Never Say Never
Part I

Neil shook his head.

Never. Not in a thousand years.

Impossibility seemed the theme for him today.

Or was it?

A sleek streak of gold liquidness bled from the sky. It defied the murky cast of the clouds to shine briefly on the warrior's head. It was mid afternoon and the sun should be gleaming throughout the length of Coneria, the Dream City from west to east. It should be gleaming over the steel gate he rested against. It should be gleaming. Period.

But it wasn't.

Neil ran a hand irritably through his blood-emulating hair. Sometimes he contemplated their situation too extensively. Over planning could be their downfall as easily as inattentiveness. Frustration never failed to claim him, make him acknowledge the odds against them--the powerful odds--that sapped his courage. It was like running around in circles and expecting to meet oneself along the way. Best not to dwell on that.

A chuckle sought escapage from his throat but a mere sigh was all that prevailed. He had to realize that he WAS and WOULD forever worry about their mission. Their dangerous mission of saving the world.

And you thought getting up in the morning for an eight to five warrior training session was hell.

Behind him lay the beautiful 'Dream City' with its lush vegetation and friendly inhabitants. Leading onward conveyed to the plains land and a thick forest, brimming with evergreens. He awaited the arrival of the other light warriors who would accompany him to the Temple of the Fiends. Three equally valiant (or equally stupid?) individuals had accepted the duty to challenge and defeat the evil Garland and free princess Sara. They all obtained orbs of light that needed restoration of illuminance--that would ensure the 'salvation of the world'. Defeat Garland. Rescue princess. Save orbs. Sounded simple enough.

Now if only he could rid himself of that pesky thing called fear.

Neil managed to drive the unwelcome thoughts away as he greeted the first of the warriors. She was a white mage of notable talent and wisdom. Garbed in a sheep's wool cloak and ivory satin robe it seemed to draw color out of her face like a marble statue. Her eyes flashed olive indifference and strawberry blonde braids framed her face. As lovely as a glacier.

She withdrew a small orb, the earth globe, and presented it to him. "Greetings. I am known as Rose. Lukahn, the prophet, informed me of the quest I am destined. I have the proof, an orb. Be timely with our orientation so we may proceed," voiced Rose in a cool manner.

As lovely as a glacier. And as unreachable, Neil realized. But even warmth can melt the firmest ice. The warrior curtly examined the unnaturally dark orb. It reflected his image in thin lines, outlining his breast plate, steel shoulder pads, and, decorated arm bands. Glancing back at the white mage he returned it. As she gave back his orb, that of fire, Neil gazed at her. Ice wasn't inpenetratable.

Dipping in a bow he grasped her hand and kissed it lightly. She snatched it back devoid emotion. Apparently, gentlemanly tactics didn't impress her. No matter, he'd find a way. Rearranging his thoughts meticulously the warrior spoke, "Lady Rose, fear not. Though this road may seem dark I have belief that victory shall smile down on us. After all, all we need to do is--"

"Silence." No matter how cultivated the words were Neil did not miss the flash in her eyes. Fancy words had no place in her world, either. This was starting to vex Neil who just wanted to initiate pleasant conversation or at least reassure her. He then attempted another selection of discussion/pep talk (yes, he even tried talking of the weather) but received no favorable results. He eventually had to admit failure. If she was meltable then he was at loss as to how.

A sudden sound alerted Neil and he barely managed to dodge the abomination that rolled into the gate. The rusted gate rattled and grated noisily. Limbs flailed with a wild abandon. He leapt sideways, more startled than afraid. What he beheld was not only harmless it was also amusing.

Short, stout, and squat, a young mage uncoiled from his balled position. Unintelligentable grunts came from the diminutive fellow as he stood. Neil couldn't restraint the snickers, while Rose appeared moderately annoyed. With beady eyes and a straw hat that was definitely too large for him, the mage offered another grunt. What manner of mage was this? Neil guessed he was a child apprentice and he decided to refrain from witnessing any further of the poor guy's humiliation.

"Shoo, child. Go home to your ma," he commanded, hoping the child wouldn't cry or anything.

Nothing happened.

