Written by Max True
And M. S. True
A tale of the Guardians of Ti'koah
Waves of heat rippled around them, and across the vast expanse of Gaishan Major, the largest desert in the Kodomo Empire. The Neko bounty hunter, Mara Fox, led her horse through the shifting sands. Beads of sweat tangled in her golden fur and stung her eyes, her long auburn mane hung limp and matted around her face. Underneath Mara, her stallion shuddered. Once a powerful riding beast, the desert trek had eaten away his muscles and turned his white coat the dull brown hue of this vast waterless wasteland. If this quest cost her mount its life, there would be hell to pay.
"Were going to die out here," she muttered, as she pulled a water skin from her satchel. "There's not enough water to get back, even if we knew the way." She took a long swig, and then spat out a mouthful of wet sand.
Ahead, her two companions stopped and turned in their seats to look back at her. They were a bizarre trio, to be sure. The youngest was a boy named Vic. He looked no different from any other village boy; shaggy black hair, peach fuzz on his chin, thick wool poncho over his homemade thread-spun clothes. The great white wings that folded close upon his back marked him as a noble Tenchi, in contrast to his otherwise common appearance. He sat atop an O'tiki; a rare two-legged lizard, bred by the Tenchi as mounts. Vic shot Mara a weary grin, and they both looked over at the Captain.
He called himself Captain Magus Kane, although Captain of what Mara had no idea. He was human, a Kodomo by all appearances, dressed in black slacks, boots, and a crisp white high-collared shirt that poked above the top of his military jacket. The jacket was also black; a relic really, from a time before the Empire had been an empire. The sleeves of his jacket were rolled up and pinned at the elbows to show a pair of powerfully enchanted Titan Bracers, ancient armor from the old order. Two plasma pistols hung from a gun belt that crossed twice around his waist.
The most unusual thing about him though was his sandy blond hair, cut short, and his piercing blue eyes. She had only met one other person with blond hair and blue eyes many years ago, the trait having been almost completely bred out of the Kodomo gene pool on Tiko'ah.
Kane had powered down his Drifter, and sat staring at her, his brows furrowed, a slight frown on his chiseled face. Mara blushed, suddenly all too aware of her disheveled appearance, and lowered her eyes.
"You're welcome to leave us and find a better path. Regu lies to the West, that way." He pointed back the way they had come, across the rolling sea of sand dunes.
"You're going to kill us all!" she fumed, releasing the horse’s reigns and coming to stand before him. "You have no idea where we are, you bastard!" Her fists clinched at her sides as desperation crept into her voice. Magus Kane did not lower his eyes. He spoke calmly. "We're not going to die, Mara. I need your trust for just a while longer." He stood and reached out his hand, placing it on her shoulder, and all the anger washed out of her. "We're nearly there, and the boy is going to need you. You know that." He said the last so only she could hear.
"Where are we going? Why were those soldiers trying to kill him? Just give us a straight answer for once!" She motioned to Vic who was climbing off his O'tiki to walk over and join them. "We've been following you for over a week now because of what you did for him back in Regu," she continued, "but I'm tired, Kane, and I'm sick of being led around like some damn Grabaj monkey!" She crossed her arms and tried unsuccessfully to stare him down. Kane just waited patiently, clearly unconcerned.
"Just tell her what she wants to hear, Kane. How much further is this lost city of yours?" Vic walked up and stood next to Mara. "Your Drifter may not need food and water, but our mounts won't make it much further out here. O'tiki aren't cheap you know." Kane studied both of them for a long moment, and then nodded.
"It’s fine,” he said, looking from one to the other. "They have taken us as far as we needed to go. Set up the lean-to next to my bike and then tether them to it. It'll give them some shade and they can rest while we're gone."
"Why would we…" Mara trailed off looking to Vic. Kane turned his back on them and began riffling through one of his Drifter's storage pouches. "We're here, girl, or very nearly. The rest of the way we will go on foot." He slipped a backpack over his shoulders and started walking.
