The warm afternoon air streamed through Riana’s dark purple hair as she moved swiftly across the Plain of Serenity. Her hair had grown quite a bit in the months that she had been searching. It now fell nearly to her waist in a ragged pony tail, a contrast to the neat arrangement that used to hold her shoulder-length locks. Her long elven ears were perked up, listening for any signs of danger as her violet eyes scanned the horizon with an intense scrutiny. She quickly covered the distance to what she hoped would at last be her final destination.

Fine features reflected her time in the wilds of Kalijor, being wind lashed as she roamed from place to place searching, always searching. The soft black leather top and breechcloth, enchanted to ease friction against her newly tattooed skin so long ago, looked as if she had only purchased them yesterday. The mystical tattoos themselves had long since healed, ceasing to be a constant source of discomfort to her, although her skin was still slightly more sensitive than it used to be. In the months of her searching, many of the mystical markings that had previously been faded and dulled due to her lack of power and skill, had since come into sharp focus, reflecting her strengthening will and skills.

Xanthe sped along the grassy plain with a smooth, constant gait that far outstripped the pace of even the strongest horses in the realm. His sinewy, scaled body looked like shimmering white crystals flowing in the daylight as his four powerful legs propelled them along close to the ground. His long neck and tail swayed hypnotically as he moved, his long horns hugging his neck as they arced gracefully away from his serene dragon-like face.

Together they had been searching Kalijor for more than six months for any sign, any indication of where her sister had been taken. Katrina had gone to give Malice the crystal key in Kalijor, while Riana was to retrieve Solidarity Online’s prototype processor from the mercenary, Gregory Shantal, at the same time on Mars Station. Both meetings had turned out to be traps. Riana had barely escaped from her exchange with her life, and had seen a vision of her sister being beat, nearly to death, by Malice in Rathalon. She was forced to watch helplessly as, after the beating, Katrina had been dragged into a magical portal and vanished. So Riana had dedicated herself to finding her sister, wherever she was, and freeing her of whatever bonds were keeping her in peril. In the meantime, her body remained in its game pod on the Tyconderoga, with IV’s feeding her body essential nutrients and piezoelectric stimulators working to keep her idle muscles from deteriorating.

The search had begun in the Crossed Swords tavern in Rathalon, the unofficial capital city of Kalijor. Despite the fact that she had seen many of the patrons there in a vision, none of them had been forthcoming with any information. They all remembered the fight, but none of them had any idea where the pair had vanished to or how. They had simply disappeared into thin air.

Gornin, at the Cohai Observatory, had not been of much use either. The mysterious old troll had only said that there were many places in Kalijor that were beyond the reach of the gods. These places were accessible only to those who knew how to get to them, and almost anyone who knew such things, would never reveal their secrets. At least, not without some hefty persuasion.

Now she was trying to track down any tale of places so difficult to find and enter that no one knew anyone who had actually been there. It had been a daunting task when she first began six months ago, and was no less so now, although she had been able to put to rest several rumors. One such rumor had suggested that there was an old hollow tree in the vast Forest of Brume, and if one rapped on its gnarly outer surface in such a way, a portal would open to a secret dungeon beneath it. After researching every conceivable approach to the tree and combing through the forest for a month, following each set of instructions to the letter, she had never encountered such a hollow tree.

Another rumor suggested that there was a secret chamber beneath the Burning Expanse that could be accessed by the wielder of the enigmatic Master Sword. The Master Sword was a weapon of such beauty that it enchanted those that laid eyes on it, forcing them to stand and stare at its magnificence. Of course no one knew anything about how or where to acquire the sword. However, the records in the Magic Academy’s extensive library seemed to support that the weapon existed, or at least had existed at some point in the past. That trail ran cold there though, with no leads as to where the sword might be.