A voice. "It's not worth a try, dude. He can't hear ya." The source of the words came from a tall, handsome thief with a sandy-brown mane. At least a dozen knives glinted in the sparse sunlight, attached to his leather belt. Duo slender katana blades were strapped to his back. He smiled, a odd mix of suggestive and obvious, and then slapped the child- mage back to the ground. He continued, "Ace is a mute and deaf. And none too bright, I've gathered. He's harmless. My name is Dard the dashing. A jack of all trades, I am, and the best at everything I do..."

As Dard proceeded to oralize his many qualities and accomplishments (which anted up at each accusation of validity), Neil helped the young mage to his feet. He received a grunt for that, one he assumed was gratefulness. Then the apprentice made faces at Dard who promptly ignored them and continued to flirt with Rose. The white mage just glared at Dard with thinly-veiled hostility. Before the thief could unleash Rose's fury on him Neil immediately spoke.

"Is there something we can do for you, Dard? The lady and I have some very important business."

The smile deepened. "I should say you do! Ha, ha! And I'm coming with ya!" Producing a mismatched pouch, Dard displayed the contents. An orb of air. After a moment of exhibition he yanked the drawstring and concealed it.

A thief...well, what choice did Neil have? He noted, dismayed, that the sole beam of light faded as the sun became less pronounced. It was not a welcome omen. The possibility of success dwindled with the sun. "And what of this mute-and-deaf friend of yours? I don't suppose he's going to joining us, too, now is he?" If he did Neil would bury himself in his bed and forget about being born.

"Of course he is! He's got the last orb," was the answer the warrior dreaded. Neil's stomach shrunk as he saw Dard gesture for the black mage to withdraw the orb. And a shining globe of water arrived. Dard's smile intensified, if that was possible. "He's my brother. I know, I know. Poor Dard. But he's got the orb, so that kinda settles it, right, dude?"

What else could Neil say? The prophet, Lukahn, had been precise. S/he who contained the orb was a light warrior and MUST be a member of the team to save the world. The situation was progressing horribly, Neil despaired. "Right," was all he could say.

Make the best of it, he told himself. Perhaps he was working with a disadvantage but if he correlate to the band to utilize their talents any handicap they might possess would not halt them. "Well, Rose," he ventured, "do you suggest we have a little prayer before we head off?" Rose just glared at him with icy civility. He tried Dard next. "And Dard, where do you think would be a good place to bed down after nightfall?" Dard ignored him. A glance at the simple-minded mage, who was running around blinded by his hat, kept the warrior from attempting a third time.

Rose never seemed to be interested in giving of herself.

Dard never seemed to take anything seriously.

Ace never seemed to exhibit any shred of intelligence.

And this was the band he had to save the world with.

Neil doubted they would get to the forest itself let alone to the temple. Period.

As the only true fighter in the group Neil took it upon himself to formulate a motivation speech (actually, any reason was good enough for him to make a speech). As he began he wondered if maybe the words were more for him than the others. "We, light warriors, have been destined to battle an immense darkness known as Garland. Though the path is dark and fraught with peril we shall prevail because we fight for the side of good and when good is put to the test it cannot fail. We, light warriors,--"

Dard yawned. "--are getting bored. Sorry, dude, but I've already had my sleep. Let's get outta here. The last one to the forest is a dirty old windbag!" And with that he leapt over the gate, no small feat, and made his way to the vast woods in the distance.

Rose followed, refusing to wait for Neil to open the door and opened it herself. "I shall depart as well. Make haste, Neil."

With a sigh the warrior turned to Ace. The mute mage just shrugged and, tripping every second step, joined the three. Now, Neil stood alone, shrouded in his self-doubt and despair. This was all disintegrating rapidly. Just as he thought that the last ray of sunlight disappeared leaving only darkened skies and shattered hope.

Save the world?

Never.

Part II

Never. Not in thousand years.

Neil stumbled onto the limp grass, exhausted. He had never dreamed they would have gotten this far. The campaign, laden with confrontations, had not been a cakewalk. Thrice, the flame-haired fighter had become convinced the entire band would perish.

Needless to say, he was wrong.

