Act III: Adulthood
Chapter 8: The Next Move
Party: Ryu, Luna, Trinil

Consciousness came slowly to Ryu. Eventually he managed to force his eyes open and start moving other muscles. He was clearly on a bed of some kind. And the look of the room around him, as near as he could tell, looked like a typical room in an inn. He was probably somewhere in Spring, having been brought and/or Warped by Luna.

"Oh look! Somebody's awake!"

…Or Trinil. Wait. "Trinil?" Ryu rolled over so that he could look toward where the voice had come from.

"Yup! You've been out quite a while this time." He was seated on one of the other two beds in the room. That… explained a little bit. Trinil's golden face was exactly what he remembered, confirming his identity. "Luna's been a little worried over you."

"Where is she now?" Ryu asked, slowly sitting up.

"Out getting some supplies for our trip to wherever we're going next," Trinil answered.

Ryu scrutinized the newcomer for a moment. "And why are you here?"

"I have news. Bad news. Something you need to know sooner rather than later." Ah. That explained why Trinil hadn't smiled yet.

Ryu paused. What could he possibly need to tell him so badly? "Should I wait until I have a full stomach?"

Trinil shook his head. "I don't think that there's any easy way to lay this on you, so I'm just going to tell you: The King is dead."

Ryu blinked. Then he closed his eyes and tried to hide the sudden constricting feeling with a deep breath. "What happened?" he said, with a stronger voice than he was expecting.

"They snuck into the capital. And they managed to take us by surprise. The King was in his study, but they got pushed all the way back to their quarters. He was killed when we were getting the Queen out. I… couldn't do anything."

"And the rest of the Royal Family?" Ryu asked quickly.

"The Queen made it out, though she's probably back in the capital overseeing the rebuilding process by now. Kenneth is still on the frontline, learning by doing. Nina is still at the southern border fort."

Ryu forced himself to take another deliberate breath. The King was dead. That… It was hard to believe. And easy. After having everyone be suddenly gone from his life once…

"I couldn't do anything, Ryu," Trinil continued. "I just… I gaped when they got him. I couldn't do anything."

"From what you described, there was nothing you could have done about the King," Luna said, coming in with an armful of supplies. "You should probably stop blaming yourself for that." She dropped the stuff onto the unoccupied bed. "After all, you were also instrumental for saving the Queen. Can't ignore that if we're talking about what you did that day."

"You're taking this well," Ryu said to Luna.

Luna chuckled, though it wasn't all that mirthful. "I've had a few days to get used to the idea. You just woke up."

She had a point.

"Well." Ryu thought his breathing was returning to normal. "That's the worst way to wake up. Ever."

Trinil winced. "Sorry, man. You know if I could think of a better way to tell you - "

"You'll be fine," Luna said brusquely. "Honestly, we only really have to deal with it once we get back, right? Until then, there are lots of other things that we should probably be worrying about instead."

Ryu shook his head trying to clear it, though it didn't work. Why did anyone think that would work, anyway. "I guess you'd mean where we were headed now."

"Yes, yes I do. Though you should probably eat something before we go," Luna said.

"But go where?" Trinil said. "I'm lucky I caught up to the two of you here, since this was the last place that I knew that you'd be headed."

"There's a library here," Luna said. "I'm not entirely sure why, but there is."

"I'm not sure why they let you in," Trinil said. He opened his mouth to go on, but the sheer strength of the glare that Luna sent him had him close his mouth again.

"And I found something of interest there, though they wouldn't let me take it out," Luna continued. Trinil made a movement, and Luna's head whipped around toward him. "Not. A. Word." Trinil sank into the soft bed. "And it told of a few ghost stories in the plains to the north of Spring. Perhaps one of those stories will lead us to another Shrine, perhaps this time Mundane?"

"Well, other than the Shrine of Light, we're out of Heavenly and Earthly elements," Ryu said after a moment. "And Ladon keeps implying I'm supposed to do that one last. So. I guess that means we try heading north?"

Luna nodded. "As soon as you're well enough to travel."

Ryu's stomach growled audibly. "I think once I have that food you mentioned, I'll be all set."

"The innkeeper said that you could eat anytime. Just go tell someone in the kitchen that you'd like a meal and they'll serve it," Luna told him.

"What, you're not coming?" Ryu asked.

"Of course I'm coming," Luna snapped. "I just have to prepare our packs. And since this bozo" – she indicated Trinil – "doesn't seem to ever eat any less than a pound or more per meal, his extra pack doesn't seem to be helping us that much in net gain."

