Fall into Ecstasy

Chapter 15

Finally, the long awaited chapter arrives...I'm not dead yet!

Now this was familiar…

My ears were whistling, or was it the wind that was whistling by my ears? Everything was blurred, the sounds, the colors. I flailed my hands, one holding the staff, the other holding air, and tried to find some semblance of upright before I was in the water.

Then it was all of a sudden there. The water shattered like glass and hurt almost as much, like tiny pin pricks of ice cold pain. My head hadn't quit spinning when the blackened depths rose up to greet me and my body unfurled slowly as the numbness set in.

Magic warmed my fingertips, flowing from the staff into my core to keep the cold at bay. I kicked upwards, eyes on a faint glimmer of light above, and gritted my teeth determinedly against the longing burn for air.

An undercurrent twisted around my ankles, tugging at my feet as I reached for the surface. The monstrosity was behind me, waiting. He waited until I was a hair's breadth from the air above to latch onto my ankle and reel me back in.

It was everything I could do not to gasp and take in a mouth full of water.

I swung around, the motion sluggish as I forced the water aside, but fury fueled my hands and I jabbed the offending appendage with the head of the staff. There was a flash of bright light, followed by a muffled popping sound, and the appendage shriveled up like a raisin. I shot free towards the surface as an invisible force propelled me upwards.

Tiny droplets of moisture scattered away from me as I broke the surface. My eyes set determinedly as I took in a lung full of air, swung around on my rising pedestal of raging water, and cast another spell.

Gradually my momentum slowed and for the briefest moment, I was suspended in time and I exercised all my power to keep it there. I could see the bulbous head of the sea monster where it had surfaced below me, frozen in stasis. There was only enough time to slip a dagger into my hand and be-spell the blade. The cold touch of its hilt sent a thrill up my spine and time resumed. I was hurling back towards the water and the beast with its open maw waiting for me.

An overpowering smell of rot struck me full in the face as I landed on its oblong head. My shoes slipped across the rubber like surface of its skin and I fumbled awkwardly for balance. I threw my momentum forward, springing over its mouth towards the water and narrowly missed a swiping appendage. I twisted around, pulled back and launched the glowing white dagger at one of its two enormous orange eyes.

My head was already beneath the water when the shriek sounded, a muffled noise from above where I sank beneath the surface. I knew I must have hit it somewhere. It was in front of me, a ghastly creature all writhing tentacles and deadly suckers, but it was only from pain. It would take a much more decisive blow to finish off something as foul and evil as that.

A shiver of apprehension rippled across my skin as I stared at it, not knowing how to proceed.

It came suddenly with such speed that I had only time to dread what would happen next.

Something cinched around my middle, crushing my chest, and I gasped, squirming and kicking. My lungs filled with water and my vision blurred, blotched with dizzying black and white. The harsh effect of the cold water was even more agonizing on the inside. My staff was pinned against me and while it burned the monster's skin, the creature didn't appear to care.

My strength seemed to have evaporated. The edges of my vision were going fuzzy. I knew I must be losing consciousness, but I just couldn't think!

It was strange and eerily quiet in that cold dark place. I felt it beckoning...

A glint of steel flashed to my left and some part of my mind registered that I was now free, but I couldn't see. I closed my eyes, my limbs no longer responding to the urgent cry of my brain, "move, move now!" I was too tired to move, too tired to keep fighting a losing battle.

All I had to do was give the others time to escape.

Then I was being pulled from the water, a light above me and strong hands – blissfully strong hands – around me. I tried to cough, and vomited instead. My head throbbed painfully as I tried to sit up only to collapse numbly into my rescuer.

I coughed until my throat was raw and felt someone shaking me urgently. Basch came into sharp focus before me, one arm around my waist, the other cradling my head. I blinked, a mixture of relief and confusion welling up in my chest.

"W-what—" I croaked, unable to continue the sentence.

"Good Gods, Penelo, are you mad?" Basch demanded. "Can you stand?"

I nodded my head vaguely, not fully certain of which question I answered. He helped me to my feet, still bracing me on his left arm, and unsheathed his sword with the other hand. We were on a narrow lip of stone at the bank of the valley wall and the squid hovered at the edge of it, weary.

Weary for what?

