Twenty-three

"So are the warlords on our side, now?"

No one knew the answer to that. Their connection to the familiar-strange presence had faded in the hours since the triple outburst of power until it had ceased altogether. From the warlords they now sensed nothing.

Ryo shook his head. "I don't think they would leave Talpa so easily."

Kento wasn't sure, and said so. "But what we felt – that was intense; way more than when Anubis switched sides. Something had to have happened to them."

Anubis didn't say anything; he remembered all too well how Talpa had reacted when he had shown signs of doubt; the warlords were probably going through similar treatment now. He sighed; he'd warned them.

Anubis cleared his throat. "We're almost there."

The discussion died down as their attention shifted to the task at hand. They turned a corner and paused at the end of the narrow corridor. Anubis pointed to Talpa's fortress. It loomed ahead, just beyond the final gate: a massive waterway that was more like a river than a traditional moat. Barges filled with soldiers sailed from one side to the other, their progress monitored by sleepless eyes in high watchtowers.

Anubis pointed at a particularly high tower; this one stretched into the sky, well above the height of the others. Small lights moved around the tower's head in wide, circular paths. Even from this distance the ronin could tell there was something sinister about them.

"Your friends are there." He indicated the moving lights. "Those are spirits; they are one of many that guard the ronin."

Ryo's gaze wandered over the boats and the wide river. He frowned. "So how do we get inside?"

Anubis shifted and moved the staff to his other hand. He made sure that the rings didn't rub against one another; this close to the fortress, it would attract too much unwanted attention.

"We will have to sneak aboard the boats; the river is much too wide for us to cross on our own. Plus, the water is home to many unpleasant things." The ronin shuddered as shadowy outlines of nasty, evil things lurking in the water rose to their minds. Anubis saw this and agreed. "You do not want to fall in." He turned back to the fortress and continued.

"We'll have to take two boats; three in one, two in another. There are tarps on board that we can use for cover. We must get to the other side undetected." He shifted to his left. "Once we are across, we need to go there." Anubis pointed to a small building beneath one of the watchtowers. "It leads to the Eye" – here he referred to the tall, spindly tower where Sage and Cye were held – "but the path is full of traps designed to confuse, delay, and destroy intruders. The Eye itself is more unpleasant, guarded as it is by Talpa's strongest and deadliest warriors, save for the warlords themselves." The monk took a breath and turned to the ronin. Four stricken faces stared back at him.

Kento raised a hand. "Uh, isn't there an easier way to do this?"

Anubis gave the young man a look. "This is the easy way."

Kento blanched. "Oh." He looked at the dark fortress and twirled a finger. "Yay."

Rowen shook his head and sighed. Ryo didn't respond with words. There was a shimmer and he stood in full armor. The others followed suit.

Selena adjusted her sword. "Well," she said, nodding at the tower, "it's not going to move itself. Let's go."

XX

Mia sighed and ran her fingers through her hair, doing her best to ignore the growing storm outside. She scanned the open page before her, her frown deepening the further she went. Then, not finding what she sought, she closed the book with a bit more force than necessary, and let out a frustrated breath. Nothing! Two days of searching and reading through every conceivable book, index, pamphlet, and motley assortment of papers that she could think of, and she'd found nothing of use.

Well, nearly nothing. She glanced at her notes – a paltry page and a half of torn notebook paper – and fought the urge to hurl the nearest book (which happened to be a voluminous tome on 15th century weaponry) at the workroom wall.

How had Rowen and Selena managed to pinpoint the first two treasures at all? She'd thought that, after locating treasures one and two, the third would be easy to identify. But no. Whoever had created the treasures had hidden them well.

Mia gazed at her grandfather's computer thoughtfully. Selena had mentioned that the sun goddess had given mankind a jeweled necklace, and the Mirror of Truth had been found in her cave – and the Ancients' symbol with them. Perhaps the third treasure was somehow connected to them as well.

With renewed determination, she started typing. An image came up on the screen. Her mouth fell open in shock.

"No. It can't be."

But there it was, right in front of her. Thunder crashed outside; it was awfully close, but Mia ignored it.

"Yuli!" she yelled, "Come here! You won't believe this!"