They caught up to him twenty minutes later, following his trail in the bleached sand. He was standing at the top of a rise as they reached him. Following his gaze they both suddenly froze, the sight below making their heads swim. The enormous ruins of an ancient city stuck out of the desert like it had been dropped there and forgotten. Great stone walls stretch across the horizon in either direction. Beyond the walls, they could see elaborate towers and huge white buildings with metallic domed roofs. In the distance loomed an obsidian palace that seemed to reach into the sky.
Mara and Vic stood silently, staring down at the city until Kane grew restless and started down the hill towards the wall's shadow. They followed him as he made his way slowly along the outside of the wall. Twice, as they walked, Mara thought she heard something moving above her, but when she looked, she could not see anything. The second time Kane noticed and stopped as well. He followed her gaze and shrugged.
"Don't worry, as long as we stay outside the walls they shouldn't bother us." He knelt and studied the ground in front of him for a moment then started walking again. "We're close, I think… should be just over..." his words trailed off. Mara and Vic watched him make his way towards what looked like a nearby outcropping of rock, coat flapping behind him in the breeze. Vic took her hand, squeezing gently, and said, "Come on Mara, don't you want to see how it ends?" He let go and walked off after Kane.
Mara stood there for a long moment, lost in thought. How had she ended up here, following this strange man across a seemingly infinite wasteland in search of a long dead and probably haunted city? She had known Vic since he was a child. She had already become a well-respected Bounty Hunter in Regu, and whenever her work took her to Faehelm he would follow her around, constantly querying her about her latest adventures. She had always enjoyed his company and as the years passed, she had visited more and more often, strangely drawn back to him. A few months ago he'd asked her to stay and train him to fight. She had never been comfortable staying in one place for long, but she had agreed.
The quiet weeks spent mentoring Vic, she now realized had turned out to be happy and rewarding times for both of them. The once gangly youth had muscled up nicely and had been a keen and observant student. His movements were quick and precise. The strength of his bloodline was all too apparent.
Then the soldiers had come, a murderous squad of imperial mechs under the command of a psychotic Tiko named Gama Ortz. They had burned down half of Faehelm searching for Vic. He and Mara had tried to fight the soldiers off, but they were overpowered, and in the end Ortz had them both at his mercy. Captain Magus Kane had burst in at the last second like some legendary hero, laying waste to the saquad of mech soldiers. He rescued them from the Tiko, convincing Vic afterwards that he must flee the city.
Kane maintained that more soldiers would be coming, and that they would keep coming until Vic was dead. He claimed he knew why and wanted to help. At this point, he had insisted that the young man should come away with him, no questions asked. Vic had agreed, understanding how his very presence now jeopardized everyone around him. Reluctantly, he retreated from the still smoldering village and the only life he had ever known, but he trusted Kane, readily accepting his council.
Mara had followed the pair, intent on keeping Vic safe. She did care for him after all, there was no denying it. And after days of trudging across this seemingly endless ocean of sand, she had to admit that he was right, she did want to know how the story ended. With a deep breath, Mara began walking again.
While Mara and her companions made their way around the mysterious city, a ragged Tiko crept into the shade of the lean-to that they had built for their mounts. Mara's horse whinnied when it saw him and backed away as far as its tether would allow. Animals had never liked him; they seemed to be able to sense the darkness within, as if they could smell his madness. Ortz ignored the horse and climbed up onto Kane's Drifter. He popped the storage compartment’s lid and began to dig through the contents, dropping things into the sand on either side of the bike. He found some dried meat and crackers and shoved fistfuls into his mouth, washing it down with a long dreg from the water bag that hung off the side of the vehicle.
Ortz pulled out a curved dagger from Kane's bag and studied it. It was an excellent blade, probably worth a small fortune. He dropped the dagger back in its sheath and closed the container. Weapons like that had never interested him; they always spoiled his fun too quickly. He looked over at the O'tiki and licked his lips. With a wave of his hand Ortz cast a minor spell and snapped the rope that tied the beast in place. He was ready for some killing and a hot meal. Ortz hopped down off the Drifter and back stepped into the sun, keeping his eyes on the large reptile.
