"Okay, I want to go home now," said Justin, looking out at the new world before him. The sky was dark - really dark. I mean it was pitch black! It was almost impossible to see anything. He looked around, trying to get his bearings. From what he could tell, he was on a dirt path in a forest of some sort. Strangely, he did not hear any of the typical "night sounds", like crickets and frogs. Just silence. There wasn't even any wind. Just silence.
Before he even had a chance to move, something jumped out of the trees behind him at hit him in the back. Justin stumbled forward, bumping into another tree. Wanting to know his attacker's identity, he wheeled around, and saw a small rabite-like creature. It jumped at him again, but this time Justin was ready. He ducked, causing the unsuspecting creature to smash its head on the tree behind him. It landed on the ground with a thump. Justin bent over to look at it. Good, it was unconscious. He didn't want to hurt the poor thing, just get it out of his way. Besides, this was least of his troubles. The forest was probably full of creatures far more deadly than this little thing.
Now that that was over, Justin decided he should get going. But where should he go first? He was standing in the middle of a path, so he figured he should try following it. He had a choice of going left or right. He chose right.
As he walked along, he kept an eye out for more of those animals. However, he was lucky this time. He did not encounter a single one.
After he walked for about five or ten minutes, he thought he saw a light up ahead. It was a dim light, but a light nonetheless. But then he heard something. A rustling sound... in the leaves up above. He turned toward it. Something was up in those trees. That's when the attack came... from behind. A dark form jumped out of the trees behind him and tackled him, then rolled off of his back. Justin looked up just in time to see a young man of about his age running off toward the dim light.
Justin tried to think through what had just happened: some guy jumped out of the trees, knocked him down, and then ran off. But why would anybody jump him and then not do anything to him? It made him mad to think someone would actually do something like that. He put his hands on his hips, and stared in the direction his assailant had headed. Then he realized what had happened. The pouch of money he had hung on his belt was gone! That kid was a thief! Now Justin was really mad. Seething with heated fury, he took off, determined to find that jerk thief.
At last he reached the light he had seen. It turned out to be a lantern, which was hanging on a post above a low wooden sign.
That was what it said. "Gee, sounds like a really friendly place," was Justin's sarcastic reply to the rather unfriendly sign. But he would head on in, sign or no sign.
As soon as he set foot upon Depretha's streets, he realized why the welcoming part of the sign had been scratched out. A sadder sight he had never seen. Skinny homeless people crowded the gutters and streets, begging for food. The few people who had money walked through the crowd with their heads held high, yet they tried not to acknowledge the hordes of beggars. Justin couldn't believe what he was seeing. The place was a mess! The Underworld was far worse than he had imagined.
But right now he had to concentrate on finding his money. And if that thief lived anywhere, it would be here. "Now if I were a fugitive from justice," Justin thought out loud, "where would I hide..."
"Need some help, son?" said a voice behind him. Justin turned and saw a man who looked to be in his late thirties. He was wearing the clothes of a merchant. "You look kinda lost."
"Yeah," Justin replied, wondering if this guy really was a merchant or just another thief. "I'm looking for this guy who ripped me off. He was probably about as old as me... wore dark clothes... bowl-cut hairstyle... fast as anything, though. And he moved without making a sound."
The other man gasped. "Y-you actually saw him?"
"What? Is there something special about this guy?"
"Not much - he's only the most famous thief in the entire world!"
"You've never heard of him?! He's been robbing people blind for years! Only a few people have ever seen him. He appears here and there, swipes something, and the next day he'll be a hundred miles away!"
"Well, I not only intend to see him - I intend to be the man who captures that crook."
A few hours later, Justin was sitting on a barrel in the shadow of a building. The merchant he had spoken to said the thief usually went around late, when everyone else was asleep. Well, Justin was determined to get his money back, and he would stay up all night (well, it was hard to tell the difference between night and day in the Underworld) to catch that thief if he had to.
Justin looked around. The streets were empty now, and all was still. It was so still that any type of movement - like a centipede that crawled by - got his attention.
