Chapter 24: Samuel

Samuel kicked the covers off of his sweat-soaked body. He placed his shaking hands on either side of his skull as he tried to steady his breathing, heartbeat, and imagination. The reoccurring nightmare had been the exact same as it had been every night for nearly twenty years now. However, it had the added horror of being real.

Fritz and Neil continued to snore, unaware of his inner stress. They had arrived in town yesterday after hard traveling, once more hoping to find Jaqui's twin. The room in the Martag Inn was still dark, although the narrow slits in the curtain showed that dawn was on its way. However, it was not enough to light the corners of the room or reveal hidden edges like beds, chairs, and tables. Unable to go back to sleep or even bear to stay in the confines of the room, Samuel carefully stood, picked his cloak off of the end of the bedpost, and crept out.

He left the silent inn and leaned against the outside wall, letting the fresh morning air clear his head. It helped greatly and the feeling slowly flowed back into his left arm. He was alone on the street of the smaller town; it was too early for even the first morning chores. Several lanterns had burned out, making the hour before dawn truly the darkest.

Samuel started to walk out of a sense of restlessness. He realized that he could keep walking out of the town, out from Neil's thumb. However, he instantly started hating himself when he again realized that escape would not be possible. Martag was one of very few towns where the debtors didn't know him. But he couldn't stay in a place with such cheap liquor and no gambling salons. The monster attacks were increasing ever since the King Spider, making it impossible for him the leave the Martag walls alone. His only option was to continue with his plan—to stick with Neil and the others until they made it to a large city where he could flee to a safe house that asked no questions. However, he knew that his time was running out and that he would have to act soon.

He turned the corner and stopped abruptly before he could collide with a cart full of hay that had been parked against the side of a building. The hay was stacked so high that he couldn't even see over the top to find out if anyone was on the other end. Samuel was about to turn in the other direction when a fragmented conversation caught his ear. Normally, he wouldn't have cared, except that the piece he heard held his interest. So he paused to listen, leaning against the back of the cart with his hands buried in his pockets.

"...when we get to Sun Bay City," finished a woman.

Samuel instantly saw them as a means to escape Neil and return to Sun Bay City. However, he didn't reveal himself yet. He had learned caution, and with debtors thirsty for his blood, he wanted to make sure that he didn't end up in the hands of bounty hunters. So, he continued to quietly lean against the back of their wagon, acting like he was busy watching the pre-dawn sky, while actually listening carefully to every word that they said. He kept his pokerface so that a single expression would not betray his eavesdropping.

"Definitely," a man agreed. "I'm sure we'll get a heap of Jem. Just hope Lord Tirean doesn't find out we're selling them to the Combat Ring instead of drowning them."

"Drowning's worse?" a second man asked in a low voice that Samuel had to strain to hear.

"You're too stiff, Michael," replied the first man in a carefree tone.

"The Combat Ring?" wondered Samuel. He knew exactly what it was—he had won nearly a thousand Jem there in a single night and lost two thousand the next. The Ring had the best chance to win big out of everything offered in The Den, plus the fights were always worth watching. But he had occasionally suspected that some of the fighters had been unwilling volunteers from unknown places. He shifted on his toes in case he needed to make a fast escape. The strangers' ties to The Den and the Combat Ring instantly put him on alert and he could feel the smooth handle of his pistol against his palm.

"I'm surprised that you even suggested this, Reeve," commented the woman. "We could let them go here and be done with them, our new employer would never know. We just walk away and Michael lets up on his sleep spell. Besides, that would let us get to work hunting down those escapees."

"That's a thousand Jem apiece!" exclaimed the first man, Reeve. "Besides, they're strong. They'll be fine. I bet that knight could win his freedom within three years."

Samuel let his eyes slide from side to side as he tried to catch a glimpse of the speakers as well as trying to figure out where they were keeping their prisoners. He plucked a piece of hay off of the wagon and stuck it in his mouth. "The hay!" They were keeping their prisoners under the hay, pacified by a sleep spell! With all of the farmers carting their harvests around, it was the perfect disguise. Samuel couldn't help but admire their cunning. "Rotten luck for those prisoners, though."

"That knight is a freak," commented the woman. "I tried taking his helmet off and it wouldn't budge!"

"Oh? Trying to get an eyeful of a strange man?" teased Reeve. The rest of what he had to say was cut off by the sounds of her fist connecting with his skull.

"Stop," scolded the other man, Michael.

"Do I really want to join these people?" wondered Samuel. He knew several regulars at the Combat Ring who would help him into disappearing into safe houses. But, the stakes of this gamble were high; this trio could betray him easily; they were either mercenaries or bounty hunters only interested in Jem. In addition, he would have to stay out of the hands of the debtors in Sun Bay City long enough to make it to a trust-worthy acquaintance. He chewed on the piece of hay and watched the stars flicker out as he thought and weighed his decision.

With a frustrated snort, Samuel kicked a large piece of mulch. It skipped across the road and stopped, blending in with the rest of the wood chips. He pushed himself away from the back of the wagon, his chin and scowl hidden beneath the collar of his red cloak. He realized that he was completely trapped without chains and he hated it as much as he hated himself for walking away from that wagon.

The sun peaked over the shadows when Samuel arrived back at the inn. He could hear doors and windows open behind him as Martag woke up. As he stepped into the building he saw a maid throw stale water out of a second story window, which was quickly soaked up by the street. Inside, Samuel was surprised to see Sachi-Aiko sitting, waiting for him. She was already dressed and alive with a half-empty cup set on the end table beside her. She stood as he walked in, oblivious to his groan of annoyance.

"Samuel, you're back!" she chimed with more energy than what was healthy for that time of day. "I was worried when I saw you leaving. Is everything okay? You really should let us know if you leave. Did anything happen? I'm glad you came back."

