Chapter Seventeen

"This is it," Rudo said softly. Sawa pulled back on the Land Rover's acceleration stick and brought the vehicle to a gentle stop. The Commander of Mota glanced in the rearview mirror and saw that Lance's Land Rover was also coming to a stop behind them. He pushed down the talk button on the radio attached to his collar. "According to the notes Lutz left behind on that datacard, these are the exact coordinates," he told the occupants of the other vehicle. "And that's the mountain. Let's back the Land Rovers into that forest over there to give them some cover, and then we'll gear up and head out."

Just a few minutes later, the vehicles had been provided with a reasonable amount of camouflage and the team had packed up their gear. Shir, Lance, and Amy all wore backpacks containing their food and water supplies, but strapped to Rudo and Sawa's backs were the massive power units of the PDCs. Also attached to the units was a belt, which the cannon itself attached to when in firing position.

Rudo stepped out of the forest and tested the feel of the weapon. The cannon itself sat in a ready position on the side of the backpack power unit. At the touch of the quick-release remote attached to his wrist, servos in the backpack went into action and with the smooth sound of hydraulics, the cannon swung down off the backpack, its extender arm swinging the weapon under Rudo's arm and around to the front of him, where he was able to grab it with both hands to aim in a 90 degree arc in front of him.

The only weapon he'd ever used like it was a vehicle-mounted cannon he'd been trained on in the army. And really, the concept here was basically the same -- except this cannon was essentially mounted to him.

He glanced at Sawa, who was testing his own version of the weapon. "This should be sufficient," the Motavian agent finally decided.

"Boys and your toys," Shir shook her head, and after a round of nods with which everyone indicated they were ready, they stepped across the field towards the base of the mountain. Rudo took the lead, followed by Lance. Shir and Amy walked side-by-side after him, Shir holding an awake but quiet Kyle in her arms. Sawa took up the rear.

There was a gravel path that led up a slight embankment at the base of the mountain. The group could see that the path curved back around itself once before ending at a ridge some fifteen feet up from the base of the mountain. On that ridge was a cave entrance, and the team knew from the notes Lutz had left them that this cave led through the inside of the mountain to the Desan temple.

Rudo paused at the base of the path. He scanned the entire ridge above them with his eyes, back and forth. "Lutz's notes said the cave was inhabited by wild creatures," Rudo called back to the group softly. "Let's be ready for anything."

They trudged up the path. It stretched to the left side of the ridge, and then turned to the right, where it ended atop the ridge itself. Rudo's eyes never stopped scanning, and when he reached the top of the path, and had his first good, clear look at the cave entrance, he froze in place. The rest of the group stopped behind him and locked their eyes on their leader.

"What is it?" Lance whispered.

"Eyes in the cave," Rudo whispered back. "Watching me."

With a soft wisp of air, three small green fires suddenly ignited above the eyes, and a Flarewolf stepped cautiously forward out of the cave towards Rudo. The seemingly gentle nature conveyed by its pink fur was in sharp contrast to its ears and tail, which literally burned with green fire. It opened its mouth and growled at Rudo.

"I wonder just how powerful these cannons really are?" Rudo asked aloud. Then he answered his own question.

He wasn't quite prepared for the recoil; it nearly knocked him backwards off the path, and it would have been quite a fall down to the lower level of the path below. On the other hand, the Flarewolf wasn't prepared for the weapon, either. It took the massive energy blast from the PDC right in the chest and was thrown backwards off its feet, very much dead.

"Watch the recoil on your cannon, Sawa," Rudo called to the Motavian agent, "and join me up here quick! The family isn't very happy with me right now."

Three more Flarewolves came charging from the entrance to the cave. Rudo cut them each down with the PDC, but Sawa would not be joining him. The Motavian turned to see a pack of Burnwolves -- cousins of Flarewolves, with green fur and blue fire -- emerging from the forest behind them and sprinting across the clearing. Sawa took them out one-by-one with his own PDC.

