Lunar

Closing Darkness

Prologue

Time to wake up.

"...Uh..."

Awaken.

"Hn...."

Oh please. I know you far better than that. It would take more than that to finish you off.

"Uh...hn...ah...who...who's...oh, it's you."

And better looking than our last encounter.

"Impossible. There was no way you could have survive...eh...our last encounter."

Easy there. And of course there is. You've survived this.

"..."

A little bruise to the ego? No, more than that. More like a fracture. Nearly broke the thing off, ok?

"Enough...uh...what do you want? To finish me?"

I'm surprised you'd even ask such a thing, after I've gone to such lengths to revive you and repair you.

"...You've what?"

You heard me right. There's an old saying, old friend. If you can't beat them, join them. You'll learn soon enough how relevant those words are.

"Stop riddling. It always disgusted me."

Fair enough. I want you to join me.

"Feh. Why?"

I could use your help. And in return, I could give you what you want: the lives of the Dragonmaster and Althena and Lunar on a Silver Platter.

"Hmph...what's in it for you?"

To be the only one on the planet who is your superior, and to attain the godhood that you so desperately wanted.

"There's no more to attain, fool. Althena is gone. She released her power."

To all the people of Lunar, yes. But that doesn't mean that we simply can't find another way to possess it...

"...What are you saying?"

I'm saying this is our shot at eternal power, old friend. Your shot to get revenge on the Dragonmaster and Althena as well. You'll bend them to your will and make both your slaves. Not just slaves though, willing slaves.

"Really...cough....and what makes you so sure we can do just that?"

Simple. We utilize the two enemies that the Dragonmaster and Althena can never defeat.

"Who?"

Alex and Luna.

"...Interesting. I'm listening."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter One

It's always the same.

I can see myself walking toward the fountain in Burg. I'm dressed just as I always am. I'm happy. I'm content. I know nothing of what's inside me, though somehow I know I know. I'm hearing Alex's ocarina. He's close. He's just up ahead, just past a net of trees blocking my path. I come closer. I'm smiling. I can start to hear Nall's chattering. I begin to see that hat Alex wears. My heart is surging. I'm almost there... I start to see his head, and I brush the leaves aside in front of me to talk to him...

Then I'm there all over again.

The Goddess Tower.

I freeze. I look down, and I see a rock that I kicked fall off the edge only an inch away from me. Down, down it goes...spiralling all the way down that flying tower...until I can't see it anymore. The sky is dark. I look and I see the world turning to waste at my feet, coming from where I'm standing.

Then I see them.

Thousands...millions...all people...all miserable, starved, cold, naked, battered...all of them are bowing down. The ground is thick with them. The land is painted with them. I look in horror, but I can't stop what is happening. The circle of death spreads to them, and instantly they are turned to dust and crumble. I want to scream, but I'm choked with tears. I want to tell them to run, yet they don't. They look up to me with dull lifeless eyes and sing empty praises to me even as they're destroyed in my wake. The storm grows fierce. The night comes. I'm horrified, terrified...I've never felt so bad.

Then I feel him.

He plants his hand on my shoulder. It feels like ice. It chills my blood and soul. Yet somehow, though I'm so scared, I turn...and there he is...wearing his grand robe and armor to make him look like the judge of manking. His cold red eyes stare at me from underneath his white hair and red circlet. He smiles at me, like a grinning lion which has it's prey trapped and is ready to devour it. Then...he speaks...

"Sing our song for them, Luna..."

I'm so scared. I feel so alone and helpless. Yet somehow, I always reach up, feebly trying to snatch his hand from me. Yet I stop again...my hand is gloved in black. I look at myself. My clothes are gone. My humanity is gone. I am the Dark Goddess Althena all over again. I want to cry. I want to scream. But I'm too scared. I'm all alone... All alone with him. I can only stare at him.

"After all, they all belong to you, my Queen..."

Then, I feel him wrapping his arm around me, yanking me closer to him.

"And you belong to me."

Then...I finally find the courage to scream, and the same thing always happens.

I wake up.

"AHHHHHHH!"

Alex's eyes snapped open in an instant. His face flushing to worry, he shot up in bed and threw off his covers, forgetting totally that Nall was on them and soon got thrown to the floor. Alex continued to forget about him as the white dragon cried out and he shot to his feet, and quickly began to walk across the floor to the sound of the scream. After a moment, the cat-like critter freed himself from under Alex's sheet, and frowned.

"What's the big-"

Then, he stopped the moment he heard the scream too. Immediately looking concerned, he unfurled his wings and flapped after Alex as fast as he could. They went out of their room, crossed the dark, Blue Starlit filled hall, and stormed right into Luna's room. Alex, face fearful, stared at her as she saw her brow dotted with sweat, violently tossing and turning in bed as if trying to get away from someone. The young man shot to her side in an instant, while Nall flapped over her. Still concerned, Alex grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her even harder.

"Luna! Wake up! Wake up!"

The blue haired girl continued to turn and struggle for a moment longer, as Nall chimed in along with Alex. But then, her eyes on her panic-stricken face suddenly opened. For a moment, she looked right at Alex and gasped as if out of breath. Then, she suddenly shot up, wrapped her arms around Alex, and pressed herself tightly against his chest.

"Oh Alex..." She moaned, but said no more, breathing hard as if she had lost her breath.

Alex immediately returned her embrace and held her tight. Worry creasing his own feline face, Nall flapped closer to see both of them together. They held in silence for a moment, with nothing but the sounds of the night outside. Luna trembled and breathed hard in Alex's grasp for a while longer. Then, at last, she spoke with deep fear and regret.

"I had the dream again..."

Immediately, Luna grasped Alex harder.

"Shh, shh..." Alex softly uttered, calming her. "It's ok. It's just a dream. It's all over Luna. He's dead."

"Yeah Luna." Nall chimed in, trying to smile and cheer her up. "And if he ever came back, me and Alex would knock him back into whatever grave he came out of! You're back in Burg and safe with us!"

Nall's attempt, though well meant, didn't seem to work well at first. Luna continued to grasp Alex in terror, her mind racing. It had been a year now since Alex pulled her from her dark goddess status and back into humanity. Yet the nightmares still came. When she had been a prisoner, the whole thing had been like a great dream she never had any control over. She only felt awake whenever Alex managed to briefly "awaken" her with the sound of his voice. But now that she was back to leading her old life, shadows of the past continued to plague her. She kept thinking back to the days she was with the Magic Emperor Ghaleon, who tried to brainwash and destroy her very existence to the point where she would be nothing more than his mindless slave, had her in his possession. It was always real then, and always terrifying. And after so long she still couldn't relax. It had been a year now. When would the dreams ever stop? Or would she think this way forever? The possibility terrified her, and as of late was becoming more and more of a fearful possibility that she dared not consider.

Yet, at the end, she managed a light smile to please the little white dragon, and managed to release Alex a little, though she still wanted to be near to him as possible, not feeling safe unless she was, and nodded to him. "I...I think I'll be alright now, Alex." She halfheartedly told him. "I'm...feeling better. You and Nall can go back to sleep."

Nall smiled and looked ready to turn and go. However, Alex, knowing her far better than that and knowing when she was lying and not, looked to her with more concern. "I'll stay here with you longer, if you like."

Luna normally would have lied again and brushed him off. But tonight, her blood still ran cold, and fear still hung on her head. She didn't want to be alone. She didn't want to fall asleep again. She didn't want to be taken away from Alex and Nall and all she loved and once again become the toy of Ghaleon. Inhaling deeply, she looked up to Alex and nodded. "I'd...like that, if you don't mind."

Alex smiled. "No trouble at all."

"Alex...I'm worried about Luna."

Alex didn't hear Nall right away. He was still thinking of Luna from last night. He had to stay up with her for a while before she finally managed to fall back asleep. But once she was up his own worrying had just begun. It had carried over all through his own sleepless night and into the next morning, where his normal daydreaming of Dyne was now replaced by actual chores around the house, like hoeing the garden. It had been a year since the defeat of Ghaleon and the saving of the world. He and Luna had returned to Burg, and just as planned had been the stars of the Goddess Festival with their singing and ocarina team, though Alex and Nall both had a hard time convincing Luna initially to ever sing anything again. Yet these dreams had started only a month after their return. In the year that followed, she continued to have the same nightmares again and again. Each and every time, she was always once again made to be the Dark Goddess and always the slave of Ghaleon.

Ghaleon...

Alex clenched his rake's staff hard and hoed even harder at the thought of that. Ghaleon had never wasted a single moment accusing him of being weak and incompetent, and had used every opportunity to make him miserable and hurt. Even before he died he said his consolation would be that he had stolen Luna from him. The more he thought about it the more his blood boiled. He had to tell not only Luna but himself that Ghaleon was dead at last in order to calm down. Yet there was nothing else he could do now, and no way to get his mind off of it. With his lust for adventure and heroism quelled after his own adventure and brief time as the latest Dragonmaster, the only thing to do now was live quietly in Burg, do chores, and practice for the local festivals. He hoped that Luna at least had peace, out practicing again today. He'd join her if he could ever stop brooding long enough to finish hoeing...

"Alex?"

"Oh, huh?" Alex recoiled, snapping out of his train of thought. He looked to the white dragon on his shoulder, and remembered the statement. After doing so, he sighed and nodded. "Yeah, I am too." He then turned back to his hoeing.

"Maybe we should get away from Burg for a while." Nall suggested. "After all...everything started so close to here."

"Yeah...maybe." Alex halfheartedly replied.

Nall smiled and tried to perk him up. "We could go on another adventure!"

"Yeah...maybe."

"We could go see Mia and Jessica and Kyle and Ramus and Tempest and...well...oh, why not, Nash too. The White Dragon Wings might not work anymore, but I can take us anywhere!"

"Yeah...maybe."

Seeing Alex still disinterested, the white dragon frowned sourly. "Well at least I'm trying to come up with something! I'm worried about Luna!"

"I am too Nall...it's just..." Alex paused and sighed, but kept hoeing. "I don't know what to do. I don't know if another adventure would be good for her though..."

Nall kept frowning. "Well I know you've been itching for another adventure ever since we've got home, and you know you'd never go anywhere without Luna."

Alex said nothing, and kept hoeing.

Nall sighed and rolled his eyes. "Oh, fine! A trip then! Move out a little! But we're not just country boys anymore, you know! We're full fledged, world-traveling adventurers! I already know what quest we have! Let's go back to Lann and search out the world's tastiest fish!"

Alex couldn't help but snicker a bit at that. "Some adventure. Do you ever think about anything besides fish?"

"What else is worth thinking about? We'll call it...'Raiders of the Lost Carp'! We'll have lots of fun!"

"I'm sure it is...but I might have something a bit more...dramatic...in mind."

Alex froze in the middle of his hoeing. It figured, for right at that moment a set of black boots, belonging to the sudden voice, had appeared before him and stood straight. Shortly after, Alex began to look up at this new and sudden arrival, puzzlement and sudden surprise on his face. A man was now standing before him. He was tall, and dressed all in black. He had a collar fastened around his neck from a long sleeved tunic, and a cape was fastened over half of his shoulder by a silver chain. The attire didn't grab Rand, however. Instead, he was fixated on his face. His hair was cut short and combed back, tucking behind a set of pointed ears. His skin was pale and white...almost like Ghaleon's. He had red eyes like him too. But unlike Ghaleon, this man was much older. Ghaleon had been pretty old himself, but he looked at least twice his age. He had the lines and look of experience to match. He also had a white mustache, matching his white hair. This seemed more from age than the natural color Ghaleon had, however. He stood straight, tall, and proper, arms folded behind his back. Alex stared at him, rising from his hoeing and looking at him silently. At last, the man smiled.

"Greetings, Dragonmaster Alex." He stated.

Alex hesitated for a moment. This man looked suspiciously like Ghaleon, and that unnerved him. His sudden appearance had done much the same. But after a bit of hesitation, he answered him in a somewhat apprehensive tone. "It's just Alex, sir. There is no more Dragonmaster."

Hearing that, the man winced a little bit. "That may be an unfortunate tragedy, Master Alex. I am a bit saddened you disregard your own abilities in such a manner. But that is of little concern now."

"Who are you?" Alex suddenly asked, a bit biting, and ignoring the man's speech.

"I am Dauphan Melicon." The man calmly answered, not at all disturbed by Alex's reply.

"Dauphan of what?"

"Of the Nanza Pass, of course."

Alex reacted to this in a puzzled manner. "Nanza Pass? Kyle and his group takes care of that. It doesn't have a 'Dauphan' or...whatever that is."

Melicon merely smiled a bit in response to that. "Times have changed in the past year, Dragon...er, Master Alex, if that suits you. The world is still a rather unruly place, even without the Magic Emperor and Vile Tribe marauding. The man known as Kyle has been placed in Meriba on business with Master Mel. I was left in command of the Nanza Branch of the Zone Confederation. But I trust you, no harm has come to the area since my briefly installed administration, and if I have my way I will keep it like that."

Alex, however, was merely looking in confusion. "Nanza Branch? Zone Confederation?"

"What in Althena's name is the geezer talking about?" Nall asked. "Is he having a memory lapse or something?"

Mericon grimaced a bit at that and sweat a little, as if seeming a bit frustrated. He rose an older hand to his temple and sighed a bit as he rubbed. "I should have known that news would reach Burg so much more slowly than the rest of the world. There is a great deal I have to update you on, Master Alex. But it is essential that we depart for Vane immediately."

"Vane?!" Alex suddenly exclaimed. "Depart?! You just got here! I've never seen you before in my life and you tell me to come with you to Vane?!"

"Who are you anyway?" Nall asked.

Mericon rolled his eyes. "I already told you, I'm Dauphan Mericon. And I have little time to waste. The entire Zone Confederation has little time to waste. So rather than try to explain things I had better just give you the message from Lady Mia."

Both Nall and Alex were surprised yet again. "Mia?"

"Yes, the Premier of the Magic Guild of Vane. I trust you remember her after only the passage of one year, Master Alex." Mericon replied. With that, he reached into the cover of his tunic for a moment. After feeling for a short while, he grasped something, and pulled out a letter. He handed it to Alex, and the young man took it and read the front. It was Mia's handwriting, addressed simply to him. It had Vane's seal as well. Quickly, he broke it, took out the letter, and read.

Dearest Alex and Luna,

I wish I had more time to talk. So much has happened in one year! And I wish that we

were just having a get together the next time we meet. But it looks like our luck's all

rotten. This is Dauphan Mericon of the Nanza Region if he hasn't told you already.

I know, you're probably wondering why Kyle isn't there, but we don't have time.

Please come with him to Vane as soon as possible. I need to talk to you when you get

there. The Dauphan should be able to fill you in on most of what's going on. Please

only know for now that I need strong people who I can trust and in a hurry. Bring

Luna too, if you want. I'd like to see her again. But if you think this letter is too

suspicious or vague I'd understand if you left her. Just please come soon, Alex. We

need you.

Love Mia

Alex frowned after reading the letter. Vague was the first word that came to mind. This was all a terrible rush to him. He had just been standing here brooding and now he was suddenly being called off to Vane. For what? And what was all this stuff that this Dauphan was talking about? It only confused him more. And when he was confused, he grew anxious and tense.

"Please, Master Alex," Mericon continued after he saw he was finished. "Lady Mia is in quite a crisis. The entire free world is. I know you were the former Dragonmaster, and that you are of strong mind, will, and spirit. We'll be needing the help of everyone on Lunar like you soon. But please, accompany me."

Alex said nothing in response, but Nall frowned at Mericon. "You sure seem awful pushy for just coming out of the woodwork. Why should Alex go with you anywhere?"

"Like where?"

The three people immediately turned at the sound of the voice. A bit to Alex's fear, though he didn't know why, it was Luna. With a curious look on her face, she approached them from the ancient grove with her calm stride. Yet the moment he saw her, the Dauphan immediately swept his cave aside, placed his hand on his breast, and gave a gallant bow. Luna was a bit surprised at this, as was Alex and Nall, and she came to a stop in front of the new arrival.

"Whoa Alex! Is this guy a Dauphan or a butler?" Nall asked.

"Lady Luna..." Mericon went on. Before the surprised Luna could react, he took her hand and kissed it. Luna withdrew her hand, blushing and a bit surprised. "It's an honor to meet you in person. You're more beautiful than Lady Mia has told me."

Luna reacted to this. "Mia? What about Mia? Do you know her?"

The Dauphan immediately rose and nodded. "I do indeed, Lady Luna. She is a trusted and close friend. I saw her many times when she was growing up under the eye of former Premier Lemia Ausa. I and her mother were friends of a sort, as I was in her same class when she was in the Magic Guild herself. She trusts me implicitly, which is why she sent me to see this letter hand delivered to you."

Luna looked curious. "What letter?"

"Here." Alex answered, and handed Luna the letter. The blue-haired girl took it and immediately read it over. Her face went concerned, but also became a mixture of perplexion and amazement. After reading it, she placed a hand to her mouth and was amazed. "Wow...this is so sudden... You couldn't be any more spur of the moment."

Mericon sighed and shrugged. "That is all I can do, I'm afraid. You, of course, are welcome to come if you wish, Lady Luna."

Alex, Luna, and Nall all looked to each other. This was sudden indeed. But they knew the seal of Vane, and they knew Mia's handwriting. Still, this was a strange individual. While he was friendly enough, both Alex and Luna had learned the hard way that appearances were deceiving. They didn't know what to do, and they didn't know how to respond. It sounded like Mia, but this was all so mysterious. They had no explanation or anything. At length, they both turned back to Mericon.

"I don't suppose you could give us some time to think this over?" Luna asked.

The Dauphan sighed. "Not long. The boat back to Meriba leaves today from Saith, and we have a schedule to keep."

Both Luna and Alex were shocked. Saith was a long way away, and through the forest. It was at least a journey that one had to start at dawn if they hoped to be in Meriba by morning the next day. Their surprise was visible, and Mericon nodded. "I know. It's very bad timing. But now you see how urgent I am."

"Can we even talk this over with our parents?" Alex asked.

"You can tell them, but we're running out of time. We must leave soon if we plan to make it, which is why I met you in the field rather than more formerly. You must make your choice soon, Master Alex."

Alex didn't know what to say. He didn't know what to do. He hadn't had to make a decision this quickly in quite some time. And yet...he still felt a thrill inside him. The same thrill that he had ever since he got back from the first trip. He couldn't deny it. He was an adventurer. Maybe not a Dragonmaster, but definitely an adventurer. He craved it, and he had been craving it for some time. Foolish or questionable as leaving might be, he was still anxious to go on another trip. At length, he licked his lips a little. Then, after a moment or so longer, he sighed and looked to Luna.

"I'm going." He flatly stated.

"What?!" Nall exclaimed. He put his paws over his eyes in groaning. "Oh, Alex, you can't be serious! You're going to go with this old fossil to who knows where? You've known him for less than five minutes!"

Alex and Luna silently stared at each other regardless. Both of them knew what this meant, for both of them as well. They hesitated a while, knowing the question that was now being put up to Luna in her own mind. After a moment or so, Alex popped the question.

"You should just stay. I can handle whatever it is and I'll be back-"

"No." Luna simply said, cutting off. She took in a deep breath, sighed, and then nodded. "I can handle this. I can come. I want to come." She hesitated a moment, and then smiled. "I know you're eager for adventure, but I'll stay next to you wherever you go."

Alex smiled in reply to this. Nall sighed and smacked himself in the head with a black paw.

"Oh, you two are impossible! Well, that settles it! I'm going to have to come with the both of you and make sure you stay out of trouble!"

The Dauphan smiled. "Excellent. All is settled then. We shall depart at once. Master Alex, Lady Luna, you should gather whatever immediate necessities you need together, inform you parents, and we shall depart for Saith post haste. I shall be your escort, of course."

Alex and Luna hesitated a moment longer, but then Alex finally turned back to Mericon and nodded. "Alright. It won't take long. I only have to grab something from up on the cliff..."

Nall sighed and rolled his eyes. "Well, at any rate, here we go again!"

 

 

Chapter Two

Alex felt a little uneasy carrying the weapon as he trudged through the forest. The Sword of Althena continued to weigh and tingle like a persistent itch. When he released the power of the Dragonmaster, he never thought he'd take up that weapon again, but leave it in Dyne's "tomb" forever. Once again, fate had a funny way of working out. He had no other weapons in his home when he left Burg, and there wasn't another weapon on Lunar he'd trust to be able to defend Luna with. So he just kept it and dealt with it.

The forest hadn't changed much. It was dangerous for the people of Burg, but no danger to Luna, Alex, and Nall. With Dauphan Melichon leading the way, they were making good time through it. And it was good too, for the sun was quickly setting. Alex was still good with a sword though he had lost the powers of the four dragons. As for Luna, she still had the power of her voice, and would for the rest of her life...whether she liked it or not. And with one of the dragon's along to boot, they seemed fine. But Alex still wondered about the Dauphan, who endlessly praised Alex.

"You still look fantastic with that blade, Master Alex. No matter what anyone says, you will always be the Dragonmaster to me."

Alex frowned, however. "I'm sad to say I take offense at that. I don't care to ever be the Dragonmaster again. And I still don't know what's going on."

"Yes, explanations are in order." Melichon replied. "I'll tell you as much as I can.

"We've been very busy ever since you left us, Master Alex. By 'we', I meant Vane. After what happened with the Grindery and the Goddess Tower, we're no longer content to merely sit by and watch all sorts of devastation happening to our planet while we wait idly for heroes to save us. The joint efforts of Master Mel of Meriba and former Premier Lemia Ausa of Vane combined instantly in an endeavor to create a grand coalition of cities. After all, since we all share Althena in common, it shouldn't have taken much to align together. Meriba, Nanza, Vane, Lann, Meryod, and Raza all readily joined. Yes, Raza, if you can believe it. Thought it would encourage more travelers to their region, which I'm sure you know would cause help for them in a way you know of personally. Basically it was to encourage more communication and cooperation with one another. With Vane down, it can no longer bear the burden of being a world's focal point on it's own.

"We've been doing remarkably well though it's been terrible work. Though we managed to patch this alliance together and form the Zone Confederation, we've still had terrible trouble. All sorts of petty crimes and bandits running loose. So much, in fact, that we could no longer rely on old systems in keeping order. That was exactly why Master Mel withdrew Kyle for the time being. He needed someone more organized, someone more trusted and diplomatic. That's why I was chosen."

"You?" Alex asked.

"Yes. I'll admit, I am a little old fashioned. Until the middle of two decades ago I wasn't doing that well either. But about the time you were born everyone seemed to get a little boost with their power, and so did I. You may think my customs a little more of the older generation of Magic Guild students at Vane. I was cut from the same cloth as Lemia and Ghaleon..." He hesitated, and snickered. "I hope you don't take that the wrong way. The pale skin, pointed ears, white hair... It's a trait. A very special trait. Very rare in births. It's a sign of great magical potential already inborn. Ghaleon, on his part, went beyond that to a phenonmenal level. I'm still a little surprised you survived him, Master Alex. Yet I'm no slouch at the art myself. At one time I surpassed Ghaleon in the Magic Guild. I never did devote myself wholely to magic, however. A man shouldn't be just one side in his life. I took up the sword as well. And diplomacy and government. I might add, by not bragging, that I am indeed a rather respected member of local government. That was why I was chosen, no doubt. I've been trying to maintain order and put an end to thief traffic and bandits ever since."

"Great." Alex flatly stated. "So why do you need us?"

Melichon was about to respond when a sharp cry came from the trees. Instantly, Alex, Luna, Nall, and Melichon froze. They shot their heads to the trees. Soon, they saw a rustling in the leaves, and a few moments later, small brown creatures tore out of them. They snarled and gnashed their teeth, and landed right in front of the group. Alex turned to them and bit down, eyeing them. They were goblins, nasty little brown creatures wearing their orange tunics and sporting clubs. They looked at the four of them with their gleaming yellow eyes and snarled and hissed at them. The four looked dangerously back at them the whole time, and faced off against the creatures.

Alex held his sword at the ready and glared coldly. "I'll take them." He stated. "Luna, get back and try to sing one of your temptation songs. I'll hold them off until you're ready."

"And me too!" Nall piped in assention.

However, before Alex could do anything, the Dauphan suddenly strolled in front of them, walking right for the goblins. Alex, Luna, and Nall all looked up in surprise at this action. However, Melichon merely waved behind him, glaring at the enemy the whole time.

"Stay back, you three. Alex, guard Luna. I'll take care of these monsters."

Alex hesitated for a moment. As he did, he felt a sharp chill. He didn't like how Melichon was acting. Ghaleon had in a similar way when he went through the forest with them back to Burg. But he didn't react, and neither did Luna or Nall. They all merely stood and watched the old man come forward.

Melichon stared coldly at the snarling monsters. As he did, he reached behind himself to his black cape, and moments later pulled back. As he did, Alex heard a shining of metal, and soon Melichon had produced a long, thin-bladed sword. The handle was small but elegantly crafted for a single hand. The blade shone like the sun but looked extremely thin. Alex wondered how anyone could fight with such a small sword. But he didn't have time to answer. The goblins snarled, and then all charged the old man at once, clubs swinging.

The Dauphan continued to calmly approach. As the first goblin neared, he suddenly ducked with lightning speed, shot forward a thrust with his light sword, and stabbed the goblin in the gut. It cried out and fell, but the other three came just as quickly. Melichon nimbly dodged his head slightly to one side to miss the first oncoming blow, walked past the goblin, and then swiped his thin blade to slash a vital artery at the creature's neck. It cried out a bloody gurgle and fell grasping its bleeding throat, while the third swung at Melichon. He blocked with his thin sword, swirled the club around to take it off balance, and then shot forward to stab the goblin in the eye. The creature dropped its club and grasped its eye in agony, leaving Melichon time to stab it in the chest and end it's life. One last goblin approached snarling, swinging its club angrily. Melichon merely pointed a finger at it without even straining. Moments later, a fireball erupted from the finger and instantly grew into a blazing hot orb of death, blinding to both Alex and Luna. It shot through the air and connected with the creature. But rather than burn it, the creature exploded at once in a flash of burning hot flame. Within seconds, there was nothing but burning flesh and smoldering bones falling on the ground from the force of the explosion.

Melichon reacted to the sight calmly, and slowly wiped his barely stained blade against the ground and then calmly replaced it. The other three stared in absolute shock. They hadn't seen anything so incredible, brutal, or quick even from Ghaleon. At any rate, the Dauphan calmly turned and looked back to them, not even straining from his ordeal.

"Wow...did you see that Alex?! He finished them faster than Kyle at a two-for-one bar special!" Nall exclaimed.

"Amazing..." Luna uttered.

"I've never seen anyone use a blade like that...like that before!" Alex muttered.

Melichon smiled a bit. "It's an older technique. Rather than hacking the opponent to pieces, concentrate on a few vital points. I'd be happy to teach you sometime, Alex. After all, it won't be long before people lose that old technique all together. At any rate, enough delays. We must catch our boat."

The group finally reached Saith as the sun was setting. They had to rush to get to their boat in time. Melichon had been dead right about that. They left almost the moment they were on board, and Luna nearly had to jump just like she had on their adventure a year ago. Once they were all on, the sun quickly set and darkness came. Both Alex and Luna were cold and tired. It had just gotten to be spring and even Alex's old fur lined jacket wasn't helping much. They had to walk in much more late day weather than last time they had come. They earnestly went below deck, found their quarters, and went to sleep. Alex barely even gave Melichon a thought, tired as he was. It had been such a rush to get to Saith in the first place, and both hadn't slept so good the night before. At any rate, they dosed away through all of the night part of the trip.

They were still sailing the next day when the sun came up. Alex was first awake, and seeing both Nall and Luna still sound asleep, he snuck out of their chamber and made for the top of the deck. It was cold, but he dealt with it. As the sea gently rolled by, he saw that the Dauphan was up as well. He stood on the side of the deck, looking out over the ocean calmly. His hands were folded behind him as they were when they met and his face was straight and cold as always. He didn't seem to take any notice of Alex when he came up on the deck. And so, the young man slowly walked over to him and stood next to him on the railing, placing his hands on top of the rail and looking out at the long sea, watching the sun slowly rise.

"Nice, isn't it?" Melichon commented, giving a smile to the horizon. "I don't get much chance to see a good sea sunrise like this one anymore, what with all the duty I'm rushing around with. Still-"

"Ready to tell me the rest of the story?" Alex suddenly asked, interrupting.

Melichon smiled a bit. "Right to the point. I admire that in youth. Very well...

"We have been having more problems recently, and not just in the wake of Ghaleon's destruction. The Vile Tribe is becoming a problem as well. Their integration has caused widespread suspicion and fear among the populace of this entire world. Despite attempts to stem the tide, things are growing more serious than anyone anticipated.

"It appears some renegade members of them have taken up a residence in the Stadius Zone. We don't know much more than that but that is what we are suspecting. At any rate, things have grown worse since then. There's been an underground movement traveling through the area for the past few months. We used to think little of it, but it's only continued to grow. We're assuming that the resentment of the Vile Tribe members for the old order of things, which is primarily derived from cities within our own Confederation, is causing the people to form a rift between the two of us. They are beginning to organize themselves on a heavy movement that is strongly opposed to magical-endowed abilities and persons. At this point we're not sure if itís the Vile Tribe itself or them along with the members of the countryside, but it's growing more critical.

"There has been reports of work going on. Dangerous, serious work. This new organization, whoever makes it up and whoever heads it, is being suspected of the mass construction of a new type of weapon. We don't know what yet, but it could mean a desired confrontation between Magic Guild members within the Confederation and whatever forces are forming. We've tried to negotiate and get into this group, but we've either been excluded violently, lied to about its existence, or met with hot-blooded opposition. Indeed, there is strong anti-magic sentiment in there. We're growing more and more afraid that this will lead to war, or worse."

Alex frowned. "Sounds like this Confederation is more trouble than it's worth."

"Master Alex, you of all people should be the advocate of distributing responsibility." Melichon calmly returned. "Is that not what you fought for a year ago? This world has problems now, and more than ever with the integration of the Vile Tribe and chaos that Ghaleon left behind. As is, the world may not be able to handle it. And the Magic Guild can't be expected to deal with it all either. The world needs more unity now, not division. And if this latest matter isn't nipped in the bud soon there will be a rather severe division that could kill thousands."

Alex hesitated afterward. He couldn't deny Melichon however. He was right. He had stopped children on the street from even pretending to be him after the defeat of Ghaleon. He had hated having praise and heroism piled on him that much and had been such an encourager of everyone to do their own part. And how could he say any less now? The whole idea of the Confederation in the first place sounded strange and odd to him, especially coming from people he knew. Yet what else were they supposed to do? He had been happy enough returning to Burg, but he learned a year ago that the world was a lot bigger than the backwoods mountain town. Who was he anyway to judge how they dealt with their problems? At last, he sighed to himself and looked out at the sea again.

"How long will we be staying in Meriba?"

"We must depart soon. I didn't have you two coming into Saith so late just to dilly dally there."

Alex sighed a bit inwardly, disappointed. "Any time to see Master Mel or Jessica? Or to stop by any of the stores?"

"I'm afraid not, Master Alex. Don't worry yourself too much, however. Master Mel is already at Vane."

Alex didn't feel too relieved by that. Mel wasn't nearly as much a friend of his as Jessica was. He had been hoping that seeing her would be a welcome sight before departing again from Meriba off on his continuing adventure. But if it couldn't be helped, then it couldn't. He was eager to get to see someone he remembered though. It would have given him peace of mind at least.

Melichon eventually exhaled and turned from the sea. "I'm going below to check on our other two guests. We should be in Meriba by noon, and we should be ready to depart soon afterward."

The "stay" at Meriba was so fast that Alex hardly had any time to know he was there.

Alex had gone below shortly after Melichon, not relishing the idea of leaving his friends alone. Luna woke up later along with Nall, and the three of them did as told and got their things together. Then they stood on deck and waited for the shoreline to appear. Alex felt marvelously relieved to see Luna in much higher spirits. She hadn't had a nightmare the night before, and she smiled genuinely as she felt the sea breeze and ocean roll by. It was such a better change from her melancholy manners when they had departed a year ago, and it put Alex's mind at ease. At length Meriba did appear, and the ship landed. The Dauphin wasted little time though once they put into port. Pushing the young couple onward, they were soon disembarking and making to go out of town.

Nall groaned all the way. "We don't even have time to get a fish? Man, this old fossil sure can move..."

Meriba seemed even busier than last time they had been there. The stores were bustling with activity all over, and people from all nations were pouring through buying and selling like never before. Alex learned in short order just how potent this Zone Confederation was helping the economy of Meriba, at least. A few vendors walked up and offered Luna a few baubles for reduced prices, but she merely blushed and said no thanks as she struggled to keep up with Melichon. He didn't even slow down for an instant, but shot through the customers with practiced skill making for the town gate. Everything certainly was a mad and confusing rush, but through it all, Alex looked around with a bit of a hopeful look, hoping fate would throw one of his old friends his way at least.

"Trying to see if Ramus or Jessica are around?" Luna asked at length.

"Yeah..." Alex answered. "But I'm not being too hopeful. I mean, we're not even passing by his store..."

"Alex!"

As if on cue, Alex and Luna heard the old familiar voice at once, and turned their heads to the sound of it. Through the crowds rolling by, they managed to see a plump, bottle-lensed face poking out from the crowd with a plastered grin on his face. Moments later, the owner of it waddled through the people toward Alex and Luna. On their part, they didn't even stop, for Melichon didn't even notice their delay and kept walking, and they had to keep up or be lost. At length, the owner of the face did come up to them, and it was unmistakable who it was. Luna, Alex, and Nall all greeted him with a grin.

"Hi Ramus!" Luna greeted. "I haven't see you in ages."

"Yeah, I've been really busy." Ramus answered. He tried standing in one place and talking, but when he saw that his friends were still moving, he quickly caught up and walked alongside of them, which was a bit hard for him. "I've really been wanting to get back to Burg, but I never have the time." He rolled his eyes a little and sighed. "Ah...the sorrow of being filthy, stinking rich."

"Rich must be the type of food you've been eating..." Nall chided. "You look about ten pounds heavier!"

Ramus sweat a little at this remark, and quickly lowered his head with a blush. "Anyway..." He moaned, and then saw how fast they were going. "What's the rush anyway? Don't you guys want to stop by? I haven't seen you in months..."

"We'd like to, Ramus." Alex responded. "But we're a bit busy right now. We're tailing the Dauphin of Nanza and he doesn't look like he's going to wait for a social call. Mia called us to the Magic Guild and we're coming as fast as we can."

Ramus looked a bit surprised at this. "The Dauphin of Nanza?!" He asked. Alex answered by gesturing ahead. Ramus looked, and sure enough he saw him leading them a distance ahead. Ramus whistled in amazement. "Man, you guys have hit the big time now! You have any idea who you're walking with? He's the most respected and powerful man of his zone! Everyone loves him! He can walk into any store in this city and get at least a new tunic absolutely free!"

"Wow." Luna answered. "I had never heard of him."

"He's big in Lann." Ramus answered. "He was their town leader for twenty years before he retired. I've heard all sorts of stories about things he's managed to negotiate. Heh...I thought I was shrewd before...this man practically invented the art. Two of my books quote him extensively. And I heard all sorts of stories about how strong he is too. You know at one point people called him the heir to Ghaleon?"

Neither Alex nor Luna took this too well. Both of their looks became somewhat uneasy and troubled. Nall gave Ramus a dirty frown. Seeing his mistake, the young man blushed and immediately recoiled a bit. "Er...sorry 'bout that..."

"Anyway," Alex spoke up again, changing the subject. "What are you doing on this side of town? I thought your store was on the other side."

Hearing this, Ramus immediately grinned with a cocky look. "Heh heh... Oh, it is. But I'm so successful now I was finally able to open another store. Now that Meriba has so many visitors no one wants to go from one end of town to the other, so I've opened another shop right next to the dock area." Ramus grinned with his greediest look. "Now I can fleece even the occasional commuter through Meriba on business! And I'm so convenient, everyone's flocking to me! I'll be expanding into Vane before next winter! Ha ha!" Ramus rubbed his fat palms in glee at the thought of it.

Luna wasn't so sure about the greed and fleecing, but she made a halfhearted smile. "Well...it seems you're really doing good for yourself now Ramus. You're a big success."

Ramus blushed a little at that. "Aw...thanks for the complement, Luna. It means a lot to me still to hear it from you guys." He frowned slightly afterward. "I only wish my dad was the same way..."

Alex exhaled a bit himself at that, and turned to see where he was walking. Much to his surprise, the gate to Meriba loomed ahead, with the statue of Althena eternally guarding it. Seeing this, Alex quickly turned back to Ramus. "Oh...looks like this is our exit, Ramus. We'll be leaving pretty soon. But when we come back, we can talk a lot more, ok?"

Ramus perked at this, but then nodded quickly. "Oh, sure, sure. Of course, by all means." He began to slow down for a moment, as if to break off from the three of them. However, he suddenly perked again, as if he remembered something, and then ran up to catch up to Alex again. "Wait a minute!" He called. "There's one more thing. I wanted to give you something... Just arrived..." He soon began to fish into his pockets.

"If it's some of the candy you've been eating, we don't want any." Nall playfully stated, but then grinned. "On the other hand, if it's a rare and tasty fish, we'll be glad to take it off yo-"

However, before Nall could finish, Ramus pulled out a small metal rod and placed it into Alex's hand. Puzzled, the young man looked at it in confusion for a moment. It was dull and not marked at all, and the only thing that stood out from it was a single groove for his thumb at the top. Ramus pointed to it and started to explain.

"I knew very well if you ever came through Meriba again it'd be on another adventure. So maybe that can help out a little. It's a concealed weapon. Just press the thumb groove and a pick blade shoots out. That's just in case you ever lose your sword and need to kill some giant spider or something about to eat you."

Alex grinned a bit at that, and then slipped the small metal rod into his pocket. "I'll hang on to this, Ramus. Thank you."

"No, thank you." Ramus responded. "And not just for stopping by, but for taking me on my little life changing trip a year ago." Here, he stopped walking, as they were nearly to the gate, and stood back. Both Alex and Luna turned and watched him, but he continued to smile and waved at the both of them as they went on. "Bye Alex! Bye Luna! Bye Nall! Next time you come through you can have any of my dresses at a nice discount, Luna! And Nall, if you don't annoy the two of them to death maybe I'll get you a nice fish from Lann!"

"I'll hold you to that, you old crook!" Nall snapped back.

"Bye Ramus!" Luna called.

"Goodbye Ramus!" Alex chimed in. "Hopefully we'll see you again soon!"

"Goodbye you two!" Ramus called back. "And good luck on your latest suicidal trip!"

It didn't take too long to get to Vane afterward. Alex had forgotten after his last detour through Meriba how quickly one could get to the magical city after stopping there. His thoughts were preoccupied with what would happen when they got there. Seeing Ramus had made him eager to see more of the familiar faces from a year ago, and knowing that he would be in Vane soon was encouraging. Luna and Nall seemed just as eager as well, and after this fast trip they were all earnest for slowing down and staying put for a little while. In addition, Alex was becoming eager to see just what was left of Vane after the tremendous disaster that happened with the Grindery...

He saw the huge island from far off sticking from the ground. It still stood heavy and tall above the ground with all of the mounded earth beneath it. However, the city had settled, it appeared, after its initial crash, and at least stood upright. Alex could still see the buildings on top of it as they approached as well. Melichon didn't bother leading them to the Transmission Spring, but instead took them straight to the city itself. As they neared, Alex noticed that the city now had a massive stone staircase built on the side of it leading straight up to the top where the town lay. There were two guards posted at the front of it of an unknown affiliation to Alex. He assumed that they were part of the new Zone Confederation or something. At any rate, when Melichon approached, they merely nodded to him and then stepped aside, not giving him any trouble at all. Though they didn't appear to recognize the other three with them, they continued to stand aside as they had for Melichon.

"Wow...I guess Melichon really is as popular as Ramus said..." Nall mused. "I wonder if he has any connections to the fishing industry..."

Luna snickered. "You and your bottomless stomach, Nall..."

The group readily ascended the staircase. Once they had reached the top, the Dauphin readily lead them to the Magic Guild building. There were many people in Vane as well, and Alex could tell by the looks of them that they weren't just magic users. It looked like just about anyone could enter Vane now. There was a splash of culture there, people from every one of the cities that Melichon had mentioned. Most looked rather rich and powerful to Alex, but still just seeing them there was a change from last time, when only wizards in training were allowed. The first time Alex had been a guest there he still remembered how himself, Luna, and Nall had to fight their way through the Cave of Trial, and to the best of their knowledge many people were still down there. There was no telling what happened to them when Vane crashed...but Alex tried not to worry about it. He saw that many of the building in Vane were still wrecked after one year and were slowly being rebuilt. People didn't give him or Luna much trouble. In their civilian outfits, no one recognized the Dragonmaster or "Dark Songstress". Once at the building, Melichon had to give a nod to the guards at the door, but then the four of them were able to enter. Once inside, and after the Dauphin nodded to another pair of guards, they were allowed to proceed toward the main hall.

Alex saw some more new faces in the Guild, ones he had never noticed before. About two or three were still the same, but the rest were totally different. They were all dressed differently as well, making themselves more the like of the guards he had seen outside the place. Alex began to assume they must have been part of the Zone Confederation as well, or some sort of officials like Dauphin Melichon. After giving one last nod the guards outside the main hall, the man himself opened the doors and allowed the three guests to come in. Alex strolled in and looked around immediately.

There were totally new officials in here as well. One of them appeared to be a beastwoman, only a pure one rather than a half-breed like Jessica. She looked just as mean as Mel, however. She was dressed in full battle array, carried both an axe and a heavy saber slung behind her back, had a tail of purple hair dangling behind her, and was sharpening her own horn with a rather large knife. She only gave the three of them one mean look before snorting and going back to sharpening again. Another man was a bit more cordial, greeting the three with a nod as he entered. He was dressed in crimson and gold lace all over, especially in a jeweled, golden collar around his neck. He wore robes, so Alex assumed he was another mage. His hair was pure black, and his smile was crooked. Almost instantly, Alex felt nervous about him, and wished mildly that he hadn't greeted them at all. There was also a much older man at the head of the room. He had a long white beard, aged yet friendly features, and was dressed in blue and white robes. A grand crown rested on his head, and he held a large silver staff in his hand. At the moment, he was talking with a much shorter, younger-looking, black-haired girl in the front. Despite how official she looked, Luna, Alex, and Nall recognized her at once.

"Mia!" Luna called.

Instantly, the young premier stopped talking with the man, turned to the incoming group, and smiled with great joy. Without even excusing herself, she descended the raised platform where she was standing and approached them at once. The Dauphin smiled and stood to one side, allowing her to rush up to the others. At once, Mia embraced all three of them warmly, and they all returned the hug...Nall doing the best he could with his feline shape.

"Alex...Luna...Nall...it's so good to see the three of you again!" Mia proudly announced as she hugged them.

"It's great to see you too, Mia! Glad to see Nash hasn't made your hair turn gray yet!" Nall chirped in response.

The three friends embraced for a little longer, then finally released. Still smiling, Mia turned to their courier and gave a short bow. "Thank you very much, Dauphin. This may not have seemed like much, but it was very important to me that these three arrived alright."

"It was no trouble at all, your grace, so long as it was a job for the Premier of the Magic Guild." Melichon responded.

Mia turned back to the others, and gestured to the older man. "I don't know if he's already introduced himself, but this is Dauphin Melichon. I don't trust anyone more than him...except for the gang, of course. He's in charge of the Nanza Barrier now."

"We met already." Alex responded.

"I thought so." Mia answered. Immediately, she gestured to the beastwoman. While Alex and Luna looked to her, she continued to sharpen her horn with her mean look. "This is Lavender. She was the head of commerce in Meriba before. Now she's the head of commerce throughout the entire Zone Confederation. She's also, I might add, a fantastic fighter. She's supposedly the only near match to Master Mel in the world."

"Heh heh..." Nall responded. "Obviously she's never seen Alex in action!"

Lavender said nothing, but continued to sharpen her horn.

Mia gestured to the black-haired man next. "This is one of our newest mage teachers, Winson. He specializes mostly in teaching defensive arts." Winson, in answer to this, once again gave a nod to the group.

"I assure you, however," Winson answered, his voice low and quavery. "That defensive arts are not to be taken lightly. Not only that they enable you to survive even the most deadly of enemies, but they enable you to use your own enemy's offense as your own. It is an honor to be teaching under the greatest of Premiers, Mia Ausa."

Mia blushed a little here and stifled a giggle, still acting a bit childish from when they knew her before. Nall snickered a bit himself at the whole reaction from Mia, especially her blushing. "Nash better watch out, wherever he is! This new teacher is quite the charmer..."

"Oh, Nall..." Mia scolded instantly. "Winson is twice my age, and I'm sticking with Nash no matter what."

Nall shrugged with his nose turned up. "Fine, fine...but this gives you a way to make him buy you candy and flowers and try to keep your interest in him..."

Alex and Luna both snickered a bit at this, but Mia, still smiling, merely gestured on behind her. As she did, the old man himself began to walk forward. "And this is our Vice Premier, Duunran. He's a close friend of my mother's. He's been living in solitude for quite some time until now, but after Vane crashed he appeared again." Mia rolled her eyes a little and sighed after saying that. "And I must say, he's been a great help. I've been trying to work so hard just on Vane, but he's been able to take care of most matters of the rest of the region. He's practically in charge of the Zone Confederation itself."

"What?" The tall man, Duunran responded as he approached the group. It was a playful comment, but caught the attention of the younger people around the area. He grinned slightly. "Mia, Mia...what lies are you spreading about me? There is no one person in charge of the Zone Confederation. It's owned by the people. Now if you keep going on like this you're going to make me have a fat head before things go on too long."

Mia blushed and snickered again slightly. Duunran did likewise, but then afterward turned his head to Alex and Luna. He smiled a bit, and then reached his hand out to the boy. "Young Master Alex...our latest Dragonmaster... It is indeed a pleasure to finally meet you in person."

Alex hesitated, but then took his hand with a nod. "Thank you, sir, but it's just Alex now." He answered. "There are no more Dragonmasters. At least, not right now."

Duunran seemed to ignore the comment, and continued to shake. "Still wonderful to meet you, Master Alex." After this, he turned his head to the blue haired female nearby. "And who is this?" He asked.

"I'm Luna." The young woman answered, reaching out and taking Duunran's hand. "I'm a friend of Alex's. We grew up together."

"Oh..." Duunran exclaimed, as if intrigued by the fact. "Strange, however, that I have not heard of you accompanying him on his last journey. Oh well...it was a very dangerous trip, and not one that just anyone could have taken."

Luna stiffened a bit after hearing that, growing nervous. However, she managed to keep her cool and withdrew her hand. At last, Duunran turned his head to the flying cat nearby. "And this must be Nall." He stated. "I do say I've never heard of a white dragon so small..."

Nall frowned at that. "Small?! You want to see just how big I can become?!"

Mia immediately put her hands up in a stopping gesture. "Don't! There isn't enough room in here for you at full size, Nall!"

At any rate, Duunran turned away from Nall and focused on Alex once again. He maintained his kindly smile. "Well, at any rate, it is nice to have you here, Master Alex. I'm sure you will prove yourself a great asset to us and a soon remedy to our problems." After saying this, Duunran turned to Mia, and then gave a short nod. "If you will excuse me, Lady, I must get back to business. I do hope you will take that latest information into consideration."

Mia nodded in response. "I will indeed. Thank you, Vice Premier."

Duunran maintained his nod for a moment, and then turned and began to walk out of the main hall. Upon seeing him leave, Lavender reacted to him, and then stopped sharpening her horn. While putting her weapon away, she calmly walked after him. Mia didn't react to this. She was obviously accompanying him on something. At any rate, Mia didn't waste much time, but turned her head to Melichon next afterward.

"Dauphin..." She began. "I know you've just gotten back in Vane, but we're already having trouble again. There's a dilemma in the Stadius Zone. We're being accused of all the trouble that's starting to go on there. I know it's a bit dangerous and a sensitive issue, which is why I'm trusting you to be able to resolve it. Yet if you'd like to stay a while-"

Melichon merely smiled and cut her off with his hand. "No need for that, my Lady. This old man here has more stamina then it appears. I'll disembark at once for the Stadius Zone. What is the city?"

"Pao." Mia responded, causing Alex and Luna to react slightly. Alex, on his part, gave a puzzled and uneasy look. Pao was where Tempest was from.

Melichon nodded again. "Pao it is then. I'm sure we can resolve this soon. I'll leave right now." He hesitated after saying that, and then turned to Alex, Luna, and Nall. He gave them a polite nod as well. "Master Alex, it has been a pleasure to bear you here safely. Take care of yourselves and good luck in whatever mission awaits you." With that, the Dauphin turned and made for the doorway as well. Soon he reached it, pulled it open, and then exited. Alex kept his eyes on him the entire time. Something stirred within him, but he didn't know what. At any rate, after a few moments, he looked back to Mia and tried to put him out of his head. There was other business to attend to.

At last, Mia turned to Winson. "Professor Winson...if you would be so kind as to resume your course teaching. I have no further need of you today, and...this matter that I am going to discuss is rather private."

Winson nodded, without saying a word in response. The crimson-clothed wizard then turned and soon made his way out the way the rest of the others had. He too exited the doorway, leaving Mia, Luna, Alex, and Nall all alone together. After the door had shut again and the echo died, the four were silent for a few moments, almost as if making sure no one was around or that people were backing away far enough. But it didn't last long. Abruptly, Mia sighed and formed an exhausted expression.

"Phew..." She sighed. "Having to play up to those people all day can get real exhausting. I never liked having to follow all sorts of manners of etiquette all day."

Nall snickered a little at that. "Ha! I knew it. I knew you were just putting on a big act for all of them. You may be the best lady out of all of us, but not that proper! You were almost a stuffed shirt like the rest of them!"

"Tell me about it..." Mia moaned as she rose again. "But I have to be. That's the only type of people that ever come by now. All sorts of local government officials and local leaders are coming by all the time. It gets tiring always having to be on your best behavior. I haven't had a moment's peace to relax or rest in almost a month now. I've already been myself more in these past few seconds then in the entire past week."

"That sounds pretty brutal, Mia." Luna answered. "And it's not good to be playing fake all the time."

"I tell you, this whole Zone Confederation has been nothing but a strain ever since it started." She answered. "All we have is arguing and debating and organizing all the time and it's almost impossible to get everyone together on anything. No one has central authority and no one can make decisions. They're looking to whoever is the highest around, and it usually ends up being me..." Mia frowned a bit at this and seemed more anxious and tense.

Alex frowned a bit himself. "Yeah? Well where is Master Mel and your mother in all this? I haven't seen them anywhere yet."

Mia sighed in reply and calmed down a little. "Oh, they're running around just as ragged as I am. But no one looks to them anymore as much as they used to..." Here, Mia groaned a bit. "Not when they can talk right with one of the 'Five Heroes'. You two are real lucky no one recognizes you. Otherwise they might bother you just as much. But it's been non-stop work here." She sighed again. "I almost wish they had never started this Zone Confederation at all..."

Alex hesitated a moment, but then asked the fateful question. "Why did your mom want one, anyway?"

Mia grimaced and straightened up again. "It wasn't really her idea. It was more like her speaking to me on behalf of a bunch of the lower teachers and officials. The same thing with Master Mel. Everyone's been getting scared about all sorts of chaos and anarchy breaking loose with the fall of Ghaleon. I can't honestly say I blame them. Some sort of order has to be maintained. But I'm not really sure that this is what mother had in mind. It's more confusion than anything, and now that we're organized anyone who causes trouble has a target to strike against. That's how this whole mess got started in the first place..." Mia rolled her eyes and sighed again. Overall, she looked very tired, overworked, and overwhelmed.

Luna and Alex hesitated a moment, looking to each other with visible concern for Mia. Yet they couldn't do much to help her either. At any rate, after a moment or so, Alex turned back to her. "Speaking of that...why did you want us here in the first place?"

Hearing that, Mia suddenly bolted out of her depression and formed a surprise look. "Oh yes! That's right! I forgot all about that! Silly me... I was getting so caught up in my own problems I forgot that we have bigger things to worry about." Mia hesitated a moment, just long enough to calm down. When she spoke again, it was with an air of heavy seriousness. "I'm hoping the Dauphin told you why I wanted you here. I wouldn't have bothered you if I had anyone else I could trust. However, as shaky as the Zone Confederation is holding together right now, and discontented as things are spreading, I only wanted to rely on people I'd trust with my own life. This is really secret, and no one else should know about it. I'm afraid it will cause panic or insurrection or who knows what else. Anyway, here's the thing...

"I don't know if the Dauphin told you, but the Stadius Zone is total chaos right now. And it's not just an influx of Vile Tribe members that are anti-magic and Althena now. It's plenty of residents of the rest of the world too. Even some higher officials are crossing over, which is exactly why I didn't want these people to hear what I'm telling you. All of them share a common goal, a hatred of the old order and a lust for a better say in things. In other words, more domination. Not necessarily power, like Ghaleon wanted. But still authority over towns, commerce, industry, basically anything that's tied to some money and power. I'm afraid that any officials like these would exploit the Vile Tribe the same way Ghaleon did. I remember how much they still hated Althena and the rest of the world, and I don't think Phacia...whatever happened to her...will do much to turn them around.

"The worst part is that there's rumors that there's a secret base there. It would make sense. The place is isolated yet still has access to the fertile land, and messages take forever to get between the places. It's been reported that they're building something in this base. Something totally new...and terrible. Something that's designed to counter magic users as well as people with just plain physical strength. I don't know what it is, who's behind it, where they are, how many there are, or even if any of this is true and not just a myth. That's why I need you to check it out, Alex. I know if anyone could find it, discover anything, and say what's coming it's you."

Alex hesitated, but it was only for a moment. He trusted Mia's word far better than the Dauphin's. And how she had spoken of it was with great seriousness and earnest. Alex remembered well that a lack of information was what led to the building of the Grindery, and the downfall of Vane when it wasn't destroyed before completion. Yet besides that, Alex didn't really know who could be building anything more than just conventional weapons. The only people he knew that were advanced at building were the people from Meryod, and he knew they wouldn't be building anything as a weapon...though he supposed their accidental mistakes could wreck some havoc. At any rate, it wasn't a question for Alex. If this was important to Mia, then he was already on it. He nodded to the young woman.

"I'll do it."

"Hey, hey, hey!" Nall instantly butt in. "Don't sound so solemn! You don't think I'm going to let my best friend walk into anything alone, do you? I'm coming with!"

"And me too."

Hearing that, Alex, Mia, and Nall all snapped around in simultaneous surprise and looked to the source of the voice. But there was no mistake with their hearing. They were looking right at Luna. She stood plainly for a moment, expressing neither fear nor anxiety nor happiness. However, after a few moments of a delay, she finally shrugged while folding her hands in front of her. "I mean, I'm the only healer around. I'm sure I could be of some help like that, yes? I know I'm not the best fighter, but I've seen my share of danger."

None of the others said anything. Alex and Nall grew uneasy. To Mia, she also was a bit perplexed. In truth, she had thought Luna would never want to go on another adventure again after the last mix-up. Yet here she stood now, looking just as ready to go as the rest of them. She didn't know what to say. As for Alex and Nall, however, they were a bit more troubled. Neither of them wanted to see any harm come to Luna, and after their last adventure they were a bit tense about taking her anywhere. Alex looked to Nall for a moment, as if trying to see what to do, but then he turned back to Luna.

"It could be a dangerous trip, Luna..." Alex began. "Are you sure you want to come along? I don't want to put you in any danger..."

But Luna merely smiled back. "I won't be in any danger. You'll be around to protect me." Alex blushed a little at this, but Luna continued to smile. She stepped forward, and lightly grabbed Alex by the chin so he looked straight at her. "I lost faith in you once, Alex, but never again. And I can't lose faith in myself either. I can help you here. And I intend to. I'd feel even worse if I had to stay behind or was separated from you again. I want to come. Please."

Alex hesitated again. He couldn't lie. He too wanted Luna to stay close to him after last year's tragedy, for protection if nothing else. But most of all, because that whole ordeal had taught him how precious every moment that he spent with Luna was. Yet what could he do now? Was he going to take her with him? She had defended herself well before... She did come with him a long way before being taken by Ghaleon... And it was important to her as well. Alex was torn between his own desires and his want to keep Luna safe and out of danger. At last, one side won out.

Alex nodded with a sigh. "Alright Luna. We'll do it together."

Nall rolled his eyes a bit and gave Alex a "I hope you know what you're doing" look. Mia likewise looked a bit nervous about the arrangement. However, she managed to stay calm, and went on to the two of them. "Yeah...I'm sure Alex will make sure you're alright, Luna. Besides, it might be nothing, and this isn't an attack anyway. It's just scouting. " After saying this, she turned to Alex. "I really feel bad about sending you alone though. We're just too strained on everyone as it is. But there's still one person I managed to find who can come along."

As if on cue, right after Mia finished the front hall doors opened. The three others turned around to look to the new arrival, just as he came in to look at the three people he was summoned to accompany. Shortly after entering they recognized him, his tell-tale hair giving him away. Likewise, the moment he entered with his proud gait and narcissistic smile, and he recognized the flapping of a feline-like creature he happened to know, he stopped as well, and immediately groaned as he looked at him. Nall likewise did the same when he saw him.

"Oh no...not you!" Both Nall and Nash said at once to each other.

Well that's it...I'll be back in the thick of things tomorrow. Hard to believe it's only been one year... Everything's changed so much...

Alex thought about this as he paced down the halls of the Magic Guild. It was late, and he knew he should have been heading to bed fairly soon. Tomorrow, bright and early, he, Luna, Nall, and Nash would be headed out all over again. He was glad that Nash, on his part, hadn't been so narcissistic as the last time they saw him, but he still had his vanity problems and his endless arguing with Nall. Out of all of the members of the "old gang", Alex felt the least easy about Nash. His reckless behavior, oversized ego, and vain ritualistic grooming habits were bad enough. But he also had been the one who betrayed them of his own free will... Yet Alex refused to think about that. He had been the first to forgive Nash, and the young man had made his best effort to earn it. If he had wished, he would have let Alex kill him for what he did that night in the Grindery. But that was over now. All of that was over, and this was something totally different and hopefully not a fraction as dangerous.

And yet...this whole Zone Confederation...new outlook on life...new mess of troubles...all of it made Alex feel that things still weren't right. Not here or in the rest of the world he had so long neglected.

The young man reached a door in the Magic Guild hallway, and gently knocked on it. He didn't want it to be too loud, in case the person inside was asleep already. Yet somehow, inside him, he knew that wasn't the case. He and Luna had always had a special link. And it was beyond anything that the Dragonmaster and Althena shared. Sure enough, after a few moments, the doorknob clicked, and Luna, not even having taken off her scarf since she had settled in, answered it. She hesitated a moment, then formed a slight smile.

"Hi."

"Hi." Alex answered, a bit distant.

"Couldn't sleep?"

"No...could you?"

"No."

"...Anxious? Scared?"

"It's not that... Well, maybe a little."

"I am. I always was." He paused a moment, then sighed and looked around the hall. "But it's something else too. Something uneasy. I've been here before...but I just can't settle in. I can't make myself feel comfortable anywhere."

Luna hesitated a moment, merely standing in the doorway. She said nothing, but her eyes conveyed the same sentiment. At length, she stepped back. "Want to come in?"

"Sure."

Luna stepped out of the doorway and allowed Alex inside, shutting the door behind him. Once inside, Alex didn't sit, but merely paced over to Luna's window and looked outside. From here, in the light of the Blue Star, one could see the garden far on the ground below. It looked abandoned now. The pond was dry and the area was overgrown. But Alex didn't think much, seeing as one couldn't concern themselves too much with little things anymore. As for Luna, she went over to her bed and sat on it, and the two said nothing for a moment.

Alex was the first to speak up.

"Do you feel...uneasy?"

Luna hesitated a moment, as if not being able to find the right words. "I...I suppose so..." She at last spoke. "I don't know why. I feel safe enough in Vane. There were a lot of changes, but two of our friends are here, and you're here, and Nall's here...where is he anyway?"

Alex grimaced. "Picking up fish scraps and napping in the galley."

Luna snickered a little, but it was short lived. She thought of the question again and grew quiet. "Well, it's not a matter of safety. And it's not out of place either. I've been here before... Sure, we've both lived long enough in Burg, but you're always under the same sky and the same Blue Star no matter where you are on Lunar."

"You think it's the people?" Alex asked, turning his head to her.

Luna shrugged. "I don't know... No, I know that's not it... I've kept suspecting that, and though I admit the new people here are odd, I'm not that afraid. Only the Professor is still here anyway. The Dauphin left on his one trip and Lavender and the Duunran left on that other one. And the Dauphin seemed honorable enough. Everyone trusted him. I think if he meant the both of us harm he would have done it while on that trip to Vane. It can't be the people..." Here, Luna trailed off, and said no more. There was silence between the two for a few moments, neither saying anything.

Alex broke it again.

"It's you...isn't it?"

Luna slowly rose her head.

"You're the one who feels out of place, like you don't belong here...like you're a cat in a room full of dogs, or a wild horse running free in an empty city... You feel you don't belong here, or that you're different."

Luna hesitated a moment, but there was some wonderment in her eyes. After a short length, she shook her head. "But how did you-"

"I feel the same way..." Alex answered, smiling a bit to encourage some sort of fellowship. However, it didn't last either and faded quickly. "I've been feeling uneasy ever since we started out. But strange as everything has been I realize now that it isn't the rest of the world no matter how radically it's changed. After all, when I first left Burg I knew absolutely nothing about the rest of the world yet I didn't feel like this. It's something inside me...something that just doesn't fit."

"But what?" Luna asked, her look growing anxious and nervous. "What does it mean? Why is it happening to us?"

Alex sighed in reply, and slowly paced over to Luna. Once he reached her bed, he sat down next to her and sighed again. Slowly, he shook his head. "I don't know, Luna. I can't explain it either. You know as much as I know. And though I might look brave, it's scaring me too."

Luna said nothing, but began to look troubled. And it wasn't just a normal look. It was the same look Alex remembered the day she started her "special" singing. The day she cleared the fog from the forest, when she was set on the road that led her to realize she was Althena. It hurt Alex to look at that. After a time, he put her arm around her. When he did, she laid her head on his shoulder. Both of them stared at the window and out into the night sky.

"Donít worry." He reassured. "We've been through the worst possible before. Whatever it is now, we'll pass it too. Just stay close to me."

"I intend to." Luna echoed back softly, and the two continued to look into the night.

 

 

 

Chapter Three

Another early start the next day. But Alex didn't care much. The sooner they got there and back, the better. It was supposed to be just a quick trip to inspect the source of the rumors. As such, the whole group was ready to move with speed. Alex took only his shield, Luna only a short dagger, and Nash taking only one of his magic rods. After assembling the next morning, Mia came and greeted them all and wished them luck, making Nash blush as she did so. But then, at last, the four of them set out for the Nanza Barrier, unabated and making good time. Yet right before departing, Mia passed to Nall what looked to be a very old and crumbling scroll. She advised him, with a strange sort of smile, to read it when he had the chance. It was puzzling, but Alex didn't dwell on it. He had other things to worry about.

"How are things, Premier Nash?" Alex asked after a few hours. "Didn't have much chance to talk to you yesterday."

"Ugh...I've heard that title so much it almost makes me want to puke." Nash groaned in response. "It was fun at first to be called that...but now it always means trouble. There's so many do-nothing officials and politicians and authorities over in Vane right now that it almost makes me want to tear my hair out."