He sat down wordlessly beside her and listed to her babble like taking needles to the brain. She never did stop long enough for him to answer any of her questions, which was fine with him. He still didn't trust her and if he knew that Neil, Fritz, and Jaqui would have listened to him for even a moment, he would have suggested that they abandon her on the nearest doorstep. Not that he was thrilled with their company either.

"You're both up early," commented Neil, appearing in the doorway with Fritz lagging behind.

"Hello! Good morning!" Sachi-Aiko sung her greeting. "Is Jaqui still sleeping? She's going to miss the sunrise if she doesn't get up soon."

"Let her sleep," stated Neil. "She's been depressed ever since she learned that her sister never came here."

"A waste of my time," grumbled Samuel. He was beginning to see Jaqui's mysterious twin as a phantom. She was something only vaguely real; something that they could chase but never catch. The others exchanged morning pleasantries while Samuel sulked in his chair. His dark eyes slid to Sachi-Aiko. It was her fault; she had suggested that Jaqui's sister had gone towards the east. Yet, no one was blaming her. He didn't expect them to, although it still made him resentful.

Fritz found a maid and got them breakfast, cutting the bread and cheese nearly perfectly before distributing them. Only one person didn't thank him, but that rude silence went unnoticed. Samuel sulked in his seat, hardly tasting any of the food. Instead of participating in the surrounding conversation, Samuel had focused his attention on wishing that he was somewhere, anywhere else.

"Good morning," murmured Jaqui with a yawn as she entered the room. She was dressed although she still looked asleep. Her shoulders were slumped forward and her lowered eyes seemed dark.

"Hi, Jaqui!"

"Are you okay?"

She nodded and slid onto the couch, clearly not interested in speaking. She ate quietly, almost oblivious to Fritz and Sachi-Aiko's attempts to cheer her up. In fact, she looked like she was about to burst into tears at any moment. Her mostly hidden lip quivered every time she tried to speak, stopping her before the words ever got out.

Sachi-Aiko ran her long fingernails across Jaqui's shoulders. "Don't worry too much; you'll find her. This world was made to help people find each other." Jaqui looked up at her with dead eyes, which Sachi-Aiko met with a smile and a wink. "Come on, we can at least ask travelers in this town. Someone is bound to know something, especially if Alaine is looking for you too!"

"Where would we even start?" asked Fritz, picking up on her energy.

"Well, we can't get far if we stay here," stated Sachi-Aiko. She stood up as if she was about to lead a parade out of the inn. Fritz scooted forward, about to follow her, but then Neil spoke.

"Wait. Is this the best solution?"

"Huh?"

Neil turned to Jaqui, his face stern but compassionate. Samuel hated that look. Neil waited in silence until Jaqui turned and looked up at him. Her blue eyes looked dark and sleep deprived as she all but held his breath while she waited for him to speak. Neil remained calm and patient, trying not to further agitate her unstable nerves.

"I know you want to find your sister. But she isn't in any of these cities near Sun Bay City. Maybe she went home, Jaqui. I'm sure your mother is worried too. Maybe we should all just go back home."

Samuel felt his jaw tighten at this proposal. It as like a light of escape for him, from the most unlikely place. He didn't even let a twitch betray his feelings, unlike Sachi-Aiko and Fritz whose smiles instantly faded. Jaqui instantly stood, her hands clenched into tight fists while she refused to look at any of them. Her shoulders trembled slightly as she stared at the ground, gathering her courage to speak.

"Alaine wouldn't go home. She's too stubborn. That's why I have to keep going, no matter what, no matter the danger. I can't stop until Alaine, Rakisa, and Dad and Mom and me are all back together." Her arms wavered again and it seemed like her small speech had taken most of her energy.

Sachi-Aiko clapped, her smile returning. She wiped an imaginary tear from her eye. Neil frowned slightly, slipping into thought. It was all that Samuel could do to keep himself from kicking something when he then realized that it was going to be impossible for him to ever return to Sun Bay City, not with the remaining time that he had flying by. However, he remained silent. He didn't want to give the others one detail about himself.

"Are you sure?" asked Neil, slowly.

Jaqui nodded once.

Neil sighed, "We'll continue to help you, but with no real clues about her whereabouts we can't promise anything."

"Speak for yourself," Samuel groaned.

"It's...I...I don't want to be an inconvenience," stammered Jaqui. "If you want to go home to your families, please go. I'll be fine alone."

"We can't," Neil again answered for all of them. "It's too dangerous for you." He rested his elbows on the end of the table, his fingers lost in his beard as he supported his chin.

"But...your own families," protested Jaqui.

"Don't worry," beamed Sachi-Aiko. "I don't remember a thing about them, so I'm with you all the way!" She stretched her arms out wide as if what she just said was worth a cheer.

Fritz nodded and stood, placing a wide hand on her shoulder. "My parents trust me on my own. Besides, this sounds like an adventure. I'd be insane to refuse. It's only the right thing to do, to help someone."

"My wife died two winters ago, I need something to keep active," stated Neil. "Plus, I'd never live with my conscience if I let you go on alone."

Only Samuel remained seated as they gathered around Jaqui. The piece of hay in his mouth went sour as if he had been swallowing bile instead of water. The scene was sickeningly sentimental and defied reason. He knew people were selfish at their core, which meant that their seemingly selfless support of Jaqui had to be some type of rouse. There was no way a run-away twin could be worth this effort. Samuel set his mind on using their own tricks against them.

"Let's get started then!" cheered Sachi-Aiko, half leaping into the air. She grabbed Jaqui's wrist and pulled her to the door. She turned back to the men quickly, smiling, her long black ponytails across her face and under her neck. Not waiting to see if they were following her or not, she twirled out of the door and into the street, still semi-dragging Jaqui with her.

"Well, she has a lot of energy, but she's right," said Fritz, rubbing the back of his head. "Come on." He gestured, then followed after Sachi-Aiko.