Lance reached a hand out on either side -- one towards Rudo and one backwards towards Sawa, Amy, and his wife and son -- and cast a Deban technique. The entire area was engulfed in the sound of gunfire as both Rudo and Sawa continued to cut down the wolves with their guns. The mountain cave and the surrounding forest must have been their den, because just as three were cut down, three more would come from nowhere to take their place.

"Against the wall!" Rudo yelled down to those behind him. Lance, Amy, and Shir pressed their backs against the ridge and looked up in time to see two Flarewolves standing at the edge above them, growling at Sawa, and no doubt preparing to pounce. Shir glanced sideways and saw Rudo preoccupied with a large pack of wolves that was surrounding him. They were fast, and had taken to approaching the Commander in a strafing, side-to-side manner. The PDCs were powerful, but it was not easy to track such a fast-moving target with them.

Without a word, Shir handed Kyle, who was now crying loudly, to Lance. Startled, the Esper took his son into his arms, but before he could ask what was going on, Shir leaped into the air and performed a backwards somersault, landing on the ridge above directly between the two Flarewolves preparing to pounce on Sawa.

"Shir!" Lance yelled, and he and Amy turned in time to see Shir grab two knives from her belt and stab them into the necks of the startled wolves. They crumpled instantly.

"Amy!" Shir yelled from above. "Gra the rear wave! I'll Nagra these!"

The women unleashed their techniques, crushing clusters of wolves at a time in powerful waves of gravity. As Sawa and Rudo continued blasting them away with their PDCs, it was soon over. They all paused in combat stances for several minutes, waiting to see if more wolves would emerge either from the forest behind them or the cave in front of them, but eventually, Rudo nodded and announced, "I think we're clear."

Lance, Amy, and Sawa joined Rudo and Shir on the top of the ridge. Tens of flarewolf bodies, the flames from their ears and tails now extinguished, lay strewn around them. For the moment, Lance still held onto Kyle, sending soothing thoughts into the child's young mind. "Everyone okay?" Rudo asked.

Everyone nodded. "Should we hide these bodies somewhere, sir?" Sawa asked. "It's obvious they weren't done in by a rival pack."

Rudo shook his head. "I don't think we have anything to hide. Those weren't natural beasts. I'd say Lassic knows we're here, and that was his welcome party."

Closing his eyes, Lance scanned the area with his mind. "I don't sense anyone here," he announced, "but then I'm not very good at mind-scanning yet."

"There's sure to be more inside the mountain," Amy said. "If not wolves, then certainly something."

"I agree," Rudo nodded. "Let's get back into formation and get through this mountain, fast. Once we find the temple and get inside we're safe. I want to get Kyle and the prism there; after that, Sawa and I can patrol the mountain and take out any monsters we leave behind." He looked to Shir. "I was going to ask how fast you think you can travel, but it would seem you're feeling just fine."

"Don't worry about me," the thief winked. "Let's go."

- - - - - - - - - -

Rolf exhaled as underneath him, the Landale touched down on the Dark Castle's asteroid. "We're here," he announced to the others. "How long until the castle reaches Mota?"

"Based on current estimates," Tyler said, conferring with his computer screen, "we have one hour."

"Then we have one hour before he unleashes his monster army on Mota," Rolf summarized. "Let's head inside."

They gathered on the ship's gangplank, making a final check of their weapons and gear. Rolf was armed only with the Neisword, though Elsydeon also was at his side, resting in a second scabbard. Tyler added a shoulder holster for a second laser gun, in addition to the one he wore on his waist at all times. Anna was armed with her whip, slashers, and a sonic gun. Kip and Kain both carried a laser rifle, while Kip additionally carried his staff.

"I'm going to stay behind and guard the ship," Hugh told the rest of them, waving his cane for emphasis. "I still can't run... or walk very fast, for that matter. I would just slow you down."

