THE CRAVE GAMING CHANNEL
V'lanna
 

Requiem

By Christopher Ng
Screamer14@xoommail.com



A few notes. First off: the character art and sprites for Final Fantasy IV leaves, to my mind, a lot to be desired, mostly in terms of specifics, so a lot of their appearances are conjecture. For instance, I'm guessing that Rosa has blond hair; the sprite and her status bar picture contradict: pink in the sprite and this awkward green in the picture. Practically the only thing I'm sure of is that Kain/Karn has blond hair. (And Rydiaās hair being green as well, but I take objection to the idea of green hair.)

Second off: again, I use my own names in this story, I guess just because I like being different. It should be fairly obvious who everyone is; if not, hereās a handy translation. Any names left out are unchanged.

                                    GAME                                 STORY
                                    Cecil                                  Gareth (thanks WoT)
                                    Kain                                   Karn (thanks M:tG)
                                    Rydia                                  Rynelle
                                    Cid                                     Dalen
                                    Palom                                 Kalynn
                                    Porom                                 Coren
                                    FuSoYa                               FuYoSa (what a difference)

Third: I have nothing against Rosa. I have nothing against Karn. I like the characters in FFIV. So no flames, please. Just because I gore them, betray them and have them controlled by Zeromus ver. 2.0 doesn't mean I don't like them. However, I do have something against the way Karn is generally portrayed in other fanfics Iāve read. I think the character has a lot more potential than to just plod along in obscurity behind Cecil and Rosa, and I don't often see people exploiting that possibility. Of course, I'm not exploiting all of it either, but I've tried to get as much of it as I can.  So, here is my story.
 
 
 
 
 
 

I stand on a cliff, overlooking the verdant, bustling kingdom of Baron. The setting sun is at my face, bathing the realm in burnished gold, lighting the roofs and terraces and the flying towers of Castle Baron.

It is a beautiful sight, awe-inspiring almost, and I wonder if it is really Baron I hate, or my role in destroying it.

For Baron, though it is rapt in celebration, is still shuddering and shaking from the sudden start it has taken. For Golbez killed their king·

For he told me to kill their king·

And I did.

What choice did I have? I was rapt as well, controlled by Zemus, that horrible leering demon face from the moon. The real king, controlled to a limited extent, was rebelling against Zemus. Golbez told me to kill the king, and so I did.

I will never forget that moment÷my lance piercing his chest, blood pooling like water flooding an empty lakebed, his face pale and aghast and stained with blood. His feeble, broken body sliding to the floor.

I laughed, I think.

I shudder now. The memory haunts me, that and a hundred, a thousand others, that recur as nightmares, as sudden flashbacks. They torment me, the memories, drifting around me, caressing me with their skitterish laughter.

A chill wind blows, rattling my blue-purple armor and its distinctive wing-like cape and setting the streamers on the town below fluttering wildly. Baron is done up for celebration; King Gareth, the savior of the world, and Queen Rosa, his wife, the White Wizard, were married about a week ago, and the festivities are just winding down. The two are about to make their first public appearance as king and queen, husband and wife. The ceremonies have been long and, I imagine, stifling. Gareth and Rosa probably just want to get away and spend some time alone together; which is probably why it has taken them a week to return.

The new chancellor has been working the crowds like a recalcitrant organ in a church, pounding them to greater and higher heights. "Hail King Gareth," he cries, and the crowd obediently responds, "Hail King Gareth!"

"Hail Queen Rosa!"

"Hail King Yang of Fabul!"

"Hail Dalen, Master Engineer of the Red Wings!"

"Hail Edge, King of Eblan!"

"Hail Rynelle, Caller of Mist!"

"Hail Edward, King of Damcyan!"

"Hail Kalynn and Coren, Wizards of Mysidia!"

At this point, all of the above are emerging from the Falcon, one by one÷I can imagine Coren muttering about how he should be called 'The Mysidian Genius' instead of a plain wizard÷but the Chancellor has been yelling about others, too:

"Hail FuSoYa, Lunarian!"

"Hail KluYa, Lunarian, father of our great king!"

"Hail Tellah, the Sage!"

And on and on and on, the crowd yelling louder and louder with every cry.

Of course, there are people whose names aren't called: the innkeepers, for example, or Golbez or that dancing girl in Mysidia.

But mine is one of them.

No "Hail Karn, Dragoon!" for me.

I wonder if the Chancellor just doesn't like me, or if it's the whole town that doesn't like me.

I figure it's the town.

Tellah died in the Tower of Zot, wasting his life in a futile push for revenge. Kalynn and Coren petrified themselves to stop a booby trap when they could've just dashed out the door. Rynelle disappeared for almost two weeks in the Land of Summoned Monsters, came back as a young woman.

Who stood by Gareth's side in the battle through the Moon's subterranean passages? Who helped fight Zeromus? Who led the entire party out of the Giant of Bab-il and in that way saved the world himself? Who went in with the remaining warriors and helped clear the Tower, so people could use it to travel to the Underground?

And who doesn't care?

Answers to questions 1 through 4: Karn, Dragoon.

Answer to question 5: everyone.

It is time for me to leave.

I lived in the castle, for a time. I was a liability on the servants, and they looked at me strangely. Soon I realized that they were afraid of me. They scurried out of the room when I came in. I couldn't stand it. I couldn't stand myself.

I told Gareth and Rosa÷and myself÷that I wanted to strengthen myself to become a true Dragoon. That is not the truth.

I want to die.

I step forward to the edge of the cliff and look down. It is a long way to the bottom; probably the biggest cliff in all of Baron. It will be a painful death, but it is all I deserve.

It is all they want to give me.

I have already set my helmet and spear aside; I would remove my armor, too, but it will provide more weight than stifle the impact at the bottom.

There is nothing more to do.

One of the things they trained us to do in Dragoon Academy was to face death without fear. Looking down the cliffside, I see the spot where I will probably impact, and I feel no qualms about doing so. The fact that in a few moments I will be splattered across a few yards of gravelly ground is just that, a fact.

I jump.

The wind whistles past my ears and my body, and again I relive the joy of flying, a thrill of pleasure I feel every time I take to the air. I think it is fitting that my last moments will be soaring through the air under my own power.

Looking down, I suddenly realize I have miscalculated.

For standing not far from my intended landing site is a woman.

At this distance, she is little more than a blob; it is only after she looks up and I catch long blond-auburn tresses that I realize it is a woman. Now she is a face, gaping in amazement, with a light pink skirt swirling around under her. From what little I can see of her (face and hair) I think she is quite beautiful.

The cliffside is reeling away beside me; there is nothing for me to grab, nothing for me to halt my fall with. And to make matters worse, the wind is blowing me off course.

I will hit the woman. That is not good.

At least there won't be much left for anyone to find; just a mismatched pile of human remains, battered beyond recognition and probably distorted even more by carrion creatures and bugs.

And I think that it is fitting that as I shuffle off this mortal coil, I should take another life with me.

If there's a heaven, and we meet, she'll probably kill me.

All this flashes through my mind in a second. Then the woman vaults out of the way, grabbing her skirt with one hand and steadying herself against a rock with the other. I smile faintly÷perhaps I will be redeemed.

Then there is no more time for thought, for I hit bottom.
 
 
 
 

When I open my eyes again, there is bright white light above me, and I feel like I'm floating. My body feels better than it ever has for a long time--years, probably.
 
 

Perhaps I am going to heaven.

My vision resolves more and I see blue sky stained red to the west, white clouds tinged with gold scudding away. I feel like there are clouds under me, soft and supporting.

Heaven, I decide.

Then someone says, "Are you okay?"

I blink. That doesn't sound right. Of course I should be okay.

"What were you thinking, anyway, dropping out of the sky like a rock? You almost squashed me," the voice continues. It is the voice of a woman, chattering and rather excited, evoking images of dancing clouds and wide blue skies and sunlight. "I thought Dragoons had to have more experience before they went diving down cliffs like that."

I frown. This isn't right at all.

I groan.

You aren't supposed to groan in heaven. Something's wrong here.

"Come on, wake up," the woman says. "Don't tell me I've missed something. Sit up."

I don't want to sit up. Childishly, I think that perhaps if I don't sit up like this woman says to, I will die like I'm supposed to.

Then a hand slaps me across the face and I haven't time for any other thoughts.

"Owch!" I exclaim.

"Good," says the woman, satisfied. "I knew you were fine."

I sit up, finally; no use putting off the inevitable. My head throbs and my left leg hurts, but other than that I am fine.

I suppose·

My vision swims for a moment and I think I might faint again, but a strong hand grasps my shoulder and my eyes decide to start working again. Slowly, so as not to dislodge my eyes from my head, I turn to face my benefactor.

It is the woman I nearly landed on. She is regarding me cheerfully, for all her words, her green-gray eyes sparkling with interest, the sun setting her blond-red hair glowing like fire. She kneels beside me, and her pink skirts swirl around her knees, mingling with heavy woolen white robes hemmed with red and yellow triangles, denoting· Something· I can't recall what.

"You are fine, aren't you," she asks again, concern tingeing her voice.

"No thanks to you," I say harshly. "Hadn't it occurred to you that perhaps I was falling down the cliff for a reason?"

She raises her eyebrows in amazement. "Today? Why would you be in such a bad mood, especially with King Gareth and Queen Rosa and all that business·"

Her words dredge up an entire lifetime of memories, like a fleet of bubbles swimming through deep water to the surface, and I raise a hand to my head. "Don't remind me of that, please."

Rosa·

"Anyway, I just assumed you were a beginner Dragoon, taking advantage of the quiet to do some practice runs. Obviously, you bit off more than you could chew. Good thing you had me around, else you would've been dead."

I frown. "Why? What'd you do?"

She shrugs, as if it's obvious. "Why, I healed you, of course. Using my magic."

A White Mage. A magic-user.

Moons above, Karn, you sure know how to pick 'em.

I recognize the robes, suddenly: Rosa still wore them, probably even now; so would Kalynn, for they were ceremonial robes that all white mages wore at some point in their lives or another.

I sigh. Well, what's done is done; I shall simply have to make my way back· up· the cliffside·

"When you landed," the woman continues, oblivious to my pondering, "I thought you were gone for sure, but you're resilient, if stupid; I'll give you that. There was still a bit of life in you, and, well·" She shrugs. "That's all we White Wizards need. I don't know the higher-level spells, like Queen Rosa does, but I can cast a decent Cure spell. And so here you are."

I sigh.

Remembering my death wish, she says, "If you still want to die, I've got a bow in my cave. I'll go÷"

"No," I say. I believe in Fate, and if I'm still alive, there must be a reason why. "I'll· Just stay here for a while."

She smiles, lighting up her face, and I think again that she is rather pretty. "Have it your way. Now, do you want to stand up or·"

I shrug. "Why not?"

She says pointedly, "Because if you do, I shall have to rig a splint, because your leg's broken."

I look down at my left leg.

"Funny thing about Cure spells," the woman rambles on (My, she does talk), "they stop bleeding, they relieve pain, they give the body some life· But they can't fix broken bones. You'll definitely need a splint for that one; in fact, you'll probably be lucky if it heals all right."

I blanch. But there are more important things to consider: night is falling, and Baronian nights are cold. "Well, you can't do it out here, I think, not with night falling."

"Oh, no, of course not," the woman says. "I'll take you back to my cave and I'll make a splint and some crutches tomorrow." She grabs my shoulders and hoists me up. At first I protest÷she is a slight girl, and probably not strong enough to lift me÷but she gets me to my feet with little effort; she is strong.

"By the way," she says as she wedges me to my feet, "what's your name?"

I have dreaded this moment, but what else can I say? "Karn."

She stops short, leaving me teetering rather precariously on my one good foot. "Oh, the one the King is looking for!"
 
 

I sigh. "Yes. That Karn."

"I'm Dierdre," she says, and slings my left arm over her shoulders. Apparently my wanted status means little to her, and I am glad it does. "I live alone out here, trying to learn to be a good Healer. Some of my magic doesn't work, you know? I try to make myself float and instead I set a tree on fire," and she gestured flippantly out with one hand, nearly tossing me head over heels down the slanted incline.

I raise my eyebrows. "Really," I say. In my experience, magic-users who could cast both Black and White magic÷accidental or otherwise÷are extremely rare and in chronic short supply.

"Yes," she says, "in fact, some of the wood for your splint will probably come out of the tree I burned yesterday," and she indicates a burnt-out husk several dozen yards away. "And I haven't got some of the healing techniques down quite right, either· Tourniquets and all that. Imagine÷here in a world where we have spaceships and the Big Whale and we've been to the moon, we're still using tourniquets." She shrugs, smiling. "Ah, but then, it's not my place to question, just to fix them when they come back missing an arm or something."

Dierdre supports me, and we hobble to her cave, a darkish hole in the mountainside, looking for all the world like a three-legged sack race gone lame. She is strong; I give her that. I am still wearing my armor, which is fairly heavy, but she supports me with no complaints. For me, the trip is an agony÷the armor on my leg makes it impossible to move without causing hurt.

Her cave is small but not cramped, nor so large that it is a liability to heat in the cold nights. A faint fire stirs in the middle of the cave, and torches stand in brackets against the walls. Dierdre settles me on the cave's single bed, more of a straw pallet with a dingy-looking animal fur atop it, and begins to blow the fire to life. "It's late. I'll make you something to eat÷haven't had anything for a while, from the look of you÷and then you must tell me why you were jumping off that cliff like that."

I acquiesce. What can I do, with my spear atop the cliffside and my leg broken? So I content myself with watching her bustle around the cave, fetching things and mixing this and so forth. Her body is slim and lithe, the folds in her clothing shuddering and jumping in the flickering firelight; her hair sparkles randomly like snow in the sunlight. Somehow, there is something hypnotic about the way she moves÷it is almost a dance, graceful and beautiful.

Interesting: she seems to have no problems with me staring at her like I am. She just smiles and goes on mixing whatever it is. To break the silence, I say: "Do you want me to do that?"

She jumps, as thought it had not occurred to her. "Are you sure? I mean, you just came off a drop from a cliff about as high as the Tower of Bab-il÷"

I smile. "I thought my leg was hurt, not my arms."

"That's true," she says, and smiles and laughs apologetically. "I'm not used to having someone else to do the work." She hands me the bowl and I stir it. It is full of some sort of thick, fragrant batter, and my stomach rumbles. She is right: I haven't eaten since the morning before last, and that was only a few bits of bread. I have been basically on edge, in fact, since I returned from the moon last week, to be greeted with anger and hisses while my friends went on to fame and glory and a guaranteed spot in the Baronian Hall of Fame·

I shake my head. No use dwelling on that, now·

She lights the torches on the walls, driving back the falling darkness outside. Over the crackle of the fire, I can barely hear the cheers and yells of the crowd outside Castle Baron.

It's still going, I think wearily.

And then, I wonder if Gareth even remembers me right now.

I glance across the fireplace to Dierdre.

"What," she asks, catching my glance.

I shake my head. "Nothing."

She smiles shyly. "Oh."

My mind is tortured: give it a spare minute and it will return to my days in captivity, to the time when Golbez held my leash and Zemus held Golbez's leash. And it does.

Instantly I am submerged in memories.

