The First Fantasy
Brian Petro-Roy

200 years ago, the Fiends Tiamat of Wind and Kraken of Water stole the respective Orbs from their altars, disrupting the flow of wind and greatly disturbing the sea. The people of this land live in fear of the final two Orbs being stolen and their world thrown into total Chaos, but they still have hope in an ancient prophecy.

'When the world is in darkness
Four Warriors will come----'

The time now is not right for this prophecy to be fulfilled, but the events must be set in motion. This is the tale, not of the fulfillment of the prophecy, but of how it was made possible.

This is...the First Fantasy.

1. The Dream City

From a distance, the town of Coneria looked normal - a peaceful, clean, orderly little burg. Nestled in a carefully crafted clearing in the middle of a forest, Coneria, or the Dream City as the public relations people referred to it, was hailed as the most peaceful community in the world. However, at this moment, the streets were quiet save for the slamming of doors and the shutting of windows as the citizens of the Dream City saw their nightmare stride down Main Street in the flesh. Wrinn was ticked again.

Soaked from head to toe, a sour scowl on his chiseled face, Wrinn Taylor felt like he was about to explode, and he looked it, too. The townspeople knew better than to even look at Wrinn wrong when he was in a state like this, and the street-clearing routine had become normal, as was Wrinn's final destination. Every time he felt like this, he knew exactly where to go to cool down - Lukahn's house. And, as always, he nearly destroyed the door on his way in.

"Blast that infernal Kraken! Can't he keep the seas calm for five lousy minutes?"

"Ah, then your day of sailing must have been a rousing success," the sage replied, barely able to contain his amusement. Lukahn was the only one who would dare sass Wrinn when he was in such a state - it was his duty as Wrinn's mentor, and besides, his knowledge of magic was so vast Wrinn would have to be completely insane to try to attack him. "Is your boat still intact?"

"Of course not! Why in the name of the gods would it? No, that would be beneficial of that wretched octopus!"

"If I remember correctly, Wrinn, I warned you that the seas were now barely passable by experienced sailors, let alone a neophyte like yourself. Once again, you've attempted to achieve skill through brute strength and force, and once again, if you'll pardon the phrase, you're all wet."

Wrinn opened his mouth to retort, but realized that it was futile, and that the old man was right once again. Wrinn resolved to himself that he would try again next week, but then snapped back to attention as he heard Lukahn speaking.

"...and after you've finished that, go find Gary and perform your training exercises together. Then, after your meditation period, come back here - I have something I have to talk to you both about."

"Yes sir," Wrinn replied, having no clue what the first thing his teacher wanted him to do, but afraid to ask, since it would reveal the fact that he hadn't been listening.

He turned to leave, and as he reached the doorway, he heard Lukahn call, "Oh, by the way, Wrinn -"


"Next time, pay better attention - that's why I told you to clean your ears first."

"Uh...yes, sir." Aforementioned ears flaming red, Wrinn slinked out of the hut while Lukahn laughed quietly to himself.

"What am I ever going to do about that boy?" The old sage suddenly became somber. "It had better be good, considering what he's got in store for him..."

"So where's the boat?"

"Gone. Completely gone. If that damned octopus sees fit, maybe the wreckage will wash ashore sometime, but I'm not going to hold my breath." Wrinn wearily leaned against the tree, lifted his head and looked at his friend. Wrinn and Gary had met as boys playing in the forest around Coneria, and after being chased out of their woodsy playpen by an imp, they had both simultaneously decided to train as knights under Lukahn. The arrangement was working out well - what once was their play area was now a training ground, the pair were the strongest and best fighters in the kingdom, and everyone agreed that it was a matter of time until the King invited them to join the prestigious Honor Guard.

"What I don't understand is why you tried to go sailing anyway - Kraken's stirred up the oceans so badly that we only trade by land routes now! What on earth were you thinking?"

"I was thinking," Wrinn snapped as he shifted his weight to his other foot, "that maybe it's time somebody showed that black-hearted beast that we're not afraid of him! No wonder that the situation's getting worse - all we do is cower in fear of those damned Fiends, and nobody does anything about it!" Wrinn stood and drove his protected right fist into the tree he was leaning on, as if he was trying to send a threatening message to the Fiends.

"Look," Gary said as he shouldered his wooden training sword, "before you get too angry, would it be all right if we practiced while you can still think clearly?" Wrinn nodded in agreement and picked up his sword as well, then faced his friend. "Ready?"

"Ready!" shouted Gary as he rushed his friend, they crossed swords, and the battle began. Lukahn had endeavored to teach each knight a different style of swordsmanship - Wrinn's tactics were to parry as much as possible, and, using his superior strength, land blows on his opponent's sword that were usually enough to shatter a forearm. Gary's nimble feet were his weapon, as he danced around his friend, making swift stabs and short swings, mainly aiming for the arms and legs, as he would weaken his enemy with wounds until a well-placed stab would finish things nicely. The fight dragged on - Gary's forearms ached, but he still held his sword tight, while even though Wrinn's shins were killing him, he still stood. All of a sudden, Gary's eyes seemed to roll up in his head, and he advanced at Wrinn, his sword moving so fast it was frightening. This was Lukahn's secret technique that he had taught Gary - to leave his mind alone to control his body - and Gary had perfected it. His final attack in this state was a swift, strong swing to each limb, and then a series of spin moves that hit high and low, and then he would stab straight for his opponent's gut. However, for all his training and skill, Gary's attack was futile - Wrinn was so used to this move that he easily blocked the four swings, ducked and jumped away from the spins, and then sidestepped the death blow, bonked his friend on the head with the flat of his sword, and knocked the wood out of Gary's hand as he fell to the ground.

"Damn, I thought I actually had you that time!"

"No such luck, instinct boy," Wrinn laughed as he helped his friend up. "I'm way too used to that move. Come on, we'd better start meditating or we'll be late to see Lukahn tonight."

"Yeah, you're right." As each young man relaxed his body and sent his mind to dwell on otherworldly issues, both of them still had an expression on his visage. Wrinn's grin was fading, but was still there, and Gary's face showed frustration that bordered on fury.....

2. Trouble Brewing

Apparently calmed by a half hour of meditation, Wrinn and Gary sat in Lukahn's hut as he lit a candle to combat the dusk. "So, did your training go well?"

"As usual, sir, except Wrinn knows the Instinct Spin too well."

"So well, in fact, that's it's becoming instinct for me to block it!" Gary shot a look at Wrinn at this, his face grim.

"Wrinn, stop bragging -" Gary seemed to relax - "I've noticed that your shin guards are a bit marked up. If the two've you had real swords, you wouldn't be standing right now..." Wrinn seemed to shrink a little bit at this chastisement, when Lukahn continued, "Of course, Gary, you would be dead, but that's a moot point." All three shared a chuckle over this, but soon Lukahn's mood grew dark again and he sighed dejectedly. "I only wish I had called you in here to make fun of your fighting techniques, but-" here he massaged his temples in dread - "I fear I must discuss something of dire importance."

Gary and Wrinn shot glances at each other - to some people, dire importance meant feeding the family, keeping a job, or rebuilding the house - to a Sage like Lukahn, that meant something big. Something that affected the very state of the world.

"I fear the Age of Chaos will soon be a reality." The Age of Chaos was the name people had given to the time when all four Fiends of Earth, Wind, Water, and Fire came together in an effort to destroy every sign of life on the planet, and were all blessing their luck that it was still just a name. "So far, only Kraken of Water and Tiamat of Wind have risen from the depths to steal the Orbs' powers - the Fiends of Fire and Earth still lay in wait, even though it's been 200 years since Tiamat first revolted."

"The time for the world to be truly thrown into peril is drawing closer and something must be done."

Wrinn suddenly spoke up. "So where do we come in? Every time an advance against the Fiends has been attempted, it's been a miserable failure! The Lefeinish only have one airship left due to Tiamat, gods know what happened to the five Sky Warriors that managed to reach Tiamat when he first revolted....."

Where Wrinn left off, Gary immediately picked up. "....and most of the Mermaids were killed when Kraken stole the Orb of Water from the Sea Shrine. What can we do? And why does it matter much? All that the Fiends have done since stealing the powers is sit stubbornly on their altars and be a nuisance!"

"Well, my pair of know-it-alls, I happen to have seen something in a dream I had last night that has convinced me otherwise." Wrinn and Gary perked up their ears at this - Lukahn's dreams often produced prophecies that were always correct.

"What did you discover, master?"

Lukahn silently appreciated his students' intuition before he spoke again. "The Fiends have left their altars. This can only mean that they are preparing themselves and their troops of twisted monsters for an invasion of the northern country."

"So what is our part in all this?" Wrinn and Gary asked in unison.

"The Twelve Sages must reconvene at Crescent Lake to discuss these events. I have no clue where they all are, since we all split up in despair after our failure to regain the powers of Wind and Water when we first lost them. And I can't even contact them telepathically any more, since none of them are listening for any communication from me. You must find them, let them know what's going on, and send them to meet with me at Crescent Lake. Even though every road in the world is treacherous now, what with even the lowliest wild dogs gaining courage at the Fiends' revolt, I am positive that the two of you will be able to survive. In any case, prepare for your journey tonight, and in the morning I will give you a crash course on magic so that each of you can learn a spell that you wouldn't do too well without. You may go."

As Gary and Wrinn rose, they gave each other worried glances - this wasn't a training exercise anymore, this was the real thing - this is what they had actually gone into training for. As they turned their backs on their master and moved towards the door, they were startled to again hear their master's voice. "Boys?"

"Yes, sir?"

"Never mind. Prepare well, my students."

After finishing their meal of venison, the two friends went to Wrinn's house to discuss the task that lay ahead of them. "So, what spells do you think he'll teach us? If all he gives us is boring old white magic, I'm going to be really disappointed." Gary was obviously excited.

"Oh, so keeping yourself alive is boring, eh?"

"It is when you could be roasting your enemy alive before they have a chance to hurt you!"

"Hmmm....I will admit, my friend, you've got a point there." They shared a laugh, but Wrinn's face clouded.

"What's wrong?" Gary asked, a concerned look crossing his features.

Wrinn paused a moment before answering his friend. "I was just wondering what failure feels like."

"What are you talking about? You failed at sailing this very afternoon - and gods know the amount of times I've disarmed you in training! You fail all the time," Gary retorted, with a wide grin on his face.

"This is different, Gary," Wrinn replied, with no trace of his friend's mirth. "What does it feel like to be entrusted with something important and fail? Something that involves the welfare of others? Every time I've failed, I've failed myself, and it was only myself that got hurt."

"And when you succeeded, it was me that got hurt - the bump on the head you gave me this afternoon still smarts!" Wrinn finally let a smile crease his face before replying. "I guess we're just going to have to be strong enough so that we don't fail."

"Now that's the way to talk!" Gary held out his hand, and Wrinn clasped it. "C'mon, friend. We've got a journey to prepare for! Here's to our test - our way to prove ourselves."

"I'll go you one better, Gary - here's to our success. Here's to us proving to the rest of the world that we belong at the top. Let our strength always lead to victory!"

The next morning, they met Lukahn in the forest clearing, who told them that in the short time they had, he could quickly teach them the basics of one spell each. Gary immediately said that he wanted the spell of Fire, which Lukahn said was a wise choice, but he should be careful about using it in the forest - a forest fire would only further advance the destructive rise of the Earth and Fire Fiends. Wrinn, on the other hand, elected to receive the spell of Cure, just in case either he or Gary met up with something they couldn't quite handle - however, he was so sure he would never need it that he didn't bother weighing himself down with magic potions, while Gary took as many as he could carry. After they were both prepared to leave, Lukahn said, "Come with me before you leave - there is something important that must be done." Wrinn and Gary shrugged, and followed their master with looks of confusion and curiosity on their faces....

Which turned to shock, and then pride as Lukahn lead them into the throne room of Coneria Castle. The King, the kind, wise ruler of Coneria, smiled at the two young men and said, "Wrinn Taylor and Gary Blackstone, approach the throne." The two men stopped five feet from the throne and knelt in reverence. "The Great Sage Lukahn tells me that you two depart this day on a journey that could determine the fate of the world in our battle against the cursed Fiends. In all this kingdom, I can think of no other men that I would rather send to save us from the evil that plagues our world. You two have long deserved the honor which I am about to bestow upon you, and now you are more than deserving of it - rise, my friends, as members of the Honor Guard of Castle Coneria!"

The two friends stood, faces beaming with pride, as the King continued. "Since not enough time is available to provide you with the armor of the Honor Guard, I will instead bestow upon you these armbands, red in color with the symbol of our great city stitched in gold. Wear them proudly, and good luck upon your journey." Gary and Wrinn executed one more bow of thanks to their ruler, and then, tying their armbands onto their right upper arms, followed their master out of the castle and to their journey.

As Lukahn proudly watched his headstrong students amble out of town on their way eastward to the port city of Pravoka, his thoughts were many. But, chief among his thoughts was this - "I just hope they don't get any teeth knocked out or have their noses broken on the way - if that happens, the most important part of all this is going to be a lot harder than it should."

3. A Pleasant Diversion

"Nice day, isn't it?"


"Think we'll make it to Pravoka tonight?"


"Think the Fiends'll destroy the world?"


"I thought so." Gary couldn't understand it at all. Every other time they'd been walking through the woods, Wrinn had been personable, carefree and reckless. This time, he was aloof, terse, and wary to the point that it was creepy. Sure, they'd been attacked a couple of times on the way, but all they'd had to deal with was an imp who thought they'd be easy pickings and one thin, hunger-driven wolf who didn't have a chance. Both fights had been amazingly easy, too - they'd each had one chance to hack at the imp before he'd split it in two, and one snap of his fingers had summoned the fireball that made the wolf run off, yelping in pain. So far, this trip had been a walk in the park, but by Wrinn's attitude, Tiamat himself was lurking behind the next tree, ready to rip them to shreds. "What's wrong with you, anyway?"

"Whaddaya mean, what's wrong with me?"

"Never in your life have you acted like this before, pal. Every time we've traveled before, you've welcomed confrontations, not dreaded them! Either you're not Wrinn, or something's wrong with you."

"Nothing's wrong with me, Gary, I just don't want to get killed!"

"By what, may I ask? These are the same woods, from here to Pravoka, and everything more dangerous than a mosquito has been taken care of by the bounty hunters already! Just because Lukahn knows that the Fiends are going to make their move soon, it doesn't mean that the most benign forest in the world is suddenly going to become as dangerous as the Sky Castle! Lighten up!"

At that moment, Gary's tirade was cut off as the wind was knocked out of him by a wolf that had rushed from the bushes and leaped to the attack. As he hit the ground, he could feel the cold claws of the predator digging into his shoulder and he had to bite his lip to keep from crying out. Luckily, Wrinn had moved quickly, and in one swift move, he raked his sword across the creature's ribs, and still using his initial momentum, positioned his blade for a deadly stab straight through its spine. Once he was sure the creature was dead, he removed his sword and kicked the wolf off the body of his friend. Gary started to get up, but Wrinn stopped him.

"Hang on for a second, these slashes are nasty." He muttered a few words and motioned his right hand, and the healing magic stopped the bleeding and repaired any damage that might have been done. "So, Gary, continue - I believe you were saying something about lightening up?" Gary angrily got to his feet and prepared to retort, but when he saw how close his friend was to laughing, his mood softened and he continued in mock seriousness, but had no chance of keeping himself together. "Ahem. Yes. As I was saying, we all must travel in as (mmph) a somber mood as possible," - here Wrinn began to snicker, and Gary's voice trembled with mirth - "as to avoid (heh heh) dangerous confrontations such as that one!" By this time, both of them had lost it, and as the vultures descended upon the still form of the wolf, laughter was heard ringing along the forest corridor.

Later that evening, they arrived at Pravoka in fine spirits. Soon after the fight with the wolf, Wrinn had realized the wisdom of what Gary had been saying and had gone back to his old toughguy self, and Gary had been greatly relieved. Nothing important had happened on the rest of the way, save a few confrontations with the normal forest creatures, but they had been dispatched easily, now that both men's confidences were back. As they entered the town, Gary asked, "So, where does the Sage here live?"

"Lukahn told us that there was no Sage here, remember?"

"So why are we here, then?"

"He knows that there is at least one Sage who lives on the southern continent, so he sent us here to hire a boat to take us across the Aldi Sea. C'mon, let's head for the Inn and see who's in the oceanic business." The two started to walk down the busy main street, which lead to the Inn, which they could see off in the distance.

"Oh, so that's why he gave us all that money. I thought he wanted us to hire some help."

They had reached the door of the Inn. "Why on earth would the two of us need help?"

Wrinn then opened the Inn door and Gary said under his breath, "If it's that beautiful, we definitely need help!" At the sudden noise of the door opening, several of the Inn's patrons had looked up - most notably a rather beautiful white-haired woman off in the back. She was dressed in black, with a long, flowing red cloak, and gave a quick, ice-cold glance at the two newcomers before returning her attention to her drink.

"Come on, Gary, let's find out where we can hire a boat....Gary?" He looked around, but there was no sign of his friend. "Where...?" he started to muse, until he spotted Gary slowly approaching the lady's table. "Pfft," he muttered. "Women." As Gary reached her table, he thought to himself, hmph. Let him get shot down - I'm going to hire us a ship. We've got no time for this! He composed himself as he stood at the counter. "Excuse me, could you direct me to the marina?"

In the meantime, a very flustered Gary approached the table, and when he thought he was within earshot, he stammered, " here?"

With a quick, disdaining glance, she replied, "You don't need my permission. Sit where you like. But, I don't think I'm going to allow you to ask any more stupid questions, though."

"Well, aren't we tough for a lady. You a merc?"

"Didn't I tell you I wasn't going to allow you to ask any more stupid questions? Shove off, pal. Even if you did try to hire me, I wouldn't work with a weakling like you, no matter how much money you have."

"Why the hell would we need you anyway? Myself and my friend are more than a match for anything that gets thrown at us! What makes you so special?"

"Well, if you haven't guessed yet from my cloak, I'm a Red Mage."

"Red Mage? I've heard of Black Mages that know all sorts of attack magic, and White Mages that learn curative magic, but I thought those were the only two types of magic. You find a third kind?"

"Nah. I just know'em both."

"Wait a second! I was always taught that once you learned one type, you couldn't learn the other type - that devoting yourself to one shut yourself off from the other one! It can't be done!"

"Well, if it can't be done, then I guess I don't exist, eh? And if I don't exist, how could I do this?" With that, she snapped her fingers, and a small bolt of lightning struck Gary's foot.

"OWWWWW!! Why on earth did you do that?" Gary yelled as he leaped out of his chair and jumped in pain, holding his foot.

"Easy, big fella. I did that so I could do this!" She motioned her hand, and immediately the pain was gone. See? First I cast Bolt, and then I cast Cure. Black magic spell followed by a white magic spell - a metaphysical quandary put into practice."

Gary stared at her, mouth open wide. "How on earth did you figure this out?"

"Sorry, pal," she said as she got up to leave, "trade secret. By the way, the name's Phia. After you and your friend get your butts whipped out there, come whining back to me. I'd love to hear it." She got up, wrapped her cloak around her, and stalked out, leaving Gary positively stunned, while thinking to herself, Hmmm. not bad, but it's too bad he's a wimp....oh well, can't be helped....

"Wow, what a woman!!"

"I wouldn't get that excited, kid," a voice said behind him.

"Huh?" Gary turned around to face the speaker, a scruffy-looking character who was seated at the table next to him. "Who the heck are you?"

"The name's Kural. I've been a merc ever since I was 14, and I've worked a couple of missions with her before. Believe me, she's not all she makes herself out to be."

"What do you mean?" asked Gary, skepticism clouding his expression.

"I'll explain. As you said, there are two standard types of Mages - Black and White. And normally, as you said, once you devote yourself to one type of magic, you can't learn the other. Well, she found a way around that by playing both ends against the middle, and ended up tricking the normal flow of Balance - but it cost her."

Gary cocked his eyebrow and stared at Kural for a moment, then asked, "Where the heck does Balance come into all of this?"

"Balance is what keeps each person's abilities even. For example, you seem to be a pretty strong guy - I'm guessing you've mainly been taught swordplay?" After Gary nodded, he continued. "As your fighting strength and skill grew through your training, your physical strength increased, but your ability to learn and use magic diminished greatly - you'll be lucky if you ever learn more than one spell without cheating Balance. However, Balance doesn't like to be cheated, so don't hold your breath."

"Wait a second!" An incredulous look had appeared on Gary's face as he said, "If Balance doesn't like to be cheated, how the heck can she do what she does?"

"I'm getting to that. She didn't cheat Balance, she just played her hand very well. While she does know both types of magic, she's limited - she can't learn all the really powerful spells or the spells that require devotion to that discipline. For example, she can't cast any type of Harm spell - exorcising the undead requires a total devotion to the purity that white magic represents. Same thing happens the other way - the most powerful black spells get spoiled by even the slightest bit of purity, so she can't use them either. And, the spells that she does know are a bit weaker than those cast by real Mages - but, once again, Balance evens everything out."

"If she can't cast spells as well as other Mages, how does Balance even things out again?"

"Most straight Mages devote their life to the study of magic and the increase of their mental self. All this concentration of the mind leads to a sapping of their physical strength - that's why most mages stink at straight combat. And that's also why your magical power is so pitiful."

"Balance at work again, eh?"

"Exactly. And since she doesn't have that much magical power, she's a decent fighter. She doesn't have what it takes with strength or skill to match, say, either you or myself, but she's no slouch either."

"So she developed a way to make herself a decent fighter, a decent Black Mage, and a decent White Mage all in one package?"

Kural nodded. "The perfect merc. She takes any group and rounds it off into an even unit. She may not be that impressive by herself, but when she joins up with others - all I can say is I wouldn't want to be in on any job that has to face her party at some point."

"'She may not be that impressive by herself?' I'd be intimidated if I faced her!"

"No you wouldn't. No matter what she threw at you, you'd just laugh it off while you whipped her. Every time she challenges someone, she loses - big time. If she's not a supplement, she can't hold her own. None of the mages respect her - her bouncing back and forth between black and white really ticked off the purists, and fighters like myself think she wasted her fighting talent on learning some weak-ass magic. Don't bother wasting your respect - or your infatuation, loverboy - she's just not worth it." With that, the hardened mercenary got up and left, leaving Gary staring pensively off into space as he thought about everything he'd just heard. Wrinn, having finished his business on securing a boat, walked over and waved his hand in front of his friend's face.

"Hey, you awake? A ship's leaving for ElfLand in about an hour. I got us on free in exchange for agreeing to handle any attacks while we're on board - pirates, sea monsters, whatever, I'm sure we can handle them."

Gary shook his head to clear the cobwebs, and then answered. "Yeah, Wrinn, whatever you say." Wrinn eyed Gary warily - Gary only got starry-eyed and standoffish when something was really troubling him. "You all right, pal?" he said, laying a hand on Gary's shoulder.

"Yeah, Wrinn, I'm fine," Gary replied, giving his friend a small smile of gratitude - it was good to have a concerned friend like Wrinn. "Come on, let's use some of that money Lukahn gave us to buy some fresh supplies."

A while later, provisions restocked, Wrinn and Gary waited on the dock. "How much longer? I thought you said the ship would be here in an hour!"

Irritated already, Gary's peevish tone annoyed Wrinn even more. "How in the world should I know?" he snapped back. "The inn owner told me his ship was coming in to offload, and the blasted thing was due here twenty minutes ago!"

"Dealing with unexpected difficulties, gentlemen?" They both whirled to see Phia standing there, a mischievous smile on her face. "Boat a little late?"

Wrinn, not having had the pleasure of meeting her before, got even more pissed at this stranger's amusement at his problems. "Yes, in fact it is! And if you don't mind, we can do without the sarcasm while we wait for our ship to come in."

"I doubt that will happen for a while - you two seem to be spending more money than you make." Her smile broadened a bit as Gary groaned at her pun. Then, suddenly, her expression turned to concern as she stared out to sea. "Wait a second. What in the world - ?"

Both Wrinn and Gary whirled around for the second time in three minutes, only this time, instead of seeing a sarcastic Red Mage, they were greeted by the arrival of a pirate ship! "Umm, I think it's safe to say that there's your delay," Phia said, taking a step or two backwards.

"Gee, you think?" Phia thought she could almost see the sarcasm dripping off Wrinn's tongue, but forgot about being mad as nine pirates leaped from the mighty frigate to the ground. Wrinn quickly drew his sword, glanced at Gary, and remarked, "Well, my friend, this should be fun."

Gary nodded in assent, his face grim as he drew his own sword. "A blast and a half. Let's go, friend."

4. Some Difficulties

Wrinn and Gary held their ground as the pirates advanced with frightening speed and murderous rage. Both faces were grim, but there was also concern - they both knew that they were hopelessly outnumbered and it was going to take all they had to stay alive, let alone win. "Boy, Gary, great odds, eh? I always love fighting nine against two!" Wrinn shouted, as he readied his blade for first contact.

"Make that nine on three!" shouted Phia, as her Bolt spell made flashes of lightning strike each pirate's sword, which disoriented them for a moment as the electricity coursed through their bodies. "Now's your chance, boys - go get 'em!" I just hope the two of you are as strong as you act you are....

Not needing the encouragement of their unexpected partner, the two fighters leapt to the attack. Luckily, the front pirates were still slightly stunned when Gary and Wrinn reached them - one moment and a few swings later, they were slightly dead. However, the remaining six regained their composure and then began the attack in earnest. Wrinn used his tactics perfectly, keeping his sword moving, making parries mid-swing, and crashing steel against steel whenever he could. He had three pirates around him, but they were all weakening, and finally, he got the opening he wanted - one pirate dropped his cutlass screaming in pain over his broken forearms - well, at least he was screaming while he still had his head. Moving quickly, he used one of his signature moves taught by Lukahn - he crouched and performed a quick leg sweep, knocking his opponent onto his back, and while still kneeling, slashed at the pirate's unprotected stomach. Then, glancing behind him, he slid his blade along the dead man's midsection as he swung his weapon around to block a vertical blow from the remaining pirate. A moment later, Wrinn got a bird's eye view of what his enemy ate for lunch, as he stabbed directly into the pirate's stomach to finish him off. Panting for breath, he looked up to see how his friend was doing.

Gary seemed to have the situation well in hand - his quickness was keeping him out of reach, while he kept inflicting the small but numerous wounds that always weakened his opponents. He had managed to get one down with a stab wound to the heart, and with a quick crouching move, sliced his second opponent's shins to ribbons and took him out of the action. Seeing his opponent drop low, the remaining pirate brought his blade on a deadly descent - that the knight was barely able to parry. As the seconds ticked by, the pirate kept his blade there locked with Gary's, and the fighter was showing obvious strain. Both blades were slowly moving downwards, and Gary thought he was finished - until his enemy screamed in pain and staggered backwards as Phia removed her rapier from his side. The pirate made a quick swing with his sword as he backed off, and Phia was able to parry it - but not without being knocked to the ground with a yelp. Gary took a quick look at the Red Mage as she twisted in pain, and became so ensconced with fury that one more swing was all the pirate got to live through. With all the pirates dead, Gary quickly crawled over to Phia. "Are you hurt?"

"N-no, I'm fine. Just got the wind knocked out of me, that's all," she managed as she got up. "He only hit me once - give me a little more credit than that!" This time, though, her tough exterior was crumbling, as there was no mistaking the gratitude shining from her eyes. Gary began to smile at her, until Wrinn interrupted by loudly clearing his throat.

"Um, we got more problems, guys," he said somberly as the remaining forty pirates jumped to the ground. It looked hopeless.

"Well, Phia, it's good to see you've remained in training!"

"Bikke?" Phia couldn't believe what she was seeing as her old friend shouted a greeting from the bow of his ship. "What on earth are you doing here?"

"Taking over the town, what else? The seas are getting a bit too rough for me - I figured I'd just find a nice town to live out my retirement in. And, of course, what's a retirement without a bit of a celebration beforehand? Think of the conquest of Pravoka as my retirement party!"

"Ah, Bikke, you always were a party animal." As the shock and relief of having their hides saved wore off, the Red Mage's expression turned pensive, then shrewd, as if she'd just figured out something. "Mind if I ask you a question?"


"You didn't happen to capture a cargo ship on the way in, did you?"

Wrinn and Gary both looked positively startled (even more than they did than when Phia began talking with the pirate ringleader,) as they said in unison, "Wait a second! Why do you care about the ship?"

"Why the heck to you think I was on the dock in the first place? To say goodbye to the two of you? I'm on my way to ElfLand as well, and that ship was my ride!"

"Well, in that case, my dear Phia, you're fortunate, for we did capture that ship, and it's anchored just outside the harbor - if you need it, it's yours!"

All three of them sighed in relief. "Bikke, thanks a lot. For a bloodthirsty killer, you sure are a generous fellow."

"Well, you know me, I'm a sucker for a pretty face. Go ahead and wait on the Revenge, I'll come back and sail you to the cargo ship after we're finished here. We'll be done soon - the most trouble we'll probably have is with these two clowns here."

At this, both Wrinn and Gary looked up in alarm and the look on Phia's face was absolute shock. Gary muttered "oh, shit!" under his breath and Wrinn made a show of drawing his blood-coated blade. "Well, Gary, if we're going to go, we may as well go with a bang!"

"Couldn't agree more, friend." And although he could feel his heart ripping apart, Gary looked back at Phia, and with all the composure he could muster, remarked, "Well, m'lady, it's been a pleasure - see you in the next life!" As they stood in defiance of death, both men wondered how much longer they had to live. Across the way, the pirates wondered how many of them would fall before these two brave fellows were killed, and Bikke wondered how in the world Phia was going to get out of the way without getting chopped up in the process.

Luckily, Phia answered all these questions herself.

"Wrinn, Gary, hold off! There's no need to fight! Bikke, these two gentlemen are my...employers, and have hired me for protection as they cross the Aldi to ElfLand." Now it was the two men's turn to look shocked, as neither of them expected such an act from her.

"Well, thank you for clarifying that - I was wondering who those two strange men helping you kill people were."

"Let us introduce ourselves then." Wrinn and Gary sheathed their weapons and stood with their arms crossed, proudly displaying their red armbands. "Wrinn Taylor and Gary Blackstone, Honor Guardsmen of Coneria." Behind them, Phia was barely able to control her gasp - she knew the two of them were good, but she'd had no idea it was Coneria Guardsmen she was dealing with!

Her look of shock quickly changed to concern - it was well-known among the mercs that the Honor Guard only left the castle when they were on a drastically important mission - and as she stood there wondering what in the world they had been sent to do, Bikke replied, "Well, in that case, it's nice to know I lost my landing party to such worthy opponents. Go ahead and wait on the ship, and I'll be back in a few moments!"

Wrinn at first looked grateful, but soon realized what was about to happen. They would be spared, yes - but at the cost of the lives of the citizens of Pravoka as the pirates swept through on their bloody rampage. Faced with this realization, he knew that if he waited on the ship, he would be failing every one of the peace-loving citizens of Pravoka. Well, that wasn't going to happen - not while he was still breathing. He looked at Gary, and one glance at his friend's face showed him that he was thinking the same thing, and with a nod, they accepted their fate and placed their hands back on the handles of their blades, ready to draw. Phia, who had recently relaxed at her triumph, quickly lapsed back into shock as she saw the swords on their way back out of their sheaths, and quickly clamped a hand on each shoulder before they could move, and under her breath she muttered, "You fools, what in the world are you doing?? Are you crazy? He's letting us go and you're going to fight them anyway? One of you get hit on the head or something?"

Very calmly, Wrinn replied, "We are not going to stand here and watch innocent people get slaughtered when we can do something about it." In a panic, she looked to Gary, and although he could not meet her gaze, he nodded his assent.

"What are you talking about? Look at them! It's forty against two! All three of us know that you haven't a chance of surviving! Why throw away your lives for nothing?"

"Because, Phia, an Honor Guardsman's life is spent serving others and protecting them from harm. If we were to let these pirates through and slaughter the people in the name of our own safety, we would be disgraced. If we die in the defense of the town, at least we will die with honor."

"But, but...." Phia felt helpless. She'd heard of the Guardsmen's code, and it had all seemed very noble and good, and she knew that Guardsmen never changed their minds when faced with a choice between death and the Code. There was nothing she could do....or was there? Unfortunately, as she was pondering, things started to get ugly. The pirates were getting restless, Bikke was getting annoyed, and the grimness about Wrinn and Gary stood, hard as diamond and steady as a mountain.

Meanwhile, Bikke, up on his ship, was really getting impatient. Who were these three to stand in his way of retirement? Sure, Phia was an old friend of his, but friendships didn't mean THAT much. Finally, he could stand it no longer - damn it, he wanted to retire - and yelled, "CHARGE!!!" At his words, all forty bloodthirsty pirates rushed forwards, cutlasses raised high. Wrinn and Gary drew their swords, fury and defiance shining in their eyes, and readied themselves for battle. Quickly, the Red Mage ran into the center of the upcoming battle area, made a speedy incantation, and threw her hand in the air. Moments later, the clash of metal rose to a deafening level and the grunts of men filled the air - as every pirate along with Wrinn and Gary fell to the ground under the effects of Phia's sleep spell.

"Confound it, woman, what in hell are you doing?" shouted Bikke as he leaped to the dock, eyes filling with rage.

"Just calming some hot heads, Bikke. Those two can't die yet, and I'm sure you'd like to enjoy your retirement along with your men, right?"

"Why can't those bloody fools die? If they want to stand in our way, they deserve to go to hell!"

"Think about it for a second, Bikke! They're Coneria Honor Guardsmen! You know as well as I do that they only leave the castle on missions of dire importance! So basically, if they bite it, so does the world! And they're not going to back away from your army, since you know that the Guardsmen's Code changes more often than the sky changes color!"

Bikke bit his lip and reflected for a moment - Phia was right. "So what can I do about it? You know pirates! I can barely control them under normal circumstances, and the second they wake up, they're going to rip everything they can into pieces - including those two down there. There's no way I'll be able to make them listen to reason!"

"Don't bother telling them how important those two are. Just wake them up and tell them to look mean, and then march into town and tell the people that you're an army of occupation, then lay down a law of fear so harsh that no one will even come out of their homes."

Bikke tried to look skeptic, but Phia could tell that he liked the idea. "Well, I guess that cuts the work down for my men. You get on board, I'll go down and wake up my second-in-command and your friends, send my men in to occupy the city, and I'll sail you to the cargo ship."

"Thanks, pirate," Phia said, greatly relieved, and chucked him on the chin.

"Awwww." With a sheepish grin on his face, Bikke turned towards his men while Phia began to climb the ladder up to the deck. Halfway up, she paused, worriedly watching what was going on. Bikke had reached his first mate and woke him up, then spent the next moment whispering in his ear. Bikke's first mate nodded, and then the two of them went over to Wrinn and Gary. Phia held her breath, hoping Bikke kept his word....and he did, as the pirate simply shook the shoulders of her friends, muttered a few words of explanation, then began to wake up the rest of his men as Wrinn and Gary stalked over.

With a worried look on her face, Phia asked, "You two all right?" Wrinn, with a small scowl on his face, was the one to answer her.

"I suppose it's a decent compromise, but I whacked my head when I fell asleep."

Upon hearing such a ridiculous explanation for being so sour, the Red Mage burst out laughing as she finished her ascent up the ladder. Wrinn's frown deepened a bit, but he got even angrier when he heard suppressed laughter behind him. But, not even he was made of stone, and as the high-pitched giggling above him mixed with the guffawing below him, he could barely suppress his smile.

"Come on, you two, stop it. I mean it, cut it out! Phia! Gary! Stop it!" But it was too late, and he burst out laughing as well. Even down on the land, Bikke, the hardened old pirate, listening to the mirth aboard his ship, let a smile crease his leathery face as he led his men into the town square.

Late that night, Gary stood on watch on the deck of the Maelstrom, the cargo ship that Bikke and his crew had hijacked on the way in. Luckily, they had left the crew alive, and after convincing them that they were incidental friends of the pirates and not partners in crime, the crew had agreed to sail them to ElfLand, using the original agreement drawn up by Wrinn and the innkeeper, that they would protect the ship until it reached ElfLand. It had certainly been an interesting trip so far, Gary reflected. Earlier on, during Wrinn's watch, a full pack of Seahags had jumped from the water right onto the deck. Wrinn had been able to kill a few of them before Phia's well-timed Bolt spell zapped the ugly little darlings back into the water. Robert was right - Phia never really took on anything by herself, but with decent frontline strength, she was just what the doctor ordered - the perfect support for any situation. Gary now realized what this meant. Kural's explanation of how she attained her powers gave him insight into what had happened to her....however, his reverie was broken by her arrival on the deck.

"How's your watch going? Anything interesting happen?"

"Well, about 10 seconds ago, you came up here to ask me if anything interesting has happened. I'd say that's probably the most exciting thing that's happened all night." As he glanced back at her, he could not help but grin slightly. As Phia saw the grin on his face, along with the statement he'd made, she couldn't help but blush and blessed the darkness for hiding her face. "So, what are you doing up here? Like to live dangerously?"

"No, I was getting bored just sitting down there, and thought you might like some company - er, I mean backup," she replied, with a slight grin on her face this time, as she stared at him through the darkness.

Gary could feel his heart begin to beat faster and his head was swimming a bit, but he regained his composure as best he could and said (a little shakily) "S-so, what are you headed to ElfLand for?"

Phia noted with satisfaction the quiver in his voice, then answered, "I heard some rumors that there'll be good work in the southern country soon. All a girl needs to do is look. What are you two headed down there for? You never told me."

"I'm afraid it's nothing as exciting as your reason - we're just looking for some new students to send them to meet Lukahn, our master." Gary was surprised at himself for not telling Phia the true nature of their journey, but in the practical part of his mind, he remembered she was a mercenary, working for whoever paid her the most. Unless Wrinn and himself were able to scrape up enough money to pay her (which was well-nigh impossible, since Wrinn had heard she was fantastically expensive to hire,) he had to be careful about what he said and did around her - she could leave at any time and sell their information to the highest bidder.

Phia, of course, could see the gears in his head turning away from her, and her first instinct was pure, unadulterated anger. "Well! I certainly hope you enjoy the rest of your preciously boring journey!" With that, she spun on her heel and angrily stalked down the stairs to her room. After reaching her cabin, she slammed the door in fury and sat on the bed in a huff - and then began to calm down and actually think, and she realized what she'd done. She realized, as she had so many times before, that she'd brought this upon herself - that she'd made such a name for herself as a support mercenary that people thought of her as little else. She fought for any cause that needed her - once, she remembered, when her contract had run out with a group of revolutionaries and they hadn't had enough to pay her, she'd left and joined the enforcers trying to put down the rebellion. Sure, she'd made a killing off of the switch, but she remembered seeing one of the revolutionaries who'd survived a couple of months after the conflict ended....he had been the leader of the party she was in, and when he saw her, a look of such hatred crossed her old friend's face that Phia turned and immediately walked in the opposite direction. She could see that starting with Gary now - she knew that the two men she was traveling with were fighting something big, and whatever that force was, they would have no guarantee that once they ran out of money, she wouldn't sell the enemy their plans. The only guarantee she could give was her word...and what in the world was that worth? The word of a mercenary? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. The worst part, she thought, was about what she was doing to Gary. There was nothing to be gained from what they'd both thought was harmless she saw the amount of pain she'd given to each of them. To her, it had been a smile and a blush - but what had it been to him? A sign of her attraction, or a clever ploy to get information after she'd discovered that they hadn't enough to pay her? No matter what she did to try to allay his suspicions, that would all it would look like - trying to allay his suspicions before she could slit his throat in his sleep, make off with all of their money, and sell whatever information she had to the enemy. And he was attracted to her - she could tell from the second she'd met him. And now that he truly knew what she was and realized the threat she presented, his only feeling would be betrayal and pain at having his emotions used like this. In despair, Phia buried her face in her hands, lamenting the death of yet another friendship.

"You sent for me, master?"

"Yes. We shall make our invasion soon. Make sure the troops are ready."

"Yes, master. I shall leave to perform your wishes at once."

"Excellent." After his underling was gone, the evil leader chuckled to himself. "Soon, the time will come when we once again have the glory we deserve!!!"

5. Reflection & Separation

Up on the deck of the Maelstrom, something much like the ship's namesake was going on inside the head of a certain Conerian. The second that he hadn't told her their quest he knew he'd blew it - he'd ignored the fact that she'd helped them out of a certain death situation and had just thought of what she was, not who she was. But still, that damned rational part of his brain kept telling him that she couldn't be trusted - since he was well aware that everyone knew that the quests undertaken by the Coneria Honor Guard were always huge - and the last time any of them had left the castle was ten years ago, when the King sent his best knight on a quest to warn the entire southern country of the impending invasion of the Dark Elves. ElfLand, the Dwarf Cave, and Crescent Lake had been saved, but a colony traveling through the mountains west of ElfLand had been demolished and supposedly there were no survivors. Gary remembered the night he'd heard the news - Lukahn had locked himself in his hut and hadn't spoken to anyone for the next week, and Gary had shared his anger when he found out how the Dark Elves had discovered the colony's location. It had turned out that one of Elf Castle's guards had overheard a discussion between the Coneria Knight and the Elf King about the colony. That night, he made his move - he assassinated the Elf King, then ran off and sold his information and services to the Dark Elves. The country's new leader was the King's infant son, and in the confusion of losing their leader, the Elf Army could not be dispatched in time - and the colony had been lost. All because of a mercenary.

Gary's head ached and his heart throbbed. He knew he couldn't trust her, but he had already allowed his feelings to swing in her direction, and reversing the tide of attraction, especially to someone as beautiful as Phia, would be damn near impossible.

Phia sat forlornly on her bed, depressed and angry at herself. She knew he was attracted to her and her to him, but she had already made him distrust her, and reversing the tide of distrust, especially as they headed toward ElfLand (where a mercenary had ruined the last Honor Guard quest,) would be damn near impossible.

Gary lifted his head towards the sky, eyes filled with despair, as Phia, down below, looked at the stars through her porthole, her eyes a window to the pain in her soul. As they each looked to the sky, both hearts cried out in unison...

In the morning, Wrinn came up on deck with a confused expression on his face, which turned to concern as he saw his friend sprawled on his back, next to the rail. Gary, in fact, had collapsed with fatigue and grief a few hours before, and stirred restlessly as Wrinn arrived.

"Gary, are you all right? What in God's name attacked you?"

Gary knew that his friend would never understand, and would only chastise him for his weakness, so he thought quickly and came up with a somewhat decent excuse. "I'm sorry, old friend - I must have been a little seasick."

"That's strange, Gary, the sea has been unusually calm this trip - it actually had me worried, since it's such a departure from the norm. What's Kraken up to now?"

Gary thought for a moment. "Well, either he's beginning to lose the power of water, which I doubt, or he's putting so much energy into preparing his invasion that he hasn't been able to control the seas the way he used to, which I suspect."

Both friends gave each other the same worried glance until Wrinn changed the subject. "Have you seen Phia this morning?"

At the very mention of her name, Gary could feel his heart skip a beat, but he regained his composure as best he could and replied, "No, why do you ask?"

Unfortunately for Gary, Wrinn could read him like a book, and immediately knew that something was wrong. "Are you sure you're all right?"

"Fine, Wrinn - I'm fine. Now, what was that about Phia?"

"Well, I suppose it's nothing, except that she's gone."


"I went to her room this morning, and knocked on the door. When I got no answer, I opened the door and there was no trace of her. My room was right by the stairs, so I would have heard her go by if she'd left from the deck, and she couldn't have left any other way without making the ship sink."

"Who knows what Red Magicians can do, my friend - she may have realized she was close enough to the shore to Warp there, or something else to that effect."

"But I don't understand - why did she leave?"

Gary took a deep breath and gathered himself totally before answering. "She's a mercenary, Wrinn, and we don't have enough to pay her - what reasons did she have for staying?" His heart screamed in protest with each word, but he continued. "Besides, it's better now that she's gone - there's no place for such swiss-cheese loyalty in our quest." Gary knew he was going to lose it soon, so he finished with "and now, my friend, I'm going to get some sleep," and practically ran for the stairs to his cabin, the first tear coming just as he disappeared from sight.

After Gary had left, Phia stood on the deck, looking after him with adoration shining from her eyes - of course, since she was invisible, no one could tell. The facade he'd put up - and she knew it was a facade - of not being distressed at her departure showed her that he was a man of strong convictions and even stronger loyalties. As her eyes misted over, she thought I can't believe I'll never be able to see him again. And before she started crying, she leapt for the water and began to swim towards ElfLand - there was only about 500 yards left to the shore, and she knew she'd make it. No matter who had to make the sacrifice, no matter who died, no matter who felt pain, at least she always made it.

About an hour later, the ship arrived at the dock, and Gary and Wrinn climbed down and landed on the shore once again - to see three elves waiting for them. Both of them were surprised at this - the Elves were not known to greet their visitors, since ElfLand was surrounded by a treacherous forest filled with Ogres, wolves and other nasty creatures. And yet, here was an Elf escort....

"Gentlemen, welcome to ElfLand. You are expected, and we will escort you along the fastest path to Elf Castle - the prince anxiously awaits you."

Both gave each other skeptic glances. "How are we expected? We told no one of our destination!"

"Worry not, esteemed gentlemen. We received a letter from your master Lukahn that you were coming, and to direct you straight to the Prince, for you had urgent matters to discuss. There is no need to concern yourselves with anything but making full haste to the castle."

Gary seemed to be satisfied with this response, but Wrinn remained somewhat skeptic as they followed their unexpected escort into the deep forest surrounding ElfLand. However, Wrinn's mind was churning the whole time they were walking, his brow furrowed in deep thought. Every time Gary glanced at his friend, he became more and more confused at his behavior. As they followed the three elves along a forest track, he leaned over and began to whisper.

"What are you so puzzled about? You look like you did last week when Lukahn asked you what two plus two was!" Aside from flashing a dark look to counteract Gary's grin, Wrinn stayed silent. "Come on, Wrinn, I can't read your mind, tell me what's wrong!"

At this, Wrinn's brow furrowed even more - suddenly, his face snapped into shocked realization. Of course! Quickly he drew his sword and attacked the nearest elf, stabbing him through the heart, and it was Gary's turn to look shocked as the remaining two elves took one look at their dying comrade and ran off into the dense forest. As Wrinn cleaned and replaced his blade, Gary just stood there with a look of complete dumbfoundedness. After a moment, he finally managed to regain his composure enough to speak.



"Tell me something, would you?"



Wrinn did not say anything, but simply bent down and tore off the elf's tunic, then rolled him onto his stomach so Gary could see the crescent moon tattooed onto the shoulder blade.

Gary was even more shocked at this point. "A Dark Elf?" After his initial shock wore off, he began to wonder just what had gone through the mind of his friend to bring him to this conclusion. "How....did you know?"

"When you said that you couldn't read my mind, that reminded me that Lukahn would have never send a letter ahead of us to ElfLand if he thought we'd need help, he would have just telepathically contacted the Prince and he himself would have escorted us back."

"Of course! But what were the Dark Elves escorting us for? And where? And how did they know we were coming?"

"Probably the Dark Elves aligned themselves with the Ogres and were leading us to a trap of some sort." Here he thought for a moment, then continued. "How they knew we were coming? No idea, my friend, no idea. Let's look for the real path to ElfLand, shall we?" As Wrinn turned around and headed back the way they had come, he was careful to stay ahead of Gary - he couldn't even look at him. Because he knew - he knew exactly how they had been found out. Exactly......

After a bit of a trek trying to find the original path through the forest that lead to ElfLand, the two friends proceeded through with minor mishaps, even though the creatures of the Elf Forest were more dangerous. This surprised Gary at first, but made no mention of it to Wrinn - he was sure he'd be able to discover why. A few minutes later, after they had just demolished a pair of Ogres that had ambushed them from opposite sides of the path, he figured out why. He and Wrinn had been fighting so much lately that it was almost becoming second nature, and the fact that they were traveling a lot by foot improved their strength and endurance, so it was natural that they would be getting stronger. At that moment, his reverie was broken by the arrival of a pack of six wolves on the path in front of them. Gary immediately set flight to three of them with a single fireball - the fire spread from one coat to another and the wolves ran off to find water as Gary watched his friend do his share of the work. Wrinn moved quickly to take the offensive on the first wolf, slicing straight through it with one slash, then jumped back to see what the other two were going to do. Gary saw Wrinn's eyes flicking back and forth between the two, and he saw what Wrinn was doing. Lukahn had taught them that wolves were in nature pack hunters, and Gary knew that Wrinn was waiting for the tandem attack that was coming. Wrinn had one wolf in front of him to his left, the other slightly to his right, and was slowly moving to keep himself in that position, sword at the ready. All of a sudden, the wolf on his right gave a deep growl and tensed its body, and Gary's eyes were locked on the snarling snout, the sharp teeth, and the evil eyes. Suddenly, the other wolf pounced with frightening speed and silence - and was met by Wrinn's blade, as he swung from right to left, spun on his heels to increase his speed, and came around full circle to meet the other wolf which had pounced a fraction of a second after the first. As the corpses fell to the ground, Gary commented, "Nice work."

"Same to you, my friend - you're certainly getting better with that fire spell of yours."

"It's almost second nature now. Bring on those damned Dark Elves!"

"That's the spirit! Come on, I want to reach the Elf Castle before nightfall - let's pick up the pace."

"Fine by me, you slowpoke!" cried Gary as he broke into a half run, and Wrinn laughed as he attempted to catch up to his friend. "You won't have that lead for long, Gary!"

After another hour of travel, they finally arrived at the clearing that marked the location of ElfLand and its looming protector, Elf Castle. The pair quickly made their way to the main door of the castle, and, as expected, they reached the moat the same time that the shout of "Who goes there and what is your business?" floated down from the ramparts.

Turning to Gary with a grin on his face, Wrinn remarked, "You do the talking, Gary - you're a lot better at sounding noble and snobby than I am."

"Really, Wrinn," said Gary, flashing back a sarcastic look, "you should learn to control that constant flattery of yours." However, their banter was broken with a second cry from the ramparts, and Gary composed himself and turned to face their questioners.

"Again, who goes there and what is your business?"

"Gary Blackstone and Wrinn Taylor, Honor Guardsmen of Coneria! We seek an audience with the Prince!"

"You are not attired in the usual manner of the Guardsmen - how do we know you are not impostors?"

Dropping back into his normal voice, Gary ordered, "Wrinn, turn yourself so that they can see your armband." Tilting his head back upwards as his friend shifted position, he shouted, " As you can see, good sirs, we bear the symbol of Coneria, though we may not be clad in the same armor as our comrades."

After a short conference on the ramparts, they seemed satisfied. "Very well, gentlemen - the Prince is being made aware of your presence. The drawbridge will be lowered in a moment!"

"Good job, Gary - maybe now we can actually talk to a Sage instead of just traveling around blindly."

"Gods know that would be greatly appreciated, my friend." As the heavy drawbridge thumped to the ground in front of them, they covered their faces from the dust cloud that sprang up from the ground and crossed the moat into the great castle of the Elf Prince.

6. Getting Somewhere

"Rise, my friends."

Wrinn and Gary rose off their knees and looked at the ruler of the Elves. Young and handsome, the Elf Prince nonetheless had a small wrinkle under each eye, unheard of for a elf of his age, a hallmark of the stress he was under - ever since he was a few months old he had been recognized as the Elves' monarch, making decisions that a child shouldn't have to make. Still, Lukahn had taught him well (he had come south to help turn the Prince from an infant into a ruler after the Dark Elves were first defeated,) and with his and his wise Chancellor's guidance and counsel, the Elves had rebuilt themselves and their fair town from the devastating attack of the Dark Elves 10 years ago. A look of concern came into his eyes as he glanced up at the pair of knights in front of him.

"My dear gentlemen, I have been made aware of your quest. Luckily, the first of the Sages you seek is not far."

The two friends visibly brightened up at this, and in their excitement they asked where he might be found.

"Here." Wrinn and Gary whirled around to face the speaker - the Prince's Chancellor. "Before I became Chancellor to the Prince, I was one of the Twelve. My name is Rostol."

Wrinn spoke up then, a confused look on his face. "If you are one of the Twelve, and you know of our quest and the peril that the world faces, why are you still here? Why have you not left for Crescent Lake?"

Rostol's face looked pained as he answered. "I know I must go to meet with my colleagues - but I cannot leave ElfLand now, not when it is in this type of danger. The Dark Elves must not be allowed to rise again - they must be stopped!" The Sage closed his eyes and turned away when he next spoke. "I cannot leave my home in its time of need, no matter how dire the circumstances may be."

Gary's earnest look transcended what he was about to say. "Fine, then! Let's go put the hurt on those Dark Elves so that you and the rest of the Sages can get started on saving the world!"

Startled, Rostol looked first at Gary, then at Wrinn. The look on both faces was exactly the same. "You really wish to help us? But what of your quest?"

Wrinn spoke up now. "Rostol, you are part of our quest. We must get you well on your way to Crescent Lake - and if it involves defeating the Dark Elves and securing the safety of ElfLand, so be it."

Rostol looked again at the two youths, eager to rush into danger, to fight and possibly die, all to ensure that their quest would succeed. One couldn't help but be encouraged by such courage and worried by such foolheadedness. "Very well, my friends. I know not exactly where the Dark Elves have their base - but I believe that it is somewhere in the northwestern mountains, where" - here he had to regain his composure - "the ill-fated colony was supposed to have been established." The Prince got an especially pained look in his eyes at this point, for this was the time his father was slaughtered. "I suggest you go down into ElfLand and talk with some of the more adventurous townspeople - they might know more about it than I."

"Then, your Majesty, if we may take our leave?" The Prince nodded, and the two knights each executed a quick, well-formed bow and left. On his way out, Gary turned to Rostol and said, "Not to worry, sir - we shall return. You have my word." Rostol smiled softly as they left, but let his face drop into a frown after they had gone.

The Prince leaned forward, a concerned look on his face. "Rostol, my dear friend, whatever is the matter?"

"Nothing, your Majesty - just a small chest pain. Probably the cook added too much spice to our last meal." The Sage and the Prince shared a chuckle over this, as the Sage kept secret the exact location of his pain - the center of his heart.

Wrinn and Gary entered the pub in the center of ElfLand. They had recently stopped in at the blacksmith's and armorer's, and with Lukahn's money plus their findings on their travels, they each had new tunics of mithril mail and shining blades of silver at their sides. As they walked up to the counter, every pair of eyes followed them. The bartender eyed them warily as they got to the counter. "What can I get you two gentlemen?"

"Information, my friend. We're searching for the camp of the Dark Elves - we know they're in the northwest, but we don't know exactly where." At the words 'Dark Elves,' everyone in the pub looked up again, some of them with truly hostile looks.

The bartender was one of them - if these mercenaries were going to be stupid enough to find the camp by asking their sworn enemies, well they would get a fitting end. With a look that oozed distrust and hatred, the bartender growled, "And why, exactly, are you looking for them, eh?" Gary could see the bartender's hand moving towards his back, presumably to draw a dagger, and Wrinn looked around the room to see that every hand was on a weapon of some sort.

Gary realized all this instantly, and leaned in toward the counter and spoke in a voice as oozing with hatred as the bartender's. "So that we can" And, for emphasis, he pulled up the sleeve of his tunic to proudly display his Conerian armband.

After the bartender and the pubgoers realized what Gary had said, the animosity ran out of the room as if a drain plug had been pulled. "So, you're on our side, eh?" grinned the bartender. "Sorry about that, gents - you can't be too careful with those bastards around." Gary nodded his head and grinned, as was about to speak again when a new voice came from off to his right.

"I know where you should go."

"Huh?" Gary looked around, startled, to see an elf standing there. He was about five feet tall, with great thick spectacles and a light blue robe. "What was that?"

"I said, I know where you should go. Come, sit with me."

Bemused, Wrinn and Gary followed the elf to a table in the corner. After they sat, the elf spoke again. "You seek the Sages, correct?"

Both knights were startled. "How do you know of our quest?"

Calmly as ever, the elf answered, "I am Rostol's student. My name is Johann. I spoke with him while you were getting outfitted, and he told me to wait here for you and give you the information you need."

Wrinn had let himself relax into a smile. "Well, we thank you and your master, Johann - but, right now, we need to know where the Dark Elves' camp is, not where the rest of the Sages are."

"No you don't."

Wrinn looked exceedingly confused. "Excuse me?"

Johann looked up at him with a wry smile. "I'll explain. About 30 years ago, the Elves were all one, and the Dark Elves did not exist. The King was a wise ruler and true, had taken a good and just Queen. Then a war broke out between the Elves and the Ogres, and the King left to fight. Along the way, they found a small camp of gypsies, and they took refuge there during the fighting. Now, you know how men are during wartime" - here he gave a knowing wink to the knights, who looked back at him in shock - "and the King was no exception. The war against the Ogres was eventually won, and the King returned home in triumph, and peace returned. 20 years later, the King and his wife produced a son, who is now our prince. Joy filled the kingdom and tidings spread throughout the entire southern country. A week later, a young man appeared at the gates and asked for an audience with the King. When asked why, he said that he was the King's firstborn son, Astos, the rightful Prince. Not believing him, the guards turned him away from the castle, and the young man flew into such a rage that his screaming was heard throughout the entire town. The people gathered in curiosity as he pleaded with the guards for an audience with his father. When the royal family finally appeared on the battlements to see what was going on, the young man revealed who his mother was, and demanded as the King's first-born son to be hailed as the Prince. When the King denied all that the young man said and turned him away, the man turned icy cold with rage and fixed his gaze on the crown of gold that had been placed on the head of the young Prince. He screamed, 'With the Fiends as my witness, that Crown will be mine and my kingdom regained!' With that, he stormed out of the town, along with those who agreed with him and those who had become disillusioned at the King's deplorable actions."

"They became the Dark Elves, and planned a devastating attack to conquer the Elvish throne, and now, you know the rest - a Conerian Honor Guard was given the task of warning the southern country and getting help for ElfLand, and a mercenary assassinated the King and left to join the Dark Elves." Wrinn ground his teeth and Gary sat with clenched fist as they listened to this part of Johann's story. "The country was in turmoil, and everyone knew that it was a matter of time until Astos and his followers attacked. The two great Sages of ElfLand, Rostol and Roland, decided that they only had one chance left - to hide the Crown somewhere Astos wouldn't be able to find it, for they knew that he would not take the throne if he couldn't get the Crown - Dark Elves that we had captured revealed under torture that he was obsessed with it. Roland agreed to take it, and his young daughter, with him and to hide in the northwest woods until we could send help. Soon afterward, the Dark Elves made their attack, and the Army of the South was able to hold them off. Somehow Astos discovered the Sages' plan. He then began to search the northwestern forest relentlessly, and as soon as the armies of ElfLand had become organized again, they traveled northwest to see how Roland was doing. However, they couldn't find him anywhere, until one of the soldiers discovered a note on a tree. It said that if there were any serious problems and they wanted to see him, their instructions were to climb to the top of the tallest tree in the Northwest forest, and to catch the light of the morning sun on a mirror - that would be his signal to walk to that tree and speak to whoever needed him. The armies of ElfLand decided that their situation at that point wasn't that dire, built a small fortress to keep an eye on the Dark Elves' activity, and most of the soldiers returned back home - which was a good idea, since now no Elf - dark or otherwise - knows where Roland or the Crown is. And now you see why you don't need to know where the camp is - you must find Roland before the Dark Elves do - first to let him know of the situation the world faces, and second to keep the Crown out of Astos' hands to protect ElfLand."

Wrinn, his face determined, replied, "Indeed you are right, my friend - Gary and I thank you for your information." Wrinn got up to leave and said, "Come on, Gary, the two of us had better get some rest before heading out tomorrow."

"Don't you mean the three of us?" Johann looked up at them, a sly grin on his face.

"You're coming with us? Why?" Wrinn looked absolutely perplexed as he took in Johann's frail form.

Gary was able to control himself a bit more. "Johann, we appreciate the offer, but I don't think we'll need a guide. Walk northwest and find the tallest tree - what can be so hard about that?"

"If the Dark Elves are about, you're going to need all the help you can get - besides, if we meet up with Astos, an accomplished black magician, we're going to have to give him a taste of his own medicine." Johann's grin had turned mischievous, and as the two knights looked at him, a small flash of lightning coursed through his eyes.

Gary jumped about a foot backwards, and Wrinn gave his friend an amused glance. "Well, my friend, it looks like we won't be needing that devastating fire spell of yours, eh?" Gary gave him a sour glance as he started to chuckle, and as Gary's scowl deepened, Wrinn's laughter grew in intensity as the pair headed off towards the inn. After they had gone, as Johann sat pondering the mission that lay ahead of them - foiling the plans of the Dark Elves and saving his home from destruction - the lightning that had flashed in his eyes had turned into a raging hurricane.

The bartender looked over at Johann for a second, then remarked to the patron at the counter he was chatting with, "I think he's pissed."

The next morning, Johann met the two knights in front of the pub, and after replenishing their supplies, the three left ElfLand to the cheers and wellwishes of the townspeople. Unfortunately for the trio, the plains surrounding ElfLand were no safer than the northern forest, and unfortunately for the plains creatures, Wrinn and Gary were no worse for the rest they'd gotten in ElfLand - not to mention the addition of a black mage of Johann's caliber. Although, as they were traveling, Gary never failed to praise the battle actions of their elvish friend, his thoughts kept returning to Phia - how she would have helped in the physical side when none of Johann's magic was effective, how the variety of spells she knew would have saved a potion or two, and, of course, how beautiful she was. He was still captivated by her, and every now and then Wrinn would glance over at Gary's faraway look, furrow his brow, shake his head, and tap Gary on the shoulder to pull his friend back into reality.

After a day of traveling as dusk was falling on the earth, the three arrived at the edge of the forest, and Johann immediately took the lead. "Follow me - I know where the tree is." Wrinn and Gary, nearly blinded by the darkness, voiced their agreement, but asked to wait to start off until their eyes had adjusted. Johann agreed, albeit a bit snippishly, and after a few minutes they stalked into the forest.

Johann, with his sharp eyesight, led the trio, as the two knights did all they could to keep from falling over. After about fifteen minutes, Johann stopped and motioned, and Wrinn and Gary started to arrange their camp for the night. Unfortunately, they had to do it in pitch blackness, since Johann would not allow a fire to be built - "do you know of a faster way to let the Dark Elves know exactly where we are?" he had snapped, and not without difficulty a decent place to rest was secured. Gratefully, Wrinn and Gary laid their heads upon their packs and were asleep in a split second - but the elf laid there awake, the responsibility and the danger pressing upon him so strongly he thought he would be crushed. Come on, Johann! Get a grip on yourself! I can do this! I can do this....I will triumph....triumph....triumph.... By saying this to himself over and over, he finally fell into a fitful sleep as the trio waited for morning.

When the first ray of sunlight hit Johann's eyelids the next morning, he was up like a shot and immediately waking the two knights, who after a bit of grumbling were fully awake as well. Gary stretched and turned to the elf standing beside him and remarked, "Now would be a good time for breakfast, right?"

