Jonah and Nareena had expected a little resistance when they threw open the stone doors of the tower’s base floor. They hadn’t expected a battle with two fire-breathing Gorgons—which had been exactly what awaited them in the main hall.

 

Nareena tossed an explosive vial of chemicals down one Gorgon’s throat, completely on accident, though, she thought upon reflection, it had been a very happy accident. The serpent-like beast had exploded into countless chunks of bloody gore, and Jonah had used Focus to pin the other Gorgon to the floor with the very stone all around them.

 

Running like a man possessed, the Human Alchemist had sprinted alongside the pinned beast and straddled its neck, pulling one of his spare belts out of his rucksack and using it to clamp the beast’s mouth shut.

 

Overall, the encounter had taken them less than a minute, and both felt that they owed their reactions and timing to the Bounty Hunter. Just from watching the Simpa they had learned better how to think on their feet, and just react instead of thinking everything through. From training with him, they’d learned even more.

 

But now they stood at one of the four doorways in the main hall, the one behind them still open from their entrance into the tower.

 

Jonah felt hopelessly small and daunted by the sheer size of the tower. How was he going to know where to find Eileen?

 

“Upstairs,” Nareena said behind him, and he turned to find her sprinting to one of the other oak board doors, Blink on her shoulder.

 

“Lucky guess, then,” he asked rather sarcastically.

 

As the two pounded up the stone stairwell, she gave him a light tap on the arm. “I’m never that lucky,” she said.

 

“I don’t know, that vial certainly went down that Gorgon’s throat on a slim chance,” he replied.

 

Nareena laughed nervously, thanking the Gods for their brief smile on her.

 

“Yeah, well, you know how it is,” she said. “Besides, the little guy is giving me directions. He wanted to stay with Portenda, but he thought he’d be too much of a nuisance. You know how the big fellah worries.”

 

“Yes, as a matter of fact, I do.” Jonah worried himself for Portenda. When he had glanced over his shoulder in front of that other door in the main hall, Portenda had been struck in the side with a rather wicked looking axe. He prayed for the Bounty Hunter’s safety but couldn’t take time to do more.

 

They came to a landing, where the stairwell suddenly stopped.

 

“Great. Where to now?”

 

“This way.” Nareena poked her head out into the corridor of the sixth floor. She took a quick look left and right, and listened intently to Blink’s mental directions. “Come on.” She grabbed Jonah’s hand and led him out into the hall. “Blink says there’s a defense system that’s going to hold us up for a while. Are you any good with mecha?”

 

“Good? I’m one of the best,” A cold sweat broke out on his brow. “Why? Do I have to be?”

 

Nareena smiled at him as she opened the door to a rather strange looking room, filled with ancient mecha equipment.

 

* * * *

 

“Well then, this shouldn’t give you any trouble, now should it?”

 

* * * *

 

“Damn it all straight to the seven Hells!” Genma had been laboring on the magic barrier in Eileen Staples’ doorway for a solid ten minutes, and none of his tinctures, powders or tools worked against it. The process could have been interesting, perhaps even noteworthy for later study, if the girl hadn’t stood there making faces at him the whole while. “When I do get through this barrier, the first thing I’m going to do is put a sack over your head, girl.” He couldn’t concentrate properly, not with such an audacious display before him.

 

Genma drew out a thin vial of a thick green fluid, and drew his arm back to toss it into the barrier.

 

The vial slipped from his grasp when Eileen, in one of her more inspired moments of distraction, pulled up her blouse, exposing her bare breasts to him.

 

“Gaauugh! Holy Hells,” he shouted as the vial burst open at his feet, poisonous smog drifting into the air.

 

Genma darted down the hall, away from the smog, and wrapped a cloth around his mask. “Damn fool girl,” he rasped.

 

Genma rarely got so flustered, and he slammed his fist against the floor as he cursed himself for being so easily distracted. Had he been a few seconds slower, he might very well be dead. But the smog didn’t permeate the barrier, he saw from down the hallway. If the barrier relied on Kobuchi’s concentration and life force, he may be here for hours trying to get through it. Time he didn’t have.

 

Eileen, on the safe side of the barrier, laughed heartily as she watched the Alchemist dart away. She never did such things back home, that much was certain.

 

“What an idiot,” she said between giggles to herself. But a very real possibility cropped up in her mind—what if Genma did something to the wall on either side of the doorway? He couldn’t get past the barrier in the doorway, but what about making another doorway into the room? Surely his precious Alchemy could make a new portal, even if it involved using something as basic as a vial of explosive acid.

 

No, she thought, that would put her at risk for injury, and he couldn’t have his puppet damaged in any way. That simply wouldn’t be acceptable. But that gave her an idea.

 

She had been handling Genma quite improperly. The time for sitting behind her security wall was over: now she would put the Alchemist on the defensive.

 

“Sorry uncle Allen,” she whispered.

 

Genma appeared in front of the barrier once again, madness in his wide eyes, clearly visible in the mask. “You, have been a thorn in my side at every opportunity, young lady,” he rasped. “I have tried to be kind. I have provided reasonable hospitality. And I have left you, for the most part, unharmed. Now just come through this barrier, right now, like a good girl.” He spoke to her in the same tone of voice he had used to scold his own children, and her as well, when he visited from time to time.

 

Eileen smiled winningly at him, and produced a wooden shank at her own face level.