Neil rubbed his beard a moment, then turned to Samuel, "That includes you too." He must have noticed Samuel's scowl even though it was hidden below his collar. Neil smiled faintly despite it, "Trust me, you'll find that you'll enjoy doing something for someone else for a change."

Samuel stood and shoved his hands into his pockets. He took a few steps forward so that he was even with Neil, then glared at him out of the corner of his eyes. "Don't start assuming things about me." Without waiting for a reply or looking at the older man's expression, Samuel left the inn as well.

Outside, Sachi-Aiko and Jaqui were almost to the end of the street, Jaqui still being pulled along. Fritz had just caught up with them. Part of the reason that he was able to was because Sachi-Aiko had been meandering from building to building, looking into windows, glancing at displays, and reading shop signs. Samuel gritted his teeth in frustration, instantly annoyed with what she clearly considered to be searching. He wouldn't have been surprised if she started turning over rocks next. The other people in the area had completely stopped what they were doing and were all watching Sachi-Aiko's antics.

Neil hurried over to the other three and Samuel slowly made his way behind them. He didn't want to look like he was a part of their group, so he kept his distance and ignored them, acting more like a casual market-goer whose day had been disturbed by an eccentric group of strangers. If he happened to catch anyone giving him an unusual look, he glared at them until they looked away.

"Oh my!" Sachi-Aiko squealed. She let go of Jaqui and clasped both of her hands tightly together just under her chin, drawing absolutely everyone's attention to herself. "Can this be it?! Right here in this little town?!"

Samuel got close enough to see that she was standing in front of a large window to some type of bookstore. A single, ancient scroll had been set on a pillar in the middle of the window surrounded by other books, scrolls, and bits of parchment. It was written on a grey cloth and coated in a thin layer of dust. Absolutely nothing about it looked remarkable, but Sachi-Aiko was drooling over it as if it were a bar of gold.

"Um...Sachi-Aiko?" asked Fritz, trying to break her attention. It was a minor relief to Samuel to see that even Fritz was beginning to be put off by her impulsive attitude.

Unfortunately, she didn't even hear him. She was so wrapped up in staring at the scroll that she was oblivious to everything else. Samuel half-expected stars to come radiating from her eyes as she continued to not blink. She came to her senses after Samuel glared away the third group of gawkers who were causing Jaqui to wither from the attention.

With another high-pitch hum, Sachi-Aiko darted into the bookshop. For once, she didn't even look back to see if she was being followed. Samuel secretly wished that Neil would be that obsessed for even just a moment so that he could escape. But Neil remained as collected as ever and gave him a stern warning look before following her inside. Samuel sighed and stepped through the door behind Fritz, who banged his knee on the frame.

"It is! It is! It is! It is!" Sachi-Aiko continued to shout. An elderly man walked out from a back room, peering at her over his tiny glasses. But she didn't notice him either. She was too busy leaning over the ancient scroll, looking at it from as many angles as humanly possible.

"What is it?" asked Fritz, scratching his head. "It looks like a bunch of squiggles to me."

"It's the words of the prophecy that is supposed to guide our world through these times of darkness!" exclaimed Sachi-Aiko with some incredulity at him for not knowing. But her disbelief last only a moment before she drifted back into her private dream world and began to rave about the fantastic scrap of cloth. "That's The Shadow, you know. But this is all written with the original dialect and runes, right on top of the tablecloth like all the legends say! Supposedly, a great sorceress laid down this prophecy to an ancient king and one of his court realize it was so important that he instantly inked it onto the table in front of them! It talks about hope and light and foretells the eventual fall of darkness and the restoration and eternal protection of our kingdom! Right here! In this little shop! I think I've entered Heaven!"

"Can help you?" a dry voice asked behind them.

Four of them turned to look at the bookstore owner, the same exasperated look of disbelief on their faces. However, he didn't seem to be speaking to them anywhere. He squinted at Sachi-Aiko through his narrow glasses not wanting her to touch his precious antique manuscripts. Samuel already could see what was going to happen, so he leaned against a wall in the shadows and watched it all unfold.

Sachi-Aiko picked up the fabric as carefully as she could despite her energy. She held it up to the sunlight that was coming in through the window. She savored it's touch for a moment. Then, grinning from ear to ear she began to read it. However, the owner's protested initially drowned out anything that she said.

"Put that back! You might damage it!"

"Near the Bay the Man of Law

Will take in his care an outlaw..."

"You didn't even wash your hands!"

"This outlaw; a Man Touched By Darkness,

Who by a shadow was blessed..."

"What? You can read that?!"

"With the Greatest Adventurer they'll assist

The Heel looking for the Fist..."

"How can you read that?!" the owner bellowed, followed by a fit of coughing. This was finally enough to distract Sachi-Aiko and snap her out of her trance. She turned from the window and cloth although it was hard to see her face from the sunlight shining in behind her head.

Fritz stepped forward and began to lightly tap the owner on the back with his palm. "Take it easy. Relax. Just breathe."

Jaqui was watching them with her head tilted slightly to the right. She bit her lip out of nerves and shifted her weight on her toes as if she wanted to help but was afraid to. Neil, however, was giving Sachi-Aiko a curious look while rubbing his beard in thought. No one noticed Samuel, whose eyes had grown wide in surprise. He bit the piece of hay in half when he gritted his teeth together.

Once the man calmed down he continued to question her, sputtering occasionally as his voice grated. "You...You can read that?"

Sachi-Aiko nodded and smiled, "Of course! Why wouldn't I?"

Neil bent over, examining the writing that she still had a grip on. She held it up, letting him see it closer, but he shook his head. "I can read as well, but I can't read that. The runes are older than anything I have ever seen." He turned to Sachi-Aiko, carefully watching her face for clues within her expression. "Who are you?"

"I'm Sachi-Aiko!" she beamed without missing a single beat. "Er...but you knew that already."

