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The Legacy
by Jinx&Jedi

Part 1 :: Into the Abyss

Netherworld, Imperial Palace Shipyards.
    The moon hung heavily over the vast, inland sea at the foot of the former Imperial Palace like a specter of calm summer nights long forgotten. Its light bathed the landscape in an eerie silver punctuated intermittently by the occasional green, blue, or orange glow of naked flames or the muted illumination of lanterns sheathed in multicolored rice paper. The breeze that ruffled her short hair and tugged at the edges of her worn armor was gentle and faintly scented with the fragrances of night-blooming water plants. Only the smallest ripples rocked the moored barges and reached to kiss the tips of her bare toes, stirring the reflections of light and shadow that laid like a mosaic across its placid surface. The tattooed healer lifted her head in a long ingrained gesture to gaze warily at the long road which stretched into the distance like a ribbon dragged behind a drunkard. While agonizingly convoluted, she had to admit that it was definitely novel after fifty - almost sixty - years of roads so straight they appeared to have been drawn with an straight edge. She supposed it wouldn’t look quite so bare and ugly once the gardeners sat down and started plotting out the landscaping; but at the moment it looked bare and rather ugly until one got close enough to see the first blades of grass poking through the soil. She still couldn’t believe how far this place had bounced back first after Talpa’s neglect and then the carnage left after Inferno.
    In her mind’s eye she could still see the long lines of bodies laying in state - some of them heartbreakingly small - as long processions of survivors drifted past, searching the remains for loved ones still missing. She could still hear the wails that drifted from those lines just as she could still smell the stench of burning flesh from the funeral pyres and the charred remains still resting where they had fallen. All were sensations that tore at her sanity and composure; as if the results of the bomb dropped on her city were reaching back through the ages and across dimensions to once again torment her....
    "Quick, the General’s coming!" Came the expected hiss which blessfully severed her from memories of the morbid past.
    (The more things change the more they stay the same...) She sensed one of the other sensei mutter privately to the others, bringing forth a chuckle. (I bet Nereid and I could knock a few into the drink just like old times...)
    The tattooed healer lifted her hand to rest on the sliver of jewel pinned to the lapel of her jacket to reply with a laugh, (Not on your life, Commander Long.) She stressed his title firmly to remind him of his duties.
    Nereid chuckled silently and turned to scrutinize the cadets scurrying to line up. She had to grin as one of the older cadets snagged the collar of one of the younger ones and protectively pulled them into line. They were little more than children - even some of their superior officers were just barely out of their childhood themselves - much too young for the responsibility of being this world’s next military leaders. However, the casualties caused directly and indirectly from Inferno had been too great, and to most of their displeasure these children were needed. None of them could see her, just as they couldn’t see the rest of their former sensei. Nor could they hear them as they spoke among each other thanks to the crystals they bore on their lapels, constructions Lady Kayura and Emperor Talpa had created for them in years past. They could only see the General as he stalked up the pier to where they were lined up.
    Her eyes moved down the line, picking out faces much too familiar to her for comfort. Most of these cadets were barely old enough to remember -or have experienced- the harsh training regiment Talpa prescribed for new soldiers and officers at his Military Academy on the harsh, other-dimensional, alien world of Aboréloth. Nereid bit her tongue against the cry of protest bubbling up in her throat; her old rebelliousness was far from called for. Besides, it would be years before they were needed, and the older cadets already had experience on the front lines - a few had even indirectly fought the Ronin Warriors and lived to tell of it. However, no matter how she spun it in her mind, the fact was that they were still children clung to her thoughts like a persistent burr. And now faced with The Demon of Darkness some of those children visibly trembled and looked as if they were unconsciously looking for a way to escape. Some of the others - mostly the cadets left over from the Academy- held themselves much better. She herself could feel the unsettling sensation he gave off, a mixture drifting somewhere in the limbo between primal fear and something decidedly other. The dark brown armor seemed to suck in the light around him, turning him into a featureless, dark shadow on the pier.