I am standing in the shadow of the doorway, staring out at the main CPU of the Giant of Bab-il as it burns in its final death throes. The CPU explodes, finally, and Gareth and his friends÷Rosa, Rynelle, Edge, FoSoYa Golbez÷stand down from the battle.

"We did it!" Gareth says.

"It stopped," Edge agrees.

Golbez standing before me, cries, "You wretch!" He rushes forward to meet his foe. "You ruined my plan! You shall pay for this!"

"You!" FuSoYa says suddenly. He hastens past the CPU's remains and approaches Golbez.

"Get away," Golbez growls warily. I wonder why he is scared of such a doddering old man, and then I feel it as well. There is danger in this man, this Lunarian, not just in his magic, but in what he knows.

"Don't you realize who you are?" FuSoYa cries.

"Stop it!" Golbez says with growing alarm. I realize, too that something bad is going to happen.

Stop him! I hear a voice yell in my head. Automatically, I move to obey, but something inside me resists. This will be the end. You will no longer be enslaved·

"Wake up!" FuSoYa shouts, and with typical Lunarian abruptness, casts a spell on Golbez.

Immediately the pressure at the back of my mind disappears, and I am free.

So is Golbez. He shakes his head, trying to reorient himself.

So do I. Where am I?

Unnoticed, FuSoYa collapses; he has drained himself cancelling Zemus' hold on Golbez and Golbez's hold on me.

Golbez starts, hesitating. "·Why did I have all that hatred?"

FuSoYa picks himself up from the floor. "Come to your senses! Do you remember your father's name?"

Golbez starts again. "My father?" he says; but his wits are too addled, and he answer's automatically. "His name is· KluYa."

Gareth, across the gap, says, startled: "What?!"

Rosa begins, "That means·"

And Edge, understanding: "Gareth's· brother?!"

"Golbez· is· my·" Gareth stutters. My heart goes out to my friend÷here he has been fighting his own brother the whole time. I wonder how I'd feel if I had been fighting my brother. (I also wonder what it'd be like to have a brother, but that's another matter entirely.)

FuSoYa, on shaky hands and knees, says, "You were controlled by Zemus' telepathy. Your blood made it easier for him to use you."

Edge and Rynelle dodge the CPU's wreckage and come to examine FuSoYa and Golbez. Rosa stays behind, her concerned gaze fixed on Gareth.

Gareth stares at the CPU for lack of anything else to stare at, his mouth working tonelessly. Then he speaks.

"I have been fighting my own brother· Golbez." He looks up at the other man, meeting his ex-arch-rival's eyes for the first time. "You are my brother?"

Golbez nods.

"But·" Gareth falters again. "It could have been me... who was controlled by Zemus' telepathy.

Golbez shakes his head. "But it was me·" Now he falters, and the sudden, unbreakable bond between brothers is apparent. "It means my soul was stained with evil for Zemus to use..."

I watch the two of them, communing over the shattered computer core, communing the way only brothers can. Communing after a minute of shared experiences. I will never be able to commune with Gareth that way, and it makes me unbearably sad to know that there is something about my best friend in the entire world that I will never be able to understand.

Golbez whirls and spurs on towards the exit; I melt into the shadows, lest he attract attention to me.

Gareth starts. "Where are you going?"

Golbez doesn't even turn back; I can see rage, red and burning, in his eyes. He snarls: "I'll settle all this myself!"

FuSoYa clambers unsteadily to his feet. "Wait!"

This time Golbez does turn.

"Zemus is a Lunarian," FuSoYa says urgently. "He belongs to my race! I'll come with you!"

Golbez only nods. Then he faces his brother again. "Goodbye, Gareth·"

And then, I think bitterly, I saved the world by saving Gareth and Rosa and Rynelle and Edge. And what do I get·

"Are you done with that?" Dierdre asks.

I jump÷as well as any man can when he's half lying down and has a broken leg÷and look up at her.

"I don't know about you," Dierdre says, smiling, "but I think it's been mixed enough."

I glance down at the bowl. In my tortured imaginings, I have mixed it so well that it looks like a whirlpool frozen in time, and there's probably about as much batter outside the bowl than inside.

I smile sheepishly. "I· I guess so."

She grins and accepts the bowl. "Hold on, I'll get a rag to clean you up."

After the meal, which is good and quite delicious, I feel much better, physically at least. But the dead leaden weight in my soul drags me down.

"Now," Dierdre says, "you must tell me why you were trying to land head-first at the bottom of the mountain. You're a hero, you know."

I laugh bitterly. "Yeah: Tell that to the Chancellor."

She shrugs. "I'm sure he just doesn't like you. Now, why were you trying to die?"

I frown at the flickering flames for a long time. "I betrayed Gareth's trust twice," I say finally. "At least twice. I can't go back again and be his friend and be a celebrity and live every day knowing that I might betray him a third time." I snort. "And how could the people of Baron live with me, knowing I might betray them?"

She looks at me over the flames, her eyes compassionate and reflecting gold sparks of firelight. "But who would control you like that? Zeromus is dead, isn't he?"

Chillingly, I am reminded of Zeromus' last words, and they come spilling out of my mouth before I can stop them, ringing in the cave with chilling, hollow reverberations: "I will not perish as long as there is evil in the hearts of people."

She says nothing. Her mouth tightens into a thin line.

And again, I remember Golbez's speech: But it was me· It means my soul was stained with evil for Zemus to use...

Is my soul stained with evil? Is that why Golbez was able to control me?

"I see," Dierdre says, uncommonly serious. "So you're scared that when Zeromus or someone like him comes back, he'll take advantage of you, and of course the last place you want to be at that point is near Gareth, the king of the most powerful nation on the planet."

I nod. I'm not, of course; that's only part of the reason why I was trying to end it. I'm not really sure why, not entirely; I just knew÷know÷that it isn't quite a good idea for me to be alive anymore.

"I think it's because I'm scared," I say suddenly, thinking aloud more than anything else. "Scared of myself. Scared of what I can do, of what I've faced, can face. What I can do. What I could do if· If someone controlled me again."

Dierdre says nothing, her voice compassionate.

"I mean," I continue quietly, "what I could do· to Gareth. To Edge and Rynelle and Dalen and Yang. To Rosa·"

Still she says nothing.

"I remember when we captured Rosa," I say quietly. "Golbez was very quietly gloating, for he knew what Rosa meant to Gareth and he knew that Gareth would have to come to him. He had to go out and get the Calabrena set up to ambush Gareth, so he said to me, with this little smirk on his face, 'Keep Rosa safe while I'm gone. But not too safe.'

"So I did. What else could I do÷I was a mindless automaton. I unstrapped her from that seat of hers, deactivated the cannonball Golbez'd rigged above her head, and took her down to one of the lower floors, where the monsters roam."

I wince at the memory.

"I poked her with my lance, in the arm, so the monsters would come÷they like the smell of fresh blood÷and let them do their thing. After a while, I drove the creatures off again and strapped her back into the seat."

I sigh.

"I don't even know why she bothered to keep herself alive during that whole ordeal. What had she to gain? What with Golbez· and me· leering back and forth that, oh, Gareth's coming to rescue you, but he'll never get all the way up here, you know, he'll be dead before he reaches you· She must've been really demoralized. But still she clung to life."

My voice is pensive. "And all the while, when I was doing these things, I hated myself for them. If I could, I would've impaled myself on my own lance. But I couldn't."

"I know," Dierdre says at least. Her gaze is fixated on the flickering flames. "Itās the worst feeling in the world, doing something you hate yourself for, watching people hate you for it÷" She breaks off suddenly, as though she's let something she shouldn't've slip.

There is silence for a while. Then she says again, "I guess those rumors're right, then."

"What rumors," I say, a bit defensively.

"About you," she says, "and Rosa. You·" She looks at me, interested. "You've got a thing for her, don't you."

I sigh. What is it about this woman that makes me spill everything out to her? Why can she see inside my soul when I can't? "Yes, I guess I do."

She smiles suddenly. "No wonder you were depressed."

I look up at her.

"I mean," Dierdre elaborates, "here you're going through this deep blue funk, and then the only person you really like gets married to your best friend·" She waves an arm inarticulately. "I think I'd want to jump off a cliff if that happened."

Despite myself, I smile too. It feels good to smile.

When she falls silent again, I prompt her, "Enough about me. What in the name of the Dwarves are you doing out here?"

Immediately her smile evaporates. Her hands clasp in her lap and she stares down at the fire again. "It's· It's a long story."

"Tell me," I say. Something is drawing me towards this woman, and I want to know more about her. "Besides, I've spilled out my life for you; it's only fair you tell me something." As much to justify my own curiosity as to encourage her.

"All right," Dierdre says. She pushes a stray lock of hair back from her face. "I'm a Healer, you know. Trying to train for it. I was down in Baron Castle, learning spells with the other White Mages and such, when the King storms in and starts yelling at us for no apparent reason."

"Wait," I say, holding up a hand. "Was this the real king," whom I murdered, "or Kainazzo the Fiend of Water?"

"This was after you and Gareth were exiled," she says, "but before you came back, so probably the King." She smiles, suddenly. "I remember when that news went out; that the Captain of the Red Wings had been kicked out, just like that. It made all of us scared÷perhaps we'd be next, and His Majesty might not be so gentle next time·" She trails off.

"Anyway, down he comes, fuming like an airship with a broken engine, and he started yelling at us about· Oh, I don't know what. I think he was telling us that we should've caught that evil Gareth and told him about how he was planning to take over Baron and all that·" She smiles faintly. "Of course, we're all a soft lot, us White Mages, so we were all cowering behind pots and things." Her smile fades. "And for some reason, he made me really mad, that he could just come in there and yell at us for not doing something we didn't know we were supposed to do· He was saying that we were all deficient in magic, so just to show him, I started to Cure him, you know? Use a magic spell."

She falls silent, looking away despondently.

Grasping what happened, I finish for her, "And you set him on fire instead."

"Bolted him, actually," Dierdre corrects me, blushing. "Electrocuted him right there in front of all my pacifist friends."

She smiles wanly. "Anyway, before you could blink he had the guards shove me out the front door, and that was that."

I nod. "I see."

She shrugs. "So, I came out here. And I've been here ever since." She spreads her arms. "Three whole weeks."

Three whole weeks.

It seems like an eternity to me· Years and years and years.

"And you've been alone all this time," I say.

"Yup," Diedre affirms.

"And you're still alive?" I ask her. "What with all the monsters attacking, I'd expect÷"

"You make the same misconception all the monsters did, Mr. Mighty Dragoon," she says with an amused smile. "You assume I'm defenseless. I can shoot÷all White Mages are trained with the use of a bow and arrows. And plus·" She hesitates a bit. "I've been training myself in the use of Black Magic. It's not that easy÷the harmonics and the chants are totally different from White Magic; youād be surprised theyāre related at all÷but I've done it."

I nod. "That's not bad at all."

Suddenly Dierdre glances out of the cave. I follow her gaze: stars and a single moon greet my eyes.

"Oh, my," she exclaims. "I've gone and kept you up past dark. I imagine you must be tired÷"

No sooner do the words hit my ears than a gigantic wave of sleepiness hits me. I wonder for a moment whether Deirdre has cast a spell on me, but I have experienced magic-induced sleep before÷it is more blatant, if possible, than this; more shadowy÷and this is not it. I struggle to keep my eyes open, providing myself with more proof that it is natural sleep.

Through half-closed eyes I see her brilliant smile. "Go on and sleep. Before I got that pallet made I just slept on the ground, and another night won't hurt me."

My head hits the straw like a cannonball and I am out like a light.
 
 

When I wake up, the sun is up, bathing Baron in bright, shining light. Dierdre is bustling around the little cave. "Oh, good. You're up. I need to measure your leg for a splint."

For a terrifying instant I am disoriented and scared. Where in the name of the red dark Underworld am I?

Then memory returns in a torrential wave, like one of Edge's Floods. I remember where I am and who I am and what I am.

It's a pain to remember.

Dierdre comes up to me. "Do you want anything to eat? I know you Dragoons are trained to go for days without food, but it's not like we're at war or anything."

I want to refuse, but my stomach has other ideas. "All right."

She goes away and comes back after a moment with a sort of a biscuit, left over from the night before, and I chew on it with relish. I had not realized how hungry I was. But then, I reflect bitterly, I'm not very self-aware.

Dierdre returns with a long piece of wood. "Now hold still. I want to make sure that leg doesn't bend itself out of shape again. I set it back when you were sleeping. That's why I had to use a spell to make you sleep. I'm sorry I couldn't tell you, but I wasn't sure you were going to let me."

I say nothing, but smile inwardly. At least her friendly chatter prevents me from having to talk myself; I fear the rest of my life might come pouring out of my mouth the instant I open it.

"This might hurt a little, but I can't help that." Quickly she sets the wood slat against my leg, testing its straightness and length. I grunt quietly with the pain; the barest touch sets my leg on fire. "That'll do it. Good." She removes the wood and sets it aside. "Now, putting the splint together is going to hurt a lot. I can't use another Sleep spell because that won't be strong enough. What I can do is mix you a sort of a knockout potion. It's pretty strong and you'll be somewhat delirious when you come out of it, but it only lasts for a few hours and that's better than anything else I can do."

I nod. "Sounds fine to me."

Dierdre stands up and moves over to one side, and then stops. "Funny. Today I had planned to clean out the cave, 'cause I've been here for three weeks and it's getting dirty. But instead I'm fussing over you." She smiles. "I guess I've got a new friend to worry over."

I smile and lever myself up on my elbows. "Have you gotten any sleep?"

She shrugs. "No, not since yesterday night. I had to get the ingredients for the potion, you know. It was pretty hard to find everything in the dark, but I did it."

I frown. "I hope you don't overdose on the potion and kill me or something·"

She shakes her head. "No. I'll be careful. It's just herbs and such anyway. I found the recipe in a book in the Royal Library." She tittered. "Amazing, the things they have down there. All sorts of treatises and expositions and dusty old scrolls that no one looks at. Except me, I guess." She pulls some herbs off a shelf and tosses them into a bowl, not the least carefully.

I frown. "Be careful with those."

She turns to me, half indignant. "I am being careful! I know exactly what I'm doing! Now hush and let me make this thing·" She turns away, concentrating.

I sigh and lay back. After a few minutes Dierdre is back. "There," she said, "It's done. Open up, now."

The potion is sludgy and brown and smells terrible. The smell alone almost knocks away my tenuous grasp on consciousness. Gasping, I gulp it down.

"There," said Dierdre. "Now relax, so I can÷"

Pow.
 
 

I wake up again. The world spins dizzily and I decide I know what Valvalvis felt like when she does her whirlwind thing. "If I canāt see you, you can't hurt me·" My blurred and dizzy vision depicts an orange-stained sky and distant hunks of gray that must be mountains. I reach a hand up to steady my head and instead knock myself for another dizzy loop.

A garbled, mutated voice: "Good, you're up."

I turn, stare. Dierdre looks like a vague, fat statue done in pinks and whites. She moves closer, bringing the ceiling with her.

I try to say, "What happened," but it comes out as sort of the sound the latrines on the Big Whale might make.

"You've been out all day," she said. "I must have overdone that potion, but oh, well; no harm done. It's nearly sunset."

Overdone? I want to stand up and shake her and yell at her for being a fool, but the closest I can manage is to loll towards her, groaning like an airship in a hurricane. I feel terrible.