The redhead started to push away from the computer, and the wall exploded.

Mia instinctively ducked to shield herself from flying debris and the rain now falling freely into the room. As she crouched beneath the computer desk there was another crash, this time of breaking glass. From her place under the desk she saw three pairs of armored boots – one trailed by a cape – land in the room.

Mia froze. Oh, no.

They paused, apparently scanning the room, and then one issued an order. "Find the boy."

Mia watched, paralyzed, as one of the intruders left the room; she knew that voice. She drew her legs tight against her chest, willing herself to become smaller.

The warlords were here.

XX

They almost made it across undetected.

Safely docked on the other side of the river, the ronin waited for the last of the soldiers' footfalls to disappear. Satisfied that no one would hear them, Anubis ripped back the canvas that covered them, and Ryo, with his swords at the ready in case there were any lingering samurai, stepped out –

– and almost immediately tripped over some rope, pitched forward, tried to steady himself against several stacked crates, failed, and both ronin and boxes fell to the ground with a loud crash.

A cry went up, followed closely by the sound of rushing, heavily armed bodies. With a curse, Rowen stepped over his fallen comrade, whipped out his bow, and fired.

The arrow released, flew, and struck a soldier between the eyes. The clueless samurai spun from the force of the blow, struck the barge's railing, and pitched over the side.

By the time the unlucky soldier hit the water, the deck was swarming with dynasty soldiers.

"So much for sneaking in," Rowen muttered, and slid another arrow into position.

A spiraling, fiery vortex slammed into the advancing force, instantly turning the dark soldiers into man-shaped towers of flame and smoke. Those that could dove overboard; the rest flailed wildly, trailing fire across the barge.

Startled by the sudden attack, Rowen jumped, and his arrow went wide. It hit one of the crates stacked on the barge and splintered the wooden casing. Powder poured from the opening onto the deck in a black waterfall.

Ryo's eyes went wide. "Is that – ?"

Anubis turned, looked where the ronin was pointing. His heart sank. "Oh, no."

Flames snaked across the barge, eagerly setting alight anything in its path. Wooden planks cracked under the samurai's burning feet; rope and canvas smoldered, glowed red, flared and burst into flame. The powder was no exception. There was a brief spark; a burst of ozone, and the dark pile flared brilliantly, this new fire headed straight for the broken crate.

The ronin were already running.

A sudden surge of heat blossomed at their rear –

– they reached the railing –

– jumped –

– and went deaf at the sound of five tons of timber, rigging, and freight rapidly becoming a million flaming fragments.

They hit the water with a splash that was lost in the raging inferno. Keenly aware that a giant, flaming, and rapidly sinking ship was only yards behind them, they swam – hard, doing their best to avoid the various planks, smoldering canvas, and bits of soldier that fell around them with loud 'thunks', and occasionally dousing the trio with a spray of steaming water.

The wreckage struck the river bottom with a mighty groan. Reaching the shore, the ronin turned to see that only the prow remained above the surface. Selena and Kento met their companions on the beach, staring with wide eyes at what was only moments ago a fully intact and functional ship.

They watched as the barge bobbed, momentarily defying the forces pulling it down. Then there was a rush of air as it gave in to gravity, and the ship disappeared into the river.

Rowen coughed and spit out a mouthful of water. "Well," he rasped, wiping his face, "that wasn't so bad."

Dripping wet, his companions stared at him in disbelief; then Ryo broke out in a grin and started to laugh.

Thirty seconds later, someone shot them. With incredible accuracy.

XX

Her hiding place didn't remain secret for long. Moments after the warlord's departure, Sekhmet's leering kabuto appeared under the table. He stared right at her.

"Hello, little one."

Mia jerked back, hit her head on the underside of the table, and fell flat on her rear. Scrambling to her feet, she backed rapidly away from Sekhmet and bumped into something solid. It was Cale.

Gasping, Mia turned, but by this time Sekhmet had cleared the table and approached her from behind. Strong arms grabbed her and pulled her roughly against an armored body. Mia struggled, but it was useless; she was trapped. She settled for glaring at the warlords instead.

"What do you want?"

