WARNING: For details on overall warning, see Chapter One. But if you haven't read it by now, what's the freaking point?

Author's note: AHAHAHAHAHAHA! It's over! I was originally going to do this ending in two chapters, but instead wound up doing it in one super-mammoth 10,000-word chapter instead. Sleep, who needs that? So this is my Christmas/New Year present to all of you. (Only just managed to get it in before year's end; that was close.)

So that's it. IT'S OVER. Crazy, huh? I've learnt a lot while writing this (first and foremost being that my attention span for any creative project limit is no more than two and a half years, after which point productivity on the old projects drops dramatically). I actually did a (slightly) more thorough post-mortem on my website, but repeating it here would probably violate ff net regulations.

Thanks to everyone who managed to stick with this fic despite the increasingly long waits between updates towards the end. A super-special thanks goes to Cookie Pixie, who I who I believe was the only reviewer to stick with the story from the very first post. I would throw you a parade if I could. Honourable mentions go to (smiley face), WaterDragonerS, StaciNadia, Soriyu, DemonicDragonOfRa, TheOneAndOnlyT…. Ah, crap, there's a lot of you who deserve personal thank yous. An extra special nod of appreciation goes to Wings of Lead, Lone Ronin and Truewind who continually provided excellent critiques throughout that were useful in helping me pick up on problems that needed fixing and areas that could use improvement. I'd actually like to thank everyone by name, but more than a few people have changed their nicknames over time, and quite frankly, there's not enough space here accommodate everyone who reviewed regularly. But don't worry – if you weren't mentioned by name, that doesn't mean I don't like you. (Well, I guess it COULD mean that, but that's just being paranoid. Don't be. You're awesome. :) )

So yes. This is the last chapter. Thanks for the ride, everyone. The ending was more saccharine than intended, but maybe that's just my happiness from finishing the damn thing shining through? Despite previous plans to develop some other ideas, I'm going to take a break from the SD3 fandom for a while to work on some other projects now. Admittedly I'll miss working on this 'little' side project, since it has been going on for so long, but another part of me is sort of happy to see it go.

Anyhow, that's enough from me. Shoo, go read already. And when you're done, let me know what you thought. Do I suck at endings? You only get one chance per fic to find out.



Another Witchmaker

Chapter 55 – The Fairy is What?

By Sinnatious


Angela wasn't entirely certain what had happened - one moment she'd been about to draw her last breath as she lay dying on the ground, and what seemed to be an instant later she was standing; clean, healthy and wholly intact. She felt the most invigorated and best rested that she had in months, and her magic sang beneath her skin as pure Mana energy swirled like a loving cocoon around her. The Magus glanced down, checking herself over in mild disbelief. Was all that blood on the ground really hers? She couldn't figure out where it had come from.

Never mind how revitalised she felt - how was she even alive?

She turned, her eyes seeking out her companions to find them similarly restored and bewildered on their feet. Finally, the Princess's gaze wandered to the blank-faced Dragon Emperor. She presumed the lack of expression meant that he was almost as dumbfounded as they were.

'THIS WILL BE MY FINAL GIFT TO YOU. A SECOND CHANCE,' the voice resounded through their heads again. Angela's eyes immediately sought out their tiny guardian, but there was no sign of her. She had vanished.

"Hmph. I suppose I underestimated what one of the Goddess's little errand runners was capable of," the Dragon Emperor sneered.

He wasn't the only one.

Duran withdrew his Sacred Shield from his back. "You won't catch us by surprise a second time," he warned, sliding into a battle ready position with his shield in his left hand and his sword in his right.

Angela looked to Hawk on her right. "I have a damn good reason to live right now, so you're going down in flames," she announced.

The Rogue was at her side in an instant, giving her a quick peck on the cheek. Before she could even blink, he appeared again several strides away. "Just in case!" he called.

"You! You better not think about dying! No more crazy stunts from you! You're not avoiding me any longer!" Angela ordered, pointing a gloved finger at the cheeky Navarrian. "We are so having sex after this!"

Duran, thankfully, either didn't hear the Princess's statement or was incapable of processing it. The Dragon Emperor, however, raised a single blonde eyebrow. "Excuse me?"

Angela whirled back towards their foe. "You shut up! We'll get to you in a moment! But I have to sort this stubborn fool out because Goddess help me I finally got him to admit how he feels and I don't care if he thought he was about to die, I'm not letting him go back on it!"

"I swear, Angie, I really thought-"

"I don't want excuses! You should be thankful I'm not fire balling your ass right now for putting me through so much heartache!"

"Angie-"

There was rumbling in the background and a flash of ochre out the corner of her eyes, but the Magus continued regardless. "I know we've got a lot of talking to do and this isn't really the right place or time, but-"

"ANGIE! I agree. But right now, there is a giant dragon in front of you. Please look," the thief interrupted.

Finally ceasing her tirade, the Princess focused her attention back on the matter at hand. Where the Dragon Emperor once stood now sat an enormously large golden dragon.

"Wait... so the Dragon Emperor is an ACTUAL DRAGON?" Angela exclaimed in disbelief.

"More likely is that he used magic to turn himself into one," Hawk replied.

Duran tensed slightly, backing up a step. "On your guard," he warned.

It would be awe-inspiring if the Dragon Emperor wasn't their enemy. Flammie looked like a kitten next to this monster - and Flammie was considered the 'Father' of the Winged Ones'! Even when their cute white dragon had been super-sized by Hawk using the Body Change spell, she hadn't even been close to this large! They were barely as tall as one of his claws!

So their enemy was an enormous dragon. They could deal with this. Sure. No problem.

"Spread out!" Hawk called, already darting to the right. "That way he can't wipe us all out in one blow!"

Duran nodded, running towards the dragon's left flank. Angela backed up a bit - she hardly needed to be in such perilously close range to use her magic - as she'd already established that hitting this monster with her Dragon Rod would likely be ineffectual, regardless of the weapon's name. It was a good plan, she decided as they took up formation. Even if he managed to nail one of them with another spell like the last, there'd be one of them left to distract their foe while the other revived their ally. Hopefully he didn't take too many pot shots at the Paladin, because Angela wasn't sure how many of those miracle curing elixirs they had left.

Once they were spread out, though, it seemed as though none of them were quite certain how to proceed. How exactly did they tackle such a massive creature? Even the God-Beasts, as large as some of them had been, seemed comparatively manageable. They really were insects next to this monster.

The Dragon Emperor, likewise, seemed to be having trouble deciding who to kill first. While he swung his massive head around, Hawk took the opportunity to let fly a barrage of Grande Bombs and Cutter Missiles. The dragon roared in pain as the at first seemingly dismissible projectiles exploded in his face.