"It's all right," she says. "No lasting side effects, except that you'll be extra dizzy. Oh, now, don't look so cross. You'll be fine." She glances at me concernedly. "Are you all right?"

I manage to shake my head; it feels like my eyes and brain are rattling around in there, plus my nose for extra measure.

"Oh, dear," Dierdre says. There are several indistinct moments and sounds, and then a tinkling, like fresh mountain water gushing downstream; and then a blessed cleansing glow bathes me in lights of sparkling green.

At once my head clears and my tongue unseizes; I can talk and think and move without my limbs feeling like they might fall off. "Overdone," I mutter.

"Yes," she says, "but obviously you've suffered no lasting effects, because you still can't say anything intelligent." She giggles. "No, I didn't mean that. You say a lot of intelligent things, but sometimes I wonder÷"

"Oh," I said, "enough." The headache has perversely remained. "My head hurts. Did you do your thing?"

She nodded, gestured to my splinted leg. "You're all perfectly set, but I still need to make some crutches for you. That's okay. I also went and brought your spear and helm back from the top of the mountain. I mean, you came down here without spear and helm and Dragoons never go anywhere without their spear and helm, so I knew you must've left them up top and you'd probably want them back. It wasn't any trouble; and at least you can use the spear as a crutch until I can make you real ones."

"Oh, thanks," I tell her. "Can I sit up?"

She shrugs. "If you're up to it. I've also got you some dinner; you'll probably be hungry. That's one of the side effects of that potion. You're left totally fine, no leftover aches from whatever the Healer did to you, but you're hungry. Want something to eat?"

I nod. She's right.

Dierdre gets up to get my food and I reach over for my spear again. It's not the Gungnir Spear, but the White Spear, the hallowed weapon we found in the Lunar Caves. The weapon glistens in the vague, filtered light of dusk, its mother-of-pearl handle shining with inlaid pinks and creams and grays. Whenever I touch it, I feel the darkness in my soul, a roiling mass of anger and seething villainy. I don't like touching it, but I do. I consider it fitting penance.

"Are you so hungry youāre going to run me through and eat me, or would you like the dinner I prepared?" comes Dierdre's voice from beyond, not unfriendly.

I look up, feeling guilty. "No, of course not. I was just·" A convenient excuse comes to mind and I blurt it out. "I'm rather attached to that spear.

"Oh." Dierdre sits down beside me and hands me the platter of food. "Here you go. It looks· It doesn't look much like a weapon, you know, all that pearl and whatnot. It looks more like the spear a statue of a guard would be holding outside some king's rich palace·"

"It's the White Spear," I mumble through a mouthful of bread.

"Oh," Dierdre says, taken aback. "Oh. It is?"

I nod. "Zemus had it hidden down below the surface of the moon, but· We found it."

"Oh," she says again. A moment of silence; I smile to myself. For once she can think of nothing to say. "Well, I expect it's powerful, then."

"Quite," I agree.

We sit in companionable silence for a few moments, and I reflect that it is rather nice to have a friend to talk to while I recover. Albeit, I would've preferred someone less talkative, but they'd always taught the Dragoons to work with what you have.

Suddenly a thought strikes me. It took me a good two days to climb up that mountain. Admittedly I was weak, but it would still take at least a day. So how did Dierdre get up there and back before the end of the day?

"How long have I been out," I ask her.

She shrugs unconcernedly. "Oh, not long. Less than a day."

"How'd you get up there and back so fast?" I ask.

"Where?"

"Up to the top of the mountain."

"Oh," says Dierdre. She rearranges her skirts for a moment and tries to avoid my gaze. "I used magic," she says finally.

My eyebrows raise. Powerful magic, indeed. Probably neither Rosa nor Rynelle could make it up to the top and back in one day, even with the use of their magic. But I say nothing more÷who knows; maybe some people are better at climbing mountains than others÷and when I am done with my meal Dierdre pushes me back onto the bed.

"You need rest," she says. "Tomorrow you'll probably be able to walk around÷you're quite resilient, you know; must come from saving the world÷but for now you need to rest. Good night, Karn. I'll see you in the morning."
 
 
 
 

Morning is bright. And clear, and warm; almost an idyllic spring morning. I feel better than I have for months.

"Oh, good, you're up," Dierdre says to me. "I need to change the bedding before it gets all smelly. Stand up, now. I've got some bread you can have standing by the fire, but after this I want you to help me with the cleaning. This old cave is starting to get musty."

I balk for a moment, but then reconsider. Dierdre has saved me, become my friend, tended my hurts; the least I can do in return is help her clean up a bit.

"All right," I tell her, "but at least let me eat first."

"Oh, certainly," Dierdre responds. She bustles by me with an armful of wooden dishes, adding them to a growing pile outside the cave entrance. "I don't want you losing your strength, after all. But a bit of exercise will do you good."

Under her instructions, I help her empty out her cave÷Dierdre managed to accumulate quite a pile of things÷and then sweep the detritus and debris out from the storage area, sweep ashes out of the fireplace, search for bugs and rodents÷ "Think I'll need this," I ask her, White Spear clutched in one hand÷and so on. It's hard work, but it's better than sitting around. And the air and the exercise makes me feel much better.

About midmorning she got me to beat the dust and dirt out of the blanket on the bed. "It's getting all grimy; that'll take you a while. I want to go wash in the river." She gives me an impish smile. "You can do that later, if you want. Here÷" she hands me the Spear. "Use this on the blanket. Just don't cut it." She flashes her infectuous grin. "I'll be back in a little. Don't get hurt." With that she flits down the path to the river, leaving me staring after her with the White Spear in my grip.

I shrug and began to beat the living weasels out of the blanket.

It's harder than I thought it would be. My strength will probably never leave me, but it has faded. Swinging the spear haft again and again takes more energy than it would seem to need. My leg doesn't help; each swing sends streaks of pain through my body. I grit my teeth and forge on; presently I notice the haft is coated with dust.

"I think you're done with that," Dierdre says, glancing at the blanket as I whack it again. "You can stop now. I do want the dust beat out of it, but I don't want you to beat it to death."

I ground the spear point into the dirt and lean over, panting. "All right, I'll stop."

She is at my side in an instant. "You haven't overexerted yourself, have you? I won't stand for it. You've got to be careful about your health, or you'll wear yourself into the ground, and we can't very well have one of the saviors of the world doing that. If news ever got out about it I'd be forced to live in this cave forever, and I don't want to do that." She pulls me to a standing position. "You are okay, aren't you?"

I nod. "Just a bit winded."

She smiles in relief, lighting up her face. "Good."

Dierdre starts to move away, but I catch her shoulder. "You know," I say, "you're quite beautiful when you smile."

"You know," Dierdre says, pausing, "no one has ever said that to me. Not even my parents." She smiles again, confirming my statement. "It sounds nice."

The rest of the day passes more quickly than I would have thought. The dishes and various clothes are cleaned out; we sort through her stock of healing herbs and potions and discard what is rotted, and then do the same with the food; she has found time to actually make some wooden dishes and she sets a few of them off to one side to sell down at Baron. "It's sort of a hobby of mine, woodworking," she says. "It's one of the few things I can do with any degree of accuracy. I mean, when I start trying to cast magic, it doesn't work. When I start trying to farm, it doesn't work. I tried it; my parents were farmers. I can't even churn butter. It's depressing."

Her monologue is interrupted suddenly by a wild yell. We scramble to our feet÷her far more quickly, I might add÷and stare up as a man, a woman and two children come scrambling down the mountainside. The expressions on their faces vary from panic to excitement.

Dierdre runs to intercept them and I hobble after her, the White Spear clutched in my hands. "What's going on," she says.

"Monsters," the man pants, "coming down the mountain. There's hundreds of them. They must be headed for Baron."

Dread grips my gut in icy claws. "Get out of here. Quickly, before they attack."

"Wait," Dierdre interrupts, "how many? How many monsters, and what kinds?"

"I don't know," the man puffs indignantly. "I'm no monster specialist."

"We have to assume worst case, then," I tell Dierdre.

"What's that," she asks, suddenly reticent, "Behemoths?"

I frown. "No, not that bad. But· Maybe something on par with a Fiend."

"The Four Fiends?" the man asks. "Behemoths?" He laughs heartily, suddenly relieved. "You're nutty, my boy; they're just legends."

Oh, how I'm glad I don't have to tell him he's wrong. Dierdre glances at me as though she doubts whether the Four Fiends are real too.

"In any case, get down there," I tell him. "Tell people to keep a look out; if any monsters get past, make sure people are there to see 'em and warn the King."

The man nods self-importantly and bolts, almost forgetting to bring his family with him. The woman and children scuttle after him.

Dierdre frowns at me. "Crazy man. Even I know Behemoths are real, and I haven't faced one." She falters a bit. "Have you?"

I nod. "But never mind that. We've got to stop them."

"Who, the family?"

"No, the monsters."

"Oh." She frowns. "What if there's too many?"

I heft the White Spear in answer.

"Oh," Dierdre says again. "I'd better warn you, though, I'm not very good with Black Magic, because I never really learned it. I think I told you this before. The spells might not work."

"Get your bow," I tell her, "just to be safe."

"Oh, yes," says Dierdre, her face breaking into a grin, "I forgot I had that." She dashes back towards the cave; the bow is over by the entrance to it.

She comes back panting, fitting a White arrow to the bow and glancing back up the mountain. "Have they showed yet?"

I shake my head. "But soon, I think. Soon÷"

The head of an Imp comes poking over a rise in the mountain, followed soon by the rest of the creature. Then about two dozen more appear.

I give a laugh. "That's it? That's his hundreds?"

"That's it?" Dierdre sounds scandalized. "I don't know about you, I mean you've faced Zeromus and all, but those Imps scare me. I know you could probably handle them all, but there's me to consider."

"That's true," I say. I wish I had my helmet and armor on; but then I realize that Iād probably be about as mobile as an airship in a bathtub with the heavy armor and my leg. "What's your range with that now?"

"Uhm, about halfway between us and them."

"Start shooting once they get down there," I tell her. "That way you'll be able to pick off as many as possible while they're relatively helpless."

"But these arrows have to last me through combat," she says, eyeing her quiver. She has not many, about a dozen at most.

"Then you'll have to use magic when they get down here," I tell her.

"Oh," says Dierdre. Her fists clench the hem of her White Mage's robes. "I hope I can÷"

"Shoot!" I cry.

Dierdre's bow snaps up and arrow after arrow, aimed quite well, arcs into the seething Imp ranks. She empties her quiver into the creatures, each arrow taking out an Imp. She tosses the bow away. "I won't need this anymore."

"Here they come," I mutter tightly.

Dierdre backs away, her hands clasped strangely÷one arm out, palm forward, fingers extended; the other, fingers curled around the palm of the first÷ chanting her rune language, summoning magic.

The first Imps arrive. Ignoring the pain in my leg, I run the first of the man-sized, horn-faced creatures through the chest. The next two advance, swinging their short-bladed swords. My spear has the advantage; I slash the point back and forth across the Imps' course, and then finally stab one of them. The other moves in, sword swinging, but he has made the mistake of attacking on my spear side. With some quick maneuvering the haft of the White Spear is blocking his sword strike; then I jerk it backwards, butting the Imp in the chest, and whirl, striking a broadside blow with the haft against the side of its head. It goes down in a heap, dead.

I turn back to face the other Imps, watching their formation seethe. Their first three envoys have been slaughtered with nary a casualty to the opposition; now they are unsure what to do.

Their indecision is lethal.

Dierdre opens up with a blast of fire, not targeted at individual creatures as Rynelle tends to do it, but springing out of the ground in a sort of a 'field' attack. The tightly-packed masses writhe and burn. When the fires die down, only one in five Imps remain, and they run for the hills.

Dierdre slumps, panting. "There. I did it." She tilts her head for an instant, considering. "Well, I meant to call down lightning, but the effectās the same, after all. Not bad."

I nod. "No, not bad at all. Where'd you get the idea of hitting the Imps as a group instead of as individuals?" From what I can recall, when a Mage casts a spell on multiple people, five is the limit.

"I thought of it myself," she replies, pushing her red-gold hair out of her face. "Well, not really by myself. Some people over in the Academy for White Mages were talking about something like that÷area spells, they called them. They were complaining about having to target spells. They're all lazy anyway, though; none of 'em could cast a decent Cure spell in the first place; but anyway, I started thinking, and I experimented a bit. When it worked I just built my fireplace on top of it."

"Oh," I say, "but in any case that was a good job."

"Thanks," she replies, blushing a bit. "Are you hurt?"

I give myself an internal once-over. "Not much. Just the leg."

"Oh," she says, and gives my spear a look. "Hey, there's no blood on that thing!"

I glance at it. "Oh. Oh, no, there isnāt. Blood never stays on; it always just drips off or whatever." I shrug. "I don't know why."

"Oh," she says. "You're pretty good with that thing."

"Thanks."

Dierdre glances around at the surrounding area. The three Imp corpses are beginning to attract flies. "Now what?"

I shrug. "Dump those in the river÷" I wave the White Spear at the three Imps. "÷and get back to work."

"Oh," she says. "No victory parade? No dance? No one claiming us heroes?"

I shake my head. "No. Except maybe the flies."

She grins. "Sounds like being a hero is a lot of fun." She rolls up her sleeves and advances grimly on the Imp corpses. "Come on, let's get to work."
 
 
 
 

The next day the scariest thing happens.

I am barely awake. The sun is about halfway to the middle of the sky, and Dierdre is out collecting herbs and such. I am not sure. I am tired, exhausted from the battle and the work the day before.

So imagine my surprise when a loud trio of horns sound, tooting out an anthem I recognize immediately.

The music of the Red Wings. A song I have always associated with· Gareth. The Baronian March.

His Majesty the King comes to call.

Dierdre stands up straight, her eyes open wide. She stares down the hillside÷I can't see; trees and the cavern wall block my way÷but I know who is coming. She shoots me a single glance÷Stay inside!÷and drops to one knee.

Into the gravelly clearing comes His Royal Eminence, King Gareth.

Blood turns to ice in my veins.

Rosa glances around the clearing, still as heart-stoppingly beautiful as before. The golden crown across her forehead glints in the light. King Edward of Damcyan accompanies them, his harp tucked under his right arm. Also, Rynelle and Edge, and Dalen, the man responsible for keeping the Red Wings up and running. Why are they here? What do they want?

"Rise," Gareth says, sounding cold and imperial.

Dierdre rises.

"We have received information that a group of Imps came this way," Gareth says, using the royal we, "Imps destined for our kingdom. Our source says," an amused but friendly twist of the lips, "that there were thousands."

Dierdre says, "About two dozen, Your Majesty." Her voice is trembling. I feel shocked. I didn't think she would be scared of Gareth.

"Where are they now," Gareth asks.

"They· They're all dead, Your Majesty."

Gareth seems startled by this news. "Dead, you say."

"Yes, Your Majesty."

Rosa speaks suddenly. "What is your name, sister?"

"Dierdre, Your Highness."

Rosa smiles suddenly. "Stop calling me that. We're both White Mages, after all."

"Uhm, yes, Your÷" Dierdre gulps desperately.

"Did·" Gareth tilts his head, glancing at Dierdre. "Did you kill them all?"

Dierdre nods miserably.