Dais appeared in the doorway, a kicking and thrashing Yuli firmly in his grasp.

"Let me go, you big goon! Put me dow – "

A dagger appeared at the boy's throat; he wisely fell silent.

Cale glanced at Yuli and back at Mia. He smiled. "Now I think that would be obvious."

He approached the smaller woman and withdrew his sword. "You know what the third treasure is." He stroked the blade with dangerous purpose and leveled it at her. "Tell me."

XX

Without armor to protect him, Anubis went down first.

The monk fell to the ground, staring unbelieving at the dark stain spreading rapidly across his chest. He put his hand on the stain, lifted it. The palm came back red.

Rowen shot once, twice –

By the time Strata's arrows reached the archers gathered on the distant stone parapet, he'd already released another three. These also hit their marks, but still more arrows came.

The dynasty soldiers released a volley into the sky. Crouched protectively over Anubis, Selena's eyes went wide.

Oh, shit.

"Kento!" Ryo cried, the sound both an order and a plea.

"Way ahead of you, buddy." The warrior of strength grabbed one of the crates that had drifted on shore from the destroyed barge, lifted it, and hurled it into the sky.

Selena watched with growing dread as the crate arched, gaining altitude on its collision course; there was no way it could stop the attack –

There was a loud 'twang' – an arrow, wreathed in flame hurtled upward from Strata's bow, trailing smoke as it flew higher and higher, straight toward the wooden crate –

The crate exploded, blew apart, went nova with a tremendous bang, briefly illuminating the archers' stunned faces before descending on them in a maelstrom of flaming, volatile debris.

"Nice job," Selena commented dryly as a second explosion took out the archers and part of the wall they were standing on. "Think the dynasty will notice?"

XX

Mia stared nervously at the wicked-looking blade that was inches from her face. She willed herself to look at Cale.

"I – I don't know what you mean."

"She lies," Dais spoke from the doorway. Mia winced; she'd forgotten that he could sense deception.

Cale favored her with a sickly smile.

"Wrong answer," he said. He raised his sword; Mia cringed, waiting for the inevitable.

There was a roar, followed closely by a thud, and Yuli was flying in the air. Distracted, the warlord's grip on her loosened. Mia dropped to her knees; Cale's sword went straight through the space where her head had been and struck Sekhmet. In the few seconds it took for the warlord to wrench his blade free from his comrade's armor, Mia twisted, ripped herself from Sekhmet's hold, and kicked Cale in the groin.

With the warlord cursing her name, Mia got to her feet and stumbled to the doorway – only to find it blocked by a mass of white fur. White Blaze reared up on his hind legs, roared, and swiped at Dais with one of his enormous paws. The warlord blocked the attack with one of his kama, and then returned the blow with another. White Blaze caught the weapon in his teeth and snapped it in half. Hesitating for a fraction of a second, Dais took a step back; it was all the tiger needed. With an earth-shattering roar, White Blaze leaped into the room, taking the Warlord of Illusion with him.

Mia hastily backed herself behind two bookshelves, hoping that they would temporarily hide her from the warlords. Feeling as secure as she could in a room with three dark warlords and an angry tiger, she yelled for Yuli.

"Over here!" his tiny voice returned.

He was under a display case. The warlords hadn't seen him yet, but that wouldn't last. She ran to him, holding her hand out to him. Something collided with the case and the glass shattered. Mia cried out – partially in pain as glass shards cut through her clothes and pierced her skin, and partially in dismay at the priceless art of her grandfather's collection, now ruined.

Yuli was way ahead of her. Acting fast, he reached inside the destroyed case and grabbed hold of the first object he found – a seventeenth century urn, ornately painted; it probably belonged to a noble or former prince – and hurled it at the back of Sekhmet's skull. It fell short of its goal, striking Cale's breastplate, shattering brilliantly. A small dust cloud surrounded the warlords, temporarily obscuring their sight.

Yuli wasted no time in throwing another artifact, this one a metal orb. Heavier than the urn, it made a shallow arc, hit the floor, rolled, and bumped against Cale's armored boot. Annoyed with being attacked with ancient artifacts, Cale sneered at Yuli.

