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The Adventures of Stormblade 8

By Johnny Tai, (C) 2008



BLOOD BATH



"The only verdict is vengeance; a vendetta held as a votive, not in vain, for the value and veracity of such shall one day vindicate the vigilant and the virtuous."

V - V FOR VENDETTA.

"The Wind blows as it wills. This day it sails your ships to glory, and on the morrow, to Abyss."

- PHAREL STORMBLADE



PROLOG



The halls echoed with the footsteps as the small army of cutthroats, mercenaries and fame-seekers swarmed into the heart of the home of Djinnis. Bearing banners and armors of all lands, they were 200 strong and as eager as wolves on the trail of a wounded stag. Bodies of djinni defenders laid all about amidst severed limbs and heads. Many still groaned and screamed, suffering from mortal wounds that did not kill cleanly. Some pillars, as big around as three men in one, were blasted into piles of debris. A thick trail of blood ran from the Hall of Holiness and snaked its way a crossed the main hall - the result of the head of the djinni cleric being carried like a trophy on the lance of a lancer.

Here and there, small pockets of brave djinni fighters still fought on, but all knew that it was but a matter of moments before they were wiped out. A djinni with one arm severed, blood pouring out of several deep gashes on his body, slammed his knife into the back of a leather-clad mercenary who went down like a sack of bricks. Before the djinni could pull the knife free, a broadsword sent his head flying a crossed the hall. The wielder of the sword, a Ralnoth warrior by his garb, turned and flailed his way through two more foes before receiving a bolt of lightning in the chest. Dusting his hands, the djinni apprentice of magic prepared to send more lightning bolts into the invaders. His magic failed him however as a jagged shard of ice took him in the throat, tearing out two-third of his neck muscles, drowning him in his own blood.

In the center of the mob, her ageless face cold and deadly beautiful, was Murgh the Frost Queen, her silver and white breastplate throwing off shafts of lights from the torches. Her dark cloak barely brushing the polished stone floor as she hovered, directing her thugs into yet another main hall of the structure. Bearing no helm, her long white hair flowed out behind her like newly cut white gold threads.

In front of the right flank of the troop, a young man with medium height and strong, muscular torso waved his followers on with his dark steel sword. Demex the Strong they called him, and he definitely lived up to that name. His leather and steel armor plates hugged him like a second skin, showing off his well-toned body. On his face was a smirk of uncaring pride, and he snapped his words, directed at those around him, as he would a whip. Those who new of him stayed well clear of his sword-arm, for they knew that when it came down to it, Demex the Strong would cut through allies and enemies alike without a second glance.

Slightly to the left and back of the Frost Queen, stood a tall man who seemed to loom over those around him. Dressed in fine mithril plates and helm, the man wore a pair of silvery scimitars on his back, their hilts poking above his wide shoulders. Older than Demex by at least ten winters, but perhaps younger than The Queen, the man's scarred face was stoney and set. A pair of iceberg eyes stared out of that once handsome face, and a long tail of black mane snaked out from beneath the back of his crested helm and was pulled over his left shoulder. Unlike those around him, the man looked neither gleeful nor nervous upon the carnage all about.

"On you dogs, on!" Demex shouted, swinging his sword viciously. His armors were covered in crimson, yet he seemed to relish the feel of them as he smote left and right, his blade biting into steels, muscles and bones with the ease of a scythe through weeds. Djinnis fell back before his fury as he charged ahead with his company of mercenaries. Cleaving one warrior cleanly in half, Demex spun, his sword coming around in an arc and exploded through a dagger-wielding djinni in a fountain of blood. The blade continued on past the victim and crunched into the chest of one of his own men.

"Idiot!" Demex cursed and pulled his sword free of the dead man's body. "Out of my way!'

"How refreshing..." Murgh smiled coldly as she watched the young warrior. "Violence, arrogance, youth, skills, anger, all in one package... That just makes one feels... Warm... Inside..."

"Tis a waste of men if I do say so me self," muttered the tall man at Murgh's side. "Nothing turn a man against you sooner than cutting them down simply for that they're close enough for striking."

"Ah... You worry too much," said the Frost Queen. "These men are but mutts from the streets. I say the more he down, the lesser we'll have to split the loots with..."

A hot retort froze on the lips of the man as, with a shocked cry, the mercenary to his right fell clutching at his throat where a white-feathered shaft could be seen. Suddenly men were ducking and falling down as arrows rained down with frightening speed. A murlock, clad in studded leathers, tried to leap behind the line for safety, but was cut down by his own panicking allies. Rising up, an ogre bellowed his war cry before the archers turned him into a pincushion. The man with the scarred face did not even flinch as he looked around for the source of the barrage, arrows breaking upon his armor plates and fall around him.

On the middle of the grand stairway, which led up to the head quarter of the djinni headmaster, five grim djinni archers stood in a triangular formation. Behind the five stood an old djinni in white robes, his hands hidden in his wide sleeves. The staircase rose 100 feet into the air like the curved neck of a giant swan. Its railings were bejeweled with egg-size gemstones, and the steps were paved with white marble. Thirty feet up from where the invaders stood, these djinnis had both height and range on their side, and they were making the best of it. Ordinarily, it would be a simple charge for a well-trained troop to close the distance and bring down the six, but as Dentin would have it, the mob was neither well trained nor was it particularly brave of hearts. Most in the invaders were there for the treasures and the sport of conquering, and these were not eager to charge forth when their own lives were threatened. The large invasion force soon degenerated into chaos and became a living example of 'every man for his own while more of them were fell by arrows.

Somewhere in the back, mercenaries were breaking for the main gates. These were not harassed by arrows and were allowed to leave. The djinnis were more concerned with driving back the invaders than vengeance. Seeing that, more people turned to flee, and many were cut down by more zealous comrades. Fights broke out among the fortune hunters as fear and bloodlust drove them on. In just minutes, nearly half the original force was gone, most of which were deserters. Even with their numbers reduced, the djinnis knew that the enemies could still take the home-place easily if they were given a chance to regroup; thus, the archers fired on without slacking a single bit. The white-robed djinni at the back had yet to lift a finger. He merely stood there still as a statue, studying the scene below.

A white aura sprung up around Murgh the Frost Queen, blocking off the arrows headed towards her. All around her, the hired killers were disorganized and mad with fear as each tried to find a safe place to stand. With incredible calm, she looked up into the eyes of the old djinni 30 feet above her men and nodded to herself. Raising her hands, she began to cast a spell just as the men to her right cried out in anger and fright. The wave of mercenaries parted slowly as a blood-soaked figure strode towards her, cutting men out of its way as it came closer.

Like a creature out of the nightmares of men, Demex the Strong, sword dripping blood, stopped beside the hovering woman. "Idiots ought to learn to get out of the way... May it be arrows or my sword." He spat to the side and wiped the blade on the side of his leggings. "Anyway to remove those pests?"

"You mean the djinnis, or what's left of us?" The tall man with the scarred face had moved in close as he remarked. Standing about four feet to the left of Murgh, the top of his mithril helm nearly leveled with the top of her head even

though he was grounded while she was afloat. His blades still sheathed on his back, he casually clasped his gauntleted hands before him as arrows sought gaps in his armors.

"Har, har, har," the younger man laughed dryly. "You choose a fine time to get a sense of humor, but if you must know, I meant those cowards up there."

"Cowards? I thought they're being quite clever my self."

"Bah!" Demex spat. "Not a brave bone in one of them, and if I... Ummph!" A broad-headed arrow pierced the warrior's left shoulder, through leather and muscles, cutting off the rest of his speech as he grunted in pain. "Motherless..." he swore, and in one fluid motion, he swung his sword high and cast it out and up as if throwing a knife. The blade sailed overhead, spinning around and around in midair, before reaching its mark. The foremost archer caught a flash of steel, raised his longbow to deflect the missile, his free hand reaching for another arrow. The hardwood bow exploded into chips of jagged fragments, barely slowing the heavy sword as its spiked hilt struck the grip, shuttering the archer's hand in the process. The momentum of the contact spun the sword around one last time, the razor blade sent the lead archer's upper torso falling over the railing in a shower of blood and entrails. The lower half followed mere seconds later as the legs gave up their task of holding up their owner.

Wheeling around, Demex yanked a heavy spear out of the hand of a surprised mercenary, this one a northerner by the look of his simple steel breastplate and crude iron helmet. As the soldier opened his mouth to protest, the strong-man turned the spear around and drove the butt-end into its original wielder's throat, crushing the man's larynx. As the mercenary struggled for breath on the ground, clutching at his ruined throat, Demex turned and cast the spear all in one motion. The spear flew true and straight through the air, and just as it was about to reach its target, the djinni mage brought his hands up and muttered a spell. A six-foot wall of crystal appeared out of thin air before the archers as they dropped to their knees as one behind it. The thrown spear struck the wall and broke into pieces before raining down to the floor below. Rising back up, the archers drew and sent another sheet of arrows at the attackers, killing some and wounding many more.

"Blasted, the mage!" muttered Demex, blood pouring out of his left shoulder where the shaft of the arrow stuck out. "At least I got one of em..."

"And disabled yet another of ours," retorted the taller man, looking at the dying soldier on the ground who still tried hard to breathe. Walking over to the dying man, his scarred face expressionless, the man drew an iron dagger from the soldier's belt and drove it up at an angle into the man's skull from just below the chin. The mercenary, who would never see the northern mountains again, twitched once more, and then died.

"Now-now," said Demex with a smirk. "Now who's killing our own?"

"He was suffering needless pain due to your action," the taller man snapped, glaring at his companion. "I granted him mercy."

"Meh," sneered Demex. "Mercy is for the weak, pain only makes one stronger!"

Nodding, the mithril-clad warrior walked over to Demex and examined the arrow sticking out of his shoulder. "Hurt?"

"You bet your mother it does."

"Well now," a smile lit the man's face, almost making it handsome. "You are about to become stronger..." So saying, he grabbed the shaft and jerked the barbed arrow out of the younger man's shoulder in a geyser of blood. The broad head of the arrow grated against bones before being ripped out of the wound, trailing bits of flesh on the barbs.

Demex did not scream, but his face turned seven shades of white as he grinded his teeth. Sweat broke out on his forehead and the sides of his neck as the pain washed over him. Laying a hand on the wounded shoulder, the taller man, after throwing the arrow aside, muttered a few words of power. The blood stopped as the muscles and skins knitted them selves, leaving a sorry-looking scar where the wound had been.

"You... A cleric?" Demex asked, his face relaxing now that the pain was fading.

"Not quite," answered the man with the scarred face. "I can cure horses, and their behinds, but I have not the skills for true healings, so don't go lose a limb or something."

A loud *CRACK* made the two men turn around in time to see Murgh the Frost Queen drawn into a deadly magical combat against the djinni mage. Bolts of lightning and balls of fire, collided with blades and spears formed of ice, sending hissing vapors in all directions. The mage, now also surrounded by a white aura, his long hair flying out behind him, whipped his arms forward again and again, throwing deadly blasts of magic down from above while a similarly sanctified Murgh struggled to hold her own with her cold spells. A long spike of ice narrowly missed the djinni's face by inches as a bolt of lightning crashed into the aura around the attractive woman, sending her sliding backward in the air. Without pausing, the woman's hands rose above her head as if in surrender. From the tips of her fingers speared jagged lances of ice that flew upward and smashed upon the crystal wall shielding the djinnis. Cracks ran along the surface of the crystal, but it held for the moment. The archers, now only four, renewed their attacks on the murderers with hope dawning in their eyes.

"Go," said the taller man, "rally the men and take half to yon hall to the west. Send the rest to the mouth of the east hallway to await the Queen and I."

Widening his eyes in anger, Demex crossed his arms before him and planted his feet stubbornly. "Since when were you appointed general commander, and why not just all retreat to the east, to the Hall of Shadows?"

"Firstly," the tall man glared back, "I've no time to worry about your feelings over command structures, either do as I've bidden or come up with a plan of your own. Live or die, matter not to me, but quickly, I shall not be here when more djinnis arrive to reinforce yon archers in turning us all to dog meats. Secondly, had we taken our force into one hall as you suggested, the archers would come down those steps and block the entrance off from behind. We'd be as sitting hogs in that hallway with arrows at our backs. My plan be to split our force into two halls, and should they abandon that high ground, we'd have them in a vice."

The two men locked gazes for a few seconds longer before Demex turned and stormed off, issuing commands to the mercenaries by words, kicks and fists. Sluggishly, the men responded to the orders being issued and separated into two roughly equal-sized groups. One group inched their way across the hall where arrows still hailed, towards a dimly lit hallway to the east. The second group, headed by the strong-man himself, withdrew towards the west hall where the mob had came out of before the archers ambushed it.

"Loose fast! Do not let them retreat into west hall!" An archer shouted and soon the arrows were all concentrated on Demex's group.

"Shields up you dogs! I say now!" shouted Demex, holding up a shield he had looted from a corpse as he passed it. The men who had shields immediately angled them upward, but those were few indeed. Since shield-fighting was an art all on its own, not many warriors bothered to carry one around less it became a hindrance in battle. Many more fell as they pushed forward, and the djinnis rained arrows down with neither mercy nor rest.