It took the O'tiki a few moments to realize it was free, but when it did, its reaction was sudden and predictable. The beast charged at him, roaring, rows of razor sharp teeth dripping drool. Ortz twisted his hand and pointed his fingers upward. Hundreds of vines burst from the hard earth, wrapping around its feet, attempting to hold the enraged beast in place.
The O'tiki snapped at the vines and pushed forward, its focus still on the strange little man who was now pointing at him. There was a flash of light and a burst of energy stuck it square in the chest, blasting the animal back into the web of vines.
Ortz cast wave after wave of elemental power into the O'tiki, which thrashed among the gripping vines, struggling to get back up until it could no longer fight against the thick green tentacles. Ortz felt the noble creature's death, felt its life force leaving the motionless corpse and summoned it to his side. Then drawing in a deep breath he sucked the Soul in and felt its strength joining with his own. The Soul Rage burned inside of him now, the strength of every Soul he possessed recirculating in the hot blood that pulsed throughout his body. His tiny features began to transform, his body growing bigger, limbs and face elongated, fingers curving into claws. Mara's stallion died soon after in a shower of blood, ripped apart and consumed by the ravenous mutant. Such was the true nature of the Tiko.
Even with the extra strength that Kane gained from his magical bracers, it took all three of them to finally pull free the ancient, rusted grate that sealed off the dry and long abandoned sewers running into and under the lost city. The iron barrier let out a groan and slammed down between them. Kane rushed into the opening as he drew his guns and vanished into the darkness before the sand cloud had settled. Mara and Vic waited outside, staring into the tunnel as the seconds passed. While they waited, Mara studied the inside of the sewers. The floor was cut from stone, but the walls seemed to be some kind of steel. She could not see the ceiling through the thick tangle of black wires and cables that covered it. Kane came back into view wearing a set of heavy metallic goggles, a green light shining behind the eye plates. He handed a second set of dark-vision goggles to Vic, and showed him how to activate them.
"What about Mara?" Vic asked, but the cat girl chuckled. "You've got a lot to learn, kid. Neko can see in the dark." Mara was about to ask the Captain how he had come to know this but Kane cut her off. "We should hurry. It's quiet now, but once we get deeper under the city things could get tricky."
"What are we doing here, Kane? What are you looking for?" She looked past him, not really expecting an answer, but Kane hesitated.
He placed a hand on Vic's shoulder. "Can't you feel it calling to you? Your birthright, boy, it's been here for longer than you can imagine, just waiting to be claimed."
Mara gazed into the gaping black hole, letting this last bit of information sink in while her eyes began to adapt to the darkness. The fur on the back of her neck stood on end as she watched him enticing the boy. Was this human to be trusted?
Vic followed the captain into the tunnel, the pair quickly fading from sight. Suddenly Mara felt a weight settling upon her shoulders. She found herself envisioning a much more complex story now, and it had little to do with her. If she followed these two into the darkness of the sewers, it would be of her own choosing. Making this choice, she also realized, would probably mean that her life would never be the same. Despite her own reservations, however, she knew that Vic had already made his choice.
Reluctantly she followed. Kane gave her a sharp look as he turned to see her come up from behind. She could tell that he had come to some kind of personal conclusion about her loyalty or usefulness and it scared the hell out of her.
Meanwhile, the sewers under the lost city criss-crossed in a vast maze. Mara could not tell one passage from another, and was hopelessly lost within minutes, but the Captain moved with purpose, as if he already knew the way. They headed towards a curve in the path when Kane stopped them. Mara heard the sound moments after him, like a shuffling of footsteps coming their way.
Two creatures came around the corner, trudging slowly toward them, eyes to the ground. In the darkness, they looked like men, but their bodies were made of the same coiling black wires that covered the ceiling. Glowing red eyes widened in surprise as they looked up and saw the trio. The beasts crouched down, a feral hiss coming from their thin, pale lips. Kane shouted out a warning and rushed forward. "Cursed Souls! Watch out for their claws!" Mara threw herself into the fray alongside him, her fists leading the way and every bit as lethal as his blaster pistols. Between them, they easily overpowered the pair of giant sloth-like creatures. These two had reacted slower than expected, seemingly caught off-guard by the trio’s unanticipated presence. This, undoubtedly, would not be the case for the many zombie-like beings that were yet to come.