    "Good evening, Cadets," Cale began suddenly, evoking startled jerks and even a single, quiet, yelp of surprise. He continued, his voice deceptively soft though easily heard. "Tonight starts The Quest of the Ordeal. While we promised many of you that this would not come for many years, the recent year has been... less than promising. We have gained freedom at the expense of many lives. Each of you has great gifts, some in forms of raw power and others in pure talent. The time has come to ask each of you to use those gifts and assume the burdens of those who have gone before you."
    Cale paced down the line, stopping to run his hand down the youngest cadet’s trembling jawline in a soothing gesture. "Talpa once said we would be nothing without him... that we would fail. The ashes from the great fires both Traitor’s Hill as well as Remembrance Bluff have yet to cool... it is time to prove him wrong." From a small pouch on his belt he withdrew a small patch meant to be worn on the sleeve of the cadets’ standard issue undergear. He held it up high for the cadets to see: a phoenix with spread wings laid emblazoned across its surface in metallic thread. "This is the symbol for your class and a token of what you mean now to Netherworld. It was designed by a man long thought to be a heretic, a man by the name of Lord Sabrestryke. He was a man who could see what the rest of us could not."
    Cale paced back in front of the cadets, the patch still gleaming in his fingers. "And so tonight, you embark on your ordeal into the depths of The Well. Your mission is to find and retrieve small discs of precious metal, each one marking in the place where former prisoners were chained... possibly their place of death... as well as find your way through The Well to the safety of the Mortal World."
    "You may use any method necessary to get to The Well... save teleportation. Once in The Well, you may use any method necessary to survive - save teleporting and destroying it, of course... I think that goes without saying. You will be split into four groups of six, each with a lieutenant at its head. In case you don’t know they are: Ciresh," Cale inclined his head at the impossibly tall form of Prince Ciresh, who flicked his long, faintly glowing fingers briefly in front of his face in his peoples form of a salute.
    "Keizo," A young, Japanese male immortal; Keizo stiffly saluted, earning almost invisible looks of contempt from a few of the other cadets. He was a veritable pariah among the other cadets, only tolerated because his father was one of this new dynasty’s staunchest allies.
    "Thorn," No response came from the pale, blond form of the younger Lord of Illusion, though not at all unexpected. The only facial expression he ever wore was a facade of complete and utter indifference etched permanently onto his alabastrine features.
    "and Umbra."
    "Yeah, Yushiko -!" The youngest cadet’s exuberant cry was quickly silenced by Ciresh’s hand. Being so tall, the young man’s reach easily was the longest of them all; there was another cadet between himself and the girl and he was barely leaning at all. The youngest cadet giggled around his hand, her eyes crinkling impishly.
    Nereid had to smile, Yushiko was her daughter, whose reaction was to laugh quietly at the exaggerated smirk on Ciresh’s alien face. Yushiko bowed to Cale, smirking back at the taller lieutenant.
    "... and Yushiko, I stand corrected, Firerose." Cale quipped with a smirk, motioning for Ciresh to let the other cadet go. Firerose giggled, skipped around the other cadet, and leaned against Ciresh, who smiled back good-naturedly. Even here she could hear the thirteen-year-old’s breathless stream of questions, her dark eyes filled with the unmistakable gleam of puppy-love; which grew ever stronger as Ciresh smiled indulgently and laid his long fingered hand once more across her mouth. Had this happened just two years ago they would have been killed for their insubordination....
    The blue haired man coughed into his hand, lowering his eyes briefly. From her long association with him, Nereid could tell he had lost his train of thought for a moment. She carefully pulled her legs up and slipped her heavy armored boots back on. "Each of them will lead you into The Well. Should you come out alive, you will be on your way to becoming the new leaders of Netherworld."
    Nereid cautiously got to her feet as Cale assigned the groups, taking care not to let her movement alert the cadets to her presence. The cadets wouldn’t actually be in any significant danger; because while they didn’t know it, their teachers would follow them all the way to protect them. Lord Sekhmet and Captain Long, Commander Long’s father, were on the mortal world side of The Well, invisible and ready should anything untold happen. Finally Cale bowed to each group and wished them luck before stalking down the pier.
