Kirin was someplace dark and cold. It was frightening, more frightening than anything she'd ever experienced. She tried to turn around, looking for a way out or a point of light, only to discover that she couldn't move.

A feral yowl escaped her, screaming in terror. She tried to calm herself down; she wasn't dead. She couldn't be. Kirin didn't know how she knew that, but she did. She just knew that she wasn't dead. After she calmed her breathing down, she struggled to clear her mind. How could she be dead if she could make herself lightheaded by hyperventilating?

That determined, Kirin called out, her voice quite shamelessly shaking. "H-hello? Is there anyone out there?"

Yes, came an almost immediate response. The voice was feminine, light and melodic, and Kirin didn't have time to ponder why it did not respond when she screamed in terror. My name is Mina Wyndia, of the Fey Clan. Do not be afraid; you are in no danger, as long as your companion lives.

"My companion? Mika?"

Yes.

"Wh… where am I?"

You are somewhere safe. His goal is to rescue you from your position; I cannot tell you what that position is, in case you have some way of communicating with him. I don't think you do, but if I'm wrong and you interfere with him, I'll have to kill you both. I don't want to do that.

The disembodied voice was apologetic at the last, and its words made Kirin panic. "I don't have any way to communicate with him!" she said, loud and scared. "I don't even know where he is!"

Please calm down, Miss Kirin… you're safe where you are. I swear it, and I'm not telling you solely to protect you. I don't want anyone to die.

Now her voice was sorrowful, but it was earnest, and Kirin tried to force herself to calm down. "Okay. Okay, you're protecting me. If I do anything to interfere with Mika's goal, we both die. As long as he's alive, I'm okay. Is that right?"

Almost. If he fails to rescue you, you will die.

She cursed in her tribe's language. "Okay, so is there any way for me to save myself, or is this damsel in distress joke going to be played straight?" she demanded angrily.

The voice sighed heavily, and replied, There is no way for you to save yourself, no. However, I believe in him. You did, as well, or you would not be here. You followed him into the tower of your own accord, Miss Kirin. You wished to help him become a Paladin; you trusted him enough not to attack him in the granite hall, and enough to take the crumbling stairs with him without hesitation. Trust him enough to save you now. After all… if he can't save a single friend, how can he save the world?

Kirin bit her lip, and didn't reply. There was nothing she could do about this situation; Mina was right. She'd followed Mika in here of her own accord, and if he didn't pass these tests, he couldn't become a Paladin and they were stuck. All she could do was trust him now.


Mika leaned against the wall, panting. He stood on the second-to-last stair of the staircase, every muscle in his body screaming in agony. His hair and body were soaked in sweat and he held his sword limply at his side. He wasn't sure he could pass whatever test was next. He was exhausted and wounded, and didn't have the energy to heal himself. He barely had the strength to hold himself upright.

If he was to be faced with another fight, he was done for. He couldn't defend himself anymore. He couldn't defend anyone.

A sob of despair escaped the wounded Dragon before he got a hold of himself. He wasn't the only one who was in serious jeopardy now. Kirin was as well. Even if he wasn't Destined, he had an obligation to get her out of this alive. She was here because of him, after all.

It didn't help that the thought of the Woren woman dying left Mika feeling sick to his stomach and unable to catch his breath. It was a powerful reaction, and he didn't want to discover how intense it would be if she actually died, as opposed to him merely considering the possibility.

He took several deep breaths, trying to steady himself. Mika needed to do this. Once he had caught his breath, he ascended the last step and went through the doorway, sword at ready.

Mika lowered it in surprise as he looked around. The scenery had abruptly changed again, as it had when he met Mina. This time, however, there was nothing comforting about the environment he was confronted with: he was back in Dauna Mine, in the room they had found the hidden doorway in.

Moving slowly, he circled the room, watching the shadows intently for any sign of movement. Satisfied that Mika was alone, he went to the hidden door and put his hand on it. This door was the whole reason he was here; at least, according to that acolyte of Ladon. Only a Paladin would be able to undo the seal here, and allow them to proceed into Obelisk.

It would allow them to proceed to Myria.

He turned away after several moments, looking around the mine again. What the hell was he supposed to do in here? He didn't think it was a coincidence that the enchantment led him here. "A little guidance would be nice!" he called. When only his own voice's echo answered him, he tried a little louder, "Mina!"

Sorry, Sir, was her apologetic response. You have to do this yourself. No one can help you in any way.

"But I don't know what to do!"

That's unfortunate.

And then silence descended again. He cried her name again, but she didn't reply. If he wasn't already so exhausted, he would have screamed in frustration and attacked the door for the audacity it was showing by existing. Instead, he took a step back and stared at it, hard, willing it to open.