The further beneath the city they went, the more Lost Souls they had to fight their way past. Each minute seemed like an eternity. The would-be invaders were in constant motion: running, dodging, leaping, and fighting their way through the dim-lit labyrinth. The trio battled with all their strength to stay alive. One of the Cursed Souls lashed out at Mara, its claws searching for her heart. She struck the arm twice in quick succession with her palm, knocking the reach wide, and shoved into it, elbow leading. She connected with its face, and felt its spine snap with the impact. Mara sprinted past before the body hit the ground. Behind her, Vic slammed a steel dagger into an unfocused eye, making sure the vile creature was dead. Without hesitation he hurried on, desperate to keep up with her.
Mara slowed as she came to an intersection in the tunnels. The massive tubes branched out in three directions. She looked down the tunnel on the right following the sound of heavy blaster fire. She could just make out Captain Magus Kane down on one knee, firing into the darkness beyond her vision. He glanced over his shoulder, saw her, and motioned for her to move in his direction. She charged straight through to the opening opposite her previous position. This was how it would be for hours, her and Vic, moving through the dank passageways, taking out one or two of the Cursed Souls at a time, and Kane blending into the shadows, attacking the monsters wherever they clustered.
Further ahead she could see a large open chamber with an old ladder running up the back wall. There were symbols etched into the steel next to the ladder, but Mara could not read them. Cautiously she crept into the chamber, eyes scanning the darkness for enemies, but it appeared unguarded. Vic strode confidently past her, over to the rickety ladder, and stared up its indeterminable height. "Yes, I… I can feel something. We're getting close Mara." His voice was soft and distant. Without glancing back, Vic put his foot on the bottom rung and started to climb.
"Vic, wait-" Mara started towards him, but stopped as Kane came charging into the room behind her. "Climb boy! Hurry, damn you!" He spun back and fired several more bolts down the length of the cavernous hallway. Beyond him, growls and snarls filled the connecting tunnel. It might as well have been a pack of hunting dogs closing in on their prey. As soon as Vic was high enough Mara grabbed onto the ladder and started to climb after him. She had ascended only six rungs when she heard the Cursed Hounds burst into the chamber. There was a flash of green light and Mara looked back just in time to see several of Vic’s attackers vanish under the power of his weapon's Soul Assault.
Three more of the quadrupeds skulked into the room and he quickly stepped back to hug the wall to prevent them from flanking him. The Cursed Hounds looked like over-sized wolves, and like the Cursed Souls they had been fighting, the outer skin was nothing more than a thick tangle of black vines that seemed to writhe as the creature moved. Below their glowing red eyes, black fangs dripped with a thick green ooze.
"Damn it." Mara grunted as she half climbed, half hopped back down the ladder. She ran faster than she ever thought possible, crossing half the chamber’s length in mere seconds, to stand beside Kane once again. He spared a moment to glance at her and nodded in gratitude. Now that he was closer to her, she noticed cuts and bruises across his forehead and down one arm. She wondered how many of the things he had taken out by himself and how many more he would render lifeless. One of the hounds leapt for him but Mara stepped in, her fist slamming into the side of its face and knocking the stunned beast aside. Kane turned and shot a second hound as it charged into the opening she had just left. She rolled back, under his arm, and came up beside it. Her leg snapped out, her foot connecting with the top of its head. The Cursed Hound slammed down into the stone floor under the weight of that blow. Behind her Kane was busy blasting away at the other two, intent on keeping them at bay.
"Mara touched a release on her right gauntlet, and a small panel flipped open. She pressed a button. Her hands started to vibrate as white-hot energy built up around her fists. The energy of every Soul she had ever taken plus these current fatalities, crackled into her hands. The Hound got back to its feet, low, and growled in challenge. It rushed in again, expecting to overpower her but Mara was faster. She sidestepped the attack and snapped her hands forward and together. With a scream, she released the power charge in her gauntlets, sending the stored energy arcing out and into the monster’s now violently convulsing body. The Cursed Hound vanished in a flash of light, ripped apart by the sudden power of that inescapable wave of energy.