Gareth and Rosa exchange glances. "This is a story I'd love to hear," Gareth remarks with a smile.

"I÷ It's a long story, Your Majesty," Dierdre says, anxious to defend herself, "but the basics of it is that· I can use Black Magic as well as White."

Gareth and Rosa stare at her. Rynelle, too.

"That's extremely rare, you know," Gareth says quietly, all formality suddenly gone.

"Yes, Your Majesty, I know," says Dierdre, visibly sweating. "I· I was sent away by your predecessor, Your Majesty, for accidentally zapping him with lightning."

Gareth raises an amused eyebrow. Rosa chokes on a mouthful of laughter. Rynelle snickers in a fashion that quite belies her normal timidness. "I see," says Gareth.

"It÷ It wasn't my fault, Your Majesty," Dierdre cries desperately. "It was an accident! Please don't think÷"

"We aren't blaming you for anything, young lady," Gareth says kindly. I smile; Gareth is probably a year, at most, older than Dierdre. (How old is she, anyway? Iāve five years on Gareth.) "And, while you might not have necessarily repelled an invasion as our source seems to think, you did save our realm quite some unnecessary strife. On behalf of the kingdom of Baron, I thank you."

"Uhm·" says Dierdre, plainly suffering, "thank you, Your Majesty."

"Hold on a moment," Rosa says, and quietly drags her husband away from Dierdre÷and towards the cave. I freeze, but they stop a distance away. I can hear their whispered conversation:

"Gareth, she's the one who was banished. You might want to reinstate her."

"Oh, that was her? I had forgotten."

"Yes, that's her."

"See, I told you, dearest, I'm going to be a horrible king."

"It's only been a month, Gareth. Go easy on yourself. It's not like Imps are overrunning us."

"Only because of her over there."

"Yes, dear. Now, come on."

Gareth and Rosa make their way back to where Dierdre stands on wobbly knees. What is wrong with her, I wonder. She doesnāt strike me as the type of person to go weak-kneed because royalty showed up. Look at her treatment of King Baron. I fight a sudden impulse to reveal myself, hobble out to my friendās side. But what would I do there?

Which friend? Gareth? Dierdre?

Gareth takes a slight moment to compose himself÷it looks like dignity, but I know the truth of it÷and turns back to Dierdre. "Well, Dierdre÷" And how awkward he sounds, a king using a peasantās given name; king or not, Gareth is still human, and I feel better. "÷Iām not certain we have a medal that will cover your situation, but on behalf of the kingdom, I thank you. Furthermore, your banishment is annulled; you may return to Baron at any time to continue your training."

Dierdre looks like there are Imps clawing at her dress. Sweat beads her forehead. Itās almost amusing, somehow. "Thank you, Your Highness."

Gareth and Rosa start down the mountain after a few passing remarks, followed by Edward and Dalen. Edge starts down, but halts when he notices Rynelle. The green-garbed caller is exchanging a few tortured words with Dierdre.

"If you ever do decide to stop by," Rynelle says in her quiet murmur, "ask for me. Most mages donāt appreciate how different the two elements are. I think Iāve got the hang of it, though." Typical Rynellian understatement.

Dierdre looks anguished and slightly sick. What is wrong with her? A fever? A sickness? Did she relieve herself in the morning? (Thinking back, I recall that she disappeared in the vicinity of the stream for a few moments in the morning.)

Finally the last of the royal entourage disappears behind the crest of the hill. Dierdreās anxiety does not: she stands, shivering, quivering. She looks completely horrified, completely scared. Desperate.

I hobble towards her. "Dierdre? Are you okay?"

There is no answer. I feel that something is wrong as I come closer. Itās not just that her face is cold, dire, scaring me. It is also the hatred, the palpable dull red anger, emanating from her.

"Dierdre?" I place my hand on her arm.

Dierdre jumps viciously, her face a mask. Sudden fire bursts around me, scouring away her shocked expression and leaving me with only blackness.
 
 

"·you okay? Karn?"

"Karn, oh, you stupid man, I swear to the Moon that I will kill you if you donāt wake up."

"Karn!"

Dierdre sounds highly distraught.

Opening my eyes, I see feeble twilight shrouding Dierdreās tearstained face. It looks wrong for her to be crying; Dierdreās is a face for smiles and light. Immediately she pulls away from me, wiping her eyes with the grubby sleeve of her robe. "Oh, thank goodness youāre okay."

It is unsettling to hear her limit herself to one sentence.

"Iām all right," I say. "What happened?"

I saw your face, Dierdre. When I touched you, there was great anger, great fear. Of whom? Me? You cast a spell of Fire on me!

She shakes her head. "I donāt know, Karn. There was just a burst of magic." Her face gives away the lie. "Monsters, maybe?"

I struggle to sit. Cure spells again. Sometimes it seems that everyone in the world can use some form of it, everyone except me. "I guess it was," I say.

"Are you okay?" she asks me, timidly. Dierdre, timid!

Dierdre, crying.

"Yes," I reply. Sheās asked me that already. "What about you?"

She pales a little, sinks to her heels. Now she is kneeling before me, her face level. She looks so pale. "A little shaken, I guess." She sniffles, and then laughs a little. "And worried."

Because of what you did. Because of your reaction to me.

The blackness I felt in you is the kind of dark I used to get from Golbez, whenever I had to come near him.

I say, "About me?"

"Well," replies Dierdre. "Yes."

This is new to me. I donāt think anyone has ever worried about me. Except maybe Gareth.

Except maybe Rosa. I hope she worried about me.

I wish she worried about me.

"Thank you," I tell her.

She blushes. "Well, itās nothing. I saved you once already, you know, and seeing as youāre the first person Iāve actually saved, I donāt intend to let you die. Not that Iām saying Iād let anyone die, Iām just saying that youāre special, you know. You÷"

Rapid-fire turbo-mouth Dierdre is back. Too much information. I silence her with a gentle hand across her mouth÷she blushes furiously÷and say, again, meaning it, "Thank you."

"Youāre welcome," she replies, her voice muffled by my hand and her cheeks crimson. I can feel them burning. I take my hand from her mouth and she smiles weakly.

"What was Rynelle talking to you about," I ask her.

"Well, she was offering her services," Dierdre says, toying with her hair. She is remarkably self-conscious; she will not meet my gaze. "You know how she was able to use both White and Black Magic. I would imagine that she would be the most knowledgeable person I could have to teach me, but Iām not sure if sheāll be a good teacher. Not to say sheās a bad person, but thereās a difference between a good mage and a good teacher, you know?" She tosses her hair behind her head. "There was this one man I knew, back in the castle, who could heal people, knit bones together, perform wonders. But he could never teach anyone else how to do it; he was just far too grumpy. Oh, he smiled a lot and laughed a lot, but when things went wrong, he exploded. Why, I remember the time when÷"

I realize suddenly the manic tinge to her voice, the desperation in her eyes. She is talking simply to keep her mind away from whatever it is thatās bothering her, bothering her badly. Again I stem the flow with my hands. "Dierdre, be calm." I can feel the tension in her jaw as it clenches.

I am at a loss. She looks like a cornered rabbit. How do I soothe her? I am a Dragoon, not a Healer; they taught us things like how to deal with rabid Bone Dragons, not hysterical people. I have no experience with cornered rabbits.

Suddenly, without warning, Dierdre lunges into my arms, quivering. Her voice is muffled. "I was so worried about you. Iāve been so lonely. Always alone·"

I feel stunned. I force myself to move, to hold her, to stroke her hair. Comfort, what little I can provide. This is no Dierdre I know. The woman who fought off the Imps at my side, who braved a kingās wrath, is gone; in her place, a quivering mass of nerves. What happened to her? Was it me? What kind of a repayment is that? She saves my life and in return I turn her into wobbling lump of jelly.

At once I remember a time, in the Tower of Bab-il, a time when Rosa suffered my lash, when I beat her and hated her for loving another, hated myself for hating her, hated myself for loving her, hated the world for putting us together. She had drawn herself up, spoken words I hardly considered then, remember vividly now. At a loss, I whisper them to the woman in my arms.

"Be calm, my friend. Things will get better. Though evil towers over you and nothing makes sense, be sure that times will come when your suffering ends. Be brave."

"Where did you learn that," Dierdre asks me. She pulls her face from my shoulde and looks at me, her green-gray eyes muzzled. And intensely relieved.

"Rosa," I say. "Rosa taught it to me."

"Oh," Dierdre says, "that explains it." She resettles into my arms. "Thatās one of the little things she used to reassure us when things were going wrong and we all thought weād die. I suppose weāll not hear it again; now sheās Queen, and sheās got to be aloof and all that. But it was good to hear it again."

Dierdre smiles and tucks herself closer. Apparently she has no plans to move from my arms and I have to admit I rather like her there. But there are other matters at hand÷besides her closeness, her skin touching mine, her hair flowing down my arm. "Are you going to take Rynelle up on her offer?"

"I think that I shall," Dierdre says. "If nothing else, I must learn to fix your broken leg. Itās the least I can do to thank you."

"Thank me!" I exclaim. She is smiling, and her eyes are closed. She is so pretty. "Dierdre, you saved me."

"Oh, thatās nothing," she replies. "Iām a Healer. Iām supposed to save people. Itās my job, you see, and if everyone thought they owed Healers something for saving them, why, Healers would own the world. Weād all be queens and kings or something, and I can tell you, Karn, that weād all make bad rulers÷Her Majesty excepted, of course. Weāre always quarreling. Itās ridiculous.

"But you, Karn. With your help, Iām back to Baron. I can really learn to use my magic. I owe you so much. Iām sorry I didnāt tell His Majesty you helped÷"

"Actually, Iām rather glad you didnāt," I say. "Iām not sure I couldāve faced him."

The memories are strong, you see. I remember oh, so well how I betrayed my best friend, how I betrayed Gareth. I remember what I did to Rosa, how I hurt her, hurt them all. I remember the pain on her face, and how I laughed.

You saved the wrong man, Dierdre. The Karn of old, the Karn before Golbez, wouldāve tried to reconcile, to reciprocate. But the man you have now has no such feelings. He sees the darkness inside him, darkness that was never there before, and he fears it. He sees no way to bring light inside·

"Why not?" Dierdre asks innocently. "Heās your friend, isnāt he?"

I sigh, force the words out. "He was. Once. But now· Iām not so sure anymore."

"Oh," Dierdre says, commiserating. "I see."

I force levity into my words. "Well, I have other friends. Iāll make do."

"One day you ought to go see him," Dierdre offers. "If you think you can stand him."

"One day, perhaps, I will," I say. Probably not, though. I donāt want to face my friends. I donāt want their anger, their fear.

I donāt want their pity.
 
 
 
 
 
 

When Dierdre awoke the next day Karn was still asleep, his strong tired face smoothed over and calmed. She was always surprised at the difference it made. He looks peaceful when he sleeps. She donned her White Mage robes and made her way down towards Castle Baron. At the gate, she gave her name, and added, "I think Rynelle is expecting me."

The guards took her up to one of the towers, where Rynelle was conversing with a Sylph. The two concluded their conversation as she approached.

"There you are," Rynelle said. She was so gentle. She smiled at Dierdre. "I thought youād be here."

Dierdre made herself calm. "Yes, well, here I am. I hope Iām not intruding or anything·"

Rynelle shook her head. Green hair cascaded. "Oh, no. Of course not. Itās the first time Iāve ever met another dual user and Iām dying to compare notes." She smiled; she glowed; she beamed.

Dierdre felt she liked Rynelle already. "Well, Iām afraid I donāt have any real notes or anything. I still donāt have much skill in spellcasting in either element· Iāve been trying to cast newer spells but somehow they never work."

Rynelle smiled. "Thatās to be expected," she said. "No slight towards your spellcasting intended, of course, but itās a lot harder to create new spells than most people think." She laughed deprecatingly. "You should see the people who come to see me now that Iām the Royal Spellcaster, asking to lever their carts out of a ditch or save a cow from a strange disease. They think I have all the answers in the world. I tell them to talk Dalen into rigging up a block and tackle, or to talk to the Healers." She gave a conspiratorial smile. "I canāt even pick up a cup with magic."

Dierdre smiled. "What about area spells," she said. "Like that Ninja casts. Edge."

Rynelleās face went vague and dreamy. "Oh, yes. Edge. Fascinating magics. No, I canāt do area spells. Theyāre not as efficient, unless, of course, the targets are closely packed, but I can see the potential·"

Dierdre coughed uncomfortably. "I can do it."

Rynelle blinked, all airiness gone. "Really?"

"Uhm, yes, actually. That was how we÷I÷took care of the Imps. When they got close enough I just hit them all with a Fire spell."

Rynelle grew greatly animated. "Show me," she said. She pointed to the bed in a corner. "Use that. Iāll just ask Gareth for another. Heāll understand."

Dierdre stared at the rumpled bed. Fear, anxiousness, hatred. What had happened to make the bed so disheveled? Did she really want to know?

"Go on," Rynelle said with a gentle smile.

Dierdre sighed.

The floor under the bed burst into flagellant flame. The covers began to smolder.

Rynelle shoved open a window for ventilation and dashed over. A corner of her enormously long sleeve fell into the flame, and she absently stamped it out. "Wow. Iāve never seen that before."

Dierdre fidgeted anxiously. "You never saw Edge do something like that?"

"No, we were always in danger of our lives when he used them." Rynelle shrugged cheerfully. "I donāt know. I guess he thinks that using his magic is too feminine, even though it works a lot better than his swords." She made a highly ungraceful giggle. "He gets himself so chopped up sometimes."

Dierdre nodded uncomfortably. She was starting to hate herself. Rynelle was too cheerful, too endearing. Her hands clenched the hem of her robe sleeves. She debated jumping out the window.

Rynelle doused the flames. "Please, do it again."

Dierdre concentrated, sweat streaming down her face. Suddenly her eyes snapped open and she started to yell.

The floor under Rynelle burst into flames.

Rynelle yelled and jumped to one side. The fire followed her, leaving the floor untouched. The other woman dodged around the blaze, which floated after her with lethal assurance. Finally Rynelle gathered her scorched wits and dropped Water on the blaze, extinguishing it.

Dierdre stared, quivering. Presently she managed to mouth, "Iām sorry."

Rynelle, strangely, seemed less shaken than Dierdre. "No, itās all right. Everyone has accidents. How did you manage to make it follow me like that?"

Dierdre shook. "I donāt know," she said miserably. "I didnāt÷"

"Thatās all right," Rynelle said, "weāll figure it out. By Bahamutās claws, what a weapon that would be!" She was excited again. "Come on, cast that again! Letās see what you did·"

Dierdre groaned. Torture. Pure torture.
 
 
 
 

"Dierdre," I say to her, "maybe you should stop going to Rynelle."

Dierdre gazes at the shattered bowl in her hands. She didnāt drop it or maim it or anything; she was just holding it, and then she broke it. Now there is hot water soaking into her robes and skirt. "Why," she says, "what makes you say that?"

I have full use of my leg now. After the second lesson Dierdre managed to fix my broken leg. This latest is the seventh visit. And the seventh broken bowl. "Because you come back tired and angry. Thatās not the way to do things."

She sighs. "Yes, I know. Sheās just a little too enthusiastic sometimes, you know. Practically pounces on me. Itās really horrible. And· I donāt know. Sometimes I just want to strangle her."