Samuel discreetly took several deep breaths to calm himself down. Fortunately for him Sachi-Aiko had drawn the attention of everyone else present. He dug his fists further into his pockets, his nails leaving crescent marks across his palm. He barely heard most of what they were saying because his head was still spinning around one line that she had read.

"How could that be in there?!" he gaped.

"Answer seriously," insisted the owner. He made a grab at the cloth in her hands but missed, probably because he didn't want to tear it.

"I would, but I forgot everything else," replied Sachi-Aiko with the same oblivious smile.

"Forgot?" asked the man again as he circled around to her side to reclaim the fabric.

Sachi-Aiko nodded energetically. "I forgot just about everything before I met them. I even forgot—Look at this!" Whatever she was going to finish saying was cut off when she noticed something else on the cloth in her hand. She held it up to the light just as the owner made another grab for it. His target vanished from his fingertips, causing him to stumble forward.

"Portals opened in field and cave

And from these the monsters invade.

These are other worlds' gates.

A monster world in Rowanoak they'll create.

Lock them behind a seal

So that our world can start to heal

Heroes set out and close them all.

Then the shadow will finally fall.

Hear now! These portals won't shut

Through strength or luck

But only by the chosen

That Mother Nature herself shall send..."

She smiled proudly, but her smiled wavered when she looked at the expressions that were surrounding her. Fritz smiled back nervously and Jaqui shifted uncomfortably as she stared at the ground. Neil crossed his arms and the owner gaped, while Samuel continued to glare. No one shared Sachi-Aiko energy.

"I wonder if she even realizes that we have no idea what she's talking about," grumbled Samuel.

"Sachi-Aiko...are you sure you're feeling okay?" asked Fritz who sounded a bit sheepish.

"I'm perfectly fine!" she chimed.

"Then give that back," grumbled the old man as he grabbed for the cloth again. But she took a step back, causing him to miss it once more.

"This is starting to be a total waste of time," grumbled Samuel as he rubbed his temples out of frustration. "An old tablecloth doesn't mean squat! Let's just get out of this place already."

Sachi-Aiko smirked at him. It was a look he was very familiar with. It was a challenge; she was going to try to prove him wrong. She walked her fingers down the fabric a bit to a section of text further down. The old man's hair just about stood on end as the hem of the fabric scraped the ground. He protested, coughed, and sputtered some more, but she was reading again and completely ignoring him.

"In Martag a light grows bright

Among those who'll set things right.

Then the Bloodstone comes, frost in her wake,

As an autumn storm breaks..."

A bolt of lightning lit up the sky directly behind her. Samuel hadn't noticed the sun vanish, but now the sky had gone navy-grey with thick clouds. No rain fell, but another bolt of lightning shot across the sky, followed by a loud rolling thunder a few seconds later. Jaqui jumped at the thunder and landed on Fritz's foot causing him to fall backward. She muttered apologizes as she lowered her eyes, abashed.

"To find Sword, Swift, and Spell

With a message to tell.

Then she'll come down the street to seize

One of Nature's chosen keys.

This prophecy she knows

Will help her lord's greatest threat grow.

This key, the chosen, is Sunflare,

A user of light. Beware!

It is her blood that Bloodstone

Seeks to drain from her bones.

Below her vision the heroes hide,

Yet they are not unified.

Join together against..."

Sachi-Aiko trailed off as another thunderbolt rumbled in the distance. Her black eyes suddenly focused beyond on cloth to something out the window and down the street. She stood frozen for a moment, her mouth hanging open. Even her smile froze, although her eyes flickered with traces of real fear. In an instant she gathered her courage and threw herself on top of Jaqui, knocking them both to the ground.

"Quiet! Get down! Away from the window!" she ordered everyone in a shouted whisper.

Fritz jumped back as if an ember had landed on him. Neil was forced closer to the door when Sachi-Aiko and Jaqui nearly landed on top of him. Samuel only glared, not moving a muscle, although he was already out of sight from anyone on the street. The owner's mouth hung open as he watched her, probably thinking that she was insane in the literal sense. But then he noticed the cloth being drug across the floor. His anger flared and he started to berate her for disrespecting his merchandise.

"Will you be quiet?!" hissed Sachi-Aiko without even listening to the words that he was saying.

A shadow fell across her back with some dramatic lightning. From his angle, Samuel could see a lady dressed mostly in red outside of the shop with most of her back to them. Her attention was focused on a scraggly man who came running up behind her. He barely looked like more than a boy. Samuel caught sight of a veil and dark eyes as she twisted her head, but that look alone was enough to make him feel like he had swallowed ice.

"Garnet! Wait! Please!" whined the man as he caught up. The moment he was a yard away from her he doubled over and braced his palms on his knees as he panted for air.

The lady let out a low growl and clutched her forehead with one hand as if it was hurting her. "Incompetence! Incompetence everywhere I turn! First those mercenaries are loitering around here after they drowned those three meddlers instead of hunting down the chosen who was supposed to be with them. And now I've got you clinging to my heel! Do me a favor and vanish!"

"But...but Garnet! My contract!" he stammered.

"You'll just mess this up!" she said so scathingly that he cringed as if he had been struck. "Another chosen is nearby and we can't let her live if The Shadow is to take this wretched kingdom!"

Sachi-Aiko was still on the ground, but her eyes started to drift to the manuscript again as if they couldn't help but be drawn to it. She freed her arms from Jaqui's weight and smoothed it out, skimming the cloth for the place the she left off. Fritz started to ask her what she was doing, but she quickly hushed him after a fearful glance to the man and woman outside. She pointed to a line with her index finger and began to read again.

"Please...don't," Jaqui half-whimpered. "Don't read any more of that."

"Ice shall fall from the sky

When Bloodstone turns her eyes.

And they shall fight in the streets,

But upon the monsters' defeat

Sunflare will have been taken..."

