Chapter 6: The Perils of Gardening
"You want a piece of me? BRING IT ON!!!"
In the corners of his vision, he saw his opponent stare at him for a moment, then leap away with a jump that carried it a safe distance away. Good. One less distraction. He felt more alive than he'd ever felt before. His sword was like an extension of his hand as he slashed through the tendrils that tried to grab him. It was after him, was it? Did it think it could destroy him? It was mistaken. It would take more than that to beat him...
The creature backed off uncertainly. A hand clamped around its shoulder making it turn. "Get out of here!" it hissed, still trying to back up.
"Get out there and help him!" a feminine voice ordered.
The creature glared at the woman. "You think I'm frickin' suicidal?"
"This isn't even his village, you know. This entire village should be fighting against this monster! Besides, I thought you wanted to kill him? This monster's not going to give you the chance."
The creature's eyes narrowed. "I thought I was fighting with a somewhat normal person, not a suicidal idiot."
"You're just scared, coward. I watched that fight. You should've been dead. You know that if he survives, he'll kill you."
"He got lucky! I was only foolin' around at first! He went too far! Besides, I woulda taken his off if he hadn't tripped over his own feet!"
"Whatever you say. You'd better hope he's not as ‘lucky' against this monster."
"Are you trying to imply something?"
"I already have, idiot. Now if you don't feel like defending this village, at least go fetch a bow and some arrows for me."
The creature gaped at her in disbelief. "You're as nutty as he is!"
"Maybe. But I'm no coward. And neither is the rest of this village." She gestured all around, where dwarves were emerging from various caves, all armed to the teeth with weaponry. "Besides, I still need something from this village," she added under her breath.
Without another word, she ran over to one of the nearest dwarves, a husky warrior with a sword in each hand and a bow slung over his shoulder. Dwarves were masters with weapons. It was only fitting that they all have several of the best on hand for emergencies.
"You need those swords?" she demanded.
"They're mine!" he growled. "Now get-"
"Then give me the bow!" she interrupted.
The dwarf looked at her for a moment, not sure if she was serious. Finally he unslung it from his shoulder and handed it and the quiver to her. "Stay clear of the monster, lady."
"You don't need to tell me that twice." She nocked an arrow on the bow's string, took careful aim, and let fly.
The creature scowled at the commotion. "If you can't beat ‘em, join ‘em." Without another word, it skipped away to the blacksmith's shop.
Randi danced like a man possessed, his sword whipping around too fast to be seen. Thick green tendrils came from the plant and tried to wrap themselves around him or pin him to the ground. The sword sliced through them with a single stroke, but just as quickly as they were cut off, new ones grew in their place. He couldn't even get close to the plant, so intent was he on dodging its attacks.
He could see other dwarves furiously attacking the plant, but even their biggest weapons were hard pressed to cut through the tendrils, and all their arrows bounced off the center stem's iron-like skin without effect. He needed to get in closer to the monster to let the Mana Sword chop through the stem. He was certain that it could. It cut through everything else, didn't it? He sent the sword through another of the tendrils. The sword passed through it like it was nothing more than air, severing the end. He needed to get closer. He was only wearing himself out.
He jumped over a stabbing tendril with reflexes he was certain he'd never possessed several days ago. A quick slice separated the end of the tendril from the plant, giving him an instant to stop and breathe. He saw a dwarf several feet away get knocked to the ground. Without thinking, he lunged towards the dwarf, hacking away at the tendril.
"Get back!" he yelled. "You guys can't hurt it!"
"It's our village! We die defending it!"
"You'll die without defending it if you don't fall back!"
"Take this!" a voice yelled through the commotion. A blaze of red flew over their heads and stuck itself near the base of a tendril. The monster trembled and threw out its tendrils in the direction the shot had come from. Randi's gaze followed the path of the arrow back to its source.
"Lady Purim!" he yelled. "Get back!"
She ignored him as the tendrils ran out of slack and fell short of her position. Instead, she drew another arrow and ran back into a cave. When she came out again, the arrow was covered in flame. She cooly drew it back and fired it towards the creature. It imbedded itself in another tendril where it began to smoke furiously.
Randi smiled in spite of himself. She might be annoying, but she wasn't stupid. What was she dipping those arrows into to set them on fire? It was the first thing that seemed to hurt the monster besides the Mana Sword.
