Epilogue: Live For Today

The elevator ride up was a silent one. Every one of them knew what awaited them once they reached the top of it, and none of them were looking forward to it. Even so, it had to be done; there was, quite simply, no other way. And so they resigned themselves, and when the elevator reached the top, they stepped off and approached the double doors without hesitating.

"Everybody ready for this?" Ryu asked them, looking over his shoulder, and only when he received eight nods in return did he push the doors open, and lead them out into the streets of Dologany once more. As they'd all feared, everybody in the city immediately went silent, turning to stare at them, as they walked out. There were hundreds of them, practically crowded elbow to elbow, and none of them said a word, or did anything but watch them as the Dragonkin came slowly forward.

"This is very awkward, yes?" Jean asked the others, calm and polite, as the people closest to them stepped back and out of their way, but only barely.

"Just a little, yeah," Katt muttered under her breath.

"Where's Spekkio?" Deis grumbled, looking around. "He'll know what to do about this."

"Looks like somebody's coming our way," Bow told her, glancing towards the back of the crowd; there was a disturbance, as if somebody were shoving his or her way through by main determination, and it was accompanied by a familiar voice.

"Come on, come on, cut it out!" Patty Smith was yelling as she approached them, a trail of disapproving murmurs in her wake breaking the silence as well. "They'll hate this, all right? I told you they'd hate it. Move, already! Ack!" She stumbled between the last two citizens, surprised, and by the time she recovered her balance she was standing in front of the Dragonkin.

"Hey," Ryu said calmly, meeting her eyes, his face carefully blank.

"Oh," she replied, in the same tone, doing the same thing. "Hey." Again, there was silence for several long moments.

"You got down here in less than a week?" He asked, eventually, taking the hint from his team that he was on his own for this one. "I knew you were fast, but damn."

"Helped that there weren't any demons left," she admitted, flapping her wings. "Plus, I've got these, so I was able to cheat. And one guy can move faster than a group your size, anyway."

"Yeah, there weren't any on our way back up, either," Ryu recalled. "Guess the ones who were left all got lost after we took out their God. Guess you can get through to the species after all. Who'd have thunk it."

"They're not coming out into the surface world any more, either, so don't worry about that," she explained, almost casually. "That was when I figured I should go ask Ladon if you'd won. When the reinforcements stopped coming. If there's any left up there at all, they're under a rock somewhere. The World Council was not amused by the surprise war."

"No, I imagine not," Ryu agreed, wincing. "How bad is that going to get for us, exactly?"

"Ask Mani, not me," she said, shrugging. "He's your agent. Didn't look to me like he was panicking too badly when I headed off, though."

"I'll take that as a good sign, then." Ryu nodded, then fell silent once more, out of things to say. Patty followed his example, until finally they were both shifting their gaze around and scratching the backs of their necks, and Ryu decided just to get it over with. "How's grandfather doing?"

"He..." Patty started to say, then paused, before looking down. "He passed away this morning. Before anybody else was awake. That's part of why I was in such a hurry. I wanted to get down here in time to meet him, at least once, before he did. I'm glad I got the chance."

"I am too," Ryu replied quietly, meeting her gaze again. "We'll have to stick around for the funeral before we head back up, then."

"It's tomorrow morning," she told him. "The High Priest knows we'll want to get it over with and head back up as soon as possible."

"He's good about things like that," Ryu conceded, nodding slightly. "Did you know he's our Greatfather? Two thousand years back. I can't really see the resemblance, personally."

"Let's hear it for genetics," she drawled, smirking for a brief moment. "Yeah, he told me. I hear we've got another, halfway down the family tree, and a Greatmother with him, too. Living on some island somewhere."

"They'll probably be in town by the time we get back," he guessed. "They said they'd come for the afterparty. You can meet them, then. And the rest of the senile old duffers they hang around with, too."

"Oh, joy." She rolled her eyes, before her face grew serious again. "Dad told me. About what happened to mom. He's doing good, by the way. Well, as good as he can, under the circumstances. He's waiting for you to get back."

"That's good," Ryu said quietly, fighting the urge to ask how their reunion had gone; that was between the two of them. "Mom..." He lowered his head. "I couldn't stop her. By the time I figured out what she was doing..."

"It was already too late." Patty closed her eyes. "The story of our lives, huh?"

"Yeah." Ryu slowly nodded. They remained there for a moment more, motionless, and then on a simultaneous impulse they both lunged forward, embracing fiercely.

"I'm sorry, sis," Ryu said quietly, head on her shoulder and eyes closed. "I never was much good at protecting you after all."

"Don't apologize, you moron," she murmured back, her voice soft. "I ran away and abandoned you there, and you think you should apologize to me? Idiot big brother."

"That wasn't on either of us," Ryu told her. "That was a bunch of total shits who, fortunately, are all extremely deceased now. We put some special effort into Habaruku's."

"Yeah, I found what was left of him," she said, her voice tinted with light humor now. "You know, you really shouldn't just leave corpses out there in the open like that. The vultures kind of attracted a lot of attention, especially when they started puking and falling out of the sky dead as a doornail."

"I'll bet the townspeople loved that," Ryu joked back as they released each other and stepped back. "We should talk, tonight. After we have some dinner. About a lot of things."

"Yeah, we should." She nodded slowly. "About mom, and dad, and Gate, and... a lot of other things, yeah." She glanced around then, at the people of Dologany, before continuing. "Why don't we get back to that place they gave you, then? Maybe if we go indoors, they'll take the hint."

"Sounds like a plan to me," Sten agreed, as the rest of the group approached once more. "Worth a shot, at any rate."

"An eminently reasonable proposal." Spar nodded. "I concur fully."

"Let's give it a shot, then," Ryu said, casual again, as they all proceeded to wade through the crowd once more. "I think it's this way."

Fortunately, they turned out to be right; once they'd closed the door behind them, the people of Dologany went back to their daily life. Ryu had his suspicions about that, especially when he heard a familiar voice bellowing at them to do just that, but chose not to inquire further. Most of the team turned in early, after dinner, but Ryu did just the opposite. By the time he and Patty had finished talking, and turned in following another hug, it was more than halfway through the night, resulting in severe drowsiness in both of them the next morning.

Somehow, he was able to stay awake throughout the entirety of Grandfather Martin's funeral. It was a simple, somewhat primitive religious ceremony, but after his experience with the Church of St. Eva he found that he rather liked that. The only surprise came when they tipped the casket over the edge into the endless abyss, but from the way Spekkio spoke, it was meant as an honor, and so he quieted his objections. Once it was concluded, they proceeded back towards the doors by which they'd first entered Dologany, three weeks ago, the High Priest with them.

"Are you guys going to be coming along in a bit?" Ryu asked, turning to him at the door.

"I doubt it, kid." Spekkio shook his head. "It's been five hundred years, you know? This place is home for us, now. And now that the demons are all gone, we'll be able to expand the place and live peacefully. Maybe even establish contact with the Mole Clan again. They'll be the ones who'll probably show up in the outside world again one day."

"I'll look forward to it, then." Ryu nodded, holding out his hand, which Spekkio shook. "The mercenary group Dragonkin thanks you for your patronage. Be sure to tell your friends about our one-time-only free godslaying offer for first customers."

It was the sort of thing that one only noticed by pure chance. Ryu was fairly skilled at spotting when somebody was hiding something, after a life on the streets, but he was no expert; Bow and Sten and Spar were all better at it than him, and probably Deis and Nina as well. He only noticed because he'd happened to be watching Spekkio's face at that exact moment.

Spekkio flinched.

A quick assessment told Ryu that he was, in fact, the only one who'd seen; he'd been standing between Spekkio and the others. Rather than bring it up, however, he glanced over his shoulder. "Go on ahead, guys. Nothing personal, but there's one more thing I need to ask about."

"Private, huh?" Rand raised an eyebrow. "Yeah, all right. Come on, you lugs. Guy's entitled to some secrets, even from us."

"A novel concept," Nina murmured, smiling lightly, in a way she never would have when Ryu had first met her. Patty was the only one who gave Ryu a look as they moved past, through the doors, and he ignored her.

"All right," he said flatly once the doors were closed. "What am I missing?"

"Over here," Spekkio grunted, inclining his head, and they walked away from the doors, towards the closest Statue of Ladon. "There. Nobody who's not standing as close to this as we are will be able to make out what we're saying now, no matter how good their hearing is."

"Really?" Ryu blinked. "Huh. I never figured that out, but now that I think about it, it doesn't really surprise me, either." He folded his arms. "Well?"

"Look, kid." Spekkio sighed. "You did good down there. You won. All the souls that were his have been freed, and he's no longer a threat to the world. You beat him. World's saved, destiny fulfilled, yadda yadda yadda."

"But?" Ryu pressed, raising an eyebrow.

"But..." Spekkio paused for a moment before continuing, looking away. "You remember what I said about why it had to be you? Because you guys were the only ones Evans would take physical form in order to fight at all, because of his pride?"

"Yeah." Ryu nodded. "You said if anybody else tried, he wouldn't even take physical form at all. He'd just remain..." He trailed off, as the light dawned.

I think... I will sleep now, the God of Death had told them as his abominable form shimmered and faded, an illusion that had been dispelled. I think I will disappear. I will dream of destruction, of death... and I will try to understand. Goodbye... my Nikanoru.

"See, Myria was one thing," Spekkio explained. "She was just as insane as he was, but she was no coward. When she realized she was really, truly going to die this time, she didn't discorporate. She wasn't afraid of death. Evans, though..."

"Evans had the mind of a child," Ryu recalled quietly. "And children run away when they're beaten. He's not dead. He just shed his physical form, at the last moment, before he died."

"His power is gone," Spekkio reminded him. "He has no souls left to him at all, and nobody is sending him power from any other sources. The Church of St. Eva is finished, and so are all of his demon henchmen who were making trouble. Even Barubary's plague has faded, with his death. He might still be alive, but as long as all that doesn't start up again, there's no way he'll ever grow as powerful as he was before."

"But it's possible," Ryu said quietly. "It's unlikely, but it's possible that he might find some way to become a threat to the world again."

