Section Fifteen: Duel of the Fates

            The town awoke early, music and voices rising as the sun did, streamers flying. The day seemed a perfect one for a tourney, sky clear blue and weather warm without being hot. Merchants wasted no time in going about selling their wares.

            Fox sighed, listening to the music drifting into the tent set aside for him to get ready for the joust, which was set for slightly after midday. He had gotten up early, and in an attempt to steady his nerves went about making himself and his steed impeccably clean and well groomed.

            "And the Elven Lord seems to have no knowledge of the meaning of servants."

            "You're braver then I thought." Fox replied, looking over his shoulder at Titus. "You're not allowed in here, you know, and since you've made several attempts on my life you should have a bit more sense then to just come in here in the first place."

            "I go as I want and do as I want." Titus smiled, but it was thin and cruel as he walked up, watching Fox run the brush through his unicorn's mane. "I must say, I have to wonder about a knight who rides a unicorn, since the tales go that only pure women are supposed to be able to ride them…"

            Fox's unicorn looked at Titus. "You can't believe all fairy tales, though that is rather stereotypical of my kind. And furthermore, if you had read on you would have noted that unicorns are as smart as humans, a great deal wiser, and speak perfect English."

            Fox smiled to himself as Titus sputtered. "Thank you friend, I think he needed the humbling." He told his unicorn, continuing the comb-out.

            "No thanks needed, because I agree." His unicorn nuzzled his arm, then turned back to Titus. "And FURTHERMORE, since you so nicely arranged the attempts on my owner's life, one of which came quite close to succeeding, it could be said that I can barely find the tolerance in my heart to let you live."

            "Meaning what?"

            "Meaning she thinks you're evil." Fox said flatly. "And unicorns are very, very perceptive beasts."

            "I'm hardly evil."

            "Well, you certainly aren't good, or pure. Now leave my tent."

            Titus did, rubbing his eyes.

            The sun crested in the sky, and to accompany it, trumpets rang out, announcing that the tourney would soon start. The bleachers and benches that surrounded the field were packed with commoners.

            Fara wove in and out of the crowd. Happily, no one had insisted she dress up, and she wore a soft white swordfighter's shirt and fitted blue trousers, her sword at her side. As far back as she remembered, the last time there had been such a celebration was when the war had been announced to be won. Parties, she noted, seemed to follow Fox around.

            She found his tent with a minor effort, and found him making final adjustments to his armor and his unicorn's armor. Several lances were lined up in a rack, ready to be used. He knew the moment she came in, turning to face her, surprised.

            "I thought you'd be in the royal box by now." He said, lifting an eyebrow.

            She shrugged, watching him go about final preparations. He didn't press the matter.

"I'm worried, Fox." She finally said, hugging herself, watching Fox move about the tent. In a knight's full plate mail, recently fitted to him, he moved smoothly, and the steel plates glowed as if they were mirrored. "This is a contest, but it's no mere one. This will decide who I'm to be with, this will decide my life, our life."

Working his hands in his gauntlets, Fox sighed, shaking his head. "I know, but there's nothing we can do now. Titus challenged me, I accepted, and this would seem the easiest way to take care of the matter." He turned to face her as he reached up and tied back his hair.

Her eyes were wide with worry. "He only challenged you to a joust because he knew you never had before, Fox."

"Aye, and he knew that he could never win against me in a sword fight." He shook his head again. "Have faith in me, Fara. I believe that for this, fate is on our side."

She looked up at him, finally kissing him briefly on the cheek then leaving, going to the royal box, where her family as well as the Albrechts now sat.

"I think I owe you an apology, princess." King Albrecht said. "My son is quite stubborn and refuses to admit his defeat in this courtship…"

"I'm glad that you, at least, know he has been defeated. He was defeated before he started." She replied, leaning on the banister and looking out at the arena. The stands were filled with milling people, and she easily spotted the rest of her fellow travelers, mainly because of Alan.

Trumpet music came to them, and a small fleet of horses arrived, flags held high. Fara's father stood and looked down at the convoy, frowning. "What the devil…?"

"The Siannodels." Fara grinned. "Fox's grandparents, father."