Then he saw something - a dark form that darted behind a building across the road. Justin got up of the barrel. That had to be him. It was a good thing he came then - Justin was beginning to drift off to sleep. He quietly tiptoed forward. Then he saw it again - the figure ran out from behind the building and hid behind the one next to it. Justin slowly moved forward, and when he thought he was close enough to his target, he dashed forward, and leaped behind the building.
No one was there. But how was that possible? There were no trees close enough for the thief to hide in, and Justin could see that he hadn't jumped onto the roof. So where was he? Justin looked around, trying to figure out where he had gone. As he walked, his shoe hit something hard - something metal. He bent over and saw a handle - a handle attached to the ground. He moved his hand along the ground around the handle, and found a crack. He brushed the dirt off of it with his hand, until he had uncovered a trap door. A door cut right out of the ground. Justin pulled it open. Inside was a wooden staircase, heading down into the earth. Justin smiled - this guy was good. With a feeling of slight admiration for the fugitive, he headed down the stairs.
He found himself in a dark room. The walls, floor, and ceiling were all made of dirt. It was hard to see - there was one lit candle in the room. The thief had found a good hiding place, but not good enough to deter the Mana Knight.
As he took a step forward, something slammed into his back. Justin fell on the floor, but was able to roll forward and get up very quickly. He turned around just in time to see a shoe smash into his face. This time he landed flat on his back. Looking up, he saw the thief standing over him. He wore a black or navy blue sweat suit, black shoes, and something around his head that held his hair up in the shape of a bowl-cut. His face was full of anger, yet he seemed so innocent. "What are you doing here?!" he said.
"Looking for you," said Justin. "I want my money back!" He quickly got up and charged straight at his attacker. The young thief turned around and crouched low to the ground. This caused Justin to fly over top of him and land on his stomach. Justin turned over just as his opponent tried to stab him with a knife! Reacting quickly, he reached up and grabbed the wrists of the knife-wielding thief. Then he kicked the thief backward into the wall. The knife flew out of his hand and landed on the other side of the room. Before his shocked opponent even had a chance to pick himself up, Justin ran forward, picked him up by his shirt collar, and held him up against the wall. "All right you little thief, I want my money back. Where is it?!"
"On the table," said the petrified youth, pointing at a wooden table near the stairs.
Justin dropped him on the ground, and put the sack of money back on his belt. "Why did you take this from me?"
"`Cause I thought it was food!"
"Look man, do you think I enjoy ripping people off?! It sucks! I hate it!"
"So then why do you do it?!"
"Because I have to! I take what I need to survive, and nothing more. I don't steal money because there's a price on my head, and shopkeepers would turn me in. I wish I didn't have to steal, but it's how I keep going."
Now Justin understood. "Well if you needed food, you could've just asked me for some."
The thief was quite surprised. "You're different. I never thought anybody would offer to give someone else food."
Now Justin was beginning to look on him with pity. "Well, if you have to do it to survive, I won't turn you in."
"You'd give up ten thousand gold pieces for me?!"
"Sure, I've got way more than that at home."
"Wow, man. You are so lucky."
"You know, you seem like a nice guy. There's something I need to take care of, but would you like to come home with me after that?"
"Thanks, man. You're the best."
"Oh, by the way, what's your name?"
"Joseph - or Joe for short."
"Just Joe? You got a last name?"
"No, I never met my parents."
"Well, I'm Justin. I'll be back here tomorrow, but right now I need to get some rest. See ya!" And Justin went back up through the trap door, closing it behind him. He had just made a new friend. But deep inside, he felt as if they had met before.
Later that night, Joseph sat on the roof of a house, pondering the evening's events. A young man who he had ripped off barged into his dwelling, demanding to have his money back. Joseph gave it to him and explained why he stole it. Then this guy offers him food, tells him he can stay at his house, and introduces himself as Justin! Obviously, Justin does not live here in Depretha. But where in all the Underworld could someone attain such great wealth that the ten thousand gold piece reward for Joseph's capture would be tossed aside as being insignificant?!
