CHAPTER SIXTEEN: ALL FOR LOVE
The five of them stared up in silent amazement at the ghostly image of Abyad, awestruck by the majestic sight. Kyle had never had the chance to see a White Dragon, the most regal of the Four Dragons, in the course of his adventure with Alex, except when Quark had been imprisoned in the Grindery. He was awestruck by the sight of the majestic creature, even though it was only its ethereal spirit, and he instinctively lowered his head in respect. It was all he could think of to do. The others, however, knelt reverently before the Dragon.
"Rise, please," Abyad said gently. "You should not kneel before me, after what you have done for me and my brothers and sisters. Through the ever-present magic of the Mother Songstress, the Goddess Althena, I have come on their behalf to thank you for protecting our remains and the lives of the Caretakers of this holy place."
Being praised by a White Dragon was more than enough to shake Kyle out of his mesmerized state and for his ego to take over. "All in a day's work," he said, flashing his trademark grin. Jessica glared at him in disbelief.
Abyad made a strange growling sound that might have been laughter. "Such spirit...it is all too rare in this world."
The Dragon's eyes fixated on Gryffin, and Abyad stared at him for a long moment. "You're the one that came with an expedition four years ago to find our home and to plunder our graves."
"And I was wrong to do so," Gryffin said in a steady but humble voice. "I don't care about lost treasures or fame anymore. It cost me four years of my life and the chance to see my son grow from a boy into a man. And I also made Kyle pay a price for my ambition, which he should never have had to do."
"Indeed," Abyad said gravely. "Nevertheless, you did your part to protect our sacred resting place, and you have realized and repented of your error. Both of these make you as worthy of praise as those who came here merely to honor you."
"Thank you, your...uh..." Gryffin's voice trailed off as he wondered what honorific to use when speaking to a Dragon of Althena.
"As for you two, magicians of Vane," Abyad continued, his attention now turning to Sarek and Rayner, "you both risked much for the sake of a man's legacy, without even thinking of a reward. Never did you think of plunder, not even for the sake of the fallen city of Vane, which you both revere. You honor Vane's legacy with your selflessness and your courage. Therefore, what you did not seek or try and take by guile or force shall be given freely to you. To all of you." Sarek looked up in surprise, and even Rayner looked amazed.
Abyad's wings spread and he reared his head high. "Caretakers!" Abyad roared. "The Dragon's Graveyard is safe. Come to the sanctuary. Abyad The White Dragon summons you."
Slowly, cautiously, the Caretakers emerged from the chapel where they had taken refuge, and they stared in astonishment as they beheld the spirit of Abyad above them. In all the centuries that the Graveyard had stood, no spirit of a dragon had ever been known to appear within the temple. Their heads inclined reverently, the Caretakers of the Dragon's Graveyard gathered around the statue of Althena and knelt before the Dragon.
Abyad looked down at them and said, "Go to my coffin and select five of the finest Diamonds to be found within, one for each of these heroes. I make of them a gift to express my gratitude to each of these brave humans who came here not out of lust for wealth and glory, but out of love and honor – and to one among them who learned the price of greed and who has atoned in his heart."
The Caretakers, looking at each other uncertainly, bowed to Abyad before fetching the diamonds. Abyad reared his head back suddenly, and then his mouth twisted into a grin, if dragons can indeed grin. "It seems there are others who would speak with you. They also have words of thanks for the heroes who protected The Dragon's Graveyard and the Goddess Althena herself."
Four more Dragons, one of each color, materialized behind Abyad. Kyle and Jessica recognized three of them: Blaize, Saphyr, and Shakor, the Dragons of Althena they had met during their travels with Dragonmaster Alex. The fourth, they presumed, was Quark, who neither of them had the chance to meet. The last Tetrarch of the Dragon Tribe looked just as majestic and regal as his ancestor, but his face was gentler and tinged with sadness. If Kyle was awed by the sight of just one Dragon, the sensation he felt at seeing five together was indescribable. The Dragons appeared to them as they had been in their prime, and Kyle felt an odd sense of loss that they were now all dead except for Nall.
"Yeesh...what a mess," Saphyr grunted as he surveyed the carnage of the battle.
