Volume One
- Chapter 1
- Chapter 2


Updated 2-17-06

- Queen, Geddoe, Jacques, Iku, Franz, and Yuiri -

"I'm telling you, they looked shady to me!" Queen insisted, still annoyed that Jacques wasn't backing her, after everything they'd witnessed.

Geddoe sighed. "Fine, then. We'll make sure to keep our eyes peeled, okay?"

Queen grumbled something in reply, nearly running into Iku when the whole group suddenly stopped in their tracks.

Yuiri stood on the path ahead of them, her hands on her hips. "What on earth are you folks doing?" she demanded. "We're already hours behind--oh!" Suddenly she realized Queen and Jacques had rejoined the party. "Welcome back." She smiled at them.

"Thanks," Queen said.

Jacques murmured a small greeting, giving Yuiri an appreciative nod. The group's sudden halt at her arrival gave him a chance to force Queen from her place close to the captain, and he stepped forward quickly to place himself between the two. Queen shot him a look, but Geddoe flashed him the briefest of smiles, causing the young man to drop his gaze in embarrassment.

"Yuiri's right," Iku interjected. "We should get going."

"Yes, let's," Franz agreed, starting forward.

"Wait," the captain commanded, turning to Iku. "Didn't you say you had news? Perhaps you'd better tell us now while we have a quiet moment."

"Oh." Iku turned to look at Franz questioningly, and he nodded slowly. She turned back to the group. "Once we reach the Great Hollow, Franz and I intend to fly on Ruby ahead to Alma Kinan.

The group had mixed reactions. While Jacques and the captain both seemed to quietly accept the news, Queen looked surprised and Yuiri looked irked.

"What is it, Yuiri?" Iku asked with concern. "Do you mind terribly?"

"I should be the one to go," Yuiri said.

Franz and Iku exchanged glances.

"But I understand," the warrior maiden continued. "I've enjoyed your company thus far, but it's true you can do more good if you're there, rather than on your way. But I will miss you."

Iku hugged Yuiri gently. "I'll do my best. And I'll miss you, too."

Yuiri looked a little teary-eyed. She and Iku had shared the journey for so long, it would seem strange and disheartening not to have her cheerful companionship. "There should be someone nearby who can lead you into the village."

"And I'll get help from Le Buque if we need it," Franz said quickly. "Don't worry; we're going to help you as much as we can. And I'll take care of Iku, too. I promise."

"If that's settled," Geddoe interrupted, "let's save our goodbyes for the Great Hollow."

And with that they set off.


- Yuiri -

What's keeping those guys? I wondered to myself. I'd somehow gotten ahead of the others, and now they were out of both sight and hearing distance. Sighing, and feeling a bit frustrated with their lack of urgency, I retraced my steps until I heard voices down the path.


- Nash -

I felt much better after a bath and a shave. I had a single change of clean clothes in my knapsack, which I hurriedly put to use. After I had cleaned up, my full attention quickly turned to my growling stomach.

I locked the door to my small room, pocketing the key and whistling a little as I made my way down the hall. The sounds of talking and laughter had quieted since I had last ventured near the soldiers' mess hall, but a warm glow from the doorway told me that at the very least I could scrape together some leftovers.

As I stepped into the room, I collided with a beautiful young woman with silvery hair. I stared into her dazzling eyes for a moment, too stunned to speak. She murmured a pardon and stepped quickly by, leaving me breathless.

"If you're wantin' some supper, you'd best hurry," a gruff voice said from behind me. "Cook's kickin' 'em out so he can get the washin' done."

I spun quickly to face the speaker, and the old soldier's eyes twinkled with laughter. "You're wasting your time there, boy," he said to me knowingly. "There's not a soldier in Vinay that's been able to grab the attention of the infamous Silver Maiden."

"Silver Maiden?" I asked curiously.

"Where you from, son?" the old man asked a bit suspiciously. "You can't be from Zexen land and not have heard of Lady Chris!"

So that was Lady Chris!

"Oh, of course," I said quickly. "I've just never met her personally." I turned to gaze down the hall where she'd retreated a moment ago. "I had no idea the lady was so beautiful."