She turned just in time to see one of the remaining two hounds slam into Kane. Its teeth sank into his shoulder with a sickening crunch, but in his other hand Kane's pistol was ready. He pressed it against the beast's throat and pulled the trigger, blowing the head off of its body. He slumped back against the wall, the hound's severed cranium rolling across the floor in front of him. Mara moved in protectively, fists raised, feet balanced, and stared intently into the eerily glowing, lava-red eyes of the last hound. Sweat trickled down her brow as she faced off with the animal. Slowly the Cursed Hound lowered its head and backed into the tunnel at its flanks. It never took its eyes off Mara until it was out of sight, melting away into the darkness.
Mara let out a shaking breath, and turned to kneel over Kane. His shirt and his arm were slick with blood. Mara reached out to pull his jacket away from the wound so she could see how bad it was, but he stopped her hand. "Go after the boy! I told you he would need you before this was all done!"
She glanced back at the tunnel expecting to see more wolf-like creatures at any moment. "No, you… you can't fight, they'll be back, Kane." He shook his head and pointed toward the ladder, his eyes half-closed. "Not my time to die. The kid needs you… go, go now!"
Mara ran back to the ladder and started to climb again, only sparing one last look at the Captain. She wondered how long he would have before the hounds, or something worse, came for him.
Vic could never have imagined anything like this place. The ladder had been sturdy enough. It had been held away from the mud-grey wall by spacer bars that were securely pinned to the wall with what appeared to be rusty iron spikes. It rose several hundred feet into the shadows above, consumed halfway up by a wraparound conduit large enough to allow most any bipedal creature seeking passage the ability to ascend. Handholds on either side of a rock doorway put him into another tunnel, or more precisely, an entryway decorated with unfamiliar glyphs, much like those at the base of the ladder.
He had come out of the tunnels into a great open chamber, a single room, as big as a palace. Hundreds of feet above him a huge domed glass ceiling filled the space with daylight. Staircases, bridges, and catwalks zigzagged up, down, and across the distant walls or hung suspended in the air, filling the room like some great creature’s web, connecting at least a dozen ascending levels. Everywhere he looked he could see the room was full of heaps and rows of treasures. It was a hoard unlike any other in the Empire, Vic was sure. Weapons and body armor lay beside piles of jewels and gold. Machines of every type and size lay jumbled together, as if tossed aside by some giant’s great hand. Protruding from darkened openings at higher levels, he could see boats, carriages, and other unimaginable things. It was as if someone had gathered up everything that remained of the ancient civilization and had stashed it all in this cavernous place.
Vic walked among the mountainous rows in a daze, trying to take it all in, but knowing he was only seeing the tiniest fraction of everything that had been stored here. He knew he was supposed to be looking for something, but he had no idea what it was. Kane had told him that something in this place was his birthright. He shook his head in amazement and laughed, he could search a dozen lifetimes in this place and he would still have no idea as to what he might be seeking. He climbed a set of nearby stairs and wandered past a walkway littered with the rusted husks of ancient mechs, their dead eyes watching him as he passed.
He climbed first one flight of stairs and then another, hoping to get a better view of the great cluttered chamber. Hesitantly he started across one of the narrow suspended catwalks, staring over the railing at the treasures below. Above him, on a higher platform someone watched as the boy clambered carelessly above the chamber. Vic failed to see the shadow leap off the bridge above and was completely unprepared when it slammed onto his back, and knocked him into the metal flooring. The dagger he'd been holding flew from his hand and careened over the edge, disappearing somewhere below. He rolled over, pain shooting through his shoulder and scrambled to get his feet back under him. Vic looked up, right into the eyes of a nightmare.
Gama Ortz stared down at the pathetic Tenchi child kneeling before him. The boy was clearly terrified. Ortz ran a swollen tongue over his stretched lips and slathering fangs. He'd always found the smell of fear intoxicating. Vic opened his mouth to say something but Ortz' massive muscled forearm shot forward, covering his face and slamming him back onto the ground. He held Vic there, desperately struggling, for a heartbeat. He wanted to crush the boy in that instant. The Soul Rage screamed inside his head, demanding death, but he pulled back instead. He wanted to see the boy broken, wanted to hear his bones crack, each snapping, one after the next. He needed to savor every second of the miserable begging that was yet to come. There was nothing more glorious or exhilarating than the agony of a prolonged death!