Searing pain lanced through his left hand; Mika gasped and dropped his sword as he instinctively grasped at it with his right. He tore off his glove to see what was causing such a terrible pain, and gasped in wonder as light blinded him the moment it was off. He blinked the stars away from his vision as the pain rapidly receded, leaving only a vague, slightly throbbing ache on the back of his hand. Once he could see clearly again, he held it up; there, etched in silver light, was Ladon's Cross, glowing slightly.

But the glow was red. He wasn't a Paladin, but the situation had changed. He had to attempt to open the door again. Mika stepped forward and placed his left hand against the wall where the hidden door was. The mine began shaking and the outline of the door cracking as it moved away from the wall, opening the path into Obelisk. Without hesitation, Mika ran into the newly created corridor.

He knew, the moment he stepped foot beyond the threshold, that he wasn't actually in Obelisk, but rather the tower; the black granite was back. He turned back to where he had entered, not the least bit surprised to discover that the way had been blocked by that accursed granite. Whatever this passage led to, he had to go to it.

Spirits buoyed by his success in opening the passage, even in an enchantment, Mika sprung forward, following the corridor, eager but alert. He felt that this test was almost over, thank the Gods. He just had to hold out a little bit longer and everything would be okay. He'd rescue Kirin and become a Paladin of Ladon, and then they'd go back to Dauna, open the door to Obelisk, and deal with Myria. Things were falling into place just as Mika's footsteps fell hollow in the hallway.

He burst through the doorway at the other end of the corridor and skidded to a halt, crying out as a flash of light blinded him. In the light, he saw a group of people in a city that looked similar to Dragnier, yet it couldn't be; the city was clearly arid, a desert city, while Dragnier was green and lush and mild. Yet Mika couldn't deny that the architecture was Draconic in nature, and most of the people in the city appeared to be Dragons.

He'd just set himself to the task of trying to identify the group of people the vision focused on when the city fell apart. Mika watched in horror as the ground began to shake violently, great chasms opening up in the ground and swallowing the people whole. There was a great scream, a roar that spread over the city, deafening him. Mika squeezed his eyes shut against the vision and cried out in horror at what he was seeing.

When he opened them again, the roar hadn't diminished; instead, it was now in the room with him. To his left, Kirin hung suspended from the ceiling, trussed and tied firmly with her feet and hands bound tight, preventing her from using her claws to free her.

To his right was a group of children. Wyndian children, the youngest appearing to be merely days old. Mika himself was surrounded by glass on all sides. It would was already cracked and breaking, and he wouldn't need to do much to break the glass entirely.

But he only had time to break the glass in one direction, to his left or his right, because the roar was from a fireball hurtling down at them from the high domed ceiling. He had just enough strength to cast a protective spell over himself and Kirin, or himself and the ground of Wyndian children. The other would die.

One of the children's' voices rang out, cutting through the roar of the magical fire, screaming for father. Mika threw himself to the right, the words of his most powerful protection spell tumbling from his lips frantically. The protective light covered him and the kids even as the fireball crashed down around them; Mika cried out in stricken grief as Kirin screamed in utter agony.

The roar died down, and Kirin's scream echoed in Mika's head as he knelt in the midst of the broken glass, sobbing. He couldn't hear anything but Kirin anymore; even the cries of the frightened children he'd just saved seemed hollow and far away. "I don't want this!" he choked out through his tears. "I don't want to do this! Mina! I don't want to do this! I can't! Bring her back! Bring her back and send us out of here! Mina? Mina!"

Mika broke down crying again, hugging himself and feeling utterly wretched. He failed. He failed the test, he'd let Kirin die, and now he had to somehow go back to the party and tell his cousin that he'd let them all down and let their companion get killed. He was the one who had come here to take the test, damn it, not her! It should have been him! He had half a mind to tell Mina to go do unpleasant things to herself when he heard the girl's voice, calling his name quietly, bewildered. Why the hell did she sound so damn confused?

"Mika, come on- snap out of it. Did you get hurt or something?"

His tears abruptly stopped with a gasp. That wasn't Mina's voice. "K-Kirin?"

The Woren girl stood before him, ears flat against her hair. Her tail flicked slightly when he responded. "Yeah." She stooped down and picked up a piece of the glass, and then turned it slightly. Mika gasped as he saw that it wasn't clear. "A mirror?"

"Yeah," Kirin repeated. "That whole test was literally smoke and mirrors." She pointed over to the opposite wall, where a mural of Wyndian children was painted. "It looks like that painting is enchanted to look like anything that the test-taker will feel obligated to rescue. If you'd tried to save me, that painting would be all that you would see once the smoke cleared."