Angela grinned, following up with a series of decent-sized Holy Balls. They didn't seem do anything more than annoy their foe and leave a few scorch marks on his scales, but all they could do for the moment was test the waters for a potential weakness that could be exploited.

Duran ran in with his Brave Blade held high and his Sacred Shield at the ready. With a war cry, he buried the sword to its hilt in the Emperor's left flank, eliciting a displeased grumble from the belly of the beast. The dragon lashed out with his claws, catching the Paladin by surprise and sending him flying. She kept a wary eye on the Mana Knight as he clambered to his feet a moment later - his breastplate had apparently protected him from the worst of the blow. It at least looked like that because of their size, the monolith's claws were not sharp enough to pierce armour.

To distract the dragon from his prey while the Forcenan regained his footing, Angela let loose another barrage of Holy Balls, then threw herself to the ground to avoid the sweeping strike of a clawed foot. She rolled back to her feet as soon as they were clear, leaping backwards to avoid a second attempted strike. Hawk darted in and out to lay quick strikes, aiming for the underbelly but almost always having to retreat to avoid being crushed by stomping feet. Duran quickly cast a small amount of healing magic on himself to allow easier movement before waiting for another opening in which to dash in with his sword.

They continued this dance for quite a while - not really doing anything to significantly wound the Dragon Emperor, but they were at least annoying him somewhat. Despite their near-death experience, the Magus was feeling heartened. Their foe was impossibly massive, but because of his size he was at least somewhat slow. Not terribly slow - Duran's sturdy armour was probably all that was keeping him alive at the moment - but his movements were sluggish enough that Hawk could dodge his swiping claws and snapping teeth with ease, and Angela was far enough away that she could see any attacks coming soon enough to avoid them. Fortuitously, he hadn't let loose another one of those spells yet, either - the Princess was rather hoping that his magical power was not equal with his magical stamina. If they were lucky, he'd used up too much of his magic with that spell on them the first time to cast it again anytime soon.

Not that the Magus intended on waiting around for that to happen. "Clear the way!" she yelled in warning, her two companions immediately retreating from their assault. "DIAMOND MISSILE!"

She'd poured a large amount of magic into the spell, and as such the spars of rock that formed in the sky were quite a bit larger than normal. They plummeted down upon the Dragon Emperor's unsuspecting head with blinding speed.

Their foe roared in pain as the deadly gemstone spars struck. One of the small ones bounced off his head, landing near the Princess, but three of the larger ones drove into his body, half-sticking out like sparkling barnacles. A moment later, the magic forming the missiles dissipated, revealing three deep gouges that started to ooze blood.

Not even wasting a moment, the Princess prepared another spell, calling upon even more of Gnome's power. She gathered her energy and planted her Dragon Rod in the ground, forcing her magic into the earth. The ground rumbled ominously as she poured more and more of her power into it.

"EARTHQUAKE!" It probably wasn't necessary to shout the spell, but it helped her focus, and when throwing around these sorts of spells, every little bit helped.

The ground erupted beneath the Dragon Emperor's feet, sending spears of rock and earth into his underbelly, knocking the monolithic beast off balance. He crashed to the side, crushing the spars of rocks beneath him. It seemed as if the entire isle shook with the impact as a cloud of dust rose around the golden beast's form.

Duran used the opportunity while the dragon was getting to its feet to rush in and deal another strike with his sword. "SAINT SABRE!" he yelled as he plunged the glowing blade deep into the dragon's breast. In reality, the blade's length was not enough to reach any vital organs, but they'd bleed this monster who dared slay the Goddess to death by a thousand cuts if they had to!

Angela took a deep breath, preparing to start gathering magic for another spell, wanting to be ready to strike as soon as the Paladin retreated and she had a clear shot. She paused momentarily when she saw the dragon rear it head into the sky, tensing in preparation to dodge another snapping bite if necessary.

That wasn't what followed, however. The Dragon Emperor opened his massive jaws wide, and let loose a blood-curdling roar.

The very air seemed to shake. Reflexively, Angela dropped her staff, hands pressed against her ears and eyes squeezed shut. She forced them open against her will, and managed to make out Duran's blurry figure on his knees, similarly positioned. Hawk, on the other hand, had managed to fight off that reflex and kept his feet and weapons, but seemed to be stunned still. This wasn't just the angry bellow of an irritated beast - there was magic interwoven in that shout; it thrummed with a power that made her head feel like it might be split open even with her hands pressed tightly over her ears.

After what felt like a lifetime the screeching roar ended, though it lingered with a dull ringing in their ears. Tentatively, Angela removed her hands from her head and grabbed her cane from the ground. Out of the corner of her eyes, she could see Hawk stumbling drunkenly for a few moments before regaining his stance. Meanwhile, the Dragon Emperor had immediately started attacking Duran again, knocking the Forcenan around like a rag doll. That armour of his was able to take some serious punishment - most any other metal would have caved in by now, but thanks to it the Paladin just had to make certain that he landed correctly and he could get away with what would later amount to be nothing more than painful bruises, as opposed to crushed organs.

The Magus stepped a little further out of range, moving into spell-casting stance once again to gather her magic. Electricity started to snap and crackle in the air around her as she called forth Jinn's power, taking longer than usual to focus - that abnormal scream had left her nerves slightly addled, and as such she was still feeling a little woozy and confused. After what felt like a painfully long time, she'd managed to gather enough magic for the spell. "Hey!"

Duran glanced her way, barely dodged a snap of the Dragon Emperor's jaws, and quickly rolled to the side, scrambling to his feet and quickly putting as much distance between himself and their foe as possible without leaving the wide clearing. The Rogue, on the other hand, moved in from behind, daggers at the ready, though his movements seemed more sluggish than usual.

"Hawk!" she called again when the thief didn't seem to heed her warning. Comprehension dawned a moment later when she spotted the smudge of blood on the edges of his ears. He'd been deafened by that magically enhanced shout before! After a moment, fortunately, he sent a glance her way and caught on that she had another spell she was ready to let loose, and quickly backtracked.

Not a moment too soon - she'd barely been able to hold off on releasing the spell. "THUNDERSTORM!"

Thunder boomed as lightning bolted down from the sky, converging on the golden dragon with accuracy and temporarily blinding the Princess with the flash of white light. For an instant, her skin prickled as the air was filled with static energy, before the magic receded once again. Angela blinked the black dots back out of her vision, keen to see the handiwork of her spell.

It seemed that only half of her thunderbolts had hit, if the scorch marks were any indication. The air was filled with the scent of something similar to burning hair, which she sincerely hoped wasn't her own. The Dragon Emperor growled in displeasure, shaking his body slightly as a dog might do to shake off water, sparks and zaps crackling randomly from his scales.