Before Joseph had a chance to ponder that question, he heard the distinctive sound of an aircraft flying above. He jerked his head upward, looking for the sound's source. A small craft flew overhead. It looked like some type of hovercraft, but he could see it was propelled by some kind of jet fuel, as there were flames coming out of its exhaust pipes. It circled overhead and landed in the middle of town.
Out of it stepped three figures. Joseph recognized them instantly - Red Wolves (yes, the same guys who were holding Tony captive). One of them was wearing the black officer's uniform. "All right men, let's get busy," he said.
"How do we know that tip was real?" said one of his soldiers.
"We don't. But he haven't seen hide nor hair of him for months. We have to follow every lead." Joseph couldn't believe it. They were here for him! How had they found him? No one had seen him - except Justin. Justin had tipped them off! And he seemed like such a nice guy. He should have left town as soon as Justin had gone to bed. He was supposed to relocate whenever anybody saw him.
The two soldiers took out spears, and the officer took out a gun. Joseph knew what that was - a deadly laser gun. Then the three men split up. Joseph jumped off the back of the roof, trying to hide. "Hey, I heard something," said a soldier's voice. These guys were definitely better than the clumsy idiots he had eluded before. He peeked around the side of the house. The two soldiers were heading toward him - one to his right, one to his left. Joseph jumped up, grabbed the edge of the roof, and used a hip-pullover to get himself back on top of the house.
But as soon as was up there, a laser blast hit the roof behind him, knocking him back onto the ground. "Guys, he's behind the second house from the right!" shouted the officer. Joseph looked up and saw one of the soldiers heading his way. He turned and ran in the opposite direction, only to see the other soldier coming from the other side. They had him trapped - or so they thought. Just as they were about to reach him, Joseph ran straight toward the soldier on the left. The soldier drew his spear. As they were about to collide, Joseph vaulted over the soldier's head in a tuck flip. As he came right-side up heading into a second flip, he straightened his legs, kicking the soldier in the back. The soldier flew forward and landed on the other soldier, while Joseph safely rolled from his hands to his feet.
Joseph looked at his "attackers". "Yes!" he said. "Another brilliant escape by Joseph: thief and acrobat extraordinaire!"
Just then another laser blast hit the ground beside him, knocking him off his feet. "You wish," said the two soldiers' commanding officer, who quickly switched his gun to stun level and shot Joseph in the head.
Justin had slept in the local inn that night. His rest was okay by his standards. It wasn't the Gold Isle, but it was better than nothing.
He awoke at the sound of a loud "bang". He sat up in bed with a start. Luckily, he had slept in his clothes that night, so he was able to grab his sword and run outside very quickly.
Outside, his jaw dropped. Two strange figures who looked like red werewolves were standing on a platform beside a huge metallic structure. Attached to this machine was Joseph. Metal clamps with wires on them held his arms and wrists in place, making him completely helpless. He twisted and squirmed, but there was no way out.
Another werewolf wearing black walked up some steps to the platform. With him was the merchant Justin had spoken to yesterday. The uniformed werewolf handed the merchant something - money. Now Justin knew what was going on. Justin had told the merchant Joseph was here when he got ripped off. The enterprising merchant must have contacted these werewolf guys and told them where Joseph was so he could get the reward. And now Joseph was getting the death penalty for trying to stay alive! And that made Justin mad.
People were starting to gather before the platform. It was a public execution. That got Justin really steamed. He grimaced and started breathing through his teeth. The merchant stepped off the platform and the black-suited werewolf took his place. "Hello," he said. "Today we will at last be witnessing the death of the most elusive and successful thief ever born. So make sure you have a good seat."
That did it. Justin wasn't going to sit by while Joseph got fried. "Hey, you!" he shouted. The speaker - as well as everybody else - turned to Justin. The outraged Mana Knight pointed a defying finger at him. "Yeah, I'm talking to you, you idiot!" The surprised people in the audience started whispering to each-other.
"How dare you!" said the werewolf officer.
"Release your prisoner, or you'll have to deal with me."