Gasping for breath, he reclined on the abhorrent ground and observed the diverse light warriors. Rose immediately sank to a resting position, her face ashen and afflicted. Her lamb's wool frayed, her satin tattered, her duo braids frazzled like an eroded rope; the glacier wasn't so lovely anymore, in a fashion sense. But still very, very heartbreakingly beautiful. Dard wasn't far behind, as he never was. Though his chestnut strands of hair sagged in disarray and he featured at least a dozen superficial lacerations he smirked, electrified. The thief dislodged imp blood, the color of heaved organs, from his blades against a shrubbery. Rose, Dard, himself...hmm, who was missing?

"ACE!!!" hollered Dard.

A midget of a mage came bounding in. He reached a foot from the three, slipped on his sky-blue robe, squealed hideously, and fell face forward. The pickpocket guffawed almost to tears. Rose didn't appear amused and Neil exhaled incorrigibly. At least he could be appreciative they still lived. No other wanderer had ever reached and explored this region of woodland. Others had tried...and had died.

The warrior assembled his thoughts, the battle plan, everything. He muttered, "Dard, can you climb one of those larger trees to look for the Temple of the Fiends? Find out what time of day this is, the distance from the temple, and whatever else you can think of."

No sooner had he dictated than Dard countered, "Can I climb a tree? You ask the most agile treasure hunter in the world if he can climb a tree? Well, of course! I'm insulted." And with that he vaulted onto the lower branches as athletic as a dancer and vanished from sight. As evidently tired, hungry, cold, and injured Dard was he still endured the storm with a smile on his face. Neil had to give him credit for that.

As the warrior turned about face he noted Ace missing, as was his custom, and Rose lying inert. There had been some clashing with the devilish inhabitants of this forest, of course, so he promptly fretted about her health. Neil braced his guts and knelt down by the ravishing woman. Her shallow breathing alarmed him. "Dard! Dard! Come down! Rose is hurt!!" cried he.

Two eyes snapped open. Once the white mage drank in the features of her surroundings she shoved Neil aside. "I'm fine," Rose declared stiffly. She shivered. "Just a flesh wound. Build a fire. I'll be alright."

The warrior sneaked a glance at her, flesh wound. He gasped.

An twelve inch gash ran the length of her arm. Ribbons of flesh extended like raveled cloth. Diluted blood dripped in horrific consistency. The most repulsive, however, was the lime growth that sprouted like weeds. Her arm was more dead than alive.

His eyes met hers. Unable to clip the hitch in her voice she paused, then proceeded, "It's not as bad as it looks." As a glacier she remained secure and dignified.

"The hell it isn't. You're getting help and that's that. Dard! Get down here!"

Again their eyes met. No one needed words.

Rose was dying.

Leaves and branches being ruffled, Dard landed a yard away. He instantly swallowed the distance between them. Once he received a good look at Rose's wound his face scrunched in disgust. Instead of inquiring he set to task cultivating a fire. As he labored the thief chattered, "The temple is not far away. Another day and we'll be there. Also, we should make camp soon because nightfall is here." A curse, on one god or another, spewed from his lips as attempted, in vain, to light a flame. "I'll get that fire going soon." For once, the amusement in Dard disappeared. It was a welcomed absence.

"See, Rose? We will make a fire and you'll be well," he explained with hopeful fervor.

"Neil, I've been poisoned. Without a cure I'll die."

He refused to surrender his blade. "You're the healer. You tell us what to do and we'll do it."

By now her flesh seemed that of a corpse, devoid of blood and chill. She shut her eyes. In that mere admittance of weakness Neil knew Rose was seriously ill. Gingerly, he sheathed her in his cape and then wrapped two arms around her fragile body. Each breath, from the sound of the rattling and wheezing, must have been torture.

"Rose," he murmured as though to a child, "Tell us the cure. Come on, Rose."

Sound that could scarcely be denoted words came from pallid lips, "H...he..he-rb...P...po...po-tion..."

Neil didn't even need to tell Dard. The rarely-astute treasure hunter was already a step ahead, grabbing the healer's fallen pack and opening it. Pouring through the torches, rations, ropes, attire, and additional necessities he located the canteen and then proceeded to search for the mentioned herb.

"Hurry, Dard, she's getting weaker." Each moment lost brought the beloved mage closer to her death.