Nall raised an eyebrow. "And coming from him, that's very serious." He said while pointing at the young mage.

"How goes things with Lemia?" Luna asked next.

"Well...let's just say better than after I first showed my face in front of her." Nash grumbled.

"That bad huh?" Nall asked.

Nash continued to mope, however as he walked along. "I guess I can't blame her... I knew the whole time about putting that mask on her and I did nothing. She should hate me just as much as she did Ghaleon. I'm only surprised that Mia doesn't act the exact same way..."

"She's your friend, Nash." Alex answered. "And more than that. True friends are always ready to forgive."

"I suppose you're right..." Nash muttered in response, but kept his head down. There was silence for a few moments as the four of them walked onward. In the silence, Alex began to think again, and thought once more about what he had seen so far. He thought again of all the people in the Magic Guild he had never seen before, and once again he felt that strange feeling. After a few moments of hesitation, he at last turned to Nash again.

"Nash?"

"Yeah?"

"I'm asking you this because I think you'd be the first to find out..." Alex returned. His voice was slow and cautious, as if planning or considering something. "Exactly how strong would you say those people Mia hangs out with are?"

Nash raised his head at that and looked at Alex with a puzzled stare. "Why do you want to know?"

"Could you just tell me?" Alex answered.

Nash hesitated again for a moment, but then turned to the sky and thought for a moment. He licked his lips and concentrated for a short while, and then finally shrugged and spoke up. "Well, I don't know... Most of them are just low-level mages. As for that new Vice Premier, he isn't much of anything. I'm not even sure he has any magical power to speak of, but we can't very well send him through the Cave of Trial to find out right now. As for that new schoolteacher..." Here, Nash snorted and waved his hand. "He's a hack among sorcerers. A one trick magician, if you pardon the pun. I could take him out in a snap of my fingers. But then again..." Nash smiled a little. "That's why I'm one of the Premiers."

"What about...say...the Dauphin?" Alex asked, prying.

Here, however, Nash looked rather confused indeed, and shook his head. "You know...I can't really tell. He's from the older generation Guild, when they taught multiple spells rather than had people specialize on their best, like me and lightning magic. Ghaleon and Lemia were students as well, but they were exceptions. In those days, people could rarely achieve their strength. But I heard that Melichon managed to excel in several items as well. Yet how he stands against Ghaleon and Lemia is beyond me."

"Did you see anything regarding him?" Alex continued. "Any awards or something or records about him?"

Nash shook his head. "Nothing except a champion trophy for his style of swordplay that no one uses anymore. That's even more unusual. There aren't a lot of wizards skilled in physical combat. He was Dragonmaster material in his prime. For all I know, he might still be."

Alex said nothing in response to this. He went silent now, and focused once again on the ground they walked on. However, Luna could already tell something was troubling him, and that worried her.

"Oh well...let's keep going. Not too much longer until the Nanza Barrier."

Nanza sure had changed in a single year.

The previous wooden fortress was now being fortified and built up with huge, thick stone walls. A thick iron gate was now guarding the pass with a wall behind it of tempered steel. There were many more guards posted now as well, and all were bearing the same look as the guards back in Vane. They bore bows, however, and looked a lot meaner and more "string happy" than any of Kyle's men had used to be. The place was not complete in its latest incarnation, but the surrounding defenses were all set up, with a massive thick central tower being built in the middle. It certainly looked more well guarded than under Kyle's administration, but it also seemed cold and uninviting, and it began to make Alex nervous as he walked forward toward the entrance. It too was alien to him, and it only added to his unease. Yet he was brave and resolute, and continued.

At the gate, a rough-looking guard, much the same as Kyle's old doorman, was standing at the entrance. The only difference was that he had the new matching uniform. He planted himself right in front of the gate as he came up and crossed his arms. When they got closer, he reached behind him and grabbed what looked like a one handed club, and then held his hand out

"Halt!" He announced, and immediately the four came to a stop. "The Dauphin is not present. None may pass until his return."

Nash gave him a hard look. "Oh yeah?" He asked. "Stand aside, country vermin! I am the Premier of the Magic Guild, and I say-"

Clonk.

Before Nash could say another word, the guard smacked him on top of the head with the club. His hair crushed and now looking dazzled from the impact of the blow, Nash staggered backward with a shocked look frozen on his face, stumbled, and then groaned as he reached his hand to his head tenderly. Luna was shocked, and looked to the guard with a hurt stare.

"You're gonna be a corpse with a cracked skull if you try to sass me again, kid." The guard snorted. "You aren't fooling me into thinking some crummy, snotty boy is a Premier of the Guild, especially when you're traveling with a lot that looks just like the trash that used to guard this place. Now beat it."

"Now just a minute!" Luna interrupted. "You could have killed him just now!"

"I'll kill him right here if you don't leave." The guard snorted.

"We're friends of the Dauphin." Alex insisted. "And we're on an important mission. Nash really is the Premier of the Magic Guild. And we have to get to the Stadius Zone at once."

"Are you deaf or something, kid?" The guard snapped back. "I said no one gets in here while he's gone! And I don't care if you're Ghaleon himself! Go away!"

Nall clenched his cat teeth, and finally lost his temper at all of this bantering. "Oh...that does it! Besides, no one bats Nash on the head except me!"

With that, Nall cracked open his mouth, pointed it right at the guard's face, and exhaled. Much to the group's surprise, a blast of white ice crystals erupted from the little dragon's mouth and instantly coated the man's face. He cried out in agony and immediately stepped back, spitting and wiping away at his eyes the whole time. After that, Nall shot down and smashed his full body weight on the guard's foot. The guard once again yelped, and began to hop up and down holding his foot. At last, Nall came forward, seized the man's tunic lapel with his claw, and glared at him right in his now open and surprised eyes.

"Now you listen here, you self-gratifying, arrogant rear end of a nipple yanker!" He hissed. "You're looking face to face with the White Dragon himself! So unless you want me to flatten your entire fortress with a swing of my tail, you'll let us through right now! Got it?!"

"Yes sir!" The guard immediately answered, frightened and surprised at the sudden attack of the pint-sized feathered lizard. With that, he pulled back, ripping his tunic against Nall's claw while doing so. However, he turned to the gate, and looked up to the men overhead. He waved at them, and they waved back. Moments later, there was a turning and cranking sound, and the metal gate slowly opened before the group. After a few moments more, the metal door slid up as well into the wall. The guard stood aside and made way for the four of them, three of which were now puzzled and looking to Nall. As for the feline-like dragon himself, he merely smiled and flapped forward.

"You just got to know how to ask some people..."

Alex made his way quickly through the Nanza Barrier with the others. There was no sign of Kyle or anyone else who had once guarded there. The place itself was void of citizens, just as the guard had said. Only the archers and soldiers that he assumed were under the Dauphin were there. The place was even more uninviting than last time, and cold rather than livid as it used to be. He had no desire to stay there long and quickly left it. The four then made their way down the stone road to the southern regions, and at last came out of the mountain pass all together.

By now the sun was setting, and it was growing late. With a bit of reluctance, the group had to stay at Raza for the night. None of them were eager to get robbed from like last time, but luckily Alex still had the Thieves Crest from their last trip through the town. With that they didn't have to worry about being stolen from. Just the same, Nash was wide-eyed, suspicious, and critical of everyone he saw there. Luna had never been to it herself, and Nall had to steer her away from the crooked buyer and seller residence. Alex was glad to see that at least one town was still the same. The group went to the local inn and stayed the night, intending to reach the Stadius Zone tomorrow once they arrived in Tamur.

Thankfully, a thief didn't come in the night, and they were able to rise bright and early the next day. Once again they had a long trip ahead of them, walking the length of the current zone and all the way to Meryod. Once they arrived there, neither Nash, Nall, nor Alex had any desire to stay there, even though Luna admired the town being built on water and enjoyed seeing so much of the world she never knew. The three boys had to seize her and drag her in order to get through before any of the backwoods residents gave her or anyone else in the group any trouble. They were glad that the bridge was fixed this time and pressed onward. Once they had crossed that, they needed march only a little while farther before they finally came to the rocky pass that lead to the Stadius Zone. It was red rocked and not very inviting, but it hadn't looked any better since they last time they had been there. Right off the bat, Luna felt uneasy about entering, and held back anxiously. Alex couldn't say that he felt much better about it, but there was no other way to get to the Stadius Zone. And so, sword drawn, he lead the way into the rocky pass.

"Stay close and be watchful..." Alex told them. "We're getting close now. There shouldn't be much separating us from whatever we're here to find."

Luna nodded in reply and kept her dagger at the ready. Nash drew his own rod and looked about meanly. He remembered this place too. They got through it easy enough last time, but last time they had Mia, Jessica, and Kyle along for the ride. Now they were down to just two veterans, three including Nall. Slowly, the four of them began to creep forward, always keeping their weapons at the ready and always on the lookout for danger.

They slowly wound their ways through the canyon. It was rather maze-like, and Alex couldn't remember anything about it. They ran into a few dead ends occasionally, but luckily none of the creatures that normally inhabited the area. Alex stayed at the ready, though. He knew that letting your guard down was the most likely time something would appear, and he knew the place's danger far too well to be at ease. Yet as he, the wizard, the songstress, and the white dragon looked and moved on, still nothing happened. Alex was so fixated on searching for trouble that he didn't notice that as Nall flapped in the air, he constantly muttered to himself.

"Darn...no weapon...blast it...no good scroll..."

"What are you talking about, Nall?" Luna asked at length, not as wary or focused as Alex.

"What?" Nall exclaimed, suddenly stiffening in surprise, realizing he had been talking aloud. "Oh, nothing! Nothing!"

"Something about the scroll that Mia gave you?" Luna persisted.

If possible, Nall seemed to sweat. "No, no! It's nothing! Nothing at all!" He shrieked.

"You're making quite a bit of noise for nothing then, you dumb cat!" Nash yelled in Nall's face. "You want to bring every monster from here to Damon's Tower on us?!"

"Look, everyone just be quiet!" Alex silenced in a harsh whisper. Instantly, everyone did. "This isn't a safe place... Let's get through it quickly."

Though Nash and Nall were now considerably angry at each other, and Luna was perplexed, they did as they were told and continued to move onward. For the next few hours, they made their way swiftly and silently through the crumbled pass toward the exit. Yet as they moved along, not a single creature came against them. The place was as empty and barren as first glance would make it out to be. First Alex was cautious of trouble. But as time wore on, he first began to relax...and then began to grow nervous all over again. This didn't make any sense. The place should have been teaming with monsters. They hadn't met a one yet, and he knew they couldn't be too far from the exit. As he continued to proceed without incident, Alex grew worried. This wasn't right at all. Something had happened. And he feared what had happen might occur to them next. As they approached a turn in the canyon wall, he made his concerns known.

"There's something not right here..."

There was silence from the others as they continued to move forward. They looked to each other and to Alex, but none of them reacted at all. Nevertheless, the young man shook his head. "This isn't right. This is too easy..."

"A little pessimistic, aren't we Alex? You sound almost disappointed..." Nash answered cheerfully. "We're almost to the exit, and Tamur's just beyond that."

"I'm feeling nervous too..." Luna admitted, her face expressing that emotion again. "I've never even been here, but I'm feeling there's something not right coming."

Nash sighed a bit and frowned. "Well, I don't feel a thing myself." He insisted. When that didn't change the expression of his friends, he rolled his eyes. "Oh, but fine...we'll be careful just the same." Reluctantly, he held up his rod more at the ready and continued forward with the others. Slowly they crept to the edge of the turn. None of them made another sound, and they stuck tightly together. Alex too knew that they were almost out of the area, but he knew they still had some distance to go. He kept his sword ready and eyed the rock cliffs around them...leaving them no where to run in an emergency. Slowly, he and the rest of the group turned the corner, and were able to look down to the valley beyond...

Immediately, Luna gasped and put a hand to her mouth. As for the other three, they looked horrified.

Bones were there. Scores of human bones, all laying in heaps strewn all up and down the canyon area. But they weren't old bones. All were fresh...not any of them more than a year old. And that soon became clear, for there were corpses too. Corpses of many freshly dead men and women who had been unfortunate to step that way. None of them were devoured, but had been pierced by weapons, and now lay dead to rot in the sun and feed the birds. No creatures were there, only the bones, and the four of them were shocked.

"Oh no..." Nash beheld in horror.

"It's a trap..." Alex spoke quivering. "A trap for travelers... They're up to no good now, whoever is in this rebellion in the Stadius Zone... They're making sure no one can-"

Suddenly, an arrow whizzed by Alex's head, stirring his hair before smashing into the rock wall behind them. Alex looked up, and soon received another terrible shock. He beheld the murderers of the people at his feet. It was them...the hideous faces of those that Alex could never forget. The Vile Tribe. They charged toward the four of them now, all gazing at them with their black eyes and nearly foaming with rage. A savage fury animated their flesh. More whizzing went by, and soon teams of arrows began to rain down on the four of them from the oncoming creatures. Others held weapons of clubs, axes, and swords, and bore down on the four of them to dash them all to pieces. The group was shocked, and soon quite overwhelmed at this rush. They hadn't seen a force this large even pouring out of the Grindery to attack them. As they came, they roared in rage at them.

"Swine! Dogs! Filthy children of Althena!"

"Perish!"

"Kill them all! Kill them all!"

"Long live Emperor Evangeon!"

The group couldn't catch most of it. They were preoccupied with trying to find a means to shield them from the arrows and escape. Quickly, Nall began to swish around in a circle in the sky, and an orb of white aura began to surround him. He was beginning his transformation, but the others didn't wait. Alex used his blade to block an arrow bolt just before it could reach Luna, and Nash chanted and pointed his rod at the oncoming masses. Moments later, an orb of lightning exploded in the sky over them and showered the enemy with lightning bolts. But while it felled some of them, the far majority came at them unabated, still bellowing threats and danger.

Alex grit his teeth. "I don't think we can win this fight."

"We don't have too. I'll take us to safety."

Alex turned around to the source of the voice, expecting to see Nall. But Nall was no longer there. Instead, a massive white dragon unfurled its wings and opened its massive jaws to bellow triumphantly in front of the Vile Tribe. Nall glared at the oncoming enemy as the wind whipped his white feathers and the brown on the crown of his head. Yet they were not scared, but continued to come bellowing all the way. They barely slowed at all for this, and soon were shooting at Nall as well. The arrows bounced harmlessly off the beast's armored hide underneath his feathers, and he unfurled his wings and cried out to form a fearsome shield for his friends. As he did, Nash, Alex, and, with a little help from the latter of the two boys, Luna hopped onto the back of the large white beast. As soon as they were all on, Nall began to flap his now immense wings, and started to bear his cargo into the air as he batted the ground with ferocious winds. The Vile Tribe was scattered as it approached, and those still standing screamed curses at the white dragon. Nall merely snickered in reply as the Vile Tribe became smaller and smaller below him, growing to the size of ants. Once satisfied with his height, Nall pitched forward and flapped onward, toward the Stadius Zone.

"Ha!" Nall proudly cried, his voice much more powerful and mature. "They're no match for one of the Four Dragons! How's everyone doing back there?"

"Great Nall!" Luna cheerily cried back over the wind around them. "It feels good to be riding on you again!"

"I'm fine!" Alex called. Then, he turned his head, to where Nash was perched behind him. "How about you, Nash?"

Unfortunately, the young premier seemed to have a terrible fear of heights. He was clutching Alex around the waist as if he was the only stable thing in a shifting universe, and had his eyes pressed closed while burying his head against the back of his jacket to hide any chance of looking down. He trembled terribly behind Alex, and as the young man grew uneasy himself he began to hope he wasn't feeling the warmth of urine behind him soaking through Nash's pants. "Tell me when it's over!" Nash screamed in a quivering voice, frozen and petrified with fear.

Nall grinned in delight at this new dilemma, and turned his head to the group behind him. "Hey Nash? You know, I always fly a bit bumpy whenever I have three riders..."

However, Nall soon forgot about tormenting Nash. He saw the look on Luna and Alex's face. Neither of them were that pleasant, but were painted with more surprise and horror as they looked out on the horizon. Nall himself turned around and looked to what they were seeing, and soon even the large white dragon gasped as well. Far in the distance, past Tamur and past a deal of land in the Stadius Zone now before them, a column of thick billowing smoke was rising in the air. That kind of smoke was the unmistakable sign of a major fire taking place. Unfortunately, it was happening right in the spot where Alex knew that a particular town was. Slowly, ignoring Nash's fear, and staring straight at the smoke as if hypnotized, Alex announced its name and their next destination while on the back of Nall.

"Pao..."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Four

Alex and his friends glumly surveyed the area that had once been the community of Pao. But there was nothing left. Each of the tents were now smoldering in their own piles on the ground. A few slaughtered horses lay around, and the rest had run off. Everywhere had been ransacked. Anything of value was taken, and the rest was burned. There were numerous fired arrows lying around the area though. A few Vile Tribe members were down as well. But other than that, nothing. Nothing but the signs of destruction laying all around. All of them were astonished.

"This is horrible..." Luna spoke softly.

"I don't think it was that horrible." Nash simply answered.

Immediately, all wheeled to him with an outraged look. Nash merely stared innocently back. "Nash! I thought you were a blockhead before..." Nall began in an angry voice, now restored to his old size. "But this time..."

"Listen!" Nash interrupted. "Look around you! There's arrows, burning, and a few Vile Tribe members are down... But what else? Nothing. No children slaughtered, no cut up villagers, no people running or crying. No one in Pao is dead. There isn't a single human body lying here."

Alex hesitated for a moment, but then he realized that Nash was right. As he looked around again, he saw that there was indeed not a single human body lying around. Though the signs of battle were clear there were no corpses. This confused Alex to a small amount. He scratched his head and looked around a bit more, then turned back to Nash. "That's odd...how come no one is here?"

"Maybe they let them live." Luna suggested.

"If this town is of the Tempest I know, only death would keep him from coming at the Vile Tribe." Alex responded.

"They could have abandoned it." Nall suggested.

"There's too many of their corpses inside the camp." Nash answered. "If you ask me, I'd say they were captured. Though, from the looks of that entrance into the Stadius Zone, that doesn't seem like a good explanation to me."

Alex didn't answer, but looked around some more. None of the explanations the others offered seemed satisfactory to him. If there were prisoners, where would they take them? And why would the Vile Tribe even bother when it killed everyone else that came this way? All of it confused the young man, and he didn't like it one bit. It was just the latest in a chain of puzzlements and inconsistencies that he received since he reentered the world. He feared where it was all leading to. At any rate, he continued to survey the area, looking for any other clue as to what could have happened. Yet there wasn't much. The plains had too much grass to leave tracks, and other than Vile Tribe members nothing was left. Yet Alex was still troubled a bit. If Tempest was alive, he knew he'd keep fighting. He'd die before he surrendered. But still that didn't leave him with many answers...

Suddenly, Alex stopped. He spotted something on the horizon. Very faintly, coming off of the southern mountains, there were two plumes of smoke. It wasn't a trick of the camp's fires. No, he knew it was coming from there. And it was too separated to be from a reckless fire. Two controlled blazes had to be going, like fireplaces or something. The boy turned his head to his other three companions, and motioned over to the sight. "Hey guys, look at that."

Instantly, Luna, Nash, and Nall obliged. Soon after, their own looks became concerned and puzzled.

"There was never a tower or volcano over there, was there?" Nash asked.

"If there was, I would've seen it from the sky." Nall responded. "It's just mountains."

Luna hesitated a bit herself. But then, she began to grow worried. She hadn't expected this much mystery and death on this trip. It was a little more than she bargained for, and after seeing the burning village, the Vile Tribe, and now this latest sight, her fear was becoming quite visible. "I don't like it..." She spoke. "Something's not right over here. Something's not right anywhere."

"It's ok, Luna." Alex answered, sensing her tension. But he never took his eyes off the smokestack. "We're here. Anyway, whatever that is over there, it's generating a lot of fire to produce all that smoke. And it definitely wasn't here the last time we came through the zone. My guess is that if that rumor was right that Mia mentioned, then it might just be where they're producing whatever weapons they have in mind."

"Who? The Vile Tribe?" Nall asked.

"I don't know...but someone. And the Vile Tribe, I'm afraid, is number one suspect right now. I guess Phacia wasn't as well received as we hoped..."

Nash, however, got a cocky look. He pulled his rod up and aimed it at the smoke. "Well, what're we waiting for! Let's charge in and bust some heads! I'll turn whatever that is into rubble with a blast of my lightning magic!"

"Nash, you dolt!" Nall cried angrily in reply. "Use your head! Even if your magic was strong enough to blast that place away, did you ever think that if there are prisoners that we'd kill them too?"

"Oh..." Nash answered quietly, slowly lowering his rod in embarrassment. "Yeah...forgot about that."

"Besides, we aren't an army anyway." Alex continued. "Let's check the place out, but try not to start any brawls."

Luna was hesitant and fearful. "Let's not go there Alex...it doesn't look safe."

"Heh, not to worry!" Nash cockily answered. "Me and Alex have been through much more dangerous places!"

Nall grinned. "And you can use Nash's hard head as a shield!"

"What did you say?!" Nash snapped back, turning violently to the white dragon.

Alex was more suttle. He turned his head over to Luna, looked her in the eye, and spoke very calmly and quietly to her. "Don't worry, Luna. I'm here, and I'm not going to let anything take you again. It's alright. Me and Nash can handle whatever comes are way. I promise you we'll be alright."

Luna was still skeptical about the whole idea. She looked to the smoke warily, and her face was still laced with tension and anxiety. But after hesitating for a little while longer, she started to realize that Alex was going to go with or without her. And if he was going to go, she wanted to come along. Her singing was the only thing that would help him if he got hurt. And she definitely didn't want to be separated from him again in this dreadful part of the world or any part of the world. At long last, with that somber look in her eye, she nodded. "Ok Alex."

With that, the four turned and began to make their way toward the towers of smoke.

The approach was soon uninviting.

As Alex and his friends made their way toward the smoking towers, changes soon began to take place. At first it was just the rolling plains with no real difference or movement. But as the grass began to fade and the area became more rocky and mountainous on their trip, they started to see things. Abandoned carts were lying around, big thick carts made of iron and thick wood. Rails were lain on the ground made out of wood as well, leading from huge caves in the rocks that were hastily piled shut with loose rocks. There was only one or two of these to begin with, but they soon became more frequent as they drew closer and closer to the mountains. As the mountains grew rockier and more uneven, they noticed that earthen ramps were dug up to higher ground, where more blocked off tunnels were stacked on top of each other. There were no signs of life anywhere, nothing except a few tracks from a member of the Vile Tribe in loose dirt every once in a while. Alex, on his part, didn't like this look of this.

"Mines..." He muttered. "Just like the ones the Vile Tribe was digging back on the Frontier."

"But that was when they were building the Grindery." Nash answered.

Nall looked to the horizon a moment, at the nearing columns of smoke. They weren't far now at all. They were seperated from view simply by a large, mountainous ridge dead ahead, and the group was so close that they were practically climbing on top of it. Abruptly, the flying feline-like being gasped. "Alex! You don't suppose...they're building another one, do you?"

"I wouldn't think there'd be enough iron in the world to do that..." Luna answered. "At least, I hope there wouldn't..."

"The Vile Tribe didn't build it anyway." Alex answered. "That was Myght."

Nash snorted. "That little black dwarf never was accounted for after this mess. Who knows what chaos he's doing right now?"

"There's not enough smoke for it to be another Grindery." Alex answered. "It'd fill up the sky like a forest fire."

"Well then what is it?" Nash asked.

Alex frowned. "Only one way to find out. Let's hike up this ridge a bit further. The mountains get pretty rocky. We can stay hidden on our approach toward that smoke, whatever it is and whoever's there."

The others nodded in response, and Alex led them onward. Soon, they were scaling the side of the rocky ridge, making for higher ground. Luna managed to cross it with some difficulty, not used to a lot of physical activity but accustomed to mountains. As for Nash, he turned out to have the most trouble, not being accustomed to neither and needing Alex's help more than once. Yet Alex got what he wished for. Larger rocks jutted out of the mountainside as he climbed up, and he knew they'd provide a good barrier. All they had to do was duck and they'd be lost among the rocky cliffs. Getting up a bit higher required walking over dangerous and loose stones, and each time one was knocked out it caused more noise than Alex wanted. Yet as he rose, he also became conscious of a hissing and bellowing, like a massive furnace going to work ahead. He knew what that meant, that they were drawing close to the source of the smoke. Once all were up, Alex paused and let them regroup a moment. Then, very slowly, they started to make their way around.

As they moved along, going from rock to rock and keeping low, they saw no more mines on their level. That was good, for many more sealed ones were below. Yet as they turned the ridge, they began to see that there was a large valley between mountains, in between from which the smoke seemed to come from a smaller hill in between. The burning continued to get louder, and the sounds of striking and pounding metal, hissing, and other loud clanging noises grew audible. It worked to the group's advantage. With all of this going on, they had no fear of their own shuffling around attracting any attention. That was good too, for more mines came, and at last they made it to live ones. About fifty feet below them, numerous mines were dug, and were swarming with members of the Vile Tribe. They looked just as dirty, sweaty, and tired as they had when they were working on the Grindery. Yet they were still working eagerly. Foremen with whips urged them on, and cart after cart came out, all of it bearing ores. Lower, into the valley, these carts were being used to fill up huge wagons being drawn by sweaty horses. These wagons were dragging them onward, toward the sight of the smoke. As Alex and the others paused next to one of the rocks, they looked down and watched.

"So, they're slaving away again it seems." Nash muttered.

"Think they were promised the world again?" Luna asked. She had never seen what Alex had seen, but heard his story and about how Ghaleon had deluded the Vile Tribe into thinking they'd have revenge on Althena.

"They're already in the world." Alex answered. "They don't have to live in that Frontier region anymore. They must still be bitter if they want to attack, but attack with what?"

"There can't be too many of them." Nash stated. "One good lightning strike would bury them all."

"You can't!" Luna protested, in shock at the suggestion.

Nash merely frowned in reply. "We get them or they get us. We've got to make a choice now or never."

"Not yet." Alex answered. "Let's get a look at where they're taking all that iron."

Once again, the young man led them onward. Though Nash was antsy and Luna feared what would happen to the Vile Tribe members, they went along. Nall continued to look uncertain, and seemed to be deep in thought. But Alex didn't notice. He kept moving, walking over mine after mine full of workers. He knew that the Vile Tribe wasn't that large, though. They could barely survive as it was on the Frontier. The guard at the pass and the miners had to be about all that was there. It wasn't enough to put up a war, so what were they doing? He felt his answer would come soon. He slowly turned the ridge, and at last was able to look down on the source of the smoke. As he did, he came to a stop and stared at it, and the rest of the group soon came behind him and stared just as intently and with just as much awe.

The smoke was coming from a controlled area. Two small smokestacks were billowing it into the air, protruding from the rocky hill in the mountain valley. As for the hill itself, it had been mined as well. It had been tunneled, worked on, built up, and converted into some sort of massive structure. Alex could see intense fire burning in the center of it, and most of the beating and clanging of metal was coming from within it. Huge metal gears and pistons protruded from the mass of rock and rhythmically turned and pumped on. Though the place had a few windows around inside it without glass, the primary entrance was in front of the structure. It was girded by a heavy metal gate, and more Vile Tribe foremen were there. They were motioning for the carts laden with metal ore to enter into the structure. Though it was small compared to the mountains, it was huge for any building, and could fit an area the size of the Grindery or even wider within it. And from the sounds of it, it sounded like the world's biggest smithery. The group was justly surprised.

"Oh my..." Luna exhaled.

"That place is huge!" Nall cried. "It's like a giant blacksmith furnace!"

"If Mia was afraid of weapons being made, then I think we have a bad answer for her." Nash groaned. "That place is big enough to forge hundreds of weapons a day. Swords...arrow bolts...axes...who knows what's being made in there?"

"This looks like all we need to tell Mia." Luna continued. "Let's get out of here."

However, Alex wasn't ready. He continued to stare intently at the structure, and thought back to the Vile Tribe. Still, he refused to believe it. From what he had seen before, the Vile Tribe couldn't possibly be that large... There was still something missing from the whole equation. Something just wasn't right here. He continued to stare at it for a while. At last, Nash clapped his hand on his shoulder and shook him.

"Alex? Hey, you in there? We're leaving."

"It's not right." Alex stated in reply.

The others turned to him in puzzlement again, but he merely continued to stare at the place. He shook his head slowly. "This can't just be a mere blacksmith workshop. It has to be something else."

"Alex...what else could it be?" Luna asked.

"I don't know." Alex answered. "But think a moment. Look at all the Vile Tribe members we've seen so far. It looks like the entire tribe is either guarding the pass or working the mines. There can't be too many of them left. So who's doing all the work in there? You need manpower no matter how large your workshop is. And even so, why so many weapons? The Vile Tribe already looks pretty well armed to me, at least those who can fight. It's not like having a lot more weapons will let them be able to attack more. And if they were interested in fighting, then why would they not have killed everyone in Pao? And why don't they realize that regardless of how well armed they are that the Magic Guild could wipe their entire force out without trying?"

"Questions I too have...and intend to answer."

Alex didn't waste a moment. His blood ran cold and his adrenaline surged. Within the flash of an eye, his hand was on the hilt of Althena's sword, and he yanked it out and spun around from where he was crouched. The moment he turned, he let it rest on the neck of the new person who had suddenly spoke up from nowhere behind him. But it wasn't so much as a freeze due to hesitation, but due to the face that no sooner had he turned then he found a sharp tip of an arrow aimed right between his eyes, and saw himself looking at a bow fully bent back. However, his pause only lasted a moment, and he saw at the other end of the shaft that there was a confident, bold, and smiling face looking back at him.

"I wondered when I would see you again, my friend." The chief of Pao spoke, and instantly released the arrow and relaxed again.

"Tempest..." Alex breathed, lowering his own sword and putting it back at his side again. "You scared the life out of me."

"I've had the life scared out of me too." The young man answered, his face growing grim and serious, as it almost always was anyway. "I have no time for reunions. We meet in the most serious of situations."

"What are you talking about, Tempest?" Alex asked. "Where's the rest of the people of Pao?"

Tempest's face stayed grim and stern. "Some of us managed to escape, but the others were taken when the Vile Tribe attacked. They didn't kill their victims though. They captured them, and they've taken them here." Tempest hesitated a moment, and stiffened a bit more. "Fresca is among them..."

Alex hesitated himself at that. He remembered the last time that Fresca had been in trouble well, along with Mia and Jessica. He had stormed off on his own to try to take on Ghaleon and, at that time, an evil Luna. It was a good thing they had caught up with the warrior. If not there was no telling what could have happened to him. At any rate, he looked like he had the same thing in mind this time around, if he was out here all by himself. However, Nash was the first person to speak up again.

"I knew they were being kidnapped." He confidently stated. "But how long did you know about this place and expect them not to, chief?"

"We didn't know." Tempest answered. "This place hasn't started billowing smoke until a few days ago...when they began the attack. They started it up soon afterward. I'm afraid they're being committed to slave labor, though one of our tribe would sooner die than be a slave. Especially for whatever foul purpose this kelm is being put to use for. They started their blocking of the mountain pass just a short time before that. We had no idea what was going on, and it was taking place right under our noses. But you have to understand. Our people have little need to go outside of this region."

"Well, let's all just be glad they're still alive." Luna commented.

"Right." Tempest coldly retorted. "Because after I see them safely back to our village, whoever is in charge of the Vile Tribe will not be."

"Well, it's better if we go together than you try to take them on all by yourself, Tempest." Alex answered.

"We'll be more conspicuous if we travel in a group." The young chief answered. Then he paused a moment, and asked a question. "You don't happen to know anything about this action, do you?"

The four glumly shook their heads.

"Mia sent us to check it out." Nall answered. "And though we might be less conspicuous, I'd say we'd have a better chance of fighting our way out if we went together. After all, when we save the people I don't think we're going to have much chance of hiding them anyway."

Tempest hesitated a moment, thinking of that. Yet after a pause, he sighed and nodded. "True." After he looked around in hesitation a bit more, he motioned behind his shoulder. "Come with me, I'll take you around to the back. There's a high window up there. I haven't seen many troops on the upper level, so perhaps we can sneak around."

Alex nodded back. "Good idea. Let's go."

Tempest turned and prepared to leave after that. However, shortly after doing so, he paused and cracked a smile for a moment. "Together again, Dragonmaster? I hope your time off has not made you soft."

Alex smiled back. "Just worry about yourself, Longhair."

Tempest frowned. "Longhair?"

The group made their way quickly to the back. Tempest himself moved with signs of utmost skill and practice. He crept as silent as a fox and as swift as a squirrel. The others had a hard time keeping up with him and staying as quiet, especially Nash, who kept tripping over rocks and had a bruise on his chin before they managed to make their way around. Alex noticed that there was only limited security around the structure. That confirmed his earlier belief that they had to be understaffed. Obviously, they didn't expect anyone to break through the security in the mountain pass. But that made his own job all the more difficult. He knew that at this point the Vile Tribe had to be sending some messenger to the others to tell them that they had company. So they couldn't afford to waste much time, and had to get to the bottom of this.

At length, Tempest took them directly behind the structure, where both clouds of smoke and a total lack of security as well as noise shielded them from prying eyes. Once there, the chief pointed to a small rock window that was just enough for a brace of men. It was alongside the rock ridge, and by just jumping a short distance one could enter it and be on the top level of the complex. Tempest cleared the gap easily, as well as Alex. Luna took a bit of coaxing. As for Nash, he was almost petrified, and had Nall push him from behind.

"Come on! It's not that far! Sheesh, now I know why you were dressed like a giant chicken in the Grindery!"

Tempest looked puzzled. "Excuse me?"

Nash continued to sweat and tremble. "M-m-maybe I should wait for you out here..."

At last, after nearly being pushed to the drop, Nash had to either jump or fall. He chose the former and cleared it easily. After Nall flapped over, the group was now within the complex and ready to go. With Tempest leading the way with his bow drawn and arrow fitted, they began to make their way through the stone building.

Inside, they saw even more bizarre sights than before. Just like the interior of the Grindery, the place was surrounded with all types of metal devices, gears, pistons, conduits, and other pieces of technology. And all of them were turning and churning and working at full power. The group soon found out what had to be making all the smoke, whatever was powering the machinery. It took a while to weave through it all to try and find an open space looking down to the lower floors. But even when they did, they saw nothing. Just more machines turning and hissing and working furiously. Alex was rather puzzled. All sorts of machines were doing work, but what were they working for? He didn't seen any operators in the building, once again confirming the low manpower that the Vile Tribe could provide. But the group didn't give up. They continued to make their way through, looking down the whole time and around for some opening. At last, after passing through a few sections of the interior of the stone fortress, and losing themselves in a few walls of machinery, they saw something.

On the second floor, a conveyer belt of some type was going by. As it did go by, the group noticed that it carried huge slabs of red hot steel, looking like it was freshly tempered, as it probably was from the looks of all the iron ore coming in. Machines were doing all sorts of things to the metal. Slashing it, carrying pieces away, tempering it, welding it together with some sort of burning light, and rearranging it into something new. After cutting away and pasting at it, some parts were gone while other parts were added, and what looked like a big metal partially constructed crate was left, and taken into another part of the structure. The whole facility was doing this on a grand scale, pumping out more and more every minute, or at least taking them to another part of the place. The group looked on in wonder.

Tempest, having never seen technology, the Grindery's interior, or anything reasonably advanced, looked totally overwhelmed. "What the devil is all of this madness?"

"Some sort of machine, it looks like." Nash answered. "But it's definitely not another Grindery."

"It looks like a giant blacksmith machine." Luna commented. "And it's doing all this work on its own, meaning it doesn't need any workers to do it."

"But what is it doing?" Nash persisted.

"What's a machine?" Tempest asked with a confused look.

"Looks like it's making pieces of scrap junk, if you ask me." Nall answered in response. "But who could build this thing and why is still a total mystery."

"Let's keep moving." Alex interrupted, getting everyone's attention. "We'll try to find someone who can give us some answers about this, free the prisoners, then get back to Vane as fast as we can."

The group all nodded in reply, and kept moving. The whole complex was immense. The inside betrayed all sorts of size not visible from the outside. And everywhere they turned their was more machinery. As it turned out, the whole facility wasn't finished with the metal after all. After moving into another place, the group saw that it did more to the pieces of metal it had already assembled, adding more pieces and trimming off rough edges, making it look like some sort of partial machine itself. In another area, the group saw some sort of automatic digger take in the iron ore that had been placed inside the rock building, put it into a giant kelm, and begin some sort of heating and refining process. All in all, it became increasingly obvious that the whole building was building something on a grand scale. But what it was and why was still a total mystery, and there was still no sign of the people from Pao.

Eventually, the machinery began to thin out somewhat, becoming more spacious and turned to angles. Alex wasn't that big of a whiz on technology, but he figured that it was coming to a more open area at least. After a bit longer, the sounds of the working began to die down a little. In turn, Alex and his friends went slower and more gently as well. Suddenly, Tempest tapped Alex on the shoulder, and motioned over to another opening leading downward. Seeing this, Alex quickly walked over with the others following him, and they looked down again. This time, instead of seeing a room full of machinery and working being done, they instead saw a gigantic hallway carved straight out of the rock. The group crouched here and watched.

"I guess this is where they bring the ore in." Nall whispered.

"Keep your voices down." Alex answered. "I see someone coming."

Sure enough, far below on the lower floor, a shadow was coming in from what looked like an opening. The group stayed quiet and watched, and after a time the figure entered. He had a greedy, insidious look in his eyes. He was dressed all in a dull green but had numerous tools hanging from him. His beard was thick and black and a dark grin was twisted on his troll-like face. He was no bigger than a midget but looked malicious. The group only had to stare at him for a moment, then they all leveled their own dark stares at him.

"Taben..." Nash muttered. "I knew he was behind this. He's the only crackpot inventor for evil that I know of. Maybe it's a good thing that Myght chases everyone off..."

"Shh..." Luna hushed. "Watch him...there's someone else coming."

Luna was right. Another shadow was coming in closely behind the wicked inventor. He hesitated for a moment where he was, and turned around to motion the person inside. "Right this way, my lord." He spoke darkly. "You'll find everything in order, just as you wished it."

"Good." A stern voice answered. "My superiors are getting anxious to carry out their plans, and I'll make sure you have hell to pay if you are behind schedule."

Boots clicked against the stone floor, and the shadow grew and grew until its owner came into the doorway. The moment he did, Nash expressed explicit shock. Alex narrowed his eyes darkly and grit his teeth, having suspected this the whole time. Tempest didn't know him but kept looking, and both Nall and Luna emitted small amounts of surprise. But it was him. The black half-cape, the gray hair, the strong look...it could only be one person.

"The Dauphin!" Nall cried in a harsh whisper.

"Melichon?!" Nash squealed in his own brash whisper. "What's he doing here? He's supposed to be over at Lann Island!"

Melichon, of course, heard none of this. But all business, just as he was when he led Alex and Luna into Vane, he walked on ahead, and soon Taben had to take off again to keep up with him. "They are growing anxious, and we have precious little time in which to act. The former Dragonmaster is already here as well as Althena. My lords are intent on starting after this attack has begun. How many of the new units are ready?"

"4,000 right now." Taben responded, with his malicious look and smile. "24,000 more will be ready in two more weeks. Of course, once they start conquering the Zone Confederation, we'll have access to many more resources, power, and the ability to build more factories. By the end of the year there's no reason that we shouldn't have a quarter of a million."

"Good." Melichon answered. "With an army of that size we'll be unstoppable, even if all the forces of Lunar were to unite against us. How effective are they?"

"Excellent." Taben responded. "But I told you to expect nothing less. They're my masterpieces. They'll surpass the Grindery if given enough time. It's all thanks to the...unique...power supply. It gives it the ability to fire weaponry that far outclasses any medium-level mage. With a bit more improvement, the next model will be able to destroy the higher classes as well. The body is made of tempered steel right now, making it impervious to almost all physical battery. But if we can make a unit that's plated with silver, they'll be invincible. Their targeting is flawless, and they never stop attacking until they are absolutely sure their target is finished. They can be assigned to capture or kill. Mobility is a problem...but once you see them in battle you'll forget all about the trouble it took to get them there. They need no refueling, and they leave no traces of smoke to alert the enemy. Noise can be a bit loud, but it won't matter."

"It better not." Melichon snapped back. "But it won't be my problem if it is. You'll be the one to answer for it. Now, I trust you have the field test ready?"

"Yes indeed, my lord. Follow me." Taben answered, and led the Dauphin onward.

The pair soon made their way toward the end of the hallway silently, entering a new area. Meanwhile, the group continued to stare at them from above. Alex, on his part, frowned. He knew the whole time that something was up with the Dauphin. But he hadn't expected this. Luna and Nash both looked anxious, but Nall and Tempest looked angry.

"So...he is the one who was behind the destruction of my tribe!"

"And Taben's still causing trouble!" Nall snapped. "Let's get 'em!"

"No." Alex responded, putting a hand up to still them. "Not yet. Let's see what's behind this and see if they can lead us to the prisoners. They have an ace up their sleeve if we surprise them before then, and we don't know what kind of defenses they have. We have to follow them."

"How?" Luna asked.

"This way." Alex answered with a motion of his head. "Let's move where they're going, and see if we can't find another panel looking down on them."

The group nodded in agreement, and the five of them were soon off. It took a bit of work to get there though. Before they had been wandering wherever, but now that they were committed to a direction they had to step over various pieces of machinery and working devices, some of which threatened to crush them as they moved forward. Plus there was no guarantee there'd be a place to look down through when they got there. But after worming their way forward, spreading out a bit, and searching all around, Tempest finally found a panel, and motioned for the others to come over to him. They all quickly gathered around, and looked once again to the room below. It was another hallway, but this time it had a back to it and several doors on the side leading out. On the wall in the back there was a large fourth of a Dome carved in stone. But the group didn't focus on that, but rather in the center. There, Taben and the Dauphin stood before a massive machine. It looked like a more complex and complete version of what was being built in the factory. It balanced itself on two collapsible metal legs, and had two large metal arms. It had a metal head in front of it with some sort of dark shimmering eyes, and the two arms had no fingers or claws but hollow places in them, like the cannons on the Grindery only smaller.

Taben smiled at the metal creature. Then, he reached over and pressed something on the side of it. The thing began to hum, and sounds of whirring and chugging started within it. The creature stiffened, and then began to stamp around. After a moment, it began to amble somewhat on the legs it had to form a figure eight pattern on the floor. Taben turned to Melichon at this and spoke again.

"As you can see, it's not very motile. It's the one drawback. But it is capable of carrying out sophisticated commands."

With that, Taben turned to the metal beast, and spoke in a loud, commanding tone. "Robot! Halt!"

Instantly, the machine responded by stopping its movements, aimed away from the pair observing.

"Perform weapon cycle!" Taben continued.

Much to the shock of the five people onlooking, the robot suddenly erupted powerful balls of flame from both of the metal tubes on either arm. They exploded in a blinding flash against the dome in front of the room. But no sooner had the flames erupted than the machine fired two pairs of icicles into it, causing another tremendous explosion. Next, the machine fired what seemed to be two hurricane force winds out of it, and they smashed into the dome with such force that they saw the area around the impact crack and bend from it. Next, the machine shot out two white-hot bolts of electricity to ravage the side of the dome, heating it so much that the surface exploded partially. To finish it off, the metal creature fired two stones at the dome, hitting it with such impact that it collapsed partially on itself. A cloud of smoke smothered it after the barrage. The five watched in utter shock, unable to believe their eyes from where they were that the machine had that much power. But when the dust settled, they were even more shocked to see that a blasted, twisted, blackened, smoldering, bending crater was all that was left of the dome. As they gasped in shock, Taben grinned with glee, and the Dauphin gave a simple nod.

"Excellent. My masters will be justly pleased."

"More weapon capabilities can be added if need be." Taben continued. "But for now, this is just the basic package. I have a field test prepared as well-"

"That will not be necessary." The Dauphin responded, cutting the man off much to his surprise. "My masters are eager to test their own skills against this prototype to prove its worth...and to give a fitting test for their new armors as well. I'll be taking it with me when I depart for delivery."

Taben hesitated a moment, but then nodded. "As you wish, my lord."

"My other concern is the Flying Fortress." Melichon continued. "Now that Althena's Fortress is gone along with the Grindery, my masters are eager for a place from which they may rule mankind."

Taben looked slightly uneasy at this, and ruffled the back of his head. "Well...uh, that is, you see, my lord...it will take some time to complete it, and the resources needed for it would force us to completely cease production of the new units. Even then we might not have enough. And then there's the question of power..."

"We have unlimited resources of power, Taben." Melichon cut off. "Take a look around you." Here, the Dauphin broke off for a moment, and began to pace around the room, gesturing around the entire area and the lands beyond. He looked to the sky, and a faraway look crossed his face. "You've harnessed all the energy we will ever need. To think...in the past people had to rely on sources for their strength. They foolishly believed that the Four Dragons and Althena could grant it to them, and that when Althena released her power that it was forever lost to be attained by one group. This shall prove them wrong, however. Althena's power is not lost...but spread into each and every human being on Lunar. And thanks to that, and your technology, we've been able to harness Althena's power once again. Now her own strength will be fully utilized by removing it from a human and putting it into one of these new machines."

Alex, Luna, and all the others stiffened in shock, not believing what they were hearing.

Melichon turned back to Taben after saying this, and the man scratched his head. "Be that as it may, Melichon, it still requires an awful lot. Only one person can power each machine, and keep in mind they die after they've had their life sucked out of them."

The group bristled, their eyes shimmering and their minds horrified. Tempest himself hung his mouth open. Cold sweat burst on his forehead as he gasped at the scene below.

"This Flying Fortress will require thousands of lives to power it. It took all the residents of Pao and Tamur just to power the first units."

That was the greatest shock.

"No..." Luna gasped in horror.

"He...he can't be serious...can he?" Nall asked.

"They're using people's lives...to power these?"

Tempest said nothing. He only glared out onto the floor, mouth and body frozen in shock. His eyes continued to shimmer, and he gagged, almost as if he couldn't breathe. One by one, the group turned and looked to him, and saw his face. As they did, they remembered what happened. Not only his entire tribe, but his love had been among those prisoners. If so...then that meant that Fresca... She had to have shared the same terrible fate. This was barbaric enough, but they knew that Tempest wouldn't control himself. Slowly, Tempest began to ball his hands into fists as hot tears rolled down his cheeks, and he stared the whole time at the floor. As time went on, his face began to grow red, and his teeth clenched together until they grit. He closed his tear filled eyes for a moment, only to have them shoot open a second later blazing with anger. Desperate to stop him from exposing them, Alex yelled to him in a loud whisper.

"Tempest! You'll do neither Fresca or yourself any good if you blow your cover!"

"Still..." Taben continued, stroking his beard. "There are ways to bypass this problem. Some people have a bigger share of Althena's power than others. If we could obtain only a select few of these people, then we could power this new fortress much quicker."

"And how many would you need, exactly?" Melichon asked.

"Only a few more." Taben replied with a grin. "You see...we already have one."

As if on cue, the smoldering, battered dome began to rotate, revealing another side to it. Seeing this, Tempest hesitated in his anger for just a moment, much to the relief of the others. They too looked down, forgetting the horror they heard of and merely watched. As they saw the dome turn, a new machine was revealed. It looked like some sort of torture chair, designed for one to lay down strapped in while numerous items prodded and poked into their body. However, this chair was attached to numerous tubes, and they all led to a small device in front with a small cylinder attached. Yet as the dome turned, the group noticed something else. There was someone in this device. Her hair was gray, though dirty and matted with old blood. Her face had signs of it, as well as bruises and a generous beating. Her clothing, once blue and regal, was torn and stained with more of her blood, mud, and other substances. She was totally immobilized, and looked like she had a hard time breathing. But nevertheless, through one non-swollen eye she looked defiantly outward. Alex and the others recognized her in an instant.

"Phacia!" Nash cried, nearly going above a whisper.

Taben looked at her with a dark smile. "This is the price you pay for being a traitor, Vile Tribe sister. But don't worry. You'll still prove yourself useful enough when you provide your energy to help complete the fortress."

Phacia weakly looked back at him, unable to move but still looking determined. She could barely hold her head up, but she managed to speak. "You...can't win...Taben. You...and your kind...have enslaved...the Vile Tribe...for the last time... We're free now."

"Feh." Taben answered. "The Vile Tribe is full of fools who'll be ruled by their own ignorance. They'll always be nuts who are still itching for revenge against Althena and humanity, and wherever they are my lords will be able to manipulate the entire civilization. You were their only hope, Phacia. And now you're going to be silenced forever."

"You're insane..." Phacia continued weakly. "You're both insane... This is...madness. You can't control people...like they were nothing more than...raw material... Even Ghaleon...wasn't so heartless."

"I wouldn't be too sure about that, Phacia." The Dauphin responded. "Any last words?"

Phacia hesitated a moment, still looking strong and defiant despite eminent doom. Taben made his way to the console, while the others could only helplessly watch. Even if they were to spring out, the fall would kill them. At last, Phacia grinned.

"You'll be beaten...by the very power you tried to harness..."

"We'll see." Taben snorted back, and then pushed a button.

As the five looked on, they saw Phacia suddenly buckle within her restraints and scream so loudly and terribly that she seemed like a creature rather than a human. They watched her become surrounded by a blue aura and bolts of blue electricity snake through her. As their mouths dropped in more awe and shock, they saw the cables become illuminated with this light, as well as the cylinder at the end of it. Phacia continued to writhe and scream for a few short moments. Then, most suddenly, her screams were silenced. The beams continued to go through her, but she stopped shouting, and soon went limp as well. Taben pressed a button, and all at once the blue beams and the aura disappeared. All that was left that was still glowing was the cylinder on the end. Phacia didn't move another muscle. At long last, her suffering had come to an end.

"Monsters..." Luna breathed in shock.

Taben merrily plucked the cylinder from the end, and waved it in front of Melichon with the look of a prize catch. "Ha-ha-ha! Look at this!" He beamed. "Look at it's higher power! Far superior to some villager! All I need is two or three more like this and you've got yourself a fortress."

Melichon nodded, not caring at all for the dead woman before him. "Good. I'll inform my masters of this. I'll be getting my transport ready. Have this drone ready as well, and soon you shall have the resources and auras that you require."

"Yes sir!" Taben cheerily chirped. Afterward, he turned and made for a door on the side of the group. The Dauphin likewise turned, and made for the door on the opposite side. The group waited up above for a few moments as they disembarked. Yet soon both reached their doors, opened them, and vanished from the room. Once they had shut again, the group realized they were once again all alone, with the faint sounds of the factory shrouding them from the ears of onlookers all around them. Below, all that was left was the prototype and Phacia, now dead. Alex stared at her longer. To think...she had been their foe for so long a year ago, and had ended up becoming their friend, and meaning to bear the news of the end of the exile of the Vile Tribe to the others. And what had happened? Now she lay dead, and her people were once again being mislead and enslaved. But worse... Pao. Pao was dead, and all to power the monstrosities below him. It made his blood boil with anger. The young man turned and faced the others. Tempest's eyes were full of tears and his face flushed with rage.

"I'll kill him now, and scatter the pieces of his corpse over the entire region." Tempest seethed.

"Here, here!" Nall cried.

"This is like some horrible nightmare..." Nash muttered. "I've never seen anything so terrible in my life. I knew Phacia...personally. And Taben...he got rid of her just like her life was garbage... This is terrible... It makes me want to burn this whole place to the ground."

"We can't let this go on another instant." Luna stated, plain and clear. "People are being slaughtered to make these mechanical monsters. Let's destroy them now, before they can hurt anyone else, or bring more people here to suffer this hideous fate."

Alex hesitated himself. Inside, he wanted to go down there with sword drawn and not stop until everything in a ten mile radius was destroyed, and he was satisfied that there would never be another one of these horrible machines ever made again. But he also knew he had to be wiser than that. There was just five of them, and strong as they were, if there were four thousand of these things, or even all the Vile Tribe members, then he couldn't fight them all off. All of them together couldn't. This mission had been reconnissance. They were spies, not warriors. The army of this...Zone Confederation...or whatever, could deal with it better. Somehow, in the midst of his own anger, he managed to relax, and turned to the others.

"Here's what we'll do." Alex continued. "The Dauphin's on his own now. We'll capture him and take him back to Mia. He'll talk more about whatever's going on."

The rest of the group looked to him in shock, surprised at something so mild.

"What?" Nash asked.

"The only place I'm taking that cold-hearted animal is to an early grave." Tempest snarled, his face turning red. His anger began to swell to a bursting point.

Quickly, Alex reached out and grabbed Tempest's arm. "Relax, Tempest. You can't go out there. There's too many people for us to fight off all at once. You'll do Fresca no good if you let yourself be killed now."

Tempest merely flushed with anger again. "I'll not stand by here and let him get away with this!"

"Neither will I!" Alex retorted. "But if we both get killed trying to take this thing down by ourselves, then who knows what will happen? What if this spreads to other towns? What if more people are captured and put in that machine? Do you think Fresca wants you to kill yourself just getting revenge? Don't you think she'd be happier if you stopped this from happening to anyone else?"

Tempest hesitated and seethed a moment longer. But Alex continued to stare at him hard, and would not let his arm go. His anger continued to boil, but after a short time...it began to break and show his true emotions that it masked. Tempest's lip trembled, and his eyes began to grow red again as tears welled up in them. The strong chief grew weak and shattered. Fresca meant as much to him as Luna meant to Alex. Without her...it was like shoving a knife through his heart. The young man broke, and in anguish put his hands up against his head, turned his back, and looked away from the others. He was too ashamed to let them see him cry. Luna, caring as always, nudged closer to him, and with slow and tentative movements, put her arm around his shoulder and leaned her head on him. Alex didn't say anything to this. Luna knew better than him about moments like this. He hesitated a moment, then turned back to Nash and Nall. Both of them looked sad as well, but he soon spoke fiercely and business to them.

"The Dauphin will not get away with this." He stated. "But we'll see how he can help us before we see him punished. We have to get him now before Taben gets back or her does."

Nash and Nall hesitated a moment, but then nodded. Alex nodded back, and waited a moment. He was about ready to go with just those two, but before he could he heard a sniff behind him. When he looked up, he saw Tempest, wiping his eyes, turning around with a concerned Luna still looking on. But his face turned cold and determined.

"I'll bury my feelings for now." Tempest stated, his voice quivering slightly. "They'll be time later to grieve for Fresca, and to avenge her. For now, I must help you. You are right, the Dauphin must be stopped and all must be gained from him that is possible."

Alex hesitated a moment after hearing that, but then nodded slowly.

"And let's get that prototype too." Nash added. "We can find a weakness before they turn it on us."

Alex nodded to that as well. "Good idea, Nash. Now let's not waste anymore time. We need to get down there."

"I'll take care of that." Tempest replied, trying to stiffen up. He reached behind him into his quiver and pulled out an arrow. After that, he produced a length of rope from his side and began to tie it around the end of the arrow. After he made sure it was good, he turned back to Alex. "I'll fire this down at the opposite wall. We can slide down from there."

Alex nodded again, and the plan went into action. Tempest fitted his bow, looked outside at the room below them, and fired his arrow. Moments later, a "thwack" sounded as it smacked into the opposite wall. Taking the other side of the rope, Tempest quickly tied it to a sturdy pipe nearby. After doing so, he tested the rope for tightness, then turned and motioned to Alex. The boy nodded, and walked over to the rope. He hesitated a moment once there, looked around nervously, and then sighed and took off his hat. After laying it across the rope and grabbing it by either ear flap, he took his legs outside the window and slid down it like a zip line. Nall quickly flapped out after him, staying hot on his heels. For a moment, Alex dangled over the large hall and zoomed down, over and past the machine. Then, his feet touched the floor. Instantly he let go of the rope, put the hat back on his head, and turned and looked up to the others. He waved to them, motioning to send the next one down, while Nall flapped up behind his head. However, no sooner had his companion done so, then he suddenly turned in shock and pointed a paw out.

"Alex! Look out!"

Alex turned his head in an instant to the direction Nall pointed. Much to his surprise, a small light inside the black glass of the machine had turned to him, and now the thing was turning its metal tubes to him. Alex had put his sword away, and without being able to draw it right away he quickly dodged to one side. Moments later, rocks shot out and smashed huge craters into the floor where he was a moment earlier. Yet Alex had no sooner dodged then he had to jump, as the machine blasted icicles at his feet. The moment he landed, though, the ground was frozen, and with a yell of fright Alex slipped and fell on his back. The machine quickly readjusted and aimed for the kill.

However, arrows soon pelted the machine from above, distracting it. The machine tilted slightly with each arrow, and turned and began to look up to where they were coming from. Alex groaned and tried to get up from the floor, and in shock and fear noticed that the arrows were shattering the moment they hit the machine. He looked up to Tempest, who was furiously firing away, but doing no damage. The machine continued to look up, and was nearly ready to send some magical attack into the crack in the ceiling. But before it could, a huge thunderbolt crashed out of the sky and smashed into the machine. In a brilliant flash of sparks and energy, the machine staggered back from the intense blow, hissing all the way.

"Yeah!" Nash cried in victory. "Chalk up one for the good guys!"

"Oh yeah?" Nall answered. "Look!"

Alex did likewise when Nall cried out. Much to his surprise, the machine was staggering, but was getting back up again. Part of its rear was damaged and sparking, but the great majority of the machine, including its two guns, was still active. Now, it turned back to fire at Alex again. Swallowing, the young man quickly drew the sword of Althena, and then began to charge forward.

He was greeted by a powerful blast of wind to the stomach. Alex grunted and groaned as he was knocked off his feet and backwards to slide across the floor. But now getting back into the swing of battle after so long, he bit down, and with a nimble movement flipped back onto his feet. Holding the blade before him, he charged forward. The machine responded by discharging dual blasts of fireballs. Zeroing in on his enemy, Alex nimbly dodged and ducked under the blasts as they came at him, leaving fiery explosions in his wake just hairs from singeing him. At last, Alex drew so close that the machine couldn't fire anymore. Here, it began to back up, but Alex was already on it. With one shooting charge and swipe of the blade, he sliced off one of the machine's legs. But before it could even realize it's damage, Alex turned again and sliced down it's backside. Then, he crouched and nimbly leapt into the air, and landed on top of the machine. The leg gave out beneath it, but not before Alex pierced the "head" with his blade, and then leapt off while ripping forward. The effect tore out a massive net of wires and metal circuits out of the machine. The thing fizzled and popped after doing this. Sparks flew in the back, and a small fire broke out on it. As Alex landed with a dark look on his face, the machine shivered and sparked a few moments more, and then completely collapsed. All of the gears and whining ceased in an instant.

Alex paused for a moment longer, but then exhaled a tremendous sigh and rose again. He gently mopped his brow from the charge he made. Slowly, he turned around and looked to the machine that he had just destroyed. It continued to smolder, pop, and fizzle. Yet he shook his head at it with a tired look. "Wow...that thing is strong. It's fast and powerful. If Althena's Sword wasn't so sharp I never would have made a dent in it. Guess we can't take it with us now."

"At least whatever spirit that was powering it is released now." Luna called from above. "And we haven't lost Melichon yet."

"That's right." Alex answered. "Let's hurry."

One by one, the others slid down after Alex. Tempest was first, a bit shocked that his weapon had done no damage to the machine. Alex knew that Tempest was the best archer ever, and that he could fire a bolt strong enough to pierce just about anything. But it didn't work here. Nash followed, with Luna bringing up the rear. Once they were all down, they all drew their weapons and put them at the ready. Alex looked uneasily at Tempest, not knowing if he would fire first and ask questions later. Yet they didn't have much other time for delays. Once they were all ready, they all nodded to each other. Then, as one, they all turned and began to march to the door. They assembled around it, held again for an instant, and then, once they were all ready again, Alex kicked the door with one foot, making it burst open. The five instantly poured in.

They soon found themselves in another short hallway, leading toward the outside. They could tell by the light at the end of it. The noise of all the machinery working was even louder here. Yet the group disregarded all of that. For right as they entered this area, they saw Melichon himself marching down the hallway back to the door. Yet the moment he saw the five of them, he froze where he was. "Master Alex? Lady Luna?" He asked with a confused sound. "What in Lunar are the two of you doing-"

"Shut up, monster!" Tempest immediately bit, his bow drawn back and ready to shoot an arrow right through the Dauphin's heart. "You pay for your evil today!"

Melichon looked confused. "What? What are you talking about?"

However, the dark looking four members that remained closed in on him quickly. "You've done something so terrible that I don't even think there are words to describe it...or you, for that matter!" Luna yelled in his face.

Alex pressed his sword against him. Instantly, the shocked looking Dauphin raised his hands. "You'll pay for sentencing all of the people of Pao to death! How could you do something so awful?"

"Awful? Try barbaric! Not to mention insane, ruthless, and heartless!" Nash yelled.

"Tempest is right!" Nall shrieked. "You are an inhuman monster! You don't even deserve to live!"

"What in the hell are you children rambling about?!" Melichon suddenly outburst, looking confused and growing frustrated now.

"Don't play the fool with me, old man!" Tempest snapped. "We saw it all!"

"You killed Phacia!" Luna spoke in accusation.

Melichon looked shocked at this. "You...you saw that?" He asked incredulously.

"You bet we saw it!" Nall retorted. "We saw it all! And we heard it all too!"

"Then you must have seen than Taben killed her!" Melichon insisted, still keeping his hands up. "I had nothing to do with it!"

"Liar!" Tempest snarled. "You stood by and let it happen!"

"What was I supposed to do?!" The Dauphin returned, just as loud. "I couldn't save her! There was no way to save her at that point! Besides, she was once an enemy to Vane and the world!" Here, the Dauphin turned and looked to Alex, who seemed just as ruthless as the others. However, he turned his head and formed an innocent expression. "Master Alex...I know how hard this must be to believe, especially after all you've seen, but you must understand that I'm not your enemy."

"Oh yeah, right. Does he look like he has "stupid" tattooed on his forehead?" Nash chided.

"Enough of your lies and deception, beast." Tempest seethed.

"It's no lie!" The Dauphin insisted. "I'm not against you! I'm with you!" He hesitated a moment, seeming unwilling to say the next part. But after a moment, he sighed and turned his head, knowing he had to say something. "I'm a spy...a spy who's working on breaking this organization down."

Nash rolled his eyes. "Whatever. You can tell it to the judge when we get you back to Vane."

Instantly, the Dauphin paled. "No!" He cried. "Don't take me back there!"

Tempest grinned. "Finally, acknowledging your guilt, not denying like a coward."

Melichon shook his head and continued. "I can't go back there! None of us can go back there! It's not safe! The Premier is being misled! You all are being misled!"

"You're the only one trying to mislead us, Melichon." Alex darkly responded. "Mia sent you to Lann. What are you doing all the way in the Stadius Zone?"

The Dauphin rolled his eyes. "That's where my contact was. I was supposed to be pretending to be on assignment while my escort brought me here. I'm a double agent, though I won't be much longer if you all keep making so much noise!"

"A likely excuse..." Nall muttered.

"You said you were going to take the prototype to your masters." Luna added.

"And so I was." Melichon answered. "I was going to take it to Mia and the rest at the Magic Guild so they could see what they were going to be dealing with."

Alex frowned after this, not liking this conflicting story. It made sense, though. And Melichon looked genuinely surprised when they had come in. He hesitated for a few moments longer, but then at last sighed. He raised his sword tip slightly off of the Dauphin, and then spoke again. "Alright, Melichon. You've got sixty seconds."