Vic drew in all of his courage and threw himself at Ortz, fist slamming into the Tiko's face, but the massive Tiko hardly felt the blow. Ortz backhanded him and Vic went flying. He landed sprawled on his back, one leg dangling over the walkway’s edge, his head throbbing. Ortz was on him before he could get a breath, hands wrapping around his throat.
Mara climbed out of the ladder shaft and ran into the vast, cluttered room. She barely registered the wonders around her, as she searched desperately for Vic. Movement caught her attention and she looked up. "Oh gods, oh no!" She saw him pinned to a catwalk by a hideous monster. He was trying to kick and scratch his was out of the creature's grip, but he was no match against its sheer brute strength.
Mara knew she was already out of time! She could not get there fast enough to save him. Still she ran, frantically vaulting herself towards the nearest set of stairs. Fear tore through her as she lost sight of the two, yet in that same moment, the weariness of all of the fighting in the tunnels seemed to fall away. She reached the top of the stairs, feet barely touching the floor and ran down a long arched passageway. She had never run so fast in all her life, and her lungs burned. Doggedly, she pushed past the pain, desperate to reach him before it was too late.
A whisper echoed in her mind as she ran. Without thinking she reached out, her hand guided by some supernatural instinct, and scooped up a weapon that was sticking out of a glittering pile of goblets, crowns, and golden statuettes, as she went racing past them.
Nearby Vic struggled to sit up. His head swam from blood loss and his breath came in painful gasps. Ortz had been toying with him, knocking him down, slashing him with claws, but never cutting deep enough to kill him outright. Vic focused on his tormenter as he tried to clear the fog that was filling his head. Ortz now stood a few feet away, wiping blood off his hands with the tattered remains of Vic's poncho. He had changed his shape again, the Blood Rage spent. He was smaller now, only half the size of Vic. Ortz had become a furry little Tiko with large round eyes and floppy ears. Every muscle in his body told Vic to get to his feet, to strangle this little man with his bare hands, but fear held him in place.
Vic had seen Ortz like this before, back in Faehelm, the first time they had met. He looked weaker now, but this face, his true form, was the real monster. Ortz dropped the bloody cloth onto the catwalk and slowly stalked towards him. "It's time to end this, little prince; time for me to get paid." He began casting a spell; lightning danced up his arm and started to collect in his palm. "For the good of the people, of course…" He stood over Vic, the glowing energy in his hand reflecting in the deep black pools of his eyes.
Something moved behind Ortz, someone running up onto the catwalk, and then a metal blade flew past Ortz' head, end over hilt. "Vic!" Mara yelled as she ran towards them. Ortz leapt forward as Vic's fingers grabbed the sword from the air, letting the weight of the weapon pull him, the sword slashing out as he spun. The blade passed cleanly through the Tiko's left arm, and the severed limb bounced from the walkway to the floor below. Power surged into the young Tenchi. The sword hilt grew hot in his grip, and Vic felt his strength returning, and his mind clearing. He pushed up onto his feet once more and stared down at the withered creature who had caused him so much pain - and Gama Ortz knew fear.
The Tiko assassin stumbled back from him, clutching his bloody stump. He hit the railing and flipped backwards, tumbling helplessly over the flimsy rope barrier. His body slammed into a pile of shields, lances, and broken armor. Rolling down behind it, he disappeared from view.
Vic staggered back a step, but Mara was there, catching him by the waist and holding him up. The strength he had borrowed from the sword was already starting to fade, and he would soon be overpowered by his extreme fatigue. Together, Mara and Vic looked down at the magnificent weapon in his hand. It was beautiful: gold and red steel blended across the blade, with silver wings carved into the cross guard. "Kami-kira," Vic muttered in awe, "the God slayer." He did not know how he knew the sword's name, or why he felt such a powerful connection to it, but Mara did not question it. She seemed lost in thought, her eyes distant and dark.
Vic frowned and asked, "Where is Kane?" He looked behind her as if he should be there.