"Yeah." Spekkio admitted. "It's possible."

"Say, maybe in a thousand years?" Ryu guessed, voice rising angrily. "Just like his mom, right? Once wasn't enough for her either, was it? They had to whup her twice, before it stuck. Maybe that'll happen here, too. A thousand years, time for some descendants, and hey kids, here comes act five! Some other bunch of poor schmucks are going to be jerked around by fate and destiny just like we were, and go through just as much crap whether they want to or not! Does that sound about right?"

"Also possible." Spekkio nodded slowly. "But that's a thousand years, kid. That's my problem. You and Martin did your time, and you're done. Trust me, Ladon doesn't have anything planned for you like he did with the last gang. You're out, and if you want to walk away and forget any of this ever happened, I wouldn't blame you one bit. Don't worry about it."

"And what if I don't want to?" Ryu asked quietly, anger gone as soon as it had come upon him.

"That's a question you're going to have to answer yourself, kid." Spekkio looked up at the statue of Ladon. "That's one of those questions we all have to answer for ourselves, once it's all said and done. Nobody told Martin, or me, or even Ladon what to do about that one. It's your call. Just don't rush into doing anything stupid, all right?"

"I try not to, as a general rule," Ryu told him, turning away. Only when he'd reached the door did he pause. "Will I ever see you again?"

"That one's on you, too," Spekkio shot back. "Nice try."

"Heh." Ryu smiled, slightly. "It was worth a shot." Lifting a hand over his shoulder in farewell as he opened the doors, he walked through. The team were waiting for him, quiet and calm, and he forced another smile. "Thanks, guys. Just a couple of last-minute details to clear up."

"On the process?" Deis asked. "The technical aspects?"

"Yeah, something like that." He shrugged. "Probably won't ever be relevant, but I figured I'd ask, all the same. Come on, let's get going. The sooner we get out of here, the better, yeah?"

"Don't think anybody's going to argue that one," Bow agreed.

The next week was quiet, just as the previous one had been. For some reason, even without the constant threat of demon attack, the halls of Infinity seemed to put everybody into something of a somber mood. Depressing as it was, it did give Ryu some much-needed time to do what he'd promised, and think carefully about what Spekkio had told him. The more he did so, however, the more depressed he became. It was a constant struggle not to show any of this to the others, and he focused on that as well, doing his best to appear cheerful and optimistic despite his dark thoughts.

Just as when they'd returned to Dologany from the end of Infinity, they were able to make the journey in only a week, half the time it had taken them to make the journey downwards. This was mostly due to the current lack of demons to fight, but Spar's memory of the most efficient path through the three-dimensional maze tower helped as well. Surprisingly, Patty turned out to be similarly useful, due to traveling that way more recently than them; her argumentative nature had subsided a great deal, and everybody on the team took appreciative notice.

And then the day came when they saw the ceiling of the infinite cavern above them, and realized what it meant. Everybody's mood improved significantly as soon as they did; even Spar was visibly happy at the thought of putting their month and a half underground behind them. Only Ryu was melancholy, and he continued to hide it as they hurried up through the final floors, and then out into the top room. They sun was shining through the open door, and that sight was the final straw. Like excited children, the team made a mob rush for the exit, scrambling over each other in an undignified scramble.

"Feels warm," Katt pointed out as they tumbled out of the door, several of them falling over themselves and each other. "A lot better than it was when we went down." She was right; everybody noticed it as they emerged from the depths of Infinity into a canyon regrown, the tall grass green again and bursting with life, as much as the trees.

"It is spring," Jean said, his voice awed, as he spread his hands in the sunlight. "We descended in the heart of winter, and now we have returned to the dawn of spring."
"Barubary's curse has been lifted," Spar told them, smiling happily and looking around. "It seems everything is, indeed, finished."

"Yeah, it started warming up after you guys did it," Patty explained, smiling as well. "Didn't think it'd be this far along, though. Not that I'm complaining."

"I don't believe any of us are," Nina agreed, flying slightly up. "Ah, that feels so good."

"Let's go see how everybody's doing, huh?" Sten looked around. "Can't see Township from here, but they probably haven't moved it."

"Probably," Rand agreed. "Let's hope not, anyways." They all started down, but Ryu remained where he stood, and after a moment, they all paused and turned back to him.

"Ryu?" Deis asked, frowning. "What's wrong?"

"Listen, guys..." Ryu said quietly, turning to look back towards the Gate they had just walked out of. The Gate behind the town he'd been born in, which it had taken its name from. The Gate to Infinity, through which Evans might one day emerge to destroy the world, despite their defeat of him. The Gate which his mother had slept over for nearly his entire life, guarding it with her own body and soul in order to ensure that no more of their enemies would be able to break through and threaten her children, as Barubary and Habaruku's strike force had.

The Gate which she had sacrificed her life in order to open, after giving up so many years of it to keep it closed.

He'd tried not to think about it, the entire trip up from Dologany. He'd tried to reassure himself that Evans' return was only a possibility, and a slim one at that. He'd tried to do as Spekkio had advised, and forget that he'd ever figured that out in the first place. The old man had spoken honestly, when he'd said that Ryu and his friends had done their time. They were finally free, ready to live their lives without another thought for the destiny bullshit ever again, and nobody could have blamed him for that. He knew all of that, and knew he wouldn't be selfish if he just walked away.

And yet, he knew what the answer to his concerns was. The obvious solution, one that he'd realized even before he'd finished his conversation with Spekkio. He'd been able to tell that the old man had known what he was thinking, and tried to talk him out of it, and he'd spent the entire trip up attempting to do the same. And yet, and yet... he'd kept thinking about it, and when he'd slept, he'd dreamed of it as well.

About the subtle effect from Agni Anfini that he'd felt lingering with him, even after all the rest had faded, altering his weakened Breath Of Fire. Strengthening it, to what he suspected was the same level as pureblooded Dragon Clansmen, like his mother had been. He hadn't tested it, but he could tell, all the same; were he to transform now, he would be able to remain in that form as long as he wanted, rather than reverting after only a few seconds.

"There's something I've been thinking about..." He started to say, staring at the Gate and remembering his mother's sacrifices, both of them. Before he could continue, however, the entire canyon started to shake around them.

"What the hell?" Patty yelled, accompanied by similar comments from most of the Dragonkin as they all looked around for the source of the rumbling.

"Up there!" Katt shouted, pointing up, as the shadow of Township moved over them.

"What is it doing," Bow said, rather than asked, flatly.

"All right, Ryu!" Ganer's voice came from a strange metal box built into the underside of the island, its flat surface containing a round metal mesh in several layers. "Hold it right there! Don't even think about taking another step towards that Gate!"

"What's he talking about?" Rand asked, as several of the other members' eyes narrowed.

"Dad?" Ryu yelled back up, stepping back as the flying town hovered over the Gate. "What are you doing? Can you hear me?"

"I know what you're up to!" Ganer continued to shout through the lost technology. "And if you so much as try it, I'll knock some sense into you, the way I did when you were young! Ryu, my son... you're such a fool sometimes. Such a soft-hearted, self-sacrificing fool. Your suspicions are correct, Ryu. Evans still lives, despite the destruction of his body. Because of this fact, destiny would have you follow in your mother's path. Fate would demand one final sacrifice from you, after everything else you have already given. And you would accept that."

"You've grown so much, Ryu. Less than a year ago, you fought against your destiny with everything you had. And now, you are willing to give everything you have in order to ensure the survival of this world. I am proud of your courage, my son, as is your mother, I am sure. But Ryu... I don't remember raising any son who would hurt his friends like that, or his family. We didn't raise you to give up your life so easily! And after we were taken from you, the life you were forced into... what did you learn from that life? Did you learn to give up? Or did you learn to survive? Well, Ryu?"

And with those words, the flying town began to fall.

"Shit!" Ryu yelled, turning to yell at his team to run, only to see that they were all well ahead of him. Biting off another curse, he took off after them, as the floating island plummeted straight towards the canyon behind the town of Gate, where everything had begun so many years ago.

"Energy at maximum capacity!" Another voice came through the metal box, more difficult to hear over the rumbling, which grew louder with every second. "It's all up to you now, Father Ganer!"

Ganer's only response was a wordless roar of determination, and then impact came, and they all flew forward off of their feet, stunned by the impact. Ryu remained down, hands covering his head, until he felt the quaking began to subside. Only then did he get back up, as did the other nine, and turn to stare back at their town. It now stood on a plateau of earth, rising from behind Gate, almost like a model on a table, with the mountainside rising up behind it. There was no sign of the gate to Infinity remaining whatsoever.

"The engine's stopping," Eichichi's voice continued. "You did it, Father!"

"Dad..." Ryu said quietly.

"Dad?" Patty repeated, in the same tone, stepping up next to him.

"Ryu, Yua..." Ganer continued through the box, sounding more exhausted now. "I have not been completely honest with you. Among my other torments, Habaruku gave me what he claimed was a blessing, though it was only meant to prolong my torture. The blessing given only to the strongest of demons, though thankfully he refrained from transforming my body further. Though I can still be killed, this body I now inhabit will never die of its own volition. Should I remain alive, I will continue to do so for hundreds, even thousands of years."

"I watched your mother, the woman I loved, the mother of my children, sacrifice her own life after more than a decade spent apart. I could do nothing to save her, no more than I could prevent her previous sacrifice following that one horrible night. I will not watch my children do the same. This time, I will stand in the path of fate, and it shall not pass while I draw breath! Evans will never pass through this door, no matter how great his strength becomes. This, I swear to you, to all of you, upon your mother's sacrifice. Upon Valerie's final gift to the children we both love so much."

"Ryu, you have done enough already. You have suffered far too much, and now, it is done. This task is not yours, my son. It is mine. This is my destiny, not yours, a destiny I have inherited from Valerie. Before you came, when last we spoke, she warned me of what you would likely do, and I accepted the task instead, then and there. The duty I abandoned when I was taken from this town, and from my family. From this day forward, I will protect this land which we call home, just as Valerie did. I will protect it for a thousand years, if need be. Until the birth of the next destined child."