    Of course as soon as he was out of sight he would make himself invisible and rejoin them. If things went right, this test would deter the ones who didn’t like conflict, bring the group together as a whole, and give them a true test of their abilities. Then again there were cadets who had grown up in the eye of the storm in the academy and could not be underestimated.
    Nereid stalked after Thorn’s group as he lead them to one of the moored barges that was capable of flight. She had guessed he would take one of the large vessels, after all, he’d had experience operating them during Talpa’s campaign on the Mortal World. Part of his group started loading their gear onto the boat while others started getting it ready to set sail. She paused and looked behind her as Cale stepped behind a stack of packing crates to make himself invisible.
    (Nereid.) Commander Long muttered softly as he stepped to her side, a transparent phantom in polished armor, mottled green of leathery wings, and unruly orange hair faintly visible to her magically augmented eyes. He gestured with one dragon-like wing down the pier where Umbra’s group were approaching the barge. Nereid nodded her thanks to the dragon-man and crept as close as she dared, hoping to catch the conversation.
    "Thorn?" She heard her daughter call, "Could we perhaps join you?"
    Thorn stood swiftly from his position at the lines, the dark shape of a small, oval-shaped amulet swinging out and back in to thump soundly against his chest. His blue eyes narrowed and shut halfway. His right hand slowly closed around the amulet which had come to rest against the chest of his heavy, quilted undergear; as if belatedly noticing it. A large wolf moved silently to his side and sat. Its fur shone silver in the moonlight and turned its golden eyes into glowing orbs as it gazed from Thorn and back to Umbra several times.
    "Eizan, c’mon what would hurt -" The wolf finally mumbled softly, an almost human look of concern drifting across its face.
    Thorn’s hard gaze never left Umbra’s group but his quiet voice was clipped as he interrupted, "Do not call me that name."
    The wolf huffed in aggravation and rose up on its back legs. It staggered as its spine, pelvis, and legs reoriented themselves, its body jerking slightly as the rest of its bones and muscles changed, and its fur receded with startling rapidity. A moment later a tan youth with shortish black hair stubbornly held in a stubby ponytail at the base of his head straightened up to grip Thorn’s shoulder firmly. Umbra put her hand to her mouth and turned around to face at her group. He growled something into Thorn’s ear that even from as close as she was Nereid still couldn’t make out. ‘Very good, Natan’ She thought as she jotted down a quick note on her clipboard to indicate approval.
    Thorn shrugged out of the werewolf’s grasp, his face still unreadable. "Do what you want."
    Natan grinned triumphantly, turned to the other group, and bowed as if he was inviting Umbra to dance instead of on the boat. "Ladies first."
    Umbra laughed and playfully jerked the long sash Natan wore around his waist as a belt. He yelped, his golden eyes widening in alarm, and grabbed for the sash, giving Umbra a relatively clean shot at his underarms. Her fingers deftly buried themselves in his armpits and she tickled him mercilessly. Natan shouted, guffawed, squawked, and squirmed before he finally managed to leap away from her. Amid gasps and half-panicked giggles as he tried to catch his breath; his body rapidly shifted once more into the form of the silver wolf.
    "Neener, neener, neener! Ain’t ticklish in this form!" The wolf chanted, swinging its hindquarters back and forth mockingly.
    "Yes, but then you like tummy rubs." A Glélithian Swordsman taunted playfully as he boarded the barge. "Your leg shakes too."
    "Yeah, well, chicks dig furry guys, Aren." Natan grinned, trotting up behind the dark-haired young woman to nip at her heels as Aren and his twin brother, Aran, helped her board.
    Umbra stuck her tongue out at Natan as she accepted her tachi back from Aran. "I’m afraid this lady doesn’t like to do it doggy-style, Puppy-Frog."
    "Ribbit - Ribbit!" Natan crowed, leaping into the boat.
    Nereid shook her head softly at their antics; rather amused. Her daughter, Natan, the brothers, and Thorn were among the final living cadets from Talpa’s old academy; they were closer emotionally to siblings than they were friends - well, perhaps with the exception of Thorn.