"All right," Rolf said, placing a hand on Hugh's shoulder. In truth, he was glad the biologist had volunteered for ship guard duty, for it was the job Rolf was probably going to have to assign him. Hugh's techniques were incredibly powerful, and they'd be sorely missed inside the Dark Castle, but if speed became a critical issue, someone would have to carry Hugh. "Hopefully, this won't take long. We'll be back as soon as we can."

"I guess we'd better get into our space suits," Kip said.

"No need," Tyler shook his head. "There's breathable atmosphere out there."

"What?" came Kain's startled reply.

"Don't ask me how," Tyler shrugged. "But my sensors showed it clearly. There's a bubble of atmosphere surrounding this rock."

"In that case it's time to move out," Rolf ordered. With that, Tyler dropped the ship's gangplank to the ground, and all five of them cautiously stepped off the ship and onto the asteroid. The Landale had touched down directly in front of the castle's main entrance, which was wide open and waiting for them -- inviting. They scanned space above them as they looked up at the Dark Castle towering over them. Lassic was in one of the castle's towers, and it was clear he was just as dangerous now as he'd been one thousand years before.

None of the team bothered to look over their shoulder, but if they had, they would have seen the planet Mota looming closer and closer by the second. Instead, they slowly stepped inside the castle's entrance hall. A red carpet stretched out under their feet and extended all the way down the hall, which almost seemed to stretch out into infinity. There was a staircase on either side of the room -- not unlike the entrance hall of Esper Mansion itself, Rolf realized -- and the two staircases connected to the same balcony, which stretched across the hall about thirty feet in front of the group. A second-story hallway led off from the balcony, directly above the first-story one they now walked into.

Five pairs of eyes scanned every corner of the room but saw nothing. Thus they were all startled when a voice called out to them from the balcony above. "I have watched all your actions," the voice boomed. "Attack me now, if you dare."

The speaker was a human; that much was obvious. However, the man's features could not be made out as he was bathed in the shadows that draped the upper balcony. Nevertheless, they all knew who it was. It was Lassic.

Rolf squinted his eyes, tried to make out the king's features. Something wasn't right...

"If we dare..." Kain mulled over the threat. "Let me see about that--"

He cut his own words off as he raised his laser rifle, aimed at the man on the balcony, and held down the trigger. The shadowy figure did not budge, though the laser blasts hit square in the center of his chest. Rolf then realized what was going on; he saw the blasts go right through the figure and blow plaster off of the walls behind it.

The man on the balcony wasn't Lassic. It wasn't a man at all. It was a diversion.

The former agent's eyes focused ahead of him on the distant first-floor hallway as the call of an animal cut through the air. Rounding a corner in the far distance of the hall, an armored man sat atop an armored horse. Rolf put the Neisword before him in a defensive gesture as the horse reared back on its hind legs and cried out again. It dropped its legs to the ground, brushed its hoofs twice on the carpet underneath, and then charged.

Rolf -- as well as the others, by this point -- was prepared for the charge. What they were not prepared for was the speed. The horse moved almost as fast as the Landale's lightdrive engines, racing across the entire vast hall in a mere second, knocking every member of the team off of their feet and to the floor.

As they got to their feet, they saw that it was not a man on a horse at all. The monster was half-horse and half-man -- a Horseman -- and despite the fact that its face was covered by a helmet, they could feel its eyes sweeping across all of them. Kip was nearest to where the Horseman had come to a stop, and he raised his laser rifle at point blank range and fired. The Horseman reeled back from the shots it took to its human chest, but at the same time it raised up the heavy sword it carried in its right hand and slammed it down on top of the Guardian. Kip brought the butt of his laser rifle up before his head just in time; he was still knocked to the floor by the blow, but at least it hadn't split his skull in two.

Taking several steps backwards, Tyler drew both of his laser guns as Anna drew her sonic gun and Kain raised his laser rifle. They fired, and the powerful Horseman took a few of the shots before again rearing back on its hind legs. It seemed to glow with power, and when it landed, it raised its left hand and pointed directly at Kain.