"So we meet again," Blaize said gently, indicating Kyle and Jessica. "You were the comrades in arms of the last Dragonmaster, Alex."
"Yes, I remember this one in particular," the Black Dragon rumbled as he inspected Kyle. "He and the Dragonmaster battled me and defeated me when my form was controlled by Magic Emperor Ghaleon."
"Yeah...um...sorry about that," Kyle said sheepishly.
"There is no need for apologies," Shakor replied. "It was well fought, and you and your comrades showed great courage. I respect courage, and I was honored to fall in battle against such worthy foes."
"And now they have done us yet another service," Quark said gravely. "I have known many heroes to risk life and limb to protect lives, but it is rare that I see them do the same merely to honor a loved one's legacy. Truly Althena made the right choice when she trusted humanity's power and spirit. Our children will see for themselves the power of humanity Althena believed in and trusted humanity with."
Jessica blinked in surprise. "Your children? I thought Nall was the only one of you left."
"Our children sleep for now," Blaize explained. "They have yet to hatch from their eggs. One day, though, the Dragon Tribe will live again, and Quark's son Nall will take his place as its Tetrarch."
Shakor, meanwhile, turned to Abyad and raised a furry eyebrow. "You gave them your Diamonds?"
Abyad nodded. "For what they've done for us and our world, they deserve no less. Especially the youth and his mate," he said, indicating Kyle and Jessica. Jessica grimaced slightly at being called a "mate," but she remained silent.
The Black Dragon thought for a second. "Then I have a gift for the boy as well. I too will grant him as a gift a Diamond from my coffin to honor the courage and valor he showed when he fought against me."
"Always has to have the last word, doesn't he?" Saphyr mumbled aloud, drawing a snarl from Shakor as another Caretaker went to Shakor's coffin.
Kyle shook his head. "Nah, I couldn't..."
"Take it!" Shakor insisted. "You have more than earned it. Sell it and spend it how you wish. It will do me or anyone else no just good lying in my coffin."
The Caretakers returned then, and placed one White Diamond in the hands of each member of the party. Kyle held his up, and it brilliantly reflected the light of the temple. In Ramus's shop, he'd seen Alex's own Diamond on display, but it couldn't possibly compare to the one in his hands. Another Caretaker handed him a Black Diamond, and Kyle examined it curiously. It was solid black, much like onyx, but it was translucent, almost like darkly tinted glass. Instead of reflecting light and color, it seemed to absorb it internally, giving it a rainbow-esque core.
"Caretakers," Abyad said, "You are to tell the people of Shadia that it is the will of the Dragons that these heroes are free to leave this island and return to their homes, as a token of our gratitude. Furthermore, the Shadians shall escort them back to their ship, provide them with supplies and rations, and protect them from all harm."
Abyad's gentle tone became stern. "But there is a price for your freedom. Never are you to reveal the location of the Dragon's Graveyard, or even that you found it in the first place. We will hold you to that by your honor as heroes."
"If anyone asks where you got those Diamonds from, just make something up," Saphyr added.
"Deal," Kyle said eagerly. "Whatever it takes to get us back home."
"Then go in peace," Abyad said, his voice once again kindly. "Go with our gratitude and our thanks."
"Give our regards to Alex and Luna, when you have returned to you own lands," Quark said. "And tell my son Nall that his father rests in peace, alongside his family."
"We'll tell him," Kyle said, drawing his sword and saluting with a dramatic flourish. Then, with one arm around Jessica and another around his father's shoulder, Kyle and his friends exited the Dragon's Graveyard, escorted by a silent procession of Caretakers. The Dragons watched them leave before fading away into nothingness once again.
As they emerged from the long mountain tunnel and made their way back into Shadia, Kyle's party was greeted with wonder and amazement that they had entered the Graveyard and survived. The fact that they were being accompanied by the Caretakers, and that there was no sign of their enemies, further fueled the speculation as to what had happened in the Dragon's Graveyard. Kyle was bombarded with one question after another, but he was still too dazed by his encounter with the Dragons to respond. He did manage to comprehend that some pirates and bandits were among the crowd, bound and guarded. Evidently, they'd tried to escape and had been caught by the villagers.