I eye her carefully. "Thatās not good."

"I know." She squeezes a piece of the bowl. "I know Iām overreacting, but somehow she really bugs me."

"Why donāt you just stop going, then?" I ask her.

She sighs. "I donāt know. I just· I donāt know. Because learning to use magic correctly is important to me. Thereās nothing else in my life, you know. Just magic."

I open my mouth to tell her that thereās certainly more, but a roar drowns me out. I dash to the cave entrance to see whatās going on; Dierdre is an instant behind me.

Below, the kingdom of Baron sprawls serene and untouched across the plains, belied only by the roar and a sudden flurry as thousands of birds take to the air, disturbed by the sound.

"What could that be," Dierdre shouts. I can barely hear her.

"I donāt know," I reply. "Perhaps Dalen is testing a new device÷"

The answer comes suddenly in the form of a crack.

The Red Wings of Baron are unique for only one reason: their airships, and their operation of such airships for rapid transit and deployment. We Dragoons have long wanted such devices, but the Red Wings guard their secrets jealously. The airships are kept in an enormous ellipsoid domed hangar adjacent to the palace, open to air at one end.

The shattering sound matches the sudden appearance of a crack in the ceiling. The shattering increases; the crack grows. An arched, stacked-books prow, gracefully chunky, begins to emerge.

I gape. "The Big Whale!"

More shaking, more cracking. The prow wedges itself out more. Suddenly the entire dome collapses, sending wood and metal smashing down on the airships below. The Big Whale rips free of the entwining debris and blasts skyward. I have never seen the ungainly ark move so fast. In ten seconds it is gone from sight.

The silence is louder than the blast of the Whaleās engines.

"What was that," Dierdre says. I wince; surely, in the silence, everyone in Baron must be able to hear that.

"That," I say, "was the Big Whale."

"I know that, silly," she says, "what was it doing? Why couldnāt it have used the entrance like any decent flying ship?"

I laugh. The Big Whale, a Īdecent flying ship.ā "I donāt know. Maybe Gareth took it into his head to explore outer space."

She shakes her head. "I wouldāve heard of it. I love gossip and that kind of thing wouldāve been all over the city." She forestalls me with a hand. "I know what youāre going to say: His Majesty might have wanted it to keep it secret. The thing is, why? Thereās nothing wrong with exploring outer space; in fact, I think the people would love it."

"Thereās really no reason," I say suddenly, "no good reason. Only a bad one."

She blinks. "A bad one. What do you mean?"

I will not perish as long as there is evil in the hearts of people.

"Oh," Dierdre says. "I see."

"Yes," I say tiredly.

"Well," says Dierdre, "maybe the Lunarians wanted it back and they just forgot to press the Īrecallā button until now."

"Maybe," I say. But I worry. "Thereās only one way to find out," I say.

"Whatās that?"

"Be there when it comes back."
 
 
 
 

And that is how Dierdre and I managed to get ourselves hidden in plain sight, near the ellipse hanger, skulking in the shadows. I donāt have my armor, but I do have my Spear. Dierdre had to cast a Vanish spell on it to make it disappear; too many people wouldāve recognized it. There are immense crowds here, but they are not the ones I worry about.

Gareth, Rosa, Dalen, Rynelle, Edward and Edge, who really should be ruling his kingdom instead of loitering around Baron÷"Heās ever so besotted with Rynelle," Dierdre told me, "and I do believe she feels quite the same way towards him."÷are in a knot at the base of the hangar, looking up at the Big Whale, hovering ominously above the repaired hangar.

"Thereās no room to land," I realize. "It canāt go through the main entrance, Dierdre, which is why it had to break out." Suddenly I recall something. "They built the dome over the hangar after they landed the Big Whale. Gareth said he didnāt intend to fly it again. It was supposed to be a monument or something."

She gazes up at the arch of stacked planks that is the Big Whale hanging above us. "Why did it come back," she says reflexively.

Gareth apparently has received the same idea I have, because he commands the crowds to back away. When a roughly Big Whale-sized clearing has opened itself up, the gigantic space ark floats over and lands serenely, its keel hovering an exact inch above the ground.

"Look!" I say. "Garethās sending two people in." The two soldiers, stern discipline masking their fear but not their savage grip on their swords, will have to pass by our alleyway to make it to the ship. I hand her my spear. "Here," I say. "Be prepared to use it."

As the two soldiers pass, I give a yell. "Excuse me! Sir!"

The two soldiers stop and glance into the alleyway.

"Sir, thereās a gigantic problem in here!"

The soldiers, seeing only me and Dierdre, assume Iām just paranoid. They figure they will pacify me quickly and be back on their way to the Big Whale in moments. They step into the hallway.

"Look, sirs! A Skeleton!" I point to the far end of the corridor.

The two soldiers glance at each other. Theyāre new: they think the monsterās invisible. I wish I had had time to think of one that truly was invisible. Either that or theyāre just going to humor me. "Stand aside, you two, weāll take care of this."

Dierdre takes care of them both by clouting them on the head with the White Spear. The soldiers drop like rocks.

Dierdre hefts the invisible Spear in her hand. "I must admit," she says with a grin, "thereās a certain appeal in using one of these."

"No time for that," I tell her. "Quickly, put on their uniforms. Weāre boarding the Big Whale in their place."

She stares at me. "Youāre kidding."

"No. Quickly, now. Iām afraid weāll have to leave our clothes behind, and the Spear, but that canāt be helped." I am working one of the soldiers out of his armor. "Come on, Dierdre, thereās no time. Gareth will send someone to check if those soldiers donāt get out there fast."

She sighs and complies. In a few minutes two soldiers emerge from the dark alleyway and into the harsh sunlight.

"Captain!" comes Garethās voice. I hope my sudden freezing is accounted to discipline. "What took you so long?"

I do my best to change my voice. "We thought we saw a monster, Your Majesty, but it wasnāt anything."

"I see," Gareth says. "Carry on, Captain."

I sigh invisibly and nudge Diedre. "Come on." We move forward towards the Big Whale. I canāt help but think that if we botch it, itāll be here in front of the entire kingdom. The hatchway opens and we enter.

The Big Whaleās interior is stylized in the blocks and chunks Lunarians seem to like so well, coupled with sleekly glowing lights and panels. The ship seems entirely deserted.

"Where is everyone," Dierdre asks. Her voice echoes eerily around the noisy-yet-noiseless room. It is as if the sound has dampened itself to make room for her voice.

I move through the interior, my boots making hard sounds against the deck. I have never been comfortable within the Big Whaleās bowels; the place is too functional, too sterile. Golbez never, ever, felt this cold. Beyond the main cabin is the Healing Room, with its chairs and beds.

There is someone seated in one of those chairs. The girth of shoulders indicates a male.

What? Did someone hijack the Big Whale?

Dierdre creeps closer. "Thereās a man in there! Who÷"

I nudge her back. "Hush. We donāt know who it is." I draw the captainās sword; it feels awkward in my grip and I know Iāll never be able to use it correctly. Carefully, I approach the man in the chair.

He is sleeping oblivious to his arrival at his destination. His lack of savage black armor and cold steel helmet donāt seem to bother him at all. The body is hard-muscled from use and hate. His face wears the stern coldness of a man who has strayed down the wrong path many, many times, even when he sleeps. I donāt know if he looks older or younger than Gareth. Iāve never seen his face before.

"Golbez," I breathe.

"What!" cries Dierdre, scandalized.

I look for the control on the chair that keeps him in suspended stasis and hit it. The chair stops its humming, a subtle undertone that I had not noticed until it stopped. Golbez opens his eyes.

"Karn," he says. His voice is the same÷gravelly, without slightest warmth÷but the cold hate is gone as well. The voice seems terribly disemboweled without the hate that gave it warmth.

Now he just sounds tired.

"Karn," he says again. Past me. "And Dierdre."

"Yes," I say. "What are you doing here?"

Unwittingly I flinch. Golbez is the master; Iām not to question him. Iām not allowed to question him. He gives me answers when he feels like it. It is so easy to fall into the pattern of master and commander, and I have to consciously fight against it. Now we are just friends. Well, perhaps only acquaintances.

Golbez answers. "I went with FuYoSa, into their sleep. What else could I do? There was nothing for me here."

"But you woke up again," I said.

"Yes. The Moon had stopped, and I knew I was supposed to get off. So I used the Recall on the Big Whale to come back."

He sighs. Golbez, who never showed any indecision. I feel vaguely frightened. "I donāt know why I woke up. I donāt. Maybe·" He stops.

"The evil inside us," Dierdre says quietly.

"Yes," Golbez says. "The evil inside us. I think the Moon knew."

I shake my head. "That doesnāt matter now. What matters is getting you out of here before King Gareth comes in to investigate·" I stop. King Gareth.

Golbez nods, standing up. Iāve never noticed that heās actually shorter than me. By the Dwarves, heās shorter than Dierdre! "True, Karn. Letās go."

"Wait," Dierdre says. "What about the crowds?"

Golbez stops, a bemused expression on his face. "I suppose my unexpected arrival gathered the multitudes, didnāt it."

I nod.

"All right," he said, "the coolant system has needed cleaning for several thousand years anyway. Time to vent it."

"What do you mean?" I cry, scandalized. Whatās he going to do, vaporize Baron? What in the Underworld is coolant?

Golbez goes to a small control panel, presses a few buttons, and twists a valve.

"Open the hatch," he says to me. "Dierdre, can you cast Vanish spells on all of us?"

"Now?" she says. "I· Yes." She does, combining her idea for area spells with a basic White spell.

Golbez raises an eyebrow in approval. "Not bad," he says. "You are going to÷" He shakes his head. "Iām not in command anymore. Iād like to learn that," he says.

Dierdre blushes.

"Not now," I say. "Letās just be out of here."

"True, Karn. Down the ramp."

Outside the ramp, the citizens of Baron are pressed close together. "How do we get out?" I ask, dismayed.

Golbez points to a set of hatches lining the hull of the ship. They are rattling with a vaguely menacing manner.

"What are÷" I ask.

The answer comes when the hatches open and blasts of steam slam out. The crowds scream and run. Within moments a path is clear.

Dierdre stares, amazed. "Well!"

"Shall we?" Golbez asks with a hint of amusement.

Off we go, through the town. Dierdre explains the cave, provides rudimentary directions on how to get there in case Golbez gets lost. He says that he shall be able to find it if he does.

"I guess weād better drop by the alleyway and retrieve our things," I say. "Weāre not actually soldiers, you know; we just took their places."

Golbez gives a sort of a friendly smirk. His face is planed such so that he almost canāt look friendly. "Iād almost say you had this planned."

"We did," I say, "basically. Just over there÷"

A cache of soldiers are gathered around their two stunned companions.

I curse quietly. "Theyāve found our evidence."

"Smoking gun," Golbez agrees. Whatever that means.

"So what? We just go straight back to the cave," Dierdre says.

Yes, but what about my weapon? Theyāll find it, and take it, and Gareth will know Iām alive·

No time for that, Karn. Youāve got to go.

"All right," I say. "Letās go."
 
 
 
 

Three weeks of living in fear of capture is draining on the soul. Dierdre and I felt the strain as surely as if it were tangible and clawing at us. Golbez never showed a wink. He traded his armor for cloth breeches and shirt and became another member of Dierdreās cave, a constant danger.

Every day I worried that Gareth would come up to the cave and find Golbez. Every day I worried that weād be arrested. Every day I worried for Gareth. For Dierdre. Why?

She continued to visit Rynelle, for some reason. I thought it incredibly dangerous.

So there I was, pacing, because Dierdre was late in returning.

Golbez glances up at me. "Be calm, Karn. You wonāt be able to solve anything by pacing."

"Where is she," I wonder aloud. "Whatās taking her so long?" The sun is almost down beyond the horizon." "Sheās normally here by now."

Golbez shrugs. "Maybe she got tied up somewhere."

"Thatās what I worry about."

Golbez shifted to his feet. "Karn," he says. "I know youāre worried about her. But there is nothing you can do. Be calm."

I hear echoes of Rosaās words in his own. How long ago did she say that to me?

"Besides, you sound like sheās late for your wedding," Golbez says.

"Thatās not funny," I snap. "How can you be so calm. If she got captured or anything, itās your fault!"

"They wonāt," he says with infuriating calm. "They wonāt trace us." Anger lights his voice. "For the last time, calm down. In any case, sheās here."

Dierdre hikes up the hill, worn and wearied. My heart goes out to her. I know the danger she faces every time she goes down the hill, her irrational fear of Rynelle that I still donāt understand. I come down the slope towards her. "Dierdre?"

She looks at me like a stranger.

"Dierdre, are you okay?

Death descends in the form of a whirl of fire. Dierdre glares at me balefully, her gaze hotter than the flames she has summoned. I yell in pain. "Golbez!"

Bonds of ice descend on Dierdre, holding her firm. The fire around me fades, averted to shatter the manacles of ice. I scramble up the hill as Golbez and Dierdre battle away with their magic. "Golbez!" I gasp. "Whatās going on?"

"Feel her," Golbez snaps distantly. "A power of darkness has hold of her."

"Darkness!" I squawk. "You mean like·" Whisper. "Zeromus?"

"Or something like him, yes," Golbez says. His face contorts, flinches; lightning arcs out of the air to meet Dierdreās defense, an up-cast wall of ice.

I stare. Dierdre, controlled by Zeromus.

Suddenly, that explains a lot.

Her hatred of everyone, of all my friends÷compatriots. The way she canāt stand Gareth or Rynelle or anyone being in the same room÷I couldnāt either. The way she seemed to hate me whenever she used magic on me. The way Golbez knew her on sight.

Why I feel such an empathy with her.

"How do we stop her?" I ask. The earth rattles, shaking scree and boulders down on Dierdre. She stops and crumples but does not halt her ascent towards the cave. Her cave.

"I donāt know," Golbez says. "Perhaps we÷"

Suddenly the boulders reverse course, whizzing back up towards us. We duck, but one rock strikes Golbezās head with stunning force. He topples over and is still. The seismic assault halts. Dierdre scrambles up the hill, eyes blazing anger. Fire burns from her hand; she raises it above Golbez, poised for a killing blow.

"Dierdre!" I shout. "Stop!"

She stops.

Fire fades from her eyes and from her hand, anger replaced by sudden confusion, by sudden horror. By understanding.

"Oh, Karn," she whispers.

I go to her. What else can I do? She has tried to kill me, but I love her. She crumples in my arms, boneless, sagging. My pure, strong Dierdre. I guide her stumbling steps to the pallet, help her sit.

Golbez stirs and groans, looks up at me. I shake my head. I have her now, for better or for worse. He nods and limps outside.

It is funny, but I think heās known all along. Everything. The evil in her, that allows people to control her. That I love her.

Dierdre is still crying. I ease her to me, feel my tunic absorb her tears, feel her quake. I hold her, absorb the flow, until it stops.

"Dierdre," I say quietly. Very, very quietly. There is no response, but I know she is listening. "Someone was controlling you, werenāt they." I look at her. "Like they controlled me."

She nods, wretchedly.

I sigh. "Why didnāt you tell me?"

"I was afraid youād hate me," she moans. "You hated yourself."

Thatās true, isnāt it. I hated myself.

"Iām sorry."