Currently, she was chasing down a rumor about an ancient tower that sat in the middle of The Bramble. The story went that the defender of the tower could allow access to a secret chamber if he was bested in combat. This particular tale required a person to acquire the key to the tower from the leader of a tribe of goblins inhabiting The Bramble. So, she and Xanthe had ridden hard through the night, having left Rathalon at first light the day before. They had just sighted the edge of The Bramble, a tangled and gnarly forest with thin, spindly trees that seemed to grow in every direction but skyward. The entire forest, hundreds of acres in size, seemed more like a giant shrub or bush than an actual forest. Long since overrun by the strange, twisted trees that grew from nowhere with the speed and voracity of a bed of thistles, it had once been the site of a large human city.

Xanthe’s powerful strides drew them toward the dark spot on the horizon. From her perch on his back, Riana spied a prone form on the ground ahead of them. It was small, faintly green, and partially hidden among the knee high grass. Drawing the great half-dragon to a halt, she slid off his back and patted him reassuringly on the neck as she cautiously stepped towards the body to investigate.

Tentatively, she prodded the diminutive form with her booted toe. When it failed to respond, she rolled it over onto its back so she could see it more clearly. The creature would have been about three feet tall had it been standing upright. The greenish tint to its skin faded into a pale yellow color on its stomach and the insides of its arms and legs. Its head was a little too large for its body and bore a long, crooked nose beneath sharp, protruding eyebrow ridges. Solid black eyes stared up at the sky lifelessly and its clawed hands still clutched at a short bow and a handful of arrows. Apparently it had never even managed to get one of the projectiles knocked before its life was cut short.

Four long, deep gashes across the creature’s chest, running from its left shoulder down to its right hip were clearly the cause of the creature’s demise.

“Goblin.” Riana said aloud, causing Xanthe to look down at her curiously, blinking his large blue eyes. “Dead, and without much of a fight. Someone caught it completely by surprise.”

Passing several more dead goblins as they continued toward The Bramble, Riana realized that they were not the only ones heading into the thicket. The only question she had was, were these ‘others’ going to be a problem for her?

As they drew even with the edge of the ‘trees’, they could hear the faint sounds of combat emanating from within the forest. The occasional clash of metal on metal and the high pitched squeals and grunts of goblins. Looking up and down the tree line, Riana could see no way for Xanthe to get into the forest with her, so she dismounted and patted him affectionately on the neck. “Looks like you’ll have to stay here and cover our retreat friend.”

Xanthe bowed his head in understanding and then pushed her towards the trees with his nose, urging her on. He seemed as anxious to find Katrina as Riana was.

Drawing Elkorine with her right hand, she examined the short sword as the light played off of its matte grey finish, the elven runes on its blade soaking up the light. A memory of that morning in the cellar of the Cohai Observatory as Gornin and Dorin had given her and Katrina the magical weapons played through her mind. Master Gornin had told her that the the magical sword had been a part of every major event in Kalijor’s known history, and that it would serve her well for as long as she needed it. She felt a sudden pang of guilt for not being there with her sister in order to defend her against Malice. She had protested Xavier’s chosen course at some great length, but in the end, he had forced the issue, and they had separated. Shaking the memories off with a shudder, she pressed into the thickly matted trees of The Bramble, heading toward the sounds of conflict.

The trees grew close together, at extreme and strange angles to one another, creating a thickly woven mass of branches and trunks that made it difficult to navigate. Pressing through the mass as quickly as she could, Riana felt the brambles scratching her skin and grabbing at her clothes. Catching her foot in a protruding root, she fell, bruising her knees and shins. By the time she got close enough to see what was causing the noise, she had scratches and bruises from head to toe thanks to her hasty journey through the impossible tangle.

In a large clearing, several crumbling buildings—the remains of the former human city—offered a dozen or so goblins an easy advantage over a single man. A full mane of blonde hair fell to the middle of his back and his thin, muscular frame was adorned with a simple brown leather belt supporting a breechcloth. A series of leather straps across his chest supported two empty scabbards on his back. He wore brown leather boots and plain metal bracers. Wielding a sword-staff similar to those of the Rathalon Defenders, although shorter, the man moved in a graceful dance around the circle of goblins. After watching him twirl the weapon this way and that, Riana realized that the goblins had no advantage here. Each time the weapon moved, at least one goblin fell to the ground, clutching its head, neck, or body in pain. She was considering helping him when a goblin with a bow in hand made its way to the top of a dilapidated building. Drawing a bead on the lone man his arm pulled back, ready to let fly a wicked looking hooked arrow. Without a second thought, Riana stepped into the clearing. With the briefest moment of concentration, one of the tattoos on her body glowed brightly in chorus with her violet eyes, and she threw her left hand forward. She pointed at the goblin archer and an arc of lightning leapt from her finger tips.

