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Slaves of Mortals, Part II
by Patrick Kapera

The darkness reminded Kaleel of the pleasant serenity he had felt at his birth, within the infant minds of his godly parents. At the dawn of time, Lady Sun and Lord Moon had yet to know the Younger Races - their fear, resentment, and eventual betrayal. There was only the sublime balance between them, the stars, and their newborn children, the Jinn.

Creating the Ashalan and the humans had been a mistake, of that, Kaleel was most certain. The Jinn - godly yet without godly insight - sought the fulfillment their parents had achieved with their creation. They wished only to be revered. But the Younger Races were flawed. They refused to worship the Jinn, turning instead to pagan idolatry and self-indulgence.

They were our mistake, Kaleel corrected himself. One that will soon be corrected.

A mar in the darkness below grew into the forms of approaching Jinn - Kaleel's brothers, Akhad and Abjar, their smoldering forms illuminating a prisoner held between them. Israk - the lost sibling.

"Welcome home, brother," Kaleel began.

Israk regarded the Jinn lord - the being he had once called "brother," and whom he had ventured into the Blighted Realms to find after the first Jinn war. "I should have left you to the sands, demon."

"Yes, perhaps you should have . . . "

"What do you want with me, Kaleel?"

"We all regret something, Israk. But I intend to rectify my mistakes. The humans will be unmade."

Israk nearly burst into laughter. "The humans are stronger now. They have allies. You can't hope to defeat them. The coming age is already theirs!"

"No . . . ," a voice slithered from the shadow beside Kaleel. "It will be ours."

The gloom beside Kaleel bulged like the mirrored surface of calm water as something surfaces, revealing a featureless face and long, slender limbs. The figure emerging from shadow was simple in the extreme, light and vision slipping from its edges to be lost in the gathering pools of darkness surrounding it.

Israk knew the being well. The Ma'Ghul - the creature that had granted Israk the power to find his fallen brother and see beyond the Jinn lord's phantom nobility. "Ambassador to the realms of the dead," it called itself. Truly, it was little more than a scavenger, subsisting on the memories of the fallen because it was too weak to face the living.

"No longer, minion," the Ma'Ghul answered Israk's thoughts. "The world has seen its final dawn."

Israk felt the tendrils of Shadow clinging to his form like suckling children, his skin crawling at their touch. "You . . . madman! You can't possibly understand what you're releasing upon the world!"

"I do . . . " Kaleel answered.

"The Shadow . . . "

". . . Is a force older than time and more powerful than the gods!" Kaleel's image seared within the throne room, his flame rising with his mania. "With its help, we can renew the world in our image, start again without the Younger Races! Erase them from history!"

Israk was stunned. Kaleel had long since gone mad, striking out against Shilah and his namesake. But to even consider loosing the Unnamed upon the world ....

"Kaleel. Listen to me! I know the Shadow. I have walked with it for four hundred years. Even you must realize that once it's free, none of us can stop it. It will consume . . . everything! It will unravel creation!"

"Israk, my dear little brother. You have such limited vision! The Shadow cannot survive here in the wastes, remember? Shilah's Wrath ensured that. We . . . are safe. Everything else . . . outside our borders and beyond the burning light . . . will simply fall away . . . "

". . . Leaving nothing but the void where we were born," the Ma'Ghul finished. "The Jinn who survived the Day of Wrath are strong enough to continue; their names grant them dominion even in the blasted ruin of the dunes. But the humans and other lesser beings are weak, and - as history has shown us - easily swayed by our kind. Once we are free, they will be feeble opposition indeed."

Israk's shock quickly turned to fear. "Kaleel . . . you can't trust him!"

The Ma'Ghul continued, unabated by Israk's pleas. "Without the interference of the Younger Races, Creation's true inheritors can coexist in peace."

"The Shadow won't be satisfied! It can't be! After it's finished with everything else, it will come for us! For you!"

