs. They already got my sister, and now they're going after my wallet," Connor muttered.

He also noticed a rip in the soft cotton blue shirt across his chest. The shirt advertised a Dragon Spark soda that had long since been discontinued. This too was another thrift store treasure. Connor liked it because it was soft and already worn. He didn't have to break it in.

Connor grumbled as he often did when he had nothing specific or witty to say but still needed to express anger and frustration. He hated these spirits all the more.

Reaching under the shirt, he pulled out a small silver necklace that hung around his neck. The chain was simple sterling silver, and in the middle there was a charm.

It was a small ruby rose on fire. He kissed the charm and sighed.

The necklace was actually all he had left of his mother, Remmie. It belonged to her, and she wore it every day.

Connor was at least 10 yards into the cave now, and it began to slope downward into the Earth.

Such a cave was not a natural formation but one created by magic, in this case, dark magic. The cave wouldn't exist were it not for the vengeful spirits of 50 Spanish conquistadors who died in the valley during the winter of 1541.

Their will shaped the very geology around them to suit their needs. Connor was descending into their world now, a little cocoon of death tucked away in the world of the living.

What little light came from the entrance of the cave system was long gone by the time he had descended 100 feet under the ground.

Connor held his hands to his mouth and exhaled slowly. Using a little magic, he pushed back the cave's darkness.

His body began to emanate a warm orange light that illuminated the cave for about 20 feet around him. The light came from his entire body and made him a target while simultaneously providing sight for the sorcerer.

Still, it wasn't like the spirits needed a target. Connor wasn't hiding. No, in his usual fashion he was about to kick in their front door and yell for someone to come greet him.

The further he descended, the stronger the presence of a decay became. It went from liquid blanket to liquid quilt around 200 feet down.

The cave was around 15 feet wide and consisted mostly of smooth pale limestone.

At last the cave opened up into a large chamber about 100 feet wide and 75 feet long.

The ceiling was slightly more jagged than the passage down, and there were green torches hanging in four areas of the room, each radiating an otherworldly light.

The room had some bones lying around, likely from other victims who had stumbled into the cave and become ensnared by the spirits inside.

"That's not gonna be you, Fay. I promise," Connor said.

At the end of the room he now stood in, Connor saw a thin purple banner hanging over an exit. It hung upon an ivory bar. On it was a symbol, a golden eagle with its wings outstretched.

"The crest of one Hernando De Soto. He never came back for you, did he?" Connor said.

He was talking, of course, to the group of 20 spectres in the center of the room. They were pale, and he didn't see them near as well as he sensed them.

Connor was Arkansas born and bred. His state's history, both magical and mortal, was one of the few things he knew well. And that was only because he liked stories, which is what history is pretty much made of.

In 1541, Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto lead an army into Arkansas from Cuba. He explored most of The Natural State, even finding a large supply of the state's famed diamonds. When he left Arkansas, he didn't have nearly as many men as when he'd entered it.

The men standing before Connor were a mixture of decaying flesh, exposed bone, and metal armor in the form of chest pieces and helmets. They were armed with a wide assortment of weapons. Some carried sabres, some spears, one or two held clubs, and three held primitive looking pistols.

"Give me my sister," Connor barked at them.

They didn't take their gaze from the sorcerer.

After a moment of silence, one hissed, "What do we get in return? You leave peacefully?"

A heinous chuckle formed among the men. They did not feel as though Connor was armed with potent enough sorcerery to dispel them into the afterlife.

That would change quickly. His mastery of fire magic was well documented by what few foes he'd extended rare mercy to.

These spectres would receive no such benevolence.

"Oh no, I'm going to obliterate all of you. Make no mistake. I just didn't want to walk another two miles underground to grab my sis if you were going to deliver her to me now," Connor said, his red eyes starting to glow brighter than the rest of the light he was putting off.

The sorcerer felt his blood warm to what would be considered boiling point outside of his veins. His red eyes shimmered as his prepared to unleash fiery damnation upon his foes.

There are many different types of magic in use by those who practice the craft. Some sorcerers use music to harness magic. For some, the mind is potent enough to give them their abilities. Others harness an element of nature. This was the sorcery Connor used. He practiced fire magic, and it was fueled by rage.

All magic, no matter the type, is linked by words. Every sorcerer knows pieces of the mystic language needed to call forth their spells.

In a way, Connor's magic suited him best because he never was the smartest, and he had a nasty temper. He was the stubborn kid in preschool who smashed the square peg into the round hole. If someone presented Connor with an easy path around a mountain in front of him, he'd try to walk right through the mountain itself, and when it didn't move, he'd try to blow it up.