Watching briefly, the taller man turned to check on their leader, and found that she was in no condition to know what was happening. The duel of magic took all her concentration, and not a side seemed to be gaining ground. Nodding to himself, the man sprinted towards the stairs, drawing his scimitars as he went. The silver blades were three feet long of magically enchanted steel, single-edged and with just enough of a curve in them to add to the force of the blows. The blades sang in the air as they came out of their sheaths, and the man crossed them before him as he ran, deflecting occasional arrows with quick flicks of his wrists. The torchlight bounced off the silver scimitars, illuminating the word DEFENDER on the side of one and AVENGER on the other.

Reaching the bottom, the man started up the stairs, his long legs carrying him two, three steps at once. He knew that, could he but gain the landing, he could cut down the archers and mage before they could react; however, he too knew that the men below could not hold the attentions of the djinnis long since most of them had by now gained the protections of the hallways. Indeed, ere he reached the top, one of the archers shouted a warning, and all four shifted at once, sending arrows at him. 'Curse the luck,' the man thought as he deflected two arrows with his blades while his armors blocked off the others. A few more steps, then he'd have reached them, but just as the thought crossed his mind, the mage whipped his arms around, and a giant yellow fireball came howling towards him at close range.

There was no thought, only pure instinct saved the man from an almost certain fiery death. He felt the heat of the fire, smelled charring hair as the projectile nicked the end of his trailing braid as he dove off the side of the stairway, barely stopping his fall to the floor below by kicking a leg up high and just managing to hook it over the railing. Amazingly, he still gripped both scimitars in his fists as he dangled 30 feet above the ground by one leg, his heavy armors making the task extremely painful. He could feel his one boot heating up as the fireball past through the spot he just vacated, inches from the sole of his foot.

Twisting his body upward, his stomach and back muscles protesting the weight of his armors, the man brought both scimitars to his shoulders so the inner-sides lay against the sides of his helm. As the mage drew back one hand to cast another spell, the man smiled and mouthed, "See you in hell, mage," and kicked off the railing in a half-freefall somersault. The blue eyes rolled back in the man's head as he let his blood fever boil to the surface. His pushing off the railing sent him flipping at an angle towards the massive pillar that supported the underside of the staircase. A deep roar rose from the man's chest, a wordless, shattering roar which began its life as the voice of a man, then as it grew, it gained the resonance of that of a god.

Just as the armored form was about to smash himself to death on the side of the pillar, the man kicked both feet forward and flipped upright, facing the massive support. As djinnis and men looked on from top and below, the scimitars struck. Over 300 pounds of man and mithrils and enchanted steels drove into the side of the structure blades first, powered by the insane strength of a berserker. The scimitar in his left hand stuck fast in the stonework, buried up to the hilt and effectively stopping his fall briefly. Pulling back his right arm, the man slammed forth again with his free blade. The thick column groaned as the right scimitar, The Avenger, shattered into fragments against its side. Pulling back, the man drove his gauntleted right fist into the pillar again and again, sending chips of marble showering down. Finally, the left scimitar came free and the man fell, rolling down the side of the violated pillar. Amazingly, the pillar still held.

A wave of extreme cold washed over the falling man when he was still six feet above the ground as a cone of bluish energy past through and around him and into the pillar. His limbs frozen, his blood slowed, the blue eyes returned to their normalcy as the man lost all control of his muscles. Like a sack of iron scraps, he thumped into the ground and sagged against the foot of the pillar, barely conscious. With a thundering *CCRRAACK!*, the pillar exploded outward, the stones could no longer stand the punishments. Pieces of marble, bigger than a man's body, flew up and out before smashing themselves into smaller pieces on the ground. The huge staircase sagged, cracked, and then fell in upon itself, throwing archers and mage towards the ground with gigantic sections of marble and granite chasing after them.

Foot-long blades of ice sprung up from the ground all around the fallen warrior, one piercing his left thigh though his numb body did not register it. In cool detachment, he noted the thrashing, screaming djinnis doing their final dances of death, impaled on ice. His gaze met Murgh's, and he watched her calmly walking towards the Hall of Shadows without a backward glance.

"...Oh Cygnii, I'm too tired..." The warrior barely whispered before tons of rocks obliterated the center of the grand hall. A wisp of white light drifted lazily out from beneath the small mountain of rocks, but other than that, all was quiet.



Part I: There's an Ill Wind Blowing.



"Oh. No, you would not part an old man from his walking stick?"

- GANDALF THE WHITE - THE LORD OF THE RINGS



I

A large gate made of magically captured winds blocked the path into the castle which floated several hundred feet in the air. There seemed to be a hole in the middle of the gate as if some key could open it. Graceful towers and domed buildings rose behind the enchanted walls of the castle, one in particular set higher than the rest in the heart of the fantastic display. This last was the size of a large house, with glass walls of green, blue and gold runes etched on them.

Within the structure, the djinnis dwelled, locking them selves away from the world in isolation. It was said that the djinnis had produced the best trainers in the four major combat classes: mage, warrior, assassin and cleric, yet they refused to pass their teaching on to any race beside their own. Putting them selves above all others, the djinnis chose to live outside the major societies, and away from the creatures whom they deemed unworthy.

A creature, constructed of wind, floated lazily outside the gate, barring the path of those who sought entry. Usually, there would be two such creatures on guard duty at all times, but its partner had called in sick earlier this morning and left the safety of the gate in its keeping. *No problem,* it thought, *It's not like we ever got anything that I can't handle alone anyway...* But, easy as the job might've been, the elemental was bored. It had been on duty for 18 hours already, and the only happening was the two newbies who came to seek the teachings from the djinni masters. The elemental had easily changed their minds and sent them packing for home.

Just as the elemental was entertaining the thought of dancing up a tornado, it sensed someone approaching the gate. *Good,* it thought, happy for another chance to teach those mortals a lesson. Puffing itself up to twice its actual size, the wind elemental shrieked and moaned like a hungry ghost - an act that had scared many mortals from this gate in the past. This time however, it did not work as the figure came ever closer.

The human, it was certainly a human as the elemental's senses picked up, had almost reached the gate, when the creature drifted down out of the sky and landed before him. Taking a good look at the new comer, the elemental was taken aback by the attire of the human. The human appeared to be male, and very tall for its race. He was wearing an ancient gladiator's galea which had no visor except a curved noseguard. A headdress of blue silk and gold trims was pulled over the helm, its hood lowered to shadow the man's face. The symbol of a golden cobra adorned the front of the hood, and beneath that, the man's iceberg-colored eyes peered out from within the shadow of the hood. A long ponytail of jet-black hair, streaked with silver, snaked out from beneath the galea and rested upon the man's broad shoulders, around a spiked collar of black metal. A ruby-lined cloak was draped about the man's body, covering a silvery breastplate which glowed fiercely. A pair of jadite armplates protected his arms, with matching leggings on his legs. A pair of mithril-plated warboots and mithril gauntlets completed the image, and as the man walked closer, the elemental noticed a pair of odd-looking bracers hanging from his wrists. The bracer on the left wrist was runed in strange lines of texts, and it glowed as fiercely as the man's breastplate. The bracer on the right was adorned with feathers of different colors, and it looked as if it once belonged to some tribal shaman. The man carried a rusty, battered tower shieled on his back, and resting beside it was a beautifully runed flutecase of ironwood. In his right hand, the man held a walking staff carved from a piece of lotus wood, and as he drew nearer, he held out his left hand in a gesture of peace. A golden ring of dwarven worksmanship glowed around the man's left index finger as he held out his hand.

"Hail elemental!" the man called, striding closer.

The creature gazed hard at the man, not bothering to reply. Its silence did not seem to concern the stranger as the man stop just a few feet before the gate and the wind creature.

"I come, bearing ill tiding of great conflict. Allow me in to speak to your masters." The man said, his cold eyes bore into the creature's own.

"We allow no man or devil to venture upon our halls with weapon in hand." the elemental sneered. "Submit thy arm and maybe then I'll allow ye passage."

"Come now," the man chuckled good-naturedly. "Even a creature such as ye would not be so rude as to deprive a man of his walking stick!"

"A staff may be more lethal than a blade in the hand of one who practices the art of magic. Plus, I heard that line before." the elemental insisted. "Either submit thy staff and shield or be gone. I do be growing tired of thy mortal presence."

"Very well," the man sighed, "Then I shall pass the message on to ye and then depart. Do pass on the message to thy masters once ye be in their presence, though I fear that will be too late."

"State thy tiding and be gone then, I shall decide upon the urgency of thy news." the elemental said, leaning in to listen.

"Through the grapevines I've heard," the man said softly, also leaning towards the elemental, "That one man will come, striding out of the shadows of the Old World, and he will bring doom to the djinnis."

"And," asked the elemental, "who may such person be? I find this news to be unbelievable, for there is no man in this world who can defeat the might of the djinni masters alone..."

"The man," said the human, his eyes flashed with a dangerous look, "is Pharel Stormblade!" With these words, the man slammed his staff into the ground right at the elemental's feet. All the creature had time to think was, "Oops..." as huge spikes of ice burst out of the ground right beneath it, piercing its magical body, killing it instantly.

Placing the staff into the ironwood flutecase, the man unstrapped his shield from his back. With his right hand, he drew the sign of the Wind of Death in the air before him, and slowly, the wind gate opened up. "Now, let the game begin..."



Part II: Magic and Steel.



"Take me through the magic of the moment on this glorious night, where the children of tomorrow dream away in the winds of change..."

- THE WINDS OF CHANGE - SCORPIONS



I

There were hundreds of beakers and bottles full of strange substances in this room, and spell components being mixed and tested by new djinni mages. Two young djinnis in white robes were currently engaged in a hot debate, facing off one another across a long metal table.

"I do say that fireball do be the finer art of combative spells!" The taller of the two argued, gesturing with his hands, nearly knocking over a bubbling glass tube.

"Nay," countered the shorter, more heavy-looking one, fists at his sides. "Lightning spells are the best, for they carry the might of Zeus with them."

"Balderdash!" said the first djinni, "Fire is the fear of all creatures, and..." He stopped in mid scentence and looked up as his ears caught the sound of approaching footsteps. "Hmmm, who would be calling at this time of the eve?"

They both looked expectantly towards the door which led into the hallway. As the sound drew closer, they could make out the clinking of armors and the creeking sounds of leathers. In the dark of the night, the sounds were ominous in the echoing hall outside the lab.

"Must be another one of those damnable muscleheads from the warrior's hall," said the shorter djinni, trying to shake off the sudden terror he felt in his soul.

The door opened slowly, and the two young djinnis gazed in awe at the big man who strode calmly into the room. The man was tall. He towered a full hand even over the taller of the two mages, and he was dressed in full armor which consisted of various strange artifacts that the young djinnis had never seen before. So awed were the two mages over the stranger's outfit that they did not even notice that he was clearly not of their own race. Framed in the doorway, his shadow playing on the far wall, the man looked as if he was a good 10 feet tall - a fact that, though not possible, was nonetheless horrifying.

In his left hand, the man held a rusty, battered tower shield close to his body, and in his right, he held a triple-headed spear, carved from pure sapphire. A pair of cold eyes looked out of the shadows beneath his helm and headdress, freezing the two djinnis in place as they gaped at the figure.

"Show me to thy master," the man said in a soft, deep voice.

Snapping out of their revery, the two mages snickered surprisingly. Their shocked minds had not the wisdom needed to comprehend the danger of the situation they were in; instead, they thought this was a mere prank. One could not fault them for the mistake, for they were young, and this was indeed a strange circumstance.

"We don't welcome pig-headed warriors in this hall," said the taller mage.

"Who do you think you are, Posidon?" mocked the second.

Laughing at each other's remarks, they both missed the cold gaze the man directed towards them. "I'll say this again," he hissed dangerously. "Show me to thy master."

The taller djinni got off of his stool and swaggered towards the stranger, preparing a shocking hand spell in his mind. "Hey," he said arrogantly. "Is it true that none of you warriors can cast a decent candle spell?"

"Fools," the man muttered, and before the djinnis had time to react, he drew back his right hand and placed the trident in the chest of the swaggering djinni, resulting in alot of blood. The djinni's body shuddered and went limp as the man withdrew the trident from the twitching body. More blood spewed out of the deep wounds as the djinni fell to the floor, a weak gasp leaving his lips before he went still.

The second djinni's mouth opened in a silent scream as the man calmly stepped over the corpse of his fallen friend and started to approach him. Stumbling off his stool, the djinni held out his hand and attempted to call down lightning from Heaven to strike down this murderer. His hands however, were shaking too badly to make the spell work, and in the second time in two minutes, the djinni tried to scream for help. The scream never came out...

II

The lab, white and clean before, was now covered in blood. Carefully arranged bodyparts and ropes of innards formed the symbol of chaos on the floor. The long table had been shoved up against the wall, and shards of glass from the broken tubes lay in hissing, smoking puddles on the ground. Two hearts sat side by side in a glass bowl surrounded by candles, beside a pair of djinni heads that still wore the expressions of horror and agony.