"The balance will at last be restored . . . "

"Kaleel . . . please . . . do not do this . . . "

"It is already done, brother. As we speak, my agents move to collect the final piece of the bargain . . . "

Pashal's hand rested on the wrapped weapon lying in his lap. It felt heavier than his own sword, even through they were roughly the same size and had similar weight distribution. The blade unnerved him; he could almost feel it ripple beneath the fabric, rustling to get free.

The citadel of the Celestial Alliance loomed above him as the carpet swept below the immense circle of fire that supported it and dove between the bridges of its central column. Pashal had long since grown accustomed to the disorientation of riding with the Sky Raiders, but today he found himself light-headed as the carpet's angle of ascent spiked.

"Are you all right, squire?" the pilot asked, his arm instinctively shooting out to grasp Pashal's vest.

Pashal shrugged off the confusion, responding, "Yes. I . . . just a little dizzy"

"That happens this high up. Hang on. We're almost there."

The carpet leveled off and swooped into a wide ballroom, alighting upon a circular landing area several feet above the floor. Pashal stepped down onto the platform and steadied himself, only taking hold of the bundle lying on the carpet after the room settled. As he grasped the sword, Pashal could feel arms stretching around his torso and locking him in a gentle embrace. They were warm and soothing.

"Hello, lover," Dawn spoke from behind him.

Pashal turned and welcomed the Ashalan into his arms. One of the few of her kind who remained behind after her race vanished into the sands, Dawn had been one of the greatest proponents of his search for them. She had also been the first to discover that the Jinn lord Kaleel had returned, arriving with word of his rise shortly after the Awakening. Both were mere children by the standards of their races, but this last year had thrust them into adult roles, and they had reached out for anything to help them through it.

They had found each other.

"Hello yourself." Pashal blushed.

"What's this?" Dawn reached for the wrapped sword, but Pashal quickly reined her in.

"Just . . . something for Mohandis to look at," he answered quickly.

"No presents for me?"

"Just this . . . " Pashal distracted her with a gentle kiss as Effendi appeared at the foot of the steps.

"Not to interrupt," Effendi called up to them, "but I'm eager to see what was so important that it dragged you away from Sahlah's wedding."

"Effendi!" Pashal blushed again. "I was just coming to see you . . . "

"Of course you were," Effendi answered, a wry grin creeping across his face. "Come. I'm sure the bride and groom will be happy to see you"

* * * * *

"It was amazing, Effendi! Gathriq was dead. This killed him!" Pashal held up the weapon, still wrapped in thick fabric. "Do you know what this means?"

"Let's not get our hopes up quite yet, Pashal. We don't even know that it was the sword that killed Gathriq. Maybe Tabari found another means of harming the Jinn."

The two strode through the narrow hallways of the Celestial citadel, heading toward the laboratory of Mohandis the Enchanter. Ahead, the corridor opened into one of the many junctions within the floating fortress, where the structure's divisions met. Turning toward the bridge across which Mohandis resided, neither of them were aware of the figures lurking above them within guard alcoves designed to blend into their surroundings. At the figures' feet, a pair of Ebonite Templars lay dead, their souls ripped from their withered bodies.

"Even if this blade can hurt the Jinn, it's only one blade. How do we use it against an army of them?"

"I don't know yet, Effendi. But it's a start. We can-"

Pashal was suddenly knocked to his feet as someone landed upon his shoulders, kicking out toward Effendi's head. Both collapsed, and the bundle flew out of Pashal's arms, sliding along the catwalk and out of sight. Pashal scrambled for purchase, catching hold of the railing and dragging himself to his knees in time to see the figure approaching again. Her reflexes were everything Adira had said they were.

"Fatima!" Pashal mumbled as he deflected the first blow. "But you're-"

"Dead?" she finished. "Only mostly."

A second blow sent Pashal reeling backward, toward Effendi's unmoving form. A slowly growing pool of the boy-prince's blood gathered beside his head, seeping from a terrible gash along his temple.