In his normal, authoritative manner, Johann simply replied, "Actually, now would be a good time for you to start climbing."

Both Gary and Wrinn looked at him in shock. "Already?"

"Why not? The earlier we can reflect the sunlight, the earlier Roland gets here and the earlier we can get back to ElfLand. Oh, and before you ask, Wrinn, I'm sending Gary because he's light enough and strong enough to make it to the top of the tree." Gary looked over at Wrinn and shrugged, and then started on his ascent up the tree.

"This won't take too long, gentlemen - and to reflect the sunlight I'll just use my sword. See you later!" With that, Gary grabbed a low-hanging branch and pulled himself into the tree. He found the tree surprisingly easy to climb, and quickly lost sight of his friends due to the leaf cover.

Wrinn looked worried. "Think he'll be all right?"

"Worry yourself not, my noble friend, he'll be fine." Johann then yawned. "I'm feeling a bit sleepy, so I'll just sit down and take a short nap. If anything interesting happens, wake me, all right?"

Strange as the request seemed, since they had just woken up, Wrinn nodded his agreement, then watched as Johann sank to the ground and immediately seemed to fall asleep. He stared for a moment as the elf's face took on an almost euphoric look to it, then, for about five minutes furrowed into a creased concentration of deep thought, and finally settled back into an angelic calm. Wrinn shook his head in wonder and started digging in his pack for something to eat, when a rustling in the bushes made him look up and immediately freeze....

Dark Elves. They were everywhere! No matter where he looked, another leering face peered out at him. Front, back, left, and right, they were hopelessly surrounded. "Ummmm...Johann? Johann, wake up, we've got problems!" Wrinn continued to turn slowly as he drew his sword, and the Dark Elves slowly advanced, the gaze from each of them piercing his heart with their murderous intent. Suddenly an unexpected sound came from behind him - it was Johann speaking.

"Wrinn. Hurry. Get up the tree. Warn Gary." Wrinn whirled around and looked at him - he was still seated like he was before, with his eyes closed.

He blinked in disbelief for a moment, and retorted, "And leave you here to get slaughtered and have the two of us be trapped helplessly up a tree? I don't think so!!"

Even after this outburst, Johann's face remained the same as he lifted his head to Wrinn, his eyes still closed, still looking calm. "Wrinn. Hurry. Get up the tree. Warn Gary."

Wrinn's disbelief turned into anger as he began to shout at the elf - "Look, I told you once already that I'm not" -

"Wrinn." Johann's eyes had suddenly shot open, and as he spoke with the growl of a minion of hell, Wrinn had to avert his eyes from the bright blue light that shone from the flames in the elf's eyes. "HURRY. GET UP THE TREE. WARN GARY." Wrinn immediately sheathed his sword and leaped for the tree, scrambling upwards as fast as he could when he suddenly encountered Gary on his way back down.

"Wrinn! What are you doing here?" Gary quickly sighed and shook his head. "Oh, what does it matter...I got to the top of the tree and it turns out that there must be hundreds of trees taller than this one! What was Johann thinking?"

Wrinn opened his mouth to answer, but was preempted by a bright flash of blue light from below, and Wrinn and Gary were nearly swept off the tree by a swirl of snowflakes - going upwards. It took all of their strength to hang on, and by the time the last snowflake flew by, they were both half-frozen and shivering wildly. Once he was sure that the deluge had stopped, Wrinn looked over at his friend and said, "I was going tell you that there was a group of Dark Elves attacking us, but Johann beat me to it."

7. The Lost Sage....and Other Interesting Discoveries

Wrinn and Gary slowly made their way down the now icy tree to the clearing where Johann had collapsed to his knees, panting for breath and surrounded by Dark Elvsicles.

"Nice work, Johann. How'd you know that they were following us?"

Johann looked up with an incredulous look on his face, and took a couple more deep breaths before answering. "How did I know? It was obvious. The Dark Elves' base is close by and they would be fools not to have sentries. They've probably seen our every step since we left ElfLand."

"Why didn't they easily kill us last night in our sleep, then?" Johann's know-it-all attitude was beginning to annoy Wrinn, and Gary saw the danger signs start to flash and quickly interjected before the magician could answer.

"Because, Wrinn, the Dark Elves don't know how the real Elves were supposed to contact Roland, so they waited until they knew what we had come here to do before attacking us. Johann just anticipated that and got that nor'easter ready so that he could kill 'em before they killed us." Wrinn nodded in understanding as Gary gave Johann a warning look that let the magician know he had better shut up about the subject.

Now that Wrinn had calmed down, he figured they had better get back down to business. "Well, now that we're pretty much out of danger, Johann, why don't you show Gary where the real tree is so that we can get on with it?"

"Good idea, Wrinn - let's go!" A few minutes later, for the second time that day, Gary swung himself into a large tree and began to climb. After what seemed like an eternity, he reached the top, and, swaying dangerously, drew his sword and used it to capture the sunlight into a single flash on his blade. Almost immediately, from the mountains to the north, he saw an answering flash. Excitedly, he clambered back down the tree to his waiting companions.

"We're in business! After I used my sword to reflect the sunlight, I saw another flash from the mountains! What do we do now?"

With a satisfied grunt, Johann slumped to the ground, his eyes closed, his back to the tree. "We wait. If you two want to get something to eat, that's fine with me. That blizzard spell really drained me, so if you don't mind, I'm going to get some sleep. If anything interesting happens, wake me, all right?" Johann popped one eye open and grinned as Wrinn whirled around in shock. "Don't worry, my valiant friend. I really am going to sleep this time." After glaring at the elf for a moment, Wrinn broke into a grin, too, and he and Gary prepared to wait for the arrival of Roland, the Lost Sage.

An hour later, Gary perked up his ears as he heard a crackling in the underbrush off to his right. He quickly tapped Wrinn on the shoulder to wake him from his doze on his way to shake the magician awake.

"Wuh...what's going on?" Johann mumbled, stifling a yawn.

"I heard something coming from the bushes over there - could it be Roland?"

"Possibly," interjected Wrinn, "or, it could be another Dark Elf ambush!"

"He's got a point, Gary - let's hide behind some trees and wait to see what's up." That being said, the three quickly got up and took strategic positions around the clearing for the best possible vantage points, then waited as the crackling grew from a far-off a periodic crunching....and all three of them held their breath as a bush at the edge of the clearing started to move as someone struggled through it. What would it be? After all this work, would they meet Roland and finally have a trump card to use against Astos and the Dark Elves, or would they be embroiled in yet another battle against their sworn enemy? Finally, the leaves parted, and out into the clearing stepped...neither?

In front of the three adventurers' astonished eyes, there stepped an armored warrior, small in stature with broadsword held at the ready, although it was quivering and unsteady. The warrior took a hesitant step forward, quickly looking left and right, and after finding no one, swiveled around and repeated the searching process. All this time, the nervous nature the warrior displayed seemed to be getting worse, as Gary was able to hear the frantic breathing underneath the helmet as the warrior frantically searched for the enemy that could not be found. Finally, they could all see that the tension was too much, and in a high-pitched squeal, a female voice cried out, "Where are you, you bastards? Come out and get me!"

All three of them stared in open-mouthed shock, and Johann, in a daze, slowly emerged from behind his tree, and managed to stammer, "Lyra?"

The warrior let out a huge sigh of relief, dropped her sword, and yanked off her helmet to reveal the joyful face of a beautiful young woman. "Johann!! Is it really you?"

It was now Johann's turn to look joyful. "Of course it is, you dummy! Come here!"

And as Wrinn and Gary looked on with even more shock than before, Johann and Lyra ran toward each other and met in a ecstatic, clanking hug. At this point, the knights were befuddled beyond befuddlement, and as the two elves embraced, Wrinn shouted out, "What in the world is going on???"

"I believe I can answer that question." All four whirled as a man with a flowing beard and fire-red cape emerged from the shrubbery. "Johann and Lyra were good friends before we left to come here and protect the Crown. What you're seeing now is called a reunion, my good knight," and the bright blue eyes of Roland the Sage twinkled.

"Roland - thank the gods we've found you!"

The old Sage began to look puzzled now. "Why? As far as I can tell, the battle with the Dark Elves seems to be going well, especially since a large group of them was recently defeated," Roland said, winking at Johann.

Wrinn's face turned somber as he addressed the Sage. "Unfortunately, sir, we now have an enemy much worse than the Dark Elves to contend with - the Fiends are preparing to invade, and may do so before we are prepared. Myself and my colleague Gary are here to give you these dire tidings and ensure that you are sent to meet with the rest of the Sages post haste. Roland, we have no choice - you must leave for Crescent Lake immediately!"

Nodding grimly, Roland turned to his daughter. "Well, my dear, it seems that your mission is finally at hand - and you'll have help!"

Lyra began to look slightly uneasy as Wrinn and Gary became puzzled. "What mission?"

"The only way to fully ensure the Crown's protection is to keep it with me, hiding away in the mountains. Unfortunately, I cannot live forever, and I cannot ask my daughter to live her life as a recluse - besides, who would take her place on her day of passing? So, I have spent these years simultaneously waiting for the Elves to signal me as well as training Lyra to undertake the mission of hiding the Crown where the Dark Elves cannot possibly get it."

Wrinn's look became incredulous as he asked, "And where in the world can she go that the Dark Elves cannot follow?"

Roland, seemingly unaware of the sudden anger blazing in her daughter's eyes, replied, "The Cave of Marsh in the southern end of this continent. That place is positively crawling with the slimiest, most despicable monsters known to elves, and most of them are extremely poisonous. Due to the black magic that Astos has infused in his followers to attempt to make them stronger, they are extremely susceptible to poison. Once Dark Elves are poisoned, not even a Pure spell can save them. Therefore, the Crown must be hidden in the deepest recesses of the Marsh Cave to ensure that not a single Dark Elf who goes in will come out alive."

Gary then spoke up, his voice barely a whisper - "What about mercenaries?"

Wrinn cast a worried glance at his friend as Roland answered. "Your concern is a legitimate one, but easily remedied. The Marsh Cave is a den of slime and filth because of five evil Wizards who constantly work the black arts in its depths. If the right measures are taken, they can be convinced to destroy whoever attempts to take the Crown."

Johann indignantly exclaimed, "And you were going to force Lyra to face this danger all by herself?"

"If it meant the last possible measure that could be taken to ensure the safety of our people, then by all means yes, Johann. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, my boy - I thought you would have learned that by now!"

Successfully chewed out, Johann resignedly stalked over to his pack and slung it over his shoulder. "Well, if it's what we've got to do, then let's go, shall we?"

Gary, snapping out of the daze that he had been in for a few moments, snapped his head up and said, "Wait a minute - what is Roland going to do while we're all traipsing about in the Marsh Cave?"

"Pay my respects to the Prince. Talk about the Fiends with Rostol." With a grin and a wink, he continued, "And, most importantly, get some real food! Oh, and if you're worried as to how I'll make it back to ElfLand, all I can say is this - don't. Good luck on your journey - I'll see you all in ElfLand when the Crown is safe." With that, he took the Crown from within his robes and tossed it to Lyra. Then he turned, stepped through the bushes at the southern end of the clearing, and was gone.

"Well, that certainly was abrupt," Gary remarked, still somewhat in a daze.

"Oh, he's always like that," Lyra said, with a trace of disdain. "When he was training me, he wouldn't give me orders, he'd bark them."

Wrinn cast a sidelong glance at the good-sized broadsword strapped to her back. "What kind of, um, swordsmanship did he teach you, anyway?"

In a flat, toneless voice, she replied, "The type that matches my sword - you know, big sweeping strokes, use gravity and momentum to my advantage, blows from above, that sort of thing. He also taught me Pure so that if I got poisoned by any of the Marsh monsters I'd be able to heal myself - but, that's the only spell he taught me, probably to optimize my strength." Wrinn cast another incredulous glance at her as she suddenly brightened. "That reminds me - I've been meaning to do this for ages, but the old man wouldn't let me. One minute, gentlemen..." And with that, in front of her companions' surprised eyes, she began to rid herself of various pieces of armor - her right shinguard, left thighguard, right armguard, and left gauntlet. Stashing her booty under a bush, she turned back to the three men, a ridiculous figure in coarse leather and metal, twisting and stretching with a smile on her face.

Wrinn looked at her stranger than ever, and exclaimed, "What in the world was that all about?"

"I, um, know my style well enough that I can keep my armor like this and protect everything that I can possibly leave open when fighting and also have a lot of maneuverability, that's all..." as she drew into herself, looking embarrassed.

Wrinn, peeved at this weak display, sneered, "Well, m'lady, if you're all ready to go...." and stalked out of the clearing towards the south.

As Lyra's embarrassed look turned to hurt, Gary earnestly leaned towards her and said, "He's really not a bad fellow, just a bit....strong-minded." Lyra managed a weak nod and Gary hurried off after Wrinn.

With his face grim, Johann spoke up. "Come on, old friend - we've got a race of people to ensure the safety of."

Now with a grim set to her own face, Lyra nodded, and the elves stepped through the bushes to follow the two Conerians into the dangerous southwestern swamps.

The sun lazily stretched its thin yellow fingers through the leaf cover of the Northwest Forest to the southward path where the four adventurers tramped, casting small spots of illumination on each face as they passed through its beams. First the wielder of strength, Wrinn - his jaw set, his lips pressed, and his eyes fierce as he continuously pondered the challenges ahead. Then Gary, the wielder of speed - his countenance pensive and his eyes pained as he could not shake the vision of the lady in red. Next Johann, the wielder of magic - his face grim and steady but his eyes filled with fear as he tried to quell the doubts within himself. Finally Lyra, the wielder of pain - her visage was alternating between anger and despair while her eyes continuously betrayed the damage done. Ever since Lyra had pointed out the path through the forest that led to the Marsh Cave, Wrinn had taken off at a furious pace, and no breath could be wasted on conversation as they silently stalked along the tunnel-like forest floor.

After an hour of this silent travel, Wrinn suddenly stopped short and thrust his right hand behind him. With a start, his three companions clumsily brought their attentions back from the depths of their minds and attempted to concentrate on what was going on around them. Once their minds had fully returned to them, they naturally wanted to know why they had stopped, and as they began to voice their confusions, Wrinn silenced them with a wave of his hand. As their mutterings quickly ceased, Wrinn slowly twisted around to face his companions, and in a voice that simply dripped with foreboding, told them, "We're almost there." He then took a hesitant step forward, and the other three knew what he meant as they heard the unmistakable squelch of wet, sticky mud. They had arrived at the Marsh.

The mood of the four then became as gloomy as the place they were traveling as they squished through the swamp. A thick fog suspended itself over the entire marsh, making the dead trees that surrounded them look ghostly - it was almost as though the fog was the soul of that destroyed forest trying to escape, and Johann's fearful state only grew worse as he looked at the arboreal corpses around him. In his mind, each tree's final state was a death pose - some were limp and bowed, as if they had accepted their fate, and some rigidly extended each limb as far as it would go in a final cry for help. Johann shivered and continued on, following Lyra, who had moved up to help guide Wrinn. The move hadn't helped her confidence any - she constantly looked around her, frantically shifting her gaze left and right as she kept imagining being lost forever in this dreadful place, and waiting for the attacks by the slimy Marsh creatures. Surprisingly, nothing attacked them - but that was probably because of the two knights who bookended the procession. Wrinn was as grim and fierce as always, and Gary, albeit a little lost in thought, looked every bit as tough as his partner.

After about a half an hour of squishy travel, Lyra pointed towards a small clearing off to their left. "The cave's over here." Wrinn led them over to the clearing, and when they arrived, he stood in silent shock.

"THIS is the Marsh Cave?" he said, staring at the slimy , three-foot-wide hole in the ground that marked the entrance. Lyra nodded, and shrugging, Wrinn got back down to business. As the other three looked on, Wrinn walked around the edge of the clearing, tugging on different trees, knocking them with his sword and testing the firmness of the wood. Eventually, he found one to his liking, and turned to Gary. "Could you throw me that coil of rope you have?" Finally understanding what in the world Wrinn had been doing, Gary tossed Wrinn the rope and watched as he tied it around the tree, tugged on it to make sure the knot was tight, and then walked over to the 'entrance.'

Turning to the pair of Elves, still in his businesslike manner, he asked "Do either of you know how far down it is?"

Lyra squinted and thoughtfully bit her lower lip as she delved into her memory. "Um, Father always told me that it was about ten feet down - you'll have to climb down instead of jumping, Wrinn."

Walking over to a nearby tree, Gary suddenly chimed in. "You mean I'll have to climb instead of jump." Drawing his sword, he hacked off the last two feet of a nearby branch and smiled. "We're going to need some light down there first, right?"

Grinning back at his friend, Wrinn replied, "Indeed. Good idea!" and walked over to the trees himself and began hacking off branches left and right to be used as torches. Gary walked over to the hole and tossed the rope down, picked up a couple feet of slack, and then jumped down into the Marsh Cave. The rest of the group heard a soft "uch" as the rope went taut, and then another as Gary landed on the cave floor. A moment later they saw a soft glow arise from the hole as Gary lit his torch. Lyra grabbed the rope and was about to join him but stopped short as she heard his voice float up from the cave. "Hey - is Wrinn still grinning up there?"

Lyra glanced over at the knight as he cheerfully bundled together his torches, and called back down, "More or less - why did you want to know?"

"Oh, I just wanted to know if I'd 'lightened' the mood any!" Lyra groaned at his terrible joke, then joined Gary in his chuckling as she began her descent. Johann finally allowed a grin to crease his face as he descended, listening to the laughing of his friends, and Wrinn was feeling so bouncy that he tossed the torches to Gary and then jumped down the hole anyway. As the four adventurers lighted their torches and prepared themselves for the fight of their lives, a shadowy figure materialized at the edge of the clearing, took a quick look at the rope leading to the entrance of the cave, and quickly disappeared into the shadows again, heading towards the northwest.

8. Destiny is Destiny, No Matter How You Slice It

With their torches lit and preparations completed, the adventurers began their descent into the depths of the cave. The lighthearted mood that they had entered with quickly lapsed back into grimness - but who wouldn't be grim in a place like this? The torchlight left an eerie glare as it played off the mud-covered walls of the cave, and every few moments a slight gasp was heard as some of the mud lining the ceiling succumbed to gravity and landed on somebody.

"Ugh....none of Father's training ever prepared me for a place as disgusting as this," grumbled Lyra as she wiped a glob of mud off of her right ear and flung it to the ground in disdain.

Wrinn, from the front of the line, said "I must say, Lyra, I can definitely agree with that - the sooner we leave the Crown and get out of here, the better," as a glob of mud landed on the back of his neck and he reached to wipe it off. He started to throw it to the ground, but stopped mid-fling and looked at his hand, which, instead of being stained with mud, was covered with a slimy, greenish goo. He tilted his head back to look at the ceiling, giving the oversized spider there the opening it wanted.

It made no sound.

It immediately dropped onto Wrinn's face and began chomping on his neck. Frantically, Wrinn dropped his torch, plunging the area around him into darkness, and began clawing at the monster as it chewed on his windpipe. Immediately, Johann dropped his own torch and held his hands out in front of him, index and middle fingers extended, and closed his eyes. A small ball of flame appeared at his fingertips, but was suddenly sucked back inside him as Johann furrowed his brow and clenched his eyes tighter. After a few seconds, the spider gave a high-pitched squeal and flopped off Wrinn's face to the ground, and before Gary and Lyra's astonished eyes, a single flame escaped from its midsection. As it writhed on the muddy floor, Gary took a quick look at Johann, who clenched his hands into fists and then relaxed. A split second later, a blinding flash filled the cave as the spider exploded, covering everything with its slimy blood as Wrinn blindly stumbled around the cave, gasping, choking, and coughing, blood flowing freely from the gaping wound in his neck.

Gary immediately went into action, flinging his pack to the ground and plunging his hands into it, a moment later coming back out with a healing potion clenched in each one. He poured the first potion over the dripping gash and then watched in amazement as the blood began to flow back up into Wrinn's body as the wound healed itself. A second later, Wrinn opened his eyes, blinked, and weakly grinned at Gary. "I'm much obliged, fr" - and was cut off as he violently retched, spewing yellow-green bile all over the cave floor. He then began to convulse, spastic jerks taking control of his body as his eyes were locked open in fear.

As for the remaining three adventurers, they all jumped back in shock at Wrinn's strange behavior. Then, as Gary and Johann stood shell-shocked, Lyra went into action. Kneeling down next to the shivering figure and closing her eyes, she clasped her hands together and, in a state of seraphic calm, smoothly said a beautiful incantation. A moment later, her skin began to take on a soft white glow, and opening her eyes, she reached out her hand and touched Wrinn's cheek. When she came in contact with the poisoned body, she shuddered, but kept the contact between their bodies intact and even moved closer to take Wrinn in her arms. And before the astonished eyes of their friends, the glow on Lyra's body began to transfer itself to Wrinn until they were both bathed in it. When that had been completed, Lyra clenched her eyes tight and the glow sank into the two of them. For a moment, neither of them moved.

Then, at the exact same time, Wrinn and Lyra opened their eyes and looked at each other. As Lyra looked deep into the eyes of the knight, she could see the fear melt away and gratitude replace it from the shelter of her embrace. For the first time, the hatred that she held for the strong exteriors of Wrinn and her father was beginning to be turned into understanding....but her reverie was broken by Johann's voice.

"I must say, Lyra, that's one hell of an antidote you've got there." A slight smile was on his face.

After all of Wrinn's injuries had been healed by various methods, the four of them continued on, this time much more wary. Wrinn, in front, watched the cave ahead, while Lyra kept an eye on the ceiling. Johann and Gary took turns watching out behind them - Wrinn had set up the watch system because he said that he didn't want anything like what had happened to him happen to any of his friends. Because of his plan, the rest of the trip had gone rather uneventful - any spiders that tried to sneak up on them were easily dispatched with fireballs, as were the slimes that frustrated Wrinn to no end - every time he tried to slash at them, his sword simply got stuck until the slime was melted away by one of his comrade's spells. His irritibility worried Lyra - she couldn't understand why the journey going well was making him angry. Instead of just putting it down to his seemingly violent nature, she thought about it for a moment and realized that his lack of help was what was wrong. The magic of Johann and Gary was the only thing that was effective down here, and the fact that he couldn't do anything was driving him crazy. After another moment of thought, she realized why that was so. Wrinn obviously took the unofficial position of leader that he had put himself into more seriously than just an opportunity to just give orders. He really is a noble knight, she thought but then frowned as she continued on, I just wish the dumb galoot would show me some respect!

Eventually, after much exploring, magic, and mud, the four of them arrived at another hole in the floor like the main entrance to the cave. However, there was a slight difference here insofar as there was already a makeshift ladder placed at the lip, leading down into a section of the cave that, from where they stood, looked blacker than the blackest night.

In a move surprising to her companions, Lyra was the first to head towards the ladder. "Here's where the fun begins, boys," her voice wavering and rising in pitch as she descended the rickety steps. "If what my father told me was right, what we've been through up here will be a cakewalk compared to what we'll face down there."

Splash...squish squish. Splash...squish squish. Splash...squish squish. Splash...squish squish. Two steps was all each of them could take before stopping dead and taking in the scene. Thick black mud poked out between numerous puddles of brackish water, which reflected the only sources of light in the room - the torches of the Four and the glowing eyes of the five wizards who faced them from the opposite side of the cavern. Giving his companions a nod, Wrinn took a few tentative steps forward and then turned back to see, to his pleasant surprise, that all three of his friends were close behind. Turning to the wizards with renewed resolve, Wrinn tramped on, and when he could he could make out the wrinkled faces of the black sorcerers he stopped and called to them.

"We ask a favor of you!"

The expressions on the wizards' faces did not change, but the tone of their leader's response was tinged with amusement. "Normally, any intruders into the Marsh Cave are killed immediately by the creatures. You seem to have made it through all right, either by your battle skills or your skills of stealth - and from the looks of you I suspect it was the latter - and anyone who makes it down here is usually killed immediately by the five of us. In actuality, you are only alive for one simple reason - I wish to find out, what sort of favor could you possibly need from us?"

The two elves stepped forward and as Lyra took the Crown from her pack and held it aloft, Johann answered, "We ask you to watch over this Crown and destroy anyone who attempts to take it from this chamber! What must we do to have our wishes granted?"

After a moment of silence in which the wizards were obviously taken aback by such a strange request, their leader replied. "If you can defeat me in one on one combat, the remaining four will guard the Crown for the rest of their lives. I remind you that this challenge is to the death.....if you wish to accept our offer, choose your champion" - here the fire in his eyes rose to a blinding fury - "and come for me!"

A wicked grin crossed Wrinn's face as his hand slowly went to the handle of his sword. "No problem, pal - I've got your champion right he" -

"Wrinn." It was Lyra's voice.

"Wha'?" Wrinn twisted his neck around to look at Lyra, who stood stock still, staring at the ground, her fists clenched tight by her sides. "What is it? I'm a little busy right now!"

"Let me take him on."

"WHAT? Are you crazy? You'll get fried!"

"Look, I don't mean to interrupt the witty repartee you two have started over there, but I'm getting impatient - so if you don't choose somebody to die, then I will!" Electricity began to crackle between the wizard's hands as he tried to decide which one to destroy - the impetuous over-confident fool, the weakling woman, the shrimp, or the other knight who had just stood there like an ass the whole time?

Wrinn turned back to the wizard and yelled, "Hey, give me a minute! I'll be with you as soon as I quiet down my idiot friend here!" Turning back around again, he started, "Now listen, Lyra" -

"NO!" Lyra's head snapped up and the fury in her own eyes nearly matched that of the wizard's. "You listen, damn you! I have been training for this moment my whole life" - finally the wizard had charged his spell and decided to kill the brash knight - "AND NOBODY IS GOING TO TAKE IT AWAY FROM ME!" With a diving leap, she knocked Wrinn to the ground and out of the way of the wizard's spell, then jumped up with surprising quickness and took the attack herself. Drawing her sword and letting out a bloodcurdling scream, she sprinted toward the surprised wizard, dragging the tip of her sword in the mud. As she approached him, she stopped moving her feet and slid the rest of the way as she swung, throwing up a deluge of disgusting brown water that obscured everyone's view.

However, the scream of the wizard was enough to tell all those involved just what had happened. As the water returned to its muddy home, it showed the remains of the lead wizard, cleaved in two by one mighty stroke of Lyra's sword. Lyra herself, who had fallen to her knees gasping for breath, turned her head around and looked at Wrinn, who in turn could only lay in the mud and blink.

Eager to finish their business in the not-so-pleasant Marsh Cave, the Four quickly left the Crown with the remaining wizards and immediately began their ascent back to the cave entrance. However, this time, Wrinn had assigned Lyra and Johann to the front of the line, Gary third position, and in seemingly a self-admittance of his own folly, relegated himself to the rear of the group. Lyra kept casting worried glances behind her, but Wrinn seemed to be constantly looking back himself. After little incident and only a few necessary magic attacks, they arrived once again at the entrance - but their rope lay in a broken pile under the entrance.

"Blast!" exclaimed Johann. "How are we going to get out now?"

"Not a problem, Johann," said Gary, as he began to coil the rope on his shoulder. "Whenever Wrinn and I were in the forest and wanted something to eat and all of the fruit was out of our reach, Wrinn would give me a boost and I would jump off his hand. We got quite good at it. However," he said, as he looked up at the cave entrance, "that looks a little higher than usual - Lyra, would you mind giving Wrinn a hand?"

Shaking her head, Lyra walked over to where Wrinn had crouched down and looked back at Gary, who tensed himself and after a deep breath, took a few half-running steps onto Wrinn and Lyra's cupped hands, and as they lifted him towards the ceiling, he bent his legs and jumped. When he reached the lip, he reached out his arms sideways and grabbed onto the edges. A few moments later, after a lot of grunting, he managed to lift himself out of the hole and onto solid ground. "Just let me find a decent tree, and the rope will be back down momentarily!" After some rustling noises and a little more grunting, the rope was thrown down to the waiting three. Johann was the first to climb up, followed by Lyra, and finally Wrinn.

As he reached the top and pulled himself back into the Marsh, he noticed Johann standing there looking perplexed, Lyra looking distraught - and he also noticed Gary was not there. After making a quick scan of the area, he walked over to the tree where the rope was tied - a note was attached there with a curious-looking dagger. Yanking the dagger out of the tree, Wrinn the read the note - and froze.

Lyra's look became even more worrisome as she stared at the stock-still knight. "What's going on, Wrinn? Where's Gary?"

In a toneless, emotionless monotone, Wrinn cleared his throat and read the note to the elves. "I have captured the knight named Gary and am bringing him to meet Lord Astos in the Dark Elves' Northwest Fortress. If you wish to see him alive again, I suggest you hurry to the Fortress post haste. If you do not, I sincerely doubt that he will live much longer. Signed," here Wrinn broke off for a moment and took a few deep breaths....

"Signed, Phia."

9. Coneria, We Have A Problem

Wrinn stood with his back to his friends, so still that Johann and Lyra couldn't even tell if he was breathing or not. Lyra took a hesitant step forward and put her hand out towards him. "Wrinn? Are you all right?"

The knight, lost in a fog, didn't move. It wasn't until Lyra had called his name again that he finally snapped back into reality. Turning around, he calmly said, "Would you two excuse me for a moment?"

As the two elves watched, he smoothly walked into the fog at the edge of the clearing and disappeared. After a moment of complete silence, Johann and Lyra looked at each other in complete mystification - until a flock of birds flew over them at top speed, followed by a heartbreaking scream of pain, then by several war cries interspersed with the creaking of falling trees. Over the noise, Johann turned to Lyra and remarked, "Interesting method of stress management, don't you think?"

"Not funny, Johann."

With a shrug, Johann took his pack off his back and rummaged through it. Finding a magic potion, he held it out to Lyra, who shook her head. With another shrug, he took a sip and put it back in his pack as the noise from the marsh stopped. A few minutes later, Wrinn walked back into the clearing, as smooth and calm as he had left it. Lyra started to speak, but Wrinn held up his hand to silence her.

"I'm fine, Lyra. Don't worry about me - it's your home you should be worried about." As the confusion appeared on the faces of the two elves, Wrinn continued. "Isn't it obvious? The capture of Gary is simply a diversion to keep us from stopping the invasion of ElfLand."

Johann's confusion turned to anger as he understood what the knight was getting at. "Of course! After I destroyed the party that was supposed to kill us, they didn't know what we were doing. They didn't catch up to us until after we had entered the cave, and once they realized what we had gone in there for, Astos probably became so enraged that he ordered the immediate invasion of ElfLand - if he can't get the Crown by birth, he'll get the throne by force! What are we going to do?"

"Simple," Wrinn said. "You're going back to ElfLand to protect your home, and I'm going to go rescue my friend."

"Are you crazy?" Lyra shot back. "You're going to go into the lair of Astos alone and expect to come out alive? We're going with you!"

"No, Lyra, you're not."

"But why!?"

"Two reasons. One, the Dark Elves want all three of us to sidetrack ourselves into rescuing Gary, and I'm not going to give those bastards anything they want. Two, Gary has been my best friend my whole life" - he looked deep into Lyra's eyes - "and nobody is going to take him away from me." Lyra could do nothing but stare at him.

Taking his glasses off and cleaning them with a corner of his robe, Johann spoke up. "Wrinn, don't worry about ElfLand. We know how the Dark Elves fight, we've strengthened our armies considerably since the last attack, and both Rostol and Roland will be there." He put his glasses back on, and with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, he continued, "Besides, Astos is a formidable opponent, and now that you've seen what we can do, I don't think you'll be too adverse to having us along."

Wrinn allowed a small smile to crease his face as he answered. "You drive a hard bargain, elf."

"Blast it, Phia, you drive a hard bargain!"

"Sorry, Astos. Guess I should have warned you about the 'capturing former comrades' clause I put in my contract a few years ago. Drives the price up a bit."

"Righteous one minute and repulsive the next - all to increase your price. I must say, Phia, you are the shrewdest mercenary it's ever been my financial misfortune to meet." In his cavernous, dimly lit throne room, the Lord of the Dark Elves put a few more gold coins into the sack he had in his lap, fastened the strings, and tossed it to Phia, who deftly caught it and put it in her pack. "I still say you shouldn't have just followed them blindly after the rest of your scouting party was killed - as soon as you knew their destination you should have told me!"

"And how was a war party of yours supposed to catch up to them after I got back and told you, especially with the head start they had? I needed to scout out the abilities of the two elves they had with them - unfortunately, they weren't attacked on the way to the Marsh Cave so they're still a mystery. However, from the looks of them - a frail little nerd and a strange, frightened little girl - you shouldn't have any problems, but it's Wrinn you've got to worry about. By the way, have you discovered what the knights' quest is yet? I never did find out."

Astos raised his eyebrows and answered. "No - that blasted fool hasn't moved an inch since he got here and the interrogations have gone nowhere. I must say I'm impressed, though - doing advance work for us while you were still allied with those knights? You're more ruthless than I thought!"

Flashing a dark look at her employer, Phia replied, "My initial inquiry was purely conversational, Astos. Don't flatter yourself into thinking that I'd ever do anything for you that I wasn't paid extremely well to do." Turning around with a flourish, she stalked out of the Fortress' main hall, cape flowing behind her.

Watching the beautiful mercenary as she left, Astos muttered to himself, "You are more ruthless than I thought, O Phia D'Hiver. I'm going to have to keep a very close eye on you - and my wallet as well!"

In the meantime, the 'ruthless' mercenary was staring blankly at the floor in her quarters, her mind churning with remorse. "What have I done?" she thought out loud. "How could I have betrayed Gary like that without thinking about it?" Because you had a contract with Astos to do it, you silly girl. He paid you well to capture whoever came out of the cave first so that they wouldn't be able to prevent the attack on ElfLand. "That's true. I suppose I can't be blamed too much." Are you kidding? Of course you can! You knew the second you cut that rope that the only one who would be able to get out first would be Gary - you deliberately lured him into the dungeon! That's a great bit of thanks he got for falling in love with you - imprisonment and probably death at the hands of Astos. Or, maybe it might be even worse than that - of course you know as well as any of the other Dark Elves that the sick monster is a servant of -

"SHUT UP!!!! Shut up shut up shut up!" Clamping her hands over her ears and shaking her head frantically, she did everything she could to quiet the one voice that could not be silenced - the one in her mind. Closing her eyes tight didn't prevent the first tears from trickling down her face as she continued to fight a losing battle against her own personal demons....and if you had been passing by her room at that very moment, you would have heard the last thing she said before she passed out from grief - a single, haunting syllable from a tortured soul.


"What do you think our strategy is going to be, Wrinn?" Stifling a yawn, Johann looked at the knight, silent and strong in the glow of the firelight. "Got any ideas yet?"

"I would, if I knew what the layout of that fortress was. As far as it goes now, there's only one that I can think of - bust through the front door and hope that Astos has been foolish enough to only leave a skeleton crew to defend himself while he throws every elf he can into the invasion. Lyra, you were up in the mountains when the Fortress was being constructed - did you or your father ever get a decent view of it?"

Shaking her head, Lyra dejectedly answered, "Unfortunately, no. Father was still continuing my schooling at that point - it wasn't until we started my physical training a few years later that we even knew it existed. And even then, the best view we could get was just of a plain, square building. A battlement here, a battlement there, a couple towers, nothing special. For all we know, it could just be one big, empty room, or it could be a bewildering maze as fiendish as the Sky Castle itself." Lyra sighed and leaned her head back against a tree, then twisted towards Johann and said, "Well, we might as well prepare for the upcoming fight - just what kinds of magic does Astos know, Johann?"

For her reply, she got a resounding snore. "Looks like we've lost Johann to the unconquerable enemy," Wrinn remarked. "We'll ask him for details on the way to the Fortress tomorrow." After a moment of staring at the flames flicker and curl their way skyward, he spoke up again in a quiet, subdued tone. "That was quite a show you put on back there in the cave. I had no idea you were that strong and skilled."

Lyra's head snapped up with an indignant look flashing from her brown eyes. "Why wouldn't I be? I was trained by a Sage, same as you - alone in the mountains, no less, with no distractions and nothing else to do."

"True, but you've got to admit, you sure don't show it. I mean, when we first saw you step into that clearing, I thought that if we jumped out from behind our trees, you would have dropped your sword and wet your armor instead of cleaving us in half."

The annoyance faded from Lyra's eyes and turned to pain as she stared at the ground. "That's Father's fault. He was always extremely strict with me - kept babbling on day in and day out about how I had to be able to face impossible odds and defeat nearly invincible enemies to save our race, and, scared me." Picking up a small twig and drawing aimlessly in the forest floor, she continued softly. "With him telling me that constantly, along with the strict training schedule and having orders barked at me, I guess it sort of - wore me down."

"Hmm. That's understandable. When....when....wuh...." Wrinn then cut himself off, clenched his eyes tight, and grimaced.

Looking up with a start and a concerned look, Lyra asked, "Wrinn? What on earth is wrong?"

After taking several deep breaths, Wrinn opened his eyes and replied through clenched teeth, "When Gary and I were training together, we didn't have any heavy objectives or missions put upon us - our only goal was to make it into the Honor Guard. I guess that gave us a little more leeway and allowed us to grow up as cocky little brats." He then seemed to relax and smiled weakly at Lyra as he leaned his head back against his tree.

Concerned, the elf stared at him for a moment and posed another question. "Why did you pause a moment ago? Was it because you were thinking about Gary?"

Turning his head away and looking off into the darkness of the forest, the knight replied, "Yes. I've failed him. I've never failed before when it meant that anyone else besides me would get hurt, and now I finally fail somebody - and who does it end up being? Only the guy who's been my best friend for my entire life!" Wrinn slammed his head back into the tree, pounded the ground with his fists, and his voice became choked with rage as Lyra's concerned look turned to shock. "We're like brothers - been together since we were kids - have always backed each other up no matter what....." Wrinn finally gave in and buried his face in his hands, and he spat out words between ragged breaths. "And now.....when it finally means something....when the two of us had been entrusted with the safety of the world...and he trusted me to take care of him, the same way that I trusted him....and I....I....!" Wrinn's rage consumed him now, and he could say no more.

Lyra then got up from her tree and knelt down next to Wrinn. As the fire sputtered down to smoldering embers, she tenderly put her arms around him and tried to calm him down. "Don't worry, noble knight. You've still got a chance. You haven't failed him yet."

In the dank, dripping dungeons of the Northwest Fortress, Gary Blackstone sat stock-still, leaning against the wall and staring blankly into the darkness. Ever since the moment that he had pulled himself out of the Marsh Cave and seen Phia standing there, his mind and body had been drugged into submission by the shock of her sudden return and then, the order for his imprisonment. In the day and night since he had been put in this place, the only thoughts that crossed his mind were continued shock and a painful, bewildering mystery - how could Phia, the woman he loved, heartlessly put him in a place like this, with nothing to look forward to but the inevitable fate that they all knew was coming?

The sudden noise of footsteps made Gary blink. Probably just another stupid attempt to question me, he thought. You'd think they would have figured out by now that they're not getting anything out of me - even the torture didn't work. Wonder what they're trying now? A moment later, when Phia mounted her torch in the wall and turned to face the bars of his cell, his curiosities were answered.

"Hello, Gary."

Silence. Maybe a blink in the darkness, she couldn't tell.

"I haven't come to interrogate you and find out what your quest is - heck, even you probably know that's not why you're here in the first place." Clearing her throat and sweeping her cloak behind her, she continued. "I came to apologize."

Several blinks in quick succession.

"I'd like to say that I had no intention of ever fighting against you, but when I discovered that it was the Dark Elves who would be hiring me, I knew that our paths would eventually cross. I didn't think they'd meet this directly, but fate works in mysterious ways."

More blinking. She could hear his breath getting heavier as he listened to her, and it was getting harder and harder for her to keep her composure.

"I can't believe I'm about to admit this, the end of our time on the ship, I....I....had really started to care for you..."

"Enough to throw me in here, eh?"

Taken aback by Gary's sudden response, Phia stammered, "W-what?"

"You threw me in this dungeon. You know I'm simply bait for Astos' trap, and you also know I'm going to die the second Wrinn, Lyra, and Johann show up to rescue me." Gary picked up his head and stared through the darkness at Phia with such venom that she stepped back in shock. "You say you care for me, and yet you were able to conveniently forget about your heart and let your actions be chosen by your wallet. Because of that, I now realize that Kural was right all along - I should have listened to his advice."

Turning her head to the side and closing her eyes, Phia let the tears drip to the ground in despair as she whispered her final question to him. "And what, exactly, was that advice?"

Settling back against the wall and turning away from her, Gary simply said, "You weren't worth it. Get out of my sight, you black-hearted bitch."

10. Just When You Thought It Was Safe...

Wrinn took a quick peek above the shrubbery and then motioned behind him. In a moment, Johann and Lyra arrived next to him and took their own survey of the situation. The three of them were crouched just outside of the Northwest Fortress' perimeter, and their attack on Astos' lair was about to commence.

"This is perfect - exactly how I'd envisioned it. Only two guards around, drawbridge halfway down already, and the three of us ready for some mass destruction! If you two don't have any objections, I suggest we get started." Wrinn grinned wickedly at his partners and then started to crawl off to his right. As soon as he was out of sight, Lyra gave Johann a reassuring pat on the shoulder and moved off to the left. Johann, staying where he was, crossed his arms and waited. After a few moments, he heard a high-pitched whistle come from the woods off to his left, and he thrust his arms out in front of him. He heard a clank and looked over the bushes to see what was going on.

In the clearing in front of the Northwest Fortress' moat, the two Dark Elf guards had fallen fast asleep thanks to his spell. In almost perfect unison, Wrinn and Lyra sprinted from their hiding places and beheaded each guard with one swift stroke. Sheathing their swords again, they motioned for Johann to join them, which he quickly did.

Wrinn looked satisfied with the speed and silence that they had defeated the guards with. "Good job, everyone. Now, we've just got the issue of the drawbridge to deal with, and we're in. Johann, I believe this is your department?" Nervously nodding to the knight, Johann let his arms fall to his sides, spread his fingers wide, and took a deep breath. He was about to try a new type of spell that he had never attempted before - taking the natural yet minimal instability in metal and amplifying it to such a degree that the substance would simply fall apart. Wrinn had been skeptical about the idea, but agreed with Lyra that it was their only real chance to get into the Fortress.

In the meantime, Johann was raising his arms outward from his body while softly murmuring a long, droning incantation. By the time his arms were perpendicular to the ground, Wrinn and Lyra were staring openmouthed at the seeming ripple in the metal of the chains, which then snapped cleanly in half as the magician clenched his fists and let the full power of the spell take effect. Thankfully, the Three weren't so taken with the effects of the spell that they forgot to shield themselves from the falling drawbridge. As soon as the chains snapped, Wrinn gave each of his friends a shove towards the ground before hitting the deck himself, just in time to avoid the debris that the falling drawbridge threw towards them.

After the dust had settled, Wrinn picked himself up and drew his sword. "Let's go, friends," he cried, fire burning in his gaze, "I feel like killing something!"

Astos, sitting in his throne room, heard the crash of the mighty drawbridge and knew immediately what it meant. He gave a curt nod to his four attendants in the back of the room, who left directly, heading towards the dungeon. After they had left, he turned to Phia, who was leaning against the wall, as stoic as the pillars that lined the throne room's central corridor.

"Well, Phia," the evil leader said with a sneer, "is my personal defense included in your contract, or is there another 'clause' that you didn't tell me about?"

Along with the sour look, the mercenary also gave him the most imperceptible of nods.

"Good. With all that you've said about that knight Wrinn, I had almost gotten worried. Now, I know I shall crush all three of them!"

In the twisting halls of the Northwest Fortress, the three invaders were the ones getting worried. Wrong turn after wrong turn had led them to nothing but empty room after empty room. Wrinn knew that the more time they spent wandering around in the Fortress the more certain it was that Gary would be dead when they found him, and Lyra and Johann grew less certain of the successful defense of ElfLand with every empty living quarters they stumbled into. After three minutes of aimlessly running around, they finally saw a blaze of light coming from a large doorway and knew it was the throne room.

"Sheath your sword, Lyra, and we'd all better slow down," Wrinn remarked, sheathing his own blade. "We're going in there as calm as we can - as a certain wizard once found out, there's nothing more terrifying than having a seemingly harmless opponent erupt into a fighting frenzy!"

"Master....Lukahn.....please....p-protect me....."

"Lyra, you ready? Johann, you know what you've got to do? Then take a deep breath, my friends - it's time."

"I hear footsteps, Astos - I think they're here."

"Let them come."

At a calm, sedate pace, the Coneria Honor Guard Wrinn Taylor, the Sage's Daughter Lyra Wildar, and the Elf Magician Johann Raystovsson walked into the throne room of Astos, the Lord of the Dark Elves, confronted by four Dark Elf soldiers, the Red Mage Phia D'Hiver (who was hidden behind a pillar,) and the evil Lord himself.

"Welcome to your deaths, O Wrinn and company. I wish I could have the four of you as guests instead of corpses, but I am afraid that cannot be so."

With his voice dripping with venom, Johann spat back, "I guess it should come as no surprise that you are not only evil but stupid as well. Since you haven't yet learned to count, you son of a whore, I'll inform you that there are in fact only three of us!"

"Insults will get you nowhere, you pathetic worm. If you would care to look behind you, you would see that there are, truly, four of you. Don't you agree, Mr. Blackstone?"

Whirling around, Wrinn saw his friend, bloodied and battered, hanging from the ceiling, suspended by chains attached to his wrists. He was thrown into such shock by the sight that he barely turned back around in time to see Astos' four attendants rushing towards them, swords drawn.

"Lyra! Quick!" Drawing his sword, he parried the downward swing of his adversary by dropping to one knee and holding his sword horizontally above him. In as much time as it took to parry the blow, Wrinn turned the edge of his blade towards his opponent and shoved forward, putting the elf out of commission. Before he could get up, the second of the two Dark Elves that had rushed him took a horizontal swing, attempting to remove Wrinn's torso from his body. Jamming the tip of his sword into the ground, Wrinn parried the blow and then strained to keep the elf's blade from continuing on its present path. After a moment of the stalemate, Wrinn suddenly leaned back and performed a quick leg sweep, sending his enemy sprawling to the floor as the hostile blade passed harmlessly over him. The knight then immediately got up and proceeded to show the elf just how you're supposed to separate someone's torso from their body. Panting for breath, he looked up to see how Lyra was doing.

Both of the Elves attacking her had reached her at the same time, and with a series of bewilderingly fast sword movements and strategic deflections using her armor, managed to parry every attack sent her way and kill both of her adversaries in a few moments. Straightening up, she slid her sword back into its sheath and fixed her murderous gaze on Astos. Wrinn did the same as Johann moved up to join them, and then the trio began its march towards the throne.

"Well done, O Wrinn and company. I must admit I am quite impressed with the speed that you dispatched my personal guard with."

All three pairs of eyes burned a whole into Astos and he became afraid.

"However, my dear knight, you forget that it is I who hold the trump card!"

Their footsteps fell in unison - a slow, throbbing sound that penetrated deep into the evil Lord's brain and seemed to grow louder with every step they took.

"I don't know if your elf friends there have told you any of the rumors of my magical power, but I assure you that they are all true. And there is one rumor that none of the Elves have yet heard, and it is the most fearsome of all - the rumor that I have developed a type of magic which is capable of instantly killing whoever dares to oppose me! I assure you it is true, and I will use it on your friend without hesitation if you take one step closer!!"

The footsteps stopped. The looks of menace turned to ones of concern. It was Astos' turn to grin.

Suddenly, Phia jumped out from her hiding place and raised her hand to the sky. She looked at the group for a moment, cast her eyes downward, and said three short words before clenching her fist - "I'm sorry, Wrinn."

The world shook.

Above the Three, a large chunk of the ceiling ripped itself away and flew off, exposing a swirling mass of dark clouds poised directly above it. Without warning, a column of lightning shot through the air until it landed squarely on where the Three were standing. When the blast had died down, Phia drew her sword and prepared to advance - before stopping in shock.

Lyra and Johann were standing tall, each with a hand on Wrinn's shoulder, who had plunged his sword through the stone floor of the castle and into the earth below, producing a perfect conducting line for the lightning and leaving them relatively unscathed - at least compared to if they had let the destructive energy of the blast stay in their bodies. "I've got to hand it to you, Johann - that was a brilliant idea! And now, Lyra, I think it's your turn!"

Giving him a curt nod, Lyra clasped her hands together and closed her eyes. Taking deeper and deeper breaths, the white glow of Pure began to flow over her body, and after a moment she thrust her arms out and raised her face to the sky. The white glow then began to fly through the air, swirling and twisting, until it had reached Phia and enveloped her body, to which Phia reacted with an anguished "Oh, shit!"

Leaning forward in his throne, Astos asked, "What on earth is wrong?"

Phia began to back up nervously as the Three resumed their advance, and replied, "She's cast Pure on me! Unfortunately, since I'm not poisoned, all she's done is increase the amount of white magic energy in me, meaning I can't cast any more black magic spells!"

"Well, can't you do anything with your increased white magic power?"

"Oh, suuuure, Astos!" she sarcastically spat at him, "here goes!" Flinging her arms out in front of her, she uttered a quick incantation and then turned back around. "There, your moronic lordship, I've just cast Cure 2 on Gary. You happy now??"

At that moment, Wrinn, Lyra, and Johann had come within twenty feet of the throne. As Johann created a flaming ball between his hands, Wrinn and Lyra drew their swords and prepared to charge.

Phia eyes became filled with fear and she sheathed her sword again. "Um, I'm sorry, Astos, but the deal's off." Tossing the money bag at him, she took one last look at her formidable opponents and said, "Well, I've got something more important to do - you're on your own now!"

Astos' concerned look turned to shock as Phia ducked behind a pillar and began to run for it. Unfortunately for him, he was so concerned about Phia that he forgot about the flaming ball of energy Johann had thrown at him, which caught him full in the chest as the two swordsmen leaped into the air, blades held high. Regaining control of his body just in time, Astos leapt out of his throne, narrowly escaping the knights' attack, which turned his formidable throne into matchwood.

Standing off to the side, Astos glared at them. "Well, I bet you three feel pretty good about yourselves, don't you? Well, I think it's time you found out just what you've gotten yourselves - and your friend - into!" Before their astonished eyes, the Elf Lord's arms transformed into hideous tentacles, and forming a circle with his right one, he sent a beam of blackness towards the helpless Gary, still hanging by his wrists at the back of the room. As the beam approached him, Gary, who had recently been healed a bit by Phia's spell, weakly lifted his head just enough to get a good look at the doom that approached him. The second that the beam hit him, both Wrinn and Phia, who was attempting to detach the chains that bound her love, screamed out in unison. Phia could do nothing but hang on to the chain and stare at the lifeless Gary, while Wrinn turned back to Astos, eyes filled with more fury than Astos thought capable in a human.

"You - you sick, twisted, evil a few months, you'll have to pay me a visit....because I'd be very interested to know what hell is like!!!" Leaping to the attack, Wrinn swung his sword tirelessly and without mercy as Astos attempted to avoid the knight's fury. Eventually, one of Wrinn's mighty swings cleaved one of the great pillars in two, and that, on top of the hole that Phia had ripped in the ceiling, was too much for the structural integrity of the Northwest Fortress, and the place started to crumble.

Astos, seeing this, immediately left by opening up a small, dark portal in the ground and disappearing into it. Wrinn, although furious at the flight of his enemy, quickly sheathed his sword and pointed at the exit, shouting something at Lyra and Johann that was lost in the din. As soon as the two elves had started for the way out, Wrinn ran to the back of the throne room, where Phia lay in a heap after being thrown to the ground by the tremors of the crumbling fortress. Grabbing her roughly by the arm, Wrinn pulled her to her feet and ran for the exit, pulling the Red Mage behind and taking one final look at the lifeless body of his best friend before disappearing into the passageway.

11. Would The Real Prince Of ElfLand Please Wake Up?

"Was it the money? The sense of power? Or are you as evil as the monster we just set to flight? Come on, you cocky little bitch! Speak up!"

Phia, slumped against a tree outside of the ruined Fortress, could only shake her head in mystification. This, of course, only increased Wrinn's anger.

"Excuse me??? I didn't quite hear you! You seduce my best friend, leave him in the lurch without a word of explanation, suddenly show up again allied with our enemies and imprison him, are ultimately responsible for his death, and all you can do is sit there, shake your head and look confused?!?" Wrinn suddenly whipped his sword out of his sheath and pointed it at the mercenary's chest as Lyra and Johann looked on in alarm. "I should kill you for what you've done...but I won't." He put his sword back as the elves let out a sigh of relief. "I'll tell you what I am going to do, though. I'm going to let you redeem yourself by allowing you to join our quest and help save the world from its darkest hour."

"Are you sure you want to trust me? Remember, I'm the hardened bitch mercenary, prone to leave whenever I feel like it."

Wrinn, eyes flashing, pushed his face right into hers and growled out his answer between clenched teeth. "If you have any honor within your heart, you will stay with us until we are finished. However, if you still wish to consider yourself a mercenary" - here he stood tall, and his voice boomed across the forest - "you'll fight with us anyway. Your contract has been signed in blood and the ultimate price paid by the young man lying dead in the Northwest Fortress!" Wrinn backed off and took a few steps towards the Fortress, saying, "Now, get up and get ready to travel - the home of our allies is in the process of being attacked by the forces of the Dark Elves, and we need to get back and help. You three start off, I'll be along in a moment."

Wrinn stood, arms crossed and face stony, as a wide-eyed Lyra helped Phia up and started down the forest path back towards ElfLand with Johann trailing a few steps behind. When his three friends had moved out of sight, Wrinn uncrossed his arms and fell to his knees, head bowed. A moment later, he looked up at the wreckage with a tear in his eye. "Well, my friend. You died with honor in service of your people. May all of us be as - lucky - as you were. But dammit, Gary! Why did you have to be the one who taught me what failure is? Why you? Anyone but you! Anyone....dammit...." Wrinn broke down and would have fallen to the ground completely had Lyra not caught him. Keeping him supported and gently running her hand through his hair, she held him while the sobs took their toll. After Wrinn had regained control of himself, he looked up at Lyra, who could see the gratitude through the pain in his eyes. She replied with a nod and a smile, let go of Wrinn so he could get up, and walked off to join the others. Wrinn untied the Conerian armband from his right arm, let it fall to the ground, took a final look at the Northwest Fortress, and said, "Farewell, my friend."

Meanwhile, back in the Sky Castle....

"I managed to salvage this from the Northwest Fortress before it crumbled, Master."

Tiamat took a critical look and then grinned. "Excellent work, Astos. This is the final piece of the puzzle - this is what will keep us in power forever!"

"Can we take a quick rest, Wrinn?"

"Well, we have gone through the entire forest in half a day...sure, you guys deserve it." Panting for breath, Johann put his hands behind his head and gratefully gulped in air.

Pulling her long, white hair back into a ponytail, Phia looked over at Wrinn. "Say, since we're stopped, would you mind telling me exactly what our quest is and why we're on it?"

Wrinn looked mystified for a moment and then remembered that neither of the knights had ever told her what they were up to - Gary didn't even reveal it under torture, Wrinn proudly realized - and spoke up. "Well, since you're part of our team now, I see no reason why not. As you undoubtedly know, the Fiends Kraken of Water and Tiamat of Wind stole the powers of the elements from the Orbs 200 years ago, and since then nothing much else has happened." Phia nodded, and Wrinn continued. "However, a week ago, my master Lukahn had a dream in which he was told that the Fiends had left their altars and were preparing an attack on the northern country. He also concluded that since the two existing Fiends were getting ready to attack, it was inevitable that the Age of Chaos would follow soon after." Phia's jaw dropped in shock as Wrinn went on. "Lukahn then decided that the Circle of Sages must be reassembled in order to discuss these events and prepare for the attack. Unfortunately, since the Circle was last disbanded, he has no clue where the Sages had gone to. Gary and I were sent to find the remaining eleven Sages and send them back to Crescent Lake, where Lukahn will join them. Of course, we have some problems now - Gary is dead, two of the Sages are under attack in ElfLand, and, to tell the truth, I don't have the faintest idea of where the other nine Sages are."

Phia tapped her lips with her finger and got a smug smile on her face. "Well, I can help you with one of your problems."

"And which one would that be?"

"I know where the other Sages are."

Even Johann got enough breath back to join in the chorus of "WHAT???" that greeted that statement.

"Of course I know where they are! A mercenary does plenty of traveling, and in my travels I learned that one of them lives in Lefein, another in Melmond, one in Gaia, one in Onrac, one in a hidden military training camp somewhere north of Melmond, one travels with a gypsy band in the northwest desert, one lives with the Dwarves, one communes with the Dragons of the Northern Seas, and the last one of them actually stayed in Crescent Lake. As you can see, I've been around a bit."

Lyra looked at the Red Mage in astonishment. "You can say that again!"

Wrinn cleared his throat and laid a hand on Lyra's shoulder, saying "Actually, I don't think you should say that again, since we're a little short on time." Flashing Lyra a grin and getting one in return, he continued, "So, if Mr. Oxygen Deprivation over there has no real objections, I think we should get moving."

Casting a dark look at the knight, Johann reluctantly moved off across the plains as the rest of the party followed on their way back to ElfLand. Wrinn looked confident now that he knew exactly what their quest was, Phia looked pained now that she knew exactly what Gary had died for, and Lyra looked towards the world-weary mercenary with silent awe.

"I can't believe it...I don't believe it...I won't believe it!"

Lyra's voice was flat and toneless as she answered her kinsman. "Unfortunately, Johann, we don't have a choice - we have to believe it."

The two elves then dropped to their knees in shock as their human friends looked on in horror at the unthinkable scene in front of them. Walls had crumbled...buildings had been burned...bodies were everywhere. They had arrived at the gates of ElfLand.

"Come on, Phia," Wrinn quietly said, "we'd better start looking for survivors." Wrinn shielded his eyes and attempted to peer through the smoke and haze of the burning city. "I think the castle is still standing - the survivors have got to be there! Let's go!" Wrinn and Phia hurried past the smashed gates and made their way into the burning city as Johann and Lyra slowly got up.

"Come on, Johann. We've no time to grieve...we'd better get going."

Johann clenched both his eyes and his fists and stood in silent rage for a moment before answering. "I suppose you're right...let's see what's left."

The pair slowly made their way through the outer battlefield, staying silent and bowing their heads in respect of the elves that had fallen - both Light and Dark - for they finally realized the twisted evil that had controlled their misguided kinsmen. Passing through the gates, they stalked through the main thoroughfare of ElfLand, where many of the shops had once stood. "I shudder to think of what the main square and castle must look like," Johann remarked. "If those majestic landmarks are as decimated as the rest of the town, I don't think I'll be able to stand it." Through the smoke, they began to see a hazy outline of the arch that marked the entrance to the Square. Taking a deep breath, they stepped through the arch - and were met with a great cheer!

Lyra and Johann's mouths dropped open in surprise at the sudden change in scenery. A full legion of unharmed troops and the citizens of ElfLand stood cheering and clapping in front of them. Off to the right side, Wrinn and Phia joined in the cheering as Rostol and Roland approached them and each Sage embraced their students.

Still, the two elves were still a little mystified at exactly what was going on. "What - wuh - guh - how?" was all Lyra was able to squeak out as she gazed at Elf Castle for the first time in ten years.

Roland beamed at her with pride and spoke with a joyous voice. "You are a heroine, my daughter! After you and your companions left the Crown in the Marsh Cave, Astos sent all his available forces in an all-out attack on ElfLand, furious that his chances at regaining his kingdom were dashed. By the time the Dark Elves arrived, the Second Army of the South was more than ready for them - and we pulverized the bastards! Oh, and if you're curious why the entire western half of the city is burning, a group of wizards from the Dark Elves cast a new type of Fire spell on the town - the flames cannot be doused by water or Ice magic. So, Rostol and myself laid a magical barrier around the square, and once the flames die down we shall simply rebuild." Lyra, with a smile, began to comment about the Elves' victory when her father held up his hand and cut her off. "Unfortunately, the Dark Elves did manage to cripple us. A spy of their number infiltrated the castle and poisoned the Prince. Rostol and I were able to prevent his death, but he lays in a deep sleep and we have no clue what can wake him."

Lyra's face dropped as she replied. "I have sad news as well - we all did not escape unscathed from our mission." Lyra looked apprehensively at Wrinn, then continued. "Gary - "

Unexpectedly, Wrinn took over from there. "Gary was captured, tortured, and killed by Astos. He died in service of his country as an Honor Guardsman - when I have to die, I want nothing less."

Such nobility, Lyra thought. He really cared about Gary, but he's strong enough not to show it. How could I have ever thought him an unfeeling monster? She looked over at Roland, who stood in silent respect for Gary's memory. Come to think of it, what about Father? He may have treated me harshly, but look at what that got for me - I've saved my people and earned Wrinn's respect with the skills that he taught me. She looked back and forth from Wrinn to her father, and she knew that she loved them both.

After the celebrations had died down, the heroes and Sages began discussing their more urgent matters. Various remedies were used on the Prince, with no effect. With their failure to revive the Prince, Rostol began to have second thoughts about leaving, but Johann was able to convince him to appoint one of his other students as Chancellor in his place. After three days, the magical fires went out and the rebuilding effort began. With the new Chancellor running things as smoothly as they had gone with the Prince alive, Rostol was finally satisfied and agreed that it was time for them to leave for Coneria.

Later that night, Wrinn stood on the deck of the Maelstrom and peered in perplexity at the seas below them, which for some reason were still calm. "What on earth is going on?" he thought aloud. "What is that blasted Kraken up to?"

"Who knows?" Wrinn turned to face the speaker and did a double take. Lyra was leaning against the railing, her long blue hair - which was usually in a tight ponytail - flowing behind her in the breeze. She had removed her piecemeal armor, and as the knight stood there staring, he realized all that she was. A fierce fighter. A beautiful young girl. And, most importantly, a caring soul who needed the strength of another - the exact opposite of him, an overly powerful man who needed someone to teach him how to really care about more than duty or honor. She's wonderful, he thought to himself. Out loud, he asked, "What are you looking so pensive about?"

Continuing to stare out to sea, the elf replied, "I was just thinking about ElfLand. When we arrived at the gates of ElfLand to find it destroyed, I really didn't know what to think. Father and I left ElfLand when I was only eight, and I don't remember much of what living there was like - heck, even most of the ten years I spent in the mountains with Father are a hazy memory."

With a small smile, Wrinn remarked, "Lucky for us you remembered your swordsmanship."

Lyra laughed and looked down in embarrassment, then flipped her head up and looked back to sea. "Anyway, because my memories were so hazy, I didn't know what to think when I thought that ElfLand had been demolished. I'd lost my home - or had I? It's almost like I never had a home in the first place, and I'd lost my only chance at one."

Wrinn took a step towards her and began to speak in a kind of daze. "Lady Lyra, don't worry. If you are ever in need of a place to call home, do not hesitate to seek out Coneria. The people are good, the King is the wisest in the world, and - and I would want you there." His heart began to beat faster and he placed his hand on the ship's railing to steady it.