He glanced up, irritated. "I'm hurrying, I'm hurrying. But, if it's not here then–I found it!"

Jubilation positively flooded the warrior. Faintly shaking Rose he whispered even more muffled, "Now, Rose, what do we do? Come on, Rose, what do we do?"

But Rose was too lifeless to acknowledge the address. She was nearer to another voice–the one that all must answer at the end of one's dance on this plane of existence. Death.

"Oh, dear god, she's dying!" His insides warped like a dishrag. "We've got to do something!"

And then he remembered. The First Life techniques clearly stated that a healing herb must be brought to boiling then mixed with the pure potion. The procedures did not always guarantee salvation but it did offer hope. Hope, right now, was a precious commodity.

"Boil it!" he commanded the bewildered thief. After a moments confusing he understood. Soon a rusted pot lay on the flat stones incasing the non- existing flame. Neil handed him water from a flask and it filled the pot. Again, the pickpocket endeavored to bring life to a blaze but his effort proved as fruitful as before.

Neil gave him a questioning eyebrow. But all Dard could do was sadly shake his head. Rose was doomed.

Never say never.

Deliverance came in the form of a tiny fireball, not quite as big as a man's fist but larger than a finger. Crimson, orange, amber all ignited the arranged branches. Slowly it blossomed, not unlike their hope, but blossom it did. Dard had to curl back lest his arm became consumed in flame.

It was Ace's contribution.

There stood a muddy little mage, robes in clutter, hat eclipsing his sight and smoldering from apparent mishaps. And a more welcomed sight Neil never saw. "Thank you, Ace! You're a godsend. Dard, boil that water and mix that damned leaf." The treasure hunter didn't need to be told twice, merging the herb with a seething flow of liquid. Shortly, a foul-smelling brew invaded their noses and lifted their hearts.

Clutching it firmly, afraid of even the minuscule drop, Neil poured the life-giving elixir into Rose. Tense moments passed as they awaited the outcome. The warrior gritted his teeth in anxiety, Dard whistled uneasy, and even Ace seemed unnaturally silent.

But there wasn't any silence once the answer was evident. Rose had been saved. Her cheeks flushed with newfound verve, her lips reddened, her eyes opened warily. Even the wound, once festering, returned to its native color. Life had returned to Rose. She sputtered, "...Thanks...For a minute there...well, I thought I was finished..."

"Finished?" Neil stole a glance at their companions, smiles abundant. "We've just only begun."

It was a good day to be a light warrior.

Dinner, consisting of stale bread and smoked roast, furnished their ravenous bellies. They prepared camp by unfolding the blankets and cloaks in a systematic formation. Ace plopped down like a fallen bookcase and Dard reposed on his extended cloak. Rose, poking the fire to life, added fuel then gazed at Neil. When she spoke firelight shined in her eyes from without and within. "I don't know how to say this but thanks."

"You just did."

She made a face. "I mean...well...I haven't been very friendly I know and..."

"That's ok."

Glancing down at the leaping flames. Her voice was hush, and if Neil wasn't too presumptuous, even a tad embarrassed. "I felt...well, comforted when you held me..." Not a moment more proceeded before he threw his strong arms around her. He smiled reassuringly. Rose was finally opening up.

"Thanks," she mumbled.

The pastel blue of afternoon surrendered to the velvety ebony of evening. From the report that Dard had presented earlier that day the Temple of Fiends, Garland's deadly domain, remained a day's traveling. Neil became more than hopeful. Confidence surged in him. With Dard assessing the situation seriously, Rose offering some inner insight, and Ace finally serving some purpose, the warrior pondered if it were not unreasonable to assume that they might successfully defeat Garland unhindered.

Needless to say, he was wrong.

The next few minutes progressed so swiftly he wouldn't swear under a judge's eye that he knew what the hell was going on. Ace suddenly shrieked, utterly dreadful, and ran in a redundant circle. Dard leapt to his feet, blades barred with unshed, murderous blood. Beasts, casting innumerable shadows, filled the campsite. Rose pulled herself from the fighter's arms and gripped her virulent mallet. A cry of alarm came from the treasure hunter as he witnessed one of the monsters pursuing his terrified brother. Neil stood, drawing his own weapon, a massive broad sword, and menaced it in front of the dominant beast.