As she read the rain came, striking the roof hard. It wasn't an outright downpour, but what did fall was heavy and white, bouncing off of everything it hit. Pings and thuds echoed off of the wooden walls.

"Is...Is that hail?!" gasped Fritz.

The owner nodded, but Samuel only saw that in his peripheral vision. The red lady, Garnet, had shoved the man with her backward, causing him to land sprawled out in the middle of the street. He stood up, mulch clinging to his cloak. Half-turned, he saw her smirk darkly.

"Out of my sight? I know where they are!" Garnet put the back of her palms together, spreading her fingers as far apart from each other as she could. Ice began to form from the tips of her nails back down her knuckles. "Ice Needles!"

Her spell ripped through the wall of the bookshop joined by splinters and broken glass as it easily destroyed the outer wall. Ice and debris ripped at their skin and clothing as they tried to shield themselves from the force of Garnet's attack. Samuel shielded his eyes, but he was far enough away to miss most of the frozen explosion. However, several bloody lines appeared across Fritz's exposed skin and Sachi-Aiko and Jaqui were nearly buried.

The first thing Samuel saw when he removed his forearm from his eyes was Garnet smirking triumphantly over them. She stepped over the taez high broken wall and entered the shop she had ripped apart, the heels of her boots driving right into Sachi-Aiko's back. There was something darker about her expression that he didn't like, although he wasn't sure why. It was cruel and manipulative, buried somewhere behind her veil.

She looked them over, taking in their torn clothing and bewildered expressions. Then, she laughed. "You're the foretold heroes?!"

"Get out," the owner grumbled. "All of you...get out!" Samuel didn't realize that he had been casting a spell until it slammed into him. As he washed pushed backward, embedded into the wood chips in the street, he didn't even notice the pain because he was too overwhelmed with shock that the old man could use magic.

The wall of the building across the street finally stopped him when he collided with it. He shook off the pain in his head and spine and struggled to his feet. Seven of them had been knocked all across the street and were slowly picking themselves up. Garnet was already on her feet although the man with her was moaning a few rawns away as if every bone in his body had been broken. Fritz helped the women up since all three had landed closer together, about evenly between Samuel and Garnet. Neil slowly stood from where he had been thrown further down the street, dusting off his cloak. He walked over, clustering their group of five closer together with a few rawns of space in between.

Samuel glanced towards the bookstore as a barrier covered it, making the entire building look like it was encased in a giant bubble. Even the frozen rain that was sporadically falling bounced off of that barrier. A few people glanced out of open shutters, cringing because of the colder wind. Others could be heard locked their doors and windows. Both sides faced off in the streets as thunder rumbled. The tension was undeniable; a fight was going to ensue.

"Hail Cloudburst!" declared Garnet, making the first move. She raised her left hand and upon her word the clouds above swirled darker, thunder rolled, and hail and frozen rain dropped down on them.

Fritz, Jaqui, and Sachi-Aiko jumped under an awning, Fritz craning his neck to look up at the sky, his mouth hanging open. Neil pulled up the hood of his cloak, but never took his eyes off of Garnet. The scrawny man with her was crawling into the nearest alleyway. Samuel simply didn't care. He let the rain and hail fall on him.

"She's behind this weather?!" asked Fritz, despite how obvious the answer was.

Samuel ignored him. Matching Garnet's coldness, he slowly and deliberately pulled out his pistol. He aimed it at her head and fired. The sound of the shot ricocheted off of the nearby buildings. Everyone except him, Neil, and Garnet jumped at the sound.

"Warn us, will you!" shouted Sachi-Aiko.

Samuel didn't hear her. His mouth hung open as he continued to focus on Garnet. The bullet never touched her, which was impossible because he knew that his aim had been perfect. She smirked again and he cringed back. He then knew that she had somehow deflected his shot.

Sachi-Aiko stepped forward, pulling three daggers out of her garter and faced-off against Garnet. "I don't know who you are, but I already don't like you!" She ran her fingers along the flats of her blades from the hilts to the points. "Infusion!" When her spell finished, all of her daggers sparked and glowed, filled with her magic's energy.

She threw them with deadly accuracy, but they stopped in mid-air about four feet from striking Garnet. The air around them cracked, almost like they had run into a wall made up of the purest glass. Garnet raised her palm and the daggers wiggled, then dropped to the ground, still glowing from Sachi-Aiko's spell. Samuel realized that the exact same thing must have happened to his bullet.

"Do you like my Cryo Shield?" taunted Garnet. She reached out her arm and pressed against the invisible shield, her palm flattening on contact. It had to be a powerful barrier to not leave a visible trace of its presence, just then the barrier that Samuel had seen containing the Combat Ring in Sun Bay City. She rapped it with her knuckles. "It's completely unbreakable until I dispel it. In fact, you're the first one to even chip it." She glanced at the spider web cracks that seemed to hover in midair, then at the glowing knives by her feet and then finally at Sachi-Aiko. She looked her over for a long moment, her sinister smirk broadening. "Sunflare."

"Sunflare?" echoed Fritz as Sachi-Aiko tensed. "Wait! That was a name in that weird prophecy! Sachi-Aiko...you're...?"

"One who uses light in her spells, found in this town at this time as foretold," said Garnet. She glanced disdainfully at Sachi-Aiko. "You're supposed to be one of the threats to The Shadow? Feh! You're just a weak little girl!" She lowered her head a few knuks and began to chant a longer spell in an ugly language, protected from their attacks by her barrier. Samuel shuddered at the foreign words. He didn't know what they were, but he had heard them once before and that was all it took.

"You think that prophecy is about us?" asked Fritz. Garnet continued her spell without breaking and therefore didn't answer him. His expression perked as he continued to think about it. He eagerly turned to Jaqui. "Hey, you could be the Heel! After all, you fight with your feet!"

"Well...I do...but...I mean..." Jaqui stammered.