Given the danger his sister was in, Connor was quite irate, and it sent caused the mystical energy inside of him to soar.

The spirits must have felt Connor's energy growing because a hushed tone fell over them.

"Many have entered this cave, some even with the purpose to drive us out. None have survived. We are 50 of De Soto's best men, and we have never been defeated," one spirit hissed.

"Is that so? His best men? Is that why he left you to die of scarlet fever during one especially cold winter in the Ozarks?"

The green torches blazed brighter as it seemed Connor had struck a nerve among the spectres.

"He did not abandon us!"

"Our commander left us to guard the treasure!"

Shadows danced over the cave walls as the spirits' own energy grew in rage.

"Right, I'm sure that's what he told you. He left you here with a small chest of diamonds. De Soto knew he had to take what few healthy men were left and escape before the ice trapped him in this valley. You were abandoned and defeated by illness," Connor said, smiling.

Some locals thought the Dover Lights resulted from methane and other gases leaking from the Earth. Others were convinced the valley was full of souls from deceased Native Americans.

The truth is far darker. The lights are a lure from vengeful Spanish conquistadors who need energy from humans to sustain their existence in the world of the living.

Connor wanted the spirits angry. He wanted them stupid. They would make more mistakes that way. That wasn't all, though. He wanted to hurt them for what they'd done. He wouldn't just burn them; he'd twist a dagger of words in what remained of their souls to squeeze every bit of pain he could from them.

Conner was merciful at times, but if his sister's life was on the line, mercy wasn't just put on the back burner, it was tossed out of the kitchen altogether.

A few of the spectres could no longer contain their rage, and they darted across the cavern at the ashen-haired sorcerer.

The three were armed with spears, and within seconds they were upon Connor.

His right hand lit in response as he spoke, "Verida ignisa."

A green flame lighter than the torches hanging on nearby walls engulfed his right palm.

As the first conquistadors were five feet from Connor, he kneeled, placed his left hand on his right wrist, and opened his palm facing the three spectres approaching him.

The green fire around Connor's palm jetted forth and consumed the conquistadors before they could move out of the way.

They screamed, dropping their weapons and grabbing their heads in agony.

Their howling only grew louder as they dissolved into a glowing silver dust on the smooth limestone floor.

As the fire in Connor's hand disappeared, he made a mental note, Three down, 47 to go. This fight just went from impossible to mostly impossible, not a huge improvement.

Connor scowled at that last thought.

"Hell's bells they're going to be a handful," Connor muttered.

Whereas some sorcerers were men and women of great strategy and intellect, Connor was not. His plan was simply to "burn more of them."

More fire, Connor thought, smiling.

This wasn't anything new to the sorcerer. His problem was not the size of his playbook. Rather it was that every page of the book had the same plan, more fire.

One of the remaining spectres said, "He's a fire mage."

Another said, "We'll kill him regardless."

"Now now. Don't get cocky. Wait until you see my next move. I bet I can end twice as many of you," Connor said.

Six spectres decided to give him that chance and ran at him in two groups of three. They approached from his left and right.

His eyes glowed bright red as he spent more of his life force.

Touching two fingers to his opposite hand, he said, "Virida lupos."

Connor felt his entire right hand start to burn with a green flame identical to the one he used just minutes earlier.

This time, the fire did not launch at Connor's opponents but wrapped around the sorcerer's outstretched hand. He pulled the hand back as the fire grew more intense and began to take shape.

When the spell was complete, Connor threw his hand forward, and the green fire left it.

Upon leaving his hand, the fire split into two equal halves, and each formed four legs. When at last their forms were complete, two large wolves made of green fire raced across the cave floor at the conquistadors approaching from Connor's left.

"I hate using green fire, but damn I love those wolves" Connor muttered, blowing smoke from his hand.

Of the three types of fire magic Connor had mastered, green was specifically for combat with the undead. Connor hated it because it ate up the most life force.

Most weapons simply passed through spectres, but Connor's green fire was able to burn their souls and spiritual form.

Connor's wolves tore the three conquistadors to shreds before they could even fight back. Then, as quickly as they appeared, they vanished from sight in a puff of smoke.

"Good boys," Connor muttered.

When Connor realized the other three conquistadors were uncomfortably close, he lit his right index finger with green flame and spun his arm in a tight spiral motion uttering a different incantation. When they were just ten feet away from Connor, he let loose a spinning vortex of green fire upon them.

The vortex grew and caught a few other conquistadors inside before slamming into the cave wall and eventually dissipating.

Nothing remained of the spectres caught in his vortex except for silver ash.