Tempest looked to Alex in shock. However, after a moment, he snarled and loosened his own bow string. Nash likewise looked irritable along with Nall, but both of them stood down. Luna crossed her arms and continued to glare at Melichon. As for the Dauphin, he smoothed his clothing out, put on his normal, calm face, and then spoke.

"Very well. The entire Magic Guild, and indeed the entire Zone Confederation, is in grave danger. I did not order this army of Taben's to be built, nor did I order the attacks that happened at Pao and Tamur, or the blockade into this area. They were the works of someone far stronger. He is a man who goes simply by the name Evangeon."

Nall hesitated a moment. "Weren't they saying his name back at the barrier?"

Melichon, mindful of his time limit, continued. "Evangeon is ruthless and psychotic. He craves only power and death. There's no thought in his mind but suffering and destruction. The more power he attains the more he wants. Taben has already built him a suit of armor which triples his physical strength and makes his magical strength ten times as strong, as well as a flying chariot that he can use to go wherever he will in the world. I've been in personal contact with him before, but he always keeps his face concealed behind a black mask with red eyes. He also wishes himself to be known by the title, 'Magic Emperor'."

Nash snorted. "Oh please, Melichon. That isn't even original. Ghaleon was the Magic Emperor."

"There is no longer a 'the', Premier." Melichon answered. "You see, I mentioned 'masters' back in the hall for a good reason. There are two leaders, and two people now that wish to be called Magic Emperor. I've only met with one of them. I have no idea who the other is. But Evangeon himself has already set up all sorts of confusion and disarray ahead of him. He contacted me because he wanted to corrupt the Nanza Barrier, leaving him no resistance on his march to Vane and Meriba. He's already had ties with the other close members of the Magic Guild, the Lavender character and Winson as well. Yet he's planning something far worse than what these new weapons can do. Not only are they strong enough to destroy any attack force that tries to stop them, but he also wants to complete this Flying Fortress. Once he does, he'll be able to annihilate entire cities, and drain Althena's power from them like a giant leech sucking against the world. He'll give himself more power, until he is totally invincible.

"I was seeking to frustrate his plans. But the only way I could do that is by gaining access into this network. So I allowed him to think I was on his side, and so now I'm here, and one of his more trusted associates. But if we're going to do something it has to be soon. Evangeon is planning on sending this army on the march tomorrow. They'll destroy everything in their path, and acquire more innocent lives to make more of these troopers. They have to be stopped soon, as does Evangeon and whoever the other Magic Emperor is." Melichon hesitated a moment, but kept his gaze firmly fixed on Alex. "Come with me, Dragonmaster...and we'll destroy this evil while it still can be stopped."

Alex hesitated a moment after hearing all of this. He cast a glance to the others. Luna seemed hesitant, but the others still seemed firm in their resolve. As for Alex, he didn't know what to think. The old man seemed to be very sincere. But he knew not to trust people so easily. He had to be careful from now on. If he had been more careful that one time with Ghaleon, the mess that nearly destroyed the world and Luna might have been avoided. Now that he knew better, he couldn't afford to make the same mistake twice. Right now, Melichon was trying to turn him against Vane and the people there. He trusted Mia's judgment more than Melichon's, and it would work only to the Dauphin's advantage if he was lying. He'd be fighting against his friends and their forces now, being used as a tool of evil. In the end, Alex decided that the risks outweighed the benefits. He frowned at the Dauphin.

"You can give Mia your sob story when you get there. And regardless of who your 'masters' are, you won't be taking that prototype anywhere. It's been trashed."

Melichon sighed and bowed his head solemnly. "You're making a big mistake, Master Alex."

"Can it, grizzle-face." Nall snapped back.

"You're lucky he's even here, to keep me from putting an arrow through your head." Tempest growled. As he did, Alex put his sword away and pulled the Dauphin's hands behind his back. Using the rope from the zip line, he began to bind his arms behind his back. "Yet I'll deal with Evangeon and whoever else you're with soon enough."

Luna looked at all of this a moment, and then suddenly reacted. "Alex?" She suddenly asked. "How are we going to get the Dauphin back to Vane? It's two days away, and we'll have to get through that barricade again."

Nash merely smiled. "No problem. We have the White Dragon with us. We'll just fly across."

Nall grew a bit sweaty at this. Anxiously, he scratched the back of his head. "Um...I hate to say this...but I'll be pushing it if we all try to ride back."

Alex looked to Nall in confusion, just as he was finishing tying Melichon. "What do you mean Nall? You carried five of us to Althena's Tower."

"Well yeah..." Nall answered. "And I can lift the weight...but it tires me out to keep you all balanced for that long. It was hard enough for me to reach the bottom of Althena's Tower, which is why I couldn't take you all straight to the top."

"Meaning?" Nash inquired.

"I can only manage three of you plus the Dauphin on the way back to Vane."

Nash rolled his eyes and smacked his forehead. "Beautiful..." He muttered.

"It's not a problem." Tempest answered in reply. "I'll stay behind. There are still some people left in the mountains, and now that I am aware of the danger that could happen to us all, I must move them out of the Stadius Zone immediately and take them north to the Zone Confederation. I trust you wouldn't mind, Nall, as you couldn't carry them all by yourself."

Alex and the others looked to Tempest with some concern about this. "Are you sure, Tempest?" Alex asked, uneasy after the tragedy that had just struck him. "Maybe you should stay close to us."

"No, Alex." Tempest answered. "You are right. I still have a responsibility to make sure this doesn't happen to anyone else. I'll stay behind."

The young man hesitated a while longer, but he could see the dedication in Tempest's eyes. Despite everything that had happened and his terrible loss, of which the pain was still evident, he did know he had a job to do. Seeing that, Alex felt a bit of admiration and strength as well. Sighing a bit, he nodded. Then he reached over and patted his friend on the shoulder. "Good luck, Tempest. We'll be waiting for you in Vane."

Tempest smiled in response. "I'll be there. I promise."

Nodding again, Alex turned to the others. "Alright, let's move before Taben gets back. Next stop, Vane."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Five

"You're making a terrible mistake, Alex." Melichon warned as the wind rushed by. "You're dooming yourself, the friends, and the rest of Lunar."

"Hey, no talking on this flight!" Nall yelled back in his powerful dragon voice.

Nash continued to clutch the back of Alex, still terrified about the entire trip. But as for Alex, he looked out a bit farther and watched the ground. "Vane isn't too much farther away. Then Mia can deal with this guy and whatever else is going on."

"Alex...those machines were powerful." Luna spoke, her tone uncertain and fearful. "If even a hundred of them marched on the world nothing could stop them. We had to struggle to destroy that one. What's going to happen if the four thousand of them march?"

"The four thousand will march." Melichon spoke in a warning voice. "And the armies of the Zone Confederation and the rest of Lunar will be powerless to stop them. Only if we destroy the man in charge do we stand a chance of halting this advance. I implore you, Alex...for the sake of the world stop this."

Alex heard this, and hesitated a moment, but still refused to listen. Despite how sincere the Dauphin sounded, he couldn't risk stopping now. If Mia believed him then she could free him, but he wasn't going to do anything now to stop this. Too much was at stake. People were dying a horrible death and in their wake there would be even more destruction. In the end, he refused to even talk to Melichon, but held onto the back of Nall and kept his eyes forward.

"We'll find a way to stop them." Alex confidently answered. "Them, and whoever was behind them...whoever this Evangeon is."

Luna stiffened at this. Her look grew fearful, and the wind seemed to grow colder around her. "Alex... You don't think..." She paused for a moment, then continued. "Alex...he said that this person...calls himself the 'Magic Emperor'... You don't think... It couldn't be...Ghaleon...could it?"

"Don't worry, Luna." Alex reassured. "He's dead. There wasn't anything of him left after we killed him. And as far as I know, there's no such thing as someone coming back from the dead."

"Me too." Nall responded.

"Are we there yet?!" The terrified Nash cried out.

"Yes, yes, we're almost there..." Nall moped with a sigh. "But the wind's getting rather rough ahead... I don't know if I can keep steady..."

Nash instantly cringed and grabbed Alex harder. The young man rolled his eyes, and his bigger-than-feline companion snickered again.

Minutes later, Nall landed in the central square of Vane, much to the shock of the residents there. However, Alex and the others didn't care. One by one they disembarked, and after Alex got the tied up Dauphin down, the White Dragon once again reverted into his pint-sized form. Unknown to Alex, Nall had only done so with some hesitation, thinking it over as if he had something else in mind. But in the end he was small again, and the four began to lead Melichon toward the main building of the Magic Guild. As they did so, people continued to look at them in surprise, partially from Nall, and partially because the Dauphin was tied up. At any rate, they took him to the front door, and, with surprised looks to see Melichon as he was, the guards stepped aside and stared in awe. The man then turned his head around.

"Last chance, Alex." He stated. "You'll condemn the world if you take me one more step. Don't be a fool. Don't endanger Lady Luna."

Alex once again paused, but only for a fraction of a second. A frown soon spread across his face, looking in disdain at the Dauphin for using Luna as a talking point. With that, he gave a shove to the man to push him forward. Melichon sighed slowly, bowed his head in defeat, and then did as he was indicated and went through the door. Alex, Nall, Luna, and Nash followed close behind.

"This is going to be a fine mess." Nash grumbled. "Everyone respects the Dauphin. It's going to cause trouble for the entire Guild and Confederation. And Lemia... Ugh, after being betrayed like this she might never trust anyone again..."

"At least this got nipped in the bud." Alex answered, and continued to lead the Dauphin onward.

The group soon made it to the entryway into the grand hall. There were guards there, but they parted just as easily as the ones at the door had, and with even more surprise crossing their faces. Melichon never looked ashamed, but kept his head bowed in his look of defeat. The doors were opened, and the four soon began to lead the leader in. The grand hall was clear of all smaller officials, but at the very end of it Alex saw Lavender and Winson. The former had her arms crossed as always, and despite the situation gave Alex and the others the same perpetual cold look. As for Winson, he did a double take of the youngsters as they came in. As they kept walking forward, his face became surprised, and he turned full forward to face them and look each one of them over.

"What's going on here?"

"Summon my fellow Premier, Winson." Nash answered to this. "We have found the source of the trouble in the Stadius Zone, and it is Dauphin Melichon himself."

Winson's eyes shot open. "What?!"

"It's all true." Alex answered. "He's been overlooking the building of some sort of army of machines."

"They run off the power of Althena infused within every person." Luna added. "He's already been behind the destruction of Pao and Tamur. Everyone there had their lives sucked out of them to power these horrible machines."

"And now we need Mia up here so that we can try to do something before an army of those machines tries to destroy the entire surface of Lunar!" Nall insisted.

Winson slowly lost his surprise as he heard all of this. Instead, a sour look of a disapproving frown began to appear instead. When the four had concluded, he looked down to Melichon. Alex gave him another shove, and the Dauphin walked forward, going up the first two steps of the platform before the two other officials. He kept his head bowed the entire time. Winson continued to stare at him darkly for a while. At last, he grit his teeth. "You disappoint me, Melichon." He spoke in a critical voice. Melichon kept his head bowed and said nothing. Winson looked up, along with Lavender, and they looked over the four that were before them. For a moment, they just stared, and silence reigned throughout the chamber. Then, Winson spoke again.

"I thought you could have killed these four by yourself."

Instantly, the four of them stiffened. Melichon slowly smiled, forming a very dark look. His head slowly rose again, and with one easy flick of his wrists, he snapped the cords of the rope as if they were paper. The restraints slowly fell to the ground around him, and the Dauphin, ceasing his smile but now looking firm and business-like again, turned around and faced the four of them from his new higher position. Winson glared at them darkly with his own wicked smile, and Lavender crossed her arms and frowned. The others were shocked. Nash braced himself as did Alex. Luna recoiled in fear, and Nall flapped about with an astonished look.

"You forget, Winson. Our masters specifically ordered that Master Alex and Lady Luna were to be taken alive. Although...I suppose now we don't have to worry about killing the other two."

Alex grit his teeth and glared at the Dauphin. "You lied again, Melichon."

"I did nothing of the sort." He calmly answered. "As a matter of fact, I warned you. I told you that Lavender and Winson were already on the Magic Emperor Evangeon's side. You didn't believe me. And you could have joined me, boy. If you had your life might have been spared as would have Luna's. Now you can have whatever fate that our masters have in store for you."

Nash grit his teeth. "You won't get away with this! You're in the Magic Guild! Do you know how many wizards have this place surrounded? You can't escape."

"You're the only ones who know anything." Winson answered. "And in a few days, every wizard is going to have his hands full trying to keep the oncoming army down..."

"Which I will let in at the Nanza Barrier." Melichon added.

Winson grinned even more devilishly. "And once they get here, the Premier will readily surrender to them, and our masters will have access to all the power they will ever need, until they become no less than Althenas themselves."

"Mia will never surrender to you!" Nash bit back. "And neither will I!"

"Ah...but you see, my spiteful young Premier..." Melichon answered calmly. "You and Mia will no longer be the Premiers. An unfortunate accident has already befallen Miss Mia, one that will befall you shortly as well. Then the Vice Premier will be forced to take over."

"Duunran is a milksop." Winson snorted. "We picked him for just that reason. He'll surrender in an instant."

Alex continued to fume and brace himself against the three. "Well...your perfect plan has one item missing from it. Before you can do any of this, you'll have to get by the four of us. And we're not exactly pushovers."

Melichon merely smiled. "And I am not so bad at ambushes."

The Dauphin raised a hand and calmly snapped a finger. Immediately, a whirring and clicking came from all around the group. They turned and looked, and in shock and terror saw every last tapestry and curtain in the hall be brushed aside. Behind each one was one of the insect machines. All of them turned their sensors to the four in the center, and aimed all of their weapons at them at once. Alex was overwhelmed. There had to be at least forty of them. He knew he couldn't fight them all off. None of them could. Luna gasped and pulled closer into Alex. Nash looked around and formed in tighter as well. But as for Nall, he gaped in shock for a moment as he flapped in mid-air...then abruptly took off full speed for the ceiling. A few of the machines raised their guns for it, but they were already too late. The moment Nall was up there, he tore into the rafters and vanished.

Lavender snarled at the sight. Winson cursed. "That damn cat..."

Melichon merely waved them aside. "Forget him. He can't help his friends now. You may dispose of the other Premier as well."

Winson continued to glare for a moment, but then turned and looked at Nash with malicious delight. The narcissistic boy looked back with a challenging expression, and wielded his rod in front of him. His teeth clenched. "Come on. If you want a piece of me, then you come and get-"

Before Nash could say another word, Winson raised his hand and blasted Nash with a green orb of light. It seemed almost like liquid, and splashed against Nash as it hit him rather than explode. But immediately, the young wizard turned pale. His eyes rolled in his head, and his arms failed. He dropped the rod, moaned once, and then collapsed on the floor. Once there, he groaned and began to shift and writhe slowly on the ground, like some sort of dying animal. Alex and Luna stared in surprise for a moment. As for Winson, he snorted at the fallen Nash.

"Not bad for a 'one trick hack', I guess."

Luna bent down next to Nash. His face began to turn with agony, and sweat broke out on his forehead. Luna felt it to wipe off the sweat, and immediately her hand pulled back in shock. She turned to Alex immediately. "He's burning up!" She cried.

"Yes." Melichon simply answered. "It's a sure way to stop any opponent. Evangeon taught us how to cause a magical fever to break out on any adversary. Even if he did have the stamina to fight back, he'd only drive himself into more pain and anguish. It will keep the Premier immobilized while we take him to his counterpart, and ship both of them off to the Stadius Zone. I believe that their own strengths will fulfil the requirements needed to complete the Flying Fortress."

Alex wheeled his head up to Melichon in anger. "You dirty..."

"Don't bother, Master Alex." Melichon answered. "You can't escape. It's all over."

Well, well...I'm back here again. And I don't like it any better than last time.

Alex smashed his body against the iron bars in the dungeon of Vane, trying to knock them out of their ancient moorings. But it was no use. He hadn't the strength. If he was still the Dragonmaster, he might have enough to knock it out, but as such it was hopeless. Nevertheless he kept charging against it, while Luna sadly sat on the foldaway cot and looked down with deep sadness and depression.

"Mia and Nash... They're both going to die..."

"Not if I can help it." Alex answered with grit teeth, smashing against the bars again. However, he knew it was a lie. Mia and Nash couldn't do anything now to help themselves. And Alex knew he couldn't do anything to escape. Yet he was still desperate. He hated himself for having been fooled again. And once again, the whole world might suffer the consequences. He knew the whole time that Lavender and Winson looked suspicious, yet he didn't go with his gut. Now what would they do?

Luna hesitated, but then suddenly balled her own hands into fists and turned angry. "Curse that Melichon! I wish I was the Dark Songstress again for just a few moments! Then I'd put an end to him and that whole army!"

Alex stopped his charging for a moment, and turned to Luna. He immediately shook his head. "Don't wish that Luna. Never wish that."

Luna continued to look angry for a moment, but then sighed and relaxed again with her sad expression. "I wish there was someone out there who could help us... Even if Nall does make it down here, he'll never be able to break us out without a key. And there probably isn't a copy left anywhere else that the Dauphin doesn't have..."

"There is one copy."

Hearing that, both Alex and Luna raised their heads in mutual surprise. The voice that they had just heard was female. Both of them turned their heads toward the source of the noise. They soon saw a middle aged woman with brown hair dressed in a deep crimson robe going over the lock. She quickly inserted a key, turned it, and opened the cell. Then she looked up to the two others with a smile. "Ever since that last incident, I'm never without one."

Alex was genuinely amazed. "Lemia? I mean...Mrs. Lemia Ausa?"

"Have you come to rescue us?" Luna asked.

The former Premier smiled and nodded, though keeping her noble and controlled manner about her. "Of course. It's the least I can do after what you children did for me."

Immediately, the two of them left the cell. In order to make it look closed on first inspection, Lemia closed the cell behind them and locked the door. The others continued to stare at her in wonder though. "How did you know about us?" Luna pressed.

Lemia frowned slightly. "I never did trust the people below. Not one of them, not the Dauphin, the Vice Premier, and especially not that new teacher. I know the look of people who are putting on face masks now in front of their real intentions, and after seeing how Ghaleon left a record of his crime against me before doing it I haven't been above reading the personal notes of people I don't trust. Melichon kept it quiet, but Winson blabbed all about it. By the time I learned of it, it was already too late to keep them from afflicting my daughter with that terrible spell, but I was able to escape myself and free you. Now we must rescue her before the Dauphin takes her away back to the Stadius Zone." After this, the former Premier sighed and shook her head. "Curse this Zone Confederation...I've always distrusted it."

This caused the young couple to look a bit puzzled. "The Dauphin told us that you and Master Mel designed it in the first place."

Lemia snorted in response. "I haven't seen Mel since I left Black Rose Alley. This wasn't my idea. He gave me the whole idea himself in a letter, saying he had his full support for it. I trusted him...but it seems I can't trust anyone much anymore."

Alex smiled a bit wiry. "Don't worry, Miss. You can trust us. Now let's go save Mia and Nash."

Lemia nodded, and instantly turned for the door. Following close behind were Alex and Luna. There was no guard posted as last time, which was all the better for Alex. He realized they had to move pretty quickly. He had no idea how much time had elapsed since they had been thrown in the cell, but it had to be a couple hours at least. They hadn't a moment to lose. They paused only for a moment to pick up their weapons, seeing them laid on the rack right outside the main door. Once equipped, they were ready for action again. Lemia led them straight up the stairway, and then quickly directed them through the hall back to the main foyar of the Magic Guild. Once there, she pressed herself against a wall, and the other two did likewise. Inching slowly along, they came to the first turn along the way. Lemia looked first, then motioned the others to follow her. They did so and quickly darted to the next wall.

"The rest of the guards here are already being taken captive. They're replacing everything with those machines." Lemia explained. "But they didn't put them in the dungeon. They're shipping them out for some reason, just like my daughter and Nash."

Alex frowned a bit at this, but stayed focused. "We'll save them, don't worry about it. Just keep leading."

Lemia continued to take the two onward, until she reached another turn in the hall. She froze again, and looked over the edge slowly. She sighed soon after doing so. Alex, intrigued by this, inched forward and also looked around the side as well. Marching up and down this hallway, like some form of garrison, was a team of eight of the machines of Taben. Their "backs" were to the three for right now, but right ahead of them the hallway toward the main hall was blocked. Lemia cursed and went back against the wall once again.

"I can't get us by them." She regretably admitted. "I never was able to reclaim my full strength after that incident with Ghaleon. How about you two?"

"It's an awful risk." Alex answered. "If the others are close by then we'll be swamped."

"Then let's forget about the main hall for now." Luna answered, causing the other two to look to her. "We'll go to wherever Nash and Mia are leaving instead, and stop them there."

They hesitated for a moment, but then Alex nodded, realizing it was a good idea. He turned back to Lemia and immediately popped the question. "Where would they be taking them from?"

"They should be taking them out." Lemia answered. "No wagon can get up the steps, and the nearest dock is in Meriba." She stopped after that and thought a moment, however. After doing so, she spoke again. "But for some reason...I believe that the Dauphin was ordering the guards to be moved to the roof. Don't ask me why, but I suppose they're waiting for some sort of special transport."

Luna likewise looked puzzled. "Like what? Melichon can't know teleportation, and even then it's hard to do it with more than one person over that long of a distance. Ghaleon couldn't transport me away from the Black Dragon's Tower."

"Let's never mind that for now." Alex answered. "Just lead us to the roof, as fast as you can."

"Very well." Lemia answered. "Follow me."

While the backs of the machines were still turned, Lemia quickly dashed to the other side of the doorway. Luna and Alex followed close behind. Alex drew his sword and prepared for action as they did so. The former Premier then took them down the hallway, stopping at each doorway and looking inside to make sure the way was clear before going onward. It took some time to get through, time that Alex didn't want to waste. But after a short while they managed to make it to the stairway. Lemia led them up quickly, and soon they were on the second floor. Once there, the Premier hesitated a moment, as if trying to find the best way. But then, she motioned to the others to move to the right, and instantly they did so. Alex soon realized he was glad to have Lemia along. The Guild had changed since he had last been there. Not only were the towers gone, but the upstairs had been remodeled.

As Lemia was leading them onward, watching all the time ahead of her and keeping her ears open, she suddenly turned a corner. As she did so, she suddenly snapped her head around to the two behind her. Alex was startled for a moment, when he suddenly realized she wasn't staring at them, but was listening to a sound behind him. He soon heard a multitude of footsteps coming, as well as several metal legs tramping on the floor. The three froze in shock. Then, Lemia suddenly motioned with her hand, beckoning the two into a nearby doorway. Alex and Luna quickly went into it, doing as Lemia showed. The woman followed them afterward, and quickly the door was shut all but the slightest crack, just large enough to see outside of. After this happened, the three of them all drew close to the crack and looked outside at the hallway, and listened to the footsteps as they slowly approached.

After a few moments, the forms that owned the footsteps came. It started with two of the machines. After them came the Dauphin, dark and businesslike as always. Winson walked to his side, looking rather humble and meager. But behind them, Alex saw that there were two floating beds of some sort. On them were Mia and Nash, both moaning slowly and quietly and looking pale and miserable. Another two metal machines brought up the rear. As they drew closer, Alex began to hear them talking to each other. He listened close and began to pick up the conversation.

"The two Premiers are the last of those being transported?"

"Yes, my lord."

"Good. My masters will be eager to receive them. You are sure that none outside of this building, especially that Duunran, know of this?"

"No one, my lord."

"Keep it that way. Tell him that both Premiers were called away on business. By the time he figures out that they're not coming back he will have already surrendered. I'll be taking them personally, along with the other guards. Magic Emperor Evangeon will be well pleased that the Flying Fortress already has the power it needs. Now all we need to do is furnish the materials for its completion. Keep the whole building under close watch, especially the two prisoners in the basement."

"Yes, my lord."

After saying this, Winson turned and began to walk away from the area. Two of the metal guards turned and followed him, escorting him back down the hall he came from. As for Duunran, he marched onward and turned the corner in the hallway, still taking Nash, Mia, and the other two machines with him. Alex and his two companions sat and waited for a moment, listening to the two sounds of footprints fade away into either distance. He had to make sure the way was clear. But once all was silent in the hall again, he turned to Lemia.

"Take us the rest of the way. We don't have much time."

Lemia nodded, and quickly opened the doorway. She too was determined, after all. Moving at a faster pace, she dashed down the hallway the same way the Dauphin went. Alex followed with Luna trailing behind him. He soon realized that it would be Melichon standing between him and his friends. But he didn't care. He'd deal with them if they tried to stop him. All he cared about was getting to them while there was still time, before he dragged them away.

As Lemia continued to dash down the hall, she suddenly slowed and then froze. Her eyes went open in surprise. Not stopping, Alex dashed right past her and soon saw what she saw. At a turn in the hallway, guarding a doorway that had a staircase leading up, were the two machines. They had already spotted Lemia, and both were turning their weapons to her. But Alex didn't stop. He charged right for them, already focusing on his attack. The machines hesitated, then tried to turn and hit him instead. But it was too late. Alex swung his blade twice, striking across either machine with each swipe. Immediately, both cracked and fizzled, and then slid apart, sliced both in half. Sparks flew and flames and smoke started, but Alex merely came to a halt and stood there at the base of the stairs. He turned to the others, who had both hesitated. But then, both Luna and Lemia formed looks of determination. Lemia reached into her own robe and pulled out a magic rod. Luna yanked out her dagger. That done, and now with Alex leading the way, the three charged up the stairs to whatever conflict awaited them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Five

The wind blew fiercely over the top of the Magic Guild. It whipped at Alex's hair and loose clothing, as well as Lemia's and Luna's. It was almost a hindrance, but not much of one. The sun was setting and the day was turning orange and red. It seemed as if the day had lasted forever already, but it was finally coming to an end. Right ahead of the three warriors, their quarry stood.

He was standing before what appeared to be a giant balloon or dirigible. Only this one lacked a motor like the ones that Alex and his friends had ridden. Instead, it merely floated there, looking like some large cargo carrier of some type. Alex soon realized it had to be what was holding the guards. As they watched, the Dauphin easily pushed the two floating beds into an opening door on the side of it, folding down like some sort of hatch on the side of a boat that formed a ramp when opening. And once both were inside, he merely raised the door and closed it again, turning a lock afterward. Seeing this, Alex didn't hesitate a moment longer. He charged forward a few more steps, though still leaving a good deal of space between him and Melichon. Luna followed and took his right with a determined look, and Lemia took his left with an even more fierce expression. Alex announced his challenge.

"Stop, Melichon!"

The Dauphin already had his back turned to the three of them, but he hesitated after he heard that. He held for a brief moment of silence. Then, he slowly bowed his head, as if disappointed again. "So you've come...Master Alex..."

Lemia stepped forward after this, passing the younger man. "Melichon!" She yelled. "Release my daughter at once! Release her or die!"

The Dauphin merely kept his back turned. From behind, the three heard a small snort. "Lemia Ausa as well... I wondered what had happened to you."

"Dauphin!" Luna insisted, even begged. "Please! If there's any morality in you at all don't do this! You'll kill them all!"

"Ah, but Lady Luna..." Melichon calmly answered. "There is no morality left in me." With that, the dark-clothed man turned and faced his three adversaries. He was still perfectly calm, but now had a slight wry smile on his face. "And with the aide of Magic Emperor Evangeon, I've become the greatest of all warriors on the face of Lunar. Your friend was right, Master Alex. Winson is merely a...'hack', as he so put it. Once my masters have taken control of this world, I will dispose of Winson and install myself as the new Premier of the Magic Guild. Then I will show you all what it means to be a true magical artist." He hesitated for a moment after that, and shook his head, as if disappointed. "A true shame that you did not join me, Master Alex. I would have made you into the greatest of all Dragonmasters."

Alex merely sneered. "If I had to become anything like you, then I'd rather die."

"And so you shall, Master Alex." The Dauphin answered with a slightly larger smile. "And so you shall. In your weakness you gave up the fantastic power of the Dragonmaster. In doing so you have proven yourself unworthy of the title. Your punishment is death."

With that, the Dauphin turned behind him, grasped, and in a flick of the wrist and snap of a whip, had pulled out his long saber. He held it to his side, and held his other arm out to the other for balance. He focused on Alex with his sly smile, looking totally confident and in control of the situation. However, Lemia merely sneered at him. She leveled her rod at his face.

"Release my daughter, you filthy trai-"

Before Lemia could say another word, the Dauphin reached up his free hand, snapped his fingers, and ended with pointing at the former Premier. Instantly, a sizzling ball of dark energy exploded from his hand and smashed into the woman. Much to the shock of Luna and Alex, they watched Lemia scream and writhe in energy for a moment, her robes tearing and her flesh being seared. The force of the blast threw her backward, dragging her against the ground until she was almost to the edge of the building. But then, the energy crackled and faded, and with a low moan and look of anguish, Lemia collapsed into a heap on the ground and stayed there. The two remaining people looked up in terror to the Dauphin, who merely snorted again with his same smile. Nimbly, he swished his blade up and held it against his head in ready position, and began to pace around Alex.

"As you can see, boy, my powers far outclass those of any magician in Vane. I could destroy you in an instant, but just so as to show you that I am also your far superior in physical combat, I'll give you the privilege of dueling me."

Alex gazed back darkly at Melichon, his fear and shock giving way to anger. He held for a moment, as the Dauphin lowered his sword and entered a sort of fencing pose for his entry position. Still smiling, he walked one foot over the other around Alex. At last, the young man turned his head slightly behind him. "Get back, Luna. I'll handle him."

Luna continued to look unnerved, but slowly obliged. She knew she couldn't do anything against Melichon after that. She backed away until she was near the door, and stood there. Meanwhile, Alex pulled his own blade out and into ready position, and began to stalk around Melichon as well. The two opponents were soon circling each other, but while Alex looked dark and serious, Melichon was smooth, fluid, and calm throughout.

"Your last chance, Melichon." Alex stated. "Release Nash and Mia, or I'll make you."

"Temper, temper, dear boy..." Melichon answered with a smile. "You don't honestly think you can beat me, do you? Even if you did have as much skill as I did, your weapon is oversized and clumsy."

"We'll see about that." Alex answered, and charged forward to begin the fight.

Melichon nimbly parried Alex's first slash, as well as his next two. Then, with frightening speed, he bounced back with rapid jabs and lightning slashes, the first of which tore Alex's jacket, much to his surprise. Alex quickly backed off and parried himself, but was astonished. Not only was the old man much faster than he looked, but his saber did make for a faster, lighter, and deadlier weapon. Yet it was strong enough to block Althena's sword as well. Alex continued to back up, parrying the deadly slashes and blows of Melichon, and at last saw an opening to return. Bringing his sword around, he swung it back and over in an overhead chop. But Melichon merely held up his sword with one hand and clashed. Much to Alex's shock, he stopped both his hands with only one hand.

"So untalented...so slow...so weak..." Melichon sneered. "This was the Dragonmaster? Feh...no wonder you surrendered the power. You're nothing more than a child."

Gritting his teeth, Alex pushed down harder on his blade. But Melichon merely pulled back, and slashed a scrape against Alex's chest. This time, he felt a splash of warm fluid and hot pain. Crying out mildly, Alex backed up, just in time to begin countering another barrage of blows from the nimble Dauphin. Alex struggled to forget his pain and focus on the fight, staving off the attacks as fast as they came. But as he struggled, he saw that Melichon was smiling throughout. The entire fight was easy for him. He wasn't even giving it his all. He was just toying with him. That became painfully obvious when Alex broke, had a chance for an overhead chop, but missed and instead had Melichon slash his side.

Alex, despite his pain, struggled to keep fighting. But as Luna looked on and Lemia struggled to rise from where she was, the Dauphin merely began to laugh in the middle of the fight. He slashed Alex again at the shoulder, and again across the face, all the while merely toying with him. Yet despite all his rage and frustration, Alex couldn't get in a hit. He began to try all of his tricks. His sword dance maneuver was easily countered. His flash cut was easily dodged. His explosion staff was blocked on impact. Not one of his attacks were getting through, and Melichon was easily putting on the power the entire time. As Alex fought on, he began to realize something worse. He was growing tired and sweaty. His arms were starting to ache from trying to block every blow. But as for Melichon, he wasn't even breathing hard. Alex realized he couldn't keep this up for much longer. Just focusing on the blows was exhausting his mind. Sweat continued to well at his brow, and he began to heave as he battled.

In the middle of fighting, the Dauphin sighed. "I thought you would have given me far better, boy. You are pathetic. This ends now."

Before Alex could react in his tired state, the Dauphin yanked his sword away from combat and pierced the young man in either shoulder in two quick jabs. Blood spurted from either wound, and Alex cried out in pain. Both arms suddenly on fire, he dropped his blade on the ground. Before he could react, Melichon lashed his head forward and smashed it into Alex's own. Blood and a nasty bruise once again erupted from the impact, and in a dazzled, pained mess Alex crashed to the roof of the Magic Guild. Both of his shoulders ached terribly. He couldn't move them, only lay on the ground as blood flowed from them. Melichon merely stood and looked down on the young man, his victory perfect and flawless over him. Alex could do nothing to fight back, only weakly look up to him as he panted and writhed.

However, the Dauphin didn't look at him long. Instead, he turned his head and faced Luna instead, who recoiled in surprise as he stared. His look grew dark as he smiled. "Game set and match." He stated. "Two down, one to go. Tell me, Lady Luna, are you ready to surrender like the miserable weakling that you are? Or do you wish to join both of your friends in agony?" With this, he began to walk toward her, holding up his bloody saber as he did so.

Alex, despite his pain, groaned and managed to raise his head. "Run Luna! Run!"

But Luna did not run. She cringed in terror for a few moments longer, not knowing what to do. She didn't want to leave Lemia and Alex, but she didn't want to be at the mercy of some powerful warlord again, which is what she was fast becoming. Melichon continued to glare at her, and she could only stare back with her blue eyes laced with fear. She felt helpless and alone, not knowing what to do or what she could do. Yet even as she stood there...the song began to come to mind. It was a familiar one, yet one she had tried not to use. She had not wanted to sing ever again, especially not a combat song. Yet she was helpless now. There was nothing else she could do. And so, slowly, her mouth opened, her eyes closed, shutting off the fear from her sight, and she held her arms in front of her as she started to sing.

Melichon merely smiled. "Your songs can't save you or your friends now, girl. You're finished."

But Luna continued to sing. Melichon continued to walk forward, the wind flapping back his half of a cape and his gray hair. Luna kept her eyes closed and her hands faced forward, and kept on singing, growing louder as she did so. The Dauphin merely moved onward, the wind continuing to whip his clothing, growing fiercer as he drew closer. Yet as Luna continued to sing, the wind grew fiercer still, and all of it was blowing against the Dauphin. Slowly, his eyes began to squint from the force of the wind, and he began to grow slower. As Luna sang on, he began to step forward only with more increasing difficulty, and he started to sway with the pull of his cape as if off balance. The wind continued to push against him, pressing his clothes against his body, and as Luna sang on he slowed to a crawl and became more off balance. He put an arm up against his face, and his smile vanished.

"What power is this?" He called out over the wind.

Luna kept singing, singing as strongly as possible. Melichon at last had to stop, and began to lean against the wind. He brought both hands in front of his face to shield from the gale that now pressed against him. Yet the wind only grew stronger and stronger as Luna sang on. Melichon had to lean more and more against the wind. His legs bent and his body hunched over, and soon all of his strength had to try and withstand the power. Alex, though weak and on the ground, slowly looked up, and watched this all in shock. Lemia too looked up and saw this. Melichon grit his teeth and snarled in anger, struggling to stand against the power. But it grew fiercer and fiercer. At long last, despite all his best efforts, he slid back a small centimeter.

At this, the Dauphin's face flushed with rage, and he glared at Luna. He held a single hand forward, and yelled over all the wind, "Enough!"

Immediately, a white shock wave ripped out from his palm and smashed into Luna. Her singing was cut abruptly short as white light exploded around her, shredding her own clothing and causing her to scream out loud. She too was thrown backward and dashed against the ground from the impact. She slid for a moment and then came to a stop, her face bruised and her body aching, cringing in pain. She clenched her eyes shut and cried out from the ground, but moved no more and made no attempt to rise. The wind immediately halted. Melichon rose to his feet, stood up straight, inhaled deeply, and exhaled. He straightened himself out from the entire incident, and wiped off his bloodstained blade with his glove. After doing so, he slowly slid it behind him, all the time frowning, staring at Luna on the ground.

"I hardly believed that there was anyone, much less some simple human girl, who had the power to push me to my physical limit." The Dauphin stated. "Even if she was formally Althena. The only explanation is that she still has some of that power brewing within her. However, it makes no difference." He looked around to Alex and Lemia, glaring the whole time. "You three are beaten. And now, I am ready to put you out of each of your own individual miseries."

"Not so fast."

Melichon, as well as the others, snapped their heads to this voice. It was very odd sounding, like the small chirp of a bird or something. It was coming from the stairway, however. As the Dauphin stared, a small flapping became audible. Then he came. A small, cat-sized creature with wings flapped out of the opening. He had some difficulty, it seemed. He was wearing a brown cloth that hung loosely from his body almost the length of it, and he was struggling to lug a giant curved blade in a sheath with him by its strap. Yet despite all of the strain that he was going through, the creature managed to glare at Melichon darkly. Alex, on his part, was totally astonished to see him here.

"You have to beat me first, Melichon." Nall bravely stated. "And I'm not going to go easy on you, especially after what you did to Alex."

The Dauphin hesitated a moment, obviously surprised that Nall was even here. But then, he merely smiled confidently and with a hint of amusement. He turned and faced the dragon, chuckling all the way. "I know you have a sense of humor, White Dragon...but that is too much. You cannot beat me. Even in your full sized form you will be unable to destroy me. But as it is, I could obliterate your current body with a wave of my hand."

Nall hesitated for a second...and then smiled.

"But you're not going to be fighting me as a dragon or me as this, Melichon. You see...Mia's scroll taught me a new trick."

With that, Nall immediately leapt to the ground, while Alex and Lemia looked on in amazement. The cat-like creature curved his back, and instantly it began to swell and enlarge. As it did, Nall's hindlegs began to grow as well, and the creature began to swell into a giant hunchback of its former self. Melichon looked on in some puzzlement, but Nall continued to change. As its legs grew longer, they eventually outstripped the body and continued to grow, pushing the back up higher and higher. Nall's forelegs drew as well, continuing to hold on to the strap of the sword scabbard, but no longer supported him on the ground. As Nall's back, legs, and arms continued to swell, the hair was stretched thinner and thinner across them, exposing bare baige skin underneath. Then, much to Alex's surprise, the hair vanished all together, leaving only Nall's naked body. The only place there was still hair was his head, still in the same white lines with the brown stripe down the middle. Nall's face distorted as well. The snout crushed inward and the cleft palate of his cat nose vanished. The nose itself became more pronounced and Nall began to form an upper lip. His face also swelled and lost all hair, and his ears moved down to the sides of his head. His teeth became broader, save for his pointy incisors, and his eyes grew and lost their slit feline look. Nall's tail seemed to vanish altogether during this, along with his wings. But Nall himself grew until he was the size of Alex at least.

At last, the process came to an end. The new Nall now straightened himself before Melichon with a smile. The cloth now covered Nall's entire middle perfectly, and he easily pulled the sword around and slung it onto his back. Alex was still shocked, however. For he found that he wasn't looking at the body of a cat or a dragon now...but of a human boy, no older than him.

Melichon didn't look too impressed. "You wouldn't be a match for me in your dragon form, and you expect me to be frightened of a skinny child in a loincloth?"

Nall merely grinned and spoke back, his tone sly and cocky in his new human form, not to mention much deeper. "In this body I have the speed of my smaller form with the power of my larger." With that, Nall reached behind him and yanked out his long curved sword with one pull and brought it before him. "And I think I've watched Alex enough to know a few things."

"We'll see." Melichon answered, and lunged forward.

Nall instantly parried the first blow, and with lightning speed backed up and parried Melichon's next barrage of blows. Alex watched on in awe, astonished at how good Nall was for having been a near cat for so long. However, after a few seconds, Nall leapt backward, abruptly breaking up Melichon's attack, and then shot forward again, swinging and slashing his own barrage of attacks. Melichon quickly blocked against them, putting his full skill to the forefront. To Alex's surprise, he realized that Nall was actually faster than him, and he swung his own larger blade with one hand. Melichon buckled for a moment, and suddenly broke off and jabbed at Nall's side. But the new human nimbly cartwheeled to the side and leapt over the next slice of the Dauphin's saber to land back to back with him on his other side. Melichon turned and jabbed at him, only to have Nall chuckle as he did a behind the back guard, spin around, and resume his chain of devastating blows.

Both were seeming to do even for a while, but it did not last long. As Alex watched, he saw that Melichon's smile began to diminish while Nall's stayed, and that the dark wizard actually began to sweat and strain under the power of the white dragon's onslaught. In frustration, Melichon broke free time and time again, only to be foiled by Nall's defense each time. The tables were turning and turning quickly. Now, Melichon was the one struggling to fight, and Nall was the one without tire. The situation only grew worse for the former as the fight wore on. At long last, Nall brought the flat of his blade around and smacked it against one of Melichon's hands. The Dauphin cried out in pain, and left himself and his blade unprotected. Nall brought his blade around, and in one strong and neat swipe, he broke half of the saber off. Melichon looked back in shock, just in time to have Nall kick him in his middle and knock him to the ground with an "oof". After landing, Melichon winced in pain and tried to rise, only to freeze as Nall placed his sword at his neck.

"Game over, Melichon." Nall spoke with a smile. "You lose. Now turn over Nash and Mia before I see if I can't do the same to your head."

Alex blinked in amazement. He had no idea Nall had so much power. But then again, he was a dragon. The sky continued to darken, and the wind picked up. Luna stirred and began to blink, while Lemia joined Alex in his amazement. As for Melichon, he lay there a moment, not saying or doing anything. Nall frowned and spoke again.

"Did you hear me?" Nall yelled, making sure to go over the sound of the rising wind. "You've got until the count of three..."

However, much to Nall's surprise, Melichon merely smiled.

"Why Nall...you amaze me." He spoke darkly and calmly. "Did you honestly think that only your side knew how to bring...reinforcements?"

Nall's face grew confused, as did Alex's and Lemia's. Luna began to blink and come back to her senses, and her eyes slowly opened. The wind continued to pick up. "What're you-"

"Heh-heh-heh-heh-heh...ha-ha-ha..."

Nall froze and bolted his head upright, as Melichon smiled darkly. That latest laugh rode on the rising wind. Alex heard it too, as did Lemia, and Luna, who instantly snapped fully awake. The four turned their heads toward the source of it, which seemed to be the sky itself. They froze in terror the moment they did, and saw Melichon's "reinforcements".

A terrifying sight soared through the air. It produced a roaring sound, which they had all mistaken for rising wind. It was a man...or some humanoid...clothed entirely in thick black armor. But a crest on his chest gleamed with the fading sunlight, and his eyes pulsed red. To Alex's shock, it looked like the Magic Emperor at first glance. But as it approached he saw it was not. This armor was shockingly similar, and just as dark and malevolent, but it was not the same. The figure road on top of some large bird, it seemed. It's wingspan stretched somewhere between twenty and thirty feet long across the sky. He was hunched slightly on it against the wind, and his black cape billowed beneath him. But as the bird approached, Alex saw it too gleamed and shined like the rider's armor did. It was then that he realized it was a machine too, some sort of flying device that the man could ride. He laughed hideously and like a deranged maniac, not with the control and expression of evil that Ghaleon did, but with an insane glee as well as maliciousness. His helmet twisted his voice and revirberated it, making him a terrifying sight to behold and listen too at the same time. He was like a great black demon soaring through the red sky too them. Once he reached them, his flying machine slowed down, and he hovered above them. He straightened to his full height and placed his hands on his hips, and glowered down on them all. Alex gaped in shock with Nall. Lemia shielded part of her face, and Luna gasped in horror.

"Ghaleon..." She spoke aloud.

"No, not Ghaleon." The thing in armor responded, his voice altered to be deep, dark and sinister. "Magic Emperor Evangeon. You see me in my full glory, astride on my flying chariot. Bow before me and despair, children."

After this, the black armored man turned to the Dauphin, still on the ground. From beneath the hood, it seemed to sneer. "You're pathetic, Melichon. You couldn't even handle this pitiful, arrogant feline in man's clothing."

Melichon bowed his head humbly and began to rise. "A thousand apologies, my master. But I do have good news. We have adequate energy with which to perfect your Flying Fortress."

Evangeon seemed pleased with this. "Good. Then perhaps you aren't as large a failure as you seem. Now...as for the children..." With this, he turned his head and glared at the four on the ground with his red eyes. Nall clenched his teeth and held his sword at the ready, but he merely continued to stare. "You will be coming with me, Alex and Luna. But as for the former Premier and White Dragon...I have no need of you save in the power of Althena that you hold within yourselves. Prepare to die."

Nall clenched his teeth and brandished his blade. "Yeah right! You'll find I don't go down so easy, whoever you are! I'll show you just how easily I beat your toadie!"

Evangeon snickered from beneath his mask. "Yes...please do."

With that, Nall let loose a war cry, crouched, and leapt up into the air to swing at Evangeon. But the armorered warrior merely rose his chariot a bit higher and laughed at Nall as he swung where he had been moments earlier. Yet the moment Nall landed, he leapt up again in a backwards somersault. Evangeon merely continued to laugh and rose even higher. Nall once again hit nothing, and suffered all of Evangeon's laughter as he landed on the ground again. He looked up to the warrior and snarled.

"Come on, coward! Fight me like a man!"

"Coming from a cat, I'm really scared." Evangeon answered simply. "But if you insist..."

With that, Evangeon held up one hand, instantly, a burning orb of orange and red flame erupted into it. He held it for a moment, but then hurled the ball down at Nall far below. Seeing this, Nall quickly swung his sword down, and an orb of protective energy surrounded him. The orb connected a moment later, and a massive fiery explosion soon erupted. Alex winced and turned his face aside, as did the other helpless people, but they still felt the wave of the fiery explosion. Moments later, they also felt fragments of stone rubble fall on top of them, all sizzling and melted from the blast of fire. In shock, Alex turned his head back to where Nall had been. He was soon even more surprised, for all that was left was a smoldering black crater where he had stood moments earlier. The young boy himself was in the center, cringing and crouching from the blast. But as the smoke cleared, he sighed and looked up again, just in time to get another surprise.

Evangeon was diving at him, and pointed his black gauntlets at him. Beams of violet energy exploded out of either fingertip, and began to strip away huge panels of the roof around where Nall was standing. Gritting his teeth, the white dragon shot forward, dodging between the beams of energy, and holding his sword up, meaning to slash at Evangeon the moment he dived enough to get into range. Evangeon continued to dive, still blasting as he came down, just as Nall planned. But just as he got in range and Nall was ready to attack, Evangeon pitched his chariot forward with his feet and slammed Nall under the jaw with the front of it. The white-haired boy was knocked way into the air before being dropped back onto the roof, smashing another large dent into it as he went. Evangeon returned to the sky, laughing harder than ever.

"What an excellent prize my master has granted me: this flying chariot!" He cried. "With the power of that blue-haired girl from Pao, it is invincible!"

In more horror, Alex recognized what Evangeon was talking about. Taben had said he needed higher powers...and Fresca was by no means a mere weakling. He realized in an instant that Evangeon must have had her power alone fuel his chariot. But he couldn't focus on that now, but gazed in on the battle...

Nall groaned and slowly rose back to his feet. Yet the moment he did, his eyes grew large and he took off, for Evangeon was on the attack again. He was now lobbing more orbs of energy at him, hot and intense with both hands. Nall barely escaped the first explosion, and was soon dashing across the roof to avoid further blasts. Each explosion left another crater in the roof, and after a few Alex began to feel it quiver beneath him, growing weak from the battle. Nall tried to avoid the flaming explosions behind him, but he soon realized he couldn't just run wherever. There were his friends on the roof, as well as the carrier full of people. Evangeon seemed to notice that as well. And using that knowledge, he slowly trapped Nall with his explosions. At last, Evangeon hurled one right into the intended path of Nall, right on the mark. Unable to outrun it, Nall did a dive and narrow missed the last explosion, but still found himself singed from behind, unable to put up a shield in time. The force of the boom shoved him into the roof, causing him to tear it up as he slid across. Evangeon circled merrily in the air, laughing wilder and wilder.

Nall slowly got up to all fours. He spat on the ground, and a splatter of blood came out of his mouth and landed there. The roof continued to buckle beneath him. But he couldn't worry about that, for suddenly a flash of violet light streaked across his face. Nall cried out and pain and turned his head, moments later feeling a searing hot burn across his cheek. Snarling, Nall bounced back up and turned to the source, just in time to have another beam slash across his leg. Nall cried out again, and desperately put up a white shield. Evangeon was diving again with both gauntlets blazing, firing beam after beam at him. It was so fast that while his shield blocked the first beam, the next one sliced across his side. Anguished, Nall began to storm forward to avoid the laser storm, ready to try another jump and slash attack again. But this time, Evangeon was ready.

Suddenly, the front of his flying chariot opened, and a huge bird shaped pillar of energy stormed out and surged toward Nall. This came early, before the white dragon could counter it. He struggled to put up another shield, but it was too late. The flaming bird collided with him, and a massive explosion that lit up the darkening sky erupted for all in Vane below to see. Alex and the others turned and covered their eyes, recoiling from the piercing burst of light. But as they did, Alex's heart filled with terror at the thought of what had to be happening right now. There was no dodging. Nall had to take the blast full force. And it was stronger than ever. The explosion violently rocked the weakened roof, and baseball sized chunks of debris rained down on the young man. He clenched his eyes shut and stayed down, waiting for all of the chaos to come to an end.

As last, the smoke and fire died down, and Alex looked up again. Evangeon was still standing, hovering close to the roof now, looking down on his destructive wake. A massive black hole had been blasted into the roof, and only darkness was within it. Alex and Luna both looked to it in shock, while Lemia clenched her teeth in frustration. Alex himself grew deeply afraid, and his eyes wildly looked over the area for signs of life. But he saw nothing, and his fear swelled.

Nall...don't be dead...

Silence reigned, and Evangeon continued to stand, seeming victorious. Luna's eyes began to well with tears after a while, and she looked away in misery. Alex's face filled with horror. There wasn't anything left...

Then, he came. Yelling at the top of his lungs, Nall shot out of the blackened crater and shot high into the air, raising his sword over his head. Evangeon looked up, and saw Nall tower over him. He was burned, cut, and bloody, but he was also right in position to cut the man in half. Nall seemed to hang in mid-air for a moment, poised for victory, and in control again...

But then, Evangeon merely let out a single laugh, and then pointed his hand at the warrior. Instantly, black electricity ripped through the air from his hand and wrapped around the white dragon. Nall's enraged look was destroyed as he stiffened and screamed at the top of his lungs. To the shock of Alex, Nall was soon being penetrated through and through all over his body with the deadly energy. It shocked inside and outside of his mouth, and pierced his body all the way through. As Nall continued to scream, his body began to smoke and char from the power of the deadly energy. The three below were horrified. Evangeon bellowed dark laughter, loving how he was making his victim writhe. Alex stared for just a moment longer, but then clenched his teeth in rage. Though his arms were useless, he struggled to lean up and push himself to his feet. Tears continued to flow from Luna's eyes, and bitterly she screamed at the dark warrior.

"Stop it! Stop it! You'll kill him!"

As if on cue, Evangeon did just that, leaving Nall limp and hanging in mid-air. His head bowed and his eyes shut, he slowly let his blade slide from his grasp, and then fell lifelessly downward. Evangeon merely inched forward the slightest bit, and caught him with his heavy black gauntlets. Once there, he held the helpless dragon before him and snickered.

"What an excellent source of energy you'll make, just like your father before you." He sneered. Then, with devastating power, he brought his leg up and drove it into Nall's stomach. The boy's eyes flew open, and with a horrible choking sound he gagged a mouthful of blood right on top of the dark warrior before him. He kept his eyes open afterward, coughing and gagging, but Evangeon hesitated after the bloodstain was put on him. Then, with an air of malevolence, he dipped his hand into the blood and streaked it across his own face, as if he was enjoying it or wearing it like a badge of honor. Then, without mercy, he drove his leg again and again into the chest of the white dragon.

Alex was beyond enraged. Now back on his feet, he stared at this scene and gnashed his teeth. "Evangeon! Stop it, you cold hearted bastard!"

"You're in a position to demand nothing, Master Alex." The Dauphin calmly replied from where he stood, watching this all with a simple air of light amusement. "Still your tongue or you'll suffer the same fate."

Luna turned her face away, unable to watch anymore of this, and she sobbed bitterly into her arm. Lemia sneered herself, and pounded her fist against the roof. "Damnit! It has to be you, Ghaleon! Only you would be so cold hearted and merciless!"

Alex continued to fume. He had to do something. Even if it would kill him, he couldn't watch his friend slowly be tortured and killed. Despite his pain and lack of a sword, he took one step closer to the two opponents. But the moment he did, Nall looked over to him with an agonized and pained face. The moment he did, he felt a voice thundering through his mind. It was a shock to Alex, but he was helpless to stop it, and froze as it came.

No, Alex! You can't win! Not like this! You have to escape! And there's only one way... I'll use the last of my energy...and give it to the White Dragon Wings...

Hearing that, Alex's eyes shot open again. "No, Nall! Don't do it!" He screamed, in fear, knowing what he meant. "Escape! Escape while you can!"

But it was too late. Nall closed his eyes again, clenched his teeth, and then concentrated. Even as Evangeon continued to beat him, he summoned a white aura around himself. Alex was filled with fear. He would have opened his mouth to say something again, to try and protest, but it was in vain. Suddenly, a yellow aura enveloped him, Luna, and Lemia. Rings of light split around them, and in an instant, all of Vane's main Guild roof vanished into sparks of air.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Six

Alex found himself reforming a moment later. Only now, as the yellow aura vanished around him and the rapidly closing night sky came in again, he found himself far from the roof of the Magic Guild. Instead, he now stood on the ground. Surprised from the initial teleport, he quickly looked around, and discovered that he hadn't gone that far. He was right outside of Vane. To one side of him, the huge earthen platform the city once rode stood before him. But there was no one around. When he looked back, he saw Luna and Lemia, both puzzled and looking around at their new situation, and in still the same bad shape. But no Nall. He was gone.

Alex hesitated for a moment afterward. He looked back up to the top of Vane, his face stretched with anguish. Nall was still up there, being mercilessly beaten by that monster in human form. After after it, he'd be carried off to some horrible fate...just like the other dragons...or Phacia. For a moment there was sadness, but not for long. He soon clenched his teeth in rage and screamed out in agony into the sky. If he could lift his arms he would have beaten them futily against the side of Vane. But it didn't matter. Nall was gone... He was still up there, along with the Dauphin and Evangeon. They couldn't save him. They couldn't do anything but just be teleported away. And in all honesty, even if they were there they would have died too, or worse. But Alex was still infuriated. In a mixture of sadness and rage, he let his body lean against the earth foundations of Vane and cried.

Luna herself only looked up long enough to see where she was. Then, she too lowered her head again and cried once more, this time that much more bitterly with the direness of the situation. As for Lemia, she too lowered her head and scowled at herself, cursing her own body for being too weak to do anything to stop the Dauphin, Evangeon, or to save Nall. No one did anything right away, but through the midst of their pain they all mourned the loss of their friend. Alex didn't know how long they spent down there crying or lamenting. The sky grew dark and night fell, but after that he didn't know.

But Alex knew they came to a stop when he placed his head against the side of Vane and looked down at himself. It was then that he finally saw his hands. His crying paused for a moment, and he brought it out away from the shadow of Vane to get a better look at it. Yet there was no mistaking it. Sure enough, the Ring of the Dragonmaster was once again on his hand. He was astonished. He hadn't seen it since he had released his power. Yet once again, it was on his hand. He thought for a moment of how it could have gotten there. His only explanation was Nall. He was the White Dragon now, and by giving him his aura he must have somehow restored that part of his armor to him. It was a gift, then, a gift from Nall. Alex could only hold it for a moment, gazing at it.

Then, at last, he turned to the two women. "We've got to get out of here. Vane's not safe anymore."

Hearing that, Luna and Lemia both looked up. Despite the sadness of Luna, she nodded, as did the much more ready Lemia. However, a dark look already burned in her eyes. "I swear I will make the Dauphin pay for what he has done." She hissed. "I promise you children that. And I will get my daughter back."

"We will get Mia back." Alex reasserted. "But we have to leave now."

"Hold on a moment." Luna answered. With some struggling, she managed to pull herself up into a seated position. Once she was there, she breathed slowly, held her arms before her, closed her eyes, and began to sing. Alex was a little uneasy about that. He realized abruptly that they weren't far outside of Vane. For all he knew, Evangeon was still on the top of the former floating island. The noise could attract danger. Yet he had to deal with it. They were too injured to move right now. He merely focused on Luna's song, and slowly he felt the wounds in his arms close up. The bloody bruise on his forehead closed, and the slash across his cheek closed up. As for Lemia, she balled her hands into fists, bit down, and rose to her feet in a snap once again, pulling her wand out once more. Luna herself grew stronger, being able to sing better and better as time went by. As Alex recovered, he reached into his jacket once again, this time for an old "souvenir". When he pulled it out again, he held a small rod with a set of white dragon wings made of metal crafted onto it. Alex didn't need to inspect it. By merely touching it he could feel its power. They too had been restored...at least partially. There was no telling how much power they had left. Alex began to wonder if he could once again cast the spell of White Dragon Protection. But now wasn't the time to find out. At any rate, even with the Ring he knew he couldn't defeat Evangeon. His power was overwhelming. Yet it felt strange...as if numerous powers were forming it. Alex feared that not only Fresca had met a horrible fate in that man, but also other people to power up his armor. At any rate, it made him fearsome indeed.

In his anger, Alex couldn't help but curse. "Damn that Evangeon... Tempest will never forgive him."

Luna too winced, remembering what the man had said earlier. "He's heartless...he's a total monster. We have to beat him, Alex...if only to release Fresca's energy from that thing he flies."

"I wouldn't be too worried about beating him." Lemia coldly stated, causing the two to look to her. She darkly stared back. "I remember what he said too. He said that his own master had given that flying machine to him. That means that there had to be one more opponent who is his superior."

Alex and Luna both hesitated at that. Someone who was stronger than a Magic Emperor? The thought didn't bode well with either of them. Alex hesitated a moment, and licked his lips. Then, he looked back to Lemia. "Melichon did say something to me about him. He said that there were two people, and he frequently mentioned 'masters'. He only knew Evangeon. Perhaps the other one was the superior?"

"Perhaps..." Lemia answered slowly. "Unless this treachery runs deeper than we suspect, and there is another yet to show his face..."

Alex swallowed at that, not liking the thought. Luna too looked uneasy. But Lemia quickly shook it off and went back to business.

"At any rate, you're right. We must escape Vane. The first order of business is to halt that machine army and stop anymore people from being taken there, including my daughter. Then we'll worry about Evangeon and whoever else this other master is. We should use the Dragon Wings to teleport to Nanza immediately."

But Alex shook his head. "We can't risk that. It's the Dauphin's territory. He'll be on his way there already, and ready to leave the entire Katarina Zone open for the slaughter."

"What about Meriba?" Luna asked. "Master Mel's there."

Lemia snorted. "This whole thing was his idea in the first place."

"Not this betrayal, Lemia." Alex answered. "And I'm sure once he hears about this he'll be able to give us some help. Besides, we can't trust anyone here, and the more south we go the more danger we're in. It's our only shot."

Lemia hesitated a moment, sighing slowly. She still didn't seem to like the idea. But at long last, she sighed. "Fine. Let's just move while we still can. The wind seems dark here..."

Alex could hardly doubt that. He wanted to get as far away from Evangeon as possible. The man seemed even more ruthless than Ghaleon did. He quickly took off, sword drawn, beckoning the two women to come with him. They did so, and soon began to take off across the plains into the night.

Alex wasn't going to risk taking the road. But he knew the land well enough to stay off it at this point. He thought of using the wings to teleport them to Meriba, but after the world had changed so much and so many surprises had come, he wanted to take everything careful now. He couldn't afford another mistake for any reason. He found himself continuously looking to the skies, trying to catch a glimpse of Evangeon, the balloon, or his flying chariot. He saw none of them, and inside he couldn't help but feel a little glad. He didn't know how he was supposed to stop that man. For that matter, he didn't know how he was supposed to stop the other "master" either if he really was stronger. As he was, he couldn't possibily do it. And he renounced the power of the Dragonmaster. All he had now was to rely on the power within himself. But how would that work when he was dealing with people who had the full power of multiple people gathered to him?

As Vane slowly entered the framed vision of the three people, Alex continued to go without incident. As far as he could see, there was no one around, and no one who had tried to stop them. It figured. If they reasoned that Nall had used the White Dragon Wings, then they could be anywhere on Lunar at this point. They probably wouldn't bother searching as close as right outside Vane, however. With that in mind, Alex began to gradually grow closer to the road. While he wouldn't feel safe until they were in Meriba or put the nearest mountain range between them and Vane, that was something at least. Yet after a steady hour of running from Vane, he was beginning to grow tired. Luna and Lemia much more so, not accustomed to so much physical work. And it was getting late. They had gone so far and passed so much already today. It started to become obvious that they were not going to be in Meriba before they had to rest for the night. They'd be out here, exposed, in the middle of the wilderness...

Huffing and puffing, Alex finally slowed down as they reached the road, and hunched over with his hands on his legs. Luna and Lemia soon followed, sweating much more and looking much more worn out. Both of them plopped on the ground, but didn't look that irritable about having gone without a break for so long. After all, they wanted to get far away too. Alex looked around a bit, and then back to the two of them. They said nothing for a few minutes, catching their breath, but then Alex spoke.

"It's still a long way to Meriba. But I guess this far out we can walk at a slower pace or turn in for the night."

Lemia sighed in exhaustion. "Sorry, young man...but I'm simply not built to move that fast anymore, especially not after all that's happened today."

"Me neither, Alex." Luna chimed in, her own face drawn and tired.

Alex couldn't blame them. Though his own face expressed regret, he couldn't push them. Besides, the pain of losing Nall and his friends today was weighing heavily down on him as well. That was part of the reason he was already tired. He opened his mouth to speak back to them, giving them the good news...

When a cold, dark voice broke the air.

"Hm-hm-hm-hm-hm... Please don't tell me you're getting tired already. The fun has just begun..." The voice hesitated a moment, and then maliciously and mockingly added one more word. "Dragonboy."

There was no other sign of anything else anywhere, but that cold voice suddenly came from all around the three of them. Lemia looked the most perplexed, darting her head around and holding up her wand. "Who is it? Who's there?!"

However, the other two reacted differently. Luna went white as a sheet and cupped her hand to her mouth in sheer terror. Alex felt himself break into a sweat and swallow a lump. "I know..." He slowly answered. "I know that laugh..."

Then it happened. An explosion of white energy appeared right in front of all three of them. Instantly, the three of them recoiled. But Alex, throughout the blast of energy, struggled to look through and see what was happening. As the tremendous boom from the energy ripped through the air, the white energy seemed to wrap around a giant invisible orb. There was a shimmering and cracking sound in the air, like thunder up close. The very air became charged with intense power. Then, all at once, the wrapped energy turned into white mist...and a form inside the orb swished it aside with one swing of a black cape...