- Queen, Jacques, Geddoe, Iku, and Franz -

"We're back!" Queen shouted gleefully. "And it's about damn time, too!"

Jacques nodded his agreement, stepping closer to the approaching captain as he let out a sigh. He wouldn't voice it, but he had missed Geddoe a great deal. And he was more than thankful to no longer be alone with Queen.

Geddoe smiled inwardly in relief and joy when he saw the missing part of his group approaching. "Jacques!" he called anxiously, walking toward them.

"And me!" Queen cried. She pushed past Jacques and jogged over to Geddoe, grinning. The small smile that had been forming on Jacques' lips faltered as Queen raced past him. She blocked his path, standing directly in front of Geddoe. The captain stopped in his tracks, mustering a small smile in greeting.

"Wait'll you hear what happened," Queen continued eagerly.

"Oh, you're back!" Iku exclaimed, rushing over with Franz on her heels. "I'm so glad! We were worried. What kept you?"

Franz walked over to Jacques and they introduced themselves while Queen related the story of their journey to Geddoe and Iku. She explained how they had followed the mysterious couple from Vinay del Zexay through the Zexen Forest, and described what happened in the woods.

"Well," Iku said finally, "it really doesn't seem to have anything to do with us, does it?"

"What do you mean, it doesn't have anything to do with us?" Queen huffed. "We followed them for a reason. And we still don't know exactly what those wily ninjas are up to!"

"And we probably don't need to," Geddoe added. "What do you think, Jacques?" he asked, turning to the bowman.

Jacques shrugged, his eyes narrowing at Queen, who was standing dangerously close to the captain. "I don't see any relevance between their quarrel and our mission."

Geddoe and Franz nodded seriously.

"That settles it," Iku said. "Let's find Yuiri and get going. I have some important news to share, as well." She glanced in Franz's direction, giving him a quick smile as the group turned to continue down the path.

"I think you spoke more just now than you've said to me in two days!" Queen murmured, staring at Jacques' back in surprise.


- Chris, Dios, and Sasarai -

Chris blinked slowly as she watched Lucia's exit. The clan leader was practically strutting out of the room!

Dios wiped his mouth with his napkin, then slammed it down onto the tabletop. "Well," he said crossly, standing, "I believe I've endured enough Zexen hospitality for one evening."

"Dios--" Sasarai started.

Dios turned to the bishop and glared. "Good evening," he said shortly. He turned abruptly and left the dining hall without a single glance behind.

Sasarai turned to Lady Chris apologetically. "I'm sure he meant no offense, my lady."

Chris sighed quietly, her gaze dropping for a moment before coming up to meet the bishop's. "You are very kind, but it's all right. I'm afraid he doesn't seem to like me very much... And about what just happened--"

Sasarai shook his head. "Dios is just in another one of his moods. And you don't owe me any explanations." He chuckled softly. "This isn't a confessional. I'm your friend, Chris."

Though Chris still looked slightly embarrassed, an appreciative smile was coming to her lips at his loss of formality. "I think I feel like I could use one of those more than anything right now." She hesitated for only a moment as her hand reached out to give his a grateful squeeze. "Thank you."

Sasarai looked down at her hand as it moved to cover his and let out a slow breath. He looked back into her eyes, leaning a little closer. "I am glad to have met you... Chris." His free hand moved to cover hers, holding her fingers gently between both of his hands as he gazed admiringly into her eyes.

The flush in her cheeks renewed itself as Chris's eyes dropped to where her hand lay now between his two. She was beginning to feel awkward at the closeness, honored as she was by the bishop's affability. "I'm... glad to have met you, too." She met his eyes again, and added a little hesitantly, "Sasarai."

Just as the bishop opened his mouth to say something more, Chris gave a little shiver and pulled her hand from between his, quickly brushing a few strands of silver hair behind her ear. "It's getting late," she said hurriedly. "I think I'll head up to bed now."

Sasarai cleared his throat. "Yes, of course. We've traveled far, and I'm sure we're both exhausted. I'll... see you tomorrow morning?"