Five minutes later the Siannodels had joined the Phoenixes and Albrechts in the royal box, exchanging introductions and greetings. Aust briefly clasped Fara's shoulders, smiling at her.

"He'll win. He's meant to win." He said simply, and she nodded, not bothering to disguise her worry.

The trumpets called again, and this time the crowd quieted down. A dignified announcer came out and called out Titus' name as he emerged from the gates at one end of the arena, and some cheering rose to meet him. Titus was not well known in the Phoenix's kingdom, but on a large white armored charger and with his armor as well, he threw a commanding aura across the stadium. He grinned, pushing of the visor of his helmet and riding to a position in front of the royal box.

"Today this ends, Milady Fara." He smiled up at the box.

"You only chose a joust because you knew you would loose in a sword fight." She replied in a flat voice, smiling inwardly as his face changed. "Do not believe that I support you, Titus. Do not believe that for one moment."

He snorted and turned his charger, returning to his starting point. "You may regret that yet, milady."

The crowd cried out happily and laughed as Alan did a series of flips, roundoffs, and skips from the stands, finally doing a final flip and landed him on the dividing fence that stretched down the middle of the arena. "I can't miss my introduction, now can I?" He cried happily, and the crowd surged to its feet, falling into a rhythmic clap. "We all know who the challenger is, am I right?" He pointed at Titus, and several in the crowd booed. "Then perhaps it is time to meet our champion!" This was met by cheers and screams as Alan capered down the fence, easily striding along. "If I may present, ladies, gentlemen, good people of the fair city… a hero. His deeds already have started to stretch across the country and around the globe. We know him as the man who struck down the Evil Sorcerer Andross, the man who rescued our fair princess, the man who brought balance back to the world. He serves your king, and yet he is an Elven lord." As Alan went through this, the cheering grew and grew, and yet his voice still carried to all. Titus sat on his charger, arms crossed, glaring throughout the whole ordeal. "We all know who he is ladies and gentlemen! The one… the only… Fox McCloud!"

The other set of gates burst open, and Fox came forward, riding his unicorn, who didn't bother disguising herself. The long ivory horn extended through a hole in the face plate, and as the crowd watched the unicorn reared smoothly, Fox not so much as twitching in the saddle, holding the reins as the unicorn actually stepped forward, walking a few steps on her hind legs, front legs kicking and hooves flashing in the sunlight. Then she fell to all four feet and leapt forward, both her and her rider basking in the cheering. The unicorn trotted to stand centered in front of the crowd, and Fox removed his helmet smoothly, holding it under one arm. His unicorn lowered her front half in a bow, and he bowed from the saddle, grinning at the massive wave of cheers that answered this. As smooth as a dream, the unicorn stood and turned, leaping over the fence and landing in front of the royal box to repeat the bow.

"Quite the magnificent display, Sir McCloud." King Albrecht smiled. "I can see this will be quite an interesting match."

"Most likely." Fox was forced to admit, producing a red rose from what seemed like thin air and tossing it to Fara. "Have faith, Milady. Have faith."

"As much confidence as the crowd has in you, the odds seemed stacked sharply against you, Sir McCloud." She finally said.

He grinned, and it seemed to carry all the love and confidence in the world. "Aye, Milady, but is not the company of angels the most difficult to reach?" With that, he turned his steed, leaping back over the fence and returning to his starting position, pulling his helmet back on.

"Let's get ready to rumble!" This call was long and drawn out as Alan leapt off the fence and returned to the stands. Fox and Titus fell into their starting positions, Fox's unicorn lowering her head and pawing the ground, eager to charge.

"For your sake, we hope you know what you are doing." Falco remarked as he and Julian passed up Fox's lance. Fox easily handled the huge weapon, snapping it down into a position where he could hold it steady. "For my sake as well, as you know I have a good bit of money bet on you." He added this with a grin.

Fox grinned back, pushing his visor up for a moment. "Well then, we'll just have to hope for the best, now won't we?"

The clapping of the crowd had fallen into an even beat as the starting flags were raised. Fox and Titus had both already settled their lances into the right holds, and both their mounts seemed ready for the charge. The flags came down, and both mounts sprang forward into gallops, charging along their sides of the fence. The lances came down parallel to the ground, points locking onto targets, and the riders exchanged a long look from behind their visors before the points struck.