"The blacksmith's shop!" the dwarf exclaimed. "She might have something there!"
They both broke into a run towards her as she emerged a third time from the cave, another arrow burning brightly. She quickly fired it off, and ran back into the shop. This time, Randi followed her in.
He was greeted with a fierce blast of hot air as he entered the cave. The entire room was glowing a dull orange. Within moments, Randi was sweating. Lady Purim came running out an instant later.
"Don't just stand there!" she ordered. "Set more arrows on fire! Get some more people to shoot!"
Randi continued on into the cave, curious to know what the source of heat was. As he emerged from the low-cut tunnel, he gaped. A river of lava was slowly flowing by, oozing along like a puddle of slow-moving water. No wonder it was so hot!
The sound of movement made Randi turn. It was the creature he had fought before, struggling to carry a pile of small swords out of the room. The pile was almost bigger than it was!
"What are you doing?" he asked.
"Thing's... hungry... no sense in arguing with it..." it puffed. "Take a few, would you? I'll kick your miserable ass as soon it's had enough to eat."
Randi didn't know what to make of that statement, but obligingly took an armful of the weapons and carried them out of the cave, glad to leave the intense heat behind.
When they emerged from the clearing, Randi could see that more dwarves had picked up on Lady Purim's idea. Fiery arrows were flying in from all directions.
"Hmph," the creature scowled. "Cute idea, but they aren't killing the monster. It just makes it a little harder from the arms to grow back, and they still don't go through the center stem. I'll show ‘em how to get rid of this plant."
"What are you doing?" Randi wanted to know. Arrogant, yes, but the creature was right. The flaming arrows just seemed to make the creatures madder and barely slowed it down at all. And most of the archers had run out of arrows in their haste to try and hurt the creature.
"It's hungry," the creature offered. It picked up two of the swords with one hand. "I'm going to feed it."
Everyone nearby stared at him in disbelief, Randi most of all. "You mean-" he began, not quite able to believe his ears.
"Just watch me. Idiot."
"Cover for Red!" one of the dwarves yelled, even as a number of them rushed into the foray again to either side of the creature's path.
The creature bolted towards the monster, moving with low, fast jumps that let it flit past the attacking tendrils with room to spare. But it didn't stop there. Once it was near the plant, a flying leap landed it on the side of the central stem, where it scaled the stem like a squirrel. In moments, the creature was just outside the open jaws, winding a pathway around the stem to avoid the tendrils. The plant knew that the creature was there, but its attempts to catch it were futile. The jaws clicked open and shut angrily. The instant they opened again, the creature tossed in both of the knives, then sprang away from the creature as the jaws snapped shut upon feeling something enter between them. A hideous screech was heard as it bit down upon the knives, but it seemed the plant was unable to spit the weapons out.
"Doesn't like my cooking," the creature commented, already back beside them again. "Maybe it needs to eat a few more..." It picked up two more weapons. "I'll fill its guts with these things if that's what it take!"
The ground began to tremble beneath their feet as the plant thrashed about. Suddenly the plant began to grow before their very eyes. After a minute, it could be seen that it was simply coming out of the ground, using its tendrils to pull itself along like some giant slug. They all gaped in horror.
"Then start feeding it," Randi ordered grimly. "I'm going to finish this thing for good. Hold it off as long as you can." Without another word, he stalked off into the blacksmith's shop again, ignoring the intense heat. The monster was still chasing him, and now it wasn't even going to wait for him to come to it. Well, it would meet its match, he promised. He knew two things about it. Firstly, his sword could cut it, and secondly, it didn't like fire. The problem was, no type of attack had both advantages to it. He was willing to bet that he could combine them both together.
He looked at the river of flowing lava that went through the room. It was so hot that it literally flowed like water. It ought to be hot enough for his purposes. He just hoped that the Mana Sword was as tough as it was sharp...
Gritting his teeth against the heat, he stabbed the sword's blade into the lava and held it there, ignoring the burning air scorching his hand and looking away to keep his face from being burned in the process. He hadn't thought anything could be so hot. He hoped it didn't melt the sword's blade.
"What are you doing?" Lady Purim demanded, coming into the cave. "It's almost here!"
"Just another minute," Randi muttered, stealing a glance at the sword. What he saw almost made him drop the weapon. The lava had stopped flowing. It had cooled down and turned to rock. On the other hand, the blade of his sword was white hot with heat.