Duran had taken the brief reprieve her spell had provided to give himself a quick once over with healing magic, and after a series of communicative gestures between them, he hurriedly sent some Hawk's way as well. The Navarrian nodded his thanks, and the trio all retreated a safe distance as it appeared that their foe had regained his bearings once again, taking a moment to catch their own breaths and gather their draining energy, Angela relaxing slightly as she felt the cooling tinge of a light healing spell pass over her, chasing away the worst of her accumulated bruises. By now the dragon was pockmarked with scorch marks and wounds from their attacks, but they'd yet to deal any truly crippling blows to it. Even the Magus's largest spells left mostly superficial damage.

Angela crouched low as a powerful gust of wind washed over them, keeping a wary eye on their enemy. The Dragon Emperor unfurled his massive wings fully for the first time – giant leathery sails that could easily shelter a house from the rain - and started to beat them slowly. Was he going to execute another weird spell?

It appeared not. As the dragon growled deep within his throat, he began rising into the air, the blasts of wind continuing to wash over them with each massive wing stroke. With a bone-shaking roar, their foe took to the sky.

No! If he had the advantage of the air, they'd be at a huge disadvantage! The Magus highly doubted that their cowardly overgrown flying kitten of a white dragon would come anywhere near the Holyland with this monstrosity here, so they'd have to bring him back down to the ground themselves. How, though? She and Hawk were the only ones with any sort of long-distance attacks, and the distance would likely further minimize the amount of damage they'd be able to inflict. Unless...

"Angie! You take the left wing! I'll take the right!" Hawk called, already dashing into position. They had to act quick, before their foe had the chance to get any higher.

"I'm on it!" she replied, already moving into position. She hurriedly focused her magic, keeping an eye on Hawk, waiting so that they could strike simultaneously. At the sight of a wink from her beloved, she let loose.

"DIAMOND MISSILE!" Giant spars of rock formed in the air above the dragon's left wing. Simultaneously, the Rogue threw half a dozen cutter missiles with impressive strength towards the right. The Dragon Emperor, sensing attack coming from two directions, tried to dodge both by twisting mid-air and managed to dodge neither. The gemstone missiles tore through the leathery skin of the left wing, and upon impact Hawk's flying axes exploded, leaving the right wing in tatters. With an angry wail, the dragon plummeted back to the earth, no longer able to maintain altitude with his wings injured and useless.

The Magus and Rogue barely avoided being crushed when mighty beast impacted the earth with a ground-shaking thump. The monster pulled himself to his feet a moment later and angrily started lashing out at her and Hawk, the Paladin temporarily forgotten. The Princess barely dodged his swiping claws, crouching low as she found her feet again in hopes that it made her a slightly smaller target. Not that it really helped against such a monstrous foe. Out of the corner of her eyes, she saw Hawk preparing to launch another attack, and quickly flung a powerful Holy Ball directly at the dragon's eyes. It didn't particularly hurt him, but it did at least blind him long enough for the Navarrian to unleash a flurry of attacks before retreating a safe distance once again.

She growled in irritation, pushing lavender hair from her eyes. Her smaller spells seemed to do nothing save annoy the beast, but if she started throwing around her higher level spells with any more frequency her endurance wouldn't last. She only had one of those foul magic herbs remaining, having spent one of Duran already, and as such was reluctant to use it until absolutely necessary. As it was the Paladin was starting to run low again from his frequent use of healing magic and saint sabre. Hawk was becoming more economical with his magic traps also - he was likely conserving his strength as well.

It appeared that this was turning into a battle of endurance. And considering their foe, that was definitely a dangerous position to be in. Her gloved hands gripped her Dragon Rod a little tighter. They weren't going to waste this second chance at life the Fairy had given them. She refused to even consider this a battle they might lose. She had the power of LOVE on her side, dammit!

"Fire ball!"

The volley of fireballs rained down upon the dragon, who seemed to shrug them off with what almost resembled a smirk. Angela cursed - she'd forgotten that only the most potent of fire magic had any hope of burning any dragon's scales.

She was willing to keep trying, though. "EXPLODE!"

This time, the dragon was enveloped in a bursting wave of fire magic. Angela half-gasped, half-panted, trying to catch her breath as she squinted through the smoke. "Dear Goddess, he's one tough bastard," she muttered when the monster emerged from the receding flames, sooty and burnt in some places, but still largely intact. Even if the monster was resistant to fire, Explode was one of her strongest spells! It should have done more damage than that!

Angela searched her mind for another spell that might be useful. The only magic she hadn't used yet was Undine's and Shade's, but she wasn't entirely certain how effective dark magic would be against someone who had so clearly formed a pact with the Underworld. Even then, trying to gather her magic was starting to feel rather like trying to scoop honey with her fingers - she didn't think she'd really be able to get any more high level spells out without fainting from magical exhaustion - something she couldn't risk in this situation. The growing tiredness of her own body and the slightly aching muscles - discomforts that healing magic was never quite able to fully chase away - certainly wasn't helping the situation any, either.

As a Magus, this had to be the first time she'd ever spent all of her magical endurance - even the magic-intense battle with Koren hadn't left her so dry. She eyed her last remaining magic herb clutched in her hands warily. It wouldn't be enough for more than one or two high-level spells, but one or two were better than none. Not wasting another moment, she quickly chewed and swallowed it, grimacing briefly at the sharp taste. It only took a moment before she felt her magical endurance replenish itself.

It seemed as though the dragon had used that brief lull efficiently also. Outright ignoring Duran's rushing sword attacks - even with Saint Sabre applied, the Paladin's sword couldn't drive deep enough to do any serious damage - the Dragon Emperor had started gathering magic of his own. The air seemed to warm, the Princess retreated slightly as she recognized the forming spell to be fire-based. It was too large, though. Over time, her magical senses had become honed enough to recognise most spells as they were cast, and while she could pinpoint this as a fire spell, it was bigger than any she'd come across. Dear Goddess, was he going to cast a fire spell even larger than Explode?!

Cursing the Dragon Emperor's apparent sense of one-up-man-ship, the Magus hurriedly gestured warnings to her comrades to be on the defensive - though both of them had caught on already. Her mind raced. If it really was a spell larger than Explode, Duran's Sacred Shield and Hawk's Silverwolf Pelt wouldn't be able to hold up against it. Even forgetting that - would her Magma Hairpin be enough to protect herself? It had turned Koren's Explode into harmless magical energy easily enough, but the Wizard of the Red Lotus hadn't possessed the same raw power of the Dragon Emperor.