"Don't worry. He's not dead . . . yet!" Fatima descended upon Pashal, ripping him upward and drawing a thin, curved blade from her belt. She twisted him around upon her knee, disabling him, and raised the dagger to his throat. "He'll be along to meet you soon."

Off to the side, Pashal could see a lanky macaque dragging the bundle toward the infamous Monkey Man. The Jackal laughed as he took the blade from his pet and lowered his shoulder for it to climb upon. As he approached, Fatima called out to him, "You can have the prince. This one's mine!"

Pashal looked back to the diseased Assassin who held him pinned. The left side of her face was ragged, as if the flesh were sloughing off of her skull, and her eye had dissolved into the socket. The smell of rotting candy struck him in waves as she leaned horribly close.

"I must admit, the Ashalan has remarkable taste."

Darkness pooled about Fatima's hideous visage, and her breath scarred Pashal's cheeks. He felt faint as she inhaled, drawing away his memories, his dreams, his personality. The darkness grew ever stronger, and Pashal started to lose consciousness, withdrawing behind the last feeble barriers within his mind. He dove into the darkness, accepting it as Judgment, his mentor, had taught. He loosed his emotions, freeing himself of their anchoring influence, and searched for a single thing to latch onto.

But time and again, his ideas - his intents - slipped away into the void, stolen by the Half-Soul. Panic began to set in, and Pashal felt the limits of his imagination closing in. He was being consumed, piece by piece. Darkness was replacing him.

Then the darkness spoke. A simple word. His name.

"Pashal?" it called out to him, through the mire of his jumbled mind.

"Who is out there?" Pashal was sure he was dead - that these were the Blighted Realms. But . . . why couldn't he see anything? Where were all his friends and family, who had perished in the city the year before?

"We are here for you, Pashal. Follow us."

"To where?" Pashal responded. "What's happened to me?"

"Back home. You are alive, Pashal"

Spectral images began to flicker before the squire's vision, flashing around him with blinding intensity. Everything was sharp, as if he were seeing light for the first time. He strained to bring the images into focus and found himself lying within Sehai's chambers. The cool air around him nipped at his wounds, and his face felt dry, the skin cracked. He reached for his cheeks, finding them warm to the touch.

Rising slightly, Pashal found himself surrounded by friends. Dawn, who held his shoulders lovingly. Judgment, his impassive features as supportive as ever. Ashalla, Khaidu, Katani, San'a, Nim, Sahlah, and Saqr - all displaying concerned smiles. Sehai the Healer sat at his side, studying his reactions.

"Effendi?" Pashal inquired, looking about the room.

"He should live," Sehai answered, "though his condition is far worse than yours."

"How? Who saved us?"

"We did." Pashal hadn't noticed the extra pair of eyes observing him from the foot of the bed, surrounded by slight, swirling pinpoints of light in the shape of a robed woman.

"Lurza . . . " She had rarely spoken in the year since she arrived, refusing to discuss her people - the Quest - and remaining in her chambers unless needed. Pashal shook his head in confusion.

"The Sayel. The blade. We sensed it as you approached the citadel."

"You know what it is?" Judgment interceded.

"We know. It created us."

"The Sayel is part of a force that seeks to unravel the known universe," Lurza began to those assembled in the citadel's enormous arched hall. "It was created at the beginning of time, and - if allowed to proceed unchecked - would consume everything in existence."

The Quest's blunt delivery stunned everyone into a long moment of silence. Finally, Truth pierced the quiet. "Yes, but . . . what is it?" he asked.

"Let me start at the beginning," Lurza answered. "The Jinn were the first creations that Shilah and Kaleel placed here on this plane. Unlike their parents, the Jinn were not solitary creatures. They grew lonely and desired others with whom to interact, as well as activities to occupy their time. Eventually, they created humans, but-"

"The jinn created us . . . " Nepherus's words were laced with disbelief, and the murmurs of many others throughout the hall sounded worse.