 

Genma’s heart skipped a beat, and he looked from the rather deranged sight of his niece holding a splintered fragment of wood to her face. “Back off, jack off,” she growled at Genma. “Try to take me by force, and you’ll never get your perfect little doll.” Genma straightened and started to chuckle low in his throat. His laughter quickly erupted into an uproar, and he found himself quite unable to stop. The volume and pitch of it fed off of one another, and in a minute, he sounded like a jackal that had most recently lost its genitals and found it hilarious despite the pain.

 

“Go ahead! Maim yourself, child! Do you think I can’t fix you, can’t take you away to some other place until I can return for my equipment? Have you not realized that your fate is sealed? You cannot hope to stay me from my course, Eileen Staples.”

 

Genma took a pinch of powder from his hip and inscribing something hastily on the palm of his left glove.

 

Once finished, he pressed his right index finger against the Focus Site, and Eileen watched in horror as her earlier fear came to fruition; Genma pressed his palm flat against the stone wall next to the doorway, creating a new opening into her chamber.

 

As Genma pressed into the room, Eileen changed her grasp on the shank, swinging it wildly at the Alchemist’s ivory mask as he stepped through the new doorway.

 

His hand appeared instantly, though, holding her by her frail wrist, twisting her arm until it snapped at the point of contact.

 

Eileen let out a hoarse cry of pain, and her makeshift weapon clattered uselessly to the floor.

 

“I am the master of this tower, Eileen. I am the master of Alchemy. What I seek, I shall have. And nothing shall stand in my way!”

 

Behind him, out in the corridor where he had engaged Kobuchi in mortal combat, he barely made out the sound of approaching footsteps, coming at a full tilt run. There came two sets of them, and Genma sensed that one of those sets belonged to Jonah Staples.

 

No matter, he thought as he struck Eileen over the head with a leather sap, rendering her unconscious. I have a solution to the boy. The ivory-masked Alchemist stepped back through his self-made doorway and faced the stairwell.

 

A moment later, his newest guests arrived.

 

Jonah he skidded to a halt several dozen yards away from Genma, Nareena bracing herself next to him.

 

He sensed something familiar about this masked menace.

 

The man stood there, his arms folded over his chest, like an idol of power. Alchemical power crackled around his body, reacting to the sudden presence of Jonah’s Focus energy.

 

Nareena drew two vials from her hip, one in each hand, ready to hurl them at high speed at Genma’s masked face.

 

“Where’s my sister?” Jonah asked as he drew a sheet of scrap parchment from his inner pocket in his tunic shirt.

 

He had roughly a dozen more of these Focus Sites prepared for use—all he had to do was choose one and draw it out, activating it with a clap of his hands.

 

“She is right in there, dear boy.” Genma waved his right arm vaguely at Eileen’s limp body. “If you would like to retrieve her, you are more than welcome to try. You need only get past me.”

 

Genma shifted his stance to match Nareena’s.

 

“Oh, and it’s so good to see you taking an interest in a girl,” he said, smiling behind his mask. “Your father and I had become so worried you’d wind up married to your work.”

 

Jonah’s mind raced through memories he’d long since thought buried. The voice, it was so familiar! And how could this masked man know what his father had voiced so many times to him? He didn’t think anybody had been around when Jacob Staples had pulled him aside to discuss his future. There had been, a few times, but uncle Allen was dead.

 

“Just be quiet and get away from Eileen,” Jonah shouted. “There doesn’t have to be a fight here. Your guard beasts are probably all dead, this tower can be easily brought down, and it’s two on one right now. You can’t stand against both of us, Genma.”

 

“You know, you’re right,” Genma said, folding his arms once again over his chest and turning sideways to the Human and Elven couple. “It is two on one, isn’t it, young Jonah?”

 

Genma thrust an accusing finger at Jonah. “Jonah, execute command twenty-five!”

 

Oh Gods, the boy thought as his vision blurred and his thoughts began to dull. Not again. Have to resist, have to do something.

 

Jonah’s hands flew to the sides of his head, and he dropped to the stone floor, screaming as he fought against his programming.

 

“Ha ha ha haaa! Why resist?! You know it is futile, Jonah Staples! You cannot disobey my commands. I have ensured it!”

 

“Hey, asshole,” Nareena shouted, gaining the ivory masked man’s attention. “Did you forget about me?”

 

He hadn’t forgotten the Elf woman, he had simply expected Jonah to respond instantly to the command.

 

The Elven Alchemist hurled a light green tincture at Genma, shattering it against his upturned cloak and forming a thick, dark green mist.

 

Genma inhaled the toxic vapors for a second, gagging and shuffling away from the smog, once again cursing his slow responses. Had he been a few years younger, or perhaps not been burned so badly in the fire that incinerated his home, he might have been able to take care of all of this without any issues. As it was, he was at a disadvantage, at least until he got Jonah under his control again.

 

Nareena drew a rough sketch of a Focus Site on the stone floor with one of Jonah’s pieces of chalk as the boy got back on his feet. Unsure of Jonah’s present alliances, however, she kept a safe distance behind him.

 

“Jonah, how are we doing?” she asked, her voice trembling.

 

Genma was already preparing a Focus Site of his own, and her own Focus would only create a defensive wall. Genma had years more experience, and his Focus power would surely be able to destroy anything she put in his way.

 

Then again, he had breathed in some of the toxic gas, hadn’t he? She had to try something, though, and before Jonah could give her a response to her question, she clapped her hands together, and activated her Focus.