"Do not mock me, boy." He kicked the orb roughly with his boot; it flew in the air and embedded itself in the far wall. Behind him Sekhmet chuckled. "Is that all?"

"No!"

The warlords turned – and were knocked to the floor by a chair to the face. It splintered and broke as it struck them. Mia stood over the fallen duo, a piece of a chair leg clutched tightly in her hands. She looked shaken, as if she couldn't believe she had just attacked the dark warlords with a dinner chair. She didn't have time to recover, however, as the warlords, so easily upended, were just as quickly back on their feet.

Sekhmet rolled his shoulders; an ugly crack sounded in the room. He glared at the two humans.

"So you want to play dirty?" He withdrew one of his swords and leveled it at the pair. "Good."

XX

The ronin didn't wait for the dynasty to investigate. They gladly left the river behind, making their way closer to Talpa's fortress, pausing once to hide as a group of soldiers hurried toward the socks, and again to check on Anubis's wound, which hadn't stopped bleeding.

The ronin exchanged worried glances. An arrow protruded from the point where Anubis's left shoulder and collarbone met, the shaft deeply embedded several inches into his flesh. The cloth around the injury was soaked with blood, and his left arm hung limply at his side.

Ryo nodded to the arrow. "That needs to come out."

Anubis disagreed, and said so. "I'll be fine."

Although he didn't show it, the ronin knew the monk was in agony. Ryo glanced at Rowen and Kento, and before Anubis could do anything, the two ronin grabbed him, holding him from behind. Ryo stepped up to the monk. "You can thank me later," he said, and grasping the shaft as close to the wound as he could, pulled.

Anubis gave an anguished cry as the arrow was torn from his flesh. Fresh blood poured from the wound.

The ronin worked quickly, tearing pieces of fabric from Anubis's kimono and handing them to Selena, who wrapped them tight around his wound. Within minutes the bleeding slowed, and the five breathed easier. But they weren't finished yet.

Ripping the sleeve of his kimono from its seam, Selena fashioned a rudimentary sling from the fabric, and, holding his injured arm gently, carefully eased the sling into place.

"Thank you," Anubis said, his breath brushing her ear as she secured the sling around his neck. Selena looked up at him but did not smile. "Just promise me that I'll never have to do this again." Her voice was shaking.

With his good hand, Anubis made an 'X' over his heart, then laid his hand over hers. "I promise."

"Good." She kissed him lightly, then handed him his staff. "Now let's get those bastards."

XX

Sekhmet threw his sword faster than sight could follow it. There was a flash and a thud, followed closely by a cry: pinned to the wall, the sword caught in his sweater, Yuli dangled perhaps two inches from the floor.

In three strides Mia was next to him. She grabbed the massive handle and pulled with all her might, but the sword refused to budge. Desperate, she scanned the various banners and scrolls on the wall, and landed on an ancient katana on display.

Tossing subtlety aside in favor of speed, Mia lunged suddenly to the right, her arms outstretched. Realizing her intent, Cale issued an order; a second sword missed her neck by an inch.

Her fingers curled around the scabbard, and wrenching the katana from its sheath, she turned and swung at Yuli. There was a faint sound of fabric ripping, and then a thud as the boy dropped to the floor.

For a moment Yuli sat unmoving, stunned as he stared at his torn sweater; then he shrugged off the ruined clothing and turned –

– only to run into Sekhmet.

With a startled yelp, the boy quickly backtracked.

Like a shadow, Cale was behind him at once.

Somehow sensing him, Yuli twirled, the Jewel of Life whipping around his neck from the forceful movement. Cale watched the Jewel settle against the boy's breast; it was dull. He glanced at Sekhmet, issuing a silent order; and they stepped forward, arms raised.

XX

The black tower loomed overhead, so close that they could see the individual tiles that made up the enormous structure. Selena craned her neck, sighting the spirits that circled the tower's spire. Of all the dynasty, only they appeared unconcerned with the chaos going on at the river. For some reason, that unnerved her – a lot.

They were hiding behind a wall that ended several yards from the tower and its attached guardhouse – unfortunately, the dynasty was not so stupid as to provide cover for attacking armies – or, in their case, five overly cautious, anxious teenagers with one hell of a bone to pick with the management. Nothing but open space, a thousand unseen but ever-present sentries, a half dozen circling demonic spirits, and a handful of surly-looking guards stood between them and their goal.