    With a nod to Commander Long, Nereid leapt into the barge, coming to land without a sound. She found a comfortable spot to watch from and leaned back to enjoy the ride.
    The crystal on Nereid’s lapel glowed faintly a moment before Cale’s voice touched her ears even though he was far beyond hearing distance. (How did I do?)
    (General, you were mah-velous! Simply mah-velous) Nereid teased, slipping on a false accent. (I loved the mental... err.. dramatic pauses.)
    (Gods, I don’t think I’ll ever get used to speeches.) Cale whined faintly. There was a long, distracted pause, (....Keizo’s group is already bickering....)
    Nereid sighed and shook her head. Even with the General’s best plans to randomly split the group, Keizo seemed to bring out the worst in people. (I think this is going to be interesting.)
    (....I think this is going to give me gray hairs.) Cale interrupted with a half growl, half whine.
    (You? Never!) Nereid teased.
    Cale gave no indication of commenting any further so Nereid decided it would be best to leave him alone until Keizo’s group got moving. She peered over the railing to watch the seemingly endless span of wetlands pass rapidly under the keel. Slowly the loud chatter of the cadets settled down into companionable silence, the warmth of the night lulling Nereid into a light slumber. She wasn’t aware of having fallen asleep, but she came fully aware as she noticed new sounds. She lifted her head with a restrained yawn to once more observe the children. Ahead of her the cadets were starting to pull on their armor, each of them having long since gone silent to play mind games with themselves to prepare for the task at hand.
    Natan dropped his high-top tabbi boots before plunking down beside Umbra as she stretched. He watched her for a moment before slipping his sandals off.
    "They’re still crooked?"
    "Huh?" It took Natan a moment to realize she was talking about his toes, "Oh. Yeah." He’d broken his foot way back during his initial training, and while the foot healed decently, his toes had healed at an odd angle. Natan supposed one of these days he should approach the healers about having them rebroken and set so they’d heal straight. He let the thought trail off as he noticed Thorn trying to reach behind him for his suddenly elusive backplate while trying to keep the barge running straight. Natan bent, seized up his soft boots, pulled them on, and rose to help Thorn.
    Natan caught the plate deftly, taking a small pride as Thorn gave up trying to do it himself and returned to sailing the boat. His fingers worked quickly as he tied the laces that connected the breastplate to the back.
    "You got my stuff?" Natan asked as he removed the leather tie from Thorn’s long, pale blond hair to help him pull his gorget over his head, keeping his voice so low that only Thorn could hear. The pale man shrugged his hands away once more as he pulled the metal collar over his head. Natan nervously fidgeted with the leather cord that appeared to have started out its life as a bootlace while he waited for him to answer. "Thorn...?"
    "Yes." Thorn finally growled inaudibly in a rare show of annoyance as the piece of metal caught some of his hair. He yanked his hair through, ripping a small handful of the long, wispy strands out of his scalp in the process, and snatched the lace back from the young werewolf.
    Natan breathed a sigh of relief. He eyed his friend in amusement as he once more tied off his hair at about the halfway point. He grinned as the long river of pale hair swung around his friend’s back before catching on the armored skirt. Thorn, who was long used to it, flicked it free with an easy gesture. Louder, Natan teased, "You couldn’t pay me to get me to grow my hair that long, Eiz-"
    Thorn’s scent instantly became sour with anger though his face didn’t change; a scent crossed somewhere between the vitriolic scent of a fire and the sharp aftertang that followed a lightning storm, except concentrated and very close.
    "- Thorn!" Natan corrected himself so hastily it was nearly a shout, fighting to keep from wrinkling his nose. The scent instantly became the much better, though tangy with smug satisfaction. ‘That’s right, laugh it up, Thorny. Sometimes I hate being part wolf!’ He thought, as he turned against the stares of the other cadets to sit once more beside Umbra.
    Umbra smirked and pinched her nose lightly with a questioning look. Natan gave her a grin crossed halfway with a grimace and gave the barest of nods. He slipped his heavy armored boots on over his tabbi boots and then stood to remove his sash and slip his vest of maroon silk on over his leather armor. He crossed the ends so it matched the back of the silk panel which hung between his legs, tied his sash back on over the vest, and then buckled on his utility belt. Umbra stood also and offered him his satchel of fire tending gear and his canteens before slipping easily into the splits.