There he stood. Alex's jaw dropped in terror. It couldn't be him. It couldn't possibly. They killed him... He had remembered himself snapping his own ribs one at a time in his anger. He remembered seeing the blood running down his face, and through his tattered clothing. He was dead... Luna, on seeing that body, instantly had a million fears return to her. Imprisonment...brainwashing...pain...destruction... She remembered all of the horrible moments with him, and once again she was forced to stare in terror as her worst recurring nightmares once again became true. Lemia knew him. She had never seen him in armor before, but she knew him, and she stared in likewise overwhelmed shock. Yet Alex, the only one standing, was the most horrified of all. He looked over him...all of his twisted armor...all of his gold plating and fringe...his rings on each shoulder spike...and his horrible red visor, glowing at him as if it could burn a hole through him. It felt like some sort of nightmarish flashback. But this was no nightmare. This was no memory. This was no hallucination. It was real. Defiantly...Alex felt himself slowly talking...

"I...killed you... I ran you through with this very sword."

"No one kills me, boy." The dark form retorted. "You saw my body vanish from you, but you did not see me die. I live...and I remember well everything you did, and how you frustrated me. Now...bow before your ruler: Magic Emperor Ghaleon."

Alex couldn't believe it. But he was there. He towered over him as he always did. It was his voice, and he could feel his evil presence. It was him. But it couldn't be true... He had watched him die. But then...he hadn't exactly. His body had disappeared... Alex had assumed it had been destroyed some how, maybe burned from the inside by the power he held. Ghaleon had even announced he was dying. Yet now...he stood before him?

Alex clenched his teeth. "No!" He cried. "This is a fake! Ghaleon is dead!"

"I don't lie, boy." He responded. With that, something happened. His helmet broke into pieces, severing into neat sections of each plate of armor. After that, Alex watched as each of the plates slid aside and behind him, disappearing into the armor as they did so. Alex was amazed, having never seen a collapsable helmet like that. But it did it now. The visor dimmed and slid away. The mouthpiece was broken into two halves and left. Even the horns collapsed. Soon, the helmet was completely gone. And there he was... He still wore his crimson circlet. His hair was still that same hideous white, and his skin that sickly pale color. And his horrible red eyes with the serpent pupils burned at Alex all while a cruel smile spread across his thin lips.

"Believe me now, boy?" Ghaleon asked, his voice now back to its original hideous tone.

Alex couldn't fathom it. His forehead broke out into more sweat. He was shocked and terrified. Ghaleon was alive. He didn't know how but he was alive. Despite everything...he was alive. And right now, Alex had no idea what to do.

"Are you scared, Dragonboy?" Ghaleon spoke, taking a step forward. Despite his intentions, Alex stepped back as he came forward. "Why not show me some of that defiance you gave me last time? Why not boldly act your part as the Dragonmaster, and strike me down? Why not?" Ghaleon sneered. "Is it because you made the same stupid mistake that your 'idol' made? You relinquished your own power? You chose this existence, that of a petty child?" Ghaleon snorted at this, sounding disgusted, and began to approach Alex. Knowing he was no match, and terrified that his rival still lived, Alex backed up.

"I warned you that being the Dragonmaster had great responsibility, boy. But you threw that responsibility over your shoulder like so much garbage just as Dyne before you did. Now what, boy? Will you become the same worthless drifter he became? Will you wander this whole miserable world evading my wrath and your responsibility? Will you find another dreamy child just like you who you can get to clean up your mess, just like Dyne had you clean his?"

"Stop it!"

Luna's abrupt scream severed Ghaleon's approach. The tall wizard halted and turned his head to the source, as did Alex as well. Luna was in a mess of anguish. She crouched on the ground, face full of fury and tears. Desperately, she suddenly pulled up her own dagger. But she didn't throw it or charge Ghaleon...but held it to her own neck.

"If you try to take me away again..." She swore through her crying. "I'll cut my own throat! I'll never be your toy again!"

Ghaleon hesitated here for a moment, leaving an empty silence. However, at the end, he merely laughed once again. "Sorry, Althena..." He coolly responded. "But I'm afraid I must take you again. But don't worry...this time you'll have more lasting company than those singers. You see...the Dragonboy comes as well."

With that, Ghaleon turned and gave a cold stare to Alex. In response, the young man backed off and stared in surprise. But Ghaleon merely smiled at him. As he continued to look, he held out a dark gauntlet to the young man. "Your destinies lie with me, children. Only this time, Luna...when I offer you the crown of Queen of humanity you will place it on your own head out of your own free will. As for you, boy...if you intend to make trouble, I'll just have to take a little of the fight out of you..."

Alex gasped, and began to hold his sword in front of him. He didn't know what he could do as he was, but Ghaleon smiled at him and was coming for him. He'd take Luna again, and he was never going to let that happen. He'd find some way to kill him before he could. Yet now...he had no idea how he was supposed to do it. Nevertheless he braced himself for a fight, ready to go down swinging...

Suddenly, a blanket of explosions rained down on the front of Ghaleon. He suddenly recoiled his outstretched hand and stepped backwards. As he did, minor fireballs erupted all around him, completely surrounding him. None of them hurt the powerful mage, but they did distract him. Alex stared in shock. He hadn't done that, and he had no idea what was doing it. He turned his head around, trying to see where these explosions were coming from, when suddenly he felt a powerful arm lace around his middle and hoist him upward. Much to his shock, he was soon a few feet off the ground and being violently rocked as he was carried away. Alex was overwhelmed as the world spun around him, but before he knew it he was slapped down on something large, round, and moving. Much to his shock, Ghaleon began to move away from him, even as the fireballs continued to rain around him.

Alex was completely overwhelmed and puzzled for a moment, until he finally got his bearings back and realized what was happening. In front of him, he suddenly saw an archer load another arrow into his bow and fire it behind both him and Alex. Alex saw it, and watched it shoot over to Ghaleon, still rapidly falling back, and then erupt into flame right on top of it, obviously having some sort of explosive material in it. Then Alex noticed where he was. He suddenly saw that he was riding on a horse, behind the main rider. Not only that, but he was one of a large group, about twenty or thirty riders all galloping fiercely away. He looked around in surprise, and much to his shock soon saw that both Luna and Lemia had been scooped up on horses as well, and despite looking confused and a bit rattled from the experience, they seemed already as well.

The footsteps of the animal beneath Alex continued to thunder, and Ghaleon was left farther and farther behind. Soon, the arrows stopped being fired at him, from all of the riders of course, and he was left as a dot to vanish slowly away. Alex focused on him as they went, however. He had never run from Ghaleon before. He thought, with his powers, he could surely catch up with them in an instant. But he didn't. Soon, as the fires died around him, his black armor melted back into the darkness of the night, and Alex could see him no more. He was gone again. Frankly, in Alex's opinion, the boy was glad. He couldn't fight him now, and he had just nearly escaped doom at his hand. For a moment, he thought the same terrible events that happened in the White Dragon Cave a year ago were going to repeat, and that he would lose Luna and feel the pain of the Magic Emperor. But as he turned back to the group, he saw that Luna, while catching her breath now and looking rather overwhelmed, was safe, and still with him.

Only then did Alex realize that he should have been a little confused as to what just happened. He took a look again at the main rider, who as if in sync turned his head around to look at Alex with a bold stare. He did not smile, but his look wasn't evil, for about the first time that day. The young man recognized him in an instant.

"Tempest!" He called out. "You saved us just in time..."

"Yes." The young chief answered. "I feared we were almost too late. We saw Ghaleon already before you. Though I knew we couldn't do anything to hurt him, I was willing to try this effort. Thank goodness that it was successful." He hesitated a moment, then frowned. "I take it that the return of the Dauphin to justice did not go well?"

Alex himself turned downcast as he heard that. That event seemed so long ago now, but all of the terrible things that had happened since then were still fresh in his mind. The situation was bad...worse than it had been in a long time. And he hadn't suffered any small loss today either. Now that his mind was clear, and the danger was gone, he thought again of Nall...

"The Dauphin was indeed a traitor." Alex related. "But so was the teacher Winson and that one beastwoman Lavender. They and a few dozen of those mechanical creatures sprung a trap on us and threw us in the prison. Luckily, Miss Lemia Ausa didn't suffer the same terrible fate she did last time in Vane. She busted us out, but it might as well have been an empty victory. Melichon took more people out to power more of those machines, Nash and Mia included. He immobilized them with some sort of spell that caused a fever. We tried to stop him, but he was more than a match for all of us. Nall tried to help...but then the Magic Emperor Evangeon showed up..."

"Evangeon?" Tempest responded. "Who's that? Is that what Ghaleon calls himself now?"

"I wish it was." Alex responded. "But there's two of them now. And both of them are stronger than ever. Evangeon rides this flying chariot. Nall never had a chance against him. Ghaleon came up to finish the job after he managed to get us out with the White Dragon Wings."

Tempest clenched his teeth and snarled. "This is despicable. The one called Ghaleon has stooped to a new low for humanity. I swear that I will not let him use another innocent life as raw material for his evil."

Neither of the friends spoke for a moment, as Tempest continued to boil with his anger. Alex watched him in his rage. Tempest wasn't exactly the most level headed up people. He decided it better not to give the horrible truth about Fresca now, what Evangeon had revealed to him. There was no telling what he'd do. At any rate, Tempest managed to calm down, and turned his head to Alex again.

"We'll ride to a safe distance, then we'll rest for the night. It's been a long day for us all. Tomorrow we'll reach Meriba and talk to Master Mel immediately."

"Good idea." Alex answered.

Tempest sighed in response. "I only pray we can find some way to destroy those metal monsters... The Dauphin may have been right...there may not be an army on Lunar that can destroy them."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Seven

After clearing the mountain range, Tempest and his riders stopped and pitched camp from the night. Skilled at living in the wild, they quickly managed to set up a cozy little temporary village, even if only for their few number. Luna was practically scared out of her mind by this point. Yet luckily the events of the day had been so emotionally exhausting that she dropped right off. Lemia quickly followed, and Alex himself had no trouble resting either. The horses and their riders alike were tired, and they too fell asleep quickly. They needed to have their rest before the big events of the next day. That was the scheduled invasion date...

Despite all of their exhaustion, Tempest and Alex both were up at the crack of dawn. Alex felt unusual about this, knowing he normally slept in and let Luna wake him up. Of course...he had Nall then...and the thought of his friend brought more terrifying possibilities to mind. At any rate, they all arose, and Luna was considerably more composed than last night. Nevertheless, Alex still worried for her. Ghaleon made it clear that he wanted Luna again last night. But not only her, him as well. The latter of these two puzzled the young man, but he had no time to debate it mentally. They had to reach Meriba as soon as possible and do what they could to prepare.

Only a few hours after dawn, the group mounted, rode off, and arrived at the gates of Meriba. Leaving the riders to take charge of the horses outside of the town, Alex, Luna, Tempest, and Lemia walked in themselves. The place was as crowded as ever, but it was even harder to move through this time. Too many people recognized Lemia, and were intent on saying "hello" or giving some greeting at meeting one of the former Four Heroes. Alex tried his best to hide his own face. If people saw that he was the Dragonmaster out of clothing, then he'd be swamped as well. Lemia, on her part, knew how to deal with them, and quickly pushed through leading the younger people onward. Though it took some work, the group did manage to work their way through the town, and all the way to Mel's Manor on the northern side. Two guards were posted there already. Much to Alex's discontent, he saw that they wore the colors of the Zone Confederation. That meant that they could have been sent by Melichon or not. In either case, he wouldn't let them stand in his way. The four readily marched up to them.

"I am Lemia Ausa, former Premier of the Magic Guild." Lemia promptly addressed. "I must speak with Master Mel at once."

The two guards hesitated a moment after hearing this. Uneasily, they looked to each other, each having a look of tension. Alex didn't like this. Were they thinking about something? Were they being torn from duty? He and Tempest exchanged strange looks, both fearing the worst. At last, Lemia frowned and barked at them.

"Is there a problem?!"

"N-n-no...your Majesty Lemia..." One of the guards quickly returned, jostled at having been yelled at. "It's just...well...I'm not sure that the Master can see you right now."

Tempest scowled at this, impatient. "And why not?"

The other guard, angry at this impertinance, instantly lashed back at Tempest. "Because he's in a terrible bad mood, kid! He's been frustrated into an awful fervor for the past two weeks straight, and anyone who interrupts him risks certain death!"

Lemia merely groaned in response. "We'll take the risk. I'm sure that he won't harm me or any of these others with me. Now let me pass."

The two guards looked to each other with unease at this. However, after a bit of hesitation, they finally shrugged, and both stood aside. "Alright..." One of them mumbled. "Goodbye."

With the doorway now open, the four readily pushed it open and entered inside.

The place hadn't changed much in one year, Alex quickly saw. It still had the lavish design that Mel admired, as well as the indoor fountain. But the normal workers that were there weren't present. The entry hall was empty. Slowly, the four people stepped inside, looking around the area, and making their way toward the hallway that would lead to Mel's own office. Everything was quiet, and there wasn't a person around anywhere. However, before they could ponder this sudden silence for very long, a voice like an angry and hungry lion broke out from down the hall and bellowed throughout the entire manor.

"BLAST IT, WHERE IS THAT DIRTY LITTLE LACKY?! I'LL CRUSH HIS HEAD LIKE A GRAPEFRUIT!"

All four people recoiled in sudden shock at the roar of the voice. Despite being behind closed doors, all four could swear that they felt the rush of wind coming from the man's throat who screamed. Tempest blinked incredulously. He had never actually met Master Mel before, and had barely even heard of him. Uneasily, he motioned toward the sound of the voice.

"That's Mel?"

Luna nodded, a bit overwhelmed still herself.

"Is he man or beast?!" Tempest replied incredulously.

Lemia smiled a bit wryly. "Hard for anyone to say, including myself."

Alex frowned a bit. "Sounds like he already heard the bad news about the Dauphin. Let's go meet him."

The other three hesitated before seconding that motion. Tempest especially. But in the end, the four of them kept moving down the hall. They heard no more noise roaring from the office of Mel, but they still moved uneasily and warily as they stepped along. When they finally reached the door, Alex paused and swallowed for a moment, and then reached over, turned the knob, and gently pushed it open. Trembling a bit, the four slowly looked inside.

Mel's monstrous form was hunched at his desk, his face tight with anger and looking red faced and positively ferocious. Nearby, however, was a girl clad in white robes, with her hand on his shoulder and looking like she was doing her absolute best to calm the former down. Her hood was pulled over her head, but Alex and Luna recognized her in an instant. They knew who it was before she even turned her head to the door, a bit surprised. Mel himself looked up from his anger and with an irritated snarl looked up to the doorway. Yet the moment he saw who it was, he instantly softened with a bit of surprise. Yet it was the girl who was the first to smile and speak.

"Alex! Luna!" Jessica said with a beaming look. "You're here! This is a wonderful surprise!"

Relieved at the warmer welcome rather than something violent, Alex and Luna both sighed in relief. They quickly stepped inside. Tempest followed them right behind, as well as Lemia, who's face was a bit colder and more businesslike. Mel, seeing them all, instantly rose while a grin spread across his furry face.

"Ha-hah!" He bellowed. "Welcome back to Meriba, my boy! What a pleasant surprise this is indeed! And what's this?" He hesitated a moment, seeing the other two arrivals. He only grinned more though, seeming to forget all about his previous anger. "Lemia Ausa! I haven't seen you in almost a year now! About time you got down here, and not another one of your cheap little toadies... And someone else? Hey Alex, did you have a twin you never told me about? Longhair over here is your spittin' image...'cept maybe for the green eyes..."

Tempest looked puzzled. "Longhair?"

"It's great you could come!" Jessica called back. "But where's Nall? I've been wanting to see that little flying ball of fur too..."

Alex hesitated after hearing that, the memories flowing back to him again. His look became mournful, and his two friends ahead immediately picked up on it. Seeing his look, they too grew puzzled. Alex, on his part, bowed his head a bit slowly. He assumed that Mel may have known about Melichon somehow, but that he didn't know about Nall yet. "I'm sorry, Mel...Jessica..." He slowly answered, Luna now growing mournful alongside him. "But the Dauphin got him too."

However, in response to that, both Mel and Jessica formed a surprised look.

"Dauphin? What Dauphin? The Dauphin of Nanza?" Jessica asked, genuinely unknowing.

"What? That little pen pusher that Lemia got to replace Kyle?" Mel asked. "What's he up too?" With that, he snorted and crossed his arms. "Feh... I trust him about as much as I trust Kyle. He been up to trouble? I'd love to go and give him a punch in the face for ya', but I'm a little hacked myself and way behind. This Confederation idea has been nothing but trouble for me." With this, much to the surprise of the four, he suddenly glared at Lemia. "Why'd ya' ever start it anyway, Lemia? All it's doing is causing more chaos! I hope you've come to try and tell me how we're supposed to make this a bit more orderly and leave me to try and take care of Meriba rather than this entire region!"

At this point, everyone was confused, the four as well as Mel and Jessica. Lemia looked disgusted for a moment, but then frowned. "I beg your pardon, Mel..." She snapped back. "But the whole idea for the Zone Confederation was your idea. I'm trying hard to keep things in order in Vane as it is."

"My idea?!" Mel snapped back. He snorted. "Why in Althena's name would I want such a confusing piece of work to be plopped on my desk?!"

"You sent me the letter telling me you wanted to form it." Lemia answered.

Mel looked very shocked now. "WHAT?! Are you still batty from that damn mask, Lemia? You sent me the letter! You told me your whole idea for it! Heck, if it hadn't been for me knowin' for sure that Xenobia was dead, namely because I wasn't a damn lawn gnome anymore, then I'd think you were under control again for suggestin' the damn thing!"

Lemia opened her mouth to speak again...but soon after she shut it. Her jaw clenched tight, and she herself gave a deep throated growl. But it was not to Mel, but to the floor. As for the other three, they likewise formed uneasy faces, and all of them looked to the ground as well. This answered the question about the Zone Confederation. Obviously, they had both been played like harps. Someone had to have sent both of them a letter telling them the other one was behind the idea one hundred percent. Then they knocked off each other and collaborated. Once again they had been played, but how or why that was happening none of them had the foggiest.

"Never trust anyone again..." Lemia said with a sigh.

"Someone has been playing you two for fools." Alex spoke up.

"But who?" Luna responded by asking. "And why? Wouldn't an alliance make it harder for any opposing force?"

Alex hesitated again at that. Luna was right. An alliance would only seem to work against Evangeon and Ghaleon. So why would they want one in the first place if they were who was behind it? Was there someone else? Or was there some unknown plan? Alex didn't know, and he didn't have time to think about it. For soon, Mel rose up and bellowed at the top of his lungs again.

"Will someone please tell me what's going on?!"

All four of them once again recoiled in shock at the sight of the furious Mel. He looked annoyed and troubled now, and they supposed they couldn't blame him. Immediately, Jessica put her hand on him again. "Dad...calm down, will ya'...it's not that big a deal."

"Not that big a deal?!" Mel answered back. "This is an insult and backstabbing! He's gonna get it!"

Alex frowned back darkly. "You're right, Master Mel. Melichon is going to get it along with Evangeon and Ghaleon."

Mel turned back, looking more perplexed than ever. He grit his teeth at Alex. "Listen, kid, you better start makin' sense before you get me any more irritated with these mind games... What the hell does the Dauphin have to do with this? Who the hell is Evangeon? And what the hell does Ghaleon have to do with any of this when he's already dead?!"

Alex looked confused, as did the others. "Isn't Melichon who you're yelling about?" Luna asked.

"No." Mel responded quickly.

Jessica smiled a bit sheepishly. "Um...he's...actually yelling about Kyle. Two weeks ago was the day that I was picking out my wedding dress design with daddy...and he kinda sneaked in and took a peek. Dad's been so mad ever since that no one's been coming near him. Every time he's about to calm down he blows up again..."

The four all gave sighs of relief at once, as well as large drops of sweat forming on the sides of their heads.

"Now what the hell is going on?!" Mel boomed.

Alex drew in a deep breath, and then related all of the sordid details. How he had been summoned to Vane by Mia to investigate trouble brewing in the Stadius Zone, how they discovered that the Dauphin was directing Taben to build terrible weapons, how the people of Tamur and Pao were butchered, how they brought the Dauphin back only to have a trap sprung on them, how Mia and Nash were captured and Nall was defeated, how they met with Magic Emperor Evangeon and a somehow living Ghaleon, and finally how they had managed to arrive at Meriba. Mel took it all in with an overwhelmed look. The gravity of the situation was a little hard for him to comprehend, and in the end he was exhausted and stressed looking. Gritting his teeth he shook his head.

"I'm gettin' too old for this."

Jessica was likewise shocked, especially at the defeat of Nall and Mia and Nash's capture. "This is terrible... This is horrible. We have to find Nash and Mia, guys. I might be able to cure them."

"Sadly, our problems are much bigger than Nash and Mia." Tempest retorted.

Alex ruefully nodded in agreement. "He's right. They're moving their first army out today. There's four thousand of those machines we fought. And there's more coming. And every person they capture is going to be another one of them. We have to stop them first. That's why we came here."

"We need your help, Mel." Lemia continued. "We need whatever forces you can muster to help us battle against this new threat. And we need to now before that army has a chance to advance too far. Already Iluk, Meryod, and Reza must be at their mercy."

Mel frowned a moment, and hesitated as he heard all this. Then he sighed and shook his head. "Well, at least we know where they're headed. They'll be marchin' right to Nanza, where that Melichon will be ready and waiting to let them in."

"And then they'll march to Vane." Jessica added, a downcast look in her eyes. "Where that Duunran will surrender immediately. And with the Magic Guild down, everyone else in this Zone Confederation will fall too..."

Mel grit his teeth and pounded his fist on the table, leaving a dent. "Damnit! This don't make sense! If it wasn't your idea, Lemia, and it wasn't mine to make the Zone Confederation...then who's was it? And why?"

"Let's worry about that later." Luna reminded. "We have thousands of lives to save."

"Right you are, lass." Mel answered back, quickly simmering down and relaxing again. He looked once more to Tempest and Alex. "How many do you have already?"

Tempest grimaced. "Only about twenty four warriors are left. Archers. But our arrows will have no effect on them. I'm not even sure a flash arrow will..."

Mel scowled at this, and grunted. "Well then...we're finished. Before we even had a chance to begin..."

This shocked all of the new arrivals, and even Jessica. All of them looked at Mel in amazement. "Daddy..." Jessica uttered. "You can't be wanting to give up already!"

"There's nothing else we can do, Jessica." Mel answered glumly. "Meriba has a police force, not an army. And that's down to practically nothing after that damn Zone Confederation replaced it with their security force... The only ones in charge of the Zone Confederation's army would be those lunkheads you escaped from, so we can't trust them. It'd take weeks to get everyone together to do anything. And even if they were all together, they wouldn't be able to take somewhere as fortified as Nanza. Even if they could do that, they'd never be able to hold off the machines."

Tempest frowned at all of this. "Well, we cannot just all give up! This is the freedom of the world we are talking about! We pledged our lives to defeat Ghaleon before, and we cannot give up now! There must be some army we can raise...some fighting force..."

"Now, that sounds like a job for me..."

Hearing this, the six gathered in the room all raised their heads and turned to the sound of the voice. When they looked to the doorway, they soon were gazing on a black haired, well tanned, scantly clad tall man. All of them recognized him within an instant...especially Mel. Instantly, his face turned red as a beet, and he shot up from his chair.

"YOU?! HOW DARE YOU SHOW YOUR FACE IN FRONT OF ME! YOU'VE DISGRACED MY DAUGHTER YOU WORTHLESS BANDIT!"

Kyle, looking just as sly and casual as ever, instantly recoiled a little and put up his hands defensively. "Wha? You're still mad about that? Come on, Mel...I assure you I've seen Jess before with much less clothes than-"

Instantly, Jessica turned her head to Kyle with a look that could kill. "Shove it, you dolt..." She spoke in between grit teeth.

Alex rolled his eyes. Some things never change...

"Uh...anyway..." Kyle spoke again, quickly changing the subject. "We can talk about that later. But from what you guys have said, it looks like we've got bigger problems."

Jessica looked a bit amazed. "You heard?"

"I was standing outside the whole time."

"Why didn't you come in then?"

Kyle shrugged. "Guess I didn't want to find out if that one story about ol' Hell Mel castrations was true or not... I expected he'd still be a bit upset. But I can help out now. I can assist you guys with that army you need."

Everyone was a little surprised when they heard that.

"You can?" Luna asked.

"How, Kyle?" Alex questioned.

The bandit immediately had a grin on his face. "Well, though me and my boys were so rudely fired and replaced at the coming of the Zone Confederation..." Here, he cast a dirty look to Mel, who looked furious in response. "We still get along well enough. Heck, we even get together once a month for some booze and bromide trad-...uh...card trading."

Jessica's eyes popped open wide. "What?! What were you doing?! You filthy pervert! You better pray that you didn't trade any of the special ones away!"

Kyle instantly was defensive again. "No, no! Those are in my private collection!" Kyle hesitated a moment, then groaned, realizing his second mistake. "Aw...shoot..."

"Private collection?! Ooooh...I'm going to wring your neck!" Jessica snapped. "Why did I ever want to marry you in the first place?!"

Alex placed a hand on his forehead in irritation. Yes...never change...

Kyle cleared his throat. "Anyway, as I was saying... I still keep in touch. Most of them didn't go far. Some to Reza, joining their other bandits, or to Meriba, joining the all day drinkers association. It wouldn't take me any time at all to get them all together. And they're a bit more hardened than some of the other potential candidates for this job. They'll take back Nanza or my name ain't Kyle."

The others looked to each other for a moment after hearing that. To Alex, it sounded promising, or at least the only shot that they could make for right now. No one else seemed to have any better ideas for the moment. After looking around a bit, they all finally turned back to Kyle, even Master Mel. "Sounds like something..." He grumbled. "Not much, but hopefully will buy enough time for me to get something together."

"And me enough time to try to find as many Magic Guild members as I can who can be of use." Lemia added. "At least if they're stopped at Nanza we can try and hold them."

"Exactly how short is 'no time at all', Kyle?" Luna asked.

"By tomorrow morning..." The bandit answered. "Provided that I could borrow and ride one of Tempest's little fillies outside."

Tempest looked disagreeable with that. "Our mounts are the heart and soul of our village. We form a circle with them. Not just anyone can ride them."

"Would you rather ride into Reza?" Kyle asked with a grin.

Tempest groaned in response. "You had just better treat them with respect. But it will take all your strength to control one."

"How are you going to get to Reza without passing through Nanza?" Luna asked.

Kyle turned his head with a cocky look. "I know a few secret passages just big enough for a couple of studs like me and a horse."

Lemia frowned regardless. "Tomorrow morning is cutting it awfully close. These machines may be slow, but we have no idea how fast they can move when they get going."

"Still, it's about the best we can do." Jessica interjected. "We can't hold them off with what we have right now...no offense, Tempest."

Mel stroked his beard for a moment, thinking this whole matter over. But he really couldn't say anything else about it. It was this way or nothing. They were running out of time and options alike. At last, he shrugged and waved his hand at Kyle. "Oh, alright... We might as well give this thing a shot. Me and Lemia seem to have our work cut out for us now. We'll get together whoever we can. As for you, Luna, and Tempest, Alex...it seems as if you guys have had enough excitement to last you for now. Since we can't really do anything until tomorrow, you three can stay here."

Tempest nodded at this. "Thank you for the offer, sir. But I'm afraid that a member of the Pao Tribe is not well suited to the indoors. I will stay with my people outside on the city limits for the time being." With that, he turned and prepared to leave. "I'll make sure they're ready by tomorrow...and that a...tame...mount is procured for Kyle."

Kyle merely grinned. "Go on and leave her wild! Can't be any wilder than Jess-"

A sharp elbow by a young beastwoman cut the bandit off as it pierced his chest.

Alex quickly turned his head after Tempest, a bit surprised that he was leaving so quickly. Yet he did suppose it made sense. Nevertheless, he called out to the young man. "Tempest!"

The chief immediately turned his head slightly to Alex.

"Thank you."

The warrior merely smiled. "No need for that now. Tomorrow, we shall strike back, and Fresca will be avenged... The pleasure is all mine..." With that, he turned, and made his way out.

"Well then..." Mel responded, snapping out of his daze. "What about you two?"

Luna smiled. "We'd love to, wouldn't we Alex?"

Alex too smiled in response. It was a good feeling, after so much misery. But they couldn't let themselves get down yet. There still could yet be time. "Sure."

"Alright then. Everything will be ready upstairs."

Night slowly came over Meriba. Kyle got what he wanted. One of the horses was given to him, though all of the remaining archers were uneasy about it. At any rate, he was able to mount it, with much difficulty, and after the horse tried desperately to buck him off, to the point of Kyle actually punching it on the top of the head once, he finally took off for Reza, meaning to go there first, then come back to Meriba to get the others. With any luck, they'd have a two pronged attack ready in the morning. Lemia and Mel both broke off to gather as many people as they could, one from town and the other from Black Rose Street. Jessica and her two old friends were left alone. It would have been the perfect time to catch up with each other, but none of them felt too much like doing so. Now that the hustle and bustle was gone, reality was setting in. They failed to save Nash and Mia. Now...a horrible fate could await them. Phacia was gone. Nall was gone. Fresca was gone. If they were holding right now, they hated to think what it'd be like if they were losing. Depression hung on their minds, and what tomorrow held seemed even worse. It wasn't surprising that they all stayed mostly quiet, and turned in early.

This time they didn't have to all stay in Jessica's room. Mel was able to let them stay elsewhere in his manor. Each had their own separate room. Luna, on her part, had to admit that she didn't like the privacy that much. She wanted to be closer to Alex. The way that things were going...she was terrified of being alone now. There were two Magic Emperors this time...and one of them had made it clear that he still wanted her. On that note, she couldn't merely lie down and go to sleep. She got up and wandered, and continued to do so even after everyone else lay down.

Luna wandered the halls somberly, even as the torches began to be extinguished for the night and the guard came around to inspect the place. Her head was bowed and her look was grim. He was alive. The demon that haunted her nightmares was alive, and he was just as horrible in reality as in her fantasy. And once again...he wanted her. Why? To once again make her his slave? To release the Dark Goddess Althena again? And Alex...what did he want with Alex? To kill him? It seemed right...because if he did, then there'd be no one left on Lunar who'd be able to bring her out of any trance Ghaleon put her into. The thought pierced her soul, and filled her with terror as she continued to walk the halls. Not seeing where she was going, or caring rather, she made her way to a side doorway leading outside paned with glass. She opened it, and stepped outside into the moonlit night.

It was cool outside...just as cold as it had been the night she stood in the crow's nest of the Hispaniola. Just as cold the night she sang that song... Strange, she thought, as she walked over to the edge of the awning and looked down, gazing at the sleeping town below. She had been scared and uneasy then about the mysteries about herself. But now that she knew the answers...she was even more terrified and confused than before. Why did she exist? Why did her alter ego become her? She didn't understand, honestly... Oh, everyone could tell her what "Althena" had told them. That she wanted her power to be given to all the people in the world so that no one person could have it. But what was that to her? She knew nothing of ruling worlds or being a goddess. She didn't remember one moment of ever being Althena. All she remembered was being dumped into the world in not much better a state than she was now...starving...naked...hysterical...and alone. Inside...not much had changed.

If the whole incident with Ghaleon was supposed to make her feel more certain and knowledgeable about herself, it had failed miserably. She only feared herself even more now. She feared anyone...anything...that would even remind her of what she had become. Because she feared that one day it might return...

The thought frustrated her, and in her anguish she bit down and began to tear again, despite herself. This wasn't fair. Everyone else got to be normal people and lead a normal life. Isn't that what Althena wanted as well? So why couldn't she just be human? Why couldn't she just be normal like everyone else in the world? Why couldn't her share in Althena's power be no more or no less than what everyone else had received? Why did she have to be...her? The way she was?

No answers.

Never any answers.

"It's far too cold for you to be out tonight, my lady..."

Luna's head suddenly snapped up in surprise. She heard that voice...that same dark chilling voice that she heard on the roof of Vane. And it was near her...so very near her... In terror, she turned her head in a flash to the source of it. She gasped and recoiled...for there he was. Somehow, in her brooding, he came right on her and she didn't even notice. Now...Evangeon, fully armored, was hovering on his flying chariot not more than a few feet away from her.

Luna was petrified with fear. He had come to take her away, she immediately thought, to make her a lifeless doll of destruction again. She held up her hand in protest, and began to open her mouth.

"I won't hurt you, Althena." Evangeon interrupted, in his cool, yet harboring insanity, voice. "I didn't come here to hurt you, or to spirit you away. All I want is to talk. But I swear, my dear...if you so much as utter one scream I'll burn this entire city to the ground and your friends with it. Understand me?"

Luna paused and quivered in fear a moment. She trembled and held. But the thought of Alex, Jessica...more of her friends being destroyed. She dared not let it happen. She quickly nodded. "All right..." She spoke in a terrified voice. "You win. Just don't hurt them."

Evangeon said nothing for a moment. He merely continued to hover on his chariot. Luna peered at him, wondering what he would do next. What he finally did was...unexpected, to say the least. He looked out to Meriba, and gestured his hand over it.

"Beautiful night, isn't it? And such a beautiful scene..." He mused, speaking in a sly, sinister voice. "All those people out there... All those children...nestled all snug in their beds... Rather comfy and cozy, don't you think? Makes you think of when you were in Burg, doesn't it?" Evangeon hesitated...and then scowled. "They're all fools. They have no idea what's about to happen to them. With the power I possess I could destroy any house in an instant here, and filet all the people inside. In two days, an army will make them feel terror and fear more close to home than they ever expected. They don't have a clue..."

Luna grimaced at this, aghast at that sudden comment. "But why would you do such a thing?" She felt herself speaking, despite her fear.

Evangeon didn't answer right away. Instead, he merely snickered in response, a dark sinister laugh. Then, he turned his black helmet to Luna, gazing at her with those burning red visor guards, and then sneered darkly to her.

"Because I can, Althena. Because I want to." He hesitated a moment, and then snickered. "Because it makes me feel like a man. One of the above? All of the above? None of the above? It doesn't really matter. What matters is that I put something into perspective for you, Althena. What matters is that I have the power to do it...and no one in this building, including you, would be able to stop me.

"I have no idea how much of your old consciousness you retain, if any, but I'll be frank with you. You made a mistake, releasing your power. You thought you could keep people from attaining it in its purest form by doing so. In the end, all you succeeded in doing was giving every person in the world the ability to become an invincible powerhouse if they tried. You wandered into a room full of wolves and sheep and you gave the wolves sharper claws and snappers. Now, perhaps you thought that the good and the evil would balance itself out, and that they could rise and stop each other. But you forgot the basics about human nature, Althena...and that is that humans can be just as evil as they are good, and that your world could be bathed in destruction as easily as life.

"But you see, that's where people like you and me come in." He continued. Suddenly, he squatted on his chariot, as if trying to become more personal with Luna. "We're special. In the end, we're the masters of the world. We have the drive to make something of ourselves and the world. Call it ambition...call it nobility...call it whatever you want. In the end, though...it's people like us who make the big decisions. Everyone else is just what I said...sheep for the breed and sheep for the slaughter."

Luna frowned defiantly at this. "There's more value to people than simply those two factors. People have importance beyond that."

"Philosophic nonsense." Evangeon angrily snapped back. "Your plan was a failure, Althena. The people of this world lack any drive or ambition to use the gift you gave them. And even if they did, you know what'd they be like? I swear to you that most of them would be like me. Power is just like any other want, my lady...the more you have, the more you want. If you doubt my word then just take a good look around you. Think back to one year ago. Only five exceptional individuals came to your rescue. Where was the rest of humanity then? Cowering under the power of one...one who had the personal motivation and drive to put them in their place."

Luna grew more infuriated. "Ghaleon was wrong! He was going to destroy the whole world!"

"Yes he was! Yet only five people were brave enough to stop him? To use the power that Althena gave them? In the meantime, what happened? Those that were evil and decided to use their power for it did. They destroyed Vane, killed the four dragons, and nearly laid this pretty little planet of yours waste. And all this only a mere fifteen years after your "brilliant" idea... You didn't help anyone, Althena. You've given birth to a race of nightmares the world has never seen.

"I sincerely hope you aren't deluding yourself into thinking that Ghaleon is the only person in history who will ever try something of this magnitude. They'll be others, and they'll hatch various plans, some of them worse, yet most of them better, throughout the rest of this world's history. Oh, they might be stopped. But you know what? What does it matter? Those who are for good only use their power for defense. But the evil ones will use it to ravage the surface of this world. So good may win out again and again throughout history, but in the process they'll be collateral damage each time. Perhaps a town there, a few families here, and maybe once every hundred years another disaster like at Vane. But they'll be more. They'll most certainly be more, Althena. Yes...you've ended the era of the Dragonmasters...and now you have opened an era of abominations...a legacy of doom carriers and destroyers to last forever and ever...and I am the first one on that list..."

Luna was speechless. She didn't know what to say. She had never thought about it that way before. But it was true. The good and evil alike now had part of the power of Althena. Those who were special could attain the same power as Alex did...or Ghaleon. But Evangeon was right. Maniacs like him would use their power to destroy, but the good people could only defend, not rebuild the shattered lives of who was left in the wake. And now, those who were evil could do more damage and destruction than ever before... The thought sickened her, and gave her pause.

"So consider this, Althena... In this current world you only have one time of chaos after another, each generation waiting for its own set of heroes to save it. And for what? More corrupt rulers are elected. More people die. Oh, and what's the good part? Now they don't have good old Althena watching over them anymore. Blights...famines...diseases... Oh, it's all part of day to day life. And they'll still kill people, just as easily as they used to. Maybe even easier once a little trouble gets started. Just a world full of crummy bums, living under the oppression of power hungry maniacs, and dumbly calling out to some false goddess who isn't even listening anymore. So when all of the heretics come and start raising hell about you having abandoned them, they'll be right this time. They'll be helpless. They'll be on their own now, and full prey for all of the monsters in the universe that want nothing better than to eat them up and pick their teeth with the bones of their children."

Evangeon hesitated a moment...then suddenly, much to Luna's surprise, brightened...

"Or...we could have another scenario. We could have these evil beings destroyed. We could have them stripped of their power. We could have their misery eased, and their suffering calmed. They could be defended from everything that was bad or evil, and anyone who desired it would be helpless as a baby. Imagine...Althena...the glorious return of the goddess...now, having spent time loving and living in her own world like never before having more attentiveness and experience with the dilemmas of humans than ever. Think of the shining new age! Think of the joy of the people! Think...of your kingdom, Althena..."

Luna hesitated a moment, hearing all that Evangeon was saying. She said nothing but stood in silence. Yet at the end, she frowned, and spoke back to Evangeon, yet much quieter than before. "Althena is gone, Evangeon. Only I remain. But I'm sure if she were still here, she'd be telling you right now that there'd be no point to anyone even living if they just had their goddess do everything for them. And by preventing them from choosing freely to do good, then she'd be in effect leaving them lifeless puppets."

"More philosophy, my dear...meaningless." Evangeon slowly slid back. Abruptly, he stood to his full height on his chariot. His dark form towered over the smaller Luna, and suddenly the girl became more quiet, trembling, and afraid. "I could snap my fingers and have Jessica's neck in my hand, and with one easy squeeze I could pop her head off. Tell me...would you stand by and babble nonsense of, 'Oh well, he had to choose for himself' or 'People make their own mistakes'...or would you try to stop me in any way your feeble little body could? And would those words offer any comfort to your soul after I am finished, or would you curl into a ball on the ground and cry your heart out? Does that seem more desirable to you?"

Luna opened her mouth, but nothing came out. For she could say nothing. She would be lying if she tried to reply to this in any way. Evangeon had her there. At last, she swallowed, and tried something. "I...I...It's not fair. You're using me personally."

Evangeon laughed wickedly at this. "Well, don't worry about the personal factor, Luna. In two days or less there will be thousands of machines walking through these streets, vaporizing men and women, crushing the skulls of infants beneath their metal feet, and hauling off all the aged and children to become fuel for my army. There you go. Not one of them related to you. How's that for not personal? Perhaps you should call out to them as I'm burning the flesh off their bodies, 'You have to let him make his own mistakes!'"

Luna stared in horror, unable to speak, unable to say anything in reply to this. She could think of nothing.

Evangeon sneered and began to power up his chariot. It hummed again with a sound of powerful rockets. But still, the Magic Emperor went on. He pointed a single dark hand at Luna. "You think about what I said, Althena! You consider the fact that the power to save the world is in your hands! But don't think about it long! I'll be back very soon!" With that, Evangeon's chariot slowly began to rise. Luna stared at it the whole time as it went into the air, seeing it rise above Mel's Manor and tower over everything below. Once it was high enough, an eruption came from behind it, and instantly the chariot took off, bearing its rider, now cackling evilly, to the southern sky, streaking over Meriba as he did so.

Luna stared at him as he went. Yet as she did, his words continued to burn inside her memory. Wicked as he was, mad as he was...he did have a point. Until now she had wondered what these machines, Evangeon, and Ghaleon would do to the world before they were stopped. And now, what would they do? Could they even be stopped by Alex, now that he was back to being just another citizen again? Could anything stop the machines? It was Althena's power that was running them...the power she released. It was because of the release of power that they were even able to be constructed. It was because of the release of power that Evangeon had his own strength. Now how many would suffer before they were put down? And could she stand and watch it happen?

Luna didn't know...but now, she was more uneasy than ever. Especially at when Evangeon might come back.

Alex stirred from his own bed. Part of it was due to constant dis-ease. He couldn't stop thinking about Nall and his friends, and how they were helpless and taken away from him. But that wasn't all. He thought that he also heard something else coming from the window in his room. When he heard this, his eyes slowly fluttered open. It was dark inside his room, but he was well enough adjusted to the light to see. Plus there was moonlight coming from the window. He sat up, and looked around for a moment to see if anything was going on.

Instantly, he froze.

The window outside his room was wide open. The curtains were fluttering in the light cool breeze. But that wasn't what had his full attention. What did was the object that was suddenly sitting right on the sill, in full view for him to see.

The Red Dragon Shield.

Alex snapped his head around for a moment, trying to see if anyone had somehow managed to recover it and bring it to him. When he saw nothing, he quickly threw off his covers and went to the window. He looked outside, but once again saw nothing. After that, he paused for a moment, and then slowly shut the window. Afterward he looked to the shield. He hesitated a moment...but then slowly took it in both hands and held it up. It was still just as he left it. Light as a feather, stronger than dragonscales. He looked over it for a moment in puzzlement, wondering how it had managed to get there. Who could have left it for him, and how did they obtain it in the first place? The red dragon was gone, and until another appeared and took her place then no one would pass the trial for the shield. Yet this had to be it. As he touched it, he could feel it's power. The fiery strength of the red dragon ebbed through it. He felt the same power when he put it on last time, the power to summon the ferocity of the red dragon to burn one's foes.

As he continued to hold it, he slowly felt himself slide one of his hands behind it and grab it by his handle. He then slowly turned it, and wielded it in the proper position. Without knowing it, Alex began to breathe slower and deeper. Yes...it still fit just as easily as last time. And it felt...good. Good? Yes...he could feel its power...he could feel the strength that it gave to him...he could feel the power making his skin prickle...it had been so long...so very long... But it was his again...all his...his alone to control...to wield...to use... Slowly, he felt the sides of his mouth begin to curl into a smile...a greedy smile...

Then, in shock, Alex realized what he was doing. Abruptly, he released the shield, and it dropped to the floor with a clang. Like it was a poisonous viper, he recoiled from it, staring in terror at it as his brow broke into a sweat. What in the world had happened to him? For a moment...something had come over him. He had no idea what. Yet for a brief instant he had felt...good. No, more than good...complete. He suddenly felt as if until now he had been uneasy and fearful, not truly whole or together. But when he touched the shield...that feeling began to go away. He felt confident...warm...secure... Then, much to his surprise, Alex realized he felt that way too after he had the White Dragon Wings. He remembered feeling so overwhelmed and uneasy walking into the Stadius Zone. Yet now that he had the Ring and the Wings...nothing was disturbing him anymore. He was totally in control again...

But why?

Alex didn't know. Just as he didn't know why the shield was here. Turning, he moved to go back to bed. He could think about this more tomorrow. He had enough on his mind as it was. Promptly, he went back into the covers, lay down, and prepared to go back to sleep.

Yet he continued to stare at his returned shield for an hour before nodding off...

...and when he did, he felt no more anxiety about his friends.

 

Chapter Eight

Early the next morning, the group gathered back in Mel's office. Mel and Lemia looked ready enough. Jessica also planned on helping, and seemed ready and eager to depart. Tempest also came in, looking fierce and focused. Yet the two primary people were not so easy going. Luna came down first, her face downcast. She was uneasy as well as nervous, jumping whenever anyone spoke to her and seeming depressed the rest of the time. The group hadn't seen her that way since they set out a year ago, and to some that was a bad sign. Kyle marched back in before Alex came down, but he held off until the last of their group entered as well. He too was brooding and quiet as he entered, but the group reacted with somewhat more surprise to his arrival.

"Hey Alex!" Kyle called out. "Are you holding what I think that is?"

Luna too looked surprised, snapping out of her own depression for a moment. "Alex...that's the Red Dragon Shield!"

"Yeah..." Alex returned, sounding as if they had done nothing more than pointed out he had bed head.

"How'd you get it?" She instantly continued.

"Yeah. I thought you lost it when you released your power." Jessica added.

"I don't know..." Alex responded, seeming distant and preoccupied. "It was just...there yesterday. Someone opened my window and dropped it there."

Luna suddenly stiffened when she heard this, but said nothing. At any rate, Alex lifted it a bit and brought it at the ready. "But no sense in leaving it here. As long as I have it, I plan to use it today."

Kyle gave a nod to that. "Good idea. You know we're gonna need it. They really are set up well in that fort." Suddenly, the bandit grinned, looking to all of them. "But I've got great news. Seems that whatever they were using to try to get the people out of Vane didn't work that well. They stopped there and they're waiting for the invading army to meet with them. There's are good news, Alex. Mia and Nash are still there."

Lemia reacted strongly to this, but so did the others. "Then we have to help them." Alex stated, leaving no room for question.

Kyle looked a bit uneasy at that, and scratched the back of his head. "Ya' see...there in lies the problem. Sure, I've gotten the old gang together at Reza and in Meriba, and we're ready to roll on a pincer attack. But it's going to get awfully violent, Alex. And a bit desperate. There's rumors that Evangeon was spotted last night in that area, and I'd say he'd probably still be with them since he brought them that far. The moment we start to break through into Nanza, he could kill them all to make sure we wouldn't get them."

Jessica gasped at that. "Would he really be so cold-blooded?"

"He would...trust me." Luna answered softly.

Everyone paused for a moment after that, thinking about what could be done about that problem. However, after a moment or so, Alex looked back to the bandit. "You said you knew some secret paths, Kyle. Any chance we could move along them and get inside the fort? Say...maybe by moving under the ground or coming in through the basement?"

Kyle hesitated a moment, but then nodded. "Yeah... There is one secret exit that I never really used before. It gets a bit confusing, but I bet I could get through it. We can't really get the whole fighting force in through there though."

"We don't need to." Alex answered. "We'll just take in a small group, just like old times. We'll find them and break them out."

"How?" Jessica asked.

"The White Dragon Wings." Alex responded. "They can't take more than five or so at a time, but one of us can shuttle the people in and out. We just have to get in there first to establish a point of origin."

"Sounds good." Mel spoke with a nod. "But who's going to go in?"

"I definitely am." Alex answered.

"And you can count me in." Kyle proudly boomed.

"I'm headed too." Jessica spoke with a smile.

Mel frowned a bit at this. "Jessica...are you sure that you'd be alright?"

Jessica rolled her eyes. "I'll be fine, daddy. I've been in worse spots before. Besides, someone has to go along to keep these lunkheads out of trouble."

"If Alex is going," Luna suddenly spoke up, seeming to have a hint of fear in her voice. "Then I'm going."

Alex turned to her with his own concerned look. "It's not going to be just a cakewalk in there, Luna. There's no telling who or what could be guarding the place."

"I don't care." She answered. "I'm going to stick with you no matter what. We both heard what Ghaleon said to us. I'm not going to be separated from you. Not now or ever again."

Alex frowned a bit with a regretful look. This wasn't what he had in mind. Luna wasn't the best adventurer in the world. She only had a taste of the danger that they were getting into. Yet still, he wasn't about to leave her behind or on her own. For all he knew, that could be what Ghaleon and Evangeon wanted. At last, he smiled a bit and nodded. "Alright, Luna."

"Much as I'd like to assist you..." Lemia spoke up. "Especially since my daughter is involved in this, I do not think that would be wise. My presence among the students of Vane I have gathered might be more potent than my presence with you, especially given the lack of help I was in our last encounter."

"And the lollygaggers we've got here in Meriba need me to keep them in line." Mel grumbled.

"I will come." Tempest defiantly stated. "I'll avenge Fresca on Melichon and Evangeon both."

"Whoa, ease down, nature boy..." Kyle answered, putting up his hands. "You're a little hot and spicy right now. You need to simmer to a slow boil."

Tempest grit his teeth and snapped at the bandit. "Do not tell me to relax, criminal! These people have taken my wife and destroyed most of my people! After I am finished with them, I'll parade their dead carcasses all over this entire Confederation!"

"Tempest!" Luna called out. "Calm down!"

Tempest merely continued to seethe. "How can I be calm at a moment like this?! This is a time for action!"

"Stop it, Tempest!" Alex suddenly commanded. This caused the chief to hesitate, and look to his friend. "Luna's right. You're too upset right now. If you charge in there without thinking Melichon will beat you without even trying. And you'll do Fresca no good by losing your temper and being beaten too."

Tempest kept his frown. "I will not be beaten."

"Besides," Alex continued. "I don't think your people will fight as well if you're not with them. And they're your first responsibility, just like Luna is mine. You have to stay with them, Tempest. And besides, you're the best archer in the world. If they do try to get away with that flying transport, who's the only one who's going to be able to put an arrow in that air sac to bring them down?"

Tempest hesitated after he heard this. He was still hot and eager for action, and desperate for revenge. He bowed his head a moment and controlled himself though. After a little while, he finally sighed. "Very well, Alex. I will stay, but only because it is you, the Dragonmaster, who asks me. However, I'm counting on you to strike those monsters in human form so hard that they feel every bit of pain they put my wife through."

Alex smiled a bit. "Don't worry any about that."

"All right..." Kyle started again, getting over Tempest's snap. "Now that everything's settled, let's go liberate ourselves my old pad..."

The group moved out shortly thereafter, taking with them all the forces that they had managed to muster. Lemia had found ten students to accompany her back. Mel had managed to get about fourteen people together himself on such short notice. Kyle's own band numbered about fifty. Mixed with the twenty five archers on Tempest's end, they came to a total of ninety-nine. Kyle was satisfied with this number, feeling that they could take the fort with this. Besides, there were more troops waiting in Reza and coming up to attack as well. That left only the other matter at hand, knowing that a group of only four had to go in and brave the defenses to rescue their friends.

Alex was determined to be successful. He failed Mia and Nash once. He failed Nall. He would not fail again. He felt much stronger and more able since he now had the powers of the White and Red Dragon in him. He hoped it was enough to face off whatever was in there. He realized that the foremost risk, even if Evangeon wasn't there, would be that the Dauphin was. Yet he wasn't going to lose this round. He'd get Mia and Nash out of there even if it killed him.

The plains gave way quickly to the rocks and ascending slopes of the mountain range. There were a few monsters barring the way, but they were dispatched easily. The main target was still up ahead. Alex kept his sword out and at the ready the whole time, tightening his grip and ready for action. The others looked just as tensed and ready. Once again they were going to be fighting for the safety of the world. After one year, things were happening again in a state of closing apocalypse. Yet Alex wasn't afraid. He had Luna with him. As long as she was at her side, it wasn't going to be like last time. They could win.

At one point, Kyle suddenly stepped in front of the moving troop and held up a hand. Instantly, they all ground to a halt, and looked to the bandit. He gestured with his hand over to the right.

"This is the place." He spoke, keeping his voice low. "The Nanza Barrier is just a little further. The people at Reza should be gathering on the opposite side." With this, he pointed to the sky for a moment. Morning had grown old since they started. The sun was climbing higher and higher into the sky. "It's just about noon." The bandit explained. After that, he pointed to the shadows of the group. "Once they shrink into nothing, it's time to attack. Both sides will go at once. We'll be perfectly synchronized."

Jessica suddenly held up a hand.

"Question, brilliant leader..." She spoke in a grumbling tone. "What are we supposed to do about that?!"

With that, Jessica pointed up into the sky. Kyle and the others followed her and looked. Rolling in rather quickly was a mess of storm clouds. They looked big and ominous, and a mist of rain was already rolling from them. A lightning bolt crashed, and thunder cracked through the sky. The group all sighed uneasily. Kyle sweatdroped a little, reaching behind and scratching his head a little nervously. Finally, he turned his head around to the others.

"Ok, no problem! No problem!" He spoke in a reassuring voice. "When the clouds pass over the sun we'll just all attack by default."

"Do the other forces know about this?" Tempest suddenly asked.

Kyle swallowed a little bit. "Not exactly...but I'm sure they'll come running once they hear all the chaos we caused."

The entire troop began to look uneasy after that. Mel grit his teeth. Jessica groaned and rolled her eyes. "Kyle! You are such a moron! Didn't you think for a moment that it might rain?!"

"All right, all right!" Alex suddenly called, putting his hands up. At the order of the Dragonmaster, everyone went quiet and gave him their full attention. "Ok...so there was a mistake made. This arguing won't help now. We'll just have to make do with what we've got. At least with thunder and lightning and wind it will be hard for the prisoners to be lifted out of there, or for that Evangeon to fly."

Luna brightened a bit at this. "That's right! I never thought of that, Alex!"

Tempest, however, grumbled. "It will also make it harder to get any good shots..."

Kyle pressed on, before Tempest's pessimism made the whole group angry at him again. "Alright, Alex. This is the thing. The path just over there will take us to the basement of the Nanza Barrier. You, me, ol' Jess, and Luna will break in and start moving the captives out. Now since both noon and those clouds aren't far off, we're going to have to be quick." He looked up for a moment, staring at both the sun and the oncoming storm. "I'd give ourselves...an hour. Maybe a bit more."

"Let's pray that's enough." Luna answered.

"Right. Let's go." Alex announced. With that, he began to walk over to the path that Kyle indicated. Luna quickly followed after him, drawing her own dagger. Kyle also quickly caught up with them, knowing he had to lead the way. Lastly, Jessica began to walk after them too, and turned her head one last time to greet the others with a smile.

"All of you...fight hard, and good luck!" Then, she turned and began to walk away with the others down the path.

It didn't take very long to abandon the forces that they left behind. Within just a few minutes of going down Kyle's long and winding trail, they were already well out of earshot. The way wasn't easy. It was overgrown and washed away with rocks and mud. It was so precarious that anyone else who wasn't one of them would have never been able to make it. Jessica grumbled more than once as they went along, swinging around rock precipices, jumping over short washouts, and gradually seeming to go lower and farther away from the road. As they did, the clouds drew closer, and the sun grew higher. Their shadows began to shrink, and Alex noticed that. Time was against them the whole way. Yet they dared not move any faster along this road. Luna could barely handle it as it was.

"Correct me if I'm wrong, Kyle..." Jessica spoke with a groan. "But isn't the barrier the other way?!"

"Hey, keep your panties on." Kyle grumbled back. "It swings around. Trust me." He plodded on a bit further after saying that, and then he suddenly winced a bit and thought. "At least...I think it does."

Luna winced herself. "That doesn't sound good, Alex..."

The group continued to make their way over the rocks. After continuing to go down a bit further, Kyle's prediction finally came true. The road did spin back around and began to ascend. It was a relief for the others, but also a soon physical strain. For now, they had to handle the same dangers going uphill. And as Kyle led them onward, it began to grow even more dangerous for them all. At some points, Luna simply didn't have the footing to get across, and Alex had to heft her on his back in order to get her over. He didn't mind. He was just glad she was there. Every time he began to grow nervous or tense, he kept reminding himself that Luna was there. It was not like before. She was with them, not against them now. That helped him to push onward. And it was a good thing as well, for as they continued to climb their shadows shrank further and further...

At last, Kyle stopped and looked up. After grinning, he turned to the others and pointed ahead. "There! There it is!" The others looked where he was pointing, and just ahead they saw a dark cave nestled among the rocks and hills. It was pitch black inside, but Kyle continued to look to it. Alex looked up above it, and saw that the Nanza Barrier still wasn't in sight. But it made sense. If you were trying to escape a fortress, you naturally wouldn't want people to see where you were getting out. And besides, no army could follow people through that dangerous pass...

"It's pitch black up there, Kyle." Jessica told him.

"Yes, Jess..." He groaned tiredly. "I can see that. But that's ok. I saw the thing dug myself, and I've just about got it memorized."

Jessica's ears instantly perked up as her face turned enraged. "Just about?!"

"Shh!" The man snapped back. "You'll bring all of Melichon's men on us!"

"Kyle, you're an idiot!" Jessica shrieked. "You don't even know you're way through to the Barrier!"

"Look, it's not like it's science, Jess!" He retorted. "I'll find my way! Just...everyone hold on and we'll all be fine."

Jessica continued to grumble, but said nothing else out loud. As for Alex and Luna, they both began to look a little nervous themselves. That didn't sound too good at all. They turned to each other and stared a moment. Then, Alex sighed, and sheathed his sword. He took Luna's hand and held it tight. The blue haired girl smiled back to him, looking much more at ease already. All four of them walked a bit higher, until they reached the mouth of the cave. Once there, Kyle stopped them all again, and turned to them.

"Alright...here's what we'll do. Everyone just hang on to each other. But try not to make too much noise. Most of this place is in rock, but there are a few thin walls. Plus if they found this place out that'll make it a bit more difficult. You see, I had a couple entrances, just in case this back door offered a place to surprise attack. That'll work out, hopefully...if we can get to the room where they're holding the people captive. At any rate, this thing'll echo, so no one talk. We won't get lost if everyone holds on and doesn't let go. Got it?"

"Got it." Alex answered.

"Yes." Luna answered.

"Oh, all right..." Jessica groaned.

"Good...let's move."

Kyle, with a grin, reached out to take Jessica's hand. With a look like an angry sort of dog, Jessica took his hand, and then reached behind her to take Alex's. Alex, on his part, slung his shield on his back with his one hand, never letting go of Luna, and then took Jessica's. With the human chain formed, Kyle nodded, and then began to lead them into the black cave.

The going wasn't easy at all. Alex had a feeling that if Jessica could talk, she'd be screaming her head off at Kyle. Perhaps that was the reason he wanted silence, but Alex didn't chance it. They constantly stubbed their toes and shins on rocks all over the floor, had to walk through crouching the whole time, banged their heads against the ceiling, and suffered the wet, musty smell of decay. On top of all that, Alex felt Kyle lead them in a series of directions frequently, pause, and then suddenly turn them all around and lead them back to go down another way. Alex quickly lost track of all the turns after the initial two that plunged them into total darkness. He was soon entirely dependant on Kyle, and hoped he had some idea what he was doing.

As they went deeper into the cave, Alex began to lose track of time. But always he tried to think of how much they had left. It had taken them longer than he wanted to get here in the first place. Now that they were moving through it, there was no telling what was going on. They had to get to Nanza before the others did. He had to save his friends. Yet being in the dark cave so long made him uneasy. Only the warm hand of Luna holding on behind him gave him comfort. That constant touch made him feel always at ease. He only wished he could tell Luna the same thing. For after spending a few minutes in the dark black tunnels, her hand quivered and began to grow cold and clammy. Alex deeply regretted this. Yet at the same time, he couldn't help but prefer a scared Luna to the red-eyed demon woman that he had seen swat him away like he was a fly a year ago. And he persevered. They couldn't be walking down here forever, no matter how much it seemed like. As time went on, Luna's hand gradually stopped trembling. It stayed cold, but Alex could only hope that his reassuring squeezes had calmed her nerves.

Finally, some promise came after what seemed like forever. After making a turn, Alex suddenly saw the dark shadows of Jessica's hood and Kyle's long hair framed in yellow torchlight. It was coming from just up ahead, seeming to be in cracks in the wall that formed a rectangular shape. They approached it quickly, but stayed quiet the whole time. Once they were there, he saw Kyle's shadow finally release Jessica in front of him. Then he moved over to the yellow cracks, grunted a bit, and then pushed. After struggling for a short moment, the cracks expanded, growing larger and larger and letting light flow in. Kyle was illuminated, as well as his straining face. After pushing it open just a little, he quickly ducked his head outside and gave a look. Moments later, he turned back with a grin.

"All clear." He spoke in a whisper.

"About time." Jessica answered. "Where are we, anyway?"

"My primary entrance, over at the bar, right behind the rack for hard liquor." Kyle answered merrily. "I wanted to see if I could take us to one of the side entrances, but after running into a few stone walls I gave up on that. It was my idea to put this here. After all, the last thing I'd be defending in this old rock would be the booze."

"In that case, if I get a room here we'll have to put in a new primary entrance..." Jessica answered, then suddenly exploded. "Right, Kyle?!"

"Uh...sure!" Kyle instantly saved. "Anyway, let's save the day already."

Kyle pushed open the cabinet a little more, and then slipped out. Jessica was next, releasing Alex and pushing her own way out, a little difficult with her robes. But she made it none the less. Alex finally went, taking Luna by the hand with him, intending not to let her go until they were both safely out. Once there, he quickly pushed his way out, leaving his arm behind him holding onto Luna's hand. He emerged into the light, and after squinting a moment, adjusted.

Much to his surprise, he saw both Kyle and Jessica staring at him with shocked, fearful expressions. Seeing that, Alex froze where he was, and formed a look of concern. "What?" He asked. "What's wrong?"

"Alex...your hand..." Jessica murmured.

Alex turned his head around, and looked to the hand that was holding onto Luna's. Immediately, he gasped. For he wasn't holding onto Luna's hand at all. All he held onto was the hand of a human skeleton, moss overgrown, old, and decaying in his own bare palm. Gagging, the young man instantly threw it to the ground, shocked at how it had gotten there. Afterward, he looked up in tension and fear.

"Where's...where's Luna?"

"Alex...?"

Luna froze right where she was. Despite the warning of Kyle, she called out. She didn't care. She was scared now. Moments ago, Alex had released her hand. Well, not really released it...it just seemed to vanish. At the exact same moment, the floor suddenly became smooth, and fresh air went through the chamber. But it was still dark. Totally pitch black. She had thought Alex had lost her for a moment, but now she felt nothing and after a few minutes she still didn't. Now, she was scared.

"Alex?" She asked again. Uneasily, she began to walk forward. The floor was smooth still, and offered no resistance. "Where are you? Speak to me..." Still silence, only her footsteps hitting the floor. "Please..."

"Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha..."

Luna froze. Her blood ran totally cold. Though nothing had changed around her, she still didn't move another inch. She just heard that insane laugh echoing through the chamber. It ran up and down and all around her, penetrating the darkness and the floor she stood on to terrorize her. She knew who that voice was in an instant.

"Evangeon..."

"Welcome to my parlor, Althena." The voice answered, once more seeming to come from all around her. "My special chamber in the Nanza Barrier. Only you and I know about it, my dear. I'm sorry, but your friend Alex can't be with us right now. I've teleported you away from him for the time being. But it's not time to talk about him, Althena... It's time to continue our discussion from last night."