"Vic," she said, taking his hand, "I don't know. He was in the tunnels, he was hurt. I had to leave him."
Vic looked down, scanning their path to the entryway of the great hall. "I have what we came for; we can go get him, together."
They started at a fast walk, Mara helping Vic to keep his balance. The two were nearly to the end of the catwalk when a voice filled the air around them. It had the slow, methodical cadence of a machine, and it filled the chamber, booming from above and echoing through the halls all around them.
"Your friend is dead," it told them, "ripped apart by my beloved Cursed Souls. He will be brought by my servants to join with me soon enough, as will you." Behind them, the sound of metal tearing and objects shattering made them turn, and there it was. The catwalk buckled under the weight of one of its arms as it climbed up the wall from the level below.
Before them loomed a creature so immense and terrifying that its gaze held them frozen in place. It had the body of a massive six-winged dragon, but its skin was metal. Within that outer shell were the remains of thousands of bodies. Mech faces, torsos, limbs, all melted together, alongside weapons and armor, crafted onto this monstrous god-thing. "I am lord of the Lost City.” Its mouth didn't move as it spoke, but the voice seemed to be amplified throughout the chamber. "I am all that was and all that will remain." The dragon pulled itself onto the catwalk and cracks rippled across its surface, below them metal twisted and snapped.
Mara found the strength to turn, but the far end of the bridge she had crossed was now filled with ancient clockwork soldiers, effectively blocking their path. The Mechs stood there silently watching their master. The Wyld Mechlord put the bulk of its full weight onto the bridge and then squatted on its haunches leered at them menacingly.
“Kami-Kira. God Slayer!”
Vic lifted the sword before him, sweat and blood burning his eyes as he focused on the great creature.
A burst of light erupted from the hilt, so bright, it seemed as if the sun itself had flared to life in his hand. The Mechlord shied away from the beam - angry and unsure. It only hesitated a moment though, rage overcoming fear, as it pressed forward towards the unwavering pair. As sudden as a serpent’s strike, it lunged forward until its head slammed up against the radiant light.
Vic's muscles grew heavy and his skin burned, the sword was feeding on his strength, eating into his own Soul, but it was keeping the Mechlord at bay.
"No power on Tiko'ah can stop me!" the Mechlord bellowed in outrage. "I am a God!" Its fists and wings slammed against the pulsing light, which had now created a barrier around the pair. The energy wall held fast, but against the savage onslaught of the Mechlord the luminosity began to flicker and dim. Vic, gasping, sagged into Mara's open arms. The Mechlord pulled back, readying itself for the final crushing assault. He would strike like lightening this time and devour the pair as soon as the Tenchi's strength failed and the light barrier collapsed.
Vic struggled to his knees, Mara's arms around him, no longer able to support himself. "I'm sorry…" He collapsed back against her and the light faded, and then winked out. The Mechlord charged, the bridge snapping and breaking up as it came lumbering toward them.
Kane yelled, "Jump!" as he watched the Mechlord closing in on them. On the catwalk Mara heard the Captain's scream and she didn't hesitate. Wrapping her arms around the unconscious boy she threw them both over the edge. At the controls of a steam powered relic he swooped down under the bridge, exactly as they leapt off. Mara and Vic hit the wooden deck and rolled until they hit the pilot’s housing. The glowing sword, still in the boy’s weakened grip, clattering loudly beside them.
It was an air cruiser, wood and steel, but unlike anything Mara had seen before, with pipes, drive shafts, and large gears running along its sides, connected to a steam engine mounted on the deck just above the stern. Large glass tubes ran the entire 30-foot length of the craft, and four propellers whirled inside a pocket in the sleek vessel’s bottom hull. As the airship flew past, the catwalk collapsed. The Mechlord reached out, huge talons seeking the escaping vessel, but the twisted debris of the falling walkway fell all around him, entangling his wings! The great beast plummeted to the chamber floor roaring and thrashing at the scraps of metal that landed around him in a calamitous shower.
There he stood, top hatch opened, manning the helm, the wind whipping around him.
"Kane! How is this possible?" she called out.