Fox's lance blunted down and struck Titus across the side and hip, but Titus got a solid shoulder shot. Both riders were well protected and were barely bruised by the hits, pulling up their lances and slowing their steeds, shaking it off. On Fox's side, one white flag was raised; on Titus' side, two were raised.

'One point for leg or hip, two for torso or shoulder, three for head, because it is so hard to hit.' Fox's voice sounded off in Fara's head, sounding very calm. 'To a total of seven.'

'You are already behind.' She moaned in reply, sick with worry.

'Do not worry, Milady.' He looked her in the eyes from where he had returned to his starting point. 'I am just getting started.'

"That hurt at all?" Falco asked, stepping up briefly to Fox when Fox returned to his starting spot.

"No, not at all. Don't worry about loosing your money, Falco." Fox smiled grimly. "Watch this."

The flags dropped again, and Fox's unicorn leapt into action, streaking alongside the fence. Fox snapped his lance down into the cradle, watching his target to the end, and felt the lance impact, then crack. Titus reeled in his saddle, but did not fall, turning and coming to a stop as Fox easily slowed and returned again, smiling as this time two flags were lifted on his side, and only one on Titus' because his hit had glanced off Fox's arm. They were tied at three.

"And he has never jousted before." The King shook his head in wonder. "Utterly amazing."

"And very brave the way he does it." Aust said, tapping his fingertips together. "He does not turn his head or tip it back before impact to help shield his eyes from splinters. He keeps his target in view until the last second. I'm not surprised, frankly… for his father also did."

Fara, now starting to feel confident, was standing, then finally swung over to sit on the railing, greeted with cheers and claps from the townsfolk when she did. One even passed her a flag in support of Fox, and she grinned in way of thanks.

"By the way, thank you again for agreeing to assist me in this." Fox remarked, passing down the cracked lance and accepting a new one.

"Just be sure to win." Falco grinned. "I am glad you bought a few of these." He looked down at the ruined lance.

"Well after he broke so many practicing, did you really think he'd only bring one?" Julian laughed as he and Falco exited.

            The flags dropped again, and again the two riders charged. Fox solidly hit Titus' shoulder as Titus' lance rammed into Fox's hipbone, lance tip snapping off in the process. Both rode away without a twitch. Now Fox was ahead by one point.

            There was a minor pause as Titus dismounted, talking to his squire and accepting a new lance, weighing it absently. Scowling at the crowd as they began to complain about how long he was taking, he remounted, stepping back up to his starting point, and the flags dropped again.

            Fox, eyes fixed on his target, couldn't help but notice when it happened. The fist-shaped blunt tip at the end of Titus' lance shimmered and disappeared, and he was left seeing a very sharp end, and it was aimed right for his heart. He reacted as best he could, leaning back and twisting, bringing his lance around to try to help defend himself. But he couldn't stop the impact.

            His lance, having glanced off Titus' side, flew out of his hand, and his unicorn staggered under him, screaming as she too felt the impact. The sharpened lance, driven home by the strength of the charge, had easily gone right through Fox's armor and plunged into the soft flesh in the curve made by his collarbone and shoulder joint. Moments after impact, the shaft of Titus' lance broke, leaving over a foot of wood sticking out of Fox's shoulder, a cruel version of a stake. Fox was badly jostled in his saddle, but managed to stay on, listening to the shouting of the crowd as his unicorn limped back to where Falco and Julian stood, stunned.

            "It was sharpened." Fox said weakly, dismounting and falling to his knees. Katt and Slippy arrived beside him in moments, and quickly concluded that with his armor on, they could see little of the damage done. One of the tourney officials ran over, took one look at what happened, and raced over to the royals' box. But still the flags raised—two for Titus, one for Fox, even as the crowd booed.

            "I hate saying this, but with a wound like this… Fox, you're lucky he didn't hit your lung or heart." Katt said, hesitant to touch the shaft of the lance.

            "He was trying to… he missed." Fox replied, reaching up both hands slowly and wrapping them around the shaft. "One…"

            "That is a very, very bad idea…" She protested.