"But first," Lurza continued, "they were granted many more creations by the Sun and Moon, including this world - its mountains, rivers, valleys, and forests." Lurza paused for the assembly to collect itself before going on. Pashal watched the assembly growl and mutter over the implications of the Quest's words, knowing that it would only get worse if the rest were revealed.

"But Lord Moon recognized the danger of their first creations, the Jinn. He knew that they had enough strength to rise against the heavens if they worked together, and desired a weapon to use against them should that day come. So, while Lady Sun created and named things, he allowed a single slip of nothing to escape into the world. This slip - known to us as the Khayel - is within that sword today."

Once again, Truth recovered the focus of the meeting, asking another pointed question before reactions could swell out of control. "But how did it come to be inside the blade?"

Lurza, obviously admiring his clarity, addressed Truth with her next words. "When the first war of the Jinn swept through the heavens and Lord Moon witnessed his own imminent demise, he called upon his secret weapon, but it did not respond. It had already been trapped within this blade by Kaleel. You see, the Khayel was young and unwise; once it was discovered by the Jinn lord, it was child's play to seduce it with lures of greater power and then overwhelm it with logic.

"However, the Khayel instinctively knew enough to spread itself over the greatest possible area. When the Day of Wrath came and Lady Sun's anger drove magic away from the Burning Sands - or destroyed it altogether - parts of the Khayel survived. The residual energies that surge through the blasted dunes have prevented the Khayel's parts from reuniting since then, and most of it remains hidden in places such as the Blighted Realms, also known as the Black Earth."

"Where Israk was born ...." Ashalla mused.

"Not exactly," Lurza resumed. "Israk is brother to the Jinn lord, born of the heavens at the start of the world. He has been here since the beginning"

"He told us that he didn't know who his parents were . . . only that he came from the lands of the dead."

"A convenient elaboration. After the first Jinn war, Israk was not convinced that his brother was dead. He went looking for Kaleel, eventually exhausting his options here in the physical plane. When he entered the Blighted Realms, however, he found something far more pervasive than he bargained for."

"The Khayel," Pashal filled in, intrigued now. Israk had always been guarded about his past and seemed more than a little obsessed about Kaleel. The answers were finally coming together.

"Israk became the first of the Quest - Shadow-Jinn - the merging of the Khayel with the divine."

"So the Khayel can't consume Jinn?" Truth inquired.

"It can, but only if they are weak enough, or unnamed. Of course, most unnamed Jinn were destroyed at the Day of Wrath, leaving only the young and naive as its victims. Israk was not consumed. Indeed, he grew stronger from the union, as did the sliver of the Khayel within him. Together, they formed the perfect warrior, stronger than anything seen before or since. But this perfection comes with a terrible price; Israk is plagued with near-uncontrollable urges to devour, to return everything to the primal essence from which it came."

"How can you be sure of all this?" Balance called out from the back of the room.

"Because all Quest carry the ancestral memories of the Khayel within them at all times, sharing each other's experiences. And because we contend with its terrible urges every moment of every age."

"If Kaleel tricked the Khayel," Judgment observed, "and the Quest share that memory, why haven't they entered the war against the Jinn?"

The importance of the question was not lost on the assembly, which quieted in anticipation of the answer. Unfortunately, it would not be one they would like.

"Because the Khayel, on its own, is without purpose or desire. Lord Moon made sure of that. Being nothing, it does not recognize betrayal or seek out retribution; these traits - and others - have been inherited from those with whom it has come in contact.

"The Jackals, for instance," Lurza continued, at least partially for Pashal's benefit, "worship part of it through the Black Stone, the object under which it hid at the beginning of time. They provided the Khayel with greed, an emotion it had never encountered before. But it is only capable of mimicking this emotion as it first encountered it. In the case of the Jackals, their original need to appease a presumed death-god has warped into a never-ending campaign of theft. The Jackals no longer understand why they steal souls; they just continue as they have for hundreds of years, the obsession growing every day until it consumes them whole.