Joseph's red captor almost laughed. "What an arrogant fool. Get him!"
The two other soldiers left Joseph and headed for Justin. But Justin was ready for them. "Come on you creeps. What are you, afraid of me?" was his response to the soldiers' very slow advance. One of them got mad, just as he had hoped. The soldier took out a skinny black spear and charged. Justin quickly grabbed the spear, spun around, and kicked the soldier in the face. The unprepared werewolf flew backward and landed in a pile of boxes, and Justin still had the spear in his hand. The other soldier took out a spear of his own and put it to his eye like he was going to shoot something. He pressed a tiny button on the spear's handle, releasing a small laser shot from its tip, which narrowly missed Justin. The soldier took another shot. This one hit Justin in the leg. He fell over, but seemed all right. The soldier ran over and tried to hit him on the head with the spear's back end, but Justin grabbed it in mid-swing. Still fighting over the spear, Justin got up and charged into the soldier, who let go and fell over backwards. Now Justin had two spears. He put their handles under his armpits and squeezed them in a chicken-flap motion, activating the lasers. Both shots hit the soldier in the face. They either killed him or knocked him out, but Justin didn't care which one it was.
"Yeah, go Justin!" cheered Joseph. The lead soldier turned to him with hate in his eyes. Without saying a word, he threw a switch on the device to which Joseph was attached. Joseph gasped as the machine began to make an electric hum. Then he headed for Justin.
Justin was examining his leg. It seemed all right - there was a tiny black spot on his skin, and it didn't hurt much. But there was a large hole in his pant leg where the laser had hit.
Just as he was about to get up, the "executioner" kicked him in the face. He rolled over and landed on his back. "You should have minded your own business," he said as he kicked Justin again - this time in the side. Justin clutched his stomach in pain as the officer took out a gun. "I'll teach you some respect for authority," he said, aiming it at Justin's face. Justin couldn't believe he would go out like this. The Mana Knight beaten by a pathetic werewolf.
Suddenly a rock hit the werewolf in the back. He wheeled around to look at the audience. "Who dares?!" he shouted.
An old man was shaking his fist at the officer. He had thrown the rock. This was Justin's chance. While his attacker wasn't looking, he kicked him in the back of the knee, causing his leg to buckle under and collapse. The officer looked up at Justin, who already stood over him with the Mana Sword pointed at his throat. "Let the thief go," said the victorious Mana Knight. The werewolf still had his gun in his hand, though. In one final effort he tried to bring it to face Justin, but the Mana Knight saw it coming, and quickly swung his sword to the side, slicing off the hand that held the gun. The werewolf screamed in pain.
At the same time, the soldier who had originally attacked Justin emerged from the pile of boxes. Seeing his commanding officer injured, he ran and knocked Justin over. Then he helped the bleeding commander back to their aircraft. "You won't get away with this!" shouted the officer. "I'll have every soldier in Pular after you! You'll see. You'll pay for this!" Justin just smiled as they flew away.
At the sight of the departing soldiers, everyone gathered around Justin and erupted into a triumphant cheer. He had resisted the Red Wolves' power and lived to tell about it - a feat no one thought possible.
But in all the confusion he had almost forgotten about Joseph. "Justin!" he cried.
"Oh shoot," he said. "Hold on Joe!" He ran over to the strange device that held him captive. Violet sparks were jumping off the switch which had activated it. Justin tried to pull the switch in the other direction, but as soon as he grabbed it, a huge electric shock sent him hurtling off the platform. By the time he was on his feet, the machine was fully charged. Powerful electrical charges began surging through the clamps on Joseph's wrists and ankles and into his body. He cried out in pain. Reacting quickly, Justin whipped out one of the laser spears and threw it at the machine's control panel like a javelin. The spear embedded itself deep in the metal, causing a short-circuit. The clamps suddenly released Joseph from their deadly grasp, allowing him to collapse face-first onto the platform beneath him.