The candles suddenly dimmed, and the shadow of a robed woman, both beautiful and strangely disturbing, fell over the bowl. Tentacles of darkness reached out from this shadowy figure, riving and twisting in the air. Sheets of light and waves of darkness played around the figure, creating a dizzying mixture of colors and colorlessness. Just as sudden, the figure disappeared, and all traces of blood, guts and gore vanished too, leaving the room once more clean but for the spilled potions and broken glass containers.

The man finished sacrificing the two corpses to his goddess and stood back up to his full hight. From his back he unslung a beautifully runed flutecase of ironwood. Tapping his fingers along a few of the runes, the man smiled as the lid of the case came open and a swirling distortion of time oozed out of the case. Reaching into the time distortion, the man took out a blue ring made of ice. With a wave of his hand, the flutecase sucked the distortion back in and closed its lid. A glittering aura of ice surrounded the man as he slipped the ring onto his middle finger.

Strapping the case back onto his back, the man nodded to himself, picked up his trident which was standing point-down in one corner and bent to pick up his huge shield. Straightening up, his shield hanging by leather ties over one arm, he pulled his tail of mane over his left shoulder, adjusted his helm, and turned towards a door that sat far back in one corner of the lab.

"Forgive me, heavenly Goddess of Chaos," CAME THE WHISPERED PRAYER FROM BENEATH THE HOOD. The quiet lab echoed his footsteps as the pair of armored boots clanked towards the door. Only the lab table and the overturned stools, and maybe the reflections on the surfaces of the shattered pieces of glass, witnessed the murder and the gruesome sacrifice that followed.

III

The room had a stage at the front of it, and many chairs along the back. It was in this room that various mages would come to teach the way of magic to the young djinnis. The floor-length drapes over the huge window, which looked out at the fields below, were pulled shut and fixed in place with a gold clasp. Only the circle of candles arranged around the stage gave the room its minimum brightness. A long carpet of silk led from the foot of the stage to the door which led out into the lab. Many tiny alcoves with runes and symbols over the arches lined both sides of the carpet, shadows dancing just out of the farthest reaches of the light.

At the moment, the resident mage was preparing for his next day's classes. Barely taller than what was average for djinnis, he had a head of shaggy white hair and a full beard also plagued by age. His shoulders, one strong and straight, were now stooped and skinny, and his long boney arms gave him the image of a child's stick drawing. Wearing the undecorated robes proper to his station, he stood near the circle of candles, a thick spellbook in his long-fingered hands. On his feet he wore a pair of white-furred slippers, and his lower half was clad in a pair of simple gray trousers. When the light shined upon his hands, one could see that they too were gloved in white.

Mumbling to himself, the wise, old djinni mage went through a list of spells in his mind - those he would have to teach during the day to come, all the while entertaining his rewarding retirement plan that was drawing ever closer.

*...Firefield...Icebolt...Lightning flash...*

He was tired of teaching, and missed the days of adventures he had as a young one, but his weakening bones could no longer withstand the long journeys and nights without a proper bed. *The bugger with that,* he thought to himself as he remembered that he barely escaped what was called The Ice Invasion, which took place years ago. His beloved master, and uncounted others, had perished in that cruel war which left the djinnis devastated though victorious. It had been a long time since he last thought of that event which most djinnis would not even whisper about. Why then, did he think of it now? "Maybe that's a sign for me to go to bed," he muttered to himself and fumbled for the timepiece in his pocket.

Finding the timepiece proved to be quite a task all on its own. The pocket seemed to grow deeper and more cluttered everytime he reached in for something, even though he clearly recalled having to dump everything out a day before and sort out the junks a mage would gather around him at all times. Tossing a dead frog on the stage with a huff, he pulled out his ashwood wand and laid it beside the slimy find. Next came a small knife that nearly cut him as he grabbed it. A newt's eye followed next, then a lump of something which looked like last week's breakfast. Finally, with a triumphant "woot!" the mage pulled out a heavy silver and gold timepiece before it slipped out of his hand and dropped onto the silk carpet at his feet. "Rat's ass and batshit!" The mage cursed and bent down stiffly to pick up the item.

Picking up his timepiece, he noticed how late it was and thought maybe he ought to go out and tell those two young ones to leave the laboratory. *Oh well,* he thought to himself, *Maybe I'll allow them a few more minutes...* With that thought in mind, he went back to his list of spells. *...Shards...Prism...Candle...Eh?!* The mage's thoughts were cut off as the classroom door opened without being knocked. "How dare ye..." The reprimand died in his throat as he observed the tall figure stepping into the classroom. "Who are ye?" The alerted mage asked, his hands clasped before his thin frame.

The figure, surrounded by several auras of protection, turned and shut the door behind them, and then turned back to face the old djinni. They, him, the mage could see now, was a human male of dominating presence. Piercing iceberg eyes peered out from beneath an ornate hood fitted over a helm which is not of current standard. His broad, tall form encased in heavy armors of several origins, the man's royal cloak was studded with large rubies, and was carrying a tower shield in his left hand while casually holding a beautiful sapphire trident in his right. Cooly, the mage watched as a droplet of blood fell from the tip of the trident and made its way to the carpeted floor.

Slowly, the man leaned the trident in one corner. Reaching up with one gauntleted hand, he drew back the hood of his headdress. Since the galea had no visor, the man's face could be seen clearly once the hood was no longer shadowing his features, and the old djinni gasped as he recognized the long scar which marred the right cheek of the man's angular, hard-edged face.

"Hail, djinni. Ye look well." The man said, his voice low and leveled. "Took up where your master left off I see."

"Pharel Stormblade..." the djinni mage whispered. "You...you were supposed to...to be..."

"Dead?" the tall man chuckled darkly. "Aye that I was, but The Lord of Lies was rather proud of me, thus he recalled me home at the last second." Leveling his gaze at the mage, the armored warrior continued, "It's been long," the man replied, saluting the mage with one gauntlet pressed to his helm. "It is I, Pharel Stormblade of the Clan Blackwind."

"And ye are not here in the name of peace..." It was more of a statement, for the mage had lived long, and could read the mind of many. After all, he remembered what had came to pass in that dreadful war, and now standing before him was one of the major players in that hated memory.

Pharel grinned and shook his head. "Nay indeed."

"And the prize ye seek is not the knowledge of djinni magic," again, a statement rather than a question.

Pharel glared hard at the mage. "Eighteen winters ago, I came to seek the aid of the djinnis, for I was new in this here world and wished to learn from the best..."

"And ye hold anger still cause we refused to pass ye the knoledge ye sought?" the mage glared hard at the man. "Or was thy part in the Ice Invasion not enough of a retribution?"

"The djinnis not only refused me, but left me in a near-dead state. As I lay dying on the steps of the temple of Dentin, my broken body cried out for the soothing of death yet held on to life by will alone, I vowed that one day I would return to the land of djinnis and repay the favor." The warrior said, anger flashing in his cold, blue eyes as the memory resurfaced. "The invasion was only in small part my play, for I took no satisfaction in watching you dogs fall to common mercenaries. Nay djinni, the vengeance is mine, and I alone will deliver the final payment."

"And, here ye are," said the djinni, a faint smile on his lips. "Just as ye hold hate in thy heart, I too welcome this day on which I shall avenge my master."

"Aye indeed." Pharel nodded, loosening his shoulders beneath the weight of his armors.

"The young ones?" The mage inquired.

"Resting in the bosoms of Vember, as ye shall be in minutes."

"Ye might not get out in time this time," warned the mage, feeling sick that this pig of a human would slaughter a couple of young djinnis without feeling a trace of shame.

"We shall see about that," nodded the warrior. "Are ye going to call for the others, or face me alone?"

The djinni mage laughed at that and sat back down behind his desk which was situated on the right of the stage. "Though these bones are old and rusting with illness, I have no need of the might of others to defeat ye in a test of strength. Nay, steel and muscles cannot stand against the art of magic. But if I am to fight ye like a common barfly would, I'd be lowering myself to thy level. So, I give ye this one chance to fall to thy knees and beg for forgiveness." As he spoke, the mage's hands clasped together beneath the desk, a blue ball of fire forming around them. All he had to do was to release the spell and the fireball would annihilate the desk before him and took the warrior before the big man could even react. *A shame though,* the mage thought, *Tis a nice desk...*

Maybe it was because of the mage's anger and grief over the death of two of his most beloved students, or the confidence that made him careless, but the djinni mage could not react in time when, like a man with demonic power, the man known as Stormblade picked up the trident and threw it with one lightning-fast movement. The trident sailed the length of the room like a javelin, and punched through the mage's left shoulder in a fountain of blood. The force of the throw launched the weapon for a few more feet until it was embedded in the wall behind the stunned djinni.

Folding his armored arms acrossed his chest, the warrior watched as the mage's eyes flew wide open as the djinni came to his feet. Blood pumped out of the wounds on the djinni's shoulder, and his left arm fell limply to his side. A wall of flame formed before the wounded mage, and he brought his right hand up and forward in a throwing motion, sending a giant orange fireball leaping forth. The fireball howled across the room and swallowed Stormblade in a confusion of roaring smokes and flames.

Taking his chance, the mage press his hand to his wounded shoulder and muttered a quick spell to cure the serious wound. Looking up, he was about to throw another spell to make sure that the man was dead when he saw the armored form came striding out of the clearing smokes. Shockingly, the mage noticed that not even the man's cloak was touched by his fiery attack, and now the man was advancing on him with a crooked scimitar raised above his head.

"Thy magic dare not touch me!" The warrior said as he strode closer to the confused mage.

As the last of the smokes died down, the mage could now see clearly that the scimitar the vengeful warrior was wielding was none other than the legendary spell-breaker blade. According to legends surrounding the weapon, the blade was forged specifically to combat mages in some distant and ancient war. Many spoke of how the warriors of that forgotten time could march through a field of fire and storm without missing a stride if wielding such a weapon. The djinni realized that he was in serious danger.

As the warrior came closer, the mage desperately tried to cast chain lightning to strike the man down on the spot. Normally, a warrior in full armor would be devastated when hit by lightning, but all the mage got this time was a dreadful emptiness as his spell failed to even connect with the man. Desperately, the mage sent a jagged spear of crystal at the warrior, only to have it deflected by the tower shield in the man's left hand. A circle of red fire blazed forth, setting the carpet and stage ablaze, but the man came on still as if the flames all about him were simple illusions. Then, the world exploded in a series of pains...

Leaping forward, Stormblade brought the scimitar down in two quick slashes as the mage tried to work his magic against the impossible. Like a cat toying with a mouse, the warrior did not cut deep. The first slash gashed the mage's face, giving him a face-wound that was nearly identical to the warrior's own scar. The second stroke ripped acrossed the djinni's chest, opening up the front of the robes and parting skins. Swinging the blade up, the man slapped the mage's face with the flat of his scimitar, handing out a classic insult to the magic user.

As the djinni tried to cast shocking grasp on his own fists, Pharel lashed out with one boot and tripped the mage. The old djinni went down on his hands and knees as the warrior's boot crashed into the back of his skull in a powerful full circle kick. Rolling away from the savage swordsman, the mage struggled to his feet and uttered the words, "burning hand," only to see the front of a silver breastplate as it slammed into him, knocking him off his feet. The bash was so powerful that the skinny mage went airborn upon contact and flew across the room. Lying on the floor dazed, the mage didn't even attempt to get out of the way when his vision was blocked by an armored, silvery form with billowed cloak and raised blade as the warrior came flying through the air towards him in a perfect execution of leaping attack. So stunned was the djinni that he did not feel the killing blow or hear the crunch as the blade bit into bones, nor did he feel the warmth as blood soked his robe or feel odd as his eyes looked, from across the room, at a decapitated body in white robes, twitching on the floor.

From within the darkness of the room's shadows, a voice spoke up, "Flawless...victory..." Retrieving his trident, the warrior tapped the blade of his scimitar against the lid of the flute case. A soft light surrounded both blade and case, and when it cleared, the blade was again taken to that magical place where the case stored its contents. Performing the same magic with his trident, the man sent it away also as he pulled his cloak around himself. "And they said that steel cannot defeat magic..."



Part III: A Debt Paid



"Don't lose your grip on the dreams of the past. You must fight just to keep them alive."

- SURVIVOR - EYE OF THE TIGER



I

The room was filled with stuffed dummies. Soft mats covered the hardwood floor, and leather-wrapped bags filled with rice hung from cross-bars that were nailed into the ceiling. The bags were used for punching and kicking drills, and they ranged from tiny head-sized ones to ones that were half again as tall and wide as a full-grown djinni. Baskets in one corner contained rounded stones with grips carved into them, used for lifting and other muscle-training activities. Several racks along the other walls held various weapons, including staffs, wooden daggers and swords of different sizes, and archery sets with soft-point arrows.

The room was currently occupied by a pair of djinni trainees. Normally the young warriors-in-training practiced by stabbing swords into the dummies, but since the master was not looking, these two were now practicing against each other. So caught up were they in their sparring match, that they were oblivious to what else that might be going on around them. If their master was to walking right at this moment, these two would be scraping pots in the kitchen for the rest of the year, for sparring between new students were not permitted. At the moment though, these two were so intent on getting the better of the other that they were not likely to quit even if the master was to walk in at this very minute. At least, they'd not stop without the teacher having to remind them who was in charge around here.