A voice rang out from somewhere, "Cast Holy on the sword and stab the head between the eyes."

I glanced up, startled, and saw a flicker of pale ghost standing upon a protruding promontory on the valley wall, hands splayed in a magic incantation. Sedara's robes billowed in an unseen wind as she looked at me with eyes hard like granite, her grim smile already fading with the rest of her. Beside her stood Jovan, waiting.

The words of a question died in the base of my throat as the ground gave a violent lurch and I gripped Basch's arm painfully to keep from falling. My lips tightened in a thin line of determination as my attention shifted back to the squid. It was coming at us.

I inhaled deeply and reached inside for the magic again, knowing it would be there, but unsure of what it what it would do next and how much of me it would take.

"Basch," I murmured quickly, "your sword."

He nodded wordlessly and held it out to me. White light sprang from my finger tips, infusing the blade with Holy light. It flared to life in his hands, beautiful and deadly.

"The head," I said and paused for breath, looking into his eyes worriedly, "Aim for the head, between the eyes."

It was on us an instant later, pulling down stone and tree from above with its long tentacles. I dove away, shielding my head as best as I could and trying to keep an eye on Basch at the same time. He held his ground, a rock bouncing off his left shoulder and causing him to stagger, but only for a step. Then he was plunging off the ledge, cutting through the thick, rubbery appendages left and right with reckless abandon.

I scrambled towards the edge, ducking falling debris, and hunkered down to watch. Basch moved fluidly from side to side, hurtling over obstructions and carving a steady path to the target. It was as if he could fly – he never even touched the water. The squid fought furiously, a scream of rage curdling the blood of all who heard it, but though the advantage should have been his, Basch was always a second faster.

He was almost there now, a trail of blood and mangled parts in his wake as he leapt above the creature's gaping maw. It was a grisly, yet glorious sight to see. Blood dripped in rivulets from the sword as its blade arched downwards aimed for the creatures head.

A ghostly touch brushed my skin and breath tickled my ear as someone spoke, "Holy."

The words of magic were already springing to my lips and the spell unleashed as the blade of Basch's sword plunged into the flesh between the sea monster's eyes. A beam of white light burst forth from above with a deafening crack, lancing through the water and the best that ruled it in a blinding display of destruction.

I watched in morbid fascination as brackish blood clouded the waters and the beast's hulking form sank out of sight. There was a resounding crack then and the valley gave a dying shudder. My heart seized in my chest and I stared upwards, frozen in horror as the ceiling began to collapse.

Then I felt myself being dragged into the water as giant boulders descended upon the valley bottom, crushing all in their path.

A vice like grip held my wrist firm, dragging me downwards, and for a moment I feared the worst had happened and the squid was taking me with it. There was a pale light in front of me though, the only thing visible as the pressure got heavier and the darkness more profound, and in it was the vague outline of a woman.

My throat was tightening with need for air, and having already nearly drowned once, I was in no condition to take another mouthful of water. Something gave me endurance though, beyond that which was normal.

I no longer knew up from down or how far we had traveled, for it was too swift and dark for me to tell. I knew that if I had to hold on much longer, I wouldn't make it.

"Hold on." Sedara's voice echoed in my mind. "The current is swift here. I will let you go and let it carry you. Once it stops and the water is calm, swim for the surface."

The turbulent water was already dragging me away before she finished.

"They are safe." Her voice was rapidly fading, "Thank you."

My head was spinning, much like my body, out of control. Sometime during the maelstrom I'd lost my staff. I kept my eyes shut for fear of what I would see, or not see in this dark place. I would most likely feel sick if I opened them.

The current abruptly ended in calm, stagnant water. My eyes opened with a start and I was kicking upward with all of my strength as soon as I could. I tried not to think about needing air or that Basch was probably in the same predicament that I was only for him it was so much worse.

Too much swimming…he'd never make it.

I just kept reaching and then I felt my skin bristle as cold air kissed my finger tips. My head broke the surface with a resounding gasp as sweet air filled my lungs. It was dreadfully cold and black as a moonless, starless night, but I could breathe and that's what mattered.

Somewhere to my left water fell in a steady drip against solid ground. I turned towards the sound and started swimming. When my feet at last touched bottom I allowed myself to feel slightly relieved. I slogged forward, the water gradually getting shallower, and fell to my knees to crawl the last few feet, before collapsing onto cool, hard stone ground.