The hand exploded in a burst of fire and the bang of the blast echoed through the castle's halls. Kain took the fireball directly in his chest, and he was thrown off his feet backwards, crashing into a nearby wall, but his armor held true, saving his life. Tyler took the next blast with similar results; Anna had dived out of the way at this point, but her side was still singed by the fireball.

Rolf took this opportunity to charge the beast and meet it head-on. It tracked the approaching Rolf with its fire-spewing hand, but a quick, focused Deban shield from Rolf allowed the shots to bounce harmlessly off of his Neisword. He swung at the Horseman with all his might and cut deeply into its chest with his blade. The monster responded by swinging at Rolf with his own sword, but Rolf parried the blow, and the two that followed in rapid succession, retaliating by shifting the Neisword to his left hand and pointing the palm of his right hand at the Horseman. He released a laser blast of Tsu, which knocked the Horseman backwards.

It stumbled on its four legs, struggling to keep its footing. With the creature now a safe distance from Rolf, the others again had clear shots. They surrounded the monster, opening fire with their laser weapons. The Horseman recoiled, attempting to parry some of the shots with its sword, but there were too many. It fired off two more fire blasts but they were wild shots. Taking a step backwards of his own, Rolf unleashed one last Tsu attack and with a final cry, the Horseman exploded into dust.

"And I thought he was the animal," Tyler said, motioning towards the figure who still watched from the shadows above.

"That's not Lassic," Rolf told the others.

"Indeed," the figure laughed. "I'm but only Lassic's shadow! Even if you defeat me, you've gained nothing at all!"

"We'll be face-to-face with you for real soon enough, Lassic," Rolf promised. "Especially if that Horseman is the best defense you've got for us."

The shadow chuckled softly. "Hardly," it replied. "My entire army is waiting to welcome you to my kingdom, Rolf. I've told them they can kill all your friends -- and they will -- but they are to save you for me." With that, the shadow slowly disappeared from the balcony.

"We'll see," Rolf muttered silently. "Stay alert, everyone," he told the others. "I have the feeling this castle could make the Dezorian towers we conquered two years ago look like a cake walk."

- - - - - - - - - -

Rudo led his team quickly but cautiously through the mountain caverns, running into little resistance along the way. And that's what frightened him.

The more he thought about it, the more he realized that the wolf attack at the entrance was designed not to be a mere attack, but a barricade. The wolves waited to attack until his team was essentially pinned down, they attacked from both sides, and their number was relentless. He didn't want to think about what would have happened if they hadn't had the PDCs. No, Rudo could arrive at only one conclusion: they were never supposed to have even entered the mountain.

But they did, so Rudo placed himself in the enemy's shoes. If he was the enemy, and he had another surprise up his sleeve, he would wait... and save everything for one last attack just outside the temple, just when his opponents thought they were safe.

As they turned a corner in the caverns, he looked back over his shoulder at Sawa. The look in Sawa's face said it all; Sawa was thinking the same thing. Their current passage ended at a fork in the path. To the right, Rudo saw the path extended lower back down into the mountain. It was dark. But when he looked to the left, Rudo's chest sank. On the other end of the chamber to the left, he saw sunlight coming through the exit. They were extremely close to the temple.

It was obvious that the left path was the one to take, but it was also the perfect place for an ambush, just like they'd been attacked at the entrance. Wait until they were in the middle of the chamber, and then monsters could rush in from the outside, as well as from the darkened chamber to his right.

There was no time to explore the darkened passage to "clean it out" before continuing. They had only one option. Run.

"I'm going in first," he said. "Lance, follow behind me and keep your eyes forward. Shir, go in the middle with Kyle. Amy, Sawa, go last, but don't take your eyes off of our rear. We're almost at the top. If they sent more monsters after us than just that group of wolves, here is where they'll attack."

Lance looked over the rest of the team. "We're ready," he nodded to Rudo.