 

The hallway trembled once more as a sheet of the stone floor came upright, locking off the hallway entirely. Jonah shook his head, and turned to face her. “I, I think I’m going to be all right,” he breathed.

 

Nareena threw herself at him, but he thrust her away quickly. “Good job on the wall, but there’s just one problem with it.”

 

“What’s that,” Nareena said. “We’re on this side, he’s on the other. What’s the problem?”

 

“Eileen’s on the other side too,” Jonah said.

 

Nareena shook her head as she turned back to the wall, feeling quite the fool.

 

“Right, right. Didn’t think about that much. Um, I’ll just go ahead, aaaand—” she said.

 

“Just tear it down,” Jonah said, clapping his hands together. The parchment in his hand flashed brightly, and a moment later his entire right arm lifted toward the ceiling, metallic plates glimmering in the artificial light of the hallway. A set of whirring blades, sharpened to razor edges, spun on the mounted arm and shoulder harness that covered his right upper body. One of the nearby labs, once filled with equipment, now had shreds and scraps of metal lying in heaped, smoking piles of ruined mecha.

 

Nareena concentrated all of her efforts into dispersing the molecular energy she had used to move the stone of the floor into a wall.

 

On the other side of the wall, as Nareena and Jonah were preparing to take the fight to Genma, the ivory masked man was readying his own Focus Site. “It’s a rush job,” he said to himself. “But it’ll do nicely, for now.” As Nareena tore down her wall of stone, Genma activated his Site.

 

Before him stood a golem made of stone.

 

Jonah, he saw, had come up with some strange sort of weapon, attached to his arm. It appeared to be a working mecha, complete with a small motor that oscillated the blades on the end of the mount.

 

But that’s impossible, Genma thought. How could he use Focus to craft a motor?

 

The equipment in the lab down the hall blew through the doorway and into the tunnel in a shower of sparks and scraps.

 

“My machines!”

 

“Oh, were those yours?” Jonah crouched, setting himself in a wide stance. The mecha he had crafted through the Focus Site was heavy, but it would prove an effective weapon. At least, against Genma’s flesh and blood. The golem that stood stock still in front of the ivory masked Alchemist was made entirely of stone, however. Jonah couldn’t be certain that the metal of his blades would cut through the stone guardian. Then again, he won’t know if he didn’t make a move.

 

“Sorry about that, Genma, but I needed them more than you at the moment. Now give me back Eileen, and this doesn’t have to go any further!”

 

“Oh, but I think it does.” Genma thrust his finger once again at Jonah. “You may have shrugged off my command before, but only when your concentration wasn’t muddled by impending death at the hands of my servant. Golem,” he said, addressing the guardian. “Crush Jonah Staples.”

 

Without a word or a sign of understanding, the nearly one ton of solid stone began its slow, unstoppable march toward Jonah and Nareena.

 

“Jonah,” Nareena said.

 

“Yeah?” Jonah’s free left hand flew about a set of switches that came along with the arm attachment. He had no idea what any of them did, and he panicked for a moment when the second switch turned out to be the one that turned the motor on and off. “What is it?”

 

“I don’t suppose you have a backup plan? I mean, the blades are nice, but are they going to cut through that thing?”

 

The golem stalked closer, now only twenty yards away.

 

“We’re going to have to wait and see.” Jonah located a switch that caused the blades to spin at an even higher speed.

 

Hollering like a barbarian warrior, which made him feel a little out of place, Jonah Staples stampeded toward the golem, blades flying.

 

Genma chuckled to himself, and turned to retrieve his captive, only to find another magical barrier in his path.

 

“What the,” he managed before Eileen Staples stepped right up to the barrier’s opposite side. Genma took a few stumbling steps back, and found himself pressed against the opposite wall. “How? I knocked you out!”

 

“Not before I used an Awakening spell on myself,” she said, smiling as she rubbed the sore spot on the back of her head. “I couldn’t keep myself from being rendered unconscious, but it did shorten the time I was out. You’d know that, if you studied magic.”

 

“Why you little wench,” he growled. “When I get to you, you will be in great pain.”

 

A buzzing and screaming of metal on stone rose in the air to his left, and Genma turned, smiling, expecting to see his nephew being bore to the ground. However, the situation turned out to be quite reversed. Jonah crouched atop the golem, his strange mecha weapon tearing slowly, but easily, through the stone arms that the golem held before its poorly hewn face.

 

“Give up, Genma,” Nareena called to the mad man. “When the golem’s toast, Jonah will come for you.”

 

“Why not do it yourself, girl,” Genma said.

 

His mocking tone twisted in Nareena’s mind; how dare this, this Human, challenge her?

 

But she quickly remembered. Genma wielded the art of Focus like a surgeon does his scalpel. She wielded Focus like a toddler does his toys. The comparison, she felt, was quite fitting, and too much for her to try to work against.

 

“Well, because I can’t,” she said, feeling lame. “I at least can admit that I’m not up to the task, though! Look around you Genma! Your guard beasts are all dead, your mecha have become fodder for Jonah’s Focus creation.”

 

Jonah’s blades appeared to have been damaged in their task, and thick, sulfurous smoke poured from the motor, but Nareena smiled wickedly at the ivory masked Alchemist.

 

Though he panted from the effort, Jonah came away from his encounter with the stone sentinel unscathed.