"Your sister, does she fight with her hands? Then she would be the Fist! And it said you're looking for her, which you are!" Fritz continued to babble, growing more excited with everything he said. Jaqui shrank back, nervous about his energy. She nodded along with him although she was getting more and more unnerved as he continued. "Wow! We're all part of a prophecy to beat The Shadow! I always knew there had to be something more out there for me! This is it! To seek out the evil plaguing our kingdom and destroy it, no matter what it takes!"

Samuel wasn't idle during his speech. While Fritz continued to talk without stopping, he fumbled with his pistol, desperate to reload it. It was a race to see who would finish first, him or Garnet. Neil hadn't shown any attentions of attacking her, and Sachi-Aiko still seemed surprised from her attack being blocked. Samuel quickly fired his weapon as he sensed her reaching the end of her spell. Once more, her shield held. Garnet finished her spell and a half-ring of summoning circles formed behind the group. Each circle flared with magic, which took the shape of a strange ice-type creature. All five of them were like eight taez wide crabs without the pinches. Instead, their shells were covered with icy spikes like a mace.

"Kill them all," ordered Garnet.

The monsters followed her command and turned their coal black eyes towards them. They spaced out their semi-circle and leaned forward so that their shells were pointed more directly forward. In unison, they all launched the spikes off of their backs in an attempt to impale everything that was in front of them. Samuel threw himself flat against the nearest wall as a spike embedded itself into the ground where he had just been standing. He dropped the bullet he had been trying to fit into his gun and hastily pulled another out of his pocket. He braced it against his inner leg and he reloaded it.

Neil stood as calm and firm as a stone wall. Instead of dodging the attacks like the rest of them, he swung his short staff at each incoming spike. Every spike shattered from the force of his blows, breaking into less harmful ice slivers and snow. Still, several grazed his skin, causing tiny trails of blood to slide down his forearms and face.

Jaqui, Fritz, and Sachi-Aiko scattered like cockroaches in sunlight. The awning that they had hovered by was ripped apart by icy spines a moment later. Jaqui rolled and landed on her feet. When she stood her demeanor had changed to alert and focused, ready to lash out on any enemy that carelessly got close. She rocked back on her heels as she shifted into a fighting stance. Fritz pulled out another one of his strange weapons. This one had been made out of forks pounded through a sieve and the whole thing was mounted on a cast iron handle.

"I am shooting him if he ever begins to use a pot as a helmet," thought Samuel as he finally managed to fit the bullet into its slot.

"Return!" shouted Sachi-Aiko, stretching out her palm and fingertips. Her nails light up the same as her knives. They quivered on the ground then leapt through the air back into her hands, allowing her to easily catch them with a dramatic flourish. She positioned herself again, ready to throw the blades at Garnet again.

Samuel was about to target Garnet again as well, but new movement caught his attention. All five of her snow crabs were shaking, emanating a strange magic aura. The hail started to draw close to them, like iron following a magnet. Before all their eyes, the hail reformed into the spikes that they had just launched. He cursed under his breath at their luck and Garnet's planning. She forced the weather to increase her monster's strength even before the battle had begun. The monsters positioned themselves to attack again and Samuel dove away from the wall, not wanting to corner himself against the new onslaught.

Sachi-Aiko leapt out of the way of three spines and threw all of her daggers in rapid succession so fluidly that they were all in the air at the same time. Once more, Garnet remained safe behind her magic shield, which cracked even more each time one of the daggers embedded itself into it. Garnet laughed at her futile attempts at an attack, but she couldn't see what Sachi-Aiko was doing behind her back. She had pulled out a tool Samuel had seen assassins use; it had four long barbs centered around a sphere and was balanced so that one would always land pointing down. She used her Infusion spell on it. The moment Garnet was preoccupied with the daggers eighteen knuks from her face, the second weapon vanished from her hand and darted around behind her like a hyperactive firefly.

While she dealt with Garnet, Samuel spun on his heel to deal with another monster that was approaching from the left, trying to split up their group. Jaqui charged it too, landing a triple set of kicks to its face region. However, the monster barely seemed effected by this attack thanks to its hard shell. After seeing how little his bullets did to Garnet's ice shield, Samuel waited and aimed for the monster crab's joints hoping to strike a weak point. Further away, Neil was once more shattering the spines of the creatures as Fritz attempted to get closer with his handmade weapon. However, he slid on a pile of snow and was forced to dive out of the way of one of the needle-like legs.

"You dare to use a ravenclaw against me?" retorted Garnet as she caught Sachi-Aiko's secret weapon behind her back using two fingers. Sachi-Aiko growled and bit her lip, inching back slightly. "I'll show you how to use a ravenclaw! Ice Needles!" This time she bent her knuckles, causing her needles to bend similarly to the ravenclaw than had just been thrown at her. She mimicked Sachi-Aiko's attack with nearly a dozen more weapons. Sachi-Aiko leapt and dodged with grace, although several of the projectiles scratched her skin.

"She's trying to get Sachi-Aiko!" shouted Fritz. "She's separating us!"

"Get back here!" ordered Neil when he saw that this was true.

Samuel jumped back as two crab monsters pushed forward, forcing him and Sachi-Aiko closer towards Garnet and away from Jaqui, Fritz, and Neil. The monsters fired off another volley of spikes, preventing them from reuniting and helping each other. The other three had their hands full, or in Jaqui's case feet, with the three monsters that had nearly surrounded them. Samuel targeted the one that was closest to him and fired, shooting directly through one of the knee joints. The leg fell off entirely at that joint, twitching on the ground and spilling navy blood before going still.

"Web of Mist!" while they were all busy, Garnet finished her newest spell. Frozen ropes formed at the ends of her fingers, which she commanded with the expertise of a puppet master. The thickest one connected to her thumb slammed Samuel across his chest with near bone-breaking force. His head exploded in pain a moment later when he was knocked into the side of another building. All he could do was slump to the ground, stunned, tasting blood in the back of his throat.