Dierdre says: "Do you hate me?"

I shake my head. "No."

"Well, thatās good," she says without looking up. There is no hesitation, but she wonāt meet my eyes. "Because I love you, and you canāt love me back if you hate me."

Actually, I can. I have done it before· with Rosa. Whom I loved and hated.

Myself, I only hated.

Has anyone ever, ever loved me?

"You love me," I asked her incredulously.

She nodded. "Yes, Karn. I love you."

"I donāt suppose itās a coincidence that I love you as well," I said.

She shook her head. "I hope not."

"Itās not," I told her. "I love you, Dierdre."

She clutched me closer, and I lost myself in her presence. Dierdre, whom I loved.

Presently she says, "I really wasnāt here for three weeks."

"Uh," I say, feeling somewhat reluctant to talk. "Where were you?"

She sighs. "Being a servant of Golbez. He wasnāt mean to me or anything, but I didnāt like it." Her voice turns wistful, languid. "I did what needed doing, when it needed doing. Donāt you remember, in the Tower?"

I remember, suddenly. There she was. Does Golbez recognize her? Silly question; of course he does.

"The things I had to do· were horrible. Iāve never forgiven myself."

"I havenāt either," I say. "Rosa·"

"I was there, in the shadows, egging the monsters on. I wanted so much o rebel against the control, rescue her, rescue you. But I couldnāt. I felt awful. It was so horrible·"

"It was terrible," I say.

"We were terrible," says Dierdre.

"I know," I say. "I wonder how Golbez felt, fighting his brother."

"I was lucky," Dierdre says. "I wasnāt connected in any way to anyone· Until now. After they let me go, I just collected what I could so I could survive here and lived."

"Was it you who Bolted the King, or Golbez?"

"Golbez," she said, "though I have to admit it was rather amusing. Why are we talking about this? Itās so depressing. Our lives just took a turn for the better. And weāve got other things to do."

"Like what?" I ask.

"Heal Golbez, for one," she says. "And weāve got to figure out who it is who controlled me." She can talk about it without flinching.

"So serious," Dierdre. I kiss the top of her head. "We have time. Things got better, thinks make sense now. We can relax, just for a little·"
 
 
 
 

"Sir Karn!"

The guards jump as I approach. I smile quietly. Down, boys.

"Yes, it's me," I say.

"It's· It's been a while, sir," one of them says, and I recognize a former Dragoon. He is an old and grizzled veteran whom Gareth probably took pity on and retired to guard work.

Funny: I never got used to being called 'sir' by him (I am of a higher rank than he) and it still disturbs me now.

"Can· Can I speak to Gareth?" I ask. "King Gareth, I mean."

"Just you, or·" The guard--I believe he was known informally as Grumpy÷indicates Dierdre, standing by my side.

"Both of us," I say firmly.

As the second guard scuttles off, I wonder what kind of reaction I will receive. The last time anyone from Baron heard from me was yesterday, when Dierdre and I went to the chapel and got married; before then was Dierdre's encounter with Gareth and Rosa, when they were searching for me; all those years (three months!) ago.

Within moments, the guard is back. He is young and obviously nervous to be in the presence of one of the world's premier heroes--I guess they've gotten over their fear of me. "The-the King will see you now," he squeaks, and without waiting for an answer turns and scuttles back into the castle.

Grumpy grunts apologetically. "Still rumors floatin' around, sir, about how you're really a bad guy in disguise·" Rather hastily, he adds, "I still believe in you, sir."

I smile wanly. "There's one."

Dierdre trailing me, I enter Castle Baron.

The place looks different from when I saw it last; in the few short months of my absence, Gareth has been busy. The place is a little bigger, but more importantly it looks more cheerful than I remember it. The last King was a rather solemn person, but Gareth÷a Paladin, what do you expect?÷has done up the walls and the rafters in colorful banners and tapestries. I have to admit that the place is more inviting than before.

As I walk through the castle, my mind flickers back to times and times before. Here is where I was first accepted into the Dragoon Corps. Here is where Gareth and I first set out on our journey together.

Here is where I killed the king·

And not five feet away from that very spot, Their Majesties the King and Queen.

The throne room looks, despite its grandeur, to be in a state of disrepair. I wonder what has happened here: perhaps Rynelle practiced some sort of hurricane spell. The walls look grimy; an earthenware pot bearing a plant has tipped over in a corner, spilling soil across the rich, dingy carpeting; the weapons hanging behind the throne have partially come off the wall. Recognizing the Excalibur and the Crystal Sword from the Moon, my eyes widen at the next weapon in line: my own White Spear.

Gareth looks rather pale and haggard. I am not sure why; perhaps running a kingdom is harder than I thought, or perhaps he is just anxious to see me. The fact that he is sitting on the edge of his seat convinces me to think the latter.

Rosa, too, is paler. She stares at me in almost horrid fascination, and my ever-tortured mind flashes: What does she think of me? I, who was the enforcer of her captivity; I, who sent her through that ordeal in the Tower; I, who should have protected her·

Does she hate me?

And then, as I take in both of them again: Is she pregnant? And, Yes, she is. How come Dierdre missed this bit of news?

Reaching the thrones, I bow before my best friend. "Your Majesty."

Gareth says nothing for a moment. Then, in a quiet, almost scared voice:

"Karn?"

My friend? Scared?

"Yes," I respond. "It's me."

Gareth smiles; he almost glows, reminding me irrationally of Dierdre for a moment. He turns to his attendants. "Bring the others, and leave us."

The Chancellor nods and exits, sweeping the other servants and hangers-on with him.

"Karn·" Gareth rises from the throne, and comes towards me. "Is it really you?"

Why should he doubt me? "Yes, Your Majesty," I reply.

He waves a hand. "No formalities between us, my friend." Unexpectedly, he hugs me.

I am surprised. Has my absence really made such a gap in his life?

Gareth releases me, and there are tears in his eyes. "I knew you'd come back, eventually," he says.

Rosa sits, pale and composed, on her throne, watching us.

My heart sinks, leaden.

"Rosa," Gareth calls, "come! Karn is back!"

"Are you sure?" Rosa says timidly.

"Of course," Gareth replies, almost boyish in his excitement. "Only Karn would be miffed by the honor of having the King embrace him."

Rosa smiles. "That's true." She rises from her throne, but only manages a few steps before she stumbles.

Instantly, all three of us are by her side÷me, Gareth, Dierdre. The other two help her up.

"You might have noticed already: Rosa's pregnant." Gareth beams again. "Our first royal heir." His expression turns grim. "But she's taking it hard·"

"No harder than you, dear," Rosa gasps, still struggling to her feet. I realize that perhaps Rosa doesn't fear me; perhaps she just doesn't quite want to move.

"Here, let me help, Your Majesty," Dierdre says. I smile inwardly; nothing can harm Rosa with Dierdre watching over her.

"And, who is this?" Gareth asks, not unkindly. "The woman from the hills, if I'm not mistaken."

"My wife," I reply quietly. "Dierdre."

Gareth turns from Dierdre to me and back. "I see."

Then the door at the far side of the throne room flings open and·

"Karn!"

With a wild shout, all my friends rush into the room. At once, I am overwhelmed by tears: this is the first time I have seen many of them at all, having only heard of them from Gareth and Rosa.

Edward, from appearances, has lost weight as well; Damcyan must be a hard rule. But he looks healthy, probably healthier than Gareth did and I do. He approaches me with a shy smile and somehow I like him immediately. Though he hesitates, he carries himself with a confidence gained only from looking one's worst nightmares straight in the teeth, kicking said teeth, and living to tell about it.

Yang, who I have seen (in the Sylphan Caverns) but never spoken to, appears to have lost some of his famous edge in the intervening time. I suppose my muscles are as flabby; living in luxury is definitely different than fighting on the edge day in and day out. His smile, too, is sincere, but his is almost a wolf's smile÷predatorial and dangerous, but with enough cheer to alleviate it.

Kalynn and Coren pile into the room, clattering like a rainstorm and with about as much impact. They both look about as indistinguishable from each other as I have heard, until you look at their faces. Kalynn is serene and serious, while Coren wears an almost comical expression of intense concentration on whatever he's doing--in this case, escaping from Edge, the Ninja king of Eblan.

Edge, of course, I have seen before, fought next to, traded harsh words and kind ones with. He has not lost his Edge; if anything, he looks more intense than before. He seems to be threatening to hack Coren to bits with his Murasame, but the minute they notice me they drop what they're doing and dash over.

Rynelle trails in Edge's wake. At once, she recognizes Dierdre; then, with a start, she recognizes me. She puts a hand to her mouth, but recovers and follows the crowds towards me.

Dalen is there as well. He has lost weight; apparently Gareth is working him hard. He has this air of self-satisfaction about him, though, that seems to indicate that whatever Gareth has him working at, he's enjoying it immensely. He hasn't even had time to drop his hammer; he tosses it into a corner (I hear a crunch and a thud) and advances like a bear, grinning broadly.

They are all around me, laughing, talking, asking questions (screaming, in Coren's case; Edge has caught up to him) and I simply stand there, taking it all in and unabashedly letting the tears roll down my face.

Because it's suddenly apparent to me, from the way they came to greet me, with no reservations or anything. They trust me. They like me.

They have faith in me.

They have faith in me.

After all I've done to them, against them, after all the lives I took, after all the time I spent on the other side of the wall· They still have faith in me.

I smile. Perhaps, then, I am forgiven.

Gareth, basically holding Rosa up by the shoulders, sees my smile and my tears. He raises his voice above the clamor: "Give the poor man some room. You'll all get a chance to ask him where he's been."

Taking advantage of the momentary confusion, I compose myself. Dierdre slips through the confusion to my side, and her hand in mine is inordinately comforting.

"Where have you been, anyway?" Coren yells from somewhere behind Edge. "We missed you after the Tower of Bab-il."

"I, uhm·" I'm not sure how to break it to my friends.

Dierdre saves me the trouble. "He wanted to kill himself. Hurled himself off a cliff and almost hit me at the bottom." She grins. "Some Dragoon he is: can't even aim."

A round of chuckles. I grin sheepishly. "And that's how we met."

"He nearly landed on me!" Dierdre elaborates indignantly. She smiles. "But I married him anyway."

That produces some rather blank stares.

"All this in three months," Dalen grumps.

"What else did we miss," Yang asks me. "Any kids yet?"

Laughter. I laugh, too: "No, not yet. We just got married yesterday."

"Well," Gareth says, "next time this happens, tell us about it."

"If I must," I reply with mock resignation. I find words are coming easily to me now; none of my problems with speech plague me. I am talking as smoothly as anyone could ever hope to be. I wonder why. Perhaps friendship has loosened my tongue.

Right?

"Well, there's probably not going to be a next time," Dierdre says, tightening her hold on my hand, "so get your kicks now. I don't intend to let this guy go. After all÷" She flashed her dazzling smile at Gareth. "How else would I get to socialize with the king himself?"

"Well," Coren remarks, "you could just bust in."

"Oh, great," Dalen grumps, "I can just imagine. And after all the work I put in making this castle look decent, you people come trampling in here like a herd of Behemoths÷"

I smile. Same old friends.

I glance at Gareth again, and then beyond him, to the weapons mounted on the wall. "How'd you find my lance," I ask him. I thought I'd lost it after the escape from Baron, when we extricated Golbez. So much Gareth doesn't know. I glance at him, expecting her to say something, but surprisingly, Kalynn speaks up.

"We found it," she said. "Coren and I. It was a couple of weeks after the Big Whale came back. We were bored÷"

"I'm never bored, I just get curious," Coren remarks offhand.

Kalynn continues as if her brother hadn't ever opened his mouth. She's probably used to it now, I reflect. "We were bored, and we just happened to be in the right alleyway at the right time÷when the moon was up and the lance was reflecting it. We didn't know how it got there, though. How did it?"

"It's a long story," I say, glancing again at the White Lance's pearlescent finish. It beckons me: a reminder of times long gone, when I was a warrior for the world instead of against it, when I was respected and revered, not scorned and sneered at. "Can I hold it?"

Gareth shrugs. "Why not? It's your weapon."

I feel everyone watching me, but it doesn't matter to me now. I step up the dais and behind the thrones, reach down and, for the first time in three months, hold the White Lance in my hand.

It's a heady experience, gripping the ivory shaft and staring down its almost unnaturally-straight expanse to where the white metal head gleams, soft and sharp; I feel like I can do anything, just with this lance in my hand. Idly, I wonder if Gareth feels the same way when he holds the Excalibur.

I smile, and almost sheepishly glance around the room. "Wow," I laugh, and my friends break into a circle of smiles.

Gareth comes up to me and squeezes me on the shoulder. "It's good to have you back, my friend."

I am so happy I almost cry.

Stab him through, a voice echoes in my head.

What?

Quickly, now. Run him through!

Almost immediately my senses dim, as though someone has draped a veil of gauze over my nerves. Inhibitions and feelings blot out; Gareth spouts some mindless platitude, but all I can hear is that same voice, echoing in my head.

STAB HIM!

I cannot move; I cannot think; I'm not sure I am even breathing. What can I do? The suggestion makes perfect sense, as seen through the drape of black cloth over my mind. My mind rebels against this edict, but my body is compelled·

Well, fine, then, the voice huffs. Knock him out with the haft of the spear.

This is an acceptable compromise.

And besides, it makes sense. Gareth, the man I have been in mortal fear of for the past months, the man I hated for marrying the woman I love· I need to take my revenge.

I shift my hold on the White Lance and thrust it backwards, jamming the butt of the handle into His Royal Majesty's royal stomach. Gareth doubles over, gasping, and I raise the spear and club him on the back of the head.

He goes out like a light.

Gasps from around the room.

For once, Coren's impetuousness does some good; it is only when I hear him yell that I realize he is attacking. A scant second later his rod thuds off my shoulder÷poor aim, as usual.

I wheel, the spear haft sticking straight out, and swipe the child out of the way while at the same time bringing the point up to face any other challengers. My mind has lost control, has retreated, sobbing, into a corner; only the voice rings in my head, and my body responds like a puppet.

Edge flashes towards me, both Murasame and Masamune bared and glinting in the light; past him I catch a glimpse of Dalen lumbering towards me, hammer raised and ready. I raise the While Lance's haft and block both of Edge's blades. While he is locked, his swords caught, standing over me like an idiot caught by his wrists, I raise my foot and kick him in the chest. He reels backwards, toppling over; I am on him and the butt of my lance hits his forehead with bone-breaking force. He, too, is out.

Dalen, the doddering old fool, trips over Edge and knocks the wind out of himself.

I glance about. The room has emptied, except for Rosa and Edward; Rynelle and Kalynn are off for reinforcements.

Edward rushes at me, his complacent face alive with anger. He strums his harp, and I laugh.

"Going to play me to death, little bastard?" I ask.

His face contorts with rage, but his fingers do not still. I move towards him, only to find my mobility hampered. His harp, apparently, is weaving a spell.

I hear the voice: I will take care of the spell. Destroy his harp and then destroy him.

The otherworldly feeling hits me; the spell vanishes. Edward is astonished; he glances at his harp and punches in a few more chords. Nothing happens.

I spear the harp straight through; the strings break with a discordant snap. I whip the spear around and hit him on the side of the head; over he goes.

A creaking sound from behind me. I turn.