Then there was silence; dark, deafening silence. I waited, listening, straining to hear someone, but there was no sound but the constant drip, drip of some cavern trickle. I was too tired to feel anything.. Too tired…my eyes closed and my mind began to drift.

Slosh…slosh. Something was crawling up along the cavern shore several yards to my right. I bolted upright to a sitting position, fearful that my ears deceived me, but hoping against hope that they were not.

A series of coughs broke the silence, followed by a painful grown, and a body sagging against the stone.

"Basch?" I called out tentatively.

The acknowledgment came in an unintelligible groan of pain and exhaustion mashed together. I scrambled so fast to my feet that I stubbed my foot on a rock in the process and almost fell. I cursed, hopped awkwardly on one foot, then went back to crawling across the floor until I bumped into a solid body.

I swallowed hard, unsure of what to do, until the relief and joy were so much to bear that I threw my arms around him and said to hell with what's proper. A muffled grunt of surprise vibrated from the base of his chest as my weight fell on top of him, which escalated into a brief coughing fit. I started to pull away when his hand caught my shirt and tugged me back down beside him.

For a while we just laid there, Basch trying to catch his breath, and me just hanging out. I grabbed his hand and squeezed it.

"I thought you were dead." I stated finally.

"As did I." Came a raspy reply."If not for Jovan I undoubtedly would be."

Basch pulled himself to a sitting position and I followed. We were barely inches apart and I could see nothing of his face, but the firmness of his glare was palpable to the skin. I shivered involuntarily, biting my lip in anticipation of a sound chastisement.

"You're a bloody fool." He swore and he must have shaken his head because I felt beads of moisture strike my face.

My brow deepened pensively, "I had a plan you know." I maintained. "And it worked."

"After a fashion," Basch relented reluctantly and sighed.

I frowned, wishing rather fervently that I could see him, or anything for that matter. This darkness was somewhat discombobulating.

He cleared his throat after a moment and said, "I believe that is yours."

My eyes brightened in recognition as the familiar polished surface of Sedara's staff was pressed into my hand. "But…how did you…?"

"I do not know." Basch answered, "but it saved my life."

Brow furrowing, I tried to examine it through the darkness, to no avail, "I wonder…" I murmured thoughtfully and touched the head piece with a clear thought. It sprang to life, illuminating the surrounding area in a haze of golden light.

Basch was watching me intently. I grinned cheekily, "Well, at least we're still alive!"

He grunted, "In a manner, yes."

I scoffed lightly and hopped up off the ground, "Oh come on – it's not that bad." I held my hand out to him. "Just like old times, right?"

He arched a delicate brow at that before slowly accepting my hand and getting to his feet. "We are buried some ungodly distance below the surface with no certainty of getting out, and it is not that bad?"

"Rubbish." I insisted and perused through what was left of my sopping wet provisions. Well, I had a jar of dragon root that wasn't wet yet, and a few potions, ethers, but all of the food was a little less palatable than before. "This has to be the way Sedara's son escaped all those years ago so it must lead back to the surface."

Basch was really looking strangely at me now. So much so that I couldn't concentrate on what I was doing and had to stop.

"What?" I asked, and my hands fidgeted at my sides.

"Nothing at all," He replied, lifting his hands in mock surrender. "Only, you seem rather jubilant under the present circumstances."

I tilted my head slightly to one side, "Well of course." I said and smiled, "You're with me."

He averted his gaze as the color returned to his face and he idly scratched the back of his neck. There was a return smile playing at his lips when he looked back at me and a sudden spark of warmth in his eyes that launched butterflies in my stomach.

"Grant it, that wasn't part of the plan, but..." I mumbled distractedly as I tended to the blade wound in my leg. "I mean, what about Larsa?"

Basch gave a derisive 'harrumph' at that, his mouth tightening in a faint scowl. "My Lord can take care of himself."

I regarded him caustically, "Are you insinuating that I can't?"

There was a pivotal pause and then a careful, "No," followed by, "but I was not about to allow you throw your life away."

"I wasn't." I assured him seriously and added with a little less conviction, "I had everything under control."

