by Mark Andron and Time Lady
The sun is low in the sky. The travelers are about half a mile from the springs of Jusenkyo. “Lady Ayla, if we continue on, we will be in the middle of the cursed pools at nightfall,” announces Keisai.
“Then we will stop here for the night. Though I would prefer to be beyond the pools,” says Ayla.
“I would too,” adds Toran. “We are too close to the pools for my liking.”
Taygana is in no hurry to reach Fan-ro. “It can not be helped.”
Ayla dismounts, taking her staff in hand. She first marks out two large circles on the ground, then murmurs an incantation, tracing patterns in the air with her staff. Two pavilions rise up from the ground where Ayla drew the circles - one for the men, one for the women. The others dismount. Toran and Keisai tether the horses to some low bushes. The sun just begins its final descent in the sky.
Taygana looks around, spying some nearby fruit trees. Her eyes light up at the thought of fresh plums, as well as a few moments away from Ayla. “Ayla, I’m going to pick some of those plums.” Taygana is gone before Ayla can reply.
Ayla shouts furiously. “TAYGANA!”
“I will go after her,” says Toran.
Toran takes off after the princess. He catches up with her at the trees, where Taygana is trying to snag fruit off the lower branches. The lowest branches are just out of her reach, the heavy traveling kimono too cumbersome to allow her to jump or climb.
“Princess, you should not have run off like that,” Toran admonishes her.
“If I waited for Ayla, she would never have agreed.”
“And for good reason. You are not familiar with this place “
“I know... danger around every tree. Then if you would assist me, I would be finished quickly and we may return to camp. Boost me up.”
Sighing in frustration, Toran steps in front of the princess. Without thinking, he places his hands on her hips and lifts her up towards the tree. She quickly picks some of the ripe fruit, slipping it into a scarf she knotted into an impromptu basket. Toran looks up for a moment, then quickly back down. “Has it been so long since you’ve been outside the palace walls?”
“What do you mean?”
“You seem to be gathering an incredible number of plums in a remarkable amount of time, even though I am holding you up.”
Taygana tries to concentrate on the fruit, rather than Toran’s touch. “We have a small orchard for the personal use of the royal family on the palace grounds.”
“But it was still inside the palace, no?”
“Of course,” replies Taygana. “Father would not allow us off the palace grounds without an entourage.”
Toran’s arms begin to strain. “You never snuck...away?”
“Father had us closely watched... though my great aunt said before the War of the Magi, she could slip out through cat space and sneak into town.” She looks in her scarf. “I think I have enough for this evening and for the morning.”
Toran slowly puts Taygana down on the ground, but his hands don’t leave her hips. “I ask, as when I see you out here ... your eyes are more filled with exuberance than they did when I talked to you in the palace.”
Her eyes connect with Toran’s. “Here, I do not have hundreds of people watching and scrutinizing me.”
“But right now there is only one.”
Taygana’s voice lowers to a whisper. “Yes....” Nervously, she licks her lower lip. A burning sensation spreads through her body, starting where Toran’s hands touch her.
His face comes closer to hers. “And right now... all he sees.... is an... incredible... young ... woman.... “
The princess tries to hide her trembling. “Oh...?”
Toran’s face comes closer. “And he...” His head sharply moves away. “He wishes he could, but... doesn’t know how.”
“Wishes he could what?” Taygana asks in a low voice, her heart pounding.
“Learn to ... truly ... love someone.”
“Right now... that is a prospect that I am facing... marrying one who I do not love...”
“It will be a marriage in law, not in the heart... and do not say I will learn to love him... I can not...” Her voice lowers, “not when I love another....”
“Birds in their cages....”
“Unfortunately... though at least when you are released from your vows to the temple, you will be able to pursue your heart.”
Toran’s face comes closer again. His voice lowers. “Regretfully, that path would only lead me to heartbreak.”
Taygana feels her heart racing out of control. “And why is that?”
“Because... my heart wants to be with someone.... with.... with...”
“Yes?” Taygana asks breathlessly, daring not to hope.
Toran whispers: “Forgive me Pharangese for what I am about to do....”