In the end, she only had a split second to make the decision, as a wall of white flame suddenly exploded outward from their foe with a deafening roar, charring the ground black in its path. "MEGASPLASH! MEGASPLASH!" She yelled, throwing one of the monstrously huge water spells over each of her companions, before drawing her Ancient Robe around herself desperately, hoping against hope that her spell was enough to at least remove most of the fire's strength and that her friends wouldn't drown. She winced as the blinding white wall of flame reached her, acutely aware this time of the rising whine of her Magma Hairpin.

The flames that tried to lick at her body dissolved into motes of light as her magical accessory came to life. Even then, it felt as though the destructive magic applied more pressure, moving in closer and closer, and the Princess could feel the ornament growing hot in her hair, even as there was a dizzying rush of magic into her drained body. More and more the fire pressed, until it almost felt that she had regained almost all of her lost magical stamina, and yet still the flames continued to compress her cocoon of safety, trying to breach the invisible barrier that the magical artefact wove around her.

There was a tiny snap, the whine died, and suddenly the white flames enveloped her. For one instant as the Princess huddled under her Ancient Robe, Angela felt a stab of cold, intense fear spike in her stomach, squeezing her eyes shut in expectation of a painful death as she felt the searing heat pass her by... then blessed silence. Almost meekly, she cracked opened her eyes, but the blasting heat and blinding light of white fire had vanished. How by the Goddess was she still alive?

Apparently the hairpin had broken under the strain, but it had held out until the last minute, and her Ancient Robe had been enough to keep the end of the spell at bay, even though it hadn't stood a chance against the full barrage - that overpriced ornament from Pedan had saved her life again, apparently. Furthermore, her magic had been replenished - not completely, of course, and she didn't have any magic herbs left... but it was enough for one last spell to gamble everything on.

Cautiously, she shook back her Ancient Robe, smoke rising from the fabric. It had clearly only just held together, if the slightly burnt, dog-eared edges were anything to go by. The hairpin - now little more than charcoal - dropped from her head, and landed on the ground to mix in with ashes of the grass that had remained.

Instantly, her eyes sought out Hawk. A cough alerted her to his presence - he'd thrown himself to the ground, hunched under his pelt. Steam rose in billowing clouds around him, but she could see that he hadn't suffered anything other than a few burns on the exposed patches of skin, and by the sounds of his gagging, had swallowed a bit too much of that torrent of icy water she'd thrown over him at the last second. She searched for Duran next, who seemed to be in similar shape, already applying healing magic to take care of the worst of the burns.

It didn't seem real that they'd come through that spell intact - the Princess idly wondered what it was called. From the deep growl emanating from the Dragon Emperor, it seemed that he was finding it hard to believe also. Angela smirked, ignoring the weariness of her body as she balanced on the balls of her feet, ready to dodge whatever attack might come next. They weren't going to die so easily.

Gloating over their miraculous survival probably wasn't the best idea, as immediately the Dragon Emperor lashed out at her with a sweeping strike of his tail. The Princess braced herself with her Dragon Rod, sliding back as she blocked the blow. The term 'blocked' was admittedly being generous - she'd stopped the tail from slamming into her, but it still pushed her back. She was darn lucky there weren't any trees left in the clearing after that last spell to smash in to - it was a small miracle she'd been even able to keep her footing. With a roar, the Dragon Emperor wheeled around again, claws slashing and tail whishing as he started attacking in a frenzy, sending them scrabbling for cover as he spouted flares of fire from his mouth and stomped the ground in a violent tantrum.

Angela gasped as the edge of one blind swipe caught her and threw her to the ground. There wasn't time to take note of her aches and pains or check to see whether any bones were broken - she simply rolled away before clambering back to her feet. To her left, Duran was attempting to find some way past the dragon's tail, having at some point wound up facing the monster's back. To the right she could see Hawk out of the corner of her eyes, practically dancing between the bursts of flame and snapping teeth, though exhaustion was starting to slow his movements some, and more than once he was sent sailing through the air - though the Rogue somehow always managed to land on his feet. All the same, the Magus couldn't help but keep a concerned eye on him, not trusting that he wasn't going to perform some suicidal stunt when she was not looking. The thought of Hawk dying before her eyes was even more chilling than considering the prospect of her own death.

She shook her head in a vain attempt to clear it of such morbid thoughts. They were going to win this. They HAD to win this. She couldn't afford to be distracted by such concerns. She believed in Hawk, and knew that he believed in her, too. Duran, too, didn't know the meaning of defeat, so much so that he'd once left his hometown simply to avenge his loss at the hands of Koren.

Resolute, she stood, ignoring the faint breeze that had picked up at some point during the battle that tousled her hair and billowed her cape. Setting her expression determinedly, she started pooling her magic, drawing it out in preparation of being unleashed. All of it.

They couldn't let the fight drag on any longer. She'd rather put her all in and fail spectacularly than allow her remaining reserves of strength to be whittled down until she collapsed.

Hawk wasn't the only one capable of pulling off crazy suicidal moves.

She gestured to her companions, and they both nodded, understanding her silent signal to keep the Dragon Emperor busy. She backed a little further away from the battle as they renewed their attacks, continuing the laborious task of gathering all of her magic as she settled into a traditional spell-casting position. She rarely needed to concentrate that hard for most of her spells these days, but this... this was going to be more chaotic than a herd of Carlies. It was going to take all of her strength to control.

One last shot. That's all she had. One crazy, forbidden spell that she'd never even read about, but somehow knew.

The real trick was going to be controlling it.

Instinct was all that was really guiding her now, as she slowly started weaving her power into the incredibly complex spell. She was distantly aware of the Dragon Emperor grunting in mild pain as Duran landed another long saint-sabre assisted sword slash. As the magic in the air grew, though, she saw the slitted blue eyes of the Dragon Emperor turn to her, widening in surprise. Had he recognised what spell she was trying to call?

As if in slow motion, he made as though to swoop down upon her, to snap at her and interrupt her concentration. No! If he struck now, she'd lose it all - her spell would unravel, the magic would scatter, and the best result would be a messy, ineffectual explosion! She couldn't move, though, couldn't risk letting even the slightest instability develop in her magic, lest it rage out of control and release itself before she was ready.

In her peripheral vision, she caught a flash of purple, moving to intercept. With a speed that no human should have been capable of, Hawk appeared, body twisted mid-flight, Manthroaters glinting. An instant later, a shallow gash appeared on the golden dragon's nose, then another under his left eye, then another on the side of his long neck. The Rogue vanished, only to reappear again for a split second before seeming to almost flicker from existence as an after-image once again, a flurry of shallow slices opening in his wake. Five, six, seven... twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two... Angela was trying so hard to keep up with his impossibly fast movements that she almost forgot to keep her attention on her own spell. Still, the Navarrian continued, a confused Dragon Emperor stepping backwards as reptilian eyes attempted to follow the impossibly fast movements of Hawk's swirling short swords, even as dozens upon dozens of shallow cuts cleaved almost simultaneously through the golden scales as though by magic.