Both djinnis were young and fit, and armed with wooden swords and shields. As the match progressed, they soon forgot to pull their hits and began in earnest to try to beat the tar out of one another. Soon it was clear that the young djinni on the left was getting the worse of the beatings. With a powerful hit, the fair-headed one on the right sent his mate's sword flying and dove in to finish him off. Desperate, the disarmed djinni took hold of his shield with both hands and flailed at his opponent with it. Stepping back, the winning djinni faked an overhead strike, and just as the shield-wielder rose up to block, the sword came down and jabbed hard into his exposed belly. The air whooshed out of the would-be fatally wounded djinni as he dropped his shield and rubbed his stomach. The other stood back and waited until his bruised friend straightened up and retrieved his shield and sword.

"That's one for me!" glowed the victor, a djinni with fair hair and wiry body.

"N.no doubt by luck," panted the second djinni, this one muscular with short red hair and thick shoulders.

Laughing, the two began to circle each other again, swords and shields set for round two. Rushing in, the victor of the first round clashed shield with his opponent, drove his wooden sword up from beneath the protection at the other's chin. The slower djinni barely avoided the thrust when a sweeping kick sent him sprawling. Cursing, he picked himself up off the floor and quickly raised his shield to deflect the other's blows.

"Really now...I swear you fight worse than a human!" The fair-headed one said, calling out the worst insult that a djinni could ever say to another. Charging in, he rained heavy blows upon his mate's raised shield repeatedly.

"Don't you dare," the abused djinni countered, "say that...again!" as he parried desperately with his wooden shield and sword.

Neither one of them noticed the tall, armored form walking into the room, and stood just inside the door, watching the duel from the shadows. Without sound, the figure pulled a black steel spear from the holster on his back. The weapon did not reflect light, instead, it drew light in as if devouring all lives around it. Holding the spear in both gauntleted hands, the figure slipped behind a dummy and inched its way closer to the pair.

"I take that back," said the winning youngling, pressing harder. "You do fight worse than a human..."

"I do not!" countered his mate.

"Yes you do!" The thinner djinni pressed, parrying a thrust. He returned a slash of his own which was also parried.

"I do not!" The muscled djinni panted his reply as he took a hit on his shield.

"Oh yeah you do!" Darting in, the smaller of the two delivered three quick and precise stabs.

"I, do not!" The heavier of the two caught one jab with the guard of his sword, stopped the next which was aimed at his face with his shield, and yelped as the third stroke took him in the flank.

"Yes....Aweeeeeeeag!"

Silence followed the cry as the blows stopped coming. Still with shield raised, the djinni couldn't see what happened. Hesitantly, he lowered his shield, thinking that the other was just trying to trick him. His mouth opened in horror instead, for his mate stood before him, blood gushing out of his mouth, with a foot of black steel sticking out of his chest. The wooden shield fell from his nerveless fingers as the young djinni looked up and saw the armored figure standing behind his former friend.

The warrior gripped the shaft of the ancient spear and jerked the weapon free of the dead djinni. A fountain of blood rushed out of the wounds as the corpse tumbled to the ground. Looking down at the ancient spear, the warrior mused idly that the spear had no trace of blood on its black steel blade. He then noticed that the second djinni was about to scream for help. With two quick strides, the warrior had the youngling by the throat, and with a violent clench of a gauntleted fist, he snapped the djinni's neck and dropped him beside his dead friend.

"May the goddess forgive me..." The warrior whispered, and prepared the two corpses for sacrifice.

II

The room was nothing more than a large circular pit full of sand. Here the djinnis were taught how to fight by the djinni warrior instructor. Speaking of the instructor, he was, at this moment, standing in the middle of the room, working out with a pair of lifting stones the size of large watermelons, although by the look of him, it was quite possible that the stones were the ones getting a workout. Although it's true that most djinnis are slight of build, this particular djinni was as tall as a rock troll and built like a brickhouse. Wearing only a pair of harden leather pants, the djinni warrior's upper body was bare and gleaming with perspiration, and each time he lifted up the stones, his muscles literally crawled up and down his torso. Breatheing evenly, he muttered to himself as he exercised with his back towards the entrance, counting out the lapses. "1224...1225...1226...Arrrrr...1227..." The huge arms rose and fell, rose and fell. "1422...1423...1424..."

Suddenly, the djinni warrior sensed a chill behind him and, like a true master of war, his instinct kicked in. Diving to one side with the speed uncommon to one of his stature, he avoided a thrusting spear just in time as he dropped the lifting stones and came up in a crouch, facing his would-be attacker as the two heavy stones thudded into the ground, creating two huge holes. There, standing right behind his previous position with a black-bladed spear thrust into the sand, was a puny human in armors. Although the human would be considered tall among his race, he was still three hands shorter than the big djinni and probably weighed 10 stones less. Though broad at the shoulders and well muscled, standing so close to the big djinni the man looked like a child next to his father.

Although the man's head was still hooded, the djinni warrior recognized him nonetheless. "Ah, sho itsh yoo!" the djinni exclaimed in a gruff voice. "Faro whatever ain't it!"

"The name," the man replied coldly, "is Pharel Stormblade."

"Ah yesh, Faro Shtormblade ish it? Werr, ecshplain yerself befor I squeezh the life out of yer puny bones." Crossing his massive arms before him, the djinni looked down at the human. "Shtabbin' meh in tha bak? Ah, a treack I'd trusht ta'a uman."

"I am here to pay off a debt... A debt long overdue." Pharel said, not bothering with the High Speech, since this gruff djinni was clearly not well educated, and most likely would have to take a few days off to translate the formal form of speech. As he spoke, Pharel carefully set his stance for combat. Getting caught flat-footed by this one would be a very bad mistake as he well knew. Casually, he swung the spear over his right shoulder and tapped it against something hard beneath his cloak. A shaft of light drifted upward behind the warrior as the spear disappeared from view.

"Hrm?" Apparently, even that was too much information for the warlike djinni. "Whata'ell ya talkin' bult? I ain't not owe ya nothin' but a break in yer neck!"

"I am here to kill you," Pharel simplified for the djinni. Pushing back his hood so it would not block his vision, he continued, "actually, this debt would be paid during Murgh's invasion if you weren't so lucky as to be sent away on business on that very day."

"Er, yoo, kilr me? Har har har!" the djinni burst into genuine laughter at that. "Yer forgettin' lasht time I kick yer assh shoo badly that yoo went crawling home to yer mama! Har.har, kilr me wilr yu? Mon yu kilr me!" Settling into a wide stance of his own, the djinni shrugged his mighty shoulders. "Let meh telr yu shomeshing lil mon, ef I wash ere vhen yu and dat beetch came knockin', theer'd beh no invasion at all!"

"I have not forgotten," said the armored human, his voice low and harsh. "I will never forget..."

III

"Aaaaw!" the young human warrior screamed as the big djinni slammed into him. The demon sword flew out of his fist as he was disarmed. Rolling to his feet, the man tried to pick up the sword, only to have it slapped away from him while the troll-like djinni sent him sliding back with a bone-crushing right hook. Stumbling back, the young warrior did not see the djinni's foot in time to dodge it, and down he went into the sand, with the angry djinni coming after him like a crazed bear.

Gaining the upper hand, the djinni rained blows after blows on the fallen human, crashing bones, rupturing internal organs, and denting armor plates as if they were made of plastic. Soon, the human warrior lied broken, bleeding from half a dozen critical injuries, and still the djinni kicked, bashed, and pounded. Bending down, the djinni grabbed the front straps of the man's armor and lifted him up. The man tried to kick at the djinni weakly, but the djinni held him just out of the reaches of his twisted legs.

"Shay yer shory. Cry yer failure!" the djinni shook the man as if he was a mere kitten.

Instead of doing as he was told, the man pulled a dagger from his wrist-strap and sank it hilt-deep into the djinni's trunk-like forearm. With a grunt, the djinni heaved the man across the pit to crash head-first into the stone wall. Sinking to his knees, the human tried to stand, but succeeded only after the third try. With a clench of his fist, the djinni forced the blade out of the wound by the contraction of his muscles alone. The short dagger fell to the sands as the djinni's blood dripped onto the bottom of the pit.

"Yu," the djinni grinned, "fhwight like a woomon!"

Before the human could reply, the huge djinni leapt. Flying across the pit, the big djinni slammed into the man, driving him into the wall with a crunch. The wind left the man's lungs as he felt his ribs crack. Standing back, the djinni looked down at the man who sagged to the ground, blood frothing upon his split and bruised lips.

"I'ma let yo die quick if yo beg me!" the djinni snarled.

Mortally wounded, the human warrior looked up into the face of the towering djinni warrior with his emotionless blue eyes, and spat blood into the djinni's face. The enraged djinni roared and prepared to deal the killing blow. Just as the djinni was about to crush the dying human... "Arrrg!" A brilliant red fireball exploded into the ground at his feet and blasted him a few steps away from the fallen warrior.

Lying in the sand, soked in his own blood, a young and dazed Pharel Stormblade saw a slight young man with white hair walking into the room with a few traces of smokes still billowing from his hands. "J...James?" Pharel asked, blinking in disbelief at his best friend's timely arrival. "What...what in Cygnii's name are you doing here?"

The wizard did not reply right away, instead, he set to cure the more serious wounds on the fallen warrior's body. "Damn..." He cursed as his magic power drained, sitting down heavily to rest. "Out of spells again!" Looking over, James saw his warrior friend struggling towards his fallen sword. "Pharel no! Retreat damn it!"

"I," replied the young and proud warrior, "retreat nothing... I fight to the death!"

"Damn you and your bullheaded pride, live and fight another day!" the mage shouted, but it was too late.

Half-cured, young Stormblade snatched up the sword of the tyranids and charged the still shocked djinni warrior. His eyes rolled back, showing white, as he tapped into his reserve for the blood fever that flickered faintly in his mind. The demonic sword sang with hunger and joy as the young man roared with the voices of a thousand barbarians. The blade whooshed through the air, and stopped dead as one iron fist took hold of the spiked crossguard. Growling, the young warrior tried to yank the sword back to strike, but his strength was no match against the giant-sized djinni. With a jerk, the djinni pulled the sword out of the human's grasp and tossed it over one shoulder while kicking the flailing berserker into the pit. The human landed at the bottom of the pit in a spray of sands and rolled to his feet, blood fever still burning in his veins. Leaping into the pit himself, the djinni rushed the young man, and down they went in an ugly heap of flailing fists and boots, elbows and knees.

Shouting a war cry, the human drove a gauntleted fist into the djinni's stomach which was as solid as a slab of granite. The big djinni's thick arm came down and caught the top of the young man's head with his elbow, driving him a foot into the sands. Kicking with both feet, the human warrior pushed himself up and into the djinni fists first just as the djinni's boulder of a head smashed him in the face. Reeling back, the armored warrior again tried to strike at the djinni, but a huge hand caught his gauntleted fist; and, with a grin of satasfaction, the hulking djinni crushed the gauntlet with the man's hand inside it. Blood splashed into the sands at their feet as the one-sided struggle went on.

Although the djinni was in shock over the suddenness of the fireball attack, and the human warrior was now half healed, the fact was that young Pharel was not able to best the powerful djinni even when he was at the best of health. Soon, the young warrior was being pushed back rapidly towards Death's door as the djinni held him in a crushing headlock. Sensing the danger they were in, James the Mage came to his feet and retrieved a rune of return from his pouch. Grabbing up his staff in both hands, James rushed down into the pit and, swinging the staff like a smith's hammer, he cracked it over the djinni's shaved head. The wooden staff broke into pieces, leaving an angry red mark on the side of the djinni's skull.

"Ow..." the djinni spun around, dropping the warrior. Touching the side of his head, the war master glared at James and took a step forward. "Sho, yu wanta play too eh?!"

"Uh," James mumbled. "I was just going to say..."

"Shay wat?!"

"That... I'm very happy to have met you!" finished the mage, throwing up his hands over his head. A flash of lightning exploded above the mage's head right before the djinni's eyes, blinding the djinni. As the djinni stumbled back, James grabbed hold of Pharel and recited the rune. A white light surrounded the two as they faded away, accompanied by Pharel's weak protest.

IV

"I will never forget..." The armored warrior continued, recalling that memory from long ago. "If not for James, I would be dead..."

"And, he'sh not gonna save ya thish time!" The big djinni grinned evilly, cracking his massive knuckles. "Itsh jusht yu and meh!"

"He won't have to," replied Pharel levelly, unsheathing a long bone blade which was hanging by his left hip. "I am no longer the same man that you had so casually defeated, as your two younglings found out." The blade he now wielded appeared to be carved from the femur of some gigantic wyrm, and carved into its hand-guard was the symbol of the Monkey People. "By the way," he added, swinging the blade lightly. "They were breaking rules anyway..."