"This is no place for you, my son. You still have a life ahead of you, the life which you have won with your success. The rest of the world still awaits you, children, a world full of beauty and adventure and yes, danger... but danger that you have learned to overcome. Go forth into that world, with those you love, and never look back. That is your reward, and you have well earned it."

"Dad..." Ryu said again, lowering his head, as the box went quiet and the last of the rumbling faded away. After another moment, he turned back to his team. "Guys-"

Before he could say anything more, both of Katt's feet hit him right between the eyes.

"Moron!" She screamed as he reeled, backflipping off of his face and landing before him. "Idiot! Imbecile! What the hell do you think you're doing, huh? Giving up your life to guard the Gate, like your mother did? Like she'd have wanted that? Like any of us would want that? You were going to ditch both me and Nina? After all the time we spent putting up with this crap, waiting for you to choose? I ought to dump you here and now!"

"Hey, wait a second here!" Patty yelled; she'd been standing next to Ryu, and now her eyes narrowed. A moment later, she spun, and kicked him alongside his head as he was trying to recover from Katt's attack. "She's right! You stupid asshole! I spent how long waiting to see you again, and you were gonna pull that one on me? And not just on me, but on these two, and all the others too? We ought to hang you up in the middle of town and hit you like a pinata until candy comes out!"

"A remarkably tempting suggestion, at this point in time," Nina said darkly, pelting Ryu with chunks of ice the size of his head, knocking the wind out of him and driving him to his knees. "I must admit, I find the thought highly persuasive. I'd address you directly, Ryu, but I'm not sure my vocabulary has the words to describe exactly what I think of this plan of yours."

"I can think of a few," Deis growled, raising her cane and setting the seat of his pants aflame with a fireball.

"Oh no, mon ami!" Jean protested as Ryu began rolling around in the dirt, yelping. "You are on fire!"

"Hold on, buddy!" Bow assured him as the two of them, Sten and Rand all ran up and began stomping Ryu repeatedly. "We've got this! Leave it to us!"

"We're gonna have to talk about strategy, boss," Sten informed him cheerfully. "This plan had a few holes in it."

"More like one gigantic, unbelievable hole," Rand corrected him. After a few more seconds of this, they backed off, and Ryu slowly stood up, the fire extinguished. He looked from one of them to another as they stared back, silently, then shifted his gaze to Spar as the Grass Man approached.

"Well?" He asked eventually.

"I see," Spar replied, looking him over. "Comedic violence for the purpose of conveying our precise level of dissatisfaction with the proposed plan. Perhaps sometimes, simple brutality truly is the most effective solution." It waited a moment more, then kicked Ryu in the balls.

"Yeah, that ought to do just about do it," Katt muttered as he writhed in the dirt.

"Well, Ryu?" Nina asked, raising an eyebrow. "Have we made our feelings on the matter adequately clear?"

"Yeah, I got it," Ryu grunted. "I'm sorry. Please don't kill me."

"It's all right," Bow replied, nodding. "We won't kill you." He walked past Ryu then, the others following. "So, how are we going to get up there?"

"With the kind of talent we've got up there, it shouldn't take long to build a road leading there," Deis murmured. "Probably a ramp of some kind. Problem is, that's not now. Oh, wait, here we go." Mina was flying down now, wings beating. Passing over the others, she landed before Ryu, who was getting back to his feet. Regarding him gravely for a moment, she pecked him once, atop his head, before turning to the others and chirping her welcome.

"All right!" Ryu yelled, clutching his skull. "All right! I get it, already!"

"Glad to hear it," Patty told him drily before glancing at Mina. "So. Friend of yours?"

"You could say that, yes," Nina replied quietly, stroking the side of Mina's neck. "Her name is Mina."

"Oh." Patty's eyes widened in comprehension, and she lowered her head. "Uh. Sorry. I should really learn not to run my mouth so much."

"It's all right." Nina glanced at her, smiling sadly. "Mina, this is..." She paused then, frowning.

"Yeah, about that." Sten scratched his head. "Do you have a preference?"

"Let's keep on going with 'Patty,' if that's okay," the thief replied after a moment, raising a hand to stroke Mina's feathers as well. "For a while, anyways. I haven't used 'Yua' for so long that it's going to take some getting used to, you know?" She glanced at Ryu then, her eyes mischievous as usual again. "Speaking of that, bro. You didn't even change your name? Seriously? No wonder they found you so easily."

"Says the girl who didn't even figure it out until the end," Ryu shot back, walking over. One by one, they all climbed onto Mina's back, and she took off, towards Gate. "You're going to have to work on that."

"Yeah, yeah." She rolled her eyes. "You know, this is actually really cool."

"It took me some time to get used to it," Jean admitted. "I do not always deal well with heights. However, I have come to appreciate this sensation. I am sure you will as well."

"Huh?" Patty blinked. "Why would I? It's not like I'm going to be doing it all that much. I mean, it's not like I mind, but..."

Everybody else exchanged a look as Mina landed and they began disembarking.

"So, buddy," Bow said abruptly. "About that promise of yours..."

"Yeah, I know," Ryu agreed, glancing at Nina first, then Katt. Though he didn't know consciously, he suspected that deep down inside, he'd already decided. He still loved them both, just as much, but one of the two needed him more than the other did. One would recover, and move on, and be happy to still be his friend, easier than the other. He was pretty sure that soon, he would know which it was. "I'm working on it. I think I've almost got it figured out."

"It'll probably still be a while before the two of you start sharing a room, though," Rand pointed out. "At least I hope so. We might have done a little too well at filling all the houses. Does anybody have any spare rooms?"

"Huh?" Patty blinked, looking confused. "What are we talking about now?"

"I believe Lacquer has one," Spar suggested, ignoring her.

"No," Ryu said flatly. "Somebody who's not a guy her own age. For his sake, of course."

"You mean the sake of not having nightmares about you coming for him in his sleep?" Deis asked archly.

"That's what I just said, isn't it?"

"Hey, hey!" Patty yelled, eyes widening as she looked from one of them to another. "Hold on a second here!"

"There's always the Fusion Clan," Nina pointed out. "I believe they still have one, and they're right next door."

"Oh, yeah!" Katt grinned wickedly. "Perfect!"

"I guess that's a little better." Ryu conceded. "Somebody's going to have to keep an eye on Spoo, though. Probably Sana, too. Maybe Shin."

"Tell Granny Gigli," Bow suggested. "Pretty sure she can handle it, as long as she wants to get involved, which... she would, for this one."

"Fair enough."

"What the hell are all of you talking about?" Patty exploded, and they all turned to look at her at last. "What, do you think I was going to stick around forever?"

"We were hoping you would," Ryu said quietly, meeting her eyes. "The choice is up to you, of course. We won't make you do anything you don't want to. But I'd like it if you stuck around, sis. Call it keeping an eye on me, if you want to. A second knife man isn't really customary for teams like ours, but there've been exceptions, usually in cases where the talent was worth splitting the pay eleven ways. And unless I miss my guess, we're going to have enough of that coming in pretty soon that we should be able to manage."

"What?" She whispered, and the look on her face reminded Ryu harshly of just how much time he'd missed with his little sister. "Are you... are you seriously asking me to join you? But you guys hate me, don't you?"

"Oh, brother." Bow rolled his eyes. "Any objections?" When none arose, he glanced back at her. "I'm not gonna say you don't annoy me sometimes, but you know what? That goes for most of these yahoos too, and I'm pretty sure I'm just as guilty. The last time somebody like you came along, we figured he'd turn us down, so we didn't ask. That was a mistake. We're not going to repeat it. The job offer's there, any time you want it."

"Idiots, the lot of you," she muttered, lowering her head and shaking it slowly. "Nothing more than a bunch of sentimental idiots." After a moment more, she looked back up, smiling slightly, though her eyes were still pained. "I'll think about it, all right? No promises, but I'm not saying no, either. Just... give me some time, huh?"

"We understand, mademoiselle," Jean assured her. "That, I think, is one thing which all of us understand. Take as much time as you need."

"It's not like we're going anywhere now," Ryu joked half-heartedly as they walked through the town gates. Everybody was gathered in the center of town, waiting for them; as they approached, one of them dashed out towards the group, closely followed by another, and then a third who seemed much more calm than the first two.

"Jean!" Seso practically sobbed, hitting him hard enough that he stumbled back, despite outweighing her by more than two to one. Throwing her arms around his neck, she lowered her head onto his shoulders. "I was so worried!"

"Spar!" Shin cried, doing the same with the Grass Man, promptly slamming it onto its back with her atop it. "Oh. Sorry."

"When did that become a thing?" Sten muttered under his breath, glancing at Rand. Sana was staying back, and though she smiled at him, she was making no moves to join him.

"Don't ask me," the big man replied, holding up his hands. "I'm staying out of it. I've had it with that sort of thing for now."

"Not going to tackle me?" Bow asked Silvia as she followed the cousins more sedately.

"I don't think so, no," she replied, smiling slightly, though her eyes showed signs of recent sorrow. "You worried us all a great deal, you know, when those six showed up and told us what the last thing they remembered happening was. We're just lucky somebody else was able to tell Niro what actually happened."

"Somebody else, huh?" Bow slowly nodded, as everybody else fell silent and still, watching them. "Pretty sure I have a good idea who. Yeah, I'm sorry about that. I wish I could tell you that I'd never worry you again, but I don't want to make any promises I don't think I'd be able to keep. Not to you. Never again."

"I know," she said quietly. "I've always worried about you, and I probably always will. But not as much as I used to. Not nearly as much, any more. You're dependable now, Bow. If you tell me you'll come back to me, every time... I'll believe you, every time." She giggled once. "After all, if God can't kill you, I wouldn't bet on anybody else."

"Neither would I," he agreed, smiling as well, before glancing over at the crowd. "Hey, Hanz. Did you get that thing I asked you about?"

"Yeah, Bow." Hanz walked over, gave him a small box, then backed away again.