Luna hesitated, fearful. She had no idea where she was. But she still knew what Evangeon was saying. She had been teleported here. Where was here? If it was at Nanza, perhaps it was a secret room. If that was the case...maybe there was a way out. Quickly, she began to walk backward, hoping to reach a wall. "I...I have nothing to say to you..." Luna uneasily answered.

"Incorrect answer, Althena." Evangeon sneered back.

Abruptly, Luna grew angry at him. In a semi-defiant tone she called out into the darkness. "Stop calling me Althena! My name is Luna!"

"No, your name is Althena." Evangeon responded. "You've only forgotten about it. I'm here to help you remember."

Luna felt herself hit a wall. Quickly, she began to move alongside it, feeling for an entrance. "So...that's what this is all about?" Luna suddenly asked. "You're here to brainwash me again? Make me your slave?"

"Why Althena...I am shocked and appalled you would suggest such a thing." Evangeon coolly answered. "I'm different than Ghaleon used to be. I don't take any delight in puppets. I desire free and willing servants. But then again...that's what I am. A free and willing servant, Althena. I'm at your beck and call...you just have to learn how to ask me properly."

Luna continued to feel, still desperate and still wanting out. "I don't want that power."

"Oh, but you do. You most certainly want it. Because it is part of what you are. To each his own...or her own. It's your very nature, Althena... Don't deny what you are. Don't ever be ashamed of what you are. I'm not."

Luna hesitated a moment, not sure what to say next. But she still wanted out. She wanted to be with Alex. But she didn't want to leave this person, whoever it was, free to do with her as she pleased...or she'd just be a slave again. "Let me out." She stated after a long pause. "I want to be with Alex."

"Think a moment, Althena... Think about what's happening outside. People are going to die. Many people. Whether they're on the good side or bad side they're still going to die. But that's only going to be a preview of the sheer carnage that will be unleashed when my armies get here. They'll destroy everything...everything you love and care about...innocent women and children... You know, you can put a stop to all of it..."

"...Let me go."

"Very well. Go. If you want to leave, then do it."

"There's no exit."

"Then make one."

"...I...I can't."

"Don't play both stupid as well as weak with me, Althena. You want to leave? The matter is in your hands. Blast a hole through the wall. You want your precious Alex? Very well. Teleport him here with us. Hell, even make a magic light so you can see your own two hands in front of your face. I'm not keeping you here, Althena. You're free to go...so long as you want it."

Luna hesitated again. She didn't like where this was going. She felt cold all over, and she felt herself starting to tremble. Yet she still managed to continue.

"I...I know what you're trying to do. It won't work."

"Lady Althena...I'm not trying to do anything but let you see the truth."

"What truth?"

"The truth that you are the leader and maker of this world. The truth that you abdicated your throne for a foolish reason. The truth that people still need you...to defend them from the likes of me at the very least. I'll fill this world with nightmares of my hellish chariot, Althena. Will you calm the world and sooth it back to sleep...with your sweet and beautiful voice?"

Luna didn't answer. She refused to answer. She had said before that she had nothing to say to Evangeon. She was serious. Silence reigned in the darkness.

"All right...let's ask another question."

Abruptly, a flash of light erupted in front of Luna. She gasped and recoiled as the sudden blinding white shine showed down from the ceiling, shielding her eyes from the glare. But her eyes quickly adjusted, and she looked up again. She soon exclaimed in surprise once more, for there was now someone in the room. It was a ragged old man. He looked sick and weak. His skin was dry and his mouth was dry. He looked absolutely parched. He was dressed in rags and chained all over to a tall piece of wood. He was making dry cracked gasps with each exhale of his throat. Luna stared in total surprise for a moment, and kept her distance. She held for a little while, but then suddenly asked a question.

"What...what is this?"

"This is a prisoner." Evangeon answered. "Unfit for work, unfit for powering a machine, and alive now for only one purpose, to educate you on a matter of yourself. But don't worry, he can't see you or hear you. He's a prisoner here, Althena. In the dungeon right here. I'm afraid, though, that he hasn't had any water or food for days now. He's on the brink of death. True...your friends are coming to liberate him, but they'll be too late. He's enjoying his last few minutes on Lunar as we speak. Pity...for he could so easily have his life extended."

Luna continued to stare at the man. Her heart was moved with pity and compassion. He looked so alone and miserable, so despairing. He looked as if all the hope was lost in his eyes, and that he was now letting death take its toll on his dehydrated body. Luna's face turned to sorrow. If only she could say something to him. If only she could tell him help was on the way, she was sure he would hang on longer. But she couldn't, only stand there and watch him die.

"Now Althena...you can help him. It's simple really. Nothing special at all. Just give him a cup of water. Even if he's despairing, his thirst will make him drink. And it will keep him alive until help comes. Just one cup of water, Althena...that's all it takes. All it takes to spare his life. All that separates him from life and death."

Luna stood and stared at him. He was a miserable sight. He was dying. Her heart continued to ache. If she was only there! If she was there she'd help him live...help him hang on longer. But it was no use now. She was trapped here with Evangeon, and he had left it to only one choice. It frustrated her. She could do any number of things to save the man. If she was there she'd fetch him the water herself. But Evangeon had put it down to one choice...one choice alone. Luna trembled and hesitated. When her life was at stake, this was easy. But now there was another's...and she knew not what to do.

"Well, Althena?"

It burned inside her. It was a terrible decision to have to make. But as she stared at that man, she knew that despite everything she wanted...in the end she could make only one choice. She stared at the man, her eyes begging for his forgiveness though he couldn't see them, and would never know that she held his fate in her hands. At last, with a heavy heart, and a heavier conscience...she shook her head no.

"I'd save him if I could..." Luna spoke slowly and softly. "If I was there, I'd do anything possible. I really would. ...But I'm only human, Evangeon...and you were the one who put him there, not me. You're guilty for his death."

"No, Althena...YOU are." Evangeon sneered. At once, the image vanished. "Had it not been for you I wouldn't have even bothered capturing the man and doing this to him. I did it only to see your compassion. But I see you can be just as cold hearted as I can, fool."

Despite her resolve...Luna felt pain at the sound of Evangeon's words. As the man vanished to whatever fate was in store with him, she couldn't avoid the guilt that was on her soul now. She couldn't deny that she had an opportunity to help, and in the end she did not take it when she could have. It devastated her, and pained her. That had been one of the most terrible experiences of her life. That had been the worst choice she ever had to make. However, Evangeon's insane voice soon had more misery for her.

"Oh well...I have many more questions, Althena...harder ones. Let's see if you can answer them any better, or if more will die due to your incompetence."

"How'd she get away?! Did you let go of her?"

"I didn't let go of her for even a second..." Alex answered in his terrified voice. He began to panic, worry and fear seeping into his mind. He hesitated a moment, but then spoke again. "I've got to go back for her..." He made for the tunnel.

Instantly, Kyle grabbed him by the shoulder. "Are you crazy, Alex? We just got in here! If we got back into the tunnel we'll lose all the time we have left! It'd take an hour to go through everywhere in there!"

"But she's still in there!" Alex answered desperately. "She's got to be!"

"I don't think so." Jessica answered, her voice now growing a bit low and serious. Kyle and Alex both looked to her at that. "If you really didn't let her go, and I trust you when you claim you didn't, Alex, then somehow you lost her and had that hand take her place. My guess is she was teleported."

Alex hesitated for a moment after hearing that. Then, his eyes suddenly opened in fear. "Ghaleon..." He spoke with a tremble. Suddenly, his entire body was wracked with fear. He placed a hand to his head as tears began to well up in his eyes. "Oh no...please god, not again..."

"We don't know that for sure, Alex." Kyle responded, confidently. Alex didn't react. He continued to tremble. He grew weak on his feet, and tears continued to form in his eyes. The first loss of Luna had tested every fiber of his body and soul. Losing her again...it could very well destroy him. He couldn't take it. His grip became loose, and he nearly slumped into a heap. But before he could go down, Kyle grabbed him by the shoulders and put him against the wall.

"Alex." He spoke, trying to get the young man's attention. "Alex... Alex, listen to me. Don't wig out on me man and don't you dare quit... We need you. Nash needs you. Mia needs you. We don't know for sure what happened to Luna. But if anything did, she's strong. She's stronger than she was before. And so are you. We'll get past it, no matter what it is. But Alex...Alex, a lot of people including your friends are going to die soon or worse unless we get them out of here. Come on, ol' buddy...we need you."

Alex continued to tremble for a moment. But after a pause, he started to realize Kyle was right. When Tempest lost Fresca, he encouraged him to help to keep more from happening. Now he could expect no less from himself. He had to fight. He inhaled deeply, fortified himself, and then stood and looked at Kyle with determination. "All right." He answered. "Let's do it."

Kyle grinned. "Now that's more like it. Follow me."

With that, Kyle turned and began to take off through the underground area. Jessica smiled encouragingly to Alex, and then took off after her lover. As for Alex, he sniffled once, wiped the tears from his eyes, and then drew his sword and shield. Afterward he shot after the couple as they moved. Their feet clicked hard against the wood floor, arousing no attention at all as they ran. Alex soon figured that it had to be because all of the troops were outside, readying themselves to welcome Evangeon's army or defeat anyone who tried to take the fort from them. Or maybe they were looking after the prisoners. At any rate, Alex didn't care. He'd put a stop to them soon enough. After coming forward for a few moments longer, the three of them came to a staircase. Kyle turned and faced his companions.

"Ok. These stairs lead up to a door to the main courtyard. It's about the only place where they'd be able to land all those people up in Nanza. Now all the guards should be watching the walls, so with any luck we'll get out there, sneak on board, and then start getting them out."

"Alright, then let's hurry." Jessica responded. "At this point, it should be noon any time now."

Kyle nodded, and quickly took off up the stairs. Alex and Jessica followed hot on his heels. Jessica drew her own mace, readying herself for battle. Alex tensed up, ready to use the power he had to beat any opponent who stood in their way. Soon they were at the top, setting foot on the newer wooden floor. The three of them turned, and instantly made for the door out to the courtyard.

Just as quickly, all three of them ground to a halt.

Lavender, arms crossed, glaring all the way, was guarding the door.

For a split second, the three hesitated. Their intentions were suddenly halted, and their original plan was instantly crushed the moment they saw Lavender glaring right into their eyes with her mean, defiant look. But before anyone else could do anything, Kyle suddenly stepped forward. He reached behind him, and with one easy yank drew his katana, twirled it around, and held it before him in his battle position. He zeroed in darkly on Lavender, and without turning his head he called behind him.

"I'll take care of her."

Alex wasn't so convinced. Melichon's strength had surprised him, but he had no idea how much this beastwoman was capable of. Also, Jessica looked suspiciously at Kyle, wondering if he had any other thoughts about the woman besides battle on his mind. Yet he was right. They still had a job to do. Turning aside from Kyle, as if the matter was over, Alex merely stated one word: "Right."

Jessica hesitated, but then sighed and followed after Alex. "We'll find another way in from the upper level."

Kyle didn't answer. He narrowed his gaze on Lavender. The beastwoman stared a moment longer, and then at long last lowered her arms. Her muscles sounded tight and packed as she did so, as if she was rippling with it. Once they were lowered, she calmly cracked her knuckles and popped her neck. Then, she reached behind her with both hands. One hand took up the battle axe, while the other took the heavy saber. She drew both, and then placed herself in ready position before Kyle. Yet Alex saw no more of him. He was too busy heading to the next floor.

Yet halfway up the stairs, Jessica caught up with him. Suddenly, her own face went shocked, and she stuck a finger out a small window nearby. She grabbed Alex as she did so, indicating the trouble. "Alex! Look!"

The young man did so. Much to his latest displeasure...the sky had grown completely dark. Thunder and lightning was crashing outside. The sun was now fully blocked from view, and Alex realized in his anxiety as a thunderbolt rocked the walls around him that the fighting force would soon be coming.

"We don't have much time..."

Another white flash happened before Luna. She recoiled again, shielding her eyes from the glare. However, she knew that only another horrible image was going to await her after she opened them again. The flash once again died down, and so she looked once more, however reluctantly.

She saw the machines there. Not just one, but a few dozen, or more. They were all marching forward. As they did so, those cylinders on their sides fired out blasts of power again and again, destroying everything around them. There were people there too of all shapes and sizes. Most were running in terror. Those that didn't tried desperately to fight against the metallic hoard. They met with little or no success. Either the machines smashed them down and took them away, to where Luna knew they would be used to make more of the machines, or they were merely destroyed with a single blast of power. People were being shot down as they ran too, regardless of age. Some were captured, some were killed, and some were trampled mercilessly. Luna was again horrified.

"What's going on?!"

"Nothing out of the ordinary, Althena." Evangeon answered calmly. "As of right now my army is destroying Iluk. Meryod is already finished. They're programmed to kill everything they can't capture. But don't worry too much. They've managed to capture a lot alive. That means my army will soon be triple its current size. I'm very pleased with their performance so far. They've stood up perfectly to everything thrown against them. There have only been two breakdowns so far, both due to too much tension in the interior lines. Yes...Taben has surely outdone himself this time. And it's nothing out of the ordinary still, Althena. Because this cheerful scene right here will soon be repeated...at Reza, Nanza, Lann, Vane, Meriba, and all points north."

Evangeon chuckled darkly at his own joke while Luna was captivated by the scene before her. She had never seen such wanton destruction and death, not since Ghaleon reached the height of his power. And Evangeon was ordering it so mercilessly... The cold machines wouldn't stop for anything. They continued to move always, cutting down more lives left and right. Finally, Luna couldn't stand it anymore. Eyes filling with tears and body full of anguish, she yelled out into the darkness.

"Stop it! Why are you doing this?!"

"Simple...because I want more power, Althena. YOUR power. You so wantonly tossed it aside, I didn't think you would mind if I got it by sucking it out of each and every human being that I came across."

"Make it stop! End this!"

"YOU end it. You have the power, so do it. It won't take much. You could do it the destructive way and summon energy to obliterate my entire army. Or you could do it a lot easier. Simply recall the power from that area back to yourself. It runs off of your energy, Althena. Just take it back. With a wave of your hand, my entire army could be reduced to nothing but scrap metal. This coming war would be over before it got started, before the bloodshed really begins..."

Luna stopped, watching all of the people die in front of her, watching them run in terror from the merciless battalions. Again, she was put to a terrible choice. This weighed on her heart more heavily than ever. Evangeon was right...

"Go on, Althena...I won't stop you."

Luna's lip quivered. Her heart was torn inside, and she didn't know what to do. Yes...if she wouldn't deny herself and let her power free, she could drain it from all of those machines. Then that would end it. And what just was it that she'd be ending? Thousands...millions of deaths...all manners of chaos and destruction... Yet she was still scared. She didn't want the power back... But could she be that selfish? Avoiding the power coming to her and paying the price for it? With just a wave of her hand...she could make them all powerless...save Lunar...

Then...she thought on. Yes, she would save Lunar this time. But then what? Evangeon had spoken of others. And others would come, ones who would do less worse or more terrible things than what was going on now. Then what? Would she stop them too? Would she stop danger there as well? And then, what if she decided to one day move to a lower level...stopping larger crimes, murders, rapings... It wouldn't be long before she was intervening in everything. And that's exactly what Althena was against. If humans didn't learn to make their own mistakes, they'd never have any incentive to change. And if they always had her as a safety harness, then they'd never want to do anything. They'd only want her power for themselves, just as they had for years before this. Luna couldn't do that. Much as this hurt...much as the suffering would last...it was wrong. It was still wrong.

Her lip trembled. Her heart ached. Those people she saw... She was now sentencing them all to death. Inside, she told herself again and again that this was Evangeon's fault. It was all that was keeping her from collapsing in guilt. "No." She managed to finally utter, very weakly. "I...I will not."

Slam!

A blow like iron suddenly smashed into Luna's face. Her head flew backward and smashed into the wall behind her. She cried out in pain and misery as it collided, and she slumped to the ground afterward. She hesitated, but then began to rise again. Her face felt like it was on fire. When she touched it, she winced at the burn and tenderness of it. She also felt a warm trickle running out from the corner of her mouth. Then she heard a hideous sneer.

"FOOL! You have it in your power to end all of this and you still won't?! You're more than weak and cowardly, you're stupid! How many people will it take, Althena? How much of this world will I have to turn to ash before you stop me? How many cries for mercy will they have to yell before you come to their rescue? How long will it take you to finally do your duty?"

Luna felt her lower lip start to swell, and she was dizzy from the blow. The image in front of her vanished, and she was sore from that hit. But nevertheless, she managed to still be defiant. "Never."

"Never is a long time, Althena." Evangeon hissed. "Let's see how long you'll hold out...when we make this more personal."

Alex opened the door to the upper wall road, and ducked his head outside. Immediately, he put it back in, spotting a guard coming his way. He didn't hear any chaos yet, so the fight couldn't have started yet. But that still didn't leave much time. Moments later, the guard passed by the door. In an instant, Alex flung open the door, seized the man, and dragged him inside with a shocked expression. One sharp blow to the head from Jessica's mace later and he was out cold. Luckily for Alex, only one other guard had spotted this happening, the others having their heads turned to the three roads of Nanza. Quickly, he walked over, his sword out and looking curious and mean. He reached the door, opened it, and stepped inside. A second later, he too collapsed in an unconscious heap.

"Two down...a few hundred to go." Jessica groaned.

"Maybe not." Alex answered. "Come on, let's get in their uniforms."

"Ugh!" Jessica exclaimed. "They look like they haven't bathed in weeks..."

Nevertheless, both Jessica and Alex quickly stripped the two guards and put on their uniforms in their stead. Jessica's was a bit baggy, but it didn't matter. They were just going to need these to move around in unnoticed. So long as no one looked really hard at them, it didn't matter. In a few minutes they were dressed, and they still didn't hear the call of battle. They still had time. Both of them exited and took a look around the fort.

The place was indeed teeming with guards. They were posted at every wall holding bows and arrows and swords. They seemed to be on the lookout for trouble. Alex didn't know what the Dauphin had told them, but obviously they believed it. Yet his primary concern wasn't the guards, numerous as they were. As he looked down at the open courtyard below, he saw the same giant balloon system that he had seen on the roof of the Magic Guild in Vane. He immediately grew enthusiastic.

"There it is..." He spoke to Jessica in a whisper. As he did, he began to feel a dripping on his clothing. It was cold. He realized in an instant that it was starting to rain, but it didn't concern him right then.

"Alright." Jessica answered. "How do we get down there?"

"Find another staircase down from this level." He told the priestess. "They should let you through if you're wearing that."

"What about you, Alex?" Jessica answered.

"I'm going to get down there a bit more...directly." He answered. "Just go. Trust me."

Jessica hesitated after hearing that, but then she smiled and wished Alex good luck. With that she turned and began to go off in search of another tower. As for Alex, he looked around for a short while, looking at the guards. He had to make sure that none of them were watching him, or at least that they were preoccupied at the moment. Once he was absolutely sure that he wasn't being watched, he looked back to the courtyard. He inhaled deeply once, and then shrugged.

Well...I've fallen from greater heights...

Then the young man leapt up on the rail and hopped off. After sailing downward a few moments, he crouched and landed on the courtyard below. His legs instantly stung, and he winced for a moment. But it only lasted for a short time. He recovered quickly, and soon was standing up again. The carrier was now right in front of him.

"Alright..." He spoke to himself a bit louder. "Nash...Mia...I'm here."

"Just in time to join them."

Alex snapped his head to the sound of his voice, finding himself soon staring just at the side of the carrier. Slowly, the black-clad, white-haired form of Melichon emerged from behind it. His saber was already drawn and at a ready position at his side. He gave Alex a cool, confident smile. As for the young man, he recoiled a bit.

"I'm happy you finally came, Master Alex." The Dauphin spoke. "I'll admit I had my doubts, but Magic Emperor Evangeon called you perfectly. He knew that this carrier would be the perfect bait. And now you've come to stage a brilliant rescue, I trust. So sorry that I will have to interrupt. But you see, I have different plans."

Melichon began to advance on Alex. In response, Alex's jaw tightened, and he drew his own sword with one hand. Into his other he took up the shield.

Melichon didn't change. "I have a rather grand award awaiting me after I'm finished with you, boy. I was ordered to capture you alive, but only if I was unable to destroy you with my own bare hands. After our last battle, I am confident of the latter. You can still surrender, if you wish. After all...the award is nothing less than becoming the next Dragonmaster. I've dreamed about such for years. Once I have that prize, only the masters will be stronger than me."

"What did you do with Luna, Melichon?" Alex demanded.

"She's having a personal chat with Evangeon at the moment, Master Alex." Melichon responded. "You need not worry about her. You need only consider surrendering. My power and skill far outclasses your own, and even if you somehow managed to overcome all odds and defeat me, you're totally surrounded."

"I wouldn't bet on it, Melichon." Alex answered. "Now that I have the Wings, Shield, and Ring, I have the power of the Red and White Dragon."

Melichon raised an eyebrow. "Really?"

With that, the man suddenly raised his free hand. A beam of pulsing purple energy erupted from it and surged right for the young man. Quickly, Alex crossed his arms in front of him, and the ring and wings that he possessed began to glow. Before the blast could hit him, the massive form of the White Dragon suddenly materialized behind him, and his body was instantly encased in a sphere of white light. The blast from Melichon smashed into him, causing a huge burst of explosive, deadly light to shower all around. But the orb held perfectly in front of Alex, not buckling an inch. Melichon blasted for a moment, but then frowned and shut off the energy. The moment he did, the orb vanished.

But Alex wasn't finished. Next, he held his own shield up and aimed it right at the dark mage. Moments later, the hulking form of the Red Dragon materialized behind him, replacing her brother. It lasted only a moment and then vanished. However, huge orbs of red searing fire soon rained down onto Melichon. Seeing this, the man, for the first time Alex could remember while fighting him, showed a little mild surprise. But it lasted only a moment, and soon the Dauphin held up his own arms and generated some sort of shield around himself. The flames bombarded him for a few moments, but did not break through. He grunted and strained beneath them, however. In the end, the flames were gone, and the Dauphin still stood.

"So you have their power." Melichon responded flatly. "And with it, you are my magical equal. But has your combat improved nearly so much?"

Alex pulled back his shield to his side and brought his sword forward. "Only one way to find out."

With that, the two opponents lunged at each other. Now equipped with a shield, and having half the power of the Dragonmaster in him, Alex was much more adept. He blocked Melichon's first jab with his shield and countered quickly with Althena's Sword, nearly overwhelming the old man with his first blow. However, he quickly adjusted too, and soon the two were clashing and swinging up a storm around them. Alex knew that at this point they had to be attracting the attention of everyone around them, but he didn't care. So long as they didn't interrupt, it was no problem to him.

The Dauphin was just as deadly as before, if not more so. If not for the power that the ring and shield gave him, Alex knew he would have been beaten just as easily as before. But he continued to dart around, keeping speed with Melichon quickly. Even when he lashed forward with three lightning jabs, Alex was able to keep up with them and block each one with his shield. Melichon would shoot forward slashing, twirling, and dancing forward, and Alex would be hard pressed to counter. But then, the young man would last back, striking down again and again on Melichon's saber and pushing the man back. Yet neither of them seemed to gain an advantage. The rain began to pick up around them, turning their battleground from dirt to mud, and soon covering their boots with the substance as they battled onward. Yet there was still no victor.

After a few minutes, the two warriors clashed together. Both of them put their weight on their blades, and glared at each other with killer intent. Due to this interim, Alex finally risked a look around. Sure enough, just as expected, every guard had turned away their attention from the roads and were now standing and watching them instead. A few archers had a bead on Alex, no doubt intending to kill him after he was finished. But they held their fire, letting Melichon due onward with him. The Dauphin himself looked around, but kept his gaze primarily on Alex.

"So you have improved, boy...but your efforts are futile. Look around you. You can't escape, even if you defeat me."

"I may have more surprises in store than you think." Alex answered.

With that, almost as if on cue, whizzing sounds began to go through the air. Both Alex and Melichon looked up to the source of the noise. Just as they did, they heard wet smacking sounds. Their eyes soon landed on four surprised guards, who now had arrow tips protruding from their chests. With one last gasp, they rolled their eyes and fell over. As for the other guards, they looked around in shock. More arrows soon flew over the wall and smacked into more of them as well. Abruptly, one of the soldiers yelled out in a fort-wide siren.

"Attack! Our fortress is under attack!"

Alex smiled a bit at this. Despite the fact that his own mission seemed to have failed, at least the attack was underway. As for Melichon, he looked shocked for a moment, but then turned to Alex in rage. While Alex still looked away, he pulled back, picked up his foot, and smashed the young man in the chest. Alex cried out in sudden pain and fell backward, knocked off balance. The Dauphin growled and then shot forward, swinging his weapon again, meaning to kill Alex while he was at a disadvantage. Alex soon saw the danger, and struggled to keep his balance, recover from the blow, and defend against the Dauphin at the same time.

Despite his best efforts, Alex couldn't keep it up. Something had to give, and it ended up being his balance. Abruptly, he slid on the mud beneath him and fell on his back. Before he could reach up his sword or shield to defend himself, Melichon aimed his sword at his neck and held it there, just lighting touching his adam's apple. Once there, Melichon paused a moment and breathed deeply. He was sweating now and looked tired. Alex was much the same way too, but the young man was still amazed that he had managed to bring the Dauphin down that much. But that didn't seem to do him that much good now that he was at the end of a sword point.

"Valiant effort, Master Alex...but in the end, futile. Just as this attack that you are making on the Nanza Barrier is futile." Melichon snorted. "Even if it succeeds, you will not defeat the army. No one can. Why else do you think that I joined with the masters?"

As Melichon said this, Alex kept his gaze focused right on him. Meanwhile, his hand underneath his shield was shaking. Not because of nervousness, but because it was trying to loosen out of his wrist the small dark rod that Ramus had given him. Slowly, he felt it starting to shake loose and enter his palm. But he dared not rush it. If he did, he'd be dead from Melichon seeing what he was trying.

"You could have joined them too, Master Alex. But you had to chose the way of the brave fool. Now you'll burn out in a blaze of glory. Once again, boy, game set and match."

Alex continued to shake. Finally, the rod dropped into his hand. Wasting not a second, but praying that it was aimed the right way, Alex pressed it and popped out the blade. Abruptly, his hand shot out from underneath his shield as he leaned his head back, and swung the small weapon right in front of him. It caught Melichon's blade and ripped it sideways, barely scratching the surface of Alex's chin. But now, with Melichon's blade out of the way, Alex brought his sword around and slashed desperately for any part on his body. It cut right into his shin leg. Emitting a short cry, Melichon recoiled. Instantly, Alex jumped to his feet and brought up his shield and sword with him, pausing only to collapse his knife and send it sliding back into his sleeve.

"Seems you've never heard of overtime."

Alex then unleashed his sword dance technique, blinding Melichon with a series of devastating blows. Shocked and overwhelmed, the man struggled to face off against it. And he did rather well too, managing to block them all. But after he was finished, Alex merely continued his fearsome assault, hammering down on Melichon with one overhand chop after another. The advantage was now his. Melichon continued back up and sweat, and gradually his face began to show strain as he struggled to withstand Alex's assault. But what really couldn't stand it was his saber. It was growing hot and twisted from all of the punishment it had taken from Althena's blade, which never grew the slightest bit duller or weaker. In his growing fear and realization, Melichon was starting to realize that he was not the strongest warrior after all.

At last, Alex gave out a powerful war cry and smashed down on the Dauphin's blade one more time. As it connected, the saber finally had it. It splintered and broke. The power itself was so strong that Melichon cried out and dropped it. Now, it was Alex's turn to rear up and kick Melichon in the chest. He did so, and soon the old man toppled over and fell to the ground. With that, Alex, his eyes cold and his face locked steady, put his sword to the man's neck and held him down.

"It's over, Melichon." The young man stated. "Where's Luna?"

However, the Dauphin merely stared spitefully back at Alex. With great concentration, he managed to calm himself down, but spoke in a deep sneer. "Don't think you have won anything, boy. This small victory is no less pitiful and meaningless as your army's. You may have beaten me, but you will beat neither Evangeon or Ghaleon."

"I beat Ghaleon before." Alex coldly stated. "I'll do it again."

"You'll do nothing of the sort." Melichon calmly answered. "His body retains the power that was his before your defeat of him. Now that he has had time to draw the rest to himself, he has attained his goal of invincibility. If that wasn't enough, his power has been added too and augmented by the new technology. Even a thousand of you couldn't stand against him. That's assuming you could beat Evangeon, who easily has ten times my power. And that is assuming you could destroy the army that is coming. You won't and you can't. Once again, boy, all of your trials have been for nothing. And by helping Althena to release her power to everyone on Lunar you've only further sealed your own fate."

Alex scowled. He didn't trust Melichon a moment, especially that bit about Ghaleon being invincible. He had lied to him far too much already. And he had heard what Melichon was feeding him before. "Where's Luna?!" He demanded.

Melichon merely smiled. "You don't believe me. But you will in due time. As for me...my hour is nigh."

With that, much to Alex's shock...Melichon raised his own head hard and threw his neck onto the blade.

The young man gasped and drew his sword back. But it was too late. His end was now soaked with blood, and freeing it from Melichon's throat only made it gush forth faster. Still smiling, Melichon's eyes slowly closed forever, and the last bit of life that was in him slowly ran out of his neck. Alex was left stunned and overwhelmed. How could he have done such a thing? Without even caring? How could he commit suicide like that? Alex didn't know at all...and he didn't think about it. He thought instead about Melichon's last words...

Yet Alex didn't think long. He forced it out of his mind. He looked up, and saw that in the midst of the dark and falling rain a battle was now going on all around him. The guards were locked in combat with Kyle's troops. He still had a job to do himself. He had to get inside that carrier and save Nash and Mia before anything else happened. Leaving Melichon to bleed into the rain at his feet, he turned for the floating ship and ran for it.

Another flash erupted before Luna. Though she expected it and had experienced it twice before, Luna still couldn't withstand it. It was too blinding. She shut her eyes and shielded her face once again from the glare. Inside, she feared deeply whatever was going to be shown next. She didn't know how horrible it would be. Slowly, the glow died down. Yet for some reason, light was still present. It was dim, but Luna could feel it through her eyelids. With that, she slowly opened her eyes again...and saw the most terrible scene yet.

"Luna?"

"Luna?"

"Hey! Luna!"

She was still in the dark area, but it was open now. There was a huge opening right in front of her, and it stretched into a long, dark stone balcony. It looked like one of the sides of the Grindery or something. But Luna didn't focus on it long. For hovering right over the top of it was the man who had brought her here. Evangeon stood on his flying chariot, dark and ominous, the same as ever. He stood there, powerful and awesome. This was not a vision or display. It was him, right there. But the worst of all was not the Magic Emperor, but rather who was at his feet along with Luna. Kyle, Jessica...and Alex.

"Welcome, one and all. I'm afraid Althena was getting lonely...so I've brought you here to say hello...and for me to bid you a final goodbye."

The three instantly tensed up in front of Luna. As for the girl herself, she put her hand to her mouth in surprise and fear.

"Stay back!" Alex called to her. "We'll stop him!"

"You're going to pay for what you did to our friends!" Jessica yelled.

Without saying a word, Evangeon merely raised a single hand. A red orb appeared in it, and the three warriors all tensed up. They prepared themselves for the blast. A moment later, it shot out, sailing right for Alex. Quickly, the young man brought up his shield to deflect it. But right before it was about to hit the shield, it suddenly shot to the side, zooming away from Alex, and then zig-zagged back so that it was behind him. But it continued to shoot straight...straight for Jessica. Kyle and Alex turned their heads in surprise, but it was too late. Jessica could only gape once before the ball connected with her.

Instantly, Jessica was enveloped in the ruby energy. She cried out at the top of her lungs in agony. Her clothes burned and her body was sizzled like a piece of fried meat. Luna stared on in horror, mortified as she watched her friend be burned...and actually began to smell her burning. She wanted to vomit in sheer revulsion. But the energy soon faded. In a lifeless, burned heap, Jessica fell to the ground. She breathed her last and moved no more.

"No...Jessica!" Luna cried.

In fury, Kyle whirled around to Evangeon and sounded a war cry. "You bastard! I'll kill you!"

Face flushed with anger, he shot forward right for the man, his katana out and ready to slice him in half. Evangeon chuckled lowly, and then merely held up his other hand at the warrior. A beam of blue energy erupted from it, blasting right into Kyle. As Luna stared, the power ripped the man right off of his feet and sent him flying into the air. Then the beam burst out from the other side of him, shooting across the sky right over Luna's head. She trembled in fear and revulsion, overwhelmed at the horror she saw. Kyle's body went lifeless and was carried through the air all the way to Jessica. Then, at last, the beam stopped. Kyle, now a large hole blown straight through his chest, fell to the ground. His eyes were still frozen open in shock, and blood slowly tricked from his mouth as he landed on the smoldering body of Jessica. The two lay together in death.

"Kyle..." Luna moaned, her eyes again welling up with tears. They began to flow shortly after. "No...not you too..."

Alex had turned his head around and glared at his two fallen friends for a moment. Then, clenching his teeth together in rage, he turned back to Evangeon. He dangerously pointed his sword at him. "You monster! Nash...Mia...Kyle...Jessica...Nall! You've killed my friends! Now I'm going to send you to keep them company!"

"Try it, boy." Evangeon calmly answered.

Luna tried to open her mouth to scream for Alex to stop, but it was too late. Giving out his own battle cry, Alex charged forward with a killer intent. Evangeon merely laughed and shot his chariot forward. It caught Alex on the chin, smashing into him and ripping him off his feet. Alex cried out in agony and fell to the ground, his charge over before it began. Luna's eyes filled with terror as she watched. Still laughing wickedly, Evangeon shot into the air and hovered over the stunned warrior. Alex, on his part, spat out a deal of blood as well as a bloody tooth, and tried to get back to his feet. Evangeon held out both palms, summoned orbs of energy into either one, and then tossed both at Alex.

"NO!" Luna screamed.

It was too late. Alex couldn't rise in time. Both orbs hit their mark, and Alex screamed as fiery, burning explosions raged on top of him. Luna turned her eyes away, crying freely now, teeth clenched and overwhelmed with horror at this massacre. Pieces of stone shot by her. Heat raged over her body. Her eyes were blinded by the glare of the blast. Yet it died down soon enough, and Luna's devastated face turned and stared at the wreckage. But all she saw was a burned, smoldering crater...and Evangeon's victorious body, laughing over the destruction he had caused.

"ALEX!" Luna cried in agony. "No, Alex! Don't be dead! Not you!"

Evangeon merely continued to laugh, and pointed his hand at the crater again. But this time, no magic came. Only a black cord snapped out of his gauntlet and shot into the hole. Luna hesitated and stared at this. She heard a wrapping sound, and then nothing. Still keeping up his insane laugh, Evangeon shot his flying chariot into the air, and wrapped his other gauntlet around the cord to pull it up with him. Luna looked back to the hole...and was filled with even more horrors as she stared. The cord did pull something, or rather someone, out of the wreckage. It was Alex. He was burned, bloody, and his clothes were in tatters hanging off his body, practically rags. Yet despite all that, he was still alive. Luna knew it not by the looks of him...but rather because his one good eye that wasn't burned and bleeding was open in shock, and he was using whatever strength he had left to feebly pull at the cord around his neck.

"ALEX!!" Luna screamed in anguish. She had never seen anyone so terrible, so horrible. He had Alex! And now he was torturing him...

Evangeon pulled up on the cord, and as he did he rose higher and higher into the sky. Once the cord was down to a short length, and he was high above the girl standing before her two dead friends, he paused, leaving Alex, weakly dangling, a hundred feet above ground.

"Make a wager, Althena!" Evangeon cackled in mad delight. "Will he die from being choked, or does he have the strength to break free and fall to his own demise?"

Luna couldn't take it. This was too terrible. This was a living nightmare. She grew weak. She fell to her knees, overcome by misery. She stared helplessly up at Alex, watching him hang there...watching him die before her eyes. Luna continued to sob.

"Damn you!" She screamed at the top of her lungs. "Let him go! Please, I beg you! Let him go! I'll do anything you want, just let him go! Please!"

"You know what I want, Althena!" Evangeon yelled back. "Do it! You want to save him so badly? Save him! Nothing's stopping you! Sever my cord and lower him back to the ground! Or merely destroy me! You can! With one simple thought I'll be totally powerless! This can all end right now! All you have to do is want it!"

Luna trembled in terror. She didn't know what to do. Her heart was no longer torn. It was shattered. Her mind screamed out for her to save Alex while he could still be saved. His face was turning blue up there. But Evangeon was right again. She could still stop this. If she wanted to, she could remove all power from Evangeon. At her wish, he'd be nothing. He'd be nothing more than the insane individual he was before he got the technology. She could save Alex's life... She could stop this butcher, and keep him from ever hurting anyone ever again... And she could live with this. Just save his life...just end this one evil... Just this, and she'd never use her power again. She'd promise herself that. She'd vow not to. She'd go back to Burg with Alex and they'd live quietly for the rest of their lives, never leaving again. All she had to do was just end this moment...end this one bit of pain...end one madman's chaos...

But you already did, Luna.

You promised yourself never to use your power again the moment Alex returned you to your mortal form. You did so fully knowing what the future might hold. You did so knowing that Alex's lust for adventure would not be sated with even the incident with Ghaleon. You knew without his powers he'd be prey for the forces of the world...but you still chose to deny your powers.

So you'll break your promise today... When again? Even if you did go back to Burg, even if you did return and never saw anything again terrible, one day Alex will age and die. To prevent your pain then, will you extend his life, and your own? Will you make yourselves immortal? And every time you see another person die wrongly... Every time a person dies from a snake bite, an infant breaks her mother's heart with an early death, every time something wrong or unfortunate comes to pass... You'll think again to this day. And when you do, you'll break your promise again. Because you'll remember you refused to use your power to save others, but you used it to save Alex. You'll remember that you were selfish, and that when the time came down to it you turned away from other people in favor of your own pleasure. That guilt will plague your soul forever, Luna. Do you think Alex wants to see that? Do you think he wants you to stay in that state forever, when he's already given so much for you?

He knew that you could use your power for good the moment he restored your personality to you in the Goddess Tower. With him at your side, instead of a Magic Emperor and his Queen there would be a Dragonmaster and his Goddess Bride. You'd use it for good, but in the end you'd do the same thing Ghaleon did. He gave up his own power for you, Luna, so that you could give up yours. You have to be strong now...no matter the cost.

Luna continued to tremble and cry. Her reason and her heart told her these things. But so much of her still wanted her to save him. He was still dying up there, still fading. She didn't look at him though. She couldn't stand to. She'd see his face on her memory forever. Throat tight...eyes still dripping tears...Luna bowed her head, and spoke quietly.

"...N...No...I...I...I won't do it..."

She trembled a moment, and then in her anguish forced herself to scream.

"I WON'T DO IT!"

SLAM!

Luna suddenly found her body being thrown backwards by a powerful fist to her stomach. All of the wind was instantly knocked out of her as pain radiated through her body. But worse, she soon smashed into the stone wall behind her...and whether it was the weakness of the wall, her own body, or something from Evangeon...the wall shattered. Her body was cast out with a heap of rubble back into the light. It was dark light, though. Light from rain clouds, thunder, and lightning. Cold rain pelted her all over, but she merely winced and rolled on the ground. She groaned and clutched feebly for her stomach, and weakly looked back to where she came from.

Riding his flying chariot, Evangeon, snarling like an animal, flew out of the dark place she had been in. It was one of the upper towers of Nanza. There was no opening in it. There was no smell of Kyle or Jessica. In an instant...she realized it had been an illusion. Everything with Alex and her two friends had been false. But before her, there was one thing that was very, very real...

"You stupid, STUPID girl!!" Evangeon bellowed. "You mindless fool! Your own lover, the one who saved your existence, the one who saved your life from eternal servitude to Ghaleon...and you let him DIE?! You imbecile! You're not worthy of him... You're not worthy of life! And so, I'm going to take it from you as slowly as possible!"

Evangeon was now over Luna. With one powerful black hand, he reached down, seized her by the throat, and violently slapped her face back and forth. Cuts went across her face as well as hot, heavy bruises. Luna cried out in pain, but in the end she was thrown to the roof. Her weak body slid across the wet surface easily, and Evangeon continued to seethe in rage.

"You were right to leave your throne, Althena! Or should I call you by the worthless name your pathetic body now calls itself...Luna! You were right...because you aren't worthy to rule this world! You...a pathetic, doddering weakling...a pewling fool...a whining, frightened girl! You stand by and let your people be executed by the thousands at the hands of evil, and all you can do is cry and whine!" Evangeon suddenly formed a hideous mockery of her voice. "'Oh no! I don't want the power! It's too much for me! People need to make their own choices!' Well, LUNA, I plan to make my choice of killing you horribly and everyone you love with you! You don't want that power?! Have it your way! I shall take it instead, and use it much better than you have! YOU! A worthless goddess you are, who lets her own people suffer in agony and perish...who hasn't even the decency to save the lives of her own friends! You're pathetic! You disgust me! Even looking at your sickening, whining body makes me want to vomit!"

Evangeon was back now, seized Luna with both hands. Weakly, the young woman was picked up, and soon had the black-armored man shove his knee three times into her chest. She heard two of her ribs snap. She coughed up blood on the man, mixing with the rain and running down. Finally, he backhanded her, sending her flying out to another part of the roof. This time, as she landed and slid, it was dangerously close to the edge. Luna moaned while on the ground, gagging on her own blood and rain. She felt terrible, sore and in agony all over. She could barely move. The Magic Emperor hovered over to her and looked down.

"What's wrong, Althena?!" He hissed. "This is what you've wanted all along! To be just as pathetic as the rest of them! You had power, knowledge, wisdom, and immortality! And you gave it all up! For what?! For this?! To whine and groan like the rest of them?! To cry like a helpless baby?! To feel pain and the taste of your own blood in your mouth?! To die horribly?! That's what you want, then that's what you get! Laugh, Althena! Smile! You have everything you've always wanted! You wanted to live like a human?! Now you'll die like one! Alone! Lying in a pile of water, mud, and blood! Totally immersed in the patheticness you craved! And you have no one to blame but yourself! But don't worry...from now on, I'll tell the whole world whenever I kill someone that Althena no longer cares for them! That she stood by and let them all die one at a time like sheep at the slaughter! Then they'll reject you like you deserve... They'll hate you, and they'll look to someone who they can truly rely on to use power...me. All of them will join me one day in spitting on your grave. Men...women...children...and last of all, Alex...right before I send him to join you."

Luna slowly cracked her eyes open. She saw the Magic Emperor Evangeon towering over her. Lightning flashed behind him. Rain poured down on the both of them. He looked tall, impressive, victorious... But Luna had heard everything he said. And innocent as she was...she was not above anger. She felt it burning inside her now. With no where else to go or run, she now began to build her animosity toward the Magic Emperor. All the feelings of rage and helplessness that she had been accumulating for a year began to swell and grow within her. And at last it came out...

...in a song.

"Aaah-aaaaaa...ah-aah-ah-aaaaaa...ah-aah-ah-ah-aaah-aaaaaa..."

It wasn't just any song. It was the song of the Dark Songstress. Yes...brainwashed as she had been she still remembered singing it. The notes were always inside her body. Now she was calling on its power. She did so only mildly at first. But as she continued to sing, she felt power return to her body. She felt her pain fade and her strength increase. Her bravery thickened as did her boldness...and anger. Her eyebrows creased in anger, and her blue eyes began to glow with raw power. Slowly, she rose to her feet, still singing the song. Then she stood before Evangeon, glaring at him. For to her...this was Evangeon's death dirge she was singing.

Snarling, Evangeon merely opened his palm in Luna's face and fired a blast of magic. Luna never flinched, but continued to sing. The orb fired out, but then merely exploded around an invisible shield now surrounding Luna. Growling, Evangeon held his other hand at her and fired. The same result...nothing. Cursing, the Magic Emperor shot backward and gained a distance between him and Luna. Then, he began to fire bolts of lightning, huge icicles, and searing death beams at the girl. But Luna kept singing. Not one of the attacks came near her. They never even ruffled her clothing or hair.

At last, Evangeon cried out in a war cry and shot forward, meaning to take off Luna's head with his chariot. But as he approached, Luna suddenly crouched, and then leapt into the air. She hovered for a moment, but then threw her hand forward and blasted Evangeon with her own power. Crying out in his distorted tone, a big blue explosion erupted against the man, and he was thrown right off of his chariot and cast to the ground. The man landed hard, sliding across the room himself and leaving a slight impression in the floor. However, the beam did not break his armor. Slowly, the Magic Emperor began to rise again.

As he did, he suddenly looked around him. Luna was still singing, and now her song was making pieces of debris that had been knocked around by their fighting rise into the air. They formed a thick cloud all around Evangeon, and he looked about in seeming confusion. But then, Luna changed her tone, and all of the rocks shot inward and smashed into Evangeon at once. As they did so, they exploded, covering the man in flame. A moment later, and the black-armor clad individual, cape singed and smoke coming from his body, was thrown again away from Luna, sliding on the ground.

But Luna wasn't finished. She charged forward toward the fallen Evangeon. He turned his helmeted head from side to side, and was about to get up again. But before he could, Luna jumped on top of him. Her palms glowed with energy and she gnashed her teeth in rage at the monster beneath her. Then, in much the same fashion he did so to her, she began to repeatedly smash her palms into his head. Each one slapped his head from side to side. The helmet buckled around the stress and strain of each individual blow. Finally, Luna struck his head so hard that one of his red, glowing visor holes shattered. It was dark inside, so she could not see even a single detail of the man's face, but she didn't care. Coming to the end of her song, she rose above him once more, and then with both hands in palms smashed down on the Magic Emperor's abdomen. Instantly, the armored man convulsed as his armor was cracked where Luna struck it. After that, he fell into a slump, gasped, and made no further attempt to rise.

Luna's song was done. Once she stopped singing, she felt her regular power return to her. Her pain came back too, but she was too excited now to notice it. She once again crouched over Evangeon, and this time grabbed him by the horns of his helmet.

"You listen to me!" She cried over the sounds of the rain and storm. "You may have been trying to tell me what was wrong with my releasing of Althena's power, but now I've proven to you what's so right! As long as people like you exist, and as long as you hurt and kill people and ravage this world, there will always be someone who is going to be there to shove you into the ground! Get used to this view, because it's the only one the likes of you will ever see in the end!"

Luna, exhausted of her rage, seethed and breathed as she glared at the fallen Evangeon. As for the dark wizard himself, he slowly gasped and tried to regain the air he had lost. His chariot slowly powered down and came to a rest right alongside the two of them. It stopped there, awaiting its mount. Evangeon continued to pant and gasp, regaining his air. Luna glared at him the whole time, her temper slowly lowering down. After a short period of silence in the rain, Evangeon finally had the strength to speak again.

The very first thing he did was laugh.

Luna looked at him in surprise at this. But Evangeon merely continued to laugh from behind his dark hood. The cracks on his chest sizzled and popped, but the dark warrior just kept chuckling. Finally, he ceased, and without looking up spoke to Luna.

"Now...my victory is totally complete."

Luna recoiled at that, looking more shocked than before. Evangeon raised his head and glared at her with his one good red visor.

"I knew it could be done. I knew it the whole time. You reacted exactly as planned. In a way...I'm glad it took so long. I would have been disgusted if it had been too easy."

Luna continued to stare in puzzlement, but was growing uneasy based on the tone of Evangeon's voice. "What are you-"

"I was right all along, Althena. In the end, you lost. You held out as much as you could but you had your limit. At long last you had the fateful confrontation. Admit it. This entire time you knew you had the power inside you. You knew that you had the ability to do all manners of things. You knew that even your voice could bring life or death. But you denied yourself. You denied it ever since Ghaleon brought it out for you to see. You were scared at first of it...but not anymore. Today...you finally faced it. You had to stare right at yourself and the thing you are within and face it down, choosing one or the other. And in the end, it was Luna who backed down and Althena who won the day."

Luna didn't say a word, for there was nothing she could say. All she could do was stare in stunned silence. She continued to back up, off of Evangeon, moving to his legs. With that, Evangeon slowly put his arms beneath him and pushed up, rising to a sitting position.

"Despite all your intentions, all your wants, and all your knowledge of what would happen, in the end you still chose the power. You grasped it and you lashed out with it. What more...you enjoyed it. You liked seeing me helpless at your feet. You liked taking my words and shoving them down my throat. Last time you were forced into using your strength. This time...you tasted of it yourself. And you found it sweet and delicious."

Luna's lip began to quiver. She couldn't refuse him. She couldn't...because in her heart she knew it was the truth. She began to back up, eventually sliding fully off Evangeon's legs. Once she did, the black-armored man, still sore, slowly rose to his feet. He swept what was left of his cape around him and glared down on Luna seated on the roof.

"But it was just that...only a taste. You'll want more. Now that you've tried something you dare not eat of, from now on you will not be sated until you indulge yourself. You'll crave it. You'll know its there from now on, in every single battle, in every single emergency. It will keep eating away at you until you fold to it again. And then, it will be easier than before to eat again. It will keep tempting you, weakening you each time. Until the day comes that you once again take your rightful place as ruler of Lunar."

With that, the dark man walked over to his chariot and stepped on. He fitted his feet into slots, and then began to increase the power. Slowly, he started to rise, but not before he glared down on Luna again and pointed a finger at her.

"In time, Althena...you will again join with Ghaleon and me. Only this time, you'll do so out of your own free will."

Once again, the man began to laugh darkly, and increased the speed on his chariot. Like a flash, he took off, going full speed away from Nanza to the south, leaving Luna all alone on the roof.

Luna bowed her head now alone. She could feel the pain all over her, now that she was all alone and could focus on it. But she didn't care. She cared only about what Evangeon had said. And all of it was true. Every word of what he said about her. In the end, she couldn't hold back anymore. She lost it, and she did what she swore she'd never do. And deny it as she wanted, inside of her there was still a part that did enjoy it. A part of her that wanted more... A part of her that would never be the same again.

There, on the roof of the Nanza Barrier, Luna kept her head bowed, and gently let her own tears mix with those in the rain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Nine

"Here's another one for the dungeon!"

Kyle spoke this cheerfully as he, though bruised and a little cut, pulled Lavender up and presented her before his men. She was even more beaten, and still looked a little stunned. Jessica, having returned to her own robes, looked at the sight that Kyle had with him. She seemed a little surprised.

"I'm impressed. You actually managed to handle her all by herself. I thought she would have been trouble."

"Ah, there's not an animal alive as wild as you, Jess." Kyle answered. "If I can tame you, I can tame anything."

Jessica's face quickly reverted to anger. "What do you mean tame?!"

"Well for one thing, whenever I scratch you right behind your one ear..."

"Oh, I don't have time for this!" Jessica answered back. Nanza was taken now. The attack had been clean and swift. Not only did they have the element of surprise, but Alex's added diversion helped as well. Now the whole group was inside, and quickly taking over the place, dealing with whatever soldiers were against them, and explaining the Dauphin's treachery to whoever was for them. Some of the soldiers were unloading the victims at Vane now. While Melichon was now dead, Evangeon was still on the loose. He was seen streaking away from the battle site. When that had happened, Alex immediately took off from where he had come from to try and find Luna or some clue. That left the others to get settled.

"I have to look after Nash and Mia." Jessica answered.

Kyle himself suddenly grew serious. "How are those two?"

Jessica sighed a bit. "Very sick. That Winson character really did a number on them. They can barely move. It'll take a lot of concentration to heal them, but I think I can do it. Yet it'll take them some time to get their strength back, as well as everyone else's strength who was caught by the Dauphin. Still, Lemia was in a good mood."

Kyle nodded. "And she should be. We've won our first victory and we already got rid of one of the top personnel for the bad guys."

Jessica wasn't too enthusiastic. "We've also got that army of machines headed for us, Luna missing, and a lot of sick and injured here. They're all going to be in trouble when the fighting starts. It's a miracle they didn't die in this conflict."

"You can thank Alex for that." Kyle answered. "When he got the Dauphin, they all spazed out. Half of them surrendered on the spot."

Jessica sighed and nodded. "I only hope..." Suddenly, she stopped, seeing something behind Kyle. Her face quickly broke into a smile. "Alex! Luna!"

Hearing this, Kyle turned around as well to the scene. Soon he grinned as well. Sure enough, Alex and Luna were coming. Yet as they got closer, the two lovers began to lose their enthusiasm. They saw that they weren't in the best of moods as they approached. Alex was having to walk Luna onward, and was looking with concern at her. On Luna's part, she kept her head bowed and was unresponsive. But Jessica could see her limp as she walked, and blood dried against her lip. In an instant, she knew that there had been trouble. Kyle realized it as well, and both of them ran up to the two of them.

"Alex, you got her!" Kyle announced.

"Luna!" Jessica exclaimed in shock. "What happened to you? You're bleeding! You're covered with bruises..."

"It's...it's nothing..." Luna softly replied. Her voice seemed distant, as if she wasn't even thinking.

The two instantly realized this wasn't the Luna they knew. They looked in closer at her, especially Jessica. "Luna?" She asked. "Are you alright? What happened to you?"

Alex sighed glumly. "She's been like this ever since I found her. She was just sitting on the ground and crying. There was blood in puddles all over the area and destruction. I don't know what Evangeon did to her..."

Kyle grit his teeth. "That dirty bastard... Beating up on a helpless person...that's dirty even for a thief."

Jessica likewise frowned. "I'll be glad to help you out, Kyle. For right now, though, I want to take a look at Luna."

Luna kept her head bowed, her look somber, and her voice low. "I'm fine...really... Please...just...just let me be..."

"That's nonsense!" Jessica answered, slipping her own arm around Luna and trying to relieve Alex. "You're walking far too unsteady... It looks like you may have some broken bones-"

Suddenly, Luna became violent. She tore her arms upward and slapped at Jessica's hands. At the same time, she squirmed away from Alex and stood apart from them. "Just leave me alone!" She yelled. "All of you! Just go away and leave me al-...Ah!"

In the middle of screaming, Luna suddenly winced and grabbed for her side, as if a sharp pain had stabbed her there. The group looked on in sudden shock, overwhelmed that Luna had suddenly done that to them. It made them uneasy and worried. They held back for a few moments, but not long. While Kyle and Alex continued to look confused and worried, Jessica stepped forward and put her arm around Luna again. She was much more willing this time.

"That doesn't look good..." She told her. "I think one of your ribs may be a bit away from poking a lung. Luna...just calm down and come with me. We'll talk about this later. Just walk nice and slow and breathe nice and slow... That's it... That's a girl..."

With that, Jessica began to lead Luna away. Her eyes were filling with tears again, and she kept her head bowed. Kyle and Alex were left behind, staring at her in puzzlement and uneasiness. Alex knew, for one, that Luna had never done anything like that before. Kyle didn't know her as well, and thought that Evangeon had brainwashed her or something all over again. Yet both of them knew that there had to be something else behind this, and that there was something personally disturbing that was getting her.

"What's up with that?" Kyle asked.

"I don't know...but I'll find out." Alex answered.

The sun began to set on the horizon long after the force was finished settling in. The enemy still hadn't arrived yet, but they knew they were coming. They were preparing to put every defense available into repelling them. Tempest's archers had taken their places at the south gate along with the students from Vane. Sadly, it didn't look like Kyle's own men, the far majority, could be able to do anything much to help them. But Kyle seemed to still have an idea. He put them to work instead picking away at the rocks and cliffs around them. If they couldn't stop the oncoming army, they'd bring the whole fortress crashing down on them and block the road south forever. Unless they built ships they wouldn't be able to reach any farther north. But then again...it wouldn't help all the people who had been captured yet.

Alex was still feeling uneasy as he waited in the courtyard. Jessica was tending to the wounded and sick, his three friends along with them. It was mostly about Luna and what had happened to her, which he wanted to learn as soon as possible. But there was more than that too. Ever since he had fought the Dauphin, he had felt a restlessness and eagerness inside him. He couldn't explain what it was. He felt tired yet like an insomniac. He felt hungry and thirsty, yet no matter how much he ate and drank he couldn't cure it. He had a headache, yet laying down didn't help. He kept sweating. He didn't know what any of this meant.

"Our victory will be for nothing as long as Evangeon and Ghaleon live." Tempest stated. He had been standing next to Alex for a while, talking to him about the battle. Tempest, on his part, seemed just as restless as Alex. But he was eager for battle. "They have struck personally against both of us now, Alex. Had the army not surrendered Evangeon might have killed the one you love. Or worse. We must fight him all together. You, me, Kyle, Jessica, Nash, Mia...even Luna."

"All I care about right now is making sure Luna is alright." Alex answered. "After that I'll decide what I'm going to do with Evangeon."

Tempest sighed and turned his head to the ground. "You know I'm not a patient man, Alex. And I still cannot forgive Evangeon for what he has done to my wife."

"We'll get him." Alex assured. "Just be patient."

Suddenly, the door behind them opened. Both Alex and Tempest turned their heads to the source. Who emerged was an exhausted and sweating Jessica. Her hood was down and she wiped her brow, but she still confronted both of them.

"Ugh...I'm finally finished... I was beginning to think I didn't have the strength for Nash and Mia, but it's done. But they won't be out of bed tonight."

Alex smiled anyway. "I'm just glad they're alive. Thank you, Jessica."

Tempest managed a small smile himself, and looked to Alex. "I am going to check on my people. Go and talk to your own love. Believe me...I understand now how precious the moments are that you spend with her."

With that, Tempest turned and began to walk away. Alex sighed a bit, and then turned back to Jessica. "How's Luna?"

Jessica frowned. "Just as unresponsive and glum as ever. She won't say a word about what happened, though in all honesty I didn't have time to press her, what with everything else going on. Maybe you can get something out of her Alex."

"I'll sure try." The young man answered.

Jessica nodded, and then walked inside. Alex followed closely behind her and shut the door once he was inside. There was more injured than Nash and Mia, of course. Most of them were underground. But there was a shortage of room down there, forcing people to rely on the more spacious accommodations overhead. But there was enough space in the fort to at least produce some privacy. The moment that the two walked in, however, they saw Nash and Mia both laying out on small beds. Both of them looked weak, but at least were awake and alert. They both turned at once to the door when the two came in.

"How do you guys feel?" Alex asked. "Are you alright?"

"Aside from being so weak I'm exhausting myself talking..." Mia slowly moaned in response. "Alright..."

"Not as bad as when Royce kicked me underneath in our last battle with her..." Nash groaned. "Which is to say...horrid..."

"Well, you guys sure look better." Alex answered. "You were practically in comas."

"Oh...I'm sorry...I don't mean to complain..." Mia slowly answered. "It's just...that so much seems to have happened since I got out of it... What Nash has told me alone is shocking..."

"By the way, Alex...thanks for nailing the Dauphin for me..." Nash addressed with a smile.

"It wasn't me." The young man answered. "He threw himself on my sword."

Nash frowned a bit. "Why would he do that...?"

Mia likewise frowned. "Perhaps he didn't want to live knowing that he'd be a prisoner or powerless..."

"Anyway, you two," Alex went on. "I'm glad you're both alri-...um...more alright than you were before. Get well quick. We're going to need your help facing off against those machines."

Mia smiled. "You bet..."

Nash likewise formed a pale version of his cocky look. "Me too... I'd get up right now and go wipe out a half dozen of them...except I keep blacking out when I sit up..."

After this, Alex smiled a bit himself, and turned his head to Jessica. "Where's Luna? I'll go talk to her."

"Just around the corner, Alex." Jessica answered. She hesitated, and then added. "Good luck."

Alex nodded, saying nothing. Afterward, he turned and began to walk toward the corner, taking his time. Nash, Mia, and Jessica all stayed quiet as he moved. After all, they all knew of Luna's dilemma, and hoped that Alex would be able to do something about it. The young man reached the corner, turned, and looked down to the lone bed in this part of the building.

Luna's shoes and scarf were laying nearby folded and arranged. As for Luna herself, she sat in her bed with the sad look in her eyes, her hair flowing over her shoulders and down her back. Her eyes were red from having cried for so long. She said nothing. She took no notice that Alex had come at all. As for the young man himself, he formed a regretful look. Luna hadn't looked this somber in forever. Not even when he brought her out from the Goddess Tower did she look this bad. And that made him tense. He always had Nall to help him in moments like these. But Nall was gone, not among any of those found taken prisoner. Alex had to face the terrifying possibility that his friend, and the rest of the dragons, was gone forever. He was on his own here. Slowly, he walked forward.

Luna didn't stop him, look up, or react to him in the least. Because of this, he was able to creep forward, and sit on her bed with her, avoiding her legs and being right next to her. He sat there a moment, staring at her. But her eyes remained focused downward, and she didn't move. Alex hesitated. After a moment, though...he remembered the one kind of "magic" that was special to the both of them. Slowly, he reached down to his side, into his pocket, and grasped his ocarina. He pulled it up and put it to his mouth. He began to play the first few notes of their song...

"Stop, Alex."

Alex instantly froze, now very concerned. That had been no plea, but a command.

"I don't want to hear any music. I don't want to sing."

Alex hesitated a moment, but then slowly lowered his instrument. But he looked to Luna with even more concern than ever. She had never been like this. She loved music, especially his music. How come she suddenly hated it? Her tone was firm and undeniable. He did as she wished, but still looked to her with pained eyes.

"Luna...please tell me what's wrong."

Luna hesitated a moment, saying nothing. She continued to stare at her lap and didn't move. But then, most suddenly, she winced, and tightened her face. Tears welled up in her eyes again, and she suddenly pitched her head forward and buried it against Alex's chest. Alex was surprised, but put his arms around her. Suddenly, he remembered the night she had the nightmare. He didn't know why...but somehow Luna reminded him of it right now.

"Alex..." She started, trying to say something. But she was too full of anguish. Too full of misery. "Alex...it's...it's... Oh, I don't know what even to say! It's everything, Alex!" She cried in pain.

"What, Luna?" Alex asked as she continued to sob against him. "Tell me. Just tell me what he did to you if you can't tell me what's wrong."

Luna sniffed a few times, and with great effort started to talk. Her voice quivered the whole way. "Alex...it was him. It was Evangeon. He wants me...just like Ghaleon... But he didn't try to control me... He kept showing me things...terrible things...one scene of misery after another... He told me to use my power to stop them...to stop him...and when I didn't..." She breathed in deep and scared for a moment, and then spoke in an even more strained tone. "He...he hit me...he called me stupid and weak...he said that the world would hate Althena because of me...that they would turn to him... Then, he tried...he tried to kill me..."

Luna stopped and sniffed and cried some more. But Alex continued to hold her...and continued to listen to her. His own face grew cold as he heard her tale. That explained now why she was crying...and why she had been so badly injured.

"So...so...so at last..." Luna went on, more afraid and devastated sounding than ever. "I...I lost it. And I sang, Alex. I didn't just sing any song. I sang the same song that made the people at Pao sick. I sang the same song that rose the Goddess Tower. I sang the song of the Dark Songstress...Alex... And I hurt him...but I wanted to... he said he'd kill you...he said he'd make the whole world spit on Althena and me... It was selfish...I know...but he said he'd do so many terrible things... But that's what he wanted the whole time... He wanted me to get mad... He wanted me to attack him... He did it because he wanted me to start depending on the power in me...to desire it..." Luna hesitated and breathed uneasily for a few more moments, and then winced again. "And he succeeded..."

Alex's eyes grew slightly at this. "Luna..." He began to speak, in a reassuring voice.

"Go away, Alex..." Luna told him, though she didn't release him or lean off him. "Go away...all of you... You can't be around me. He's right...I do know the power now...and no matter how much I hold it back it'll come easier to me next time I want to use it... And the more I do...the closer I'll be to becoming the Dark Goddess again...or at least the goddess again... You can't be around me. I don't want to hurt you...not like I did before..."