That dominant beast was an ogre. And an ugly one at that. Of course, all ogres were repulsive but this was so hideous it offered new meaning to the saying 'something only a mother could love.' Greasy strings of unkempt hair draped over a pudgy face. His cruel eyes were far-placed in his sockets as two fangs protruded from floppy lips. A lice-ridden wool jerkin slung over one shoulder while he hefted a spike club on the other.

"I, Muddog...you enemies..." His words came in a tedious, poorly enunciated fashion. Brutally speaking, the only thing that surpassed his appearance and attitude in awfulness was his smell. Neil was sure to keep downwind of the monster.

Muddog the ogre did not challenge the light warriors alone. Forming a semi- circle around him were four wolves and a pair of imps (including the one still chasing Ace). The canines exhibited an array of savage teeth and bristled their manes which made them appear that much larger. The imps produced rusted daggers, crude but ever sharp, while blinking beady eyes and shifting in their dun-colored tunics. They awaited Muddog's command, eager for blood.

Meanwhile Ace fell to the ground and immediately curved into a ball. Losing interest, his attacker, the imp, returned to his allies. Dard snarled at the monsters for distressing his brother. "Take that smelly face of yours and run mudface before I make you even uglier–if that's even possible!"

Goodbye sense, Neil sighed, hello battle.

Dard, the quickest, had the first swipe. It almost became his last as his duo blades failed to penetrate Muddog's club. As he stumbled to the grass, the result of his fruitless sideways swing, the ogre, in a rare display of speed for an ogre, slammed his wooden terror down. The thief salvaged life and limb by rotating evasively. But he sustained enough of the blow to be seriously dazed.

Now the warrior instantly commenced retaliation. Bending his knees, he launched himself at Muddog's head. Dying flame shadows danced along the sword, as his two-foot long blade hit home in flesh. It penetrated halfway to the hilt, of gold-and-jewel, extracting green blood. Neil lost his hold on the blade and landed, heavily. His victory was short-lived, though, because his foe yanked the sword and flung it aside.

The other light warriors joined the fray. Rose came up, a mass of white rage, calling on the name of some long-forgotten god. Though cautious to the border of cowardice, Ace, too, added to the carnage. A wolf fell to his awry fire but the blaze nearly torched Neil as well. Another wolf was dispatched; this time beneath the hammering of a white mage's mallet.

Nor was Dard out of the game. Like a ribbon of lightning, he tore into a pair of wolves, disemboweling them each with a blade. They perished promptly. Chances were he would have confronted Neil's imp or maybe made another assault attempt on the ogre when sudden sleepiness seized him.

"...what...what–what the..." Before he could even complete the sentence he slumped, sagged, and hit the ground slumbering. Neil determined the culprit–Ace! Ace glanced at Dard, then at Neil, back at the thief, then at Neil. Then he shrugged and proceeded to evade his again pursuing imp. It didn't take long for Neil to figure it out. Another spell gone askew. Some much for usefulness either, he thought.

Reclaiming his sword, he thrust his weapon into the rib of his attacking imp. So near to the fire his blade forced the unfortunate foe into the blaze. Organs spilled out, gruesome to be sure, and the monster's death shriek accompanied it to its flaming death.

"In the name of Garland!" That cry alerted Neil to the towering ogre behind him. He dodged but the fighter was not quite fast enough. His forearm suffered a crushing blast, shattering bone, and tearing a scream from him. Collapsing to the ground in a blaze of not-so-glory, the warrior prepared for that voice he had thought Rose was bound for.

But death did not come. The blow itself didn't come. Glancing up, Neil watched as Rose took some heat of his trail. Her mallet smacked into Muddog's knee. Howling, he retreated farther away contemplating an escape. Rose helped Neil to his feet. A murmur of thanks came to his lips but she heeded him not, instead she turned to witness Dard chase after the fleeing ogre. He didn't get far. Dicing and slicing, organs and blood scattering, the treasure hunter made short work of Muddog the ogre.

"Easy as cutting bread! Ha, ha!" Dard's voice was laced with good humor and conviction.