"The Quest - Jinn consumed by the Khayel - are similarly devoid of purpose. The Khayel has absorbed their original feelings, aggressions, and desires, and it doesn't know what to do with them. So the Quest have become docile, uninvolved with affairs outside their own citadel. They simply do not realize that the rest of the world exists."

"But they can be reminded," Judgment prompted.

Lurza appeared uncomfortable at his suggestion. "Yes, though I would not advise it. As I have said, the Quest are the most powerful force in creation, and their hold upon the Khayel is tenuous at best. If they were driven to aggression, they would surely lose their struggle with the Khayel, and it would be loosed on the world once more. Through the Quest, the Khayel would resume its unraveling of creation - overtly."

"Revealing the sword to them would do this," Balance noted.

"Yes. I believe Kaleel knows this and used the Jackals to attack the temple to obtain the Sayel. Without it, the Quest could not be convinced to enter the war and we would lose the only weapon we have strong enough to stop him."

The room fell into silence again. Pashal could feel the oppressive weight of these new revelations upon the assembly. The weight of a new age dawning ....

"Invaders!" Screams ripped through the hall as something exploded elsewhere in the citadel. The room pitched to one side, and Pashal was suddenly very aware that the structure was spiraling out of balance. A Sky Raider crashed into a pillar flanking the balcony leading outside, followed seconds later by a streaking fireball. The collision sent debris of the far wall out into the room and flattened all but a few of those collected within.

Moments later, three Jinn burst into the room through the gaping hole that was once a beautiful balcony, silhouetted by the image of Kaleel's citadel closing in on that of the Alliance - and the city below. The Jinn were part of his legion, led by a blue-skinned giant dripping venom from countless spikes along its shoulders and back. Ajbar - one of Kaleel's brothers, a general of his army - directed the others to grab the Sayel as he closed on Judgment, the first of the Alliance to rise.

Ajbar's soldiers - green-scaled, slithery abominations burning with the fury of Shilah's anger - moved to retrieve the weapon from where it was pinned between several large blocks of stone. Moments before their arrival, however, a smaller form appeared at its pommel, futilely tugging to free it.

"Nim! Get away from there!" Pashal screamed as he dragged himself free from the rubble. "You'll be killed!"

The approaching Jinn drooled after their new prey, descending upon the helpless Jinn child, but stopped short as the stones pinning the sword suddenly rose up into the air, swirling about them. Confusion soon turned to terror as the stones crashed together upon the free Jinn, crushing their physical forms into a bloody mess. Nim took the chance to drag the weapon toward the far side of the room.

Pashal looked around for the source of the attack, spotting little San'a against a nearby wall. Her eyes glowed with rage, and her feet hovered several feet off the floor. Pashal and his friend Adnan had always assumed that San'a would be affected by her time with the Khadi, but neither of them ever considered anything like . . . this.

Ajbar's angry howl drew Pashal's attention back to the gaping hole, where the Jinn held Judgment dangling out in the wind, his limbs weak and limp at his sides. "Master!" Pashal screamed, suddenly frantic.

But it was already too late. Judgment's skin bubbled as smokeless fire consumed his form and converted it to ash in a matter of moments, after which the raging winds outside swept it up. Ajbar turned to observe the room, scanning past the pulped remains of his followers and to the surviving defenders who formed a semicircle around the Sayel blade.

"You can't win," he seethed.

"We can make sure you don't," Valor growled back.

"Pashal!" a feeble voice called from a nearby pile of rubble. "Quickly!"

Saqr al Fediq lay beneath a collapsed archway, twisted nearly beyond recognition. With his one free arm, he waved toward Nim, calling to the young Jinn. "The sword! Bring it here!" Then he lifted his arm toward the aperture and painfully waved open a portal. The Crossroads.