"Sachi!" shouted Fritz, never finishing her name because his weapon jarred off of the shell of the ice crab.

The remaining parts of Garnet's spell wrapped around Sachi-Aiko, binding her tight, holding her five feet off of the ground. She struggled against the icy tendrils, but all of her limbs had been pinned tightly to her side. Goosebumps rose on her skin because of the bindings. She kicked and squirmed, but it was futile, she was completely ensnared. Garnet held her easily, as if she were no more than a fly in a spider's web.

"Her...shield's gone," groaned Samuel, clutching his ribs. He realized that for Garnet to use her webs to attack, she had to disperse her shield otherwise it would get in the way. He knew this was their time to take her out, since she was the greatest threat despite appearances.

He felt around with his left hand, trying to reach his pistol which he had dropped when he hit the wall. His chest tightened and he coughed up the blood he had been trying to swallow. He doubled over to try to minimize the pain it caused him. The blood landed on his gun, freckling it with dark spots. The blood was black. His eyes went wide with memory. It was the same as the dream, the same as it had been years ago—black blood on the pistol. Only that time, the blood wasn't his.

"You are the one, the one from twenty years ago," Garnet said, but it wasn't her voice. Her voice had taken a dual tone; the second layer was dark, cruel, and inhuman. Samuel had heard it before, and it sent him spiraling back into his worst nightmare. "The time has come; my curse is ripe. Before this year ends I will eat your flesh and drink your blood!"

A spasm from his shoulder kept Samuel from replying, even if he did have anything to say. His left shoulder shook with pain worse than his chest, worse than it had ever hurt before. He clutched it and gnashed his teeth, using all of his power not to scream. It felt as if his skin was trying to separate from his bones. He doubled over in agony, his nose only a few knuks from his pistol. Sensory flooded him as he relived the memories from twenty years ago. He gasped from breath as he bit back screams, but his ears were already exploding with someone else's cries. No one else could hear them; they belonged to the past.

"Father...no..." he gasped. His eyes were wide and unblinking. An emotion he hadn't felt for a long time rose—fear. It overwhelmed him; driving away most of the physical pain, making his shoulder seemed like mere throbbing.

"Stop it! Leave him alone!" protested Sachi-Aiko, who was the only one who was close enough to see how unnerved he had become.

"You should be worried about yourself, Sunflare!" hissed Garnet, now speaking as just herself. "As foretold, you will be sealed away for all eternity, just like that pathetic, weak king! Then, my lord shall conquer this land and everyone will bow to him or die!"

Sachi-Aiko stopped struggling and looked at her in disbelief. "What are you talking about? Your lord is going to fail! Wait...your lord is the monster overlord, right?"

"You know the prophecy! Today's your last day to see the sun!"

"Is your veil too tight?! The prophecy says this'll only be a set back!" shouted Sachi-Aiko, who started struggling again.

"You backward fool. You never should have attempted to defy The Shadow! Now you'll pay the price!" Garnet shouted back. She closed her fingers, causing the icy ropes to bind Sachi-Aiko tighter, almost with crushing force.

"I don't know what prophecy you're reading, but it's wrong!" counter Sachi-Aiko, despite the pain from the new pressure. She even managed to hide a grimace.

Garnet didn't verbally reply. Instead, she closed her fingers more, causing Sachi-Aiko to yelp. She gathered ice energy in her free right hand which formed into an orb glowing with pale blue light. She laughed as she threw it at her prisoner. The orb expanded, drawing in hail and rain in a rush of wind and dazzling light. It faded as fast as it was formed, but the damage was done. Sachi-Aiko had been completely trapped inside a cluster of ice crystals that were so closely together her form could barely be seen inside.

"Who's sealed now?" sneered Garnet. Her webs still bound the prisms that she had just made, allowing her to easily carry it.

"What have you done?" asked Neil, aghast.

"I said kill them all," Garnet commanded her monsters.

As the crabs once more cut them off, she began a new summon. A magic circle formed behind her as she continued the spell, the magic gathering and taking shape into a new monster. This one looked like a white horse that exhaled frost with each breath. However, it was several hands taller than even the biggest horses and it had eight legs. Garnet swung onto its back and wrapped her free fingers in its mane. She directed her webs to set the ice cage with Sachi-Aiko inside on the creature's flanks. Then, she ordered it down another street and out of sight.

"Sachi-Aiko!" called Fritz, but she was gone.

Four monsters gathered around them, vibrating as they drew moisture from the air. The fifth was dead, having lost a leg to Samuel, two more to Neil, and gained a fractured shell because of Jaqui and Fritz. Their spines reformed from the bottom up, the edges shimmering dangerously. Neil, Jaqui, and Fritz prepared for the next attack, but Samuel was still trembling on the ground.

Once more in unison, the monsters fire all their spines. One flew right above Samuel's head, driving halfway into the wall before coming to a stop. The others dodged to the best of their abilities. Jaqui, in a burst of agility, charged the nearest ice crab as the spines flew at her. She nimbly ducked under them and landed a swift combination of kicks to its underbelly while the creature was helpless. With a shrill type of squeal it spewed blue blood, some of it splashing onto Jaqui. Its legs twitched and it fell onto its belly. The head section rolled slightly and then it went still.

"The stomach!" panted Jaqui. "The stomachs are soft! Hit them there!"

"Do it fast!" added Fritz. "We have to follow them!"

Jaqui nodded, "It's best to strike before they can get those spikes back!"

The remaining three crabs walked sideways, making a wall as they focused, recreating their spines. Their close proximity made it hard for them to attack their stomachs. Fritz bit his lip out of worry. With the monsters this close, it would be nearly impossible to dodge all of the spikes. Then, his eyes lit up with an idea.