 

He used another Site, much like the previous one, to summon a steel suit of mobile armor around his body. “You see what I mean? Surely more of your precious equipment is now in tatters.”

 

“Yes, balance of energies and molecules,” Genma said, an edge to his tone. “But the efforts involved have left him weakened, Elf girl. Jonah! Execute command twenty-four!”

 

Nareena whirled around, but far too late.

 

Jonah’s his empty hand, coated in metal armor, came hard across Nareena’s face, breaking her jaw and sending her spiraling to the ground.

 

She looked up as her hands came up in front of her face defensively, and she saw the same glaze in his eyes that she had seen in the northwestern mountains, outside of Traithrock.

 

His mind lay dormant, his willpower broken by the brainwashing techniques created years before by his own uncle. It would take a physical shock or a mental one of great magnitude to bring him around this time, because the command had been given in person, not through some enchanted mirror. He would remain under the mad man’s control unless something was done, and soon. He might even kill her in this state of mind.

 

“I believe this is where you admit defeat, little girl,” Genma said as he laughed aloud.

 

His words had been aimed more at Eileen than Nareena, but both young women felt trapped, defeated. Without the aid of her brother and his Elf friend, the Q Mage girl was practically helpless.

 

The use of the Awakening spell, and the erection of a barrier and its maintenance drained her reserves of manna.

 

The three of them needed help, and fast, or Genma would have his victory.

 

“Now, Eileen, drop this barrier and come to me,” he said. “We have little time now to make our escape.”

 

“I’d rather jump out the window.” She moved to the makeshift portal she had created in one side of her room with an altered Raybolt spell. When she looked down on the field around the tower, she saw the dozens of slain guard beasts that had caused her own escape days before to fail. They hadn’t just died; they’d been massacred.

 

That’s right, she thought. Hadn’t there been someone else the Ivory Alchemist was worried about? A Bounty Hunter, she thought. But where was the guy?

 

“I don’t think so.” Genma smiled so hugely that his mask shifted on his face. “That would lead to a rather gruesome death, my dear. The fall wouldn’t kill you, mind you.”

 

“You just said it would lead to a gruesome death though,” she said.

 

“I know. The fall wouldn’t kill you. Generally speaking, it never does,” Genma said. “It’s the sharp, sudden impact that does the trick. Now, please be reasonable. Life as my bride is surely better than being dead, isn’t it?”

 

But Eileen wasn’t listening to Genma at all. She had returned to the barrier, keeping it close and thus requiring less of her quickly draining magic reserves. But when she had walked up to it, her eyes had wandered down the hall to the stairwell, where a huge, hulking Simpa stood, covered in blood and grime.

 

His stance remained neutral, a spear in his left hand, planted against the floor. In his right hand, an ancient mecha weapon rested idle, the tip also pointed downward.

 

“The Bounty Hunter,” she whispered.

 

Her words hadn’t been intended for Genma, but the ivory Alchemist’s eyes spread wide open.

 

He whirled so quickly to face Portenda the Quiet that his cloak came in brief contact with the barrier, causing a crackle of energy to run up the fabric and into his shoulders and arms. There was a brief numbness, which quickly disappeared, but his body now trembled for different reasons.

 

The Bounty Hunter was massive, he saw now that he was so close to him. Even at around fifty yards away, Genma could see that no amount of Alchemy created equipment was going to help him. He didn’t have enough time to construct a complex Site, because he recognized the pistol for what it was. Portenda could fire a single round into his chest or face and kill him! He had to stall for more time, and he had the perfect way to do so.

 

“Jonah, execute command thirty-nine. Now.”

 

The boy cocked his head up at Portenda, who remained perfectly still and silent.

 

Jonah lunged at the Simpa, his motorized blade arm jumping into motion as he swung it in a deadly arc at the Bounty Hunter.

 

Portenda took a single step to the side, evading the lethal blow with ease. He rammed his right elbow hard into Jonah’s ribs, sending the boy sprawling. In the same motion, to conserve energy and effort, Portenda hurled the spear down the hall, landing it in the stone floor a few feet away from Genma.

 

Humph, he thought, a slight miscalculation in angle.

 

No time to think about it, because Jonah sprang at him from the floor.

 

A hard, straight punch with his metal-coated left fist glanced off of Portenda’s blocking arm, and the Bounty Hunter slid his free hand forward, palming the boy’s face. With his right arm, he took aim and fired a single shot at Genma, whose cloak had already come up over him in his defense.

 

The bullet crumpled harmlessly against the enchanted material.

 

One of the whirring blades managed to cut into Portenda’s side, but the Bounty Hunter holstered his pistol and grasped the mounted device, tearing it free from Jonah’s shoulder and arm and tossing it aside like so much scrap.

 

There was no help for it, he thought. He couldn’t afford to harm the boy at the moment, because Genma was stirring up something with several Focus Sites at that precise moment.

 

Portenda, while he felt more than capable, admitted to himself that he knew little about the nature of Alchemy and its scientific powers. That many Focus Sites could only create something troublesome. He needed Jonah’s knowledge now more than any firearm, or weapon.

 

“Jonah, listen to me very carefully. I have to tell you something important,” Portenda said as Jonah flailed against his grasp. Had the situation not been so grave, he might have laughed at the sight of it. After all, the two of them looked like fighting siblings, the older one holding the little one by the forehead to keep from any blows being landed.