She nodded, giving him a small smile as she stood up.

The bishop stood with her. "Goodnight, then," he said softly, almost reaching for her hand again, but instead bowing.

Chris curtsied like a true lady, nodding to him as she danced gracefully around the table to leave the cafeteria. But it was yet a while before Sasarai headed to bed himself.


- Nash -

I heard voices and laughter the instant I entered the castle's main corridor, and I smelled the delicious scents of dinner. I hadn't had a decent meal in countless days, but you never know who you might run into in a place like this, so I decided to find the barracks first to see if I could procure a suitable place to clean up.

A noticeable sign declared the doorway to my right to be the place I wanted, and the door was open, so I let myself in. There was a napping guard seated next to a winding staircase, and to his other side was a desk like one might find in an inn. Now, this was a pleasant surprise!

The woman behind the counter looked at me with obvious contempt, and I feared she may be a bit too old and prudish to persuade with my charms, so instead I tried to look as mean and nasty as I could bear to--which wasn't terribly difficult, considering my unwashed, unshaven appearance.

"I need a room," I growled at her.

She stared at me, challenging me, but I didn't shrink back or even blink. She shrugged and turned the guest book to face me, offering me a quill with one hand and holding out the other for payment. Before I dared to sign my name (or alias, to be more accurate), I dropped thirty potch into her palm. I half-way expected her to bite it to make sure it was real, though she didn't. I may have looked like a homeless urchin, but I wasn't one. Then finally I scribbled something barely legible as my name and headed for the washroom, wondering just who this impressive Lady Chris was, anyway.


- Joker and Ace -

Joker was tired and thirsty from chasing the younger, somewhat slimmer body of Elaine around in the forest, and was angry that he had lost her at length. "I need a drink!" he groaned out loud. A moment later he felt a hand grip his shoulder, and he gasped loudly, trying to turn around at the same time as trying to rip the hand away from him. The result was that he tumbled onto the ground, landing on his bottom and looking up into Ace's surprised face.

"Ssh!" Ace whispered. "Get up and come with me."

Joker raised his eyebrows. "Huh?"

Ace grinned. "We got 'em."

Joker broke out into a broad smile, though he looked quite devious with his thin moustache curling above his lips, and he nodded quickly in agreement to Ace's hand-signaled explanation of their next move.

Slowly the pair circled the Great Hollow again, this time from opposite sides, slowly and silently approaching a pair of whispering connivers.

"--Geddoe? What do you look so happy about? Shouldn't we get out of here?" the woman hissed anxiously.

"No, no," replied a familiar, masculine voice. "We'll do exactly what we set out to do: we'll find out what they're up to, just like we planned, and then we'll steal their commission before they know we're still around!"

"Before we know who's still around, Duke?" Ace asked loudly from just behind them.


- ??? -

So this is it, I thought, looking high above to the fortress beyond. Brass Castle.

I looked at my surroundings carefully. I found myself standing in a creek that ran shallowly under a stone bridge. I would have to find a safe way to climb out of the ravine, which was fairly steep and a good climb, not to mention the fact that the night was pitch-black dark, then cross the bridge and find some way to get into the castle.

Upon examining my appearance, I grimaced. I hadn't had a good bath in over a week, and my clothes showed that I was travel-worn.

Should I try and pass myself off as a vagrant? I wondered.

Probably not. Castle security would be tight, especially if news of the spreading disease had reached as far as Zexen territory.

I've always known my true skill lies in my charm, but I somehow doubted there were any female soldiers guarding the gate!

Sighing, I finally just took to the task, placing one boot in front of the other, clinging to trees for support as I hiked up the steep hillside leading away from the water. I slipped once and cursed, my aching knee now caked with mud. At last I reached the top, dirty and ragged. This was going to be tough...

I pulled the hood of my cloak up over my head, bending over and walking as casually as I could manage, praying to be taken for a homeless, hopefully harmless, old man.

But to my chagrin, it was not to be. After trekking through the outer courtyards, I approached the gate to the castle itself. There were two guards posted on either side of the large portal, and one more standing dead in the center. He would have to step aside for me to be able to pass easily.