"What are you doing?!" she repeated, but this time she sounded scared. She was seeing something that didn't make sense. The heat of the sword's blade was radiating throughout the cave, yet the blade wasn't even softening.
Randi noted the same things, but what he felt was the furthest thing from fear. It was a strange sense of... calm. Almost the exact opposite of adrenaline. Instead of the fierce pounding of his heart and tensing up of his body, it was a complete sense of deceptive relaxation. Like a powder keg sitting inactive, merely awaiting a spark to bring forth its fury. He felt capable of almost anything at that moment. Certainly capable of defeating an overgrown plant.
"W-what... are you... doing?" Lady Purim squeaked again, beginning to shake and back out of the cave.
Randi strode from the cave, brandishing the white-hot weapon. "Time to weed the garden!"
The plant was still advancing towards them, and had almost reached them. Randi steadily walked towards it, holding his sword at the ready. The sword was leaving a trail of red light as it drifted through the air.
The plant's tendrils lunged for him, but were struck down by Randi's sword. The entire plant writhed as it felt the burning hot blade sever its tendrils and sear them beyond regrowth. The plant seemed to realize that and gathered all its tentacles for one grand attack on him. With a yell, Randi charged the plant as full speed, even as the remaining tendrils stabbed at him.
With a leap, Randi sidestepped the tendrils and slashed furiously into the central stem. The white hot blade slashed through the armored walls of the plant like paper, causing green liquid to begin gushing from the openings, which instantly caught fire as it was touched by the burning sword. The entire plant shook as Randi continued running in circles around the central stem, all the while slashing into its sides. Finally he reached back, and thrust the sword into the center of the plant, and held the blade there.
There was a ear-piercing screech from the plant, then before the village's eyes, the plant exploded into a torrent of flames that began to consume everything. Randi backed away from the plant, his sword's blade now returned to its rusted color, a shocked expression on his face. Finally, the entire plant began to blacken and finally collapsed in a pile of burning liquid.
A cheer went up from the entire village as Randi slowly walked away from what was left of the plant. He felt a sense of exhaustion come over him, but when he looked at the group of awestruck spectators, the tiredness quickly left him. This wasn't over yet...
"That was incredible-" one of the dwarves began, but he stopped when Randi walked by him indifferently.
The creature saw him coming, and sprang up to stay clear of Randi, perching itself atop a nearby rock formation. "Think again, idiot! Nice stuff before, but if you think I'm as easy to take down as an overgrown weed..." It wound up and tossed its remained metal ring towards him, aiming straight for his neck.
Time stood still for an instant as everyone's gaze returned to Randi, expected to see his head chopped off. What they saw made everyone speechless, including the creature.
"Work on your fastball," Randi suggested sarcastically, holding the ring in his left hand.
"You caught that right out of the air!" Lady Purim squeaked.
For an answer, Randi lunged forward and in the blink of an eye, his sword had sliced through the rock that his opponent was perched on. Chunks of rock flew everywhere as the blade chewed through the stone with ease. The entire formation collapsed, sending the creature sprawling. Before it even hit the ground, a hand forced it to the ground and pinned it like a vice. A metallic tap alerted it that a sword had been laid across its neck, and only Randi was preventing gravity from causing it to fall and slice through the creature's neck.
"Now you listen to me, you little brat," Randi hissed in a low voice. "I've had nothing but trouble since I left my village, and I expect nothing but trouble for a long time to come. I've promised myself two things. Firstly, I'm going to be one of the people left standing when the dust clears. Secondly, anyone who gets in my way isn't. Now, think carefully before you answer and take what you say seriously. Are you in my way?"
The creature's green eyes traveled up and down the length of the sword then met Randi's gaze. "I-I think you can k-keep the gold."
The blade lowered an inch. "That wasn't what I asked."
"Uh... no, I'm not in your way."
"Don't forget what you just said. I can't afford to give second chances."
The creature nodded as much as the blade of the sword allowed.
"You can let him go, warrior."
Randi's sword didn't move, but he turned to face the voice. It was an elderly looking dwarf, if his white beard was any indication. "Who are you?"
"I would be the one responsible for him. I think he's learned his lesson. And you and I would seem to have some things to discuss."
Randi lifted his sword's blade. "You'd better have learned a lesson," he growled at the creature.