    "Thanks." Natan said absently, slipping the shoulder straps over his head before kneeling to open the protective case that held his Tiger Fork. Sensei Cale had given him the weapon for his eighteenth birthday months ago. Even after owning the weapon for all that time he still got the same rush of excitement he had gotten when he first saw it each and every time he opened the case. He knew he would always be in his Sensei’s debt, even when the man claimed he no longer owed him a thing.
    "Hey, Natan, have a point you want to get across?"
    "Nice pitchfork, where’s the buggy whip?"
    "He must be about to tell some jokes, he has the shit-flinger out again."
    "Guess he never got over being separated from the other animals."
    Natan painted a tart grin on over the grimace his face wanted to assume as he pulled it out with one swift stroke. He took it from stroke to straight and parallel to the ground and then to a twirl before he slipped easily into the start of a well-practiced, but short, kata. He focused his eyes straight ahead, though in reality he was seeing and hearing little. When it was over he bowed and gave Umbra his best debonair smile.
    Umbra simply smiled and raised an eyebrow in a derisive expression her mother used often, "Nice, Nate. ....Just try not to hit Thorn in the rear with that thing... I don’t think he’d appreciate it."
    Natan blanched and glanced back at Thorn who was gazing expressionlessly at the tines of the weapon that had come to a halt just inches from his backside. Grinning sheepishly, Natan turned the weapon to vertical and rested its butt against the decking.
    He ignored the comments from some of the meaner cadets and flashed Thorn an apologetic look. His friend’s only response was a almost invisible shrug; however, after knowing him for so long, it was as plain as if he’d spoken.
    The werewolf smiled softly as a calming sensation settled over him and a warm, soothing sensation spread out across his mind like a warm cloak. But then, he shivered as the wind turned suddenly bitter and felt the sensation startle too as Thorn’s eyes momentarily grew large. He turned around to gaze ahead as darkness spread from horizon to horizon. As the green grass slowly gave way to blackened and slagged rock the smell of the air grew harsh with a wicked, chilly odor that lay beyond description.
    "There it is..." One of the other cadets whispered softly, but it was one of the new ones whose name the young werewolf didn’t know.
    The alert was unnecessary; the black circle in the ground reached as far as the eye could see, a great pit that cut deeply into the ground like a canker in the earth of Netherworld. It felt evil, more evil than he’d seen since Talpa had been killed. He glanced back at Thorn; his long pale hair waving behind him as he guided the barge over the expanse of blackness, wondering what he had planned.
    "...its gigantic!" A female ninja he didn’t recognize, probably from the younger class, whispered softly.
    "...the others always had a narrow stair running around the edge in a corkscrew..." Aran muttered softly as his quiver dropped unnoticed to the deck while Aren nodded in silent agreement. Both brothers eyes were wide, their scents tinged with the nauseatingly sweet smell of fear. His brother’s voice joined his exactly as he said, "But we’ve never seen anything... like this before..."
    Natan shuddered at enormity of that comment. The brothers were members of one of the indigenous elven races of Netherworld that lived on the wide grasslands to the south. The very fact that the area was littered with smaller Wells meant the Glélithians were pretty much the experts on navigating the inverted towers. If they were intimidated by this monstrosity it couldn’t be a good sign.
    " how do we get down there?" Umbra asked, licking her lips and resisting the instinctive urge to whisper.
    "Natan." Thorn stated, his face unemotional.
    At first startled, Natan bit his lip and scoured his mind for an inspiration or even the simplest thought. Of course he’d be the one Thorn enlisted to get them down there. At last the young werewolf opened one of the pouches on his utility belt and drew forth a tiny, downy feather. He shut his eyes and reverently smoothed it between his fingers for a couple long moments before he focused the natural energies of the land into it, ramming it full of unadulterated power. He felt it alter and transform long before he felt the distinct weight of the small bird on his outstretched hand and winced as its talons pinched his skin tightly. Natan opened his eyes into blinding light. The centuries dead Halcyon Owl turned to face the gulf and flapped its wings made of energy, sending crackles of luminous power into the air before tucking its wings back against itself once more. Its smooth, graceful lines were delineated in the energy, even the banding and shapes of its feathers was outlined in that same burning light.