The onslaught continued as the Navarrian seemed to flash in and out of existence, appearing above the dragon's left flank, then a second later by his right eye, leaving a trail of shallow wounds in his path. The monster stumbled as Hawk kicked off the top of his head and back flipped through the air before landing on the ground some distance away, leaving their foe covered in what had to be a thousand shallow gashes that all were slowly oozing blood. "All yours, Angie."

Her face lit up with a feral grin. "Thanks, darling." It was time.

She spun once to fling her cape free, and held her Dragon Rod aloft the sky. Immediately, the heavens seemed to darken, and her two companions retreated from the battered and now decidedly nervous-looking Dragon Emperor, leaving him alone in the centre of a charred circle of grass.

The magic whirled, chaotic and unseen around the Magus, before vanishing into the void of the sky, tethered to the Princess only by the most tenuous of connections that pulsed with invisible power. The sound seemed to drain from the arena as the gentle breeze suddenly died and a heavy blanket of silence clouded the fight. As such, all of them could hear it clearly when Angela whispered one word, eyes aglow with power.

"Ancient."

The silence was broken by a distant rumble, growing louder by the second, accompanied by the shrill whistle of rushing air and roaring fire. The darkened arena began to glow with an almost unnatural light from above, and hesitantly, the Dragon Emperor raised his head heavenward, blue eyes widening in horror at the sight that greeted him.

A hail of meteors approached; giant rocks with long burning tails of flame that tore through the atmosphere above them, converging on a giant dragon that suddenly seemed no more intimidating than a rabite. The instant of realization seemed to last forever - the moments after that, however, passed in the blink of an eye as the meteors tore through the air with terrifying speed and slammed into earth with a resonating boom.

The earth shook, dirt rose in great clouds, and a second later a shockwave of air blasted from the epicentre of the impact like an unexpected punch to the gut.

Amidst the fires, smoke and dirt, a Magus stood, cape billowing. She'd done it. She'd pulled it off.

Angela dropped to the ground gasping a moment later, having barely managed to remain standing after that shockwave - even now, she wasn't certain how it was possible. She felt dizzy from the massive exertion of magic, and thoroughly drained - even the thought of trying to cast a Holy Ball at that moment was enough to make her nauseous. Blearily, she attempted to focus on the silhouette of the fallen dragon laying in the centre of the smoking crater.

The Dragon Emperor had fallen on his side. He was barely recognizable now, with most of the golden scales charred black or smeared with dirt. His tail had been severed, his legs broken, and a huge chunk of his rear flank seemed to be missing. One shredded wing stuck awkwardly up into the sky and his long neck lay against the ground as the beast wheezed, struggling to draw breath. Reptilian blue eyes opened after a moment, darting about in panic, trying to track the movements of his enemy.

Angela picked herself up, but had to lean heavily on her staff to remain upright, spent as she was. She saw Hawk rise from the dirt nearby, relief coursing through her at the sight - more than anything, she'd been terrified that the might of her own spell might blow away her companions, but the Navarrian looked nothing more than a little bruised, tired and dusty.

A rattle of metal alerted her to Duran's presence. The Paladin stepped forward; having picked himself up from the ground after the shockwave had passed. His sword still held the faint sheen of Saint Sabre, and his armour, though slightly dusty, still retained its shine. His face was set with a determined expression that spoke of his honour and pride as the one christened Mana Knight.

The clearing was silent, save for the raspy breaths of their fallen foe, as the Forcenan stepped forward heavily. This monster... this was the man, the beast, that had dared not only slay the Mana Goddess, dared cut down the Mana tree, but had even saw fit to kill their self-proclaimed Guardian, and had come closer than any other to killing them. This was the treacherous individual that had turned Duran's father into an unwilling servant, puppeteered wars and made pacts with the Underworld.

There was never any question about allowing him to live.

Duran paused briefly as he stopped in front of the crippled dragon, who didn't - couldn't - move, save for his gaze which followed the Mana Knight unerringly. Then, in one swift movement, the Paladin plunged his sword in between the cold blue eyes, burying it up to its hilt.

"Light Flash Blade."

Angela tried to force herself to keep her gaze trained on the two, despite the blinding explosion of pure white light that resembled the sun. In the end, though, she had to close them lest her eyeballs be burned from their sockets, and when she opened them again, the body of the Dragon Emperor was lacking a head, and it was finally over. She stood in reverent silence as the massive carcass dissolved into granules of darkness that evaporated harmlessly into the air; one last foul breath of twisted magic disappearing into the void.

The bruised, burnt, dusty and exhausted trio stood there for a long moment, not entirely certain what to do or say.

Finally, Duran asked, "Wow, Hawk, what was that move at the end?"

"Thousand Slice," he replied absentmindedly. "Though I rather feel as though my fancy new move was completely overshadowed by Angie's... somewhat awe-inspiring finishing spell."

"Awe-inspiring or not, that was so irresponsible! Do you have any idea of how badly that spell could have gone wrong? YOU COULD HAVE DESTROYED EVERYTHING! One slip and you might have as well destroyed the world with that spell! I'd better not catch you ever using that spell again, Angela!"

"Stuff it, gnat," the Magus snapped tiredly. "I dare say that the risk was well worth it, considering our opponent probably would have DESTROYED THE WORLD ANYWAY. And I pulled it off, didn't I?" Then she did a double take. "Fairy? What on earth?"

Sure enough, floating there before them was a familiar visage - the Fairy with her arms crossed, gossamer wings a-flutter and lips pouted in disapproval.

"Duran, good work," the tiny deity added as an afterthought, then turned a begrudging look of mild congratulations on to the Altenan and Navarrian. "And it looks like you two seem to have finally sorted things out between yourselves."

At that reminder, Angela whirled on the thief standing at her side, poking him in the shoulder. "You! I knew it! Why did you torture me for so long, even after I outright confessed to you?!"

Hawk had the grace to look mildly embarrassed, rubbing the back of his head with one hand somewhat sheepishly. "My own feelings aside, I really did think that you liked Duran."

"You're not that stupid! It was obvious that my feelings changed! Surely you knew that I was telling the truth LATER!"

"How was I to know you weren't just on the rebound?! I can't read minds!"

Angela snorted her contempt of that excuse.

"But I can always get the Fairy to read it for me..."

"NO WAY! I don't want to have ANYTHING do with all those dirty thoughts!" The Fairy announced, indignant and blushing fiercely.