The creature skipped a good distance away before facing Randi warily again. Randi ignored it and faced the new dwarf. "So who are you?"
"I am the Elder of this village. And who might you be?"
"Randi," he answered slowly. "I need to go to the Underground Palace."
"Oh? Would I be correct in assuming that you hold the Mana Sword in your hand?"
Randi nodded slowly. "How'd you know?"
"The clues are all there. The way your sword cuts through rock, the way you charged it with heat, and of course, the coincidence that the monster appeared shortly after you arrived."
Randi swallowed after the last comment. "You mean you know-"
"Yes, yes, I know something about that sword, including the fact that you and the sword attract monsters. It is only natural for them to attack that which could destroy them. But does it even matter? In the end, we can only doom ourselves by hindering you. It is to our benefit to help you."
After briefly toying with the idea of asking the elder to explain that idea to his village at home, Randi focused on the presently available help. "So you'll tell me where the Underground Palace is?"
"Easily done, but I'm afraid it's not as simple as that. There is a seal around the palace, a lake of lava that I don't think even your sword could dispel."
"So how do I get across it?"
"Well... you'll have to let me research that. Have you any other business here?"
"Well... I meant to get something to carry this sword in."
"Talk with the outfitting shop manager. I'm sure he'll be happy to provide something for you."
"I will," Randi agreed. "Hey, how much do you know about this sword? It sounds kind of stupid, but... I don't really know much about this whole business. Anything I could learn would be a big help."
The elder took the admission in stride. "I only know a few things, but dwarf history has always been very interested in the sword and what it is capable of doing. An offshoot of our pride in weapon making, you understand."
"Um, right. So what else can this sword do? I'll bet it looked cool, but I honestly don't have a clue how the sword did that before."
"That is difficult to explain. The Mana Sword is somehow directly connected to the power of Mana as a whole. This is how it gets the power to cut through things the way it does. According to our legends, the Mana Sword's blade has never been stopped by anything of this world. Rock, iron, steel are all like cloth before it. Even magical protection is said to be worthless before it. That in itself is impressive, but there is more that it can do."
"That is one example. What your sword did was absorb the heat into itself. Most of this world is composed of the four elementals, correct?"
"You mean, water, fire, earth and air?" Randi guessed, remembering his conversation with Luka earlier.
"Correct. But those are simply common faces of Mana as a whole. Fire Mana, Water Mana, Earth Mana, Air Mana. There are many more, but they are not as obvious. What you wanted to do was use the lava to heat up the Sword's blade. What the sword did was simply manifest its ability to control Mana by taking all the fire into itself."
Randi thought hard for a few moments. "You mean... the lava had ‘Fire Mana' in it, and my sword just sucked it all up?"
"That is one way of looking at it. How much energy do you think was in all that lava? Your sword took all that energy and concentrated it into that blade!"
"No wonder it killed the plant!"
"Your sword used the Fire aspect of Mana to increase its power. But I do believe it is capable of doing the same thing with other aspects of Mana."
"You mean I could..." Randi struggled to think what this information meant. "What if I did the same thing with... water?"
"Perhaps. Water is the opposite of fire. That would suggest that as opposed to heat, water would manifest itself as cold."
"You mean, I could... turn this into a super-cold blade?"
"You would have to find a large enough source of ice or water, of course. You are lucky that we have these lava flows around here. You would be hard pressed to find another source of heat so large. It will take a few days before that lava begins to flow again."
Randi recalled that he had completely hardened the lava. It was incredible. His sword had sucked every bit of heat energy from the melted rock. What had Luka said? That the Mana Sword was possibly the most powerful weapon ever made. He'd been a fool to think that a sharp edge was the end of what it had! Perhaps he wasn't so helpless after all!
He sobered up. He still didn't know everything about this sword, and he wouldn't even begin to feel comfortable until he did feel comfortable with it until he did. "So what about this ‘seal' around the Underground Palace. A lake of lava?"
"Are you sure I couldn't do what I did before? Just suck up the lava's heat with my sword?"
"You are welcome to try, but I'm not sure if you possess the energy required. The sword's strength, especially higher-level abilities is partially determined by the user, it is believed, which only makes sense. You are still young and inexperienced."
Randi nodded resignedly. "Maybe, but let me try it anyway."