Mika barely heard her explanation. His tears dried up and he stared at her, relieved. He scrambled to his feet and embraced her, his heart still pounding from the adrenaline of that final test. Kirin returned his hug with a sigh. "I figured that out myself, by the way. Mina- I'm assuming she's the one who's administering this thing- was absolutely useless. Wouldn't tell me a damn thing." She pulled away, looking over him to see if he'd been hurt, and then gasped. "Mika! Your hand!"

He pulled away abruptly, looking at the hand that Ladon's Cross had appeared on when he was in the enchanted replica of Duana Mine. It was still there, but it no longer ached. The lines glowed bluish-silver. Mika laughed in disbelief. "Mina?" he called out.

The girl materialized before him. "Yes, sir."

"Does…" He stuttered for a second, and then found his words again. "Does this mean what I think it does? I passed?"

Mina smiled and nodded. "With flying colors, Paladin Mika."

Mika laughed again, this time joyously, and embraced Kirin with renewed enthusiasm. He lifted her off the ground as she echoed his laughter and issued a Woren blessing. He quickly found that he was indeed still exhausted from the test, though, and lowered her to the floor. She looked up at him, and their eyes met, and they both froze.

After several seconds of them gazing at each other, Mina cleared her throat. "You seem surprised. Did you not realize that you had succeeded when Kirin revealed that she was still alive?" Mina asked. "Excellent deduction, by the way," she added to Kirin.

Kirin nodded to Mina, grinning, as Mika answered. "Didn't you hear me? I… I said I didn't want to be a Paladin anymore. If it meant having to make those decisions… I'm a teenager, in human years. In Draconic years, I'm an infant. I'm practically newborn still. I don't have that kind of wisdom. I made the right choice this time, but…"

"Remember the qualities I told you that you needed to show," Mina said when his voice trailed off. "Humility was the last of those."

"That's not humility," Mika contradicted, baffled. "That was cowardice and selfishness."

Mina shook her head. "It is a good thing for you that we take works in progress," she said laughingly. Before Mika could get upset about being laughed at, she said, "Your companions are just about dying of worry at this point. You should probably go. I'll send you back to them with my magic."

In the next instant, Mika and Kirin were standing in the middle of their company's camp, three sets of eyes on them, shocked and confused. Mika glanced around, looking for his brothers; seeing them lying peacefully next to the campfire, Mika grinned and headed off any questions by holding up the hand that had been marked by Ladon.

Congratulations poured forth boisterously, even from Gaist, and waking the children. The boys wouldn't think about going back to sleep until Mika and Kirin had told them about the ordeal, something Mika wished desperately he could get out of relating.

By the time the pair had finished their tale, the boys were asleep again and the others were in thoughtful silence. Gaist said, pensively, "So you say that your sincere desire to reject Ladon's blessing was interpreted as humility…"

"That's what I got from it," Mika replied.

Kirin's tail flicked. "That's how I interpreted it as well," she said. "Obviously, choosing to save many over one was a test, but how Mika felt afterwards was a test as well. Maybe, if he'd been proud of himself, rather than angry and hurt that he couldn't save everyone, he'd have failed. I wasn't released until you cried out that you'd changed your mind about it, Mika."

"Maybe, but how can anyone be proud of that?" Mika asked, bewildered. "I mean… in the position I was in, I had to let someone die. That… that didn't feel good. I hope I never have to do that again. I sure as hell don't want to do it for real."

"I don't blame you," Gaist said. "But you're going to be disappointed, on both counts. There are plenty of people who would simply pat themselves on the back, shrug, and carry on without another thought, if they're forced to make a choice like that." Gaist's voice had a tinge of guilt in it as he spoke. "You learn to accept that such choices are part of being a soldier, but if you're not careful, you become cavalier about it. There is a difference between accepting that death is a necessity, and merely not caring about it. Make sure you learn that difference well, Dark Dragon."

Mika nodded gravely. "I will," he said, knowing that the advice was good despite the source.

Silence descended again, leaving only the crackling of the campfire. "So, our plan should probably be that we spend the night where we are," Ryu said quietly, "and first thing in the morning, head back to the monastery, get any further instructions necessary from Lord Ganer, and then get back to Caer Xhan as quickly as we can. Agreed?" As the whole group gave their assent, even the children, Ryu nodded. "It's settled then. Everyone get some sleep. Things will start happening fast now that we can get into Obelisk. We need to be ready for absolutely anything."


Alex looked around, wiping the sweat off of his forehead. He didn't know how much more of this his human body could take. He knew exactly where his limits were; after all, he had created this body to his own specifications, and while he could have made it so much stronger, that wouldn't have been very realistic and would have most assuredly garnered more attention than he was willing to deal with. Not standing out was important for his goal.