"And why would that be, O knight?" Lyra turned towards Wrinn and slinked over to where he was standing, grinning inwardly because he was exactly where she wanted him. Wrinn, in turn, looked into her eyes and grinned, because he knew she knew what his answer was, which they both said at the same time -

"Because I love you."

On the opposite side of the ship, Phia, once again invisible, wiped a tear from her eye as Wrinn and Lyra met in a passionate kiss. Sheesh, she thought to herself, silently going below deck to leave the lovers in privacy, what the heck IS it about this ship?

12. Across The Ocean

With the wind and seas calm, the Maelstrom made a smooth, if slow, trip back across the Aldi Sea, each passenger making good use of the unexpected delay. Rostol spent his time in consultation with Johann discussing the mage's new magic attack - asking how he had figured it out, giving him pointers on how to increase its effectiveness, and shortcuts he could take to speed up the casting process. Roland, Wrinn, and Lyra spent the voyage in training and exercise. Roland was duly impressed with the skills Lukahn had taught Wrinn, and endeavored to teach the knight some of the defensive moves his daughter was so adept at using (even though he eyed her new armor configuration with disapproval) while improving her offensive strategy.

Phia, however, spent no time in training with her allies. She wandered aimlessly around the ship, lost in her own mind, as the shock of what had happened to her in the past three days caught up to her and pounded her psyche with the force of an ogre. Her involvement in the Elf Wars, the whole ordeal with Gary, and the complete flip-flopping of her life - it was just too much to deal with. The Elf Wars were bad enough - "the second I learned that Astos was a servant of the Fiends I should have left," she said to herself during the first night on the ship. "How on earth did I justify staying there?" Because he paid you well, my dear. Why else? It was the money - it was always the money. The Elf Wars, the Pravoka Sailor's Rebellion, even enlisting, you only cared about the money. "Wait a minute - when I enlisted, it was because" - of the soldier's pay. Do you honestly think there's an ounce of righteousness in you? You didn't care about anything but keeping yourself alive - why do you think you were the only survivor out of your entire "- shut up!" Phia tried to quiet the voice in her head by thinking of something somewhat pleasant - the changing of her life. Ever since her service had ended, she had been a wandering mercenary, fighting for the sake of money, not caring who or what she was fighting for. But now, what with the Elf Wars, Gary and Wrinn, and the Quest coming into her life, she finally had direction. She had a goal to reach for. A noble cause to fight for. "And, most important of all," she thought with an ache in her heart, "a way to repay Gary..."

At first, Phia thought that having so much to think about was a burden - soon, she realized that it was a blessing in disguise, for it allowed her to have a reason for alienating herself besides the fact that she would be alienated anyway. She could not train with Roland, Lyra, and Wrinn - the knight hadn't spoken to her since they'd left ElfLand, and it was obvious that he really hadn't forgiven her yet. Besides, the fighters' strength and skill with the blade was far beyond hers. She could not study with Rostol and Johann, either - the black magic that they were discussing was too powerful for her, and what good would it be to attempt to discuss white magic with them? Just like old times. The fighters train, and the magicians study, and I sit alone and wonder what the hell I'm doing. Alone on watch late that night, she closed her eyes and bowed her head, accepting her fate as an outcast once more.

However, she was shaken out of her reverie by a hand on her shoulder. Startled, she looked up to see that it was Lyra.

"How's it going?"

"All right, I suppose - what are you doing up here? Shouldn't you be father?"

Lyra, however, immediately detected what Phia's hesitation meant. "Sheesh, it's only been a day - are we that obvious?"

", it's just that - well, I watched you two for a while."

"You WHAT? Where were you?"

"On deck."

"That's impossible - we didn't see anyone all ni- oh." Lyra grinned sheepishly and blushed. "You learned Invisibility too, eh?" Phia nodded as Lyra started to giggle while staring off into space. "Back when I still lived in ElfLand, Invisibility was one of the first spells they taught the young Black Mages - boy, was that a disaster. Every single night we'd have at least twenty boys cast Invisibility on themselves and sneak out to peep on the dorms at the girls' school. I always used to spend nights visiting Johann just so that I didn't get peeped."

"What, he never went out with them?"

"Nope. Johann was always a student first, a friend to me second. And then...well, that was about all there was to Johann back then. None of the other boys really liked him - I'd be willing to bet they bullied him, too. In fact, now that I think about it, I was his only friend. I wonder what happened to him after I left?"

"I went through hell." Whirling around, the two ladies saw Johann, calmly cleaning his glasses. "My life used to be in a stable pattern - go to classes, get tortured, and then wait for you to show up and shed some light on my day. With you seemingly gone forever, I had nothing to keep my spirits up. Studying was all I had left. Eventually, it paid off, because Rostol chose me as his personal student. Therefore, I consider it worth it. I now have my only friend back plus a whole new friend, and I'm able to use the skills that I worked so hard to develop to help save the world." The mage put his glasses back on and blinked at Phia before speaking up again. "However, we're not here to talk about me."

Phia looked perplexed for a moment until Lyra continued Johann's thought. "We're here to talk about you."

Phia's perplexed look returned and her voice rang with disbelief. "What? Me? What the heck is there to talk about?"

Tenderly, Lyra asked, "How many friends do you have, Phia? I mean real friends, not just allies?"

"Well...well...oh, forget it, I may as well admit - none." Sighing, she slumped onto the railing and buried her head in her arms - until she felt that gentle hand on her shoulder again.

"Wrong - you have two."

The Red Mage wearily lifted her head to look at her new friends. "But - after what I've done - why?"

"Because, Phia, we know about you. We know why you are what you are," Johann said.

Phia began to grin as she said, "Wait a minute here. Somehow, you two know how I became a money-grubbing mercenary, and that makes it okay for you to become my friends? How does that work?"

Johann's face remained serious even as Phia laughed. "Allow me to tell you a story. Once upon a time, a young girl applied to the academy of White magic in her town, but was told that she would not suit and was sent away." Phia stopped laughing and the grin began to fade from her face. "Not losing hope, she then applied to the academy of Black magic - and was turned away from there as well." She stood stock still, body trembling and eyes filled with pain. "Finally, she exercised and trained and started to learn the sword, and when she applied for fencing tutelage, once again she was told she just wasn't good enough. In despair and anger, she did the only thing she could - since she had been told that she would never master any one skill, she would become as good as she could in all three. With ingenuity surpassing that of Balance herself, this girl succeeded in her endeavor and became the first and only Red Mage. Unfortunately, once she left her hometown, she found that the only occupation suitable for a Red Mage was a mercenary. Over time, she adapted to her occupation, leaving the eager, ingenious young girl behind to become the cold-hearted pragmatist. We believe in you because we know that eager little girl is still in there somewhere. We want her as part of our team. We want her to be our friend."

Through her now ragged breathing, Phia was able to choke out, "How in the world did you know all that? I've never told anyone!"

"Gary figured it out and told me over the campfire one night," said Wrinn. At the mention of Gary's name, Phia slumped against the railing and the tears silently slipped from beneath her closed eyelids as the elves watched the stoic approach of their human friend. "He really loved you, Phia - he once said that you couldn't be blamed for anything you did, since he knew why you were what you were."

" the dungeon...he told me...that I...I wasn't worth it...even when I told him I loved him!" Phia looked up at Wrinn, eyes pleading for an explanation.

"He probably thought you were lying...that you had betrayed him. Was this the last time you talked to him?" A nod. "Well, there's part of your explanation - this was, after all, before you tried to save his life. Besides, I never got to tell him what I figured out."

"And...sniff...what's that?"

"Gary would have been captured and killed anyway, with or without you. You did what you did because that's what you always did - I suppose you can be forgiven for not learning how to understand your heart when love was so new to you." Wrinn stepped forward, put a hand on her shoulder, and turned her face up to his. "By the wishes of my late friend Gary Blackstone, I forgive you for your past actions and accept you as my friend." Sobbing half with sadness and half with joy, Phia flung her arms around Wrinn and buried her head in his chest as the knight held her. Looking up, Wrinn saw Lyra giving him a loving smile and beginning to tear up herself, so he held out an arm and beckoned to her. After latching onto her love, she turned to Johann and held out her arm as Wrinn had done. "Come on, Johann, group hug!"

Backing away, Johann said, "Uh-uh - no mushy group hugs for me!"

Looking sternly at the elf, Wrinn added, "Come on, Johann - group hug."

Shaking his head even harder with a smile on his face, Johann shouted out "No way!" Wrinn looked at Lyra, then at Phia. They all nodded, disengaged themselves, and started to run after the diminutive elf, who ran off laughing - until he reached the bow of the ship, where a trio of Seahags leaped from the sea and ambushed him. Not having enough time to react, he ducked and cowered on the deck, hoping they wouldn't cut him up too badly - when he heard the unmistakable crackle of thunder, saw a flash of light, and looked up to see the three sea creatures reeling.

"Johann, get out of there!" The magician was only too happy to oblige as Phia leaped to the attack, moving, slashing, and stabbing away at their attackers with a fury unseen by anyone previously - including herself. Twenty feet away, Wrinn and Lyra watched with awe as they held back from the battle, letting Phia handle this one on her own. They could not believe their eyes as the Red Mage dispatched her first two attackers with ease - and gasped as the third came up from behind her and gave a mighty slash at her unprotected midsection, ripping a huge gash in her side and sending her flying. From her position on the ground, Phia muttered the Cure incantation, sealing up the wound, and with an audible growl, rushed her adversary. As she was about to reach the final Seahag, it threw up its arms, ready to deal a crushing blow to her skull the second she was in range. To the creature's surprise, however, it brought its arms down on nothing but air as Phia performed a quick slide through the Seahag's legs, got up on one knee, turned, and cleaved the creature in two with one slash.

"Wow..." Wrinn whispered to Lyra. "Welcome to the team!"

Later that night, Phia slept fitfully, tossing and turning as the voice in her head tormented her. Don't believe them, you fool! How are you going to make a profit off this? Steal their money and run north - the Fiends are going to make their assault soon and you could get rich if you play your cards right!

Suddenly, Phia found herself standing in the middle of a desert, staring up at a large stone tower. For a moment she was disoriented, and then realized that she was in the Yahnikurm Desert looking up at the Mirage Tower. "What the heck am I doing here?" You're being shown your future, my dear. Phia turned to see herself, dressed in a cloak of regal purple and adorned with gold, slowly walking toward her. You're doing pretty good for yourself - you've become Tiamat's general and you're rich beyond your wildest dreams! Tonight, after you and Tiamat lead the final assault on Lefein, the last town left in existence, the two of you are going to dance on Gary's grave - doesn't that sound like fun?

Shrinking back in horror, Phia whispered, "No...this can't be happening...I won't let it happen!" In a flash of light, the scene disappeared and shifted to a barren wasteland, the wind whipping past her as she faced herself again - a raven-haired version of herself dressed entirely in black. Damn you! You've always given up so easily before! Furious, Phia screamed, "Who are you and why are you doing this to me?" I'm the mercenary in you - you created me and became me back when you started to value money over all else. Then you had to go and get involved with those blasted knights - and now look at you, you're reverting back into that goody-two-shoes you were before! With a sly grin, Phia answered, "Oh, don't you worry - I'm not all good." With that, she leaped for the throat of her counterpart and squeezed with all her might. You've...already killed me in your mind, you know...this is just...symbolic...

Still grinning, Phia squeezed even harder and grunted, "Yeah, I know - but DAMN does it feel good!"

A few minutes later, if you had been able to sneak into Phia's quarters, you would have seen the Red Mage sleeping calmly, with a huge grin on her face.

In the morning, a bleary-eyed Phia stumbled out of her quarters, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes and yawning. She shut her door with a clunk and, moments later, Lyra came rushing down the stairs. "Phia, thank goodness you're awake! Hurry up on deck!" She turned and ran back up on deck, followed a few steps later by the half-asleep Phia.

The second she got out on deck, though, her fatigue vanished as it was replaced by absolute awe. As the sun rose in the east, Coneria Castle appeared over the horizon, a majestic sight of clean white stone at the end of the shining blue sea. Walking in a daze, she joined Rostol, Roland, Johann, Lyra, and Wrinn in the bow as they each gazed at the beautiful scene in front of them. "You live there, Wrinn?"

Wrinn blinked for a few moments, then incredulously asked, "What, you've never seen Coneria before? I thought you said you'd traveled the world!"

"I've traveled to where the fighting was. Since when has there been a conflict that involved Coneria?"

"Good point." Wrinn turned back to the horizon. No matter how many times I've seen it, he thought, It's still beautiful.

After a final hour of travel, the Maelstrom docked at the port south of Coneria, and the party disembarked and started the last leg of their trip back, hiking north across the grasslands to the Dream City. The only mishap along the way was when an overconfident pack of fifteen imps attacked the group...and were dispatched in five seconds, getting no closer than twenty yards to them. Wrinn, Lyra, and Roland gave the three magicians dirty looks - when asked why, they simply replied that they had been denied their share of the fun. Sharing a chuckle, the party continued north at a good clip, soon reaching the gates of Coneria, where Lukahn stood waiting for them.

"Welcome to Coneria, my friends - I only wish your visit could be under more favorable circumstances," Lukahn solemnly said.

"As do I, Lukahn," replied Rostol, "as do I."

"Mm. Unfortunately, we have no time for pleasantries. Rostol, Roland, we must convene immediately to discuss the situation. Wrinn, in the meantime, you can show your friends around, and then the four of you can come to see me at sundown for formal introductions and discussion." Wrinn nodded, and, wasting no time, the three Sages left for Lukahn's house.

Lyra, looking confused, tapped Wrinn on the shoulder and said, "Wrinn, he does know about Gary, right? He didn't seem too distraught."

"That's because he can control his emotions better than anyone on this world - and because he's really concerned about what's going to happen with the Fiends." Wrinn got a faraway look into his eyes as he started to walk through the city, the other three close behind. "And yes, he knows. He had a very special bond with Gary - he would have known instantly that he had died."

"Doesn't Lukahn have a bond with you too?"

"Sure, but not like the one he had with Gary."

"What was the difference?"

"He saw so much more in Gary - he was Lukahn's protégé, really."

"Huh? The way you guys were acting, I thought you were the leader."

"Well, yeah, but that's because that's just what I'm like as a person. Gary was always a much better swordsman than me, ever since we were kids. I just happened to be stronger - that's why I always took charge of things." Lyra looked on with concern as Wrinn seemed to disappear within himself again as he thought about his teacher. "Losing Gary must have come as quite a shock to Lukahn."

"You can say dat again, Mr. Wrinn!" Snapping him out of his reverie was a little girl. "To-day was the fiwst time we saw him in a week!"

Wrinn blinked in shock and managed to stammer, "Wha?"

"Yeah - last week he was eating in the pub when all of a sudden he fell over and threw up and got up and threw up again and left and went and stayed in his house allll day! Nobody knowed what was wrong with him - I guess now we do." The little girl's expression suddenly became sad and her voice became much quieter. "The Mr. Gary is dead, huh?" Wrinn managed to nod and Phia wiped a tear from her eye. "I's sorry, Mr. Wrinn. I know you liked him and stuff." In yet another reversal, the girl brightened again. "Dat's okay though! You know why? 'Cause now he's up there with all them gods and other dead people and stuff and they're all having a dead people party!"

Wrinn and Phia started to laugh weakly as Lyra leaned down and hugged the little girl. "What was that for and who are you?" the girl asked, eyeing Lyra suspiciously.

"That was cheering up my friends by reminding us that Mr. Gary is in a nice place, even though he's not with us, and as for me, I'm...I'm, well, Mr. Wrinn's girlfriend."

The girl's eyes shot open and she exclaimed, "Mr. Wrinn has a GIRLFRIEND? Oh boyoboyoboy, I gotta tell everybody! Bye, nice lady!" And, with that, the girl was off like a shot, racing for the town square.

"Great. Juuuuuust great," bemoaned Wrinn as his friends started to laugh. "I'm only back in town for ten minutes and already I'm going to be embarrassed." Putting his arm around Lyra and giving her a peck on the cheek, he said, "C'mon - I'll show you guys the clearing where Gary and I used to play while I still have my dignity." Laughing all the way, the Four made their way to the tranquil forest as the sun rose overhead.

13. Ports of Call

"Greetings, Sage Lukahn. I am Lyra Wildar, swordswoman of ElfLand - student - and daughter - of Sage Roland."

"Greetings, Sage Lukahn. I am Johann Raystovsson, Black Magician of ElfLand - student of Sage Rostol."

"Greetings, Sage Lukahn. I am Phia D'Hiver, Red Magician of Wherever - friend of these three."

"Lukahn, I think you know me well enough. Oh, all right - stop giving me that dirty look, would you? Sigh...Greetings, Sage Lukahn. I am Wrinn Taylor, Honor Guardsman of Coneria - student of you, Sage Lukahn."

"Thank you for you respect, Wrinn, delayed as it was. I excuse you from this meeting - you are wanted at the castle to be outfitted for your Guardsman's armor." Beaming with pride, Wrinn rose, nodded to his master, and flashed Lyra a quick smile before heading out the door. "Lyra and Johann, you two are excused as well. Rostol and Roland are waiting at the pub - they can fill you in on the discussion that we had earlier today." Lyra and Johann quickly got up and nodded to Lukahn in the same fashion that his student had, then walked out, flashing each other looks that said Why did he call a meeting of all four of us then send three of us away? and I have no clue - is Phia going to be all right?

As the two elves left, Phia, was in fact, thinking the same thing. Why does he just want to talk to me alone? What's going on? Phia could feel the nervousness stirring in the pit of her stomach as Lukahn stood, turned, and stared solemnly at the fire. "How did it happen?"

Completely flustered, Phia stammered, "Wuh-what?"

"Gary. I know he's dead. I know you were there and I know he loved you and I know you betrayed him and you will tell me right now who killed him and WHY!!!!!" To Phia's shock, Lukahn collapsed to his knees and continued on with ragged breath. "I saw so much potential in him...he was a brilliant swordsman and could have mastered the art of fighting. He was wise as well...I'd...I'd hoped to have him replace me when I passed please..." Lukahn turned and looked at Phia, eyes pleading, "...please tell me how he died."

After a moment of staring at the Sage in a daze, Phia swallowed and began her tale. "When Astos realized that Wrinn, Lyra, and Johann had invaded the Fortress, he sent his guards to fetch Gary from the dungeon and then they chained him above the door. When the other three arrived, I jumped out from my hiding place and tried to stun them with a lightning attack. Fortunately, Wrinn and the others conducted the electricity to the ground and Lyra cast Pure on me so that I couldn't use black magic any more. As a final, sarcastic gesture to Astos, I cast Cure on Gary and then ran for the back of the room to try to get him down while the others attacked that twisted demon." Phia took several deep breaths to try to keep her composure, but was still unable to stop the tremor in her voice. "After their initial attack, Astos turned his arms into tentacles, and then...then...he hit Gary with a beam of darkness." Lukahn had lapsed into a kind of numbness, and simply knelt in place and blinked - until he was snapped out of his waking coma by the shaking of his hut as Phia pounded the wall in anger. "Curse that black monster! I'd almost cut through the chain - why couldn't he have waited five more seconds?" There were no tears this time - just the unchecked flow of black rage. "Why couldn't I have cut through faster? Why did Gary have to die when I could have saved him??" As Lukahn watched the young woman endanger his house's structural integrity, he felt a strange sensation pass through him - and suddenly a vision of a black-haired woman lying dead on a wasteland flowed into his mind. He realized what he was looking at. He smiled.

Phia, in the meantime, stood with her fist to the wall, panting for breath, when she noticed the Sage's grin. "What on earth are you happy about at a time like this?"

"Your rage has finally found a medium through which to leave your body - in this case, my wall. The mercenary in your mind is dead - and you have just killed the mercenary in your body." Phia's eyes widened as she turned her head to face Lukahn. "How - how did you know that?"

Smiling broadly, the old man replied, "You told me, Phia. The telepathic link that Gary and I shared...that allowed me to teach him to fight with his instincts on a different plane of consciousness...that link has transferred from him to you. Trying to save him even after you had damned yourself, accepting your role in the Quest with open arms, and letting your pent-up rage flow with your wishes to do the right thing has opened your mind to me - and you should see the view!"

Astonished, Phia said, "Why - what do you see?" She shrank back in surprise as Lukahn suddenly rushed at her and grabbed her by the shoulders.

"Potential, my dear! Nearly unlimited potential! Think about it, Phia - you're the world's one and only Red Mage! Swordsmanship, White Magic, and Black Magic all rolled into one - think of the possibilities!" The old Sage let go of the shocked Phia, stepped back, and calmed himself. "Phia," he said solemnly, "I would be able to teach you techniques beyond your wildest dreams if you would only become my student."

Speechless, the Red Mage managed a nod, eyes shining with joy as Lukahn embraced her. "We don't have much time - the other Sages and I are leaving for Crescent Lake in the morning, and I believe you four are headed for the Dwarf Cave?" Phia nodded and, pensive, Lukahn continued. "Well then, we'd better hurry, eh?" Smiling again at his new student, he stood and said, "Go to the forest clearing and prepare yourself. I must gather some materials here first." Phia turned to leave and stopped mid-twist when she heard her master's voice again. "Phia?"

"Yes, Master Lukahn?"

"Gary would be very proud of you." Giving Lukahn a misty-eyed smile, she hurried off to the clearing as Lukahn began to search his house for his magic books.

The next morning, the four adventurers and the three Sages stood together at the Conerian wharf, watching as the ship that was to carry the Sages to Crescent Lake was warped in next to the Maelstrom. Wrinn stood resplendent in his shining red armor, unable to hide his pride as he tied a golden-yellow band around his head. Lyra and Johann were talking quietly, taking the occasional peek at Phia, who continually attempted to stifle a yawn - she'd had a long night training with Lukahn. The sages, meanwhile, were holding a final meditation session before leaving their erstwhile students.

They were snapped out of their reverie by a loud whistle from the ship's captain, signaling them that the ship was ready to leave. Lukahn waved back and the three Sages solemnly approached the dock, the Four following closely behind. At the very edge of the shore, the Sages stopped and turned to face the adventurers, and Lukahn began to speak.

"Hopefully, all four of you know our new plan." The two elves nodded, having discussed the matter with Rostol and Roland the night before, but Phia and Wrinn looked at each other in mystification and shook their heads, each one having been rather busy.

Lukahn looked shocked for a moment, then embarrassed as he recalled that he was supposed to be the one to tell his students about the plan. Rostol and Roland, realizing the bonehead move their colleague had pulled, began to snicker as Lukahn pulled himself together and addressed the two figures in red. "You are still to find our colleagues and send them to meet with us at Crescent Lake, but you are to head north as soon as possible and warn the towns there. Also, when the Fiends invade, you are to move against them." Phia and Wrinn looked up in shock, while Lyra and Johann each took a deep breath and stared at the ground. "You won't be able to kill them - as long as they have the Orbs, they will absorb its elemental power. You must take the Orbs and force the Fiends to retreat to their altars, where in time they can be defeated." The Sages shouldered their packs and turned to go, but Lukahn couldn't resist a parting shot. "In all this world, I can think of no other warriors that have a better chance at stemming the flow of evil. Good luck."

After they had boarded and the Sages' ship was pulling out of sight, Lyra ran over to Wrinn and threw her arms around him, shaking with fright as her love tried to comfort her. Looking over at his kinsman, Johann remarked, "Yeah - that is pretty heavy to lay on someone first thing in the morning."

Meanwhile, Lukahn stood in the stern of his ship, watching Coneria Castle disappear over the horizon as Roland came up next to him. "Think they'll be able to succeed, Lukahn?"

Smiling, the old Sage replied, "Of course, my friend - they're a quarter of the way there already!"

After an uneventful trip northwest, the Four landed at the abandoned Dwarf Wharf ("I don't care how wise or kind the Dwarves are, it's still the stupidest name for a landmark in the world," Phia had said,) and after a short trip overland, they arrived at the entrance of the Dwarf Cave.

As they approached the entrance, a gruff voice cheerily called, "Aye, there - who exactly are ye and what's yer business?"

"I am Wrinn Taylor of the Conerian Honor Guard and these are my trustworthy companions. I seek an audience with a Sage of the Twelve who is supposedly staying with you."

"Aye, we got one a'them! Sage Radvich is who ye be lookin' fer. Good man, except he's terrible with drink." The four looked surprised until the dwarf continued. "Problem is, 'ee never 'as any! Har har! Come along, my good man - I'll take the lot 'a ya to 'im directly! Heh heh...'ee never 'as any...I'll 'ave to remember that one," and still chuckling to himself, he led the smiling Four down into the firelit glow of the Dwarf Cave's interior.

A few minutes later, Wrinn was just finishing his speech to this latest Sage, saying, "...and you must leave at once for Crescent Lake, Sage Radvich."

"Indeed I will, Wrinn. Thank you for your timely warning and good luck on the rest of your quest." Radvich sighed and looked around the cave. "It's too bad that I have to leave now - I was going to help the Dwarves with the expansion of their cave. Oh, well...I guess I'll have to leave it in the capable hands of Nerrick."

"Aye, Radvich!" The four looked to their left as a young dwarf briskly walked towards them. "You go deal with them damn Fiends, and me 'n the boys 'll have this cave finished in no time!"

Johann sensed that a long, drawn out goodbye was in the works, so he tapped on Wrinn's shoulder and whispered to the knight, "Shouldn't we be going?"

"Right, right. Well, Radvich, we must be moving on to find the next Sage - we'll leave you to your goodbyes."

"Yes, yes." Radvich shook Wrinn's hand and the Four turned to go, hearing the last strains of conversation between the Sage and Nerrick. "Now remember, Nerrick, be economical with the dynamite."

"Aw, don't ye worry, old friend. If we ever run out, I'm sure we can get more somewhere!"

Wasting no time in dilly-dallying, the party was quickly back aboard the Maelstrom, heading southward out of the Dwarven Bay.

While Wrinn and Lyra walked the deck arm in arm, Johann and Phia sat in the ship's cabin discussing their next move. "So, Phia, where are we off to?"

"I suggested to Wrinn that we head west, for two reasons. One, it's the only way out of the Aldi, and second, once we get through the Channel, it's only half a day's sail to the port of Melmond."

Johann nodded, then yawned as the fatigue of the day caught up to him. "Well, Phia, I'm going to sleep. A pleasant evening to you."

"And to you, Johann." Phia yawned herself, rubbing her eyes, and jumped up from the table in shock as Johann abruptly popped his head back into the room.

"Phia, I've been wondering - and I've just got to know this as a student of magic - how in the world did you really manage to become what you are?"

The world's only Red Mage leaned back in her chair and grinned slyly. "I'm gonna tell you the same thing I told Gary, my elvish friend - trade secret. And don't waste your time trying to drag it out of me during the quest - I'm not even going to tell Master Lukahn!"

Now it was Johann's turn to appear shocked. "Master Lukahn? He took you in as his student? Does Wrinn know about this yet?"

Worriedly, Phia replied, "Not yet. In fact, I should go tell him now. Good night, Johann - I'll see you in the morning." As Johann left, Phia took a deep breath and attempted to calm herself before quickly getting up and striding briskly for the stairs.

Phia arrived on deck and looked around for the blade-wielding pair, whom she found locked in a kiss on the starboard side of the ship. She coughed, and a moment later they both turned to look at her, each face clearly saying This had better be reeeeeeal important...

"Wrinn, could I talk to you for a minute? It's reeeeeeal important." Disengaging himself from Lyra with a sigh and giving her a quick peck on the cheek, Wrinn turned to face the Red Mage as Lyra headed below deck, flashing a sour look at Phia the whole way. "I'm sorry to interrupt your...'fencing' practice, Wrinn," allowing herself a grin.

"Phia, if you broke up a kiss like that simply to make fun of me, I'm really going to hurt you."

"No, Wrinn, this is about something far more serious," she said, and in front of his astonished eyes, drew her sword and leapt to the attack. Before the knight could even reach for the handle of his blade, Phia had already stabbed him in the side. The sudden loss of blood made Wrinn dizzy, and he dropped to one knee as Phia moved in. Seconds later, seemingly out of nowhere, slashes appeared all over Wrinn's body as Phia's rapier flashed in the moonlight. Falling to one hand, Wrinn weakly lifted his head as he saw his adversary execute a perfect backflip, and cursed his decision to take his armor off once they had left the Dwarven Bay.

As Phia crossed her arms across her chest and bowed her head, obviously charging a spell, the world seemed to dissolve around Wrinn as the blood loss became critical. "Lyra..." he managed to spit out between ragged breaths, "don' dare hurt Lyra..."

With a calmness that chilled his heart, she replied, "Oh, don't worry about Lyra - you'll be seeing her again real soon," and thrust forward, firing a beam of bright blue light at the knight. Wrinn closed his eyes tight as it approached him...

And opened them in shock a moment later as his wounds healed, leaving his body bathed in a bright blue glow. "What the...?"

Smiling proudly, Phia said, "Take a swing at the ship's railing and see what happens!" Shaking his head in disbelief, Wrinn drew his blade - which glowed with the same blue as his body - and brought it crashing down on the wooden railing...and then stood, blinking.

His blade had cut a straight path through the wood - that he expected - but what was amazing was the area around the slash. It was covered with a clear crystalline substance, which he immediately recognized as..."Ice?"

"Exactly. What do you think, huh? Cure magic mixed in with elemental power - a combination offensive and defensive spell!"

"I don't believe it! How did you figure something like this out?"

"Oh, come on, Wrinn. I don't think I need to tell you how good of a teacher Master Lukahn is."

A smile appeared on Wrinn's face. "He took you in as his student?"

Flashing him a grin in return, she said, "Yep. Said he saw the same thing in me that he did in Gary." The smile started to die away from Wrinn's face as he realized what Phia had said.

"Sheesh. I just can't please that man, can I." Wrinn shook his head in frustration and bitterly barked, "Does he want you to succeed him, too?"

Shaking her own head in despair, Phia replied, "You just don't get it, do you?"


"Look at yourself, Wrinn! You're strong, powerful, a born leader! You've never been touched in combat - even a demon like Astos could only attempt to dodge you! And here you are, the leader of a quest to stop the Fiends from destroying the world and return the Orbs to human hands." Phia's look was stern as she grabbed the knight by his shirt and pulled him out of his daze. "The reason Lukahn picked Gary and me to be his prime students is because all the potential in you is already unlocked - you are the finest warrior in the world! Don't you know how proud he is of you?"

"No - no, I don't." Brightening, he said, "And you want to know why? Because he figured I would already know that I'm the greatest!"

Rolling her eyes with a smile on her face, "Oh yeah, Wrinn - that's exactly it." Eyeing him critically, she said, "Here - let me get rid of those scars." Snapping her fingers, she called upon a lesser version of her elemental healing spell, ridding Wrinn of the slash marks and bathing him in a yellow glow. "There - you're all set and you've got a little Lightning elemental in you. Now hurry downstairs and give your girlfriend a kiss she won't soon forget," she said and winked at him. Grinning, Wrinn hurried below deck as Phia sauntered over to the port railing. Moments later she saw a flash of light come from the porthole below her, followed by a high-pitched yelp and finished off with a soft moan.

Phia nearly died laughing.

14. Some New Friends

The next morning, the Maelstrom arrived at the port of Melmond, and aside from Phia not being able to restrain herself from giggling every time she looked at Wrinn or Lyra, the short walk to Melmond passed uneventfully. The Four wandered into town and decided to head for the pub in order to discover the whereabouts of the Sage that lived in the seemingly peaceful town. However, they began to have doubts after the doors of the pub had closed behind them.

The pub was dank and dim, each table with a single person seated at it. Each hand clutched a single glass, and every head was bowed, motionless, on the table. The bartender gave the Four a sad smile as they approached the bar, and said, "Afternoon, folks. Welcome to the Melmond Mourner's Rest. Sorry about the atmosphere, but you know the old saying - a bar takes on the personality of its customers, 'n the only thing people come here ta do is drink away their sorrows."

Lyra, looking like she was as sorrowful as the customers, asked, "But why is everyone here so sad?"

Head bowed, Phia answered, "The town of Melmond is under constant attack by a powerful Vampire who lives in a cave north of here. These people here are grieving for the loss of their loved ones."

Even the bartender looked surprised. "I don't know how in the world you know that, beautiful, but you're absolutely right."

Eyes burning with rage, Phia lifted her gaze to the bartender and growled, "About two years ago, I was a member of a strike team that attempted to kill the Vampire." A few of the patrons lifted their heads and stared weakly at the hardened ex-mercenary as Phia continued. "I was also the only survivor."

"Ol' Vampy killed your friends, huh?"

"No. We never even made it to the Vampire. They were a bunch of barely-trained barely-out-of-diapers upstarts, and the monsters littering the Vampire's hideout made short work of them - heck, I escaped only by the skin of my teeth." Phia looked off into space, lost in her memories. "When I came back, I told the council of our failure, and they immediately decided to start a secret military training program. One of the two Sages that was living here at that point was appointed to head the camp, and he recruited warriors and mages from around the world."

"Ah, so that's where Sage Rhital went! Blasted Rengin never told us."

Wrinn, slightly perplexed, asked, "Wait, so Sage Rhital is still here and Sage Rengin is up north somewhere?"

"Ya got it backwards, kid. Rengin is here - probably hanging around in the graveyard, the morbid bastard - and Rhital is training up north."

Relieved now that he knew exactly what was going on, Wrinn said, "Well, thank you for your information - we really should be going." Wrinn, Lyra, and Johann turned to leave, then stopped short as they realized that Phia hadn't moved. "Phia? You okay?"

"Wha? Oh, yeah, sure, Wrinn. Go ahead, I'll be along in a moment." Johann gave her a worried glance as the other three left the Red Mage still staring off into space. After they had left, Phia continued to remember the other members of the strike team. So eager, so righteous, so...stupid, so foolhardy. I tried to warn them, and then I couldn't save them. But, I can't dwell on it now. I've got a job to do. She looked up at the bartender, feeling a deep depression sink over her. "You'd better give me a quick one for the road, pal."

A few minutes later, Phia walked the empty streets of Melmond, cloak wrapped around her as she fought off the cold of the sea breeze. She arrived at the graveyard to see her three friends in consultation with a man she knew all too well. Stalking through the gravestones, the man turned his head and stared at her in shock as she approached. "P-Ph-Phia???"

"Hello, Sage Rengin. How's Death been treating you?"

"N-not too well, I'm afraid."

"Well damn, that's just too bad," Phia shot back in such a sour, acidic tone that her friends nearly jumped back in shock. "I'm guessing Wrinn has already told you what's going on. See to it that you get out of my sight as soon as possible and on your way to Crescent Lake, where you may be able to do some good for a change." With that, Phia stalked off, back in the direction of the pub. She heard the clack of footsteps on the cobblestones behind her and was soon confronted by the diminutive Black Mage.

"Would you mind explaining just what the hell that was about?" Johann asked peevishly, panting for breath.

"Sure. Remember the strike team that I told you about? They were just normal local teenagers. None of their family members had been killed, and yet they were still gung-ho to go after the Vampire. Why? Because they cared about the town and its people, that's why. They had no clue how to fight, so they asked Sage Rengin to train them in the basics of the sword. That pretentious bastard told them that he wasn't some instructor for hire and sent them away. Sage Rhital had fallen ill, so they couldn't ask him to help. I happened to be passing through this part of the world at that time, and in desperation those kids turned to me." Phia's depressed look returned and she closed her eyes. "I tried to tell them they were stupid for doing what they were doing, but they were so eager to save their town they wouldn't listen to me. In the end, I went along with them to attempt to protect them - and as I said, even I barely survived." Phia gave a deep sigh. "So I think you can see where I'm coming from, right?"

Now Johann looked depressed. "Yeah, I suppose."

By this time, Wrinn and Lyra had arrived, both looking rather peeved. "Did she ex-" Wrinn began, but was silenced as Johann held up his hand to silence him. Awkwardly recovering as the anger drained from his face, he continued, "O-kay. Anyway, Rengin is on his way to Crescent Lake, and he actually knows of somebody who knows where the secret camp is. We're supposed to meet up in the graveyard, so let's get going."

As they turned to go, they heard a shout behind them, and when they turned they saw a girl approaching them. She looked about the same age and weight as Lyra, but was a couple of inches taller, with fire-red hair that fell in waves down to the middle of her back, and her green eyes twinkled with excitement in her freckled face. The newcomer was dressed in a mid-length dark green dress, and briskly walked up to them. "You guys headed for the military camp?" After getting four nods in return, she stuck out her hand and said, "Hi. I'm your guide. My name's Katarin. Let's go, shall we?"

Johann leaned over to Phia and whispered, "Sheesh, and I thought we were in a hurry!"

Mere minutes later, Katarin led the adventurers north out of Melmond towards the military camp, hidden deep in the northern woods.

"Here's the thing that I don't quite get, Katarin - how do you know where the camp is? Why in the world were you going there? Ow!" Wrinn's question was punctuated by Lyra smacking him in the arm. "What?"

"Don't worry about it, Lyra, I can see where he's coming from. Gods know I don't look like the military type. Actually, I found the camp by accident while I was wandering through the woods one day. When Rhital found me, instead of making me stay in the camp, decided to make me the liaison between there and Melmond. I bring them letters and supplies, and when a new recruit shows up, I bring them too. I like it - it's something to do when I'm not writing or worrying about getting killed."

Johann, with a wry smile, piped up, "How decidedly morbid of you."

"Well, thanks, Johann - I just love compliments." After that witty remark, Katarin suddenly changed character as she pointed off to their left. "Um, guys, we would seem to have a problem." Four blank stares off to the left followed that remark as the adventurers looked to the left and saw nothing. Katarin, however, had gone so far as to start running to the right, calling "Guys, look down fast!"

Mystified, they looked down to see their shadows swirl and rise up out of the ground, forming five hideous globs of total blackness. Springing into action, they drew their weapons and Phia flung a damaging (in their case) cure spell at the wraiths before charging in for the attack. Her colleagues quickly joined her, and with a few slashes here and a few spells there, the apparitions were soon defeated. Wrinn looked around proudly at his friends and said, "Damn, we're getting good at this."

Meanwhile, Katarin came jogging back, looking at her companions with awe. As they starting walking again, she exclaimed, "Wow! I don't think I've ever seen anybody take out a pack of Shadows that quickly or easily! The military camp will be glad to have you four!"

The group flashed worried glances at each other before Phia decided to speak up. "Um, we're not joining the military camp, Katarin."

Their guide's face took on a perplexing look and she asked, "Then why the heck are you going there?"

"Well, that's kind of a long story..."

After another hour of crossing the plains, the group had entered the woods, and Phia had just finished their tale (with extra input from the other three at opportune moments.) Katarin took the lead through the trees, silently leading the four saviors of the world to the next Sage, mind churning all the while. However, she didn't have much time to churn before figures in camouflage leaped from the underbrush, brandishing swords and shouting for them to halt. Wrinn, Lyra, Phia, and Johann immediately drew their weapons and prepared for combat, and gave quick glances of mystification to Katarin, who stood calmly in the path as they were surrounded. "Don't worry, guys, it's just me," she called, and immediately their attackers relaxed and began to melt back into the forest.

Motioning for them to follow, Katarin started down the path again as the Four replaced their weapons, and after a few more minutes of walking, they had arrived at the Northern Camp.

As they were entering the camp, Katarin began calling "Rhital! Rhiiiiiitalllll! Got a delivery for yoooooou!" She had evidently woken him up, for as they arrived in the clearing, the Sage stumbled out of a tent, yawning and rubbing his eyes.

He caught sight of the four adventurers entering the camp and grinned tiredly at Katarin. "Got some new recruits for me, eh?" he said, and yawned again.

However, all trace of sleep dropped from his face along with his grin as Phia walked into the clearing. Katarin added, "Um...not quite." She looked worriedly at the Sage, and added, "Are...are you all right, Rhital?"

Her fears were put to rest and the tension in the clearing lifted as Rhital broke out into and even bigger grin and exclaimed, "Well, I'll have a Fiend's claw up my ass if that isn't Phia D'Hiver!" The Red Mage walked over to him with a smile, and the two friends shook hands and immediately began chatting away.

Johann leaned over to Lyra and whispered, "Well, at least we don't have to worry about establishing a good rapport with this one."

Perplexed, Lyra looked at her friend and asked, "What is it with you making all these witty comments all of a sudden?"

Meanwhile, Wrinn had joined Phia and Rhital in conversation, and the old Sage listened gravely as Wrinn explained what was going on. "I see. Thank you for bringing this to my attention, Wrinn - Lukahn couldn't ask for a better student." Phia glanced at Wrinn as the knight began to resemble his armor when Rhital spoke up again. "You'll have to give me until tomorrow morning, though - I want to escort the troops there and give them some final words of encouragement before they go in."

Phia gaped at the Sage as her face turned ashen. "G-go in where?"

"The cave of the Vampire, where else? If I'm leaving for Crescent Lake, who will train them? I think they're...pretty much ready to take on our friend, so I'll send them in to fight and then take off to join the rest of the Sages."

"You seem pretty hesitant, old man." Phia and Wrinn turned around to see Katarin standing behind them, arms crossed in front of her. "Do you really think these ragtag warriors you have here stand a chance in the Vampire's cave? You are definitely going to need help."

With a nod, Rhital conceded, "Well, if all of them were like Haywa and Markus, they'd have no problem - but unfortunately, that's just not the case. Most of them are only as skilled as simple footsoldiers, and that just won't cut it in there - as Phia should know." As the depression began to flow into Phia's eyes again, Johann, who had joined the group a moment ago with Lyra, quickly changed the subject.

"Who are Haywa and Markus?" he asked.

"They're the only two warriors here who are anywhere close to the caliber of you four," Katarin said, Rhital nodding his head in agreement before picking up where his liaison left off. "Haywa is a fantastic martial artist - she can chop a tree down with a couple kicks and punches, and Markus is a dragoon who has the most skill with a spear that I've ever seen." Rhital put his hand to his chin and turned his eyes to the sky for a moment before finishing his thought. "Right now, Haywa is meditating in the forest somewhere and Markus is doing some fly-by reconnaissance over the rest of the continent, but you'll be able to meet them both tonight when I tell the company what's up."

If Phia's companions thought that she had turned pale before, they hadn't seen anything yet - her face nearly matched her hair as she managed to stammer, "'ve got a dra...a dra...a dragoon here?"

Johann looked quizzically at his friend's reaction and said with a tinge of sarcasm, "Yes, Phia, that's what the man said. A dragoon. You know, those guys who fly around on dragons and stab people with spears?"

"Will you all excuse me?" With that, Phia rushed off and disappeared into the woods, giving her friends a warm thrill of confusion. As the frantic crunching of the underbrush faded away, all six of them said in unison,

"What the heck was that all about???"

Later that evening, Wrinn, Lyra, Johann, Phia (who still looked pale,) and Katarin were sitting on a log next to the growing bonfire, waiting for Rhital to come and address his troops. They had been gathering for the past fifteen minutes, and were starting to look impatient (and at the three attractive women with Wrinn and Johann too.) Luckily for all concerned, Rhital arrived at that point and shouted, "At ease, men!"

"Hey!" The catcall came from a muscular woman standing to the left of the group. With black hair cut short and fire burning in her eyes, the soldier looked to be as hard and mean as they came.

"Sorry, Haywa." Rhital shook his head, then scanned the group for a moment and called out again. "Where's Markus?"

An answering shout came from somewhere near the back left of the group. "Ain't back yet, sir!"

Sweating and shaking, Phia leaned over to Katarin and whispered, "This Markus guy, does he keep his dra...dragon here?"

Katarin rolled her eyes up into her head a bit and whispered back, "Ummmm, yeah, I suppose you could say he does that. Why are you scared, by the way?"

Frantic now, the Red Mage replied, "I hate dragons - they scare the living shit out of me!!"

Katarin's eyes widened in surprise and her visage became concerned, but before she could whisper anything else another shout rose from the troops. "There 'ee is, sir!"

As the Four looked up to the sky, they all gave a gasp of shock at what they saw. High above, in the soft glow of sunset, a lone figure soared majestically through the air on beautiful dragon's wings...that were attached to the figure's back and not to a dragon! Soon, the adventurers heard the soft whoosh of the air against Markus' wings as he flew, and in front of their awestruck gaze, he circled once around the clearing before he straightened his body and began to let himself gently down into the camp. When he landed, they were able to get their first good look at him.

Most of Markus looked normal enough - he was a tall, muscular man, grim-looking but handsome, with short, spiky blonde hair pointing straight up from his head. However, that was where the similarities with humans stopped. Aside from the large pair of wings that sprouted from his back, his left hand and forearm instead resembled a dragon's claw with scales the same brilliant red as his wings, and a dragon's foot protruded from his left pants leg.

Phia fainted dead away.

When night had fallen, the troops had gone, and the glow of the fire was the only illumination, Rhital had his second meeting of the evening - this time noticeably smaller. The only ones in attendance were Wrinn, Lyra, Johann, Markus, and Haywa - Phia was still passed out and was being taken care of by Katarin.

"So why are we here, Rhital?" Haywa peevishly asked. "You already told us what's going on - you're leaving us tomorrow to save the world while we kick the crap out of the Vampire, so what's left to talk about?"

"I kept you here, Haywa, because I have special orders for you. You will no longer be leading your squad in the battle. Same goes for you, Markus."

Markus' face showed quiet disappointment while Haywa jumped up in immediate fury. "WHAT??? You slimy bastard! After all the work I've done and the skills I've shown you, I don't even get to lead a squad?"

Sighing, the old Sage replied, "Haywa, you have got to let me finish more often - it would save you a lot of the rage you keep throwing at me. Now, if you had let me finish, I would have told you that instead of leading your squads, you two will be fighting in the core unit with Wrinn, Lyra, Johann, and Phia. That way, the rest of the men will take on the monsters of the cave while you six advance, eventually making it to the Vampire with more stamina and less injuries than you would have if you were simply in a squad."

"Hang on there, Rhital, don't you mean 'you seven'?" They all turned in surprise to see Katarin walk out from a nearby tent, slapping a towel against her hand.

The Sage, looking perplexed, asked, "Who's the seventh person? Wrinn, Lyra, Johann, Phia, Markus, and Haywa - that's six," he said, counting out the members of the core unit on his fingers. "I can't fight tomorrow, Katarin - who do you suggest be the seventh person?"

Smiling mischievously, Katarin pointed to her chest and said, "Me."

Snorting and turning his head away, the Sage scorned, "Are you kidding? You've never fought anything in your life more dangerous than writer's block." Noting the anger rising in the young guide, he tried a different tactic and pleaded, "Come on, Katarin, you've done so much to help us and I've grown rather fond of you. I don't want to see you get killed just because you want a thrill."

Beginning to act more like Haywa than herself, Katarin shot back, "Oh, come on, Rhital, the least you can do is let me help in the actual battle! I'll load myself up with potions - you know everybody is going to need lots of those - and if you lend me your staff, I'll be able to run away from or bonk anything that tries to get me!" Turning away from Rhital and addressing Wrinn and company, she said, "Besides, when it comes to crunch time in there, mark my words - you guys are going to need me. I'm going back in to see how Phia's doing so you folks can make your decision. Just remember, your necks are on the line - even more so when you're dealing with a Vampire." Snapping herself around with a flourish, Katarin stalked off back to the tent, leaving the other conspirators to their decision.

"Well, I don't know about you kids," Rhital groaned, "but I'm going to sleep on it - it's been one hell of a day."

The next morning, the Army of Melmond, 50 men strong, gathered nervously outside the entrance to the cave where the Vampire was holed up, grumbling amongst themselves as Rhital gave some final words of advice to the core unit - Wrinn, Lyra, Johann, Phia, Markus, Haywa, and Katarin. Phia had recovered from her faint, but continually eyed Markus with a nervous and wary eye ("Don't expect any healing magic to come your way anytime soon, you freak," she had said.) In the meantime, Rhital handed Katarin his wooden staff and gave her a quick hug. He then stood back, filled his lungs with air, and shouted "CHARGE!!"

With a loud huzzah, his faithful army rushed for the cave entrance, and when the last man had entered, Wrinn turned and nodded to his friends. Readying their own weapons, they too rushed for the cave, and soon every sign of life outside the entrance had disappeared.

15. The Power of Positive Thinking

When the seven of them caught up to the rest of the troops, they received quite a shock - there was no one fighting! The Army of Melmond was standing around with confused looks on their faces, their torches illuminating the empty cave. However, no one looked more confused than Phia.

"What in the world is going on? There used to be huge insects and oversized iguanas and even giants in here! Where did everything go?"

Johann, furrowing his brow in thought, said, "I think I have a vague idea of what might be happening - and it's not good - but we've got a Vampire to deal with first."

With a nod, Wrinn added, "Good idea, Johann - I don't think we should waste time wondering why there's nothing here to kill us, hm?" Turning to the rest of the army, Wrinn called, "Okay, men - fall in and head back to Melmond. I'd be willing to bet that they would appreciate the defense."

Saluting, the troops began to file out as Wrinn turned to face the rest of his group. "You too, Katarin. The only enemy we're going to run into down here is the Vampire himself, and whatever help you'll be able to give I don't think we'll need. OW!!" Lyra had smacked him again. "What???"

Sighing with exasperation and shaking her head, Katarin replied, "What did I tell you last night, you dolt? You are going to need me down there."

Getting exasperated himself, Wrinn shot back, "I don't think that a couple of potions are worth risking a friend's life!"

"You just don't get it, do you? It's not just about the potions, Wrinn - I know more about the Vampire than anyone here. I know how he fights, what he tries to do, what powers he has - and I know how to defeat him."

A shocked Phia turned to Katarin and asked, "How in the world do you know that? No one's ever seen him before - he attacks in the night, kills his victims in their sleep, and leaves no survivors!"

Walking further into the cave with tears streaming down her face, she replied, "Well, you got the first part right. However, my parents were most definitely awake when he killed them - and I'm here, aren't I?"

Six jaws simultaneously dropped to the floor. After a moment of silence, Haywa regained her customary anger and growled, "That bastard killed Katarin's family? I don't know about you pansies, but I'm in the mood for some payback!"

"I'm with you," Markus quietly said from the back of the group. The original Four needed no more motivation and, drawing their weapons, moved on to catch up with Katarin.

After a half hour of walking through the steadily darkening cave, the tunnel suddenly widened and expanded into a large chamber, brightly lit by torches. Opposite the entrance, against the wall, in a plain wooden throne, sat the Vampire. He was dressed in a cloak of midnight blue and had blood-red hair, and sat lazily in his chair as the Seven moved further into his chamber.

"I suppose you all are here to try to kill me," he said, shifting position slightly and scratching his chin. "It's a waste of your time, if you ask me."

Stepping to the front of the group and assuming her most imposing stance, Haywa growled, "And why, exactly, would that be, you monster?"

"Well, if you're all from that 'secret' military camp you foolish humans set up in the woods, I know I shall have no trouble whatsoever killing you."

Phia's jaw dropped in shock as she exclaimed, "You knew about the camp?"

"Of course. I am one with the earth - at least on this island, anyway - and nothing goes on here that I don't know about. I know everything about your camp and the mostly pitiful warriors who lived there - heck, the only ones I was even remotely concerned about were some woman fighter and some half-man half-dragon freak." At that, Haywa grinned wickedly and assumed a ready stance while Markus solemnly extended his wings to their full span. "W-well, that doesn't worry me at all - I'll deal with your pathetic-looking friends there first, and then...then..."

"Then what, pal?" At that point, Wrinn, Lyra, and Phia drew their own swords while Johann started up the flames in his eyes again. The Vampire, witnessing this display, looked taken aback for a moment, then remembered, Wait a minute, you moron. You're a Vampire - you can't be killed! What are you so scared about? Finishing his thought, the Vampire's visage changed from a concerned frown to an evil grin.

"You kids don't know what you're up against, do you?"

However, to his astonished eyes, Katarin made her way out front and solemnly stated, "I do."

"You!" The Vampire rose from his throne, bared his fangs, and began to rush the party when he was stopped in his tracks by a large explosion that enveloped his opponents. He stood, blinking, as the explosion receded back to its origin - the point on the ground where Phia's fist had struck.

All seven of them were surrounded by a strange red glow - since Katarin had told them the Vampire was very weak against fire - and Phia grinned as she said, "Let's get 'im!" As the rest of the group moved to the attack, Katarin hung back and watched in awe as her friends went to work. The six of them slowly circled the powerful Vampire, dodging his attacks and moving in themselves when the proper opportunity arose. Wrinn and Lyra worked in perfect tandem with each other - when one attacked, the other was in position to take a damaging hack at the superhuman beast, slicing his skin and sending scorching flame through his tainted blood. Johann and Haywa seemed to be working together as well, as a fireball from behind was met with a jump kick to the front and the Vampire was sent reeling. Finally, to her dismay, Phia set up Markus perfectly - she lobbed a fireball of her own in the air that the dragoon caught on the end of his spear and drove into the Vampire's chest as he flew at the damned being.

With the shriek of a banshee, the Vampire stared in horror at the point of Markus' spear buried deep in his chest, and having taken too much damage to stay conscious, passed out. "Great job, guys!" Katarin shouted, eyes twinkling mischievously, and before their astonished eyes, she dropped Rhital's staff and collapsed.

Johann, with his massive glasses, thought he saw a thin wisp of green fly away from Katarin's body, but he didn't have much time to think about it before the Vampire began to twitch violently, screaming in pain as he seemed to melt into the floor. Right before the body completely melted away, Johann thought he saw that wisp of green fly through the air again, but once more he didn't have much time to think about it before the entire party had crouched over Katarin's still form.

"Is she all right?" Haywa asked, her face full of angry concern as Markus checked for a pulse.

"I'm not sure," the dragoon quietly replied. "Her pulse is very weak and she's barely breathing. We need to get her back to Melmond immediately." Wasting no more words, he lightly picked her up and started off towards the entrance, the rest of the party numbly following behind.

But before he had taken three steps, Katarin suddenly awoke and remarked, "Ooh...there's no better way to wake up than in the arms of a handsome warrior!" The aforementioned warrior nearly dropped her in surprise as the rest of the party pricked up their ears at her sudden revival.

"Katarin, what happened to you back there?" Johann asked, straightening his glasses. "When you collapsed, I thought I saw something fly out of you. Am I going insane or what?"

Katarin grinned sheepishly and blushed. "Oh well, I knew my game would be up eventually...I'll tell you what's going on, but we'd better start on the way back to Melmond - this is a long story."

Later that night, as their friends conferred with Sage Rhital about what to do next, Phia and Johann sat in their room in the Mourner's Rest, still half stunned at the fantastic story Katarin had told. It was a tale of adventure, ambush, despair, revenge, and most of all, the power of the mind. "I still can't believe she can separate her mental energy from her body," Phia said, lost in a fog. "I really can't believe that once she enters that form she can mess with her enemies' minds - imagine, the only way to kill the Vampire was to make him think that he needed to really become one with the earth again!"

"Remember, though, that once she does that her body is left wide open to attack," Johann warned, "and when she does that in battle our fighters are going to have to really make sure they protect her."

"Still, Johann, wouldn't it be great to be able to do what she does? Imagine - you could be sitting around with some wonderful guy, you pretend to go to sleep, jump over to his mind, and by the time you wake up he's in love with you!" Phia walked over to the window and gave a wistful sigh.

"Thinking of Gary, or have you been hanging around with Wrinn and Lyra too much?"

Turning back to look at him with a sad smile on her face, she replied, "Both, I suppose. Those two are sickening, aren't they? Backing each other up in combat, giving each other those silly grins all the time, kissing whenever they think no one's looking..."

"...And the worst part is, you know you want to be just like them." Phia blinked in surprise as she realized that Johann had hit the nail right on the head. "Believe me, I'm no stranger to loneliness. I was always working so hard in school that none of the girls ever paid attention to me."

"I know what you mean, but my problem's a little different - Gary lived the longest of all my possible lovers, and I only knew him for a week." Phia sighed and stared out the window again, remarking, "And it's not like I've got any other options. Wrinn's already taken and Markus - well, I don't even like to think about him, the freak," as she visibly shuddered.

"Same here - Lyra's like a sister to me, I can't believe that a girl as smart as Katarin didn't learn magic - she is beautiful, though - and Haywa...she's such a bully the mere sight of her makes me furious." Johann clenched his fists in rage and stared at the floor while Phia shivered at the window.

Suddenly, Phia straightened up and Johann unclenched his fists, as the two of them slowly lifted their heads and stared deep into each other's eyes. After a moment of staring holes through each other...

...they simultaneously shook their heads and exclaimed, "Naaaaah!"

The next morning, having been convinced that they should join the Quest Of the Orbs (which Wrinn had dubbed their journey,) Haywa, Markus, and Katarin met up with the Four at the dock of Melmond to board the Maelstrom. As they approached the massive ship, Katarin leaned over to her comrades and asked, "So where, exactly, are we going?"

Haywa sternly replied, "Weren't you listening, Katarin? We're going to Onrac - the town up north where the Sea Shrine is. Rhital figured we had better hit the Fiends soon and hit 'em hard, so we're going after Kraken and getting the Water Orb back."

"Oh." By then the three of them had reached the harbor and their four new friends, who still talked with Rhital as the Sage's ship, bound for Crescent Lake, lay waiting next to the Maelstrom.

"...and unfortunately, Lukahn doesn't know where the Fiends have advanced to, he just knows they've left," Wrinn was saying. "I'm sure that the citizens of Onrac would have noticed when Kraken left the Sea Shrine - we'll find out where that bastard's hiding, you just make sure that you get back to Lukahn and figure out how to stop the Fiends - for good."

"I shall do that, noble guardsman," Rhital replied, leaning on his staff, "and I wish you success in your battle." Nodding, Wrinn turned towards the ladder of the Maelstrom, followed by his companions, when Rhital spoke again. "Katarin, before you leave, would you come here, please?"

Eyes widened with surprise, the mental wizard turned away from the ladder and walked hesitantly towards the Sage. When she had come within five feet of him, he suddenly flung his staff at her, and even though Katarin was exceedingly surprised, she still managed to catch it. "You'd better take that with you," he said, a satisfied smile on his face, "you might need it."

Katarin looked up in shock and opened her mouth to protest, but Rhital silenced her with a wave of his hand. "There's no time for discussion, my dear. I won't be needing my staff any more, and besides, the Quest is your destiny - sort of."

Thouroughly perplexed, Katarin exclaimed, "Sort of? What do you mean?"

"Whoa, look at the time! Sorry, Katarin, but my ship's leaving - and you'd better join your friends! Goodbye!" Just like that, Rhital was off and running, and within two minutes the anchor was raised and the Sage's ship was on its way south, leaving a confused Katarin holding on to her new staff, wondering. What on earth was Rhital talking about?

Later that afternoon, as the Maelstrom made its way north, Phia stood grumbling on the deck as she had been chosen for the only watch on this short trip. Thoroughly bored, she wearily leaned on the railing and wished for one of her friends to come on deck and talk to her. A moment later, as she turned at the sound of footsteps to see Markus appear on deck, she was suddenly reminded of the old adage, 'be careful what you wish for - you just might get it.'

Turning back to the sea, she exclaimed in a peevish tone, "What are you doing up here?"

With his customary quiet reserve, the dragoon mumbled, "I'm going to go looking for a landing spot, since Onrac's port is destroyed."

"That's good - not only do we get some valuable reconnaissance, you're going to be gone for a while. Good riddance, you freak - don't hurry back." With a flounce of her cape, Phia stalked past Markus and descended below deck as the half-breed wearily spread his wings and took off into the dusk. As he watched his shadow ripple along the ocean's surface, he wondered, as he had done ever since he was born, why so many people hated him for doing nothing but being alive.

Later that evening, the Maelstrom arrived at the spot where Markus predicted they would find the easiest landfall, and after anchoring the ship a couple hundred yards offshore, the Seven rowed in on one of the Maelstrom's lifeboats. Wasting no time, they immediately struck north along the coastline and soon, off in the distance, they caught their first glimpses of the seaside town of Onrac. Until Kraken's revolt, Onrac had been the neighbor of the Sea Shrine, where the Water Altar was located. However, when the Water Orb was stolen from its altar, the Shrine crumbled and what was left of it sank deep into the ocean. Luckily, the group only needed to take the Orb and make sure that Kraken headed back there instead of going down themselves - that would be the job of whoever took the lightless Orb back to the altar to regain the power of Water. But who was that going to be?

As they stalked along, Wrinn wondered what the point of their quest really was. The plan they had hammered out with Lukahn made sense - to a point. Sure, they needed to get the Orbs back - especially before the forthcoming Fiends of Earth and Fire got too powerful - but how on earth did the Sages suggest to light them again, and most importantly, who would do it?

At that point, Wrinn had no more time to ponder as Phia let out a bloodcurdling scream, and for the second time in three days, fainted dead away. As Lyra and Katarin rushed over to her, Wrinn searched for the cause of the Red Mage's distress, finding it at the southern gates of Onrac. There, standing guard, was a full-grown, pureblood dragon. After a moment of stunned silence, Markus faced the dragon, folded his wings, bowed his head, and softly said, "Hello, Father."

16. The Tale of the Dragon

Markus' father did not look at all pleased to see his son. "What is your business here? I thought I told you to never come here again."

Wrinn, bristling with indignation, stepped next to Markus and said, "Markus is my companion, and our party is here to see the Sage who lives in this town. I do not wish the consequences of detaining us on anyone, so if I were you, I would not give us any more trouble."

Markus' father, wrongfully misinterpreting this as a threat, puffed smoke from his nostrils and growled, "And what exactly is that supposed to mean, you puny human?"

"It means, Draig, that Markus and his friends are here to see me and you no longer need to be concerned with the matter," said a crimson-robed gentleman as he strode through the gates. He called a cheery hello to Markus and approaching Wrinn, he held out his hand and said, "Guardsman of Coneria, I apologize for our guard's ill temper. I am Sage Riel - welcome to Onrac."

Clasping the Sage's hand, Wrinn grimly replied, "No need to apologize, Riel. Due to the circumstances" - Draig had stalked off and Markus looked positively miserable - "I think we can understand Draig's discomfort, but unfortunately we have no time to discuss those matters. Our mission is of slightly more importance."

Nodding his head and leading them back towards the town, Riel said, "I know somewhat of your mission, my good knight - I've been trying to see what the Sages are up to these days, and I've been getting vague signals from Lukahn in Crescent Lake, which for some reason have been steadily getting stronger."

Wrinn began to explain when he was interrupted by a loud "Ahem!" behind him. He turned around to see Lyra and Katarin glaring at him, still kneeling over Phia's prostrate form. "What are we going to do about her?"

To their shock, it was Markus who answered. "I will stay here and watch over her until she awakes, so that I may apologize for my father's actions. The rest of you go with Master Riel and discuss our attack on Kraken." At the words 'attack on Kraken,' Riel raised his eyebrows, yet said nothing and with a wave of his hand led the rest of the party into Onrac. After they had disappeared around a corner, Markus turned back to the unconscious Phia and knelt next to her.

Going down to one knee, Markus reached down with his human hand and caressed Phia's face, massaging her temple with his fingers as his thumb lightly skimmed across her cheek. After a moment, Phia stirred and slowly opened her eyes - and scrambled backwards in shock when she saw that it was Markus who had awoken her.