His face comes ever so close to Taygana’s , and then in one bold move, his lips crush themselves on Taygana’s. Startled, yet pleased, Taygana gives herself to the kiss. Her body melts into Toran’s arms. With a mental sigh, she realizes that she will have one kiss of love in her life. Toran is surprised by all the charged emotions running through him at this moment. The only love that he had ever experience before was the guidance given to him by the Mother Superior. But this, this was something completely different, something completely wonderful. It is a gift to him, and he does not want to let it go
A tear forms in the corner of Taygana’s eye... how wrong it is... to find love, but to be forced to marry another... If only she and Toran could go away somewhere and be together... to hell with the marriage contract... but Ayla would hunt them down. Taygana’s heart breaks, knowing that this may be the only kiss of its kind in her life.
Toran’s eyes open long enough to see a tear roll down Taygana’s cheek. He gently wipes it away, but then finds that tears are forming in his eyes. He reluctantly begins to pull his lips away, only to find them continually being drawn back to hers. Taygana does not want to end this kiss. Yet in the distance, they hear Ayla and Keisai.
“Don’t do it, woman,” warns Keisai.
Ayla turns on Keisai. “They should have been back by now!”
“Have you that little doubt in a warrior taught by the Mother herself?”
“It is the princess that I am more concerned about. It would be like her to run off in a strange land.”
“In other words, you don’t trust us.”
“No. I do not trust the princess. She does not accept the idea of her marriage.”
“Should she?” asks Keisai acidly. “Should she accept the apparent hell that you have condemned her to?” Ayla looks slightly surprised. “How do I know?” continues Keisai. “I can see it in her eyes. And so does Toran. Why you can’t is beyond me.”
Ayla replies sharply. “The princess abides by her father’s wishes. As I am sure you will, when you finish your service of the temple of Pharangese and return home to your own arranged marriage.”
“Perhaps. And perhaps not. And perhaps you should ask yourself if the price she is paying is worth forging a tenuous political alliance. Ah, forget it. my words are wasted on you. I go to retire.”
Ayla’s eyes glow. “Try me not, young warrior...” Energy crackles around her staff. “Our people’s numbers are diminishing by greater numbers each year. These alliances serve to unite a scattered people.”
“All in the name of the greater good. Believe me, I know about what happens to the greater good. And so does Toran.” Keisai pauses. “And if you ever threaten me again, witch, I pray to Pharangese that my aim will be true.” Keisai enters the pavilion for the men.
“Brash young fool...,” Ayla mutters to herself, “needs to learn manners and temperance... I should turn him into a toad for his insolence...” She glances in the direction Toran and Taygana went. “I will give them just till the sun touches the horizon before I search for them.”
Back at the plum trees, Toran finally pulls his lips away from Taygana’s lips. She appears to begin to say something, but Toran places a finger on her lips. “Milady, my heart... my heart is... “ Toran chokes up, and a tear rolls down his cheek.
“My heart is yours Toran... though I am bound to marry another, my heart is bound to you...”
Toran smiles, then pulls out a small pendant from inside his shirt. “As is mine to yours.” He pauses, then mutters “Curse the gods for bringing us together only to separate us.” Toran takes the pendant off. and then places it on the plums Taygana is carrying. “Do not forget me, milady. Whatever you do, do not forget me.”
Taygana fights back more tears. “I will never forget you, my noble warrior.” Taygana takes the pendant. It is a locket, shaped like a heart, with a single gem in it. She puts it in her pocket, to hide it from Ayla. “I will treasure this all my life.” In the back of her mind, the words “as short as it may be” echo. She pushed them out of her mind. “We should return. Ayla will be frantic.”
“You are right. And truth be told, I wish to not be here any longer than need be. Jusenkyo is a frightful place, even here close to the fringes of that accursed place.”
Taygana tries to compose herself as they return to the camp. Ayla is pacing back and forth. “WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN!” Ayla thunders angrily.
“The lady wished to taste some the fruit of nature rather than magic. Consider it chance to conserve what power you have for tomorrow as we ride through Jusenkyo.” Toran takes a plum and tosses it to Ayla.