"Hey!"

"I guess I'll see you down there, then," Ryu said, beating a retreat before the two of them started to bicker about their faults.

Luna had been accurate in her instructions, allowing Ryu to acquire a meal that he demolished almost completely before the other two came down from the room with the packs. Luna dropped hers and Ryu's unceremoniously next to where Ryu was eating and headed to the front to check out. Trinil plopped into the chair next to Ryu's, not bothering to take his pack off. Or his hooded cloak, for that matter, but that made more sense. "I told you about the other Ascents that showed up?"

Ryu looked up at him and swallowed the food he had in his mouth. "No?"

"Oh. While we were evacuating the Queen, I was the back-guard. I was holding off a small squad of really good fighters when two Ascents showed up out of nowhere. A Phoenix and a Dragon, to be precise. With their help the rest of the cleanup was easy, especially since the Queen was already away with Lance and James."

"A Dragon?"

"Yeah. I told her that it was bad luck they missed you, but there were more pressing issues at the time. They volunteered to go get the message to the Princess."

"Do you know they're trustworthy?"

"They saved my butt. I mean, I probably could have taken the rest of the soldiers without them, but I certainly couldn't have left Wyndia to try to catch up to you two that day if they hadn't come."

Ryu frowned. "Hmph."

"Lighten up, Ryu, they're Ascents. They said… the Dragon's name was Jenny, I think. Does that ring a bell?"

Ryu shook his head slowly. He didn't remember any Dragon named Jenny.

"Damn," Trinil said. "Oh well. Maybe Nina will have the presence of mind to get more out of her."

Luna arrived and leaned over the back of the one of the remaining chairs at the table. "We can leave whenever you're done, Dragonboy."

Ryu took one last bite and pushed the plate away. Once he swallowed, he said, "Give me a minute or two to let it settle before we set off."

Luna shrugged, and got out a map. She walked the two young men through where the town was that they were headed to, pointing out the cave that they would pass through. They would be heading to the north side of the mountains, into the northern regions of the same plains that they had crossed before and head to one of the castle towns that was out there to base their operations. "The legend mentions a hill not far outside the town. We'll have to deal with the monsters, but that's nothing compared to what we can handle, even without Bozo."

"That's not my name."

Luna studiously ignored Trinil's objection. "We can either go with a caravan, or just go by ourselves. Alone would be faster, but with a caravan would be less… suspicious?"

"We don't want to advertise too much about our fighting abilities," Ryu allowed. "Do you know when the next caravan leaves?"

"Dusk," Luna said. When both of her companions looked at her askance, she shrugged. "Don't ask me why. They keep their own schedule."

Ryu let out a gusty breath. "Alright. How much time do we have?"

"An hour, maybe two," Luna said. "Plenty to get to the caravan and register. Should we register as able fighters, or keep that a secret?"

"Register you and me," Ryu said. "Trinil can't fight very well if he wants to keep his hood up the whole time."

"Is it really that bad out here?" Trinil asked, fingering said hood.

"It can be; we could have run into a real snag down in Scande if we were found out," Luna said. "I don't want to be caught in the middle of that mess."

"Alright," Trinil said, though he didn't seem that happy about it.

"Then it's settled; we're leaving on the dusk caravan north," Ryu said. Both of his companions nodded, and then they were preparing to leave the inn.

That evening found the three Ascents sitting on the back of the last wagon in the caravan, watching the mountains shrink into the distance. The gloom had started to wrap around them at this point, making it hard to see anything that wasn't within the light of the torches that were carried at several points in the caravan.

Luna swung her legs lazily beneath her as her eyes scanned the visible landscape of flat plains. Ryu felt wide awake, though didn't feel as energetic as Luna looked. Trinil had long fallen asleep on his perch, but since he wasn't technically charged with protecting the caravan as it moved forward, neither of the other two saw fit to wake him.

"You're worried," Luna said, still looking out at the dirt road that continued to lengthen behind the caravan.

"Of course I am," Ryu said. "How could I not be? If I have something else to think about, I'll think about it. But when all I'm doing is help keep watch, there's little I can do to keep my mind off it."

"Nina's fine, you know."

"Oh?" Ryu looked at Luna, studying her face for a moment. "Does that mean you care about her now?"

"No. Little annoying titch like that ain't gonna die so easily. Particularly if it would make my life easier."

"I don't see how it would make your life any easier to have the Princess dead," Ryu said soberly.