    Natan lifted and turned his hand to stare deeply into the owls eyes; grafting his own vision into the specter’s. The world instantly jumped into an alien focus, everything around him becoming brighter and details much sharper and cleaner. He held his breath, let it out. "Fly." He tossed his hand, setting the spirit bird free.
    Instantly he was the owl and was shooting into the rift with such power that a cry of surprise and instinctive fear rose bubbling from his throat. His/its avian body spun and dove, plummeting down to a walkway only to pull up at the last moment. Darting up the corridor with a crackle of energy-fed wings, he/it swooped and ducked, tracing the corridor, banking hard to the left, and backtracking. The rough stones dashed past a fraction of an inch from his/its talons and wingtips while near-invisible threads of ceiling traps brushed the ghostly feathers of his/its back... Finally unable to stand it a moment longer, Natan broke the spell and summoned the owl back to him.
    Disorientation threatened to send him tumbling to the deck to huddle there until the vertigo passed; but the owl would only return to the boat before the spell broke. If he didn’t rise he’d loose the feather he’d pilfered from the Imperial Museum years ago. Natan started forward but stumbled, collapsed to his hands and knees; the rough seams between the planks digging splinters into his skin of his palms. He lurched to his feet as his blurred eyes spied the bird darting for him from the mouth of the pit. Long streamers and veils of weakening energy trailed in its wake as its upward climb evened out and steadied. His eyesight blurred and split the owl in twain and back again, sending him backing into someone’s well-meaning, but hindering grasp briefly. Natan tore free and reached for the bird, but staggered once more. His stomach painfully struck the rail as the bird vanished with a crackle right above his head. Damnit, he wouldn’t be fast enough!
    A pale hand snapped like a vice around the feather as it fell and before the wind could catch it.
    Natan exhaled noisily, turned to sink against the rail, and sat heavily on the deck. He ran his hands down his blanched face and took a deep, shuddering breath. He couldn’t tell if he’d even breathed during that spell; it certainly didn’t feel like it.
    "Well?" Thorn’s emotionless voice blurted.
    Natan lowered his head between his raised knees and rested his hands on the back of his head. His stomach clenched as it felt like the barge was doing a slow, tight spin and squeezed his eyes shut. He breathed deeply once more to ease the lightheadedness before mumbling, "...Just a moment..."
    "Vomit later, talk now." Thorn’s voice stated once more.
    "Thorn, that’s unfair!" Umbra protested, "Just give him a moment."
    Thorn ignored her, studying the feather between his fingers, "Well?"
    Natan sat up, took several deep breaths, and unhurriedly flashed a rude gesture at Thorn. He fumbled his canteen open and took a deep draught of the blessedly cool water within. He knew taking his time and ignoring Thorn would have a better overall effect than speaking. Finally he capped it and cleared his throat before speaking, "There’s a walkway a little ways down, pretty much right under us. We could lower the barge to just over it and disembark or I could just levitate all of us and we could lower ourselves down."
    Umbra made a small, thoughtful sound and flashed a glare at Thorn, "We’d better levitate down, leaving the barge down there might block the others."
    "Fine with me." Natan blurted, rising to snatch the feather from Thorn’s left hand and tuck it back into its pouch. He uncapped his second canteen and took a quick gulp of the orange juice inside before capping it slowly as he stared into the abyss. Letting the canteen fall to his side, he lightly shut his eyes and began to mutter in the Druidic tongue. He felt his arms rising, as if of their own volition. His voice rose as he loosed the energies of wind and earth and heard the surprised gasps of some of the other cadets as the pull of the land beneath their feet lost most of its power over them.
    Umbra’s voice rose above it all, her voice shouting a one-worded incantation. Natan’s eyes flew open as Umbra flicked her right hand and wrist at the pit. From the tips of her fingers came writhing lines of energy plummeted into the darkness of the pit. She grinned widely as they jerked sharply, signaling they had encountered a solid surface, before drawing taunt.