            "Fox you'll only hurt yourself more!" Slippy grabbed one of his wrists.

            "Three!" Fox ended this on a pained screech as he pulled the broken lance point out of his shoulder and dropped it, falling to his hands and knees. Blood rapidly started hitting the ground, dripping directly from his wound.

            "I am going to kill that prince." Falco said darkly, looking to where Titus stood, still mounted and waiting, visor up and grinning.

            "No, no you're not." Fox slowly stood, one hand up over his wound, also looking at Titus, then swinging back into his saddle. "Give me my lance." He ordered, holding a hand down, gauntlet red with his blood.

            His friends slowly did, and he fell back into a starting position, setting his jaw. Just the fact that he was willing to continue seemed to shake Titus a bit, but Titus also fell into his starting place, putting his visor back down and getting ready.

            'Fox…' Fara said helplessly, watching his wound bleed even from where she sat.

            'I will see this to the end, Fara.' He replied. 'A wound is not a large problem.'

            The score was six to six. The crowd was oddly quiet, then rose in a cheer when Fox lifted his lance even as he bled, then brought it back down into a ready position.

            'I love you.'

            The flags dropped, and both mounts surged forward.

            'I love you too.'

            As their mounts charged, both riders brought their lances down to a striking pose, but this time both were aiming higher. Fox wasn't sure if Titus' new lance was sharpened, and he wasn't sure if he cared. It didn't matter in the long run, what mattered was that he scored a deciding blow.

            As his unicorn charged, he felt his aura come to life, and then a beam of light parted the clouds and followed Fox as he charged. The crowd cried out and gasped, but Fox didn't notice, twisting in his saddle at the last moment and putting all his weight into the blow, snapping his other arm up.

            His hand caught Titus' lance as his own hit Titus squarely in the chest, sending Titus tumbling out of his saddle and to the ground. Fox pulled his horse up and tossed Titus' lance aside, not even noticing as the beam of light that surrounded him dimmed. He had barely noticed it in the first place, and he knew what it was besides. He wordlessly dropped his own lance as his unicorn turned and leapt over the fence, coming to stand in front of the royal booth, lifting one hand to cover his wound again.

            After many long moments, the flags rose. None for Titus, two for Fox. An eight to six victory.

            As the crowd surged to their feet in a growing roar of approval, he reached up with his other hand and pulled off his helmet, then let his hair down absently. "I told you to have faith, Milady." He said simply with a smile, as his unicorn knelt in another bow.

            She leapt out of the box and landed easily, helping him dismount, ignoring the crowd or the others in the box. "How bad is your wound?"

            "It can be healed." He shrugged, grimacing in pain as he did so. "The pain will be worth it, milady. Well worth it."

            Alan vaulted over the fence and skidded to a halt beside Fox, peering at the wound. "Just when I had begun to think that perhaps Titus had some honor…" He made a tut-tut-tut noise, walking over and crouching beside where Titus sat, still shaking off his daze. "Well, now you know what happens when you challenge fate itself, prince."

            "What wasn't fate, that was… was some sort of trickery, magic to distract me…" Titus spat, surging to his feet and walking over to the royal box, pulling off his helmet. A look of vague disgust appeared on his face when he saw Fara with both her hands pressed over the hole in Fox's armor. "Your Majesty, I must protest this… did not you see the trickery that was cast on him?" He asked, looking up at the three royal families.

            King Phoenix, now standing. "Two things, Titus. Firstly, this happened shortly after you used a sharpened lance, wounding my knight. Secondly, that was not trickery. Fox McCloud is a direct disciple of his god. Did not you know that?"

            "I had heard such tales." Titus turned his scowl on Fox. "But I never once believed them…"

            A bolt of white lightning came from nowhere and struck nearby.

            "Heironeous suggests that it is time for you to start believing." Fox said in a very calm voice. "He also suggests that you never again associate with Fists of Hextor, or he shall have a discussion with your god Pelor on your behavior." When Titus turned white as a sheet, Fox threw back his head and laughed softly. "I am a disciple, Titus. What did you think it entailed?"