 

“Jonah, Genma is Allen Staples. He is your uncle.”

 

* * * *

 

Darkness, pure and complete, surrounded Jonah in a warm blanket of nothingness. He knew full well that something had been done to him to lock away his mind, but he felt no urgent need to escape the darkness. It was, well, comfortable. He had no worries here, trapped in his own mind. He heard nothing, saw nothing, felt nothing. He didn’t even know where he was at the moment. He just knew his body was moving out there, in the real world, doing whatever needed to be done.

 

But a voice called out to him. A voice that he recognized, and both feared and respected. It spoke to him of great strength of body and mind, of potential. It was a voice not unlike what he remembered in Death’s own speech. Why was it so familiar? Why did it reach him here, where only one other voice had managed to reach before?

 

Once more, the voice spoke, but louder this time. A shaft of light burrowed through his personal darkness, bringing him back to reality. The voice spoke again. “JONAH STAPLES, YOU WILL HEAR ME,” it said. “GENMA IS IN TRUTH ALLEN STAPLES. HE IS YOUR UNCLE.”

 

Jonah Staples came screaming back to reality.

 

* * * *

 

The boy had one Hell of a set of lungs on him, Portenda thought as his voice returned to normal.

 

Genma continued to work on his Focus Sites, several of which were already producing strange, hybrid creatures of mechanical and biological design.

 

The tower quavered terribly as the equipment and raw materials of the structure evaporated into the null space of Focus transformation to create these new guardian creatures.

 

Jonah continued to scream, unable to cope with what Portenda told him. The brainwashing, his sister’s abduction, the plan to transform her into another person, all the product of his Uncle Allen’s mind?

 

He hadn’t even believed Allen Staples to be alive, much less turned into this mask-wearing freak. How could this have happened? How could he not have seen it coming? And how did Portenda know?

 

He sensed the truth of the Bounty Hunter’s words, mostly because that strange tone of voice didn’t seem capable of telling lies.

 

Now, though, faced with the truth, what could he do? He had fully intended to kill Genma if necessary to retrieve his sister. But that meant killing a family member, the very man who had introduced him to Alchemy so many years ago.

 

“Jonah, we’ve got a bit of a problem here,” Portenda said to him.

 

Jonah looked to his right, and saw several low, sleek creatures approaching, scuttling forth on many legs of metal and dripping organic material.

 

Genma drew upon everything available in the tower, from the scorpions and mantis-like creatures to the ruined machinery now serving as Jonah’s weaponry.

 

The first of the metallic monstrosities leaped at the young Alchemist, a scream of mixed misery and killer instinct erupting from its plated throat.

 

Jonah manipulated a Focus Site preset on his wrist to reattach the device to his shoulder and arm, and brought the whirring blades on his arm down hard on the beast.

 

He shredded it to pieces, but in return he was struck by shrapnel in the chest and shoulder.

 

He avoided the most grievous injury by turning his head as a scrap piece of metal flew past his eye, nearly blinding him.

 

Portenda danced past him, his claws tearing through the servants with the ease of a skilled ballet dancer doing a pirouette. His movements flowed like water, soft and rhythmic between blows, harsh and crashing at the precise moment of impact.

 

Jonah found himself once again in awe of the Bounty Hunter, but this temporary spell was broken when Genma rolled a vial of crimson liquid across Portenda’s path of progress.

 

As Portenda landed on the vial, it erupted in an inferno of brightest flames, and the Bounty Hunter was genuinely caught off guard.

 

His fur caught quickly, and Portenda squeezed his eyes shut against the pain.

 

The best meditative techniques, those he had learned in his time with a sect of Monks in the north-central mountain ranges, offered him no solace here; something in the tincture struck at his very nerves, disrupting his concentration.

 

Being careful to avoid the boy, Portenda leaped backward through the tunnel, praying that Nareena would have something on hand to quench the fires.

 

His forearm muscles had caught fire, the flesh covering the outer forearm completely burned away now, the chemical flames working on him slowly and painfully.

 

The Elven Alchemist, familiar with this sort of situation, pulled a powder out of a pouch on her hip, and sprinkled it over the flames. In the presence of the high heat, the powder turned into ice water, and Portenda went swiftly from burning to death to soaked and slightly chilled.

 

“You’re running low on tricks, Genma.” Jonah kept a watchful eye on the remaining half a dozen metallic servants.

 

Something in the frame support of his arm device snapped, and once again it fell off of him. No matter, he thought. I’ve got other tools at my disposal.

 

“And your toy has failed, nephew,” Genma replied.

 

“Don’t you dare call me that, filth! You are not my uncle! You are a sick freak with a mask.”

 

Jonah drew the sniper rifle off of his back and sett himself in a kneeling position.

 

Without a moment’s hesitation, he cocked the hammer and fired on the foremost of the servant creatures, shattering it into scraps of metal. Two shots, three, four, five, and finally the sixth and final creature died.

 

Genma, who chuckled under his breath, took no defensive posture, no evasive action.

 

“What’s so funny, freak?”

 

“That’s a sniper rifle, correct,” Genma asked.

 

“That’s right.”

 

“Familiar with it?”

 

“I know how to use it.” Jonah took aim directly at the ivory countenance.

 

“Then you know that there’s a small slit in the cartridge clip,” Genma said matter-of-factly.

 

Jonah wasn’t going to fall for any feints at this juncture, however. He steadied the sight, and pulled the trigger.