“Taygana, do not run off like that again. We are in a strange land. It is not the creatures roaming the land that I worry about... it is those of the two legged variety who would kidnap a young lady like yourself. In some lands, cat people are kept as zoo creatures.... “
Taygana cuts Ayla’s sentence short. “Ayla, I was quite safe with Toran. Now I am tired. I am sure you wish to continue our journey at first light. Therefore I bid you good night.” Taygana takes a few of the plums and goes into the women’s pavilion.
“As must I. It will be a long day tomorrow,” says Toran.
Ayla watches Toran enter the men’s tent. “In all my 1500 years, I have not had such troubles... Bastet give me strength to get through this journey...” Ayla mutters to herself. She goes to the women’s tent as well.
Meanwhile, in the men’s tent....
“May Pharangese forgive me....,” says Toran.
“What?” asks Keisai.
“Keisai, please understand, what I do is done with a heavy heart.”
“What is it?”
“I can no longer serve the church.”
“Was it because of... “
“That is part of it. And you know well the other part as well. I will serve Pharangese in my own way.” Toran puts his sword away and strips off his shirt. Keisai notes that the pendant signifying his vows to the church is missing.
“Toran... did you--- “
“Yes. My vows to the church are no more. My vows... are to something more important.”
“I don’t believe this.”
“Nor will you of the request I make of you next - do not follow me in leaving the church. You must be the one to bring it back from what Janos has taken it, and... you also have a life ahead of you. I don’t want you to ruin it by following me.”
“But Toran.... “
“Trust me on this, Keisai. “
“What of our duty here?”
“We will carry it out. But after... that is another story. And it is late now, and I would like to sleep.”
“Toran... very well. But I hope that you have not acted in haste.”
“I have followed my heart with good intentions, which is all Pharangese would have asked of me. Now go to sleep.”
In the women’s tent, Taygana lays on her pallet, apparently asleep. Ayla retires to her own bed and is quickly asleep. However, Taygana does not sleep. She clutches the pendant close to her heart, praying to Bastet and Misra. It is late before she slips into a restless sleep.
---the middle of the night----
Keisai blissfully sleeps, and then feels something odd. Something dirty. He opens his eyes and finds himself on the floor. “What the?” he mutters.
“Good, you’re awake,” says Toran.
“What am I doing here?”
“Never mind that now. I need your help.”
Keisai slowly gets to his feet. “Urgh.. I don’t know what you have in mind.”
“Just hear me out...”
Minutes later, in the ladies’ pavilion, a small brown cat with a white underbelly comes crawling in, stealthily moving towards the sleeping form of Taygana. The cat soon changes shape, returning Keisai to his true from. His hand reaches out to Taygana’s body. Keisai whispers: “Princess...”
Taygana’s eyes flutter open. Startled to see Keisai, she sits up. “What....?” Keisai puts his finger over his lips. Taygana nods, then whispers. “What is it?”
“Tell me... with whom would you rather be with?”
“What... what do you mean?”
“Did Toran give you something?”
Taygana glances over at Ayla, who is loudly snoring. “He... gave me this...” She shows him the locket clenched tightly in her hand.
Keisai pulls out a locket identical to the one in Taygana’s hand from underneath his church. “This signifies our vows to the church. Toran gave up his vows to his church.”
Taygana eyes widen with astonishment. “He... he what....?”
“He gave up his vows to the church.... and as I suspected, he pledged his vows... to you, instead.”
Taygana closes her eyes, trying to take in what Keisai is telling her. A tear rolls down her cheek. “I can’t believe he....”
“Neither could I.” He pauses. “I hate to ask this again at this point, but please tell me, with whom would you rather be with?”
“With... with the man I have given my heart to... with Toran....” Taygana replies in a barely audible whisper
“What would you say if there was a way that could be arranged?”
“I would say that finally Bastet has heard my prayers.”
“Not quite... please, follow me.” Keisai shifts to his cat form. Glancing at Ayla, Taygana shifts into her cat form... a black cat with a ring of pink fur around the neck. She follows Keisai out of the pavilion. Keisai leads Taygana into the men’s’ pavilion, where they both return to normal form after entering.
“Thank you, Keisai,” says Toran. He turns to Taygana. “How much did he tell you?”