Having seen what he could do, the soldiers left him no quarter now. A chunk of the remaining spirits ran at the sorcerer from all different angles.

"I was kind of hoping they'd just fight me one on one like in the movies," Connor muttered.

He feared they would swarm him, leaving him unable to defend himself.

Aw who am I kidding. I don't do defense, Connor thought, chuckling.

One of the conquistadors wielding a saber slashed down at Conner, but the sorcerer stepped back, and it just cut his shirt straight down the center.

"What do you assholes have against my clothes? Those cost money, you know," Connor yelled.

"Virida ungulis," he said, summoning yet more green fire to his right hand. Connor formed a large flaming claw extending about five inches from the tips of his fingers.

Grabbing the spirit that slashed his shirt, Connor grunted and slammed the spectre down into the ground head-first. Letting go of the skull, he pierced the armor and grabbed hold of the conquistador's soul, ripping it from his body.

A green pulsing heart oozing a moss-colored slime quickly became silver ash, and the ghost faded away.

Connor took a few scrapes but eventually ripped the souls from most the other spectres that had charged at him.

One that escaped the sorcerer's attention slammed Connor's left shoulder with a large club, smashing the mage into a nearby cave wall. Stone cracked where he landed.

Connor cried out in pain, but he used it to power his rage and further build his fire magic. Now his claw was twice as large, and he rose quickly, grabbing the ghost's entire skull without effort.

With a carnivorous growl, he squeezed tight and crushed the skull.

The minor victory was short lived as a bolt flew near Connor's right ear, passing through the sorcerer's hair. He looked up to see a soldier with a crossbow that would need to be quickly dispatched.

The spectre fired another shot as Connor ran at him. It sank into the sorcerer's already wounded left shoulder, and he screamed, dropping to his knees. Now four more soldiers armed with spears ran to finish him off.

Connor was beyond pissed, and that generally meant he got stupid, if not more deadly.

He ripped the bolt from his left shoulder with blood splattering onto the cave floor. He drove the bolt straight into the left eye of the closest soldier and sank his claw into next one's chest, ripping out its heart.

He then ducked to avoid an attack from a spear and slashed the spectre in half at the waist. Its top half landed on the cave floor, but both halves were already dissolving.

As another soldier approached and brought down its club upon Connor, he caught it with his claw.

Looking into the spectre's faded eyes, Connor began to grunt as he pumped more energy into his claw. It grew and was now three times the size of the sorcerer's hand. As it expanded, it grabbed the club tighter until the weapon finally snapped.

He then decapitated the club's wielder and looked to find the soldier with the crossbow again. When he saw the ghost about to fire, he blocked with his claw, and the bolt dissolved in green fire.

Before the soldier could fire another shot, Connor's claw decreased to its normal size.

"Virida globos," he chanted, sweating all the more.

In the palm of Connor's hand a green fireball formed. It was about the size of a baseball with fire spinning rapidly, picking up more heat and ferocity as it spun faster and faster.

Connor smirked. This was one of his favorite spells, and the ghost had no clue what was coming.

"Here comes the wind up," Connor said, taking the stance of a pitcher.

Then, the sorcerer hurled the flaming ball straight at the conquistador.

When it made contact with the spectre, an explosion rocked the left half of the cavern, causing some rocks to fall from the ceiling.

As the dust cleared, there was nothing left of the conquistador.

Having killed all but a few spectres in the room, Connor sighed. He was getting tired from using this much energy. He'd have to finish the rest of them off quickly.

The situation got more dire when Connor didn't feel his sister's heartbeat for 10 seconds. Then, it resumed.

A bead of sweat ran down his left cheek, and the sorcerer looked down at his left shoulder. It was wrecked, having been pummeled and shot. A good deal of blood was running down his left side now.

The spectres still wanted Connor dead, but they had seen what this pyromaniac could do now. They were hesitant and seemed to be waiting for his next move.

Connor rubbed his hands together, and the green fire vanished. Then, he produced a different type of fire.

"Mortala faxa," he said, sighing.

After a few seconds of heavy breathing, he held his middle and index fingers tightly together, and an orange flame appeared at the tip. This fire was the same kind humans have used since the days of cavemen.

This fire lit candles and allowed people to cook food. It was normal, except that Connor used magic to produce it from his own energy.

This particular fire Connor used was small and operated like a blow torch.

His arms shaking from exhaustion, Connor steadied his right hand at the wrist.

"Get ready, big boy. This is gonna hurt," Connor said, psyching himself up.

Biting down on his toothpick, the sorcerer sank his right two fingers into the shoulder wound and screamed as his flesh began to sizzle.