Finally, Neil was forced to slay the imp that yet hunted Ace. The black mage kept running in circles but his opponent couldn't get a decent strike in to finish him off. Once the imp lay still Ace halted and fell down like the dead. When Neil checked his heartbeat, however, the mage was fine.

"Good fight," Dard proclaimed, pleased. "Let's hope there's more–"

"NO!!" cried Rose and Neil simultaneously.

The thief looked indignant. "Okay, okay! Sheesh! Can't take a joke, can you?"

Neil didn't reply.

Later that night, the quartet mended the bedraggled camp, relit the fading fire, and set up for slumber. Rose refused to speak more than a few words to Neil after she healed him, though for the life of him he could not comprehend why. Ace remained inert, not budging since he fell asleep. Dard rested comfortably and soon nodded off as well. Everything was quiet.

In the silence came thought.

In the thought came fear.

Dard was NOT going to take anything seriously.

Rose was NOT going to give of herself.

Ace was NOT going to prove very useful.

Save the world.

Never.

Part III

Never. Not in a thousand years.

He had never thought that they would make it this far.

But they did...

Neil wasn't a very good judge of things, apparently. Nor could he be happier for being so awful at something. Before this moment, hope had seemed like the sun in the skies above–unattainable. But time and time again, the warrior's predictions were proven highly erroneous. At last, the sun brushed his fingertips; he believed in hope.

Rose, clad in that frayed ivory cloak, stood to his left. Her pale lips expelled white mist as duo emerald eyes gleamed in exhilaration. Yet, those eyes appraised their destination with coolness as benefiting her demeanor. At his right Dard couldn't remain still. His face twitched restlessly in the same excitement; but, then, the thief was always excited. Two hands gripped twin katanas while his brown eyes darted from one end of their target to the other. As for Ace, well...he was nowhere to be seen. Figures.

Behind them, struggle, pain, hardship...doubt.

Before them, victory.

"It's beautiful...in a kinda horrible, morbid way." At first, Neil didn't know who spoke and he tilted his head. The warrior needn't have bothered. Who else but the flamboyant Dard would say such a thing?

Indeed, the thief smiled at his own comment. Rose looked mildly annoyed, as usual. But Neil observed the aforementioned topic: The Temple of Fiends.

Huge spires climbed to the skies, blocking out the sun in pure defiance. It was the white of a skull; actually resembling such an abomination in design with a large mouth for a portal and two windows for sockets. Battlements glistened with shadows created by sickly ivory towers. Here and there, unknown terrors skittered. Just like the legend promised...

"Evil..." breathed Rose.

Neil adamantly agreed, his eyes dark with preoccupied thoughts of battle. "In every sense of the word. I hope we can discuss the matter of Princess Sara's kidnapping with Garland in a decent manner."

A snort from Dard. "Dream on. If I had a beautiful lass at my pad, I'd never let her go."

Such a declaration from the pickpocket inspired a black glare from Rose. She stepped past Neil. The warrior didn't know what she had in mind but he'd rather not guess. Her mallet was extraordinarily formidable. Attaining a visual of the healer knocking Dard senseless, Neil strode forward to intervene as dutiful for his station as leader.

A frightful shriek sounded.

The mess was unceremoniously shattered when a blue-cloaked something slammed into the engaged three. All went down in a heap. Arms flailed in abandon and apparel intertwined with that of other light warriors. A cry, Rose. A shriek, Dard. A squeal, Ace. A sigh, Neil.

Cold laughter halted four heartbeats. Theirs.

It was Garland.

Perched in a socket, the Princess' abductor smiled, devoid of true warmth. His own form, shadowed though it was, emulated his domain. A lengthily dark lavender cloak spilled down his shoulders over a skeletal body. It was as if blood, muscle, and skin had been ripped off and now his animated build contained mere bone. He gestured, index finger, for them to enter.

"A trap!" hissed Rose, rarely flushed.

"Duh!" Dard added, his arms flung out in support of his belief.

The warrior observed his band. He ran a hand nervously through his blood- imitating hair. "Yes, it's a trap. But, what choice do we have? We're the light warriors. Come on. We can do this." So saying, he made his way to the dark domain. He had tried to force confidence in his words; a conviction he did not feel. True, they had surpassed obstacles he had believed insurmountable, however, this would be the real test. Garland had defeated all other 'light warriors' thus far. What convinced him they would be any different?