"What in hell are you doing?!?" she screamed. "Why are you touching me? Get away from me!" With that, frightened out of her mind, she took off for Onrac, leaving a stunned half-dragon still kneeling in the dust. As she frantically ran through the streets of the town, getting strange looks from the townspeople, Phia wondered what scared her more - the fact that the freak had actually touched her or the fact that it had felt so good?

Meanwhile, in the town hall, Wrinn had just finished describing the details of their quest to Riel, and the young Sage was thinking of the best way to go about the assault on Kraken's new base. "Hmm...the river north to the Waterfall is lined with steep mountains on both sides - there's no possible way to walk there."

Katarin, looking pensive, piped up, "Could we take the Maelstrom up the river? Would it be able to fit?"

"Unfortunately, no. This really isn't much of a river, and the floor is much too rocky to risk anything bigger than a canoe."

From his position leaning against the wall, Johann adjusted his glasses and asked, "Well, where can we get a canoe?"

To everyone's surprise, Phia poked her head in the door and answered Johann's question. "From the gypsy clan in the desert. Anything you want to buy, they have to sell - and even if they don't have it, they'll make it. Besides, we have to go there anyway - Sage Roger lives with them."

With an incredulous sneer, Haywa disdainfully said, "Sage Roger? Rather plain and boring name for a wise Sage, don't you think?"

With a sheepish smile, Riel said, "Well, it's a known fact that Roger is the most...eccentric of the Sages - you'll be in for a good time when you meet him." Suddenly, the Sage became concerned and he turned to Phia, asking, "Where is Markus?"

Phia indignantly replied, "I have no clue, and I like it that way, thank you very much."

"But how did he wake you up?" a concerned Lyra asked.

"He...he massaged my temple until I woke up," Phia said, her cheeks getting flushed with embarrassment. "I can't believe that freak actually touched me!"

Shaking his head, Riel sadly asked, "Why don't you like Markus, Phia? He is a skilled and valiant warrior - a brave and kind knight - a bright and eager student! What is there not to like about him?"

"I don't care for dragons, sir. Besides, he can't be all perfect - his own father seemed less than thrilled to be reunited with him."

"There's a reason for that." They all looked up and Phia shook with fear as Draig entered the room. "Allow me to formally introduce myself, warriors. I am Draig of the Dragons of Cardia. Twenty-five years ago I left my cave in the Cardia Islands to embark on my journey of courage. I was to search the western deserts until I found the legendary Oasis and bring back a cupful of its water as proof of my courage. However, the first night after I left Cardia I stopped here in Onrac for the night. While making arrangements with the innkeeper for lodgings, the most beautiful thing I had ever seen walked through the door. Her name was Diamond." Draig paused to catch his breath and Phia could see the pain in his eyes as he remembered his love. "Somehow, the two of us fell in love at first sight, and that night, implausible as it seems, we were able to share our passion for each other. I then left for the desert, telling her that I would return as soon as my honor was assured. When I returned to Onrac two weeks later, unsuccessful and depressed, she told me she was pregnant. I was, naturally, delighted to be a father and I told her I would stay with her - abandoning my clan and any chance I had of honor with the rest of my species. I loved her that much." At this point in Draig's story, the majestic dragon could barely go on, and what he said next revealed why. "All throughout the pregnancy, the Clinic had warned us that they had never delivered a cross-breed before and that we had to be prepared for the worst. Unfortunately, his predictions came partially true. As you can see, Markus grew up strong - both his dragon half and human half are well-formed - but his wings and claws ripped my precious Diamond to shreds during childbirth." Draig could no longer speak and Riel quietly continued the story for him.

"For the first couple years of Markus' life, Draig tried to care for him as a father should, but he could not shake the thought that Markus was the cause of his beloved Diamond's death, and this continually haunted him. When Markus was five, Draig came to me in desperation and asked me to train him and care for him - so that Markus could leave Onrac as soon as possible."

Draig had regained his composure and took the tale back from Riel, saying, "I had no place to go - I could not return to Cardia without finding the Oasis first, but to tell the truth, I had no will to do so. I gave Markus an ultimatum that he was not to speak to me and as soon as he could take care of himself he was to leave Onrac for good."

Seemingly on cue, Riel once again picked up the story. "After ten years of study and training, Markus was a skilled dragoon, and I felt he was ready. He said goodbye to me, and without a word to anyone else in town, he spread his wings and flew away. I haven't seen him since - I wonder what he's been up to all these years?"

At that point Markus walked into the room and answered Riel's question himself. "At first, I tried to live in Gaia - the most isolated town in the world. I thought I would be left alone there - I was wrong. When I couldn't stand the jeering any more, I flew south, being thrown out of wherever I tried to stay, and ended up in Pravoka. As I made my way through the forest towards the town, I was waylaid by a band of thieves - and fought them all off. When I made it to town, the mayor had heard of my exploits, was impressed with my skills, and asked if I would help protect Pravoka from the legions of thieves and pirates that continually attacked the city - and I readily agreed. Soon, my fame among law enforcement circles grew, and I was asked to fight thieves all over the southern continent - ElfLand, Crescent Lake, and all points in between. Three years ago, however, that all changed when the Mayor had a visitor from the town of Melmond. He told a most extraordinary story." Markus cleared his throat and stared directly at Phia as he continued. "He told the mayor a story about a young woman who had aided some misguided teenagers that had foolishly attempted to protect Melmond from the Vampire. He spoke of her courage, her willingness to help when no one else would, and her recommendation to start up a military program that would recruit and train warriors who would kill the Vampire and end the townspeople's suffering. I was so inspired by this woman's story that I left for Melmond that very night." Phia's expression turned to one of pure disbelief as she stared at the half-breed, and Markus finally turned his gaze to the rest of the party as he finished his story. "When I arrived, I met Katarin and Haywa, and prepared for my confrontation in the Vampire's cave," motioning towards each of his friends as he spoke their names. "After a year of training with Rhital and Haywa, out of nowhere arrived Wrinn and his companions - imagine my shock when one of them was the woman who had inspired me so much. Once asked, I immediately agreed to join their quest, and here we are. And here I go - dusk is falling and the desert gypsies will have made camp and lit their fires - they will be easy to find," and with that Markus immediately ran outside and had taken off within seconds.

After Markus had left, they all sat in quiet shock - Phia most of all - and Johann was the first to find his voice. "That, I think we'll all agree, was one HELL of a story."

As the party rested at the Inn, waiting for Markus to return, Phia sat alone in her room, her mind churning frantically as she thought about the Dragon's tale. She could not believe that Markus had actually left his life in Pravoka and gone to Melmond just because of her. Ever since they had met, he'd always treated her with quiet respect - even in the face of her constant abuse. As she thought about him, she began to envision him - his handsome face, his skill and grace in movement, his wings...his scales...his claws!

And, as they had done every time she'd looked at Markus, those hazy memories flashed through her mind again. The ominous whoosh of wind meeting wing...the frenzied shouting...a blinding flash...scorching flame...a sickening crunch...deafening screams of pain...and that eerie scream that seemed to come from another world. By now, Phia was shivering, and she could only think to herself, Damn them. Damn them all!

After two hours of waiting, Markus returned. He had found the gypsies' camp, and he recommended to Wrinn that they leave immediately - "Even though we will be traveling by night, to avoid the heat of the desert sun, we will have to move quickly, for the danger transfers itself from the sun to the desert creatures as time passes," he had said. Wrinn agreed, and less than ten minutes after Markus' return, the Seven were on their way out of Onrac, taking the western gates instead of the southern, where Draig still stood watch.

As they passed through the gates, Katarin sidled next to Markus and said, "Aren't you even going to say goodbye to your father?"

Not even glancing back at her, Markus replied, "My father has no need to speak to a murderer."

Haywa, who stalked along on the other side of her battle companion, scoffed, "Surely you don't blame yourself for your mother's death! It was unfortunate, but it was probably to be expected - you're the first cross-breed between a dragon and a human, aren't you?"

Still stoically walking along, Markus folded his wings and shook his head, much to the shock of his companions. "WHAT???? How is that possible?" they chimed in unison - even Phia.

Markus sighed, and bowing his head, began to speak. "When I was studying with Sage Riel, one of the subjects he insisted I learn about was the history of my clan. Apparently, in ancient times, Dragons and humans lived together in harmony and enjoyed lucrative trade. As you know, that is where the occupation of Dragoon originally came from - armored humans riding dragons." Johann and Phia nodded, having been taught ancient history a bit more vigorously than their companions. "Well, after a while, the two races attempted to try to cross-breed themselves, hoping that the babies would be born in human form with Dragon's wings, to serve as Dragoons all by themselves. Obviously, they succeeded, as here I stand." Markus suddenly burst into a yawn, throwing his arms wide and extending his wings to their full 15-foot span. "Unfortunately, as we all know too well, a five-headed dragon named Tiamat revolted and stole the Wind Orb, thus becoming the Fiend of Wind - and he brought most of the Dragoons with him to serve in his horrible army. With the Dragoons as his allies, Tiamat easily invaded the Sky Castle and defeated the first counterattack of the Lefeinish -" here Markus could swear he saw Phia flinch - "and the remaining Dragoons were ruthlessly slaughtered by the enraged humans. After that, the Dragons departed for the Cardia Islands in shame of what had happened." The modern-day dragoon turned his eyes to the sky and stared at the stars as he finished his tale. "Luckily, I was born long enough after this terrible event to be forgiven for the actions of my race - if Sage Riel wasn't such an understanding man, I would have been killed mere minutes after I was born."

Lyra, walking hand in hand with Wrinn, chimed in with "But that doesn't explain why your father considers you the murderer of your mother!"

"Actually, Lyra, it does," Markus replied. "My father knew the legends well, and since so many Dragoons had been born both of human and dragon mothers, he thought nothing bad would happen if he and Diamond accidentally had a child. Since Mother died by internal bleeding, Father thought that it was my fault - and with what I've heard from the doctors at the Clinic, I agree with him."

Katarin opened her mouth to angrily protest his foolishness, but she was cut off by an explosion of sand off to their left - a Sand Wyrm! As the Seven ducked and covered their eyes to prevent being blinded, the Sand Wyrm eyed them hungrily and began to slither its massive way towards the group. Markus, thinking quickly, readied his spear and shouted, "Johann and Phia - whip me up a wind vortex and some ice!"

Quickly responding, Johann quickly set up a spinning column of wind that picked up the Worm and sent it flying through the air as Phia, in a daze, shot her hands outward and fired a translucent beam of blue towards the creature. When it hit, a cloud of snowflakes exploded from the Wyrm's body, and there was so much debris flying around that when Markus - who had taken off the second Johann started his spell - dove into the creature with spear extended, he disappeared completely.

A split second after the dragoon disappeared from sight, the remaining six heard a loud crunch and as the vortex died down, two half-frozen Sand Wyrm chunks fell from the sky and landed with a thud, revealing Markus crouched in the exact center of the vortex, his spear planted about two feet into the sand. Panting heavily, he forcefully yanked his spear free, and shouldering his massive weapon, he started to walk back towards the group. Suddenly, he stopped and leaned towards the southwest, straining as if he was trying to hear something. "Follow me," he said, moving off towards the mystery sound, and his friends readily followed him. After a few moments of walking, the entire party heard faint, wispy strains of beautiful music, and they were all suddenly able to make out a set of twinkling lights in the distance.

"That's the gypsies' camp in the distance," Markus said. "Let's hurry, shall we?"

17. One More For the Road

As the seven of them drew ever closer to the bright lights of the gypsy camp, Phia moved to the front and said, "Let me do the talking, guys. The gypsies are rather distrustful of strangers, but they know me." She turned back towards the lights, then quickly twisted around again as if struck by a sudden thought. "Oh, and take Riel's warning seriously...Roger is nothing like any of the other Sages you've met so far."

After receiving a nod from each of her friends, Phia once again started towards the camp, and when she had gotten close enough to make out outlines of faces, the wind suddenly picked up, making her scarlet cape billow out to her left. A collective gasp went up from around the bonfire, and Phia grinned as the familiar gravely-voiced cry of Sage Roger pierced the air.

"Hey HEY!" From the haze of the fire, the rest of the party saw a little dwarf of a man - complete with robe, big nose, and beard - come tearing across the sand, finally tackling Phia in a joyful hug. "Phia's back! She's back-back-backy-back! Happiness and joy - sunsets for everyone! Woohoo!"

Phia, meanwhile, was lying on her back, laughing her head off in the Sage's embrace. "Twisting your mind into new patterns again, Roger?"

Jumping off her with the agility of a gazelle, he landed softly in the sand and exclaimed, "Oh, yes yes yes! These lovely people I'm staying with certainly know how to make a 'magic' potion, eh Phia? Hehehehehe!"

Standing back up and brushing herself off, Phia turned to her friends and said, "Perhaps I should have mentioned Sage Roger's....unique methods of magic. By taking drink and some...interesting substances,"

"And plenty of them, that's for sure!" Roger exclaimed gleefully,

"...Roger uses the visions to think up new ways of thinking about magic and the world. 'Twisting his mind into new patterns,' he calls it."

"And oh, does it work! That stupey silly octopus doesn't dare make a move with me around - 'cause he knows I'll wipe the floor with him!"

Backing up a step or two and leaning towards Lyra, Phia whispered, "Okay, so maybe not all of his visions are beneficial."

As Phia finished her whispering, Roger suddenly became indignant, putting his hands on his hips and snapping, "Well, aren't WE rude! If you please, Phia, could you try introducing me to your friends, especially the deliciously beautiful ladies?" Wrinn quickly put an arm around Lyra as Haywa's scowl intensified.

With a wide smile on her face, Phia managed to start the introductions. "This is Wrinn, a Coneria Guardsman, and his girlfriend (Roger was visibly disappointed) Lyra, daughter of Sage Roland. This little guy here (this statement was met with a perturbed glare) is Johann, a powerful Black Mage. That over there is Haywa, a martial artist, and that's Katarin, a mental artist. The other guy's Markus."

"Sooooo very pleased to meet you all! Now, come, come, all of you - there's music and dancing and drink and ladies and drink and more music and drink!" With that, the sprightly Sage was off and running again, and the group hesitantly made its way towards the festivities.

This certainly is different, Katarin thought. Ever since her parents had been killed by the Vampire, she'd been on her own, exploring the woods and marshes around Melmond by herself, spending most of her time writing. Her pleasures were that of the mind - thinking, creating, and eventually transferring all of her body's energy to her mind itself, developing the power that she was so proud of. These people, though, seemed only concerned with pleasures of the flesh - drinking, dancing, cavorting, and general merrymaking that was quite alien to her. She was sitting alone on the outskirts of the camp, and was relieved when Johann walked over and sat down next to her.

"Great party, huh?" he scoffed, and by his tone she could tell that he was as thrilled with the evening as she was. "What a waste of time." After Katarin had nodded her assent, he continued. "I would have thought that we would have tried to secure a canoe as soon as possible and be on our way, but it appears Wrinn has other plans." Johann jerked his head towards the rest of the throng, where they were all having a spirited dual limbo contest - using Markus' outstretched wings as limbo sticks. "The only people who seem to have not lost themselves completely are Phia and Haywa - at least some of us have self-control." (This was not entirely true, as both of the ladies were partying - however, whenever it was almost Phia's turn to pass under Markus' wing, she conveniently went missing and reappeared at the back of the line. Haywa was having a good time as well - she was also punching the lights out of anyone who got fresh with her.) "That reminds me - it must take a lot of effort to pull your mental self out of your body - how exactly do you do it?"

"I'm not really sure. I discovered my ability pretty much by accident."

"What do you mean?"

One day, not long after the Vampire attacked us, I was sitting under a tree in the forest, writing as usual - actually, in those days, I mostly wrote to forget about everything." She glanced at Johann, who gave her a sad smile, and then turned her gaze to the ground. "Anyway, that day I was writing some really complicated, convoluted plotline, and I lost myself in the story's world." Katarin turned her eyes to the sky and stared off into space as the hazy memories made their way back into her consciousness. "All of a sudden, for no reason whatsoever, I dropped my pen - but when I tried to lean over and pick it up, I felt myself go flying off by about five feet, and when I looked back, I saw my own body slumped against the tree. I looked down at myself, and all that was left of me was a ghostlike apparition. At first, I thought that I had died, but as I floated there in intense confusion, my body actually moved and it began to scratch its head. After a couple of minutes, I had figured out what happened, and delighted, I jumped back in my body and excitedly ran home."

"But if you got out the first time by accident, how did you figure out exactly how to do it?"

With a sheepish grin, she replied, "Well, that's the catch - I still don't know exactly how I do it - but whenever it needs to be done, I simply try to figure out what the heck I was doing with that convoluted plotline of mine, and pop! It happens."

Shaking his head in mystification, Johann remarked, "Amazing. Simply amazing."


"You're smart enough that you can pull the power of your own mind right out of your body - and then manipulate your enemies with it, no less - and you're not a student of magic? Katarin, the strength of magic is completely dependent on the strength of the caster's mind. Why are you wasting your talent like this?"

With an indignant glare, the mental wizard replied, "My mother was a White Wizard, and my father a Black Wizard. I've seen what magic can do for you - and it's help that I don't need, thank you very much." With that, she abruptly got up and marched off towards the bonfire, where the gypsies were beginning to gather. As she walked away, Johann sat forlornly on the log, as one word appeared in his mind.


After a moment, his deliberation was interrupted by the entire group of adventurers (minus Katarin of course) waving and clamoring for him to join them by the bonfire with the rest of the gypsies. Reluctantly, he got up and walked over where his friends were chatting merrily (minus Katarin of course.) "So, what's all the hootenanny about, guys?"

With a giddy smile, Lyra replied, "Roger says that we've all got a treat coming to us! Now c'mere and sit down, so I can have my two favorite men in the world with me!"

Wearily, Johann squeezed next to Lyra and waited as Roger, a little unsteadily, made his way to a type of raised platform and addressed the assembled partygoers. "My good people! As you undoubtedly already know, we have been graced tonight by a new group of absolutely frabtabjulous folks - Wrinn, Lyra, Johann, Haywa, Katarin, Markus, and especially our old friend Phia!" A great cheer went up from the gypsies as the adventurers looked embarrassed, proud, angry, or slightly drunk, depending on the person, as the Sage went on. "Wrinn, their leader, has told me of their quest - to defeat the Fiends and retrieve the Orbs - and due to the circumstances, I must soon leave you and return to Crescent Lake." A murmur rose from the crowd and Roger raised his hands for silence. "Now now, good people, I'm sure you'll have just as much fun without me around - aaaaahhhh, who am I kidding?" The gypsies laughed and cheered as Roger grinned proudly at his joke. "To return to business, our friends will be leaving for the Waterfall, where that stupey octopus is, as soon as possible. To get there, they will need a canoe. Do we have one for sale?"

"Gimme a couple of days, and I can scrounge one up - the wood-elves up to the northeast have to have a couple that they use for fishing," said a voice from the crowd.

"Good. And now, for the premier event of the evening, that we've all been waiting for - the man who needs no introduction!" With that, the eccentric Sage quickly jumped off the platform and took his seat, leaving the party in total mystification.

After a moment of silence, a young man came forward and took Roger's place on the platform, to thunderous applause from the crowd. He was dressed in a simple blue shirt and a black vest with plain brown trousers, wore a black bandanna on his head, and carried a harp in his left arm. When the clapping had died down, he turned towards the adventurers and said, "Please excuse Sage Roger - sometimes when he 'twists his mind into new patterns' he loses some of the old ones." Loud guffawing greeted this statement and the young man raised his hand for silence. "I say this because the good Sage has conveniently forgotten that I do need an introduction, for these fine adventurers have never seen me before in their lives." As Roger turned beet red, ample amounts of snickering were heard coming from around the fire - including Lyra, who giggled into her hand until he spoke again. "I am Leyre, the Desert Bard. As your skill is with the sword, mine is with the harp. Please enjoy the show." As he finished speaking, the murmuring in the audience quieted down to absolute silence - not even the wind was whistling across the desert - and Leyre, poised and ready, struck the strings of his harp.

Through the air wafted music so beautiful and enchanting that each of the adventurers was immediately captivated, much like every single gypsy in attendance. There was no snickering, no grumbling, no drunken giddiness - just simple enjoyment of the beauty of humankind's greatest invention. Roger sat stock still, his natural exuberance tempered by the soothing melody. Wrinn and Lyra were the picture of contentment, arms wrapped around each other as they leaned against a log. Johann, Markus, Phia, and (incredibly enough) Haywa, even though they were all in close proximity of each other, all had pleasant expressions on their faces.

But it was Katarin who sat in utter rapture, totally entranced by the experience. Her jaw had dropped wide open and she barely dared to think, lest she miss a single graceful movement or a single beautiful note. However, after a few moments, a casual observer would have been rather confused to watch Katarin go from slack-jawed awe to a sound sleep as Leyre began to sing along with his harp.

In fact, only Johann would have been able to make out the faint outline of her mental energy as it performed its own dance, whirling and spinning happily as it interacted with the very vibrations in the air that the music created - and a wide smile appeared on Katarin's face.

However, the mood of the crowd quickly turned from captivated to terrified and the gypsies fled as an unearthly scream pierced the air. Wrinn quickly scanned the sky for the sound and snapped out of his reverie in alarm as he saw a Wyvern divebombing straight for them. Unfortunately, none of them were currently armed - their weapons were all stashed in the tent Roger was letting them stay in. Awww, crap! he swore to himself as he struggled to his feet, supporting the tipsy Lyra, this couldn't have come at a worse time! Lyra's drunk, Katarin's half asleep, and neither me or Markus has our weapons - looks like it'll be up to Haywa and our magicians!

Turning to his friends, he called, "Guys, heads up! We've got a problem!" The other four conscious adventurers looked up in shock as well, and more problems emerged. Phia, seeing the demonic dragon-like creature speeding down at them, froze in fright. Johann, noting the speed of the Wyvern's descent, didn't think that he'd be able to get a powerful enough spell off in time, but he placed himself in a casting position anyway. Haywa, staring at the powerful scales, was positive that there was no way she was going to get a strong enough hit off when it swooped down at them. The whole situation looked like it was going to turn very ugly very quickly, and the Seven prepared themselves for the worst.

Suddenly, Leyre, who had not stopped singing and playing even while his audience ran for their lives, suddenly spun around and turned his gaze to the Wyvern. With a glint in his eye, he struck a strange chord and belted out a curious melody, hanging on the last note as the Wyvern continued to scream towards them.

As the creature bore down on them, with disaster only moments away, the party stayed in pretty much the same positions, lost for anything else to do. Phia was still scared, Katarin still a little fuzzy after returning to her body, Haywa still frustrated, Johann still concentrating, Wrinn still worried, and Lyra still drunk - but Markus had become curious. As he watched the Wyvern's continuing descent, he noted something strange - earlier, the Wyvern had been making slight adjustments to its trajectory, angling its wings to better allow for wind flow, as he knew well that one needed to do when diving. However, for the last few moments, it hadn't corrected itself at all, and now looked like it was heading straight for - "Oh my Gods!"

With a mighty crunch, the main course of the evening turned to charbroiled Wyvern as the creature crashed straight into the bonfire at full speed, throwing up a huge cloud of sand and sending burning logs flying in all directions. Still, for all concerned parties, things were okay - for the Wyvern was, to say it simply, toast.

A few hours later, Roger, Leyre, Kay (the gypsy who had said that he could get the party a canoe,) and Wrinn were gathered on the upwind side of the fire (since burned Wyvern is not the most pleasant smell in the world.)

"Yep, yep, yep, like I was sayin' earlier - them wood-elves are sure to have a canoe or two. I should probably be able to haggle the price for ya, but still I'm gonna need a little finder's fee of my own," Kay said, wringing his hands.

Wrinn nodded and replied, "That's fine, do whatever's necessary - just try to make the price somewhat reasonable, okay?"

"Sure, sure, sure. I'll do what I can, and I'll have ya that canoe in two days' time. Now, fellas, if ya don't mind, I'm feelin' a bit woozy from both the drink and the Wyvern's stink, so I'd better take a walk 'fore I end up spewin' all over the camp." Kay gave the three men a cheery wave and unsteadily walked off into the desert, and Wrinn turned eagerly to the talented musician sitting next to Roger.

"That was a pretty impressive trick you pulled off back there, Leyre," he said. "One thing I'm not that sure of, though - what exactly WAS that trick?"

"The Song of Paralysis. When I introduced myself as a Bard, I was using the true definition of the word - a type of ancient warrior who mixed magic and music together into the best-sounding combat style in history!" Leyre leaned back with a wide grin as Roger clapped him on the shoulder.

"Not a bad fellow to hang around with, eh? Leyre's unique take on magic is one of the reasons I live here - besides, every now and then I get to teach him a new technique, which is good for both of us, because..."

Right then, he was cut off by the sound of a bloodcurdling scream from the desert - That must be Kay! Wrinn thought - and the knight wasted no time drawing his sword and rushing off into the night.

"Wrinn, wait up!" called Roger, and turning to Leyre he said, "You'd better wait here - Wrinn and I will handle this one." With that, the mischievous old Sage ran off with a twinkle in his eye, leaving Leyre blinking and confused next to the fire. A moment later, as Leyre was sitting on his log, wondering what in the world was going on, he heard a noise behind him.

He turned around to see Katarin standing in front of the bonfire, her body framed by the mass of flames as they flickered in the wind. Faced with such a lovely young girl in front of such a magnificent fire, the gypsy musician was quite at a loss for words. Fortunately, she spoke first.

"Greetings. I am Katarin of Melmond, one of the adventurers on the Quest, and I have a question to ask of you."

His throat parched dry and his mind in overload, Leyre could do nothing but stammer, "Whuh?"

After taking a deep breath, Katarin looked deep into his eyes and said, "Do you believe in love at first sight?"

Rising from his seat, he said, "Indeed I do, for it has just happened to me." They simultaneously moved to each other, and when they were close enough Leyre placed his hands on Katarin's shoulders and gave her a tender, sweet kiss. Feeling the light touch of Leyre's hands on her shoulders and the gentle pressure of his lips on hers, Katarin thought to herself, You know, this whole pleasures of the flesh thing may not be as bad as I thought.

However, as the seconds ticked by, the gypsy suddenly deepened the kiss, and his hands were no longer gripping her shoulders. In shock, Katarin wrenched her tongue out of his mouth and took a few steps backward, covering her chest with her arms. "Love at first sight, huh?" she spat. "I think you might have chosen the wrong word, you pig."

"Hmph. Don't tell me you're one of those old-fashioned romantics," Leyre scoffed. "You know what I want, I know what you want, why should we tiptoe around the freaking tulips and waste time?"

Thoroughly disgusted and at quite a loss for words, Katarin turned and ran for her tent, leaving a shrugging Leyre to lick his lips and plop back on the log.

Meanwhile, in Crescent Lake...

"That's all eight of 'em, right Lukahn?"

"Indeed, Radvich."

"Ha! Kraken doesn't stand a chance!"

"Well spoken, Roland, but we're not out of the woods yet. As it stands, even if they defeat both Kraken and Tiamat, they still haven't gotten any further - and besides, I don't like the impulses I've been getting from up north lately."

"What, you mean from the Sky Castle?" A nod. "Why, what do you feel?"


18. "Once Again, If You'll Pardon the Phrase, You're All Wet."

Meanwhile, out in the desert, by the time Sage Roger had caught up to Wrinn, both of them knew it was too late. The mangled body of the gypsy Kay, or at least what was left of it, lay at Wrinn's feet as the knight sadly replaced his blade.

"Did you see what got him, Wrinn?"

"Unfortunately, no - of course, I'm not sure I want to know," he replied, beginning to feel slightly sick. "What are we going to do with the body?"

"Take it back to camp and throw it on the fire, I suppose - the place is so stinky with Wyvern that a little roasted human shouldn't make it any worse."

Shaking his head at Roger's complete lack of tact, Wrinn said, "Something tells me that the gypsies have a slightly different method of laying their dead to rest, Sage. If you could, please bring me a blanket from our tent and then tell the rest of the guys to meet up by the fire." Shrugging his shoulders, Roger moved back towards camp, leaving Wrinn standing alone in the desert night, staring at the bloody mess and wondering just what sort of creature could do something like that. A moment later, he got his answer.

He heard a shuffling noise behind him, and whirled around to see a large green creature rise out of the sand. It seemed almost plantlike, but was covered with what looked like armor plating. Staring with horror, Wrinn took in the disgusting spectacle of its beady eyes, blood-crusted mouth, and worst of all its eight waving...tentacles, almost, each with a razor sharp pink-colored pincer on the end of it. Without warning, two of the tentacles shot out and latched themselves onto Wrinn's armor-covered ankles, yanking him off his feet with a shout before he could even draw his sword.

The creature started to drag Wrinn towards its mouth, and after a bit of a struggle the knight managed to get his massive broadsword out of its sheath. Sensing it was in trouble, the creature sent two more of its tentacles out to grab onto Wrinn's arms, but he was able to cut off the one that was headed for his right arm - even as he was lifted into the air by the strength of the monster. Wrinn was still being slowly moved towards the mouth when the creature suddenly sent all of its pincers at him, and he knew he only had one chance left. With a desperate swing, he cut his feet loose a split second before he used them to kick the creature full in the face, knocking it down onto its back and flipping himself over backwards. Landing on his feet, he took care of the final appendage attached to his arm with a quick slash, then chopped the monster in half with a mighty two-handed overhead cleave.

Kneeling on the ground, leaning on his sword for support, Wrinn panted for breath as he stared at the...thing, whatever it was. There was something weird about it, but he couldn't put his finger on it, and was still thinking hard when Lyra came running, followed by Johann, Phia, Haywa, Markus, and Roger. Lyra had her sword drawn, and the fierce look of bloodlust on her face would have sent a pack of Ogres running for cover. Seeing that her love was okay, she sheathed her blade and, weeping with joy, crashed into Wrinn at full speed, throwing her arms around him.

"Thank goodness you're all right! After Roger told us about Kay, and then we heard you cry out...I thought you might have been..."

Taking her chin and lifting her face to his, he said, "Lyra, don't worry - I can take care of myself. I'm almost as fierce as you, remember?" Lyra grinned broadly as Wrinn kissed her, and unfortunately for both parties, they were interrupted by Johann clearing his throat.

"Okay, okay, good, you're alive, we don't need the peep show! However, what we do need is to figure out how we're going to get a canoe now that Kay's dead. Got any suggestions?"

Before anyone in the party could answer, Roger interrupted, "I don't know how, but you'd better figure that out pretty darn quick."

Roger's serious demeanor frightened everyone, and Phia hesitantly asked, "Why, w-what's wrong?"

The old Sage pointed to the halves of the creature Wrinn had killed. "That's an Ocho - it's a creature of the water that usually lives in shallow pools and snatches fish as they swim by. The fact that this one is here in the desert..."

"Can only mean one thing..." Phia said,

"Kraken's invasion is starting!" Wrinn exclaimed. "Damn!"

As the rest of the group lapsed into horror and shock, Johann stood with his arms crossed, chin in hand, thinking. "Roger," he said, brow furrowing, "do all the gypsies know where the wood-elves live?"

"Sure they do! Why, we party with them all the time! Wonderful folk, just a little stingy, that's all."

Brightening, the plains-elf replied, "Well, then, this won't be that hard. All we need to do is find a gypsy willing to take us to the elves, and we can buy the canoe ourselves!"

"Well, I don't know about that...the wood-elves are very shrewd businessmen. You're going to need a first-rate negotiator to avoid paying an arm and a leg." A loud ahem! diverted Roger's attention, and he gave a wide smile to the longtime mercenary who had been haggling with employers all her professional life. Now, he thought, we truly have nothing to worry about. Outwardly, he said, "Well, let's head back to the campfire for now - I have a feeling we'll be able to find a volunteer rather quickly."

The rest of the group readily agreed, and as Roger started off, Wrinn noticed that he still had a wide smile on his face, along with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. As Lyra helped him up he watched Roger intently - what was the old Sage up to?

A moment later, they arrived back at the bonfire, and they all stared in sudden realization at the sight of Leyre, still seated on the log. Of course! Wrinn thought. A magical musician! Who better to join our Quest? His mind made up, he walked towards the bonfire (wrinkling his nose at the Wyvern stench that still hung in the air) and called, "Leyre! Have you got a minute?"

Turning around, Leyre replied, "What's on your mind, friend Wrinn?" as curiosity got the better of Katarin and she poked her head back out of the tent flap.

"Unfortunately, Kay has just been killed, so we've decided to see the wood-elves ourselves. Unfortunately again, we don't know how to get there, so we need a guide. However, since you have abilities that eclipse those of the normal tour guide, I'm going to go one further and ask you if you wish to join our Quest and save our world."

"Count me in!" Leyre, who had of course noticed Katarin's lovely face peering out from the tent, turned towards her and winked. Shuddering, she quickly ducked back inside - but not before being noticed by Phia.

What have we here? the Red Mage thought. Yawning loudly, she said, "Well, guys, I think I'm going to hit the sack. You all figure out our schedule and I'll see ya in the morning." Giving a wave to her friends, who now began to arrange themselves in a circle around Leyre and Roger to finalize their plans for the next stage of the journey, she walked to the tent and lifted the flap.

Katarin was inside, sitting on her bedroll, her knees pulled up to her chest, arms hugging her legs, slowly rocking back and forth. Phia's look of curiosity changed to one of concern and she quickly dropped to one knee, peering intently at her friend and softly asking, "What's wrong?"

"Leyre." The single word was all she said before she continued rocking.

"What about him?"

"When I heard his song, I thought it was the most beautiful thing I've ever heard - and I thought he was the most wonderful man I'd ever seen." Taking a few deep breaths, she turned her face downwards and continued. "So, after you all left and Wrinn and Roger ran off into the desert, I went to him and told him I loved him. And then he said he loved me too, and then he kissed me."

Wondering just how naïve and sheltered Katarin actually was, Phia said, "So what's wrong with him kissing you?"

Her eyes brimming with tears, Katarin looked up at the Red Mage and said, "Because right after he started, he shoved his tongue in my mouth, and then he took his hands off my shoulders and grabbed!" Shivering, Katarin buried her face in her arms as Phia stood by in shocked recollection.

This sort of thing, men only going for what their hormones wanted, was nothing new to the Red Mage. Being shoved in close proximity with a lot of lonely soldiers was always a dangerous situation for her, and she'd had to slap more hands off her behind than she cared to recall. After the shock and fright of it all had worn off, she'd managed to cope by letting those drooling men know without a doubt that her body was off-limits - and using a little magic and a little sword-work when some overzealous moron didn't heed her warning. However, she somehow doubted that strategy would work for Katarin.

"W...what should I do, Phia? You heard Wrinn - Leyre's coming with us on the Quest now!"

"Well, you just let him know what for, Katarin! Make sure he knows, without a doubt, that you want nothing to do with him, and if he gets too close, one hit with your staff in the right place will do wonders."

"What???" Wiping the tears from her eyes, Katarin said, "I don't want to hurt him or scare him away!"

Now it was Phia's turn. "What??? Are you crazy? I thought you said you didn't even want him near you!"

"Not like that, no. I still like him, though. He's handsome, talented, and apparently willing to risk his life just for me. You don't toss a catch like that out the window just because he's a little eager."

"Are you crazy? What are you going to do? If you don't lay down the law, it's going to get worse before it gets better!"

"Oh, don't worry about me. I'll figure out some way to get that boy to fly straight - and as far as laying down the law goes, I'm sure I can find a willing helper." With a mischievous smile, Katarin got up and moved to the tent flap and called out to the group still sitting by the bonfire,

"Oh, Haywa...could you come here for a minute?"

The next morning, the Eight left the gypsy camp and headed for the hidden home of the wood-elves. They crossed the desert again and entered the forest, and surprisingly, the first problem they had was when they reached the very river that they had to travel up to reach the Waterfall.

Wrinn, feeling foolish and helpless, looked at the river, six feet deep and thirty feet across. As far as he could tell, the only way they could make it would be by swimming - but all their supplies would be ruined, and they were short enough on money as it was. "Damn," he said. "How are we going to make it across without losing everything?"

Johann, deep in thought, replied, "Well, it's possible that I could send our packs across on a wind vortex, but I can't control it very well - who knows where they would end up?"

Phia scratched her temple and said, "Johann, if I helped you, do you think you could control the vortex any better?"

Haywa, with a pensive scowl, added, "I don't think any of us can throw a heavy pack thirty feet - can we?"

Leyre, eager to help his new comrades, said, "I could try to write a Song of Levitation if you think it would work."

An exasperated Katarin suddenly exclaimed, "Um, guys? Are you all completely forgetting that we have a perfectly viable solution right here?" With that, she reached back and grabbed one of Markus' wings, emphatically pointing to it as the dragoon flushed with embarrassment.

Wrinn, relieved that a solution had been found for their supplies, said, "Well, that's all well and good, but what about us? I know it's inevitable that we're going to get wet at some point, but I don't want my sword falling apart with rust when it's about to bite into Kraken's cursed hide!"

Markus, who had regained his composure, replied, "Not a problem." With one swift movement, he extended his wings, then swept Katarin into his arms and took off. Katarin squealed with a mix of surprise and delight as Markus flew her over the river, putting her down gently on the other side. Not even skipping a beat, Markus flew back across the river and hovered horizontally about eight feet above the ground, directly over Wrinn. Extending his hands downward, he simply said, "Grab on." With a slight leap, Wrinn caught hold of Markus' hands (well, hand and claw) and had soon joined Katarin on the other side. Within moments, Johann, Haywa, Leyre, and Lyra had joined the other two on the opposite bank, and Markus landed next to the rest of his friends as Phia looked on in nervous apprehension.

"Leyre, how far is it from here to the wood-elves camp?" Markus asked, much to the confusion of his friends.

"Um...not more than a half-hour's march, I'd say," Leyre stammered, giving Markus a strange look. When the musician realized what the dragoon was driving at, he exclaimed, "You're not thinking of leaving her here, are you?"

In consternation, the Red Mage yelled, "Yeah! You're not thinking of leaving me here, are you?" Phia stood as Markus mumbled something that she could not hear, and after a moment, Leyre cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted across the flowing expanse,

"He says, and I quote, 'Flying her over here would involve me touching her. She does not wish this, and I cannot violate her wishes.' End quote."

Phia could barely believe her ears...and yet, Markus' response didn't surprise her in the slightest. Even though she was frightened of his appearance and treated him like dirt no matter how chivalrous or polite he was, he still held the same respect for her that he always had. Now that she had a second to truly think about it, she realized - just what was she frightened of? He was a kind, strong, handsome man, with many fine qualities...along with dragon's wings and dragon's scales and dragon's claws! The flashing memories exploded into her head again, filling her with that familiar fear, but with all her courage she pushed them as far into the back of her mind as she could, and called out, to the extreme surprise of all concerned, "Markus, get your ass over here!"

Despite his shock, Markus quickly soared over the river and landed on the opposite bank, facing her. With her eyes closed tight, she stammered, "H-hover over m-me and reach out your right arm - I'll g-g-grab onto it." Without a word, Markus took off again, and moments later he was hovering over a terrified Phia, who quickly shot her left hand above her head, as if to get it over with before she changed her mind. Catching a hold of it, Markus lifted her into the air, trying his best to stay leveled with such a heavy imbalance, and after a slow, unsteady flight, he unceremoniously dropped his passenger on the ground and collapsed in exhaustion.

Even as he was struggling to get to his knees after twenty minutes of extreme physical duress, Markus still remembered his manners. "I'm...sorry...for...dropping you..." he managed to pant between deep, gasping breaths. Phia, as she stood up and dusted her cape off, seemed extremely agitated, and as she walked past and tossed a healing potion at him, she didn't even seem to look in his direction. As Markus caught the potion, a confused expression appeared on his face as he watched the Red Mage stalk away. Who is she more upset with - me or her?

He had no more time to muse, however, as Phia continued to disappear into the woods and the rest of her friends had no choice but to follow. Leyre in particular had to quickly catch up with her and point her in the right direction - but by then, Phia was willing to let the musician lead the way again. True to his word, they arrived at the tiny wood-elves' village a half-hour later, and as they entered the clearing, Lyra and Johann looked around them in surprise, and Johann remarked, "I don't think we're in ElfLand anymore, Lyra."

Lyra nodded her agreement and continued to look around her in amazement. From her memories in ElfLand, she could recall what life was like - elf-children ran laughing through the streets while the adults cheerily went about their business. No one went without a smile for more than thirty seconds, and at least two or three times a day the tavern would erupt into merry song. This, however, was nothing like that.

Well-crafted huts were evenly spaced around a circular clearing, but the branches of the surrounding trees had spread such that they almost formed a canopy over the village. The sun, high in the midday sky, cast its light into the center of the clearing, such that every single hut was still in the shade. No sunlight? she thought. Outside every hut was a writing-desk and every elf she could see was silently at work. No singing either? Out loud, she said, "Sheesh - it's hard to imagine how elves can stand to live like this without going crazy!"

"It's easy if you try, my dear. Having gypsies as neighbors most definitely ensures that we have our share of fun." All eight of them turned around to see an elf that looked a lot like Johann, except he had a green robe on and his hair was of a more orange tinge. "Greetings to you all. My name is Feyean - I am the chief of this village. It's a pleasure to meet you all - and especially to see you again, Leyre. Have you come to favor us with your golden harp and voice?"

"Unfortunately, no, Sir Feyean," Wrinn cut in. "I am Wrinn Taylor, Guardsman of Coneria, and myself and my friends are on our way to launch an attack on Kraken." At his words, every pen in the village suddenly stopped scratching and every head snapped up in alarm. "However, since that wretched octopus hides in the caverns under the Waterfall, it is necessary for us to traverse up the mountain stream. We have no vessels that are able to travel on the stream, so at the recommendation of Sage Roger we came here to purchase a canoe. So, if we could, we'd like to buy the ship and get back on our way as fast as possible."

Feyean, seemingly taking on a even more businesslike manner (if that was possible,) replied, "Of course, Wrinn. Our boathouse is down the river a ways. Follow me, please." The wood-elf strode off down the riverbank with the Eight following behind, and to disrupt the silence, the elvish leader called back, "I'll tell you, no one wants Kraken out of the way more than us. His presence here is a nasty disturbing business - it's disrupted our trade, for the last three months the water has tasted terrible..." As Feyean continued to talk, Phia sidled up to Wrinn and whispered in his ear,

"How much money do we have?"

He whispered back, "I think we've got about seventy-five hundred to work with. You think you can handle that?"

"Probably - but I don't think it'll be easy."

By this time, they had arrived at the 'boathouse' - in reality just a small cave cut into the mountainside. "Excuse me a moment," Feyean said, and he disappeared into the cave. For the next few minutes, the only sound the adventurers heard was a scratch or a scuffle as the elf searched the interior of the cave - but they were startled out of their reverie by Feyean calling for Wrinn and Markus to join him. With a shrug, the two warriors entered the cave and came out a moment later struggling with the weight of an enormous canoe. As they emerged, Lyra and Haywa immediately ran over to help, and the four of them managed to set the canoe down on the riverbank without dropping it.

Feyean emerged from the cave and said, "Well, I think you'll find that this canoe will suit your needs well enough. It'll fit all eight of you, she's definitely seaworthy, and the paddles are made of the sturdiest oak in the forest. Whenever you're ready to leave, she's all yours."

Feyean turned around and started the march back to the village when Phia said, "But what about the matter of payment?"

"Don't believe everything Sage Roger tells you, my dear," Feyean replied, still walking nonchalantly away. "I value the safety and well-being of my people and the world over a few thousand gold." Here, however, he stopped, turned, and with a wry grin, said, "However, since I'm giving away a very expensive canoe for free, you guys had better make Kraken make up the difference!"

Wrinn's grin stretched from ear to ear, but his eyes burned with hatred. "You can depend on us, Feyean."

With a wave, Feyean started on his trip home again as the adventurers tried to arrange themselves in the canoe. Wrinn was easily chosen to sit in the bow, and Lyra obviously would be behind him. Johann was placed third, with Phia quickly accepting the fourth seat (keeping as far away from Markus as she could, who had been chosen to sit in the back.) Leyre then went behind his old friend, and Katarin sat two seats behind him with Haywa sternly sitting in between. With all of them ready to go, Markus crouched by the stern and pushed with all his might. After a moment of straining effort, he managed to slide the canoe off into the stream and stop himself before he fell in. As the canoe slid through the crystal water, Markus quickly took off, and after a few flaps of his powerful wings, he softly landed in the stern and took up his paddle. As Wrinn paddled from the front and Markus from the rear, the remaining six kept themselves in readiness for any attack that might come.

It was truly an interesting sight to see. A canoe full of friends made its slow way northward up the river with the sun sinking behind the westward trees. The man paddling in front had a lovely girl behind him, arms wrapped around his chest. The two behind them both had their eyes closed tight - dozing in the sunset, perhaps? The man behind them was strumming a beautiful tune on a harp, sneaking furtive glances behind him at the red-headed girl in green, who sighed occasionally at a particularly soothing melody. The woman between them didn't look too happy, casting the musician dirty looks each time he turned around, but every few minutes she would turn and mutter some words of encouragement to the strong, silent figure who was paddling in the stern. It was a storybook scene of tranquillity - however, a casual observer would never have guessed that each member of the little expedition was scared out of their mind, for that canoe was headed straight into the slimy den of an evil Fiend.

Lyra, hanging onto Wrinn for dear life, whispered, "Do you think we'll make it?"

"Of course, Lyra. Think about it - it's a win-win situation! If we defeat Kraken, we'll have regained the first of the Orbs and bought the people around here a few years of peace."

"And if we fail?"

Wrinn, keeping his steely expression and not breaking the rhythm of his paddling, replied, "Well, at least we'll get to see Gary again."

With that haunting thought dominating their minds, the members of the Quest sat in brooding silence (except for a twang or two from Leyre's harp, of course) as the canoe made its way northward. After about an hour of stealthy, silent travel, a dull roar was heard off in the distance, which grew in intensity as the party drew ever closer. Suddenly, in front of them, there it was. The mighty Luupaei Waterfall - a two hundred foot wall of water, crashing relentlessly into the pool below - which produced a fierce froth at its base and gave a blinding spray to anyone who drew too close. After a moment of hesitation and a deep breath, Wrinn and Markus increased the strength of their paddling to combat the force of the current. As the small vessel approached the churning chaos, Johann cast a swirling vortex of air towards the falls, separating the wall for the few seconds the canoe needed to slip past the falling water and into the vast, dripping cavern behind it.

19. Ink and Blood

The massive canoe slowly made its way further into the underground cavern, and the roar of the waterfall slowly faded into an occasional drip. The canoe's passengers had lost their relaxed air, and were sitting up perfectly straight, as high-strung as Leyre's harp, gazing warily at the water beneath them and waiting for the attack they knew was coming. Their apprehension was beginning to give way to dread as the water turned from translucent blue to a horrid, unnatural black, and sensing that danger was near, they grew even more wary. Wrinn in particular, sitting in the bow of the canoe, was only paddling with his left arm, his other hand poised above his right shoulder, ready to draw his blade at the slightest indication of trouble. Behind him, Lyra was literally shaking with fear, but she knew that the second they were attacked her sword would come flying out of its sheath and her fury would be unmatched.

Johann, in the third position, was sitting as calmly as he could, trying his best to keep his mind clear and ready to channel the magical power through his body as quickly and efficiently as he was able.

Behind him, Phia was attempting to accurately recall the principles of effective elemental mixtures Lukahn had taught her, but her mind kept wandering, talking to an invisible Gary she wished was still with them. Was this what it was like when you knew you were going to die, Gary? Was everything this black? Did you feel this cold? Were you this scared?

Fiddling anxiously with the tuning of his harp, Leyre wondered just what he was doing here in this pit of hell, gliding slowly to what could easily be his death. Suddenly, he remembered something Sage Roger had said to him once: "We have our fun, Leyre, but no matter what we always have to remember that we learn our skills for the greater good and we're gonna have to use 'em sometime." Setting his jaw, he softly began humming the first tune he had ever learned - that his mother had used to keep the demons away.

These are good people. I'm not going to let these damned evil bloody bastards take them away from me, Haywa thought, cracking her knuckles. That's not going to happen again.

Katarin, gripping her staff with white knuckles, thought to herself, You know, once everything is all over with, this will make a great adventure story!

In the rear, paddling away, Markus sat silent and collected. Only one thought was running through his mind - No matter what happens, I will get Phia through this alive.

As they glided along, they began to notice that the sound inside the cavern had changed. Before, it had been just an isolated drip every so often, but now a strange, swishing, gurgling sound was heard. The adventurers looked all around them, but saw nothing except the black water and the slick rock walls. The sound grew slightly in intensity, but still they could see nothing. Suddenly, a bluish-purple snake catapulted itself from the water, flying through the air and biting deep into Lyra's unprotected left forearm. Lyra screamed in fright and violently jerked her arm, sending the snake flying back into the black water, and Wrinn quickly stopped paddling and turned around to examine the wound.

Before he could do anything, though, another snake came flying out of the water on the other side of the canoe, breaking through the simple cotton that covered Johann's right shoulder and sinking its teeth into his flesh. Phia reached out and grabbed the snake, yanking it out of Johann's flesh with a sickening tearing sound, and quickly channeled lightning through her arm, electrocuting the poisonous creature before letting it fall back into the water with a splash. Wrinn looked on in horror, gripping Lyra's arm, as snake after snake leaped from the water and attacked one of his friends - Katarin was the next to cry out in pain, and the grimace on Haywa's face wasn't all anger any more. In desperation, Wrinn turned back again and grabbed his paddle, shouting back to Markus "We'd better get moving!"

As their six seemingly defenseless and half-wounded friends remained like sitting ducks in the unstable canoe, Wrinn and Markus paddled with all their might, straining against the dark water, trying to reach whatever solid land they could. The rest of the group vainly tried swatting away the masses of SeaSnakes that attacked them, but to no avail - there were too many of them. Phia and Johann tried some magic, but it was no use, for fire magic just wasn't effective enough and lightning magic on the water would have killed them all. In the meantime, Wrinn and Markus continued to paddle without losing hope, even though they too had been bitten - and soon, there it was in front of them - the entrance to the underground cave! Wrinn increased his pace, and Markus ceased paddling altogether, opting instead to bend downward and propel the canoe forward with the beating of his mighty wings.

As they approached the underground shore, as if on cue, the SeaSnakes suddenly halted their attack and silently swam away. Exhausted, Wrinn and Markus slumped down in the canoe and let their momentum carry them until they stopped with a bump on the shore.

This is just not good, Wrinn thought, as he and his seven friends struggled through the twisting maze of the Waterfall. After they had landed, the SeaSnakes' poison had started to really take its toll, and all eight were sent reeling by the effects. Lyra had become so weak she had barely been able to cast Pure on herself, let alone anyone else, and somehow, they had forgotten to restock their Pure potions - they only had six left. Wrinn had given one to each of his friends, confident that he would be able to best resist the detrimental effects of the venom. He tried to keep up as strong a façade as he could, but soon he needed Lyra's help to walk straight, and having to retch violently every few minutes didn't help much either.

Unfortunately, the rest of the party wasn't doing too well either. The poison had hurt each of them, too, and the various injuries they had sustained didn't help matters. Neither did the fact that the tunnels of the cavern were as stocked full of sentries as the river was. However, they had been lucky so far - the majority of their enemies had been Frost monsters, creatures endowed with the power of Water whose souls were chilled by evil. The power of Johann and Phia's Fire spells weakened them enough to be easily taken out by the combat facility of Haywa and Markus, while Leyre's magic-infused music and Katarin's abilities kept them in enough mental disarray to prevent any organized attacks. Wrinn, sickly as he was, still contributed to the battle, himself and Lyra protecting Katarin's limp body when she attacked with her mental powers.

As efficient as this strategy was, things were slowly going from bad to worse. Haywa and Markus, who were doing most of the fighting, were slowly getting the snot beaten out of them - some of Haywa's leather armor was cracked and broken, while the claws and teeth of their enemies were sharp enough to lacerate even Markus' dragon scales. The wound in Johann's shoulder still festered and he could feel his magical power getting weaker with every spell, while Phia was absolutely exhausted. First, she was helping Johann cast the Fire spells that were necessary to save their hides. Then, every time a Frost Wolf or Dragon broke through Haywa and Markus' offensive perimeter, if the psychological damage incurred by Leyre and Katarin didn't work, she initially had to fight the creature by herself until Lyra managed to extricate herself from the crippled Wrinn and dispatch the monster in fury.

As if all this wasn't bad enough, they had gotten lost and found themselves hitting dead ends numerous times. Through the dark tunnels they stumbled - two battered specialists, two exhausted magicians, two half-crippled fighters, and two non-warriors trying desperately to help their friends stay alive in any way that they could. They still had plenty of healing and magic potions, but Wrinn would not let them be used unwisely - "We're going to need them before and after the fight with Kraken a lot more than we do now," he had said, even as he felt his own life start to fade away as the slow-acting poison continued its deadly work. As they hit dead end after dead end, and fought off attack after attack, each mind of the Eight swirled with vastly different thoughts.

Haywa, fighting in the front line, had on her face a look of grim enjoyment. Fighting was what it always was, always had been - an exchange of pain. As long as you give more than you take, she had said to herself, you were all right. Hearing the satisfying shrieks of agony from her enemies as all seven of her friends still stood beside her, she knew she was all right.

Markus, beside her, manipulated his spear with amazing skill and agility, putting his entire body and soul into the fighting - because he wasn't just fighting for himself now. He constantly moved to keep himself in a protective position of Phia at all times, and as the Red Mage fought behind him, she noticed how every time a creature got past him he screamed in fury. He's fighting for me, she thought, positioning her hands in readiness to cut down the Frost Wolf that threatened him. As she looked at the figure of the mighty dragoon, she was so preoccupied with the battle that the memories didn't have a chance to flood her mind with fear. Fine, then. I'll fight for him, too, she thought, and with that sent the fireball whizzing straight into the wolf, charring it to a crisp just as it leaped for Markus' throat - and the dragoon, noting the direction it had come from, smiled to himself.

Johann cast spell after spell, brilliantly managing his remaining magical power while dealing as much damage as possible to the creatures that continually attacked his friends. He, too, had a look of grim enjoyment on his face, as he thought to himself, And the best they could do was a lousy potion shop in ElfLand. Who's the better magician now, you bastards?

Leyre and Katarin, standing slightly behind the two magicians in the narrow corridor, were trying everything they knew - but they were both new at combat, Leyre never really having had to try his musical attack and Katarin never having been inside the mind of a monster. Still, though, every now and then Leyre hit a damaging note, and once or twice Katarin was able to send a Frost Wolf running off, yelping in fear. It wasn't much - but it helped.

Wrinn, watching the fighting through the poison-haze, couldn't believe his eyes. All their battles so far had been pieces of cake - by incredible twists of fate, that is. The pirates' assault had been stopped by Bikke and Phia knowing each other, the wizards had fallen due to Lyra's unexpected fury, the crumbling of the Northwest Fortress had caused Astos to retreat, and Katarin's unknown skill had made short work of the Vampire. They'd underestimated Kraken and his minions, though - heck, they hadn't even found Kraken yet, and already they were battered, bruised, and dying. Wrinn knew it was his fault, but was determined to have the party retrieve the Orb and make it out, with or without him, it didn't matter now. Lyra could almost feel what he was thinking, but even if she hadn't been in love with him she still would know. Wrinn was noble enough that he would value the Quest over his own life - but she didn't want to lose him. Every time he refused a heal potion or told her not to drink a magic potion so that she could cure him, she wanted to burst out crying, to tell him she loved him, to try to tell him that his life was as important as any of theirs. It would be useless, though. He was lost in his own world now where the word selfishness didn't exist, and a noble death - like Gary's - was the ultimate in honor. As Katarin attempted to make a Frost Dragon turn a group of SeaSnakes into snakesicles, the two knights drew their broadswords in tandem and stood at the ready, sneaking in a look at each other before fully surveying the scene. Lyra saw a sickly green face with sweat beading out everywhere - along with a pair of brown eyes filled with hard, steely resolve. Wrinn, looking back, saw the beautiful face of his love smeared with blood and twisted in fury - but the look in her brown eyes was one of pleading. In that moment, they both understood what was going on in each other's mind, and began to smile at each other - when a Frost Wolf came bounding up from behind, hungrily eyeing Katarin's limp form. Within seconds, the two of them were all business as Wrinn advanced to take a weak swing at the creature's legs. Unfortunately, it easily leaped over Wrinn's sword - but fortunately went flying right into Lyra's flashing blade as it ripped through the icy flesh. Gasping with pain at the mere effort of moving, Wrinn leaned back against the cave wall as Lyra looked on in concern. Giving his love a wry smile, he reached back into his pack and, to her delight...tossed her a magic potion.

They were there.

After all the walking, fighting, trials, and tribulations they had been through, all eight of them stood before a steel door cut into the tunnel wall - which could be nothing but the entrance to Kraken's chamber. Each of them held a potion in hand, tending to their wounds and repairing what they could of their armor and weapons. Phia in particular was going potion crazy - she had downed two magic potions already and was busy chugging down her third healing potion in an effort to gain her strength back for the mammoth battle they all knew was coming.

Wrinn finished up his sixth healing potion - and he had needed them after the poison had been driven from his body - and tossing the bottle over his shoulder, he placed his hands on his hips and said, "Well, is everyone ready to start saving the world?" Once he had received seven nods in return, he motioned to Markus, and the two powerhouses strained against the hinges of the door, rusted by the constant power of the Water Elemental. And once the door had been opened, the Eight entered the dark chamber to do battle with its unofficial guardian - Kraken, the Fiend of Water.

At the far end of the chamber, perched on a wide stone pedestal, sat Kraken. He was a massive, bluish-purple octopus with glowing green eyes, and those eyes took in the Eight with confusion as they made their way into his chamber.

"What do you want?" he said, spewing forth flecks of jet-black ink as he spoke. "You seem to have made it here relatively unharmed, meaning you wish to join my forces. Although you are pathetic little worms next to my legions of Frost and Water creatures, I shall allow you to join me - if not for amusement, to demoralize the rest of the humans by showing your traitorous nature."

"You've got us all wrong, you blasted Fiend," Wrinn hissed, fury burning bright in his eyes. "You have stolen the Orb of Water from the earth itself and we are here to take it back!"

"Silence!" Kraken roared back. "You are in the presence of octopus royalty!"

Phia, with a disdainful flip of her head, snorted, "Hmph. Royalty my ass!" And to punctuate her point she seductively turned, swept her cape aside, and patted her shapely posterior. As her friends grinned at her antics (particularly Markus, who had thoroughly enjoyed the show,) Kraken became infuriated at the impudence of these puny humans. He would be damned if these upstarts would stay breathing for more than another ten minutes, and prepared to attack.

"Young lady," he growled, clutching the Water Orb and letting its power flow through his evil body, "You are going to pay dearly for that!"

As Phia watched the Fiend begin to pulsate with a bright blue glow, she started to wonder just what they had gotten themselves into here, but her thoughts were interrupted as Wrinn's fury burst past the boiling point. "Wrong, you slimy beast!" he yelled, "It is you who's going to pay!" Nearly severing his sheath in half as he drew his sword, Wrinn placed himself in a ready stance and prepared to attack himself - and Lyra, standing next to him, could almost feel the hatred vibrating through the air until Wrinn took off at a dead run, sword held high, and screaming "THIS IS FOR MY BOOOOOOAT!!!!!" The battle was on.

Unfortunately for Kraken, he had not let the full potential of the Water Elemental fill his body yet, and after realizing that the warriors in front of him had fought their way through his fortress, he realized that they just might be fighters to be reckoned with. He attempted to slither off his pedestal and get somewhat out of the way of the furious knight before it was too late, but Wrinn leapt into the air as he approached the massive octopus and, aiming for the strange fringe around his neck, swung with all his might.

To Wrinn's shock, his sword simply bounced off Kraken's skin and went flying out of his hands, landing with a clank twenty feet away. As Wrinn stared at his blade in disbelief, Kraken took advantage of the situation, quickly wrapping a tentacle around the knight's ankle, lifting him up in the air, and hurling him such that he landed with a louder, duller clank right next to his own sword.

"Mwa ha ha! You're going to have to do a lot better than that to get the Orb back!" At that, Kraken found eight pairs of eyes staring fixedly at him with more anger than he thought possible in humans - and as the hands of two of them started to crackle with the lightning that he feared, he wondered just what he was getting himself into - and the simultaneous war cry that all eight throats released was deafening in the echoing chamber.

A half hour later, the scene in the cavern had changed drastically. There were no war cries, no haughty laughter, no furious slashing - just nine beings locked in weary combat. Kraken still fought on, spitting ink, crushing the Eight with his tentacles, and calling upon the power of Water to cast some fearsome spells while his adversaries in turn kept hacking, slashing, punching, stabbing, casting, and singing, determined that they would not lose.

By this point, the Fiend knew that they would be right. However powerful the Water Elemental was, it couldn't support a counterattack against eight valiant humans - and he knew he would die soon unless he returned to the Altar of Water in the Sea Shrine, where he would be safe for now. Best to abandon the Orb and save yourself while the power of Water is still under your command, he reasoned - but while you're at it, why not take one of them out before you go?

Maneuvering himself so that he was nearly at the doorway to his chamber, Kraken called out, "Hey, woman!"

Katarin, Lyra, Phia, and Haywa, taking a momentary rest, called out in unison, "Which one?"

"You, over there - the tart in red. I'm going to be going away for a while, you bitch, but I think I'm feeling generous today - you can have the blasted Orb if you want it," he said, and he held up the Orb of Water, coiled in a thin, weak tentacle.

Phia's eyes widened in shock, then settled narrowed in bloodthirsty anticipation - this was her chance to get back at the Fiends! "I think I'll take you up on that offer, you monster - here I come!" With that, she whipped out her rapier and started towards the Fiend at a dead run, eyes glittering as she stared at the Orb she'd fought so hard to get.

As the Red Mage approached him and prepared to swing, only one thing kept running through Kraken's mind - 'Yes, yes, come closer, come closer, you bitch, you'll pay for smarting off to me...just keep on coming!'

Phia had reached Kraken, and as she swung her sword, she thought she heard Kraken chuckling - and what was that clicking and whooshing she heard behind her? As she saw the black blood explode from the severed tentacle and felt herself being thrown to the ground, she got her answer.

The remaining six adventurers looked on in horror as the foul blood of Kraken spilled down on Markus' body, who was holding Phia under him, shielding her with his wings. As the evil flow trickled to a halt, Kraken was a bit peeved that he hadn't taken out the damn bitch with it, but he figured hey, at least one of them's dead, and with that thought, he fled the cavern, making a beeline for the Sea Shrine.

Wrinn, Lyra, Katarin, Leyre, Johann, and Haywa stood frozen, unable to believe the sight in front of their eyes - Markus, covered in black blood, still lay on the cavern floor. When he moved a moment later, all six of them started forward - only to stop again instantly as they saw Phia crawl out from under the dragoon. With stiff gait and blank, emotionless eyes, she walked over to where the Orb of Water lay on the ground. Picking it up, she returned to stand next to Markus' prostrate body.