“Enough...” She looks Toran straight in the eye. “How could you give up your training and your vows like this?”
“Please, don’t be angry with me. I did... I did as my heart bade me,” returns Toran.
“I’m not angry... just astonished,” admits Taygana.
“As am I, Princess,” adds Keisai.
“Keisai, don’t start with me. What I have done, I have no regrets about.” Toran looks at Taygana. “Forgive me if I am blunt, but tell me, how would you like to run away with me?”
Taygana blinks in surprise. “Thank Bastet,” murmurs Taygana under her breath. She says aloud. “More than anything.”
“Thank the Mother, instead, milady,” says Toran.
“What do you mean?” she asks.
“You’re not going to believe this.... “ begins Keisai.
Toran glares at Keisai for a moment. “Ever since the Mother passed on, I’ve had these dreams...”
“Dreams?” asks Taygana. “What kind?”
“They’re... almost like revelations... given to me by the Mother,” says Toran.
“They’re why I’m here,” continues Toran. “They’re why I’m going to suggest something that will require your full participation.”
“You will have my full cooperation,” Taygana assures him.
“Excellent,” says Toran. “Now please listen closely, the both of you. When we approach Jusenkyo, Keisai, you will “accidentally” spook Taygana’s horse, which will force her to become a cat and jump onto my horse. Then, Keisai, you will have to keep Ayla distracted as we run off in search of asylum.”
Keisai grins. “I’ll gladly do it. She has to learn that what she says doesn’t always goes.”
“But where to run off to....,” adds Toran.
“We could...,” suggests Taygana, “possibly... return to the temple of Bastet... I think the high priestess would help us... and even Ayla will not go against what the high priestess does.”
“But she would only wait us out. Temple do not grant unlimited asylum...,” explains Toran.
“Unless....,” begins Keisai.
“Unless?” Taygana asks.
“If the high priestess were to also marry the two of you, then the witch dare not interfere with that, and would have to leave the two of you alone,” continues Keisai.
“Marriage... ,” murmurs the princess.
“Though perhaps under the circumstances, marriage is not the best of ideas,” adds Keisai.
“To be with my love, I am willing... if he is....” Taygana says quietly.
“To marry you, Taygana, I... I would go through hell itself,” returns Toran.
“So you will?” she asks in surprise. Toran nods, and Taygana rushes into his arms.
Taygana glances out the pavilion and sees the sun rising. “I must return to the other pavilion, lest Ayla awake and find me gone,” she says.
“Just don’t forget what was said here, and keep it to yourself. We have but one chance,” Keisai reminds her.
“After what you have seen of me the past few days, do you honestly believe I would ruin it now?” asks Taygana.
“I believe that Keisai is reminding us that no one is infallible,” says Toran gently.
“I know... I must go...” With a lingering glance, Taygana shifts to cat form and slips back to the women’s pavilion. For the first time in months she feels hopeful and content.
“Do you think we can pull this off?” asks Keisai.
“It is not a matter of can, it is a matter of it must be done.”
As the sun slowly rises, Ayla stirs. She sits up and yawns. Taygana slips the pendant into her pocket, where it will be hidden from Ayla. Ayla smacks her lips a couple of times. “Ah, sunrise,” she murmurs. The mage looks to Taygana, who is feigning sleep. “Princess, it is time to awaken.”
Taygana sits up and stretches. Her stomach is full of nervous anticipation, but she plays the part she is supposed to. She pretends to yawn. “So soon?”
“Well, if you do not wish to eat breakfast, you may sleep a while longer.”
“No. I’m rather hungry. There still should be some plums left.”
“As you wish.” Ayla pauses. “I suppose we _should_ wake them up.”
“I will leave that up to you.” Taygana picks up a brush non-chalantly and begins to brush the tangles out of her hair.
In the men’s pavilion, Keisai checks his bow. “How soon do we do this?”
Toran looks over his sword. “As soon as we stand upon the threshold of Jusenkyo.”
“And our weapons will be necessary?”
“If we wish to survive Ayla’s wrath.” Toran gets up and straps on his sword. “I might as well go and check on them.”