There was a short pause. "Dammit. This isn't how this conversation was supposed to go."

Ryu raised an eyebrow and found something was tugging at his lips. "How was it supposed to go?"

"You weren't supposed to reference that. You were supposed to make fun of my arguments with her and accuse me of liking her or something, which I would vehemently deny, and then you'd bring up an example, which I'd use to reminisce good times we had at the Castle." Luna nodded emphatically. "That's what was supposed to happen."

"Well, you do seem more fond of her than you used to," Ryu said, his smile showing fully.

"Liar. I kicked her butt three ways from Thursday before she left."

"Only because she wouldn't promise to get you a present this time."

"Why would that bother me?" Luna asked, her nose high. "I was leaving the Castle on my own adventure shortly anyway."

"You're always complaining that she has more adventures than you do."

"I know the Castle better than she does."

"Oh?" Ryu couldn't help but chuckle now as Luna launched into one of the rather short and close-to-home adventures that the two of them had exploring the Castle while they had lived there. This eventually brought Ryu back to sleep, leaving Luna to keep watch until she woke him later that night for second watch.

Neither watch brought anything that either of the Ascents had to do anything about, other than kicking Trinil when he got to snoring too loudly for anyone to be comfortable. The morning dawned to their left, slowly allowing better and better vision until the sun peeked up above the eastern horizon. The dew could even be seen on the grass. Luna kicked Trinil particularly hard, such that he fell out of the wagon.

"Hey! What was that for?" Trinil said, his hands going up to make sure that the hood hadn't dislodged in his fall. It hadn't, and Ryu wondered for a moment if Luna had managed to do that on purpose.

"Time to wake up, sleepyhead!" Luna said in a sing-song voice. Then she switched to a tone that implied she was speaking to a small child. "It's time to wake up, you pretty little boy, you!"

Trinil growled at her as he stalked his way back to the edge of the wagon and hauled himself up. "We almost there, yet?"

"Yeah," Ryu said. "We heard the shout that indicated that we're going to stop soon."

"Anything happen last night?"

"Other than you sawing logs?" Luna asked sweetly. "A few monsters came by, but mostly at the front rather than back here. I only needed Ryu's help once."

Ryu shrugged. "You could've handled it."

Luna cast a smile his way. "I appreciate the help anyway."

The caravan was let over the drawbridge shortly after it had been lowered, and then the bridge went back up.

"How do we get back out to do our thing?" Trinil asked quietly as the caravan rumbled in.

"Wait for farmers to come in, leave, or warriors to come in or leave," Luna answered.

"We'll figure it out," Ryu said as the wagon came to a stop. The three of them hopped off the back, waving up to the guard station, who closed the portcullis. "Particularly aggressive lately?" Ryu called up to the guards.

The one that wasn't closing the iron gate chuckled. "Yeah, they seem to be coming from this side lately, so if you want to have a walkabout, it's going to have to be through one of the small gates."

As it turned out, the fort had one large entrance, where the wagons could fit in, and three other much smaller entrances which were only big enough for a small group to go single file through a long hallway filled with arrow holes to each side and small oil holes in the ceiling. "We don't take any chances," one of the warriors said when Luna asked about the system. "Occasionally monsters manage to kill travelers like yourselves while you're still in the passage. Then we let them have it from our defensive positions."

"Does that happen often?" Ryu asked.

"Not really; but it tends to come in waves. The monsters seem to be particularly nasty of late. Most of us are out patrolling the farms in order that we have a good crop this year."

There were still plenty of warriors and guards that were inside the small fort-town. And, of course, all of the non-combatants that supported them. That included a few places to stay, thankfully, and the three Ascents got themselves checked into one of those places in short order. They left only things in the room that they were willing to lose (excess food supplies, for instance), while carrying slightly lighter loads. The guards let them out one of the 'exit corridors', though the group was not attacked by any monster groups until they were well away from the fort.

Luna lead the way across a couple miles of landscape. Finally she stopped. "Okay, it's somewhere around here."

"What are we looking for, again?" Trinil asked, his hood down so that he could see the ground around them better.

"We're looking for a sinkhole of some kind," Luna said, her voice distracted. "Possibly nothing like that, but it's supposedly possible to walk right past it without noticing that it's there at all."

"Do we know anything else about it so that I-... never mind."

"What?" Both Trinil and Luna looked at Ryu, who was looking down at his feet.

"I think I found it," Ryu said.

"How do you know?" Trinil asked.

Ryu looked up, grinned at him, then did a little hop - and fell into the ground beneath him.