"What's this?" Silvia asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Something I thought about a long time, on my way down there," Bow told her. "I decided, you see. That if I survived this, that if we somehow pulled it off, that it was time I grew up. Started acting responsibly. Before that, though, I figured I'd have one last hurrah. That I was going to do everything I've always wanted to do. And the one thing I want, more than anything else... is here and now." He opened the box, revealing the diamond ring inside. "Silvia Stein... will you marry me?"

"Bow..." She whispered, raising one hand to her mouth before tackling him just as strongly as Seso and Shin, eyes brimming. "Of course I will. You don't even have to ask."

"Woo-hoo!" Katt cheered, and everybody else followed suit, crowding around and congratulating them both. "All right! Now that's what I'm talking about!"

"Damn straight," Sten agreed; somewhere along the line, El had walked up next to him without anybody noticing. They weren't holding hands, but they were standing very close to each other. "Okay, that settles it. Now we have to have a party."

"Don't think anybody was arguin' against that, son!" Niro hollered, stepping out from the crowd. Though the old man's face was jovial, his eyes held an almost embarrassing amount of relief as he walked over to them. "So, you pulled it off, huh?"

"Looks like it," Ryu replied, nodding. "Tempting as it might sound, though, we probably shouldn't be in any big hurry to add, 'Godslayers,' to our resume."

"Ah, noooooooo," Niro drawled. "Anyways, everybody's all right up here, too. Took some injuries, but nobody was killed or nothin'."

"Good," Rand said, everybody but Bow looking over towards him now. "How're things looking in the rest of the world?"

"Well, they've more or less settled down," the old man reported. "We're gonna have a lot o' explainin' to do pretty soon, though. Once word gets out that yer all back, there's gonna be a bunch o' folks who'll want to talk with us. Probably best if we beat 'em to it and head down to Prima so we can go directly to the World Council."

"Most likely," Nina agreed, wincing slightly. "I don't suppose you have any idea how favorably inclined they'll be towards us?"

"Might be a few tricky bits," Niro admitted. "That whole business with the Church of St. Eva, for one. That's gonna be the hardest to sell. If we can get that one through, though, we should be able to manage the rest. It'll help that we got a lot of friends in high places these days. Duke Kilgore, General Turbo, the governor o' Nanai and the mayor o' Gate are all willin' to back us up. Not to mention the royal families o' both Windia and Sima, o' course. Plus the Ranger's Guild, too."

"That reminds me, we still need to hit them up for that zenny they promised us for taking out Barubary," Ryu recalled, snapping his fingers. "I almost forgot about that. We might end up needing it to get out of all of this."

"Hoo boy," Sten muttered. "Look, boss. If it comes to that, let me handle it, okay? Bribery's trickier than you'd think." He glanced at El, who nodded slightly, before continuing. "Turbo'll probably have the Princess backing him up, too."

"That should help," Ryu replied, keeping his face carefully neutral. "All right then, looks like we'll be taking a trip to Prima soon. Not today, though. Today, we've got more important business to take care of." He frowned. "Speaking of the Church of St. Eva, how's that going?"

"Most of the priests are still in shock," Niro reported. "That reminds me, that might actually not be as bad as we figured it would. More 'n a few of them flipped out and transformed into demons when you killed Evans, or at least I figure that's what it was. In public, too. That helped our case a bit, an' it left the rest of 'em pretty shaken. Don't think they'll be causin' any problems for us. They'll be too busy figuring out where they stand."

"We should probably see about doing something about that, too, then," Ryu said quietly, glancing over at the statue of Ladon.

"Yeah, about that." Niro coughed. "Secret's kind of out."

"Wait, what?" Patty blinked.

"He means that we all know, now," Silvia explained, glancing over. "Ladon spoke to all of us, once Evans was slain, and he's continued to do so ever since. Poor Kay and Hanz took it the hardest, but most of the rest of us adapted fairly well." Her smile turned slightly wry. "We've all grown accustomed to such things happening around all of you."

"I feel like I should say something about that, but I can't really think of anything," Spar murmured, looking slightly confused about the fact that Shin had an arm around its waist, but not protesting.

"Yeah, no." Ryu shook his head. "Not touching that one. Anyways, we'll deal with that problem later. Stick to worldly affairs, first." He glanced at Eichichi and Salvadore as they walked over, arm in arm. "Hey, guys. How's my father doing?"

"He is exhausted, but happy, mon ami," Salvadore told him. "Unfortunately, he is... how to say..." He glanced at Eichichi.

"We had to remodel the system somewhat, once he told us what he had in mind," she explained, looking unusually somber and serious for her. "I was able to do what he wanted, and it should all run successfully, but... he can't leave, now. I had to attach the system directly to his body. I wouldn't have done it if he hadn't been so..." She trailed off, lowering her head. "I'm sorry. I don't think there's any way to change it, or him, back now."

"Don't be," Patty, of all people, told her quietly. "It's what he wanted. He deserves to have something go the way he wants, even if it's like that."

"Yeah." Ryu nodded in agreement. "It's not your fault. We're both going to have to talk to him about it, but no matter how that goes, none of it's on you."

"That's what I like to hear," a familiar voice growled, and they all turned to see five old men and women climbing-or, in one case-flying-up the side of the plateau to join them. Dusting his hands off, the man who called himself Martin crossed his arms and regarded them all. "What? Don't look so surprised. We told you we'd come for the party after, didn't we?"

"We even brought presents!" Gobi beamed; somehow, he'd managed to climb with a keg under each arm. "The good stuff, too! My connections in Guntz hooked me up!"

"You did, didn't you?" Ryu remembered, smiling slightly. "Well, looks like you showed up just in time." He fell silent, then, as did everybody else, as Bo walked over to Deis.

"Hey," he said quietly.

"Hey," she replied, in the same tone. They were both silent for a moment more, staring at the ground, before her head snapped up abruptly. "Oh, to hell with it!" Before anybody could respond, she'd lunged at him, and had him bent over backwards in a fierce kiss.

"Is there something in the air around here or something?" Karn asked, though he couldn't quite hide the smile on his face.

"I'm starting to wonder," Patty grumbled. "Nobody better try anything with me."

"Screw it all," Deis said loudly once she'd broken the kiss, staring into the old man's eyes. "I've had enough of walking away. I'm not going anywhere this time, not for a damn long time. I've earned a vacation, and I'm taking it, and I'm going to do everything I always wanted to, but never got the nerve up to try until now. And anybody who's got a problem with that can kiss my scaly tail."

"A vacation, huh?" Rand asked slowly, his own face carefully blank. Baretta had walked over to him, and now placed a hand on his arm; looking at her, he smiled gratefully before continuing. "That's one way of putting it. I like it. Think we all deserve one."

"As an authority on the subject, so to speak, I would agree with that assessment," the elder Nina murmured softly, smiling.

"I'd say so myself," Ryu agreed, looking around from one of them to another, and remembering the conversation he'd had with Niro, before they'd made the decision to open the gates of Infinity. It wouldn't last forever. Nothing did. Eventually, they would all go their separate ways, back to Sima and Windia and Highland and Farmland and everywhere else, and there was nothing he could do about that. But that was tomorrow, and he'd had enough of living for that. For the first time in a very long time, all he wanted to do was live for today. That was enough. That was all he'd ever wanted.

And for the first time in a very long time, he figured it was worth a shot.

Winter was over. Spring had come.

It was well past midnight before the party started to wind down. The people of Township were jubilant, the returning heroes even moreso, and the guests from the Isle of Giants easily persuaded to follow suit. Even the villagers from Gate picked up on the mood after a while when somebody thought to bring them up, though they all bore a look of slight confusion on their faces. The only problematic point came when Nina had to explain to Azusa and Maclean that, bird or no bird, Mina was still far too young to be given ale, and that passed quickly.

Once they were into the next day, people start trickling off, either returning to their rooms to sleep or stumbling into a convenient place to pass out; the numbers were roughly equal. The man named Martin, however, had no intentions of doing so himself. He kept his drinking steady, rather than going all-out like most of the revelers, and thus was one of the few who were still at least partially sober towards the end of the party.

Only when he was confident that nobody would see him save for his own four friends did he walk over to the statue of Ladon, near the home of his successor. It had been refurbished, he noted somewhat sourly, and now looked just as they all had when he'd been young. At least they hadn't rebuilt the temple around it. That would have been too much for him to be able to stand, no matter how important it was. Sitting down next to it, he took a drink of ale and leaned back, staring up at the stars.

"Good evening, Ryu," Ladon greeted him quietly after a moment.

"Save it," he said wearily, unable for once to put any real bite into his voice. "Like I told you before, we're even, but that's all. I'm still not about to go forgiving you or anything like that."

"May I ask why you're here at all, then?" Ladon replied, still calm. "Surely there are other people you'd prefer to speak with."

"There are," Martin agreed as Nina-his Nina, not the young one-drifted casually over as well. Sitting down next to him, she put an arm around his waist, and he one around hers, so that anybody glancing at them would only see an old married couple sharing a private moment and stay away. "As a matter of fact, that's what we're doing. Waiting for him to arrive."

"Guess I shouldn't keep you waiting any more, then," the old man who called himself Spekkio, who'd once gone by the improbable name of "Uncle Specs" instead, and who'd been Ryu the Rider even before that, said gruffly as he walked out of the trees behind the house. "How'd you know I was going to come bother you?"

"We have a certain understanding of the way such things tend to go, by now," Nina told him, looking over her shoulder and smiling mischievously, the way she always had when something amused her. "Although I must admit, I'm slightly surprised to see that you actually found a way. What happened to that whole, 'unable to pass through living earth,' bit?"

"That was Evans, and his demons," Spekkio explained. "The spirit of the planet itself abhorred them, and still does. She will not permit their passage so long as she still lives, which she will as long as there is still life on her surface." Crouching slightly, he patted the grass and dirt fondly. "I'm a different story, though. I've always gotten along fairly well with her. I suppose what it comes down to is that I'm not exactly a normal man any more."

"Guess that makes enough sense," Martin said, shaking his head slowly. "Don't really understand it, but I think I get it, if you know what I mean. All right, let's make this quick for all of us. Cut to the chase. What are you here for?"