            "Son, we are going to talk. Later." King Albrecht said quietly, standing. "Thank you, Sir McCloud, for being honorable even when my son was not."

            "No thanks needed." Fox bowed, one hand still up to cover his wound, then turned to King Phoenix. "Once upon a time, your Majesty, you scorned me. But much has happened since then. We both know well what this tourney was for, and now, I need to know if you believe me worthy for your daughter's hand."

            "I don't believe there is anyone more worthy." King Phoenix shook his head and smiled. "And who am I to argue with the Gods?"

            "Is it just me, or do parties and balls seem to occur whenever you're around?" Katt asked with a smile.

            "I noticed that as well." Fara rolled her eyes, looking at Fox.

            "It's not my fault how people react to me or my deeds." Fox shrugged, looking at the plans spread across the table. The entire group had retreated to Falco's tavern. Fox's shoulder was bandaged and healing; he'd be ready to celebrate by the ball tonight. "I agree to a house and I get a manor? Now, I'm not worth all this…" Fox started, looking at his grandfather.

            "First of all, you're a Lord. Second of all, you are worth all this, and construction will be finished in less then two weeks, right in time for the wedding, so you can stop complaining because there's nothing you can do about it." Said Aust.

            Fox rubbed his eyes and sighed. "Fine, fine…"

            "As the saying goes, don't look a gift horse in the mouth." Said Bill.

            "Fox, if you're moving to a new residence, what are you going to do with the cabin?" Julian asked.

            Fox's immediate thought would be to knock it down and let nature have the clearing back, but then another thought came to mind. "Would you like it, Julian?"

            His face lit up. "Yes, yes I would."

            "Agreed then. I'm sure you'll take care of it." Fox covered a yawn.

            "So what of our friend Titus?" Rita asked. "Somehow I doubt he is finished causing us trouble."

            "His family leaves tomorrow. They're attending the ball, though." Said Fara, making a face. "Or at least his parents are. I'm not sure about Titus himself."

            "He'll tread lightly, if he's smart." Said Falco. "My Guild doesn't like him much…"

            "No one in this entire town does, not after what he pulled at the tourney." Slippy shook his head. "How's the shoulder, Fox?"

            "How do you think it is?" He replied. "Better then earlier, but still sore. It probably will be a few days, healing magic or no."

            "Well, given the impact that created the wound…" Peppy shrugged.

            "I wouldn't call it the worst or the most painful of the wounds I've had in my lifetime, but I would definitely call it the most annoying. I've never been so aware of just how much I use my left arm." Fox sighed.

            "Everything in a body is hooked to everything else, I've discovered." Said Alan, hanging upside down from his usual chandelier. "If you don't believe me, cut your ear then try to move a foot."

            The entire group processed this, then started laughing.

            "Oh, I'm sure we all know that well." Said Slippy. "Between these two quests, I think everyone in this group has gotten hurt somehow."

            "Hey, we're all alive, so we're ahead of the odds." Alan pointed his wine bottle in the general direction of an imaginary deity. "So there! Ha!"

            "Still crazy, eh?" Rita tipped her chair back to better look at Alan.

            He swung back and forth on the chandelier absently. "Now why would I give up my insanity for boring saneness?"

            "Good point."

            Aust laughed. He hadn't had this much fun in a while, and was suddenly very glad he had agreed to accompany his grandson's party to this private back room of the tavern. "I must say, you all make for quite enjoyable company."

            "Well, happy to be of entertainment purposes." Said Falco, rolling his eyes.

            Fox yawned again. "I hate to say this, but I think I'm going to get some sleep between now and the ball, or I will probably pass out on the dance floor."

            "Go ahead." Fara replied. "We'll be fine, and you deserve some sleep."

            He managed a weary smile as he stood. "See you at the ball."

            "So, we aren't invited again, hmm?" Falco said, standing still long enough for Katt to fix what he was wearing.

            "That's about the long and short of it. They should just put us on the lists, since they know we'll be coming anyway…" She finished what she was doing and stepped back. "There. This is going to be a more casual affair, or at least on formal standards. From what I've heard Fara is trying to limit the wedding down as well, but I'm sure her parents will make it the most gala affair of the century."

            "So, was Alan right?"

