There was no laughter, no talk as they ran. Things were getting serious; even the sun seemed to have turned morose, beating the group mercilessly with scorching heat and blinding rays as it began to descend. All their supplies were incinerated, but it was of no importance. Their resolve strengthened as they continued to sprint. What did change, however, was the scenery, as shrubbery and signs of life diminished, replaced by jagged rocks, coarse sand, and spiky black objects that looked like dead trees, but when Elesis had punched one out of her way it snapped off like a straw, revealing to be made of some dark brittle substance that wasn't wood.

Unless Kaze'Aze planned to finish him off sooner, they had only today to go in, kick butt, and rescue Ronan. If they couldn't set foot in the castle by sunset, they were screwed. But even then, the Chase wasn't sure what exactly was happening to Ronan. There were ill-omened tales of dark magic rendering a person into such a horrendous state that death would be a mercy. They tried not to dwell on that.

So they ran. Well, Ryan flew as the Avatar of Nature's Wrath, as it was the only form that enabled him to keep pace with the others while he held a drained Arme who had fallen asleep soon after. Despite their situation, no one woke her; it was a rest she needed. Judging from their speed and distance, there would be more than enough time for the magician to catch some repose before they faced their adversary.

To Lass, the whole situation was ironic as well as infuriatingly fearful. She had taken such troubles to try to re-capture her quarry, only to have it return to her lair by his own feet and uncontrolled mind, along with a bunch of other people who were also her enemies. If things went her way, it would be killing two birds with one stone. Things weren't going to go her way, he thought. Today he was going to see the end of his nightmares, the darkness.

Despite these thoughts that ran through his head, little by little Lass abandoned his former resolve not to recall Gardosen's last words. So he had a last name: Isolet. Lass Isolet. Was that what she had named him? He'd thought that all she'd done to him was tainting his hands with innocent blood, slaughtering without reason. What else could she have taken from him? His mind whirring with uncertainty, he resisted the urge to bash his head against a tree.

what would your…little friends do when they find out…what she did to…you…r…

Shut up, he told himself. He'd know everything sooner or later anyways. Shaking the silver hair that clouded his eyes, he attempted to drive out the poisonous thoughts.

"Hey, Lass!" A female voice called out to him.

He turned, although he already knew the source. "Yes?"

Elesis yelled, "Don't get possessed again!"

Of course he wouldn't. He would never let anyone toy with him again. "Same to you!" But as he said it, he felt as if the atmosphere had dropped ten degrees. But it was not just his own fear. The castle…she…was definitely near.

"Ha! As if that'll happen! I'm gonna smash Kaze'Aze to the ground!" Deriving renewed strength from her own words, Elesis seemed to run a bit faster. Her hand which had been busted from the vase was still encased in the bandage that Ronan had wrapped so carefully for her. Nephilim emitted a deep growl in agreement. Arme snored.

"Lire?" So far, Lire had run the fastest without a single word of complaint, but she had abruptly skidded to a halt, looking around like an alarmed doe. Her facial expression was still an iron visage of composure, but she looked as if she expected the very ground to explode any moment. Elesis caught up to the elf, laying a concerned hand on her shoulder. "Something off? Are we close? Is Ronan okay?"

For a split second Lire remained immobile, then relaxed just as quickly, delivering her words in a calm tone, "Something is…amiss. Each step we take, the evil energy grows, but the castle still seems far-off. I don't understand." She shook her head. "Even the insects and animals that could usually survive in a desert environment with monsters cannot inhabit these lands. It feels close, but it seems so far. As for Ronan…"

"He is the same, but something is changing." Beads of moisture ran down the humanoid creature's face. None of them had ever seen a tree spirit sweat. "A malignant force is eating into him. If the aura continues to expand, I will have to discard my petal or risk corruption."

"Then dispose of it now." While evil energies could do colossal damages to a weakened being of nature and life such as elves and good spirits, they did no lethal harm to a strong and healthy elf. But Lire had been feeling glitchy for a while, like a mosquito bite that wouldn't' stop itching. It was not lethal, and she knew exactly why, but it was certainly wearing her concentration and patience down. Glancing back, Ryan was in better shape, but one could see that all his fur…feathers(?) stood on end. "We are almost there anyway, and there is no need to risk early casualties."

Saku seemed annoyed at having to sacrifice her petal. Indeed it was a part of her substance and magic, and she had hoped to retrieve it once the opportunity came. But she flicked her sleeve. "It is done."

After all, it was not like as if she were to survive.

"Okay, let's go!" Elesis made to move again, this time stopped by Ryan, who had reverted back into a Sentinel, gently laying Arme against the smooth side of a boulder nearby before running over. "Not a good idea."

"Aw, we haven't even stepped in, and you already got cold feet? Man up, Ryan."