    "There." Umbra smirked as she affixed the glowing lines of energy to the side of the barge. "Now we have an even easier way down."
    And with that, she stepped carefully onto the rail and placed a foot across the lines. With most of her weight now negligible and spread out to all five filaments, they held as firmly as if they were made of stone. She pushed off, skating down the lines of energy and down into the abyss.
    Natan allowed himself a brief groan of defeat as the other cadets one-by-one followed Umbra down in a similar fashion, watching as the boat quickly emptied. The werewolf glanced up at Thorn, "She’s always got to get the last word in, doesn’t she?"
    Thorn didn’t respond as he strode over to the lines to gaze downward dispassionately. Finally the blond lieutenant climbed up onto the rail, turned so his back was to the lines, and grasped two of the cords in his heavy gauntlet while placing an armored boot cautiously on the lines. And then he was gone, sailing down the lines to the others below, his long hair trailing behind him like a comet’s tail.
    "Show off." Natan muttered as he slung the shoulder-strap for his Tiger Fork over his shoulder. His face grew furry as he shifted to a form distinctly somewhere between wolf and human; there was no way in The Nine Hells he would ride those lines down. He got a running start before vaulting over the edge of the barge to fall slowly to the others.
    He gazed dubiously at the crumbled stairway he could just barely make out along one wall as he let himself slowly fall. He felt the hairs on his arm raise and snaked his right hand up his sleeve to feel cold gooseflesh developing. With a sigh of discontent, he realized that the temperature was steadily getting lower as he lost altitude. ‘Lovely places you send us to, Sensei. I gotta remember to shirk duty next time.’ He grumbled to himself, glowering down at the smirking form of Umbra. The way her lip curled, her stance, her scent, even the way the flesh of her throat moved as she chattered with the others -- everything about her told him that her kind behavior towards him was over at least until the ordeal was over. He was long used to her behavior change from nice to cruel whenever they were being challenged; she always got this way. He guessed she had to be the best no matter what, but no one said he had to actually like it.
    "What’s wrong, Natan, afraid of heights - ?" She chirped smugly.
    "- No, I’m just cautious," Natan growled, the deep, lupine snarl reverberating loudly in his throat.
    She flashed a demeaning smile at him before turning and surveying the giant, battered doors of the large chamber ahead. One of the doors had fallen from its hinges at some point during an apparent cataclysmic event in the past. It laid haphazardly across the end of the bridge and surrounded by boulders of various sizes. Cracks wide enough to swallow a horse punctured the rock structure here and there, some patched haphazardly with planks of cannibalized wood from former Imperial Barges like the one high above. Aren and Aran were climbing over the rubble to scout ahead with weapons drawn.
    ‘I hate her.’ He thought, huffing in frustration as he dropped onto all fours as he became a wolf once more. He glanced up at Thorn, sighed, and trotted after the group.
    Thorn watched him go for a moment. Aren nodded to Aran, then motioned with his bow them to cautiously advance.
    When they’d gone the blond glanced up at the cords of energy, tracing them up to the barge high above. It wouldn’t be good if something malignant concocted a way to climb the cords to the barge, especially when the craft automatically returned to the palace in another hour. He cupped his hands in front of him as if he were holding a flag or staff, not taking his eyes off the lines. With a spine-chilling, metallic whisper a staff of crystal lengthened and spread in both directions from his cupped hands. Thorn reached up with his right hand and pinched the top of the shaft into a point and then drew his fingers down slowly widening them to sculpt the crystal into a spear head. Thorn coldly inspected the spear for faults and tested its balance.
    Then his eyes returned to their mark on the rail.
    Hefting the crystal weapon, Thorn got a running start and hurled it with all his might at the vessel. It struck the spot where Umbra had fastened the lines of energy to the rail, severing them before shattering into a fine, sparkling dust. The lines flicked once with a dazzling sparkle as they fell before vanishing as if they’d never existed.
    Thorn nodded once at his accomplishment and turned to follow the others.