Rudo bit his lip. The other possibility, of course, was that a horde of monsters would be waiting for them outside. The temple itself could be surrounded.

Now or never, he told himself. Then aloud he commanded, "Go!"

They took of into the cavern. Most of this chamber was a large lake, but the exit -- through which they all now saw the sunlight -- was near the ceiling of the vast room. The only way to reach it was the ridge that ran along the left side of the room, angling up steeply until it reached the exit. Rudo hit the ridge at full speed; he could definitely feel the weight of his PDC on this steep climb. He did not bother to look back, but he heard Lance's footfalls on the gravel of the ridge behind him, then Shir's, Amy's, and finally Sawa's.

He didn't bother to ask Sawa for a report of what was coming behind them, nor did he bother to turn around and look. The lack of gunfire said it all. Ambush right outside, Rudo thought to himself. I bet the temple is surrounded...

That's when the large green monster stumbled through the exit, blocking their escape.

They were right in the middle of the ridge, exactly where Rudo would have launched the ambush if he were the crazed should-be-dead former king in this scenario. The monster had a humanoid shape to it, but it dripped with slime and water. Rudo hadn't seen anything like it when traveling with Rolf, but he shot first and asked questions later. The thunder of his PDC echoed loudly off the cavern's walls, and the monster was cut down in green plasma fire.

Wait! Rudo realized. Dripping with water? No, how could I have been so blind?

Suddenly, two more Fishmen leapt from the lake below them and reached for their legs on the ridge. Shir's thief reflexes allowed her to leap back away from the slimy claws in time, but the one who reached for Lance grabbed hold of his ankle and tugged. The Esper was knocked down off of his feet.

With her child in her arms, Shir could not do much but get out of the way, so she did so as Amy dropped to the ground and took hold of Lance's arm. The doctor and the Fishman played tug-of-war with Lance's foot for just a brief moment before both of the group's PDCs opened fire on the two attacking Fishmen, blowing them into pieces that splashed back into the water.

Lance yelped at the incoming fire as he was pulled back to his feet. "I felt the heat of those blasts!" he exclaimed.

"They felt more," Rudo deadpanned. "Incoming!"

More Fishmen were now rising from the waters below. Rudo and Sawa continued to pick them off as fast as they emerged, but the monsters caught on to this trick quickly. Two of them suddenly leapt high out of the water, landing on the ridge right alongside Rudo's team. No doubt by design, they landed on either side of Shir and Kyle.

Rudo and Sawa obviously could not fire upon these Fishmen, so they kept their weapons firing on the water itself and the Fishmen that still emerged from it. As it turned out, Shir, Lance, and Amy were able to take care of matters themselves. Shir turned Kyle to bring him closer to her body, as the terrified infant loudly cried, but she put her free hand in the air and silently cast Nagra. The Fishmen stopped in their tracks, their bodies being crushed from inside by a silent wave of gravity. Sneaking up from behind, Amy drove a scalpel into the back of the neck of the monster nearest her, and then used all her strength to push it over the ridge and back down into the water. Sawa put it out of its misery on the way down.

On the other side, Lance skipped the scalpel and merely pushed the Fishman nearest him off the edge, shooting a ball of Foi into the monster's chest on its way down.

"We can't hold out here forever," Rudo yelled to the others over his shoulder. "Push forward!"

"I think I can end this first," Lance yelled back. He rolled up the sleeves of his tunic and looked into the water. Fishmen were still rising from it; this lake must continue deep into the mountain. There was a spell Lutz had been teaching him. He wasn't sure he could pull it off yet, but if he could...

The Esper took a deep breath. As he released it he raised his hands in the air and softly said, "Thunder."

Lance jumped backwards as a lightning bolt shot forth from out of each of his hands, crackling through the air until it landed in the water below. The electricity surged rapidly across the surface of the water, and all the Fishmen who were emerging roared and writhed in pain as their flesh bubbled and burned. They sunk back down into the water and did not resurface.