A single tear fell on the Orb of Water, and the Red Mage holding it fell to her knees in grief.

20. Aftermath

"You got his legs, Haywa?"

"Uch - Yeah."

"Here, let me help, too - I'll hold up his waist for you guys."

"Thanks, Johann. Ready to go?"

With a nod from Johann and Haywa, Wrinn turned his attention ahead of them and started off, staggering slightly from his burden - the body of Markus. After his shock had worn off, Wrinn had rushed to Markus' side and checked the dragoon's condition, and was astonished to discover that he was still alive! Barely, true, but it was better than he could have hoped - who else, he thought ruefully, would have survived a deluge of Fiend's blood but a man who had the spirit of two noble species within him? With a sigh, he turned his head and took a quick peek at the mournful procession behind him.

Phia was sobbing uncontrollably, being virtually carried along by Lyra, who attempted to comfort her and get her to walk. Behind them, Katarin, a longtime friend of Markus, stiffly walked along in silent shock with head bowed, while Leyre put his arm around her shoulders as if his presence could somehow ease the pain (until she gave him a dirty look and he backed off, that is.) Through the dark tunnels they stumbled, back the way they came - three of them enduring a heavy physical burden, the other four dealing with mental burdens - and which group had the worse time it's hard to say.

They soon reached the underground beach where they had left the canoe, and luckily, it had been simply tossed to the side by Kraken as he and his troops made their speedy retreat to the Sea Shrine. Lyra and Leyre quickly retrieved the still seaworthy vessel and after a few moments spent struggling to get Markus' hulking form in, Wrinn pushed off and jumped into the stern as Lyra took up the paddle from the bow.

Surprisingly, the water in the cavern had completely lost its black coloring, and was the same crystalline blue that they had seen on the way in. I suppose that all evidence of Kraken's presence here is gone, Lyra thought, but changed her mind as an exhausted Phia started to cry again in her sleep. Gosh, the poor girl...she's taking this awfully hard. I suppose it's understandable, though, this is hitting all of us pretty hard. I just wish I knew how Wrinn's doing - it seemed like him and Markus were getting pretty close. I hope he's okay. The object of her thoughts was, at that moment, sitting in the stern, grateful that no one in the canoe could see his face, twisted with the pain of failing a friend for the second time.

Not again, dammit, why did it have to happen again?!?

By this time, they had reached the falls, and Johann wearily whipped up the vortex that would prevent them from getting pounded by the force of the thundering water. They passed through it back into the Waterfall's catch pool, and after spending several seconds blinking at the sudden sunlight, they managed to focus their burning eyes on a surprising sight.

High above the catch pool soared Draig, slowly flying around in a circle, peering down at the water below. As the canoe emerged from underneath the falls, the mighty dragon screamed in triumph and came swooping down to hover next to the canoe - but jerked back in shock as he saw the still body of his son.

"What happened?" he called, staring in shock at the motionless Markus.

"Fiend's blood," Wrinn yelled back, "He needs some help soon or he'll die!"

With a curt nod, Draig replied, "Indeed. I will fly back to Onrac and summon help so that they can wait for you at the correct spot on the river."

Confused, Wrinn said, "Why do they need to wait for us? We know the way back to Onrac from here."

Draig stared intently at Wrinn for a moment and said, "Unfortunately, Wrinn, Kraken's reign of destruction continues even after his first defeat. You'll see what I mean." With that, the scarlet dragon was off, soaring back to the south, leaving a worried group of adventurers in the canoe as they moved off down the stream.

"I wonder what happened?" Haywa said, as Wrinn and Lyra continued paddling south at a brisk pace. "Did Kraken and his troops change the course of the river or something?"

Peering ahead with his massive glasses, Johann replied, "Unfortunately, you're exactly right. And if you'll excuse me, I think I'm going to be sick."

Haywa, towards the back, looked at him in confusion for a moment, then looked up in alarm as the canoe started to veer off towards the right. Lyra, up in the bow, had stopped paddling, and was burying her face in her hands, her body shaking with the force of her ragged breathing. The martial artist stayed perplexed until they had traveled far enough to see the source of her elvish friends' distress, and her eyes rounded at the gruesome sight.

Where the river had taken a sharp turn to the east, and the clearing where the wood-elves had their camp, was replaced by a spur of the surrounding mountains, carved off a peak by the evil force of the fleeing Water Elemental and slammed into the ground. The worst part, though, is that the wood-elves had known it was coming and tried to escape down the river - but they had been too late. The floating remains of their wrecked canoes were strewn about, as were their lifeless bodies. The water here was stained red with blood, and each of the adventurers bowed their heads in respect for the dead.

Wrinn stoically continued paddling, alternating sides to keep the canoe's course straight. However, his eyes were blazing with fury, and all of his friends were surprised at the genuine anger in his voice as he spoke. "No matter how long it takes or what I have to go through," he growled, "I will make the Fiends PAY!!!!"

After a half hour more of southward travel, Wrinn paddled the canoe past the eastern spur of the surrounding mountains and saw a group of citizens of Onrac standing on the bank. As the canoe drew closer to them, the doctors and concerned citizens of the nearby town stared in silence at the eight battered warriors. In the bow sat Lyra, her energy drained by the shocking death of her kinsmen. Behind her was the exhausted and unconscious Phia, her eyes red with crying and her body slumped by extreme fatigue. Next came Johann, nauseous from the sights he'd seen, then Leyre, blinking in shock as if he hadn't really expected to survive. The grisly procession continued with the still body of Markus, his skin tinged gray and hideous blotches of black covering his body. Supporting him was the always perturbed Haywa, Katarin seeking shelter behind her, and guiding the canoe into shore was the furious Wrinn. Working quickly, the doctors laid Phia and Markus on stretchers and carried them off towards the Clinic, as the remaining six adventurers wearily climbed out of the canoe and started off towards the safety of the town.

As they approached the western gates of Onrac, to their surprise, Riel came hurrying out to meet them. "Riel?" Wrinn asked, as he scratched his head and perplexity filled his visage. "What are you still doing here? Shouldn't you be in Crescent Lake?"

Giving the knight a stern look, the Sage replied, "You expected me to leave my home and run off to Crescent Lake while the eight of you went up against the Fiend of Water in hand-to-hand combat? Wrinn, your loyalty to the Quest is admirable, but you should really try to prevent it clouding your judgment. Come with me, all of you - you need to get a good meal and a night's sleep before you worry about anything else."

A glassy-eyed Katarin piped up, "Like Markus?"

"Quiet, Katarin. Have some food, then go to sleep. Please."

Following Riel's advice, the six of them had a silent meal in the inn and gratefully stretched out on their beds on the upper floor. Wrinn and Lyra naturally pushed theirs together, and quickly fell into a deep sleep, each safe and warm in each other's arms. A few minutes later, on the ladies' side of the room, Katarin fell asleep, sure that Haywa (who after hearing Katarin's story was ready for any excuse to smash Leyre's skull into bits) would protect her. Leyre, fearing for his life, stayed put in his bed, and mercifully fell asleep. However, Haywa stayed wide awake, staring at the ceiling, unable to sleep. After a half-hour of tossing and turning, she got up and started across the room - but was startled by Johann sitting up, grabbing his glasses, and saying, "You can't sleep either, eh?"

Haywa, stopping short, turned to look at the diminutive magician whose glasses glimmered eerily in the moonlight. "You as worried about Phia as I am about Markus?" Taken aback, Johann managed a nod as he stared at Haywa's shadowy figure. "Fine. Let's go."

Slipping his shoes on as quietly as possible and stealthily making his way towards the door, Johann followed the martial artist as she silently exited the inn and made her way down the deserted streets to the darkened Clinic. The receptionist sat dozing at the desk, unconscious at the moment, but still there if anyone needed her. Taking great care not to wake her up, the two of them slipped past the front desk and up the stairs, making their way to the room where Markus and Phia were. Haywa reached the doorway first and was halfway through before she stopped short, and Johann peered around her to see what was so distressing. Unfortunately, the doorway was set in the right hand side of the front wall, and from Johann's vantage point he could only see the left side of the room. Moonlight streamed from the window above Phia's bed and illuminated the Red Mage, making her snow-white hair glow eerily as she slept. There was nothing really out of the ordinary going on - Phia simply looked tired - and Johann knew that Markus must be a grisly sight to make Haywa stop short. He shifted around to the other side of the martial artist - and gasped in utter shock.

Where the moonlight had served to give Phia an unearthly glow, it only accentuated the inky blackness that covered Markus' skin and made him look like a shadow made solid. He was stretched out on the bed normally enough, but the scary part was his wings - sickly and limp, they flopped off the bed to either side, and what was once a majestic part of the dragoon's body had been so badly warped by the Fiend's evil it made one sick. Her resolve regained, Haywa moved the rest of the way into the room, grabbing a stool from the end of Markus' bed and moving to sit next to him. Johann also found a stool and sat down as well, staring at the peaceful face of his friend as she slept and wondering if she'd make it through this new trial. Apparently, Haywa read his mind.

"She'll be all right. She'll wake up tomorrow, and she'll get over what happened in about a week or so. We're going to need to keep her busy with a strict training schedule as soon as she's up and about so she doesn't mull over Markus' death - if she starts thinking too hard about it it'll kill her."

At the words 'Markus' death,' Johann's eyes widened and he stared at Haywa in surprise. "What do you mean, 'Markus' death'? He's still alive, and starting tomorrow the doctors are going to be working night and day on a way to save him!"

"Come off it, Johann!" she snapped, her face set in a furious sneer. "The doctors won't be able to find a cure for evil this strong, and Riel already tried the revival magic that he knew - if his own teacher can't save him, no one can!"

"Hmph. Wonderful attitude, Haywa." Glaring back at her with more emotion than she thought the diminutive magician capable of, he quietly said, "You act awful tough for someone who doesn't have the heart to back it up." He stood, lightly caressed Phia's cheek with the back of his hand, and stalked towards the door, reaching the doorway before Haywa's voice, icy but trembling, made him hesitate.

"And you act awful stuck-up for someone who wouldn't last more than two days fighting on his own." Haywa thought she could see Johann flinch, then stiffen, and he quickly continued on his way out. As he left the Clinic and headed back towards the inn, and Haywa stared at the still body of her comrade, each heart burned with the unfortunate truth of the other's words.

A few hours later, the sun began to rise in the east, first illuminating the tip of the Mirage Tower that stood in the middle of the vast desert of the northeastern continent, then changing its angle to illuminate the entire tower as well as the ancient city of Lefein. It then tried to penetrate the mountain walls of the island of Gaia, and even though it failed, the bright star continued its unstoppable journey into the morning sky. In turn, it cast its light on Crescent Lake, Pravoka, Coneria, ElfLand, the Cardia Islands, the Dwarf Cave, Melmond, and eventually it reached Onrac, the town where the remnants of the Eight lay recuperating. The first thing the sunlight was able to find in Onrac was Phia's window in the Clinic, and as the yellow rays hit the Red Mage's face she woke up and blinked. Sitting up and rubbing her eyes, she groaned with pain - every muscle in her body ached, her head throbbed, and she still felt exhausted. The last thing - heck, the only thing - she remembered was walking into the Inn in Pravoka. She had been ambushed by a Wildpony on the road in and needed a stiff drink - had the liquor been so strong that she had immediately passed out? She stared uncomprehendingly at the bleached-white sheets that she lay under, and with a blank expression, tried to look around and figure out where she was.

Twisting her head to the right revealed nothing, just a whitewashed wall. Trying again, she turned to the opposite direction, and her eyes widened in surprise. There lay a handsome half-man half-dragon in the opposite bed, his skin a sickly gray, his armor and scales covered with strange black stuff. It smelled horrendous - a rank, stale odor - and though it seemed familiar, she couldn't for the life of her remember what it - or who the man it covered - was. Phia looked around her again, trying to figure out where in the world she was, and after a moment of staring at the sterile, spotless white all around her, she realized she was in a Clinic. Confused, she checked herself for broken bones, bloody bandages, and looked around for antidotes, but didn't find anything wrong. I seem to be fine, she thought, her muddled mind getting more clouded by the mystery she now faced. What on earth am I doing here?

Swiveling her head around the room once more, she looked for any clues whatsoever as to where she was and what was going and saw her pack lying on the ground next to her bed. Ah, there we are - maybe now I can figure something out! She reached down and grasped one of the straps, and with a grunt of effort and a clink from the bag, she lifted it into her lap. Undoing the buckle, she dumped the contents onto the mattress and started to sift through her booty. brush, handkerchief, sharpening stone, magic book I borrowed from Lukahn - Lukahn? Wait a second, who is he and how do I remember his name? Something clicked in her mind and she could feel the answers almost ready to come to her, and with greater urgency she went back to her burrowing. Another book, magic potion, hair tie, heal potion - mmm, heal potion... All thoughts of solving the mystery suddenly went out of her head as she grabbed the bottle, tore out the cork, and started gulping the potion down, its warmth flowing throughout her sore muscles and making her feel a lot better. She twisted to the side to set the empty bottle on the floor, and when she straightened up she noticed something interesting.

Underneath where the potion had lain was a small sphere. It was palm-sized, a dull gray color, and didn't seem to reflect any of the sunlight that shone on it. Picking up her personal articles and putting them back in her pack, her eye was continuously caught by the strange object. When she looked closely, she could swear that a flash of blue passed through it, but when she blinked and looked again the color was gone. Phia put the last book back into her bag and fastened the buckle, then set it on the floor and stared again at the curious little crystal. What was this thing, she wondered, and why was she so hesitant to touch it? Casting her caution aside, she reached out and grabbed the little ball, and as she touched it a blinding flash exploded through her mind and she immediately passed out again.

A moment later, she opened her mind's eye and found herself floating in the cloudy gray of the Orb, all of her memories, painful as they were, flooding back into her mind.

A nervous suitor, a flashing scimitar, a calm sea, a broken heart.

A surprising reunion, a sturdy fortress, a beam of darkness, a second chance.

A white palace, a sunny clearing, a small hut, a new lease on life.

A mangled town, a familiar graveyard, a recurring fear, an empty cave.

A flashing image, a new objective, a fearsome dragon, a soft touch.

A wild party, a beautiful tune, a Wyvern's scream, a powerful song.

A mangled body, a short flight, a sturdy canoe, a raging waterfall.

A fierce battle, an unwanted protector, a hideous beast - and a sacrifice.

Phia remembered exactly what had happened now. In her haste to regain the Orb of Water - which she was now inexplicably floating in - she'd cut off Kraken's tentacle. If the Fiend had his way, she would have been drowned in the flood of his evil blood, and fortunately, Markus had other plans - but what was going to happen to him now?

Suddenly, she had no more time to ponder, as the blue streak she had seen zip through the Orb from the outside came flashing through the gray matter and floated next to her. It slowly began to take form - Phia could swear that it was starting to look a lot like her - and to her utter surprise it said, "Hello, Phia D'Hiver."

"H-How do you know my name?"

"Because you have entered the water at some time during your life." Another memory flashed behind her eyelids of a tearful swim through the Aldi Sea, but cast it aside as the apparition next to her spoke again. "You see, I am what is left of the Water Elemental, trapped alone in this Orb. I know everything about the earth's water and its contents, from the vast expanses of the sea to the floating vapor of the clouds."

"Well, that's just great, honey - but it doesn't explain why you look just like me, or why I'm floating in here!"

A puzzled look appeared on the Water Elemental's face as she asked, "You are the one who will help me find my companion, aren't you?"

Now it was Phia's turn to look confused. "Your companion? Who's that?"

With a wistful smile, the Elemental answered, "The Altar of Water in the Sea Shrine. When I am brought there, I will be reunited with my companion, the full elemental power of Water."

"Um...I'm sorry, but I can't bring you to the Altar."

"Why not?"

"That's not our job. We're just supposed to get the Orbs back from the Fiends - it'll be up to the legendary Light Warriors to reunite you with the Altar."

Bordering on the edge of crying, the Elemental whispered, "When will the Light Warriors come to take me back?"

Phia shrugged before replying. "Who knows? I'm still not sure who they're supposed to be, anyway - the Quest that the eight of us are on is just to get the four Orbs back. What Lukahn does with them after this is his business, 'cause I know I never want to see that damned Kraken again as long as I live." As she finished her sentence, Phia stared through the misty gray of the Orb and occasionally caught glimpses of Markus through the ether.

In response, the Water Elemental gave a deep sigh and said, "Oh well, so be it. I was so sure that you would help in some way - but I guess we all make mistakes." Phia flashed her a rueful grin and turned back to the outside world, trying to see Markus again. "I really envy you, Phia. At least you've found your companion," the Elemental continued, pointing at the motionless dragoon.

Even as the Red Mage spun around in surprise, she already knew that the Elemental spoke the truth, and turning back, she peered through the mist again. Out there, on the bed, laid a man who had loved her since he knew she existed. He had stayed polite, kind, and compassionate even in the face of her constant abuse (which was brought about by her own irrational fears.) He truly cared for her, enough to nearly sacrifice himself when she had been about to die. Finally, Phia was able to look past the dragon in him to the man in him - and she realized that she loved the man in him with all her heart. "You're right," she whispered, "I am lucky." In the present circumstances, though, how lucky was the question. Turning back to the Elemental in desperation with her eyes pleading, Phia asked, "Please, Elemental, tell me - will he live?"

"Unfortunately, my child, that I do not know. But, a spirit such as his - combined with his love for you, yours for him, and the bravery and loyalty of your friends, has got to be a combination that gives him a fighting chance." The Elemental gave Phia a gentle smile, and extending her hand, she asked, "May I ask a favor of you, my dear?"

"Sure - what is it?"

"During the rest of your adventures, please keep me close - and make sure that you and Markus are happy together."

Giving the Elemental a warm handshake and a final smile, Phia replied, "No problem." Suddenly, the mist seemed to recede, and Phia found herself sitting in her bed again, the Orb lightly balanced in the palm of her right hand. She carefully slipped it back into her backpack and placed it on the ground before throwing the sheet aside and climbing out of bed. She slowly made her way across the room on her weakened legs before slumping back down onto a stool that was conveniently next to Markus' bedside. Taking a deep breath, she reached out and took the dragoon's clawed left hand in hers.

Neither the fear in her mind from an attack long ago or the sadness in her heart from a former lost love could distract Phia now - and with all the fervor that was left in her, she lightly kissed the hand of the dragon.

21. The Cure Of Blood

"Damn! Why the hell won't any of it work????" The Sage Riel picked up the tome of white magic and healing he had been reading from and hurled it against the wall, not feeling too sagely today. Every attempt he had come up with to save Markus had failed miserably so far, even with the willing help of Lyra and Phia. As the two of them looked on worriedly, Riel plopped his exhausted body onto a stool and buried his face in his hands, rubbing his eyes.

"That spell we just tried was only in the third chapter, right?" Lyra asked hopefully. "How many more chapters are left?"

"It doesn't matter, my dear," Riel wearily replied. "Even if there were a million more chapters with techniques that were a million times more powerful, none of it would work. If magic was working normally, all the different things we've tried with the combined magical power of all three of us would have revived Markus hours ago."

"Wonderful." Phia's voice, strained to its limit from all the chanting they had done, sounded as if she was being strangled. "He saves me, and then I can't do a damn thing to help him. Fine state of affairs this is." Exhausted and still not fully recovered from the battle with Kraken, she wearily eased herself onto her Clinic bed and fell into an immediate sleep.

Lyra, trying to remain optimistic, put her hand to her chin and thought for a moment. "Riel, are you sure there's nothing we can do?"

"No, I'm not sure, but believe me, I'm most of the way there." The old Sage leaned back on the stool and grasped his thighs, staring off into space, deep in thought. "I just don't understand it. Every single magical effect I've tried hasn't done a damn thing."

"But what if magic doesn't have anything to do with what's wrong with Markus? You said yourself that if magic was working normally, he would have woken up hours ago!" All of a sudden, Riel's eyes brightened and he sprang from his stool with the sprightliness of a child.

"Eureka! That's it! Oh, my dear, that is the great and glorious 'it'!" Twirling around, he grasped Lyra by the shoulders as the elf stared at him in shock. "Thank you, Lyra, thank you! If Wrinn wouldn't kill me afterwards, I would kiss you!" Riel suddenly released Lyra and frantically began gathering up his books and papers from the floor. "Have everybody meet me at the Inn in an hour. I'll have great news - sort of - for them!"

As the old Sage dashed out of the room hell-bent for leather, an exceedingly bewildered Lyra stood staring at the doorway, wondering: "Just what the heck is going on?"

An hour later, the uninjured members of the Quest gathered in the lobby of Onrac's Inn, directed there by the still confused Lyra. Noticeably absent, though, was Draig - after Lyra had approached him to inform him of the possible good news about his son's welfare, he had spread his wings and taken flight, heading off to the west. Leyre, trying to improve the spirits of his new friends, had suggested that Draig had merely flown off to pick up the Sage Roger, who had stayed with the desert gypsies in case anything had gone wrong in the Waterfall. "Good news about Markus," he had said, "means that both we and the Sages will be leaving soon." They all hoped he was right.

After a few minutes of silent, apprehensive waiting, Sage Riel entered, a single book in his left hand, a weary expression on his face - that soon turned into a smile as he saw the six of them gathered there.

"Our time of worrying will soon be at an end, my friends," Riel said with a grin. "I know what will cure Markus' ills."

Lyra, still wearing a perplexed expression, pleadingly asked, "What is it, Riel? Would you finally tell me now?"

Smiling gently at her, Riel replied, "Of course, my dear. The answer is so simple I should have figured it out days ago - but it took you to point me in the right direction." Smiling as all six of them stared at him with a mix of apprehension and confusion, he concluded, "When you mentioned that it might not have anything to do with magic, that's when it clicked. Since you fight fire with fire, what do you fight blood with?"

"Blood," Draig answered. "Dragon's blood, to be precise." All faces turned towards Draig's form as it filled the doorway, the Sage Roger beside him. "Once I heard that magic had not healed Markus yet, I knew immediately what the cure had to be."

Riel, after casting a glance at his colleague, nodded. "Markus was hurt by massively evil blood from a mystical creature. The only thing that can save him is honorable blood from a mystical creature. Blood from the most noble of dragons. The blood of Bahamut."

Wrinn nodded and closed his eyes, his mind filling with wonder. King Bahamut of the Dragons of the old days, when Coneria and Cardia had been close allies, the greatest of the Conerian Guards had been sent to Bahamut to be judged, and only the greatest of them were allowed to become Dragoons - at least in the old sense of the word, before Markus and his kind changed the definition. Opening his eyes, he said, "Word has it among the Guardsmen that Bahamut had disappeared as of late."

"You are regretfully correct, Wrinn," Draig replied, his wings drooping and his voice growing somber. "After the revolt of the Dragoons, Bahamut, feeling nothing but shame for his race, abdicated the throne and shut himself in his Castle of Ordeals."

"Castle of Ordeals?" Haywa asked, eyes glittering.

"It is a castle located in the deepest swamp of the northern continent, far west of the Mirage Tower. The gates are sealed by magic, and only one may enter the castle at a time while Bahamut is there. The interior is a fiendish maze, and it is stocked with fierce monsters. Bahamut has made it quite clear he wants to be alone."

Haywa, adopting her sternest expression, replied, "Well, under the circumstances, I think we'd better make it quite clear that there is no way that we're going to let Markus die. And, it's also quite clear what's going to happen now - just let..."

"...Me go pack a few things," Johann interrupted, "And as soon as Draig is ready to fly me there, I'll be on my way."

Mild surprise appeared on the faces of his colleagues as Haywa whirled around in utter shock. "What are you talking about, Johann? You're not going! This is the Castle of Ordeals we're talking about here, not a walk down the street!"

"I suppose this is where you continue on and say something to the effect of 'we both know you'll never make it through on your own', right?" Johann replied, his eyes glittering icily.

"Exactly!" the martial artist blurted, her face beginning to turn red. "When the rest of us are around, you're a great asset to the party - do you think I'm going to let you just go off and get yourself killed like a total -"

Suddenly, Sage Riel stepped forward and said, "Haywa?"

Awkwardly checking her tirade, Haywa turned again to face the Sage. "What is it, Riel?"

Sage Roger moved next to his colleague, and with a knowing smile on his face, said, "Let him go, Haywa." Johann seemed to relax as he smiled at them, while Haywa turned even redder (if that was possible at this point.)

"Riel, Roger, what's gotten into you? I thought you Sages were supposed to be wise! How can you sentence Johann to death like this?"

"I'm not sentencing him to death at all, Haywa," Riel calmly said. "If anything, I'm sentencing him to life." Turning to the diminutive elf and laying a hand on his shoulder, he gravely said, "Markus' life is in your hands, my friend. I know you will succeed." Nodding grimly, Johann turned and left, heading to the general store in order to stock up for his journey.

Staring after Johann's departed form, Haywa's mouth opened and closed like a fish out of water. "Why...why on earth did you do that? You both know I would have made it in and out of the Castle with little difficulty - Johann will be lucky if he makes it in the front door alive!"

Turning sternly to Haywa, Sage Riel said, "You are right, Haywa - Johann will be lucky if he makes it in the front door, because I'm not sure if his height will be an impediment to him in the marshes around the Castle of Ordeals. However, I do know that he has the heart and the skills to make it through that place alive - and you must know it, as well. You need to learn respect for him, because until you all learn to respect each other, you can't work together like the team you need to be in order to defeat the Fiends. You all didn't totally have this figured out when you attacked Kraken, and because of it Markus nearly died. By seeing Johann make it through this, you won't have to worry about him taking care of himself - and after he sees the way you're going to help Phia while Markus is still out cold, he'll discover that you really do have a heart." Successfully chewed out, Haywa slumped down in a chair as Johann appeared at the door, his pack bulging and a brand-new dagger tucked into his belt.

"Draig, I'm ready any time you are." Haywa couldn't help but notice the tremor in his voice, and she looked up to find him staring wild-eyed into the room, the look in his eyes a mixture of intense fierceness and pants-soiling terror. Looking up at him, she remembered precisely how she had felt at that moment, so long ago.

She had been staring at the mirror in her quarters, tightening the cloth wrapped around her hands, with the same exact expression, eyes telling the world more than she wanted it to know. She knew what she had to do, though, and damned if anyone was going to stop her. At that point, she sure could have used a few words of encouragement, but unfortunately for her, that couldn't be...and she knew what she had to say now.

Looking towards the door, she picked her head up and said, "Hey, Johann."

Turning his attention away from Draig for a moment, he looked over at her and crossly said, "What?"

"Knock 'em dead, you pansy-assed idiot."

Grinning wickedly, he replied, "Thanks, you ice-hearted moron," and disappeared into the night.

With a weak grin on her own face, Haywa watched Draig lumber towards the doorway himself, to take her friend to what was surely his doom.

Wrinn, however, was lost in thought, staring intently at the two Sages, who were over in the corner of the room, sharing knowing glances. Why did they send Johann? Is there an ulterior motive? What the heck is going on?

As Draig soared over the Cardia Islands, his former home, Johann clung to his neck, eyes closed tight as the wind rushed over him and tugged at the hood of his robe.

Draig gave a great sigh, then said, "Aren't they beautiful, Johann?"

"Yeah. Sure. Uh huh. They're great...fantastic even," Johann stammered, tightening his grip.

Draig winced, stole a glance back at his passenger, noting his fright, and remarked, "Don't pinch! There's no need to be frightened like a rabbit, even if you do look like one." As Johann picked his head up to flash Draig a dirty look, the old dragon smiled. "Ah hah! I managed to get you to open your eyes after all! Look around you, Johann - this is the world you're trying to save, you know. Sometimes, giving in to fear is wise - it can save your life at times - but if you do it too often, you may find yourself missing out on opportunities that you really should not have missed." Steeling himself against the fear, Johann looked down, and was quite stunned by the scene that met his eyes.

The Cardia Islands stretched out beneath them, each one a long, thin sliver of land, seemingly sprinkled in the Northern Sea by the powers of the Orbs. The moonlight reflected off the water and cast its soft light over the forests and marshes that blanketed each island. In front of them, on the eastern horizon, laid the continent that made up the rest of the northern country - and somewhere in that sky ahead floated the Sky Castle, the fortress of Tiamat, Fiend of Wind. Johann shivered and turned his attention to the swiftly approaching land mass, on the western edge of which he could barely make out a white castle, a gleaming beacon in the middle of a steaming swamp.

"There's the Castle, Johann. Unfortunately, I can't drop you off anywhere near it, since I would sink in the swamp before I could take off again. I'll try to fit myself into that forest just to the north of it and you'll have to make it through the swamp yourself. All right?"

Johann nodded grimly, and Draig began his final approach towards the southern edge of the small forest. After circling the spot for a few minutes, Markus' father found the spot that he was looking for, and held himself back, cutting his forward movement and slowing the beating of his mighty wings just enough to allow for a smooth descent.

Finally, Draig's feet touched the earth, and Johann slid off his back and jumped to the ground. The dragon stared at the diminutive elf for a moment, taking in the spectacle of his spectacles coldly reflecting the moonlight. "Johann," he said, "I wish you luck in your quest - not just from me, but from Markus as well. Please, Johann," he continued, pain coming through his voice, "please save my son."

Johann, in return, gave Draig a firm nod, then adjusted his dagger in his belt and turned southward into the forest. As the massive dragon curled up to sleep off his wait, he thought he heard Johann muttering to himself, but tossed it off as stress-induced - besides, he didn't want to hear "I must be crazy" or "I am totally out of my mind" anyway...

Scared out of his mind, lost in fog, and covered in swamp mud from head to toe, Johann nonetheless trudged ever southward. "Why in the world am I doing this?" he said, not caring whether the swamp creatures heard him or not. "Why didn't I let Haywa do it? She's used to this sort of thing." After taking a few more steps and nearly losing his left boot in a pile of muck, he answered himself, "Because she said I couldn't. That's incentive enough for anything." A few more steps. A crow startled him as it took off from a dead tree to his left. "But the whole point of this isn't just to show up Haywa. Markus will die if I fail. Why didn't I just let somebody do it who could do it, just to make sure that Markus lives?" Finally, out of the fog ahead of him and to his left, Johann saw the white stone of the Castle of Ordeals slowly emerge. Changing his course through the swamp, the elvish magician set his jaw and drew his dagger. "Because I can do it."

A few moments later, Johann arrived at the great gate (It's even more impressive than the one at Elf Castle, he thought,) and stood there for a moment wondering how to get in. If he shouted loud enough, would Bahamut hear him, or would he have to snap the chains of the drawbridge like at the Northwest Fortress? He didn't much like the idea of damaging Bahamut's newfound home, especially when he was coming to gain the dragon king's help, so he decided on his first option.

"Hello! Helloooo! Can anyone hear me?" Johann stood quietly, one ear tilted towards the castle, straining to hear an answering call. "King Bahamut? Is anyone here? Hello?" He picked up a rock and heaved it at the drawbridge...but unfortunately, it only splashed in the moat. "King Bahamut, we desperately need your help! Please, answer my call!" Silence was his only reply, besides the occasional croak of a crow or buzz of an insect. All right, he thought, The old recluse is playing hard to get, eh? Well, I'll just have to play along, then. As he had done earlier at the Northwest Fortress, he began to stretch his arms away from his body, reaching out with his magical powers to amplify the instability in the metal...

"HALT!" Johann's concentration was totally snapped by the sudden voice, booming through the swamp. "Cease your destructive magic! If you wish entrance - and death - so badly, I will allow you inside. If your heart is pure and your task brave, perhaps you will make it to my audience chamber. However, I highly doubt that there is one left in this diseased world who can possibly fulfill those requirements. Enter, if you dare, and die, if you must!"

Before Johann's astonished eyes, the drawbridge began its descent, the chains rusty and the gears creaking from disuse. As the tip of the drawbridge met the swamp with a deafening splut, the portcullis began its own deliberate ascension, but as soon as the lower spikes had cleared his small height, Johann was grimly hurrying across the drawbridge and disappearing inside the great castle.

Once inside, Johann stared ahead of him, unable to believe what he saw. There was nothing there! He was standing in a large hall, the floor laid with gray marble and the walls the same spotless white as the castle's exterior. The dimensions of this room, however, were so huge that it was impossible to believe anything but that this room was all there was to the massive castle! The only thing that Johann could see that was slightly out of the ordinary was a small throne, sitting near the rear wall and centered horizontally with the rest of the castle. Dejected, the elf stumbled across the vast gray expanse, eyes staring dully in disbelief that he had come all this way for nothing - and, that there was now no way to save Markus. At this point, he had reached the throne, and dejectedly flopped down on it, exhausted from his trek through the swamp.

The split second, though, that his body made contact with the chair, he felt a breeze pass through him, as if a wind was blowing against him, but his body wasn't really there. Suddenly, his tailbone was on fire as he plummeted from the throne straight to the a room that was decidedly not the room he had just been in. This room was more of a hallway than a hall, but was still made from the same gray flooring and spotless white brick. Rubbing his tailbone, he slowly got up and stumbled forward, until a snarl stopped him dead in his tracks.

Unfortunately, he couldn't see what was ahead of him, as the corridor turned sharply to his right about twenty feet ahead. Drawing his dagger, he flattened his body against the wall and slowly made his way to the corner. The snarling had quieted into a growling sound, accentuated with a series of soft padding noises which periodically stopped for a moment, then started up again. Shaking with fright but trying his best to make no sound, Johann peeked around the corner and nearly sighed with relief.

A single Grey Wolf was patrolling the corridor, which seemed silly because there was nothing more past it besides a single white pillar. Shrugging his shoulders but staying wary nonetheless, Johann drew his dagger and gripped it by the tip in his left hand, while making a fist with his right and beginning to channel the magic through himself.

Keeping an eye on the wolf, he waited until its back was turned - then leapt from hiding, whipped the knife at his adversary with his left hand, and followed it with a speeding fireball from his right. Halfway there, the fireball caught up with the knife, and before the wolf knew what was coming it was obliterated. Johann proudly walked over to the flaming corpse, yanked out the steaming knife, and slid it back into its sheath. "Now, if I could just find the way out of this strange room, this place wouldn't be that bad."

He then proceeded to search the walls for the trick to get out of the chamber. "There's got to be a secret door in the wall or a brick that you push to open a trap door or something," he muttered. After roughly fifteen minutes of searching, he stalked, exasperated and exhausted, over to the white pillar and leaned his tired body against it...

Then crashed to the ground as he was again 'warped' through the castle, to a new part of the maze. Unfortunately, however, he wasn't going to take this room's guards unawares - his body fell with a loud thump on the hard stone floor, and the two armored knights at the far end of the hallway were immediately alarmed. Drawing their swords with a shout, they came running hell-bent for leather, with the shining points of their swords aimed at Johann's heart.

The moment he saw them, Johann knew that he had no chance of parrying their strong broadswords with his puny dagger, and that there was only one way to stop them before he was killed. Quickly pulling himself to his feet, he immediately spread his arms apart, stretching his fingers to their limit and feeling out with his mind for the molecules of the knights' swords and armor. Seeing their opponent begging for death, the knights huzzahed and sped up, lunging with all their might, to plunge the points of their swords into Johann's unprotected chest. However, they were deprived of the kill as Johann then clenched his fists, dissolving all the metal his enemies were wearing and gaining him back the advantage.

Drawing his dagger, he immediately plunged it into the heart of the first adversary. The second knight, seeing his partner coughing up blood, backed off momentarily, but clenched his fists and moved back to the attack as he remembered just how small his opponent was. Johann, feeling the blood spewing through his lungs as well, backed off, coughing, still holding the knife in front of him and leaning against the wall for support. Warily, his opponent moved towards him, and when a particularly strong fit of coughing struck the diminutive elf, he moved back to the attack, grabbing for Johann's knife arm and aiming a punch for his windpipe - going for the quick kill. Which, if you don't really want to bother with the particulars, he got.

At the moment the knight grabbed for his arm, and with all his remaining strength, Johann coursed elemental lightning energy through his body, turning into an electric elf - and sending the deadly energy into his enemy. As the knight sank twitching to the floor, Johann followed him, the life leaving his body as blood flowed freely from the twin wounds in his chest. With his last effort, he pulled a healing potion from his pack and feebly ripped the cork out, lifted it to his lips, and drank - intentionally spilling some of it down his chest, feeling the life flow back into him along with the soothing warmth of the potion.

Struggling back to his feet, he looked down at his blood-soaked chest and torn robe. "So THAT'S why everybody wears that silly-looking heavy armor!"

He had made it.

After another three hours of blundering through Bahamut's fiendish maze, fighting off fiercer and more dangerous guards from the giant and poisonous Mancats to the seductive Medusae, using a pillar and finding himself back in room where he fought the Grey Wolf and NOT finding a charred corpse as he expected, he had finally made it. His tattered robe hung in shreds around his shoulders. His knife was caked with blood, his pack hung empty on his back, every potion already having been needed and consumed - but he stood in front of a large wooden door, carved with images of dragons and fire, which he knew could only be the doorway to Bahamut's audience chamber. He wearily lifted his arm and knocked, to which the same booming voice he had heard earlier responded, "Enter."

Pushing the massive door with all his might, the diminutive magician slowly moved into the room, the rusted hinges at his right screaming in protest. After making a wedge that he could fit through, he slid into the room, only to have his breath taken away and the strength leave his body. He fell to his knees, unable to speak, as he stared at the glory in front of him.

Bahamut, a vast golden-red dragon, was coiled around his throne, a positively beautiful sight to behold, every inch a mystical wonder, exuding majesty from every pore. The room was filled with a bright yellow glow, making it light as day - Johann, used to the darkness of the maze, had to shield his eyes from the brilliance. After he had cowered there for a moment, Bahamut said, "State your name and your business, elf."

"I am Johann Raystovsson, my Lord," he stammered, "And I am here to beg you for your aid. My friend, Markus - he will die if he does not receive the gift of your blood."

"Why does he require my blood? Of what ailment does he suffer?"

"Myself and my colleagues are on a Quest to retrieve the Orbs from the Fiends, in preparation for the Light Warriors whom the Sages prophesized long ago. We recently had our first battle with a Fiend, Kraken of Water." Bahamut's gaze did not waver or change in any way at Johann's description, but plucking up his courage he continued. "To retrieve the Orb, one of my friends severed Kraken's tentacle, not realizing that the deluge of evil blood would kill her. Markus, not wanting her to die, ran over and shielded her from the flood with his wings and body. Sage Riel says that only your blood will save him."

"This...Markus. You spoke of wings. What manner of creature is he?"

Johann, seeing where this line of questioning was leading, sagged his shoulders and said, "He is a Dragoon, my Lord."

"WHAT? A Dragoon? You fool! You befriended one of those vile traitors and accompanied him into the lair of a Fiend? You are lucky he didn't turn and plunge his spear through your heart the second he met you! You listen to me, boy. Dragoons are nothing but servants of Tiamat and bringers of doom. If you need my blood to save him, the only way you'll get it is by killing me. Now, go!"

Johann could barely believe his ears. He had gone all this way. He had fought all those monsters. He had made it through Bahamut's maze - and he had done it all by himself! And what, indeed, was his prize? Being called a fool and sent away to die! Suddenly, the elvish magician saw movement out of the corner of his eye, and in fury he went into action. Whipping his dagger back out of his sheath, he tossed it into the air with his right hand, channeled the furious power of ice through his left arm, caught the dagger in midair, and with a cry as powerful as Bahamut's voice, threw the deadly weapon....

And hit the unusually sized rat, frothing with rabies and poised to bite Bahamut's leg, straight in the heart. Bahamut, blinking, turned his head to look at the creature that could have caused his death, then looked back up at Johann, who was stumbling over towards the rat. He retrieved his knife, wiped it off on the stinking fur, slipped it back into its sheath, looked up at Bahamut, said "I'm sorry for bothering you," and began to shuffle off towards the great door - until the sound of laughter behind him made him stop and turn.

"Well done, Johann! You've done it!"

Johann, blinking, couldn't believe his ears for the second time in five minutes. "I've done what?"

"You've passed my test, my boy." As the elf continued to simply blink and stare, the dragon king went on. "I know who you are, Johann. I know your quest, and I know your predicament. I knew it before you even arrived - in fact, even before you had decided to come here. Lukahn and the rest of the Sages are very active telepathically."

" why refuse us? You know our plight? Why won't you help?"

"Ah, but I will, my young friend. As you know, I used to test warriors to see if they were strong and proud and honorable enough to become dragoons - after dragoons in the old sense ceased to exist, I conferred amazing powers on those I found worthy. It's been so long since I tested a mortal warrior...but I knew you would pass the test."

Swallowing hard, Johann said, "So, what is my reward? Will you help us and save Markus?"

"Of course, my dear boy. But, I shall do much more than that. Kneel, Black Mage - " and as Johann knelt, a small vortex of brilliant light surrounded him, obscuring him from view as Bahamut's magic did its work, "and rise, Black Wizard!"

Johann looked down at himself, and couldn't believe his eyes. The simple blue robe he had been wearing had been replaced by a black robe of the finest velvet, with flowing, open sleeves and was held at his waist with a rope of pure gold. During the transformation, his glasses had fallen off - but, he noted with surprise, he didn't need them. He picked them up and looked at his reflection as the handsome, grizzled face of a wizard stared back at him. "Is that really me?"

"Indeed it is, Johann. You'll find, through experimentation, that your magical powers have just become even greater - five minutes with one of the Sages will open you up to spells you never thought you could cast. Now, climb on my back and we can fly back to Onrac to save Markus' life - but O, am I hungry!" As Johann climbed up on the dragon king's back, Bahamut scooped up the rat in his jaws, crunched a few times, and spit the tail back out onto the throne before ducking through a door into a courtyard and taking off into the morning sky.

22. Eight Is Enough

Draig was peacefully napping in the forest, (for what creature would be foolish enough to attack a dragon?) enjoying the warmth of the rising sun, when he was startled into consciousness by the mighty crash of Bahamut's takeoff. As the majestic dragon rose into the air, Draig looked frantically for Johann on Bahamut's back - but saw only a formidable figure in a black robe. That can't be him - Johann's robe is blue... he thought, and summoning up his courage, he flew off after his king to inquire about his friend's welfare.

After a minute or two of flying, Draig's frantic pace had almost caught him up to the silent pair, and with all the breath he could muster, he shouted out, "My Lord!"

Bahamut, finally noticing the lesser dragon's presence, twisted his head to the rear and called out, "What is your business with me?"

"My Lord, the elf Johann...he tried to find you...what happened to him? Where is he?"

"Right here, Draig!" The figure in black twisted around and smiled at him. "What do you think of the new look?"

"Impressive!" After taking another moment to examine the handsome wizard, Draig exclaimed, "Most impressive!"

With a grin, Johann settled himself back on Bahamut's back as the dragon king said, "We had best hurry, Draig - your son's life is at stake!" Nodding, Draig settled in behind Bahamut as he increased his speed to such a pace that Johann couldn't have opened his eyes even if he'd wanted to. In no time, the two dragons had crossed the Northern Sea and were landing outside the gates of Onrac, where an anxious group of adventurers waited for the return of their friend.

As the claws of the mighty dragons touched the ground, the remaining Six came running, Lyra first in line, hoping against hope that her old friend was all right. Seeing the figure on Bahamut's back, she increased her pace, crying out "Johann! Johann! You're all right! I knew you could do it, I knew you - " and as Johann himself jumped to the ground and faced his companions, she stopped short and said - "Wait, I don't know you! Who are you and where's Johann?"

"He stands before you, my dear. Johann, by attempting to save my life even after I had refused him help, passed my Warrior's Test, and by doing so earned him his reward, which was for me to transform him from a Black Mage into a Black Wizard."

Phia, quivering with fear and awe as she stared wide-eyed at the dragon king, managed to stammer, " r-r-refused him help? Y-you won't s-save Markus?"

Smiling, Bahamut replied, "Of course I will save Markus! I know the importance of your quest, and had no intention of refusing even if Johann had not passed my test. I only said that I would refuse to help in order to gauge Johann's honor. If he had attacked me instead, or simply left me to die, I would have known that he was undeserving of my power and he would have remained a Black Mage for eternity."

"But...but..." Lyra said, staring in confusion at the stranger in front of her, "This...this isn't Johann."

"Sure it is, Lyra." Haywa moved up to stand next to the elvish warrior, gazing quizzically into the wizard's eyes. "Just look at him for a second. He's got the same determination in his eyes as before," she said, moving in to get a closer look. Suddenly, she straightened up and smiled, adding, "But just as I thought, the fear's gone." Holding out her right hand, she said, "Nice job, Johann."

"Thanks, Haywa," Johann replied, shaking the martial artist's hand. Pleadingly looking up at Lyra, he said, "Come on, Lyra, don't you believe that it's me?"

"I don't know," Lyra replied. "How are you going to prove to me that it's you?"

"Well," the elf wizard thoughtfully said, with a wicked smile on his face, "I could always tell everybody embarrassing stories about you from when we were kids, like the time that..."

"Okay, okay, I believe you!" she quickly said, and they all had a good laugh - except for Phia.

Hands clasped tight in front of her, the Red Mage whispered, "You know, this reunion stuff is all well and good, but can we please save Markus' life now?"

Snapping themselves out of their reverie, the two dragons and the other six adventurers quickly moved off towards the clinic, Haywa and Katarin each putting an arm around Phia's shoulders, helping support her as they walked down Onrac's main thoroughfare. Johann, talking with Wrinn and Lyra as they walked, noted this display of compassion with interest and curiosity. Soon, they had arrived at the Clinic, and after pointing out the windows of Markus and Phia's room to Bahamut and Draig, the seven of them quickly hurried up the stairs themselves, taking up positions around the room.

Wrinn, entering first, unlatched the windows and swung them wide, allowing the two dragons to poke their heads in and view the proceedings before moving to the back corner of the room, silently hoping that he wouldn't have to say farewell to another friend.

Johann arrived second and walked over to the window where Bahamut was, anxious to not be the only one who received a priceless gift from the dragon king.

Katarin arrived next, standing apprehensively at the foot of Markus' bed, wary of Leyre's silent presence behind her, but deciding not to drive him away - not at a time like this.

On her way to stand next to Wrinn, Lyra cast a wondering glance at Johann before shaking her head, still finding it hard to believe in the transformation her friend had undergone.

A grim look on her face, Haywa moved next to Phia's bed, arms crossed in front of her, sternly staring at the still form of her longtime companion.

With a sniffle, Phia finally came in, all heads turning towards her as she made her way to the stool by Markus' bedside. Sinking down on it, she once again took the dragoon's left hand in hers - and gasped in shock. His hand was as cold as ice, and she could barely see his chest rising and falling with his labored breathing. Seeing her love so close to death, she was literally paralyzed with fear, but fought her way through it. Turning her head expectantly towards Bahamut and struggling with the lump in her throat, she managed to say, "Please...?"

With a nod, the King of Dragons moved his head away from the window and a moment later stuck his forearm through. Johann grabbed a cup and a towel from the small table in between the beds, and drawing his dagger, made a small cut on the dragon's forearm. After a half-inch of the precious fluid had collected in the cup, Johann pressed the towel to the wound and handed the cup to Phia. With shaking fingers, the Red Mage took the cup and turned back to Markus. Leaning out over him, she moved the cup to his lips, simultaneously said every prayer she knew to every god she had ever heard of, and tilted it ever so slightly to allow the blood to touch his skin.

The split second contact was made, an evil screech, piercingly high and nearly deafening in its intensity, filled the air and all those watching jumped in fright. But before their astonished eyes, the dark spots that covered Markus' body seemed to jump off him and run for their lives, melting into the shadows in the corner of the room. The sickly gray pallor that had permeated even the dragoon's scarlet flesh lifted away, restoring his normal color, and his chest swelled with an abrupt intake of fresh air. His eyes had not opened yet, though, and all nine observers waited in a torturous silence for some indication that their friend was all right.

After a long moment, Markus slowly opened his eyes and peered out around the room. His gaze first fell on Leyre and Katarin, standing tensely at the foot of his bed. In the corner, next to them, was Wrinn and Lyra, then Haywa, then Johann, and through the windows, inexplicably, were peering the faces of his father and a majestic dragon he knew could only be Bahamut. Then his gaze fell on Phia, seated on the other side of his bed, her hands tightly gripping his dragon's claw and her eyes staring into his with a mixture of fright, sadness, and tenderness. He blinked a few times, and finally said, "So, this is what heaven is like."

After a final moment of stunned silence, his friends erupted in a rousing cheer, everybody giving everybody else wild hugs and handshakes as a frantically weeping Phia threw her arms around him and sobbed joyfully into his chest.

Sage Riel and Sage Roger, standing outside the Clinic and listening to the celebration inside, turned to each other and shared a handshake of their own. The Eight were together again.

Later that day, the entire group met up with Riel, Roger and Bahamut in the Inn (even Markus - the rest of the blood proved to help immensely in his recovery and he felt almost as strong as he did when he entered the Waterfall.) After the two couples had strategically found seats somewhere and left Johann, Leyre, Haywa, and Katarin standing by themselves in the corners of the room, Riel stepped forward and said, "Well, my young friends, where are you off to now?"

Wrinn, extricating himself from Lyra's grasp, stood up himself and replied, "Well, we've got one Fiend down and one to go - I say we waste no more time and head for Tiamat." Each member of the Quest took a deep breath and contemplated Wrinn's words, which they knew were true.

"He's right," Markus added. "We've got to leave as soon as possible and head for the eastern continent."

An incredulous Katarin piped up, "But how are we going to get to the Sky Castle? Have Draig fly us there one at a time?"

"Well, if I remember correctly, Phia told us that one of the Sages lives in Lefein, right?" Swallowing nervously, Phia nodded, and Wrinn continued. "So, while we're there getting the Sage on his way to Crescent Lake, we'll simply ask to borrow the Airship, and then..."

"...You'll have to head for Gaia to warn the last Sage," Riel interjected. Blinking in surprise, Wrinn turned towards the elderly Sage as he continued. "From what you've told us, we know that Lukahn, Rostol, Roland, Radvich, Rengin, Rhital, Roger, and myself have all been warned. Also from what you've told us, we know that the only four you haven't talked to are in Cardia, Gaia, Lefein, and Crescent Lake. Well, King Bahamut is going back to the Cardia Islands and has offered to do a bit of your job for you, and I'm sure Lukahn sought out Risah the second he arrived in Crescent Lake. That only leaves Lefein and Gaia for you to visit, and even though I trust you, I want all twelve of us Sages well on our way before you even think about going after Tiamat." Wrinn nodded, trying to stifle his grin (as Riel had listed off the Sages that had been forewarned, Roger had counted - incorrectly - on his fingers) and turning to his companions, said, "Well, my friends, are we all agreed on this new plan?"

After receiving nods from each one, Wrinn turned back to the three authority figures at the end of the room and said, "Sage Riel, Sage Roger, King Bahamut, may we be excused?" Receiving nods from those three, Wrinn turned his head back toward his companions, saying, "Let's go, guys - back to the Maelstrom for us!"

Later, while the members of the Quest were busy making their final preparations - Wrinn, Markus, Haywa, and Lyra had gone to fetch the canoe and bring it to the Maelstrom ("You never know when we might need it," Wrinn had said,) while Leyre and Johann accompanied Phia and Katarin, who through adroit negotiating skills and a little mind control managed to secure sufficient supplies with the money they had left - Draig went to the shoreline to see off Bahamut and the Sages (giving Sage Roger a fun-filled dragon-back ride on the way.)

After saying his farewells to the Sages, Draig turned towards Bahamut, who smiled at him and said, "Are you sure you won't reconsider and come with me, Draig?"

"I am sure, my Lord. Onrac is, has been, and always will be my home. Besides, who else will look after it with Riel leaving for Crescent Lake?"

Nodding gravely, the dragon king replied, "I understand, Draig. If ever the danger is lifted from our world, don't hesitate to come home to Cardia. Your actions in helping Johann and your service to the Quest makes you an honorable dragon in MY eyes."

"Thank you for your kindness, my Lord, and farewell - have a good flight back."

"Farewell to you, good Draig, wherever you fare."

With these final words, Bahamut spread his majestic wings and took to the skies, the setting sun at his back as he flew eastward towards his home.

Sage Roger, watching the dragon king gain altitude, heaved a mighty sigh and exclaimed, "Well, it's good to see him finally gone!"

Riel turned to him in shock and exclaimed, "What on earth do you mean by that? Bahamut saved Markus' life and is going to send the Cardian Sage to us by his own free will! Why is it a good thing for him to leave?"

Glaring back at his colleague, the sprightly Sage replied, "Be-cause, his nasty boomey voice was hurting my ears!" Draig was the first to crack a smile, and soon Riel joined him - and as the two Sages hoisted their packs and made for their own ship, the sound of good-natured laughter filled the air.

Draig stayed on the beach for a moment, watching the ship of the Sages move away from the Maelstrom and head south, when suddenly he heard noises behind him. With his sharp eyes, he pierced the evening twilight and saw the adventurers moving towards him, four of them shouldering the heavy canoe and the other four struggling under heavy packs. Spreading his wings, he took off towards the oncoming group, and once there, he gripped the canoe with his claws. With an effortless flap, he pulled away and gained altitude, flying until he had reached the Maelstrom. He set the canoe gently on the deck, rose back into the air, and had soon landed on the shore once again as the Eight reached him.

"Thanks much, Draig," Wrinn said, a wide grin on his face. "Even with the four of us carrying it, that canoe is no fun to haul around."

"Think nothing of it, Wrinn. However, could you all do me a favor now?" Receiving nods from each of them, Draig continued, "I have need to speak to Markus. May we have a moment?"

"Not a problem. Come on, everyone - let's get the ship ready." As Wrinn led the others toward the Maelstrom and Phia cast worried glances back at Markus, Draig turned to his son and stared imperiously at him, remaining silent long enough for Markus to become uncomfortable.

"What did you want to speak to me for, Father?" he said, wings folded and hands clasped in front of himself.

"You are leaving with your friends, correct?"

Draig's tone was so distant Markus literally shivered. "Yes, Father."

"Good." The massive dragon turned his head out to sea, staring at the Maelstrom, anchored just offshore. "At this point in time, I must issue you an ultimatum - one that you will adhere to this time, since you chose to ignore the previous one." Wondering exactly what he had done to bring down the wrath of his father, Markus nodded, keeping silent.

Facing his son again and looking his most imposing, Draig commanded, "After you leave this beach, you are not to return to Onrac -" Markus' shoulders slumped at this, his second exile from his home - "unless Phia is with you and you're here for a visit." In shock, Markus' head snapped up and his father continued with a smile, "In fact, I hope that you do come back someday, and tell me the wonderful stories of the success of the Quest."

A wide smile on his face and his wings proudly held high, Markus replied, "Thank you, Father - I promise you I shall return."

"I wasn't finished, Markus. I have one final thing to say to you." The smile faded from Draig's snout as he continued, "I wish your mother were here to see this day - for she would be as proud of you as I am." Taking a moment to regain his composure, Draig managed to bring the smile back to his face and continued, "Now go - your friends are waiting. Good luck and godspeed, my son."

Nodding firmly and giving his father a sad smile, Markus spread his wings and took off, flying towards the Maelstrom himself. Draig watched as the figure of his son grew ever smaller, and heard the clank of the chains as the anchor of the great ship was raised. As Markus landed, the sails were hoisted and quickly filled with wind, and as his father turned and made his way back to his home, the Maelstrom picked up speed as it headed eastward, towards its destiny.

bzzzzt..."Kraken no longer izz in control of the Water Orb, Mazzzzzter."

"How do you know?"

zort..."Environmental monitorzzz indicate that the Orb hazz moved from the Waterfall and is proceeding eastward....towards uzzzzzz."

"So...the humans have finally made their move, eh? Well, it's going to have to be time for me to make mine, then." Shaking one of his heads, he mused, "Daring to strike back against the Fiends...hmph. You've got to admire their courage and laugh at their stupidity in the same breath!"

"Indeed - you are most correct, my Master!"

"Oh, shut up, Astos. When I want another county heard from I'll ask for it."

"But...but Master can you treat me like this after all the brilliant work I did getting you the -"

"Yes, your work in finding that for me was brilliant, but it's far outstripped by your stupidity in letting the four of them live. Because of your ineptitude, the Water Orb is gone, Kraken is whining on the Altar of Water instead of rampaging through Onrac, the Circle of Sages is reconvening in Crescent Lake, and eight experienced Fiend-killers are on their way here!" Cowering in fear, the Dark Elf dropped to his knees and began to supplicate, but was paralyzed by all eight of Tiamat's eyes staring straight at him. "You know," the evil dragon continued, "Now that I think about it, I'm not quite sure why I haven't killed you yet." Scratching one of his chins, he turned back to the cowering elf and said, "I suppose you may have served me some purpose at some point, and therefore deserve to live. However, I have no further desire to listen to your prattle - especially now that I have no need for you."

"Y-you are most g-gracious, Master - but what shall I do?"

"Honestly, Astos, I would have thought that being the son of a king, even a bastard son, should at least have given you even a little brainpower. As for what you shall do, you shall do what you do best. Go back to the earth and make some mischief - steal some candy from a baby or some money from a blind woman - something like that. You may end up doing something useful to our cause. Then, go back and sit on your throne in your precious Northwest Fortress, where you will once again be what you should be - the pathetic king of a country of one. Now, remove yourself from my sight!"

"Y-yes, Master!" Turning tail immediately, Astos ran down the circular steps of the Tower, not even daring to stop until the yellow sands and burning sun of the Yahnikurm Desert tortured his eyes. Shielding himself from the glare, Astos quickly chanted the spell of Warp, and as he disappeared into the portal that would take him back to the southern continent he thought to himself, "I'm not too fond of candy, but if I can find a blind woman, I'll take whatever I can!"

Back in the Mirage Tower...

"I must leave now. I have things to do."

Silence. A nod.

"You will stay here and guard the portal to the Sky Castle."


"I also leave the Wind Orb in your hands."


"If you are defeated, unlikely as it may be, you will then leave this place and carry out the plan."


"Once you have your objective, head for the Temple."

Nod. Slight bow.

"Remember, the success of this all depends on you. Don't fail me!"

The man suddenly looked up at Tiamat, and even the depraved dragon was frightened by the unadulterated evil that shone from his eyes. That piercing look was followed by a single, deliberate...


23. Homecoming Queens

The Cardia Islands had been majestic from the air in moonlight, Johann reflected, but they were no less impressive viewed from sea level in twilight. What had been masses of green from above resolved into a collection of mighty brown trunks, with the individual peaks of each oak, pine, or maple making its own impression on the horizon. On the contrary, the swamps on each island where the ocean waters had soaked through the soil were bleak areas of gray, a thick mass of swirling fog above them, with a few crooked boughs poking through the haze here and there. The forests were magnificent and the swamps were desolate, and the direct contrast of ecosystems only added to Cardia's eccentric beauty.

Silently, Johann took in the sight as the Maelstrom slipped past, but a sudden noise from the stairs made him turn. The alternating of the soft padding of leather boots and clicking of claws told him immediately that Markus was on his way on deck, and a relieved Johann turned his attention back to the scenery as the half-breed silently joined him.

"They're marvelous, aren't they?" asked Johann.

"Indeed. It truly is a majestic sight." Markus' tone, however, was a trifle standoffish, and his elvish companion immediately recognized that something was amiss.

"What's wrong?"

Slightly flustered, Markus answered, "Nothing, my friend. I'm just a little tired, that's all. The canoe was rather heavy."

"If you say so," Johann replied, turning his attention back to the Islands with a shrug. Thinking furiously, he tried to figure out how to get Markus to open up and tell him what was wrong - and was intensely surprised when the dragoon spoke up on his own.

"Do you have a home, Johann - a place where you belong?"

Taken aback even more, he answered, "Yes, of course. My home is ElfLand. I was born there, went to school there, and lived there until I left to go on the Quest."

"When the Quest is over, do you think you'll go back there?"

Putting a hand to his chin, Johann thought for a minute and said, "I don't really know. You can never tell what the future will hold - but it's always an option."

With a rueful smile, Markus said, "'It's always an option.' That must be nice..." After Markus trailed off, Johann stood silently, waiting for the half-breed to continue speaking. "I was born in Onrac, but I never felt like I belonged there - my father was always angry at me, the townspeople were afraid of me, and my time there was spent mostly in preparing me to leave." Sighing deeply and closing his eyes, he then said, "My time in Gaia was horrible and I left there as soon as I could. Living in Pravoka was fine, but I was so busy keeping the town safe that I never really got a chance to spend any time there. The last place I lived, the military camp, is now gone and Rhital is back at Crescent Lake." Turning back to sea, Markus stared intently at the Cardia Islands. "I can't possibly live there - even if Bahamut would allow it, I'm not sure that I could - living with one dragon in the vicinity was hard enough. So, I suppose, the question really is, where is my home? Where do I belong?"

Standing halfway up the steps where she had been for the past few minutes, Phia smiled sadly as she heard Markus ask the question that had been running through her head for most of her life. However, after a moment of deliberation, her smile turned to an expression of happiness as she realized that she already knew the answer.

Climbing the last few steps and making both Markus and Johann turn their heads at the sound, Phia slowly made her way across the deck. Without a word, she reached the spot where the two men were standing, and with a quick motion of her hand, made it unequivocally clear where she wanted Johann to go. Getting the message without too much difficulty, the wizard quickly headed below, leaving Markus and Phia alone.

Once Johann had gone, Markus started to say something, but Phia softly put a finger to his lips to silence him and simply gazed into his eyes for a moment. Pulling her hand away, she bowed her head, closed her eyes, and took Markus' hands in hers. Keeping her eyes closed, she began to speak.

"Markus, when I first met you, I was really afraid of you. Not because of anything you'd done to me, but because I've been deathly afraid of dragons ever since I was young. I treated you badly because of my own fears, and for that I am sorry."

"But no matter what I did to you, you always treated me with respect and dignity, because you thought I was someone who deserved respect and dignity. Well, let me make it clear to you now - I wasn't."

Markus' eyes widened, and his ears stung with each of Phia's words. "I've killed innocent people. I've fought against noble causes. I've even hurt and hindered those who used to be my friends - most recently Wrinn and the members of the Quest." Phia took a deep breath, and still holding tight to Markus' hands, continued. "When Wrinn, Lyra, and Johann went through the whole business of warning the two Sages who lived around ElfLand, they were accompanied by Gary Blackstone - Wrinn's best friend, who grew up with him in Coneria. At that time, I was working for Astos, Lord of the Dark Elves. He ordered me to capture Gary and imprison him in the Northwest Fortress, which I did, even though I was in love with him." Markus could positively not believe what Phia was telling him, and if it weren't for the iron grip she had on his wrists, he would have blocked his ears long ago. Nevertheless, the Red Mage continued.