More blood appeared, but it quickly dried under the intense fire. By this point the entire left half of Connor's shirt was gone. His coat was undamaged as he slid it off to expose his wounded shoulder.

As Connor stifled more screams, he saw his flesh began to change from red to gray and finally black as he seared his wound shut to prevent extensive blood loss.

It was something he'd done before, but tolerance to such extreme pain came slowly.

The spectres watched, confused as to why Connor was damaging himself. It didn't occur to them that he was searing his wound shut so as not to lose any more blood.

A noxious odor filled the room as the smell of Connor's burnt flesh washed over the spectres. But they were already dead, so they clearly weren't concerned about such a scent.

He grunted as the bleeding stopped.

Getting back to his feet, Connor spit on the cave floor. Dizzy, he nearly lost conscious as he had the last time this needed to be done. Fay was not happy with that mission. She had to protect his unconscious ass from a swarm of mutated badgers, and she did not let him live it down.

"I think I'm getting better at this cauterization thing," he muttered.

The sorcerer slid his coat back over the previously bleeding shoulder and grimaced from the pain.

"Okay, I'm running out of time here. There's what. . . a little less than a dozen of you now? Hurry it up. I'm on the clock."

The remaining spectres looked to one another and shrugged. Eventually, they decided the sorcerer was too injured to possibly take them all, and they swarmed him as their comrades had done earlier, with about the same success.

"That's more like it," Connor said, inhaling deeply.

His hand glowed as Connor held his open palm to his mouth working another one of his favorite spells.

He exhaled, and a little green fire sparked just outside his teeth. His chest began to heat up as he then inhaled deeply.

The remaining soldiers were mere feet from him when he brought his head forward and let loose a large wave of green fire from his mouth. It wasn't near as majestic as dragons make it look, but it got the job done. The fire roasted every conquistador left in the room.

Connor belched the last of the green fire from his throat and beat his fist against his chest.

"That stuff burns worse than the wings at Jack's Place," Connor wheezed.

After a few seconds of coughing, he caught his breath and took stock of how much energy he had left after taking on 20 angry spectres.

I reckon there's a little less than half a tank left in me, Connor thought to himself.

"Assuming sis took about 10 of them out before they got her and adding that to my 20. . . seems like that ought to leave another 20," Connor muttered.

Knowing that time was short, he ran toward the tattered purple banner.

"Maybe Fay took 15," Connor said, knowing his sis was tougher than he often gave her credit for.

He ran down the cave in front of him for the next 20 minutes. Every time it seemed to narrow, it'd expand again. A few conquistadors tried to jump out and catch Connor by surprise, but he sensed their dark energy plenty in advance.

After killing his fifth "surprise" attacker with his fire claw, Connor chuckled.

"If your attacks are this pathetic, I'm gonna assume my sis got 20 of you knuckleheads."

He continued on his way down until he came to a large brass door. Beyond it, he felt Fay's faint presence.

The smooth brass knob wouldn't turn for Connor, so he blasted the door off its hinges.

As a fire mage, there was only one thing Connor enjoyed more than burning things, and that was blowing stuff up.

Dust entered the large underground chamber along with the sorcerer.

When it cleared, Connor saw an immaculate throne room. It was twice the size of the space he'd fought in earlier.

The floor was smooth marble, and diamonds lined the walls.

Connor's eyes immediately went to Fay. She lay on the floor looking worse for wear. She had a few stab wounds and was slowly bleeding out. Her long red hair was sprawled out under her head. Connor saw two stab wounds, one on each arm. The sleeves of her long sleeve plaid shirt had been slashed. The bottom of her shirt was also cut, revealing some of Fay's pudgy belly.

The girl was in great shape, but she had just enough baby fat left to give her a tummy she was sensitive about. Connor often made the mistake of teasing her about it, particularly when she was enjoying cake. This girl could put away cake like no other, and it didn't matter the flavor. Pineapple to chocolate, she loved it all.

When Connor made the mistake of teasing her, he usually ended up taking a beating. And for a woman with no access to magic, Fay could put on some serious hurt. She'd whooped her older brother's ass more than a few times.

Her brown leather pants were mostly intact, but she was missing a boot.

Connor realized at once that she was trapped by a blood seal. It prevented her from moving as it gradually drained her life force away. Such magic was slow, but it was clearly all these spectres could conjure.

As long as the complex system of runes around her remained unbroken, she was paralyzed, unable to do more than blink and talk. The runes glowed red with an otherworldly tint.

The spectres were feeding off her life force, or at least their leader was.