"Nooooo!" Ajbar screamed as he leapt toward the defensive line. Within seconds, four more of the Alliance were bathed in smokeless fire or torn to shreds. At this rate, the remaining defenders would be overwhelmed long before Pashal could get to the sword and through the portal.

"Squire!" Twisting his head around, Pashal found the Sayel sailing through the air, tossed to him by Qashima, the Naar Teban outcast. The Nagah quickly stepped in front of the Jinn, releasing a long gout of liquid fire to hold him off. "There is no time! Go!"

Plucking the blade from the air, Pashal closed his eyes and leapt through Saqr's doorway.

"Another volley!" Kaleel roared from his throne. "I want that citadel grounded!"

The Jinn lord looked down to his captive, held within a cube of crystal surrounded by a dozen of his flaming troops. "Enjoying the view, brother?" he mocked.

Israk remained silent, his physical body frozen in place by the light of the Jinn guards, refracted through his crystal prison. Were he only able to move ....

Kaleel chuckled and returned his attention to the attack, barking orders at his front line that rolled across the dunes like a thunderclap. This close to his imminent victory, Kaleel was ill-prepared to consider anything so bold as an invasion of his inner sanctum, least of all one from a lowly squire ....

Pashal's first blow pierced one of the burning sentinels through its chest. The Jinn was only capable of loosing a single momentary shriek before it was devoured by the Sayel, leaving a narrow gap between the others. Pashal leapt through, slashing out at the cube, shattering it into countless tiny prisms that rained down upon the Jinn hordes below.

Free, Israk engaged two of his wardens, ripping through them as the fury of the Khayel within him awakened. The darkness in his wake consumed each Jinn that fell, even as he moved on to his next target. Meanwhile, Pashal was scarcely idle. The blade, eager for the blood of Jinn, seemed to move of its own volition, with skill and precision the squire had never seen before. Even his master, Judgment, had not exhibited the force with which this weapon fought. In moments, Pashal, drunk with its power, joined Israk before Kaleel's immense throne.

The Jinn lord rose from his seat, towering above them as his flames leapt to lick the ceiling and far walls."Who dares?"

Pashal, his neck craned high, attempted to force down the fear swelling within him. He managed only a quick glance to Israk, who seemed all too calm. "Can we win?"

"No," the Shadow-Jinn answered, "but I know who can."

Sucking in a deep breath, Israk closed his eyes to focus, muttering three short words beneath his breath. Pashal could barely make them out. "Forgive me, Mother . . . "

The air between the Jinn lord and the heroes started to ripple outward from a single point, as if a large stone was thrown into an invisible pool of water. The ripples gathered to form a dark ring several dozen feet in diameter, which seemed to confuse Kaleel as much as it did Pashal. The squire waited, watching for the arrival of additional Jinn troops, but the rest seemed to be out conducting Kaleel's war.

"The blade! Hold it up!" Israk commanded, his form rigid with effort.

Pashal thrust it up at the ring as the space within filled to a dark void, obscuring Kaleel on the other side. Then a single pinpoint of light appeared deep within the void. And another, and another, like a thousand eyes blinking open. The eyes observed the scene - the carnage of the fallen Jinn, their brethren Israk . . . and the Sayel.

Finally comprehending Kaleel's treachery, the Quest surged through the portal, sweeping through the throne room and blotting out the senses one by one. Kaleel's garbled screams were among the first sounds to vanish, hurled into oblivion just seconds ahead of the rest of him.

"What have you done?!" Pashal screamed at Israk's collapsed form, remembering Lurza's warning. "You've doomed us all!"

Israk managed a brief smile as the room began to collapse in upon itself. "Trust . . . the weight of . . . dreams."

A faint glow emerged from Israk's chest, where a circular symbol crept to the surface through his shadow-form. The Seal of Hakhim. A portal to Shilah ....

Pashal felt the first tendrils of Shadow wrapping around him, unmaking him. Terrified far beyond the capacity to flight or fight, he simply went limp and focused on the Seal, where the Khayel seemed to funnel out into another void ....