The goblin yelped in surprise and pain as the bolt of lightning struck, enveloping it in electricity. A moment later, it fell to the ground, a smoking heap. Some of the other goblins immediately broke off from their attack on the man and headed toward her with weapons drawn. Again, she concentrated and her eyes flashed. This time, with her fingers spread wide, a fan of electricity leapt from her to the onrushing goblins. Jumping back and forth from goblin to goblin, it lit up the clearing with flashing, blue light. Half a dozen of the goblins dropped lifelessly to the ground. From nowhere, more appeared to climb over the charred bodies.

In a flash, Riana summoned a freezing cold whirlwind. Surrounding her in a fury of driving ice and snow, the squall swirled around her briefly before abruptly blowing itself out. A protective layer of ice armor now covered her body. Without hesitation, she waded into the group of goblins swinging Elkorine. The magical sword cut the creatures down as easily as it would stalks of grass. The goblins’ various assaults chipped at the magical armor as she made her way toward the blonde man. He continued his assault on the flood of goblins, seemingly taking no notice of her own battle on his behalf.

Before she saw it, she felt the strands of magical ether coalescing around one of the creatures. Turning to face the goblin shaman, she heard the last words of the spell and felt the forest floor came alive with roots and vines that wrapped themselves around her legs with the strength of a vise. Her eyes flashed again as she hurled a tongue of flame at the shaman. Enveloped in a ball of fire, the creature fell to the ground screaming in pain. It had managed to call out another incantation before it fell, however. A sphere of blue energy surrounded Riana, collapsed in on her, and caused the icy armor to crumble into frost at her entangled feet.

Goblins surrounded her as her protective enclosure dissipated. She eyed the advancing horde and knew she was in trouble. Her eyes flashed and a large fireball formed in her left hand. Throwing the ball of flame at her feet, her eyes flashed again. With a faint popping noise, she disappeared from her bondage, popping back into the clearing on the far side a second later. Staring in astonishment at the spot where Riana had been an instant before, the goblins confusion turned to determination. As they began to look around, the fireball exploded into a torrent of heat and light, engulfing everything within twenty feet of where she had been rooted to the ground. Wails of shock and pain echoed from the giant fireball before it receded into nothingness, leaving only blackened ground and desiccated goblin bodies.

“Nice moves.” The soothing tenor voice rolled across her sensitive ears, causing them to perk up.

Turning to find the source of the voice, Riana saw the blonde man standing a dozen feet away holding his sword-staff in one hand and grinning mischievously at her. His deep cobalt eyes twinkled as he looked at her.

“You have some experience fighting goblins?”

She blushed a bit. “Never such large groups of them…” As she realized he could see more or less her entire body, she blushed crimson from head to toe, suddenly more self conscious than she had ever been before. Trying to look anywhere else in the large clearing, but somehow always coming back to his deep blue eyes, she knew he was sizing her up.

He grinned again. A show of playful exuberance revealed his white teeth that may have been just a little bit too sharp.

Reflexively, Riana’s eyes rolled over his athletic body. Well toned and muscular, but not overly so, he was thin for an average human, and tall. Clean shaven, there were a series of thin braids running through his mane of blonde hair which was secured into a loose pony tail behind his neck. She wasn’t sure, but she thought she could detect hints of slightly darker spots in his hair.

The man grinned again at her roving eyes, causing her to blush a deeper red. “Well you handled yourself admir…”

He stopped short. A faint sound, the sound of a sinew bow string being drawn, nearly escaped Riana’s sharp elven hearing. Spinning around to find the source of the sound, she saw the miniscule goblin archer just as he loosed his arrow. Her eyes flashed and a bolt of lightning leapt from her fingertips, singeing the arrow as it sailed directly toward her head, but not stopping it. A flash of panic flowed through her as she watched the arrow. She didn’t have time to take another shot. ‘Not like this, not now. I still haven’t found my sister.’ She thought as the whole world slowed down to a crawl.