"I'm not leaving, Luna." Alex told her, his voice straight and calm. "I didn't leave you before, and I won't leave you now. No matter what happens I'm going to stay with you. And so is everyone else. And even if you went so far as to be reborn a second time or raise the Goddess Tower again, I'd still be with you."

"But Alex..."

"There's no buts about this." Alex cut off. "No one's going anywhere. We all pledged our lives to save you once, and I, for one, am not about to throw that away."

Luna didn't say anything in response to that, but her crying stopped for the moment. After holding on a bit longer, she managed to raise her head off Alex's chest and looked up to his face. His green eyes shining, he was beaming back down to her with that simple little smile that was always on his face. A smile that was never changed by anything and was always confident, secure that it would overcome anything. Seeing that, Luna very slowly smiled as well, and then she hugged Alex tighter, bringing her head to his. Both of them closed their eyes, and touched their lips together in a kiss. After a brief one, either one rested their heads on the other's shoulder.

"I love you, Luna."

"I love you too, Alex..."

The two were able to share their tender moment...but not long. Even as they held, a tramping sound was heard incoming. Moments later, a black-haired head turned around the corner. Instantly, Alex and Luna both looked to the owner in surprise. As for the owner himself, he suddenly looked nervous when he saw the position that the two of them were in.

"Uh...sorry to interrupt..." Kyle stammered. "But we've got an emergency, Alex. The army is finally here."

Instantly, Alex tensed up as well. He rose from where he was, nearly ripping himself free of Luna in the process. But after he noticed that, he quickly looked back to the young woman. "Stay here with Nash and Mia, Luna." He told her. "I'll take care of this."

"Be careful, Alex." Luna warned.

Alex nodded, and then began to undo his shield from behind him. As he did so, he took off along with Kyle, and both men soon left the room and the building for the outside combat that awaited them.

"Is everyone ready?"

"Ready as we can be, Alex. Times like this I really wish Mia and Nash were with us."

"We'll have to do what we can. Hopefully I can put the powers of the Red Dragon and White Dragon to good use."

Alex and Kyle both marched for the southern wall of the Nanza Barrier. It was already covered with archers and mages. But some of Kyle's men were there as well. They didn't look ready for physical combat though. Instead, it seemed they had managed to cobble together a few ballistas and catapaults. Alex figured that was just as well. It would have a better chance of fending off against the onslaught than a direct attack. He couldn't see Jessica or Tempest anywhere, but Mel and Lemia were already on the upper wall. The two young men likewise climbed up it, and walked over to where they stood. Torches were lit all around the front of the barrier, illuminating the surrounding land. If the machines could lock onto life force, then it wouldn't really matter anyway whether they could see or not. Still...Alex really wished it was daylight right now.

"How long until they get here?" Alex asked.

"Any moment now." Kyle responded. "They were getting so far away from the main base that they set up some sort of detention area at the base of the mountain, if you ask me. But that's going to help them too. It means we can't escape that way."

Alex stopped after that, gazing at the valley ahead of him. He could barely see ahead, but he still peered and searched for any sign of the oncoming forces. There was a lot of burning going on around the torches, but as for the people themselves they were all silent. They too were waiting for action.

At last, Alex began to hear it. The clicking and whirring sounds of the machines, the same as he had heard in Vane and near Pao. It was small at first, and Alex had to strain to hear it as anything more than a murmur. But as it got closer, Alex began to identify it. Not just it...but them. There was a multitude of sounds, all the same as the same machinery moving that Alex had heard when they first arrived in Pao. He couldn't tell how many there were. It was too much to count. But he stayed brave. Gently, he held up his Wings and chanted softly. Much to the sudden surprise of the people around, a form of a White Dragon suddenly appeared over them. They were scared at first, but quickly they remembered that the dragons were good and relaxed. Then they all looked in surprise as a white aura began to surround each and every one of them. Alex sighed and looked back out to the valley.

At least we'll all take one shot now...

Then they came. Slowly, Alex began to see lights dancing in front of him in the darkness. First only a few, but the number began to rise quickly. As it did so, the noise grew louder and louder, and he began to hear rocks being crushed under huge metal legs. Whining sounds were heard from strain of cables, and the lights continued to grow and dance in front of the whole group. Kyle gazed suspiciously out at all of this. Abruptly, he seized one of the torches from the wall, pulled back, and then threw it forward into the mess of lights as hard as he could. The entire force soon gave a unified gasp, for there was nothing but row after row after row of machines coming. They stretched back as far as they eye could see, and totally filled up the valley, jam packed as many as there could be. Alex gaped at the sheer number of them. Even if they were easy to kill, he would be worried based on how many of them there were. They were like a living sea of metal, coming forward to destroy everything in their path. However, for now they only marched forward. Alex figured that maybe it was due to thinking that they would be let in by the Dauphin. That may have given them a small, if not insignificant, advantage. Alex already began to dread what their unified cannons could do to the Nanza Barrier.

Kyle swallowed a bit. "Perhaps...this wasn't the best defense."

"It's not the best defense." Alex answered. "It's the only defense. I'm going to summon the Red Dragon. Once it covers the whole landscape with a firestorm, everyone bombard them with everything we've got."

Kyle sighed. "Alright Alex...guess we've got no other choice."

As the sea of metal continued to roll forward, Alex raised his shield and aimed it at the enemy. He only hoped that the two dragons would increase the moral of the soldiers as well. They needed the boost at this point in time. Slowly, the Red Dragon materialized over Alex. It vanished again, and Alex held his breath and said a prayer. Shortly after, huge orbs of fire erupted from the sky and exploded all over the rows and rows of machines. Explosion after explosion rained out everywhere. All of the machines were soon lost in flame. As the searing hot flares burned them, Kyle snapped his head around and gave the order.

"Everyone! Attack with everything ya' got! If ya' got no weapons, then just piss or spit at the damn things!"

Then the real attack began. Instantly, ice showers, thunder, blasts of non-elemental energy, rocks, and more fireballs erupted from the front line and blasted into the flames, causing more explosions and fury. As one, the archers from Pao all fired their arrows and sent down the deadly projectiles on the enemy. They were all flash arrows, and each exploded on impact. While some reloaded, others blasted the area with winds, desperately trying to blow enemies away into oblivion. One by one, the cords on the catapaults and ballistas was chopped, sending massive bolts shooting into the enemy lines. This onslaught continued on and on. Kyle, having no weapons, began to take his own advice...while Alex, though it nearly drained him of all the strength he had, summoned the Red Dragon again to burn the area. All the while, the magicians blasted spell after spell into the maelstrom of chaos. The siege weapons were reloaded and fired again and again. Arrow after arrow pelted the flame area. It was total fury. The chaos reigned higher and higher within the ranks of the robots. Everyone fought as hard as they could. The magicians spent their focus to the limit. The siege weapons used two thirds of their ammunition, and the archers loosed every arrow in their quivers. When all was finished, everyone was rather tired, and they stopped for a rest to survey the damage.

The area in front of them was dark and covered with smoke from the continuous blasts that had bombarded the area. As it continued to clear, the people were very shocked to see that they had managed to put a rather sizable crater in the road south. The rest of the smoke was taking a while to clear.

Kyle gaped a bit and whistled. "Phew...there's one for the record books."

Alex wasn't so sure. He continued to stare, waiting to see signs of the damage they had done. The smoke continued to clear, but the area ahead of them was still dark. Frowning a bit, Alex finally seized a torch himself, and with one easy cast threw it into the crater. It landed and continued to burn once there, and the people were finally able to see the results of their onslaught.

Laying steaming in the huge crater they had made in the middle of the road was a smoldering mass of twisted metal and wrecked machinery. In the power of the attack, some machines had been destroyed, while others had merely melted in the intense heat. After all, the Red Dragon's fire burned fiercer than any furnace on Lunar. But the sea of metal that had confronted Alex and the rest of the people at the barricade was now dead. The lights were off. The whirring had stopped. Taken down in their very rows were the hoards of machines, all in various states of destruction. Nothing moved on the entire road.

Kyle sighed in relief. "Whew...that...was actually easier than I thought it would be."

But Alex continued to stare coldly out. "It's not over."

Kyle turned to Alex in puzzlement. "What are you talking about, Alex? We nailed 'em. There ain't a machine still working out there."

"There isn't..." Alex answered. "But there can't be more than a few hundred out there. There were four thousand in the initial army."

Kyle hesitated at that, and swallowed. But before he could offer anything, either in acknowledgement or an attempt at consolation, a scraping sound was heard throughout the entire wall defense. Immediately, every single troop turned back to the sight before them and watched what was happening.

There were lights out there again. But less than before, and blinking on and off. As they did, a grinding sound was heard along with the sounds of machines. The machine noises continued to climb, however. More and more of them came. And as they did, more grinding noises sounded out as well. The whirring grew more high pitched and louder. Alex squinted and looked out into the darkness. Under the carpet of dead machines, a wave of robots was coming. But they weren't having much luck. The wreckage of the former robots barred their way. They could barely move through them. Those that they did move piled up against those in the crater, providing an effective stop. The army may have not done much to destroy the robots all together, but they managed to create a way for the oncoming flow to "dam the river", so to speak.

Kyle grinned a bit, staring at the machine's predicament. "Heh...guess Taben ain't such a genius after all. They're packed so tight it'll take them forever to get through."

"Good." Alex answered, growing a bit more at ease himself. "Because we're almost out of ammo. The archers are out, your siege craft are out, and everyone of the Magic Guild members is drained, including myself. But at least it looks like what Taben said was true. The machines really aren't that good for terrain climbing. It took them longer to get up this mountain in the first place, now it'll take them time to get through these. And when they get to the pit, they'll be stumbling over wreckage of their own making forever. It'll take them forever to get through. So we better resupply and prepare a second assault as soon as possible."

Kyle merely snickered. "Alex, take a look. It'll take them the rest of the night just to push a few feet forward. What's the rush?"

Kyle, and everyone else, soon discovered the rush. For just as he finished saying that, the first row of machines opened fire...on the wreckage before them. Moments later, bright light shot out all along the first row of machines, as the wreckage before them was blasted out of the way by the power of the machine's weapons. The force looked back in shock to the new fires as they died down...only to soon cover their heads in agony, for metal and gears were raining down on them from the annihilated machines. The soldiers were instantly shocked at the power of the weaponry. They had done all that with just a single blast, blown up their own troops so hard that the damage showered on them all the way at the barrier. But that wasn't it. Soon, the opening line fired again at the next row of robots, obliterating them too.

"Aw no..." Kyle uttered in shock. "They're blastin' their way through!"

Alex stared in terror. He hadn't expected this. He hadn't expected anything to be so powerful and deadly. But he did know one thing...this battle wasn't going to go anywhere. Without arms or magic, they were just another row in the shooting gallery. They'd blow up the wooden wall, and everyone on it, just as easily. The young man swallowed, then turned to his friend.

"This is a battle we can't win, Kyle." He told him. "Let's give the retreat order. We can still get the people out before they reach-"

"Hah-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!"

Everyone heard that voice as well, and where it came from. In a flash, Alex, Kyle, and all the others turned their heads to the sky. Then they saw him. Dressed in his full black armor, repaired from all damage done to it by Luna...was Evangeon. He danced through the sky like a dark angel in his flying chariot, and he held two purple orbs in either hand. He continued to laugh madly as he circled for a few moments. Then, he hurled one orb at one part of the wall, and another orb at another part of the wall.

Alex, seeing the deadly shot fall, paled in terror. "Everyone ru-"

BOOM!

Huge flames of purple energy erupted all around Alex. The entire wall was bathed in it, and every last person along with it. Alex winced, knowing that it was the end. That blast was too strong. It would vaporize him, and everyone with him. It was all over...

He watched as the energy tore the wall to shreads. Wood splintered and flew apart. Beams incinerated into ash. The flames ran everywhere, sweeping over everyone. Alex watched it all...and had a strange feeling of euphoria. For some reason...he felt nothing. Was he already dead? Was this just his ghost watching him perish? Would he watch his own body burn away, and feel nothing? He looked to his hands. They were still flesh and normal. Yet everything was still devastated all around them, until the flaming debris of the walls remains slowly fell along with him and all the others, sliding into the two black craters that resulted from the blasts of energy that Evangeon had thrown. He had to be dead. This had to be his last look at life.

Yet he landed, and still felt nothing. Only after he came to a rest on the ground, and ashes rained down on his head as well as tiny pieces of flaming debris, did reality come back to him. The ash itched his throat and he began to feel hot. But how could he? He was dead. Nevertheless, he coughed, and soon found himself recoiling from the heat. He rolled forward, and stepped up and out of the ashes and debris. He coughed again and shook himself off. He stepped away from the ruins of the wall, and began to look around.

To his shock and surprise, he wasn't alone. Despite the terrible destruction, despite the fact that they were in a crater...everyone was alright. They were dirty and coughing, but no one had a scratch on them. Everyone had survived without taking the slightest bit of damage. Though the wall was obliterated, they were all still there. Alex looked around in surprise, even as Kyle crawled out of the ashes right next to him and rose to his feet.

"We're alive..." Alex uttered. "It's a miracle..."

"It's no miracle, O' forgetful Dragonmaster..." Kyle answered with a cough. "Remember? You used the White Dragon on everyone before the battle began. Good thing no one tried to hit us until Evangeon."

Alex paused, but then remembered it. Yes, of course. That was the only way they could have survived. They were lucky...terribly lucky. Evangeon had just tried to kill them all, and would have succeeded if not for Nall's sacrifice...

Nall...

Evangeon!

Suddenly, reality smacked back into the young man. He looked up over the fires, wreckage, and flaming debris. Cackling madly, Evangeon shot around the sky, laughing at his own handiwork. But after dancing for a short period, he began to fly off. Alex glared at him.

His eyes filled with hate and rage. He was the one who had done that to Luna, ravaged her both physically and mentally. He was responsible for all of this madness that the young man was surrounded with. If not for the White Dragon Protect, they would all be dead now from his latest insane run. And soon the whole world could be laid waste in the wake of his nightmare machines. The mixture of all of this, in addition knowing to the crimes that he had done against Pao and Tamur, and who knew what other cities, began to drive Alex mad against Evangeon. The madman needed to be stopped...tonight. Now.

Quickly, before Kyle could even see what he was doing, Alex turned away from the wrecked wall and looked to one of the ruined balistas that was still loaded. Evangeon continued to fly off, but Alex knew that if he was quick he'd still be in time. He soon reached it, even as its firing crew was continuing to pull themselves off the ground with flabbergasted looks. Seeing a length of rope laying nearby for tying heads to the balista bolts, Alex bent down and seized it with one hand while setting his sword and shield aside with the other. Moving fast, he tied the cord in the hardest and quickest knot he could think of, and then aimed the balista upward. He had only split seconds to act. Evangeon was already almost out of rage. But if he failed to get him today, then when would he?

As Kyle and the others turned to him in surprise, Alex, thinking the balista aimed as carefully as it needed to be, chopped the end of it. Immediately, the shot went flying, and the cord of rope whipped through the air fiercely as it was carried up into the night sky. Alex took up both his sword and shield and seized the end of the rope, and hoped for the best.

The bolt continued to shoot through the air, coming dangerously close to Evangeon. Alex hoped that the bolt would hit him, though he could probably easily destroy it before it did so, or would hook the flying chariot. Yet neither of these things happened. As the bolt approached, Evangeon suddenly whirled his head and glared at it. Laughing madly, he did something unexpected and grabbed the bolt as it reached him. Then he took it around and held it over his shoulder, pulling it on purpose. Alex gaped at this unexpected reaction, but before he could raise any dispute he felt his arms get ripped upward, and after a painful jolt through his shoulder sockets and a strain to maintain a grip on the rope while holding his sword and shield in either hand, Alex was torn off the ground and shot into the sky after Evangeon.

Alex stared down in terror as he saw himself raised into the air and soon watched Nanza, the destroyed machines, and all of the mechs beyond shrink into dots. The air around him blasted furiously and grew thin, and soon dizziness gripped him. He found himself swirling and turning in the air as he struggled to hang on to the rope he had so hastily grabbed. The sounds of Evangeon's laughter died down as he swirled in the air, unable to control himself as he was flung about so violently. He clenched his teeth and held on tight, slamming his eyes shut to keep himself from staring at the ground. It was the only thing he could do to control himself. He was whipped back and forth like a child's kite, and raced across the sky at blazing speeds, faster than even Nall had travelled.

Alex tried to wonder what Evangeon was doing to him. Probably carrying him to a great enough height, then letting him go to plummet to his death. Alex cursed himself for being so stupid. But he had never imagined that the dark man would have done this. Alex kept his eyes shut, however. Dangling this far over the ground, or being whipped about so fiercely, would only make him more dizzy and off balance. It was taking all of his focus to stop from getting sick now. Yet the wind was so fierce, and the lack of air was dulling his senses so much that he couldn't tell whether or not he was still being carried by Evangeon, or whether or not he had already been dropped to his death. He thought he felt the wind coming from one direction pretty much, however. Yet he could do nothing about it, nothing but go onward and hold on for dear life. He waited longer and longer, waiting for doom to come. Yet it never came.

At last, Alex realized he couldn't just hang on and wait for death. He had to stop Evangeon, make him pay for what happened. Clenching his teeth, he nervously removed one hand and placed it a bit above the other. His muscles remained locked and tight throughout, so that when he let go with one hand he didn't unfurl like a flag and flap just as hard. That done, he moved his other hand up after it, and slowly, with all of his strength, began to pull himself up the rope. But then...a change happened.

In a flash of speed, almost instantaneously, the air turned three times as dry, and grew bitterly cold. Icy winds flapped around Alex, and his hands were instantly blasted numb. Alex grit his teeth and hung on, but he couldn't tell if his hands were still holding on or not. Cold air penetrated his eyelids and stung his eyeballs. Yet the air didn't stop there, but grew colder. Yet despite the icy wind, the air suddenly grew very thin. Alex felt himself start to gasp, and his thoughts became sluggish and black. Reality began to wave in and out around him. The wind continued to pierce him, shooting in through his clothing and beginning to freeze his entire body. Alex couldn't understand it. Were they going higher? He hadn't sensed it... In fact, in another moment, Alex felt his body lurch upward, as if it was being pulled down.

Slowly, Alex pried his eyes open. The cold, dry air began to dry his vision instantly, but after blinking and tearing up, his sight returned, and he looked in shock at the sight before him.

He was still in the air, but he was diving now. In front of him, he clearly saw Evangeon shooting downward on his flying chariot. He was still dangling from it, like a boy who had been dumb enough to grab on to a line dangling from a ship leaving harbor. Yet where he was scared him the most. Only dark, gray craters dotted the ground. There were no trees, no lakes, no mountains...just utter desolation. His body was being yanked along to a single destination, which he saw inside a familiar looking old crater. However, the tower of the Grindery that was once there had been replaced by a new, larger-looking city. Evangeon, however, was going right toward an egg shape south of it. It was then that Alex realized why the air was so thin, dry, and cold. He was back at the Frontier.

Alex stared in surprise for a moment...but only a moment. He realized that Evangeon was diving right for the egg shape, and that he wasn't pulling up. He seriously doubted that the black armored man would have time to pull up, but was going to go right through it. Alex, nevertheless, looked on, waiting for what Evangeon would do before impact. As he looked, he continued to pull himself up the rope, putting more and more length behind him. Yet Evangeon continued to dive, never slowing down. Alex bit down and kept falling, ready for whatever was going to come. The egg grew closer and closer. The city beyond the crater began to vanish back into the ground, behind the mountains that surrounded it. Alex prepared himself to stay behind Evangeon, ready to go after whatever hole he would leave if he was going to smash into it.

But right before Evangeon could reach the egg, his flying chariot suddenly halted in mid-air. He cut off his laughter with a single "Hah!", then suddenly released the balista bolt. To his shock and surprise, the momentum continued to carry Alex through the air, and he was flung straight for the surface of the egg, rope, bolt, and all. Alex gaped in terror, seeing himself about to be smashed like an insect against the surface. Clenching his eyes shut, he quickly brought up his shield and braced his arms against it, praying that he would survive this.

SMASH!

Alex's arms jolted as his body smashed into the surface of the egg. Pain rocked through his entire upper torso, through all he had braced for impact. But that lasted only a short time. The surface of the wall was thin and brittle, and despite his hard impact it shattered. Alex soon found himself plunged into darkness as he was cast into the interior of the egg. The wall had broken his fall somewhat, but he continued to brace himself with the shield. He felt himself sailing for a moment through a warmer, more air-filled, and not windy environment for a brief moment, but knew what was fast coming.

Soon after, Alex's body smashed onto the solid floor of the egg building shield first. Once again, a jolt ripped through his body. But that was the least of the pain. The force of the throw continued to fling his legs forward, and soon he flipped over and went into a tumbling spin. As he did his first rotation, he was still sprawled out, and he landed on his leg wrong. A ripping sound was heard, and he cried in agony as he tucked in and continued to tumble. His body continued to flip end over end, and he was run against the hard ground. He felt his clothing torn in a few places, and his bare skin scraped against the surface. Yet he continued to bear with it, tumbling end over end. At last, he struck something hard, his side first. When he did, his body bent around it, and he felt pain dig into his side, snapping one of his ribs. Alex cried out in pain, but cut himself short as he felt the ache in his ribs increase as he did so. At long last, however, his body came to a final stop.

Alex lay on the ground for a moment, moaning and groaning in his pain. He had been battered around like a beaten egg. He lay there, totally immobile, for a few brief moments. But then, he managed to weakly open his eyes.

He found himself indeed inside the egg in the Frontier. Where he had pierced the ceiling, the light of the stars came in. There was no Blue Star on this side of Lunar to provide light. Yet the ceiling seemed to glow with its own power, and so Alex was able to see somewhat. With aches and pains, he slowly began to pull himself up off of the ground. From what it looked, he saw that this was the shrine area, in which there was a statue of Althena, he remembered. That thought gave him relief. He felt extremely sore. His ankle was sprained, it felt, and at least one rib was broken. Yet there was silence here, and he supposed that Evangeon had thought he died in the impact.

Alex slowly made it to his feet. His hand still grasped the string with the balista bolt. The bolt itself had been pulled inside the egg as well, and was laying on the ground. He turned his head toward the Althena statue, meaning to refresh himself.

Yet there, he halted. Althena's statue was missing. In its place, there was a statue of the Magic Emperor Ghaleon. He stood there in all his dark glory, and his helmet rested in his hands as his face, sculpted to look noble, stared out. Alex frowned a bit at this. Obviously, he was tricking the Vile Tribe again. With people like Phacia gone, it would be easy. Yet then, he hesitated. For he realized that Ghaleon was wearing a helmet after all...a real one.

The Blue Dragon Helmet.

Alex froze. How had that gotten here? The Blue Dragon was gone, and he had relinguished the armor. Yet he had the shield, and now the helmet lay before him as well. He stared at it for an instant, gazing at its red color in the darkness of the night. But as he did...he began to feel in more pain. A headache began to form, and grew strong in his brain. Once again, he began to feel incomplete. He felt a lacking inside him again, once again feeling hungry, thirsty, and tired all over again. He felt naked too, and he felt as if a great hole had been smashed through his body. He began to lick his lips, which had grown salty. Yet inside his mouth...he could feel himself salivating. Salivating? Yes...because a ravenous hunger was growing in him, not just from his stomach, but his entire body. His wounds screamed for relief, and his skin itched with anticipation. Unknown to Alex, a dire, desperate look formed in his eyes. He wanted the helmet...he craved it.

For a moment, Alex was about to take off, seize the helmet, and put it on his head. As he entertained the thought, his mind burned with desire. He wanted the power. He wanted to feel the Blue Dragon shooting through his body. He wanted to have the ability to heal any injury, even being on the edge of death. And why shouldn't he? He was the Dragonmaster. It was his. All his. The kind of power that people dreamed of but never attained. The helmet was his possession.

It's mine...

I want it.

Slowly, Alex took a step forward, and then stopped. His ravenous look vanished, and he gasped in disbelief, putting the back of his hand to his temple.

What's wrong with me? In another moment...I would have been willing to kill a man to get that helmet. Why do I want it so badly? It was just like this with the shield...only it's stronger now. It's like I'm attracted to it...

But I feel bad even now. My headache is surging back...stronger than before... I feel so weak...so incomplete... I feel like I'm missing...an arm or a foot... I can't understand it. I feel puny...pathetic...I feel less at my best... My whole body is screaming for that helmet... I can feel my body craving it like I haven't eaten for days... What's happening to me?

Yet Alex couldn't ponder that a second longer, for suddenly a massive piece of metal shot down through the hole and smashed into his back. Crying out in agony, Alex was shoved forward and smashed against the statue of Ghaleon. His impact knocked it over, and once it fell it shattered. Alex fell on top of it, and cried out in agony again. His back screamed in pain, and he was stuck to the ground in agony on top of the statue. Behind him, he heard the jets of Evangeon's chariot slow, and his dark, insane voice.

"So...you thought it would be so easy, didn't you? That you could just attack me and end my life so simply? You fool...without the power you so foolishly relinguished, you haven't a prayer against me. With this armor and chariot my power is above and beyond anything you could ever defeat in that meager body of yours. Now is time for your execution."

Weakly, Alex looked up. His body felt wrenched and in more anguish than ever after that hit, which had to have been by Evangeon's glider. Yet as he looked up, he froze. The helmet was right there now, beckoning him, laying in the rubble that was Ghaleon's head. His hunger burned, and he thought to take it... But no, he couldn't. He had believed before in the power of humanity. He had to now. Weak as he was, and despite the fact that his headache increased the moment he refused to take the Blue Dragon Helmet, he had to do this on his own.

Slowly, Alex grit his teeth, and rose to his feet. It was more slowly than he would have hoped, especially to untangle himself from the fallen statue. But once he was up, he turned and glared at Evangeon. Turning his hand around, he began to wind the cord from the balista bolt around his wrist, in effect pulling the bolt closer to himself. He glared at Evangeon before him, gazing at him with those burning red eyes, arms crossed on his massive chariot. Alex continued to glare at him until he had drawn the balista bolt to himself, and then he shook his hand to loosen the cords around his wrist, and seized the bolt with his hand behind his shield. He glared again at Evangeon, trying desperately to ignore his hunger and headache.

"You killed my friend, Evangeon." He growled. "You tried to kill Luna and everyone at the Nanza Barrier. For that, and all of your other crimes, I'll destroy you."

Evangeon snorted.

"Fool. It's time to taste true power...and true pain."

With that, Evangeon suddenly shot into the air. His arms uncrossed, and he hurled two more fireballs at Alex, one after the other. Alex quickly rose his shield and intercepted the blast of one of them. The other smashed to his side and detonated. Burning hot stone and wreckage pierced him and his vulnerable side. Alex cried out, but despite the fresh pain, he tumbled away from the blast. It drove more pain into him, and sent his headache for a loop, but he escaped. He quickly rose back to his feet at the cost of more pain, and just in time. Evangeon began to blast dual bolts of burning black energy at the boy. Alex, gaping in shock, began to run from the area. But his headache, side, and sprained ankle slowed him down. Despite the power of the Ring and Shield, the blasts caught up to him, and raked the side of his heel. He cried out and stumbled, and soon cut his chin open as he fell flat on the ground before him. Evangeon's mocking laughter boomed.

Gritting his teeth, Alex forced himself back to his feet. His body was in more pain than ever, and he couldn't stop himself from glaring at the helmet on the other side of the room again. The Blue Dragon Healing would help now...but he refused to use it. He could beat him. Alex looked up, and turned his head to Evangeon. He was circling the room, coming around for another pass. Alex thought of using one of the two dragons he had, but he was still drained from the combat at the Nanza Barrier, and any more effort would leave him more drained than he already was. And so, he tried something else, pulling his arm back, holding the bolt like a javelin, he threw the balista shot right at the chariot.

Moments later, with the added power of Alex's enhanced strength, the bolt struck the glider and sank inward. A fizzle of sparks erupted from the connection. However, the chariot unfortunately continued to work. Alex grew nervous for a moment, but then realized he had to do something else. Holding the cord, he began to run toward the nearest column. He couldn't go fast, headache pounding and leg hurting. What more, Evangeon soon sent shards of ice down to tear up where he had been moments earlier. Alex felt a few slice past his legs, and one pierce his shoulder, before he finally made it to the safety of the opposite side of the column. He stopped a moment, catching his breath and turning behind him to yank out an icicle.

Evangeon soared by, dropping another ball of energy to blow Alex to kingdom come. But Alex, still holding onto the cord, quickly dodged to the other side of the column. That done, and after the explosion went off, Alex fought pain and his mounting headache to go around the column one more time, fighting through smoke and heat, and then bracing himself against it with one leg. Evangeon continued to soar by, now pulling the tight cord taught. Alex held on, hoping for the best. Moments later, he felt a tug at the cord, but continued to hold tight, not letting go for an instant. Through the pain of his head and body, he looked up and prayed again for success.

It worked. Abruptly, Evangeon pitched forward as his chariot was caught. Suddenly, unable to go on forward, the chariot spun to one side, going in the only direction it could go. It wound itself around one column, and then began to head straight for the stone wall. Alex looked in hope for a moment, thinking it would be the end of Evangeon once and for all. But it was too much to hope for. The Magic Emperor crouched and then leapt backward in a nimble backflip just before impact. As for his chariot, it struck the wall, smashed partially, and then, with a sputtering of the engine flimsily fell to the ground in a heap of debris and metal.

Alex knew he had just evened the odds considerably. Yet Evangeon touched down on the ground, and without a moment's hesitation began to approach Alex. Alex wanted to react, wanted to give Evangeon another handicap while he still could...but it was no use. His numbing headache dulled his senses and speed, and that last manuever had nearly drained him of his strength. It was all he could do to pull himself off of the column and weakly swing Althena's Sword at Evangeon as he approached. The dark warrior merely blocked the blow with one gauntlet, and then gave Alex the back of his other one.

An instant later, Alex's limp body smashed against the stone wall as well, and then fell to the ground. Hot pain flashed across his face, and he spat up a deal of blood. He had never felt a blow so strong. He couldn't get up from it. The pain had agitated his headache, and his hunger was growing, beginning to halt any and all movements that weren't to get the Blue Dragon Helmet. As such, he couldn't move when Evangeon approached him and kicked him three sharp times in the gut, smashing another rib each time. Alex gagged and spat up more blood, before he was seized by the scruff of his neck like a dog, and had his head smashed into a stone column. As pain exploded through his head, and blood began to trickle out, he saw stars and his world swirled into inky blackness.

Not doing too well here...

Evangeon wasn't finished. In total ruthelessness, he brought up a metal boot and smashed it down on one of Alex's knees. Moments later, he felt his leg pierced as a compound fracture hit it. Yet Alex was too weak to cry out. Despite all the pain Evangeon was putting him in, the headache was growing to be the worst pain of all. It was sickening his stomach, and making his whole body ache with it. Yet there was more misery in store for him. He felt his body thrown, and was soon smashed against the opposite wall. Then, seeming satisfied with beating him to a bloody pulp physically, Evangeon held up a hand and aimed it at him.

"In the words of my fellow Magic Emperor...time to die."

Then, a furious eruption of blue energy ripped out and blasted Alex's body. Alex, too lost in his headache to scream, soon felt his flesh seared and his clothes burn away as the power of Evangeon's magical attack washed over him. He was helpless to do anything but get in more pain from it. He could only be blasted by it, and in the end collapse in an almost lifeless heap. Yet despite the agony from it, his headache was still worse. He couldn't move an inch on the ground, only breathe slowly and struggle to stop that headache. He couldn't hear, see, or move anymore. All he could do was lay down, washed with pain.

He didn't feel it, but Evangeon came over, pulled up him by the few shreads of clothing left on his body, and threw him back on top of Ghaleon's statue. After that, the Magic Emperor walked over to him and stood before him, in all his power and might. His arms were crossed, and he glared darkly. Alex opened his eyes once he had fallen, his own blood painting his face and bubbling out of his mouth. The pain had nearly blinded him from his head by now. He could see only a vague outline. As his loud voice spoke, it was merely a whisper over the throbbing of his head.

"You're pathetic, boy. I won't even dignify you to give you the title, Dragonboy. In my opinion, Ghaleon gave you too much credit for it. You have only served as a pathetic annoyance and hindrance. I barely had to exercise any magical power to defeat you. And now I will destroy you. I only hope that you realize how stupid your decision was to relinguish you power before you die a most painful death..."

With that, Evangeon raised his hand and pointed it at Alex. Slowly, a violet orb began to grow in it. But Alex could barely see it. Evangeon was right, he realized. He was finished. His headache had him totally crippled, but even without it he'd barely be able to move. He had been beaten. At long last, he was gone, and soon Evangeon would build a new chariot, and go on to kill Luna...and the rest of the face of Lunar...

No...he couldn't allow that. He had to stop him...somehow. His personal will drove him onward, but he could do nothing. Yet he had to stop him. He had to find a way. In his fury, his head turned upward, his face beginning to stretch with anxiety at his own weakness.

Then, he saw it. The only clear thing in his vision. The Blue Dragon Helmet. Again, it lay before him, right there, waiting for him. It was just in his reach. Even looking at it began to ease his headache. The helmet... The helmet had the power. His hunger surged, and his eyes went desperate. It was his only chance. He had to have it. Desperate, willing to stop Evangeon and save Lunar at any cost, he shot out a hand to grab it. Remarkably, his pain eased, allowing him to move his hand toward the helmet and seize it. While Evangeon continued to charge, the boy slammed the helmet down on his head. Instantly, his pain began to ease, his strength to return...

Abruptly, the energy exploded from Evangeon's hand. But Alex, his power returning slightly, brought his shield in front of him right at the beam's attack point. It blasted against it, and violet energy whipped around him with killing force. He could feel its searing power, and knew that it would destroy him if he didn't block it. But his added strength enabled him to hold the shield no matter the power, and he managed to guard against the blast. Despite Evangeon's power, Alex was not hurt. And once he was finished shooting, the boy continued to lay there in a smoking crater. Only now, he glared at the dark warrior with killer intent.

"Blue Dragon Healing!" Alex screamed.

The Blue Dragon began to materialize over him, and in a moment, Alex felt like a million silver. He felt his sprain ease and loosen, and his ribs reconnect along with his legs. His cuts and abrasions closed, and his body became enfused with more power than ever. With the aide of the helmet, he was now better than before. He felt twice as strong...even three times as strong as he did before he even woke up that morning. Evangeon didn't seem nearly so fierce now. With a flash of speed, Alex rocked forward as the Blue Dragon faded and was back on his feet. He glared at Evangeon darkly from beneath his helmet, feeling stronger and more powerful than ever.

Evangeon snarled at him, and then put both hands together to sent another ball of energy flying his way. Alex merely held his shield before him and deflected the blast like it was so much chaff. Then, bringing his sword behind him, he began to dash toward the Magic Emperor. Evangeon blasted at him again, throwing the orbs of energy again at him. But Alex deflected each one. When Evangeon switched the black bolts, his shield held up against each one. At last, Evangeon, now backing up as Alex reached him, summoned a sword to come out of his gauntlet, and brought it up to block as Alex brought his sword up to strike down on him. Yet Althena's sword sliced through it as if it was butter, and sliced through the front of Evangeon's armor. Sparks flew out, and the lights began to flicker as fizzling erupted from the slash. Evangeon cried out and backed up.

"You-"

Yet Alex kept it up. With another slash, he raked his blade across one of Evangeon's gauntlets. With another, he brought his sword down on a spike of Evangeon's shoulder armor. It was all the Magic Emperor could do to avoid the hits. Yet they were striking his armor, and as they did so, more and more chunks of metal and sparks erupted from the blasts. His suit was losing power, and Alex could feel the power of Althena leaving it. Evangeon was growing weaker with each slash. Suddenly, he drove his sword forward, faster and stronger than he could guard. Suddenly, the metal shot right through his other shoulder and came out the opposite side.

"ARGH!"

If that wasn't enough, Alex, in his rage against the monster for the atrocities he had done to his friends, ripped upward with his sword until it was free from Evangeon's body. The effect ripped out a large chunk of armor from Evangeon's shoulder...as well as sliced right through Evangeon's shoulder itself. Blood and a few bone fragments flew out from the injury, and as the armor was pulled free, it revealed at last a single layer of black clothing and pink skin, stained with blood and the wound, underneath the metal, sparks, and wires. The entire body began to crackle and spark now from the injury done to the armor, and Evangeon toppled backward in pain, raising his other arm to his shoulder.

Alex, gritting his teeth, threw his sword aside and then ran against Evangeon with his shield in front of him. He caught the Magic Emperor, and smashed him into a stone wall, regardless of how heavy his suit was. As he smashed, it was with such force, that more of his armor fractured and broke off of his back. His chest itself fractured, and Evangeon cried out in pain and coughed beneath his helmet. His speech was beginning to break up, however, as his whole suit seemed to be failing him.

"Damn...you..." His mad voice choked.

Alex released him, and Evangeon slumped in a heap to the ground. Alex threw aside his shield as Evangeon grew flat against the ground. He still wasn't done though. He grabbed the remains of both of Evangeon's shoulders, and then smashed his helmet into his face. It fractured and dented. He smashed again, and one of the eyes shattered. He smashed again, and one of the horns broke off. He smashed again, and it began to bent inward, sending the voice enhancer in the armor wild. The armor snapped and fizzled, pieces of it popping and then moving no more. The entire suit was becoming nothing more than armor now. Yet again and again Alex smashed his head into the helmet of Evangeon, mutilating the metal more each time, until both eyes were smashed and the helmet was bashed in. Over the babble of the sparking voice enhancer, Evangeon's voice grew weak and more dazzled, yet he continued to stream out obscenities. Alex, enraged, leaned up from his head, keeping his body over Evangeon's fallen one, and began to smash his fists into his cracked torso. Despite being just in his flesh, the power of the three dragons flowed through him, enabling him to crack the armor and causing Evangeon to gasp and cough with each strike. Alex went mad, hitting again and again, giving no mercy at all...

...until...something unexpected happened.

Evangeon held up his arms weakly, particularly the one with the injured shoulder, and spoke...not in a dark, mad voice, but a weak, sane one...that sounded familiar despite the crackling voice enhancer.

"Alex...stop...please..."

Alex froze when he heard the voice beg him to stop. He turned and glared at the helmet for a moment. He thought of still attacking...but then slowed, and halted. What had he been doing? He had tried to tear Evangeon apart with his bare hands. He had never been that savage... What happened? Had he gone mad with his new power? But that wasn't all. He recognized that voice...somehow. Slowly, it groaned, and then sighed.

Slowly, his suit completely failing, Evangeon rose his gauntlet hands to his wrecked helmet. Moments later, his black fingers touched a few of the buttons and switches on the mask, and suddenly a hissing sound erupted. Then, the hands grasped the helmet, and slowly pulled it off of a sweaty head with a bloody gash across its forehead from being smashed by Alex's helmet. Once it was off, Evangeon let it fall to the ground, and lay there, panting and gasping, his face bruised and exhausted.

Alex couldn't believe it. It couldn't be real.

Slowly, the words tumbled out of his mouth.

"T...T...Tempest..."

The young chief, his hair still in its braids and ponytail, could only look weakly back. Tears were in his eyes, and his face was miserable.

Alex slowly shook his head in disbelief. "This...this isn't real... This is an illusion...a trick..."

"I wish it was..." Tempest weakly answered, totally estranged in the black armor. "I wish desperately...that it was... But it's not... It's me. It's always been me..."

Alex stared, not knowing what to say. What could he say? Tempest...the whole time... He had done that to Luna... He had tried to kill everyone at Nanza... He was behind this army. But Alex still couldn't feel angry at him.

"Why...?"

"Ghaleon..." Tempest answered, his eyes still full of tears. "Before he attacked Pao...he captured me... He...he mentally tortured me... He drove me insane... I became a split personality. I couldn't...remember what I did as Evangeon... It wasn't until...just now...that I found out myself... When you attacked me, I regained consciousness... Seeing myself in the armor...I at last found out the truth."

Tempest lowered his head. As Alex saw him, tears continued to come from his eyes, and he looked extremely ashamed. Alex stared back at him for a moment. It had been Tempest... But he thought of what he said also. He claimed he had a split personality, that he hadn't known what he did, and that it wasn't until now that he realized it. But was he lying? Was he just trying to save himself? Alex stared on, but then frowned. No, he wasn't lying. He was telling the truth. He had to be. Tempest had never told a lie as long as he knew him. And he knew that Tempest would never serve Ghaleon out of his own free will. The dark wizard had tortured him and brought him to this. He had ravaged his mind just like he tried to ravage Luna's mind using Tempest as a puppet. This was all his fault. It had always been his fault...

He had to help his friend. He didn't know how though. He was dangerous if he was a split personality. There would be no telling when he'd turn back into Evangeon. But he couldn't leave him here. He had to try. Hopefully Jessica could try and cure him. But he wouldn't leave him alone...

Slowly, Alex moved to Tempest's armor, and began to unfasten it. "I'm taking you back." Alex stated. "No one saw you leave. I didn't know you were gone myself. I'll tell them Evangeon captured you and I rescued you. No one will ever know. Then I'll take you back to the others. They'll understand. We'll help you."

"No..." Tempest protested slowly, his voice still shaking and weak. "Leave me... Let me die... I deserve it... I betrayed my tribe, Luna, your army, you...Fresca... I betrayed them all... I deserve death."

"This isn't the Prairie, Tempest," Alex continued, ripping off his armor. He seized the front torso, and tore it off, exposing Tempest's bruised and bloodied chest underneath ripped black clothing. He began to tear it off as well. "And it wasn't your fault."

"No...you must run..."

"Not without you."

Gritting his teeth, Tempest suddenly summoned all of his remaining strength, reached up, and grabbed Alex at the throat and turned his head to him. Alex reacted in shock. For a moment, he thought Evangeon had returned. But before he could react, Tempest glared at him and spoke.

"Listen!" He hissed. "You...you have to get out of here! Ghaleon never wanted me! He wanted you! The whole time..." He groaned in pain. "He wanted you! He told me! He wants to torture you too! He wants to make you his slave...you and Luna! He had me bring you here...so that when you took the helmet and defeated me he could come and get you! You must flee!"

Alex hesitated after hearing that. Tempest looked desperately sincere. His words struck a dark cord within the young man, and he began to look nervous. But regardless, it changed nothing. Nodding, he reached up and undid Tempest's hand. "Alright...I'll get out of here. But I'm not leaving you to him again. You're coming whether you like it or not."

"Brave, yet futile." A dark voice sounded from behind Alex. "All of your actions always were."

Before Alex could do much more than rise up, he felt himself blasted in the back, the one area of his body that now lacked protection. He screamed in anguish as he did, for this blast was most unlike the others. As it laced through him and penetrated him, it began to siphon away at him, burning his flesh as well as throwing him into extreme agony as the pain grew more and more severe. Alex struggled to withstand it for a moment, but then realized much to his shock that his energy was being drained off of him. His armor grew heavier, his slim amount of powers he still had disappated, and soon he felt in even more agony and weakness than with Evangeon. At last, the energy stopped, and Alex fell limply to the ground, landing right next to Tempest, who looked at this in fear and agony. Alex groaned for a moment, now feeling weaker than ever. But he managed to turn his head a bit, and look to his attacker. He knew who it was, however, before looking...because he knew that dark voice.

"Ghal...eon..."

Ghaleon smiled slightly, with his old confident expression, the one he made when he felt totally in control of the situation. He once again stood in his Magic Emperor armor, minus the helmet. However, he didn't look at Alex long, but turned to Tempest. "Well boy, you did exactly as I knew you would." He sneered. "You provided the perfect bait. Sadly, I have no further need of you. And while I could delight in watching your one half be driven mad by your insane half as it killed even more, I now have a much better candidate for Magic Emperor..."

With that, Ghaleon raised a hand and aimed it straight at Tempest. Alex turned to his friend in terror, but that was nothing compared to the terror of Tempest. His eyes bulged, and his mouth opened in horror for an instant. But then, Ghaleon fired. A bolt of energy erupted from his hand, and Alex watched as it pierced right through Tempest's chest, and then went through. Tempest convulsed, stiffened for a moment in shock, but then relaxed. His eyes and face remained frozen in sick surprise, but he moved no more. Alex glared in anguish. But he was in too much pain, and his energy was nearly gone. He couldn't move. Tears flooding into his eyes, he dropped his head against the ground.

"Bastard..."

Ghaleon, however, was perfectly calm, and strolled over to the ruined armor holding Tempest. "Don't grieve, boy..." He responded, his tone for once becoming, surprisingly, less biting and harsh. "This is the best day of your life. You need no longer concern yourself with that puny brave. This is a day of your celebration, and you will remember it with joy before I am done."

Alex clenched his teeth, but said nothing. The effort was too much. Ghaleon, meanwhile, took up the discarded helmet of Evangeon. "You see, Dragonboy...I did survive our last encounter. And since then I have found a way to harness Althena's power despite her foolish mistake. It can make me surpass my previous strength...but it cannot grant me immortality. I, like all things, am still doomed to die. That is when I realized I needed a legacy...and that is when someone revealed to me who the perfect candidate is..."

Slowly, Ghaleon turned and plodded back over to Alex. As for the young man, he didn't like Ghaleon's voice. He wasn't nearly as sharp and cruel as before, but to Alex that was something mysterious and unknown. There was an air of darkness in here. Something was coming, and Alex knew it wasn't good. A fear began to mount in his weak body. Suddenly, he felt himself grabbed by the scruff of his neck once more. With one easy pull, Ghaleon yanked him off the ground, holding him in one hand and the helmet in the other. The Magic Emperor turned Alex's weak and pale face over to him and grinned.

"And you...Dragonboy...you are the one!" He exclaimed, as if awarding a prize and decreeing something great. "From this day forward...I name you as my heir, and claim you as my adopted son. And once you have learned to embrace the power that is the Dragonmaster's, as you have already begun to crave again..."

Alex's eyes filled with fear. Tempest was right. But he couldn't react, and before he knew what was happening, Ghaleon suddenly placed the helmet over his head...giving him the visage of the Magic Emperor.

"You will be the greatest being on Lunar! Consider yourself privilaged, young Alex...for Premier Ghaleon has taken you as his final pupil...and will show you power you only dreamed of possessing!"

For a moment, Alex gaped in terror, realizing at long last what plan that Ghaleon had for him.

Then...he felt himself struck in the neck, and remembered no more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Ten

"Can you make this go a bit faster, Nash?"

"Give me a break! I still feel terrible..."

"Honestly, Kyle! I can't believe you just let him walk away like that!"

"Walk away?! He's the one that lassoed that flaming bat and then took off..."

"Took off to here...the Frontier..."

"There's smoke down below. Start slowing down Nash..."

Nash grimaced and began to do so. After the attack at the Nanza Barrier, and after Alex's sudden departure, the group of course had wanted to go in pursuit. But they could never follow at Alex's speed, and even if they could they couldn't get through the army of machines. They had to evacuate while they could. But they still had the flying carrier that Melichon had brought. It couldnít fly under it's own power. It looked like Evangeon had pulled it along like a tether. But they did have a way of pushing it forward, namely Nash's storm spells. The young wizard wasn't yet recovered, but he was the only form of propulsion they could get. Besides, none of them were in the best shape. Kyle was tired from battle, Jessica was exhausted from treating the wounded, Mia and Nash were at only about a third of their former strength, and Luna, who had insisted on coming the moment she heard about Alex though she was in wretched shape herself, wasn't much more well off. And she wasn't used to this transportation either.

Yet despite all of their trouble, they weren't about to leave their best friend alone to die, and were ready to pool what was left of their strength to help against Evangeon. And now, they finally had the spot. Nash sweat as he struggled to diminish his power of storms, letting the ship slow down. Meanwhile, Jessica stayed at the controls to angle it downward, bringing it closer and closer to the building they saw smoke from, which appeared to be none other than the Vile Tribe's Egg. The others looked anxiously outside, eager for a battle. As they drew closer and closer, the group began to tense up.

"We can't get in that small hole." Jessica stated. "We'll have to jump."

"No problem. We've done worse." Kyle replied. "And fallen harder..."

"Uh...I...I don't think I'm in good enough shape for it..." Mia nervously commented.

"You, Nash, and Luna aren't." Jessica answered. "Stay here. Me and Kyle will go down."

"No!" Luna suddenly protested, turning to them. "I want to go too! After what Evangeon did to me I can only imagine what he did to-"

"There's no way you can get down there, Luna." Jessica answered. "And if there was, you'd still be too much of a danger than help."

"And it looks like the action's over, anyway." Kyle answered, looking in. "I can't see a thing going on, and this smoke looks like it's smoldering."

"But-" Luna protested anxiously.

"But Jess is right, Luna." Kyle answered. "If Alex is down there and still fighting, then you'll just be an easy target for that Evangeon bastard. We can handle it."

Luna looked on for a moment, biting her lower lip nervously. She still wanted to come. But they were right. She was too injured to make the leap. She might have been too weak even if she wasn't injured. She sighed for a moment, but then bowed her head and said nothing. She never rejected or accepted the terms. She only stood there silently. But for Jessica and Kyle, that was enough. Jessica turned to Nash.

"Alright, cut your wind."

Nash immediately did so. The balloon carrier came forward for a few more moments, until it hovered over the black hole, but then stopped. Jessica turned to Kyle and nodded, and he did so back. Both of them then walked to the door of the carrier and popped it open. One at a time, using the door as a divind board or plank of some kind, they walked out and leapt off the edge, and into the hole. Mia, Nash, and Luna were left behind, nervously watching after them. Kyle went out first, followed by Jessica. For a moment, the bandit sailed down and plunged into the hole and darkness. But once down a little, the inner illumination replaced the night sky as night light, and he could see again. He landed on the bottom, squatting, and then quickly rose up, drew his katana, and then walked forward with a dangerous look. Jessica landed a moment later, mace already drawn. But soon, the two lovers looked around in terror.

The place was a destruction zone. Craters, ash, and debris were scattered everywhere. It looked as if the last battle had been fought inside here. Kyle began to inch forward, looking at all the signs of destruction. Jessica too moved to the side, looking about as well, and making for a black part of the floor. As Kyle looked on to that portion, he saw that there was stripped black armor lying all around, the armor that was Evangeon's. What more, he saw a pink body there. His body was smoking, bleeding, and motionless. Kyle turned away from him as Jessica approached him, snorting at the sight. He also glanced his eyes over the smashed chariot. He began to deduce some things rather quickly.

"Well...whatever happened here...looks like Alex got the better of it. Seems he thrashed Evangeon good... But if that's the case, then where is he?"

Jessica continued to approach Evangeon's still body. "Maybe someone else came..." Then, she bent down next to it.

Kyle frowned, especially as he just set eyes on a fallen, broken statue. It was not Althena's, and he groaned. "I'll give you three guesses of who the pointy-eared bastard wa-"

"Oh no...Kyle!" Jessica suddenly outburst, causing Kyle to stop and spin to her. "Come over here now! It's Tempest!"

Kyle turned his whole body around with a bewildered expression. He began to walk over to her though, gradually breaking into a rush. "Huh? What are you talking about?"

"It's Tempest!" Jessica called back, bowed over the fallen body and looking over him. "Oh no...he looks like he's dead..."

"Tempest?" Kyle answered. "That's impossible! He was with us the whole time at camp..." Yet, as Kyle said this, he realized he hadn't seen Tempest at all during the actual battle. What more, he hadn't been able to find him when they all gathered to go get Alex. But still...it was a shock. Tempest? How could he be him? If he was wearing that armor...then he had to be... But that couldn't be true. Evangeon killed Tempest's people...he killed Fresca... He wasn't a traitor...he was the last person he would ever suspect... He couldn't believe it. At any rate, he arrived at Jessica's side, and bent down.

"Did he kill him?"

Jessica, worried expression, felt at Tempest's neck. She sighed and shook her head. "His pulse is very weak...he's lost a lot of blood...perhaps worse. If he's going to live we have to stabilize him quickly." After saying that, Jessica hesitated, and then held her hands out over Tempest. She closed her eyes and chanted a moment, and slowly, green healing light extended over him. It wasn't an instant cure, for Jessica had used too much power for that right now. But it did regenerate some of the horrible damage done to his body. After healing a moment, his head began to turn, and he began to gently move his lips.

Though no audible sound came out, Jessica spoke to him. "Tempest? Can you hear me?"

"Yo, chief...what's the word?" Kyle added.

Suddenly, Tempest's eyes bolted open. Kyle and Jessica instantly saw a maddened expression in them. Tempest moved his arms feebly out to the side, and tried to get up. Quickly, Kyle and Jessica put their hands on him and pinned him down, realizing that moving too severely could kill him at this point. However, Tempest only went more mad. He began to sputter foam from the mouth as he struggled against the two with all his might, which luckily had diminished after being beaten.

"Master! No! Let me be your heir! Let me be your son!" He shrieked madly. "I am worthy! I'll kill them! I'll kill them all! Mel...Lemia...Tempest...Mia...Nash...Jessica...Kyle...Luna...and Alex! I'll destroy them! Damn it! It should be me!"

"What the hell..." Kyle muttered as he struggled to pin him down.

"Listen Kyle!" Jessica answered. "Listen to him! He just spoke his own name!" Jessica tried to hold him down, and bit at him. "Stop fighting me, Tempest!"

"Release me!" He shrieked. "My name is Magic Emperor Evangeon! Bow to me! Bow to me!"

Then, having exhausted himself, Tempest went limp and unconscious. Kyle and Jessica both gasped as they released him in relief, and stared in shock.

"What the hell happened to him?" Kyle exclaimed.

"Ghaleon had to have done something to him..." Jessica answered darkly. "He drove him mad. He thinks he's Evangeon. He even said he'd destroy himself for Ghaleon."

"That bastard..." Kyle scowled. He hesitated a moment, and then suddenly felt a chill down his spine. A horrible thought came to mind. Slowly, he turned his head up to Jessica again. "You don't suppose...if Big G came through here...that he grabbed Alex...and that he wants to do the same thing to him?"

Jessica froze at hearing that, her face suddenly filling with fear. She looked up to Kyle as well, and they both stared tensely at each other for a moment. But before either of them could say a word, a muffled cry slowly emitted.

"Uhh..."

Immediately, both of them turned and looked to the source. They saw that they were looking at the wreckage of the glider. Instantly, a ray of hope flowed into Kyle. Maybe Alex and Evangeon had just done each other in? He had to hope for that. He turned to Jessica again, and then motioned to her. "Check it out, Jess. I'll make sure he stays down in case he wakes up again."

Jessica nodded, and then rose from where she was. Kyle placed his hands on either of Tempest's shoulders, pinning him to the floor. He breathed slow and shallow now, looking in still pretty bad shape. But he kept his eyes on Jessica, as she walked over to the wreckage of the chariot. The moaning sounded again a few times, but no one came out. Jessica finally arrived, and stared in puzzlement at the chariot for a moment. After looking a bit longer, she finally took a sharp side of her mace and pried at one of the loose pieces of metal. With some work, she managed to pull it off, and looked inside. Yet no sooner had she done so, then she stepped back and cupped her hand to her mouth in horror.

Kyle reacted strongly. "What is it?"

"It's Fresca!" Jessica cried back. "Ghaleon's done something horrible to her! He has her all trussed up just like he had the dragons! She's been used like a fuel source!"

Kyle stared in his own sick surprise. That was even worse than killing the victims for the machines, forcing them to live their lives as...fuel. It disgusted Kyle, and he continued to glare in terror at what had happened. Jessica, however, managed to recover a bit and walk over to the glider again. She looked down for a moment, but then got her sneering expression on, and began to reach in and tear away. Kyle soon realized she was ripping out cables, probably ones that had been hooked to Fresca.

"Let's get this...this...stuff...off of both of them and get them back. They're both in bad shape...but not as bad as Ghaleon will be when I get my hands on him again."

"I hear ya'." Kyle answered, turning back to Tempest, and then proceeding to continue stripping off his metal armor. "I hope we find him soon. If Ghaleon's this damn low...then there's no telling what hell he's doing to Alex right now..."

Alex concluded playing at the exact same moment Luna ended her song, at the end of a long, soft note. It was nailed perfectly. The entire song was. That was a rare feet even for the two of them, and by the end of it Alex was sweating. But he opened his eyes afterward, and once again gazed at Burg. It was a beautiful sight in spring, at the festival of the goddess the square was packed with every resident in town. They had all stopped their own milling about a merrimaking this evening, however...just to sit and listen to the star singer and musician in the entire town. There was a moment of silence, leaving the town to know that the song was truly over. The young couple stood, letting it sink, and for a moment, like he always did, Alex wondered if they had done terrible, or not surpassed themselves for once.

But then, like always, the entire town broke into applause. Luna blushed and bowed gracefully, and Alex too blushed and gave a nod to the audience. But they continued to cheer. They whistled and clapped and yelled out complements to the two of them. It was a great sight, and Alex hadn't felt this good in a long time. From out of the audience, the mayor marched up, clapping all the way.

"Yes, yes! Bravo, bravo!" He accented to the cheering audience, who only cheered wilder than before. "What a performance! Yes, for the fifth year in a row, our little duo, Alex and Luna, have once again dazzled us with unquestionably the best song our festival has ever seen!"

The applause broke out even more than ever. Luna and Alex looked to each other, and grinned nervously to one another. They turned and bowed again to the audience. Yet just as Alex rose, he felt a warm hand clap on his shoulder. When he looked to it, he saw that despite the warm feeling, it was white. He turned his head behind him, to its owner.

He soon saw a smiling, white-skinned, white-haired man, with red eyes and a large smile. Alex recognized him. He was famous in Vane. He had come all the way to Burg to compete against Luna and Alex in a musical competition. Alex had learned only minutes ago that he was a rather avid player of the Lyre, and his songs, presumably learned all from the same man, whose name escaped Alex at the moment, were fantastic. But in the end, they had beaten him as well.

"Well done, my young friend." Ghaleon spoke to Alex. "I honestly didn't believe that anyone could sound so pleasant. You sound like the four Dragons serenading with accompanyment from none other than the Goddess herself. You should be very proud, Alex."

Alex swallowed a bit. He was actually getting complemented by Ghaleon...greatest of the Four Heroes. Yet for some reason...he had a slight headache... "Thank you, sir."

"I understand you're some admirer of the Four Heroes." Ghaleon continued. "I'd be delighted to see you at the Magic Guild some time. I've seen your physical standing as well as your musical. It would be interesting to see how you fared at the Cave of Trial..."

"That would be an honor, sir." Alex answered...wincing a bit from his headache. Slowly, he felt his mind drifting...as if he was fantasizing something. "If you please...I'd like to show you something..."

"By all means, please do." Ghaleon answered. "Yet first enjoy yourself with your friend. I assure you, she has great talent as well."

"Yes..." Alex responded, and then turned back to the crowd.

Strange as it was...Alex felt more at ease and calm when he went back to the villagers. Perhaps it was that he was so nervous of being in the presence of a man like Ghaleon. He was the strongest and most noble of the heroes, having done the greatest, most incredible, and most

evil

spectacular deeds out of them all. Yet as he spoke back to the crowd, time seemed to meld together and drift away. It seemed as if Luna, smiling at him, vanished in with the rest of the crowd in an instant, disappearing into nothingness. He blinked and struggled for a moment, feeling dizzy. What had come over him? Had he accidentally drank some of the ale? Why was his head spinning? Yet things soon cleared up...and when they did, he saw that he must have left in his daze. For suddenly, he saw himself over at the monument north of town. Ghaleon stood before him, still dressed as nothing more than a simple bard, looking before the towering monument beyond. It was a statue, trapping Ghaleon in his brevity and youth, gazing out nobly and strongly at the sunset in the prime of his life. Alex had to admit, Ghaleon was still very strong looking. But he had never imagined in his wildest dreams he would see him...the great Ghaleon...face to face...he had been so amazed when he arrived...

Strange...why did his head hurt again?

"It's a grand monument...for a town so poor." Ghaleon commented. "I understand you've spent a lot of time here, Alex...gazing out at the sunset..."

Alex felt himself blush a little bit. He quivered a little, and then shrugged. "Well...to tell the truth..." He spoke nervously. "You always were...kinda my...

worst nightmare

hero..."

Man...why did my head ache so much just now?

Ghaleon smirked a little.

"It's true. I'm fascinated by the Dragonmasters. All of them were great. But you were by far the biggest and the best. I mean, there isn't a person in Lunar who doesn't know at least five of the great adventures

Dyne

adventures...

Dyne

that Ghal...

Dyne

Ghal...

Dyne

Ghale...

Dyne

...leo...

DYNE

eon...had..." Alex trailed off. His head hurt terribly now. What had come

Wake up!

over him?

Ghaleon merely sighed. "Many people are dreamers and historians, Alex. The question is who is capable. Dreamers dream their lives away...

Wake from the dream!

and historians waste their times on other people's lives. Proving oneself is a far greater

Wake up!

goal to aspire to. The Dragonmaster is the guardian of a great

Snap out of it!

deal of power, young Alex. To carry it is a great respon-

Wake up! Break free!

-sibity. Not just anyone can wield it, or dare to possess it."

Hurry! Snap free!

Alex's head was throbbing greatly now. He blinked a few times, breathing heavily. Something was happening to Ghaleon's statue. For some reason...a gravestone was being superimposed on the statue.

Dyne's Monument...

Your hero...

Your real hero...

Ghaleon turned to him and looked cold and stern. "I'll be perfectly honest with you, Alex. I am the Dragonmaster, but I cannot live forever. Yet the world needs a Dragonmaster. Constantly. Someone must rule and protect Althena's children at all times. This world is constantly on the verge of chaos. That is why I saught you out. You have a potential that I have not seen in years. Because of that potential, I have come to you. I wish to test you...and see if you can become the next Dragonmaster."

Alex's head pounded. He reached his hands up to it and clasped furiously. Slowly...he began to recognize Ghaleon. Not from what he had seen of him today...because he had seen him before. Yes...he had seen him time and time again...in that black armor... Even as he thought it, Ghaleon's body seemed to start to be clothed in it. He remembered...how he...tortured...Luna... Did terrible things... Tried to make himself the god of Lunar... Slowly, Ghaleon extended a hand to him.

"Come with me, Alex...and stop dreaming, and start acting."

Alex held back a moment longer. His headache grew worse and worse. Yet somehow...he felt like he was thinking more clearly than ever. Suddenly, his face grew enraged. He lashed forward, and with all his might smashed his fist against Ghaleon's face.

"You're not Dyne!"

Suddenly, the entire world went dark.

And Alex felt a huge blow smash him in the abdomen.

His air instantly knocked out, Alex's eyes bulged, and the young man toppled to the floor. He was surrounded by darkness all around now. It was empty and eternal, stretching long and far in all directions. Even the floor was total blackness. But he couldn't remember how he got here. The last thing he did remember was Ghaleon...holding him by his neck...putting that helmet on-

Smash!

Alex writhed in pain as a foot dug into his back, and recoiled in agony. But that wasn't it. For another part of his illusion had been real that he had just escaped from...the part with Ghaleon. He stood over him now, fully dressed in the Magic Emperor's armor, even the helmet placed on his head. He bent down, and slowly turned Alex's gasping, agonized body over. He was still in agony from the first beating he received at his hands. But Ghaleon wasn't finished. No sooner had he turned him over, than Ghaleon began to beat him with both of his hands again and again, splattering blood all over his gauntlets.

"Now you see that this process will be regretably painful, my son..." Ghaleon calmly said as he continued to beat Alex. "I knew your will was strong from the moment I first saw you. Breaking that will will not be easy. It could take weeks...which is why we're here in my private chambers. Here, I control the flow of time, and the entire span of a year can pass in days."