"Pashal!" Dawn's cries echoed across the dunes where the ruins of Kaleel's citadel settled in ruin.

Nepherus approached her sobbing form, taking her gently by the shoulders. "Come, Dawn. There is something I must show you."

Reluctantly, Dawn withdrew into the heart of the Alliance citadel, led by Nepherus toward Lurza's private chambers. No one had been allowed inside since the Quest arrived, and Dawn felt odd stepping through the narrow, arched doorway without permission. But what greeted her within dashed away all possible concerns.

The room's walls had fallen away, revealing the endless night sky. As far as Dawn could see in any direction, the heavens stretched beyond her vision, a million tiny stars dancing about her.

"Pashal's sacrifice was not in vain," Nepherus spoke, pointing toward a patch of stars above them. In moments, the patch shifted, contracting into the form of a lithe female surrounded by a cloak that billowed out into the heavens behind her. Lurza.

Dawn was suddenly aware that they were not alone. The other warriors, scholars, and philosophers of the Celestial Alliance stood about them, hovering in space and observing Lurza's arrival. "Children," Lurza said to them, her voice heard from every star in the sky. "Our warriors have been successful. The threat of Kaleel's Legion is over. But there has been a price . . . "

Lurza waved her arm toward the skies, where a darkness spilled into the face of the morning Sun, like ink in water. When it was full, the darkness bled into the surrounding heavens, blotting out the stars one by one.

"Israk opened a twin portal linking the Quest citadel with that of Kaleel, and both into the realm of the heavens using the ancient Seal of Hakhim. When the Quest arrived to take possession of the Sayel, they and everything they touched were funneled into the sky. The Khayel is unmaking the world, from the beginning to its end."

"But why?" Dawn asked, uncaring whether her irreverence mattered anymore. "Why send the Khayel into the heavens? Why not leave it here, where it can be fought?"

"Because, child, none here are strong enough to harm the Khayel. It must be trapped where it cannot threaten us." Lurza paused as the last of the stars winked out, leaving nothing but limitless black around them. "But the tale between ages is not quite over. There is still one more sacrifice to be made."

Lurza's form shifted again, dissolving into the darkness. In her stead, a thousand tiny pinpoints of starlight spiraled out into the sky. Dawn looked to the others standing about her, all of whom were shifting as well, their forms dissolving as light to join their champion in the heavens. Even Nepherus, his warm smile fading by the moment ....

"Come, Dawn." His last words were thin and fleeting, swept up in his star-mist as it joined the others in the vault of heaven.

The Ashalan was confused but unafraid. Her hand was already fading, her fingers streaming off in a chorus of fledgling stars. As the effect spread, her mind opened up, joining a thousand other voices to herald the new age. Each reminded her of something - the strength in fear, the innocence in a child's eye ....

One in particular reminded her of love.

"Look, Grandfather!" Shagala pointed to the heavens, where another star emerged from the darkness, full and strong.

"That is the morning star," Jangir answered. "The twin spirits, bound forever by courage, and devotion."

"Does it have a name?" Shagala asked, looking back to her mentor, but he was already fading, the first rays of the morning Sun piercing his body as if it were merely a ghost. "Grandfather?" Shagala asked, her voice touched with fear.

"It is time for me to go, young one."

"I don't understand . . . "

"The gods of the First Age are dead. The time of heroes - our time - is done. The slate is clean. The new age awaits its heirs."

Jangir smiled, then burst into a cloud of sparkling lights, rising up to meet the heavens. Shagala watched them dance away, and smiled.

The First Scribe placed his quill upon the desk and blotted down the last page. Looking up from his finished work, he considered the man at the end of time, whose frenzied words had plagued him for so long. A fraction of remorse swept through him, as their many stories crept back to the surface.

There will be no more tales, he thought. Our job is done.

"Goodbye, old friend," he called out to Time and stepped away into history.



Kaze no Shiro Return


Togashi will return!