Neil, upon passing the temple's threshold, waited until for Dard to summon Ace from whatever hole he'd fallen in. Cold as ice, Rose stood by him. Neil then asked, puzzled, "Why is he called Garland?"

Before the cleric could answer, Dard had. "Dunno. Maybe he's fit to be hung." He mimicked a rope circling his own neck and dragging the pickpocket upwards. Ace finally lifted himself up and squealed at the sight. Again, Rose was not amused. She proceeded to narrate Garland's history, saying that knowing your enemy is almost as good as preemptive advantage.

"No one knows whose Garland's parents are. He just appeared a number of years ago, a child discovered in a burning village. Something was not right with him. People thought him possessed or insane. But the boy had an aptitude and taste for combat. He was so helpful in the war against the Elves that they adorned him with all the trappings of a general. General Garland they named; the warrior's warrior of ultimate decoration.

Rose kept up the legend of Garland even after they'd entered the temple. It soothed the edge off their fear. Nor did Neil fret that it would alert their opponent of their presence–Garland knew already. Bats banked at them, soaring out of harm's way in the nick of time. Shadows continued to hover like reflections of their own dread.

"But those that claimed he was not right in the head might have been prophets themselves. When the war with the Elves ended, Garland actually became furious. With peace there was no outlet for his lust for blood. He attempted to petition the Coneria King to continue the struggle. When the king refused, Garland started an usurping of the throne but was defeated and cast out. Here he resides, spreading his evil, the great General Garland."

There could have been no better announcement of the demon. As Neil opened the door and strode in, Garland rose from his obsidian throne, black eyes gleaming emptily. Both emaciated hands held his spear before him. The cloak rippled from non-existing wind. A gold crown on his head fitted over two horns. Some distance behind, chained to two statues, was Princess Sara. Her gold hair hung in disarray while her expression hung in despair. Garland acknowledged Neil's entry with lips parted in a vacant smile.

Dard followed him in, nonchalant dripping from his eyes. After the thief, 'the glacier' came with all the defiance and indifference of her class. Ace, teeth chattering nosily, reluctantly trailed behind. Now for negotiations, Neil mentioned to himself.

"Ahem. Mr. Garland, may we return the Princess Sara to her father? She is sorely missed by her family. If you were to comply we'd leave immediately."

"No one touches MY princess!"

This was going to be harder than Neil thought.

Dard, quick as thought, sauntered forward into Garland's face. Though Neil called him back it was fruitless. Dard's words made the warrior wince. "Now, don't be getting smart with us, Wreath. We're the light warriors!"

"Light warriors!!!" shrieked Garland. Even Dard was taken aback by the ferocity of the tone and the blaze in the soulless eyes. He made hasty his retreat. Meanwhile, Ace fell to the floor–fainted from fear, Neil guessed. Rose remained with her silent, cool vigil.

"You impertinent fools! I, Garland, will knock you all down!" He hurled a projectile that Ace managed, somehow, to get nailed with. Although this was beyond the fighter's belief, the mage leapt up, ran into the wall, and promptly collapsed again.

Either unaware or not caring of his brother's plight, Dard rolled his eyes and mimicked the words and pitch impeccably. "You impertinent fools! I, Garland, will knock you all down!...Gee. Great pick up lines, buddy."

"Grr," was the response.

Dard waved a hand over his nose. "And even greater breath. Wahoo-wee!"

"Dard!" snapped Rose. A sigh came from the fighter as he saw Garland become livid from rage. The shadows seemed to become more prominent. Still, Neil tried compromise but when the purple-capped form swooped down in attack, he realized that negotiation was just not in the general's vocabulary. Figures.

So they did battle.

Eye to eye, Dard and Neil simultaneously leapt in the air. The thief's twin blades joined the warrior's one sword in a clash against their foe. It did little in the way of damage because Garland swung up his spear and caught both in mid-air. They dangled for one horrific moment before being hurled to the ground, HARD.

Both crashed into Ace's yet-still form. They tried to untangle themselves but only served to further enmesh their weapons and attire. Rose cast a spell, one of armor over herself, a stark marble against the shadows of this place. The incantation came just in time, too. Garland's propelled spear failed to kill her but it still inflicted considerable harm.