"Where's the kid?" Spekkio asked after a long, silent moment. "And the rest of his team? Are they all out already?"

"Yes, they are." Nina nodded. "We made sure they were all asleep before coming over here. It's not Evans, is it? Ganer Bateson dealt with that."

"No, it's not." Spekkio shook his head. "Although that may not last forever either. No, this is worse than that. Much worse."

"I was afraid of that," Martin muttered an oath under his breath. "We were right, then?"

"We were." Spekkio scowled, sitting down on the other side of the statue and looking up into the night. "We managed to confirm it, shortly after Evans' defeat, once he wasn't interfering with Ladon's senses any more. She still lives."

"How?" Nina asked quietly. "We should have killed her, back then. I know we should have. It wasn't like Evans. She had no intentions of running away. How did she survive?"

"By the hand of another," Ladon said grimly, speaking up again now. "An insane god of chaos, from another plane of reality entirely, who has never actually entered this world. He visited her often, though, over the thousand years in which she was imprisoned in Pagoda, in spirit rather than in form. Because he did so, rather than attempting to come directly into this world, he was able to bypass Pagoda in order to see her."

"Her lover," Martin realized, snapping his fingers. "The father of her child. I wondered about that. He saved her, then?"

"At the last moment, when she was about to pass out of reality," Ladon continued. "When she had departed this plane, he snatched her and gave her some of his own essence, in order to bring her back from the edge. After that, he took her far away, to a place beyond my sight, in order to recover. In truth, she did so long ago, but she was unable to locate this world again. Until now."

"Barubary," Nina guessed. "It was him, wasn't it?"

"Yup," Spekkio grunted. "Figures, even when he finally dies, he gets the last laugh on us. When he dedicated his death to Myria, it became a beacon of worship, one which she is already traveling towards. Her lover will still be unable to accompany her, fortunately; apparently, he's got quite the record for interfering with a lot of different planets and stirring up trouble there, usually by selecting a mortal as his chosen one. His chaos knight."

"Doesn't matter." Martin shook his head. "She won't need his help, once she gets back here. Not unless it takes her a full thousand years, and somehow, I doubt that."

"Not even close." Spekkio sighed. "We'll just have to hope the world manages to hang on long enough for a fifth to be born, and deal with her."

"What about Evans?" Nina asked, frowning. "Will she free him?"

"Most likely," Ladon said quietly. "Though I doubt she truly understands how mad he is. When she does, I suspect he will turn on her."

"Maybe we'll get lucky and they'll both wipe each other out," Martin suggested sourly.

"I wish," Spekkio agreed. "But I doubt it. No, she'll win, and the only upside of that is that she'll be able to make sure he's dead. Doubt it'll bother her, even."

"I'm not so sure," Nina disagreed. "To kill her own son might have an effect even on Myria."

"So what are we going to do about it?" Martin asked. "What are you going to do about it?"

"Me?" Spekkio smiled sadly. "I'm going to fight her, of course. What other choice do I have? She's not like Barubary. I know better than to trust her word."

"You'll die," Nina told him. "Agni Anfini only works once, and without that, you won't stand a chance."

"I know," Spekkio replied.

"So," Martin said after a long, silent moment. "That's the way it is, then."

"I'm afraid so," Ladon agreed. "I will fight as well, of course, to the extent of my power, but even then I doubt we will succeed."

"Might as well count us in, too," Martin decided. "All of us. Everybody's got to go sometime, and least this'll have style." He glanced up at the building above them. "What about those kids, then? When do we bring it up to them?"

"We don't." Spekkio shook his head. "Maybe the Grass Man, once the others are all gone, and Deis'll figure it out before long, too. But the others... no. They're done."

"Just checking," Nina assured him, before shivering slightly as a breeze blew past.

Spring had come, but it was still cold, at night.

Ryu slept. And as he slept, he dreamed. Not of the past, but of the future. Of the future of all his friends, and of himself.

He saw Patty, older and wiser, but with that same glint of mischief in her eyes, as she dashed along a rooftop, a bag over one shoulder. Flipping off the edge of the roof and into a window of the same building, she darted across the office inside, slammed the bag into a wall safe, and quickly threw on a suit. Moments later, as she sat behind a desk, guards burst in to inform her that the building had been robbed, which she responded to calmly. He saw Ganer, still encased in the device, but with a peaceful smile upon his face, and he had no idea how many years or even centuries later it was.

He saw Niro, even more ancient and withered, but still standing with his old wooden cane, though he wore an expensive black suit trimmed with gold. His beard was long and white, but it had been combed, and other men and women who looked equally rich and important were gathering around to shake his hand. He saw Spar, far in the future, standing alone on a hillside and gazing up at the stars. It seemed to be waiting for something, and as one star fell, he saw it nod to itself and tighten its grip on its whip, like an old soldier preparing for one last battle.

He saw Jean, seated upon the throne of Sima in the robes and crown of the King, Seso at his right in similar garb. Despite this, he was cheerfully drawing upon a sketchpad, while she watched him in fascination. His sister Petape, on the other hand, was discussing matters of state while sitting at his left, an arrangement which everybody seemed happy with. He saw Sten, in an immaculate white and gold uniform, sitting at a table by the side of Princess Elforan as they discussed matters of strategy with their generals, one of which was Turbo.

He saw Nina holding court as Queen of Windia, beautiful and radiant, and everybody in the throne room gazed upon her with trust and devotion, no longer caring about the black wings which she had added to the royal family's seal. He saw Rand, along with several other serious-looking Farm Clansmen and women, talking with some equally businesslike Builder Clansmen and women. The deal went well, whatever it was, and after specifying a few particulars Rand shook hands with the Builder Clan's leader.

He saw Katt traveling again, a wandering renegade once more, but the cheerful smile on her face was slightly different now, more mature and more content as well. It took him a moment to realize where she was and what she was doing, but when he did, he could only marvel as to how far she had managed to go, beyond space and time. He saw Bow, elderly and happy with Silvia at his side, posing for a portrait with children and grandchildren, and the smile on his oldest and best friend's face made everything they'd gone through worth it alone.

He saw Deis, and the implications of what he saw troubled him, in a way that none of the others had. But then he saw her face, and he saw that it was peaceful and genuinely contented, that she had finally found closure for her life, and that was enough for him. And then he saw his own future, a moment before he woke up, and he smiled as he did so, as the memory of everything he'd seen faded away, already becoming distant and foggy.

Rising, he dressed, considering his armor for a moment before shaking his head. He still wore his sword on his back, though, its sheath crossing his fishing rod, the sword of the Gold Lord. Old habits died hard, after all, and he was a creature of habit if he was anything. Tying back his hair with a strip of leather, he walked out and went downstairs.

"Morning, buddy," Bow greeted him over a mug of coffee as he walked downstairs. Katt was there as well, as was Rand, along with Patty and Niro, who were in the kitchen cooking breakfast; from the sounds of it, there was a great deal of discussion going on as to how exactly it should be done, which wasn't surprising. "Sleep well?"

"Kind of," Ryu said, pouring himself a mug of coffee that had been thoughtfully left on a tray, sparing him the need to go into the kitchen. "I had a really weird dream, but I don't really remember it much. Not bad, just weird."

"That happens sometimes," Katt told him with a shrug. "Was it the fun kind of weird, at least?"

"I think so," Ryu replied, trying to remember. "Sort of, anyways."

"Hey, that sounds like it'd be good enough for me," Sten commented, walking down and joining them with Jean close behind.

"Indeed, mon ami," Jean agreed. "Such dreams are often a source of inspiration for artists like myself."

"Pity I'm about as artistic as a duck." Ryu chuckled as they both took coffee as well. "Think the others will be up soon?"

"Nina and Spar probably will," Rand guessed. "Deis, though..."

"Actually, I think she turned in pretty early," Bow recalled. "Well, early for her at least, which isn't saying much. Still."

"Yeah, but that doesn't necessarily mean she's not gonna sleep in," Katt pointed out. "You know what she's like."

"As do we all, by now," Nina murmured, flying slowly down the stairs. "That being said, I do believe I heard motion from her room."

"That just leaves Spar," Ryu said, sipping his coffee. "Shouldn't be long, then."

"Is something going on, boss?" Sten asked, frowning.

"Not really." He shook his head. "I just figured once everybody got down here, we could talk about what we're going to do next."

"I thought we were on vacation," Rand said, raising an eyebrow. "Pretty sure that's what we decided. Pretty sure we've earned it, too."

"Well, yeah," Ryu admitted as Deis and Spar joined them, the former yawning widely. "We're not going anywhere today or anything. At least, I don't plan on it. But that doesn't mean we can't talk about what we're going to do when we do head out next, right?"

"Not to mention, some matters may not be willing to wait on our convenience," Nina pointed out. "There's still the World Council of Prima to deal with, for one. I doubt we'll be able to conceal the fact that we've returned from them for long. They may even already be aware. We'll probably have to deal with them soon."

"That does seem to be fairly likely," Spar agreed, taking its own mug; for some reason, the sight of the delicate Grass Man pouring itself a morning cup of Niro's crude coffee struck Ryu as oddly comical at that moment, though he wasn't sure why. "I must confess, I do not view the prospect entirely with trepidation. I have always wanted to visit."

"Hey, it's the only major city in the world you kids haven't gotten up to no good in yet," Deis reminded them, smiling slyly. "I'll be highly disappointed in all of us if we don't manage something while we're there. Trust me, it's a good place for it."

"Ah, of course, you have been there on multiple occasions," Jean said. "Tell me, what is the famed undersea metropolis truly like?"

"Let me put it this way," she told him. "Hold on to your wallet, and get ready to haggle. No matter what you do, never take the offered price."

"Hoo boy," Ryu muttered, taking a seat. "Anyways, there's also the matter of our next job to talk about. We'll want to take some time off before that, but eventually, it's going to come up. It might be a good idea to talk about our options, at least. I get the feeling that with our history, we're probably going to get some very interesting offers."

"An eminently practical suggestion," Spar said, as they all followed suit; Ryu noted idly that Niro had already found another chair for Patty. "I find myself in full agreement."