He sat in the wooden throne, looking down at his catch.

"She's been waiting for you to get here, your sister," the man said.

He had long shaggy black hair and a thin mustache. He almost looked alive, but Connor assumed that was just because he had been feeding off his sister for the past two days.

"You know, she only lost consciousness an hour ago. Your sister is strong. She dispatched 24 of my men before they were able to subdue her," the man said.

Connor smiled at the man sitting on his throne.

"Yeah, that's Fay for ya. She's piss and vinegar wrapped in a pair of tight leather pants."

"Quite."

"Well, listen. You look good and full, so how about you just hand my sis back over to me?"

"And what? You'll just leave with her?"

"Oh no. I'm going to roast you. I just wanted her on this side of the room when I did it," Connor said.

"I'll commend you and her for together destroying my brethren, but there is a reason I'm in charge," the spaniard said, rising from his throne.

He had a jeweled blade at his side. It glittered under light from the large chandelier hanging above.

Drawing the blade, he let the dark wooden sheath drop to the floor, and Connor looked down the long metal weapon at its silver hilt.

"I am Commander De Soto's Third Lieutenant, Juan Jackalos, II."

Connor took off his coat, knowing a duel to the death was ahead. He sensed the lieutenant's strength, and a bead of sweat fell down his left cheek.

I didn't think it was possible for my odds of victory to drop below zero, but they just did, Connor thought.

His shoulder still throbbed, leaving him one good arm. Meanwhile, this lieutenant was fresh as a daisy after his long feeding session. . . well fresh as a ghostly daisy could be.

"I am Connor the Red," the sorcerer said.

Connor could really use a solid strategy, but amazingly enough between the time he entered the cave and now, the pyromaniac had yet to get any better at planning things out.

He always figured it came with the territory of being a fire master. "Burn everything," was usually Connor's chief plan. Once in awhile he mixed things up with an explosion or two. This fight would be no different.

"Connor, the terms of this fight are simple. We battle to the death," Juan said.

"Isn't one of us already dead?" Connor said, smirking.

Juan frowned, and Connor pulled his toothpick out, snapped it in half, and tossed it on the marble floor.

He then fished through his coat pockets, found the matchbox, and pulled out another toothpick, chewing on it.

"A duel is no laughing matter."

"Fine, let's talk serious for a moment, Juan. I need your word on something before we start."

"Ask."

"Swear to me you won't use my sister as a shield during this fight. It's between us. I hate that hostage shit," Connor said.

"I swear on Commander De Soto's soul itself. This is to be a duel between two honorable men. Such a despicable tactic won't be used."

"I'm guessing you had different rules of engagement for my sister?"

Juan chuckled.

"Well, she's a woman."

Connor raised an eyebrow.

"The rules of combat hardly apply to a weak creature like herself. Honestly, the way she came barging in here with her advanced firearm-"

"That'd be her enchanted shotgun, Lucinda. She's quite fond of it-"

"That brute, though hardly fit to be called a lady, got no less than she deserved. The stupid wench had no right to wield such a weapon and be fighting battles. She should be home tending to her family, not sloshing through my cave," Juan said.

Connor gritted his teeth.

"You're a right pretentious bastard, ain't ya?"

"I grow weary of our words."

"Oh, did you sense that too? Phew. I thought I was alone for a moment."

"Draw your blade!"

I don't have a- Connor's sarcastic thought were interrupted by Juan's instant action.

The Spaniard rushed at Connor with a speed the sorcerer did not predict. Juan's velocity blew past that of his soldiers easily.

Connor barely had time to react, so he fell to his knees and quickly aimed a fist at the marble floor beneath him.

"Disploda," he yelled.

A red flicker of light emanated from the sorcerer's eyes just before his knuckles made contact with the ground.

A split second before Juan's blade made contact with Connor, a large explosion separated the two of them. Connor leapt back out of the smoke, sweating with soot covering his face.

As the smoke cleared, the Spaniard was revealed to be lying on the floor 50 feet away. He rose and coughed a little before dusting off his yellow shirt and red pants.

Upon further examination, Juan saw his shirt was torn in many places from the explosion.

He ripped off the garment revealing that he was ripped.

Connor was no slouch, but this guy made the sorcerer look like a string bean.

Juan chuckled.

"That was quite unexpected. You're an impressive fire mage," Juan said.

Connor took a knee to catch his breath. Such a sudden use of magic had left him light headed, and he knew the mistake in his actions immediately.

Juan was no fool and sensed this.

"I doubt you'd be able to make such a blast again," he said, walking toward the sorcerer with his blade raised.