Luna gasped while Trinil's eyes widened. Despite being further away, Luna reached where Ryu had disappeared from before Trinil did. They both arrived, looking down to find, in a tiny dip, a little hole. And Ryu's grinning face looking up at them.

Luna narrowed her eyes at the cheekily waving Dragon. "Are you about finished?"

"How about you come down here, and we can get on with this Temple?"

Trinil suited this suggestion by stepping forward and falling the short distance into the weird hole. "Wow, that was weird."

Luna was unimpressed. "I'm not a fan of weird."

"Or you could stay behind."

Luna stepped forward.

Once her vision cleared, she found she was in a small cavern with her companions. While the ceiling was only a few feet from her head, Luna thought that the hole looked even closer than that when she looked up to the small circle of sky visible from where she now stood.

"See? No problem," Ryu said to her before looking around at the rest of the visible cavern. "Very strange place you've found, I must say." The cave went off in four directions from where the three Ascents stood, curving out of sight after only a handful of paces. It was well-lit, but for no discernable reason.

"As long as it's a Temple with a Shrine, I really couldn't care less what form it takes," Luna said, also looking around. "Now, of course, we have to figure out which way we're supposed to go in order to find the Shrine."

"If there is one," Trinil said, looking around. "Or it could be some sort of weird set up to mess with us. Were any of the Earthly elements' Temples quite so… surreal, Ryu?"

"The only one you didn't see was Fire, Trinil, and it was a pretty basic path through a volcano," Ryu said. "Heck, only Air really required figuring out which path was true and which were false."

"Well, Wyndians don't know how to be straightforward, so that makes sense," Luna said. Ryu coughed, hiding something that he was about to say. "But now, we have four choices and three people. So even if we split up, there would be at least one path that we didn't try."

"And that of course means that it'll be the one we want," Trinil added.

Luna shrugged to concede the point, and turned to Ryu. "So that's where we stand. What's the plan, then, oh fearless leader?"

Ryu looked from one path to each of the other ones, thinking that there was no difference between any of them. He made a decision. "I don't care if it takes us four times as long. We're sticking together for safety's sake."

Luna nodded, and Trinil let out a breath. "Which one, then?"

Ryu pointed down the one that, if his sense of direction wasn't lying to him, lead the furthest away from the nearby fort. "We'll try this one first."

The three Ascents headed into that particular arm of the cavern and turned the corner, leaving the sight of the entrance behind. They didn't run into any monsters, instead being presented with more choices of where to go. Having already made the decision to stay together, Ryu just indicated where he thought the best way was to go, and kept moving forward.

It was taking forever. The cave was clearly quite the maze, and the inability to tell time from the sun's position was making it more difficult. Ryu and his companions moved forward, using the paths that he picked, dutifully but with a growing unease. Was something going to happen? There had been a handful of typical cave-dwelling monsters, but they had been dispatched quickly and did not appear very often.

Finally, after turning yet another corner, Ryu had another choice to make and turned back to check on his companions. Neither were with him.

Ryu spun around to see if he could spot them, but he knew that he wouldn't; he could easily swear that they were right behind him. He took a couple quick steps backward and checked

Ryu paused a moment, becoming completely still to be able to better hear any noises around him in the cavern. After a moment of complete silence, he called out. "Trinil?" Five seconds of nothing but his own echo. "Luna? Not funny." Five seconds of nothing but his own echo.

This stumped him entirely. Where could they have gone? That explained the funny feeling that had been building up over the whole exploration of this cave. Something had now happened... and Ryu wasn't entirely sure what he should do about it.

"Luna?" he called again, moving further back from where he had come. "Really not funny." But he no longer expected to get an answer, and his volume was decreasing. Back at the previous intersection, he took a long look each of the ways. No sign of either of his companions. "Just in case you hadn't noticed," he said, as if to no one in particular. "I'm not happy about this, Ladon."

He hadn't been expecting a reaction to his mini-rant, but he got one anyway. A short laugh came behind him. He whirled to face Luna, who had a bit of an evil smirk on her face. While that wasn't all that out of the ordinary, there was something significantly wrong with the way that she was looking at him. "Blaming Ladon for all of your problems, huh?"

Ryu narrowed his eyes to the point that he was basically squinting. "Who are you?"

"Why, Luna, of course. Who else would I be, anyway?" She gestured down at her body. "I am what you see."

"Liar," Ryu said with conviction.