Alex couldn't answer. He couldn't move anymore, but Ghaleon continued to beat him, his hands conducting energy to drive Alex into more fierce pain than ever.

"I must make this experience as unpleasant as possible, son. Because I want you to remember this anguish. I want it imprinted on your mind. I am telling you your new history, boy. I am giving you your new past. And you will accept it. Because before I am done with you, every memory of your past will remind you only of this lonely blackness and endless pain at my hand. Accept your new memories, and your stay here will be brief."

"Damn...you..." Alex choked out through the pain.

"You will succumb, Alex...even if you must spend a thousand years worth of time in this place." Ghaleon answered, and continued to beat his future son.

Fresca suddenly opened her eyes, and was most surprised to find that she had a roof over her head. It was an odd experience for her. She had never slept under a real roof in her entire life. She blinked and then rose from where she lay, soon discovering that she was not only in a real room, but in a real bed. But why was she there? She looked around a bit. Her room looked somewhat elegantly done, like it was a chamber rather than a regular room. It definitely wasn't anywhere in Tamur. Nowhere in it was this fancy. But why was she here? And, as she realized as she looked down at her body, why were her clothes replaced with some sort of nightshirt? And where were her weapons? And where was Tempest and everyone else in Pao? Where was Pao?

Suddenly, the door to the room creeked. Fresca snapped her head to it. As she did so, she saw, finally, to somewhat familiar sights walk in. It was the boy and girl from Vane that had come to her tribe a year ago during the crisis involving Magic Emperor Ghaleon. The boy seemed a little surprised to see her awake. But as for the girl, she was perfectly polite and straightforward, and performed a small bow.

"Greetings, Fresca. Welcome to Vane. I hope you found the night pleasant."

Fresca looked overwhelmed, and turned around frequently. "Vane? How did I end up in Vane? And what are you two doing here?"

Nash frowned. "We live here."

Fresca was still tense. "Alright then, what am I doing here?"

Mia rose again and focused on her. "Do you remember anything that happened, Fresca? A lot has gone on..."

Fresca hesitated, and then thought a moment. Truth be told, her memory was fuzzy. She remembered nightmares...nightmares where she was working and riding and fighting for days and days on end, growing always more tired but never being able to rest. But before that...what was before that? She had been out hunting...she had spotted an animal in the distance...but then, a big bird suddenly flew down... No, not a bird, a man. He aimed his hand at her...and then nothing. But the man, and that armor... he looked so dark. He couldn't be from the region. However, based on where she was, she began to realize the truth.

"I was...abducted?"

Both Nash and Mia looked a bit uneasy at that. They looked to each other tensely, then turned back and shrugged.

"I guess you could say that." Nash answered.

"It was Ghaleon." Mia commented, being more direct. "Somehow he survived our last battle with him. But he's done something terrible. He's discovered a way to use the power of Althena inside people as energy to power these horrible machines. But that's not all. He found out a way to use people themselves as power sources, just like he used the Dragons as power sources." Mia hesitated for a moment after that, letting that much sink in.

Fresca stared for a moment. So, he had been the one who attacked her. She had seen him only once before, at the Black Dragon Tower briefly before she grew sick. But she knew she recognized that armor from somewhere. It had to have been him. So she had been disabled...or captured...but for how long?

"How did you find me?" Fresca asked, nearly demanding. "How long have I been out?"

Both Nash and Mia looked uneasy again. But Fresca was the kind of woman that wanted things directly. And so, Mia answered tenatively.

"We can't tell. Weeks...perhaps months. Temp...that is, Evangeon, one of Ghaleon's henchmen, used your body as a power source to power a flying chariot. You were pretty weak when we found you, after Evangeon was beaten. But your body was still working right. Obviously the machine just had you drained. You recovered quickly. We got you last night and you're already up and ready today."

Fresca stood in a bit of stunned silence. So...she had been used as power. The thought was unsettling to her. But that wasn't all. While she was gone, what had become of Pao? The people? And if she was missing, what had happened with Tempest? Did he think her dead? Fresca hesitated a moment longer, then turned back fiercely to the two magicians. "Tell me everything that has happened." She stated.

Mia and Nash slowly told her the huge story. They told her about the formation of the Zone Confederation, the high officials, and the betrayal by them. They told her about how Pao had been 'harvested' for Ghaleon's troops, leaving only Tempest and a few others alive. They told about the new army of machines, the kidnappings, the treachery, the loss of Nall, and all of the attempts to try and halt the oncoming army. They also told all the little scraps and pieces of information that was still cryptic as well. All that was left out was the identity of Evangeon... Afterward, they told about what had happened since last night. Forced to abandon Nanza, the fleeing army did all in its power to make the path as inscalable as possible. After pulling down the fort to make a huge mess, they also caused a rockslide in the road. If the former didn't hold, the latter would only be made worse by the machines attempts to blast it out of the way. But still, they were running out of time. With the south now cut off, the enemy was free to make more machines. And unless a better way could be found to destroy them, and soon, they would just be avoiding the inevitable. Fresca took this all in with burning eyes and a hard-set face, especially the horrible truth about Pao. In the end, her fists were tightened in anger. She coldly spoke to both of the wizards.

"I must talk with my husband. Where is he?"

Nash gestured. "Next room to the right..." Suddenly, Nash cut himself off and cursed, as if he had made a big mistake. Mia's face panicked as she looked to him.

Fresca instantly turned and made for the door.

"Fresca, no!" Mia called out. "You can't go in there!"

"Stop! Don't look at him like this!" Nash protested.

But Fresca ignored them. She thought only of talking to her husband, of reassuring him of her existence, and of embracing him after having been in confinement for so long. Then she wanted to get some weaponry and destroy the entire machine army with her own bare hands, followed closely by Ghaleon. Despite the wild protests of the two wizards, and their attempts to stop her physically, she reached the door first and opened it. The moment she did so, she saw the edge of a bed, the bandit known as Kyle, and Jessica at the doorway. She gaped the moment she saw Fresca, and snapped as she walked right in.

"You idiots! Don't let her in here! Don't let her-"

"Damn you! Damn you all!"

Fresca froze. She heard a bloodthirsty, insane human voice burst out. She hesitated a moment, but then went on forward, to see what was going on. The bed was revealed to her, and for the first time her look became a mixture of disgust, revulsion, and terrible shock.

There was Tempest...looking totally insane. He had been strapped to the bed, once at the ankles, twice at the legs, twice at the chest and arms, twice at the abdomen, once at the wrists, and once each at the neck and head. He was throwing a violent fit as he was strapped down. He struggled to break free with every fiber of his being. He wore only loose white pants, and every inch of his body was covered in sweat from his terrible rage. Every so often, some of his bonds had to be tightened to keep him from breaking free. His eyes glazed about with a mad, unseeing look. His hands had some sort of glove on them to keep him from clawing into his own palm with his nails. A bit was in his mouth to keep him from biting his own tongue off. Yet as he struggled madly, he still managed to scream around the bit, some of his madness making sense to who he had been...some quickly degenerating into rambling.

"I'll not endure this! I'm Evangeon! I'm the Magic Emperor! Bow before me and despair! Open these chains or I'll destroy you! This is not becoming! Master! I'm your son! Release me!"

Fresca stared silently for a few moments longer, not saying a word. Then, for the first time in her adult life...she wept.

Alex felt great relief to finally be free as he opened the door. Stepping outside into the light, Luna closely behind him, he took in a deep breath and a grand look at the sights all around him. Vane was even more amazing face-to-face. He had never seen such a magical city before. He had never encountered a place that was so teeming with wizards and signs and shapes of such kinds all around him. Yet everyone walked around as if the entire area was just commonplace. He froze on the outside, looking around, with Luna doing much the same as she looked about.

"Looks like we're finally free of the Cave of Trial, Alex..." She stated.

"I had a feeling you'd pass."

Alex and Luna both turned their heads to the sound of the voice. Waiting not to far outside of the door that exited the cave was none other than Dragonmaster Ghaleon. He had changed from when they had stepped on the Transmission Spring. Instead of his bard clothing, he was now dressed as a man of higher rank and order, obviously the clothing he wore as Premier of the Magic Guild. He stared at them both for a moment, looking them over, his face having a serious expression on it. But then, he spoke calmly.

"I can't tell you, or probably show you, how glad I am that you are both here. I have a feeling that we can expect a great deal from the both of you."

Luna blushed a little bit. "Um...thank you, sir...but I wasn't planning on studying magic. I was only accompanying Alex..."

Ghaleon hesitated a moment, but then gave a short nod. "I see." He stated, nothing more. "I expect that Premier Lemia will be wishing to meet with you in person, Alex. Hopefully I can arrange an audience soon. From what I've seen of your talents so far, you already possess a great deal of the characteristics that I saw in myself at your age..."

Alex winced suddenly. His head hurt again.

"...and I look forward to being your teacher as well. If your talents do lie within you, I will be the one who brings them out. I promise you that."

Ghaleon extended a hand out to Alex. A sharp pain went into the young man's skull, and suddenly, an insane passion came across him. He suddenly loathed Ghaleon, and his mind babbled that all that was around him was a trick. "Come, boy."

Suddenly, Alex snapped. He smacked Ghaleon's hand out of the way, and then swung a fist at his head.

Instantly, a black helmet materialized. Alex's fist struck against it, and instantly his knuckles were tore open and bruised from striking something so hard. Alex cried out and drew his hand back, looking at it. He saw, to his shock, that he had actually torn open old scabs on it from striking before. Blood already stained his hands. He gasped...and then his memory came flowing back to him, as he stood weakly before the Magic Emperor in the dark void.

His body was sticky...and smelled now. It figured, for he could remember being in this dark prison for at least two months. He hadn't washed that entire time. He was starving and dehydrated, his lips dry and cracked. His skin was turning white from the lack of light. His bangs were starting to dangle over his eyes. His fingernails were long. But most of all, his face was swollen and his body was covered with old injuries from having received numerous beatings at the hand of Ghaleon. One of his eyes were swollen puffy, and still ached from the last time he had been hit. Time and time again, Ghaleon subjected him to the fake memories. Each time he had managed to break free, and each time he had paid the price.

He wasn't able to resist this time, but it didn't matter. He had given up resisting in the second week. Ghaleon seized him, and gave him the back of his hand, one of the links of armor cutting against his cheek.

"I'm impressed, my son..." Ghaleon continued, continuing to call him that title. If Alex had the strength this time, he would have yelled back at him. But he didn't. He saved it for mentally reminding himself again of everything true. Dyne was his hero. Ramus had led them on their journey. They had met with Nash leaving. Luna had sung that song of distress. They went through the Cave of Trial just to meet Lemia and Ghaleon. He had never seen him before that...never... "Tempest had begun to crack at this point. But then again, I wasn't nearly so tender as I am being with you. I don't want you to hate me. This is for your own good, Alex."

"I'll...hate you...forever..." Alex weakly choked through a dry throat.

"Forever is a very long time, boy...and why bother, when you could end all of your torture right now just by joining me?"

"Never..."

Ghaleon hesitated for a moment in the middle of his beating. "Hmph...I think I'll let you recover for a month by yourself in this darkness before I start your memories again. Then perhaps you'll find them, or any human contact, more to your liking..."

"Alright...so what now?"

Kyle was the one who ended up voicing the critical question. Now that they had moved everyone back to Vane, and that the wizards were almost totally recovered, they had to think of something and fast. It had been two days since they had abandoned Nanza and relocated. The mountain pass was impeding the enemy army, but it wasn't going to hold them much longer. They only had another two days at the most, and in that time they had to think of something. Everyone was gathered in the main hall. Lemia leaned against a column with a look of deep thought on her face. Mel had his arms crossed and was wielding his axe. Luna stood in a corner, her face tight with worry regarding Alex and what had become of him. Fresca was much the same, only she hid it better, not showing her true weakness. Nash and Mia both looked worried, the former pacing up and down the hall. Duunran was also present, having determined that he was trustworthy. But he was so meek and quiet that it was obvious why Melichon thought he would have surrendered easily. Kyle was also thinking, but Jessica merely frowned at him the moment after he spoke.

"Isn't it obvious? We're going to get Alex back."

Nash stopped and sighed. "I don't think that's a good idea, Jessica." This cause both her, as well as Luna, to look up to him, but Nash went on. "We have no idea where he is. He could be anywhere out on the Frontier, which it is becoming obvious is Ghaleon's base. We can't afford to look for him, not when we have those machines to worry about."

Jessica still frowned. "Oh yeah? Well the longer we wait and leave him alone the better the chance is that creep Ghaleon is turning him into the next Mag-"

Jessica froze here. For what she had been saying was making both Luna and Fresca tear up alike, through the latter tried her best to hold it back. She bowed her head a little, and said nothing else. But it didn't matter, Mia spoke up instead.

"If Alex was here, I'm sure he'd be more concerned that we stop these machines. There are a lot of lives at stake, and we're the only ones who can save them. We have to try and stop them."

Mel snorted. "Fightin' ain't gonna do no good. We'd all have to have blades as sharp as Alex's, and might as well have shields as strong too if we're gonna get close enough to attack." He grunted. "Havin' the White Dragon's Protection would come in good right now..."

"And only the highest of our mages will be able to fight against them as well." Lemia commented. "Based on our previous performance, it would take five of them attacking at once to destroy one machine with a single blast. Even if we had the mages, the strain would take a toll on our bodies long before we could destroy them all."

Kyle likewise frowned. "There ain't enough siege weapons to do the job either."

Jessica frowned and glowered at them all and their downcast faces. "Well then, let's stop talking about how hopeless the situation is and try to find something we can do. We know that they're having a hell of a time getting across the mountains, especially after what we did."

"So they can't climb so good." Nash muttered. "So what?"

"Maybe we could cause a rockslide to bury them. I mean...even they won't be able to blast themselves free after enough time...won't they?"

"Maybe." Lemia answered. "Maybe not."

"Ah, we already dumped all the dirt we could on the way out." Kyle snorted. "We can't do anything else."

"Then we have to find another way." Mia added, though her own face grew despondant at the mention that they lost one option.

The group was silent for a few moments, none of them able to think of anything. After a few moments, however, Fresca finally stepped forward and spoke up. "On the Prairie, every advantage is exploited. And one advantage has come to mind, if only one. By slowing them down, we have made the army forced into one path down a mountain and to consolidate. They're all gathered together now."

"So?" Nash asked.

"So, if we were on the hunt in Pao..." Fresca continued. "This would be time to make the killing, when they had nowhere to run and were all together."

Nash still frowned. "Make a killing with what?"

"The lass's idea is sound." Mel threw in, suddenly a bit uplifted. "Jus' like when I was on the high sea, and had me enemy cornered with nowhere ta' run. If ya' wanted a clean shot to sink a ship, that was yer chance for it. Sure saved on ammo."

Nash was unchanged. "I don't see how that applies here."

"I do." Mia commented, causing everyone to look to her. "There is one chance here. If we can just devise some method of attack...something new...something so powerful that it could destroy them all no matter how thickly packed they are so long as they're in the same small area...then maybe we could wipe them all out. Then after that we could go and destroy that factory. With that gone, we'd have all but won."

"But Majesty, what do we have?" Duunran ventured, finally speaking up. "With Vane out of the air, the Crystal Spire can no longer utilize its own power."

Mel likewise frowned. "And me Dragonship Destiny won't be completed fer months...maybe even years."

Lemia sighed. "We could really use the Dragonmaster now...and his power over the other dragons."

Nash suddenly reacted to that. "Dragons..." He mused. This drew the attention of the others, and they turned to him and looked. He thought for a moment longer, still considering something. Then, suddenly, an idea came into his head. With some enthusiasm, he turned to the others. "There's still one weapon left..." He spoke. "And if we act fast...we might just make it work."

The others looked to him in total puzzlement.

"What weapon?" Jessica asked.

"The Grindery." Nash answered with a smile.

All of the others instantly formed looks of total shock and surprise, even Luna with her own preoccupied thoughts.

"What?! Are you insane?!" Jessica bellowed.

"Did ya' get your head hit too hard in that last battle, Nash? Or are you just having a classic case of jackassitis?" Kyle inquired, sounding kind of serious. "I'd expect that kind of idea from you when you were dressed like the giant chicken."

Nash scowled. "At least I wasn't dressed like a transvestite clown! But forget about that! Think! The Grindery is the only thing that has the power. It'd blow away the enemy with one hit."

"But Vane damaged the Grindery." Mia answered. "It didn't destroy the main weapon, but it ruined the shield and destroyed one of the treads."

"That doesn't matter." Nash replied. "As long as it has one tread, we can turn it around so that it faces the Nanza Barrier mountain pass. Then we fire just as their army comes down and obliterate them."

"An idea." Lemia answered, a bit sternly. "Save for the fact that the Grindery is powerless without the Four Dragons. There is no way we could make it fire a shot."

Nash hesitated for a moment, as if he had thought about this but was nervous about his reply. Then, he shrugged. "Well...we don't need the total power of the Four Dragons. It only took the power of one dragon to fire it last time."

"Still, that's one dragon we don't have." Mel answered. "What can we do?"

There was a moment's hesitation. No one said anything, but thought of this latest possibility. But then, Mia was the one who came up with the answer, speaking slowly and tensely.

"We don't need a dragon... All we need to do is the same thing that Taben would have done to us...use our own lives to power it."

Everyone looked to Mia in shock. In another moment, they expected calls of "Out of the question!" or "Never!" Yet none of them came. They failed to come forth because they all knew the desparation of the situation now. They hadn't the time to waste debating this. Like it or not, the Grindery was the idea. Not the best idea...the only idea. And in order to save the world from that army, the only choice might have been to do the unthinkable. They all kept their heads low for a moment, thinking of the dire possibility. Then, at last, Nash swallowed, and spoke in a small voice.

"I volunteer myself first..."

"Hold on." Fresca interjected. "Maybe none of us have to die." This caused everyone to look to her, but she continued to speak. "It was like you found me, being used as fuel to power Te..." She froze for a moment, and for the first time ever the group saw Fresca turn white. But then, she spoke again. "Evangeon's chariot. Maybe if we did the same to ourselves we could do the same."

The others hesitated, but then looked to each other with a look of potential and hope. They looked around a bit, seeing the same from the others. Then, Nash shrugged. "Sounds like a good idea to me."

"One other problem." Kyle suddenly snorted. "How exactly are we going to do all this? We aren't exactly dragon sized, and even then I don't think we can just slip into where the Four Dragons were."

"But there's one person who can help us there." Jessica spoke up, giving a little grin. "That smelly old fart on top of Myght's Tower. We can use the ship to fly to him, grab him, then bring him over here to reconfigure the Grindery to do that for us. Heck, he's probably the only one who can power the thing anyway."

"Sounds good to me." Nash answered.

"But can such a thing really be done in two days?" The pessimistic Duunran suggested.

Kyle grinned and swung a fist. "We're gonna shoot for it. I'm willing if everyone else is."

'"You can count on me." Jessica answered.

"Jus' sounds hairbrained enough ta' work." Mel ascented.

"I'll do whatever my daughter decides on." Lemia answered.

"And I'm for it." Mia spoke with a nod.

Everyone else gave short nods, Luna, not eager to lose her remaining friends, and Duunran, still nervous, being the last among them. But in the end, that was the only possibility they could think of, and they agreed. With that decided on, Luna looked around a bit, but then spoke up again.

"I know this isn't our first concern...but still...how can we get Alex back?" Luna inquired, her tone a bit desperate. "I'm willing to work on it myself if no one else can."

"Like hell, Luna." Kyle answered. "That kid means a lot to me too. I'll be helping out."

"Maybe Tempest knows where he is." Nash suggested. "He was with Ghaleon. He might be able to tell us his plans or hiding places."

Jessica frowned a bit, in regret, and sighed. "Sadly...Tempest won't be telling us anything for a while. He throws violent fits all the time he's in Evangeon's persona. The rest of the time..." She swallowed. "He just cries and tries to recover all the strength he used up."

Fresca trembled a little, but showed no other weakness.

Mia likewise was anxious. "What can we do?"

"Only one thing we can do." Jessica answered grimly. "We'll have to teach him to behave again. We have to reward him when he's Tempest, and when he's Evangeon..." She trailed a bit, swallowing again. "We'll...have to punish him...somehow...restrain him, or something..."

The others looked uneasy at that, but Jessica continued. "Not just when he's Evangeon, though. Mood swings...outbursts...anything that makes him look like that insane madman has to be punished... And punished badly... It's the only way I can think of to condition him back to the way he was before."

Luna grimaced. "It sounds...cruel..."

Jessica sighed a bit, and looked to her regretfully.

"It'll have to be. The toughest love of all."

"This is our most dire hour."

Alex tried to focus on Ghaleon's words, but he couldn't. His insides quivered. Luna was gone, taken by Xenobia and the traitorous Phacia and Royce. The Vile Tribe had returned after thousands of years, and now they were serving a mysterious figure that they knew only as the "Dark Lord". After returning from their mission to Lann, Alex and Luna had been brought before who they thought was Lemia Ausa, only to be thrown into prison as traitors. Mia had broken them out, and they found Luna up in the Blue Spire, singing an evil song under the threat of death. It was there that Mia was able to free her real mother from the imprisonment of a mask, and there that the fake Lemia revealed her true identity. Ghaleon had tried to grab Luna, but it was too late. She was taken away with the others. And now, they were in a pitiful state of affairs. The Dark Lord no doubt had some sinister purpose for Luna, and Lemia was just a shell of her former self. Now, Alex, Mia, and Nash stood before the remaining Premier in the main hall, Lemia seated to the right, looking haggard and beaten.

Ghaleon frowned. "I swear I will make Xenobia and the Vile Tribe pay for what they have done to my friend. But now is not the time for vengeance. This Dark Lord no doubt means destruction to Althena's world, and he is using Luna to do it."

"But why Luna?" Alex desperately asked. "He has no need for her."

Ghaleon paused a moment, and thought. "One would think..." He mused. He hesitated for a moment, then shook his head. "Anyway, now is not the time for it. The important thing is to put an end to the Dark Lord, and to stop whatever chaos Xenobia caused from amounting. Due to the direness of the situation..." Ghaleon hesitated a moment, forming a cold face. At last, he sighed. "I am assuming command of the Magic Guild and the surrounding area, including Meriba, Lann, and the surrounding territories. From now on, they are under the jurisdiction and protection of Vane, and all troublemakers will answer to me. For the duration of the emergency, I am taking the title Magic Emperor Ghaleon."

The others in the room acknowledged this silently. But as for Alex, he winced a bit. A bit of head pain came back, but then faded. It was strange to him. Why did he react to that title? It was like it disturbed him somewhat.

Nash smiled confidently. "We haven't got anything to worry about. There's no foe that Dragonmaster Ghaleon can't destroy."

Ghaleon, however, didn't react to this that well. "I wish that were true, my young apprentice...but such is not how things shall be. My era is fast fading, and I am past the prime of my life. Strong though I might be, if Xenobia was able to trick me then I am obviously failing. For that reason..." He hesitated a moment, growing quiet and serious. "...I believe my primary responsibility should be to establish a new Dragonmaster."

Everyone in the room reacted to this, the officials and Alex alike. They looked mildly surprised. "Another Dragonmaster? Are...are you sure, Ghaleon?" Mia asked nervously.

"It is not unheard of." Ghaleon responded. "There have been two Dragonmasters before. Take the example of the legendary sisters. Besides...there is the chance that I might not be around much longer. And if I die and this Dark Lord does something to the Dragons after my demise, then their power will be the Dark Lord's, and this world will be dead."

No one in the room reacted to that so simply. They all looked about nervously, giving each other dark expressions of worry and fear. But after a few moments of silence, Mia turned to Ghaleon again. "But who is to be the next Dragonmaster? Certainly not that imposter from Lann."

"We have the next candidate for the Dragonmaster right here before us." Ghaleon answered. With that, he turned his gaze downward...until...

Alex saw that it rested on him.

"It is you, Alex of Burg."

Alex gasped a bit in shock. Him? The next Dragonmaster? Sure, he had dreamed about it often enough, fantasized often about doing great deeds and being famous and reknown throughout the world. But he had never actually considered the fact that he would become the Dragonmaster, or if so in a very casual way, not giving any serious thought as to how or when. But Ghaleon looked perfectly serious. He was looking at him, the newest mage in Vane, to be the next Dragonmaster.Nobody seemed to take this too well. The crowd around him murmured, including his two new friends. All of them looked in disbelief.

"Master Ghaleon...him?" Nash asked in disbelief. "He's...he's nothing more than a farm boy. He barely passed the fifth class exams, and, if you don't mind me saying so, his behavior was totally out of line and disrespectful during the Lann mission."

"Be that as it may," Ghaleon answered. "It is him. He has the green eyes. It's a mark among most Dragonmasters. And I have felt the power inside Alex ever since I met him in Burg. He will be the next Dragonmaster. I believe it is his destiny."

The others still looked incredulous all around Alex. Alex, on his part, felt a bit nervous to suddenly be the center of all the attention and commotion. Yet also...he felt excited. Him? The Dragonmaster? Was Ghaleon serious? Was he really going to become the next Dragonmaster? Was he really to replace him? It made Alex's head swim a little bit. Yet no one seemed to be too keen on the idea except for him and Ghaleon. Anyway, that's what Alex thought, until Mia smiled a bit at him.

"Alex...there weren't a whole lot of people who would have helped me in this town, even if I had broken them out of prison, against my mother." Mia spoke with the smile. "Everyone in Vane owes you a debt of gratitude. I don't care if you're just a beginner wizard. I'm sure you can become the Dragonmaster."

Nash hmphed a little bit, seeming to be a little jealous or unbelieving, and crossed his arms. However, Ghaleon calmly stepped down to the floor and placed his hand on Alex's shoulder. "Of course he can." He answered. "And that is why I must take him at once to see the White Dragon Quark, and commit him to the first of the Dragon Trials. Mia..." He turned from Alex for a moment, and focused solely on the young sorceress. "I trust that you will be strong and capable of maintaining Vane in my absence. And that you will live up to the rank of Premier well?"

Mia blushed a little for a moment, and seemed to swallow. She trembled for a second, suddenly uneasy at the responsibility that had been thrust upon her. But after swallowing a moment, she nodded. "I'll do my best, sir..." She hesitated a moment, then turned her head. "And I'm sure Nash can help me."

Nash gaped for a moment, going a little pale himself, and looking as if he was suddenly choking. But then, he found his voice, and nodded, trying to assume his cocky smile again. "Well...uh...well, your majesty, I shall act to the best of my abilities as the star pupil of Magic Emperor Ghaleon."

"Good." Ghaleon answered. "I and the boy will travel by land. Send us word of the slightest thing that goes wrong. We'll get it somehow. Good luck to you all."

Alex panted and opened the door into the inner cave. Instantly, the blast of freezing air hit him, piercing his clothing and chilling him to the bone. But he didn't care. He had to succeed and he had to move fast. Luna was counting on him, and so was Ghaleon. So he looked up, and began to walk forward, back into the inner cave. Before him, Quark towered on his pillar. The Dragon was massive and old, his feathers falling out almost all over his body. But he was wise and he still had his power. Ghaleon stood before him, waiting earnestly for Alex to return. As he approached, the Dragonmaster spoke to him.

"Did you succeed?"

Alex panted for a moment as he approached Ghaleon. But when he reached him, he formed a smile. Proudly, he held out his hand into the light of the cave. Gleaming on one finger was the Ring of the Dragonmaster. Ghaleon, as well, held out his own hand to it. His own hand gleamed the same ring. Quark looked this over, and smiled softly.

"You are the first to succeed in my trial since Ghaleon, young Alex. I knew you would. I can see your heart and spirit. You have an inner strength in you worthy of bearing the name Dragonmaster. And now...I proudly give this unto you. Guard it well...for it bears the secret to my power, which will come to your aide when you need it."

A flash of light suddenly erupted over Alex. He recoiled for a moment while Ghaleon stood, but then looked up and saw what had happened. Slowly, a pair of small wings on a rod began to descend, floating down toward him. They gleamed too with a light and power of their own. Alex gaped in awe, and then reached out his hand to them. Slowly, he took the rod, then brought it down. He looked at the wings for a moment in wonder, while Ghaleon looked on.

"The White Dragon Wings..." He mused. "They will grant you the power to summon the White Dragon for protection, Alex. Guard them well. For there isn't a spell in existence that can penetrate them."

Alex nodded in reply, and then slipped the wings in his pocket. No sooner had he done so, then Ghaleon turned his head up to Quark.

"And now, old friend, I must have a word with you." His tone grew dark and deadly serious. "A tragedy is taking place. The Vile Tribe has returned, under the leadership of one called the Dark Lord. I fear desperately for who he might be, but now I must ask you for the truth, Quark.

"Years ago...my friend...the fourth of the Four Heroes, a swordsman named Dyne...he went behind my back about something. I have suspected the worst ever since."

Alex winced a moment. Dyne...he knew the name. He was one of the Four Heroes along with Ghaleon, Lemia, and Mel. But what about him? He hadn't heard about him in years. Why did he make his head hurt so much?

"Tell me, Quark...is Luna...the one?"

Quark hesitated a moment. He closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath, and sighed slowly. "This is a dangerous matter, Ghaleon... I could do more harm than good if I told you. If the Vile Tribe found out..."

"Quark...please...to an old friend..."

Quark kept his eyes closed and paused again, not speaking for a long time. He took in another deep breath and sighed slowly. His great head slowly lowered. Then, he finally let it tumble from his lips.

"It is Luna."

Alex stared in puzzlement. Luna was what? What were they all talking about? However, he hadn't the time to think about it long. For suddenly...a voice echoed through the chamber.

"Hm-hm-hm-hm...Ha ha ha ha ha...AH HA HA HA HA!"

Alex looked around in fear...yet for some reason he looked to Ghaleon in terror first. Ghaleon, of course, was looking around as well, his head snapped up and his face taught in readiness. Odd...why did he think he would be laughing first?

"Then I have no further use for the three of you!"

Suddenly, a flash of light erupted in front of Ghaleon and Alex, before Quark. Both of them turned in anguish, shielding their eyes from the powerful blast. It cracked and fizzled for a moment, but then died down. They felt the heat from it wash over them, and then turned back and looked. Both of them gaped at once in horror.

"Dyne! What have you done?!"

A man, seeming to be easily eight feet tall, towered before the both of them. He was clothed in dark armor, all black and ominous looking. His eyes glowed red from behind a visor on his horned helmet. As Alex looked at this...he couldn't help but think he had seen it before. Just as he thought at the trial that he had taken it before. And as he turned and saw Ghaleon staring in shock at the man...he couldn't help but think that he too was out of place here...that he shouldn't have been standing there.

"Not Dyne... Dark Lord Dyne!" The form shouted in an altered voice, malevolent and powerful.

"Dyne?!" Alex yelled back in confusion. "The great swordsman Dyne?!"

"Dyne!" Ghaleon cried. "What in the world are you doing?! You can't...no!"

"Heh heh heh...oh no..." Dyne mocked, or rather the Dark Lord did. "But Dyne, yes! A new order begins today, Ghaleon! One where the denizens of this world do as they please, without the overshadowing of the feeble Althena! I finish the job I started thirteen years ago! And I start...with you, Quark!"

Before Ghaleon or Alex could react, the Dark Lord rose a hand and fired off a blast of violet energy from his palm. Quark roared, struggling to bring up one of his own defensive shields before it hit. But it was too late for him to stop it. He was too old and slow. Alex's mind raced. Dyne had to have been watching them the whole time, having followed them since they left Vane. But what was he doing? Why was he doing this? But it was too late. As Alex and Ghaleon watched helplessly, the shot pierced through Quark's neck and blasted a massive hole through to the other side. The White Dragon turned his head up and roared a death gurgle one last time. Then, losing all strength, the great beast fell over and collapsed on his pillar of ice. He moved no more, and the beam struck the ice wall on the other side, then fizzled into nothing. Alex and Ghaleon were mortified. Quark, the oldest of the Four Dragons, the wisest of them all...was dead.

Slowly, Dyne floated up and stood on the ice pillar himself, glorifying his own position. Alex and Ghaleon stared at him, both turning from shock to fury as they looked at the dark man. Alex drew out his sword, while Ghaleon drew his rod and aimed it at the black-clad man.

"Dyne, you monster! Have you lost your senses completely?!" Ghaleon scowled.

"With Quark gone, the greatest of Althena's traditions dies forever." The Dark Lord sneered smugly. "There will never be another Dragonmaster, and Althena's protection will grow weak until I can destroy her completely. And with Quark gone, the only outlet to the knowledge of the world for mortal man to attain is forever silenced. And now..." Here he turned his head downward to Ghaleon and Alex. "To rid myself of the current Dragonmaster...and his Dragonboy."

With that, the Dark Lord rose both of his hands and fired dual blasts of energy, one at each of them. Quickly, Ghaleon extended his hand and seized Alex, meaning to create a barrier that would surround him as well as himself. But it was too late. Alex felt the overwhelming power and heat wash over him, the massive aura blast him...the intensity of the force...and then he remembered no more.

"Alex...I know you're stronger than that, boy. Awake."

Alex's eyes fluttered a bit, and his eyes opened at last. He stretched a bit. His head was hurting, and he felt like he had been asleep forever. For a moment, he thought that all of his journey, his meeting of Ghaleon, his trip to Vane, the Vile Tribe, the White Dragon's trials, and the Dark Lord

and the darkness of torture

were all just mere dreams. He saw a regular wooden roof overhead, and felt himself in one of the beds that was definitely from Burg, not expensive or mass produced such as his quarters in Vane. Yet it wasn't. He recognized the voice that spoke to him. It was Ghaleon. Suddenly, he was fully awake, remembering the Dark Lord...as well as Luna's capture. He sat up in a flash.

Instantly, his body ached. He grasped for his head and side in pain, wincing. It was appropriate, for his head felt a dressing on either one of them. His jacket and shirt had been removed, it seemed. But he was definitely indoors, and as his memory served he saw he was in Burg. But this wasn't his house. This was the inn inside the town. There was no one in it, save for one figure at his side, who placed his hands on him as if to set him back down.

"Easy, Alex." Ghaleon told him. "You were critically injured. Still...you've recovered in a shocking amount of time. It's barely been a full day since I dragged you from the White Dragon's Cave, yet you're already awake, and looking reasonably healthy."

Alex groaned, rubbing his head a bit. He felt terrible, and his head felt the worst. A splitting headache was coming on it, and he felt dizzy...as if what was around him wasn't really real at all. But he held on, and then turned to the wizard at his side. He had seen that Ghaleon had removed his previous hat, exposing his white hair. He groaned and spoke. "Dyne?"

Ghaleon frowned slightly, bowing his head. "He has escaped...but there is no question that he has Luna. His power has increased tremendously since I last met him. No doubt...he had been doing so for the past thirteen years while I have stayed the same as Premier of the Guild. When we last met he was the only man who could best me. Now he can do it all the more easily. Had I not been so fortified physically, I would have collapsed with you in the cave, and we both would have been frozen at this point."

Alex winced a bit, his headache still strong. "Quark?"

Ghaleon sighed. "Gone. You, Alex...were the last, and probably will be the last, to ever pass his trial."

Alex hesitated a moment. His mind was confused, and everything seemed to be happening so fast. His world was all mixed up, and more things were happening all the time. It was almost too much for the young man to bear. He wished Luna were there... "Why am I at the inn?" He suddenly asked. "My house...where are my parents? They're probably worried sick. They haven't seen me since I told them I was going with you to the White Dragon Cave. They're already so broken up over Luna, there's no tell-"

However, Alex froze. Ghaleon looked down and grim after hearing that. The young man stared at him a moment, his face bewildered.

"What's wrong?"

Ghaleon took a deep breath, and then looked up and stared at the young man hard. "Look outside, Alex...and see more of Dyne's treachery...what he did before we returned."

Alex was puzzled, but he did as Ghaleon said. Very slowly, he got out of bed, and made it to his feet. His head hurt, but he withstood it. Slowly, he walked over to the window. His legs were ok, but it took some time to get used to his fresh injuries. Once he reached there, he peered out for a moment. Ghaleon slowly rose and began to walk to him. He saw nothing for a brief moment, only the familiar houses of Burg, though many people looked fearful and panicking, or crying. Then, his face went over to the bridge, and slowly to the other side... There, he saw it.

Nothing.

His house...had been reduced to a pile of blackened, smoldering ash. Yet he knew it wasn't just the house. People were surrounding it, crying...and none of them were his mother and father. He watched some of them slowly put flowers on the ground. That was all he needed to see.

Alex stood in stunned silence for a moment, forgetting about his headache. Then, slowly, his hands balled into fists, and he turned down his head. As he did, he felt his face tightening up, and his throat dry. His heart suddenly felt as heavy as a stone, and his legs began to feel watery. He began to gasp, but he couldn't get in enough air. His eyes burned, and then he felt the tears coming. His mind swam in anguish...as he remembered all the times his mother and father had been there for him...all the times they had encouraged him...and the last time he saw them. It tore into his soul. He couldn't stand it anymore. He began to cry freely, bending over the door and letting his heart break open in pain.

As Alex cried against the windowsill, he felt Ghaleon lightly place his hand on his shoulder in encouragement. Alex felt it for a moment...and then felt himself turn, place his head against Ghaleon's chest, and then cried more. He didn't care. He felt like a child then, and he needed someone, anyone, who he could look to for support. He was all alone here. Ghaleon had always looked out for him ever since he reached the Guild. So he cried against him, while the wizard placed his hands on him supportingly.

"We shall triumph, Alex..." Ghaleon assured. "Hope is not lost...not while you live. I'll make sure you stay that way... We will save this world, and make sure that this tragedy never happens again..." He hesitated a moment, and then sighed. "I'm sorry..."

Alex continued to cry for a moment longer...

...then, his memory came flooding back.

What are you doing?! Let him go! He tried to brainwash Luna! He made Tempest a monster! He wanted to destroy the world! He's tricking you! Get off of him!

Despite thinking suddenly that these thoughts were absurd...Alex felt a crazy impulse to obey them. He went crazy. Suddenly, his face tightened into rage, and like a wild animal he began smashing his fists into Ghaleon's stomach. Like an animal, he leaned over and bit into the tenderess place he could find as hard as he could...

Then, he felt two large fists smash down on his back. Alex cried out in agony, and then fell onto the black floor.

"Foolish child!" Ghaleon snarled. "Stop acting like a miserable savage!"

Alex then felt his stomach compressed as Ghaleon's thick black foot kicked it. He gagged, and blood splattered out onto his mouth. In his desperation, Alex felt himself greedily letting his parched tongue extend and smear it over his cracked lips, then drank it as well. He hadn't had any water for days now. He was starving...and cold too. He cringed into a ball most times when Ghaleon left him alone. The Magic Emperor was right. If he wasn't breaking...he was turning into an animal quickly.

I'm going to lose my mind in here...

"So, my son...six long months and you still haven't broken..." Ghaleon spoke, as he came forward and began to beat Alex yet again. Always it managed to hurt, no matter how many times it happened. Alex had undergone mental and physical anguish now. His head was swimming. He had tried again and again to remind himself of the truth. But he was so constantly bombarded by the realistic memories, as well as being put into solitary confinement in absolute darkness for weeks on end, that his sanity was barely holding on. He barely knew what was real anymore. Sometimes, when Ghaleon appeared, he would be a ferocious monster or troll. He constantly had hallucinations from lack of food and water, which he received precious little of. Once...he even bit at his own hand, thinking it was a fleshy spider. He was going insane. Worst of all, if Ghaleon was right...then he may have spent only a few days in this place in the real world. Maybe even hours. It could be an eternity of this black hell before his friends found him...if they could find him. Was this what Tempest went through? Was this what Luna went through?

Alex was dirtier than ever now, stained with his own sweat and blood. His hair grew long over his eyes, matted and dirty. His nails were the length of claws now. His clothing was being more shredded all the time by the beatings, leaving him in dirty rags. Both sides of his face were beaten in now. He looked like the most pitiful creature in creation. Yet he'd get worse before he got better, he knew.

"But I'm confident we're having progress." Ghaleon continued. "You're in a miserable state right now. It doesn't matter if the memories I give you are what you want or not. Soon, you'll want to stay there just to avoid the torture of reality if nothing else. Then you will embrace that reality. Then you will become my son."

Ghaleon hesitated for a moment, but kept attacking. Then, he snorted.

"Let's see if you desire the companionship of those memories a bit more...after two months of being alone."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Eleven

"How's about it old fart...er, man? Will you do it?"

"Feh!" Myght grumbled. "It'll take me all day to try and figure out that hack Taben's machinery and get this cockimamy idea of yours to work, not to mention that given so short a time period I might just suck the lives out of you and your friends, and not to mention the fact that I don't like pushy brats interrupting me in the middle of my work..."

Kyle rolled his eyes, thinking this was going to go on for some time. So did Nash with him. But in the end, Myght snorted.

"Fine!"

Nash turned to excitement at once. "You'll do it? Great!"

"Yeah, yeah...keep yer shirt on, ya' grease haired young punk..." Myght grumbled, rising from his chair. Nash and Kyle both immediately had to try not to stifle their noses, as getting up brought Myght's latest fart out into the open. Nash had voiced a theory on the way there that the crazed genius might actually use his own natural gas to power his experiments. "I've got to get a few things together, then take me to whatever shantily built contraption you got and then let's all pray it can actually take us somewhere." With that, he turned and began to walk over to the nearest shelf, ignoring the two of them. Once he was gone, and took a considerable amount of his foul smell with him, the two warriors turned to each other.

"That wasn't so hard..." Kyle muttered. "I thought he was dead from the smell of him when we first came in."

Nash frowned. "I hope I don't ignite him with the spark from one of my spells."

"Well, part one's finished...and not a moment too soon. In one more day those machines will be here, and we still have to get whatever forces left that we can together to raid that factory."

"The sooner the better, in my opinion. Then we can start looking for Alex." Nash frowned regretably for a moment. "I understand him a bit better than the rest of you do. I know his experiments. And if he was able to break Tempest in two months...or less...there's no telling what he's doing to Alex. I hope he can tell us soon where he is..."

"You and me both." Kyle answered with a grumble. Then, he smiled a bit. "But it will be nice to have a Ghaleon stain on my blade a second time when we do find him..."

"Remember...just give the word if he snaps."

"I think I could hold him if it came to that."

"Fresca...don't go easy on him. He's there now...but the other half isn't him."

"...Open the door."

Jessica hesitated a moment, but then opened the door to Tempest's room. Fresca calmly strode in, and looked around. A few rather muscular looking members of Kyle's men were standing around, eight of them all together. Fresca knew even they would have a hard time taking him down. That was why each of them had a concoction of herbs in cloths to smother Tempest with and drug him to the point where they could hold him down. His bed with all of its restraints was still there, holding a few more than last time it seemed. But as for Tempest himself, he sat near the window in a chair. His head was down, and his hair was loose and unkept. A plate of foot was at his feet, untouched. Fresca hesitated a moment, but then walked over to him, keeping her face straight. Tempest never turned to her once, but kept his gaze at the window the whole time.

"Tempest?" She asked.

On hearing that, Tempest raised his head slightly. He held for a moment, but then slowly lowered it again. "It can't be real...but now I remember..." He slowly muttered, as if in his own world.

"Jessica told me that you thought I was dead." She stated. "But I'm alive and well. I was not killed when I was used for the service of the Magic Emperor."

The man said nothing, keeping his head down. Fresca walked closer, her footsteps beginning to echo.

"Leave me." Tempest stated harshly. "You're not real. You're another nightmare."

"No, I am real." Fresca insisted, still approaching.

"Mia is trying to make me feel better."

"No, this is real. Ask me anything."

"I don't want to. Leave me alone."

"Why?"

"...I want to die."

"What?"

"He should have killed me there...why I lay helpless at his feet... Alex always was soft..."

Fresca continued to approach, until she stood at Tempest's side. He didn't look up, but kept his head down. "He did it because he knew that you were still in there, Tempest. He spared you because you were his friend, just like you would have spared him."

"Not if he had asked me as I did."

Fresca hesitated. She couldn't refute that. She merely stood there silently for a moment, trying to think of something else. At length, she turned her head down and looked at the food on the floor. She then lookd back up to Tempest, and sighed. "You haven't touched your food."

"I told you I wanted to die. Why not listen, woman?"

Fresca sighed a bit. Tempest never used that title unless he was extremely upset. But using it against Fresca was asking for a bloody face. Still, she held back, and went on.

"Can't you just eat a lit-"

Suddenly, Tempest lashed out and kicked the plate of food across the floor. He violently rose and glared at Fresca's face, his eyes once again burning with madness. "Didn't you hear me?! Don't treat me like a pathetic whelp not yet weaned from his mother! When I want food I'll ask for it, you mangy bitch!"

Fresca stepped back in shock, not fear. No man had ever dared say those things to her, but especially not Tempest. He had gone mad in an instant. But before either could make a move against the other, the eight men were upon Tempest. They quickly grabbed his arms and legs in an attempt to restrain him, while others shoved the rags in his face full of potion. Had it not been so quick acting, Tempest would have snapped free in a moment and killed them all. But it was, and Tempest's strength instantly dropped to one half as he broke free from them. He began to run away, moving slowly, and cursing Fresca and the rest of them as he did. The others jumped on top of him and smothered him again. It began to take effect, and they yanked it away from his mouth before he lost consciousness. He had to be awake for the next part. As he feebly struggled, they dragged him back over to his bed, threw him on top of it, and then began to restrain him. All of the bonds were made painfully tight, especially the gag, preventing him from making any noise. The moment they had him in, his strength began to return, and he struggled madly again, spitting up foam from his mouth and acting insane. As his eyes sparkled with madness, he degenerated into Evangeon again, but couldn't so much as get a word out. He was a prisoner, and now would live out his madness in restraints.

Fresca stared at him, struggling not to show any weakness. They had not started off so good. No doubt, this was reminding Tempest of his previous torture. Yet there was no other way...and so she would have to endure this...and her torture as well as his.

Mia tapped her foot nervously. Being back inside the Grindery in itself was a nervous enough experience. But given what was going on currently, the situation was much worse than she had initially thought.

They were running short on time to get the Grindery finished being prepared for tomorrow. The enemy units were starting to break free, and would have nothing but a straight shot to Vane. It was cutting it awfully close, but for now they were at the mercy of Myght. He was working hard on trying to reconfigure the power supply to be able to drain from humans instead of dragons, and was complaining and offering difficulities every step of the way. But they had no other choice left. If they failed this time, the whole region was finished. Her mother had gathered every last possible wizard available to assist them in the invasion. Mel had just about gathered all of the forces he could muster. They were ready to march, but staying away and holding position around the Grindery for the time being. After it fired, however, they'd be ready to move in and not stop until they reached Pao.

There was no time to build more energy drainers in the Grindery, leaving only four stations from which they could absorb power. Luckily, they had the world's strongest people with them. Nash continued to place his vote in for one. Mia agreed to take another. Luna, surprisingly, though the very Grindery scared her, was ready to take another. It made sense though. Her origins might haven given her more power than anyone else.

"The sooner this is finished," She stated. "The sooner we can find Alex."

The last position was a problem. Tempest was still incapacitated, and unreliable to trust with this. Fresca couldn't, for now she had to lead the members of Pao in his stead. Kyle, Mel, and Lemia were also leading their own forces in the invasion. So in the end, it came down to Jessica having to take the slot. She was nervous about the whole arrangement, but if Mia and Nash could submit themselves to a power drain again, she could once. People were assigned to each of them to get them out and back to Vane the moment after the shot was fired. But that still left one other occupation remaining, and Mia was entrusting it to the only other member available.

"Alright, Duunran..." Mia spoke, looking over the controls of the Grindery. They were similar to Vane's own Crystal Spire. No doubt, Ghaleon had wanted it that way. "You can operate this just by using your mind. Just stand here..." Here, Mia gestured to two poles, each with a sphere on top of it, that were unlit for the time being. "Then cause the Grindery to move forward a little. It will turn until its two main guns are pointed right at the mountain pass. Then, just throw your finger forward and it will shoot."

Duunran still sweat nervously. "This...this seems to be a very risky manuever, your majesty. If anything should go wrong...and you be killed..."

Mia smiled a bit, though inside that thought made her uneasy. "Don't worry. I've dealt with worse before. It will take more than this to kill me."

Duunran didn't look very comforted, but sighed. "As you wish. I will do whatever you command."

"Don't miss." Mia reminded him. "We'll only have one shot at this."

"Let her go or I'll kill you!"

Alex blasted these words as he felt the power that backed them up radiate through his body. His anger at Dyne's control of Luna had finally made him break the barrier. He had watched moments ago as the controlled Luna had destroyed the last of the Dragons, just after Alex had managed to attain the final component of his armor. Now, the newest Dragonmaster stared before the Dark Lord and the brainwashed Luna, but he wasn't alone. Nash was close at his side, also ready for action, as well as Ghaleon, now having switched out of his old uniform for his own full suit of armor of the Dragonmaster. It was different, more accented and vivid, with a cape and heavier shoulders, but he still looked just as menacing.

Ghaleon likewise scowled. "You'll pay for the destruction of all the people you killed, Dyne. Now you will have to deal with two Dragonmasters. Even you can't withstand our combined power."

However, the man in dark armor merely snorted, not looking the least bit scared at the double threat now before him. "What foolish nonsense... You call yourselves Dragonmasters, yet it seems that I have slain all the dragons...leaving you masters of nothing. To think I would waste my time with two pathetic creatures such as yourselves."

"Perhaps you should show us why you believe yourself to be so much better than us." Ghaleon sneered. "Then we'll see who is superior and who is dead."

Alex's headache flinched again. He thought he had heard that before, but he couldn't remember from where...though he thought it was Ghaleon, in a bad position... At any rate, something in his mind, in his very body, seemed to react to his concern, as if screaming at him to ignore the pain and focus on now. For the time, he obeyed it.

"Feh...I thought you were the cultural one, Ghaleon. You and your adoptive Dragonboy son should know about a good drama. We have just made the plot interesting. The final act will take place far from here...say in the flames of Althena's Tower...where once and for all she will be destroyed forever, and we humans will be left to rule as we see fit!"

Nash gaped. "You're mad! You can't kill the Goddess! Nothing can!"

The Dark Lord merely chuckled in reply. "Oh no? Then why does she need such inept Dragonmasters to guard her? Without their precious namesakes, these Dragonmasters are nothing. And besides...I have the one sure key to enter the tower and smash it into dust."

With this, the Dark Lord extended a hand and gently patted Luna on the shoulder. With her pupiless stare, she didn't move an inch. Alex looked at this in curiousity, while Ghaleon bit down harder.

"You fool! You'll destroy her entire world, and leave her children abandoned and alone forever!" Ghaleon cried. "Think about what you're doing!"

"I know exactly what I'm doing. I'm finally axing the old broad so that her children can get the inheiritance." The Dark Lord coolly replied. "This planet will finally be ours totally. The time has come to be rid of Althena forever. And once Luna has helped me accomplish that task, I will finally do away with her and the Goddess forever!"

Alex grit his teeth in rage at this latest bit. "Never! Stop right now!"

"You can order me to do nothing, boy. Stay out of my way or share the fate of your parents...and your former lover." The Dark Lord calmly retorted, as Alex blistered in rage. "This is far more important than anything you could fathom. I'm doing you all a favor. Sit back and enjoy it. Come, Luna."

"Yes...Lord Dyne." Luna replied without any feeling whatsoever. Then, she stepped closer to the Dark Lord, who placed his arm around her.

"Halt!" Ghaleon cried one last time in vain.

But it was too late. The Dark Lord and Luna were surrounded with black light for a moment, and then flashed. Despite the power of the two Dragonmasters, both Alex and Ghaleon recoiled in pain, as did Nash behind them. The pair fizzled for a brief moment, but then vanished all together. Alex, Nash, and Ghaleon turned back with desperate looks, but it was too late. The Dark Lord and Luna were gone. Alex, infuriated, swung his fist at the ground.

"Damn!" He swore.

"Control yourself, my son." Ghaleon answered calmly, instantly smoothing himself out. "Anger is not one of the attributes of a Dragonmaster."

"But Ghaleon, he's killed the last of the Dragons!" Alex cried. "And he's going to kill Luna!"

"This doesn't make any sense..." Nash muttered. "Why does he want Luna at all? What's so special about her?"

Ghaleon stiffened at this. He seemed to have an inner knowledge of something, and Alex right at that moment knew he was hiding it. For some reason, his mind flashed back to the incident with Quark. Yet no sooner had it done so, then he began to get double memories again. His head flashed in pain, and he struggled to submerge it as Ghaleon spoke again.

"For now, let's just return to that tribal village and see if Mia is alright. Then we shall have to head toward the heart of the Vile Tribe itself...in the Frontier."

The pain continued to come forth. Every fiber of his being told him to ignore it, which seemed even odder to Alex. It made him pursue it even more longingly. Then, as he did so, he seemed to remember something. The chief of Pao... A bandit named Kyle... Here, alongside him and Nash. And Ghaleon...Magic Emperor Ghaleon...standing before them instead of Dyne...mocking him...calling him insults and taunting him endlessly... Something wasn't right here. Something seemed unreal. Something was screwing with his memory. Slowly, he began to shake his head, wincing.

"This..." He gasped through his headache. "This isn't...this isn't real... It's fake... It's all fake..."

"Well, we did better than last time."

Again, Alex found himself lying in the black room. He felt terrible. His stomach was bloated from lack of food. He didn't challenge Ghaleon this time. He only lay on the ground like a dead dog, and let the beating come once again to him. Ghaleon seemed to treat it as all routine this time, though he was intensifying the pain.

"We're finally making visible progress, my son. You didn't even attack me this time...and you suppressed your resistance. You will break, Alex. It's only a matter of time. I think the solitary confinement is doing wonders for you... At any rate, it won't be much longer in the real world until the next phase of our plan is implemented, and things become a bit more smoother for the both of us."

Alex winced as Ghaleon began to hit him. What was he talking about? Alex didn't know, and in all honesty it hurt to think about it. His mind was scrambled. Why had he thought the last memory was bad? What had happened? Was Nash with him? Was Nash gone? Or had Nash betrayed them yet? And who was sick in the village...Lemia? No, Lemia was sick at home after Dyne placed the mask on her... No, not Dyne, it was Phacia... No, not Phacia...Phacia was killed by him and Kyle after she captured the Blue Dragon...was that right? No, it couldn't be right... Luna... Luna had come with them on the trip...hadn't she? Yes...until she was abducted in the Blue Spire...no, back in Burg...no, in Meriba, before they left...no... Dyne...he met Dyne at his monument...no, in the Forbidden Forest...no, hadn't he met Nash there? Or was it Jessica? Who was Jessica again?

The young man's mind was becoming more fragmented all the time. Ghaleon was right...he was succeeding. He barely knew what was real and fantasy anymore. About the only thing he could tell himself again and again was that Ghaleon was evil. Yet he felt a strong urge not too. The more he resisted...the more pain he was put in...the longer he stayed in solitary confinement...the more monsters crept out of the darkness to nibble at his belly while he tried to sleep...and woke in terror again and again. Alex's world had become a total nightmare...

...and he was losing hope that his friends would ever wake him from it.

 

 

Chapter Twelve

The day had finally arrived.

Before the Grindery stood the armies of Meriba, Vane, and Nanza combined...the Zone Confederation's force. All united, they were all that could save the world now. They gazed ahead, staring hard at the pass far in front of them. It was faint and small from this distance, but even from this far in the early morning they could hear them coming. Their echo went up and down the mountain for miles. The machines had finally broken through the last of the defenses. Now, they were coming in full force to destroy the entire region in one fell swoop. Today...the stand had to be made. There was no time for anymore plans or barriers. Today, the fate of Lunar was going to be decided.

Kyle grimaced darkly as he looked ahead to the mountain. He couldn't see what was coming, but he could hear them coming. The whole force could. They tensed up but refused to back down. The warrior was ready in a moment to draw his katana and attack if anything went wrong. His Insane Sword was pretty powerful too...hopefully strong enough to destroy some machines. Mel tightened his grip on his axe as his eyes filled with a fire of rage that resembled a Berserker's high. The former hero's armies followed them, ready for action.

Fresca stood at the window in Tempest's room in Vane, gazing out to see the battle from afar. Tempest had been released, now that he own personality was back in control, and resumed his shamed spot in his chair. But he did look up slightly after a while, watching to see what would happen...what would be done about his dreadful mistake.

Then there was the Grindery. A surprise visitor had taken the cockpit, the former Premier. Lemia was calm and cool, but to those who knew her best, they knew that when she was like that she was at her most dangerous stage. She had not been expected to be there. Had Mia known it, she probably would have let her fire the weapon. But the woman had her trust violated far too many times to not at least supervise. Duunran was tense, but focused. As he sweat, he stood behind the two rods with the globes, ready to fulfil his destiny. Myght, smelly and irritable as always, stood nearby, snorting a bit.

"Yer weapon's ready." He grumbled. "Whenever those brats get into position, you can do yer stuff."

Down below, Nash uneasily fit himself into a human sized socket. He put a bit into his mouth, and shortly after doing so, attendents at his side began to wrap his body in cables to drain him from every possible place in his body. He trembled nervously, but was determined to go through with it. Mia likewise did so nearby, hoping that her mother wasn't too worried about her. But she knew her well enough, and Mia wasn't scared as long as Nash was around. Jessica, determined to put an end to this army once and for all, bravely let herself be put in and tried to focus on the look on Ghaleon's face after they reduced his army to ash with his own old weapon. Luna, already fixed, uneasy shifted in her metal bonds, feeling once again like she was being used. Yet hopefully, it would be for good this time, and that was something she wasn't afraid to have her power be put to use for. She knew she had to be brave...like Alex. When all four young men and women were in, the message was wired up to the cockpit.

"They're ready." Lemia coldly stated. "Now or never. Duunran...do it."

Duunran swallowed once. He then slowly walked forward, putting himself in the field of the two globes. After doing so, he exhaled, and then turned slightly. In acknowledgement, the one remaining tread of the Grindery slowly came to life. The entire tower shook and churned, and below all of the armies quaked a bit in the force of the impact tremors. But they held on, and slowly the Grindery began to turn in place. It's broken tread raked against the ground, and made the trip a little rough. The teenagers who were plugged in would have been worried, if their world wasn't already spinning from the amount of energy being siphoned off of them just to move the Grindery. It turned and turned, while in the cockpit window the world likewise rotated. But at last, the pass to Nanza was directly in the sights of the tower. Duunran relaxed, and the Grindery came to a stop.

The old man sighed, and all was quiet. The barrels clicked into place outside, taking full aim at the pass. Then, all froze. The army didn't move an inch. No one said a word. It was just as silent as the day a year ago when the Grindery was about to fire at Vane and the Goddess Tower. No one moved. Everyone focused ahead, and waited. The only sound that managed to pervade was the approaching army, drawing closer and closer into position. Kyle licked his lips, and watched and waited. Everyone anxiously waited.

Then, suddenly, a flash went out from farther along...the signal. Instantly, other messengers relayed the flash with magical bursts of flame, passing it along through the ranks of the army to where the Grindery's leaders could fully see it. Those in the cockpit tensed as they saw the light.

"Now, Duunran!" Lemia called.

Duunran took a deep breath, and then placed two fingers on each hand up to his forehead, one for each gun barrel. He hesitated a moment, breathing deeply. Below, Mia, Nash, Luna, and Jessica all sighed and grew weak as babies, as the energy was drained from their bodies to power the weapons. Duunran focused for a moment, biting his lip...

Then...he suddenly lifted his arms. The barrels moved slightly upward, aiming over the mountains. Only then did Duunran throw both fingers forward and fired.

Lemia gaped in shock, but the people below didn't realize what had happened. They only saw the two cannons fire full force. They all recoiled in pain and agony for a few moments from the sound of the power ripping through the air and the power of the cast off energy. But then, they saw the two dark beams shoot out, sailing straight for the mountains. In enthusiasm, they watched them, and prepared to see them both obliterate the pass and all of the remaining machine forces. They too gaped in shock as one...as they saw the beams shoot right over the first mountain, and impact beyond it. A massive flash and a huge eruption went off. The army recoiled again in the wake of the blast, expecting to feel a huge shockwave and energy rip. Yet it didn't come. The sonic sound of the eruption went off, but then the light faded on the other side of the mountains, and all was calm again.

Yet in the cockpit, the situation was different. Duunran panted with his fingers extended, as Myght looked on in puzzlement, and Lemia looked on in rage.

"Fool of a wizard!" She screamed. "You've ruined our only chance to destroy that army! You've doomed everyone in this region to death!"

Duunran panted a moment, still having his fingers extended...

But then, he suddenly grinned wickedly. And a voice that was not his own came forth, sounding like a weak, rasping creature.

"Precisely...my old friend."

Lemia shot back in surprise, gazing at the sudden reaction. Duunran's face turned to pure wickedness, and Myght gazed on in likewise shock. But the man merely continued to grin darkly, all kindness and mercy vanishing, and then pointed to the window. "Now...gaze upon the instrument of your destruction!"

Lemia turned to the window. As she did, the rest of the army turned and looked as well...for they heard the sounds of a massive amount of energy being repulsed against the ground, and a huge thing coming this way. And it did...for soon it began to block out the sun, covering the ground in darkness, and leaving the entire army to gaze in awe at its' approach.

From over the mountains, right where the explosion had been, it came. A massive metal flying fortress. It had battlements, walls, and cannons arming it on all sides. Eight massive spires surrounded it at equal distances on each side. A huge tower came from the center, making it look like a massive crown flying in midair. It did indeed block out the morning sun, and in its wake all of the clouds in the sky turned dark and fearsome. It was entirely black, showing its dark nature. A dome was underneath it directly in the center of the octagon that the spires formed. It filled the ground below with terror...not just at its own appearance, but soon in what else came from it. The sides of the spires opened, and much to their fear and terror, flying machines came forth from it. They looked like great gargoyles that poured forth from it, but they were simply more metal machines. They swarmed in the air by the hundreds, blackening more of the sky, and shooting out streams of power into the air, showing their strength. They all circled the flying tower like bats around an ancient cathedral. The sky continued to darken. The very tower seemed to be summoning a storm around it, and thunder rumbles began to be heard. The army marveled below. What manner of structure possessed this kind of power to do such a thing? It rolled over, massive and all powerful, and came to a rest right over the pass, showing its full strength to all in the Grindery and in the army. The army of flying machines that were surrounding it now complemented the juggernaut wave of ground machines that were coming forth from the bottom.

Back in the Grindery, Duunran grinned evilly, and spoke, now in his own voice. But it had lost all kindness and pity, and had turned to pure evil.

"Look upon the Flying Fortress, Lemia! Taben's masterpiece! Look on it...and despair! Today, all hopes of a victory from you are crushed! See the latest and greatest model of the mage robots! These are blessed with flight, no longer plagued by terrain, and have twice the firing strength of the old models! And there are just as many of them in the air as on the ground, with five fold coming! You haven't a prayer! None of you do!" Duunran hesitated a moment, then suddenly grinned even more darkly. "And to ensure that there will be no more machines ever to surpass these..."

Suddenly, Duunran wheeled to Myght. The old man shot back, and began to bring his arms in front of him as a defense. But Duunran merely opened his mouth and spit. As he did, a huge blast of energy erupted from his mouth and enveloped the old man. Myght cried out in agony for a moment as it surrounded him and pierced him. Lemia looked to it in fright. But soon, the crying ceased, and Myght fell to the ground. He was blackened and burned now, smoldering. He moved no more...and Lemia felt his life aura slowly fade away from him.