Rosa has reclaimed her Artemis Bow and is aiming straight at me.

I know I am in trouble. Arrows are the one weapon that can knock me from the air; I am vulnerable to them. And Rosa aims at me at point-blank range.

I must survive.

I have one option left.

I stab Rosa straight through with the White Lance.

Her eyes bug; she loses her aim and her arrows slash off into a wall somewhere. She stares at me, her fast-dimming eyes wide with shock.

I retrieve my lance and blood spills out. Rosa sinks to the floor, probably dead.

I blink a few times, and suddenly the gauze is removed.

I stare at the Queen's body, horrified. What have I done? What have I done? "Rosa·"

I look down at my lance, stained with her blood.

WHAT HAVE I DONE???

My breath increases; my mind panics. The voice and its guidance are gone; I am left to my own devices.

All I can do· Is run.

* * * * *

Gareth's eyes opened gradually. He was groggy and couldn't see well.

What happened?

Karn had attacked, he recalled suddenly. He had· Sylphs Below, what had he done? What had happened? What had possessed him to do such a thing?

Gareth pulled himself into a sitting position; his gut hurt abominably and his head wasn't much better. His vision swam for a moment and he almost fell back; with a cry, he focused his sight and clambered to his feet.

He looked around the room, trying to reorient himself to what had happened.

His gaze fell on Rosa.

She sprawled facedown in a pool of blood; her long gold hair was coated with blood. Her bow lay by her side, arrowless; the blood had probably ruined it. There was a rather ghastly looking hole in her back, a hole like a spear would make.

"Rosa!" he cried. He stumbled down the dais and fell flat on his face, but was up in a moment. He fell to his knees beside her body. Gareth grabbed her shoulder and heaved her limp body over. Rosa's pulse was weak and thready; her breathing labored and inconstant. Her face was pale and sickly, and a gaping would in her chest spurt blood.

She can't be dead. She can't be dead·

For a moment he was paralyzed; he couldn't move, couldn't think. His hand strayed aimlessly to a long strand of her hair.

His hands shook. He was scared.

Gareth shook his head. No time· No time· Hurriedly, heedless of the blood pooling around his knees, he began to spellcast, weaving the energies that would, with luck, repair her broken body·

Glistening green light illuminated her wound, but for agonizing seconds it looked like nothing was happening. Panicky now, Gareth cast another Cure2. "Healers!" he yelled. "I need help here! I need help·" His voice trailed off; he felt like he was falling apart.

She can't die now· We have a child·

The second spell seemed to have an effect: the bleeding slowed and she breathed more easily. But Gareth knew that saving her was a task beyond his meager powers.

A groggy groan, and Edge flopped into a sitting position. "Gareth," he began, "what happened·" His eyes fell to Rosa and he trailed off.

"Get the Healers," Gareth whispered, unable to hold tears back from his eyes. He clasped his wife's cold, clammy body to his chest. "Get the Healers·"
 
 
 
 

When Dierdre returns to her cave, it is sundown and I am crying.

I do not care if she sees me. She has seen me when I have been worse.

Dierdre's gaze goes from my shuddering form to the lance, still covered in Queen Rosa's blood, which has turned as black as jet.

"Karn·" she says quietly; I sense a tsunami of weltering, conflicting emotions behind that one word. "What happened."

I look up at her; I feel naked and tired. "I was controlled," I whisper.

The evil is within me·

Her face turns. "Oh."

Has she rejected me? I do not know if I can stand another blow; I have already murdered my best friend's wife. What will happen if my wife rejects me?

What will the voice compel me to do?

"Oh, Karn·" she whispers, and suddenly she is there beside me, enfolding me in her arms, and I cry like a lost child, alone and afraid.

I guess I am not alone: I have Dierdre.

But I am afraid.

I am afraid of myself.

After a while, I ask her, "How did you get out?"

"I just snuck out," she says, "while you were distracting everyone. What about you? You didn't just waltz out the front gate, did you?"

She injects a false note of humor into her voice that neither of us feel. I am too tired to appreciate it. "I used the back gate," I say wearily.

"There's a back gate?" she asks lightly. "I didn't know."

I don't answer and her forced smile fades.

"What are we to do," she murmurs. "What are we to do?"

"Did you feel it," I ask her. "Did you feel the voice?"

She shakes her head. "No."

I sigh. "I know what we do," I say. "We find the voice· And we kill him."

"Oh," she replies. "You make it sound so easy."

"No," I reply. My face is troubled. "He called me. He called me to him. And I must obey·"

"Oh," she says.

Dierdre is not just saying that. She, too, has been controlled, controlled by Golbez himself, in fact; she knows the debilitating fear, the incessant gnawing guilt, the sleepless nights when you can't stop asking yourself, Is it the evil in me? Can I be exploited again?

Yes, I can. And that makes me all the more lethal to those who would control me.

"Tomorrow," I say, dark and angry, "we go."
 
 
 
 

Tomorrow turned out to be a dark and cloudy day, with rain threatening, if not a tornado. Danger and anger hung in the air, and I wondered whether it was Garethās, or the worldās.

They must all hate me, I decided.

Dierdre is packing things. "I donāt know how long weāre going to be gone, so we need to be ready for anything. We certainly wonāt be able to buy things, because soon everyone will be looking for us. Weāve got to plan."

I found it hard to plan. The grey storm clouds hung like the axe of an executioner, poised over my neck. Mine and Dierdreās. I had gotten her into this, and she was still willing to follow me. What had I done? Why isnāt Dierdre turning me in?

"Karn," a voice says.

I jump and yell.

Itās Golbez.

"I heard what happened," he said. He has secured a suit of armor, and a sword is belted at his waist. He looks cold and determined.

To do what?

"You did," I say.

"Yes," he replies. "And I came for only one thing."

I stare at his sword. Iāve just harmed his brother. What will he do?

"Iām coming with you," he says.

My brain sparks for a moment and I stare. "What?"

He gives an impatient noise. "Whoever it is thatās controlling you might seize me or Dierdre next. Whoever or whatever it is, we need to stop it before it grows any stronger. I felt the evil of it controlling you from across the city. It is far stronger than anything I have felt before."

My brain kicks back into Īthinkingā mode. "I see."

"So·" He shrugs, indicating he is ready to leave as he is. "When do we go?"

"Whenever we can. Dierdre, are you ready?"

"Almost," comes her voice from the cave. "I÷"

"Now," Golbez says. I stare at the urgency in his voice. "We have to leave now."

There are soldiers coming up the hill.

"Oh, no," I say.

They all have the determined look of men ready to kill, no matter the cost. Behind them marches an armed contingent: Rynelle, Gareth, Edge, Dalen, Palom, Porom, Yang, Edward. Everyone. Everyone except Rosa.

Rosa·

"Dierdre!" I call to her. "Weāve got to go! Garethās here!"

There is a squeak from inside the cave, as though of fright, and Dierdre shoots out. She stares for an instant and then spews out a string of curses that leave even Golbez impressed.

"Where did you learn that?" I asked, momentarily overwhelmed.

She blinks. "What? Oh, from Zeromus."

Golbez looks nonplussed. "No kidding."

"Thatās not the problem," I say. "They are." The soldiers are more than halfway up the hill.

"Remember the family that came down the mountain during the Imp attack?" Dierdre asks. "We can follow their path."

"Use Vanish," Golbez says, "and theyāll never find us."

"Right," I say, which is pretty pointless because I canāt use magic. "Come on, Dierdre, weāve got to go. are you ready?"

"Yes," she says. She casts her magic and in a moment we are invisible.

"Come on," I say, grabbing my Spear. The White Lance. Now the Black Lance. "We are leaving."

We scramble up the hillside and are down the trail before anyone notices. Except for the magic-users.

"Up there!" Rynelle suddenly shouts, all timidness gone now. She points towards the trail.

Gareth gives orders. "Sweep towards that path, soldiers." Raising his voice: "Karn!"

Why does he sound desperate? No time to worry about that now. We need to go.

Edge is waving his finger in that way, which means heās casting one of his Blitz spells. "Golbez!" I gasp. "Magic incoming."

He nods, and when the Flood comes he is ready. A blast of fire meets it, dissolves it. "Hurry!" I say.

Golbez works his magic again, and suddenly we move faster. I recognize a Fast spell and thank the gods that there is such a thing. We run along the path, leaving Baron behind.

An anguished cry: "Karn!"

Gareth. Iām sorry. I canāt. I have to go. I have things I need to work out. When I have worked them out, Iāll return. I promise.

I promise.
 
 
 
 

We camp out on the plains, far from Baron after a hard day of travel. It is dark, and we are weary. But I feel the urge to press onwards.

The magnetic attraction of an evil greater than any of us can ever face tugs me onwards.

There are few words as we eat and set up for sleep. Golbez stretches out right on the ground and sleeps easily. I envy him.

Dierdre says: "You know, when I said I would marry you, I thought life would be more peaceful than this."

I sigh. "Iām sorry. If I had known I wouldāve postponed it or something." I look up at her. "You know, you can go back."

She shakes her head. "Iām with you all the way, Karn. Weāre married now, for better or for worse." Her voice gains a tone of determination. "Iāll not back out after only two days."

I smile and hold her. "Thank you."

"Thatās what wives do," she says.

Throughout the night I cannot sleep. I can only worry that I have sealed the course of my death÷and hers as well.
 
 
 
 

As we get closer and closer to the place we seek, the evil begins to reek. It sometimes feels hard to breathe; a cloying, scentless stench blankets the countryside. The plants take on the appearance of withered corpses, spirits trapped in the earth, striving for heaven.

"How much farther," Dierdre asks.

I shake my head. "I donāt know. Iām just following a trail."

"I see," she says. "So, conceivably, we might just keep going until we reach the ocean."

I nod. "I hope not, but we might."

She smiles a sort of a quiet, sad smile that melts my heart. "This is quite an adventure, isnāt it. What are we going to do when we find whatever it is weāre looking for?"

"I donāt know," I say. "Maybe· I donāt think we can kill it. Zeromus almost got all five of us last time. Now we have only three, and thereās no guarantee he wonāt make us turn our weapons against ourselves."

"So, basically," Dierdre says quietly, "youāre saying itās hopeless."

I nod. "Yes."

She is silent for a long while, kneeling besides our sleeping roll. Then she comes over and kisses me.

"Iām glad you told me," she says. "I mean, most people I know wouldāve just carried on and let me think that there was still some hope. But not you." She smiles; for a second I wonder if she is mocking me. "You tell me everything. Right there. Now, at least, I know weāre going to die, and I donāt have to worry about anything."

I smile. "I guess that is sort of a consolation."

"Yes, it is," she says. "Now, come on. You must be tired." Her smile indicates that tired though I might be, Iāll not get much sleep tonight.

A voice sounds at the edge of camp. "Halt."

We whirl. Golbez springs up, sword out, hand extended to do magic. I fumble for my spear.

"I said halt. Halt means 'Don't move,' you brainless puppets."

Into the camp strides a man.

He is dressed in rich clothing, with a severe face and pointed beard I have seen somewhere. He towers over us, or at least gives the impression. He is barely taller than Dierdre. He carries a staff, the traditional weapon of the Mage. He gives the impression of total command, as though he deserves the position. I have only seen that air on Golbez.

And I have never felt as much evil reeking out of anyone.

"Who are you," Golbez snaps.

"Jonathan," says the man. "Of Mist."

My insides twist. Mist. The town·

"You have brought Gareth," he says to me.

I start to reply to the contrary, and then realize that I have. He is doubtlessly following us. "Yes."

"Good. I will take you to the Master." With no other words he turns and leaves, obviously expecting us to follow him.

We do. "Come on, Dierdre," I say. "Time to meet our fate."

We follow the man, and suddenly a portal of magic opens to let us all in.

Golbez watched the three of them leave. This Jonathan was fairly stupid in not checking that Golbez was following.

The dark man sheathed his sword and loped away in the opposite direction. His brother was out there. Somewhere.

We are in hell.

The building is made of a strange viscous stone that forms the walls in swirls and whorls. They evoke images of painful, choking death, fiery torment. Smoke clings to the ceiling, obscuring breath and sight. Fires burn in odd, crazy places, singeing us. Dierdre grips my hand hard. With my other hand, I clench the Black Lance. Its pearlescent surface feels cold, hard. It feels at home here.

The man leads us into a cavernous room where shrieks of wind resemble the gusts of dying terrified men. The interior glows with light, a light that seems to localize from a source of complete darkness.

The darkness has form. It writhes with malevolent anger, cold, flesh-searing anger, reds and purples and blues in shadowy hues spinning like smoke. It chills me, this form.

I recognize it. A towering, savage, vaguely reptilian form, still gaseous spirit, nonetheless dreadfully dangerous.

Zeromus.

A chilling voice shreds the moaning silence. "Ah, my newest subjects."

The voice I recognize as well: the voice that controlled me.

"Bow," says the man Jonathan coldly, "lest your Master rend you bone from flesh."

Hastily we drop to our knees.

"Lower," Jonathan snaps. He pushes our foreheads to the dirt.

"Be calm, my servant." Rosaās words in the demonās mouth are a twisted perversion. The ghoul extends a tendril of smoke and brushes Jonathanās head. The man twists in viperous ecstasy. "You who gave me life must not die while I languish in this incorporeal form, else I shall die too."

Gave him life. Mist. A package of Bombs and Grenades, carried by an unwitting Dark Knight and his Dragoon friend.

My fault. My fault. My fault. A dirge in my head. All of this is my fault. Ghosts of the past, shades of the present· All using me.

Jonathan nods, eager to please. "Yes, Master. I will keep myself alive though the world shatter around me." His obsequiousness is sickening. "Even though the Hated Ones invade, the ones on which we will take our just revenge, I will keep my soldiers near me to avoid death. I÷"

"Enough," Zeromus says darkly, shoving the man away. "Do not sicken me."

I feel a strange zing of triumph at presaging the demonās thoughts.

Suddenly I feel Zeromusā tendrils on me.
 
 
 
 

Gareth looked up at a crunching and scattering of leaves. "Up arms!" he cried, readying his sword. To the intruder: "You! Halt!"

The intruder continued his shambling walk forward, coming gradually into the firelight. A hawk-sharp face, ringed with blackish graying hair, an inborn gentleness folded into lines of deep tired hate.

Gareth stared. "Golbez?"

"Hello, brother," Golbez said quietly.

"What÷ Was it you on the Big Whale?"

"Dierdre and Karn replaced your guards," Golbez said. So quiet. Was he afraid?

"Karn!" Gareth cried. "Where? Where are they?"

"Someone got them," Golbez said. "Someone in the employ of an awful evil."

"Evil·" said Gareth.

I will not perish as long as there is evil in the hearts of people.

"No," Gareth said.

"Yes," Golbez said, sounding tired. So, so tired.

"Camp up!" Gareth shouted. "We move! Now!" Without waiting he set off after Golbez.
 
 
 
 
 
 

Tendrils of evil pervade my soul, echoing within me. My soul feels like a black leaden sinkweight, and Zeromusā touch makes it only heavier. I feel the awful appalling blackness within me bristling and growing at the touch of the demon.

It feels good.

You are mine, are you not comes the caressing voice. Mine, totally, completely. As you were before.