"No! Lire is right. If the castle is the source of the evil energy, then it means it's really near. The castle in the distance…I'm beginning to think it's not real. It could be an illusion."

Now the Red Knight really paused, her scepticism giving away to perturbed contemplation. They were in the middle of this godforsaken wasteland that only had sand, rocks, and fake trees, where not even the dumbest of Orcs lounged about. What would her father say? "Just fight on" or "Listen to your friends with their cryptic messages"? She sighed. "Fine. I'm okay with whatever plan you have, just as long as it's the fastest way to Ronan and that bi–"

"Oh really!" Amy grumbled. "Stop being such a potty mouth! Even Ronan hates your swearing!"

"Shut up, pumpkin face!" Elesis rounded on the Muse. "Stop whining like a stupid child!"

"So now I'm stupid?"

"Hey–" Ryan reverted back, the transformation unnoticed as he continued to support Arme.

"We don't have time for this. Ronan's in danger!"

"Excuse me–"

"Yeah, no thanks to her! What does he see in her, I have no idea!"

"I think that…"

"What in the Hell's that supposed to mean?"

"Idiot. It means–"

"SHUT UP!" Arme had woken from a peaceful bout of slumber only to be greeted by the charming voices of the Chasers conversing with one another at their maximum volume, which was the worst kind of alarm a person could wake up to. Inwardly she knew this would happen; tension would rise and people (Elesis) would snap, but it still made her cringe. And mad. Their friend was going through Gods-know-what, and they still had time to fight among themselves? "JUST SHUT UP!" she yelled again as she aimed a searing Firebolt directly for the group, all of whom had clustered together to fight or placate.

A series of screams ensued as they dived out of the way, the Fireball scorching brilliantly as it zipped by the bewildered Chasers, who looked on in awe before turning on the now fully powered mage. Elesis was the first to regain her voice, berating the purple magician harshly. "What were you trying to do? Burn us all into a crisp?!"

"No, just your mouth. Then we'd at least have some reason!"

Like he did with most unpleasant events, Lass tried to tune them out, his eyes mindlessly following the blazing path of the Firebolt. How strange; it lost neither power nor speed as it kept going, going…the light was almost hypnotic in the abruptly darkening setting. He had to give Arme credit; that was one persistent fireball. It kept flying, flying…gone.

Gone?

"Guys! Come quick!" He blurted. He pointed, but the Chasers did not listen. They were already engaged in another argument gala, this time with sparks literally flying about. By now he'd had enough. He was not one to yell to get people's attention, so he jammed his hand inside his pocket and pulled out a kunai that looked like it had been dipped in liquid rainbows. He had used this once…but another couldn't hurt. The boulder that Arme had leaned against was far enough to not cause real injury, but close enough to create a scare. With a clean flick of his wrist, he flung the kunai at the boulder.

BANG!

For all its flashy show, a firework cannot do real damage, especially to something durable as a boulder. But the sound had jarred the Chasers, some of them possibly thinking that it was Kaze'Aze. With a couple of sword swings and a few magical notes, the unfortunate rock was blasted to smithereens, then completely ground into dust as Elesis kept pounding on it before regaining her senses.

"Lass has something to say." Jin quickly announced once the stone was forever gone from the world. "What is it?"

"Arme, blast another Firebolt in that direction."

"What? Why should I?" Still incensed, Arme was feeling very snippy, flaunting her immaturity. "Do you want me to burn off Elesis's mouth?"

"You–"

Lass chose not to argue; that would goad both of them further and eat up precious time. He turned to Lire, the next person he could think of that was a pro at shooting magical projectiles at extremely long distances. "Lire, shoot an arrow in that direction…please." he added, realizing that he sounded too demanding.

Unlike Arme, the elf did not question; Lass was not someone who would inquire something without a valid reason. "As you wish," she replied as she readied her crossbows. "Dive Bombing!" A piercing green bolt erupted from her weapons, flying like a dazzling emerald comet…now, everybody could see that it was slowing down, which was odd; the only times they had seen it slow down was right before it hit an enemy. Then they saw what Lass saw: it was getting absorbed, sucked in by an invisible force. The light spluttered, then slowly fizzed out as the very air around it rippled, smoothed, and then vanished. Poof! Gone without a trace.

"…What?"

"Whoa. That means…"

The argument quickly forgotten by this newfound revelation, Arme now stepped forward. "It's magic." she breathed. Just to make sure, she whipped out her staff and shouted "Lightning Bolt!" Crackles of electrical energy issued from the baton, quickly absorbed into thin air like the others with another air ripple. But apparently this was not what Arme was looking for, as she gritted her teeth in irritation. She called, "Hey, Jin! Go stand over there."

"Huh? Why?"

"Just do it! And hold your stick-thingy really tight!"