But he had created it as being able to withstand illness and having a higher stamina than usual, at least in terms of human ability to use healing magic. Regardless of that, he was quickly running out of energy today. The needy and the ill kept coming, faster than they could heal them. They couldn't keep up, and now the healers were beginning to fall ill, as well.

He knew he had only a moment of peace. With that moment, he looked over at Mirielle. She looked as exhausted and pained as the rest of them, working as hard as them to save those that they could save. Perhaps she was even more pained than the rest of them. Alex knew what was going to happen, although he didn't know how. She knew what was going to happen, but she didn't know when.

As he was wondering which missing piece of information inflicted more anxiety and dread, he thought that perhaps his fear for her suffering a violent death was wrong. She was utterly exhausted, but they both knew she would not stop until each and every person had been seen and treated, or until she killed herself from her over-exertion. Maybe she too feared a violent death and was trying to avoid it- suicide by healing.

Alex smiled bitterly at the thought. Either way, she was about to die. He squared his stance; if Death wanted his beloved, she'd have to fight him for her. Mirielle might be resigned to this fate, but he sure as hell was not.

The young man began tending to the next patient, a small child who was, thankfully, merely suffering heat exhaustion. Alex summoned healing magic to his hands and laid them on the boy's body, noting in wonder that his hands could cover the child's entire chest. He altered how he was using his magic to give it a cooling effect. Almost immediately, the boy's labored breath came easier and his body temperature dropped. Alex brushed a hand over his forehead and face, and then lifted him in his arms. "He should be fine now," he said quietly, as he handed him back to the child's father. "Let him take a nap somewhere cool and dark, if possible."

The Dragon nodded tiredly, and Alex noted the pale haggardness in his face that marked the beginnings of Dragonplague. "Sir…"

"I know," the dragon replied. "I'm no danger to him. He's half-human."

"That's good to know but wasn't my concern."

The man smiled and cradled his son tenderly. "You're exhausted, healer. I'm still in the beginning stages. I have plenty of time to get treatment. Those who are sicker should get priority."

"I'd much rather deal with people before they get seriously ill," Alex replied seriously. "The sooner you get treated, the better your chances of survival are."

"So my chances would increase from nothing to a little bit."

Alex shook his head. "I don't know. But a better chance is a better chance. Any chance of survival is better than nothing."

He sighed. "I'll seek treatment tomorrow in the morning, if you are sure."

"I am quite sure," Alex replied, trying to think quickly. His foreknowledge of what was about to happen meant that he knew there would be no healing tomorrow. That day just might mean the difference between life and death for this man, but who was Alex to send him to? The only two healers he knew could still handle someone sick with Dragonplague were himself and Mirielle. Alex would have to draw on divine power to do so, thus blowing his cover, and Mirielle was close to death herself- possibly only minutes. He dared not instruct him to seek her out; doing so might put him in danger's path.

But…

Alex's conundrum was interrupted by a shout from one of the buildings. He looked up at the speaker, eyes narrowing. "Aldin…"

The Dragon Prince shouted from a balcony over and over again for attention; once he was sure he had most of it, he cried, "We know now the cause of the pestilence that is destroying us!" Alex bit his tongue; whatever Aldin was about to say, it was most likely a bold-faced lie, but he'd hold his peace until he knew that.

Aldin cleared his throat as, hearing his booming voice, more people in the streets below heard him. Alex looked over at Mirielle nervously; he sensed Death very close by. Whatever was happening, it would be the end of her. Alex's only hope was to stop him. He shouted for people to not listen, but his voice was lost in the murmuring press. Above, Aldin smiled predatorily. "And the cause stands in your midst, claiming to wish to help stem Dragonplague! High Priestess Mirielle has profaned our Lord Ladon's name-!"

"No!" Alex screamed as loud as he could. "No, she has not!"

"-and this disease, this pestilence is our punishment!" Aldin continued. Around him, Alex could hear and feel the crowd becoming angry. Couldn't anyone but him hear the self-satisfied, smug notes in his voice? The disgraced prince kept talking, speaking of horrific violations of her vows of a priestess, the heartless murder of a sick child with Dragonplague, of infidelity with a youth barely old enough to understand what he was doing with her… "Lies!" Alex shouted, and somewhere in the center of the mob, he could hear Mirielle's frightened denials as well. "Everything he's saying is lies! Not a single thing is true! She has not angered Ladon!"

But his efforts, and hers, were lost in an angry, throbbing mob desperate for something-or someone- to blame for their misfortune, and now they had someone to blame. Aldin hadn't even finished his sentence- that he knew Ladon would forgive them and take the plague away- before the stoning began.

Alex could do nothing but watch as the angry crowd fell on his beloved.