"I'm not saying that you're right, but you're not wrong," Connor said, standing once more.

Juan again ran at Connor, and the sorcerer threw a little stream of fire at him. He easily dodged right and thrust his blade straight for Connor.

Connor narrowly avoided the blow, and their duel went on like this for about 60 seconds with no solid contact.

Juan was in close and giving Connor no chance to use his magic. The sorcerer's legs grew heavy as he dodged swing after swing, thrust after thrust. In life, Juan had clearly been a master of the blade.

If he had not been left behind to die of fever with his men, he would have returned to Spain a legend who survived the New World using only his sword.

Connor grunted as Juan's weapon nicked his left arm, but this provided a valued opening for him.

He summoned forth green fire, formed a claw half the size it was earlier and took a swipe at the Spaniard's throat.

Juan parried, and Connor went on the offense this time. The sorcerer gave it his all, but his earlier wounds and exhaustion took their toll.

Connor got sloppy with one swipe, and Juan used this opening to trip the fire master.

Connor fell backwards, and his head banged onto the marble floor with a sickening thud. He lay there as Juan drove his blade into Connor's remaining good shoulder.

The sorcerer screamed as Juan's blade met Connor's bone. When Juan jerked the blade out, he aimed straight for Connor's heart.

"This will end it," he said and thrust the blade forward.

Connor looked over at Fay, laying on the ground with her eyes closed. He exhaled, prepared to die.

I'm sorry, Fay. I couldn't save you or find our mother, Connor thought.

Connor hadn't seen his mother in 18 years. She disappeared right after Fay was born, and the two had been left to fend for themselves since.

The sorcerer inherited his magical abilities from his mother, and he was nearly Fay's age now when she vanished.

Connor's mind traveled back to the night his mother disappeared.

He awoke coughing. Their little house was on fire. The then 16-year-old boy raced into the hallway. Wallpaper was peeling from the heat, and the fire was all Connor could hear.

The boy called for his mother, but she did not hear him. Nobody heard him.

Running into the living room, Connor saw the red sofa, old rocking chair, and television already engulfed in flames.

He choked on smoke and fell to his knees. The boy knew he had to make it past the sofa and get into his mother's room. The newborn Fay shared her mother's room, and Connor feared for them both.

His right hand glowed as he ran through the fire, a detail lost to him. The heat sapped his strength, and a ceiling fan smashed into him, crushing him to the floor.

Blood ran down his left eye, forcing it closed as Connor reached for anything but found nothing.

Staring at the tan fiberglass door that separated Connor from his sister and mother, the sorcerer reached deep and summoned what he had left to rise and push the fan off him.

Coughing on smoke, he limped to the door and grasped the oval knob. It didn't turn.

"Damn thing is locked," Connor muttered.

Then, something happened that defied logic. Roaring flames had been all the young sorcerer could hear since he'd awoken, but now he heard a different noise. It was Fay crying. She was scared, alone, and he felt her pain.

He tried to ram the door but lacked the physical strength. The heat and smoke in his lungs had seen to that.

As Fay's cry grew louder, he became desperate and resorted to punching the door. The logic was gone, and anxiety filled every nook and cranny of his mind.

More of the ceiling came down on him, but he didn't care. Fire spread to his clothes, but again, he did not care.

Pain was irrelevant at the moment. All that mattered was his little sister.

The fire around him raged, but inside Connor's blood was heating up. The more frenzied he grew and struck the door, the more his life force expanded in response.

It echoed according to not only the danger his life was in, but also Fay's.

Up until this moment, the sorcerer hadn't been able to awaken any of his dormant magical ability.

Techniques and spells are revealed to sorcerers as their bodies become ready for them. They're activated by life experiences, almost like the divine way a poet is struck with inspiration to craft words and verses.

It's the same with sorcerers and their magic. Everything comes to them as they grow.

And now it was Connor's time to step up. This marked the end of Connor's childhood and thrust him forward into being the man he was fated to become.

His palm sizzled as he formed a tight fist around it. Energy filled the sorcerer as he'd never felt before. Each heartbeat was a locomotive driving more strength through his veins.

Then, his mother's voice appeared in his head, and these were the last words Connor ever heard her say.

"Speak the word and save Fay, Connor. Summon it forth with all your might."

In Connor's mind, a word was revealed to him, a whisper still heard over the clamorous blaze. It was his first spell.

"Go get her!" Remmie yelled in Connor's mind.

And with that, Connor's magic awakened.

It was as if his life energy was gasoline, and someone just threw a match on it.

"Disploda," he yelled, as his right hand lit up.