"All right, breakfast's up!" Niro hollered out. "Get on out there, you! I'll take it from here!"

"Don't blame me if it tastes like crap!" Patty yelled back, shaking her head as she joined them. "Sheesh. Where did you find that guy, Ryu?"

"It's a long story," Ryu said, smiling as she took her seat and Niro walked out, bearing plates.

Spring had come. It was a brand new day, and they faced it together.

Author's Note

In the immortal words of George R.R. Martin, this one was a bitch. And this Author's Note is going to be a bitch. In the good way, of course, on both counts, but a bitch all the same.

I've always been a fan of Breath Of Fire 2. When I was a knee-high brat with a Super Nintendo, I gloried in what I still consider to be the golden age of RPGs. I have my favorites from generations both prior and post, but the SNES-and to a lesser extent the Genesis-were the high point of that particular genre, the days of the best and the brightest. Final Fantasy's greatest came in those days, culminating in the crown jewel of the series. Earthbound, Secret of Mana, Secret of Evermore, Shining Force, Shadowrun, even Super Mario RPG. And, of course, Chrono Trigger, which is still my all-time favorite, and the best video game ever made in my opinion.

Compared to many of these, the two Breath Of Fire games were somewhat unremarkable at first glance. They were fun, but so were all the others, and the nigh-incomprehensible translation didn't exactly help matters. I saw something in them, though, and when I chose to keep going and play them out, my dedication was rewarded. Breath Of Fire 2, in particular, is to this day second only to Chrono Trigger in my book. Despite the translation, despite numerous programming defects that I assume came from being rushed through production, it's a hell of a game.

I wrote Breath Of Fire: War Of The Dragons seven years ago, and when I did I was already toying with the idea of a sequel, though I wasn't quite ready to commit yet; despite my love for the game, I could tell that doing it right would be a massive undertaking, far more than anything else I'd ever written before (okay, if I'd done Chrono Trigger right, maybe that one would have been longer, but it would have been close). Only when I decided to write sequels to two other early works of mine, set in the worlds of Zelda and Metroid, did I start planning for this one in earnest as well.

For obvious reasons, I decided to save Breath Of Fire 2 for last, and looking back I think that was the right decision for several reasons. Firstly, it gave me more time to grow as a writer, and for my skills to develop to the necessary point to make this one work. This was a big one for me, and it was important that it came out right. For another, again, this one was huge. Three books, forty-two chapters (plus a prologue, an epilogue and two intermissions), nearly seven hundred thousand words, almost two years, and a lot of beer later, here I am. Yikes. Not bad for fanfiction, huh?

What really attracted me about Breath Of Fire 2, even back in the day, was the focus on the team. Being able to talk with your party members back at your home base and get their opinions on what was going on in the story at the time had been done before, but in that regard it even outdid Chrono Trigger; there was a surprising amount of depth and complexity to that aspect, as well as everybody's dialogue throughout the rest of the game as well.

Ryu is the protagonist, but as Zog said, they're all equally important. Bow, Katt, Rand, Nina, Sten, Jean, Spar and Deis are all complex characters in their own right, and if some of their story arcs are less developed than others, the implications towards more are still there. In fact, the game is fairly clear that the world doesn't revolve around you; there's a lot going on in many other places that Ryu just plain isn't there to see, and that includes how the team interacts with each other as well. I tried to convey that, particularly with the citizens of Township, though I'm not sure how well I succeeded.

The game never comes right out and calls the team mercenaries, but it doesn't really put any particular effort into hiding it either; to my eyes, it was always fairly obvious, so I didn't even bother trying to hide it. The world of Breath Of Fire, in general, always seemed to be more "low" fantasy than "high," more Conan the Barbarian than King Arthur (although that's no excuse for that cover art, thank you, Capcom). Ryu and his team are somewhat of a bunch of antiheroes, but that's understandable, the way they grew up, and they're still clearly the good guys.

I love the game's overall plot, too; it might seem like it's been done a million times before, but back in 1996 when I was still throwing my schoolbooks in the trash (yeah, I got grounded for the next millennium for that one), it was a completely new concept to me. Or, as a certain girl of my acquaintance who's looking over my shoulder and offering commentary at this very moment puts it, Breath Of Fire 2 did the "God Is Evil" thing before it was cool. Whether or not that's true is up to opinion, but it certainly sold me, and her as well when I got her to play it years later.

In short, it's a game that needs a lot more love; it had a fairly strong dark horse following online some time ago, but that seems to have faded over the years, probably because the series hasn't put out a new game in more than a decade (V does not count; it was a clusterfuck in every sense of the word, obviously has nothing to do with the main series whatsoever, and whatever ibogaine-addled braintrust decided to awkwardly shoehorn it into a once-great series ought to be chucked into a printing press and sold as "discount used gorno mags."). Not really surprising, the way Capcom's gone down the shitter.

I don't know how much interest, if any, this one will stir up among either old fans who stopped caring years ago or new ones who've never actually tried it before, but in that regard, any success at all is enough for me. Actually, even without that, this was worth it. As exhausting as this was, as many times I stayed up late at the keyboard and went into work yawning the next day, it was just plain fun to write, and in my book that's what's really important. Who cares if it's not going to get published? Who cares if it's fanfiction? Not me. All I care about is that I like it. That's my motto in general, really.

If there's a moral to this story, I suppose that's what it comes down to. The world might be a shithole, both Ryu's world and our own, but there's good in there along with the bad. If you're honestly looking, you'll find something to enjoy. Everybody can. The trick is to put in the necessary effort to find it. Nobody promised us easy, and nothing comes for free, but if you stick it out you'll find it. It might not be the answer, it probably won't make all your dreams come true, but it'll make it worth it to keep getting up every morning, and that's about all I'm asking for.

I'll admit, I kind of reached a little in a few places, especially with the pantheon (The mention of Chaos, by the way, is something of a long-running in-joke between the aforementioned girl and me; try not to take it too seriously). The cameo of the Tiamat Unit is somewhat self-indulgent as well, I'm aware. In both cases, I considered the matter for a long time before saying "to hell with it," and decided to go all-out, damn the torpedos and full speed ahead. In the end, I'm satisfied with that decision, and if somebody doesn't agree with that, well, I can't please everyone.

It's been a hell of a couple years, for me. I moved to a new condo, lost my job when HQ went bankrupt, spent several months on the dole before finding another, and am now biting the bullet and finally giving my long-term future some actual consideration as opposed to sticking with, "Will this paycheck give me enough leeway for some booze, and if so, how much?" Part of that involved me, unfortunately, having no choice but to call an unceremonious halt following Book 2 for several months. For that, I apologize, but there was no way around it. Sometimes real life takes precedence, and a lot was going on at the time.

To make matters worse, in a spectacular display of my below-average intelligence, I made the foolish decision to throw up a preview of my next work on June 4 of last year, promising that I would continue it exactly one year later, a date of major significance in that particular series. At the time, I assumed I'd be finished, or close enough, that it wouldn't cause much of a problem. WRONGO. Instead, I've been forced to try and keep them both regularly updated side-by-side over the last four months, a decision which contributed greatly to already-present anger management problems.

In the end, I came close, but wasn't quite able to pull it out on time (the aforementioned hiatus aside). I suppose I should be glad that I'm only throwing this up two days after I wanted to, but it's still irritating. Ah well, them's the breaks, and with this one out of the way the other project should be much less aggravating, with any luck. Not to mention, I'll actually be able to get back to side projects, both public and personal, as well as planning for the future, writing-wise.

This seems like a good point to talk about that, so I might as well. At the moment, I'm working on Mega Man X: Ghosts Of The Machine. If you have any interest at all in the series, take a look; I'm aware that it starts off a little slow, but there's a reason for that, and I think there's enough there to keep it interesting long enough for the pace to pick up, at which point... well, let's not spoil anything, shall we? I've put a ridiculous amount of effort into setting everything up for it over several years now, and so has another author by the name of Erico, who's somewhat more well-known than I.

Trust me. It'll be worth it.

For that matter, we're both working with several other authors on collaborative effort, Mega Man X: Maverick Hunters, which I really need to get back to. There's only one chapter up so far, but with luck a second one will be along fairly soon, so take a look at that too, if you've got the time. As for the long-term, I'm currently planning another collaboration with another prospective author of my acquaintance, but I'm not spilling any of the details on that one. That's a matter for the future, as is one more solo work, way down the line. That one's gonna be a while.

It's that last one which will most likely be what could be called my "swan song," in the world of fanfiction, something which several long-time readers have been picking up on. It's been fun, but I don't want to write fanfiction all my life, and I think I'm almost to the point where I'm ready to try getting something original published. Of course, knowing the publishing industry it'll probably be the better part of a decade before I actually succeed, but that still starts with me actually getting the stories written, and I'm starting to cobble together a couple possible ideas.

On that note, I'm afraid that anybody asking me for a novelization of Breath Of Fire 3 or 4 is going to be disappointed. I'm only human, and I've only got so much time, just like anybody else. It'd be fun, as would what I've taken to calling Breath Of Fire Zero, AKA the First Dragon War that serves as the backstory for Breath Of Fire 1, but I just don't have the time for it. That being said, just for the hell of it, here's my personal timeline for the series in condensed form. Note that the years given are not actually "in-canon" dates; I'm just using them to give a general idea of the basic timeframe.
1000 BC: Breath of Fire 4. The world was an entirely different place, almost completely unrecognizable from what it would become in later games, save for the slow evolution of new Clans. The Endless (aka, Gods) had not yet truly made their mark on the world yet; all three who had come to the world (Ladon, Myria and Deis, who is technically a Demigoddess who COULD become fully "immortal" any time she wanted to, and doesn't for reasons of her own) were still learning about it. Advanced technology flourished, which Myria in particular would take a strong interest in. Eventually, some sort of cataclysm would occur, which would shatter society all over the world and cause a huge regression, after which the term "lost technology" would be coined to refer to surviving remnants from the fallen era.
*Author's Note: Yeah, you're going to have to use your imagination for what the hell could have happened to revert society back about two thousand years, technologically. Even I don't have an answer for that one, but something happened.