Rudo congratulated his team by shouting, "Move!" and they quickly continued on their way. The Commander of Mota reached the top of the ridge and held his breath as he turned into the cavern's exit. As he rounded the corner, he had to squint his eyes.

They had reached the top. But more importantly, they had reached the temple.

The mountain itself did not peak here; in fact, the temple itself appeared to be in a valley of sorts on the side of the mountain, with the peak hovering far above it. Completely secluded, Rudo thought he could probably circle the mountain later with Tyler in the Landale and still be unable to find the sacred ground. The temple itself was a brilliant white, its brightness a sharp contrast to the brown of the land that surrounded it. Columns lined the outside of the temple all around, as well as small round windows near the top of the temple between all the pillars, while the front was adorned only with a single doorless entryway.

But best of all, there were no monsters. At least in sight.

"Move! Move!" he repeated to his team. He had paused for only the briefest of seconds. Behind him, he heard the rest of the term emerge out into the daylight and follow them, their steps crunching the gravel underfoot. Since Kyle had stopped crying, the wind and their footfalls were the only sounds.

Rudo paused briefly at the entrance to the Desan temple, scanning the cannon of his PDC around the elegant interior. It was merely a reflex, for he soon remembered Lutz's words -- no creature born of darkness could enter this temple. He stood aside and waved Lance, Shir, Kyle, Amy, and finally Sawa inside. Then he followed them in.

They were safe.

Puffing for air, they all figuratively collapsed. Shir leaned against the wall, closing her eyes and cradling her son close to her body. Sawa unlatched his PDC and let it drop to the floor. Not to be unarmed, however, he quickly pulled a laser rifle from a pack he'd tied to the side of his PDC, and used the weapon's attached strap to hang it around his body. "Shall we head back in to clean out the mountain, Commander?" he asked. "Or shall we rest first?"

Like Shir, Rudo had been leaning against a nearby wall. He slowly opened his eyes and glanced around the temple as he considered Sawa's question. His eyes caught a drop of water landing on the floor of the temple near where Lance stood. And then another.

Rudo raised his eyes to the temple's ceiling. No creature born of darkness may enter the temple. But Lassic's most vicious monster hadn't been born of darkness; she'd been created by twisted, evil science.

And now Neithird was hanging from the ceiling of the temple, her claws holding her in place, her head tilted backwards watching them. Drool dripped from her mouth and landed on the floor below. The thirst for blood was upon her.

She pounced down.

- - - - - - - - - -

Lassic's Shadow hadn't been kidding when it had said that an army was waiting for them. The trip through the Dark Castle had been brutal, and the team had used most of their medical supplies by the time they reached a short stairway that led to a twenty-foot long hallway. A red carpet similar to the one in the entryway lined the floor here, and the hall ended at two large, elegant wooden doors. Exhausted but still determined, Rolf, Tyler, Anna, Kain, and Kip knew this had to be the entrance to Lassic's throne room.

The fact that the two remaining Xe-A-Thouls stood before the doors was all the confirmation they needed.

"You killed our brother," Xanon announced in greeting. He held the Laconian Axe in his bony hands, ready for combat.

"Yeah," Kain nodded. "It was a real blast, if you catch my drift."

Underneath his hood, Xanon seemed to smile at them. They assembled behind Rolf, who slowly stepped towards the Xe-A-Thouls, his Neisword raised before him. "You have no idea who you're dealing with," Xanon told them. "You have no idea what we are."

"No, I ripped your brother's mask off, remember?" Kain again taunted. "We know exactly what you are: ugly."

Rolf watched the Xe-A-Thouls closely. He could sense in Kain's mind what the mechanic was up to. The hall they were in was tight; he and Tyler would be unable to fire their lasers in such close quarters. But the two of them did carry weapons that could be just as damaging: their mouths.

"Kain," Tyler groaned, "I told you, please, don't remind me about that. I just ate!"

