**Part Three**
The Quest


Nack didn't look too terribly surprised, but he *was* angry. Nic and Rocky were both. Nova and Andre just looked confused.

"I see my poison didn't work," the dark figure observed, staring Nack down.

"You were too obvious," Nack shot back. "'Aggrippina'? Come on, Lucretia, that was a dead giveaway! In Roman history Aggrippina was notorious for the poisoning of—"

"Yes, yes, I realize it was foolish!" Nack's aunt Lucretia interrupted, her emerald eyes narrowing. "But I didn't realize you were so up-to-date on your history, young nephew."

Nova was staring at Nack agape. "She tried to *poison* you??"

Before Nack could answer, Lucretia answered for him. "I certainly did! But, oh well. I will succeed someday . . . and that someday will be very soon! I have Geates' talisman!" She held out the object of destruction. It glistened with another bolt of lightning. It suddenly dawned on Nic that the bolts were flashing continuously.

No one was paying much attention to Rocky, who was boiling over with anger as he watched Lucretia descend the stone steps leading down from her platform.

"YOU!!" he yelled. "You sicced that troll on me, and the dragon, didn't you??!"

Lucretia shrugged. "All in a world's rule, dear nephew."

"I shoulda known," Rocky growled. "All my life you've been torturing me!! Why should you stop after I left??"

Andre's mouth was hanging open. He had never seen Rocky this angry before.

"You are too excitable," Lucretia said blandly. "You always were."

Rocky moved up next to Lucretia. "You used me in your magic experiments!" he accused. "And they always went wrong!"

Suddenly, without warning, Rocky yanked his eyepatch, his ever-present, don't-you-touch-this-if-you-know-what's-good-for-you eyepatch off his right eye . . . or what was left of it. His eye was closed; ugly red scars crisscrossed over the lid and around it. Nack winced at the sight. He heard Andre gasp.

"You did this to me!" Rocky hissed.

"Insolent nephew," Lucretia replied. "Where would you have been if I hadn't taken you in when Zorba abandoned you?"

"A lot better off, I know that much!" Rocky snarled. "I nearly got killed when your experiment went awry! As it was, I had to have emergency surgery and I lost my right eye!"

"Rocky, I had no idea!" Andre exclaimed.

"That's because I never told you!" Rocky said distractedly.

"Yes, well, I can't very well have you in the way now, can I?" Lucretia looked as though she hadn't a trace of remorse for what happened years ago (which she hadn't). "Not while I take over the world!"

She snapped her gingers and a horrible beat appeared.

"When I give him the word, my Basilisk will destroy you," she said with glee. "They kill with one glance, you know. Boris! My one-eyed nephew!" she commanded.

The Basilisk charged.

"NO!"

Andre leaped in front of Rocky to protect him. The Basilisk glared at the tender-hearted mechanic instead, and with a moan, Andre slumped back into Rocky's arms. The Basilisk, anxious to return to its slumber, vanished, satisfied that it had done its job.

Rocky looked at the younger weasel's body in disbelief. "Andre . . . speak to me, kid!" His left eye filled with tears. "He's dead," he said, not wanting to believe it. "He died to rescue me."

Nack, Nic, and Nova all removed their hats respectfully.

"How touching," Lucretia said, unimpressed.

Rocky looked at his wicked aunt, fire in his eye. "You . . . you . . . WITCH!! You killed him! You murdered Andre!"

He gave Andre's body to Nova and charged at Lucretia, who responded by piercing him with electricity. It struck across his left eye, which he closed just in time to avoid loosing it as well. A lightning-like scar appeared over and under it and Rocky yelped in pain. Another bolt of energy caught him right in the chest where the troll had clawed him, and he collapsed to the stone floor, writhing in agony. Nova laid Andre's body on the floor and went to assist the still-living Rocky.

Lucretia turned to Nic and Nack and smiled wickedly.

"And what's in store for us?" Nack asked defiantly.

"I'm glad you asked!" Lucretia snapped her fingers again, and suddenly Nova and Nic were bound, Lucretia was back on the platform, and Nack was at the foot of the stone steps. "I still must dispose of the others, but as for you, Nack, you who've brought me such humiliation, I know how much you want the Chaos Emeralds!" Holograms of the Emeralds appeared in the air. "They can all be yours, Nack, if you do not interfere with my plans." Nack headed up the steps without a word.

"Yeah, Nack, go right ahead!" Nic yelled. "That's what you've always wanted—the Emeralds! I can read you like a book! You're a greedy, selfish pig! And you were always Mama's favorite!"

Nack reached the top, Nic's words piercing him more deeply than any electricity or Basilisk's stare. "Are you outta your skull?" he yelled at Lucretia, outraged at what she'd offered. "I ain't bargaining Nic's, or Nova's, or even old Rocky's life for those ROCKS!! What kind jerk do you think I am?!" He lowered his head sadly. "Don't answer that. Apparently the same kind Nic does."

Below, Nic gasped. She had been wrong, so wrong!