Her scream had a parallel heartbeat to Neil's. Both tore through the stench of evil. White cloak fluttered as she crumpled to the tiles. He managed to the escape the prison of living limbs and dart over to her side. She did not move at his touch. Tears stung his eyes.

Dard continued the assault. No longer did negligence run over his expression. His ally was down and maybe dying. Instead, his eyes radiated deadly fury. He rushed Garland from the side, hoping to catch him unaware. But the general anticipated the move and slammed his spear into Dard's side. Crimson came the tide of his life. Had not the thief been so nimble his short life-candle would been snuffed out in that instant. He escaped but sustained serious injuries.

Neil knew he could not guard Rose. He alone was left to challenge the evil beast. Like the shadows of this foul place, the warrior got to his feet, brandishing his sword. A hundred shadows flickered over the blade. He dashed in for the kill. And came up empty.

Garland had ducked.

But Neil had guessed his move, changed stride, and slammed the hilt all the way in.

A screech bent the air visibly. Garland's death cry. Or so Neil had supposed. In a desperate effort to disable his opponent, the general shouted a hold enchantment. Snared as if it were a bear trap, the warrior fought but to no avail. He could only watch helplessly as Garland laughed coolly, wipe aside green blood, and prepare a spell to slay them all.

At that moment, the sun vanished...and, with it, all hope.

But, never say never.

From his huddled position on the tiled floor, Ace stood. His black beady eyes diagnosed the situation. The azure cloak fluttered with newly discovered power. Vibrancy illuminated his shape, so prominent none could see him at the center. Someone was hurting his friends. Ace could not allow that.

"Die," he murmured, a finger in Garland's direction.

There was no hideous death scream or blood pouring in gruesome waves. Nonetheless, Garland promptly fell. All signs of life vanished from his evil eyes immediately. The bats scattered. Sara's bonds broke away. Neil was released. Even the coolness and darkness receded in amazing efficiency as if death of Garland was theirs as well.

Neil didn't know who to go to first but he needn't have bothered. Both Rose and Dard stood on their own, having recovered from some mysterious force. A favorable after-effect of the black mage's spell, he realized. Wonder and disbelief mirrored in all eyes. Those eyes turned to Ace.

"Did..." Dard whispered.

"...he..." Rose continued.

"...speak?" Neil finished.

"Nah," Dard suddenly spoke, flipping his hand in dismissal. "We're all just confused. The battle and all. He didn't speak–he's mute, after all." No one disputed the statement. Indeed, Ace remained a silent, dull-appearing creature. Just confused, right, Neil agreed wordlessly.

All Ace did was shrug. Dard did likewise and gestured for the frightened princess Sara to come over. He placed a fatherly arm over shoulder. Or was it fatherly? Neil didn't know...he didn't bother to examine it with such harshness. The thief had battled valiantly. It was more than Neil had ever given him credit for.

Rose, too, seemed less unreasonable. She thrust her head against the fighter's chest, muttering, "I was so scared, Neil." His heart warming, Neil smiled down at her and added that he was, too. Her eyes glittered; so did his. The thawing of 'the glacier'.

It was a good day to be light warrior.

Rose was finally melting to others.

Dard showed true strength of character.

And Ace had proved his self-worth.

Neil stopped. Where exactly HAD the mage disappeared to? He'd been here a second ago. As he thought that, and beamed, immensely proud of the young apprentice's courage and deed, a cascade of light washed over cleric, thief, princess, and fighter. They vanished into thin air.

Outside of the Temple of the Fiends, Ace waited for his friends. The spell he'd cast should have whisked them by the black mage's side already. He stomped his ebony boot in impatience. Then he realized he'd miscast one of the sentences.

"Oops," grunted Ace. His eyes darted this way and that in an unconvincing manner of innocence. Shrugging yet again, the little apprentice wove his arms and repeated the spell WITH the miscast sentence. Like a waterfall's rush, it enveloped him. Wherever he'd sent his friends, Ace would go.

THEY were convinced their adventure was over.

Ace disappeared.

"Never say never," were the last words spoken.