This time when Connor hit the door with his fist, it blew off the hinges and flew inward, with an echoing boom.

Stumbling into the room, Connor looked at Remmie's bed and found it empty. Her purple sheets were on fire, but Connor could see the comforter pushed back, as if she'd left in a hurry.

A faint cry called Connor's attention to Fay, thrashing in her crib, which the flames had just started to eat.

"Hang on, Fay. I'm getting us out of here!"

He picked her up gently, making sure to support her head. Then, he turned back toward the doorway, but it was now entirely engulfed.

In fact, the only part of the floor not currently on fire was where he stood. The wall to his back, he summoned what strength he had left to make an exit.

Shifting Fay to his left hand, Connor again made a fist and blew a hole in the wall using his first spell.

Brick and siding flew out into the nearby woods as Connor carried Fay out into the rain, careful to shield her from it.

Once clear, he sat down on an oak stump and coughed for what seemed like hours.

Looking up, he saw their house, or what was left of it, burning and silhouetted against the night sky.

It was the only light for miles, a gloomy rainstorm all around.

As Fay sobbed, Connor kept her warm with his body heat and rocked her back and forth.

"You're going to be okay. I won't let anything happen to you, I promise," the sorcerer said, rocking her still.

Being forced to grow up too fast damages children. Most break under the pressure and become delinquent, but a rare few are able to rise to the occasion and do what needs to be done.

Fay anchored the sorcerer, and he knew he had a responsibility to take care of her.

So, Connor busted his ass and raised his sister, making sure they both had food and a warm bed at night.

Remembering the promise to his sister, Connor's eyes shot open just before Juan's blade pierced his heart.

He grabbed the sword with his left hand, and bit his toothpick in half.

Juan's eyes widened as Connor looked over at Fay. Her eyes were open, and their glances met.

Looking back at Juan, he doubled down on what energy was left and said, "We're not done yet, not by a long shot."

"Let go of my blade!"

"Fuck off," Connor yelled as he punched the middle of the sword.

The resulting explosion blew the weapon to pieces and again separated Connor and Juan.

The sorcerer was blown past his sister, and he scrapped his hand on the floor near Fay before crashing into the throne.

Again as the smoke cleared, Juan got up slowly.

"Hell's bells," Connor muttered.

Sighing, Juan looked down at the hilt he was holding. It was all that remained of his blade.

Dropping it, he walked over to Connor, grabbed him by the throat, and slammed him into the wall behind the throne until cracks begin to form in the marble.

"That sword was over 200 years old. It had been in my family for generations," he hissed.

"Well I thought it was tacky. There, I said what everyone else was thinking. Your soldiers told me so themselves," Connor said, smirking.

Many had tried to beat the snark out of Connor. All had failed. No one could silence him.

The Spaniard slammed him into the wall a few more times. The powerless sorcerer just took the beating. He didn't have the strength left to do anything else.

After a few more slams into the wall, Juan said, "You know it really is a shame you couldn't save your sister. When I was alive I used to love the stories where the hero saved the lady."

"Fortunately for me. . . I didn't need to save my sister," Connor managed to choke out.

"You didn't?"

"Naw, in this particular chapter the lady saves me," Connor said, chuckling.

The Spaniard felt a shotgun point blank against the left side of his head. His eyes glanced over at the ground where Fay used to be, and he realized at once what had happened.

When Connor had flown over here and briefly scraped his hand against the ground, he managed to smear a few runes and break the blood seal, freeing her.

"Gee, that's gotta be mighty embarrassing being killed by a lady and all," Fay said.

Before Juan could even turn to face her, she pulled the trigger, and the gun took his head clean off.

The rest of his body dissolved into silver ash, just as all his soldiers had.

Connor fell to his knees, and it took everything he had to keep from falling flat on the floor.

Fay walked over and gently wrapped Connor's right arm around her neck.

She tried to lift him up and said, "Come on. Get up, buttercup."

Fay loved to taunt Connor with those words, and he hated them. On a list of things Connor hated they fell just below wet socks and right above daytime talk shows.

"I fought my way down into this spirit-infested cave to save my loving sister. Is she here by the way?"

"Yeah, she ended up saving your sorry ass. That's kind of ironic isn't it?"

"Aw shut up," Connor muttered as he finally stood up with her help.

Together, the two of them started toward the exit when Fay changed direction.

"What are you doing? The door is straight ahead," Connor said.

"I need Juan's hilt."

"What for?"

"It's what I came down here for."

Connor winced as they made their way over to it.

Fay kneeled down and picked it up. She rose slowly, looking it over and steadying Connor. Her gaze examined the 12 precious stones built into the hilt, all different colors.