"When Wrinn and the elves arrived at the Fortress to save Gary, I finally realized the hideousness of what I was doing and abandoned Astos and his money to try to save Gary myself. Unfortunately, Astos killed him before I could do anything." Swallowing, she took a couple more slow breaths, then licked her lips and went on. "So, now you know - I am responsible for a lot of horrible things. I'm not proud for having done them, and there's no way to erase the past." Opening her eyes but still staring at the ground, she then said, "But I'm not all bad, Markus. I tried to help those kids in Melmond - you knew about that. When I started my military career in the first place, I had good intentions - you'll learn all about that soon. And, most importantly, look at me now. I'm trying to help save the world in any way I can. The mercenary inside me is dead, and my friends and their safety - not money - is all that I care about. There's got to be some nobility in that, isn't there?" She paused for a few moments, running her thumbs back and forth along Markus' hands, who still stood rigid, barely able to move, his mind churning.

"Look...I heard you talking with Johann. The question you asked, 'where do I belong,' is one that I've asked myself ever since I became a mercenary. It was finally answered as I lay in my bed in the Clinic the first day after we defeated Kraken - by the remaining fragment of the Water Elemental, of all people. I learned from her that a home, a place to belong, is not necessarily a place where you put your body - it's a place where you can put your heart. I know now where I belong." Lifting her head, Phia stared directly into Markus' eyes and concluded, "I belong with you."

Looking back at Phia, Markus tried to digest all that he had just heard. The descriptions of the vile things she had done - and all just for money, no less - turned his stomach. But, thinking further on the subject, he remembered conversations that he'd had with mercenaries who'd joined up with the Melmond army - almost to a man, they had decried the horrible things they'd done and wished for a way out. And here was Phia - she had found her way out. She was now a student of the Great Sage Lukahn and a member of the Quest For The Orbs instead of a ruthless mercenary. When the time had come to actually fight a Fiend, she hadn't backed down, had done everything she could to help on the way there, and had actually gone right after Kraken to get the Orb itself. He had admired her when he'd first heard her story and fallen in love with her at first sight - and now she was standing in front of him, shoving her fears aside, gazing expectantly into his eyes, and telling him that her heart belonged with him. He knew what he had to say.

"And I," he whispered, slipping his right hand out of her grip and lightly touching her cheek, "belong with you." Leaning forward, he gently pulled her face toward his, their lips met - and their first kiss was long, sweet, and tender.

After a few moments, they pulled apart, and Phia put her arms around Markus and snuggled her head into his chest. Sighing contentedly, she said, "Welcome home."

In the morning, all eight of the adventurers were up and moving, and the deck swarmed with activity - "We can't allow ourselves to lose even the slightest bit of skill," Wrinn had said. He and Lyra trained together in the bow, using their wooden swords to keep themselves at peak performance and trying to think up new moves and techniques, knowing that the enemies in the Sky Castle would not be anything close to pushovers. Markus and Katarin, both being wielders of pole arms, were over on the starboard side of the ship, the dragoon helping Katarin become more familiar with the proper use of her weapon (besides whacking things on the head, that is) while brushing up on his skills himself. Meanwhile, Johann and Phia were having a spirited magician's battle in the stern, pitting Johann's varied use of powerful black magic spells against Phia's combinational logic (at non-lethal levels, of course.) Over on the port side, Haywa was working with Leyre, the martial artist using her knowledge of how nerves acknowledge pain to turn the gypsy's musical talent into damaging blows (while conveniently keeping his attention away from Katarin.)

After about two hours of training, Wrinn called his friends in for a break, and as they all stood panting, the proud Guardsman surveyed his team.

"Well, everyone, I think we're well on our way. One Fiend down and we're none the worse for wear - in fact, I'd even say we came out ahead," Wrinn said, giving Johann an approving look as he finished his sentence.

"Our victory was not without temporary loss," Markus added quietly, "but at least we showed that we're a good team."

"Destroying evil wherever it lurks," Haywa said, "that's us."

"Speaking of which, Haywa," Johann added, peering out to sea, "isn't that a pirate ship out there?"

"What????" They all looked in the direction of Johann's outstretched hand, and there, indeed, was a pirate ship, looming not more than five hundred yards away.

Phia, in shocked recognition, exclaimed, "Oh, no - it must be the Kyzoku!"

"The who?" Katarin asked.

"The Kyzoku! They're a ruthless bunch of gold-seeking pirates who prey on all the trading routes outside of the Aldi Sea. They make Bikke and his bunch look like Imps!"

Wrinn, thinking back to the battle on the docks of Pravoka and remembering that pirates liked to kill first and ask questions later, turned to Phia and said, "So what should we do? Do they like to use cannons to cripple ships from a distance, or do they just sail up and hack away?"

"You're asking the wrong person, Wrinn." All heads turned towards Haywa, who was leaning against the ship's railing, hands clamped tight on the wood as she stared at the approaching ship. "The Kyzoku are misers at heart - they don't bother wasting money on cannons, powder, or cannonballs. When they do attack a ship, they fight straight hack-and-slash, but they skimp on the metal they use for their swords. The flimsy things break easily."

"Well then, Lyra and I should have no problems, and once Johann gets his dissolve spell going, they should be defeated in seconds!"

"Don't get overconfident, Wrinn - I haven't told you everything. Once their swords break, they start fighting hand-to-hand, like I do. And there's one major problem with that - they're just as good as I am."

Phia, thinking she was the only one with worldly knowledge like this, turned to Haywa in surprise and exclaimed, "How do you know all this?"

Twisting her body around and giving the Red Mage her customary icy glare, Haywa answered, "They trained me."

By then, it was too late.

The two ships crashed together and boarding parties leapt over the rails. Through the smoke and haze, Wrinn could see the enemy captain approaching, and despite what Haywa had told him, his steel cutlass didn't look like the sort of sword that would break easily. Drawing his own sword, the Quest's leader prepared for battle as the Kyzoku swarmed around them, the fight looking hopeless at first but each of the Eight battling with every bit of skill they had.

The first group of pirates unfortunately (for them) reached Markus and Phia, who thanks to the Red Mage's quick thinking were charged with elemental lightning energy. Markus took the first attack: after swinging his spear in a wide sweep to give him some room and performing a quick stab move to take out a pirate on his right, he abandoned the spear with his left hand in order to rake his claws across the face of an onrushing enemy. Yanking the weapon out of the first Kyzoku's chest, he returned both hands to it and quickly held it horizontally in front of him to block the tandem swings of three more pirates. Noting that their blades were slightly embedded in the spear's shaft, he flapped his wings and took off slightly, raising the pirates' hands above their heads and leaving their chests open to Phia's ice spell. With a glint in her eye, her own weapon flashed out of its sheath and danced merrily in the morning air, her cape flowing gracefully behind her as numerous slashes appeared on the chests of her hapless enemies. The pirates, far too injured to stand, slumped to the ground as Markus landed back on deck and gave his love a warm smile.

Meanwhile, right about when the first pirate was being skewered by Markus' spear, another group of Kyzoku cleared the rails and headed towards Lyra, who was being flanked by Leyre and Katarin. As the pirates approached, Katarin screamed in fright and fainted dead away, Lyra was frantically attempting to adjust her left shinguard, and Leyre was heard to be loudly exclaiming, "Wait a minute, you just hired me to sing! You didn't say anything about pirates! What's going on?" The Kyzoku, their lust heightened at the sight of two helpless women (one was passed out and the other didn't even have all her armor on yet) and a group rich enough to hire entertainment on a sea voyage, lost all conscious control and ran forward wildly - until they suddenly stopped. For some strange reason, a vision of a lovely red-haired girl was dancing in their minds, softly and seductively telling them to put their swords down. As they all complied, the vision was abruptly knocked out of their heads and the pirates themselves were knocked flat on their backs - but none of their adversaries had moved, unless you wanted to count the musician, whose right hand was poised above his harp. And in a final realization of their folly, the elf girl without all her armor on suddenly whipped her broadsword out of its sheath and came at them with astonishing quickness - and as the Kyzoku watched her shining blade come for them, they knew their time was up.

As for the third boarding party...Haywa was ready for them. Her stance rigid, her hands poised, and her murderous gaze unwavering, she didn't move an inch, even as the six Kyzoku rushed her with swords raised. The oncoming pirates were confused at her lack of movement, but their bewilderment was sent to higher levels when their swords suddenly dissolved into powder. Haywa's black eyes flashed, and with a banshee scream, she moved to the attack. After the first of their comrades had been killed by a crushing blow to the throat, the remaining pirates regained their composure and assumed their own ready stances, circling around the female martial artist and surrounding her. Just as they were about to close in for the kill, their intense confusion returned as a fireball came out of nowhere and headed, sizzling, straight for Haywa. Settling her weight back on her left foot, Haywa lightly rested the toes of her right foot on the deck and prepared for impact...

Which came when she put her body in a tight clockwise spin, raising her leg high and striking out with it once the spin had been completed - in effect whipping her right foot around her body and straight into the fireball, which rebounded off her sole with staggering speed and caught one of the pirates full in the chest. The remaining four Kyzoku, watching their comrade's flaming flight into the sea, decided that against this opponent hesitation meant death and finally took the attack themselves. Unfortunately, Haywa knew she didn't stand a chance.

Sure, she knew their style of fighting - she used it herself, after all - and even though she'd be able to predict what most of their moves would be and use her strength and speed to her advantage, it was going to be impossible to defeat four opponents of equal skill at once. Still, she tried her best. She moved to one opponent and tried breaking through his defense, but after a moment two more pirates had showed up to help and she couldn't keep her attention on any one of them for long enough without getting beaten to a pulp. She was managing to hold her own, landing a telling blow here and there while managing to fend off most of the attacks that came her way, when suddenly she felt a thump reverberate through the wooden planks of the deck - and a smile appeared on her face as she knew she had them.

Making a rush at the Kyzoku closest to the mast, she used a series of punches to back him up and keep his attention, ending the flurry by grabbing on to his wrists and trying to force him to his knees. The pirate, determined not to be out-muscled by this woman, strained back, keeping their arms locked together. Suddenly, a dagger appeared out of nowhere, floated in midair, and flashed across the throat of the pirate, who dropped gurgling to the ground as his three remaining companions looked on in concern - particularly the one who suddenly found the dagger lodged in his heart after watching it fly through the air, seemingly propelled by nothing. Haywa caught the leftmost of the remaining two Kyzoku with a fierce jumping spin kick to the face, and the final one went down after a series of strong unblocked punches had shattered his ribs. Panting, Haywa watched as the dagger rose out of the dead pirate and disappeared back into nothingness for a moment, but as Johann's Invisibility spell wore off, the dagger and its wielder shimmered back into view. Looking over at the martial artist, Johann gave her a warm smile and a thumbs-up, and Haywa returned the gesture - until the noise of clashing metal made her look up with a start at the spectacle of Wrinn and the Kyzoku captain still locked in combat.

The fight had mostly been a stalemate, with Wrinn's offensive and defensive skills keeping him from harm while the enemy captain's sheer size and strength kept him from collapsing on the deck. When the fight had began, the captain had fought very calmly and controlled, as if he expected his men to overrun Wrinn's companions and take the ship without incident. However, as pirate after pirate fell to the Eight, the Kyzoku become more and more frantic, and as he finally realized that he was alone, he rushed at Wrinn in a frenzy. The knight, recognizing his adversary's unstable emotional condition, simply played the defense game while slowly giving up ground, allowing himself to be backed in towards the mast of the ship. Wrinn's apparent control of the fight, however, was lost when a particularly desperate swing by the captain knocked the knight's left hand off his sword's handle - and Wrinn was left defenseless and off balance, his sword flying off to the right. The rest of his friends looked on in concern and Lyra nearly screamed in fright as the Kyzoku captain saw his opportunity knocking and went for it, swinging his sword horizontally in a decapitation effort -

Which missed totally as Wrinn continued to fall, performing a neat backwards somersault and allowing the blade to pass harmlessly over his head and into the great mast of the Maelstrom, where it lodged three inches deep. As the pirate tried to wrench his sword back out, Wrinn got up, leisurely walked over, rested his own sword next to the captain's unprotected neck, and said with a smile,

"Are you done?"

An hour later, with most of the Kyzoku pirates' gold, food, sugar, and crops having been transferred to the Maelstrom's hold (along with the captain's cutlass which was still lodged in the mast,) the Eight were well on their way to Lefein once again. With time to kill before reaching the ancient town, the adventurers crowded around Haywa, eager to hear the explanation of how she was taught martial arts by a group of ruthless pirates and then somehow ended up fighting for good in a military camp outside Melmond.

"How did you even get in with the Kyzoku in the first place, Haywa?" Katarin asked. "Did you just jump in the ocean and swim around until you found one of their ships?"

"Don't be stupid, Katarin," Phia spat. "If you want to get in with a bunch of pirates, all you have to do is hang around the taverns when you know a ship is in town. The captains usually come down for a drink with the bartender, a grope with the barmaid, and if the captain feels like it, he'll ask for sailors to join him. That's how I got in with Bikke and I'm sure that's how Haywa joined up with the Kyzoku."

"Sorry, Phia," Haywa replied, shaking her head, "but your information's wrong again."

"So what did you do?" an exasperated Phia shot back, "jump in the ocean and swim around until you found one of their ships?"

Cracking a smile for a moment and then giving out a small sigh, the ex-pirate replied, "If you must know, I was born on a Kyzoku ship."


Crossing her arms and leaning back against the railing of the Maelstrom, Haywa told her story. "Once there was a captain of a Kyzoku ship that originally operated out of Melmond, and while in the tavern one day, he saw what he thought was the most beautiful barmaid in the world. They met, were sufficiently attracted to each other to tolerate each other's company, and as is the prerogative of a Kyzoku captain, he took the barmaid with him on their next voyage. Within a year, the captain had become my father, and the barmaid my mother. Because my father kept his men very rich they tolerated my presence, and I grew up learning about pirates and what they do. However, by the time I had become eight, things weren't going so well and the Kyzoku mutinied." Her face became grim and her voice was choked with unbridled anger as she continued. "They killed my father and tossed his corpse overboard, they unrelentingly raped my mother until she killed herself, and they made me their slave, forcing me to do all the cooking and washing. Some days, for fun, they'd take me up on deck and use me for a training dummy, laughing as I tried to protect myself. However, by watching them train and getting pounded on by their moves so many times, I eventually learned their style of fighting. When they weren't looking, I would go into the hold and train, increasing my strength and skill for the day when I would escape. After seven long years, that day finally came." Turning around and placing her hands on the railing, she stared out to sea as she described her escape. "As usual, they brought me up on deck to be beaten on - but this time was different. When the swine came at me, expecting a pushover, I thrashed him." Nonchalantly scratching her nose, Haywa added, "In fact, I beat him so badly that I killed him."

"As I stood over the bastard's body, I looked up at the rest of them and said, 'I'm leaving now. Anyone who wants to try to stop me is more than welcome to.' None of them moved a muscle. So, I took a running start, cleared the railing, and dove in the sea. I eventually made landfall, and the first thing I found was the military camp in the woods. The rest, you all know."

Suddenly stretching her arms and yawning, Haywa started for the steps that led below deck and said, "Well, I don't know about you, but I'm tired - and after thrashing a Kyzoku warship like we just did, I don't think we're going to have any trouble the rest of the way to Lefein." Realizing the wisdom in Haywa's words, the rest of them also began to shuffle off to their beds, the fatigue from the day's battle catching up to them.

The next day, the Maelstrom finished passing by the southern shoreline of the Yahnikurm Desert, traversed the small bit of open ocean left, and finally entered the Bay of Lefein, the small U-shaped bit of ocean that made up the ancient city's northwestern border. As the massive ship made its southeasterly way, the Eight readied themselves for what would be the final stage of their adventure - warning the final two Sages and stopping the Fiends dead in their tracks. However, as the Maelstrom came close enough to the shore to be seen, Wrinn realized that they had a problem.

Lefeinish scouts were posted in watchtowers along the northern wall of the town, and as they approached Wrinn could faintly hear their shouts - but that wasn't the problem. Wrinn could hear the scouts' cries, yes; understand them, no. Smacking himself in the forehead, Wrinn fell into despair as he realized that no one in their group knew Lefeinish, and that this part of the Quest might be a lot harder than they thought.

The Maelstrom had finally gotten close enough to shore for the adventurers to leave, and after lowering the canoe on the ingenious device that Johann and Katarin had designed, they made their way into shore. As they got closer, they heard again the shouts of the watchmen - but as they made landfall, the cries from the ramparts changed somehow, and the watchmen actually leaned out of their posts, yelling loudly and waving their arms.

"By the Gods above!" Wrinn said, "I'd give anything to know what's going on." Hearing a soft 'ahem' behind him, Wrinn turned to see Phia standing there, wringing her hands together.

"If you really want to know what they're saying, I can tell you."

Staring wide-eyed back at the Red Mage, Wrinn exclaimed, "Wait a minute - you understand Lefeinish??? Well, come on, Phia, out with it - what on earth are they saying?"

With her stomach all aflutter and a nervous smile on her face, Phia stole a quick glance at Markus, took a deep breath, and said, "Welcome home."

24. What Goes Up, Must Come Down

All seven heads slowly turned towards Phia, their wide-eyed stares making the Red Mage's face resemble her cloak. "'re Lefeinish?" stammered Wrinn, unable to believe his ears. "But how is that possible? I thought that your kind never left Lefein..." and as he trailed off, Wrinn's expression changed to one of dawning realization, "except to fight."

"Exactly," Phia replied. "I was a mercenary until you met me, if you recall."

"But why did you leave? Why did you become a mercenary in the first place?" Johann said, thoughtfully scratching his chin.

"I had my reasons!" Phia spat back. At that point, an emissary from the town had arrived at the spot where the Eight were standing, and with a wide grin on his face, he fired off a string of total gibberish. Phia responded in kind, and the young guard turned around and started smartly marching back towards the town. Motioning to her bewildered friends, Phia followed the young man, and heard a large sigh of relief behind her when the familiar sight of a red robe and a large beard - a Sage - was seen standing in the gateway of the town.

"My, my, my, if it isn't Phia D'Hiver!" the old Sage said, a strange smile on his face.

"Hello again, Sage Rishi."

"To what do we owe this unexpected pleasure, my dear? We all thought you were dead!"

As all of her friends' gazes snapped back to her once again, Phia uncomfortably shifted her weight to her other foot and said, "Well, um, Rishi, it's obvious that I'm not, and, um..." she frantically looked around for a moment, then spied Wrinn's quizzical expression and exclaimed, "Ahh - Wrinn here has something he needs to talk to you about!" Roughly grabbing the knight by his arm, she slung the hapless Wrinn in front of Sage Rishi, then quickly dashed back to the relative shelter of Markus' side.

Wrinn, puzzled by the Red Mage's bizarre behavior, took a moment to compose himself before addressing the Lefeinish Sage. "Um...well, as Phia was saying, I do have something to talk to you about." Getting his pride back and staring directly into Rishi's expectant gaze, Wrinn continued, "Lukahn is worried that the other two Fiends will soon rise up and steal the powers of the Earth and Fire Orbs. Our Quest is to warn you Sages to return immediately to Crescent Lake, and also to retrieve the Orbs before the Fiends take control of our world." Sage Rishi's countenance became stern as Wrinn finished his speech. "We are here for two reasons - first, to get you safely on your way to Crescent Lake, and secondly, we need your airship."

Rishi's eyebrows raised as he said, "But hasn't Phia told you?"

"Told us what?"

"Oh dear, oh dear...the airship is wrecked."


"I'm afraid it's true, my dear knight. About ten years ago, an idealistic young girl joined our Lefeinish army, and her spirited hatred of Tiamat and what he had done to our civilization whipped the small force into a fighting frenzy. That young girl's name was, of course, Phia D'Hiver." Phia looked absolutely miserable, but Rishi relentlessly continued. "Taking our one remaining airship, our forces departed for the Sky Castle...and we never heard from them again. A week later, a search party found the wreckage of the airship, half-buried in the desert. They carried back what they could, but found no survivors - so we assumed that there weren't any." Gazing wonderingly at Phia, he said, "Apparently, we were wrong - but what happened up there? Why didn't you come back?"

"Well, I think I know," Johann said. "Being the only survivor out of a force that you coerced into fighting in the first place certainly wouldn't be incentive for me to go back home."

"Thanks for the tactful insight, Johann," Phia sarcastically said, then slumped her shoulders and resignedly added, "However, you're right. Once we were airborne and within a mile of the Sky Castle, Tiamat - he sent the Dragoons after us. They all had Wyvern escorts, too...we didn't stand a chance."

Markus, standing by her side, softly put his right hand on her shoulder and said, "So that's where your fear of dragons came from."

Nodding, Phia said, "Right. Ever since that day, when all I could see was dragon teeth biting deep into the flesh of my friends...dragon wings disturbing the wind that we needed to stay in the air...and dragon claws ripping my world apart...I've been frightened to death of them."

"But, Phia, my dear," Rishi asked, "how did you manage to survive if you were so hopelessly outmatched?"

Miserably shrugging her shoulders, the Red Mage replied, "I don't know. I'll never know. The dragoons were swarming around us, the Wyverns' screams were deafening, and then all of a sudden the airship just fell from the sky. Something must have been watching over me for some reason."

"Oh, come now, Phia, you know better than to put your faith in 'somethings.'"

"Well, I suppose you're right."

"Okay, that's good, great. Issue settled. Whoopee." The group turned with confusion at Leyre's sudden outburst as he continued, "The question now is, what the heck are we going to do about the airship? We need it to get to Gaia, don't we?"

"Blast! He's right - there's one Sage left we have to warn," Wrinn said.

Burying his hand in his beard in the vicinity of his chin, Sage Rishi thought for a moment and said, "Well, when we retrieved the wreckage of the airship, we did some preliminary examinations on it. It turns out that in addition to the frame damage, some of the ancient Lefeinish technology that we need to run it was destroyed. Since the only replacements we know of are unattainable, we haven't been able to repair it."

A quizzical look appeared on Phia's face as she asked the old Sage, "What's the problem with replacements? Where are they?"

"The Mirage Tower."

"So what's the problem with this Mirage Tower? Why can't you just go in and grab the stuff you need?" Leyre said, arrogantly putting one hand on his hip and waving the other one in a vague circular motion.

"Well, there's two problems with that," Rishi replied. "The first is that the Mirage Tower is the link between the earth and the Sky Castle, and is therefore stocked with Tiamat's troops. The second is that the Mirage Tower, and each floor inside it, is locked tight with a musical key, and the chime we need to make the correct tunes was stolen by Tiamat when that blasted Fiend first attacked."

"Well, has the sheet music been written down anywhere?"

"I'm sure it's in the village archives, but it's all written in Lefeinish."

"Well then," the gypsy musician said, cracking his knuckles, "I guess I've got a new language to learn!"

The Eight found themselves in an interesting quandary now. For the first time, they had more than one immediate objective - and all of them needed to be fulfilled as quickly as possible in order to stay one step ahead of the Fiends. Hinging on everything was Leyre's mastery of the Lefeinish language - if he couldn't figure out how to decipher their cryptic communication methods and learn the melodies needed to unlock the Mirage Tower, the Quest would be stopped dead. They wouldn't even be able to get the airship afloat and warn the final Sage, let alone go after Tiamat. So, day in and day out, Leyre and Phia went to the lobby of the inn, where the human from Melmond who had come to study the Lefeinish and their technology - Professor Unne, he was called - taught the basics of the language to Leyre and the intricacies of the ancient technology to Phia. Each night, both of them exhausted from the relentless studying, they would stumble up the inn stairs to the second floor, shake hands, slowly open the doors to their rooms, and flop down on their beds.

In the meantime, the other six adventurers were hard at work helping to rebuild the frame of the airship. Sage Rishi helped Johann and Katarin pore over blueprints and design schematics of the massive vessel. Unfortunately, it was a horrid process. Not having enough time to learn Lefeinish themselves, the two of them had each component of the paperwork explained to them by Rishi and then redrew it by hand in a language they could understand. After that task was done, they then had to examine each sheet carefully and determine what was needed - in terms of materials, structural integrity, manpower, and the like. It was exacting, precise work, and each night, both of them would stumble back to the inn, shake hands, slowly open the doors to their rooms, and flop down on their beds.

For their part, Wrinn, Lyra, Markus, and Haywa headed for the forest each day with axes held high, accompanied by a large group of stalwart Lefeinish. The daylight was spent chopping down trees and hauling wood back to Lefein, and the evening hours were used to refine it into the planks that the Quest's brains decided would be needed for the job. Each night, with aching muscles, the four of them would slowly stumble back to the inn, shake hands, and move to their rooms: Wrinn and Lyra entering their room, giving each other a quick kiss, then hitting the sack; Markus entering the room that he and Phia shared, giving the sleeping Red Mage a quick peck on her cheek, then joining her in slumber; and Haywa passing by the room that Johann and Leyre shared to enter her and Katarin's room - invariably flopping on her bed so hard that it woke up the mental wizard every time.

The first night that it happened, Katarin simply went back to sleep. Same thing for the second night. On the third day, however, Katarin felt compelled to speak up about something that had been bothering her slightly since their rebuilding efforts had begun, and when Haywa woke her up that evening, she sat up and said, "Mmmph...evenin', Haywa."

"Mrgphm, Katarin."

"How was the work today?"

Propping herself up on her elbows, Haywa replied, " we really need this much wood, Katarin?"

"If you don't want to suddenly drop from the sky and crash in the sea, yes we do," she replied. "Look, I'm sorry if we're pushing you four, but we all are working really hard to make this whole airship thing work. You four are getting the wood we need, Johann and I are practically reinventing the wheel here, and Phia is learning about technologies that haven't been understood for 400 years. And Leyre..." Katarin suddenly trailed off and looked at her hands for a moment.

"What about Leyre?" Haywa snarled, suddenly alert. "He didn't grab your knockers again, did he?"

Instinctively covering her chest with her arms, Katarin cried, "No, no, no!" Her tone softening and her hands drifting back to her lap, she continued, "It's just amazing what he's doing. When Johann and I leave in the morning, he's already down there, poring through Professor Unne's books. He looks up at me and gives me a quick smile, and then it's back to the book. He's really trying to help."

"Aah, you're falling for it just like everyone else." Katarin looked back at Haywa in surprise, and the martial artist snapped back, "Oh, don't look like you don't know what I'm talking about. Men only want one thing - I saw how the men on my father's ship looked at my mother and me and I'd be willing to bet that lecherous whelp looks at you the same way."

"Warm and sweet, directly into my eyes for about half a second?"

"He's just trying to fool you and you're too damn smart to fall for that. You hear me?" Katarin nodded in reply, and Haywa, satisfied that her friend was protected, immediately fell asleep.

For her part, Katarin fell asleep as well...but before her subconscious took over her mental processes for good, she pulled her mental self out of her body and flew it through the wall into the room where Leyre and Johann slept. She'd discovered years ago that in order to manipulate someone's thoughts, she had to actually enter their brain, but in order to simply observe what was going on inside, proximity was all she needed.

Johann's bed was closer to their room, and out of curiosity Katarin did a quick fly-by of the wizard's dreams. As she peered into his mind, the images that flashed by her eyes were strange and yet familiar at the same time. She could swear that she saw some of the blueprints they had been working on flash past, but all of a sudden a large group of elf-children grabbed the sheets and ran off, leaving a childhood version of Johann sitting on the ground and wailing. Deciding not to leave Johann suffering from such a horrible nightmare, she quickly entered his brain and deposited images of the other seven of them inside his dream, who quickly thrashed the naughty elves and gave the sheets back to the young Johann, who clapped his hands with delight and laughed merrily, and as Katarin pulled back out a wide smile appeared on the grizzled wizard's face.

Katarin pulled closer to Leyre's bed, and as she did, she saw an image of the musician floating through the air, huge Lefeinish letters spinning around him. My gods, she thought, He even dreams about Lefeinish. Suddenly, to her alarm, one of the gigantic characters pulled a quick change of direction and came straight at Leyre, slicing his leg off and leaving a simple transparent outline. For some reason, there was no blood, but the gypsy still looked in shock at his missing limb. He then shouted something, straining with all his might to scream - and out of the nowhere that surrounded him, swam Phia. In dismay, Katarin watched the Red Mage grab tightly onto Leyre's left arm and smile at him. From the other side, Haywa came in and grabbed tightly to his right arm, and Lyra floated up from underneath and latched onto his right leg. Leyre smiled in relief at his three protectors, then gasped in shock as more letters came at him, slicing his remaining limbs off and leaving the women to float off into nothingness. With his appendages reduced to transparent shadows of their former selves, Leyre screamed out again, and Katarin gasped as she saw an image of herself off in the distance, spinning and twisting, heedless of the razor-sharp letters that flew everywhere. As she got closer, her counterpart was revealed to be transparent, just like Leyre's missing limbs. Soon, the ghostly Katarin had reached Leyre's immobile body, and smiling seductively at him, it moved forward to passionately kiss him - until, that is, a gigantic Lefeinish letter swooped through the air, passed right through the phantom Katarin's body, and sliced Leyre's head clean off.

With that, the image switched off suddenly and Leyre sat up in bed with a gasp, soaked with sweat, breathing heavily and trembling with fear. He hated not being able to remember his dreams - of being afraid for no reason. He wiped his brow with his forearm and started to drop back to his bed, blinked a few times at the seeming disturbance in the wall, dismissed it as impossible, and went back to sleep.

The next day, Katarin arose with a yawn. From the way the sun was hitting her pillow, she could tell that it was late morning, and as she expected, Haywa's bed was empty. After splashing some water on her face, checked her hair in the mirror and stumbled down the steps. She turned her attention to the chair that Leyre usually sat in, wondering if he would have a smile for her after last night's nightmare - and started as she realized that the chair was empty.

Rushing outside, she strained her ears to see if she could detect the telltale sound of sawing that would let her know if anything was out of the ordinary. Picking it up after a few moments of careful listening, she ran for the small hut where she joined Sage Rishi and Johann every day for the design work, and as she expected, the two of them were poring over the latest of the blueprints that they had unearthed from Lefein's archives.

"Okay, you two are here, everyone else is out in the forest - so where's Leyre?"

"I told you we should have told her, Johann."

"We couldn't have, Sage Rishi. She would have wanted to wait, and time is what we don't have."

Trembling, Katarin said, "What are you two talking about?"

Turning to face her and putting his hands in opposite sleeves of his robe, Johann replied, "Wrinn, Lyra, Markus, Phia, and Leyre left this morning to go to the Mirage Tower and get the parts we need."

"What???? They left? Without us? How will they survive? Why didn't Haywa go with them?"

Rishi, settling his reading glasses on his nose, replied, "Well, my dear, they left because they had to. We need those parts, and we can't wait for us to finish deciphering these blasted blueprints AND building the framework of the ship. We decided that it's best for them to hit Tiamat's troops when they can - and since the monsters haven't been that bad around here lately, it's possible that Tiamat isn't even in the Mirage Tower right now."

Picking up where the Sage left off, Johann said, "And Haywa stayed with us because she knows the most about ship design - and we've got to get some work done on the thing while the others are gone."

Sighing resignedly, Katarin replied, "Well, I suppose that sounds wise - but I hope you're not sending an understaffed team into a Fiend's den."

"Oh, don't worry, Katarin - they're only missing the three of us. Wrinn, Markus, and Lyra are the best fighters we have, you know how good Phia is, and Leyre just learned that new attack of his.

"What could possibly go wrong?"

Right about when Johann was asking the question that should never be asked, Leyre was standing in the swirling winds of the Yahnikurm Desert, the formidable edifice of the Mirage Tower rising up before him and his anxious friends behind him. Taking a final look at the tome of ancient music Professor Unne had found in Lefein's library, Leyre took a deep breath and checked the tuning of his harp for the final time. Placing his beloved instrument in his left hand and letting his right hand rest lightly on the strings, he began to play the ancient tune, singing the Lefeinish lyrics along with the melody, just for good measure. Loosely translated, Leyre's Song went something like this:

Through the door
Come the Four,

To save our world
From its dark time
From its own folly
From the Fiend's crime.

Through the door
Come the Four,

To save the earth
To save the fire
To save the water
To save the air.

Through the door
Come the Four,

To right our wrongs
To tell our stories
To make our glories
To sing our songs.

Through the door
Come the Four
To save our lives
Forever more.

As the last note was lost in the sands of the desert, the huge door of the Mirage Tower slowly swung inwards, and swallowing the lump out of his throat, Leyre turned to the four warriors behind him. He slowly nodded his head, and after receiving a nod from each companion in return, he turned his attention back to the Mirage Tower and slowly made his way inside, followed closely by the two knights, the Dragoon, and the Red Mage.

25. Friend Equals Enemy

The door of the Mirage Tower slammed shut behind them, shutting out the blinding glare and fierce winds of the desert, and Lyra spun around in alarm.

"What's going on? Are we trapped here?"

"Don't worry about it, Lyra. Every time the door hears that song, it opens. We'll be fine." Leyre's tone was distant, though, as the gypsy stared in wonder at the intricate Lefeinish writing that covered the inner corridor of the Mirage Tower, dimly illuminated by the torches that were periodically placed in holders along the wall. Phia, her own jaw slack as she stared at the mysterious creation of her ancestors, joined Leyre in his examinations.

"So what does it say?" Wrinn asked, quizzically peering at the foreign writing.

"Well," Phia replied, "from what I can gather on this section of wall, this building is like a gigantic history book. This wall here, for example, describes the Lefeinish's decision to build this place..."

"And this section describes how they used the power of the Wind Orb to create the Sky Castle," Leyre called from a little ways down the hall.

"Well, how about this door here?" Lyra asked, pointing to the indentation directly opposite the entrance. "Does it have any more Lefeinish history inscribed in it?"

Wrinn said, "Does it have any hints as to how to squash Tiamat's wretched neck?"

Markus quietly added, "Do you think that it could be the notes to the next musical key that we need to move on?"

By this time, Leyre had arrived, and peering at the door for a moment, he replied, "Nope. It says 'Push.'" Doing just that, Leyre swung the door open, revealing a dark, cavernous room inside. "Shall we?"

"Wait a second there," Phia called, "what about this outer corridor? Shouldn't we explore it too? That's where all the writing is, after all."

"Well, we don't have any time to waste, and we've got to find those parts - so we'll split up." Everyone looked at Wrinn in surprise; this was the first time he'd ever suggested a division of their forces. "Leyre and Lyra, you come with me and we'll check the outer corridor, since I'd expect that information about this place and the tunes we need to move on would be out here." Walking over to a torch and plucking it out of its holder, he handed it to Markus, saying, "You and Phia head inside - if there's any Lefeinish technological stuff around, it would be kept in an inner chamber." Letting the grimness of battle settle into his features and drawing his sword, he growled, "Be careful, all of you. Stay alert and don't let your guard down - I don't trust Tiamat any further than I can throw the bastard." Motioning with his head, Lyra and Leyre followed him down the hallway as Phia and Markus pushed the door open and entered the mysterious chamber.

Wrinn, Lyra, and Leyre slowly crept along the corridor, the two knights keeping an eye out for enemies while Leyre's gaze darted from wall to wall, trying to absorb all the amazing information that was inscribed there. The gypsy's wide-eyed stare brought him tales of glory, of science, of technological advancements beyond anything the world had ever seen - and then it brought him tales of destruction, of conquest, of Tiamat's glory..."Huh?"

"What is it, Leyre?"

"These inscriptions here...they're all about the glorious conquest of the Lefeinish by the great Tiamat. I thought that Tiamat stole the Chime when he first came and stopped the Lefeinish from coming here anymore - besides, I don't think you would have caught any Lefeinish dead carving something like this!"

Lyra, a hand on her chin, piped up, "Maybe Tiamat forced prisoners to carve this stuff."

Vigorously shaking his head, Leyre replied, "Nope. Not gonna happen. The Lefeinish are a very proud race - they would have been killed before they would humiliate themselves." Thinking furiously, Leyre stared intently at the wall and said, "But who on earth was in here that would know enough Lefeinish to willingly carve this?"

Meanwhile, Phia and Markus slowly crept inside, and what they saw greatly confused them. Behind them, and to their left a bit, was another door, much like the one they had entered through, facing the front of the Mirage Tower, as if it would just lead right back out the entrance. Curiously peeking through, to their surprise they saw a staircase leading up to the next floor of the Tower.

"That's it? We have to walk five feet to go up another level? That's strange," Phia remarked.

"Why not?" Markus replied. "This Tower was built for the convenience of the Lefeinish, if I recall correctly." Conceding the point, Phia nodded, and the two of them walked back into the room, towards the lines of gray brick pillars that that they could faintly see through the darkness. After about ten minutes of wandering the maze that actually existed in the Tower's central room, though, Markus corrected himself and said, "Well, I must say that this is definitely NOT convenient." After the dragoon finished speaking, a sudden noise from the back of the room made him jump and ready his spear, and Phia's rapier flashed as she whipped it out of her sheath.

bzzzzt..."Who's there?"

"Hey, guys...doesn't it strike you as strange that we haven't been attacked yet?"

"You know, Lyra, you're right - if this is where Tiamat is staging his invasion from, I would have expected more trouble than, well, nothing," Leyre added.

"Well," Wrinn said, "I guess we're just going to have to treat this like we handled the Vampire's cave and not worry about why we're not getting killed at the moment." Grinning at the memory of their lopsided victory, Lyra started forward again, until a surprising sight made her point and shout.

"Look, a staircase!"

The three of them quickly walked over and peered up the set of twisting stairs, and the observant Lyra noticed another door set into the wall to her left. "And this door must lead into the room that Markus and Phia went into - let's find them and see what's going on!" Leaning into the door, the elf girl pushed with all her might, but the door wouldn't budge. "Wrinn, come here and help me!" Obediently, Wrinn walked over and added his strength, but the door still would not move an inch. Grunting and breathing heavily, the two knights strained with all the effort they could muster - that is, until the sound of laughter behind them made them stop and turn.

Leyre, a wide, mischievous smile on his face, was standing with his arms crossed, trying his best to hold in his mirth. Once Wrinn and Lyra had removed themselves from the surface of the door, the musician walked over, grabbed the door's edge, and swung it open. Pointing to the Lefeinish writing and trying as hard as he could not to burst out laughing, he said, ""Pull."" Flashing the gypsy as dirty a look as possible, Lyra stomped through the doorway, followed closely by Wrinn. Once they had entered, Leyre's self-control began to break down and a few chuckles escaped as he entered the room. Unfortunately, he was so busy laughing that he failed to notice the shadowy figure who was standing a ways up the stairs, who disappeared into the upper floors of the Tower the second the door closed.

Markus and Phia, their weapons still drawn and pointed at the strange object standing and trembling in front of them, heard the commotion of their friends' entrance. Phia, hoping that Leyre would help to shed some light on the mystery she now faced, called out, "Leyre! Come quick!"

"Where are you?" Leyre called back, his eyes trying to adjust to the darkness as he readied his harp.

"Just head toward the back of the room and take a couple turns through the maze - it's not that complicated!" Realizing that the part of the chamber where the musician was standing was pitch black, she put her sword away and began to concentrate. "I'll throw a fireball into the air to try and light your way here, okay?"

"Save your magic, Phia - it's not necessary!" A few quickly played notes later, the entire room was filled with brilliant light. Blinking in the sudden brightness, Leyre turned to the shocked knights and said, "Let's go. The Song of Illumination gets the job done, but it doesn't last very long." Picking their way through the maze, the three of them reached Markus and Phia just as Leyre's magic wore off. As the gypsy rounded the final corner of the maze and came within view of his friends, what he saw in the flickering firelight literally paralyzed him with shock.

It was shaped somewhat like a human, with a squat, stocky body and a perfectly spherical head. From what Leyre could tell, it was like looking at a fully armored knight - but there were no openings, no straps, nothing that made the...thing, whatever it was, look human. It made a strange whirring noise whenever it moved, and sparks flew when one part of its body scraped against another. In the detached, somewhat academic area of his mind, he vaguely remembered seeing a picture of something resembling this in one of the history books he had flipped through in the mornings while waiting for Katarin to leave. Cogmaei Enjee, the Lefeinish caption had read - 'thinking machine.' Looking over at Phia, who had studied the technological histories more thoroughly than him, he said, "So what do you think?"

"I'm not sure," she replied. "I know of these things' existence, but I never thought we'd find one still working."

hmmmmm..."Would you two pleazzze zzztop talking like I'm not even here?"

Taken aback, Phia stammered, "W-we're sorry. Do you have a name?"

zap..."Nope. Mazzzter Tiamat juzzzt called me 'Robot 3.' He'zzz not very creative."

"I guess not," Leyre replied. Doing a double take, he suddenly stared at the machine and said, "Wait a minute - Master Tiamat?"

bzzzzt...."Yezzz. When all my Lefeinish friendzzz left long ago, he told me that he wazzz now my Mazzzter, and I had to do everything he told me. I've been down on thizzz floor for the pazzzt fifty yearzzz, writing all that zzztuff on the wall out there. The worzzzt part izzz, I juzzzt finished all the zzztuff out there, and now he zzzendzzz me in here for another job."

"Hold on there, little friend," Leyre said, concern showing up in his voice. "I was just out there, reading all that stuff you wrote, and the history is up-to-date. What is there left to write?"

zzzort..."That'zzz the problem. Mazzzter juzzzt zzzent me down here and zzzaid, 'Oh, for now all I need izzz a dezzzcription of the two Fiendzzz...after the particularzzz happen, I'll have you write the rezzzt."

Looking at each other in shock, the five of them took off hell-bent for leather, running at top speed for the stairs. After they had gone and the door had slammed shut, Robot 3 stood forlornly in the back of the darkened chamber, scratched his brain case, and softly murmured,

beeep..."What did I zzzay?"

"There are intruders in the Tower, Master." The voice that spoke into the intercom was quiet, reserved, and dripping with menace. When Tiamat responded, Fiend though he was, his powerful growl shook with fear.

"Send Robot 4 out with the Cube. Pick a direction and tell him to go in it until his fuel runs out."

"But Master, that means I will not be able to join you at your side."

"You are no longer needed here. Soon, you will have the full complement of your powers - at that time, you must leave and carry out the plan."

"Understood, Master." A short pause. "What shall I do about the intruders?"

"Thrash them."

"I understand, Master." Taking his finger off the button, he pointed it at one of the two robots cowering in the corner of the room and said, "You. Take the Cube and run to the west." The robot remained motionless, and the man with the horrible voice grew impatient. Trying a different tack and preying on the robots' paranoia, he said, "The intruders are here to deactivate you! Escape while you can!"

Shivering, the robot clanked its noisy way across the chamber and took a metal cube out of an indentation in the console that dominated the back wall of the room. As Robot 4 removed the Cube from its slot, the strange glowing panel in the center of the room pulsated a few times, then fell into darkness. The awkward little machine exited the chamber he was in, and climbed onto the ledge of a nearby window. With a soft whirring sound, he took off and floated away, sailing off into the horizon with the sunlight glinting off his metal body, scared out of his preprogrammed wits and having no clue where he would end up.

Meanwhile, the five adventurers had reached the second floor, and to their dismay they were presented with yet another maze. Thin paths that wound their way around the second floor of the Tower were flanked with gigantic pillars of brown sandstone, and Wrinn was getting slightly dizzy as they wound their way through the chamber. By the time they had reached the other side, the knight's disorientation was getting so bad that he literally groaned when they reached yet another fork in the path.

"Quiet, Wrinn - we may be on to something with this one," Leyre said.

His head pounding, the Quest's leader replied, "How can you tell?"

"Well, look at the wall in front of us - it's different than the rest of the walls here." Moving a few steps forward for a closer view, he continued, "Actually, I'd say that this looks like the kind of wall that the inner chamber downstairs was using. This must be another one."

An incredulous Phia then added, "Another one what? And how on earth can you recognize what kind of wall this is?"

"I meant that this must be another inner chamber, Phia - and I did almost nothing besides stare at walls for the past quarter hour, remember?" Starting off to the right, he said, "Follow me, everyone - if I'm right, we should be seeing a door any second now."

Lo and behold, after a few steps down this new path, it abruptly ended in a dead end with a door set into the wall on their left. Giving Phia a knowing glance, Leyre confidently strode toward the door, and after peering intently at it for a moment, took out his harp.

"Another musical key, Leyre?" Markus asked.

"Apparently not, Markus - the inscription here points to the same song as the one we needed to enter the Tower in the first place. Half a moment..." Raising his harp, he quickly played the basic melody of the Mirage Tower, and a few seconds later the door began to swing inward. However, to the musician's utter shock, he heard an answering tune from inside the chamber, and the door slammed shut. "What the...?" He slowly and deliberately played the tune again, and the process was repeated - the door swung open, the tune was repeated, and it closed again. "So...that punk in there wants to play some music and have a party, eh?" Leyre said. Straightening his vest and tightening his bandanna, he grinned wickedly and snarled, "Well, I'll show him what it's like to party with a gypsy!"

Leaning close to the door, Leyre lightly held his harp and softly plucked out the musical key once more. The door began its somewhat noisy swing inward, and Leyre straightened up, took a step back, and assumed his ready stance; body rock still, fingers flexed, face expressionless, eyes focused on the door and ears straining for the first sound. As expected, there soon was an answering tune from inside the chamber, and the door began to swing shut. As his friends stood watching, Leyre's eyes narrowed, the wicked grin reappeared on his face, his fingers struck the strings - and then they all felt a crushing blow as the musician's shock wave attack hit them full force and knocked them to the ground. Twisting around as he finished the tune, Leyre simply said "Oops," nonchalantly walked in the now wide open door - and once again stopped in shock, his eyes unable to comprehend what he now saw.

The inside walls of the chamber were lined with a series of huge metal boxes which were covered with buttons, switches, glowing screens and blinking lights bright enough to light the whole room. His jaw dropped as his vision swept across the chamber, but his eyes narrowed again as he spotted another one of the Lefeinish robots awkwardly scrambling to pick itself up off the ground and struggling to reach a small cylindrical object which lay a few feet away.

"Phia! Come quick!" he called, as he walked over to the curious object, picked it up, and stuck it in the pocket of his vest. Watching the little robot's struggles with an amused smile for a moment, he then took the few remaining steps over to it and hauled it to its feet. As he dusted off the shivering automaton, he heard a gasp behind him, and turned around with a knowing smile on his face.

Wrinn, Lyra, Markus, and Phia stood just inside the doorway, gazing in awe at their ancient surroundings. After Leyre loudly cleared his throat, however, the four of them regained their wits and strode forward to meet up with him, surrounding the robot and making it quiver with fear.

"So this is our troublemaker, eh?" Markus said, letting just a trace of menace enter into his normally quiet voice.

"Yep," Leyre replied. "He was trying to keep the door closed with this" - he took the cylindrical object out of his pocket and held it up - "and I'd be willing to bet my harp that it's the Chime."

"Looks like you'll be keeping that harp, Leyre," Phia replied, taking the Lefeinish artifact out of the musician's hand and peering at it carefully. "This is indeed the Chime, and I bet the Lefeinish are going to be glad to have it back." She took her pack off of her back and began to put the Chime into it, but she was stopped as the robot frantically shot forward and clamped one of its hands around her wrist. Markus immediately grabbed on to its fingers and tried to wrench it off, but even the Dragoon's muscles were no match for the robot's artificial strength.

bzzzzt..."No! You can't take the Chime! It'zzz mine!" it screamed, pure panic showing up in its digital voice.

"OW!!! Let go, you maniacal hunk of tin!" Phia yelled, keeping a tight grip on the Chime as she fought with the little machine. "And the Chime's not yours - it belongs to the people of Lefein!"

frzzzzow! "No, no, no! It'zzz mine! I need it! Pleazzze!"

"Hold on a second there," Markus said, as he let go of its hand for a moment. "Calm down, the both of you. What do you mean, you need it?"

hmmmmmm..."Without the Chime, I'm trapped here forever - the door won't open unlezzz it hearzzz the muzzzic - and only the Chime can make the muzzzic."

"That's not true at all, little friend," Leyre said, showing the robot his harp. "I didn't have the Chime, and yet I still was able to open the door. All you need is the right tune."

zzzt..."But how do I make muzzzic? I don't have a harp like you."

Leyre thought for a second, then said, "Well, can you hum?"


"Well, you're all set then. Just remember the tune, and hum it whenever you want to go in or out."

The robot's eyes started to glow a little bit brighter, and it's tone seemed to be of a higher pitch as the machine expectantly said, "You mean...I'm free?"

"Sure!" Wrinn said, stepping in among them. "Now that we've done you a favor, Robot...what number are you?"


"Well, now that we've done you a favor, Robot 2, it's your turn to do a favor for us."

bzzzzt..."What can I do for you?"

Pointing to all the sophisticated consoles along the walls, Wrinn asked, "Do you know if any of this stuff can be used to control the Airship?"

hmmmm..."Hmmmm...I don't think zzzo. Not any of the zzztuff down here - thizzz izzz mainly where the Lefeinizzzh programmed uzzz robotzzz." The shoulders of each of the adventurers sagged at this news, but the robot unexpectedly spoke up again. "However, I bet that there'zzz a bunch of zzztuff on the third floor that would work...and Robot 1 would be able to tell you juzzzt what you need."

"Thanks!" Wrinn exclaimed, and motioning to his friends, he began to walk back out to the outer corridor, when the little robot's voice piping back up made the five of them stop and turn.

"I wouldn't go up there if I were you."

"Why's that?"

"Becauzzze the bozzz'zzz new azzzizzztant is up there, and he'zzz really mean."

"Tiamat's right-hand man, eh?" Wrinn snarled. "Heh - taking him out should make this a worthwhile trip!"

"But you don't underzzztand! He'll kill you! He'zzz really mean and really nazzzty and he hazzz the Wind Orb, too!"

Wrinn's eyes lit up and he softly said, "He's got the what?"

"The Wind Orb! The Wind Orb! You'll never zzzurvive!"

Turning to his friends and seeing the same grim, determined look on each face, the leader of the Quest for the Orbs nodded and said, "That settles it. Let's go."

zzzzzzap..."Wait! Wait! No! ZZtop! Pleazzze!" By this time, the five of them had left the chamber, and letting his outstretched arm flop back to his side, the little robot stopped his shouting. Dejectedly humming the Mirage Tower's musical key, he watched as the door to his chamber slammed shut, keeping him relatively safe from harm. Because he knew...that this was going to get ugly.

Here they were again.

After a short walk to the nearby second floor staircase, the five of them ascended the flight to the Mirage Tower's topmost floor. Hearts pounding in their chests, the group slowly explored the entirety of the floor they were on - which wasn't much, just a circular path around an inner chamber. Adorning the door to this final chamber was the familiar group of Lefeinish symbols that told the reader that the Tower's musical key had to be played in order to pass by, and Leyre swallowed heavily as he readied his harp. He looked expectantly at Wrinn, and the scarlet-clad warrior took a deep breath, slowly nodded, and drew his sword. Lyra and Phia followed suit, Markus readied his spear, and with trembling fingers, Leyre played what he had taken to calling the Song Of Mirage for the final time.

The door slowly swung open,

Beyond it was a largely empty chamber,

A smaller bank of Lefeinish consoles lined the back wall of the room,

A robot cowered in the corner,

And in the center of the room stood a man.

His armor was a shining silver. His cape was a deep royal purple. His helmet was adorned with fierce horns, and its facemask covered all but his eyes.

Those eyes were as flashing, cruel, and as black as night.

"Welcome," he said.

"I apologize for the lack of company you have had while you have been here - no one knows better than I how poor these robots are at conversation. Unfortunately, all my master's other servants are busy protecting him while he summons the Fiends of Earth and Fire."

Eyes flashing, Wrinn growled, "Well then, you must allow us to travel to the Sky Castle and pay a visit. We wouldn't want to let them keep on being rude, you know."

"I'm afraid I can't do that. My instructions are to kill you, and with the Wind Orb as my ally, I shall do just that." Black lightning crackled as the man drew his broadsword. "You see, it is far more important to me that the final two Fiends rise up than it is to Tiamat - for I am Garland Blackheart, the Chaos Knight!" Garland's eyes flashed, and an exceedingly strong wind vortex began to whip itself around the room, obscuring the five adventurers from sight as the winds tore at their bodies. The Chaos Knight himself stood calmly in the eye of the swirling winds, and when his spell had died down he started to move forward, then stopped in surprise.

Instead of finding five bruised, buffeted, and half-dead opponents as he had reckoned, he saw that the red armored knight and the elf girl had plunged their swords into the floor and then held themselves still, and the natural curve of the dragon's wings had weakened the effect of his spell enough to allow the point of his spear to keep him in place and protect the gypsy and the other girl.

Breathing heavily, the red-clad knight yanked his sword out of the ground and stared fixedly at Garland. "This one isn't going to come easy, my friend."


An hour later, the battle was nearing its end. Four of the members of the Quest were down and out - Leyre had taken a blast of wind to the chest when Markus wasn't nearby to protect him, the dragoon himself had gaping holes in his wings and a large cut on his neck, Phia had nearly collapsed in exhaustion and then gotten nailed by a large blast of lightning, and another lightning spell has blasted a hole in Lyra's breastplate that Garland had wasted no time plunging his sword into. As the evil swordsman removed his blade from the young elf, he turned to face his final opponent - a strong young man wielding a battered broadsword, chinks and dents riddling his formerly spotless scarlet armor. Wrinn, on the other hand, looked at his adversary - a fiercely evil knight whose formerly magnificent cape hung in tatters from his shoulders and whose seemingly impregnable silver armor was missing in several places.

"You...and your friends...are formidable opponents," gasped Garland.

"Just consider yourself lucky that all eight of us aren't here - you wouldn't stand a chance," Wrinn panted.

"By the Fiends, you're right," Garland sneered. "I suppose if the other three of you had believed in your cause enough to come along, the other four wouldn't be lying dead on my chamber floor right about now, eh?"

"If you're trying to make me lose control so that you can kill me too, it's not going to work. Nothing will make me fail in taking revenge on you for taking my Lyra!"

"Which one's Lyra? Is this her?" Garland pointed his sword at the elf girl's chest and prepared to stab her again.

"Don't you dare touch her!" Wrinn said, his voice deadly serious. Keeping his sword steady and slowly advancing, he continued, "I tell you once again. If you're trying to upset me just so that you can kill me, it's not going to work."

"Oh, come on, there's nothing wrong with dying. I've been dead once already. It's very liberating. You should try it, Wrinn."

The knight's jaw dropped to the floor and the grip on his sword weakened. "How do you know my name?"

"Enough talk!" With horrifying quickness, Garland flew back to the attack, and it was all Wrinn could do to hold on to his sword. The speed of Garland's attack was blinding, but Wrinn found to his surprise that he was blocking everything the Chaos Knight threw at him with relative ease. His body fell into a familiar pattern as he first held his sword vertically to his right, then shifted across his body to the left. The next attack would be aimed at his right leg, so shifting his body and twisting his wrist, he pointed his sword downward and far enough to the right to block the swing. He quickly shifted his sword back to the other side of his body again, then ducked. Feeling the rush of air pass over his head, he jumped the second, lower swing, and then sidestepped to the right side and brought his sword crashing down on Garland's head. The black blade fell from Garland's hands and the formidable helmet came flying off as the Chaos Knight fell to the ground, and Wrinn could only limply hold on to his own blade and blink as the unconscious face of Gary Blackstone was exposed in front of him.

After a moment, Garland opened his eyes, but to Wrinn's shock, they were no longer the pools of evil that the Chaos Knight saw the world through, but the kind eyes of his best friend.


"Wrinn...?" Gary gasped. In despair, Wrinn heard the raspy, strangled voice of his friend, and knew immediately that it was the voice of a dead man. "'s really...really you."

His mind stunned into blankness, Wrinn said the only thing that he could think of. "Gary...I...I'm sorry..."

"Don't''s supposed to be this way..." Confused, Wrinn stared blankly at his friend's body as Gary slowly moved his right arm, pulled a palm-sized gray sphere from underneath his armor, and held it out to Wrinn. "Take...take the Orb, Wrinn...please..." Gingerly, Wrinn reached out and cradled the Wind Orb with both hands, looking at it wonderingly, but immediately brought his attention back to Gary as his friend spoke for the final time.

"Wrinn...don't grieve for me...I did all that I could...and that's all anyone can do. Now it's your turn. Wrinn...please...restore...the...light...." With the effort of this final speech apparently too much for him, Gary's eyes closed, and Wrinn could barely stand as he watched his friend die...

And reawaken a moment later, eyes blazing forth with evil once more. Wrinn jumped back in alarm as Garland got up, retrieved his sword and helmet, then turned towards Wrinn and snarled, "This is far from over, my friend!" Jamming his helmet back on and replacing his sword, Garland made a quick movement with his hand, a Warp portal appeared beneath his feet, and the Chaos Knight disappeared.

26. Two Down And Two To Go

Wrinn, his mind still frozen in shock, could do nothing but stare at the floor where Garland's Warp portal had been. Gary wasn't just dead - no, it actually was worse than that. He blinked, and suddenly saw a stream of red entering his peripheral vision -

Lyra's blood, flowing across the floor from the wound in her chest.

Snapping back into reality, Wrinn scrambled across the floor to his beloved, digging into his pack and pulling out one of his healing potions. Ripping out the cork, he dumped half the potion over the wound and then brought the rim of the bottle to her lips. He began to pour, but froze in horror a moment later as the potion began to overflow and spill out of her mouth. He looked back towards the wound in her chest, and saw with dismay that the potion had done nothing to help stop Lyra's bleeding. His heart pounding with fear, Wrinn shakily reached out his hand towards Lyra's neck...and froze when he could not feel a pulse.

"No...not Lyra too...please god no not her too..." The shock of the situation gave way to reality, and the pain began. The sorrow that Wrinn had endured when Gary first died was nothing compared to what he felt now - his heart felt like it was being ripped out of his chest, leaving nothing but an empty, bleeding hole. The emotion overwhelmed him and the first tears began to pour from his eyes - and, not wanting to let her go, he gently picked Lyra's body up into his arms and buried his face in her shoulder as his world crumbled around him.

However, having his face averted from its location and his eyes clenched tight caused him not to notice the bright, shapeless glow flowing from the Wind Orb and slowly engulfing Lyra's body. The energy quickly centered itself on the gaping wound in her chest, repairing the damaged flesh and lifting the evil from her soul. A moment later, the soft yellow luminescence began to fade from her body, and she opened her eyes, blinked, and said "Wrinn...? Are you crying?"

Unable to believe his ears, Wrinn quickly pulled his face away and gazed into the eyes of his resuscitated love. "L-Lyra? You're alive??"

Gazing at the burnt-out hole in her breastplate, the massive rip in her leather tunic, and the restored perfection of the skin on her chest, the elf replied, "Apparently so, Wrinn - but how?"

"The power of Wind, my dear." Wrinn and Lyra both turned their heads in surprise at the unexpected voice, watching as the Wind Orb began to pulsate, brighter and brighter and faster and faster, until a blinding flash filled the room and slowly resolved itself into the figure of a man. The translucent figure smiled at them and said, "Tiamat wasn't able to drain me fully, and I was glad to use my remaining powers to save the lives of you and your friends." True to his word, as Wrinn and Lyra looked across the room, they could see the figures of Leyre, Phia, and Markus slowly stirring themselves back to life.

"But who...who are you?" asked Wrinn, his tears of grief quickly drying on his cheeks.

"I am the Wind Elemental - what's left of it, that is. Most of my powers were drained away into Tiamat and Garland - but luckily, I was able to resist their efforts to the point that Garland still needed me as a crutch."

"Garland..." Lyra mused. "Who was that awful man, and how in the world did he end up working for Tiamat?" Wrinn opened his mouth to speak, but the Elemental beat him to it.

"That is a sad, sad story, my lady. A brave warrior died fighting one of Tiamat's henchmen, and instead of leaving the poor soul to rest in peace, the swine brought the body to Tiamat - into the ancient laboratories of the Sky Castle. Using techniques discovered by accident by Lefeinish scientists which had been hidden away for centuries, Tiamat ripped most of his soul out, so that his body and mind were empty cavities - a willing receptacle for whatever that foul dragon saw fit to put in him. He then instilled in him both the Elemental powers of Water and myself - but those powers were ones drained from himself and Kraken, so that they carried with them the essence of evil. I can only guess that once the Earth and Fire Fiends steal the elementals from their Orbs, he will receive a share of their powers as well, and become..."

"The Chaos Knight." Wrinn's words were barely a whisper, and the Elemental nodded gravely.

"Indeed. The remaining Orbs must be retrieved as soon as possible to prevent him from getting any more powerful. Until the Light Warriors return me to my altar, I place myself in your keeping, Wrinn. Good luck to you and Lyra." With those final words, the Wind Elemental relinquished its ghostly figure and slowly flowed back into the soft gray of the Orb. The two of them watched until the Orb was lightless once more, then returned their attention to each other and met in a tight embrace.

"Lyra...thank goodness you're safe. I thought - I thought I'd lost you!" Wrinn exclaimed, his voice betraying the fact that he was almost ready to break down again. "When I touched your neck and I didn't feel a pulse, it felt like all the good in the world had disappeared. I couldn't stand the thought..."

Lyra could almost see the thought process flowing through his mind, and a mental picture of a crimson-clad knight hanging limply by his wrists flashed through her own. She also remembered the emptiness she had felt in her own heart as she fell, but quickly shoved it aside. Before Wrinn could finish, she said, "Shhhh, Wrinn. I'm here, and I'm alive. We're still together, and it'll take more than some silly gaping stab wound to keep me away from you." The two pulled apart to share a smile, but quickly returned to their embrace. After a moment, they pulled apart, shared a quick kiss, and stood up in order to attend to their three friends. After Lyra rose to her feet, however, she got her first good look at the hole that Garland's attacks had burned in her armor - and that got her thinking. "Wrinn, the Elemental said that Garland was created from a warrior who died fighting one of Tiamat's henchmen, right?"

Wrinn stiffened, and quietly answered, "Yes, he did."

After pondering for another moment over what the Elemental had told them about the Chaos Knight's origins, she bowed her head and said, "I sure feel sorry for whoever that was." Behind her, she heard Wrinn move closer, and then felt his hands on her shoulders - but when she heard his voice, it almost sounded like it came from another person.

"So do I, Lyra. So do I."

A few hours later, the five of them, each laden with heavy pieces of Lefeinish technology, curved around a bend in the forest path and finally saw the welcome sight of Lefein off in the distance. Breathing a sigh of relief, they pushed on, the setting sun throwing long shadows to their left as they trudged ever southward. When they were close enough to the ancient town, they again heard the excited shouts of the watchmen and soon a contingent of Lefeinish soldiers came running to relieve the warriors of their heavy burden and run off to the airship's hangar with them. Thankful that their load had been removed, they finally relaxed, the two couples joining hands as they made their final approach.

They made their way around to the southern side of the town where the main entrance was, waving and shouting words of greeting to the guards. When they finally arrived at the gate, they saw an anxious group of townspeople waiting for them - headed, as they expected, by Johann, Katarin, Haywa, Rishi, and Professor Unne.

"It's good to see you all back safe," Rishi said. "And with great timing, too - the building crews are smoothing out the propellers as we speak. But are you sure you retrieved the correct parts?"

"Most definitely," Phia replied. "We spent about two hours carefully picking out each piece of equipment and then making the robot double-check that it was both something we needed and still worked."

At the word 'robot', Prof. Unne's eyes lit up and he exclaimed, "A robot??? You saw a robot? What were they like?"