Kashiro shoved his way through the throng, running up to Gryffin and Kyle. "You made it! You actually made it! The way our prisoners were jabbering, we thought all hell had broken loose in there! What in the Goddess's name happened?"
"Oh, you know, the usual," Kyle said, grinning. "We rescued the fair damsel, killed the bad guys, and prevented a sacrilege from taking place. By the way, the Dragons say 'hi.'"
"What do you mean?"
"It's true," one of the Caretakers said, a young boy with bright blue eyes. "Althena sent the spirits of Abyad and the last Four came to them to thank them and grant them their freedom for protecting us."
"Almost all of us," another Caretaker, the girl who had defied Rathbone, said sadly. "They killed Bon."
Kashiro closed his eyes at the news and put a hand over them as Gryffin put his hand on his shoulder consolingly. "We avenged him, Kashiro. Him and Chunin and all the other Shadians that died this night," Gryffin said. "Wolfe's dead."
"And so's Rathbone," Kyle said with evident satisfaction. "We wiped 'em all out before any of them could lay so much as a finger on a Dragon Diamond."
Kashiro nodded, sighing heavily. "That won't bring back the dead we've lost, but at least the scales have been balanced. Kyle, Gryffin, all of you...we can't thank you enough for what you've done. Is there anything we can do for you now?"
"Nah, we just wanna go home," Kyle said, exhaustion once again kicking in from everything that had happened over the past few days. "The Dragons trust us to keep our mouths shut, and they said my old man can leave with us. Plus, Jess and I have a wedding to finish planning."
Kashiro looked towards the Caretakers, all of whom nodded in confirmation. "If that is the will of Althena and the Dragons, I'm not about to say otherwise. But can I at least convince you to spend one more night here? There's celebrating to be done, and at this late hour, now's no time to travel anyway."
Kyle pretended to think about it for a second before grinning. "Never let it be said that Kyle of Nanza ever turned his back on a celebration. Especially one in his honor."
The celebrations lasted all through the remainder of the night, with feasting, dancing, and music. Bonfires were lit throughout the city, and the smell of roasting food and the sounds of music flowed throughout the city. Kyle was seated at an outdoor table, seated with Gryffin, Sarek, and Rayner, idly talking as they watched the celebrations.
Gryffin turned to Rayner. "You gonna ask any of the young ladies here to dance? There's some pretty cute ones around."
Rayner smiled as he blushed slightly. "I've got a girlfriend back in Vane waiting for me. I don't think it would be right to dance with anyone else."
"Good man," Gryffin said, nodding with approval. He turned to Sarek and nudged his arm. "You raised him well, Sarek."
"As did you with Kyle, old friend," Sarek said warmly. "It's easy to be an optimist about the future of our world, knowing that the next generation has people such as these as part of it."
Kyle gave Sarek a distracted smile, but his attention was elsewhere. Jessica, to Kyle's disappointment, was in one of the healing houses, helping to treat the injured and to say prayers for the dying. He hoped she'd be finishing soon, and he kept looking out for her.
The music suddenly shifted as the musician playing kodo drums began beating out a catchy introduction. Many of the younger Shadians had drifted towards the largest bonfire. Kyle, who had been sitting tiredly at one of the banquet tables, found himself setting down his mug to watch.
The women formed a ring around the fire and joined hands. The men, including Kashiro, took up posts in an outer ring, carrying large staffs. Then two of the flute players began a simple tune like birdsong, the men began tapping their staffs on the ground in time with the kodos, and the women began to dance. Like graceful birds, the women spun together, lifting and lowering hands in an endless wave. Long sashes and loose strands of hair caught on the breeze that carried the music to the watchers. A laughing young girl in blue raised her arms, then pivoted underneath to face the audience as her now-crossed arms still gripped the hands of her neighbors. Not missing a step, a lady in pink holding the girl's right hand did the same. Next was her neighbor in sunny yellow, and so on down the line to cause a beautiful rippling effect. As one, the women clapped, twirled halfway, then regripped hands to skip around the fire joyfully for a few rounds.