Hawk raised an eyebrow speculatively. "Angie, I wasn't even IMPLYING anything and now you're having naughty thoughts?"

The Princess was in the middle of trying to force her face back down to a colour paler than her dress. Damn that tale-telling Fairy! Besides, it wasn't like the glorified insect was capable of reading her mind right then! The little nuisance should stop making stuff up!

Duran, in the meantime, was standing there looking mildly lost. Suddenly realising that the Mana Knight was probably feeling terribly rejected and very much a third wheel right then, the Princess turned to him, though grabbed Hawk's arm as she did so and held it close. For once, the Rogue neither protested nor seemed inclined to slip out of her hold. "Duran, I'm sorry if you got confused there... but you already had my answer."

The Paladin blinked, but apparently their relationship was about the last thing on his mind at that point in time. "Oh, no, I understand. I mean, I had hoped, but... well... um, congratulations?" he stuttered.

Hawk grabbed his hand with his free arm and shook it firmly, then slapped him on the back. "Sorry, Duran, you're a great guy, but I'm going to steal this one from you."

The Forcenan managed a wry smile, before replying, "As expected from a thief. Personally, after that last spell, I think Princess Angela is a little too much for me. You're a braver man than I, Hawk." His grin widened. "While we're at it, I should thank you both - neither of you had to accompany me on this quest, but you risked your lives all the same. I couldn't have done it without you."

"Oh, come on, ENOUGH with the heartfelt speeches already," Angela complained.

"Don't be such a wet blanket, Angela," the Fairy chided. "Duran's trying to express his gratitude even AFTER you walked all over his heart without the slightest care for his feelings!"

At those words, the Mana Knight returned his focus back to their tiny guardian. "Fairy, are you... I mean, we were worried...," Duran hemmed and hawed. Angela and Hawk also turned their attention back to their glowing guardian. The Paladin had a point. They really had thought that their little holy parasite had bit the dust for a while there. Even now, she seemed strangely... insubstantial. Was that actually the Fairy, and not some sort of apparition?

"While we're on the topic, what are we going to do about the Mana tree?" Angela asked, horror growing as the reality of the situation settled back in. Defeating the Dragon Emperor and getting together with Hawk both seemed like such an impossible tasks that she'd almost completely forgotten about the small detail of the MANA TREE BEING DEAD. What was going to happen to the world without the Mana Goddess? The Princess was almost certain that this was a topic that had never once been covered in her studies.

"Fairy, are you really okay? I thought... you said... your final gift...," Hawk rambled, apparently also not quite able to decide what question was the most pertinent to ask at that point.

"I mean, if the Mana Goddess is really dead, what's going to happen to you?' Duran asked anxiously. "What's going to happen to the world? To all of us?" Elation at their victory was quickly giving way to panic at the enormity of their greater failure.

The Fairy smiled softly at them. "There's no need to worry. It's all taken care of. You all did so well. I'm so proud of you. I'm so very glad I chose you."

The Paladin was growing even more uncertain. "Fairy? You're really... you really are going to die?"

"Don't be afraid, Duran. When a Fairy meets three heroes who come to believe in her..."

"Hey, I never believed in you! Not even once!" Angela interrupted.

"I can't say I had a great deal of confidence in you either," Hawk admitted. "And heroes? Sure, we did some cool stuff, but isn't 'heroes' pushing it?"

Heedlessly, the Fairy continued, "...and the Goddess passes on, she dies... and becomes the seed of the new Goddess."

"I mean, I might have developed a soft spot for you simply by association, but never once - WHAT?!" Angela squawked, doing yet another double take.

The image of the irritating glowing gnat that they'd become so familiar with faded before their eyes, and a moment later was replaced with the translucent image of an ethereal beauty... a likeness remarkably similar to the one that graced so many statues and shrines across the countryside.

"Thank you, everyone," the musical voice reached their ears - so similar to the tone the Goddess had spoken in, but now laced with a new familiarity. "Mana's presence may dwindle for a time, but in a thousand years, its power will blossom once again. Be sure to tell your children, and your children's children, so that the legend of the Mana Tree lives on."

"Fairy...," Duran breathed.

"You all performed so much better than I hoped... you've all grown so strong... go now and be happy. Your sacrifices will not be forgotten." Her words grew dim, and so too did the ethereal goddess fade from sight, until it was almost as though she had been nothing more than a hallucination. However, at the centre of the remains of the Mana Tree, they could spy a small sapling, so out of place amongst the charred and torn ground that it could have been mistaken for a particularly stubborn weed.

Angela, in the meantime, was still trying to process this enormous revelation. If she was understanding things correctly, after all that, the tiny little irritating gnat that had bothered them throughout this entire crazy journey... WAS THE NEXT GODDESS?!

Boy was she in trouble now.

"Don't think too hard about it," Hawk murmured in her ear. "Hey, Duran, what now?"

The Forcenan frowned. "I suppose I'd better head back to Forcenan to report the situation to King Richard. I'd like to go see my family again too. Do you guys want to come?"

"Hmm, what do you think, Angie?" Hawk asked, sliding an arm around her waist.

"I think that we are retiring to a private inn to get properly acquainted," she replied with a challenging glare, then faltered a little. "And rest up a little, too."

"Oh, does anyone need healing magic?" Duran asked in concern.

The Princess waved him off. "You're just as magically exhausted as I am. What injuries are left aren't anything that won't heal on their own after a day or two." Hawk nodded his agreement. They'd had plenty of doses of that magic throughout the lengthy battle anyway, and it tended to start to lose its effectiveness with over-application.

"What do you think? Should we make use of those nice facilities in Forcena's inn?" Hawk asked.

"I'd rather go to the one in Byzel," the Princess replied grumpily. "King Richard creeps me out."

"But I think he might be your-"

"Besides, we should let Duran have all the glory there!" she interrupted hurriedly. "We can drop him off on the way, right, Duran? Actually, what are you planning to do after that?"

"I think I might go to Rolante to let Riesz know what's going on. Probably the Beast Kingdom, too," the Paladin mused.

Angela wrinkled her nose, "I suppose I also ought to drop by Altena and tell my mother to stop wasting magic warming the castle town when Mana isn't going to be as plentiful as it was before." She turned to Hawk, promising pain with her eyes if he dared disagree. "You're coming, right, Hawk?"

"Only if you don't mind a stopover in Navarre afterwards."

"Of course," she replied blithely, having already figured that into her plans. It was highly unlikely that she was going to be content with sitting around in the Altenan Palace all day after all, especially now that she had a long list of romantic destinations from their travels and a lover to visit them with. "Though I draw the line at visiting Wendel. Let the High Priest learn about the changes in Mana on his own."