"Yoo kilr me'younglin's?!?!" the big djinni shouted, the muscles on his chest and shoulders bunched together tightly. Thick veins popped out of the sides of his bull neck and pulsed as he got angrier.

"I showed them war." said the human warrior calmly, strapping his shield to his forearm. "And now, I will show you defeat."

"Yu calr yershelf a warrior, but yu'd not face me whithout yer blade? Yu'umans ain't got no honor!"

"Oh, haven't I mentioned?" said Pharel. "This is not about being fair, this is about vengeance." Looking down at his arms, the human warrior looked at the djinni's pointedly. "And, fighting an elephant like you, I'd say at least two blades and a score of archers would make it only just fair."

Reaching down, the powerful djinni scooped up the lifting stones one in each hand. "Yer gonna be dead... As dead as these..." The incredible muscles flexed, and the two stones cracked open in his grip. "Dats yer head, yu ear dat? Dats yer head dat I gon crush!"

"Very impressive," said Pharel. "The day you became the master of war was the carnivals' loss."

The attack came as he remembered. The djinni rushed at him with the force of an angry grizzly. Putting his weight behind his shield, the swordsman placed it between himself and the incoming blow. Just before the fist struck, Pharel dropped his shield and sidestepped to the left. The mighty form of the djinni had no time to react as he charged past the human warrior's previous spot, the shield almost tripping him. The bone blade flicked out, slashing forward with deadly accuracy and hacked a bloody wound along the djinni's arm. The djinni roared and came round with a devastating blow that landed on the human's breastplate. Coughing up a mouthful of blood, the swordsman sidestepped the djinni's next blow and deflected another with the bone blade by slashing at the knuckles.

Charging forward like a wild boar, the djinni did not see the human's boot as the swordsman swept his feet out from beneath him. The djinni crashed to the floor and rolled aside, dodging the long blade by inches. Coming to his feet, the giant djinni lunged to grab for the blade, but the swordsman recognized the move and stepped back while giving the djinni a solid roundhouse kick to the thigh.

*It's like kicking a bag of bricks!* the swordsman mused as the force of the impact numbed his foot and traveled all the way up to his knee. However, he did not have long to ponder that point, for the djinni warrior was certainly no stranger when it came to hand-to-hand combat. Sweeping the hard hilt of his sword around, the swordsman tried to smash the pommel into the djinni's face but failed as a thickly muscled arm blocked the strike.

Springing forward, the big djinni caught the human by the straps of his breastplate and lifted him bodily off the ground.

*Damn it...Not again!* thought Pharel as he flailed at the djinni with sword and fist without visible effect.

Swinging the swordsman around, the larger warrior threw him across the room against the far wall.

"Omphhh!" The swordsman grunted at the impact, but quickly got to his feet. His mind registered a bad news then, that he was now backed up against a wall. Apparently, the djinni was also thinking of that, for he came on with fire in his eyes, prepared to pound this puny human into the stonework. The first punch threw the swordsman to one side as it hit him full on the side of the helm. The second explosive hit caught him in the stomach. Fighting to silence his pain, the swordsman leapt upwards into the air and came down with a poorly aimed leaping attack which the djinni dodged with ease. This time, the djinni's lunging hand caught the swordsman's swordhand, disarming the human, sending the weapon flying in a spinning motion through the air.

Pulling back his lips, the djinni leered down at the now weaponless man. "Wat ya gonna do now lil mon? I'ma pound yoo to a bloody pulp! I'ma gonna rip yer head clean off... Err, what're yoo smiling at?!"

Indeed, the swordsman was smiling as the djinni came closer, and before the djinni could figure out what was going on...

"Shia ziam!" As the swordsman cried, he shot out his gauntleted hand towards the djinni, palm forward. And seven thunders answered his calls... "Shia ziam! Shia ziam! Shia ziam! Shia ziaaaaaam!"

Powerful, blazing lightning bolts blasted the big djinni at point blank, setting his body on fire, and bringing him to his knees, mortally wounded. He couldn't understand what happened. He could not come to term with his own defeat. He couldn't remember how he ended up on his knees and hands, gazing down at his blackened and ruined torso. As the swordsman picked up the bone blade, blood dripping down his injured body, he walked over to the beaten djinni.

"Now, the debt is paid..."

Grasping the hilt of his sword in both fists, the swordsman once again leapt up into the air, lifting the blade to his lips in salute. Everything slowed down. A second was as decades as the big djinni struggled upward, pushing himself up, and the swordsman descending upon him. A roar, or maybe it was two roars merged in one, and a shock of crimson...

Lowering the blade at last, the survivor wiped the blade across the sandy bottom of the pit before tapping it against the flute case on his back. Soft lights drifted out of the case and claimed the weapon. Acrossed the pit, a pair of blank eyes stared out of a blood-soaked head. The body lay near by on its side, blood pooling around it and seeped into the sandy ground.

"Aye," the warrior said, coughing up more blood and falling to his knees. "I'd say the debt was paid in full..."



Part IV: A Test of Faith



"I have been a witness to the perfect crime... I wipe the grin off of my face to hide the blame."

- AMANDA MARSHALL - LET IT RAIN



I

The chapel had several mats on the floor, and an enormous statue of a very noble looking djinni in the center of it. Standing 20 feet tall, the statue was carved from white marble with gems for eyes, and golden scales formed its garments. In its right hand, the statue held a bottle of holy water, and the other arm was bent inward as if embracing something. It was in this room that the djinni clerics came to pray for their spells and recieve guidance from higher spirits. The walls were covered with holy symbols and paintings of great djinni clerics. Candles, tall as many djinnis them selves, were lit and arranged along the walls providing enough light even in the darkest of nights. Despite of what had taken place in the other halls, this place was, at the moment at least, a ground of tranquility.

Several faithful younglings were sitting upon the mats, lotus style, praying to the djinni god for guidance and wisdom. Some prayed for forgiveness, for sins they might've had committed. The room was filled with the scent of burning candles and the murmuring chants of the faithful. So much were the young djinnis captivated by their prayer that none looked up when the tall armored form limped into the temple.

The stranger was wearing full armor and carrying a large battered shield upon his left arm, and by his limping stride one could easily deduce that he was injured. Indeed, if one was to take a closer look at this warrior, one would see the blood that were still drying upon the front of his breastplate, and it was not possible to miss his bruised face with the swollen cheeks already turning a shade of purple. Leaning against the far wall, the warrior spoke up in a deep, soft voice. "Would one of ye faithful be so kind as to grant a stranger some healing? I have just battled, and my power is at its lowest. Healing I need, and healing I will have from one who is willing to give." As he spoke, blood ran down the corners of his mouth and dripped onto the floor.

Most of the younglings just gaped at this frightening man that had just ventured upon their holy ground and so rudely disturbed their peace. No one made a move for a long time, and most of them were clearly thinking about calling for the temple guards but dismissed the idea quickly as the warrior's gaze fell upon them. Most djinnis treated humans as if they were barbarians just out of the caves, and this blood-soaked human did not change their opinion one bit. Even though the man looked dead on his feet, the clerics and apprentices knew that there was still danger within this man. After all, the most dangerous beast was always the one that had been wounded and cornered.

Finally, a smallish djinni girl stood up, and very slowly, she approached the warrior with fearful eyes. "I do be called Sarina," she said in a voice that was almost too soft to be heard if not for the warrior's sharp hearing. "I...I would be glad to give what healing I can."

The warrior looked down at the female djinni. She was young, maybe no more than 16 in years, but her eyes were bright and gentle like those of a deer's, and her golden hair framed a face that was both innocent and wise. Standing next to him, the girl seemed so fragile, yet she stood before him with determination in her eyes even though she was clearly afraid of him. "I am known as Pharel, Pharel Stormblade. Tell me child, why do you fear me so?"

The djinni looked up at the armored man. "I sense in thee, sir knight, much anger and grief. Ye walk in the shadow of death, yet it is death in which thou ply thy skills. Indeed I am frightened, but not of ye. I am frightened by the future I witness in thy soul..."

The warrior gazed deeply into the girl's eyes as the words sank in, amazed at the wisdom that was coming from one so young. "But ye grant healing even when ye see me as I am?"

At these words, the young djinni stood up right and look sternly at the warrior. "A healer judges not, harms none, refuses ni and allows no suffering. A healer I wish to become and a healer I shall act to be."

Touched by the classic vow of a healer, the man gave the young djinni a smile. "Then I shall have thy hands upon my brow, for of all I see in this temple, ye are the true healer. Come now, for the pain is almost more than I can bear."

The djinni blushed at the complement. "Well," she said shyly. "I shall not be able to proceed if ye dost not remove thy helm."

At this, the warrior reached up and removed his galea and drew back the hood of his headdress from his head. The young djinni gazed fully upon the harden face of the warrior and suddenly felt a feeling that she had not experienced of yet in her young life. Although the face could not be called pretty, due to the long scar that ran down one side of it, it was certainly nothing short of remarkable. Piercing blue eyes stared down a hawk-nose, thin lips that seemed to smile without warmth, and the high cheek bones that gave the face a chiseled look that almost suggested of elven lineage. The man had a head of thick dark hair, pulled back into a long tail and tied with a silver band. The silver streaks among the black spoke not of age but of suffering the warrior had witnessed and tasted.

Sarina gazed at the warrior without moving for at least two ticks of the clock, and jumped when the deep voice prompted, "If, ye mind none, I do rather be healed than being looked at..."

"Aye, I do appologize..." The djinni mumbled, turning red from ear to ear. Reaching forward, she gently laid her pale hands upon the warrior's brow and muttered the spell of healing touch.

A warm feeling spread through the warrior's body as the wounds mended and the blood disappeared from his face and armors. In no time at all, the warrior stood up right, once again proud and strong as before.

"Thank ye kindly," he bowed his head to the female djinni and, holding her right hand in his gauntleted one, he brought the girl's hand to his lips. If possible, the djinni blushed an even darker shade of red at the warrior's gesture, but she looked up at him with a puzzling expression.

"why ye look at me so?" The warrior inquired, putting on his helm and drew up his headdress.

"Thy scar, I couldn't remove it..." The djinni girl said, confused.

"Ah," the man said, running his finger over the scar. "This scar I received in another world, and it cannot be removed by magic of this land."

"Sarina! Come away at once!"

At the sharp tone, the young djinni turned, and saw four temple guards advancing toward her and the warrior. All four wore severe robes of the order, and two were armed with spiked maces. These deadly djinnis were a combination of magic and steel, equal parts cleric and warrior. All were specially chosen from the top of their classes, and not a one of them were not considered to be a zealot even among their own kind. The four came to a stop about ten feet away, and the leader glared at the young healer in disgust.

"Traitor!" the leader spat out between clenched teeth.

Drawing herself up, Sarina looked at the guards with defiance in her eyes. "I betray no one. The man came in need of healing, and healing I have given!"

"And to a murderous, worthless human!" the leader countered coldly.

"A healer judges none!" the girl shouted.

"Silence!" the leader yelled and reached out a gloved hand to seize the youngling.

Before the hand even touched the girl however, the leader was lifted off of his feet by a gauntleted fist at his throat and thrown a good five feet back from the girl to land in a heap of robes and limbs on the floor. "Lay not thy hand upon this creature of true faith!" the armored warrior said in a commanding tone. "Ye and thy dogs fitst not even to lick the soles of her boots!"

Struggling to his feet, the leader looked at his guards, all were quite unsure as to what action they were to take. "Seize them you fools!" he shouted at them, and the two armed guards started forwards, their maces swinging threateningly.

Faster than the eye could see, the human warrior had drawn forth a long sword from within his cloak. The blade seemed to sing as the warrior brandished the sword with ease in one hand. "By the sword of strength, I swear the next who come closer shall perish!"

The two guards stopped in their tracks and looked back uncertainly at their leader.

"Step away you cowards!" the leader said angrily, and as the guards stepped away from the party, he threw out his hands and began to call upon a spell. Lights, fine as razors, danced upon the djinni's hands as he chanted, twisting and riving like serpents ready to strike.

The human gazed hard at the leader of the guards. "Dare ye not cast such a spell in the name of thy god, for the spell will certainly harm thy own kind!"

"Step away from the human, Sarina!" the leader shouted, not slowing the weave. His hands were no longer visible as the lights surrounded them completely.

To everyone's surprise, the young djinni did not obey. "I shall not allow ye, in my presence, to harm my charge who I have just healed!" Planting her fists on her slender hips, the healer placed herself before the human.

"Step aside lass," bade the warrior, "concern thy heart not with my trouble. These dogs worry me not."

"Nay sir," replied Sarina, "Just as I am unwilling to see ye harmed, I wish not for thy sword to feast this day." Looking up at the warrior's cold face, she added softly, "Moreover, I reccon they will not strike while I'm in harm's way... They are zealots aye, but evil they are not..."

The leader's lips pulled back in a faint smile. "Very well then. For the fate of a traitor is no short of death as far as the temple law declares!" Then, he released the spell. Lights uncoiled from his fists and leapt forth in thousands of bladed strands towards the pair. Other djinnis gasped, for they did not foresee this turn of event. Indeed, most did believe that the guards would not actually attack while one of their own was in between the parties.