The music took on a heartier tone as stringed instruments joined in. The women suddenly stopped to face the men, now clapping to the music as the men took their turn. Great leaps were the hallmark of this dance. Many of the men added complex twists to their jumps, with the most agile able to flip. Others spun their staffs around their bodies in smooth, skilled movements that were as beautiful as they were deadly, and some of the moves reminded Kyle of Alex's sword dance techniques. As one, the men planted their staffs in the ground and vaulted off of them for their greatest leaps yet, each landing as gracefully as a cat.
Kyle, despite his exhaustion, was thoroughly enjoying every minute of it, despite Jessica showing up late to the party. He grinned as Jessica finally arrived, looking worn out.
"Glad you finally made it," Kyle said, giving her a quick hug. "They're putting on a hell of a show for us. You should've seen the crazy dancing these guys do."
Jessica nodded wearily. "I'm actually glad they're throwing us this little shindig," she said as she filled a glass of mead. "After the long journey and then having to tend to the injured, I really need to unwind."
"I'll bet you do," Kyle said, filling his own cup and then draining it. "These guys really know how to throw a party, huh?"
"They've got a lot to celebrate."
"I think we all do," Kyle said. "Not every day you get to discover a lost treasure, kill your arch-enemy, save a whole village, and find a long-lost relative. Did I miss anything?"
Jessica set her cup down on a nearby table and embraced Kyle. "You got to be my hero again," she said softly, cradling herself in her arms.
"Hey, you got to be mine this time too," Kyle replied, running his fingers through his hair. "Thanks to you, I've got my dad back. That makes us more than even."
Again the music changed, as the flutes became hardier and the strings gentled into a perfect harmony. The men carefully tossed aside their staffs as they and the women paired up for the last part of the dance. Kyle grinned as he held out his hand. "May I have this dance, milady?" he said gallantly.
Jessica blushed as she curtsied. "Why certainly, kind sir. But lemme borrow some armor from one of the Shadians first so I can protect my feet."
"Hey! I'll have you know I happen to be a pretty damn good dancer!"
"Yeah, right. You?" Jessica scoffed. "The only kind of dancing you were ever any good at is the horizontal..."
Kyle silenced Jessica with a long, lingering kiss as he closed his eyes and held her even closer. He thought about all the times he'd almost lost her during the events of the past few days. Now that they were safe in each other's arms, he never wanted to let her go, and he could tell by the way she held him that she felt the same way. The two of them were so lost in each other that they never even noticed when the song ended.
The celebrations lasted so late into the night that Kyle, who had never been an early riser under the best of circumstances, didn't fall asleep until sunrise or wake up until late in the afternoon, forcing the party to stay over an extra night – not that the Shadians minded. They were only too eager to play hosts to the heroes from a faraway land who had defended the Dragon's Graveyard from plunder. However, when another morning came, Kyle awakened at a more reasonable hour, and after a solemn ceremony commemorating the fallen of Shadia, the time came to embark on the return journey to the Darkfire.
"So you're really leaving, huh?" Kashiro said to Gryffin sadly.
"I have to, Kashiro," Gryffin replied. "I've gotta catch up on lost time with my family."
"Yeah, I understand," Kashiro said. "Still, you were a good friend. I'm gonna miss you."
"Hey, you too," Gryffin said, clapping the old man on the back. "Look after the place, all right?"
"Count on it," Kashiro replied. He then turned to the rest of Kyle's party. "Thanks again for everything you've done. Normally I'd invite you all to come back and visit anytime," Kashiro said wryly. "But...well...we can't exactly be encouraging visitors here."
"Don't worry. No offense, but I think we've had enough of this place," Kyle said dryly.
"Yeah, I can understand that," Kashiro chuckled as he motioned to a dozen armed guardsmen to approach. "These men will escort you safely back to your ship. Although if you're up for one last adventure, Wolfe's men we took prisoner revealed where they've stashed their loot – a fortune in gold and silver. We have no use for it, and it'd be a shame for you to go home empty-handed, after all you've been through." Kyle and his friends had agreed not to reveal that Abyad and Shakor had given them Diamonds from their coffins as a reward.