            "About the queen expecting? Apparently yes. It's much too early on to say if it's a boy or not, but since he's rarely wrong…" She shrugged. "For someone whose brain is quite demented, he's quite smart."

            "That's normally the way of things." He agreed, looking at his reflection in a mirror. "Shall we?"


            Fox sighed, looking out over the ballroom floor. His shoulder still throbbed a bit, but it didn't send shooting pains through his body anymore, so he managed to ignore it. His dress was Elven standard, and with his hair down and circlet on, he knew he was being noticed.

            Two weeks notice about a ball wasn't much, but the surrounding royalty of various stations had made the effort, and seemed to be enjoying the whole affair.

            "About time you showed up." Fara laughed, appearing beside him and taking his hand.

            "I'm sorry, I slept a bit longer then I thought I would." He apologized, drawing her close for a hug. "Have I missed anything?"

            "Is there anything to miss at these? I thought I was going to die of boredom."

            "We shall have to liven it up then!" Alan's voice proclaimed, and two seconds later he appeared beside them, grinning. "Will we not?"

            "It's definitely an idea. Nothing so bad it'll scare the ladies, all right?" Fox said firmly.

            "All right fearless leader." That said, Alan disappeared into the crowd again.

            "What could he do that would scare the ladies here?" Fara asked.

            Fox gave her a droll look. "He's an insane member of the Blood Bayou familiar with the dances and songs of multiple cultures. I can think of any number of things he could do to make some of the more stingily proper people here faint."

            She started to laugh. "That would be entertaining though."

            "Yes, but I do not want to have to save my friend from a lynch mob."

            There was a minor commotion, and the musicians that had been playing fell silent, Tharivol and Alan teaming up to shoo them off. Then Alan capered forward, pulling his violin from midair. "I'm sorry, ladies and gentlemen, but those of us with more exciting lives just can't stand any more of this." He announced cheerfully. "Therefore, we're going to play some music of a more Elven standard…" And with that he started into a fast tune, Tharivol picking it up on the third note. Some of the other musicians slowly joined back in, though the fast tempo of the music obviously had them bewildered.

            They weren't the only ones bewildered. Most of the attendees of the ball were.

            "Care to dance?" Fox asked, and Fara grinned, taking his hand. They stepped out to the center of the dance floor, catching the beat instantly, going through the steps easily and scandalizing half the attendees in the process. Falco and Katt joined them, also going through the steps, then pair by pair other couples joined them, trying to make sense of the whole thing. They didn't, of course, but a lot of fun was had trying.

            It was then that fate decided to take a bad turn.

            Fara had separated from Fox, stepping through a spin, when a dark blur stepped in behind her, and she crumbled. The form caught her, and it was then Fox knew exactly who it was.

            "Titus!" Fox shouted, waving the entire crowd back, snapping his hand in the air. The Katana appeared from nowhere, and he grabbed it automatically, slowly circling as Titus did. "What are you doing?" He demanded.

            "I've had enough of you McCloud. You're not a proper Lord, you're not even a proper Knight. Where do you get the right to take her from me?" Was the reply. Titus' voice tone varied wildly even through those few sentences, from evil hatred to tenderness and back again.

            "You never had her in the first place, Titus. Let her go. Please." Fox begged. "You're not going to solve anything by doing this."

            Titus laughed. He was strong enough to hold Fara's unconscious body to him one-armed, and the other arm supported a broadsword, and this one was of combat grade, a solid make and sharp as a razor. "What do you mean I'm not going to solve anything? McCloud, if I told you to kill yourself right now, you would." He held the broadsword against Fara's throat. "You would."

            "You're right." He admitted. "But you do not want to kill her Titus. Your fight is with me, not her. Please. Let her go."

            Guards had gathered, but at Fox's sharp look, stayed back.

            "All right then." Titus said, slowly setting her down, brushing a hand almost tenderly down her cheek and standing, stepping away from her. "We fight, McCloud. No rules, no boundaries. To the death."

            "If you insist on having it that way, I can't fight it, but you don't need to do this, Titus. You were once a servant of Pelor, have you totally forsaken your god?"

            The prince's eyes flashed coldly and turned black. "That god could not help me in my time of need, so I found someone who could."