The next few minutes were a blir in the mind of the warrior. He remembered the coming of the harming spell, remembered how he placed his own shield before the girl's body, knowing all the while that it was not enough... He remembered hearing a scream of pain, and saw the tiny form crumpled to the ground at his feet. He remembered the pain as the remaining light blades struck him, and the agony as his lifeblood poured out of his newly healed body and ran down to mix in with the blood of the young girl... He remembered a roar that seemed to come from far away, and red... All red...

He stood alone in the temple. The dismembered bodies of fallen djinnis all around him. Blood covered the walls, floor and ceiling. In one corner, something smoked as it caught on fire as the knocked over candles kept on burning. He did not see those corpses. They were not of his concern. Gently, he took out a piece of white cloth from his belt pouch and spread it over the still form of a youngish djinni female lying by his feet. "Rest in peace, healer." Then, looking away, he whispered softly, "I...I am so sorry..."

Maybe that was a drop of tear, falling from the corner of his left eye, or maybe it was just the shadow casted by the light upon his headdress, but as the warrior stood up tall, his face was as hard and cold as remembered by those who had ever had the honor of facing him in battle. With long strides, he walked over to the statue of the djinni god. "And ye, witnessed what thy people had done..." Placing his gauntleted fists upon the statue, he spoke the single word...

"Shia ziam!"

And seven thunders answered his cry... The statue was no more.

II

An obese djinni sat alone in the middle of the room. His broad frame stretched his white robes to the fullest, and the rings on his fat fingers glowed in the light of the candles. His face was round and pink-cheeked, with smallish eyes and very little hair. His high station provided him all that he could ever desired in this djinni society, and he definitely had wasted none. He was the high priest of the order, and now, he was trying to pray to his god for protection and failing miserably. His hands were shaking too badly, and his mind could not concentrate. His guards had went into the temple to deal with the traitor and the human, but none had return. Awhile ago, he heard screaming, alot of it. Then, thunders... He wondered what was going on in the other room. He knew that it was his duty to go and find out what had taken place, but he was, to put it simply, just too scared to move. He almost wet himself when the door slowly opened, and he saw his worst nightmare came to life.

A tall, armored warrior strode calmly into the room, covered in blood from helm to boots. He was not wielding a sword, but if look could kill, the stare he directed at the priest would've been enough. The man stopped right in front of the djinni who was now shaking with fear.

"Your grace..." He addressed the djinni rather respectfully.

"G...guards!!!" the djinni almost squeaked in fright. "Guards! Guards!"

"They await at the end of the path," the warrior replied without a sign of urgency. "They were perfect at slaying a weak child, but for the other task, I am sorry to report, they were sorely lacking."

"Ye... Ye abominable, faithless, filthy... Stand back or I shall destroy ye on the spot!" The djinni tried, but his voice was shaking too badly to make the statement seem threatening.

"Indeed? And wouldst thou battle me on thy own?" The warrior smiled coldly.

"My god will assist me!" The djinni said desperately.

"Then, I shall challenge ye to a test of faith." The warrior said, still showing no trace of emotion upon his stone-like feature.

"My faith is not to be challenged! Tis a battle a faithless such as ye cannot win!"

"Hmm," sniffed the warrior, turning his back on the djinni. "Let us pray together before we begin then." Saying that, the warrior took seven steps away from the djinni priest and knelt upon the floor to pray, his back still towards the fat djinni.

"And what's the purpose of this foolishness?!" the djinni almost shouted. A thick vein pulsed on his sweaty forehead as he stared at the warrior's back, wondering if he could make it to the door before the warrior could turn to stop him, and wisely decided against that plan for the moment. Though the warrior was big and heavy with armors, the high priest was never a djinni of physical activities, and thus, he had very little doubt that the warrior could run him down easily.

Without looking up, the warrior replied, "Thy life or mine."

The warrior's statement sent a new chill down the djinni's spine, and in desperation, he reached into his robes and pulled out a tiny carving of the djinni god. The magical focus was carved of jade and tuned specifically to the high priest's magical signature. It could enhance his abilities by three folds while serving as an item of worship. Clutching the statue in his sweaty hands, the djinni began to chant under his breath. His mind stilled as a fountain of raw energy poured into his core.

Issuing a silent prayer, the warrior got to his feet and turned just in time to see the djinni surrounded by an aura of sanctuary. The light intensified around the djinni as he gripped the statue tightly in his fist.

"Ha! Ye will not defeat me, ye of the human!" The djinni shouted, regaining some confidence. "My power is that of my God's, and such as ye will not withstand it!"

The warrior just sneered in disgust. "Is thy faith so weak that ye requires a tool to enhance thy belief? Alas, disappointed am I at ye!"

"Hush! What can a creature who lives by killing tell me of faith? Let us begin, and I shall send ye to that place where ye hath be born!"

"Very well," said the human. "Our contest begins in seven strides." and he began walking towards the djinni.

*step*

"My god shall defend me!" warned the djinni.

"And I prepare to die for my goddess," countered the swordsman.

*step*

"I live by my faith!" said the djinni, feeling unsettled as the warrior's eyes bore into his own.

"I am born in chaos!" replied the warrior.

*step*

"I believe in the order!" The djinni nearly shrieked.

"My love is for Vember," stated the warrior.

*step*

"No faithless can defeat me!" yelled the djinni, getting more nervous as the tall warrior came closer.

"I punish the faithless." Retorted the warrior.

*step*

"Back! In the name of the god, keep back!" The djinni jumped to his feet, his nerves falling apart.

"Put down the statue and face me with thy faith alone!" Commanded the warrior.

*step*

"N...noooo!" The djinni cried, tightening his grip on the carving.

"Faithless worm!" roared the warrior. "Ye hide behind a symbol, and claim the worship of thy youngs. Ye use thy god as a tool, while calling on him to save thy own worthless soul!" And...

*step*

The swordsman's hand shot out and slapped the carving out of the djinni's grasp. The carving shattered upon the ground as the aura winked out of existence around the djinni. What was left before the swordsman was a fat, old djinni who looked like he was about to soil his breeches.

"Nooooo!" the djinni shrieked and tried to run, but the swordsman was upon him. Bashing into the djinni, the swordsman bore him to the ground. His jadite-plated shoulder crashed into the djinni's face and knocked loose several teeth in the process.

"Pretender!" The warrior roared and smashed his gauntleted fist into the djinni's stomach. The priest bent over and tried to catch his breath.

"Ye dare to claim faith!" The warrior kicked the djinni hard, bringing him to his knees.

"Ye execute the innocent!" A steely uppercut sent the djinni onto his back.

"Defiler!" The warrior yelled and kicked the fallen djinni hard, rolling the priest onto his face, snapping his ribs.

Struggling to his feet, bleeding heavily, the priest tried to cast, but the swordsman wasn't finished. "Ye dare to hide whilst thy followers die by thy command!" Tripping the priest, the warrior came down with a double-fisted punch with all his weight behind it. The hammering blow dazed the wounded priest. The white robes were stained red, and the djinni's face was torn open in many places by the warrior's plated gauntlets.

Seizing a handful of the priest's robes, the warrior pulled the djinni to his knees and with his right hand, he drew the still bloody sword of strength. The room was instantly filled with a humming sound as the blade sang. "Have thy last prayer, priest, if thy god will hear of it!"

"Nooooooo! P...please!" the priest tried to get up, but the warrior's hand upon his body was like steel.

"Listen to the song," hissed the warrior, lifting the sword high. "For this will be the last song ye will hear, and it is sung in the voice of a djinni maiden who hath died by thy command, who's justice and truth, whose faith is not such as worthless as ye can ever meet!"

In despair, the priest raised his hands towards heaven. "Oh god! Why dost thou forsake me???"

"It is thou," whispered the warrior, "who hath forsaken thy god."

The blade fell, and the song ended.



Part V: Trial of Shadows



"Hello darkness my old friend. I have come to talk with you again..."

- SIMON AND GARFUNKEL - THE SOUND OF SILENCE



I

The room was a gymnasium. It was full of all kinds of mats, ropes, and boards. Thick crossbars spammed the length of the room in differing heights, the highest of which was blanketed by shadows near the high domed ceiling. Massive pillars supported climbing ropes and bars, and wooden targets were set aside for knife-throwing practices. The thieve's came here to practice their dexterity and fighting skills. Though the art of fighting was generally associated with the war djinnis, the thieves and assassins prided them selves for their unique and quite often, more effective, style. As one famous djinni assassin once pointed out, "hack it out with your enemy all you like, but I prefer to stick a dagger into their ear from behind."

At this moment, there was an unskilled djinni thief in the center of the room, trying unsuccessfully to blend in with the shadows. Thick-limbed and broad-shouldered, he looked like a djinni who had gotten him self into the wrong career. His spiked hair ran with sweat as he tried to make himself as small as possible.

"I still see you," said a disembodied voice from right behind the djinni.

"Damn it!" cursed the djinni and turned around to find that he could not see the speaker. "Where are you?"

"Right here stupid!" someone tapped him on the shoulder, making him jump. "If you concentrate more, then you might succeed..."

Turning towards the voice, the djinni still couldn't see the speaker. "Yeah yeah yea, I'm concentrating so hard that my eyes hurt..."

"You fool," said the voice, now on the djinni's right. "I meant for you to concentrate on hiding, not searching for me!"

"Oh," said the djinni. "Ok, let me try... Hey wait, you hear that?"

It was the sound of heavy footsteps, coming towards the gym.

"No thief would walk with that much noise... Lets hide and surprise them." Saying that, the djinni tried once again to fade into the shadows.

The door swung open, and a tall, armored warrior walked in. He walked up right, confidently, and did not bother to look around for hidden thieves. His strange armors were covered in dry blood, and he wore a long scar on one cheek which made him look all the fiercer. A visorless helm rested on his black-maned head, and some kind of gold headdress was pushed back, hanging behind his collar. He bore no visible weapon, only a tall battered shield which was secured to the bracer of his left arm. A long case, maybe for a flute, was strapped to his back.

'A human!' thought the one djinni, failing to notice that he was no longer a part of the shadows. 'Hmmm, he's heading this way... If I can stab him... What a nice chance to take my first kill!' Thinking that, the young djinni took out his black dagger and palmed it.

The warrior walked through the room, not looking at the young djinni who so foolishly thought that he was still hidden. 'Oh well,' he thought to himself, 'We all got to start somewhere.' But then, he saw the youngling smiled and drew out a dagger. 'But some of us don't live long enough to grow...' He continued past the foolish djinni, his back muscles tightening, waiting for the djinni to make his first move.

The djinni saw the warrior walked past him without looking in his direction, and thought to himself, 'Up below the ribs...in the back...now!' and sprinted into action. The black dagger came out and the djinni leapt forward to place it in the warrior's back. Like a stormwind, the big man dove down and around the stab, and lashed out with his gloved hands. The warrior's right hand caught the djinni's wrist as he struck at the elbow with his left. The young djinni never had a chance to stop the momentum as his own thrust was turned around towards himself, and before he could cry out, the black dagger had been thrusted into his own throat by his own hand. The djinni gurgled as the warrior dropped him, blood pouring free from his sliced windpipe and open mouth. His heels drummed on the floor a few times before he finally went limp and died.

The warrior watched the dying djinni with a blank face, and as he turned around to continue on his way, something whooshed through the air and bounced off the metal collar around his neck. Looking down, he saw a second black dagger embedded in the ground at his feet. 'Damn,' he thought as he quickly scanned the room. 'Another one?'

Apparently, the second thief was much better than the one he just killed, for the warrior could not even see the slightest hint as to where his attacker was. The shadows danced behind the beams and pillars, any of them could be hiding an assassin or two. The warrior went still, barely taking in breaths, as he listened, his hand casually resting on the flute case.

It was confidence and the temperament of youth that brought death to the second djinni, for if he had stayed put and stabbed the warrior in the back when a chance arrived, he would've won the battle and avenged his friend. But as it was, the djinni, after seeing the warrior's inability to locate him, leapt forth with a second dagger drawn, and charged towards the human. Although he was not able to see his attacker, the warrior could sense the movements in the air as the attack fell. Assessing the possible direction of the attacker quickly, the warrior turned towards what he assumed to be the right direction and brought his shield before him.

Throwing himself with full force upon the human with his dagger leading the attack, the djinni had no idea that, at the last second, the warrior would bring the tower shield to bare. Thus, the dagger, with the djinni's weight behind it, clashed into the heavy tower shield, and the impact sent the young thief onto his behind. Dazed, the youngling could no longer maintain the state of being hidden, and before he could scramble to his feet, he felt the warrior's plated boot as it slammed into the side of his head. The kick knocked the young djinni flat onto his back, and before his world faded away, he heard the warrior's words:

"Ye wouldst make a fine thief if taught by better. In the life to come, seek thy learning from Asmodia the assassin..."

An armor plated boot came down on the djinni's neck, breaking it and ended his life almost without pain.

"Well well," a voice whispered from the shadows, "Skilled arte thou to slay children, I wonder, how fair ye against true shadow kins?"