I tried to act stupid. If charm wouldn't work, I figured ignorance was the next best thing. I shuffled by, pretending not to even notice the fact that the guard was, well, guarding the entrance to the castle. But an iron-hard glove slapped me in the chest--quite roughly. My hood flew back.

"Oh!" I cried, mocking an elderly voice. But a pair of eyes peered at me from the Zexen helmet, and I realized I was face-to-face with a woman, after all.

"Oh..." I said more softly, smiling in my charming way. "Pardon me," I said, bowing regally. Again I tried to pass.

"Halt!" she cried. Her voice was as soft and delicate as a rose, but she was trying hard, so I decided to humor her.

"Forgive me," I said, giving her a dashing yet perplexed gaze. "Is this not Brass Castle?"

"It is," she replied, holding her head up higher. A bit of hair framed her lovely face. Ah, I thought. Red! But that would have to wait.

"Well, may I enter?" I asked, laughing a little with faux confusion.

"What's your business?" she asked me pointedly.

I knew that the Zexens were a sexist people--compared to the Karayans, for instance. The military was an unusual profession for a woman. I smiled, stepping closer, deciding to use my knowledge to my advantage. "I'll tell you, if you tell me," I murmured suggestively.

"W-what?" She blinked at me.

"Come, come!" I grinned. "I'm dying of curiosity. What's a beautiful lady like you doing in a place like this?" This time she laughed with me. Her laugh was adorable. "Really," I said at last, "why choose such a profession? Why hide a woman's most admirable qualities?" I bowed politely.

"Lady Chris is my idol," she admitted shyly. "She's given women a new feeling of strength, and helped us to understand that we're equal to men." She paused gracefully. "At least, I believe so." She seemed less sure now, and definitely shy. Another quality I adored in a woman, and one I could easily turn into an advantage.

"Well, you're doing a fine job," I praised. "And I'm actually just passing through. I've been traveling the world in a quest for knowledge--I'm a scholar, you see--and I'm only hoping I can stay the night in this magnificent castle so I can rest and get a bite to eat before I'm back on the road. Speaking of the castle, isn't it nearly 400 years old now? It's in magnificent repair. The architect must have been a true genius." I was bluffing for the most part, of course, but it assisted me to distract her, and the other two guards seemed quite oblivious. "I'll be on my way in the morning, I promise."

"Oh? Oh!" Lovely, but not as level-headed as a man might have been, I decided. "Well, in that case..." She smiled. "Enjoy your stay, Mister..."

"Please," I said, bowing again for lack of a bare hand to kiss, "call me Nash."


- Bazba and Ayame -

"Watari!" Ayame screamed. She clung to him, her eyes stinging with tears and her brow furrowed with worry.

The lizard man was behind her, coming closer to examine the situation and the fallen man. He knelt next to the ninjas, his beady eyes surprisingly compassionate. "There is nothing I can do," he said finally.

"What?" Ayame cried, turning to face him with anger. "You won't let us inside the Great Hollow where he could rest and get medicine? You're just going to stand by and watch him die?!"

"I... can not let you inside the Great Hollow," he agreed, then added, "but I can not return there myself. There is talk of disease, woman, that is spreading quickly and far."

He doesn't need to be telling me that, Ayame thought with growing frustration, but the implications of his words were becoming all too clear.

"The Hollow is sealed." Bazba turned to Ayame then, resting a claw gently on her shoulder. "We can not find shelter or medicine here. I am sorry, human."

Ayame cradled Watari in her arms, weeping softly. "This is all my fault," she cried. "Watari... I'm so sorry."


- Ayame and Watari -

Ayame winced as she pulled tattered cloth away from Watari's wound. There was a deep gash in his arm, oozing something green with the blood. "Watari," she murmured. "What happened to you?" She felt a pang of guilt, but also anger--anger at herself. She had let this happen to him, but why should she care? She was only using him, wasn't she?

Watari opened his eyes when he heard his name, staring up at Ayame. He smiled. "Ah, I must've died and gone to heaven..."