Outside the pavilion, Ayla watches the rising sun. She shudders, as if feeling an ill wind. Ayla mutters to herself. “If only I was gifted with foresight... rather than this simple sense that all is not right....” She turns and sees Toran emerge from the men’s pavilion.
“I see I do not have to wake anyone,” says Toran.
“The princess will be ready shortly,” returns Ayla.
“Indeed.” He looks in the direction of Jusenkyo. “I pray that those we survive those wretched waters... “
“We will be staying to safe paths. I have planned a route that goes through what are known as the “blank” pools... ones that have not yet claimed an unfortunate victim. A simple splash there will get one nothing more than a little wet. Should something drown in one of the pools, the curse takes full affect, as in the pools that have the reputations.”
“Very well.” Toran places his hand on the hilt of his sword. “I will do all in my power to ensure that she will come out of this forsaken place.”
“That is one of the reasons why warriors of Pharangese were chosen for this.”
“I suppose.” He pauses. “Shall we prepare to feast?”
“Yes. I would like to resume our journey as soon as possible. I will fetch the princess.”
“And I will get Keisai.”
Nodding, Ayla returns to the women’s pavilion. Taygana hears her return and quickly puts Toran’s pendant in her pocket for safe keeping. If she were to wear it now, Ayla would surely comment. “Come princess,” says Ayla. “Let us break our fast and leave this cursed place.”
Taygana stands. “Of course. The sooner we are on our travels, the better.”
Ayla raises an eyebrow. “You seem a great deal more cheerful this morning.”
“Perhaps it’s the fruit.” Taygana says with a shrug.
“If you say so...”
Outside, as Toran and Keisai leave their pavilion, Keisai says: “So, then, I gather this will be our last day together.”
“Do I detect a regret?”
“Possibly. I just hope that you t---”
Toran places his finger on Keisai’s mouth as he spots Ayla and Taygana leaving their pavilion. “Good morning gentlemen,” the princess greets them.
“Good morning, milady. Sleep well?” asks Toran, fighting to control himself
“Yes, thank you,” Taygana replies politely, trying to play her part. “I recommend we break our fast quickly, as Ayla is apparently anxious to resume our journey.”
“I will feel more comfortable once the cursed pools are behind us,” adds Ayla.
“As will all of us. So then, shall we break our fast?” asks Keisai.
“Yes, please. I am famished,” responds Taygana.
Ayla doesn’t respond. She glances around nervously, as if feeling an ill wind again. Toran notices Ayla’s increased agitation. “What is it?”
“I do not know... I feel something... strange in the air...” Ayla hesitates.
Toran clutches the hilt of his sword. “Keisai, go get your bow.” Keisai heads off. “I hope that I am not acting rashly....” Taygana becomes nervous as she watches Ayla and the warriors. All at once, the feeling of impending doom returns to her. Toran draws his sword. “Well, Ayla? Are we acting all for nothing?”
Before Ayla can respond, the party is set upon by demonic creatures. “NO! Bastet *damn* him!” she shouts angrily. Ayla raises her staff to launch a fireball at the first wave of the demons.
Keisai, just coming out of the pavilion, sees the demons. “Pharangese preserve us...” He draws arrows and begins shooting.”
“Princess, get behind me!” commands Toran.
Taygana follows Toran’s directions. “What are these creatures?”
“Minions of the sorcerer Verlayne... “ responds Ayla acidly.
“You say that, dear half-sister, as if you are not pleased to see me,” says a strange voice. The partly looks in the direction of the voice and sees a tall, dark haired half-breed, with a wizard’s circlet and staff.
Toran hacks at two demons rushing at him. “Sister?” he asks, puzzled.
“A dalliance by my father with a human servant... a mistake he regretted till the end of his life,” returns Ayla. “A life that would have been longer, had it not been for Verlayne.”
“Now, now, dear half-sister. Of course, you neglect to mention that our father had tried everything in power to make sure that I would not come back and haunt him,” says Verlayne.
Ayla responds angrily. “He gave you every chance and consideration! It was only after you began to use your powers for dark reasons that he realized his mistakes.”
“Dark? Hardly. I simply found that I need not answer to anyone.”
“You then decided you would rather have everyone answer to you.”