He sighed. "okay, okay…"

Holding his Chamma, he did as Arme bid, looking very confused.

Whatever he was expecting, he certainly wasn't expecting her to create another bolt of lightning, this time aimed directly at him. It was coming at him at an unearthly speed; the only thing he could do was block it with his Chamma. Gripping the stick like a lifeline, he swung it in front of him to collect the lightning, then upwards to deflect the attack. The force of the energy nearly overwhelmed him, but he stood firm as crackles of lightning sizzled around him.

The other Chasers would have tackled the mage to the ground immediately, but another sight greeted them instead. The Chamma was acting as a lightning conductor, deflecting Arme's attack upwards and causing it to splay in several directions. Crackles of raw electrical energy split in many directions like a wild, clawed hand, but the bolts split in different spaces, which created air ripples that resonated with each other as the thin air vibrated, distorting the surroundings. Rather than stopping it, Arme intensified the bolt, which increased the concentration of the ripples, which joined together to expose a huge, translucent barrier.

As the awed Chasers looked on, they heard a very audible crack. The lightning was dancing violently, which illuminated the slowly darkening sky. The yellow bolts continued to ruthlessly probe the surface of the now not-so-invisible barrier until a very visible split formed underneath the undiluted current, which widened into a gaping fissure.

"We have to help!" But there was no need, as the barrier completely shattered into nonexistence under the lightning magic, revealing that there never was an intimidating castle in the remotely far-off distance; it was right in front of them. By now the sun had fled, as if it didn't dare to shine down on such a place. And it had ample reason to not: the place repelled it. Huge dark boulders provided foundation for giant purple towers that stretched everywhere with its twisted designs, and the tip of each tower held a blue diamond that sparkled dimly. And of course, lots of dark purple vines and chains were placed everywhere to lighten things up.

"Blue things are power cores." Lass half-explained, half-mumbled. "One of the castle's defences."

"Hah!" Arme withdrew her staff, ceasing the lightning. "So there it is!"

"There it is." Jin agreed. For someone who had nearly been burnt to ashes, his composure was still somewhat retained. "And for that, I will forgive you for nearly electrocuting me to death. But couldn't it have been better to at least give a warning?"

"Nah, didn't have time."

"Jin!" Amy rushed forward, laying a supporting arm around his shoulders. "Are you all right?"

"Y-yeah."

"The castle's just as twisted as its owner." Elesis snorted in disgust. But she also felt a measure of triumph. "If she thought that barrier would stop us, she's dead."

"She made it weak on purpose." As soon as he said that, the Assassin realized that it was true. There was no way a huge magic barrier could be destroyed so easily by a fireball, an enchanted arrow, and some lightning, unless it had been deliberately made fragile. "She's toying with us."

"Damn her!"

Practical as usual, Lire pointed out their current problem. "So, how do we get in?"

Here Lass hesitated, "I…don't know. She uses magic to travel, and she doesn't have much visitors…" His words faltered off as a dark portal formed before their eyes, the dark energy hissing like a cauldron. The seven could feel an unseen force tugging weakly at their legs, beckoning them to enter.

"Well, there's our invitation." Ryan said lightly. "Shall we start?"

"Duh, isn't that why we're here?"

The anticipation was so thick in the air, almost like a tangible thing. Weapons were drawn, Mana was charged to the max, and arsenals of secret weapons in their pockets were prepared as well as final words of encouragement were murmured; after all, anything could happen.

"Don't exhaust yourself, Arme." He clasped her shoulders.

Amy didn't say anything, but she astonished Jin (and everyone else as a result) by giving the Asura a giant hug that would've cracked a normal person's ribs. And because it was Ryan, the Druid had to whistle approvingly as Jin hugged her back. Elesis, who would've usually ignored this type of fluff, just grunted, then startled herself when an image of Ronan crept into her mind.

Lass, who was also watching dumbly, felt something gently press his hand. Turning, he saw Lire, who looked back evenly with a small smile that looked a little embarrassed, but also serene. She said nothing, just held his hand as if it was the most obvious thing to do. It was hard to tell if it was just him, but the contact made him feel all warm inside. It wasn't painful.

Too soon she let go, just in time for Elesis to clear her throat and yell, "All right! Let's get them in one go!"

"This is it!"

"The larger the enemy, the larger the victory." Jin quoted a Silver Knight proverb as he calmly cracked his knuckles before wielding out his Chamma.

"May the Gods have favour upon us." Amy agreed. With that, they leapt into the void, not even blinking an eye as the portal closed up behind the last Chaser. They were not afraid. They were fearless combatants, ready for battle.

She smiled a very twisted smile. "Now, let us start."


Yes, finally, our heroes are in the stupid castle.

I know I'm being stupid, juggling three stories at once, but don't worry. I'll be sure to stick around to finish :)