            In response, Fox's eyes glimmered gold. "You're doing wrong. Can't you see that at all?"

            "No, I am doing right."

            Twin beams came from above, somehow passing through the ceiling to strike the pair as they circled, one dark, one bright. A pair of auras flared, and Titus staggered in surprise. Fox, well used to this, didn't move, then his eyes started to glow gold. He stepped forward as Titus did, easily spinning his sword into a blur.

            "Hextor." He stated calmly.

            Titus smiled grimly. "Heironeous."

            "Why do you continue to interfere with this particular disciple? I have many, many devout followers."

            "None as powerful as McCloud is, and you know it. I sought the same in O'Donnel, but that damnable staff cleared his memory. Thus why I stoop to this."

            "So you strike at Titus' want and Fox's weakness. You dishonorable…"

            "Honor is for the weak, brother."

            As soon as that was said, the pair attacked, blades flying through the air, forms blurred, each pressing the body they were using to the limit.

            Fara stirred slowly, sitting up. Falco had worked his way close enough to carefully pull her back, and she let out a cry when she saw the pair fighting. "What happened?"

            "Titus decided revenge was his best option." Falco said. "And I'm not sure what's happening now, but…"

            "That isn't Fox." She said, interrupting him, watching her fiancé. "He's channeling. That's Heironeous, which means that Hextor is using Titus to fight."

            "Sharp. We figured that out from the conversation they just had…" Alan crouched beside her and offered her some wine, she declined. "You sure? Might dull down that headache you surely have."

            "Headache or no, I want a clear mind…" She struggled to her feet, accepting help, watching the fight. "They can't keep that up for long. Even channeling, they'll burn out."

            "I wish we still had the Staff, these two gods need a thorough smacking around with it." Alan shook his head.

            "This won't end."

            They turned to look at Rita.

            "Hextor and Heironeous are perfectly weighted, and I dare say that would travel to the bodies they use. They'll push their hosts past exhaustion without knowing, and when they finally vacate the bodies…"

            "We can't allow that…" Fara started to say, turning back to watch the fight, and screamed "NO!"

            Hextor had managed to put a move past Fox, and even as everyone watched, a fan of blood splattered through the air and across the stone floor. Fox fell back and pushed away with one arm, holding his sword up in a defensive position, a long slash dealt across his chest. It was obvious he was in quite a bit of pain even if he was being pushed to his limits by his god.

            "As said, brother." Titus/Hextor laughed harshly, disarming Fox with a flip of his sword. The Katana clattered across the stone floor and fell still. "Mercy is for the weak." And with that, he lifted the broadsword.

            "Hextor! NO!"

            Another form got between Fox and Titus, holding a sword in a defensive position, preventing the fatal blow and allowing Fox time to stand and perform enough healing magic to at least stop some of the bleeding, backing away.

            "Well, well, well. If it isn't my so-called redeemed follower, Wolf O'Donnel." Titus/Hextor spat. "I hope you've made peace with whatever god you claim to follow now."

            Before his former god struck, Wolf smiled sadly and looked around at the other patrons of the ball. Seeing their looks of hate and fear, he dropped his sword and spread his arms, even as Bill, Falco, and Julian shouted and charged, trying to stop the inevitable.

            Hextor laughed, and even as Fox snapped his hand out to return his Katana to his hand, the evil god struck. Wolf's blood flew through the air, and he staggered back and fell, collapsing to the stone floor. Fox, too late to stop the strike, attacked with renewed strength, forcing his enemy temporarily onto a defensive position.

            Falco managed to move forward enough to grab Wolf and pull him to the edge of the circle, gulping when he saw how much blood the former Fist of Hextor was loosing and just how fast he was loosing it. Katt knelt beside him, turning Wolf's head to look at her. "He's still alive. Barely. Wolf, can you hear me?"

            He stirred very faintly and looked up at those crouched around him, focusing briefly on Aust as the Elven lord arrived beside him.

            "You saved Fox's life." Aust remarked. "Thank you, Wolf. But why didn't you try to defend yourself?"

            He smiled weakly and seemed to shake his head. "There's no place for me here." He managed to say, coughing.