“Yes, well, it turns out that that is a rather enjoyable consequence of the realization I have made,” says Verlayne with a dark smile.
Toran mutters “Insane demon...”
“Insane?” says Verlayne. “Let us see how you fare....after facing this! Talmet’s Madness!!” Verlayne’s hand crackles with raw energy, and then a dark sphere forms around it. Startled, Taygana instinctively reaches into cat-space and withdraws what looks like a white ball. She throws the ball at Verlayne. It explodes as it contacts the sorcerer.
The dust cloud disperses, revealing an unamused Verlayne. “So, my sister the witch has taught you a few tricks, has she? Very well. I thank you, woman. You will make this much more entertaining than I first thought it would be.” He laughs at the party mockingly before a grim expression forms on his face. He raises his arms to the sky, and a horde of demons reveal themselves, taking position by his side. His arms lowers, pointing right at Taygana. With a deafening whisper, he only says, “Kill her...”
Almost immediately the horde moves, rushing towards the party. Ayla chants an incantation, and the demons closest to them are fried by a wall of mystic energy. Toran cleaves those demons that have barely made it through the barrier, while Keisai lets arrows rain down upon those who are still coming.
“Impressive.” Verlayne thinks. “You could almost swear that they have forged themselves into a team. Almost.” Another wave of his hand summons another batch of howling hellspawn, directing it towards them.
Ayla responds to this new group of attackers by touching the ground and uttering a minor chant. A few moments later, the ground the demons tread upon erupts in a wave of pure energy, burning the demons to ash. “The princess! How is she?” she cries out.
Toran looks into Taygana’s eyes briefly before having to turn to slash a demon that flanked the party. His sword drips with the ichor that was the demon’s blood. “We’re alive. But with all these demons, how long has yet to be determined.”
“Good. Now keep doing your job and we may yet get through this.” Ayla shoots fireballs from her staff at an oncoming demon that she saw out of the corner of her eye. Toran’s eyes narrow for a moment before he returns his attention to the battle. Keisai shakes his head, thinking, “Insensitive witch,” before dropping his bow and pulling out a dagger.
Verlayne looks on, his smug grin having turned into grim frown. “This is taking much longer than expected. I knew I was to skip tea, but am I to skip lunch as well?” he watches as yet another group of demons falls, this time to lightning bolts summoned by Ayla. He sighs. “Good demons are _so_ hard to find these days... I suppose I must enter my august presence into the battlefield and do something.” He glares at his half sister for a moment. Closing his eyes, he concentrates. Black mists arise from the ground, encompassing his body, removing it from sight. The mists disappear, and then reform next to Ayla.
The clouds of mists by Ayla quickly dissipate, revealing Verlayne, a smug grin on his face. She scowls at the sight of him before dispatching another attacking demon with a fireball. He sees the demon fry from the mystic energy, and is unimpressed. “Is that the best you can do, dear sister?”
“Bastard. Father never should have let you live past birth.”
“Considering that he debated whether or not he should have kept you, I’m not surprised that I’m still alive....”
“Bore me not with your lies Verlayne.” Her eyes flash. “But what can one expect of the half-breed get of a human slave, sold by her family for her disobedience.”
“Ah, sweet sister, if your eyes weren’t blinded by your righteousness... but then, you always were the stubborn one, weren’t you...”
“Stubbornness has gotten me through this life, bastard, while evil has dominated yours.”
“What you have termed evil, a see as an alternate view of the world, filled with the shades of gray that you seem to ignore...”
“Truly the world is filled with shades of gray. Yours, however, are filled with black.”
He snorts. “As if you have not indulged in the blackness of your soul.”
“Never to destroy and corrupt, as you do.”
“No, but you have the same thirst for power that I have. You wanted the wizards power, and now you want the power over nations... in the end, you are no better than I.”
“I have no power over the nations of cat-kind. I want no such thing. I seek to ensure the survival of cat-kind, while you seek its destruction.”
“Now who is the one that is lying, dear sister? I remember you at the rites to becoming a wizard. You could barely contain your lust for that mystic power. Indeed, you inspired me to do the same.”
“The difference is in the choices made in the use of that power.”