Lucretia shrugged. "Whatever." She held the talisman in her hands and raised them, ready to unleash the final blows and get the world under her control.

"You'll never get away with this while I'm alive!" Without warning, Nack charged at Lucretia, who shrieked. The attack had come too fast for her to use the binding spell she had lashed out on the girls.

Nic watched, stymied, as the talisman began to shatter into millions of pieces, each sliver seeming to make evil Lucretia scream more than the previous one. Loosing control of her magic, she shot high-voltage electricity out in every direction. When the final shard had flown through the air, Lucretia vanished with another shrill yell and an, "I'll be back!! You will see!"

The shackles binding Nic and Nova burst apart. Rocky's gasping lessened and he settled down, the pain leaving him.

Nack, however, wasn't so lucky. Fatally injured, he toppled backward off the platform. Nic rushed to catch him, and seconds later, his lifeless body fell into her arms, and she staggered back.

"Nic, is he . . .?" Nova started to ask, horrified, then couldn't finish.

Nic looked at her brother and smoothed his soft lavender hair back. There was a cut on his forehead, courtesy of the broken talisman. His head fell back and his arms, legs, and long tail hung limp. Nic listened frantically for breath. There was none. He was gone.

She nodded, stricken. "He is. Oh, Nova, he's . . . he's . . . dead!! He died so we wouldn't be killed! He laid down his life for us, and he died knowing that I thought he was selfish and awful . . . Nova, how am I ever gonna live with myself?!"

Knowing this was no time for a lecture, Nova said softly, "He knows, Nic. He knows how bad you feel now. And . . . I think . . . No, I know—he would forgive you."

Nic buried her face in Nack's soft fur and wept—for her dead brother, for lost time, for her blindness.

They remained mostly silent for some time, the only sounds being Nic's sobbing and Rocky's muttered words as he held his dead mechanic, his adopted brother Andre.

It seemed like an eternity to Nic as she stayed with Nack's still form. Then suddenly, without warning, the words of a song came to her. She didn't know where they had came from, but there they were.

I will remember you
Will you remember me?
Don't let your life pass you by;
Weep not for the memories

That only made her cry harder. "Oh Nack," she whispered.

Six or seven years ago, when that song had first come out, she and Nack had been in a cafe when the jukebox had started playing that song. Nack had paused to listen, then had softly echoed, "Weep not for the memories" in a sad tone of voice. Something about the song had got to him. Nic knew the words were what he would tell her now, if he could.

"I'll remember you, Nic," he would say. "But will you remember me?" He would pause, then, "Live your life, Nic. Don't stop 'cause I'm gone. Don't bawl for the memories, Nic, or because of them. I'll be around . . . like Mama." Then he would tip his hat to her and be gone.

Nic looked around for Nack's beloved Stetson, which had gone in a different direction than Nack had. Nova, who had found it, handed it to her silently, and Nic gently laid it on Nack's head.

He would be buried with it, of course. Mama had given it to him, Nic reflected. She gave mine to me, too. Nack could never be separated from that hat in life, and Nic would make sure he wasn't in death.

"Dang, Nova, why did I ever think those awful things about him?" she burst out.

"People, even siblings, can't always see someone for who he really is," Nova responded quietly. "And heaven knows Nack was clever at hiding the real him from the world." She and Nic both started, realized that Nova had spoken of him in the past tense.

"But Mama could see through the facade," Nic protested. "I'm his sister! Why couldn't I, Nova? Why couldn't I??"

Nova had no answer for that. She stayed by Nic sympathetically, ready to listen and continue to try to offer comfort.

Throughout all of this, Rocky had been mostly silent, except for his incoherent mutterings about Andre. Nova wasn't sure if he even realized Nack was dead, or even if that would mean anything to him. The hard feelings between Nack and his battle-scared cousin had been even more fierce and intense than the ones between Nack and Nic had been.

"Nova," Nic said, her voice tortured, "I'm gonna miss that rascal. Heaven help me, I'm gonna miss him so much!"

"I know, Nic, I know," Nova said soothingly. "I'll miss him too." She ran a hand through Nack's silky fur. Indeed, she would miss that rogue, very deeply. She had grown quite fond of him over the last few months (which was why she had let him see the Mirror of Fafnir in the first place), and quite frankly, she couldn't imagine this cruel, cold world without him. His daredevil feats, his sweet demeanor (once one got past all the rough-and-tumble attitude, of course), his impish grin. . . . That grin, complete with his shiny fang, was probably the single most recognizable trait of Nack, a.k.a "Fang the Sniper," the notorious bounty hunter from Texas.
****
"The world has returned to normal."

Nic, Nova, and even Rocky looked up at the sound of the new voice.

An old man stood in the doorway, his long purple robes billowing around him. His lengthy white beard came to halfway down his chest, and a tall, pointed wizard's hat adorned his head. Moons and stars paraded across it.

"Who in the heck are you?" Nic snapped, echoing one of Nack's old favorite expressions. As she spoke, she held her brother's body closer to her protectively.