Entering her line of vision, moving faster than the arrow by a good margin, the man’s hand plucked the arrow out of the air while the tip was mere inches from her forehead.

He handed her the arrow and took a small metal object from his belt. In a flash of speed and a blur of motion, he spun around and flung the small metal blade, striking the confused goblin archer between the eyes and knocking him bodily from his perch.

Turning back to Riana, still standing inches apart, he grinned broadly. “So. Come here often?”

Riana turned away from him as her skin flushed and unfamiliar feelings rushed through her body, pretending to check the clearing for any more signs of trouble. “I… um…”

“First time uh?” She felt as much as heard him move away. Stealing a glance over her shoulder, she saw him prodding a charred goblin with his right foot curiously.

“Yeah.” She managed a whole word somehow this time.

“Are you here for a particular reason? Or just for the company?” His tone was light, as if everything going on were a mere game.

Riana looked down at the arrow still clutched tightly in her hand and snapped its wooden shaft, tossing the splintered pieces to the ground at her feet. “Definitely not for the company.”

“I thought not.” His soothing voice slid over her like silk, but now it was coming from in front of her. Looking up, she saw that he was now poking and prodding though some of the fallen goblins packs and pouches looking for valuables.

“How did you…?” Riana looked over her shoulder at where he had been a moment before.

“How did I what?” He looked up at her. “Get over here so quickly?”

“Uh…” Riana looked down at the ground. “Not that I am ungrateful or anything, I just… have never seen anyone move so quickly before. Not without a spell of some kind.” She hadn’t felt the build-up of magic energy that normally preceded the casting of a spell.

“I get that a lot.” He stopped his rummaging for a moment, a thoughtful look on his face as he considered her words. Finally, he grinned again. Cobalt eyes sparkled in the motley forest light as he said half-jokingly “I’m part cheetah.”

Riana gaped at him for a moment, then grinned. “My name is Riana. I’m looking for the Goblin Chieftain. He supposedly has a key…”

“To the tower on the southern edge of The Bramble. Yeah, me too.” He stood up and ambled back toward her. Shifting his sword-staff to his left hand, he came to a stop in front of her. Confidently, he offered his right hand to her in greeting, “My name is Jumah. Jumah Wataru.”

Riana sheathed Elkorine and then took the proffered hand. “It’s nice to meet you m’lord. Thank you for the assistance.”

“You’re very welcome Riana. And please, call me Jumah. I am no lord.”

She flushed again but launched back into the conversation, hoping he wouldn’t see. “So, what are you seeking in the tower, Jumah?”

He looked at her for a moment. It was as though he was looking right into her mind and soul searching for something. His light-hearted demeanor renewed itself as he released her hand, looking back toward the dead goblins. “Nothing really. I’ve just never been there before.”

She gaped at him, trying to figure out what this man was thinking. “You mean to tell me, you are single handedly moving through this tribe of goblins, to get the key from their chieftain in order to enter a heavily defended, likely trap ridden tower simply because you have never been there before?”

“That pretty much sums it up, yeah.”

“I think you may be totally deranged.”

“I’ve been called much worse.”

“Oddly enough, I believe you.” Now she was grinning from ear to ear herself.

“That’s the spirit. So, you want some company?”

“I told you I didn’t come here for the company.” Riana chided him playfully.

“Oh. Right. Well then let’s just say that we are moving in the same direction at the same time through happenstance.” Jumah took his weapon in both hands and twisted the handle in the middle. It pulled cleanly apart into two separate swords which he then slid home in the crossed sheaths on his back. Bowing low before her, he swept his arms to the side indicating which direction they were headed.

Riana shook her head with a quirky grin on her lips and headed off in the indicated direction, her new companion moving up beside her as they made their way toward where the goblin chieftain’s hut was rumored to be.

On to Chapter 2