“You have used it to become the high wizard of the most powerful nation. And my sources tell me that the king asks your advice on almost every political decision now. You hold within your grasp the reigns of a nation, a direct result of your choices. And you tell me you have no power over nations?”
“Advice is one thing. Control is another. Whatever monarch asks for my advice is free to accept or decline it. I force myself on no one. Unlike the way your bitch of a mother forced herself on Father.” She snorts. “Father was too softhearted in keeping her around. The slut hardly gave him a moments peace. Then she stole a potion of conception to try to force Father into marriage. Thankfully the bitch died in childbirth.”
“I agree that she was a slut, but never let it be said that she lacked ambition, which is one of the lessons she left me with.” He grins. “And you complain about him being softhearted? Of the wounded drake you found that one summer?”
“A mistake I will never make again. And you will rue the day you chose to interfere with my plans.” Tired of the banter and wishing to rid herself of the nuisance, she raises her staff and looses an energy blast at Verlayne.
“Ah the fires, still burn in you. Much like they did when the drake you so desperately hid from father repaid your kindness by burning down half the village, killing hundreds.” He grins as he deflects the blast. “I always wondered how you felt when you heard the screams of all those people when the drake cam down upon them.”
“Silence, Bastard!” She levels another blast at him.
“Ah, now I begin to understand. I wonder what father would have done if he found out that you were the one responsible for all those deaths.” He laughs at her mockingly, the blast having gone way past his head. “What a pathetic woman.” He spits in her face.
Ayla narrows her eyes. She sees through Verlayne’s ploy to distract her. Briefly she mutters a calming exercise learned centuries ago at the Temple of Bastet. Another mental incantation blocks Verlayne’s taunts. A change of tactics is necessary.
Unfortunately, with Ayla distracted by Verlayne, the hordes of demons come closer to the others with most of their number intact. Keisai and Toran are nearly exhausted in trying to keep the demons away from Taygana, and with Ayla now fighting with Verlayne, they now become truly afraid that they will not walk away with their lives.
“This is getting us nowhere,” Keisai shouts out as he impales one more of the assaulting horde with his dagger.
“What do you suggest we do? Abandon Taygana? That is something I will not allow, ever!” Toran’s eyes narrow before he strikes down another attacker.
Taygana says nothing, but rather stares on at the battle raging around her, trying to hide behind Toran and Keisai as more bodies fall around her. “By Bastet, can it be happening? My dream...” She shakes her head clear of that thought. “No. I am still here. With Toran at my side. It won’t hap---” Her thoughts are interrupted by a shadow appearing from behind. She turns to look, and gasps at the sight of a demon reaching to claw at her. Suddenly, a throwing spike appears between the demon’s eyes, before it falls backwards onto the ground. Taygana looks at Toran, who’s arm is outstretched, as if it threw something. They lock eyes for a moment, and know the fear that each other is carrying within.
“Toran, I think they finally smartened up.” Taygana can hear the wavering in Keisai’s voice. All three of them look around, and find themselves encircled by the horde. Keisai adjusts his grip on his dagger. “I guess they got tired of attacking from the fore.”
Toran nods, and readies his sword again. “To the left. On my mark.” Keisai nods in return as Toran grasps Taygana’s arm, holding it tight enough that only his death would loosen it. She looks at him in wonderment, but staring into his bright green eyes comforts her, makes her feel alive somehow.
Keisai charges headlong into the ring of hellspawn, crying out like a banshee as his dagger digs deep into the flesh of two of them. Toran follows closely behind him, pulling Taygana with him, his sword cutting down more along the path that Keisai is making. It seems like hours for all three of them, until they finally pierce through and out the side of the encirclement. Almost immediately, Toran and Keisai turn to dispatch any demons behind them, keeping Taygana to their backs.
“Princess, get away from here.” Toran’s words almost feel like a dagger in her heart. His sword, however, claims what passes for the heart of another demon.
“There’s too many of them. Don’t argue wiARRGH!!!” His body convulses with pain as one of Verlayne’s hellspawn digs it claws deep into Toran’s flesh.
Instinctively Taygana cries out. “TORAN!” Toran waves her off before returning the blow with another throwing spike from his free hand.