And Anubis had said that this was the easy way.

Selena took a deep breath. "Okay, so what do you think we should – Kento!"

That last part came out as a moan as Kento, disregarding all common sense, strode from behind their hiding place and marched directly towards the watchtower, naginata in hand.

XX

"No!"

Desperately, Mia hit Cale with her katana, but it only enraged rather than harmed him. He turned and struck her, moving too fast for her to deflect the blow. Mia crashed into her desk, taking the computer with her as she fell over the top and tumbled to the floor.

"Mia!"

Whether he called out of concern for her or himself, Yuli didn't know; Sekhmet grabbed him almost as soon as Mia hit the table.

Yuli shivered in the warlord's grasp. He tried to reach for the Jewel, but Sekhmet's armored hand stopped him.

"Not today, boy."

The warlord's hand left his and traveled down the beaded chain around the boy's neck, fingers reaching for the jewel. Yuli gasped and jerked back, lashing out at the warlord in an attempt to put some distance between them, but Sekhmet ignored him. Yuli opened his mouth –

A roar shook the room, and Yuli briefly went deaf. A moment later something heavy slammed into Sekhmet from behind, toppling the warlord in a great white blur. Man and tiger tumbled into Cale, and Yuli was nearly pulled with them, but he was smaller than the others. Curling into a ball, Yuli kicked at Sekhmet's hands and propelled himself away from the melee. Untangling himself, he watched in stupefied awe as they crashed into an adjoining bookshelf, which quickly upended, spilling its contents over the floor and struggling trio.

A third cry from somewhere near the doorway reminded Yuli that not all the warlords were accounted for. He pulled himself up, tucked the Jewel of Life securely into his shirt, and ran to the destroyed computer desk. He found Mia lying next to a mess of cords, books, and computer fragments; there were some cuts on her forehead and arms, but otherwise she appeared to be okay.

Even so, Yuli was wary. He gently touched her shoulder. "Are you alright?"

Mia groaned and blinked, opening her eyes to stare groggily at Yuli. After a moment, she nodded.

"We have to get out of here."

"Yeah, but how?" Yuli asked, pulling Mia to her feet. "The way's blocked."

He pointed to the doorway; a large oak shelf was lodged in the frame, presumably placed there by one of the more forward-thinking warlords. Mia gasped; that had belonged to her great-aunt!

She risked a glance at the battle. White Blaze was all snarls and flashing teeth. He was holding his own against the three warlords, who seemed intent on eliminating the raging tiger. But for all his great strength, she knew White Blaze couldn't hold them off forever. As if to emphasize her point, one of the warlords' weapons hit true. The great cat yelped and buckled, and then regrouped and swiped at the offending warlord. Mia sighed a heavy, tired sigh; there wasn't much time.

Yuli tugged at her jacket. "What do we do?"

Never had Mia wished that the ronin were here more than she did now. They would know what to do; they could fight the warlords – or at the very least get them out of here.

But they weren't here, and with White Blaze's strength quickly failing they had to rely on each other.

A stray sword flew from the group and hit the ceiling tip-first. Mia grabbed Yuli and pulled him down just as the sword fell, blade spinning wildly; it ricocheted off of some large debris, headed straight towards them.

Without pausing to think, Mia grabbed the broken back of her computer chair and thrust it in front of her. The blade tore through the thick wood, stopping inches from her face. Hands shaking, Mia threw the makeshift shield aside and ducked behind the sad remains of her desk. Her face was white.

"We have to get out of here; we're either going to get captured or killed if we stay."

"But the door's blocked – "

"I know!" Mia softened her voice. "I know. But we have to leave. If there was only some way to get out …"

As she spoke, her eyes landed on the room's remaining window. It was relatively free of debris, and unlike the others, overlooked a balcony instead of ground. She grabbed Yuli's arm.

"Yuli, look! The window!" She sifted through the debris around them, and found an old samurai helmet. Other than a crack running from eyebrow to eyebrow, it was unharmed. She hefted it, testing its weight. Mia nodded; it would do. "We'll break the window, jump down to the second floor balcony, and leave! Let's go!"