Kyle turned to Jessica and the others. "Well, whaddya think? Have you guys had enough of treasure hunting, or don you mind making one last stop?"
Jessica shrugged. "Why not? There's plenty of worthy causes we could put it to."
"Yeah, let's go for it," Gryffin said. "At least we know this one won't be cursed. And then we go home?"
Kyle nodded. "Then we go home. All of us."
"Admiral Salvo!" the lookout on the Darkfire announced. "It's them! They're back!"
"Are you sure?" Salvo called back to the lookout. "All of them?"
"Aye, sir. And they've got company!"
The admiral scrambled up the rope ladder and seized the lookout's spyglass. After a while, he too saw Kyle's party, all apparently safe and sound, accompanied by a tall man in crimson lacquered armor and half a dozen others wearing similar garb behind them. All of them were carrying heavy burlap sacks. "It IS them! Prepare the gangplank and a welcoming party! Come on, get a move on!"
A few moments later, Kyle, Jessica, Sarek, Rayner, and Gryffin marched up the Darkfire's gangplank, the crew applauding and cheering loudly. Admiral Salvo walked up to Kyle, staring at him in disbelief. "I really didn't think I'd ever see you guys again," he said, awestruck. "Did you find the Graveyard? Was it really there?"
Kyle looked at the Shadian escorts and shook his head. "Nah, it was just a wild goose chase. But I found something better than Dragon Diamonds," Kyle said with a grin. "Admiral, this is my dad, Gryffin Jor-dan."
"Admiral," Gryffin said, offering a salute.
"Hell of a kid you raised," Salvo said in disbelief.
"I get that a lot," Gryffin chuckled. "But he's earned it many times over."
"But we never would have been able to pull this off without your help," Jessica said. "So as a token of our appreciation..."
The party's Shadian escorts boarded the ship, each carrying several burlap sacks. They dropped them on the deck and disembarked immediately afterwards. Salvo opened one of the sacks and was greeted by the sight of gold and silver coins, jewels, and other treasures. "What's all this?"
"Bandit loot," Sarek said. "Your crew's payment for all your cooperation – and your silence."
"You didn't have to do that," Salvo protested. "I told you before, as Meribians, we have a duty to..."
"Yeah, yeah, I know," Jessica said. "But we did it anyway. You're not gonna make these guys carry it all the way back home across the island, are you?"
"No, I guess not," Salvo said. "Meanwhile, my men and I bagged a prize of our own."
He pointed to the stern of the ship, revealing the Dragonheart. "We saw where she came ashore and we took her back without a hitch. Every last one of Rathbone's men must've gone looking for you. So now she's manned by a skeleton crew and ready to follow us back to Meribia."
"Then let's not keep her waiting," Kyle said. "Admiral Salvo, take us home."
A few hours later, the Darkfire was at full speed, cutting across the waters of the Dravot Sea, the Dragonheart following close behind. Kyle, Jessica, Rayner, and Gryffin stood on deck leaning on the railings, idly watching the sea, lost in their own thoughts.
"The admiral says the wind is strong and we're making excellent time," Sarek announced as he joined the rest of the party. "As I promised Majesty Mia, I'll have gotten you back to Meribia in time for your wedding, with time to spare."
"That reminds me, I've been meaning to ask you two," Gryffin said to Kyle and Jessica. "How come you two ain't married yet?"
"Yeah, all these rumors in Vane were going around that you two would get married right after Ghaleon's defeat," Rayner added. "Why the delay?"
Kyle hoped he didn't look as nervous as he suddenly felt. He could never remember why Jessica had postponed the wedding date for a year, and he was sure Jessica would tear him a new one for forgetting. "Jessica can explain it much better than I can."
Jessica narrowed her eyes suspiciously. "You forgot again, didn't you?"
"Me? Forget? No, no...I...just like to hear you tell it, that's all."
Jessica raised a skeptical eyebrow before giving a resigned shake of her head. "The day we get married is gonna be the tenth anniversary of the day we met that day in Meribia," Jessica said. "I thought it would be romantic to have it on a special day."