 

And listened as the hammer struck, followed not by the air-rendering kaboom of the rifle fire, but by studied silence, punctuated by Nareena coughing nervously.

 

“And anyone close enough to see it, can count the number of rounds left in the weapon.” Genma whipped a throwing knife at Jonah Staples.

 

The triangular blade imbedded itself in his left shoulder, and Jonah spun around and dropped the rifle on the floor.

 

Blood sprayed freely from the wound.

 

As he grasped the throwing handle to remove the projectile, the blade already spread wider and tore more inner tissues apart.

 

Jonah howled, but managed to get to one knee as he pulled again at the offending weapon.

 

Nareena came forward, a healing potion in hand, and gave it to Jonah as he tore the weapon free, tossing it limply aside. He would have used one of her tinctures as a projectile at Genma, but it appeared that Genma had erected a sort of barrier in front of him to repel any such attempts. Jonah’s vision was slightly blurred: he couldn’t tell for certain if the barrier had a weak point, but he continued to look through hazy vision at the shimmering wall of force.

 

Genma spoke once more before either the Human or Elven Alchemist could do anything. “Jonah, execute command number eleven.”

 

Jonah didn’t even feel a compulsion. Portenda’s words had broken the hold the ivory masked menace had on his nephew.

 

“No matter.” Genma took a step backward. “You can’t get at me right now in any event.”

 

As Genma turned, he came face to face with Eileen Staples, her slender fingers pressed lightly against his chest.

 

His eyes went wide with fright, the image of Eileen’s beauty shattered by the cruel, twisted smile that stretched across her face.

 

Hyagu van, Raybolt!”

 

Her spell words echoed through the cavernous hallway as pure magical energy exploded against Genma’s chest, sending him hurtling like a siege weapon missile through the air. Through his own barrier, over the heads of Jonah, Nareena and Portenda, and almost down the stairwell to his demise.

 

At his present velocity, going down the stairs would have broken every bone in his body.

 

But even damaged and injured, Genma had the presence of mind to adjust his weight in mid-flight. He crashed in a heap against the wall to the left of the stairwell.

 

“Eileen, are you all right?” Jonah wheezed as he sprinted to his sister’s side.

 

“I’m, fine,” she panted in response. Their eyes met for the first time in months, and both Staples children knew what had to be done. “You know he won’t stop unless you finish him off.” Eileen drooped from her extreme usage of magic.

 

Jonah nodded, and drew a single piece of paper from his rucksack.

 

Genma was finally getting to his feet after taking a healing potion of his own.

 

Portenda appeared to still be having problems moving around with his weapon. What Jonah didn’t know, and Nareena had forgotten, was that a couple of her healing potions and powders had spoiled over time. Portenda now knew, and his system was trying not to go into toxic shock as a result. His regenerative powers worked overtime to keep him from being sick all over the place.

 

Genma pulled a piece of chalk from his hip pocket, and roughly inscribed a Site at his feet. He stood in the center of it, and as the familiar light flashed, a dome of stone covered him and the doorway.

 

Jonah finished his own inscription, and drew his father’s short sword, using it to cleave the symbol on the paper in half. Another flash of light, but Portenda saw no visible difference in the weapon Jonah held.

 

“When it comes down to it, sometimes the old ways are best,” Jonah whispered. He charged toward the protective dome over Genma, the ivory Alchemist.

 

With a barbarian war cry, Jonah brought his father’s short sword over his head, and leaped skyward, bringing the weapon crashing down on the stone dome.

 

Portenda expected the sword to shatter apart, or the dome to explode outward. Neither occurred.

 

There was a glint of metallic light, a sound like flesh being torn from the bone, and then a muffled curse.

 

The stench of freshly spilled blood washed over Portenda’s nose like a tsunami.

 

The stone dome split cleanly open in two halves, revealing Genma on his knees, his hands up over his face.

 

A line of thick, coppery-scented blood flowed down the exact center of his body for a moment before his body, like the dome, split cleanly in half. The sounds of a wet sack of animal entrails smacking against concrete rose up from the impact of the two body halves hitting the floor.

 

“Jonah,” Nareena whispered, stepping forward and putting a consoling hand on his shoulder.

 

Jonah just stood there, unable to move, to speak, even to feel anything. Had he had done the right thing? He couldn’t tell, and a minute later, it didn’t matter. The tower trembled so badly that it leaned slightly, causing the trio from Ja-Wen and Eileen to catch their footing.

 

“Jonah,” Nareena said. “We’ve got to get out of here. Portenda, is there a way to collect what’s left of Allen?”

 

“No,” Jonah looked back at Eileen as he picked up one half of the ivory mask. He kicked Eileen the other half with his foot, and she took it in hand, gazing at it for a moment. “There’s no need for that, Nareena. We have this to remind us.” He pocketed his half of the ivory mask. “We won’t soon forget him in any case. Not as Uncle Allen, but as Genma.”

 

“Pretty words, Jonah,” Portenda groused, clutching his stomach as he gave Nareena a glare full of daggers. “But we haven’t the time to appreciate them. This tower’s creator is dead and the whole place is starting to come down around our ears! We have to get out of here. The only way is out a window if we want to get out in time.”

 

“In case you haven’t noticed, spoil-sport, we don’t have wings,” Nareena said, aware now of Portenda’s glare. “We’ll have to use the stairs, and we’ll have to go now. That’s all there is to it.”