The man smiled slightly. "I am Merlin," he announced.

That statement brought "What the . . ." and "yeah, right" looks from the three live weasels.

"I know it might seem hard to believe . . ."

"That's the understatement!" Nic muttered.

". . . But nevertheless, it is a fact." Merlin smiled kindly. "Your brother has, at long last, destroyed Geates' enchanted talisman," he said to Nic. "He demonstrated true unselfishness and nobility."

"You got that right," Nic said, trying to hold back another flood of tears.

"So did Andre," Rocky shot back.

Merlin nodded. "Yes. Yes. So did Andre," he agreed.

"And now both of them are dead!" Nic cried. "DEAD!"

Merlin held up his hand. "It would appear so, yes."

"What do you mean by that?" Nic said angrily, supposing that Merlin was playing games with her. "Nack's dead! He's not breathing, and there's no pulse! He's DEAD!!"

Merlin knelt down next to Nic and her lifeless brother. "Normally, he—and Andre—would be dead. Indeed, if they had been out for themselves, they would be most certainly. But—" Here he paused. "Because Nack—and Andre—were willing to sacrifice themselves for you all . . ." Andre's ear suddenly gave a twitch and Rocky gawked in utter disbelief. ". . . Their lives were spared," Merlin finished quietly.

Andre's eyes opened and he looked up at Rocky wonderingly.

"Oh, man, kid, you scared me!" the battered weasel declared.

Andre smiled weakly, relieved that Rocky was safe.

"But what about Nack?" Nic wailed. She was glad Andre was alive, of course, but what about her poor brother? . . .

Merlin smiled gently. "He will awaken as well, young Nicolette." He laid a hand on her shoulder. "He did well. You will all be returned to America shortly." And then the magician had vanished.

"Come on, Nack," Nic whispered, touching her brother's cheek. "If you're really alive, wake up! Speak to me!!" Nack remained motionless however, and Nic's tears fell again.

"He was right about Andre, honey," Nova said softly. "He could still be right about Nack."

"Then why doesn't he wake up?" Nic wailed.

Gently, Nova lifted Nack's right wrist. "Nic, I'm getting a pulse!"

Nic gasped. "Nack?" she whispered, afraid to believe. "Oh, please, wake up, Nack!" She paused. "Dang it, I love you, brother! I love you!! I'm not ready to let you go yet!!"

Nack moaned softly. Then he shuddered, his sapphire blue eyes fluttering open.

Nic's own eyes' tears spilled over again, but this time they were tears of joy. "Nack! Oh, Nack! Can you ever forgive me? I was so . . . so awful! So blind!"

Nack grinned that impish grin, and Nova smiled as well. "It's okay, Nic. I've never been exactly open."

Nic shook her head. "It's not okay, Nack. Some people have been able to see through your facade. I can't, and I'm your own sister! That tells me there's something definitely wrong somewhere!" She pulled her brother into a hug. "Oh, Nack, I thought you were dead!!"

Nack grimaced at the thought. "Actually, I nearly was."

Nova patted his shoulder. "Welcome back, Nack. You did quite a noble thing there."

"The whole darn place would be under the aunt from Hades' rule if he hadn't intercepted," Rocky could be heard to mutter. Nack noticed his eyepatch was back on.

Nack just grinned again and said with a wink, "Yeah, well, just don't let this leak out to the press."
****
A week passed. Nack was back in his hotel room, reflecting. So much had happened since he had been here last.

After he and Andre had revived, they had all left the cavern and discovered Moghur was back to its previously beautiful state. Typhon had met them and with shining eyes introduced them to her grandmother and invited them for dinner. Afterward they had stepped through the mirror in the good sorceresses' dining room, back into San Francisco. Nic and Nova had dismantled the Mirror of Fafnir and had told their employer that it was undeliverable (which, technically, was true).

"You have returned, I see."

Nack whirled. The voice sounded like a toned-down version of Azhi Dahaka's, but when he saw who was standing there, it was definitely not a gnome.

"What the . . ."

"I am Merlin." The magician smiled.

Nack stepped back. "You don't mean . . ."

"Yes I am *that* Merlin. But you, young Nack, will know me better as 'Azhi Dahaka.'"

Nack gave the famed wizard an odd look. "Why?"

"I had to come in disguise, young Nack. I didn't want you to have any false notions that I was bewitching you in any way." His eyes twinkled. "What better guise than that of the mischievous gnome?"

Nack plopped down on the couch. He was quite bowled over, understandably so.

"I was not responsible for anything except an attempt or two to convince you to accept the Quest," Merlin said softly. "You did the rest." He smiled. "As I told you as 'Azhi,' you are much more unselfish and noble than even you know." He paused. "Farewell for now, young Nack. But we may meet again someday."

And, as mysteriously, as he'd appeared, Merlin had gone.

Nack checked to make sure he was alone, then uttered an exclamation that described his current feelings perfectly.
"Good grief."

~The end~