"Poor Hugh," Kain shook his head. "He may never get the stains out of his clothes. When that demon's head exploded, he was right--"

Xanon had heard enough. He raised the Laconian Axe and charged. But he had been enraged, and Rolf was gambling that in his rage, he'd get sloppy. Rolf tested his hypothesis by attacking the demon with all his might, slashing the Neisword into the demon with fierce intensity. Xanon blocked a few of Rolf's attacks with the Laconian Axe, but many cut into the demon's body. Rolf attempted to push against the demon, to force him back against the throne room's doors, but the demon's massive size prevented it. Instead, he followed up a slash of his Neisword with a blast of Foi, and Xanon was knocked off his feet backwards.

As the demon stood up, Rolf saw a growing black stain on his robes underneath the slash marks the Neisword had left. He had drawn blood, but Rolf's notice of this took away from his focus for just a moment. Xanon capitalized on the mistake by releasing a blast of Giwat at the former agent. His body was temporarily frozen as a blast of snow and ice surrounded him. During that second, Xanon charged him with the axe. Rolf broke free of the effects of the spell just in time to raise the Neisword in front of him, blocking a killing blow from the Laconian Axe.

With their weapons meeting between them, Xanon pushed down. Physically, there was no doubt that his strength was superior to Rolf's. The agent quickly found himself down on one knee, pushing back the Laconian Axe with all his might.

Witnessing the struggle, Tyler managed to move behind Xanon. He pulled one of his laser guns from its holster and pressed the barrel against the back of the Xe-A-Thoul's head. He twisted the gun at an angle, so that the shot would not bank down and hit Rolf, and then he pulled the trigger.

Amazingly, somehow, the Xe-A-Thoul survived the shot. The monster delivered a kick to Rolf's chest that knocked the agent backwards, and in the same moment it spun around to face Tyler. The force of its spin cast aside the shreds that remained of its hood, and Tyler saw that the trajectory of his shot -- designed not to hurt Rolf -- had been what spared the Xe-A-Thoul. The creature strode towards Tyler with a chunk of its skull blown away, while black blood and pus oozed from the wound down the monster's face. Tyler unloaded blast after blast from his laser gun, but the Xe-A-Thoul was now focused solely on the space pirate, and he effortlessly blocked each shot with a quick magical shield.

Tyler finally found himself with his back to the throne room door. Xanon swung the Laconian Axe around in an arc that would make it collide with Tyler's head. Tyler ducked the attack, and the axe embedded itself deep into the wood of the door. Ducking under the Xe-A-Thoul's arm, Tyler got out of his pinning predicament as Xanon yanked the axe out of the door. Taking several steps backwards, Tyler thought he was out of the way of the axe. He was wrong.

Xanon simply threw it at him.

Stunned, Tyler barely had time to move, yet alone to warn anyone else. The axe whizzed past where he had been standing just moments before but now headed directly towards Kip. The powerful blade caught the Guardian in the left thigh, and he immediately hit the floor.

He and Anna had been squaring off against Xerik, Kip attacking with his staff while Anna hit from a distance with her slashers. Rolf was on his feet again now, but both Tyler and Anna were standing between him and the Xe-A-Thouls. Holding his Neisword to the side he called to both of them, "Get back!"

Rolf raised his hand, preparing to unleash the power of Megid on the Xe-A-Thouls. But clear of physical attack for the time being, the monsters had seconds more than Rolf to prepare. They raised their hands simultaneously and a wave of energy crackled across the air in front of them, spreading out to strike Anna, Tyler, and Rolf. The Thunderblast knocked all three heroes to the floor, where Kip continued to writhe in pain and bleed profusely across the floor.

But Kain, who had dropped with Kip to check on him, had been unaffected by the Thunderblast, and he took advantage of the Xe-A-Thouls' apparent momentary advantage to grab Kip's laser rifle, rise to his feet, and then unload both his own weapon and his borrowed one into the monsters.