Ayame blinked in startled confusion. "What?!"

His mind was jumbled and he wasn't sure what had compelled him to say it. Probably the poison, he guessed... He reached up and stroked her cheek, fiddling with her hair. It was... really soft...

At Watari's caress, Ayame closed her eyes. She wanted....no. His fingers were in her hair, then, and she wanted to melt at his touch. What was happening to her? Could her recent change have been more than an altered status?

Watari looked up at her. "You're cute when you're..." He coughed and shivered, drawing closer to her. "God..." He never liked showing weakness, but this pain was awful, and he suddenly fell unconscious, clinging to Ayame's side.

Ayame's eyes welled, and she clung to him when he shivered. Hypothetical memories flooded her mind--things that could have, would have, should have been theirs. Watari went limp suddenly, except for his arm at Ayame's side, and she pulled him more tightly against her body. "Watari!!"


- Beecham -

I quickly lost my appetite after Chief Lucia and her party left the dining hall. I wondered what other "business" the chief had in mind for me; I wondered why she had bothered to stop by the Zexen warrior's table; I wondered how Percival fared.

I forced down less than half the food on my plate, then stood up. I didn't want to sit there feeling useless, so decided to do the only thing I could at the moment, and that was to check on the unfortunate knight I had wounded.

Leaving my half-eaten meal on the table, I left the dining hall and trudged up the cold, stone steps, my hand trailing slowly along the wall next to me. I reached the top of the steps and shuffled down the hallway, the scuffling of my sandals echoing loudly in the empty corridor. I found the right door, reaching and turning the knob slowly before poking my head inside the room.


- Percival and Borus -

The room was dark when Percival woke up. He was still half asleep as he attempted to sit up, only to be reminded that he was very injured. The shock rattled his bones and he let out a small grunt, wincing. It was then that he realized that he was not alone in the room. Percival looked over to his side and saw Borus looming over him. "Gah, definitely not the nicest thing to wake up to..."

Borus snorted and sat back, looking harassed. He frowned down at Percival. He unthreaded his fingers, which had been clenched tightly together, and ran a hand through his messy bangs. "Well, I see you're feeling better," he said resentfully.

Percival raised an eyebrow and cautiously turned his head. "I meant the pain, Boofus." He grinned, seeing how the other man had been worried... "What time is it? Where am I?"

Borus chose to ignore the nickname and looked out the window. "You're in the Brass Castle infirmary." He looked out the window at the pale wash of oranges and reds in the sky. "Late afternoon, by the looks of it." He looked down at his sleeve for no apparent reason, wondering how it had gotten so late.

"...How long have I been out?" Percival sat up, laboriously, and held his arm. Even flexing his fingers was a chore... "Did the doctor... say anything?" Percival realized that he had been sweating; his pillows were wet and his clothes clung to him.

Seeing an opporunity for payback, Borus leaned back and breathed in slowly, as if about to divulge a difficult secret. "Well, you see..." He looked over at Percival, managing to keep a straight face. "A lot has happened since your..." He looked away, clasping his hands together. "Percival, there's something you should know..." He bit his lip, trying to hide a smile. "Chris and I have been married for some time now." He rubbed his temples, "I meant to tell you, but I couldn't of course, and by the time our third child was born... No one knew if you'd ever wake up..." He happened to catch Percival's eye. He couldn't help it any longer, and his stony expression twisted into a devous grin. Suddenly he was laughing loudly and clutching his sides.

Percival stared at Borus with wide, open eyes. "W-w-what?!" He scratched his cheek and then glared at him. "HEY! If it's been so long then why hasn't my arm healed?! You pompous git!" He grabbed the pillow and threw it sqaure in Borus' face.

Borus doubled over in laughter, throwing his hands in front of his face to try and avoid the pillow. "You fell for it anyway!" he wheezed through laughs. "I could see it in your eyes." He say up, still grinning. "Come on," he said, brushing hs bangs from his face. "Do you honestly thing Lady Chris would marry me?"

"Well, why not?" Percival laid back down, his energy expended into throwing the pillow. "I think you're very marry....able."