            "There could have been though." Said Alan, crouching beside him.

            "No. Thank you for being… so kind… perhaps my judgment will be less harsh then it would have been…" His eyes closed, and his breath sighed out.

            The group was silent, then looked back at the fight.

            "They're not going to stop anytime soon, are they?" Slippy finally asked.

            "No, they'll fight as long as they're able to push the bodies to move." Rita shook her head. "Which may, very honestly, kill both Titus and Fox."

            "NO. I'm not letting that happen. I don't care if it's an honor to be chosen by a god for this, I'm not loosing him." Fara stepped forward, and when the pair separated for a split second, leapt in and spread her arms, separating them. "HEXTOR! HEIRONEOUS! END THIS NOW!" She commanded.

            "Well. Aren't we a firebrand, then. Ordering around a god? Princesses hardly have that authority." Hextor/Titus shook his head.

            "Fara, please, get out of the way."

            She turned to face Fox, knowing it wasn't him, knowing it was a god she was looking at now. "No. I'm afraid not. No one can win this fight, and at the rate you're going… you'll kill who you inhabit. I'm not going to move, Heironeous. Not until you release my love."

            "Aw me, young love. What a bloody wonderful sight." Hextor spat. "Get out of the way, stupid girl. This need not concern you."

            "No. She is right. While that may not mean anything to you, brother, it means much to me. This is one follower I plan on not loosing for a very long time." Heironeous sighed. "I apologize, Fara."

            She bowed. "I'm not really worthy of that, but thank you, Lord."

            "We will continue this elsewhere, Hextor." Fox's voice was cold and hard, allowing for no arguments.

            "Since when do you order me around?" Titus/Hextor spat.

            "I don't. I'm just informing you of the facts." With that, the gold left Fox's eyes, and he collapsed to the stone floor, gasping for air, shaking.

            At the same time, Falco landed a well-timed blow to the back of Titus' head, forcing the God-possessed but very mortal body to black out. A shriek of evil rage cut the air, and Hextor's presence also left.

            There was a very long silence in the ball room as Fara knelt, drawing Fox to her and soothing him.

            "All in all, I think it's been a very interesting day, don't you think?" Alan asked the King.

            King Phoenix, unable to help it, laughed, even if it held a bitter edge.

            "Well, your wound has healed. I suggest that you sleep for the next two days though." Said Rita after checking Fox over. "You know, I'm starting to suspect that Heironeous is getting the better end of the deal by taking you in as a disciple."

            Fox shrugged, too tired to say much of anything.

            "I think we all agree with that." Said Falco. Seeing Fox look at him, he held up a hand. "No thanks needed. I didn't drag myself through an entire adventure and spend two weeks helping you learn to joust for you to be killed on the day your arrangement was announced."

            Fox managed a smile, then his expression turned more toward sorrow. "We've lost Wolf, then?"

            "Yes." Fara shook her head. "He interfered just long enough to save your life, then allowed himself to be killed. Apparently he didn't think it possible to ever live down what he had done."

            The group was silent for a time.

            "May he find the honor in the afterlife that he didn't find here, then." Fox said, slowly making a religious symbol. The others followed suit.

            "I'll probably leave soon, though I'll try to stay for the wedding…" Rita remarked after a long moment, standing. "After all, my place isn't here, it's in my temple."

            "It's been an honor having you with us." Fox drug energy up to speak again, digging into his reserves to do so. "If another quest arises, would you be interested in a position?"

            She smiled. "I'd be honored. Get some rest, Fox. And the rest of you, out." She herded the group out of the room, letting only Fara stay.

            "We seem to spend the majority of our time saving each other's lives." Fara remarked, looking at her fiancé.

            "I've noticed…" Fox yawned widely. "But if the course of true love never runs smooth, then our love is the truest of all." Even as he spoke, he was settling down and beginning to drift off.

            She smiled. "I think you already knew that."

            "Mm hmm."

            She looked at his sleeping form, then stepped over and crouched to kiss him on the cheek. "Here's to a long life together then." She whispered, and left the room.

            Had she looked back, she would have noticed one of his eyes open partly, and a smile cross his face before he dropped back off into slumber.