0 BC/AD: Breath Of Fire Zero. The First Dragon War, referred to in the backstory of Breath Of Fire 1 and 3. This is the first real example of "the system" that fate and destiny use to resolve capital-p Problems showing up. Specifically, Myria, who at this point is turning all the nations of the world against each other for her own amusement, resulting in war and death all over the place. Enter the second Nina, a determined young princess from one of the most civilized nations, who goes to seek an alliance with the scion of one of the least, a bandit chief and wildman who just so happens to be the second Ryu.

Eventually, with the help of five more friends (including Deis, who's doing the whole "sleep for centuries then wake up to save the world" thing for the first time), they end up both defeating the Dark Dragon Empire, who were the primary instigators, and exposing Myria as the source of the evil. This prompts her to retreat to her personal flying fortress of Obelisk and call up her secret servants, the demons of Infinity.
Ryu, Nina and their friends led a massive frontal assault on Obelisk, one joined by all the nations of the world, even the remnants of the Dark Dragon Empire; Gandaroof, who was a Grass Man at this time, is a veteran of that battle, as are the Demon Lords Barubary, Aruhameral and Kuwadora (Habaruku/Yuna was busy elsewhere at the time, naturally). Through the use of Agni Anfini, the heroes were able to defeat Myria, though not to slay her. Instead, with Ladon's direct assistance, they sealed her in the island fortress of Pagoda, locked away by seven artifacts known as the Goddess Keys.
*Author's Note: In case it wasn't obvious, I actually have just as clear a mental picture in my head of how this one went, start to finish, as the other two games. If I had forever, it'd be nice to write this one out, but alas...

1000 AD: Breath Of Fire 1, aka the Second Dragon War. A thousand years have passed since the First, weakening the seal on Pagoda slightly, enough for Myria's spirit to reach out and corrupt a pair of promising Dark Dragon youths who believed themselves to be their nation's hope (how exactly she did this is unknown; it's possible Habaruku/Yuna may have been involved, as that seems like the kind of thing he'd do).

One of these men was the Crown Prince, and the other a high-ranking noble's son, his most trusted friend. They would become Emperor Zog and Jade, the Gold Lord, commander of the Empire's ultra-powered arch-freak team, the Tiamat Unit. Along with corrupting him, Jade's Myria-induced visions led him to each member in turn, at which point the insanity would spread to each of them as well; Cerl, the White Assassin, Cort, the Blue Alchemist, Goda, the Black Warrior, and Mote, the Red Dreamer (who was barely old enough to walk at that point).

The five of them, each a one-man army in his own right, would "avenge" a troubled past on Cerl's part due to discrimination for her half-Dark Dragon blood by PERSONALLY committing genocide against her mother's people, the Fusion Clan, the Empire's closest geographical neighbors. With this action, the Dark Dragon Empire boldly announces its intentions; world domination, and the freedom of Myria.
Only once the entire western half of the world was under their control, and major action was set into motion against each remaining nation in the east, did Zog and Jade make their fatal mistake; launching a preemptive strike against the Light Dragons, who until that point had been living in rural isolation, unlike their ambitious cousins. There would be two results of that attack. First, Jade would discover among his final recruit, the last member destined to join the Tiamat Unit. Sara, the Silver Priestess, elder sister of The Third Ryu, who would be corrupted into insanity like the others.

The other was to gain the hatred of said Third Ryu, who immediately set off on a solitary journey to bring down the Dark Dragon Empire, rescue his sister and kill Emperor Zog. The first stage of his journey was set in the eastern half in the world, where one by one, he traveled to each country currently undergoing Dark Dragon military aggression and repel them, while reinforcing the need of said countries to form an alliance against the Empire.

In the process, he gained allies from most of the nations in question, before moving on to do so as well in the country of Gant, which had been previously conquered. By freeing Gant from Dark Dragon occupation and winning a decisive battle outside the gates of the undersea city-state of Prima, The Third Ryu, The Third Nina, Deis, and four more heroes made it undeniably clear that they were a threat to the entire Empire.
In response, Emperor Zog deployed the Tiamat Unit in Ryu's path as he continued his rampage, now in the lands of the west. One by one, he freed those nations as well, recruiting the last member of his team in the process. One by one, three members of the Tiamat Unit fell before him. At the same time, he continued gathering the Goddess Keys, until six were in his hands and only one remained in those of Zog's.

Unfortunately, when they finally reached Scande, Jade was able to manipulate him into slaying Zog (it seemed even the Gold Lord feared the Emperor's power in a confrontation) before handing over the Goddess Keys to Sara, whose betrayal they were unaware of until too late. Sara then proceeded to give her life holding the heroes off while Jade and Goda awakened Myria, who resurrected Obelisk. With nothing to lose, the heroes launched a desperate final strike with the intent of killing all three, and despite the odds, they succeeded. The world was saved, and a Goddess was slain.
*Author's Note: It's been seven years since I wrote this one, and there's been significant style change since then. In some ways, this story is more of a spiritual successor than a literal one to that story; there are several discrepancies, mainly things I now notice I failed to convey adequately back then, but decided to roll with as if I had anyways.

2000 AD: Breath Of Fire 2. You already know this one; it's what you've been reading.
*Author's Note: Duh.

3000 AD: Breath Of Fire 3. The end of this 'fic provided some foreshadowing as to what's going to happen in the next thousand years to set the stage for this game; use your imagination.

*Author's Note: Yeah, I'm actually content with this one ending the series.

Right then. Now that that's out of the way, it's time to proceed to something more interesting. Namely, reader feedback, and answering questions, at least those which aren't A. already answered by the story itself at a later point from when they were asked and B. aren't the incoherent blatherings of a total shit (yeah, that happened, unfortunately. I dealt with it). There'll be a lot of them this time, but that's to be expected, for obvious reasons.

Cypsiman2 spotted a geographical error I made, which I corrected; thanks. Other errors in typography were spotted by Prinny333, Anmynous, and The Supreme Dragon Knight (in unrelated news, I may need a proofreader for the industry). WhiteFangOfWar pointed out that I have a tendency to write a world of wiseass characters, which... I will plead guilty to. Call it my Zelazny and Eddings influence showing through (not to mention Martin, Butcher and Sanderson). The worst part is, I actually wasn't trying to write Rand, Mina, and Elder Allen as wiseasses (especially not Mina), but somehow, it still came through automatically (seriously? Mina? Am I really that bad, guys?)

That being said, I did put a major effort into giving all of the major characters unique personalities, and distinct speech patterns; which is to say, if a line from Sten could have been easily spoken by Rand instead, I'd rewrite it. Hopefully that at least made all their patterns of wisecracks distinctive? I definitely didn't want to write Nina and Katt with the same sense of humor. And yes, Nina does have a sense of humor in-game, even with that translation. Hers is one of the most subtle of all the characters, even more than Jean's, but it's there.

Really, Windia is an early indication that yeah, this story's going to be complex, and it's not going to be pleasant. One of the things I love about Breath Of Fire is how complicated the worldbuilding actually was. Each society and nation was distinct, the geography was highly detailed, hell, even the random monster encounters practically formed an actual ecology. That being said, being "low" fantasy, that highly detailed world isn't a particularly pleasant one to live in. This game got a lot past the radar, back in the day, and not just in the obvious ways, either.

Bonar points something important out, if you want to get into this sort of thing for real one day; make sure your worlds are geographically accurate. Don't try and get away with having your characters travel across the world on foot in a month, or hell, in a lot of months. When it comes to covering great amounts of distance, you're gonna need some other method of travel. He and Anmynous also bring up my inclusion of the Renew spell, for which I can only say that I prefer explaining a game mechanic to pretending it doesn't exist, which I'm sure is noticeable by now.

Anmynous also asks about Faraday Cages, but I'm pretty sure nobody's ever tried one of those that's solid plate in contact with your body from head to toe, and I don't think they'd want to. Then again, I got a C- in loser school science, so I might not be the best person to ask about that. Still, pretty sure. And as for his comment on Patty, it's been ten years, and she didn't have her wings back then. Dragon's Tongue pointed out that I look upon all the characters, with Jean, with equal favor; he might be the Krillin, but he's the Krillin of this team, and yes, he really is smarter than he acts, if not much.

WhiteFangOfWar pointed that out that as well, along with how the whole thing with the Demon Lords having a verbal tic of saying their own names started with a bad Metal Gear Solid 3 joke, but I actually ended up liking the effect with Kuwadora so much I spread it to Shupukay, Aruhameral, Necromanson and Habaruku too (while I'm on the note of the demon lords, you might note that I abused the translation for them, in order to make their names sound as Lovecraft-y as possible. It actually works, I think, so hey, silver linings).

He and Cypsiman2 also pointed out that of all the demons in the game, I always found Trout to be more pathetic than threatening, and made use of that impression (using M.C. Tusk for comedic purposes later on, which Ngrey651 and WhiteFangOfWar comment on, is an entirely different thing). Prinny333 points out something else I try to keep up with in terms of realism these days; live like this, and you'll have long-term damage, even with white magic. The small stuff that's left over does still accumulate.

A lot of people had various opinions on the recap at the beginning of book three, while the one in book two went unremarked on, strangely. Still, some of them did actually figure out what I was going for there. If/when I get published, if I get a series, it actually is important to include something like that for people who start with a later book. They do exist, especially in libraries, where the entire series might not be available. Granted, that's not the case here, but I divided this story into three books for a reason; I'm doing this as practice for when I try to get published, and that means writing it like I will when I do.

A lot of people also had opinions on how the fight with Tiga went, which was a new one on me; as I commented to my friends, "This is the first time my readers have gotten pissed off at me for being too accurate." Guys, that's how it goes in the game. Tiga steamrolls you, and even if you use items to keep it going for a while, it's obvious that he's kicking your ass into next week and making plans to be there then so you land on his foot for a field goal. He's meant to be far stronger than Ryu, and to shatter his (and your) belief that he can take anything, if it's really important.