"Did you now…" Basch queried dubiously and came to hover behind my left shoulder, his breath tickling the back of my neck.

My nerves tingled and I stiffened, biting my tongue from whirling around and doing something highly inappropriate when I was supposed to be binding my leg.

"You're doing that on purpose." I accused and hissed as the bandaged tightened.

"I know not what you're talking about," He replied, and it was clear by his tone that he knew exactly what I was talking about.

"Mmmhmm," I hummed, trying to find the happy medium between too tight and too loose. The bandage had slipped down too far and I had to undo it. I released a harsh breath of frustration through my nose. Or maybe it was just that he insisted on standing behind me like that and I was unable to focus properly.

Whatever it was, it was starting to get on my nerves.

Basch came around and knelt in front of me, "Let me do it." He said and took the bandage from me without waiting for a response.

I sucked in sharply at the ticklish brush of his knuckles against the inside of my thigh, "I'm fully capable of tying a bandage." I reminded him with a squeak.

"I know." He said and smiled briefly up at me. "But, forgive me, you seem to have been having some difficulty."

I crossed my arms, murmuring offhand, "I wonder why…"

A moment later it was finished and he stood up, "There you are."

I frowned deeply and poked him accusingly in the chest, "You've got a lot of nerve pulling a stunt like that." I said and, taking him by the collar, kissed him firmly on the mouth.

Now it was supposed to end fairly quickly. After all, I fully intended to get back to business after satisfying my immediate primal urges, but then his arms were firmly wrapped around my waist and the whole thing just sort of escalated from there. Well, it was nice to know that I was right anyway.

Reality whirled back to me in the form of something very hard and cold jabbing me in stomach. I winced, pulled back, and moved the offending object aside; it was the hilt of his sword.

"My apologies." Basch blushed.

I lifted my chin slightly and stooped to pick up my staff where it had been dropped somewhere in the midst of what had just transpired. I straightened and turned away, "Well, now that we've come to an understanding, I think we should think about getting out of here."

"We've come to an understanding?" He asked.

"Oh I think we have." I replied suggestively. "Don't tell me you can't figure out what that meant. You're starting to sound as dense as Vaan."

"I know what that meant," Basch said as he fell into step beside me. "It is the 'Why' that I cannot grasp."

"Would it help if I stated plainly that whatever you might think about it, I'm not letting anyone else have you?" I asked and smiled innocently.

His mouth twitched, "Is that a threat?"

"Do you feel threatened?"

"Only by certain physical inclinations that would rob me temporarily of my sanity if I were to give in to them at this moment in time." He returned cordially. "Which I will not…yet."

My mind was currently splitting off in two diametrically opposed directions. One was that of our current course, which seemed to be a wall of rock, and the other…well, that was explicit in nature and best left for another time. I cleared my throat and tried to speak without stuttering, "There should be a passage somewhere around here."

Basch made a noncommittal sound in the back of his throat.

"As much as I'd like to continue our conversation," I stated primly and it was difficult to keep a straight face, "Someone has to take control of the situation and as it appears that I'm the only adult present—"

At which point Basch burst out laughing.

I poked him in the ribs, "Quiet, I'm trying to talk here," but his laughter was infections and then he was hoisting me up over his shoulder and I couldn't find my train of thought for all my helpless giggling.

"Hey!" I cried to no avail. His grip was firm and his punishment merciless. At least he had stopped laughing and had regulated it to a mere smirk.

"I have found your passage, my lady." He said and continued walking.

I waited, but nothing happened, save for the constant rhythm of his boots across the ground. I squirmed against his shoulder, "You can put me down now," I said.

"Only if you are suitably chastised." Basch responded.

"I don't know what you're talking about — ouch!" I yelped as something pinched the back of my thigh, "Stop that!"

He continued obliviously, "You still haven't answered my question."

"Oh no," I said and settled comfortably, trying to draw patterns on his back. It wasn't quite as nonchalant as I would've liked, what with the blood rushing to my head, "I think I'll just stay here and see how long it takes for you collapse from carrying me."

"You wound me."

"Alright." I drawled. "You're allowed to behave like a child once in a while – I apologize."

I found myself rather abruptly being set back on the ground and on the receiving end of a very stern scowl. "That is not what I meant." The corner of his mouth quirked to one side and he gazed down at me expectantly.