Fifteen minutes later, Randi and the Dwarf Elder were standing in front of the entrance to the Underground Palace. Or rather, about fifty feet away from the entrance. In between them was a huge lake of steaming lava that completely surrounded the entrance to the palace.
"The entrance is at this level," the Elder was explaining, "and I'm led to believe that most of the palace leads straight down."
"Makes sense for the Underground Palace," Randi agreed. "Isn't there any way across this?"
"None that we've ever found or heard of. The sheer heat of the lava would kill a person before they got too far out. You are welcome to try using your sword to absorb the heat."
Randi nodded, wincing as he approached the edge of the lake. Taking a deep breath, he plunged the sword into the lava, shielding his face from the heat. How had it happened before? He had simply wanted to heat the sword up, so...
The heat around him faded abruptly, causing Randi to look. What he saw made his heart sink. A small patch of the lake, barely big enough to sleep on had been solidified. Beyond that, nothing had changed. His sword was white-hot with pent up heat energy.
"I feared as much. That is as much as you are capable of absorbing at one time."
"This could take forever!" Randi muttered. "And what do I do with my sword now?"
"That is a good question. But I'm afraid to say..." The Elder pointed down at the ground, "that it will take you longer than forever."
Randi groaned as he saw the solid patch of rock already beginning to soften and turn back into lava. He couldn't even keep up with it! "There's got to be another way!"
"I'm certain that there is. If you'll look out in the middle of the lake..."
Randi did so, his eyes soon coming to rest on a white object floating in the middle of the lake. "What's that?"
"That is some sort of crystal. We believe that it is somehow used to breach the seal, but we can only guess at how it is used."
Randi sighed. "Well... I'm stuck for the moment. Do you think you could find a way to get past it?"
"I'll do my best. It shouldn't take long to determine whether we can be of help to you."
While the dwarf Elder searched for information, Randi found his way to the weapons shop. His sword was still glowing white-hot from the energy that it had absorbed from the lava before. He didn't know if it would work, but he thought he might have an idea what to do with it.
Before he entered the cave, he could hear two people talking. One was a deep, rough voice, and the other was a higher, feminine voice.
"You're dwarves!" the female was protesting. "You must have something for the job!"
"Listen here, lady. I've got all kinds of tools. I've got tools that can cut through almost any material in the world. But when magic is involved, I feel no shame in saying that I've met my match."
Randi entered the cave quietly, not wanting to disturb the conversation. In the dim light, he saw that the lady was Lady Purim, and the other person was the biggest dwarf he'd seen yet. Probably the blacksmith. What were they talking about?
"Magic? Maybe you're just incompetent!"
"Lady, the only reason I'm sitting here and listening to you babble is because my lava flow's dried up and I can't do anything else until that changes. But my patience has got its limits. Now why don't you go find someone else to pester?"
"What's this about?" Randi asked, unable to keep silent any longer. He walked around the corner, his sword sending off an orange light through the cave.
The dwarf couldn't seem to pry his eyes off Randi's sword, but Lady Purim had no such reservations. "This imbecile finally met his match in an old piece of stone." She held up a small chunk of rock. It looked as though it had once been part of some ornament.
"What's this from?" Randi inquired, trying to be polite. To the dwarf, anyway.
"There's a gate made of this stuff keeping me out of the witch's castle."
"Are you still trying?"
"To the death!" she retorted. "This was a stray piece lying on the ground. I brought it here to get something that could cut through it."
"Can't help you there," Randi said, dismissing the case.
"Hmph. I'll find a way," she promised, talking more to herself than the others. "I'll find a way," she repeated, leaving the cave.
"But I might be able to help you," Randi continued, walking towards the blacksmith. "I'm hoping I can fix this lava flow."
He walked up to where he knew the lava flow had been. It wasn't hard to tell. A patch of pitch-black ground ran in a line through the cave. Taking a deep breath, Randi tried to will the energy out of the blade. Nothing happened.
"Nothing," he muttered. "Let's try the direct approach."
With a flourish, he stabbed his sword into the ground and dragged it along where the lava flow had been, making a deep cut into the rock. As his blade came out of the rock, it had returned to its normal color. A bright red glow spread along the cut as Randi backed away, watching hopefully. The energy was no longer in the sword, so it must have-
Without warning, the entire line of black rock burst into flames and melted before their eyes. By the time their eyes had stopped watering, the lava flow was rushing along, looking as though nothing had ever touched it.