 

So the trio from Ja-Wen, with Blink on Jonah and Eileen Staples lashed to Portenda’s back, started down the stairs as Genma’s tower began its final stages of self-destruction.

 

* * * *

 

“They’ll never make it, you know,” the golden masked entity said to the only person he called friend.

 

YES, THEY WILL, Death said, watching through the orb in Fate’s bedchamber. AND WE DON’T EVEN NEED TO INTERFERE.

 

“How can you be so certain without checking into the Histories?”

 

Death, it should be noted, believes in being a man of action, for it speaks louder than words ever could. He said nothing to Fate, choosing instead to pull Portenda’s timer out of his cloak. Fate gasped as he looked at it, turning his head this way and that for a better look. “That’s his timer?”

 

INDEED, MY FRIEND. AND I BELIEVE YOUR NEXT QUESTION WILL BE ALONG THE LINES OF, IS IT THAT WAY BECAUSE OF OUR PART IN HIS CREATION? THE ANSWER, AGAIN, IS YES.

 

“But how will he get out of it this time? He has spoken, thus breaking the flow of his power. There’s no sunlight in the tower, so his Khan blood cannot charge off of that. How, Grim, is he going to survive the toppling of the tower he’s in?”

 

KEEP WATCHING. I DON’T THINK HE’S GOING TO BE IN THE TOWER MUCH LONGER, FATE. AND DON’T TELL ME YOU DIDN’T ALREADY KNOW THAT.

 

Death’s eye sockets flaring brilliant sky blue as he watched the orb before him.

 

YOU KNOW WHEN THE HISTORIES ARE ALTERED. YOU CAN SENSE IT. AND I CAN SENSE THE MOMENT OF TENSION IN YOU. Death looked up at Fate. YOU’RE EXPECTING SOMETHING, BECAUSE THE HISTORIES ARE SPEAKING TO YOU AGAIN, AREN’T THEY?

 

“You are right,” Fate said, his shoulders sagging slightly. “The last time they did that, the world of mortals shifted greatly.”

 

THE FALL OF MECHA, AS THEY CALL IT, Death said. THIS IS DIFFERENT. NOT QUITE AS EXPANSIVE IN ITS AREA OF EFFECT, BUT DEFINITELY IMPORTANT. TOO BAD I DON’T GET TO SEE IT ALL THE WAY THROUGH.

 

“Why not?”

 

BECAUSE, I HAVE A JOB TO DO. ALLEN STAPLES MUST BE ESCORTED TO HIS FINAL DESTINATION, AND NO ONE CAN DO IT BUT ME.

 

MAXI, he called, and the skeletal hound got up off of Fate’s bed.

 

Death tore a portal in the air, the other side of which led to his timeless home.

 

YOU CAN’T COME WITH ME, BOY. AND DON’T GIVE ME THAT LOOK. He prodded the sulking animal in the hindquarters with the blunt end of his scythe.

 

As the rift closed, sealing Maxi in Death’s domain, the Grim Reaper tore a new rift, which opened into the trembling, disintegrating upper halls of Genma’s tower.

 

He stepped into the hallway, watching with the same detached curiosity he always did when the soul separates from the fleshly host.

 

In this case, as sometimes happened, it appeared that Allen Staples, who had named himself Genma, wasn’t aware that he had been slain.

 

His soul, which appeared mostly as it had before Jonah Staples’ Alchemy-enhanced sword cleaved him cleanly in half, stood with its arms thrust upward, bracing.

 

Death cleared his throat as politely as he could, but the resulting noise sounded like a beast trying to laugh.

 

Allen Staples looked up at him, his eyes filled with dread apprehension.

 

“What’s going on here? What happened to my barrier? And,” he said, his left hand moving slowly to touch his face. “Where is my mask?”

 

YOU WON’T BE NEEDING IT ANYMORE, ALLEN STAPLES, Death said.

 

“My name is Genma.” Allen Staples took a few brash steps forward before he saw the skeletal countenance beneath that eternally black hood. “You, you’re—”

 

YES. YES I AM. Death moved a little closer to Allen Staples, feeling a little sorry for him. Especially considering what he was facing.

 

“How? How did it happen?” Allen turned to find that the spot he had been standing in was occupied by rubble. At the opposite end of the corridor, he watched as Jonah, his kind and genius nephew, took one last, long look down the hallway at where his body should have been.

 

JONAH USED A FOCUS SITE TO SHARPEN HIS FATHER’S SHORT SWORD. ALMOST GOT IT AS SHARP AS MY FRIEND HERE, Death said, moving the scythe slightly around. CUT RIGHT THROUGH THAT BARRIER OF YOURS, TO SAY NOTHING OF YOUR MASK AND BODY.

 

“He, he cut me in half?” Suddenly, the prospect of seeing his body one last time didn’t appeal to him any more. “All right,” he said, straightening himself up. “Let’s get this over with. To tell you the truth,” he said, following Death as he opened a rift in the air. “I never really believed you’d appear like this.”

 

LIKE WHAT, Death asked, slightly perplexed. THE ROBE? THE BONES?

 

“No, I mean, well, I never really believed in angels and demons and, well, things like you. I’ve always assumed there was a scientific explanation for everything. I always assumed when I died, there’d just be, well, you know.”

 

NO, I DON’T, Death led Allen Staples’ soul into his domain.