"How about…" I took a step towards him, rising up on tip toes, and placed my hands on either side of his face. Then I looked him right in the eyes and said, "I love you." My lips split in a grin, "Or do have I have to elaborate further?"

He answered with a sly smile. "We can elaborate later."

There was an interesting analogy that could've gone with that and the state of blush I found myself in, but it was best left unsaid. I pivoted away and was starting to head off to the passage when a hand caught me by the waist.

"Penelo," Basch said slowly,

"Look, I know you think I'm too young, or some such nonsense, but…."

"I love you too."

I smiled and gave his hand a comforting pat, "Well yeah, that's what I've been trying to tell you this whole time."

That received an inarticulate grunt, followed by, "Have you?"

"Well you give me reason to wonder." I maintained lightly. "If you recall a certain knight's strikingly odd behavior back in Dalmasca."

"I take your point." Basch returned with a sigh. "And I'll apologize again, if it's required, but maybe we should think of getting out of here first."

"That was what I was getting at..."

Several hours later…

"Sedara didn't happen to mention how long this would take, did she?" Basch asked conversationally.

"Well, when you consider how far down we are, you have to assume it's going to be a while before we get back."

Basch answered with a despondent hmmm.

It was dark, cold, and hopelessly boring in this place. At least there was no varying off course. There were no other routes to take but the one in front of us, so it was simply a matter of plodding onwards and playing "I'm thinking of…" until we were making up things that didn't even exist.

"I'm thinking of something yellow."

"The sun." Basch answered.

"How did you ever guess?" I wondered sarcastically. "I'll probably burn to a crisp it's been so long since I've felt real heat."

We hiked the equivalent of what felt like a day, rested, hiked another day, rested, and another day. Our food was basically run out and we'd consumed the last of the dragon root, simply because there was no other sustenance around. Wherever we were now, it didn't grow here and there was nothing alive, not even fiends.

It was too deep in the ground for them.

On day four, or what we assumed was day four, something changed. There was light in the tunnel ahead of us; iridescent blue light. It was the most welcoming sight I'd seen in days.

"I wonder what that is." I murmured and quickened pace.

Basch was right behind me, his hand on the hilt of his sword.

The passage made a turn where the light was coming from and opened into a vast corridor. There were magic torches lit here, which was the source of the light we'd seen from afar, and they were leading into what appeared to be a cavern of some sort. As we drew closer, the cavern in question took on the shape of a full blown palace.

My mouth fell open, "Gods above."

"Gods below," Basch corrected breathlessly, "I think we've found them, or what once was their home."

It did have that distinct feeling about it, just like in the Library back in Jakarda. There was something ethereal in this place. From the moment I set foot into the light I had no doubt that it was holy.

A deserted holy place, but holy nonetheless.

The palace was made of blue crystal and white marble. Carved spires rose up towards the endless dark above and sparkled in the magic lights that framed the walls. There were statues of various magical beasts that I'd never seen positioned in the courtyard, six on either side of the entrance steps.

My staff began to vibrate as we came closer.

Basch stopped. "The 12 demons possessed by the Zodiac stones." He said. "This must be their likeness."

I released a breath and took a step closer to one. Each was unique in shape. There was little uniform about them as a whole, but they represented something. I shivered.

"Why do you suppose they're here?" I asked.

"You would have to ask the Gods that, I'm afraid." He replied. "This was their doing."

I brooded silently for a moment before continuing on. A more pressing matter was the lead emptiness in my stomach that was causing me no end of grief. Finding such a place was not very comforting in that no one had ever heard of it, therefore it wasn't easy to find, so that could only mean that we were still far from home.

I frowned and wondered why a God should need a palace on Ivalice. It seemed so far beneath a deity. Maybe it was meant to be a shrine?

We climbed the front steps and immerged into the entrance hall. There were many doors branching off it and two massive staircases that curled around from above down to the first floor. I investigated one door and found it to be enchanted. Neither of us was eager to disrupt the magic of this place so we left it alone.

There was another set of doors at the far end of the chamber however. Those were not enchanted. I tested them cautiously and one swung inward. The room beyond was in the likeness of an audience chamber, only there were not thrones, but pedestals.

Each pedestal stood for a God.