Yuli followed her with stunned and apprehensive eyes. "Jump?" he gulped, but Mia didn't hear him; she stood up and with all her might hurled the helmet at the window. It shattered brilliantly.

Acutely aware that the warlords would be on them in any second, Mia turned, grabbed Yuli, and ran. Together, they leapt through the jagged window. Seconds later, fury erupted behind them.

XX

By some miracle, the guards didn't see him until it was too late. Kento decapitated one guard who happened to be looking in the other direction, and with a mighty swing wrapped the chain of his naginata around the neck of another, pulled and twisted, hard.

A sickening 'crack' echoed in the open space. The guard dropped, lifeless, to the ground.

By now, Ryo was halfway across the yard, with Rowen and Selena not far behind.

Pulling his bow free, Rowen fired at a guard who appeared to be more quick-witted than his fellows, striking him in the hand. The demon dropped his weapon and started screaming.

"Ow, ow, ow, ow!" It would have been funny, if it wasn't so dangerous. Another shot silenced him for good.

Selena and Ryo took out a soldier each. The guards offered surprisingly little resistance, but Selena didn't have time to think about it; she spun, ducked to avoid a swipe that would have taken her head off, and lunged, dispatching her opponent with a particularly savage thrust through the stomach.

Going for the simple approach, Kento got rid of the final two guards by grabbing their helmets and slamming their heads together. Knocked out, they collapsed on top of each other, fell, and landed on the ground with a loud 'thud.'

Kento looked around at the dead and unconscious guards and grinned. "Problem solved."

Rowen rolled his eyes at the announcement. "Thank you. Now can we please go inside before the whole dynasty knows where we are?"

Hardrock only shrugged. "Hey, if you wanted subtlety, you shouldn't have blown up a barge." He turned to the tower, hands on his hips. "How do we get inside this thing, anyway?"

"I will open the way," Anubis announced. He walked through the group until he stood before the tower. "I know the password."

Rowen looked from the tower to the monk. "What if Talpa's changed it? How do we get in, then?"

Anubis gave the ronin a knowing look. "It's not that kind of password."

Facing the tall structure, the monk closed his eyes and uttered a series of words under his breath. Catching some of them, the ronin glanced at each other in confusion – whatever Anubis was saying, it wasn't in any language they recognized.

Anubis moved the staff so that it rested against his right shoulder, and then shoved his good hand under the bandages covering his wound.

"What - ?"

The ronin were silenced as, grimacing slightly, Anubis removed his hand and placed the bloody palm against the tower's death-black exterior. The solid surface shimmered and a door appeared, silently sliding open. Beyond was nothing but darkness.

Selena waited for the alarms to start blaring, for them to be surrounded by a million soldiers holding sharp things, but nothing came. Oddly enough, knowing that there was nothing to stop them from entering the tower did not reassure her. And neither did Anubis's next words.

"It needed a sacrifice," he explained simply, wiping his hand on his koromo.

No one had time to process those words as Anubis grasped the staff and took a step forward –

"No. I'll go first."

Anubis stopped, turning to face the determined speaker. "Ryo – " A hand on his arm silenced him. "Anubis," the youth said, and the tone of his voice brokered no argument. "I'll go first."

The older man hesitated, but eventually relented, moving aside to let Ryo through, and the small group entered the dynasty's most guarded fortress.

XX

They landed on the balcony hard; Mia screamed as something in her foot snapped. White-hot pain shot up her leg, her vision swam, and suddenly all she wanted to do was lay down and rest, but she resisted the urge; danger was hard on their heels.

Once more, Yuli pulled her to her feet. The pair fumbled with the lock on the balcony doors and then stumbled back inside the lodge, running – or in Mia's case, hobbling – as fast as they could.

The sounds on the third floor were strangely muted, but too much pain and fear clouded Mia's mind for her to give it much thought.