Alarmed, the warrior straightened up as the huge room echoed with taunting howls like those of wolves'. The shadows all around him seemed to shift, and seven figures seemed to materialize out of nowhere. The figures seemed to fade in and out of vision, so one could not keep his attention on any one of them for longer than seconds at a time, but with a quick glance, the seasoned warrior knew that these were not mere apprentices. All seven were garbed in forest green and midnight black, and all were masked and armed with wicked, hooked knives, with many tiny blades sheathed around their forearms and waists. There was no way to tell for sure how many were male or otherwise, for they were built almost all alike, and their hard leather masked gave no indication of their gender. He had no idea how long they had been there, nor did he waste time pondering how was it they did not act before now. Although none of these rogues were nearly as powerfully built as the swordsman, he knew that with their speed and number, they could mean serious, even fatal, trouble.

Shrugging his plated shoulders, the warrior let the tower shield fall to the floor with a *CLUNK*, for that he knew the heavy shield would only slow him down when what he needed was speed and accuracy. Crossing his arms before him, he tried to keep the movements of the shadowy assassins noted as he addressed their leader - whom could be identified by the ornately decorated twin knives in their hands. "One wishest to know why ye did not lift a dagger to assist thy younglings."

"What better way to test them but to test them in real mortal combat?" hissed the leading assassin, obviously male by his vocalization, before he faded into the shadows. A slight movement of flashing blades, and the seven began to circle.

Warily, the swordsman stood his ground, not moving to draw a weapon. The shadows danced and undulated around him, at times briefly forming a figure or two, but never all seven at once. He was a lion being stalked by wolves, and he knew that his best chance was to take them by surprise and reduce their number. With a wild shout, he charged forward as the leader stepped into view. His long legs covered the distance easily as he closed in, arms reaching to grab. His muscles tightened across his back and shoulders as he neared his target.

The foolish charge of the human almost made the assassin laugh. Lightly balanced, he watched the man as he came like a raging bull, and just as the gauntleted fist was about to close, the assassin slipped into the man's reach, the daggers flashing upward, seeking for the throat. There was a loud crash as the man dropped and rolled at the same time. A section of the wooden fllor was bashed in by the thick plates at the man's right shoulder, sending wood chips flying outward. Rotating on the shoulder, Pharel swept the assassin's legs out from under him just as the djinni realized that his daggers sought air.

Hissing angrily, the djinni dove to one side and came to his feet lightly, but the human was already on the move. Guessing that the others would pounce on him from behind once he had engaged a target, Pharel whipped his legs around in the other direction, tripping two masked assassins at once. Using the momentum, the big warrior bounded up as the two djinnis fell. The edge of one gauntleted fist lashed out sideways and caught one falling djinni on the neck, breaking it. The killing arm then bent at the elbow, and the warrior drove the armored elbow into the chest of the second djinni closest to him, smashing ribs and organs. As both djinnis fell dead on the floor, the warrior stood up to his full height, still without a weapon and five more opponents around him.

The assassins began to circle again. learning from their failure on the first pass, they kept their distances, waiting for an opening. Scanning the room, Pharel noticed one of them seemed to be either really well hidden, or missing all together. Just as he tried to seek out the missing assassin, he caught a movement on the edge of his vision. Instinctively, he hunched his shoulders up and tipped his helmeted head forward.

The attack came unexpectedly from above. The missing assassin must've taken the chance to climb up onto the cross-beams while the warrior was dealing with the others, and now the figure dropped down out of the air with a piercing shriek, the hooked knife in her hand angling down for a deadly strike. The knife struck the top ridge of the helm as the warrior reacted, and sparks flew. Recovering with incredible speed, the assassin's legs shot forward and wrapped around the warrior's neck in order to snap the man's neck in a scissorlock. The djinni's torso flexed backward, trying to lever the human's head from the neck joint, but here was where she went wrong. The lethal technique would've worked beautifully if the opponent was roughly the same size or weight, and not clad in nearly 100 pounds of enchanted metals. No matter how the assassin flexed and bucked, the man's head did not budge.

Reversing direction, the assassin, with her legs still locked around the neck of the warrior, sat up in the air and stabbed for the open part of the helmet. Snapping his face to the left, Pharel barely avoided the maiming by catching the dagger on the side of his cheek piece, and that was when he saw the two additional assassins lungeng from the left. With the one djinni attached to his neck, throwing off his balance, the swordsman had no way to dodge out of the way - therefore, he did the only thing he could think of. Bending at the knees, the big warrior fell forward onto the hard floor in an uncontrolled drop, his clenched fists between the firm stomach of his immediate assailant and his own face, driving the clinging djinni before him.

Sensing what was going to happen if she did not let go, the djinni released the warrior's neck and kicked away from the man as they went down in a heap. The sound of the warrior hitting the floor was surprising in the huge room. A pair of thrusting knives past over the spot where the warrior stood mere seconds ago as the two djinnis missed. Pushing himself up off the floor, the warrior tried to get up from the stunning fall, but the female was way faster. Snapping her leg around viciously, the djinni female slammed the heel of her boot into the side of the warrior's helmet once, twice, and then again. The force of the kicks nearly accomplished what her scissorlock did not, and the warrior went down - this time not willingly.

The two assassins, previously missing their mark, dove in, wicked blades flashing. The warrior brought up one arm and caught the blade of one djinni on his bracer, but the other one slipped through his guard and slashed open his forearm where the bracer and the gauntlet's cuff left a brief gap. The hooked blade tore a wicked gash on the warrior's musculed arm, letting out a jet of blood, shockingly red amidst the jumble of black and green and silver. Renching his blade back, the assassin stabbed forth again, this time barely missing the human's left eye as the blade made a tiny cut on the already scarred cheek, partially deflected by the man's helmet.

With a snarl, the warrior caught hold of the stabbing hand, pulled the djinni over his own prone form just as the other djinni struck again. Unable to stop himself, the second assassin winced as his own knife pierced the back of the caught djinni. The blade sank in deep and lodged in bones. Before the djinni could pull his knife free, Pharel shoved the dying assassin off him explosively, throwing the owner of the knife off balance as his dying partner fell against him. Having released the djinni of his blade before shoving him away, Pharel rolled to his knees and sliced the hooked blade down the front of the djinni who was stumbling beneath the dead weight of his now dead companion. The wounded djinni pressed both hands to his stomach as loops of guts fell out, and down he went.

Before the warrior could get to his feet, the female assassin darted in with a flurry of slashes, aimed at the warrior's face. The slashes forced the warrior to duck down, and right into a powerful high kick thrown by the djinni. The kick connected solidly with the warrior's chin, the one part of his face not shielded by his helmet. Sitting down heavily, the man had no time to recover as the djinni drew back her arm to slash, nor did he have any chance of dodging the attack from his sitting position.

Still gripping the bloody dagger he liberated from a previously dispatched djinni, the man snapped the blade upward to deflect the other's slash. The two blades clashed and sparks flew. Faster than a serpent, the female twisted her wrist and thrusted forward. Smacking the threatening dagger aside with the flat of his own, Pharel cut crosswise at the assassin's face, but did not score as her quick reflex allowed her to recover from her own swipe and block. Fainting high, the assassin went for the gap between the man's breastplate and his belt, and the human was hardpressed to have caught the blade on the pommel of his own weapon. Jerking his own dagger hard to one side, Pharel sent the enemy's weapon flying. The dagger bounced off a pillar before disappearing into the shadows, but even before it went out of sight, the female had drawn another dagger from her wrist sheath.

Just as the two were about to resume their knife fight, a heavy weight struct the warrior from behind, and he felt a hand slipping beneath his collar and yanking hard, cutting off his air supply. Hunching his shoulders with all his might, the human was unable to dislodge the assassin from his back, and the lack of air was making it extremely hard to think. Something seemed to pulse behind his eyes as his heart strained for life, and he stared into the face of the female before him as she raised her arm to strike.

Tucking his shoulders and head low, the warrior rolled forward as if doing a somersault, and slammed his own dagger down, through the foot of the female before him, deep into the wooden floor. The female screamed loudly as her foot was pinned to the floor like a roach and smote with her dagger in reflex. Since the warrior had started to tuck forward, the movement had brought the head of the assassin, who was still choking him from behind, forward, and as the female struck, her dagger went in deep, into the skull of the unseen djinni. The hooked dagger was caught firmly by the thick structure of the skull, and as the unseen assassin tumbled to the floor, dead, the dagger was pulled out of the female's grip. With her foot in agony, the female djinni was in no mood to worry about her weapon, or the fight it self.

As the female djinni reached down, trying to pull free the dagger which was pinning her foot to the floor, the tall warrior came to his feet slowly. Adjusting his helmet, he took in gulps of needed air, before casually bringing the edge of his armored fist down on the back of the djinni's neck. The sound of the bones breaking was like the breaking of dry twigs, and the female, who had till this point, given the human avenger the most trouble, fell limply to the floor.

A toneless and cold laughter rang out in the now quiet room. Spinning around, the warrior beheld the surviving djinni, the leader, stepping out of the shadows ten feet from him. The mask concealed the djinni's expression, and the twin daggers were sheathed at his belt on either side of the buckle. Deliberately, the assassin clapped his hands four times before crossing his arms in a posture which mirrored that of the human's. "Crude... But indeed efficient," commented the djinni. "One has to wonder as to why a famed swordsman drew no sword when confronted by seven."

"Ne'er felt I the need to explain my workings to cutthroats and backstabbers, but dare I'd say that I wouldst not soil even the rusts on my blades on ones who fight from the dark." The warrior's face was as cold and without expression as the mask of the assassin. "Speak not of the ones that hast fallen, for now it is one I face, and soon it shall be none."

"Ye are arrogant, human," spat the last assassin. "Dare ye come into my parlor, and I shall show ye the true meanings of dark." So saying, the djinni drew a sphere from his sleeve and tossed it towards the warrior.

Thick smokes bellowed out, filling the room, as the sphere shattered at the warrior's feet. When the smokes cleared at long last, the assassin was nowhere in sight. Striding carefully across the blood-soaked floor, checking every single group of shadows, retrieving his shield on the way, the warrior stopped before a half-opened oaken door. The door was set into the back wall of the huge chamber, and threw it, the warrior saw darkness so intense that it could be wrought by none but magic.

II

A circular room situated behind the gym, cloaked forever in shadows conjured by magic. It was in this room that thieve's, rogues, and assassins were trained how to steal, hide, backstab, and sneak. There were several dummy's on the walls for them to practice their backstabbing. One would feel very unsafe in this room, like they could be stabbed in the back at any moment. In fact, that would not be too far off the mark, for a djinni walked the shadows of this room at this very instant, twin daggers in his grasp. He had heard that something had happened to the other halls. The rumours varied from semi-believable to tales of demonic invasion, but the fact remained that nothing had been heard from the other halls for hours now, and the djinni thief was almost certain that he new what had happened. Also was he certain of the fact that he probably had to be the one who would save the day for the djinnis, for he was the walker of shadows, and about the best assassin the djinnis had ever produced. One with the shadows, his steely gaze was fixed upon the door which led to the gymnasium outside, and this would be where the human attacker had to enter the room from.

After he surmised the fates befalling the other classes, the master assassin had called forth six of his best apprentices, and seven of them had lay in wait in the baited chamber, ready to ambush the warrior right there and then. Alas, the plan had gone terribly awry, for the human fought with a combination of brute force, iron determination and skills, and now, eight djinnis lay dead in the next room. He had watched the human fight with a mixture of awe and rage, for the man drew no weapon and wielded no magic, yet still the assassins all failed horribly. Instead of engaging the warrior, he had retreated into the center of his power, and it was in this room that he would finish what others had begun.

The master of djinni assassins was slightly built and none so tall, yet he possessed incredible dexterity and agility which made him more deadly than even that hulking brute of a djinni warrior. Grimly, he recalled the time when Murgh the Frost Queen had led an attack on the djinnis. The queen and her army had defeated the halls of Magic, War and Holiness before they fell upon the hall of Shadows. The powerful Frost Queen and her men were nearly unstoppable, for they fought with such skills and abandonment that was devastating for anyone who stood in their path. It was he, who at last sent the army packing by a well-place stab from the shadows that mortally wounded the queen, and saved the djinnis from total annihilation. If the Frost Queen's army could not defeat him, then he really should have nothing to worry about. Somewhere in his mind, a little question tickled: why was it that he could almost swear that the tall warrior he battled was connected to the memory of the invasion?

He had heard the sound of thunders awhile back, and just encase the attacker was versed in the element of lightning, the djinni had put on a rubber vest over his light chainmail, worn beneath a form-fitting leather body-casing. Around his waste was a finely made belt of tiny sheaths, in which he had placed three dozen throwing daggers. Hanging from the belt was a small pouch, containing nasties such as the smoke sphere he had used on the human earlier. Added in were his twin daggers, each hooked near the points and nearly a foot long, the pommels decorated with blue gems. The djinni thief was, simply put, armed to the teeth and prepared for anything.

The djinni made no move, and was not at all surprised when the door of the training room was opened completely. He held back from attacking, for he did not wish to attack before he could be sure of his chance of killing the enemy with the first stab. So he waited patiently, and waited... And waited... His body as tightly coiled like the arm of a ballista. Still, nothing moved.