Magic was strong here, almost physical in its heaviness. I knelt on the ground without thinking, to pay homage to the Gods. Basch did the same.

It would not do to ignore them in a sacred place, for it was only by their grace that we still stood.

We skirted around the pedestals towards the door opposite the one we'd come from. It opened easily and we entered a short hall leading to an anti-chamber. Another door waited at the end of it, and it too was not enchanted, so we went in.

The room was large and circular, like the temple in Jakarda, but unlike it, this one was crammed full of valuables. There were chests spilling gems stones and gold, rare weapons and scrolls that were probably worth more than Balthier's precious Strahl. Full sets of armor, enchanted helms, and precious jewels imbedded in silver, mythril, and every kind of metal imaginable glittering from one side to the other.

And in the middle there sat a portal.

My heart skipped a beat.

A noise off to my right drew my attention away. Basch was picking his way through the allotment of treasures towards a sword imbedded in stone. He gave it a once over, placed his hand on the hilt, and pulled it out effortlessly.

I stared in amazement. What was he doing?

Basch seemed to catch my train of thought and cleared his throat, "Something moved my hand." He murmured as he gazed down the blade.

Had it been anyone but Basch I might have laughed, but I did not. He was serious and I would not dispute it. If the Gods were here and they wanted him to take it, then there was no declining.

"There's a portal." I indicated with my hand. "Maybe a way out."

Basch nodded, replacing his old sword into the slab of stone, and carefully made his way back to me. "Let us find out where it goes then." He said and took my hand.

Magic swirled around us in blue-green colors and I was filled with a sensation of weightlessness. My stomach leapt in my throat for a moment, and then we were back on solid ground.

Two things happened. One, my knees buckled from the effect of the portal on an empty stomach. And two, a sharp whistle sounded. I had but a minute to compose myself before the room was filled with armed men and the point of a blade was abruptly pressed against my throat.

I stiffened in alarm, but there was no time to do anything and we were vastly outnumbered. The small room was from wall to wall filled with men.

"Up." Said the bearded man with the curling mustache who stood in front of me.

He was clad entirely in black trimmed with gold weave, from his knee high leather boots, to his black turban. His trousers were slightly baggy and tucked into his boots. He wore a loose black tunic over a black djellaba cinched at the waist with a belt of cloth. A saber was tucked into it.

The man tapped the bottom of my chin with the dagger he held to reinforce the request. I obliged reluctantly and glanced furtively to the side. Basch was doing the same at the moment, though he was glaring a storm at the similarly dressed assailant in front of him.

Our weapons were summarily stripped from us and we were herded out.

Most of our captors were dressed in plain black, though some wore dark colors such as blue, green, or brown, all in a similar style. The only difference was the man in front of me whose wardrobe contained more lavish trimming. It probably meant that he was a leader, or at least someone of importance, but that was just a guess.

They bore a striking resemblance to the black clad assassins from the night back at Larsa's palace, now that I thought about it. My eyes narrowed fraction. Maybe they were the same black clad assassins from that night.

I was promptly jabbed in the back with a blunt, hard object, and staggered to keep my footing. A low murmur passed among the many figures herding us out of the chamber. They were speaking in a desert dialect that I didn't understand.

We hadn't taken but ten steps when I smelled the faintest hint of sea water. I gasped and inhaled more deeply. There was no doubt in my mind. We were near the ocean, which hopefully meant that we were back at the surface.

There was a network of converging pathways, some leading down, some up, but most of them were level. Eventually we came to a long hall with a doorway at the end of it, covered by furs and beadwork. Everywhere the walls had been smoothed into flat surfaces set with brass torches. Whoever they were, they had spent time perfecting their alcove, which is more than could be said for most thieves.

We were lead into another chamber, richly decorated with colorful silk tapestries embroidered in gold and silver that draped along the walls. The chamber was long and narrow. Giant velvet cushions, now empty, were stationed evenly apart on either side of the narrow green carpet that spanned from the entrance all the way to the larger set of pillows at the far end, which I assumed was a throne of sorts.

Three steps lead up to the throne, and on the luxurious velvet pillow sat a man. He had a scar across one cheek and the lines on his face implied a permanent sneer. His eyes were dark and menacing as we were brought forth.