Justin jumped up onto the platform and ran over to him. He put his ear on Joseph's chest. There was no sign of breathing. He then turned to the townspeople. "Is there a doctor here?!" came his urgent cry. Unfortunately, doctors were rare in the Underworld, and not a single one could be found in Depretha. No one spoke. Justin almost felt like crying. Again he had let down a friend. First Tony, now Joseph. He felt so helpless. He lowered his head and put his hands on Joseph's chest. Another person I've failed. Why does this keep happening?! Oh, God, I'd do anything to have him back.
Suddenly he felt a gentle warmth under his hands. He looked up, and was shocked by what he saw - his hands were glowing! A bright green light was emanating from his hands. It only lasted a few seconds, after which the light seemed to be soaked up by Joseph's body. Justin suddenly felt a little light-headed. But the most amazing event was still to come. Justin - as well as everyone else there - stared in disbelief as Joseph opened his eyes. The bewildered thief stared up at him. "Justin?" was all he could manage to say. The weary Mana Knight smiled. The executioners had failed, not him.
Later, Justin and Joseph talked about what had happened. "How did you do that?" inquired Joseph.
"Bring me back from the dead."
"I don't know. It made me feel weak, though."
"Do you think you could have transferred some of your 'life-force energy' - or whatever you call it - into me?"
"Maybe. I've heard about people who could do that. But it doesn't work on the dead - just the injured."
"Then I guess I wasn't dead."
Despite how interesting this conversation was, there was something else Justin needed to know. "Hey Joe. Those guys who tried to kill you - who are they?"
Joseph looked at him like he was stupid. "They're the Red Wolves, duh!"
"And just who are the 'Red Wolves'?"
Joseph was trying not to laugh. "They only rule the entire world!"
"Well who do they take orders from - who's their leader?"
Joseph couldn't help but start laughing out loud. "Where are you from, la-la land?! They work for Thanatos, in case you didn't know!"
Justin couldn't believe what he was hearing. Thanatos? How was it possible? He had watched Thanatos die before his very eyes! But here he was, barking out orders to the Red Wolves. He did remember Dyluck saying something about Thanatos and the Underworld, but that still didn't explain why he was still alive.
"Hello!" said Joseph, waving a hand in front of his face. "Is anybody in there?!"
Justin suddenly snapped back to reality. "Huh? Oh, sorry. I was just thinking about something."
"You're weird, man. I mean you're actually generous, but you don't even know about Thanatos! Where are you from, anyway?!"
"It's... pretty far."
"Still, you should have known who Thanatos and the Red Wolves are."
Justin figured this must be common knowledge in the Underworld. But he still had one more question. "Hey, here's a question: How did Thanatos come to power?"
Joseph thought to himself for a moment. "I don't know. I never really thought about that. As far as I know Thanatos has always ruled. There is no 'before Thanatos ruled the world'."
Thanatos had ruled the Underworld ever since it came to be? There's a scary thought. Then Justin realized Thanatos must be what Tony was trying to warn him of. "Joseph?"
"Yeah?" Joseph was obviously getting tired of answering all these questions.
"Have the Red Wolves been doing anything involving sprites?"
"As a matter of fact, I think so. They've been kidnapping all the sprites."
"I don't know. How did you know about that?"
"I have a friend who's a sprite. I think he might be in trouble."
"If Thanatos has him, you bet he's in trouble."
"Well then I've got to save him."
"Whoa, wait a minute. You're not actually thinking of taking on Thanatos, are you? No one's ever even seen him before! Or if anyone has, then Thanatos killed `em."
"I don't care. If Tony - that's my friend's name - needs me, then I'll go no matter what."
"You really think you can do it?"
"Are you kidding?! I can kick his puny little ass half way to the moon! But I'll need help."
"Well then search no further, my friend! I, master thief Joseph, will assist you in this task."
"Yeah! I've been waiting for a chance to get rid of that old fart for a long time."
Justin smiled. Joseph would make a good partner. But he wondered if that would be enough. If only Ashley had known it was Thanatos behind Tony's abduction, she would have come. She held a real grudge against Thanatos for what he did - or tried to do - to Dyluck. But it was too late for that now. He would have to make do with who he had.