Several people noticed another thing; specifically, that I tended to "buff up" the Demon Lords in their fights for dramatic purposes. This, I'll plead guilty to, though the only one I consider to be gratuitous is Aruhameral; Kuwadora and Necromanson barely needed much, and Barubary... yeah, no. Habaruku and Shupukay, on the other hand, don't need as much as you'd think; the ease with which their fights normally go has to do with flaws in the game's enemy AI rather than their actual repertoire of spells, like most "magic" bosses. If Habaruku decides to spam Missile or Bolt-X, you're going down.

Another often-commented on point brings up the fact that I went with the "good" ending. Really, in my mind, there was no choice in the matter at all. I've been called a "dark" author, although I prefer to think of myself as a realist, which is a different thing from being a cynic (but don't they all?). With that in mind, I actually have a weak spot for happy endings. And not having gotten a chance to write one in years (my last three 'fics all had either downers or bittersweets), yeah, I wasn't gonna do that to these guys.

DragonRaiderX9 suggested that I need a forum, which... I will admit to being flattered by, but come on, guys. I think it's safe to say I have a little bit of a rep by now, but I don't think it's quite large enough to justify that. Seriously, none of these even have so much as a Tvtropes page, not even this one. On the note of feeling complimented, skygunner58203 brought up that a friend of his apparently prints this out to read to his kids, which... I'm also flattered by, but since that came in response to a chapter containing the most gratuitously violent death scene I've ever written, er... yeah...

In the previously mentioned spirit of "What the hell, go with it," I went ahead and threw in a Fate/Stay Night joke in reference to the High Priest's name of "Ryu Rider." Hey, I had to say something about those five guys, and the titles were matchable to the mural of those seven in Breath Of Fire 3. Between that and the Tengen Toppen Gurren Lagaan reference (and a lot more, too) it should be apparent by now that I might not watch or read as much anime and manga as a lot of people on the internet, but when I do, it's the well-written stuff (One Piece 4 Lief, Yo (Ho Ho)).

I've already remarked on the blatant self-indulgence which was the Tiamat Unit's cameo, which I suppose was fairly noticeable, but oh well, it worked out even better than I'd hoped. Detective Dorian pointed out something of a personal credo of mine; I finish what I start, no matter how long it takes, and I do my damn best to keep it on a schedule. This, again, is something I figure is gonna be important to be able to do, if I want to get published.

Finally, the Bad Hat Hooligan figured out the direction I tried to go with Ladon, who had no personality at all in the game, leaving me to work with him completely from scratch. Ladon is good, but flawed. He's made decisions he regrets, but he made them anyways, and yet he does everything he can to make up for them all the same. I think it's an interesting route for the "Father" of a pantheon. On that note, I have things on all the principle characters I meant to convey. I even wrote character essays on each member of the team, and the profiles in my notes are the most extensive I've ever written.

Niro, like Ladon, was more or less mine to do with as I pleased, and so I went with the "ordinary bloke mentor with a much more interesting past than you'd think, although it's never revealed, just hinted at." Needless to say, none of that was in the game, but I wanted to make it apparent that yes, he really is a member of the team as well. I also gave expanded roles to Patty, Ray and Tiga, maintaining the spirit of the former's identity while still doing something about it in the ending, expanding the second's relationships with the party, and humanizing the third's mistakes.

Deis is more complicated. I always saw her somewhat flat character in 2, as opposed to her more active personality in one, as something akin to a mask she puts on to hide the fact that her long lifespan is finally getting to her. I figured that bringing that out, and expanding on everything she's been through, would be the best way to develop her. On a similar note, Spar is a highly intelligent, coldly logical member of a species completely alien to society even in this world, and it's worth noticing when it overcomes that gap towards the end of the game.

Jean, as mentioned before, is the "joke" character, but even he has secret potential, if you know the secret. I did my best to portray that while keeping the comic relief aspect intact; like Gobi in War Of The Dragons, he's the most likely to get smacked around. Sten, on the other hand, is a deadly serious character despite his position as the jokester trickster. The part of the game dealing with Highland is brutal, as anything dealing realistically with the horrors of war and "shell shock" is by necessity, and I chose to drive up how different Sten was before then.

Nina is commonly viewed as one of the most "morally good" team members, but like Deis, I always saw that as more of a front than anything. She can, in fact, be cold and sarcastic at times, and deep down inside she's an incredibly depressed and cynical girl. This is a strong hint that even though she grew up much more privileged than most of the rest of the team, she's got a past that's just as nasty, if not worse.

Rand is more simple, but I tried to do what I could even with him, making him the voice of common sense and reason who's surrounded by teenagers and people who act like teenagers. That being said, his Namandian faith and his more pacifistic nature than the others were fun to work with, and he's never going to be the same as before he discovered his own killer instinct at a far later age than the rest of them.

Katt's development in the game was mostly focused around Tiga, so here I tried to give her more while keeping her personality consistent as the habitually cheerful, highly violent girl with anger management issues in opposition to basic optimism despite (or perhaps in spite of) how hard her life's been. Note that she's the only one in the group who has absolutely no given backstory whatsoever (aside from Niro), and also that she's the only one whose distant future is anybody's guess. I had fun with that one, and no, I'm not going to explain it. Interpret it as you will.

Bow gets a lot more characterization early on, so with him it was simply a matter of continuing it. He's a positive version of the Artful Dodger, a cheerful teenage rogue who's constantly swearing he'll go straight, honest, after this one last job. And he actually does try, it's just harder than he thought it would be. Giving Silvia a greater role in the story worked well towards expanding Bow's willingness to settle down, and how he grows because of that.

Finally, we have Ryu Bateson himself. What can I say about him that hasn't already been said? He's an optimist, unlike most of my heroes (although I might not have portrayed that entirely correctly). He grew up rough and tough, and because of that he's casually homicidal on occasion, but he's got a sense of humor and he's honest about who he is. All he really wants and needs is another family like the one he lost, and over time he builds one for himself, though the color of his Dragon's Tear when pointed at himself shows his self-confidence as not much higher than Nina's.

He just hides his issues better, is all, and he's sure as hell got issues. Everybody in the party does. Shitloads of 'em. But that's understandable, really, with the kind of lives they've led. Rather than magically overcoming those issues, I prefer to write how people come to terms with them, accept them, and figure out how to be high-functioning regardless. It's probably not mentally healthy, but sometimes, it's all you can do. That, and find people who know what it's like and accept you, which is a major theme of this story. These people need each other. Desperately. It shows. There are worse things in life.

Now then, it seems some thank-yous are in order, to some longtime friends of mine and one or two others as well. Erico, my mentor, who's trudging the same road of contemplating wrestling with the publishing industry as me; you may not actually read this one, Bardman, but I owe you all the same, just for everything you taught me. By the same token, Quill, I told you before that you were a major influence on this one, and I meant it. All the additional focus on characterization was because I saw how well it worked in your stuff, and you've done wonders for my grammar and style as well.

Matt, amigo, as always I appreciate your conversation, your comments, and your occasional criticism, no matter how much I grumble and growl. Audrey, if you ever read this, this one wouldn't have been the same without throwing crazy ideas about this series back and forth with you for all these years. One last thank-you goes to Ben Siron, even if I know he'll never read this; his incredibly comprehensive encyclopedia on GameFAQs was unbelievably useful.

Oh, and there's some crazy girl who keeps coming around here too, who helped me with ideas, drew me some fanart that she refuses to put online, and teamed up with me to create a Character Songtrack, which is a personal first for me (it's twenty-six songs on two CDs, and contains more than a dozen different genres, though our personal tastes inclined towards heavy metal and punk rock show. I'd put the list in this Author's Note, but I'm pretty sure that same dumbass policy against "lists" I got busted for eight years ago is still in effect, and I don't want to go down twice for that). Thanks, I guess.

What else is there to say? Ah, yes, there's still the matter of the Love Triangle. Specifically, with how I didn't resolve it. Again, sorry, but that's how it goes, in the game. It doesn't say who. Thus, if I wanted to keep it accurate, I had to keep it perfectly balanced all the way to the end. I hope I managed to pull that off; it was interesting, at least, and I learned a lot about writing romance. I do, in fact, have an opinion on the matter, but I did my best to stay neutral; fortunately, that opinion is balanced out by my personal taste in women, which is in the opposite direction. And no, I'm not saying which is which. Figure it out yourself.

All right, almost done, and if you actually cared enough to keep reading this far, good on you; I know a lot of readers don't even bother with my Author's Notes, and while that normally irritates me, looking at this one, I could understand that sentiment. Before I finish it off, though, there's one last thing. Give it to me honestly, folks. How'd I do? Good? Bad? How was the main plot, the characterization, the romance, the action, the drama, the suspense? What are my strengths, and what are my weaknesses? I don't care if it's criticism, as long as it's constructive; I can take it.

More importantly, I need it, if I'm going to continue to improve. And that is something else in which the choice is obvious, to me. From this, and from everything else I've written. If you liked this one, but haven't read anything else by me, give some of the others a shot when you have the time (just... start with my more recent stuff. Please). I might not have put quite as much depth into them as I did this, but I still did pretty good.

On a final note, thanks, guys, for sticking with me this long. I may not be the most talkative guy in the world, by inclination; I'm the silent type, in any context, unless I'm doing my "Uncle Mikey" schtick (long story). But I appreciate it, all the same, even if I don't say much. Maybe sometime soon, I'll be able to figure out a way of communicating with my (couple dozen) readers more frequently than Author's Notes and profile updates. In the meantime, shoot me a PM any time you want. I promise, I don't bite unless you sign the form.

All right, that about does it, and tomorrow's going to suck ass at work because of sleep deprivation, but I figured I'd kept you all waiting long enough as it was. If you'll excuse me, I should probably do what I can about that. See yas all around, at least until the nukes fall. I'm off to start a political blog in which I throw scathing insults towards everybody on the entire modern spectrum, no matter their alignment, with the sole exception of Jesse Ventura. Or maybe I'll just get blasted on whiskey and pass out. Yeah, that should just about do it. I'm done.

~Magus523, October 10, 2012