Borus looked over at Percival, his eyebrows raised in confusion. "What's that supposed to mean?" he asked, pulling his chair closer to the bed.

"It means that you, Boofus, have very good qualities that I'm sure that several people would want in a husband. Nevermind that you're unbearably stupid.." Percival said with a grin.

It was Borus's turn to throw a pillow. He held it poised above his friend's face for a minute, wondering if it was right to assault a wounded man. Smirking, he threw caution to the wind and dropped the feathery pillow on Percival. "Who's the one who got wounded by a lone Karayan warrior, may I ask?"

Percival yelled and frowned. "That hurt, you bum!" He didn't look at Borus but instead at the print on the bed. It was humiliating...


- Franz and Iku -

As they walked leisurely behind Yuiri, Franz and Iku spoke softly together. But if the others thought they were whispering like lovers, they were mistaken. Franz was afraid for Iku. The young woman had never traveled outside of their town in the mountains, and this trekking back and forth across the countryside was wearing her down. She had lost weight since the last time he had seen her, and she looked pale and tired. He feared she would get ill and, he argued, what good could she do for anyone in that kind of condition?

"But Franz," she insisted, "I can't stand by and let these people die! Something has to be done, and soon."

Franz stopped in the path, facing Iku and taking both her hands in his. "I don't mean to be selfish." He sighed. "If this is what you want...."

"Franz! It is!"

"....Then do this." He squeezed her hands. "But let me help. Iku, I want to fly you to Alma Kinan."

"But.... what about the others?"

"There's only so much weight Ruby can hold," Franz said. "If things are all that bad when we get there, I'll see if I can rally together a few more men and their Mantors."

"Oh, Franz!" Iku threw her arms around his neck. "Thank you!"

Franz stood for a moment in surprise, then his arms slowly reached up to encircle Iku's small waist. "Iku," he murmured against her cheek, "I'd do anything for you."

She pulled away just enough to look into his eyes. "Franz...."

The rest of her reply was cut off by the commotion they heard just behind them.


- Elaine and Duke -

"Whatcha lookin' at?"

Duke jumped, his heart thundering in his chest. "Damn it, I told you never to sneak up on me like that!" he hissed at Elaine, glaring up at her. She gave a simple shrug, crouching next to him with a bored look on her face. "So you lost him?"

"That fatso couldn't catch a tumbleweed," Elaine smirked. "And you?"

"Your sweetheart gave up a long time ago. Old guy must have lost his breath." Duke chuckled at Elaine's less-than-amused expression.

She growled, "Ace isn't old."

Duke grinned, showing his disagreement.

Elaine punched his arm. "He's more mature than you'll ever be!"

"Ouch!" Duke rubbed his arm, glaring at her again. "Okay, okay! Now shut your mouth. Something's going on over there."

"It's just a kid and his mommy," Elaine shrugged, following Duke's gaze toward a boy with a long ponytail and an older woman--an older woman with quite a unique fashion sense, she noted.

"She's a witch," Duke said, his voice sounding a little awed. "She knows things. She was talkin' about a 'cyclops' on his way. Now who does that sound like to you?"

"Cyclops? Oh, you mean Geddoe?"

Duke winked.

"What do you look so happy about?" Elaine sounded panicked. "Shouldn't we get out of here?"

"No, no. We'll do exactly what we set out to do: we'll find out what they're up to, just like we planned." His grin was absolutely fiendish. "And then we'll steal their commission before they know we're still around."


- Beecham and Lucia -

The sun had set and Beecham was hungry. Percival had been asleep when he was able to check on him. There wasn't much he could do at that point, so he went back outside to be alone away from the bustle of the fortress. At length he left the solitude of the bridge overlooking the Zexen landscape and followed the young, chattering soldiers to their "cafeteria." He was pleasantly surprised by the smells coming from within. It turned out that the Ironhead Castle served Karayan cuisine--not as good as the real thing, but good enough to satisfy.