"And it gave her time to plan a huge storybook wedding like she always wanted," Kyle chuckled. He shoved his hands into his pockets and came across the Dragon Diamonds. He plucked the White Dragon Diamond from Abyad's tomb that the Caretakers had given him, mesmerized by its flawless beauty. "Funny. After everything that's happened, I almost forgot that we had these."
"Indeed," Sarek said. "They'll fetch a fair price once we find someone who can afford to buy them. The silver we get for them will go a long way to help Vane."
"Would Mia accept it?" Kyle asked. "I thought you said, Jess, that she didn't want us bringing back any Diamonds for her."
"She didn't want us stealing any," Jessica pointed out. "But if we tell her they were a gift, she'll probably change her mind."
"So are you gonna sell yours for Vane also?"
Jessica shook her head. "Actually, I'll donate the money from the sale of mine to the families of Daddy's men that were killed by Rathbone and his thugs. It won't bring them back, but it should help their families get by."
"I like that," Gryffin said. "I think I'm gonna do the same. What about you, Kyle?"
Kyle thought for a second and grinned as he put one arm around Jessica and held up the White Dragon Diamond with his free hand. "Well, first of all, I'm gonna look up Alex's old buddy Ramus and see if he can find me someone who can make wedding rings, and the diamonds to decorate them will come from this. Whatever's left, I'll split between Vane and the sailors' families."
Jessica smiled, blushing slightly. "And the one from Shakor?"
Kyle shrugged, and his grin faded into a sentimental smile. "I figured we could get a nice place of our own in the city, with a nice big backyard for the kids to play in and an arena to work out in, just like Mel has. There'd be plenty of room for you too, Dad."
Gryffin shook his head sadly. "I appreciate the offer, son, but Meribia has too many memories for me, of your mother and of the Heresy War. I wouldn't be able to take living there. But Nanza's not too far away, and I promise to visit whenever I can – as long as you and the missus do the same. Deal?"
"Deal," Kyle said as they shook on it. "So what happens now? What's the next adventure waiting for us?"
Gryffin thought for a second. "Well, we can see if we can track down your long-lost evil twin brother," he said offhandedly.
Kyle's jaw would have hit the floor if it could. "My WHAT?"
Gryffin looked awkward, and he shifted uncomfortably. "Yes, son. I never told you about your brother Roderick...it was just too painful to talk about...but I feel that the time has finally come to tell you. You see, the two of you were separated way back when..."
As Kyle stared in shock, Gryffin suddenly let out a strange wheezing sound as he sank to his knees, howling with laughter. "Oh, man, you actually fell for that!" he said, in between guffaws. "You should've seen the look on your face! That was priceless!"
"You rat-bastard!" Kyle cried, embarrassed at having been duped so easily. Gryffin was laughing so hard he had to be helped back to his feet.
"If I may, I think now is the time for a toast," Sarek said, producing a bottle of Aynekian brandy and passing around some cups. "We started this adventure with a toast, so I think we should end it with one."
"Sounds good to me," Kyle said, eagerly taking a cup. "So what should we drink to?"
"How about to adventure?" Rayner suggested.
"Nah, I thought of that last time," Kyle said.
"Family, then?" Kyle suggested. "Family of old and family to come?"
"We toasted family last time," Jessica said.
"Oh yeah," Kyle said as he chuckled. "You'd think all the time I spend in bars, I'd be able to think of a decent toast."
"I've got one," Gryffin said solemnly. "My wife came up with it, and she and I would always use it for our victory toasts back in our mercenary days."
He put his free arm around Kyle's shoulder as he raised his cup. "To journeys past, journeys to come, and a safe homecoming when the journey's done. May we all have such fortune in the days ahead."
Kyle nodded and smiled. "I like that one."
The five of them raised their cups and clinked them together gently and drank. As the Darkfire sailed into the sunset, Kyle, Jessica, and Gryffin met each other's gazes as Zerimar Island faded far into the distance. The time for looking back and for regrets had come to an end, and now it was time to look to the future.
You are hereby formally invited to the wedding of
KYLE JOR-DAN OF NANZA
JESSICA DE ALKIRK
In the upcoming fanfic, "WE'LL ALWAYS HAVE MERIBIA." Hope to see you there!