"Kind of annoying, actually." Seeing the good professor's face visibly drop into disappointment, Phia quickly continued with, "Come on. You and I need to go oversee the installation of those control components - I'll tell you all about 'em on the way." Pulling Markus along, Phia started off towards the hangar, Prof. Unne anxiously following alongside as Rishi turned his attention back to the remaining adventurers.

"So, Leyre, how did you make out in there? Was your crash-course in Lefeinish sufficient?"

"Indeed it was, Sage. Fortunately, no one needs to go through that ordeal again, for while we were inside the Mirage Tower, I managed to retrieve the Chime!" Reaching into his vest pocket, the gypsy drew out the ancient artifact and held it aloft. Rishi smiled broadly, and the townspeople began to cheer as Leyre strode forward and placed it in the old Sage's hands.

"Well done, Leyre. I am sure the Lefeinish are very grateful to you for returning their treasure to them. But won't you need it when you return to the Tower on your way to attack Tiamat?"

"That trip won't be necessary, Rishi," Wrinn said, stepping forward with a gleam in his eye, "for while we were inside the Mirage Tower, we managed to retrieve the Wind Orb!" Reaching behind his breastplate, Wrinn grasped the Orb and held it aloft, evoking louder cheers from the crowd and an even bigger smile from Rishi.

"Well done, Wrinn! But how did you defeat Tiamat with just the five of you?"

"We didn't defeat Tiamat...he had placed the Wind Orb in the keeping of one of his servants. I retrieved the Orb when we defeated him."

"Tiamat had left something as important as the Wind Orb with 'one of his servants'?" Rishi said, a mixed expression of puzzlement and disbelief on his face. "That doesn't make sense."

Lyra now stepped forward and spoke up. "Well, this was no ordinary servant, Rishi. Tiamat ripped the soul out of the body of a slain warrior and instilled in him the tainted powers of Water and Wind. It was not an easy battle," she said, looking pointedly at her breastplate, which was patched over with a slab of metal she had carved off one of the consoles and then welded on with Phia's help. However, when she looked up, she discovered with surprise that Sage Rishi's face had turned ashen gray and he looked positively sick. "Rishi? What on earth is wrong?"

A blank expression on his face and his mind seemingly miles away, Rishi quietly murmured, "The Chaos Knight...gods save us, it's the Chaos Knight..." As both the adventurers and the townspeople looked on in concern, the Sage suddenly snapped back into reality, looked pointedly at the group, and said, "We must leave tomorrow or all is lost!" That said, he turned and stalked off in the direction of the hangar, with a confused Wrinn and company hot on his heels. Lengthening his strides so that he caught up with Rishi, Wrinn turned to the old Sage and asked, "What's the problem? Rishi, we defeated him and we retrieved the Wind Orb!"

Not breaking stride for a second, Rishi fractionally turned his head towards Wrinn and gasped out, "The ancient histories and legends all tell of our world being formed out of Chaos. The Orbs were created to safely contain the elemental forces and prevent them from dissolving back into Chaos." Rishi paused for a moment to catch his breath and swallow grimly, then continued. "When the Fiends first arose, we knew it was trouble...but they were just draining the elemental powers into themselves, which we knew was bad, but weren't worried sick over - as we always knew that the Light Warriors would come along one day. However, the rise of this knight that will soon have all four elemental powers boiling within him can only mean the revival of Chaos and the utter dissolution of this beautiful world."

Wrinn suddenly stumbled and exclaimed, "You mean if we don't stop him, the Chaos Knight will destroy the world?"

They had reached the hangar by this time, and Rishi swung the door open and stared pointedly at the crimson-clad knight. "I'm afraid that's the long and short of it, Wrinn." Turning to face the entire group of adventurers, he said, "I need all of you to take whatever weapons and supplies you'll need personally and transfer them from the hold of the Maelstrom to that of the airship. Bring the canoe, as well - you'll never know when we might need it. Then, try to get some sleep. We leave in the morning." The adventurers nodded and turned away, and the crowd began to follow them, Wrinn noted with relief. The supplies were rather heavy, and with the townspeople helping, the transfer process would go much faster - and this was a good thing, because time was most definitely running out.

That night, Wrinn lay in his bed in the Lefeinish Inn for the final time, the excruciating pain in every muscle of his body representing the hell he'd gone through in the past few days. The construction of the airship, the fight with Garland, the death and resurrection of Lyra, and the carrying of all their supplies from one ship to the other had drained his body of nearly all its strength. Healing potions had ceased to help him hours ago, and Wrinn knew that the only thing he could do now was try to rest before their departure in the morning.

Thankfully, everything was ready. Their supplies were secure in the hold of the airship - which, to everyone's delight, had finally started working. After hours of poring through ancient Lefeinish texts and pilot's manuals, Phia, Rishi, and Prof. Unne had reconnected the control mechanisms and motors that had been salvaged from the Mirage Tower to the propellers and rudder of the massive ship. It had actually been Phia who had made the final adjustment and started the engines, and as the massive machinery roared around her, she had given a sigh of relief and fallen into Markus' arms.

Everything was ready, Wrinn thought. All that there was left to do was sleep - but unfortunately for him, his mind just would not let him slip into unconsciousness...his thoughts swirled around his brain in a vicious circle.

The Chaos Knight is trying to destroy the world.
Garland is the Chaos Knight.
Gary is Garland.
Isn't he?
No, he's not. Gary is dead. His soul is gone - Tiamat ripped it out of him.
But Garland is in Gary's body, so Gary is Garland.
Garland is the Chaos Knight.
The Chaos Knight is trying to destroy the world.
Isn't he?

And so on. After a fitful half hour of tossing and turning, he accidentally bumped into Lyra and woke her up. The elf blinked in the darkness for a moment, wondering what was going on, when she felt Wrinn turn over and nudge her with his shoulder again. She instantly knew that something was up - usually, Wrinn slept like a log - so, loving him like she did, she decided to inquire as to what the problem was.

"Wrinn, what's wrong?" She got even more worried at this point, because at the sound of her voice, his entire body tensed until it was as stiff as a corpse, and he didn't say anything for 30 seconds or so. Suddenly, he turned over to face her, propped himself up on his elbow, looked her straight in the eyes, and began to speak.

"I just can't get that horrible vision of you lying dead on the floor out of my head," he said. "I've been trying to block it out, but it hasn't been working...but I think I know what might." With that, he leaned over her and slowly pressed his lips to hers - and before Lyra knew exactly what was happening, the kiss had become so stunningly intense that it was all she could do to remember her own name, let alone try to worry if something was wrong with Wrinn. After what seemed to be a blissful eternity, Wrinn pulled away and softly said, "Yep, I think that just about fixed it."

Heavy-lidded and knocked into a daze, Lyra's only reply was "Mmmm."

Wrinn reached out his hand and softly caressed her cheek, whispered "good night," turned back over, and took a deep breath, concentrating on keeping his body still and not moving around. He felt slightly guilty about what he had done to Lyra - he hadn't exactly lied to her, as the gruesome sight of her lifeless body had deeply unnerved him, but he still felt bad about using the physical aspect of their relationship to his own advantage. Oh well, he reasoned. There'll be plenty of time to make it up to her later.

That, however, brought up another distressing point. He loved Lyra with all of his heart - why hadn't he told her about Gary? It wasn't like Gary had deliberately turned to the side of chaos...he had first been killed, then had his soul ripped out and replaced with evil. But wait! Wrinn suddenly remembered that not all of his soul had been removed, though - when he had knocked Garland unconscious, Gary had given him the Wind Orb. So, in effect, both his body and soul were doing the bidding of the Fiends - but he couldn't do anything but stand, watch, and try to help when the opportunity arose for him to do so. Wrinn finally realized with a shock that when Gary was killed, he was in effect being sentenced to a life of torture - being forced to watch the evil doings of the Fiends but unable to stop them. As the pain of this realization hit him, Wrinn figured out why he hadn't told anyone else - no good would come of it. Would Lyra be any more content with knowing that the man she felt such pity for was actually her onetime companion? Would Phia feel any less guilty about her role in Gary's death if she knew what it had resulted in? Would Lukahn sleep any better at night knowing that his protégé's soul was not at rest but instead forced to watch the worst evil that could possibly exist?

No. Quite the opposite, actually.

He knew what he had to do. No matter how bad of a burden that it turned out to be, he had to keep Garland's identity a secret for the good of the people he loved. With an ache in his heart that he knew would be there for the rest of his life but still had to be withstood, he closed his eyes and finally dropped off to a dreamless sleep.

Meanwhile, Leyre was down in his familiar chair, studying one of the pilot's manuals for the airship. Because he was the only other one of the adventurers who knew Lefeinish, it had been decided that he would be copilot of the airship alongside Phia. Having no clue whatsoever about how the controls worked, he had decided to take a quick look-see through the books so that Phia wouldn't have to waste valuable time walking him through the cockpit. He had been studying intently for about a half hour before he heard footsteps coming down the stairs. He glanced up from his book to see who it was, and his gaze was held there as he watched Katarin walk down the last few steps.

Katarin, for her part, got a surprised look on her face as she beheld the gypsy musician. "Why Leyre, what are you doing down here so late at night?"

"Just studying the pilot's manual for the airship for a couple minutes. It'll save us time tomorrow. But what are you doing up?"

"I was having trouble sleeping and just wanted to take a quick walk." This wasn't entirely true, but she found no need to tell him that she had gone into his room to spy on his dreams again. Crossing the room, she stood behind his chair and peered intently at the book Leyre held in his hands. "So what's this page talking about?"

As Katarin came closer, Leyre's breathing and heartbeat quickened - but whether it was from her proximity or from dread, the gypsy was having trouble telling. With only the slightest quaver in his voice, Leyre answered, "Well, this here describes how to work the altitude controls and drop the anchor. I'll probably be the one worrying about that, since Phia won't be able to steer and worry about the altitude at the same time when we're landing." Abruptly, Leyre closed the book and stood up, taking a few steps towards the stairs before turning back towards the mental wizard and saying, "And speaking of landing, I'd better get to sleep so I'm not sluggish when I'm trying to do that tomorrow. You'd best get to sleep too. Good night." With that, he was gone, leaving a very confused Katarin wondering what had just happened. All she had done was lean in for a closer look - and place her hand on Leyre's shoulder as she did it.

"D'oh!" she exclaimed, smacking herself in the forehead as she figured out what was going on. In enlisting Haywa as her personal bodyguard, she'd succeeded in keeping the gypsy from drooling all over her every time she came near - but the maneuver had backfired. Instead of teaching him to respect her body, she had gotten him to be literally scared of any physical contact with her at all. As she dejectedly climbed the stairs to her bed, she remembered one of the platitudes of wisdom that Sage Rengin used to say in his more depressed moods that seemed especially appropriate for this situation - "Intent and outcome are so rarely incident."

In the morning, as a crowd of townspeople looked on, the Eight met up with Sage Rishi by the hangar, where the great airship was going through the final preparations for its first flight. "How is everybody this morning?" Rishi asked conversationally, to which he received several 'fine!'s, a couple yawns, and a grunt or two. "Phia and Leyre, are you two ready?" Leyre looked somewhat apprehensive and Phia's expression was a mixture of fear and determination, but they both nodded. "Good. Let's get on board, shall we?"

As the nine of them turned to open the hangar door, Professor Unne, who was standing in the front ranks of the crowd, suddenly asked, "Hey, does this airship have a name?"

They all stopped dead in their tracks. Rishi slowly turned to face the professor, blinked a few times, and then said, "You know, it doesn't. I'd never thought to give it one."

"You never thought to name it? But it's bad luck to have a boat without a name!" the Professor cried.

"He's got a point, you know," Haywa remarked.

"But who's going to choose a name for it?" Markus asked.

"That's easy," Phia replied. "It's a Lefeinish ship, so the Lefeinish will be the ones to name it." Turning to the crowd, she called, "People of Lefein! A part of your heritage will be resurrected today as this new airship takes to the skies. Do you have any ideas as to what it should be called?" Hands began to wave, and Rishi began pointing at different faces in the crowd and they began to call out their ideas.

"Edmund Fitzgerald!"
"Thomas Hyke!"
"Big Whale!"
"Millenium Falcon!"

"Ugh, these all stink!" Phia exclaimed. Struck by a sudden thought, she softly said, "Wait a second...I've got it." With a gleam in her eye, she said, "We'll call it the Winter's Return." The crowd oohed and aahed, and it was quickly accepted as the new airship's name. They began to cheer as Rishi and the adventurers entered the hangar, but their shouts soon became inaudible over the noise of the engines.

Slowly, the Winter's Return emerged from the hangar, the propeller on the rear being the only one moving, gently pushing the airship forward on the makeshift landing gear they had thrown together. As soon as the vessel was clear of the roof, the three propellers on the top of the craft began to spin, deafening the observers on the ground as the wind whipped around them. Evenly, the Return lifted off the ground, gently rose to a decent altitude, and with a speed that most humans thought impossible, flew off to the north.

27. Everybody Remember Where We Parked

The speed at which the Return shot off to was a complete shock to everyone aboard - everyone, that is, except for Phia, who was the only one to remain standing. Turning around and giving a slightly disdainful glance at her landlubber friends, she remarked, "Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you that this baby hauls some serious wind. You may want to hang onto something the next time we take off."

"Thanks ever so much for the warning," Wrinn groaned, picking himself off the floor by the rear of the control room and rubbing the back of his head. "At this pace, how long do you think it'll take to get to Gaia?"

"About an hour, I'd say," Phia replied, flipping her ponytail back over her shoulder. "We'll land at Gaia, pick up the last Sage, lift back off, speed over the Edgian Sea, and be at Crescent Lake by sundown!"

Markus, standing at the back of the control room with his arms crossed, lifted his head slightly and said, "I sincerely hope so. The less time we spend in Gaia, the better."

Phia twisted around to look at her beau, a concerned look appearing on her face. "I remember you said that you lived there for a while, but left after you couldn't stand whatever it was they were doing to you. What on earth was wrong with that place?"

Johann, his brow furrowed and his expression thoughtful, stepped forward and said, "Well, from what I can remember from school, the town of Gaia was formed over two centuries ago by a separatist group of humanists who wanted no part in the emerging civilizations of the Dwarves and Elves. Sailing off to the south, they endured the arduous climb through the surrounding mountain range and eventually came to settle in the fertile valley. Little is known about what happened after they arrived, but it was assumed that they survived and became skilled farmers."

Markus nodded. "Exactly. They also became skilled blacksmiths too, working with the vast amounts of raw ore in the surrounding mountains, but the books wouldn't have known that."

"Hold on a second here," Katarin piped up. "Johann, you said that Gaia was formed by a group of zealous humanists, right?" Receiving a nod from the elven wizard in return, she turned to Markus and continued, "That means that they're prejudiced against other species...did they treat you badly because you're a Dragoon?"

His eyes belying the pain he felt but his composure remaining stoic, he nodded and replied, "That's not even the half of it. Their xenophobic tendencies were pretty bad, to be sure, but that was nothing compared to their paranoia." Markus solemnly uncrossed his arms and shifted his weight slightly against the rear wall of the cabin, allowing his shoulders to slump. "Johann made an understatement when he said that the Gaians wanted no part of the new civilizations - they want no part of anything or anybody but themselves, and live in constant fear of any species besides theirs." Closing his eyes, he finished by saying, "You should have seen them the day I landed in the town square. Mothers sweeping their children indoors, children screaming frantically for their mothers, and the men of the town all grabbing the sharpest farm implement within reach."

Simultaneously fascinated and horrified, Katarin said, "How on earth did you end up living there?"

Shrugging, Markus replied, "I quickly let myself be captured and brought before the authorities to explain my case. After sitting in their dungeon for three days, waiting for them to finish searching for any armies that I might have brought with me, I explained that I had no intention of hurting anyone and simply wanted to be left alone. Fortunately, they were willing to put up with me, but no one ever trusted me, and the fairy and the Sage were the only beings that I could ever talk to."

"Wait, a fairy?" Leyre asked. "Why would a fairy live in Gaia, of all places?"

"Because the Fairy Spring was there even before the Gaians were, Leyre," Phia called from the wheel. "I've heard legends about that fairy living in the north, but I never knew exactly where the spring was." Pulling back on the throttle so that the airship hovered in midair, she turned to face the rest of the group. "So what do we do now? It's broad daylight - if these people are as paranoid as Markus says they are, if we try to just fly in there we'll probably be in flames before we even reach the ground!"

"And we don't have time to sit and wait in their dungeons, and judging from what Markus said, I don't think we'd get too welcome of a reception even if we just sent the humans among us in there," Johann mused, looking first at Wrinn in his damaged scarlet armor, Phia with her long white hair, Katarin clutching her staff, Leyre in his colorful raiments, and finally Haywa, with her flashing eyes...

"Hey, Johann, what're you staring at?" she growled, looking back at him.

Shaking himself out of his reverie, the elvish wizard replied, "Uh, I was...thinking."

"About what?"

"A plan, to get us safely in and out of Gaia with the Sage without getting spotted! What else would have I been thinking about?"

Fortunately for all concerned, Leyre cut into the conversation with an excited "Johann, that's it!" and everyone turned to look at him in surprise. "If I can start playing the right song, and you and Phia give me enough backup magic, we can turn the ship invisible! As long as we stick close to the mountains and land in an out of the way place, one or two of us should be able to sneak into town at night and get the Sage - and the townspeople never have to know that we were even there!"

"I like the sound, of that, Leyre," Wrinn said, grinning. "Fantastic idea!"

"Yeah, Leyre, that was pretty clever of you," Katarin added, duly impressed. The gypsy flashed her a shaky smile and quickly turned his attention back to the airship's attitude control, and Katarin swore to herself again and settled back for the rest of the ride.

"So we're ready then, eh?" Phia said from the wheel. "Everybody hold on to your hats, then - we're off!" With that, Phia slammed the throttle forward, sending Wrinn sprawling once again.

"Owwwww! Dammit, Phia, can't you do that a little more smoothly?"

Within the hour that Phia had predicted, the stunning vista of the valley of Gaia appeared over the horizon. A thin strip of land running from northeast to southwest jutting out of the northeast end of the Yahnikurm Desert, from sea level it looked like nothing more than a long, continuous mountain...a barren sliver jutting out of the middle of the ocean. However, from the bird's eye view of the Return, the Eight could see what their land-locked brothers could not - a lush, green valley with acres of carefully cultivated farmland filling every available inch of space, and tucked comfortably into the northern tip of the valley was their destination, the small village of Gaia.

Since the Return was drawing ever closer to the southern spur of the mountains, Leyre dropped the altitude of the ship in order to keep themselves out of sight while they became invisible. "If the Gaians are going to react badly to an airship flying over their mountains, they'll react even worse to an airship starting to fly over their mountains and then disappearing," he had said. Meanwhile, Phia shut the throttle, turned around, and took a deep breath.

A moment later, Leyre let go of the altitude control and tried to shake the tension out of his hands. The two of them were going to have a very difficult time for the next few moments, as both of them were going to have to use all of their magical prowess to keep the airship invisible - while trying to pull off some tricky flying at the same time. With a worried look, she turned towards Leyre and asked, "Are you sure this is going to work? We don't exactly have a backup plan if we can't pull this off."

Leyre looked back at the Red Mage and gulped, since that precise thought had occurred to him only moments before. But what both Phia and Leyre had overlooked in the tension of the moment was that luckily for them, they didn't have to do it all by themselves, and even luckier for them, their partner just happened to be a Black Wizard.

"Don't worry about it, Phia." Johann turned away from the porthole to face her, and the Red Mage was surprised to see the calm, confident look on the wizard's face. "Once we get the ship invisible, reserve most of your concentration for flying. I'll take care of the magical end of things."

"But the biggest things we've ever even tried to make invisible were ourselves! What if something goes wrong right as we crest the mountains?"

Show no fear, Johann thought. Just reassure her, tell her to shut up and fly, and then put everything you've got into it. "Phia, I told you not to worry, and we've got no more time to waste bickering. Just worry about the wheel." Pushing his sleeves up, he spread his arms wide, closed his eyes, and said, "Maestro, if you please?"

Nodding, Leyre raised his harp and struck the first notes of his new Song of Invisibility, while Phia sighed with resignation and began to concentrate herself. Slowly, to their companions' astonished eyes, a small hole appeared in the floor underneath Johann, but the elvish wizard stayed put. Inch by inch, it crept outward...and as it grew larger, it also started to expand in the third dimension. Soon nobody could see Johann's feet, then his knees, and soon his entire lower body was gone and the Eight were apparently floating five feet above their supplies in the hold. Eventually, the invisibility field had grown to envelop the entire cabin, and none of the Eight could see each other any more - but they could now see the innermost architecture of the airship in a way they had never imagined.

Soon the field had spread to engulf the entire airship, and the Eight were soon ensured that their camouflage was effective when a small bird flew into the invisibility field, disappeared, hit the side of the airship with a loud thunk, and reappeared a moment later underneath the airship, still airborne but very groggy and confused. Perfect, Phia thought. Now it's time to turn around, grab the wheel and - oh, crap!

Phia suddenly realized that while their magical effect had rendered the airship and all its occupants invisible to the eyes of the Gaians below, it also made the airship and all its occupants invisible to her eyes as well - meaning she couldn't see her hands, the wheel, where she was relative to the wheel, or the bottom of the airship to know how close she was to the mountains! Reaching out blindly, she waved her arms around in what she thought was the general vicinity of the ship's controls, and was rewarded a moment later (if that is the correct word) with a sharp pain as her right hand smacked into one of the wheel's handles. Muttering a stream of curses under her breath, she steadied her hand on the wheel and then reached out to feel for the throttle, which now that she knew vaguely where she was, was much easier to find.

Comfortably back in her pilot's position, she noted that Leyre's playing had changed to a soft humming, turned to where the gypsy musician should have been and said, "Leyre, are you in position at the altitude control yet?"

"Aye aye, Phia. Just give the word and we can move out."

Taking a deep breath, Phia tried to keep her magical concentration at a strong enough level to keep the airship invisible while still keeping her attention on flying - but didn't find it too difficult. Really, it wasn't much harder than trying to channel two different elements through herself or mixing attack and healing powers, she mused. Thank goodness for Lukahn's teachings, she thought, Or I wouldn't have a chance of making it through this. "Johann," she called over her shoulder, "I'm just about ready to move out. How are you holding up back there?"

"Just fine, Phia. Move out whenever you're ready." She thought she might have heard a slight strain in the wizard's voice that wasn't normally there, but shook it off and slowly engaged the airship's throttle.

Moving carefully, quietly, and with plenty of communication with Leyre, Phia maneuvered the Return up and over the mountain's crest and almost stealthily (after all, there's only so much one can do to hide an airship) brought them down the slope to the valley of Gaia. Moments later, they were hovering over a small flat clearing in the southern end of the valley, and soon after that, the ship gracefully landed with an abrupt thud.

"Sorry, everyone - I can't see the ship's bottom, so I wasn't quite sure of how much further I needed to go."

"Quite all right, Leyre - the fact that you three got us here undetected and in one piece is absolutely phenomenal," remarked Wrinn, from somewhere behind Leyre and to his left. Now comes the problem of keeping the airship hidden while we go retrieve the Sage, though."

"It's not a problem, Wrinn." Johann's voice came floating out from approximately six feet in front of Wrinn. "Just send a few people to quickly find the Sage and then come back - the less time we stay in this valley, the better."

"But what about you, Johann? Will you and Phia and Leyre be able to keep up the invisibility for hours more if we need the time?"

"I can play until my fingers fall off, my friend," Leyre said.

"I don't even need to tell you that you don't need to worry about me, either," Phia added.

"And with their help, I'll be perfectly fine too. Heck, I haven't even broken a sweat yet!" Johann concluded.

"Oh yeah? How am we supposed to know if you're telling the truth? We can't even see you!" Lyra playfully snapped, the amusement in her voice belying the smile that must have been on her face.

"Okay, I think that's enough - we'd better figure out what's our next step and who exactly is going."

"That's a pretty simple answer if you ask me," Katarin piped up. "Johann, Phia, and Leyre have to stay here, I don't think Markus even wants to set foot outside this ship, and it's probably better for Lyra to stay here as well. So, I think you, Haywa, and myself should be the ones to get going and to get going now. There's just one problem left."

"Where did the door get off to?"

A little while later, the sun was just beginning to sink behind the western half of the mountains in the final leg of its daily journey. The bottom of the great disk had just touched the summit of the surrounding crags, and the yellow light it had been bestowing upon the valley was beginning its slow reddening to orange. The day was beginning to turn colder, and a swift wind whipped up and disturbed the tall plants of the cornfield immediately south of town, which Wrinn, Haywa, and Katarin were doing their best to hide in.

"Blast it!" Wrinn exclaimed. "Our timing is hideous. The sun hasn't even gone below the mountains yet, it'll be at least two hours before it gets dark, and we don't have a second to waste! Other than this blasted cornfield, I don't see any other effective sort of cover anywhere around here. Do either of you two have a plan?"

"Nope," replied Haywa. "Stealth was never my area of expertise. Any brilliant ideas swirling around in that head of yours, Katarin?"

Her eyes closed, a hand to her temple, Katarin's mind churned for a moment on the problem at hand. Suddenly, her eyes popped open, gleaming with a sudden understanding. Turning her freckled face to the west and squinting into the sunlight, the mental wizard replied, "Yeah, I think so."

"The problem we have right now is that there's no ground cover and it's too bright out to make our move, right?"

"Right!" Wrinn answered vehemently.

"Wrong!" Katarin exclaimed back. "That brightness is going to be our cover - well, my cover, I mean."

Haywa's brow furrowed as she tried to figure out what her friend was talking about. "What?"

"If I go around to the western side of the town, if the Gaians want to spot me, they'll have to stare directly into the setting sun. If I just stay low, the green in my dress should blend with the ground and my hair will fit in pretty well with the sunlight. After I clear the perimeter, I can just get up and walk normally around the town, since I'm the least conspicuous out of any of us. It shouldn't take me too long to find the Sage, and once he opens his mind back up to the telepathic connections of the rest of the Sages, he'll believe my story and we'll be back here in a jiffy."

Wrinn frowned and said, "You want to go alone? What happens if you get in trouble?"

"Then I'll find some way out of it! Wrinn, this place is not a military camp or a fortress of monsters - it's a town of scared and worried people. Swords and fists aren't the most effective weapons here if we want them to trust us if something goes wrong, and I think that I've got the skills to make it through this."

Haywa nodded in agreement, and waited for the inevitable macho bullheaded reply she was sure was going to come out of Wrinn. But to her immense surprise, the knight nodded and said "That sounds good to me, Katarin. I trust that you can do this. Go for it." Nodding back at him, Katarin flashed a smile at Haywa and handed her staff over. Once Haywa had taken it, the mental wizard turned and started walking through the corn to the left in preparation to swing around to the western side of the town.

Hm, thought Haywa to herself. Maybe men aren't as dumb and resistant to change as I thought. Dismissing it as irrelevant, the martial artist tried to find a comfortable way to sit in the cornfield while her friend went to retrieve the final Sage.

A short while later, Katarin lay on her stomach in the grass twenty yards away from the village's edge behind a largish rock, trying to figure out the next step in her plan.

It wasn't that there was some sort of strong guard patrolling the gates or that there was a fence she had to climb over or anything like that. The problem was, how on earth was she just going to pop up from behind a rock, walk into town as a total stranger, and have not one of a town full of paranoids really notice?

She could have taken herself out of her body and moved about the city that way without fear of detection - but contacting the Sage might have proved difficult. If the Sage wasn't listening to any telepathic messages he was receiving, there would have been no way to alert him to her presence save entering his mind, and Katarin wasn't dumb enough to try to occupy the immensely powerful mind of a Sage.

She also thought briefly about quickly occupying the mind of anyone who approached her, but collapsing in the middle of the street isn't the way to keep yourself undetected either. Then, she finally had it. Why hadn't she thought of it before?

An ignorance field - exactly like the invisibility field Leyre had thought up to hide the airship on the way here. If she could extend her mental influence far enough to make everyone who passed her on the street think of her as nothing out of the ordinary, that would make this job a piece of cake. Concentrating with all her might, Katarin took a deep breath and stood up, trying to walk as smoothly and nonchalantly as she could.

Moments after she had entered the village proper, a local woman came walking out of her house with a rug in her hands, apparently preparing to beat it against the railing. When she first caught sight of Katarin, it seemed like she was getting ready to yell for help when Katarin felt the field take a hold of her brain. The woman's panicked expression quickly returned to the small smile of contentment she'd had when she had first left her house, and Katarin breathed a sigh of relief. It was working.

Continuing to stroll down the street, Katarin quickly located the strongest telepathic presence in town, and proceeded directly to what she knew was the Sage's house. She knocked on the door, and a moment later a man in a red robe with a long white beard answered the door with a confused expression. "Damn kids again," he said in a cranky grunt. "Always knockin' and runnin' away, just to make these old bones creak. Why I put up with it still I have no never caught me doing something disrespectful like that in my day..." And with that, he shut the door and left a mystified Katarin standing right there.

She suddenly realized what the problem had been, and reducing the strength of her ignorance field, knocked again. "This had better be worth it!" the old Sage yelled from inside. "I'm not just gonna sit back down this time, oh no, you little whippersn- Oh! Oh, hello, y-young lady, what can I do you for?"

Quickly letting herself inside and closing the door, Katarin replied, "Hello. Um, my name is Katarin and I am a part of a Quest to retrieve the four Orbs of Light from the Fiends, and also, to get all twelve of you Sages back to Crescent Lake. My friends and I are hiding in this valley and we don't have much time, so if you could come with me, the two of us shouldn't have any problem getting back to the airship and on our way."

To her immense shock and dismay, the old Sage's smile turned into a scowl, and he then crossed the room, sat in a comfortable-looking chair, and said, "I don't wanna go anywheres, and I ain't goin' anywheres. I'm retired."

"You're not doing who with the what at the where now?" For all her mental prowess, Katarin was dumbstruck with what the Sage had just said, and disbelief rendered her senseless for a moment. "But you can't! The world is in desperate danger and it needs you! For the love of the gods, the other two Fiends are about to rise!"

"That don't concern me none. Besides, there's nothing I or anyone else can do about it anyway." After watching Katarin's mouth flap like a fish out of water for a moment, the grizzled old Sage settled down to explain. "Young lady, you might not believe this, but I'm three hundred years old. I was alive, a young buck even, when Tiamat and Kraken first started the Fiends' Revolt and threw the world into an uproar, and our first attempt at trying to stop them failed miserably. Then, a short time ago, I tried again, this time with Lukahn and his bunch, and what did I get for my troubles? Nothin' but a sore back! And that's when I told that young fool that nobody wuz ever gonna grab them Orbs away from those blasted Fiends, and when we all split up, I came here so that I could live out the rest of my life in peace and quiet and never have to deal with this tomfoolery again. And I advise you and your friends, missy, to do the same - go back home and don't waste your energy on such impossible foolishness."

"But we've already retrieved the Wind and Water Orbs, Sage! And we've overcome more than anyone could have ever dreamed - we rebuilt the Lefeinish airship, we defeated Kraken in direct combat, we saved Markus from being killed by his blood - "

"Hold on a minute there, missy - did you say Markus?" A nod in reply. "Big, tall fella, sportin' a coupla wings?" A second nod. "Well I'll be damned. Maybe you kids do have a chance after all."

"What makes you say so now?" Katarin asked, a puzzled look on her face.

"Because if you've got even one man on your team with the intestinal for-ti-tude of a guy like Markus, I don't doubt that you could do anything you kids wanted to do."

Brightening, Katarin said, "So you'll come with us?"

"Nope. Like I told ya, I've retired." Seeing the indignation preparing to return to her face, he quickly added, "But what I will do is send my two best students with you. They should be here any minute for their evening studies." A knock on the door confirmed his statement, and he opened the door to reveal two serious-looking young men. "This here is Raham, loves learnin' about magic, and this over there is Sarda, a budding geologist." Turning to his students, the old man said, "I'm sendin' you two to Crescent Lake to begin your real studies with the rest of the Sages. Pack up your things and come back here as quickly as possible. You got that?" After receiving excited nods from the pair, he shut the door again and turned back to Katarin.

"When they get back, you just walk right out of town with 'em and nobody'll pay you no mind. But to be on the safe side," he said with a wink, "don't remove the invisibility from your airship until you're safely out of sight. These Gaians can get mighty rowdy at times."

Katarin didn't even have time to wonder how the old man knew about the airship's invisibility before Raham and Sarda returned, ready to go. Saying her goodbyes to the old man, Katarin led the two scholars southward out of town to where Wrinn and Haywa were hiding - not with what she had come there to get, but with something just as good.

Soon after, all concerned parties were back aboard the Winter's Return. Once everyone had called their own name to ensure that Wrinn knew that they weren't leaving anyone behind, Leyre lifted the airship back into the air, and Phia began steering their way over the northern spur of the mountains, back towards the Edgian Sea and Crescent Lake. Moments later, a sigh of relief went up from the party's three magicians as the airship suddenly reappeared in midair - but those sighs of relief turned to gasps of horror as a scene unfolded before them that they saw clearer than they wanted to.

In the northern sky in front of them, the red glow of the sun had disappeared an hour ago. Now, the sky glowed red again, but for an entirely different reason. They could barely see, over the horizon, what looked like a solid stream of fire shooting up into the air, and they knew that what they had been dreading had finally happened.

The Fiend of Fire had risen.

28. Out of the Frying Pan...

When they had first seen the gout of flames in the northern sky, the Eight had thought that the best course of action was to fly north as fast as the Return's engines could carry them, directly for Crescent Lake. However, as they approached the northern shoreline of the Edgian Sea, they soon found out that they should have been a little less hasty on their decision-making. For you see, they had neglected to recognize the 'soot factor' that is inevitably dealt with in the eruption of a large-scale volcano, that being that the sky surrounding said volcano was filled with the aforementioned soot. Also, the Eight had neglected to consider the fact that a column of fire shot into the air would affect the temperature of said air, thus causing temperature and pressure differentials between airflows at different altitudes, resulting in several localized wind currents of incredible strength.

To put it more succinctly, soot from the eruption had reduced local visibility to zero, and winds resulting from the extreme difference in air temperatures were blowing around with gale force. To put it even more succinctly...

They were screwed.

"Somebody's got to help me with this wheel or I'm going to get thrown off it!" Phia shouted, straining with the wheel in a vain attempt to keep the Return on something resembling its original northern course. Markus, barely hearing his beloved's call through the howling of the wind, stumbled up to the front of the cabin and gripped the wheel with both hands. But, he had barely touched its spokes when a particularly violent crosswind spun the Return like a top and both Phia and Markus were hurled into the cabin wall with a crash. To add insult to injury, a series of loud bangs and clanks from the rear of the ship suggested to its dismayed crew that the engines were about to die on them as well. Wrinn struggled to his feet and staggered over to where Phia and Markus lay, and bent over to check on them.

"Are you two alright?" he yelled. Upon getting weak nods in return, Wrinn turned to the rest of his friends. "I don't think there's any way we're going to be able to ride this out, everyone! This ship is going to crash, and soon! Anyone got any ideas?"

"Don't look at me!" Phia shouted in reply. "I survived the first time this airship crashed by luck alone!"

"Well, you won't have to trust it this time, Phia!" Johann screamed. "I have an idea, and it just might work - but we have to link hands now, and not under any circumstances should you let go until I tell you! And make sure to put the Sages in the middle, next to me!" Putting his words into practice, Johann reached out and grabbed Raham with one hand and Rishi with the other. The rest of the passengers aboard linked up in similar fashion, and at a signal from the Black Wizard they all left the cabin to struggle up on deck.

If the Eight had thought the situation down in the cabin was bad, that was nothing compared to what it was like on deck. Swirling winds painfully buffeted them, and soot flew into their eyes such that everyone was blinded within seconds. And seemingly just to tell them that the situation could in fact get worse, they heard the engines finally blow out with a deafening explosion, and with a sickening lurch in their collective stomachs, they felt the ship begin to fall. Inexplicably enough, however, it was at this moment that Wrinn heard Johann's voice ring out through the gale, and abandoning all reason, he followed the instruction that he had heard.

He jumped.

It was still dark. Hot, too. Dark and hot. Hot, and dark, and sore. Definitely sore. Dark, and sore, and weaving, and lurching...but somehow soft and yielding at the same time. Discombobulated beyond all belief, Wrinn managed to raise himself to his knees, and attempting to shake out the cobwebs while dealing with the throbbing pain in his skull, he opened his eyes.

He was kneeling in sand. Lots of sand. Sand? he thought. Where did all the sand come from? I didn't ask for any sand. I want the air back...I want the ship back...I want the air...ship back! "Oh no - the airship!"

Spinning around and peering through the haze of soot that blanketed...whatever place they were in, Wrinn was able to make out the outline of the stern half of the airship as it pointed into the air - because, Wrinn realized with dismay, that the bow had buried itself into the desert. Dreading that there was no way they would be able to dig the ship out, he set off towards it, keeping his eyes peeled for any of friends - and Lyra, of course. Suddenly, he heard above him the familiar whoosh of wind against dragon wings, and he looked up to see the familiar - and welcome - sight of Markus in flight.

"Markus!!" he called, straining his voice so that his comrade could hear it through the wind. "Down here!" Apparently the dragoon had heard him, because he quickly adjusted his midair course and swooped down towards Wrinn. Landing gracefully in mid stride, Markus jogged over to his friend, eyes filling with relief.

"Thank the gods I found you, Wrinn! Are you all right?"

"Of course, I'm fine," Wrinn replied with a roguish grin. "You wouldn't have expected a little thing like a fall from an airship to hurt me, would you?" He allowed himself a small chuckle before abruptly changing the subject. "Have you found anyone else? Is Lyra all right?"

"Not to worry, my good knight - your lady is alive, well, and in one piece, as is everyone else. Thank goodness for Johann."

They had begun walking towards the airship side by side at this point, and Wrinn put a hand to his head and said, "You know, right after we jumped, everything in my brain got kind of fuzzy. Do you know what happened, and how Johann was able to get us all down in one piece?"

"As soon as we jumped, Johann tried to redirect some of those wind currents that kept buffeting us around to come under and blow directly upwards at us. Luckily, Phia realized what he was doing and helped out, and the two of them were able to slow us down enough to save our lives." Through the swirling sand and soot, Wrinn could make out the figures of his friends, clustered together next to the downed airship.

Finally making out Lyra in the midst of the group, he breathed a sigh of relief, and he and Markus reached the group a moment later to hear Phia saying, "...don't see how in the world we could ever get this thing out of here, and the worst part is that I don't even have a clue as to where we are!"

"I can answer that for you, Phia," Wrinn said, walking up to the edge of the circle.

Lyra's eyes brightened noticeably as she did a poor job at hiding her enjoyment of Wrinn's return. "You know where we are? How?"

"Yeah, Wrinn, how do you know?" Phia added. "I thought you told us that you'd never left Coneria before the Quest."

"That's true, but that doesn't stop me from remembering that there's only one desert that's due south of Crescent Lake - the Ryukahn Desert." Shrugging, Wrinn continued, "Lukahn always used to talk about Crescent Lake and the fascinating amount of differences around it - the Ryukahn Desert being just south of the fertile lake area, and a place like the Ice Cave just east of Gurgu Volcano, which is where I'm sure the Fiend of Fire is hiding."

At the words 'Fiend of Fire', the collective expressions of the Eight, the two Gaian students, and the Sage Rishi quickly became a lot more grim. Wrinn, a pensive expression on his face as he reached back into his memory, asked, "So has anyone tried seeing if we can still use the canoe?" Seeing heads shaking all around him, he concluded, "Well, since the fastest way to Crescent Lake from here is a small river that runs north through the mountains, let's hope to whatever gods are left that we can - it's our only option."

Luckily for all concerned, they were able to salvage the canoe from the wreckage, and after carrying the watery conveyance across the desert to its eastern edge where it met a stream, they were soon all thanking fate that they had remembered to bring it with them - even though with all eight Quest members and three Sages, it was mightily cramped.

Wrinn was paddling in the bow as before, and Lyra behind him. Rishi was next, followed by a very squished Raham, Katarin, and Sarda (and the young Sages' faces were so boiling red at being in such close proximity to Katarin that they outshone her hair.) Leyre and Johann sat behind them, then Phia, as Haywa sat paddling near the stern while Markus paddled the air with his wings as he had done in the Waterfall. This was possibly their most oppressive journey thus far in the Quest - not only were there eleven people smushed into an eight-person canoe that had to try to fight its way upstream, it was still oppressively hot in the area and ugly black soot left a sickly gray film over every visible surface.

Worse than that was the fact that their surroundings had become nothing solid gray mountainside, which was a depressing, dismal sight if any of them had ever seen it.

And even worse than that was the gigantic five-headed Hydra that had just risen out of the river in front of them.

Wrinn, obviously, was the first one to see it, and turning around, he shouted to Haywa to swing the stern forward, while he at the same time started paddling to bring the bow back - thereby aiming the canoe perpendicular to the river and bringing the broadside cannons of his friends to bear on the monster.

And monster it truly was. The Hydra's scales were a sickly green, with bright red flaps of skin running along the top of each of its necks, from the base of its body to its eyeless heads. One of its heads let out an eerie scream, opening its mouth to show off its rows of razor-sharp teeth - and giving Johann a perfect target to throw his flaming dagger at. The head snapped backwards from the impact as the dagger hit it in the back of the throat, and it soon flopped to the water with a loud smack. The Hydra's other four heads seemed to get pretty angry at this, but the one on the far right didn't have long to be indignant before a flying Markus plunged his spear through its neck, twisted it, and ripped it out in a shower of blood.

The remaining three heads, realizing that hesitation meant death, finally moved to the attack - but discovered that the dagger and spear attacks they'd faced while at a distance from their foes weren't much better than the swinging of swords they encountered up close. They pulled back again, roaring in frustration, and as the head furthest to the right ducked to evade another thrust from Markus' spear, it moved right into the middle of a powerful sound wave passing around its tiny brain, and the mouth snapped shut on its tongue as that particular head lost all sense of danger about it.

The next sound heard was a yelp from Sarda, as a lifeless Katarin suddenly slumped backwards on top of him, seconds before the leftmost head quickly swiveled around and sank its teeth into the neck of its neighbor. Screeching in pain, the last head made a final frantic attempt at some sort of attack, but was stopped short as Phia lowered her sword's tip into the water and began to channel lightning through her arm, sending kilovolts of electricity into the creature's body.

Reeling back with its entire body convulsing, the final head of the Hydra turned itself from side to side, almost like it was looking in disbelief at the damage that had been done to it in perhaps thirty seconds, before finally succumbing and beginning to slip beneath the water's surface.

Grinning broadly, Wrinn gave a thumbs-up to his friends, and as Markus landed lightly on the stern once more, he started paddling them the rest of the way to the place they'd been sending the Sages since the beginning - the mystical town of Crescent Lake.

Roughly twenty minutes later, Wrinn and Markus pushed the canoe onto the shore just south of the village, after having paddled their way around Crescent Lake proper (the 'points' of the lake were northeast and southwest of the town, and the river they had arrived in fed into the northern end of the lake.) Exhausted from the cramped conditions, having to fight their way upstream, and the fight with the Hydra, the adventurers and Sages straggled their way out of the canoe and splashed the few remaining steps to shore. Wrinn and Markus still held the canoe steady as Phia began to disembark, when a sudden cry of "hey HEY!!!!" from the trees ahead startled the Red Mage so much that she slipped on the edge of the canoe and flopped into the water with a loud splash.

A moment later she surfaced, and spluttering, said, "Hello again, Sage Roger."

"And a happy grappy flappy hello to all of you fantabulous folks!" Roger cried, doing a little dance with a nearby tree. "And Rishi! Wonderflubby to see you again, my friend!"

"Roger," Rishi sternly replied, "What kind of example is this? I certainly don't think this is the time for dancing and silliness, especially not in front of young men who need to learn about what it means to be a Sage!"

"Wrong you are, Rishi!" Roger cried, pointing a stubby finger at his fellow Sage and jumping up and down. "It's true that the stupey Fiend of Fire is risen and making it all dusty and hot around here - buuuuuuuut, now that you all are here, it's time to go get the Orb back from that dumb Fiend and make things all better again! You'll see! Wheeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!" And with that, the sprightly Sage was off and hopping again, back in the direction of the town. Sage Rishi sighed and shook his head, while a disgruntled and disheveled Phia was wringing her cape out at the water's edge.

"Well, there's your first lesson, boys," Rishi said. "Sage Roger - like him or hate him, find him amusing or find him annoying - there's never a dull moment when he's around." With that, Rishi started walking north to where the rest of his colleagues waited, Raham and Sarda hot on his heels and the members of the Quest following close behind.

This truly is a strange forest, Johann mused as they walked along. There was something subtly different about this place, that he couldn't quite put his finger on - but the smell of the air, the feel of the ground under his feet, even the way the trees grew. It was like...

"This feels like home," a dripping Phia remarked as she padded along the forest path. "I'm not sure exactly what it is about this place...but it feels just like Lefein."

"I know exactly what you mean, Phia," Leyre added, turning around and walking backwards for a moment while staring at the canopy of trees above them. "There's just something about this place...but I don't know what. Does anybody else feel it?"

"I do. Most definitely," added Johann. He, too, was now staring around at the surrounding forest, when he noticed that Markus was looking at Phia almost as if she had as many heads as a Hydra. "What's wrong, Markus? Don't you find something familiar about this forest?"

"I must honestly say that I do not, Johann."

"I don't, either," Lyra said, and she turned to look at Wrinn, who simply shrugged.

Rishi turned around from his position at the front of the line, assumed his most Sagely manner, and said, "Pay attention, boys - you're about to learn something." Startled, the Eight also turned their attention to him, and satisfied, he began. "Let's think about the situation for a moment, shall we? We are in the forest right next to Crescent Lake, when the three magicians in the Quest notice something different, and the Lefeinish one among them remarks that it feels like home - while the fighters in the party notice nothing." Phia, Johann, and Leyre looked at one another in sudden realization, not having noticed the connection. "This, my students, is because certain places on this planet are so infused with magic that those with magical ability can feel it, almost as a tangible quality. Lefein, being the site of the advanced civilizations of ancient times, and Crescent Lake, meeting place of the Sages, are two such places. In the future, if you get such a feeling as Phia, Johann, and Leyre are experiencing now, know that it is because of a powerful magic in the area."

Bowing, the two young Sages-in-training answered, "Yes, master Rishi," and with much less bewilderment, the group continued their journey and finally arrived at the town gates.

As Wrinn expected, Lukahn was waiting there for them, and after giving Rishi a warm smile and a handshake, he came to greet the Eight. "Oh, how good it is to see you all - although I don't think I've had the pleasure of meeting everyone. Wrinn, would you please do the honors?"

"With pride, Master Lukahn." Wrinn first went to stand next to Katarin, who put her hands behind her back and blushed as Wrinn extolled her virtues. "Master, this is Katarin Ayer, a wizard of the mind who recently got us in and out of Gaia with impressive stealth." He next moved to Haywa and said, "This is Haywa Tsukyaku, a martial artist whose strength and determination have pulled us through several battles." Then came Leyre, dumbstruck with awe at actually meeting the Great Sage Lukahn. "This is Leyre, a gypsy musician who is doing a damned good job reviving the traditions of the Bards of old..." and finally Wrinn walked next to Markus and put a hand on his scaled left shoulder, saying "and last but not least, Markus Cardia, a Dragoon who has done more to uphold the nobility of his race than a thousand of Tiamat's troops ever did to drag it down."

"It seems, Wrinn, that in the course of fulfilling the first part of your mission, you've surrounded yourself with quite the admirable group of people that will help you get the second half of it accomplished," Lukahn said with a smile. Turning to the entire group, he continued, "I can't thank all of you enough for finding the rest of the Sages and sending them here. Now, perhaps we have a fighting chance against the forces of Chaos."

"Speaking of fighting Chaos," Phia interjected, "What's the plan for taking out the Fiend of Fire?"

"Businesslike as always, Phia," Lukahn chuckled, "but I'm glad you asked. If you would all follow me, please - I think it's time we consulted the Circle."

Moments later, an awestruck eight adventurers were slowly following Lukahn to the very edges of the village proper, and finally walking into the small clearing where the great Sages of the world met to discuss matters of utmost importance, in the formation that gave the meeting its name - the Circle of Sages. However, to Wrinn's eyes, standing on the outskirts of the circle, the fancy name that everyone usually spoke with such reverence meant nothing more to him than a gathering of familiar faces.

To his immediate left was Rostol, former Chancellor of ElfLand and Johann's teacher. To his immediate right was Roland, Lyra's father. Continuing to the right, he saw Rishi, the Lefeinish Sage, and next to him stood Raham and Sarda, one of whom would become the twelfth Sage. Then came Risah, the Sage that had elected to stay in Crescent Lake when they had all split up, and one of the two Sages Wrinn hadn't met. Rhital, former master of the military camp where they had first met Markus and Hawya, stood next to Risah, and on his right hand stood Lukahn.

On Lukahn's other side was the eccentric Roger, and then came Radvich, the Sage who had been staying with the Dwarves. Next was the somber Rengin of Melmond (not the favorite of the Sages in Phia's book,) and on his other side was Rygar, the dragon-loving Sage who'd stayed in the Cardia Islands, and who had been delivered to Crescent Lake by King Bahamut himself. Next to Rygar, in between him and Rostol, was Riel, Markus' teacher from Onrac, and that completed the circle. With a bit of a shock, Wrinn realized that much of the hardship and torment he'd gone through since the start of his quest - Gary's death, Markus' near death, countless battles, the horrible discovery of Garland's true identity - had all been leading to this moment, and standing quietly at the edge of the circle, the knight hoped to himself that it had been worth it.

"Members of the Quest for the Orbs, step into the Circle," Rostol called, and Wrinn and company filed through the gaps between Sages to stand together in the circle's center. "You are aware that the Fiend of Fire has risen and stolen the power from the Orb hidden deep in Gurgu Volcano?" All eight of them nodded, and then turned quickly as they heard Rhital speaking behind them.

"The Fire Orb must be retrieved as the Wind and Water Orbs have been retrieved," Rhital said, and Wrinn and Phia subconsciously felt for where they still held on to the precious orbs. "The sooner we can liberate the Orb from Kary's grasp, the less power she can give to the Chaos Knight, and the better chance for survival we give to this dying world."

All eight of them turned again as Riel began to speak. "If you take your trusty canoe back into the maze of rivers through the mountains, you will find Gurgu Volcano northwest of here. There, you will face rivers of lava and beings of pure flame, but you must succeed in retrieving the Orb, else all is lost."

"Keep in mind your objective, my friends," Lukahn added. "Retrieval of the Orb, not defeat of the Fiend. Your first two conflicts were against fully powered and controlled beings that knew exactly what they were doing. Kary, on the other hand, has for all intents and purposes just been born, and her power is an unpredictable one. Avoidance of conflict is not necessarily a show of cowardice - remember that."

"We will, Master Lukahn." Wrinn's determination oozed from its every pore as he faced his teacher and continued, "And we will give our all to make sure that the Orb is safely within our grasp as soon as possible." Here he paused, motioned with his head back toward the village, and said, "If there is any more wisdom the Twelve of you wish to impart on us tonight, though, let us do it over a hot meal - my friends and I are tired, and need food and rest before we go charging into the lair of a Fiend again."

"You know, Wrinn," Lukahn replied with a smile as he strode back towards the town, "I daresay that's the wisest thing I've ever heard anyone say in this clearing."

The next morning, after a good hot meal and night's rest, with supplies stocked and equipment repaired, the Eight waved goodbye to Lukahn, Rostol, Roland, Roger, and Riel as they pushed off in the canoe to head north to Gurgu Volcano. Unfortunately, today's trip wasn't much better than yesterday's, as a layer of soot still blanketed the mountainsides and swirled through the water - which, to Katarin's eyes, was too bad, considering the potential beauty of the place.

The network of rivers they were in had been slowly carved through the rock - presumably the first clumsy work done by rivers of hot lava from a volcanic eruption, with the small details done by eons of rains and erosion. Steep crags of every shape and size rose above, behind, and to either side of them, giving the impression that the river they rowed through was mankind's sneaky little peek at an otherwise forbidden fortress of the earth itself.

Fortunately, nothing else in the way of river dwellers had attacked them the whole time they had been trying to navigate this watery maze - perhaps word had spread of their speedy defeat of the Hydra. While it was a relief to not have slimy river creatures jumping out of the water in a continuous series of murder attempts, it did serve as a chilling reminder of their last trip into a Fiend's lair via canoe, in which a false sense of security led to a bewilderingly fast attack that had very nearly caught them too far off guard. However, Wrinn had learned from his past mistake, and this time Leyre and Katarin carried a separate stock of twenty Heal potions and twenty Pure potions in addition to each of the Eight's personal stores.

Their journey had now taken them several hours, but none of the Eight lost hope, as they could tell that they were getting closer and closer to their final destination. Their first clue was the fact that it was slowly getting hotter and hotter - Johann mused out loud at one point how he now thought he knew how potion ingredients felt, while Leyre had come back with the fact that the temperature barely felt like high noon of the desert summer. Their second clue was the column of black smoke that had appeared over the horizon - although Wrinn and Markus had quickly found that heading straight towards the landmark was not always the best way to go, through the discovery of numerous dead ends and wrong turns. Finally, after turning left at a fork and heading west, they could see the lip of the volcano over the nearest crag, and knew that they had found the way. Turning south, they found that their river quickly turned into shore, and after grounding the canoe and looking up, they saw the full spectacle of Gurgu Volcano in front of them.

It was a massive brown mountain, specked with flecks of red here and there as rivulets of lava still burned their way down its surface. At a signal from Wrinn, they all tied bandannas around their mouths as Leyre had suggested to keep the soot out of their lungs, and as soon as they were all secure, Wrinn led the slow march up the volcano's steep exterior.

As they neared the top, the smoke, soot and temperature became nearly unbearable. The sheer heat from the volcano's interior thickened the very air and made the ground painful to walk on even with their tough leather boots, and with the addition of all the billowing smoke, it was nearly impossible to see anything. Wrinn, squinting as much as his eyes would allow, sought out Phia and Johann, and after a moment of consultation the two mages nodded their heads and prepared to cast.

Phia let loose a moment later with her self-styled elemental spell, endowing each of her friends with the power and protection of water, while Johann whipped up a little wind current that kept the soot out of everyone's eyes long enough to find the entrance. Moments later, they were all inside the volcano proper, out of the currents of smoke and soot but still enduring the stifling heat.

Wrinn was the first to echo this sentiment, removing the bandanna from over his mouth and saying, "Well, I can see and breathe perfectly fine again, and now I feel like I'm just being baked instead of fried. Good work, everyone."

Lyra was next off with her bandanna. "So where to now? I'm not exactly up-to-date on where volcano-dwelling Fiends choose to put their inner sanctums."

Shrugging, Haywa replied, "Down. Where else?"

"Succintly put, Haywa, but correct as always," Johann said. "Wrinn, how should we arrange ourselves?"

"Hm..." Wrinn mused, surveying the group. "How about I lead, Lyra backs me up. Next Johann...then Haywa covers Katarin and Leyre. Phia behind them, and then Markus covers all of us. Good?" Receiving nods, Wrinn carefully began moving forward. However, ten yards down the line, he saw his first problem.

"Lava," he heard Katarin say behind him. "How the heck are we going to get over it?"

"I can't jump that far," Lyra said, looking warily at the fifteen-foot expanse of scarlet molten rock.

"This ceiling's too low for me to fly you all across it," Markus added, staring thoughtfully at the low ceiling of the tunnel they were in.

"And I can't freeze that much lava in one shot," Johann said resignedly. "Not unless I concentrated for three hours straight."

"And honestly," an exasperated Phia said, "I think you people still don't trust me. I cast my very special elemental spell on everybody, so we should just be able to walk right into the stupid OWWWWWWWWWW!" Placing so much as one toe into the lava river would have been a bad idea, but unfortunately for Phia, her entire right foot had sunk in before she had wrenched it out. Howling in pain, she sank to the ground clutching her shin until Markus arrived and poured several healing potions over the wound. Luckily for her, she had been protected by her spell - however, that simply prevented her right foot from immediately dissolving instead of saving her from the intense pain she was currently in.

A moment later, after the healing potions had repaired her foot and a spare boot had replaced her former one, she stood up and said, " it was a bad idea. Anyone else got any plans for getting us past this?"

"By Roger's big nose, yes!" Leyre suddenly exclaimed. "I can't believe I didn't remember this before!" Turning to the perplexed Phia, he said, "One of the gypsies in the camp back home used to do this trick he called fire walking - he would take a bunch of burning logs and lay them all on the ground, see? And then he'd take his shoes off and walk right over them, and when he was done there wouldn't be a burn on his body!"

"So how did it work, Leyre?" Phia asked. "The fact that this guy could do this is all well and good, but it doesn't do US any good unless we know how to do it too."

Frowning and furrowing his brow, the gypsy musician replied, "Well, all I can remember that he did before it was that his eyes always used to roll back in his head, and every time somebody yelled some encouragement to him, he never paid attention. Was almost like he couldn't even hear them."

"Eyes rolling back...oblivious to surroundings...that's it! He must have hypnotized himself!" Katarin cried.

"Hypnotized?" Haywa said. "What the hell's that?"

"It's when your mind enters a special state of isolation - like when you disconnect your conscious mind from the rest of your brain," she replied. "Through concentration, he must have made his skin ignore the heat, and thereby not get burned!"

"So how does this help us?" Markus asked.

"Well, if I'm right about this, I should be able to hypnotize each of you pretty easily, and then we'll make it across in no time! Who wants to go first?" Lyra was the first to raise her hand, and nodding, Katarin prepared herself. A moment later, her body slumped against the wall as was usual when she pulled her mental self out, and soon Lyra's worried stare turned into a blank gaze. With stiff, jerky motions, she slowly removed her shinguards and boots, and slowly walked into the lava river in her bare feet. To everyone's astonished eyes, Lyra seemed perfectly fine - no screams of pain, no gritting of teeth - just that same relaxed expression and blank gaze. She emerged from the lava river on the other side, and to everyone's astonishment, she had no burn marks on any part of her legs. She stiffly bent over to put her legwear back on, and once both boots were secure, she snapped back to herself, looking very perplexed.

"Hey!" she said. "How the heck did I get from there to here?"

Grinning, Wrinn said, "Don't worry about it, Lyra!" Looking up, he called, "Okay, Katarin! I'm ready!" into midair, and soon he was going through the same procedure as Lyra had just done. After a few more minutes, the slow process was just about finished, as Leyre and Katarin were the only ones left on the original side of the lava river. As Leyre waited for Katarin to take control of his body, he tried to relax, waiting for the sensation of her entry into his mind and wondering what it would feel like.

He was shocked a moment later to see Katarin's body stir and wake up a moment later, as she walked over to him and said, "It's our turn now. Let's go."

"W-w-what do you mean?" he stammered. "Aren't you going to take control of me and hypnotize me?"

"Well, I am going to hypnotize you, but if I take control of you to bring you across, who's going to take me? I need you to walk across with me so that you can hold me up if I go too far into my mental self after I've hypnotized myself."


"Leyre, I need you to do this or I might not make it. I'm putting my trust in you. Please, Leyre. Fire walk with me." Realizing the magnitude of the situation, Leyre set his jaw and nodded, and turned to stare directly into her eyes. As they both concentrated, Leyre put his hands on her waist to steady her. The seconds ticked slowly past, but still the mental wizard and the musician stared deep into each other's eyes...and finally one of them moved.

Leyre, moving not with the jerky movements that characterized the others' trips across the lava but with a slow, graceful fluidity, bent down and removed Katarin's shoes, then removed his own. Arm in arm, Leyre and Katarin moved in unison, step by step, their feet lifting off and returning to the ground in perfect time. They moved into the river together, and in what seemed like the shortest time of anyone previously, had crossed the river safely. Leyre, still in his trance, put the pair's shoes back on, and seconds later they both snapped out of it.

"Well done, Leyre," Katarin said, holding his hands in hers. "Thanks for the help." With that, she took up her staff again and moved off down the tunnel to follow Wrinn, with a highly bemused Leyre following closely behind.

The rest of the trip into the depths of the Gurgu Volcano was characterized, as the adventures of this group so often now were, by teamwork and the individual talents of the members complementing each other perfectly.

Thanks to Phia's elemental spell, the strength and speed of the swords of Wrinn and Lyra were extremely effective against the blazing beings of pure flame that came after them at times. On one particular occasion, the two of them spotted one coming after them and decided to move quickly to the attack. While running at full speed towards the beast, Wrinn held out his sword horizontally to his right and parallel to the ground, and Lyra, using all of her elvish nimbleness, leaped onto the blade. With a mighty swing, Wrinn launched his lover through the air, where she was able to deliver a mighty blow to the unsuspecting creature's throat, instead of its more defended midsection. However, the creature's surprise at having its higher regions attacked caused its other defenses to drop considerably, and with Wrinn attacking up front while Lyra worked the pincer attack from behind, the creature was soon disposed of.

Markus and Phia, meanwhile, were quite adept at dealing with several of Markus' distant cousins - Red Dragons. Phia's speed, swordsmanship, and magical skills were the perfect complement for Markus' strength, uncommon mobility, and unique defenses. While the length of his spear kept enemies at a safe distance, Phia was able to cast spell after devastating Ice spell - and when they got too close, the two of them could give them what for with their weapons. The fire breath of the Red Dragons was also quite useless, as any blast that attempted to target the two of them was blocked with a wing shield, and any other streams of flame were either out and out dodged or flown over, which gave Markus numerous strike attempts at his enemies' heads and helped in the celerity of their dispatching.

To their surprise, Johann and Haywa were making a pretty good team, as well. Any approaching creature that relied on heavy natural armor, like a Red Anklyo or an Agama, quickly found itself the victim of Johann's ingenious weakening spell - which of course played perfectly into Haywa's impact-driven style of martial arts. A pack of three Red Ankylos approached them at one point, and the first one was quickly done away with - as its weakened armor cracked in such a way that it punctured its heart when Haywa drove her right fist into its midsection. The second one quickly found itself hoisted into the air, a perfect target for several ice-covered throwing daggers, while the third had absolutely no clue what hit it. One moment, it was facing two opponents, and the next, there was only one of them, but it was still getting the snot beaten out of it.

Of course, no set of fighting styles is infallible, not every particular enemy was taken out by just one of the pairs, and not every encounter was done away with flawlessly. The members of the Quest took their share of hits from the monsters under Kary's command, but adroit handling of heal potions and various spells kept them in fighting shape the whole way down. Wrinn and company had learned well from their attacks on the first two Fiends.

After hours of fighting their way down through numerous levels of the hellish inferno, the Eight finally arrived at the Fiend's lair, at which time they were afforded a sight that none of them had ever, ever expected.

Kary was asleep.

Her head drooping, all six of her arms limp, her snake-like lower body coiled underneath her like a pillow - the Fiend of Fire was definitely asleep in her den. The Orb of Fire rested in one of her hands, right within easy reach - but none of the Eight was foolish enough to try to take it out of her hand without some sort of a plan.