He had just sat down at a small table by himself, muttering under his breath about the noise in the large dining room, when he caught site of the familiar fabric of Karayan garments. A small group of men--Karayan scouts and sentinels--walked into the room, heads held high with pride and bodies rigid in their strange environment. Among the men was a woman, and Beecham recognized her instantly. For a moment his heart stopped.

Lucia and her men approached Beecham with the proud walk that belonged to their kind. The clan chief hid her relief and joy at seeing the warrior behind a mask of sarcasm. "Having fun playing Zexen knight?" she smirked.

Beecham rose from his seat to greet his chieftain. "I came to make a challenge, not to convert," he said steadily, meeting her gaze.

"And how did that go?" she inquired squarely.

Beecham took a deep breath. "I injured the knight badly, and now there is a debt to pay."

Lucia's chin rose and she looked down the end of her nose at Beecham, no longer sure she was so pleased to see him. The anger she had felt at his leaving returned. "What would you do to repay this debt to the Zexen ironhead?" she demanded.

"I nearly took the life of an unarmed man," Beecham explained quietly. "In my anger I broke the sacred code of warrior's honor, and I will pay the ultimate price to make that up to him."

Lucia spent another moment or so staring at Beecham, but her expression was unreadable. At last she said, "It is late. We will discuss this further tomorrow. There are more important matters to confer, but I am tired now and wish to retire." She turned on her heel and walked away from Beecham, leaving him feeling debased and ashamed.

Before she left the dining hall, Lucia caught sight of a familiar face. Already in a foul mood, she couldn't resist the temptation, so she approached the table where Chris Lightfellow sat with two men.

Lady Chris looked up at the Karaya clan chief, a look of surprise on her lovely face. Lucia reached out and gave Chris's cheek a light caress. "It's been a while, Silver Maiden," she said in a sultry tone.

The Zexen maiden's face flushed and she drew back out of Lucia's reach, her beautiful lips parted in astonishment. Lucia merely smirked as she and her soldiers retreated for the evening.


- Chris, Dios, & Sasarai -

Sasarai had heaped his plate high with various Zexen foods, praising everything from the servers to the coziness of the room. Dios didn't see what was so special about the run-down old army barracks, but didn't bother to say as much. He was hungry, as well, but had been more frugal with his choices than had the bishop. He didn't respond to Sasarai's excited chatter, either, but he arched an eyebrow disapprovingly when the bishop took a bite of his potatoes without saying a blessing.

Sasarai cleared his throat, quickly wiping his mouth with his napkin. "Oops," he smiled, shrugging casually. "I suppose I ought to bless the meal before we indulge."

"I suppose," Dios said coldly, his eyes narrowed into slits. "You are a bishop, after all."

"Why don't you lighten up a little?" Sasarai laughed. "You're beginning to remind me of..." He trailed off, his gaze slipping into the distance.

"Remind you of what, or whom?" Dios demanded, raising his voice. But Sasarai was no longer listening.

Dios turned his head, his eyes wide with surprise and, yes, perhaps even a hint of pleasure, to see Lady Chris walking toward their table. Her silver hair was braided delicatedly behind her small head, pearl earrings peeking out behind a few stray whisps. She wore a long pink gown, simple but flowing. A silk ribbon looped around her waist, tying in a bow behind her back, giving the soldier-woman a graceful, feminine look that surprised even Dios.

"My lady!" Sasarai said with delight, reaching for Chris's hand.

Chris reached out a graceful hand and let Sasarai gently take hold of her fingers. She gave a slight curtsy, leaving no doubt of the lady that lurked within the Zexens' most fearsome soldier.

Sasarai kissed the back of Lady Chris's hand, slowly and reluctantly releasing it. The sharp sound of Dios clearing his throat made him let go, or he might have held it still, so the bishop offered the lady a seat. "May I get you something to eat, Lady Chris? You must be famished."

"I am quite hungry, yes," she admitted. Sasarai immediately went to get her a plate, much to Dios's displeasure.

"I trust everything is well with Sir Percival?" Dios inquired. He felt his anger at this woman melting away. There was something about seeing her looking so effeminate and warm that made it almost impossible to be angry with her.