I stepped quietly behind the leader of our precession and wondered at what we were supposed to do now. There weren't supposed to be people waiting for us, certainly not the hostile kind. Hadn't we earned ourselves a break yet?

Basch and I wereput side by side before the man upon the plush pillow. Our weapons were surrendered to him as well.

I leaned into Basch ear quickly, "Do they look familiar, or is it just me?"

He caught my eye for the briefest of seconds, "Not just you."

The scarred man sat forward, examining us with a twitch of his nose. His fingers toyed with the tip of a blade as he looked from me to Basch and then to the sword that lay at his feet.

His shoulder noticeably bristled. He stood up abruptly and stalked towards Basch, "You removed this sword, yes?" He spoke with a thick, eastern accent.

Basch stared back at the other man impassively. "I believe the question in point is…did you assault the Palace of the Archadian Empire?"

The man recoiled as if burned. "Who are you to ask me such questions?" He barked. "Better yet, how do you know of it?"

"I was there." Basch returned flatly.

His lip curled, "Doesn't matter. That disaster is done with. You stole from us, the penalty is death." He spun away and waved a bored hand, as if to dismiss us, before saying, "Get rid of them."

I stiffened involuntarily in panic. He wasn't serious, was he? But the man with the curled mustache had unsheathed his dagger and was looking towards me. His amber eyes cast between his leader and Basch, as if waiting for something.

"I challenge you to a duel." Basch stepped forward.

The man with the curled mustache smiled faintly as he sheathed his dagger once more.

The room went eerily quiet and the scarred man whirled around, his nostrils flared and eyes widened. If it were possible, there might even have been steam rolling out of his ears. Clearly he did not approve of the idea.

Everyone looked at him expectantly, as if they were interested in what he had to say. Something had changed with those words, but I couldn't fathom what.

"I can have your throat slit and save me the trouble." He spat, but there was a waver in his voice. His eyes shifted between his men uncertainly.

Someone cleared their throat off to my left. I glanced over as the man with the curled mustache stepped forward. He made a show of bowing before his master before speaking rather plainly, "Ah, but sahib, it is law to honor the challenge." This time he drew his sword, his tone taking on a sudden edge, "And you shall honor it, or we are not men of God."

A chorus of agreement followed.

The lord's hands shook at his sides as he clenched them. He turned away stiffly and retrieved a saber from beside his throne. Then he stalked back to stand before us once more, his jaw tightening.

"Your challenge," He ground out, "is accepted."

"Out, everyone!" The man with the curled mustache commanded briskly and immediately we were set into motion.

I glanced sideways at Basch as we were being ushered out. "A challenge?" I inquired.

"Have you any other ideas?" He looked at me pointedly.

"I guess it's alright if you have to save the day once in a while."

We were lead out into the sunlight – glorious, blinding sunlight. I could barely see it had been so long, but the sky was blue and the air was clean, and it was the most wonderful feeling in the world. I found myself being sat down on something soft at the urging of rough, calloused hands, and I was too preoccupied to protest.

A leather canteen was pressed into my hands. I glanced up in surprise. The man with the curled mustache winked at me before straightening and entering the circle that had been formed in front of me.

There was nothing but dry, barren earth here. Basch and the leader of the thieves, or whatever they were, stood across from one another. The man with the curled mustache stood between them.

"I will be judge in this matter." He said. "Rules are simple. Win and you live, lose and you die." His eyes cast at Basch, "Is this understood?"

"It is." Basch returned with a nod.

"Good," He flashed a set of perfectly white teeth, "You may begin."

Author's Notes: I'm a horrible person. I know this. I've failed everyone completely...but I did finally post this chapter! Allow me to explain myself...I was gone for over a month, starting at the end of September, and I was out in the bush during that time, so I had no way of writing. Grant it, it was my plan to have this posted before I left, but I encountered a massive road block and that didn't happen. Being gone for over a month's time really puts you out of the groove.

Also, I can't afford much time for writing at the moment because I've started taking flying lessons to earn my private pilot's license in helicopters, which also involves passing the ground school written exam. That means lots and lots of studying for me. So, you'll have to bear with me for a while. Because I have to earn my commercial license after I get the private.

Anyhow, I hope this comes through for all of you. I know it's been a long wait, but I'm still here.

Take care and Happy New Year,