He looked back over his shoulder at her and smiled, "That's Captain Kane, sweetheart! Get him below; this isn't going to be pretty!"
Mara had barely enough time to get Vic and herself through a hatch in the rear of the bridge and down a short set of stairs. Kane slid the hatch over his head and secured it just as the bow of the cruiser slammed into the glass dome above the great chamber, shattering it in a deafening crash. Shards as large as spears rained down around the ship, and into the lair of the Mechlord. Below them, it roared in outrage, its wings now folding around upper torso and head to shield itself from the rain of glass.
Climbing back up on deck, Mara looked back just in time to see the massive structure slipping into the distance as the airship rose into the sky. Hours later she sat in utter exhaustion, feet dangling over the side, arms intertwined with the rope railing, and watched the sand below slip quietly past. They had flown east across the desert to its edge, and had then turned north until they hovered above a thick jungle. The sky was dimming with a deep purple tint.
More time passed and the jungles morphed into marshlands as the darkness finally took hold. Suddenly Mara felt completely drained and headed back down to the cabin below deck. Vic slept soundly in a comfortable hammock covered with a thick quilted blanket. She had been worried about him at first, but he seemed to be sleeping peacefully.
Above her, Kane stood at the controls pulling levers and checking instruments. He had used a long strip of his tattered shirt as a binding cloth to cover the wound to his left shoulder and had fashioned a sling out of another shredded piece. His jacket hung loosely draped around his bare shoulders. Mara wanted to know how he had escaped the tunnels. She also was dying to know how he had miraculously managed to find the airship and pilot it to their rescue. But the captain had remained quiet, intent on leaving the lost city in their wake. Reluctantly she climbed into a hammock across from Vic and was asleep as soon as her head hit the canvas .
"Mara, come up here!" The words startled her awake. Captain Kane poked his head into the well appointed cabin and gestured for her to join him in the pilot’s cockpit. She practically fell out of her hammock before stumbling up the six steps to the bridge. She took a deep breath to steady herself and moved up beside him.
Just visible on the horizon before them was a massive stone, jutting out of the swamp. Mara squinted, trying to adjust her eyes to the pinkish-grey shadows of dawn that now tinted the sky. As the cruiser moved closer, she started to see more details, her brow furrowing as she tried to make sense of it. It was a huge citadel, cut from cliffs of solid stone, with towers, parapets, and halls; the whole thing seemingly pushed up and out of the earth by some great force.
"What is it?" she asked, more than a little apprehensive.
"That," he said quietly, "is my home: the fortress of SaishoTera. I'd like to tell you a story now about an ancient order, The Guardians of Tiko'ah."
Gama Ortz seethed in his anger. Around him lay the bodies of a small army of Cursed Souls. He spat at the ground, cursing their weakness. He slowly made his way through the labyrinth of darkened passages, guarding his bloody stump, fighting past the searing pain and the dizziness and nausea brought on by the loss of blood. By the time he saw the sun again, he had a new arm. It was a vile twisted thing he'd cut off one of the resident creatures he had killed in this vile place. The arm was hideous, black vines all twisted together, ending in razor sharp claws.
It had been a simple matter with his dark magic to graft the thing onto his own flesh, but it had come with a surprising and infuriating side effect, when he tried to leave the sewers through the broken grate the sunlight had easily burned his new arm, causing him to reluctantly duck back into the shadows.
He would have to wait for the sun to set before venturing back out into the desert. While he waited impatiently, Ortz cursed the Tenchi brat for the hundredth time. He cursed the resourceful warrior who had saved him from the Mechlord's grasp. And he cursed the wretched Neko girl, who had thrown Vic that all-powerfull sword. He had sworn to his master he would find the boy and destroy him, and he had never known his master to forgive failure.
Victor Ericks had yet to learn the reason behind his current misfortune. Isolated and raised by surrogate parents for his own protection, he was never told that he was the younger brother of the High Priest Inti, Lord of Nephilum. Vic was now the only living heir to that coveted territory and therefore, a viable threat to the Empire.
Ortz knew this. Ortz would find him again. He would hunt the boy to the ends of Tiko'ah if he had to, and he would put an end to him or die trying.