"You fixed it!" the dwarf exclaimed happily. "Now I can get back to work again!"
"No problem," Randi agreed, feeling quite proud of himself. He would learn how to use this sword yet!
"My name is Watts," the dwarf said cheerfully, grabbing Randi's hand and squeezing so hard that Randi had to stifle a squeak of pain. "Say, do you mind if I take a look at your sword? I won't break it or anything. Don't think I could, to be honest."
Randi obligingly held it out to the dwarf. The minute the dwarf grabbed the handle and Randi let go, the sword dropped to the ground like a piece of lead.
"Hey!" Watts exclaimed, mindful that the sword had almost cut his toes off. He grabbed it by the handle and tried to lift it, without success. The massive muscles in his body strained as he put his entire strength into lifting the weapon. Still no success.
Randi remembered the scene back at Potos village. No one had been able to budge it there, either. "I don't think anyone but me can hold it," he offered, picking up the weapon easily.
The dwarf chuckled. "More magic, eh? I don't know what this world's coming to. Magic gates and magic swords..."
"The normal types don't cause as many problems," Randi voiced with heartfelt conviction.
"Well now, ain't that the truth!" Watts chuckled. "But anyway, I was hoping to talk with you. That's the real Mana Sword, huh?"
"The real thing," Randi agreed sourly.
"Is it true that it cuts through anything?"
"Everything so far. And that's saying quite a bit."
"It's always been my dream to see the greatest weapon ever made. Too bad I can't hold it. Say, it looks a little rusty."
Randi nodded. "It changes its form, I'm told." He was too embarrassed to get into the details of why it changed form. What business did this sword have, deciding how worthy he was to hold the sword?
"Interesting, interesting," the blacksmith mused. "So did it come with a sheath? Or is that magically invisible?"
Randi had to laugh. "If it is, I haven't found it yet. I was hoping to get one here. I haven't put this thing down for the last week or so."
"Except sleeping, huh? Rough."
Randi shook his head. "When I say that I haven't put it down, I mean it. Something about this weapon... I can't seem to let go of it for long. I felt weird just trying to give it to you before. More magic, I guess."
"That's a problem," Watts agreed. "Well, I think we can find something for you. Seeing as I've no work orders right now, why don't I show you around the accessory shop personally? A sword like that deserves a good sheath."
Ten minutes later, Randi was sporting a new sheath, attached to a thick belt around his waist. At Randi's insistence, it was a simply made one, with a minimal of decorations on it. Of course, it was still a good one. As Watts was eager to point out, a dwarf would never even consider making a cheap product. Some items simply looked better than others.
Randi carefully slid the sword into the sheath, half fearing that the blade would slice the sheath in half or suddenly become too heavy without him holding it. It was with some relief that the blade fit the sheath almost perfectly, without any problems.
"I think this one will do the job," Randi agreed. "How much is it?"
"It's on us," Watts informed him. "Least we can do after what you've done for this village."
"That monster attacked because I was here."
"Mere details! This concerns the pride of our village! You're the Mana Knight! We'd be criminal not to help you out any way we could."
Randi grimaced. It wasn't that he didn't want to accept the sheath, but he was beginning to hate being called the ‘Mana Knight'. It just didn't seem right. "Well... okay. But this is the end of it, right? I shouldn't be taking free stuff like this unless I actually help this village out somehow. Attracting monsters isn't helping you out."
"Fair enough. But you're taking this sheath for free. It's not even an expensive sheath. And look at your hands! They're blistered!"
Randi laughed in spite of himself. Watts was right. He'd been holding the sword for so long, his hands were beginning to show blisters. "Just in time, I'd say. Thanks a lot."
"No problem. Why don't you go see how the Elder's doing? I need to get back to work now."
"I think I will. Thanks again." Randi turned and walked out of the accessory shop with his sword now in a sheath. It felt good to have the use of his hands again. He felt dirty all over, but he didn't mind. Things were actually going good for the time being. All that he needed now were some results from the Elder's search...
As he exited the cave, he heard a faint noise off to the side, but thought nothing of it. This whole place was noisy to begin with. Then he felt a hard impact on the side of his head that sent him reeling. He struggled to maintain consciousness and face the attacker, but a second blow made his world go black.