Huddled together in a far corner of the cave she called home, the Eight held a whispered discussion about what should be done.

"Should we cut her hand off and then run like the dickens?" Wrinn suggested. "That could work, right?"

"We tried the 'cutting off appendages of Fiends' thing once before, Wrinn, and that didn't go over so well," Phia snapped. "Markus, do you think you could fly in there and grab the Orb?"

"And how am I supposed to do that without waking her up?" Markus asked, one eyebrow cocked.

"Oh, I don't know," retorted an exasperated Phia, " casual."

"I hate to break it to you, folks, but I don't think the direct approach is going to work on this one," Haywa said, shaking her head. Turning to Leyre and Katarin, she said, "You two think you can come up with something sneaky to get the Orb?"

Cocking his head to look at Katarin, Leyre replied, "Yeah, I don't think it'll be too hard."

Picking up right where he left off, as if they had been sharing the same thought, Katarin continued, "I don't know if you remember what Lukahn said..."

"But he mentioned that in some cases, avoidance of conflict is wise," Leyre finished. "And in this case, the best way to do that is..."

"To make sure that she stays asleep. And since I can make Kary ignore the fact that I'm taking the Orb out of her hand," Katarin began,

"I simply have to make sure she stays asleep with a magical lullaby," Leyre concluded. Realizing what they had just been doing, Leyre and Katarin suddenly looked at each other and smiled - and then let the grimness of battle settle into them as they readied themselves for, effectively, taking candy from the biggest, meanest, deadliest baby in the entire world.

As the rest of their friends stayed hidden, Leyre slowly crept out into the open of the cave, raised his harp, and as softly as possible, began to play. The tune was the sweetest, most soothing melody that any of the Eight had ever heard before in their lives - and even at such an incredibly tense moment, the music was so powerfully intoxicating Lyra found herself nodding off. She managed to snap herself back awake, however, as she saw Katarin start her bold and dangerous journey across the wide open expanse of the cavern to where Kary slept on.

Where speed, power, and grace under fire were her comrades' strengths, stealth and presence of mind even in the most dire of circumstances were Katarin's, and she displayed both in spades as she slowly made her way across the cavern. Even though she knew that she was absolutely crazy to do this, and that if Leyre struck one wrong note and woke Kary up that she was certainly dead, she remained calm and collected as she kept her pace constant, her breathing steady, and her ignorance field strong. She trusted Leyre's ability as he trusted hers and listened to his sweet music as it wafted its way across the cavern and softly reverberated off the walls, allowing it to calm her and keep her mind on the objective - and in what seemed to her an astonishingly short time, was right in front of her.

The giant serpent-woman Kary was beautiful in her own way, Katarin mused as she slowly peeled back her fingers from the Orb. Even though she represented the basest evil that existed in the world, and would have thought nothing of killing them all had she been awake, she was still an amazing creature. Best to get the best possible memories from any occasion, she thought as she lifted the Fire Orb out of Kary's grasp and stepped away.

"Well now, that's got to be one of the best philosophies I've ever heard," came a strange voice from out of nowhere.

"Whuh?" Katarin whispered, trying to stay as quiet as possible while slowly beginning to back away from the Fiend.

"Down here, my dear. Look in your hands." Obeying what she'd heard, Katarin saw in surprise that the Orb she held was softly glowing red. "I am the remnant of the Fire Elemental that is left after most of me was sucked away into Kary and Garland." Blinking in disbelief, Katarin slowly continued backing away from the Fire Fiend, casting worried glances at Kary as she stirred in her sleep. "Again, though, I must congratulate you on your philosophy - it's wonderful that you live your life by it so well."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Katarin whispered.

"That night in the gypsy camp when Leyre kissed you," the Elemental replied. "Luckily, you were standing right by the fire, so I was able to watch what happened. You took the best possible memory from that occasion, and kept hope in Leyre. Now, look at him. He is ready to love every part of you equally, from the brain in your head to the tips of your toes."

Katarin, realizing that the Elemental was right, whispered, "Well, thank you for the compliment, but there's one thing I don't understand. Why do you even care about what happens between Leyre and I? Shouldn't you be more worried about getting yourself lit again and getting your powers back?"

"I have no concerns in that department, my dear. I know that the Light Warriors will defeat Kary and save me one day - and I have you and Leyre to thank for that."

Eyes wide with surprise, Katarin whispered back, "Well, you're very welcome." By this time, she had reached her friends again, and she was so busy giving a warm smile to Leyre upon her return that she didn't notice the glow leaving the Orb, returning it to its dull gray. Slipping it into her pack as Leyre put his harp away, she whispered to her friends, "Come on, let's get out of here. I've gotten used to the heat by now, but the humidity is killing me."

29. Getting More 'Down-to-Earth'

The trip which returned the Eight back down the mountain river was a much more pleasant one. For one, Wrinn was ecstatic because they'd managed to escape Gurgu Volcano with the Fire Orb - without having to endure a dangerous fight with the Fiend of Fire. Phia was still enjoying the fact that she hadn't lost her foot when she'd dipped it into a river of lava (as was Markus, of course,) and the rest of the adventurers were doing just fine, none the worse for wear, while feeling that their final objective had gotten that much closer - but nobody in the entire group felt better than Leyre and Katarin.

Finally, the feelings they had had for each other since the moment they met had been allowed to surface in their purest form. As they sat in the canoe together, Katarin leaning back against Leyre's chest with his arms around her, the two of them simultaneously shared a long sigh as they felt nothing but utter contentment in each other's arms. After a long period of hardship and denial, Katarin's patience and good sense had combined with Leyre's growing sense of responsibility, self-worth, and respect for others, producing a pure union of friendship and love - and, a fighting combination that could knock you on your behind and make you forget your own name in ten seconds flat.

They sighed in unison again, and at this point, Lyra turned around and pleaded, "Jeez, come on, guys, cut it out! You're even worse than Wrinn and I were when we first started!"

"She's right, you know," Phia added. "I mean, I thought Markus and I might have been a little too sappy in the way we got together...but you two take the freaking cake."

"Oh, get off our back, you guys," Katarin snapped playfully. "We're simply enjoying..."

"Our first afternoon together as a couple," Leyre concluded.

"And another thing - that 'finishing each other's sentences' thing has GOT to stop," Johann piped up, "Or I think I'm going to be sick."

"Well, it's not as if we're deliberately doing it!" Leyre entreated. "This is just a recent thing, and besides that..."

"It's probably just a side effect of when we got hypnotized together," Katarin said. Suddenly smacking herself in the forehead, she exclaimed, "D'ohhh! We did it again! We've really got to work on cutting this out, Leyre," she said, "Or I'm going to end up going crazy!"

"Agreed," replied Leyre, giving her a squeeze. In an effort to change the subject off of himself and his new relationship, Leyre called up to the bow, where Wrinn was sitting, "So what's the plan now, boss?"

"Well," replied the knight, "We've only got one Orb left to get back now - the Earth Orb. If it's at all possible, I'd love to find the Earth Altar before Tiamat can raise the final Fiend and grab the Orb first. However, I doubt we'll be that lucky, since A) we don't know where the Earth Altar is, 2) the only vessel we've got left is this canoe, and we can't go very far unless this thing suddenly turns into a magic flying canoe, and D) Crescent Lake isn't exactly a port town, so finding a new ship is going to be problematic at best."

Trying to keep the amusement out of her face, Lyra added, "So to answer your question, Leyre, we're just going to do what we've been doing since the beginning - rely on the wisdom of the Sages and hope for the best."

Some time later, as the deep indigo of twilight settled into the sky, the Eight arrived back in Crescent Lake to a warm (thankfully, not hot) reception. The Sages, particularly Lukahn, gave them a rousing ovation upon hearing of their successful retrieval of the Fire Orb. However, all was not totally as it seemed to Phia. Her shrewd eye didn't miss much, and she noticed that while Lukahn clapped the loudest upon their return, he also seemed to take a great deal of notice in Leyre and Katarin's clasped hands - in fact, he seemed to have been paying more attention to that than to the Fire Orb when Katarin held it aloft. Sarda, as well, had been staring very hard in Katarin's direction, and his gaze had seemed sort of blank. Very interesting, she thought to herself as she made her way with her friends to the Inn for a meal, But what does it all mean? Her attention was suddenly diverted away from that particular issue by the steaming bowls of stew that were placed upon the table (after all, while a healing potion is the best way to heal any injuries or fatigue one may have, it doesn't do much for a grumbling stomach.) After they had finished scarfing down their triumphant meal, the adventurers adjourned from the table and once again went to the sacred clearing to meet with the Circle of Sages.

Since the sky had now taken on the inky blackness of night, they had lit several torches around the edge of the clearing...and as the flickering firelight shone off the torches, played through the gaps between the Sages, and cast strange, eerie, and ever-changing shadows on their solemn faces, it really made the place look mystical. Tonight, the Eight didn't wait to be called into the circle, and simply filed in to the clearing's center as soon as they arrived.

"Great job retrieving the Fire Orb, my friends," Sage Risah began, "but you're not out of the woods yet. The Earth Orb remains to be retrieved, and we are fast running out of time before the Age of Chaos is upon us."

"We understand, Sage," Wrinn replied, "but our twofold problem is that we don't know where the Earth Altar is, and even if we did, we don't have a ship to get us there."

"Well, one of your problems is already solved, Wrinn," Sage Rishi said with a smile. "Since I knew we were all going to end up here at some point, I had the foresight to talk to a crew of eager young Lefeinish sailors before we left for Gaia. They set sail in the Maelstrom on the same day we took off in the Winter's Return, and arrived here while you were in Gurgu Volcano. The Maelstrom is waiting for you at a port east of here that shouldn't be more than a half day's march away."

Brightening considerably, Wrinn exclaimed, "That's fantastic! So all that remains now is that you tell us where the Earth Altar is so that we can get the Orb back!" A strained silence followed Wrinn's words as all of the Sages suddenly became very interested in anything but looking at Wrinn. "You do know where the Earth Altar is, don't you?" The only sound remained the hissing and popping of the torches. Radvich coughed.

"W-w-what?" Wrinn sputtered. "You don't know where the Earth Altar is? Master Lukahn?" Turning his pleading gaze to his teacher, Wrinn continued, "Come on, Master. This is a joke, right?"

"Unfortunately it is not, Wrinn," Lukahn sadly replied. "It has been almost 2000 years since the Orbs were created and laid on their Altars, and the knowledge of their exact locations was lost in the mists of time." Shrugging, he continued, "The only reason we were able to find where the Wind, Water, and Fire Altars were was the fact that the rise of the Fiends made each one's location painfully obvious - you saw the gout of fire from Gurgu Volcano when Kary was born! The same sort of thing happened when Tiamat and Kraken first revolted, too."

"Whoa, whoa, hold on here," Haywa said. "So the solution is to sit around and wait until the Earth Fiend rises up and steals the power from the Orb so that we can then figure out where he is?" After waiting a moment, during which none of the Sages chose to contradict her, she added, "Well, that just sucks."

"And you call yourselves Sages!" Katarin snapped. "Some wisdom you've got!"

"All right, Katarin, calm down," Leyre said soothingly, laying a hand on her shoulder. "All isn't totally lost, you know."

A curious Markus asked, "What exactly do you mean, Leyre?"

Placing his other hand on his hip, the gypsy turned to Markus and said, "Well, I saw a lot of maps made by the ancient Lefeinish while I was poring through Professor Unne's books, and all of them looked pretty much the same, with Coneria more or less in the center." Closing his eyes to better visualize the maps in his mind, he went on, "Now, here's what we know - we know that the Water Altar is in the Sea Shrine, by Onrac in the northwest, right? We also know that the Wind Altar is in the Sky Castle, floating somewhere above Lefein, which is in the northeast. The Fire Altar is in Gurgu Volcano, which is in the southeast - so, by process of elimination, that means the Earth Altar should be somewhere in the southwestern part of the world."

"Good thinking, Leyre!" Phia exclaimed. Furrowing her brow, she then said, "The only major landmarks in the southwest, though, are ElfLand, the Northwest Fortress, the Dwarf Cave, and Melmond."

Thinking furiously, something suddenly clicked at Phia's words, and Johann cried, "That's it! When we first entered the Vampire's cave and I said that I had a vague idea where all the of the monsters had gone, it was because I thought that there was a possibility that they were massing themselves as a Fiend's army! And now that I think about it further," he said, stalking excitedly back and forth, "the Vampire told us that he was 'one with the earth.' How would he have gotten that power, unless the Earth Orb was nearby?"

"By jove, I think he's got it!" exclaimed Rostol. "That means that the Earth Altar has to be somewhere near Melmond. The problem remains, in the world are you going to find it before the Fiends do?"

"I don't see any way we can," Katarin said. "There are a lot of caves in the mountain ranges west of Melmond, and it would take us weeks to search them all - and since Kary stole the power from the Fire Orb a mere two days after Tiamat retreated to the Sky Castle, I don't think we have a couple of weeks."

"Katarin's right," Johann said. Furrowing his brow, he suddenly changed the subject, saying, "Kary's birth was marked with a large-scale volcanic eruption, and I'm guessing the other two Fiends were born in tsunamis and tornadoes, right?"

"That's right," Lukahn replied. "A giant tsunami sank the Sea Shrine when Kraken revolted, and a huge tornado wiped out Lefein's old airship fleet when Tiamat invaded the Sky Castle."

"That being as it may, I think it's safe to guess that the Earth Fiend will be born in some sort of earthquake," Johann said. "I figure our only chance will be to go to Melmond and wait for that earthquake, and then...try to pinpoint its location somehow and find the Earth Altar that way."

"I-If I may s-speak, Masters?" All heads turned as Sarda spoke up. "I believe our elvish friend here is right. Given the current situation, with Wrinn and his friends here and the Orb in this Melmond place, and time as short as it is, I fear that his plan is the only one that will work."

"Do you have a point to this speech, Sarda, besides pointing out that you are perfectly willing to accept the beginning of the Age of Chaos without doing anything to stop it?" Rishi sternly asked.

The color draining from his face, Sarda replied, "Well, y-yes, Master Rishi. You see, most of my studies in Gaia centered around the earth, its composition, and how it behaves, and I believe that if I go with them to Melmond, I could pinpoint the earthquake's origin quite easily."

Rishi, his face growing as scarlet as his robes, angrily spat, "You fool! As a Sage, you must endeavor to think up your own plans, not blindly follow those of others!"

"Oh, leave the boy alone, Rishi," Sage Roland said. Sighing with resignation, he continued, "You've read the prophecies as many times as I have, and you know full well that the Age of Chaos is a part of this planet's destiny, as are the Light Warriors. Don't chastise the poor lad for making the best of a bad situation." Turning towards Lukahn, on the other side of the circle, the elvish Sage continued, "Lukahn, I agree with Sarda and Johann and their plan for retrieving the Earth Orb."

"As do I, my friend." Lukahn turned his attention back to the adventurers and solemnly stated, "Your task remains the same - find the Earth Fiend and take back the Orb from it. I will accompany you part of the way, since I am not needed here at the moment - besides, I must go back to Coneria for now to discuss matters with the King. We will leave in the morning." Nodding, Wrinn motioned to his friends, and they silently began to file out of the clearing towards the Inn, followed closely by Lukahn and Sarda. The remaining Sages stayed standing in the Circle, and a moment later, Sage Rygar spoke up.

"Well, Raham, it looks like you'll be staying here with us as a member of the Circle of Sages. We welcome you."

Bowing, the young man replied, "I thank you, Masters. I will do my best to behave with the wisdom befitting of a Sage."

"Oh, I'm sure you will, my boy," Roland said. "And I must say, I'm very glad that it worked out with you staying with us and Sarda going off to Melmond."

Perplexed, Raham replied, "Why is that, Master Roland?"

"Isn't it obvious, boy?" Sage Rengin said. "Your name begins with R."

The next morning, the eight adventurers, one Sage, and one Sage-in-training set off from the village and began rowing eastward across Crescent Lake, the beautiful sunrise turning both sky and water golden. They had all decided that squashing themselves back into the canoe was a better option than having to carry the heavy vessel all the way around the southern half of the lake. However, there had been a slight incident as they had boarded the canoe which made Leyre almost wish that Wrinn had made him carry the damned thing himself.

It unfolded like this: Wrinn and Markus had positioned the canoe near the water's edge as per usual, and everyone was getting in to their usual spots. Lyra was up front, leaving room for Wrinn once he had boarded, while Haywa sat in the stern, her paddle at the ready. Phia sat in front of her, with Lukahn next, so they could discuss some new techniques that the Sage had been thinking of. Johann sat in front of Lukahn, hoping to pick up some pointers from him as well, which left the space for Katarin, Leyre, and Sarda between Johann and Lyra. Sarda had just seated himself in the canoe in front of Johann, when to his intense surprise, Katarin squished in directly behind Lyra and Leyre started to sit behind her.

"W-what are you doing?" Sarda stammered, looking in disbelief at the gypsy.

"Sitting next to Katarin - what does it look like, pal?" Leyre had spat back, a trace of menace in his voice.

"Leyre!" a shocked Katarin had said. "Don't talk that way to the Sage who's going to find the Earth Altar for us! What on earth is wrong with you?" Peering around Leyre, she said apologetically, "I'm sorry, Sarda. Pay him no mind."

Leyre spent the entire rest of the canoe trip and ensuing march to the port seething with anger, and his mood didn't improve any once they'd boarded the Maelstrom, when a stern Katarin sent him away from a conversation she was having with Sarda about 'what kind of caves there were near Melmond' or some other such nonsense. Fuming, he stalked into his cabin, and stopped short when he saw Haywa leaning against the wall of his room, staring directly at him.

"I certainly don't envy you your position right now, Leyre," she said, with a glint in her black eye.

"I don't know what you're talking about," Leyre sullenly replied. "I'm not exactly in the mood to be beaten up right now, Haywa, so if you could leave me be I'd appreciate it."

"Oh, you know exactly what I'm talking about," she said. "Your newfound woman is getting cozy with some smarmy little Sage-wannabe, and it's driving you crazy." Shifting her weight to her other foot, she added, "I'll admit, when Katarin asked me to smack you around every time you got fresh with her, I didn't mind doing it - you and your hormonally-driven infatuation reminded me precisely of the kind of scum I grew up with. However, you've been good lately, you've done a lot more with your head besides using it as a storage place for your voice box, and I think you truly love Katarin for everything that she is." Turning to stare out of the porthole, she added, "In fact, you remind me a lot of my mother - she hated it every time we visited a port town and Father spent more time with the barmaids there than with her."

"So what did your mother do in those situations?" Leyre asked, wide-eyed.

"Nothing. She thought she had a good thing going with my father - he'd gotten her out of that pit she was working in, after all - and didn't want to jeopardize it. But you, Leyre," and here she turned back to look at him, "soon you won't have anything to jeopardize."

"But what can I do? You saw what happened when I tried to lay down the law to Sarda - she got mad at me, and now she's spending time with him instead of me!"

"Don't react with your emotions, Leyre. Katarin is a good friend of mine, but I wasn't able to get to know her because I let loose with my emotions all the time. She came up to me one day and simply talked to me - she got to me through my head, and she's the only person who's ever done that. And that's exactly what you're going to have to do to her to get back in her good graces, pal. Think with your head instead of reacting with your gut."

"I guess you're right," Leyre mused, "but why are you telling me this? You've barely talked to anybody this whole trip, and here you are giving me love advice? It just doesn't make any sense!"

"I told you, you dolt," she snarled, "Katarin is my good friend, and I saw how happy she was with you when you two were together. If I can do anything to make sure she stays that happy, I'm going to do it." She pushed herself off the wall and began to walk out, but stopped short when she heard Leyre speaking again.

"What about you? When are you going to be happy, Haywa?"

Stiffening, Haywa thought for a moment. Not relaxing a single muscle, she half turned her head back towards Leyre and said, "I'm happy when I fight." That having been said, she stalked out of his room and took a few steps down the hall before pausing again. That was a true statement that she had said, but a sudden thought struck her as she realized why it was true. In her days aboard the Kyzoku ship, she had enjoyed fighting because it was a way to get back at her captors and tormentors. After she'd escaped and found the military camp, she'd enjoyed fighting because it was what she was good at. Nowadays, however, she discovered a new reason as to why she enjoyed conflicts so much.

She liked fighting with a partner.

There was no getting around it. Even though when they'd first met, Johann had greeted her with little else than open hostility and she him with little else than open contempt, over the past days and weeks they had developed a grudging respect for one another and the strengths of their styles. Johann, obviously, admired Haywa for her power and her skill with which she manipulated it...which, now that she thought about it for a moment, was the exact same thing she admired in Johann. Struck by a sudden inspiration, she tore off down the Maelstrom's inner hallway, and moments later was knocking on the door of Johann's chamber, calling "Hey, Johann, I've got a great idea!"

Hours later, as the sun began to grow dim in the western sky, the Maelstrom turned finally deviated from its eastward course, and turned north along the western coast of the outskirts of ElfLand, very close to the mountains where Lyra had grown up. When the Lefeinish lookout spotted the small channel that ran back into the Aldi Sea, Lukahn said his goodbyes and set off with two Lefeinish rowers in one of the Maelstrom's lifeboats, heading for Coneria, where he'd told Wrinn to head for once the Earth Orb was back in their hands. Turning back to the west, the Maelstrom made its way for the second time to the port of Melmond. Sarda and the Eight wasted no time in disembarking once they'd docked - and Sarda wasted no time in trying to provoke Leyre once they were on their way to Melmond.

"So, this is your hometown?" he said, sidling up next to Katarin as they walked, who answered his question with a nod. "Nice place." Turning his head with a shrewd look in his eye to make sure the gypsy was within earshot, he said, "I trust I can count on you to help me set up my equipment for monitoring the earth's movements?" When Katarin gave him another nod and a warm smile, he made a point of putting his hand on her shoulder as he thanked her, then turned and gave Leyre a snide sneer that so infuriated the musician that he was ready to whip out his harp and give the little snot what for when he felt a hand on his own shoulder.

"Just calm down, Leyre," Haywa whispered. "Get back at him by winning Katarin back." Slightly turning back towards her and giving her a nod of his own, he took a few deep breaths and went back to cultivating the plan that had germinated in his head of how to woo Katarin back to him.

The Eight ended up setting up camp in the back rooms of the Mourner's Rest, where they were ensured peace and quiet, and Sarda, Katarin, and to Sarda's dismay, Johann, quickly set up Sarda's seismograph, and afterwards, Johann left to do some 'research,' as he said, while Sarda and Katarin relaxed in the Mourner's Rest with a drink. Leyre, peering through the window at this scene, felt the fury welling within him again, but he took a few deep breaths and redirected his attention to making sure his harp was in tune, then opened the door and entered the tavern.

"Hey there, you two crazy kids," he said as he pulled a chair up to their table and turned it around before sitting on it, propping his arms along its back. "Equipment all set up?"

"Why yes, it is, Leyre," Sarda replied icily. "We were trying to have a conversation about how it's used, and how we will interpret the results after the earthquake, if you don't mind. Why don't you join Wrinn and Lyra in warning the townspeople about the coming disaster?"

"Oh, I think they're doing a fine job by themselves," Leyre calmly replied. "Katarin, could I talk to you alone for a few minutes, please?"

With venom in his gaze, the young Sage spat back, "I think Katarin is having a perfectly nice time right here, Leyre, and would appreciate it if you made like a decrescendo and faded away."

"And I think that Katarin can think for herself, and would like to hear what Leyre has to say." Standing up in a huff, the mental wizard nearly knocked her chair over as she flounced out of the tavern, leaving a positively shocked Sarda sitting by himself as Leyre hurried to follow her out...and then kept hurrying to keep up with her as Katarin neither stopped nor looked back until they were well outside the city, in a small cove of trees.

"All right, you listen to me," Katarin suddenly turned around and snapped, "Before you say anything at all, I just want to let you know that I'm disgusted with both you and Sarda right now, and you'd better have a damn good explanation for your behavior."

Leyre, for his part, did not say a single word - he simply readied his harp and began to play. This was a song that Katarin had never heard before, and she was quite taken aback by its complexity, technical superiority, and most of all, the feeling with which Leyre was playing it. The song was so beautiful that Katarin soon felt her consciousness slipping away and her body slowly sliding towards the ground...and before she knew it, her mental self had escaped her body and was floating on the vibrations flowing from Leyre's harp. Even more curious than the fact that she had separated her mind from her body by no act of her own, the way that she was hearing this song with her mental self was different than it had ever been before. As she floated there, the notes and harmonies seemingly turned into words, and all of Leyre's insecurities, fears, hopes, dreams, and love were coming to her, riding the continuous wave of sound. This was communication as she had never even dreamed it before - and a few moments later when she heard the song ending, she quickly slipped back into her body and saw an expectant Leyre waiting for her awakening.

"Katarin, I hope that I've just been able to explain myself to you," he softly said, staring into her eyes. Suddenly looking away and casting his gaze at the ground, he continued, "It's just that I've loved you ever since I met you, but at first I loved you in the wrong way, which made you push me away, and then I pushed myself away because I was scared of loving you the wrong way again, but then I started to love you the right way, but then that Sage who's probably a lot smarter than me started to like you and I got really scared of you liking him too so I overreacted,"

"And then you figured that music that spoke directly into my mind was the best way to tell me exactly how you felt," she finished. Smiling, she put her arms around his neck and gave him a deep, passionate kiss. "Well, guess what - you were right." Reeling from the kiss, Leyre gave her a dazed smile and began to speak again, but was cut off by a sudden rumbling. It began as a soft grumble off in the distance, but soon it grew in scope and volume, becoming a deafening roar that shut out all other sound.

Snapping out of their reverie in alarm, Leyre and Katarin quickly grabbed each other's hands and started running as the rumbling was soon accompanied by a vibration of the ground itself. The trees in the grove where they had been standing were uprooted and toppled in seconds, and the two of them lost their footing as the earth raged around them. Holding tight onto one another, they rode out the earthquake, and as the tremors began to subside, they got up again and stiffly resumed their mad dash back to Melmond.

"Oh no, stay out of there, you two. Sarda's checking out the results right now, and I don't want anything distracting him." Haywa had blocked the door to the Mourner's Rest when Leyre and Katarin returned, and the two of them obediently stepped aside. "Go back to the Inn and rest up - as soon as I know what our next move is, you'll know." Nodding, the two of them headed back to the Inn to share a heal potion and a bed as Haywa, grinning at seeing them together again, went back inside the tavern to see how their Sage was doing.

Entering the back room and taking one look at his face, she knew that he wasn't doing so hot. His expression was one of concentration, dismay, and anger all rolled into one...Haywa couldn't tell if he was trying to figure out where the Earth Fiend had been born, sad at his apparent loss of Katarin, and furious with Leyre - or, just having a bad day with his gastrointestinal system. A few minutes later, she had decided that it was mostly the former, as he sat back from the charts his seismograph had produced and stated, "I can't be too precise from these data, but I can reasonably guess that the Earth Fiend was born southwest of here - but more south than west, if you know what I mean."

"We, and the entire world, thank you for your services, Sarda," Wrinn said, placing a hand on his shoulder. "Without your help, we would be in deep trouble."

"Good point," Sarda grumbled. "If I hadn't told you where to go, you'd have to search around aimlessly before going into a Fiend's lair - now, you can just go straight there. Please excuse me." With that, Sarda pushed his chair back and got up to leave, looking so miserable that Haywa now suspected that the combined pressure of the former option had now turned itself into the latter.

"What's with him?" Wrinn asked, perplexity creeping into his face. Haywa shrugged in response, and the knight, still a bit confused, said, "Well, let's round everybody up - we've got an Orb to retrieve!"

Later that night, they stood in a thin valley, sandwiched between two mountain ranges, looking up at a large hole in the mountainside that could only be the entrance to the Earth Cave.

"Well, here we are...more south of Melmond than west, and this is certainly the only cave big enough around here to hold a Fiend," Katarin said, surveying the area.

"Well, if this is it, everyone, I say we waste no more time," Phia said. Letting a grimace settle over her face, and with a gleam in her eye, she added, "And if this is where those monsters in the Vampire's cave ended up as well, I say we kill a whole bunch of 'em while we're in here - there's a whole bunch of innocent lives that I need to extract some payback for." Turning to face her friends, the Red Mage slowly drew her sword, letting the moonlight shine on her blade, and growled, "Don't hold anything back." Nodding, the rest of the Eight readied their own weapons, and at a signal from Wrinn, entered the cave.

Once inside, they were unstoppable.

Phia's fury, combined with the urgency they all felt at being so close to their goal, had raised their fighting to a fever pitch, and since the creatures of the Earth Cave were best defeated with pure, unadulterated power, that turned out to be a bad thing for the beings under the service of the Earth Fiend. Wrinn's broadsword...Markus' spear...Lyra's broadsword...Phia's rapier...Leyre's harp...Haywa's fists...Johann's daggers...and even Katarin's staff each did their share of lethal damage to the legions of beasts that accosted them. They wielded their weapons without restraint and without mercy, and their fighting spirit was so strong that when any one of them was knocked flying by an attack from an enemy, they got up without hesitation and went straight back to the attack. And all of these was taken into careful consideration by their unseen observer...

The Vampire, hiding in the shadows, was keeping a keen eye on them, and when he thought he had seen enough, he descended into the deepest levels of the cave, into the sanctum of Lich, the Fiend of Earth. "Master," he hissed, "those foolish humans are in the cave now and are on their way here. They fight with a fury that I've never seen before, in man or beast!"

"Hmmmm..." hissed Lich, bringing a bony hand to its jawbone (for Lich was composed mainly of poison gas, with a skeleton's torso, head, and arms being its only solid body parts.) "If they are as strong as you say, then killing them might not be possible in my present condition - I haven't drained enough power from the Orb yet. Damned Garland." Thinking on the subject some more, Lich was silent for a moment, then spoke again. "We'll have to prevent them from getting anywhere near the Orb. Go to the third level and drop the plate."

"But Master Lich! How will you carry out your invasion if you can't get out of the cave?"

"Fool!" thundered Lich. "I will be able to leave this cave and invade this miserable world because I know that if I still have the Orb when I am sealed up in here, the humans will stop at nothing to break the plate and destroy me. But, if I still have the Orb when I am sealed up in here, I will be able to grow stronger while they waste time trying to break the plate, and when they do finally break through, I shall have no problem killing them then."

"A brilliant plan, Master!" the Vampire cried. "I shall go at once to place the plate!" And with that, the undead creature was off and running, leaving the Fiend to hope that his plan would work and cursing the greediness of the Chaos Knight.

Meanwhile, the Eight had arrived at the staircase to the third level already, and were there waiting when the Vampire showed up. "You again!" he cried, sensing that he was in deep trouble.

"You again!" Katarin yelled back. "I thought I killed you, you demon!"

"Ha! No one can defeat me, the Vampire!" he replied, baring his fangs and spreading his cape.

"How about we test that theory out?" Wrinn said, leveling his sword and pointing it at the Vampire.

"Oh, I'd love to, really, but I'm not here to fight," the Vampire replied.

"You're not, eh? Well, what are you here to do?" Katarin called, a shrewd curiosity gleaming in her eye.

"I-I-I'm afraid I can't tell you!"

Handing her staff to Markus and stepping in front of Leyre, she replied, "We'll see about that!" Suddenly, her body slumped into a surprised Leyre, who still managed to catch her and hold her up, as the Vampire warily looked around the cavern, as if trying to ward off the attack he knew was coming.

"Oh, no you don't!" he screamed, fear creeping into his voice. "You're not going to mess with my mind agaiiiiiinnnnnflarfigiwabbiwabbiwabbiwoooooooooo!" To the Eight's astonished eyes, the Vampire's face contorted, with his eyes blinking madly and his facial muscles twitching at a speed that none of them thought was possible by any creature, man or beast. With awkward, jerky movements continuing to control his face, the Vampire managed to stammer in a strangled voice, "Get...yourself...out...of my!" Suddenly, the Vampire's entire demeanor changed, as if he had switched to a different personality - and with a new edge to his voice, he said, "So I'm...a bitch...for messing with...your...head, am I? Well, let's see how you like THIS! NOOOOOOO!" The Vampire now began to hop around the room, waving his arms frantically as if he was trying to fly, leaving a positively stunned group of adventurers watching in fascination.

Switching back and forth from the hopping and flapping to a sort of shuffling sideways dance to flat-out running into the wall headfirst, the Vampire made some of the strangest physical movements any of them had ever seen, before throwing himself on the ground and rolling and flopping himself over to where the Eight stood. As he got closer, they readied their weapons in anticipation of an attack, and seeing this, he stopped about ten feet away from them and popped back up on his feet, giving them a stiff wave and saying, "Hi, everyone!"

"Katarin?" Haywa tentatively asked. "Is that you in there?"

"Sure is!" replied the Vampire, giving her a fangy grin. "Can you believe this? I've got complete control of his mind and body!"

"Did you find out what he was here to do?" Wrinn asked, getting back to the task at hand.

"Hmmm, lemme look...oh my goodness! He was up here so that he could seal off the lower levels of the cave with a magical plate of the strongest rock in the entire world! He was hoping to slow us down so that the Earth Fiend would have more time to drain power from the Orb! Boy," Katarin/Vampire continued, "we sure would have been screwed if that had happened."

"Katarin, this plate you speak of," Leyre said shrewdly, "Can the Earth Fiend even break it?"

"Nope," replied the Vampire. "Lich was hoping to seal himself in there so that we couldn't get in and he couldn't get out."

"And how long do you think you'll be able to stay in his body?" Leyre asked.

"As long as I want, I think. The Vampire really isn't very strong-minded, so he's going to have a lot of trouble kicking me out." Letting a positively evil grin settle over his face, the Vampire continued, "I think I see what you're driving at - and I like it!"

"Um, would you two mind filling the rest of us in on your little plan?" Wrinn interjected.

"It's really very simple, Wrinn," Leyre replied. "Since we can't seem to kill this bastard, Katarin needs to occupy his body while we go and get the Earth Orb from the weakened Fiend. When we get back, she seals the cave with the plate, thereby giving the Lich what he wanted - sealing him up in the cave - but ensuring that he can't get any stronger the whole time he's in there, until the Light Warriors break the plate and go in to destroy him!"

"Not only is this a great plan, but it's the perfect revenge for me to get against this foul monster," the Vampire added. "I get to make him seal the Earth Fiend's doom - this is almost too perfect!" Suddenly, his face contorted again as the Vampire himself seemed to regain momentary control of his body, but Katarin was able to quickly subdue him again. Wrinn noticed this, though, and a look of concern came over his face as he spoke.

"Katarin, you may be confident that you can keep control of him, but I'm not willing to sacrifice you if he does manage to escape. Leyre, Phia, and Markus," he said, turning to the three of them, "I want you to stay with Katarin's body and protect her if the Vampire does regain control. Lyra, Johann, and Haywa, you're coming with me." Sheathing his sword and walking sedately towards the entrance to the depths of the Earth Cave, he grimly growled, "I want that Orb." Nodding, the two elves and the martial artist followed, while Phia, Markus, and Leyre watched in amusement as Katarin made the Vampire dance around some more.

The deeper recesses of the Earth Cave held some tougher monsters, and Wrinn certainly wished that all of his friends had been with him...but repeatedly came to the conclusion that ensuring the safety of every one of the Eight was preferable to saving a few heal potions. Besides, the four of them were doing just fine, Johann's magic doing a fine job backing up the hand-to-hand combat skills of the other three. After another half hour of fighting their way deeper and deeper into the cave, they reached a place where they could go no further.

It was a cavern much like the one where they had found the sleeping Kary, with a couple subtle differences. One, it was absolutely pitch dark in here, as there was no glow of a flaming Fiend illuminating the place. Two, this cavern was much larger, as the echoes from their footsteps took a long time to return to them. Three, they couldn't see the Fiend anywhere.

"The Earth Fiend is down here, right?" a perplexed Lyra whispered. "Do you think Sarda made a mistake?"

"Doubtful," Johann whispered back. "I set up his equipment with him, and when he was explaining everything to Katarin, it all made sense. More likely is that Lich is trying to hide in here, since he knows he's not strong enough to protect the Orb yet." Pausing for a moment to think, he then said, "Here - let me try something." Cupping his right hand, he summoned a small fireball inside it, which he held for a moment before throwing it off into the cavern. The flaming projectile illuminated the cave dust in the air as it flew, then shone on an empty patch of ground as it landed somewhere in the middle of the floor.

"Flares, huh?" Haywa said, standing up and brushing her hands off on her pants legs. "Gimme a couple of those - I can probably throw 'em farther." Nodding, Johann quickly conjured up several more of the magical flares, which Haywa flung in all directions of the cavern, illuminating nothing more than cave dust and empty space - until she heaved one as far as she could directly in front of them. In the small circle of light that lingered in the wake of its landing, Johann's sharp eyes made out a small, gray sphere sitting on the floor.

"It's the Orb!" he exclaimed, pointing at the location. "It's just sitting there on the floor!"

"Then it's a trap," Wrinn solemnly said. "As Phia taught us, never trust a Fiend when it offers you an Orb." Turning to Lyra, he said, "I want you to follow a few steps behind me. Haywa, you and Johann stay here." Eyes constantly scanning around him, looking for the attack he knew was coming, Wrinn slowly moved out into the cavern, Lyra behind him.

The two of them hadn't gone six steps when Wrinn heard a whoosh above them, and looked up to see a huge boulder dropping out of the roof of the cavern, coming straight at him. It was dropping with such speed that Wrinn didn't think he'd have time to dodge it, when a sudden impact at his back sent him sprawling forward - Lyra had charged the split second she'd seen the boulder and knocked the two of them out of its way. Another split second later, the boulder hit the ground with a deafening crash, and Lyra wasted no time dragging Wrinn to his feet and pulling him back to where Haywa and Johann waited, which was a good thing, as another boulder crashed to the ground where they'd landed mere seconds after she'd gotten them safely back.

"So that's his plan," a panting Lyra managed to say. "He's just going to hide in the shadows somewhere and leave the Orb sitting out in open, and crush our skulls with rocks when we try to grab it."

"Not a very good plan, if you ask me," Haywa growled, getting to her feet. "Johann, I think now would be a perfect time to try out that new spell we discussed earlier."

"Oh, I wholeheartedly agree," the elvish wizard replied, and he quickly pulled a magic potion out of his pack and began to chug it down.

"New spell? What new spell?" Lyra asked.

"Oh, just a little something Johann and I figured out. You know that dissolving spell of his?" Lyra nodded as Haywa cracked her knuckles. "Well, I figured that it worked pretty well when he dissolved something and then I hit it - but then I decided that it would be even better if we could work it out so that something would dissolve as I hit it."


"Just watch," Haywa said with a grim smile. "Ready, Johann?" A nod from the elf, and Johann began his casting motion, pointing his arms out from his sides - but there was a difference this time. Usually, Johann would spread his fingers as wide as they could possibly go - this time, he kept his fists clenched. After a moment of murmured chanting, Wrinn and Lyra could just barely make out a small layer of glimmering air surrounding Haywa's fists and over the tops of her boots, and with her customary gleam in her eye, she stepped out into the cavern.

Almost immediately, she saw the first boulder fall, heading for her skull, but she did not try to run out of its way. To the contrary, she stood exactly where she was, keeping a sharp eye on its descent - and when it looked like there was no way for her to escape, she leaped straight up with fist extended...

And drove through the solid rock like a knife through butter. The strength of her leaping punch, combined with the small field of dissolving magic localized around her fists, quickly destroyed the structural integrity of the stone, and it fell into hundreds of fragments around her as she landed back on the ground. She turned back to where Johann was and gave him a thumbs up, but quickly clenched it into a fist again and drove it upward as another boulder fell, pulverizing it as well. Grinning, she moved forward again, watching the air above her and making the appropriate move to destroy whatever chunks of rock Lich chose to send at her. Rising punches, roundhouse kicks, backflips, handstands - every move that she could think of using to bring one of her hands or feet to bear on a boulder, she used, mixing it up for the simple enjoyment of it. After slowly making her way across the cavern floor, she had reached the spot where the Orb lay on the ground, and she quickly grabbed it, let out a screeching war cry, and began to dash back across the cavern again, slapping boulders aside like they were no more than flies.

Skidding to a stop next to her friends as Johann finally relaxed his body and let the spell's effect fade away, she stood there panting heavily for a moment. Staring at the countless piles of broken boulders that now littered the floor of the cavern, she managed to spit out, "That was...the most fun...I've ever had!"

"I'm glad you enjoyed it, Haywa. Thank you very much," a new voice said, and to her surprise, Haywa looked at the Orb in her hand to see that it was softly glowing green.

"The remnant of the Earth Elemental, right?" she said.

"How did you know?"

"What else is going to be speaking to me out of nowhere and making the Earth Orb glow?"

"Highly astute of you, Haywa, as was figuring out the technique that allowed you to retrieve me. You and Johann certainly make a good team."

"Yep," the martial artist replied, "That we do." Tossing the Earth Orb up in the air, she caught it with relish and put it in her pack, saying to her companions, "Come on, let's get out of here. I don't want to bother Lich with unwanted visitors any longer - I think we should just leave, and lock the door behind us on the way out."

The next morning, the Eight were all sitting around a table in the Mourner's Rest, happily having a large breakfast to celebrate their victory of the night before. Upon returning to the third level of the Earth Cave, Haywa, Johann, Wrinn, and Lyra had discovered Katarin leading the Vampire through some interesting dance routines, as Leyre, Markus and Phia clapped and enjoyed the show. Upon their return, Katarin had found the magical plate which was to seal Lich into the Earth Cave and secured it over the passage to the lower levels, at which point she'd run the Vampire's head into the wall so hard that she knocked him out. After happily reentering her own body, they had left the Earth Cave for good, and soon arrived back in Melmond, with all four Orbs finally in their possession.

After finishing their meal, most of the group went back to the Inn to grab their things and prepare for the final journey back to Coneria, but Katarin entered the back room of the Mourner's Rest to do the unpleasant task of talking to Sarda, which she had assigned herself to do. When she arrived, the young man was sitting forlornly in his chamber, packing up his seismograph and looking positively ill. Tentatively, Katarin poked her head into his room and stammered, "Um...Sarda?"

Turning around and recognizing who it was, Sarda gruffly replied, "What do you want?"

"I - I mean we - have a favor to ask of you," she said.

"What kind of a favor?"

"When we left the Earth Cave, we decided to seal the Fiend of Earth into the lower levels of the cave with a magical plate that he had there, made out of the strongest rock in the world and protected by a powerful spell. Lich had intended to seal himself in and grow stronger while we tried to figure out a way to break the plate, but when we stole the Orb, we used the plate to seal him away from the world so that he could not invade this land. However," she said, moving a little further into the room, "Someday that plate will need to be broken to allow the Light Warriors to reach Lich and destroy him...and I believe that you are the only one who will be able to figure out how to destroy the plate."

"Fine. Whatever. Just go."

"Sarda, listen," she said, sitting next to him, "I don't want you to hate me, or Leyre, or anyone else in our party. I must apologize for the way I treated you."

At these words, Sarda seemed to perk up, and he tentatively asked, "You're...sorry? For what?"

"Oh, for leading you on, and for using you a little bit to get back at Leyre for his rudeness to you."

Sighing, Sarda replied, "I guess I owe you an apology as well."

Katarin's concerned look turned to surprise as it was her turn to exclaim, "For what?"

"For coming on to you even though it seemed like you and Leyre were together. You were just so beautiful...and I never got much exposure to women, since I was studying so much to be a Sage."

"Hey, it's an honest mistake...anyone could have made it," Katarin said, laughing. "Seriously, though, will you try to study the plate and figure out a way to destroy it?"

"Of course," Sarda replied. "I'll even build my own lab and work around the clock if I have to."

"Okay, but don't alienate yourself too much - you don't want to lose your chance at a great girl who's not already taken!"

"Oh, I wouldn't worry about that," Sarda replied. "I think I need to concentrate on my studies and my research of the plate - I think I'm going to swear off women and just live by myself for a nice, long while."

With Sarda's animosity forgotten and the issue of the Earth Fiend's prison taken care of, all of their matters in Melmond had been finished. Without any further ado, the Eight boarded the Maelstrom one last time, and with all four Orbs in tow, set off for the place where the whole adventure began.

30. A Journey Ends, and a Future Begins

It was, thankfully, an uneventful trip back to Coneria. Not only was the trip short, but the creatures of the sea left them entirely alone - it seemed as if the temporary victory by the forces of evil, causing the world to enter the Age of Chaos, had been tempered by Wrinn and company's success at retrieving the Orbs.

At any rate, with one thing and another, the Maelstrom passed once again through the channel and entered the Aldi Sea - and before Wrinn knew it, he caught a glimpse of the towers and parapets of Coneria Castle at the edge of the horizon. He slowly walked to the bow of the Maelstrom and peered out over the rails, over the final expanse of deep blue ocean to the lush land of his birth, taking in the spectacle that was his home. As he watched the beautiful castle grow ever closer, thoughts churned in his head as he pondered over his adventures.

For it was what, a few weeks? Gazing at his scarlet Guardsman's armor, he wondered - just how long had it been since he and Gary had set out on the path to Pravoka, exclaiming about their new spells and drinking in the pride of their armbands? The battles they'd had with the forest creatures and Bikke's pirates had seemed like monumental encounters at the time, but the fight with Astos and the Dark Elves had made those fights seem like practice. Even more incredible was the fact that not long after that, they had gone after - and defeated or escaped alive from - all four Fiends! Countless monsters he'd slain, Hours of intense fighting he'd managed to survive - his sword had been out of its sheath so much it felt like an extension of his body at this point. After all he'd been through, it had seemed like his journey had lasted forever - and he had spent much of it without Gary, and was now coming home, safe and sound, without him as well.

The thought depressed him immensely, and he pondered...what kind of bleak life he would have to suffer through now that the Quest was over? Fortunately, the answer to his question soon joined him at the bow of the ship, took his hand in hers, and gave him a warm smile. Wrinn smiled back, remembering that no matter what hardships and difficulty he'd endured since his journey's inception, and whatever he would have to live with from now on, he would do it with Lyra, the woman he loved - and he rejoiced in the fact that even a trip into the lair of Chaos itself would be a lark if they were together.

The Maelstrom soon had reached the harbor at the southern edge of Coneria's borders, and the Lefeinish were soon hard at work warping the great ship to the dock. (It is worth wondering, at this point, what would have been going through Wrinn's head during the approach to Coneria had he known that this visit would not just be a homecoming for himself.)

Upon their entrance to the Dream City, the Eight were met with cheers and well-wishes wherever they went, which quickly drew the attention of Lukahn. Rushing out of his hut with a broad smile on his face, he informed the Eight that the King wanted to see all of them as soon as possible, and Wrinn replied that they certainly did not want to keep His Majesty waiting. Waving to the crowds that still cheered them tirelessly, Lukahn and the Eight quickly made their way to the Castle, where the Guardsmen greeted them warmly and escorted them to the throne room. As they walked in, Wrinn and Lukahn merely took in the familiar sight, while the other seven adventurers gasped at the majesty of the room.

Banners and tapestries of royal purple and Conerian red adorned the spotless white stone walls, while the floor was inlaid with shiny black basalt. Four golden gryphons flanked the majestic throne of the King, who beamed at them all as they entered.

Once all eight of them had knelt appropriately and stood at attention in a line in front of him, the King began to speak. "Wrinn Taylor, Honor Guardsman...I thank you. The Guardsmen thank you, the nation of Coneria thanks you, the entire world thanks you! While it is true that our world has just entered the Age of Chaos, if it weren't for your enduring courage that day that you and our dear departed Gary Blackstone began your journey, we would still be in the Age of Chaos, but in much worse shape." Smiling broadly, the King continued, "I must thank each of your friends as well - Gods know that they did not have to take up the mantle of the Quest, and yet they still did..." As the King continued with his speech, which was predictable, pedantic, boring, and important only because it came from the King, Johann began to feel restless. His attention began to wander, and while he took in the splendor of the throne room some more, a sudden sensation made him start.

Just as it was in the forest near Crescent Lake, he felt that same strange feeling of something being subtly different. That, in itself, was odd, but was even more odd was the fact that he hadn't felt that way when they'd entered the throne room. He looked to his right, where Phia was, and the second he caught her eye he was sure that he wasn't alone in noticing the strange feeling. But what was it Rishi had said about it?

"In the future, if you get such a feeling as Phia, Johann, and Leyre are experiencing now, know that it is because of a powerful magic in the area." But this is Coneria, Johann thought. Sure, they're a powerful nation, but there's nothing very magical about this place. And why would a powerful magic suddenly appear here? Even as he pondered that thought, the answer was quickly coming to him, and the sudden screams coming from the hallway outside the throne room served to reinforce his suspicions...

Which were confirmed a moment later, as the throne room doors burst open, revealing a man standing there whom Johann had never seen before - but was sure could be none other than Garland, the Chaos Knight.

"Greetings, your Majesty!" he called, his voice a hideous demon's growl. "I humbly apologize for interrupting your little meeting here, but there is something I want in this room and I wish to obtain it!"

"If you're talking about the Orbs, you twisted bastard, you're going to have to pry them from our dead hands!" Wrinn shouted, brandishing his sword.

Chuckling evilly, Garland replied, "Wrinn, Wrinn, dear fool. You really don't know anything, do you?" With that, Garland's black eyes flashed and a dark cloud suddenly appeared above his head - and before anyone could move, three flaming chunks of rock suddenly shot out of it, flying with frightening speed towards the Eight. The King screamed with fright and ducked behind the throne as Wrinn stepped in the way of the first one and chopped it in half with a mighty swing. Markus skewered the second one on the end of his spear, and a flying kick by Haywa pulverized the third. "Well done you!" Garland cackled. "You're going to make this ever so much fun in your pathetic attempts to stay alive."

"What makes you so sure that you'll kill us?" Lyra spat back at him. "Are you forgetting that we already defeated you once?"

"What you defeated was just a shadow of what I am now!" Garland replied, his purple cape staring to fly out behind him as his evil cloud blew a cold wind through the throne room, chilling everyone to the bone and tearing the banners from the walls. "All I had when you fought me were the incomplete powers of Water and Wind. Now, I have the essence of all four Elements churning within me at once, and you are no match for my unlimited power!" To accentuate his point, Garland spread his arms wide, and the dark cloud unleashed a torrent of what could only be described as liquid lightning - a solid layer of crackling energy that inexorably flowed across the floor, nearly drowning the Eight in pain as it passed over them. "Only now, at the end, do you truly understand what you got yourselves into when you went up against Chaos!" Garland gleefully called, as the wind currents in the room turned to stone, battering the adventurers mercilessly as they flowed around them.

"Mwa ha ha ha ha!" the Chaos Knight laughed as he watched the Eight struggle to their feet. "I could kill all eight of you in a heartbeat! I could murder all twelve Sages, one by one, barely even lifting a finger! I am the Chaos Knight, and I will destroy this pathetic world without a second thought! Prepare yourselves for your last moments alive, worms!"

"I-I don't think so, Garland," Wrinn said, taking a heal potion out of his pack. "You may have gotten the first move, but now it's our turn - and you're neglecting to consider something that you really should have thought about before. We were both incomplete the last time we fought - you didn't have the full complement of your powers, and I didn't have all my companions with me. Now we're both even." A harumph from behind him made him turn, and he smiled as he realized that he had an eighth ally in the form of the most powerful Sage in the world. "Maybe a little more than even. The fact remains, though, that because I do have all my friends with me, and we are the greatest team in the world, I'm not scared of anything you could possibly throw at us." Tilting his head and bringing the potion to his lips, he drank, chugging the potion in one go. Finishing the potion, he grinned, tossed the bottle over his shoulder, and said, "Bring it on."

"If you insist!" With frightening speed, Garland suddenly rushed at him with blade held high, and Wrinn just barely managed to bring his sword out of his sheath in time to parry the swing. With determination that shone in his eyes as brightly as the evil did in Garland's, he moved to the attack himself. The rest of the Eight quickly followed him in while Lukahn began to charge up a spell of his own, and the final battle was on.

About twenty minutes later, it was clear that a long, losing battle was in the works. Garland's new chaotic attacks were strange new powers the likes of which no one had ever seen before, and the Eight were managing to stand up to them and fight through the pain, while repeatedly pummeling the Chaos Knight with everything they had. However, Garland didn't look to be tiring, or even seriously injured, and Wrinn knew that something drastic had to be done - especially after a swirling tornado of flame had twisted around him, singeing every exposed hair on his body and sending him spinning to the ground.

In intense pain, only kneeling because he was leaning on his sword, his vision hazy, Wrinn knew that he only had one desperate chance to save everyone. There was only a very limited chance that it would work, and even if it did and they made it out of this situation alive, he would have ended up breaking the most important promise to himself that he had ever made. But, he thought to himself as he got to his feet, Pride be damned when it means saving the lives of your loved ones.

"Gary!" he cried, causing everybody in the room to stare at him in shock. "Are you still in there? Can you hear me?"

"That name no longer has any meaning for me, Wrinn!" Garland shouted back. "The soul of Gary Blackstone was sucked out of this body and spat into nothingness - and you are a fool if you think that appealing to him will stop me from killing you!"

"And you're a fool if you think that he no longer has any power over you! Don't you remember how I got THIS?" Wrinn yelled, pulling out the Wind Orb - which to his surprise, was glowing yellow again. Even more surprising than the Orb's sudden activity was Garland's reaction to the sight of it - he screamed in pain and took a step back, covering his face with his hands. Quickly catching on, Katarin pulled the Fire Orb out of her pack and held it aloft, which elicited another shriek from the Chaos Knight as his magical cloud began to shrink. Following suit, Haywa produced the Earth Orb and he screamed again, and when Phia exposed the Water Orb to his sight, he shook with a violent spasm as he fell to his knees, which caused his helmet to fall off.

"Damn you, Wrinn..." Garland growled, on his hands and knees, with Gary's face twisted in pain. "Damn you, and damn your friends, and damn your kingdom, and damn this world!" Straining to get to his feet and staggering over to where his helmet had landed, he continued, "You haven't saved this wretched planet, you know. As long as the Orbs remain dark, the Fiends will continue to flourish...and as long as they are alive, even if I am defeated, my rule over this planet is eternal and its doom inevitable!" Placing his helmet back on his head, he sheathed his sword and cried, "I WILL HAVE MY REVENGE!" before turning and dashing out of the throne room with his cape flowing behind him, leaving a bitter wind which flittered around the room and softly tousled Wrinn's hair before silently dying out.

A little while later, sufficiently bandaged and potioned, they all gathered in a somber Lukahn's hut, badly unnerved by their confrontation with the Chaos Knight. Phia in particular was inconsolable, once again blaming herself for Gary's death and thereby, Garland's creation. Lukahn had also been crushed by the news, and he sat with a blank stare as Wrinn attempted to explain himself.

"I'm sorry, Master Lukahn, and I'm sorry, Phia," Wrinn pleaded, pain filling his eyes. "I had meant never to tell anyone and to just keep the horrible truth to myself, but I couldn't see any way of surviving the fight with Garland without appealing to Gary to see if there was anything he could do to help us."

"Oh, I don't blame you for doing what you did, Wrinn," Phia replied, turning her bloodshot eyes to him, holding Markus' hand on her shoulder. "After all, it did end up saving us, since it got you to pull the Orb out."

"Yeah," Wrinn replied, taking the now-dark Orb out of his pack and staring at it pensively, "I just wish I knew why showing him the Orbs hurt him so much. I mean, isn't that where his powers came from?"

"Not quite, my student." Wrinn looked up in surprise as Lukahn spoke for the first time since the battle in the throne room. "Garland's powers were taken from the Orbs when the Fiends had control of them, meaning that all of his previous exposure to the Elementals was when they were tainted with evil. Once all of you had regained possession of them, their evil essence was lifted, and Chaos' greatest weakness is the pure, separate powers of the Elements that the Orbs represent."

"So does that mean that if we prepare more and don't get caught off guard, we'll be able to destroy Garland if we bring the Orbs with us?" Lyra asked expectantly.

"I'm afraid not, my dear," Lukahn answered. "As you saw, Garland is extremely powerful right now, and no one on this planet would stand a chance against him. However, since he is only human, his powers will wane with time, and one day he will be able to be defeated."

"How long will it take?" said Haywa, hitting her palm and fist together. "I don't care if I'm so old that my bones will crack when I hit him - I'll still take him on!"

"Unfortunately, Haywa, I doubt you will be alive by the time that Garland returns to the realm of human mortality. Even a Sage like myself might not live to see that day."

"Isn't there anything we can do?" Katarin piped up.

"Oh, of course there is, Katarin. In fact, there is more for you to do than you had ever dreamed." With a twinkle in his eye, he said, "You see, I plan to spend the rest of my days waiting for the Light Warriors, four brave young people who will have received the Orbs - and their fighting spirits - from their ancestors, as they are handed down over the generations." As dawning realization appeared on each of the Eight's faces, Lukahn chuckled and turned to face them. "Yes, my young friends...the true nature of your Quest was not to simply warn the Sages, or retrieve the Orbs such that they could be placed in some locked treasure chest - you had a greater purpose." The jaws of the Eight dropped further and further as the great Sage continued, "As the ancient prophecies foretold, when the Age of Chaos was at hand, the Orbs would be taken back from the Fiends by the eight strongest, most skilled, and most valiant adventurers in the world. These fighters would then begin the bloodlines of the four Light Warriors, allowing the generations to follow to nurture their spirits and refine their skills to a point where the Fiends - and, Chaos itself - will have no chance of withstanding them."

Opening his arms wide and smiling broadly, Lukahn concluded, "So go, my young friends. Go out into the world and let the love that has blossomed between you grow." (At these words, Wrinn and Lyra put an arm around each other and smiled, Phia gently wrapped herself around Markus' dragon arm as he kissed the top of her head, Leyre and Katarin snuggled close to one another, and Johann and Haywa looked at each other, shrugged, and said, "Why not?") "Teach your children well, and instill in them the values that they can pass on to their children, and their children's children, and so that one day, far in the future, four brave young men or women will be able to take upon themselves the challenge of saving this world."

Epilogue. 200 Years Later

Sunlight streamed through his window, a tight beam slowly marching its way up his pillow. And as it did every morning, the light eventually reached his face, making him squint and wake with a start.

"Come on, sleepyhead, get up! Don't make me come up there!" his mother called. Knowing a legitimate threat when he heard one, he slowly climbed out of bed. He ran a hand through his bright red hair, which no one else in the family had, but it was no use. No matter how often he smoothed it out it still always turned into the same puffy mess. Giving up on his hair for now, he pulled on the red tunic he always wore in the hopes of becoming a Coneria Honor Guardsman, and the gangly and muscular fifteen-year-old then picked up his backpack, slid his wooden sword into his belt - and with a sudden compulsion, grabbed his family's Orb from off of the mantle in the bedroom that he shared with his younger siblings on his way out.

Stuffing it in his pack as he clumped down the stairs, he stopped in the kitchen to grab an apple and gave his mother a kiss before crunching into it. Kicking the door open, he exited his house, turning left as he always did to go to his clearing. Tromping through the woods, munching contentedly on his apple, the young man wondered to himself why this day felt so much different from any other day. Dismissing the strange feeling, he tossed the apple core over his shoulder as he entered the clearing.

Drawing his sword, he walked across the grassy expanse to where the graves were, and knelt with respect as always. No one had been able to tell him exactly whose they were, and all his father had known was that they were distant ancestors of theirs. But, he had figured that it was a good idea to pay his respects when he went there to practice, especially since , two of them had the symbol that all Guardsmen had on their graves. His moment of silence completed, he hopped to his feet and assumed his ready position, holding still for a moment before giving a short battle cry and taking his first swing.

He moved fluidly through his training sequence, executing with innate talent the swings, thrusts, and parries his father had shown him five years ago. Every day since, he had come to this clearing to work on his swordsmanship for nothing more than the pure enjoyment of it - well, and there was always the hope that he'd be invited to join the Honor Guard one day, too. But today, a strange sensation made him stop halfway through his daily sequence, and a voice that seemingly came from nowhere bid him to leave the clearing and head south of town. Obediently following his orders, he quickly slid his sword back into his belt and nonchalantly scooped up his bag along the way.

As he walked out of town across the southern plains, again he had that mysterious sensation that all was not totally right with his world - and his suspicions were sharpened as he made out three strangers in the distance. Still, he kept walking, propelled by an unknown compulsion, and soon he was approaching the little circle where they stood. The three of them suddenly noticed his arrival and peered curiously at him, and him at them - for three more unique people he had never seen before in his life.

There was one boy there, blade thin, with curious light blue hair, who was dressed entirely in plain brown. He didn't look as strong as the red-haired boy was, but just looking at him one got the impression that he could move faster than you could blink.

The second boy was even stranger looking. He was dressed entirely in red - red pants, red shirt, red cape, and he even had on a wide-brimmed red hat. All that red was complemented with a large white feather stuck in the brim of his hat, and he had long white hair that flowed out from under his hat to halfway down his back. He was dressed so flamboyantly that he could have been little but a mage, but something about the way he carried himself suggested that he could be a decent fighter as well.

The third person was a young girl, with red hair not unlike his own and freckles covering her pale face. She had on a white cotton robe, decorated with red triangles at the edges, with a simple white tunic and pants underneath. She carried what could have been a walking stick or a staff, and peered out from underneath her hood at the young Conerian expectantly as if she was waiting for him to do something. As a matter of fact, he suddenly noticed that all three of them were staring at him.

Nervously, not quite knowing why he did it, he suddenly slung his pack off his shoulder and dug around inside it, a moment later pulling his hand back out clutching the Orb. Staring at it for a second, he then held it out for the others to see. As if on cue, they each went searching in their own way, and a moment later all three of them were holding Orbs in their outstretched hands.

Suddenly, there was a small flash of light from each Orb, and as all four youngsters watched in surprise their Orbs softly glowed with their own color - the Orb of the girl in white glowing red, the blue-haired boy's Orb glowing green, the flamboyant mage's glowing blue, and the red-haired Conerian's a soft yellow. When the color had faded away from the Orbs a moment later, the blue-haired boy spoke up. "Well, that was certainly strange."

"Indeed," added the red-clad boy, sweeping his cape behind him. "I have no idea why I came all the way here, and if it was just for that, I'm going to be terrifically disappointed," he added scornfully.

"What shall we do now?" said the girl, gazing up at the fighter.

"Well," he said thoughtfully, "Here we are, four young people in the Age of Chaos, meeting up together for the first time and each holding an Orb, but not knowing exactly why we're here." The other three nodded in return, and he continued, "I'm pretty sure the three of you know what this means just as well as I do - so I think our only choice right now is to go see the King. Come on." Putting the Orb away, slinging his pack on his shoulder, and turning around, the young fighter started walking back northward towards Coneria. A moment later, he looked back to see his three new acquaintances following closely behind him, as if it was natural for the four of them to travel together. And as the beautiful sight of Coneria Castle dominated the view ahead of them and they drew ever closer to its pristine white walls, the red-haired fighter smiled to himself and wondered what sort of wonderful adventure the future held for them - for he knew they were the Light Warriors, and their journey was just beginning.