"Neil! Help me get close to them!" Fritz requested. He hurried forward without looking back, close to the end of the monsters' line.

"What?! They're about to attack!" protested Neil. However, he was already hurrying to Fritz. His instinctive protective nature wouldn't let him do otherwise.

"Exactly!" chimed Fritz, a smile forming.

He was now close enough that the crabs could reach him. The nearest one stretched out its needle leg to run him through. Neil arrived just as the leg came down. He caught it with his staff and held it away, matching strength for strength. Fritz ducked under their struggle and swung his weapon with both of his hands. It connected with the monster's underside, the fork prongs driving in deep. However, Fritz continued to follow through with his swing. He flipped the monster over onto the one beside it. Their new spines mutually impaled each other.

Neil backed away, impressed. "Nicely done."

"Thanks!" chimed Fritz.

The remaining monster fired its spines, but the two men were shielded by the bodies of the two they had just defeated. Jaqui was left exposed, but her speed helped her dodge the attacks. A few spikes missed her by inches, ripping the skirt of her dress to ribbons which revealed the black britches she had on underneath. However, much to her surprise, the monster lunged forward at her instead of rebuilding its spines. She jumped backward and stumbled on a broken spike despite her strong ankles.

"Jaqui!" cried Fritz and Neil as they hurried to help her.

Fritz raced to her side and helped steady her while Neil stood between them and the monster, ready to defend. As the crab stepped forward, Neil caught its leg with his staff, and began to shove it back in an attempt to flip it over and expose its underbelly. He held the leg up with brute force, but couldn't manage to gain any further advantage.

"Watch out!" shrieked Jaqui.

The monster swung its weight, which flipped the short staff out of Neil's hands and sent it flying across the street. All that he could do was follow it with his eyes. Neil staggered as the crab continued to spin, bringing another leg down on him.

BANG! A section of the crab's head near the neck disappeared, spilling more blood. The creature went as limp as a rag doll. Behind it Samuel stood, his firing arm extended and his pistol wisping smoke. His face was pale and sweat plastered strands of his black hair to his forehead. He lowered his arm and silence fell across all of them as they recovered and processed the battle that they had just won.

"Samuel...thank you," said Neil, who was the first to break that silence.

"Don't think I did it for you!" snapped Samuel, sulking back in his cloak. He inched away from the others as they gathered together, away from the monster corpses. The people of Martag were beginning to gather now that the dangers were over, talking and asking questions among themselves. "Let's just go." Samuel grumbled and added a few expletives just to make himself feel better.

"We should stay here and explain what happened," Neil said. "Even help them clean up this mess."

Samuel was about to snap at him, but Fritz spoke before he could, "We can't wait! Sachi-Aiko is in trouble! We have to follow before we lose them!" The people arriving were looking at them and their battle stained clothing strangely, although they were keeping their distance—for now.

"But...isn't she..." stammered Jaqui, then she gulped, "...dead?"

Fritz's energy immediately slumped. Jaqui was looking at her feet again, as if she was ashamed that she had even spoken. A grim atmosphere descended on them, causing Samuel to groan internally because everyone else had taken root and the crowd around them was growing steadily larger. He let out an exasperated breath, regretting his plan before he even spoke it.

"She's not dead," he grated. "But I'll only say more if we go." He started walking away from the battle scene and the spectators, forcing them to follow him. He could feel Neil's frown on his neck.

Fritz was the first one to catch up with him just as he turned a corner. Samuel could hear Jaqui's and then Neil's footsteps joining them only a few seconds later. Neil pausing a moment, probably to pick up his staff which Samuel noticed on the ground only a few seconds later.

"What do you mean she's not dead? We all saw her coated in ice. How can she be alive?" Fritz asked forcefully, hoping against logic.

"Use your head. If she was dead, that Garnet woman wouldn't have bothered hauling her away," retorted Samuel. "A hostage slows escape." He crossed his arms, daring any of them to argue with him.

"How can she be alive with all that ice on her?" Fritz repeated. He was frustrating Samuel by being slow on picking up the obvious.

"An enchantment," stated Neil with his fingers in his beard again. "I thought I heard Garnet say something about a seal..."

They turned down another worn street, on smaller than the last. It was more mud than mulch but at least the buildings acted like a buffer from the commotion they had just left. The rain stopped but they were all already soaked and longing for the sun. However, it still remained blocked behind a mass of grey clouds.

"Then we have to save her and break the spell!" exclaimed Fritz. He looked around at their expressions, but no one shared his enthusiasm. "Don't you see what's going on? Everything she read in that prophecy just came true! We have to save her and fight off the monsters and be heroes!"

"We do have to help her," Neil slowly agreed. "But we need to think this through. It's too dangerous to rush in without a plan. And what about your..." He turned to Jaqui but was surprised to see that she was already looking up at him instead of at her shoes.

"I'll look for Alaine as we go. But Sachi-Aiko is in real danger so we have to help her right now."

"So much for thinking things through. I never should have opened my mouth," thought Samuel.

Fritz was jittery with excitement, already seeing himself as a great warrior and showing it by striking dramatic poses to other battle scenes that existed solely in his imagination. Jaqui had a type of confidence and resolve that would be unshakable despite her weaker nature. It actually made it possible to see her blue eyes. Even Neil has sunk into contemplation as he worked out a plan for all of them to follow, offering suggestions as they occurred to him.

Samuel blocked out their conversation. He already knew that he was going to get dragged into whatever rescue mission they came up with. As they walked he lagged back, forcing himself to keep his hands in his pockets so that he wouldn't grab his shoulder which was still tingling. It was the second-to-last thing that he wanted to do—challenge anything that The Shadow clearly has his fingers in. Fritz's point about the prophecy coming true made him deeply uneasy. He was genuinely afraid that it would lead him to the one place he had been running from all these years—the place where he would die.

The End of The Rowanoak Chronicles Book 1