"You just don't want to run into Carlie," Hawk pointed out.

"And you DO?"

"Point taken."

"Oh, who gets to keep Flammie's drum?" the Princess wondered, since it seemed fairly obvious that they were going to split ways, then another thought occurred to her. "Wasn't she supposed to go into service for those merchant cats?"

"I gave them a useless fake, remember? But I bet I could replicate the real one," the Navarrian reminded her. "We ought to be able to get the materials from Byzel. You can make imitations of ANYTHING there."

"I'd appreciate it," Duran said. "I have to say, I'm not so fond of boats or canons these days."

Especially considering the last boat they'd taken had been haunted and left them stranded on a volcanic island, Angela could appreciate the sentiment. As cowardly as their white dragon was, Flammie was awfully convenient. Just because the world was no longer in immediate peril didn't mean that she liked the idea of returning to pedestrian methods of transportation. "Well, I suppose we'd better get going, huh?" the Princess asked, looking around the devastated patch of earth they'd cleared in the heart of the Mana Holyland. Even if a sort of peaceful tranquillity had returned to the place, it had a sort of morbid feeling about it. She couldn't stop staring at the charred patch of ground that could have been her grave mere hours before.

They called the white dragon, who wheeled down from the sky with a joyous bray almost immediately. This time, Hawk insisted that she ride up front, and she did nothing to dissuade his wandering hands or the warm breath against her neck as they settled themselves on the dragon. About the only thing stopping her from making out with the Navarrian then and there was the presence of Duran, who had to be feeling awkward enough already, though the good-natured Knight was polite enough not to show it - or perhaps more likely he had just become so used to her flirtatious ways that it resembled ordinary behaviour to him.

Flammie took them on a leisurely trip through the sky for once, rather than flying with the sort of urgency that made them feel that their arms would tear from their sockets as they held on for dear life. They dropped Duran off at Forcena and hour or so later as the sun was setting - how long had it been since they entered Dragon's Hole? - promising to meet up in a couple of days to deliver a replica of Flammie's drum to him. Really, it didn't feel like the proper, formal sort of goodbye they should have had with the Paladin, who had been their companion for months through countless life-and-death battles. On the other hand, she knew that it was likely that they'd probably continue to see him fairly frequently, at least for a while, until things settled back down into a routine again and they all became too occupied with their day-to-day lives to bother catching up.

Things would change. They probably wouldn't travel together again, not the way they had before. Angela felt suddenly nostalgic as Hawk clapped the Paladin on the back, and she gave the knight a chaste kiss on the cheek as they bade their temporary goodbyes. Even if she hadn't held romantic feelings for him for a long time, Duran had become a good friend. It was going to be a little odd without him asking obvious questions and optimistically leading them through peril for a while.

Not that she really wanted to keep hanging around him forever. She was, of course, much more interested in finally getting some genuine alone time with Hawk, but it was a weird sensation none-the-less.

They waved goodbye and clambered back onto Flammie, heading to Byzel. The memory of her few stolen kisses with Hawk burned on her lips now, as she eagerly anticipated finally getting to an inn where they could get a lot more intimate and finally resolve some of that long-unresolved tension.

Though she was sort of tired. Now that the adrenaline rush had worn off, she admitted that it was probably worth sleeping first. She'd enjoy getting frisky with the thief a hell of a lot more if she wasn't falling asleep in the middle of it. Though he was staying in her bed. She didn't want him to even START to think about sneaking off. Not that she thought he would, now that he'd confessed and all... but you could never predict thieves. They'd steal your heart then disappear into thin air if it suited them.

Even though they were flying at ridiculously high speeds and altitudes on the back of white dragon, Angela felt her eyes droop shut, and soon she slipped off to sleep with her head lolling on Hawk's shoulder and arms clutched around his waist. She couldn't remember arriving, but she did recall coming close enough to waking at some point to realise that she was being carried somewhere. In her half-lucid state, she recognised the Rogue's smooth voice murmuring something to someone, likely an innkeeper, and then the next thing she knew it was mid-morning - or possibly even midday - and her arm was draped over a warm body.

Her sleep-fogged brain took a moment to process it. It felt like going back in time - it seemed like a lifetime ago now that she had been going to bars in Altena, getting drunk and seeking companionship with whichever male looked best at the time. She was relatively certain, however, that most Altenan men didn't wear their hair in long, tightly wrapped ponytails or have such tanned skin. Then her memory started catching up, and for a brief second she had the urge to throw the perverted thief pressed against her side from the bed and bury him under an Ice Smash. Fortunately, she managed to repress the reflex long enough to remember that she WANTED Hawk to be perverted, just so long as it was only with her.

She sat there quietly for a few minutes, enjoying the rare opportunity to watch the object of affections in unguarded sleep. Why the hell had she ever thought she'd be able to love Duran? The sweet knight, bless his heart, was far too naive for somebody so handsome. In retrospect, if she had ever managed to bed him, it probably would have just been another one-night stand that he'd never understand. With Hawk, on the other hand... she didn't think she'd ever get tired of him. That was the only way she could really describe it to herself. Talking about true love and commitment and all that was terribly romantic when you were on your deathbed, but just sounded overtly mushy and sentimental when uttered in regular daylight hours. Well, Hawk did it easily enough, but sarcasm and theatrical over-acting didn't count.

She supposed that now the threat to the world was over, it was about time she started sorting through that giant list of things she'd been meaning to think about for a long time, but kept shoving to the back of her mind because it was damn inconvenient to be pondering your love life or character changes when fighting dragons or zombies. Not right, then, though, she thought with a yawn. She could put off the deep thinking for a little while longer.

Eventually, though, hunger was enough to drive her out of bed, and with some prodding a mumbling and incoherent Hawk tumbled after her. She gave him a light kick as she headed for the bathroom. "I never thought I'd ever find anybody who likes sleeping late more than me."

"At least we don't have Duran and the Fairy dragging us out of bed at the crack of dawn," came the yawning reply. "That was TORTURE. Who can be so cheerful first thing in the morning?"

Angela enjoyed a long shower, properly washing her hair and grooming herself to look her best, and it was worth it when Hawk's eyes followed her unashamedly when she finally emerged. The inn keep, on the other hand, looked scared stiff of them now that they'd both been fully rested and washed. It took her a minute to realise that with her and Hawk's battle garb, they looked every bit the warriors they'd come to be. She briefly considered discarding the Ancient Robe at least, just to stop the staring and not particularly wanting to so obviously look like a Magus when walking around town, but reconsidered when Hawk suggested a visit to the Black Market later. Spooking the townsfolk was sort of fun, anyway. Maybe she could even sell her remaining two unused curative elixirs there, seeing as they weren't likely to find a use for them again any time soon. When she absently checked for them, though, she couldn't find them. Lips quirking into a wry smile, she left it be and sat down with her companion for lunch.