They turned a corner and Mia fell as she tripped on a rug. Yuli, several feet ahead of her, turned back to help her and then suddenly stopped, his eyes growing wide with fear. Mia turned and her heart sank when she caught sight of the dark figure approaching them from the room they'd just vacated. Distantly, she wished she still had that katana; it wouldn't do much, but it'd make her feel less vulnerable.

She twisted back to Yuli, who was frozen to the spot. "Run!" She told him, knowing that the warlords were after the Jewel. "Run!"

The boy hesitated; loathe to leave Mia injured and alone. He fought with himself, and deciding, withdrew the Jewel. Seeing the movement, the figure leaped.

Mia screamed and Yuli recoiled –

- and stared in disbelief. Yuli blinked and then smiled.

"White Blaze!"

The tiger stood between the two, his normally pristine fur matted with blood, particularly around his right shoulder, and patches of fur looked curiously gnawed, as if they had been eaten off; and a fire burned in his brown eyes. He looked at Yuli with an air of urgency, and the boy didn't need Ryo to understand what he meant.

"Yes," Yuli said, his fear melting away as he looked in the tiger's eyes. "It is time to go back."

Mia was confused. "What? Back where?"

"To the dynasty," Yuli said simply.

Mia's eyes went huge. "But what about the warlords?" She glanced behind her as if she expected them to barge through the door at any moment.

"Don't worry about them," Yuli said dismissively. He spoke with a confidence that he'd not had a minute ago. He held up the Jewel, and this time it was glowing. He walked next to Mia and linked her hand with his; White Blaze stood protectively behind them.

Yuli smiled at Mia. Suddenly, he looked so much older than his eight years. "They'll be there. They all will."

Mia barely had time to wonder at that cryptic proclamation before the Jewel flashed and a bright golden light swallowed them.

XX

Dais saw the glass shatter first, Sekhmet second. A wave of venom, bubbling and eating at the walls and floor, reached the window too late; they were already gone. Then that blasted tiger was clawing his way through them – he gave Dais a parting kick to the abdomen – and in seconds had followed the humans through the window, mindless of the venom-drenched shards that grabbed his fur as he sped through the too-small hole. Cale screamed in fury, echoing how Dais felt. His eyes darkened as they landed on his broken kama; he would make the tiger pay.

He adjusted his remaining weapons, ready to go after those brats; for a human, it was quite a fall from that window. He was certain that they did not make it uninjured; they would be easy to catch, and then … then the fun would begin.

Dais chuckled, his mind full of dark thoughts.

"What are we waiting for? Let's get the humans and make them pay!" Sekhmet's deep voice rumbled.

Safely out of view, Dais rolled his eyes. Always impatient, Sekhmet was. He never understood the beauty in waiting that made the prize so much … sweeter. But perhaps in this case he was right; they didn't want the humans to get too far …

"Naughty little mice," he whispered to himself. "Grab them, squeeze them, pull their tails out, and make them squeak until they pop … yess …"

"No." The dark, authoritative voice broke into his thoughts and left no room for argument. Sekhmet and Dais looked back at their commander. He was standing over the remains of a desk, staring at a beige-colored box lying on its side.

The two warlords glanced at each other.

"What do you mean? Our orders – "

Cale silenced them with a glance. He turned the box around. Its screen was cracked and it blinked occasionally, but the image it showed was clear: a sword with a snow-white tang and a bright red hilt.

Dais smiled. "So this is what the little minx tried to hide from us."

"Yes," Cale replied. "The third treasure."

Notes:

Whoo – damn, it's been a long time, huh? Almost a year, in fact. Sorry about that – working two jobs (one of which was retail – and during the holidays) didn't leave much time (or energy) for writing. Then, as I was in the middle of writing this chapter, I got stuck with the worst case of writer's block I have ever had. It was awful – I knew where to go, but not how to get there. And everything I wrote I hated. So it is with some irony that I admit that the vast majority of this chapter was written during my 'where has my mojo gone?' period. In fact, I quite like this chapter. I hope the transitions weren't too confusing – I had a bitch of a time figuring out where to cut things off, and where to place certain scenes … Then I realized that it had been a year since I'd last updated, said "screw it," and just finished the damn thing. Yay! I even got my groove back! So, double yay!

Also: two more chapters, plus an epilogue to go! Thanks for sticking with me!