“Damn it, Princess, listen to him!” Keisai does not finish what he wants to say, becoming occupied with blocking oncoming blows.
“Toran, I don’t want to...”
“Run Princess. Please, for both of us, run.”
“But what about...”
“RUN PRINCESS!” Toran shouts while fighting three of Verlayne’s demonic creatures.
At Toran’s order, Taygana runs. Seven or eight of Verlayne’s demons pursue her. She tries to open a cat space portal, but finds it blocked with fallout from the War of the Magi. Glancing around wildly, she spies a wooded area to the left and a flat area ahead. She makes a split second decision and continues forward, hoping to gain some distance on the creatures and encounter a better hiding place than the trees. She runs on. The ground begins to slope upwards. Rocks and crags slow her progress. Any distant she gains is lost as the creatures spring easily over the terrain. An ache forms in Taygana’s side and breathing becomes more difficult as she continues forward. She climbs a steep slip... and freezes... Grabbing a boulder to steady herself, Taygana finds herself at the edge of a high cliff. She looks back and sees the creatures closing in on her. Looking further back, from her vantage point, she can vaguely see Toran and Keisai battling more of the creatures while Ayla combats Verlayne. Suddenly Taygana’s foot slips on some of the loose rocks. She grabs at the boulder, loosening it. Taygana screams. Her piercing scream carries to the battlefield. Toran spares a moment’s glance in the direction Taygana ran. He sees her fall over the edge of the cliff.
“TAYGANA!” yells Toran.
Another creature attacks Toran. Screaming, Taygana goes over the cliff. Loose rocks and debris also fall. Taygana tries to gather herself. She is close enough to the side of the cliff that she just might... reaching out, Taygana tries to grab at the rocky wall, attempting to dig her claws into the side. Just as she starts to get a hold, the debris that followed Taygana’s fall hit her in the head. Dazed, Taygana loses her tentative grip and falls face first towards a shallow pool of water. She lands spread eagle in the water, the impact forcing the air out of her lungs and stunning her. More debris lands on Taygana’s back, pinning her under the water. She struggles futility... panicking... water fills her lungs... her struggling ceases... last thoughts filter through her mind.
Taygana thinks to herself weakly. “I knew... never see my family... Kiyomi... Toran... my heart belongs to... you... forever... my love...” Taygana’s last thoughts are of Toran as she fades. Within a few minutes, Taygana, princess of the cat people, drowns in one of the cursed pools of Jusenkyo.
Back at the battle, a shockwave hits Toran. He doesn’t know how or why he knows... yet he has the distinct feeling that Taygana is dead. Burning, searing anger floods Toran. He slices through two of the demons, then turns towards their master. “VERLAYNE!” shouts Toran angrily.
Sword held high for a strike, Toran runs at Verlayne. Verlayne for a brief moment turns from Ayla to block Toran’s attack. This provides Ayla with the opening she needs. Carefully aiming her staff, Ayla directs a concentrated bold of energy at Verlayne’s circlet. Verlayne cries out in agony as one of the crystals in his circlet shatters. A large part of Verlayne’s forces disappear.
Verlayne thunders angrily: “DAMN YOU ALL! I WILL PREVAIL!” He disappears, followed by the rest of his creatures.
Keisai pants heavily. “Where...?”
“He will not trouble us... at least for the rest of our journey,” Ayla assures him. “With the lose of one of his crystals of power, he would not dare try attacking.” She looks around. “Where is the princess?”
The events begin to sink in in Toran’s mind. “She...” Further words stick in his throat.
Keisai wipes his blade, then sheathes it. “She ran that way.” He points to the cliff. “Several of the creatures were after her... I heard a scream.”
“THE CLIFF! Come! Quickly! She may be injured!” Ayla leads the warriors along a path that leads to the bottom of the cliff. Toran follows, allowing a brief flicker of hope to burn in his heart. Maybe she was just severely injured... He runs, passing Keisai and Ayla, then stops abruptly. A little old man, a caretaker of the cursed pools, is painting on a sign next to one of the pools. Then Toran sees it... bright pink hair, floating in a pool... pinned down by a pile of rocks.