"He's sleeping now, but the doctor said he'll recover quickly. He may not be able to ride for a while, though." Chris sighed softly. "I don't suppose you've seen Sir Borus?"

"No," Dios replied. "Bishop Sasarai and I have only washed up and come to dinner. We didn't look around the fort at all."

Chris nodded understandingly. "I'll have to give you a tour." But her mind was still on current business. "Perhaps another time, that is," she added.

Sasarai returned, having selected a fine portion of meat and some vegetables for Chris. "When I told them it was for your ladyship," he smiled as he set the plate before her, "they told me all your favorites." He sat down across from her, still smiling.

Chris smiled back at the young bishop with delight. "It's perfect! Shall we, then?"

Still smiling at one another, Chris and Sasarai began to eat. Dios joined them a few moments later, when he realized that Sasarai wasn't going to bless the food at all.


- Ayame -

I wondered just what in the world was taking Watari so damn long. And why the hell was I so impatient, anyway? Ninjas were supposed to be poised. But, then, I wasn't--

I let out a gasp when I felt a poke on my back. Clever, Watari... But when I turned my back, it wasn't Watari I faced but a warrior of the Lizard Clan. My eyes widened in surprise, I stood boldly and turned to face him.

"I am Bazba," he growled fiercely. "Tell me who you are and what you're doing here at the Great Hollow--now."

I wasn't sure what to say, so for a moment I faltered. I couldn't claim that I was a ninja; not only would that be a lie at this point, but he would never believe me. What self-respecting ninja showed his or her face to the world? It was a crime against clan rules, and it meant certain death to any ninja who dared.

"I... I am--"

Just then there was a whistle in the air, and I saw the blurred blades of a shuriken for an instant before it dug its sharp arms into the tree next to me. My eyes snapped to the left, just in time to see Watari collapse.

Leaving Bazba bewildered, I hurried to Watari's side. I reached for him instinctively, but hesitated when I saw his wound. Letting out a startled cry, I covered my mouth with my hand. I turned to the lizard man, pleading. "We have to get him inside!" I cried. "Take me to the Great Hollow!"


- Watari -

What. The. Hell.

My side had gone numb a while ago. I couldn't decide if that was good or not since the wound started to turn... green.

I was poisoned, I knew it. I was starting to see things, like a tree bending sideways. Rubbing my eyes, I walked forward, almost to the Great Hollow.

I reached the entrance area, spotting Ayame and a lizard man talking to her. Pulling out a shuriken to send a hello, my head suddenly insanely hot, the heat blurring my vision. My pride preventing me from calling out, I fell to the floor.


- Bazba -

Foolish woman, I thought. She had no business lurking around the Great Hollow like a thief in the night. I'd give her a little scare, then send her off. That way I could be sure she wouldn't come back.

Giving a faint hiss of warning, I prodded the woman in the back with the butt of my weapon, growling low to keep her at bay as she turned slowly to face me.

The human woman's eyes were wide, but more bold than afraid. She didn't move for her blade, but stood proud and tall to face me, so I spoke.

"I am Bazba," I said. "Tell me who you are and what you're doing here at the Great Hollow--now."


- Beecham -

I walked back through the gates of the fort, my head held high and my shoulders back. I ignored the bustle of the crowd and marched my way up the steps toward the knights' rooms, stopping when I reached the posted guard outside Percival's.

"I must speak with Sir Percival," I said in a deep, commanding voice.

The young man standing guard was obviously intimidated, as well he should have been. He hesitated but for a moment before stepping aside and allowing me access to the room.


- Ayame -

A slightly overweight man with a long ponytail began surveying the area around the Great Hollow, so I followed him silently, trying to avoid detection while at the same time listening carefully for any sign that Watari might be near.

I hadn't been counting on so much company. The crazy woman had stopped laughing at the rocks, finally, and she seemed to have vanished with the boy she'd been with. The scruffy-looking guy was asleep in a tree. It seemed strange to me that the Great Hollow itself had been sealed, but I didn't have time to worry about that now. The man with the ponytail was complaining about needing a drink, and I had to force myself to stay silent rather than agree, slinking away into the shadows to wait for Watari.