"We need to leave. With Juan dead, this cave is going to collapse in on itself within the next couple hours," Connor said.

His sister nodded, and the two of them began their long trek out of the cave. They stopped to gather Connor's jacket.

"Okay, sis. I have an idea. Since you're clearly able to walk, why don't you be a doll and go fetch Marlow. Then, drive him down into the cave and pick me up."

"Do I need to be wearing these panties right now? Because it sounds like you'd fit into them a little better with all this whining you're doing," she said, grunting and readjusting Connor's arm around her to better carry him.

Connor said nothing more after that for about 20 minutes.

When he did speak again, he asked about the hilt.

"Why do you need that?"

"One of the gems on this hilt is called a See All stone. It's an enchanted rock that when used in conjunction with the right spell can allow its caster to find anything. . . supposedly," Fay said.

The fire mage knew better than to ask her how she found out about it. For a cowgirl, Fay spent every moment not on a horse with a book in front of her face. She read everything she could on sorcery, runes, and enchanted items. Fay was the smarter one of the siblings, and it showed.

For a woman who couldn't use magic, she sure knew a lot about it.

It didn't take much to know more about sorcery than Connor. If it wasn't fire, he was usually clueless.

"And you figure we can use it to find mom?"

"Yeah. I think we could have Patricia perform the spell and use the stone," Fay said.

Connor groaned.

"You realize that'll put us in her debt, right? And that always means I'll be the one doing her a favor in order to clear it. That woman abhors charity."

"I believe you've said on many occasions that no price is too steep to find mom," Fay said.

"I absolutely hate your memory."

"Hey, you got mom's magic. It was only fair I got her brain."

Connor muttered, "Remmie wasn't exactly Einstein. She didn't even have the sense to avoid getting knocked up with us. Your intelligence must have come from whoever your father is."

Fay scowled, and foolishly believing himself to be on a roll, the arrogant sorcerer reminded his sister that she definitely got her belly from their mother.

It didn't matter if she'd lost eight of her nine pints of blood, this southern belle found renewed strength to ferociously jab Connor in the ribs.

He grimaced and whined for more than a few minutes after that.

"Ohhhh, savage Connor the Red bellyaching, that's intimidating. How is anyone scared of you?"

"I got shot with a fucking crossbow and stabbed!"

Their bickering, though done with love, continued until they finally exited the cave.

They turned and watched the cave collapse in on itself, rock piling on rock. Then, with a loud pop, it simply vanished. The energy of the spirits was no longer around to sustain it, so the ground returned to normal.

"How much further to Marlow?"

Connor pointed up toward Forest Road 44, a remote dirt path he'd driven down into the valley on.

Fay helped carry Connor up to the road, and their spirits lifted upon seeing their faithful old ride.

Before them sat a dusty but otherwise spotless green 1958 Chevy Apache. It was the first vehicle Connor had found for them, and he'd fixed it up into a right beautiful machine.

Connor had left the windows rolled down, and when Fay helped him around to the driver's side of the truck, he reached in and lifted up the door's lock.

Grabbing onto the door to steady himself, Connor watched Fay walk around to the passenger's side.

Opening his door, he heard a familiar creak. He smiled and climbed up to his usual spot on the black leather bench seat.

Looking over at his bloody sister climbing into the vehicle, he remembered how close he'd come to losing her. This wasn't the first time they'd knocked on Death's door. Even a stubborn fool like Connor knew one day he might actually answer their knock.

"Why didn't you wait for me? You know rushing in there alone was foolish," Connor said.

Fay looked at him and held up the hilt.

"The spell only works under a full moon, and that's tomorrow. I guess I got excited we'd miss it. The idea of seeing mom. . .," Fay trailed off and looked at the floor.

Connor looked at the dead bugs on Marlow's windshield.

Yeah, I've been there myself, Connor thought.

Pushing the clutch, he started Marlow, and the truck rumbled to life.

Although Connor did all the work repairing the vehicle, somehow Fay was the one who got to name it. Still, she could have chosen a worse name like Mildred, Barnie, or even Starla.

Starla, Connor thought, chuckling.

"We need to get you to Cash," Fay said.

"I ain't gonna turn down soaking in one of his healing springs," Connor said.

"We're off to Eureka, then?"

"Yeah, we're already near Highway 7. We just gotta scoot north a few hours."

"Marlow got enough gas?"

"Eh, we'll stop in Jasper or somethin'."

"Okay then. Let's get a move on," Fay said, closing her eyes.

"I hear that," Connor said, as they started north.