Lunch was held at a leisurely place, and it was mid-afternoon before they left the comfort of the inn. Hawk disappeared from her side for a few minutes, but she was feeling too content at that point in time to worry, and did nothing more than raise an eyebrow when he returned holding several purses that definitely didn't belong to him.

"Old habits die hard, huh?" she asked, stretching her arms.

He shrugged, rifling through them for money before throwing the rest of it away. "Taking a woman on a date is expensive, you know. Don't I owe you ice-cream?"

She rolled her eyes, but followed the thief on what had to be the most innocent date she'd been on yet. The atmosphere in Byzel seemed brighter than she last remembered it, and the entire setting seemed too tranquil, too peaceful to be real. It was impossible to believe that only the day before the world had come so incredibly close to ending, that she'd been fighting Koren, and later taking a breath that she'd been certain was her last.

It was a little freaky, so she was somewhat relieved when the sun set and they descended back into the murky depths of the Black Market. Seedy and dangerous was more familiar than bright and happy these days.

Hawk led her over to a vendor who had started waving enthusiastically as soon as they entered the large, windowless warehouse that housed the illegal marketplace. "Ah, Hawk, good timing, I just finish, yes! Though your drum will not be ready until tomorrow." A fishy-looking old man - more that he resembled a fish rather than looked suspicious, that was - grasped the Rogue's sleeve and tugged him around to the side of his counter. Out of the corner of her eyes, the Princess spied two familiar-looking showgirls heading their way, but clasping Hawk's hand and sending them a cold glare was enough to have them suddenly minding their own business. Yes, looking the part of a Magus had many perks indeed.

Then Hawk was handing her a cane, which she accepted with a perplexed expression on her face. It looked familiar somehow... "What's this?"

"Your Ancient Cane," he replied patiently.

She stared at him dumbly. "I do believe that shattered into many useless splinters quite some time ago." For one heart-warming second she thought he might have actually gone and glued all of the individual shards back together in a thoughtful display of love and caring. A moment later that crazy thought was dismissed as ridiculous, since this was Hawk she was talking about, and the thief would never do anything so labour-intensive.

A closer inspection, of course, revealed the true nature of the item. "You actually made an imitation?!" She didn't know whether to be grateful, affronted, or impressed. She'd completely forgotten about how she'd utterly destroyed that priceless family treasure her mother had leant her from the royal vaults, and no doubt had she returned to Altena without it she would have stood a very good chance at being exiled all over again.

"Well, of course I didn't make it, but there are people here who specialise in this sort of thing. Some of the copies they make are just as good as the originals - that's why I'm pretty sure we'll be able to get a drum that's at least close enough to Flammie's that she'll respond to it here."

The Princess turned the weapon over in her hands slowly, inspecting it. It would fool almost anyone who wasn't familiar with the original weapon itself - the grain of the wood looked almost identical, even though it was much lighter and probably not as sturdy. The carving was spot-on as well, save for a few parts where the design was a little off, but given that it had probably been drawn from memory, the amount of detail that had been so closely mimicked was remarkable. There were no magical properties in it, either, but Angela felt confident that she could infuse a little of her own power into it and pass the rest off as a result in the change in Mana. They'd even gone so far as weather it a little, sanding scuffs and slight dents from use into it.

"I guess it'll do," she replied airily. Hawk was already handing over stolen money to the greedy vendor. She frowned as they started walking away. "Wasn't it expensive, though? Even for an imitation, it's using pretty good materials." Angela liked having gifts lavished upon her as much as the next girl, but a bigger part of her had become used to having to skip out on bills at inns because of their perpetual money problem. Heck, if it hadn't been for the Navarrian's thieving skills, they probably would have starved to death before they even found all of the Elementals, much less fought eight God-Beasts.

"Yeah, but I got a discount when I mentioned that you were the future ruler of Altena and could destroy the entire building with one spell. They like to keep important people like you on their side."

Angela rolled her eyes as they left the warehouse, emerging onto the deserted moonlit streets of Byzel. "Won't that change when I show absolutely no interest in doing the Black Market any favours? Performing for one night as a showgirl there was enough to put me off the place forever, you know!"

"But you were so very beautiful," Hawk purred, taking her hand. "And besides, think of it like this: we'll be able to get all sorts of good deals on the Black Market now. I can say, 'Hey, I happen to PERSONALLY know the Mana Goddess, you know?' I'd like to see anyone ELSE beat that sort of name-dropping."

"You know, seeing as we know PERSONALLY know the Mana Goddess, wouldn't it make more sense for you to give up your life of crime? After all, you know for a FACT that she doesn't approve of it."

Hawk grinned. "Does that mean you're going to start dressing modestly and only using your magic for the greater good?"

"But I'm allowed to fireball you. You're an evil thief," she responded innocently.

"But I don't steal from people I know," he pointed out.

"Yes you do! You steal from me and Duran all the time! You stole my last elixirs from me this morning!"

The Navarrian pouted. "I just wanted to get your attention."

"You mean you've been stealing from me all this time... to GET MY ATTENTION? How old are you, five?" Come to think of it, that time she'd been searching Hawk's pockets while he was unconscious she'd come across a few pieces of jewellery that she hadn't seen since before Astoria. Typically, wouldn't he have sold them off for money at the first available opportunity? Why had he kept them? Dear Goddess, had the thief liked her even back then? She'd always sort of assumed that the desert rat had been in a similar situation to her to begin with - just flirting for the sake of banter, and only later coming into his own feelings. But if he'd really held a candle for her since they'd first met... the poor guy had put up with her chasing Duran back when she'd had eyes for nobody else; no wonder he'd tried to piss her off at every turn. During that brief period when the thief had been trying his hardest to ignore her, she'd been happy when he talked to her at all, even if it was just about an impending battle.

Angela suddenly laughed at her personal revelation. Hawk blinked, then slouched. "It's not that funny."

Whirling on one foot, the Magus turned to the Rogue and pulled him close, pressing their lips together. After a brief second, she felt the thief respond to the kiss, and time seemed to slow as the rest of the universe slipped away.

It could have been an eternity later, but more likely it was just a couple of minutes before they broke apart, lips moist and swollen. Hawk grinned, amber eyes almost glowing in the moonlight.

"Why, Angie, are you trying to turn me into a Prince?" he asked in mock delight.

The Magus threaded her fingers through his, and started leading the way back to the inn. "It'd take more than a kiss to do that," she retorted.


The end. Thank you for reading.