All was dark and silent in the training room. The djinni waited, peering at the entrance and the open door. The attacker had not gone away, of that he was sure of, but why wasn't the enemy coming in? Well, as long as the enemy wanted to claim the defeat of all djinnis, he would have to come in eventually, and then he would...

Suddenly, without warning, the room flashed up violently, and the djinni heard something sizzling in the air. Faster than humanly possible, the thief dove and rolled away from his original spot, just as a ball of crackling electricity demolished the ground where he had been just half a second ago. His heart thumping, he looked up and, nothing. The attacker was not to be seen.

'Blasted! The son of a krakken is invisible!' realized the assassin, and quickly rolled aside as the ground was set ablaze by another ball of lightning. 'Hmmmm,' mused the djinni, coming to his feet and fading into the shadows around him, 'I do believe that we are playing for keep now...'

To the human warrior, the situation wasn't going as good as he had hoped either. He had casted invisibility on himself before entering the room, and had had enough time to observe the location of the hidden djinni. Naturally, the human had thought the enemy a sitting duck, since he could easily had fried the djinni on the spot with a well-casted Ball Lightning spell. He had not however, counted on the superb agility that the assassin had displayed upon dodging two lightning attacks. 'So I can see him, and he can't me, yet what use is vision if I can't land an attack?' pondered the warrior, throwing another ball of lightning at the thief.

The djinni was ready this time, leaping clear of the lightning, he dropped to the ground and rolled twice towards where he thought the spell had been casted from. The djinni's body uncoiled like that of a serpent's, and he let out a savage battlecry as his legs contacted what he would assume to be the ankles of his enemy. As he felt the impact as the attacker hit the ground, the master assassin sprinted towards the sound and prepared to deal the death blow. His target, obviously an experienced fighter as he witnessed earlier, had already rolled out of the way as he struck, and the djinni leapt backward as two balls of lightning zoomed past his head, lighting up part of the room.

'That was too close.' the human warrior thought as he threw out two balls of lightning to slow the opponent down. 'I'd say, it's time for some other strategies...' Therefore, as the djinni dodged the spells, the warrior drew his blade and pounced.

'Should be out of power soon...' calculated the djinni as the two balls of lightning missed him. As he thought, the attacker suddenly ceased the magical assault and came in for hand-to-hand combat which was just what the thief had wished for. The attacker was good, with great strength and speed, but the djinni was faster. Fading in and out of the shadows, the master of rogues dodged the sword thrusts with ease on pure instinct. More than a few times, the djinni felt the unseen blade whooshing by his face and torso by mere inches, but he seemed to flow through the warrior's forms like a drop of dew that was rolling among the leaves of a tree. This was his domain, and he was not about to let a human get the upper hand in his own home. The daggers struck out again and again with deadly speed and accuracy, and although his attacks often bounced off harmlessly of the attacker's armor, some did make their way home and drew blood. Dance they did, the master of shadows against an invisible foe, until at last the thief darted forward and slashed out with his daggers.

The djinni felt the familiar feeling as one of his daggers struck flesh and heard the attacker grunt in pain, and suddenly, as sudden as how the attack had commenced, it stopped. The room was again plunged into total silence, and as the assassin looked down, he saw no corpse but pools of blood all over the room. He could easily see that he had not killed his foe, yet he knew he had hurt the enemy badly, but where did the attacker go? The djinni was not about to go search for the injured person, for he knew that a wounded beast was often more dangerous than one that was healthy, and to go blundering after someone whom he couldn't even see would be utter foolishness. So, after carefully thinking the matter over, the djinni faded into the shadows of the room and waited, knowing with his whole heart that this was not yet over. He would fix that, as soon as the attacker reappear...

III

Adjoining the master assassin's room was yet a smaller, darker chamber. Well hidden and without furnishing, the djinnis came here to practice fighting without using their eyes. The room seemed to be darkened by some spell, for it was so dark that no trace of light can be detected. To the west, the room led into the training room where the master assassin waited for his foe.

A groan could be heard in the darkness, but no one could be seen. Suddenly, an armored shape faded into view as it fell to the ground with yet another groan.

'Foolishness!' thought the wounded warrior as he pressed his hands to the deep wounds across his stomach and slowly worked the spell of curing. The wound was bad, but not quite critical. The thrust of the dagger slipped past the bottom of his breastplate and into flesh, but was deflected enough so the blade did not puncture any organ. All the pains he felt at the moment could not compare to the anger which rose from his heart at his own stupidity. The cursed djinni was still alive, and for all the warrior knew, still unharmed, and the warrior knew that if the djinni was to come into this room at this very moment, he was finished. Silencing a muttered curse, the warrior concentrated on the spells, and sighed his relief as the wounds closed up.

Extracting some strange-looking charms and rings from his belt pouch, the warrior slipped them on and lied back on the cold floor of the room. It would appear that the djinni assassin was not the only person with toys. As the life of magic flowed into the warrior's healing body at an increased rate, he shut his eyes and started to plan his next move. This time, the djinni should not survive.

As the warrior rested, he thought back to the sorry events that had led him to this point. Grudgingly he admitted to himself that djinnis were just like his own people - some honorable, some despicable. Maybe this was all for not, and maybe his whole life was for not. He remembered with grief, the faithful djinni Sarina, how she had died because of what he had set in motion. Maybe it was too late now to take it all back, but as he lay on the cold floor, the warrior decided that once he settled scores with the djinni assassin, he would leave the rest in peace. That was assuming of course, that no more djinni showed up to stop him.

Sitting back up, the swordsman stripped off the healing charms and carefully packed them back into his pouch. Strapping his armors on tight, he checked his flute case, shield and other belongings to make sure that everything was as it should be. Instead of holding the shield however, he had chosen to strap it onto his back just in case the assassin came from behind. Flexing his limbs, he mused that but for the blood covering his armors, he felt almost as good as new. 'I guess all them gold coins were well spent.' Getting to his feet, with everything to his satisfaction, Pharel began chanting his preparation spells.

IV

It had been almost 20 ticks of the clock since the nasty fight, and the djinni assassin was getting tired of standing still and holding his breath. 'Maybe the coward went home?' he thought as he switched his weight to the other leg. 'No, he couldn't have,' he asserted, 'I would've spotted him if he came through this chamber.' And indeed, the only way out was through this area. The way he looked at it, his choices were extremely limited: he could leave now to go for help, risking having the enemy alive and behind him, or he could go in and see if the warrior survived the wounds. Either way, he couldn't stay here much longer without needing food or water, or simply to answer a call of nature. Drawing his daggers, he strode towards the small door which led into the back room, staying close to the wall.

There was a *CRASH* and, "Omphhh!" The bolt of ice slammed into the djinni's chest with brutal force and threw him back a few feet. The attack commenced with the ferocity of a North Gale and in no more than two seconds, a fan of streaming icebolts was pushing the surprised djinni steadily back into one corner of the room. The impacts of the bolts were lessened by the thief's armor, yet there was no way for him to stop himself from being driven back by the force of the attack. To his horror and amazement, most of the bolts hit him with deadly accuracy even though the room was shadowy and he was dodging at the best of his speed. Many of these bolts however, were not aimed at his body but away from him to the left and right, effectively preventing him from moving in any direction but backward. The thief did not dare to try ducking under the bolts, for he wore no helm upon his head, and a direct hit from one of the bolts on his unprotected skull would surely end his life in a hurry. So it was with desperation and grudge that the djinni was backed into the corner eventually, his arms raised to shield his face and head.

Suddenly, the attack ceased unexpectedly. 'Out of power!' the djinni thought with relief and prepared to strike back. Before he could take a step forward however, there was a blur as something whooshed towards his head. Instinctively, the thief ducked as the runic head of a fiery mace was embedded in the wall behind where his head had been a second ago. Before the attacker could free the mace from the wall, the djinni reached up with amazing reflex and closed his hand upon the handle of the mace. With all his wiry strength, the djinni tried to disarm his opponent while, in an attempt to regain the upper hand, slashing madly with one of his daggers at the unseen foe whom he knew to be standing quite close to him. Again and again he struck out with the dagger, only to miss or hit something hard which he assumed to be either the enemy's shield or armor.

In desperation, the djinni threw his dagger at where he imagined the attacker was, and heard a satisfying grunt as the dagger found its target. Adding his free hand to the disarming of the mace, the djinni threw his weight into the effort and twisted his body at the waste - just as the warrior, quite suddenly, let go of the mace. The master of thieves swore loudly as the momentum of his own tug flung him against the wall behind him. With a showering of wood chips, the mace came free in his hands, still flaming.

Before the djinni could right himself, he heard a savage roar and realized two things at once: first, his attacker had now invoked the power of the bloodfever, and second, he couldn't breathe! A vengeful, gauntleted hand had closed around the djinni's neck, and lifted him off the ground. The assassin struggled violently in the choking hand while trying in vain to kick at his attacker, as the warrior slammed him into the wall. Desperately, the thief flailed out with the blazing mace which he had liberated from the wall, cracking it against any part of the enemy's torso he could reach, but with his shorter reach and inability to breathe, he couldn't get enough force behind the swings. Letting go of the mace, he fumbled out his other dagger and struck blindly. Warm blood splashed onto his hand, but the iron grip choked on.

Again, the hand slammed the djinni into the wall, and he heard a snap as something in his back gave. There was no pain, but the djinni felt a sense of distant panic as he dimly noted that he could no longer feel anything below his neck. And still the hand choked... As a field of stars exploded before the djinni's eyes, he heard the unseen warrior whispering in his ear, "You were good, but I be magic..."



Epilog:



The headmaster's room situated on the highest tower of the castle in the sky. From up here he overlooked the training of all his young pupils. There were several degrees on the wall here, and a few awards also. The room was quite small, but it had a very nice home like quality to it. At this moment though, home was the fartheest thing from the headmaster's mind. Pacing back and forth across the narrow quarter, the djinni headmaster had his hands linked behind him, and a deep frown of frustration upon his face. A huge vein twitched nervously in the center of his forehead, looking quite like an ugly slug that had somehow gotten beneath the djinni's skin. He was not a tall djinni, but was thick of neck and deep-chested. His hands were long-fingered and delicate like those of a mage, but he had the look of a half-crazed berserker in his yellow eyes. Several days worth of black beard shadowed his sweaty face, and his short hair was streaked with gray.

The headmaster had had a lousy week thus far. First the sink in his private chamber broke down, making his life quite difficult in the past days. Then there was the younglings that tried to cheat during their exam and whose parents were the most unreasonable when the headmaster tried to issue them the expulsion notices. The warrior trainer had also demanded an increase of fund for training equipments, having broken his sixth pair of lifting stones in this past moon. The explosion in the mage's lab, a result of some younglings attempt to summon the God of Thunder, had set the djinnis' budget back for another winter. And now, someone or something had systematically destroyed all four halls!

The headmaster was not exactly afraid, but he was not foolishly enough to take the news lightly either. True, he was the best of the djinnis, aquiring the title of the headmaster by his skills and, um, maybe just a little gold from his friends and family members, yet he did not wish to face the enemy that had single-handedly defeated four of his best djinni champions and slaughtered their students. Even the elemental at the entrance was destroyed. The attack was so sudden and swift that his djinnis had no time to organize any kind of defense. Truth be known, most of them did not even know that the castle was being invaded.

*Drip.*

The sound of the broken sink almost sent the headmaster to the ceiling. He had locked the only door into the room, so anyone would have to knock or break the door down to get in, but even that gave little comfort. If a ten foot tall demon from hell did break down the door, well, then the only way out for the headmaster would either be a glorious death in combat or the hundred feet drop to the square below from his window.

*Drip. Drip.*

Again, the sound set his nerves on edge. Muttering to himself, he cursed the day he sealed that backdoor. Oh if only he had a way to sneak out without possibly running into the enemy! Walking across the chamber, he looked pointedly at the fireplace which was built into the spot his former backdoor occupied. 'Maybe I can...' Summoning up a bright ball of flames, he concentrated on the ornate stonework.

*Drip. Drip. Knock knock!*

His heart leapt into his throat at the sound at the door. Quietly, he went to the door and drew back the bolt. Standing right behind the door, he readied himself to pounce. Sliding open a circular panel which concealed his magic mirror, the djinni gazed in fright at the image of the door-knocker. The creature, an ogre by the look, was over ten feet tall and had shoulders larger than those on a bull. It was carrying a coffin-sized black case in one massive hand, while holding some kind of tubular device in the other. In a shaking voice, the headmaster said the fateful word. "Come in!"

The door, like the doors in children's ghost stories, swung open with a squeak, and the headmaster sprung forward like a tiger, throwing out the fireball he had prepared mere seconds before. A massive explosion rocked the tower, and the newly built grand staircase collapsed in a roaring landslide of marble and granite. The backwash of the fiery attack blew in the window, sending magical crystal shards everywhere. The blast also annihilated the back wall, re-opening up the sealed backdoor as if answering the djinni's wish.

The ogre plumber never even saw what hit him.



The End



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