 

“I didn’t think there would be anything,” Allen said. “I assumed the lights would go out, and then, well, nothing. My body would deteriorate, turn into nutrients in the soil, help grass grow, that sort of thing.”

 

AH, I SEE. WELL, YES, ALLEN STAPLES, THAT WILL HAPPEN TO YOUR BODY IN THE LONG RUN. AS FOR YOU YOURSELF, WELL, YOU ARE CURRENTLY IN YOUR NATURAL STATE.

 

“Meaning, I’m, my soul?”

 

CORRECT. YOU ARE ALLEN STAPLES. THE BEING KNOWN AS GENMA WAS NEVER REAL. IT WAS JUST A TITLE YOU APPLIED TO YOURSELF FOR A WHILE.

 

Death lead Allen through the fields of his home, over grasses that felt and looked and smelled more real than anything he had ever observed in the mortal realm.

 

“So, what happens to me now,” Allen asked, slightly nervous now. “I mean, I’m pretty much a heretic, right? I never believed in any of the Gods, never prayed a day of my life! Oh lord,” he said, clutching desperately at Death’s robes. “What’s going to happen to me?”

 

CALM DOWN. Death pried Allen’s hands from his robes.

 

YOU HAVEN’T DENOUNCED ANY GODS EITHER, NOW HAVE YOU?

 

Allen Staples shook his head, his eyes fixed on nothing, his thoughts churning.

 

HAVEN’T STARTED WORSHIPPING ANY DARK GODS OR DEMONS? ANY OF THE ARCHDUKES OF THE HELLS?

 

Again, a silent shake of the head.

 

VERY GOOD. THEN THE ARRANGEMENTS THAT HAVE BEEN MADE WILL PROVE SUITABLE. FOLLOW ME.

 

In the middle of one of the fields, Death set his scythe on his back, and moved his hands before him in a circle.

 

Waves of black energy rippled around his left sleeve and skeletal hand, white energy around the right. The two waves slithered off of his fingers, merging into a single, golden orb that pulsated a few feet away.

 

As the energy pulsed and formed together, the orb became a swirling pool of golden light, with a single point of pure white in its center. Finally, Death stood straight, and reclaimed his scythe from his back.

 

“What is it,” Allen asked, completely awed.

 

IT IS A DOORWAY, ALLEN STAPLES. YOUR DOORWAY, TO BE PRECISE. I HAVE ONLY HAD TO ERECT IT A FEW TIMES. IT IS FOR THOSE WHO HAVE NO GOD OR GODDESS TO SPEAK FOR THEM, BUT ARE NOT BOUND FOR THE LAKE OF FIRE, EITHER.

 

“So, it’s a sort of void?” Death sighed heavily.

 

NOT EXACTLY. IT’S DIFFERENT FOR EVERYONE WHO GOES IN. IT’S A SPACE WHERE YOU CAN DETERMINE YOUR OWN DESTINY, BY YOUR OWN MEANS. ONE OF THE HEAVENS OR THE HELLS AWAITS YOU WHEN YOU ARE FINISHED.

 

WELL, Death said, positioning himself behind Allen Staples’ soul.

 

He lifted his skeletal foot up, and gave the Alchemist a swift thrust in the rear end, thrusting him toward the portal.

 

BEST OF LUCK WITH THAT!

 

Death felt eyes upon him, and looked up at the black sky of his domain. He knew Fate was watching.

 

AND YOU ALWAYS TELL ME I’VE NO SENSE OF HUMOR.

 

* * * *

 

Portenda led the charge down the stairs, carrying Eileen Staples on his back like an invalid child. Jonah followed with Nareena just ahead of him, both of them streaming sweat like ribbons.

 

“We need a miracle,” Nareena shouted over the din of the tower caving in on itself.

 

“Or just a helping hand,” Kobuchi shouted in through a window port on the landing as he glided in through the window itself. He handed each of the stunned members of the party from Ja-Wen a strange, pure white feather.

 

Jonah’s hand clenched slightly around the object, because the deep, pure chill radiating off of it made him feel as though his bones were freezing in place. “I’ve had lots of time to make things like this,” Kobuchi said hastily.

 

“You’ve thought about this before, haven’t you?” Jonah grasped the feather in one hand and the window ledge in the other.

 

“Escaping? A great deal, actually,” the Kobold mage said as he turned around to prepare for his flight. “Every time I got my free will back, just before Genma stripped me of it again. Come on! This place is coming apart!”

 

With that, Kobuchi took flight, and Jonah, Nareena, and Portenda each leapt out themselves, their bodies surrounded by swirling white winds coming from the feathers they held.

 

Portenda held Eileen Staples over his left shoulder as he descended, dropping rather faster than the others of the company. Jonah worried that he would hit with too much speed, stumble and perhaps hurt himself or his sister.

 

“Why is he dropping so fast,” he shouted to Kobuchi, who looked down to see that Portenda and Eileen had already drifted well away from the tower, but also much closer to the ground than the others and himself.

 

“I never thought to adjust the power of the spell for weight,” Kobuchi shouted back. “He’s too heavy by himself as it is, and he’s carrying Eileen with him to boot. Don’t worry, though! He’ll be fine,” Kobuchi said as he watched Portenda adjust his legs. “He’s a professional, I can tell.”

 

“Yes, he is,” Jonah said, mostly to himself. “Yes he is.”

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