The evil smirk got wider. "A smart one. Well then. Let's get down to business then, shall we?" Her hand came up quickly, showing the glow of stored magic. Ryu dove out of the way of the shot of power that flew through the space he had just occupied, and brought his sword to bear. He was just in time to dodge another powerful magic shot before he was able to launch an attack of his own.

"Aire!"

The Light-based attack was something that "Luna" was merely able to shrug off. "You call that magic?" she mocked him, before charging a more powerful attack of her own. "Starlight!"

Ryu dodged as well as he could, but still felt the distinct burn of magical starlight. He decided a little strengthening was in order. "Barrier!" The shield of magic surrounded his body, then faded from visibility. The next Starfall that hit him stung a lot less and he was able to push through it to swing his sword at his adversary. She twisted to one side, having only received a glancing blow.

"Very smart one," she said, still mocking in tone. "Try this then! Lune!" Moonlight shot from her hands and struck Ryu directly in the chest. He grunted with the pain of it, but the Barrier took a significant amount of the load. Ryu was able to push through it and counter with a horizontal slash, which "Luna" was unable to completely dodge. Black liquid spilled from the wound, and "Luna" held a hand over it to stem the flow. "You think that will do me in?" she said, still mocking him, though there was clearly some effort in her voice.

"Where is Luna? And Trinil?" Ryu asked, his sword now at her throat. Luna looked at him with hatred as a response, then her figure softened, and she faded into black mist... leaving Ryu alone once again. Ryu slashed through the mist, scattering it throughout the cavern. "Luna!" he called again, still staring at the point where the figure had dissipated from. "Trinil! Where are you?"

"Ryu?" he heard Luna call. It was very faint, but Ryu was reasonably sure that he could tell where it was coming from.

"Stay there!" he called toward the direction that he thought her call was coming from. "I'll come to you!"

"Okay!" he heard her call, giving him another chance to determine where she was. He apparently made the right choice in the first cavern, because Luna's voice was even stronger the next time he asked her to call out. In short order, they had reunited. And shortly after that they heard Trinil's voice in the distance. In total it was probably five minutes from the fake Luna's disappearance until the three Ascents stood in the same intersection.

"What happened?" Ryu said without preamble once they had reunited.

"I don't know," Trinil said. "One moment I'm behind the two of you and then the next you're nowhere to be found."

"I lost you around a corner," Luna said to Ryu, "and once I knew that I couldn't find you, I figured out that Trinil was also not behind me."

"Did anyone attack you?" Ryu asked.

"Yes..." Trinil said. "It was you."

Ryu looked at Luna. "I had you."

Luna frowned. "I had Trinil."

The three of them looked at each other, then shrugged in unison.

"It looks like you passed," a voice said from behind them. The Ascents whirled to find the signature floating silver door and a woman in priestly robes.

"Passed what?" Ryu asked.

"The Temple of Friendship," the woman said. "Or the Temple of Solitude, if that's the way you handle the test. But the three of you certainly expressed Friendship rather than Solitude. Congratulations."

"So..." Ryu slowly let the word roll off his tongue.

"So, the three of you should come in the Shrine of Friendship," the woman said, opening the floating door and beckoning. The three Ascents took her advice, and entered.

Ladon was alone on the dais, but otherwise it looked like all of the other Shrines that Ryu had visited up to that point. "Congratulations, Ryu. And Luna." Zilant appeared to Ladon's right. "And Trinil." Donarah to Ladon's left. "You have chosen the Shrine of Friendship for your next increase of power. I must say that I am proud of your choice."

"I didn't know there was a choice involved," Ryu said.

"The choice was made with your actions, young Dragon. And now I will reward you with the ability to go into a dragon form based on one of your companions," Ladon said.

"I shall grant you the ability to fuse with another Ascent companion in Ascended form, and the ability to know when you are Ascended if a friend is in danger," Zilant told Luna.

"And I shall grant you the ability to fuse with another Ascent companion in Ascended form, and the ability to revert from your Ascended form right when you are about to lose control," Donarah said to Trinil. "May that last ability be one you never have the opportunity to use."

"Now, don't try to come back to go to the Shrine of Solitude. You may only count one. Now, there's one more to go before you can ascend the Tower of the Gods," Ladon told Ryu. "Keep heading north. You won't go wrong in that direction."

"And for all of that, of course, you have to put us to sleep," Ryu said.

"Naturally, young Dragon," Donarah said with a wry grin. "What else would we do?"

Both Luna and Ryu were grumbling when they lost consciousness.