It is a struggle to think clearly. Zeromus must be dampening my mind somehow, blanking it out. It would be so easy to simply cave in, believe·

Absolutely mine, from now into forever or until I choose to let you go.

Must not believe. I shift my position to remind myself I have a body. Must not, absolutely must not believe.

I will let you go. If you serve me well and truly, as your love did· Yes, I released her. She was a good servant. A good servant.

I do not believe. I cannot. I will not. Zeromus does not know this, or else he would have slain me by now, destroyed me utterly.

I can resist him.

Hope blossoms in my breast, warming, blasting away the dark leadenness that Zeromus is caressing. The ghoul recoils, suspicious.

Hastily I slam down on the hope, burning it away. Mustnāt give myself away, either. It is a dangerous game, but I must play it.

"Karn, are you okay," a voice sounds. Dierdre.

You will not be if you do not resist. For I have the power to keep you alive, and I have the power to make you fall dead at Jonathanās feet. I can control you. Make you turn your Black Lance on your own heart and stab it in. After I make you kill Dierdre, of course.

I shudder. Not feigned.

You have no choice· The demon lingers delicately on that phrase. ·but to join me.

The caves of the moon were hard and opaque, lit by an eerie iridescent glow that shone from the walls and even the ceiling and floor but still left dark, lurking shadows around corners, across the maze of inch-long rifts and cracks in the floor. Footing was tricky; our main complaints were sore ankles. A long, hard day on the job.

We rested in a room with a Safe Point, a large tile marked with a giant ĪSā and holes for tent poles and ropes. The Safe Point created a field that repelled monsters from the room, and as long as we were here, we could rest and sleep. We had just fought the monster known as Plague. A gigantic floating creature, it cast short-term enchantments on us that wouldāve killed us within ten seconds had we not killed it first. The battle was swift, frenzied, and entirely unnerving.

Rynelle and Edge sat huddled by the left wall of the room. The ninja clutched the huddling Caller close, as much taking support as giving it. I could see that even he was terrified by the closeness of our brush with death. Edge is young; heās actually not half as tough as he tries to make himself seem, but the toughness he does have is rather considerable. He was a selfish man at times and it heartened me to see him giving comfort as well as taking it. The two of them didnāt talk much, and then it was only in murmurs. I suppose Rynelle was just happy to be alive. I know I was.

Gareth and Rosa had finished pitching the tent and now stood talking in hushed voices. Two couples, one loner. Me. It wasnāt a distinction I was particularly comfortable with. I massaged the handle of the White Spear, the weapon we had taken from Plagueās body. The creature had left a particularly disgusting set of remnants, but they all just slid off the Spearās white finish.

What a weapon, I thought. What a weapon. And what right have I to wield it. Why me? Garethās the Paladin. Rosaās the White Wizard.

"Karn?" Gareth said to me. "Are you all right, my friend? You seem so preoccupied."

Compared to his gentle-born speech, my own sounds rough, like the spiny walls of the moon caverns. "Itās hopeless," I said.

"What?" Gareth came to sit beside me. I hate his eyes: they are clear and compassionate, and they seem to reflect all the evil in my soul right back at me.

I threw the spear at a wall. "Itās hopeless," I say. "Weāll never win. You saw the monsters: theyāre terrible. The last one almost killed us all. The Light Warriors: gone. Killed by one monster. And theyāll only get harder from here on out."

"Meaning·" Gareth said.

"Meaning itās hopeless." I was shocked to feel tears on my voice. "Weāre going to fail, Gareth. Weāre going to die. And even if we donāt, whatās the point? There will always be evil! Always be death! No matter what we do, we canāt win!"

My voice echoed in a squeal around the chamber. Rynelle and Edge stared at me. Gareth stared at me. Rosa stared at me.

The wall across from me was, by some magic of the construction of the moon, planed smooth. I saw my own reflection: a haggard, broken man. Bereft of hope. Only pain, and darkness.

Rosa came to my other side, putting herself deliberately between my eyes and the wall. "Karn," she said, "listen to me."

I nodded. I couldnāt look at her. Knew Iād die if I did. She'd see everything I was trying to hide from her.

"Karn," Rosa said, "when we get out of here, Gareth and I are going to marry."

I didnāt say anything. They did, after all, and I knew that they would. I had always known. It was a given. They had been a hot item around the kingdom for years÷everyone talking about them. There was a quiet furor at one point when Rosa thought she was going to bear his child before they were actually married·

Funny: she finally said that she and Gareth were going to get married. It was out, tangible, final. Nothing I could would make her love me the way I loved her. But I didnāt feel bad. Or horrible. Or anything. Just, strangely, a little glad, that I wouldnāt have to deal with wondering if I could make her love me.

"Weāre going to have children," she said, "and raise them. When weāre old weāre going to retire÷maybe to a farm or something; Iāve always wanted to try farming.

"The point is this." She moves again to meet my eyes. I love her eyes. They are clear and compassionate, and it seems to me that all the beauty in the world is localized in them.

"Karn," she says quietly, "I know the world is against us. I know our chances of succeeding are slim. I know thereās a good chance that either Gareth or me will die, and the living one will be bereft without the other. If weāre lucky, weād both die. But I go on planning. I want the farmhouse to have five rooms: two bedrooms, a front entryway, a living-dining room, and maybe a kitchen. Iāve always wanted to cook, too.

"The point is, Karn, that we have to have hope. So maybe we win. So maybe there is evil again in five years. But what have we had in the meantime? What have we done, how many lives have we touched? We all die eventually, Karn. Itās what we do before then that makes the difference."

She gave me a small, quiet kiss on the cheek. "Remember that."

"I have a choice," I growl. "I have a choice."

Rosa and Gareth are the forces of light. Rynelle and Edge used dark, black magic in their quest.

And I· I, who was in between· The bridge between two worlds· Imperfect, and yet complete in a way they will never be·

They havenāt taken my weapon from me. A mistake, one that will cost them.

Jonathanās eyes blast open with sudden suspicion.

I stand and drive my Black Lance into his heart.

Jonathan screams. His flesh decays as he falls, caving in, shattering. By the time he hits the floor he is only so much dust, scoured away by the souls of the damned, shrieking in glee. As he crumples, a gauzy gray tendril of dust moves from his chest to the whirlpool of smoke.

Zeromus fades as the tendril touches it.

Dierdre rises. The chamber is empty; Jonathan of Mist is now a pile of rich clothing soiled by gray dust that clings to the nostrils. "Is he· Is he gone?" she asks me.

"I hope so," I say. "Hopefully."

"What do we do?" she asks me. "I know we have to make sure he dies, but I donāt want to stay here."

Neither do I. "You go on outside, Dierdre. Iāll watch and make sure÷"

Rumbling interrupts our conversation.

Inside the whirlpool of smoke, a form is coalescing.

"Oh, no," I say.

The walls begin to shiver, the slags and whirls of rock shifting like mud. Pieces of rock crumble out, shatter into razor-sharp slivers on the floor.

"Run!" I shout.

We run. Dierdreās breath echoes with the souls of the damned. I hold my spear in front of my body and parallel to keep it out of the way. There is no room to maneuver; we trip over rocks and cracks in the floor and what look suspiciously like skulls. At one point a raving human comes scrabbling past, clad in rags and filthy hair. Dierdre turns away in disgust.

We are outside, and we see that the building is a strange and giant fortress/castle, a monument to death and decay. Was this Edwardās castle, once?

"Karn!" The voice that haunts my dreams sounds aloud.

Gareth.

I donāt turn. Instead, I pull Dierdre behind me and keep my spearpoint between us and the castle. Rattling and the cold sound of feet÷how does Golbez make his footsteps sound cold?÷tell me of the brothers running towards me.

A disaster of rubble and cold gray hatred erupts out of the castle roof, tearing masonry into pebbles that rain down on us. Out of the castle comes a whirlwind nightmare, like Valvalvis but a hundred, million times worse. Cold red eyes glow with maniacal hatred from a body covered in gruesome spikes and protuberances, ending in a negative whirlwind that sucks the world into it, keeping the giant monster aloft.

"You thought you could defeat me," Zeromus says in a voice that chills the earth. "You thought such a puny effort like that could destroy me.

"Well, you were wrong.

"Nothing can defeat me now. NOTHING!!!"

"By the Lunarians," Gareth whispers.

"Can we defeat something like that," Golbez asks, sounding shaken to the core.

I glance behind at the sound of footsteps. Rynelle says, "We can try. Or die in the trying."

"What good is it to save the world, only to lose it again," Dalen asks.

"I donāt want my mother and father to have died for nothing," Edge says coldly. Steel grates as he draws his swords.

"Then we fight," Gareth says. He glances at me.

I meet his gaze for the first time since forever. "We fight."

The battle begins.

Zeromus sweeps down on us, an avenging whirlwind of hate. We scatter, dodging as best we can. Instinctively we fall into battle formation, the fighters in front, the mages behind. Dierdre and I part with a last touch of hands; then she focuses on her magic. Already Kalynn and Coren are busy, hands together and whispering words. Their hands fling skyward and comets rain down on Zeromus, who is chasing the old Dalen. I run to his aid, launch myself into the air, come down hard on Zeromusā backside. In goes my spear.

The obsidian black finish disappears so quickly, returning to blazing radiant white, that it seems to me that the spear has never been black at all.

Zeromus rears, roaring aloud. I vibrate with the intensity of its pain. Zeromus shakes, trying to dislodge me desperately, but I cling to my spear and hang on tenaciously. Suddenly arms, tipped with shining fearful claws, burst from its back and attack me. I pull my spear from the creature's back and combat the arms.

A sky-shaking voice assaults my ears. "Away, Little Brother. I will fight for now."

I look up. Bahamut's glistening scales arc above me, his dragon mouth with rows of teeth. I jump clear just as Zeromus whirls on the new foe. Bahamut bellows fire into the demon's face, but Zeromus counters, slashing a mighty arc at one of the dragon's wings.

"Karn!" Gareth shouts. "Back! We need to discuss this!" He beckons behind an outcropping of rock, and I hasten to join them.

"This guy's tricky," Dalen grunts. He has blood leaking from one arm. Beyond, a blast of energy slams into the ground, sending rock slivers everywhere.

"We need to focus our attacks, get him when he's down," Gareth says.

"Why not now?" Kalynn asks.

"Because we'd only get in Bahamut's way," Edge says, not unkindly. "Or hit him instead of Zeromus."

"Then we wait until Bahamut is gone," I say.

A roar of flame and pain, and Bahamut is pushing desperately into the sky, wings asunder, scales sheared off, blood everywhere. "I can aid you no more, for I must not die," he roars as he flaps westward. "Good luck!"

"Like now," Gareth says.

"Yes," I say.

"Corral him onto the spot I mark," Coren says. "We'll get him," with a glance at his sister.

We break from behind the rock and dodge out. Zeromus is weakened from his battle with Bahamut. Coren takes his staff and quickly scratches a faint X on the ground.

Gareth and Edge work as a team, harrying the giant monster from different sides. Kalynn and Coren have their hands together again, focusing for a final blow. Yang slashes from behind the giant monster. They are prodding it into position·

Zeromus realizes the same time I do. He slashes at Edge, opening giant rifts in the ninjaās armor. Rynelle rushes to him. I take his place, prodding the demon. Zeromus hits the X.

A gigantic explosion bursts out of the ground as the Mysidian twins fling their hands at Zeromus. The demon is engulfed in instants. Gareth, Yang and I scatter to avoid being singed. A second explosion swallows the demon÷I recognize Dierdreās handiwork and give her a smile÷and then Golbez adds an unexpected touch with the lethal magic known as Meteo.

The rubble settles.

"Did that do it?" I ask, panting.

Zeromus bursts out of the rubble.

"No," Gareth says.

Zeromus rears, glaring balefully at us. It seems to my fevered brain that he looks directly at me. "You cannot win," he roars. "Not while there is hatred and pain in the world or even the illusion of hatred and pain can you win." Suddenly he says, "You, Karn. You doom the world. With your hatred and fear as my succor, I will destroy you all."

Staring faces surround me.

"Karn?" Gareth asks.

I sigh. I know what Zeromus is saying. "It is you," I say.

"Why," Gareth says quietly.

"I hated you," I reply. I want to drive the White Spear into my heart. "Because I loved Rosa too. And I hated myself. For what I did to her."

"Karn," says Gareth. "That was why I came after you. We knew. We knew you would never do something like· What you did in the throne room· Unless you were being controlled by someone. Youāre not like that. All I came to do was to tell you that we forgive you."

"He does not mean it!" Zeromus shrieks. "He lies! To lull you into a false sense of security! He means to kill you, so he can kill me! You must fight! Fight him! KILL HIM NOW!"

I stare at Gareth.

Gareth stares back.

We have understanding.

I take the White Spear in my hands.

Weapons across the field raise in my direction.

I take the White Spear in my hands and raise it above my head.

Then I break it over my knee. It sunders with a blast of light, scouring the darkness from my soul.

Zeromus sweeps down out of the heavens, roaring with hate and blood lust.

I drop to the ground. Gareth stands his. The Crystal Sword is in his hands, shining with cold, clear light. He brings it up at the last instant, the razor tip shining with murderous light.

Zeromus impales his own head on the crystal blade.

What happened next I cannot explain. A dark explosion. An inverted hurricane. A sudden surcease of darkness. All the light in the world rushing into the sword and then into Zeromus.

When I recover my sight, Zeromus is gone. The Crystal Sword is gone. The White Spear is gone. The sky blazes above me in full noonday glory.

"Karn," Gareth says, bending over me. He looks remarkably unkinglike, bending over me with concern bending his features. "Karn, can you hear me?"

"Did you really mean it," I ask him. "That you forgive me?"

"Yes," he says.

"And Rosa? Is she fine? Does she forgive me too?"

"She does. The Healers saved her. She wanted to come, but I told her not to. She wanted to tell you herself, but she was too weak." He smiled. "Karn, she loves you just as much as you love her. Not the marrying way, but like a brother. The same way I do."

"She is all right?" I say.

"Yes. After this, weāll go back and see her. Talk to her."

I smile. The darkness is gone from my soul, I think. And even if not, I can combat it. There is love in my soul.

I remember an ancient cheer from the history books. "Die now!"

Die now. You have gone as high as a man can go in his lifetime, and anything else you do will be a step down. Leave it all now, exit at the top, donāt wait for it all to decay. Die now.

I canāt, I realize. I canāt. The last time I tried to commit suicide, it brought me to where I am now. If I try it again, I am afraid that Iāll succeed. And how can I leave my friends like this?

"Karn? Karn?" Dierdre scrambles into my field of view. "Karn, are you okay?"

I smile. "Iām fine, Dierdre. Iām well. For the first time in my life, I am well."

She kneels next to me and smiles. "Then youād better get up off the ground, because people are starting to worry."

I get up. I am no longer afraid that people will leave the room when I enter it.
 
 
 
 
 
 

Well. Finally done. This fanfic sat around half-completed for a while, and then all of a sudden I sat down and finished it.

Itās only my second fanfic, and pretty ambitious for one, so sorry about any tone changes I might miss. I never had a good grip on either Dierdre or Karn so I probably didnāt get them right consistently at all. Itās really different from the fanfic I had in my head, too·

If anyone has any questions, comments, complaints, anything, feel free to send them to me. I need those comments.

Hope you had as much fun reading this story as I did writing it.

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