Rolf, Tyler, and Anna, already getting back on their feet, took immediate advantage. Picking the Laconian Axe up off the ground where it had landed, Tyler charged at Xerik. The Xe-A-Thoul saw the impending attack and raised its hand to cast a technique, but Anna's whip was off her belt in a flash. She captured Xerik's hand at the wrist and yanked it forward; Tyler stepped up, raised the axe above his head, and severed the demon's arm at the elbow. Unrelenting, Anna tossed a slasher with her free hand, striking the monster in the face. In grunted in pain and staggered backwards. Momentarily stunned and defenseless, Tyler swung the axe sideways and planted it directly into Xerik's chest. Black blood spurted from the wound and the Xe-A-Thoul ended up pinned to the wall by the axe. It coughed and a stain of black blood appeared on its hood in front of its mouth, and then its body went limp.

While this happened, Rolf had charged Xanon. En route, he fired a Tsu laser blast that struck the demon it its already wounded chest. It doubled over, and Rolf raised the Neisword high, but Xanon threw out a punch of desperation that caught Rolf on the chin. Rolf was completely focused, however, and he barely felt the blow. With the demon still partially bent over, he raised a knee that knocked it over flat on its back. He then got a new grip on his Neisword with a half-flourish of the blade, and dropped it down into the demon's black heart.

The Xe-A-Thoul's black hole eyes widened as it howled its death cry, its thin red tongue dancing in the air above its open, screaming mouth. As the life drained out of the creature, its tongue dropped limp against the side of its head.

Rolf, Tyler, Anna, and Kain exchanged glances between them. They were all, more or less, okay. With that confirmed, they all turned their attention to Kip. Kain knelt next to the Guardian's head as Rolf and Anna looked at his wound. Tyler stayed on his feet, one laser gun trained on the stairway they had just climbed and one on the throne room's doors, keeping guard.

"How much Trimate do we have left?" Rolf asked immediately upon seeing Kip's leg.

"Last one," Anna said as she handed him one from her pouch.

"It's either that or a tourniquet," Rolf said as he injected the medicine into Kip's leg just above the wound. The bleeding stopped immediately, and Kip seemed to catch his breath, the Trimate helping to take care of the shock, as well. The three of them got him to his feet, but when he tried to take a step he almost tumbled to the floor again. They instead got him seated against the wall.

"Sorry," he grimaced through the pain. "I can't put any weight on it."

"Give the Trimate some time to work," Rolf said. "But truthfully, I don't think field medicine alone can take care of this wound."

"Go on without me," Kip motioned. "I'll watch your back, make sure nothing comes up the stairs."

Kain returned his laser rifle to him, and they moved the Xe-A-Thouls' bodies into the corner so that they would be out of the way. They did a last check over their weapons and armors and then Rolf placed his hand on the handle of the throne room doors.

"There was an old rhyme I used to chant as a kid, when my friends and I would jump rope," Anna suddenly said. "Now that I think about it, it probably originated thanks to Lassic."

They all turned and looked at her. She grinned, a little embarrassed to be discussing such a topic at this time. But she'd started it, she couldn't just tell them to forget it now. "It went, 'May the king of gloom be forever doomed.'"

Kain let out a snort of laughter. "Appropriate."

Rolf gripped the scabbard at his side that held Elsydeon. They had fought against what seemed like the forces of hell itself to get here, but if they fell in this next room, then the Protector of Algo would essentially be delivering the Elsydeon right into Lassic's hands. Perhaps it was a mistake to bring it with him? Perhaps he should have sent it with Rudo to the Desan temple...

As fast as these thoughts appeared in his mind, they vanished, replaced by an emotion Rolf could only describe as strength. He knew the source of it immediately. It was coming from Elsydeon; the souls inside were trying to encourage him, to bless upon him some of the determination that they wielded when they themselves stepped through these very doors one thousand years before.

May me and mine be half as brave..., Rolf thought. Then he pushed open the doors and stepped inside.

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