Shocked, the former premier turned to Duunran. He merely snickered, turning his head to her. "I guess you can't trust anyone anymore, Lemia."

"Have you lost your senses completely?!" Lemia cried. "I knew you! Why in the world have you done this?!"

Duunran merely grinned. "Now, now, your Majesty...no sense in arguing now. Our victory is complete. There's nothing left you can do to stop us. And before this day is done, you all will be nothing more than our slaves."

Lemia scowled. "We'll never surrender to evil!"

Duunran kept his smile. "You have no choice."

"Who are you?!"

"I told you, it's not important."

"Show me!"

Suddenly, the dark voice returned. "Go on, my fine worm...show her."

Duunran, for the first time, lost some of his confidence, and went to worry. "Master? Are you sure?"

The voice laughed darkly. "Not to worry...my strength far surpasses hers now...and everyone else's on this world."

Duunran seemed reassured by that, and smiled darkly as well. Then, he reached in front of him, and began to undo the ties over his long, sweeping robe. Lemia looked on for a moment, staring darkly. Yet as she did, she quickly called to mind the strongest defensive spell she knew, to withstand any attack that was coming. Duunran finished undoing his robe, and then swept the garment off of his shoulders, showing his naked chest. Lemia then gaped, for a squashed face slowly extended from it, and two folded arms unwound and extended to either side from his abdomen. A second chest with a second face seemed imbedded in Duunran's body, and now, with red and violet eyes, it glared at Lemia.

"Why...Lemia...do you not recognize your old master...Narnuud?"

Lemia stood in stunned silence. She didn't know what to say. She didn't know what to do. But it couldn't be possible. He couldn't be here...the worst of the heretics...the leader of the enemy army in the Heretic Wars. She shook her head in defiance.

Narnuud cackled. "Oh please...surely you must recognize me...even in this excuse of a form."

"It's not possible." Lemia spoke, quivering. "You've been dead for twenty-five years. I and Ghaleon destroyed you, and at the end even your body was reduced to ash."

"Foolish, simple Lemia..." Narnuud sneered. "The first thing I taught you in class was that there are no absolutes where magic is concerned. Yet you were always too devoted to the old style and fixed techniques. That is why Ghaleon surpassed you. I told you the day you defeated me that I had found the way to immortality. And it appears I was right..." Yet suddenly, Narnuud scowled, growing angry.

"This is how you left me, Lemia...a shell of a living thing...a miserable shriveled imp of a man...yet my experiments enabled my consciousness to travel a distance, and take a host body. I'm surprised you didn't notice how I had changed his name. For twenty-five years I have had to live out a miserable existence, feeding slowly off him, having to build my strength to even eat properly...but I still live. And while I do not have a body of my own..." Here, Narnuud grinned. "I have found the way to limitless power.

"While my physical body was isolated to this form...I was able to make my sight move into the forms of others. I transferred my sight into Xenobia of the Vile Tribe when I was forced to flee to the Frontier, then to Ghaleon...and at last to Dragonmaster Alex. And I learned much through them...including the end of Althena. And now, her mistake, which proves how inept she was as I struggled to show you all for years, has given me ultimate power. Because of her giving her power to all others in Lunar, I am now able to drain it from even the lowliest human. And doing so made me stronger than ever before.

"What more, I found a way to do it with machines as well. I furnished the idea, and Taben furnished the means. Now I have ultimate power...and an army and force that would make Althena bow down in homage if she still lived. And soon I will have even more. Soon I will have a body again, and then I alone shall rule Lunar forever...having immortality and invincibility!"

Lemia sneered in response. "I don't know how you managed to survive, Narnuud...if that's what you call that parasitic existance you're in right now...but this generation knows how to use Althena's power as well...especially the new Five Heroes. You can kill me...but you shall not win."

Narnuud looked a bit mock puzzled. "Kill you? Why, Lemia...my old student...you disappoint me. Why should I kill you...when I can feed off of you too?"

Suddenly, a ribbon of light shot down before Lemia. She quickly wheeled her head to the sight, and noticed as she did so that she was seeing an apparition in progress. Someone was materializing there. Inside, she hoped it was one of Alex's friends using the White Dragon Wings he left behind, but she had a feeling it wasn't. Instead, the crimson robes, pale face, and black beared sneering form of the smiling traitor Winson appeared instead. He grinned at Lemia.

"My power has increased greatly, thanks to High Master Narnuud, Lemia...let me show you!"

Suddenly, Winson held out his hands, and green light exploded from them. It traveled not just through the room, but through the entire Grindery, and the entire area below. It shot forth in an instant, rippling power. But Lemia didn't see it. The moment it struck her, her body began to feel like ice. Her forehead went on fire. She felt her lymph nodes swell instantly, and she began to sweat and grow dizzy. Winson was using his sickness spell on her...and it was taking a powerful effect instantly. Her strength vanished. She collapsed to the ground.

But she wasn't alone. Instantly, Nash, Mia, Jessica, and Luna hung limply from their bonds as they too contracted the disease. Their attendants likewise collapsed. The entire army below began to fall as well, suddenly all helpless as the powerful sickness overwhelmed them. Even Mel and Kyle lacked the physical strength to stay standing from the power of Winson's disease. It took only moments before each one of them was defenseless as a baby.

And the green wave went on...toward Vane...

Fresca suddenly reacted.

"Something's wrong... I can feel it in the wind."

For once, Tempest also looked up. For a moment, his misery vanished, and his true face came up, with his old dedication. The others in the room likewise turned, not because they saw it too, but because they saw the two people from Pao react. The two held for a moment, not moving. But as they did so, Fresca began to remember this feeling. It was the same feeling she got before the Dark Songstress struck her with the deadly ailment that left her crippled along with Alex's two friends. She grew tense, and suddenly wheeled her head to Tempest. The chief seemed to notice it as well, and glared back.

"The Black Dragon Herbs..." Fresca muttered.

"Quickly." Tempest stated.

Finally, the couple did something together. Rushing as fast as they could, they ran over to Tempest's jerkin, laying slung against the side of the wall. Once they reached it, Fresca tore into the side of it, and emerged with a leather pouch. She opened it quickly, just as she began to feel dizzy. She grabbed a fistful of black herbs that she found inside and quickly devoured them. Tempest grabbed a handful and did likewise. Then...it hit.

The attendants in the room all sighed once, grabbing for their heads or stomachs, then collapsed. Fresca and Tempest likewise went dizzy, and also fell to the ground. Then it spread to the rest of Vane. Every man, woman, and child soon felt themselves stricken with the disease that Winson had unleashed. They all fell as well. Soon, there was no a single person left in the entire area from Vane to the Nanza Barrier that had not contracted the deadly magical illness. They all lay on the ground, helpless and totally immobile, and not a soul stirred.

But then, Tempest and Fresca slowly moaned and rolled on the ground where they had fallen. They blinked a few times, then slowly, both of them began to rock and get up into a seated position. The disease they had began to flee from them, and they quickly became well again. After the crisis with the Dark Songstress and the tragic death of the Black Dragon, Tempest had discovered they were not left alone to be helpless to another strain the next time one hit. Rather, a new type of herb sprung from the top of the tower, a black herb that cured whatever disease one had when they ate of it, even the worst magical diseases. Slowly, they looked to each other.

"We were close." Fresca stated.

"Yes." Tempest answered, looking dark and cold for a moment. An inner battle was fought inside him for a moment, trying to decide between two evils. At last, he sighed, and turned back to Fresca. "Unstable as I am and dangerous as I am, I must help you now. A great evil has taken place. And I feel we have little time. We must use the White Dragon Wings at once."

"Damn...you..."

Narnuud merely smiled down along with his servant at the fallen Lemia. Weak as she was, she managed to stay conscious through the sickness. Winson was gloating nearby, making all sorts of looks as if the effort had been nothing. Narnuud laughed at the fallen wizard.

"My, my, my...the wheel of fortune is an ironic thing indeed. I never thought that the day would come when I would be looking down on you as you lay helpless, Lemia. But now you see that resistance is hopeless. I've taken everything into account. Now...there is not a warrior left in the world that can stand against me. All those that were left now lie at my feet."

"We'll...stop you..." Lemia spoke through her illness. "Somehow..."

Narnuud merely smiled and shook his head. "Sorry Lemia...but this is just the beginning. Now...feel the true power of the Flying Fortress...and see the destiny of all that live in this world."

Narnuud turned back to the screen with Duunran, along with Lemia slowly looking up. As he did, something happened. The massive fortress changed. The Dome underneath it was slowly splitting in half, and the two halves were entering into it. Despite her sickness, Lemia stared on in puzzlement. The two halves of the Dome finally slid fully aside, revealing a gleaming rune with a jewel in the center of it. It stood there for a moment, pulsing as green light throbbed through it, showing that it had great power. Narnuud grinned wider, showing off his sharp, wicked teeth. Then, in triumph, he bellowed out at the top of his lungs.

"Look on Taben's masterpiece! The greatest channeler of Althena's energy! BEHOLD!"

Then, suddenly, the crystal started spinning...a dots of shimmering light began to shoot up from the area affected by Winson's spell, and into the Flying Fortress. Lemia stared on for a while at the sight, wondering if it was doing what Althena's Tower had done...drain the life out of the soil. But she didn't stare long at it. Something more horrifying was happening to her.

As she looked at her hands, she saw them suddenly grow wrinkled and frail. Her fingers curled, and her skin shriveled. Not only that, but her long blonde hair slowly grew wispy and turned gray. Her face began to sink in, and she felt the energy being drained from her body. She felt herself growing weaker by the minute. Then, she realized in terror what was happening. But it was too late. She had grown too weak to speak or protest anymore. In her exhaustion, she passed out. Her face continued to wrinkle afterward. Her hair turned totally gray and then totally white. Her body grew weak and frail. Soon, there was nothing left laying on the ground but an old woman.

Yet she wasn't alone. Nash heaved a great sigh and likewise lowered his head full of white hair as he lost the last of his strength. Mia felt a chill against her frail body before the white haired old woman likewise passed out. Jessica's teeth became dulled and her wrinkled ears dropped as she too gave into her sudden increase in age. The last of Luna's hair's blueness faded to white as she too collapsed. All of their attendants, now old men and woman, likewise fell to the ground.

The army was much the same. Regardless of how young and old everyone was, they were soon all old, frail, weak men and women. Combined with Winson's sickness, they were all made totally and completely helpless. Likewise, all the people in Vane fell as well. Children who had been playing in the streets now lay on the ground moaning through wrinkled lips. The army had been totally defeated without a shot being fired against them. Now, they were all immobilized by the sickness, and had their vitality drained from them. None of them had the strength to even raise a finger anymore.

Narnuud smiled in triumph. His victory was complete. "Rest, you army of the aged...rest..." He grinned. "Your sleep will be eternal now. From now on, I shall feed off of you, leaving you weak and aged forever. Every bit of your vitality that you regain will be syphoned from you and added to my power. You will remain old and weak forever, while my strength will grow daily. The last of the Four Heroes as well as the Five now are geriatric old weaklings in the palm of my hand. There is no one left to stop me on Lunar. From now on...this world...and all of your lives...belong to me."

With that, Narnuud crossed his arms again and once more nestled into Duunran's chest. "That was entertaining to a degree...but there is so much less satisfaction when your enemy sleeps through your triumph. Let us return, and decide what we shall do first with our world."

Duunran smiled, and began to raise his robe again, crossing it over his chest and fastening it once more. "Yes, High Master."

Winson also smiled. "All that's left now is to make the Dragonmaster one of us."

"...And though I die..." The Dark Lord, fallen and bleeding, severely injured, managed another ragged gasp. "...I go knowing...I've taken Althena from Lunar...forever...and that I've ruined both you and your Dragonboy...eternal..."

Dyne cracked a smile, as blood began to come from his mouth. He began to laugh again, mocking the victory that Alex had managed on the top of the Grindery. Behind them, in the dark and stormy sky, the last remains of the Goddess Tower crumbled and fell, annihilated by the Grindery's blast. Yet in the midst of his laughter, he coughed and gasped one final time, and then fell down...dead.

Luna, having had her clothes changed to that of the Dark Songstress, blinked slowly after Dyne perished. When her eyes opened again, her pupils had returned, and they had gone from red to blue again. She shook her head, and slowly returned to her senses. Yet Alex knew he wasn't really looking at Luna at all. Ghaleon had finally told him the truth. Luna was Althena in human form. Dyne had managed to make her take a permanent human form thirteen years earlier. With her trapped as a human, he was able to manipulate her to his own ends, to establish his goal of making a world without Althena. And now...it appeared as if he had succeeded. While they did manage to save him from killing Luna as well, they didn't stop him from destroying the Goddess Tower and Vane, thereby preventing Althena from ever returning to power. In all honesty...Alex wasn't sure he wanted her to anyway. Devoted as he was to the Goddess, he loved Luna too much.

"...Alex?" Luna asked, having just awakened. "Alex!"

"Luna!" Alex responded, suddenly forgetting about his immediate concerns and thinking only that he finally had her back. Both of them rushed to each other and joyfully embraced. Ghaleon stood cold behind, glaring in somberness at what had happened. Nash and Mia managed to smile at the sight, as did Alex's other friends, Kyle and Jessica. After all, this was one of their goals, like it or not. And for a moment, Alex was able to just enjoy it with Luna.

"I thought I'd never see you again..." Luna spoke with tears in her eyes.

"We'll always be together." Alex assured softly. "Past, present, and future."

The two held for a moment longer, but then finally released. They stared at each other with smiles on their faces for a moment, but then turned back to the others. Ghaleon still looked regretful.

"Unfortunately...I believe Dyne was right with his last words, my son." Ghaleon slowly spoke to Alex. "With the Goddess Tower gone, Althena can never return to power. Now, there is no more Goddess. We are now all on our own."

Alex felt a cold chill at that. The others likewise looked disturbed. "That...that can't be possible...can it?" Jessica tentatively asked.

"Unfortunately, it has just been proven possible." Ghaleon answered grimly.

All of them stood in silence. The gravity of the situation began to come on Alex. That was it. No more Althena. That meant there was no one left to help the world or guide them. There was no one left to protect the world from evil. All the power that Althena had once generously bestowed on the people was now dried up. Her children were without a parent. It seemed as if Dyne had succeeded. And now...Alex didn't know what to do. No one knew what to do. They all stood in stunned silence, not moving an inch, not knowing what action they should take. After all their time, all the efforts, they had still failed. What were they supposed to do now? At last, Alex swallowed.

"What can we do, Ghaleon?"

Ghaleon stood for a moment silently. At last, he turned his head to Alex.

"Luna is all that is left of Althena now, my son." He softly told him. "She alone has the power of her within her. Even if she is not the Goddess, her power exists. She still possesses it in her voice and her body. Dyne should have proven that to us by now. She is the one thing he failed to destroy." He hesitated a moment, taking a deep breath, and then sighing. He stared at Alex and Luna for a moment. Then, after a short while, he asked a surprising question.

"Do you love her?"

Alex was a bit taken aback by that sudden statement. Where had that come from? But still, the young Dragonmaster nodded. "Yes. Of course. More than anything."

Ghaleon hesitated, but then spoke again more somberly.

"You are indeed my heir, Alex. The world needs a protector, but now more than ever Althena is vulnerable. You have proven yourself a greater Dragonmaster than me. And your heart and courage proves you as much as your skill. Therefore...the title of Magic Emperor now passes to you. And Luna shall be your Empress. Together, the duty must fall on you and your line from now on to guard the children of Althena forever."

Ghaleon hesitated a moment, staring at the two of them, both amazed. Then, he stepped back, and suddenly dropped into a kneel before him. "All hail...Magic Emperor Alex and Magic Empress Luna, king and queen of Lunar."

His friends stood in stunned silence for a moment...but then likewise dropped to their knees before them as well. Alex stood with his mouth hanging open. He had never dreamed this would happen. He had never thought that the responsibility would fall to him. But now, it was true. He was now the ruler of Lunar. He turned his head to Luna, who likewise had the same amazed look. They stared at each other for a brief moment, both amazed. But then...having confidence as long as she was there...Alex reached out and took Luna's hand. She held back a moment, but then grasped his harder. Whatever destiny had in store for them, Alex knew he'd overcome it as long as she was there. He would live up to the responsibility given to him. He could do anything with Luna. Now that they were together again, they'd never be apart.

He turned his head back out to the horizon. Luna did likewise. He'd make sure that this place was never defiled or ruined again. And everything that Dyne had stood for would be put away forever under his rule. Today...was the first day of a shining new era for Lunar.

"...And that's the end of our little story, my son. The rest of it...you will write."

Ghaleon looked down at the pale wraith of a human that lay on the ground. Alex was nothing but skin and bones now. His muscles had shrunk and he was starved to a human skeleton. The skin stretched tight over his entire body. His nails, yellow and brittle, were about as long as his fingers themselves. His hair was long, stringy, wispy, and matted, covering his sunken, agonized face. The only parts of his body that had any bulk to them were those from bruises and bumps. His face was beaten black and blue, but his hollow eyes still managed to look out. The moment Ghaleon entered, however, he cringed into a ball, covering his face with his arms and whimpering.

"No...no more...father..." He whined gently, almost as if in a daze.

Ghaleon stood there in his full armor. "No...no more, my son. Your two years of pain has come to an end. Now comes your glory. Come."

Alex slowly managed to remove his arms from his face, but peered out fearfully just the same. He couldn't rise that well, but Ghaleon reached down and took his bony arm and pulled him gently to his feet. Once there, with his hand placed on his bare shoulder, he led the boy forward, out of the dark room, and into the area beyond.

He was still surrounded by darkness. He had been in darkness so long his flesh had turned white. Yet he barely aged more than a few days during his months of confinement. He was scared...jittery...not remembering what it was like to walk or go about. But Ghaleon kept his hand on his shoulder, and his ruined mind took comfort from that and kept walking because of that. He kept him moving forward, and they wound their way down the dark halls until they came to an open area.

There, in the darkness, a collection of clothes stood. A black bodysuit hanging from invisible hooks with silver boots, a ring with a dragon, a red and white shield, a red and white helmet, a sword with a golden dragon...and a set of shining silver armor. Alex slowly and nervously walked forward, until Ghaleon stopped him, and he obediently stood. There, Ghaleon, still in his own full dark armor and gazing through his red lenses, clothed him in silence. He put on the black bodysuit with the boots, placed the ring on his finger, slung the sword around his side, placed the shield in his hand...and crowned him with his own helmet. All that was left was the armor.

"Now, my son...this is your fitting attire." Ghaleon spoke with a deep pride. "Take the last step, and then take your place as king of Lunar. I know you hunger for it. You are incomplete without it. Take the Black Dragon Armor, the last piece of the Dragonmaster, and then return to your former glory."

"...Alright...father..." The whispy man slowly whined.

His voice was hoarse. He looked like a corpse wearing his clothing, weak and puny. Yet when he looked and saw the Black Dragon Armor, his head burned. His mouth watered. His stomach, long since numbed by hunger, began to growl. His palms itched, and his body began to sweat. He desired it. His hollow eyes formed a ravenous look, and his shrunken parched tongue began to lick his lips greedily. His hands reached out, now claws with their nails, and began to reach for the armor. Alex was gone. A wiry little creature was all that was left, starving for what it desired. No more blackness. No more pain. The armor...he had to have the armor.

Mine...all mine...

Alex's nails dangled over the suit. All he had to do was touch it. Touch it...and it would be his. His hands lowered, a hair away from having the armor...

Alex...

The wraith hesitated. It bent its neck and looked to the air. He sniffed, but saw nothing. Then, he turned his attention back to the armor. His body screamed for it, demanded he take it.

Alex...hear me...

The man stopped again. Slowly, through the recesses of his ravaged mind...a recognition came. That voice...he remembered the voice. And it was the voice from the true history...someone who had always been there, but that Ghaleon had left out of all of the new memories. It was the tiny piping voice of one of his best friends...Nall.

Alex...I know he's tortured you...I know he's reduced you to a shell of what you were... But don't give up. You're the only one left now, Alex. Everyone else is gone. He has Luna and your friends. He has me. You're all that's left. If you give up...the world will be his. Don't give in to him. I know you're stronger than him. You're stronger than anything he has. If you survived through everything we've been through...this chamber should be a breeze, right?

Alex hesitated. Slowly, over his dry mouth and shrunken lips, he mouthed the word, "Nall" in recognition. Behind him, Ghaleon impatiently waited.

Come on Alex. Do it. I know you can.

"Don't hesitate, my son." Ghaleon spoke. "Your destiny...everything you want...anything you want...is in your grasp. You have only to take it."

Alex continued to hold. Deep inside his hollow eyes...a fire that hadn't burned in what seemed like an eternity came to life. Monstrous looking though he was, feeble and weak as he had become, something in Alex made him look human again for a moment, and his green eyes blazed with whatever power he had left.

Suddenly, Alex's mouth twisted into a frown. With all of the strength remaining in his body, he braced his arms together, spun around, and smashed the Red Dragon Shield against Ghaleon's helmet with all of his might.

"Never." He spat.

Ghaleon cried out as Alex, using the last bit of his strength as well as the strength that the armoy managed to restore to him, smashed the shield into his helmet. At last, he struck a real blow. One of the horns was broken, and one of the visor's lenses was smashed as the helmet smashed in on the side. As Alex turned to him, now looking like a berserker warrior rather than a wraith, with passion in his eyes, Ghaleon staggered back, grasping a hand to his face. He snarled as he did so.

"You imbecile... Wretched boy... You dare to strike me?! I kept you alive for so long when I could have killed you whenever I wished?!"

"That wasn't alive...that was Hell!" Alex scowled. "And I don't care if you torture me for a million years, Ghaleon! The only way I'm joining you is over my rotting corpse!"

"Ungrateful..." Ghaleon continued, beginning to recover. "I offered you more than life. I offered you sonship. I offered you a throne over the whole world. You could have ended this war yourself. Yet this is how you repay me?!"

Ghaleon pointed his palm at Alex and blasted out a beam of energy. Gaping, Alex quickly brought his shield in front of him. But he had lost so much strength. His muscles had atrifuted. He was barely able to cross it in front of him when the blast hit, knocking him off his feet and sending him flying backward. The blast continued to shoot over him, blasting a hole in the black wall beyond, leading to another black room. Alex moaned, and struggled to get back to his feet. But he was too weak, and too shriveled.

"I'll never forgive you for what you did to Luna! To Nall! To Tempest!" Alex yelled back, somehow managing to get to his feet. Running was useless. Alex didn't expect to survive this battle. But it didn't matter. He'd rather die here then live another moment in Ghaleon's nightmare. He actually felt alive for the first time in two years. He dashed forward with his sword drawn. He swung it at Ghaleon weakly, but the Magic Emperor was ready. His own lavender blade suddenly materialized into his hand, and he blocked himself with it.

"You pathetic idiot! Stop whimpering over three puny lives and think of more important things!" Ghaleon yelled. Then, he swung his blade downward, sending a blast of power against Alex. Abruptly, his body was hurled backward with hurricane force. He shot through the hole that Ghaleon made in the wall, and smashed into the wall on the opposite side. He was thrown so hard that the wall cracked...at least, Alex hoped that he was hearing the wall crack...though he began to fear it wasn't. He slumped down to the ground, his head burning from the desire for the Black Dragon Armor. Blood trickled from his mouth. But he couldn't relax long. Suddenly, Ghaleon was before him, and swept his sword right at his neck. The young Dragonmaster quickly ducked and rolled out of the way, letting Ghaleon's blade cut into the wall behind him instead. As it did so, light, blinding to Alex for having not seen it for so long, burst forth from the wall. "Think of the world! Think of its situation! Think about someone but yourself for once in your life, Dragonboy!"

"I'll never listen to you again." Alex sneered. He charged once again at Ghaleon, smashing into him shield first. The blow was weak and meaningless. Ghaleon barely felt it. So the Magic Emperor seized him by the throat, and proceeded to smash him into the already cracked wall. The wall fractured around his impact, and instantly pale light poured in through the hole that was made. In an instant, the room was illuminated. Alex winced in the blinding light, unable to see where they were. Wherever it was, the wind rushed like a gale. He had to think of Ghaleon anyway. Quickly, he smashed the pommel of his sword onto his fingers. It did nothing at first, but after striking several times in desperation. He managed to let go. He quickly scrambled back, and held up his sword. He was growing weaker. In another moment, he'd collapse. He hadn't slept for real in a long time. But he forced himself to continue.

"Fool...your world is in peril." Ghaleon sneered, standing before Alex with sword drawn. "You will soon lose everything. Your friends...your parents...your town...your precious Luna... There is nothing that will not be wiped out by Narnuud. Even if you did take on the power of the Dragonmaster, there's no way you could beat him. You have two choices, Alex...join him or die."

Alex snarled, then shot forward to attack again. But he was slower and weaker than ever. Ghaleon easily blocked all of his clashes, and spun so that he now faced the open hole in the wall. He advanced, forcing the young man backward, until he was right at the edge of it. Alex, feeling the sudden lack of support behind him, gasped and wavered for a moment. He turned, and looked in fear to see where he was. The situation was worse than ever. Somehow...he was in the air. But not just anywhere, over the Frontier. The wind whipped icily against him. Falling would mean almost certain death. Even if he survived, all he could see was wasteland for miles. Nothing but a grave awaited him out there. He turned back to Ghaleon. The Magic Emperor continued to face him for a moment...but then, suddenly put his sword away. He knew he had one. He held out a gauntlet to him instead.

"Stop fighting me, Alex..." Ghaleon spoke more gently. "I don't want to kill you. Accept your destiny willingly. Come with me. Together, we can destroy Narnuud. Then you can have anything. You can have Luna, your friends, peace...whatever you want for the world. Why throw your life away when you could join me? You'll gain nothing by this desperate act I know you consider. You'll gain everything by coming with me. Just put aside your lofty ideals or ideas of heroism...and take my hand, my son."

Alex hesitated again. If Nall was right, then he wasn't sure what he could do. He had no idea of the situation of the world outside. And it didn't really matter. He was dead. The offer was tempting. Perhaps...he could just go with him for a while...until he had another plan... Alex stood there, unmoving. But he did lower his blade.

"Come with me."

Alex stood a moment longer, but then frowned.

"At the very least, Ghaleon...I'm going to take away the one thing that would make your victory perfect."

With that, Alex stepped backward and plummeted from the Flying Fortress.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twelve

Alex rasped, his throat drier than ever. However, that wasn't his main concern. He soon after wrapped his arms around himself and shivered, his teeth chattering. It was freezing on the Frontier. Not a bit of warmth was present. He began to sort of wish that he had died before.

Alex had survived the drop. The soil was practically sand on the Frontier, and given Alex's resistance due to being the Dragonmaster he had managed to survive. But after picking himself up and seeing Ghaleon's new Flying Fortress fly away, fearing the whole time Ghaleon would come down for him, he soon realized he was in worse standings than before. It was always dark, always dry, always barren, and always cold on the Frontier. Nothing could live out here...and right now that seemed to mean Alex. Yet he was still glad that he had escaped. He'd rather die here than endure any more of Ghaleon's torture.

Unable to sweat due to lack of water, Alex felt his own muscles quiver and grow weak. Getting into physical activity again was soon making him starving. In addition, he wasn't all that sanitary after spending the equivilent of two years in Ghaleon's clutches. He felt like he was fast coming down with something. But he knew he'd be dead before it got too bad. He was miles from anywhere, and assuming he didn't keel over from exhaustion and never get up, he'd freeze solid. Ghaleon's prediction seemed to come true after all. It was futile, in the end. And all he could do was make Ghaleon's victory a little less absolute.

Moaning, Alex collapsed. He needed rest. He went almost totally motionless as he fell. The pain was now overwhelming him in his head. He had hoped that being away from the Black Dragon Armor would ease his desire for it. But he craved it more than ever now, to the point where he felt he could die if he didn't have it. He was just in too bad shape. He was finished.

Shivering one last time, Alex closed his eyes, letting the icy wind wrap around him and letting darkness fall on him forever.

Alex felt consciousness, the next he could remember. He was weak and his mind was fried, but he could still feel it. His body was bathing in a warm liquid. It soothed him, easing the tension of his muscles, penetrating his body to drive out the coldness, and washing away his hunger pangs. Yet he was still weak. He couldn't move, not even to open his eyes to see where he was. Someone pressed something hard against his lips, and then tilted his head back to pour some drink down his parched throat. It felt wonderful. It eased away some of the pain in his head from desiring the Black Dragon Armor. Next, someone put something to his mouth. It smelled like food, and instantly he craved it. Yet for all his effort, he couldn't even work his jaw muscles to chew it. He heard someone sigh.

"He's still too weak to eat." A female voice said.

After a moment, a male voice sighed as well. "Want me to feed him this time?"

"That's alright." The other answered. Alex felt the food taken from his mouth. For a moment, he was alone with the water, letting it wash over him. He also became aware that light was in his eyes. He could sense its power even with eyelids closed. Suddenly, he felt something warm press against his mouth. It felt like lips. Then, some sort of mush came from them and entered his own mouth. It was already slippery and wet, easily able to slide. He then felt his head tilted back and he was forced to swallow. It went right down, and his stomach screamed for joy. The person repeated this several times before leaving him alone.

There was a pause, then the female spoke. "Are you alright...Tempest?"

"I'm...I'm fine." The voice spoke in reply. "This water...it helps ease away my mood swings..."

Another pause. "Should I tell the men to step back then?"

"No." The voice flatly answered. "If I do have an outburst, I must be restrained at once. I can't risk not to be."

There was a pause from both. Alex was very curious. He wanted desperately to open his eyes, though at the same time he wanted badly to go back to sleep. He heard footsteps come to him, sloshing through water.

"How is he?"

"He looks much better than when we found him a week ago." The female answered. "His pulse is stronger. So is his breathing. His skin is returning to its normal color. He's actually starting to act more like a helpless man than a helpless baby now."

"He needs to start moving." The man stated hard. "His muscles need to start building up again."

"Be easy with him, Tempest. I thought he was already dead when we found him..."

Alex could stand it anymore. He had to open his eyes. Focusing with all of his strength, he forced against them. At last his efforts bore fruit. His eyes slowly cracked, and he managed to open them halfway. As he did, the two before him stopped and stared at them, and he recognized who they were in an instant and where he was.

Tempest and Fresca were there, both a sight for sore eyes. Tempest was dripping and halfway in water...but Alex was down to his neck. His body was held next to the shore so that his head reclined out of it, but the rest of his frame, still looking withered and weak, though not as much as last time, was submerged in the waters of what he realized to be Althena's hot springs. It felt wonderful. His hair had been cut, as had his fingernails and toenails. His skin had returned to a pink, healthy color again. Fresca stood in front of him as well, her boots off but the rest of her normal. They looked at Alex for a moment as he had this latest development. But then, Tempest managed a smile.

"Well, Alex...nice of you to join us. I would have expected you to be up and at them days ago by now. You haven't grown soft on us, have you?"

Alex tried to speak, but he hadn't the strength. Only a low moaning managed to escape. Fresca snickered a bit.

"Ignore him, Alex. If he was there instead of you, I'd expect to still be carrying him around like an infant. I don't know how you managed to do it, but you escaped."

"We barely managed to escape ourselves." Tempest spoke with a frown. "It was only due to the White Dragon Wings that we were able to take ourselves and the attendants in our room to our ship and take off...before-"

"Don't tell him now, Tempest." Fresca cut off. "Wait until he regains his strength."

"At any rate," Tempest answered, changing the subject. "We managed to find you. When you were brought on, I actually thought you were an imposter. That, or a corpse. Yet somehow you survived. We took you here and have been looking after you ever since."

Alex moaned again.

"Rest for now, Alex." Fresca told him. "We're safe here...for the time being."

Over the following days, Alex's strength began to slowly recover. It was an astonishing speed for a regular person, but to Alex it still went painfully slow. He gradually managed to eat on his own, and finally chew and swallow. His body began to flesh out further, and with Fresca and Tempest's help he managed to get walking again. And as soon as he could, he struggled to build his muscles back up. It took a lot of help from the two people from Pao though. Now conscious, his sleep was filled with nightmares and his mind went into anguish over all the false memories he had. They were still etched in his brain, and Ghaleon's conditioning made them painful to reject. The hot springs were a miracle for him, enabling him to soothe his body and chase away his mental anguish. Tempest partook of them too. He too was fighting his own inner demons. He was better controlled now though. He would snap every once in a while, but he willingly let himself be tied down. Most of the time he was able to calm down by bathing in the hot springs. All in all, both he and Tempest alike were recovering from the torture they had endured. Alex was eager to get stronger as his will returned, for the sooner he was strong enough the sooner he could find out what had happened.

When Alex was strong enough, Tempest and Fresca finally told him all that had transpired. Not just what had happened after he left for Evangeon, but also everything else that had befallen them and their state of affairs. It was not good. After telling him about the failed attempt to destroy the enemy army and how matters were worse than ever, the sad fate of everyone from Nanza to Vane was revealed. Now, not only was the entire army stricken with a crippling illness and drained of their energy, but their very vitality was gone. Even if they could somehow restore their energy and cure them, they'd be too feeble and weak to escape. They were trapped there, and as long as that ship overhead continued to drain their vitality they'd never be able to return to their youthful states and escape. Fresca and Tempest had narrowly escaped that fate. They would have saved more people, but they hadn't the time. They only had long enough to give the cure to the sickness to the other people in the room and then teleport them, using Alex's White Dragon Wings, to the ship and take off. From there, Tempest used his own power over wind to push them away as they saw the fate that befell the army. They drifted after the Flying Fortress to the Frontier, unsure of what they could do to stop it now. But then, as they followed it, they had found Alex. Taking him aboard, they turned and went to Althena's Spring, and had nursed him there ever since.

"We have no army, Alex." Tempest glumly stated. "But even if we did, it would be futile. That man, Narnuud...his army grows by the day. He's harvesting the forces, using them to build more and more machines. There's tens of thousands of them now, with more being built every day."

"And it's worse." Fresca spoke with a sigh. "Those that he defeated south of Nanza are being rounded up and brought to the same area. They too are having their strength and vitality drained. The rest of the world is in chaos, now that the Confederation has fallen. People are surrendering by the hundreds. There's no one left to stop them now. Even if there was, they'd be destroyed or drained."

Tempest scowled. "No army can stand against that Fortress anyway...not when by merely passing over any city it can turn a battalion of youths to old men on their death beds. We have only who are with us here. We are no army...and there's nothing we can do." Tempest glared with his hateful stare out, furious and frustrated.

Fresca lowered her head and sighed. "It seems...that Ghaleon may have won...despite all our efforts."

Alex frowned for a moment after this, when he heard that. He remembered again what Ghaleon had told him. It still messed with him. His entire mind was messed up. But he could look at it better now, and shook his head. "It can't be over...there has to be a way to stop him." He spoke. "Narnuud...I've heard of that name before...something in the Heretic Wars that Dyne fought..."

"He was the leader of the Heretics."

Tempest, Fresca, and Alex all turned their heads when they heard that voice, the rest of the attendants with them, and they looked to the entrance to the spring through the grove of trees. A familiar looking old man was there. He didn't both going on the defensive. He merely stood with his yellow cape swept around him, his red beret on his head, and his face full of black hair. Alex winced as he saw him, trying to fight back his automatic anger and fear. He had to remember that Ghaleon had made him opposed to him. That was the only reason he looked to him like that.

"Dyne." Alex announced.

Both Tempest and Fresca turned to Alex in puzzlement at that. Alex suddenly remembered, he had never told both of them the truth, only Alex and his friends. As for the man, he blushed a little bit and groaned, obviously sick of the hero worship after all these years. Alex had received plenty of that on his return to Burg...not to mention the loathing of some for returning to being weak, simple Alex. The boy tried to compensate. He faked a head wince, and then shook his head. "Sorry...my mind's still muddled...Laike."

Laike groaned a bit, but maintained a proper expression before them all. They all stared back at him. Slowly, the man sighed, and then walked down a bit into the Spring. Alex had been hoping for a bit more than that. He hadn't seen the man in a year. But Laike was perfectly calm, and only smiled when he came upon them. "Hello, Alex...nice to see you're looking better." Then, he turned his head to Tempest. "And you, you long-haired brat...you've been taking good care of him, haven't you?"

But Tempest wasn't in the mood for greetings. "Laike, what are you doing here? Where have you been all this time? And what do you know about this Narnuud?"

Laike drew in a deep breath, and groaned a bit. "Nice way to say hello, Tempest. But you always were a man of business. And you might as well know now.

"Narnuud was a dark wizard...black as they come. During the time of the Four Heroes, before Dyne became a Dragonmaster, he was the most powerful in Vane. But he broke from there, because he loathed Althena. He was always greedy, always ambitious. He dabbled in the forbidden arts to try and attain new levels of power. He wasn't just a Heretic...he was the Heretic. The first of them all, leading a revolt against Althena with the intention of destroying her and gaining her power for himself. He encouraged chaos wherever he went. He even made a pact with Mel while he was still a pirate, promising to give him the means to take down stronger ships if he would do his bidding. He rallied thousands to his cause. He drove Vane into the Heretic Wars, causing all manners of destruction and death. During that time...the Crystal Spire was nearly used right then and there.

"But then Dragonmaster Dyne appeared." Alex here caught the tone of change in Laike's voice, knowing he was talking about himself. "He reformed Mel and paired with the two strongest wizards in Vane, then at the time, Ghaleon and Lemia. They struck down the Heretics by the hundreds. In the end, only Narnuud stood against them. But he had grown strong indeed. He had become obsessed with finding the key to immortality. And he came damn close... He had managed to make his spirit cling to his body, no matter what. He had his head cut off, his body broken into pieces, and even had a hole burned right through his chest. But it didn't matter. Every part of his body stayed alive, even though blood no longer pumped and it was cold. He was the living dead.

"There was only one way to stop him. Ghaleon, with Lemia fortifying him so that his body could withstand it, summoned his most powerful spell that he knew...the Hell Wave attack. Though he didn't call it that then. He called it Althena's Breath. At any rate, that was the strongest spell he had summoned on record. It left him numb for a week after he did it, and he nearly killed himself in the process. In fact...it was that spell that left his eyes red and serpentine. But the blast did its work. When it struck Narnuud, it totally destroyed his body, leaving not even a speck of ash behind. The Four Heroes thought he was dead then, because without a body to cling to he had to be gone.

"But something else happened...something worse than death. Without a body, Narnuud's spirit was stuck being nothingness. It was a terrible torture for him, and if he had any sanity left, I suppose it drove it out of him. But given what has happened, I'd say he found a way to return by leeching off another. What more...I think he found a way to finally get Althena's power as well. He's the one who's behind all this. My guess is, he formed the Zone Confederation for the sole purpose of wiping them all out in one movement."

The three young heroes gaped.

"Wait a minute..." Alex spoke, interupting. "You said Ghaleon destroyed him, didn't you?"

Laike nodded. "You're damn right he did. No one hated Narnuud more than Ghaleon in all of Vane. When they were kids he tormented him about his strange appearance, always gloated whenever he beat him in practice combat, and killed his mother shortly after he became the Heretic."

"So why would Ghaleon follow him now?" Alex asked.

Laike drew in a deep breath, gazed out hard, and then sighed. "Ghaleon would never follow Narnuud...but Ghaleon is dead. Only the Magic Emperor is here now. He would have destroyed this entire world to become a god. I don't think something like alligning with his worst enemy will stop him now."

Alex opened his mouth to speak, but then held it. Somehow, he wasn't sure he believed Laike. He didn't recognize it before, while in the Flying Fortress. He had been have crazed, exhausted, in anguish, plus he didn't know the man's name until Tempest told him. But now, he began to remember what Ghaleon had told him before he leapt from his terrible weapon...

Come with me. Together, we can destroy Narnuud.

With that in mind, Alex had a feeling that Ghaleon still wasn't too good of friends with his old enemy. He was probably using him, just like he had used everyone else until this point. It wouldn't be beyond the dark man. At any rate, it didn't matter. Both of them had to be stopped, and Alex had to find a way. He hoped that Laike had some suggestions.

"So how do we beat him?"

"Narnuud's living on a borrowed life..." Laike thought. "I don't think he has much strength left. If he gets out of his current body, then I don't think he could live for very long unless he found another one to feed off of."

"So we kill him." Tempest stated grimly. "Now the problem is, how do we reach him?"

Fresca sighed. "We'll never combat his army. We haven't a prayer."

"Even if you did get to him, lads," Laike continued darkly. "I doubt you'd do much. He's gotten stronger...much stronger. He has the power of everyone he's drained from. And he's draining more all the time. And the more vitality he drains, the longer he'll be able to live apart from his host Duunran."

"We've beaten Ghaleon." Alex firmly stated. "We'll beat him."

"Alex is right." Tempest spoke with a nod. "There has to be some way."

However, the four of them were silent afterward. What could they do? There was nothing left. No army, no forces, no power...it seemed as if Narnuud did have them beaten. Alex frowned and swung his fist at the ground. His friends were all now helpless in his grasp. Everyone who could help them was out. It was just them, and what could they do? No Crystal Spire...no Grindery...and thousands of warriors growing larger each day in between them, all running off the very energy Alex was relying on to help them. There had to be some way to beat them...but how? They were going to keep getting stronger of their power, draining them again and again through that Flying Fortress...

Suddenly, it hit Alex.

That was it. That was the key.

Alex turned his heads to the others. "A thought just occurred to me." He announced. They all looked to him. "The Flying Fortress...Narnuud has made it so that it drains Althena's energy from an area, thereby leaving the people dead or drained in its wake. But it couldn't have done so to Narnuud, Duunran, or Winson, because they were all fine after that."

The three hesitated, but then Fresca nodded. "Yes, I suppose so."

Alex smiled. "So, that means that it can be made to key on specific things, and that before it was only keyed on the army to drain from them."

Tempest shrugged. "What difference does it make, Alex?"

But Alex was excited. "Don't you see? That's the key! We don't need a weapon...Narnuud built the weapon for us! The Flying Fortress! If we could take control of it, we could force it to drain from the enemy machines. We'd leave them all powerless. Who knows? Maybe there's even a way to give it back to the people who lost their vitality, and then we'd be back to full power in an instant!"

The three stood by for a moment, staring back at Alex. But his idea did have merit. They turned and looked to each other, and began to have hopeful looks. After a moment or so, they began to shrug, and then turned back to the young man. "It sounds like the idea has merit, Alex." Laike announced. "But how can we gain control of the Flying Fortress?"

"We'll have to sneak in." Alex answered. "We'll use the ship, to fly over everything on the ground and get to the side of it. Otherwise we'll be drained."

Both of those from Pao looked rather astonished at that idea. "The entire fortress is armed with cannons, Alex. We'd never get anywhere close."

Alex paused for a moment, but then formed a dark and serious look. "Don't worry...they'll let me in."

All three looked puzzled at this. "How can you be so sure?"

Alex kept his dark look. "They have something I want...and that they want to give me."

"You're still not at full, Alex. You could use another week of recovery."

"Now will have to do." Alex answered Tempest. With a regretable look, he pulled the silver boots back over his black bodysuit. "Are you sure there are no other clothes?"

"We only escaped with the ones on our back." Tempest answered, still dressed in just his pants and light white shirt. He was pulling his bow tighter, ready to do worse than before this time around. "Believe me, I would change if I could."

"Just worry about yourself." Alex replied, taking up his sword and stringing it to his side. He hesitated a moment, then turned and looked to his friend. "Don't get suspicious...but just how in control are you now?"

Tempest frowned a bit, but he understood his friend's concern. "I think Evangeon's personality is gone...but he was nothing more than my rage unleashed and given a name. I think I can control the mood swings...save for when I'm bashing in Ghaleon's face." He hesitated a moment after that, watching Alex continue to get ready, putting on his ring and the shield. He frowned for a moment, after finishing his bow, and then strung it behind him with a quiver full of arrows. "You know...it was you that broke me."

Alex hesitated, but then looked up to Tempest in surprise. "What?"

"It was you." Tempest flatly answered. "You were the only one who ever beat me in combat. In the fake memories Ghaleon gave me, it was you who was commanding the Dark Songstress in the guise of the Magic Emperor. You were the one who made Fresca sick. As for Ghaleon...he was the one who came into Pao with Luna. And after we defeated you, he made me his heir."

Alex stared at him silently for a moment. He moved for his helmet, but stared at Tempest. Tempest stared right back at him. Then, suddenly, the young brave leaned forward and glared deep and hard into Alex's eyes. His look had a warning.

"He's evil, Alex. Nothing more." He sneered. "Whatever he told you, no matter how kind he seemed, no matter what he promised you...it was a lie. I'm proof. Understand that, if any of your memories still call you back to him."

Alex didn't move for a moment, still holding his helmet. But then, he gave a short nod. "I will." He said, as he placed it on his head.

They were all ready now. Laike had agreed to come with them, and Alex was glad. They needed everyone on their side that they could get. Tempest and Fresca were ready with freshly tightened bows, made more powerful than ever, and new arrows tipped with a sliver from the edge of the White Dragon Wings. Hopefully, it would make them strong enough to pierce into any machines if they encountered them. Laike welded the Master's Sword while Alex bore Althena's Sword. The rest of the attendants had small weapons with them, but that was it. Then, all equipped, they boarded the airship. Alex took the controls, while everyone else hid behind in the cargo hold, save Tempest. He alone went into the back to give the carrier its propulsion. Once all gathered, they shoved off.

It wasn't all that dissimilar from the airship, Alex soon learned. The only problem was his friends weren't with him and he had to steer instead of Jessica. He didn't bother steering anywhere to begin with, not until Tempest brought them up high enough to be over the destruction zone that the enemy fortress could unleash. After a time, they managed to reach high enough. Once there, Alex turned and gave the nod to Tempest. Tempest then shifted his power to push the ship along instead of upward. Slowly, the ship began to drift forward, as Alex focused hard on the distance ahead...ready for another battle.

They flew for a short while. The Flying Fortress was following a set path, but they still had to find it. It had been weeks since they had last seen it in the air, and had to search a little. First and foremost, they headed toward the Nanza Barrier. They seemed to have beginners luck, for soon after setting off the sky began to turn dark from the presence of the Flying Fortress blocking out the sun. Alex swallowed as they moved along, realizing what was coming. Then, as they continued to move forward, he saw it.

It looked like Vane itself: a great island in mid-air. But it wasn't Vane. It was all black and made of stone, looming ominously before them. It's towers all rose high in the air, and its central tower stood the most menacing of all. It was coming by for its daily "gleaning". Already, specks of green light were floating up to it as the monster fed off the vitality of Vane and the surrounding area. Swarms of machines darted around it, like a swarm of deadly black hornets. Alex swallowed, and kept the ship moving straight for it.

As he closed in, and the Flying Fortress grew closer and closer in mid-air, the swarm turned its attention to the oncoming ship. Some of them came out, and fluttered across it. Alex thought it meant combat, but they didn't attack. They merely swooped around it, keeping an eye and their guns on it the entire time. The Fortress continued to grow closer and closer, as Tempest pushed them onward. At last, Alex saw that there was an opening in the nearest tower that he was approaching. It looked like some sort of dock for the flying machines, but it was empty. That looked good to Alex. Turning his head, he called back to Tempest.

"Get under with the others." He ordered. "That last blast should be enough to push us in."

Tempest nodded, and did as he was told.

All of the cannons turned and aimed on Alex. But Alex could sense now power brewing in them. He frowned as he thought of it. Of course there wasn't. Ghaleon wanted him alive. He wanted him as his slave. He kept telling himself that last part, yet as he did he couldn't fully believe it. Despite Tempest's warning, he still couldn't fully believe it. If Ghaleon had wanted him dead, it would have been easy enough to destroy him countless times. Somehow, he felt there was more to this. But it was too late to think about it, and he forced himself for now to believe that Ghaleon would have been more satisfied with him being broken. He couldn't hesitate here. He was the only hope left for Lunar. He drifted closer and closer, and waited.

Slowly, the ship drifted into the hanger. Alex had called it perfectly, it seemed...for it was slowing down and stopping right inside of it. Or perhaps it was due to the base itself having some sort of special mechanism. At any rate, he came to a stop, and looked down and out into the dock below.

There he was.

Ghaleon stood, in full armor once again. His helmet had been repaired, as had the gauntlet he had smashed. Six of the mechanical guards flanked him, with two of the fliers, which were twice as big as the others, at either side of them. He appeared to have been expecting him. Alex swallowed, and then told himself to move. It was now or never. All of the machines had their weapons trained on him, but didn't fire. Alex took that advantage, and held his hands up in surrender. He walked to the edge of the craft, toward the doors leading outward. Once he was there, he took a deep breath, and opened the bay. It slowly extended downward, forming a bridge leading to the metal floor. Alex swallowed again, and then descended it, hands still up. He was now in their territory. Bravely, he walked over to the machinery units, right up to Ghaleon, who towered over him and coldly stared down.

Ghaleon glowered down on him for a few moments through his red visored eyes. Then, with movements that could have been that of a robot as well, he reached down and unfastened his waist belt, taking Alex's sword from him. Still in its sheath, the weapon was given to one of the robots at Ghaleon's side. Once he had it, Ghaleon stared down at the young man.

"Narnuud knew you would return, son."

Alex glared back at him.

"Alone?"

Alex didn't move. "Alone, father."

Ghaleon paused, then snorted. "Do not think I am so easily fooled, Alex. Do you expect me to so easily believe that in your absence you regressed back into your conditioning so simply?"

"Isn't that what you want to hear?" Alex replied simply. "Isn't that what Narnuud wants?"

Ghaleon hesitated, but then snorted again. "Not to worry. Before this day is done, you will be one of us. Narnuud will do that. He will change you where pain and suffering could not. You have come home for good, my son."

"Why?" Alex suddenly asked, his tone biting.

"Excuse me?"

"Why are you serving him, Ghaleon?" Alex probed. He couldn't believe this. He was holding a conversation with this madman. He thought he'd never say anything to him other than an expression of how he'd kill him. "You hated him. Why help him now? Especially with this madness?"

Ghaleon stood for a moment, saying nothing. He didn't move an inch. But Alex continued to stare at him. After a moment, Ghaleon finally let out a small chuckle, and then turned his back to Alex, sweeping his cape up behind him as he did so. He walked away a short distance from the young man. Once he was away, he bowed his head slightly.

"Do you know what it is like to be born a freak, my son?"

Alex, for the first time, looked puzzled. He continued to listen to Ghaleon, however.

"I do. You...you think yourself tortured because you cried yourself to sleep every night for two years. I cried myself to sleep every night for sixteen. That's right, Alex...sixteen years. Sixteen years of living in fear. Sixteen years of fearing the world. Sixteeen years of wishing death upon myself every day. From the time I was born to the time I met Dyne. My father abandoned me because of my hideous appearance. My mother only stuck with me because she feared me and she felt obligated. Oh, she did learn to love me in time...but to think that I had to earn her love filled me with anguish my entire life.

"When I came to the Magic Guild, they tried to prevent me from even entering the Transmission Spring. Can you believe that? And when I finally did, every one of those wizards along the way wished that the creatures would do away with me. People feared and shunned me when I arrived in Vane, thinking I was a creature of evil. My entire young life, only one ever accepted me fully, granted me peace...and in return accepted the services of a devoted, life-long servant. That was Althena.

"Yet even I began to question her existence in my life full of pain when Dyne arrived. I had taken too much by then. But then Dyne met me. He alone accepted me at once for who I was, never even giving me a single strange look. That incident changed me, Alex. It was then that I became even more devoted to Althena, for I believed that her own love was true if it could be expressed by her Dragonmaster. And I became devoted to Dyne as well. He was more than a friend to me, my son...he was a brother. He was a soul mate. He was my true family."

Slowly, Ghaleon turned his head, showing his red gaze back to Alex.

"And do you know...Alex...what he did? What he did with his power? What he did with the love of Althena that he had opened my eyes to?"

Alex stood there silently, not moving an inch. Ghaleon turned fully around, and then began to walk back toward the young man. Once he reached him, he glared down at him, and instantly his voice turned to venom.

"He gave it to them. He gave it to the very ones who spurned me, who mistreated me, who were slimy pieces of worm ridden filth. Those same people who had tormented me endlessly bowed down at my feet the moment after I had destroyed Narnuud. Tell me, Alex...what would you do if you were surrounded by "friends" such as those? They cared only for my power. Inside, if I had not been strong, they would have wished me dead. They might even have tried to kill me.

"My one hope had been that a truly impartial ruler rested over us all, one who would defend us from evil and would repay the wicked with justice and the noble with goodness. Althena was not only my hope, she was the hope of the entire world, for everyone who had been wronged like me. And what did Dyne do? He destroyed it. He cheated all those who had cried for justice in the past. He ruined them. He condemned their lives to more hardship and misery.

"Tell me...Dragonboy..." Ghaleon spat, his tone growing angry. "What would you have done, had you destroyed me, braved the impossible, reached your one true love and had her mind restored...the object of your affection, your love, your devotion, your very life...only to have her tell you she would stay there and leave you alone forever? What would you feel? You don't have to answer, for I already know. It would shatter you, leave you broken, and leave you a shell of a person. It would ravage you far worse than what I did."

Ghaleon beat his breast with a dark gauntlet. "That is exactly what happened to me, Dragonboy. Dyne shattered my faith and resolve. He gave the world to greedy, insignificant, traitorous men who were just as wicked and worse as you thought I was. I didn't...I don't believe in anything anymore. And were you me...you wouldn't have cared. If Luna was no more to you...even you would have joined me in my quest as Magic Emperor."

Alex stared in amazement. He had a feeling Ghaleon had never told anyone this before. "But Ghaleon..." He insisted. "How could you? You betrayed Althena...to this monster..."

"Althena betrayed me." Ghaleon sneered. "She betrayed all of her children, you included. She left you alone in the world, victim to its evils. Yet you dared stand against me because I was the only one on Lunar who had the resolve and who was not a whining, mindless whelp to take the position as a god." Ghaleon seethed for a moment. "Althena can die with the rest of her children and her world for all I care, Alex. She wanted to be one of us..." Ghaleon snorted. "Well...now she can see what we deal with without her to help us."

Ghaleon turned and aimed for the exit to the dock. "Come with me, Alex. High Master Narnuud will open your eyes to the truth of this state of affairs. He is your master now, and I am your father now."

Alex hesitated a moment, staring at Ghaleon's back. Slowly, inside him, he gave a deep sigh. Then, he walked after the dark wizard.

Shortly after they had walked out, the only guards that were left in the dock were the two flying machines from earlier. They paced for a moment, watching over the ship that was before them. They discovered that there was an energy source on it of Althena's power, but they didn't attack. These smarter models knew it was one of their own ships. They merely stood there, waiting for their next order to come to them.

Then, abruptly, Fresca and Tempest popped up from either side of the doorway, both drawing back an arrow. The machines, still seeing only the ship's power source, didn't react. Both of them let a deadly arrow fly, twice as fast and powerful as before. Both arrows ripped right through either machine's CPU. Both of them spasmed and fizzled, shocked at the sudden attack, but then whined and collapsed. Their lights went off, and they moved no more.

That done, Fresca and Tempest quickly fitted another two arrows and moved out of the ship. They were followed quickly by Laike and the rest of their band of soldiers. They looked around, making sure there was no other sign of any other enemy. Once they were sure they were in the clear, they all paused and looked to each other.

"Two down...a hundred thousand to go." Laike joked, throwing in his signature laugh at the end of it.

"I hope it won't come to that..." Fresca grumbled. "Alex was right. They took him right in. But why did they do it?"

"I think I know why." Tempest answered in fear. "But don't worry. Alex won't break. I'm sure of it. Anyway, we have to drain this army immediately. We have to get to wherever they lead this fortress from."

"Or at least their main weapon." Laike answered. "My guess is that'll be in the main tower, probably on the bottom level. Let's go, and try to move quietly. The last thing we need is every last bot in the place coming down on us."

Alex had never teleported before, save through the White Dragon Wings. Ghaleon's method was a bit different. He still didn't like his cold, emotionless hand clasped on his shoulder. But he went with it, and soon they had arrived in the central tower. Once again, Alex saw himself plunged into darkness. Yet it wasn't just from the teleporting, it was all around him as he appeared to see where they had arrived.

Darkness was absolute on both sides. It blotted out all color and all life. In the center, a long red carpet let up to a series of steps, rather similar to the top of the Goddess Tower. Only these were shining obsidian. It was a grand mound, almost like it was ascending to a higher position. That was obviously the intention, for in the center, perched on a grand, horned throne sat the king of this domain. Duunran, dressed now in black and blood red, sat there, his hands, now pale and shriveled, extended to either side. His face smiled wickedly, but was sunken in and hollow, almost as lifeless as Alex's had been. His hair seemed to have turned white as well. Evidently...not even he was spared from Narnuud's wrath. Yet he lived. Crouched like an imp, seated below him on the stairs, was Taben, grinning like the troll he was. The crimson robed Winson stood to one side. Ghaleon released Alex, and then waved his hand. Immediately, he materialized at Narnuud's other side. The quartet of evil glared at him now, all with wicked smiles.

Ghaleon turned to Duunran, holding out Alex's sword to him. He did so only for a moment, before Narnuud's dark voice, much stronger than last time, laughed in reply.

"Give it back to him, Ghaleon. We have no need of keeping him from it."

Ghaleon nodded, then turned and held out the sword to Alex. Alex was still approaching at that point, but irregardless it suddenly left Ghaleon's hand and floated over to the young man. He took it as he approached, and then halted at the steps. He once again fastened the blade across his waist and glared at Duunran. The man then crossed his hands in front of him and undid his black and red robes, and then pulled them aside, revealing the thing beneath.

Alex had not seen what Narnuud looked like, only knew what he was. But he was much different from last time. His skin was as red as blood, and his eyes gleamed bright red as well with yellow pupils. He uncrossed his arms, which had long dark fingernails, and seemed to ease out of Duunran's chest, until he was a few inches separate from it. As for his legs, the tops of them heaved out of Duunran's own legs. He looked like a horrible, twisted conjoined twin. He cracked a grin at Alex, showing his rows and rows of teeth.

"Like what you see, Dragonmaster?" Narnuud inquired. "Not a pretty sight...but no worries. Soon I will have strength enough to separate from this body and form my own. It will regretably leave Duunran a bloody mess...but if you want to make an sausage, you have to grind a few pork carcasses."

Alex said nothing. However, Narnuud turned to his side and to below him. "Taben... Winson... Find his friends and destroy them."

The young man suddenly gaped at that, while Winson nodded, and summoned a ring of light around him. As he was disappearing, he glared at Narnuud. "I came alone. There's no one to-"

"Fool." Narnuud spat. "My sight rests on you now. Ghaleon gave it to you while you were imprisoned. I have seen everything as you have fleshed yourself out again over these past few weeks. And even if I hadn't, there was no other way you would so willingly give yourself over to us."

Taben, however, looked up and frowned. "I'm a scientist, not your lackey, Narnuud. You can't order me around as if I were."

"If you want your technology to have any place in my new order, you will do as I say, halfling." Narnuud snarled.

Taben frowned, but then with a grumble arose from his place. He waddled down the carpet, passing by Alex. For a moment, Alex, in all his shock, thought of drawing his sword and striking him down. He wasn't sure why he didn't. But he let the man pass, keeping his gaze on Narnuud instead as he left. He went into the back, and then disappeared into the blackness. Now, all that was left was the three of them. Alex, Ghaleon, and Narnuud. The former and the latter stared at each other hard. Though while one was determined, the other smiled. Neither of them said anything. The whole hall was silent.

At last, Narnuud spoke. "Don't just stand there, boy. You've come here for some reason obviously."

Alex was a bit taken aback. He didn't expect that question. However, he stayed on his guard. There was still a chance of this being a trick. He took a deep breath and exhaled. Then, reasserting his dedicated look, Alex spoke.

"Surrender now or die."

Narnuud looked back at him simply. Alex expected a laugh, a refusal, or an attack. In any case he was ready for action. But rather than attack, the parasite merely shrugged. "Is that all?"

Alex was puzzled by this reply, and showed it. Narnuud shrugged again. "Simple enough request. I'll tell you what Alex, I'll grant it...and a bit more.

"You see, there are other things on your mind too that I know you're thinking about. Such as...stop draining the lives out of the people from Vane to Nanza? Is that correct? So be it. What about shutting down the army? Alright, I'm flexible. Want me to release Luna as well? You can have her. And sparing your friends lives? With a wave of my hand I can recall Winson and Taben. I could even destroy them, if you like. But I want something in return first, child..."

With that, a light came on over Narnuud's head. Alex looked up, and immediately averted his eyes like a vampire seeing a sacred object. But it was too late. He saw it. The Black Dragon Armor, hovering overhead and eager to be taken. Alex's headache surged. His mouth grew salty. He began to grow nauseous. It was here...here and wanting him to take it. A crazy impulse in him told to rush out and seize it. Yet somehow, perhaps given the situation, he managed to restrain himself. He turned his head back, and tried to force his eyes solely on Narnuud. But his gaze kept turning upward...toward the armor...

"I'll grant you a deal, Alex. One that is rather generous, if you ask me. I'll grant you all these things. The war will be over. Peace will reign again in the land. And all I want in return is for you to take the armor. Wear it, and be the true Dragonmaster. Do so, and I'll do all of this. What is your answer?"

Alex kept his eyes averted, and continued to gaze at Narnuud. He didn't say anything, for he didn't know what to say. This had to be a trick. The desire in him...craving the armor so much...it couldn't be good. It had to be leading to something terrible. But he felt so incomplete without his armor...so empty.

Narnuud frowned in impatience. "What's there to think about, boy? Victory is in your grasp. All you have to do is take the armor, and you can pretend that all of this was a bad dream. I'm being more than generous. I'm being downright crazy. Triumph is mine. I have total victory. If I want, I could make you get on your knees and lick my boots for a year to make me do even one of my promises. And now I offer them all to you and you stand there silently. Don't be foolish."

Alex frowned in response. "What makes you think you could make me?"

To this, Narnuud smiled in total glee. It was as if Alex had just said a magic word he had been waiting for. Grinning, he turned his head slowly to the side. He chuckled a few times, then spoke. "Because, dear boy...I know that Ghaleon could have made you his willing servant at any time simply by threatening one thing. It's your weakness. I, on the other hand, have no weakness. But you do, boy, so long as you remain tender hearted and simple. Now, boy...I ask you a question..."

Narnuud slowly slid back in his chair, his grin powerful and malevolent. Sneering, he spoke again, slow and thick.

"You should be able to answer this. Ghaleon gave it to you a year ago...so you have had time to think. Consider...back in the Black Dragon Tower...if you could not have turned Luna...would you have killed her?"

Alex's eyes went open wide. He hadn't been expecting that question. He hadn't expected it to come at all. However, Narnuud quickly grew cross and scowled.

"Answer me boy! Answer me now!"

Alex's mouth opened a moment, but no sound came out. He felt cold inside, all of the sudden, disturbed and uneasy. Narnuud continued to glower.

"You still hesitate, boy! You are a fool! It's a simple question! And I want the truth! You will not back out of this one as you did with Ghaleon! Tell me...or I'll make you live to regret it!"

Alex still hesitated. He didn't know what to say. But if he did, he still would have said nothing. He wasn't going to tell him. Just as a year ago, he still didn't know what to say. Tempest had threatened him with that question, but it hadn't come to the worst. And so, Alex stood, silent and not knowing what to say. Narnuud frowned.

"Your silence is a death sentence." He scowled. Next, he held up a finger to his side. "Ghaleon...kill one of his four friends. I don't care which one."

Alex's face suddenly turned white as a sheet. Holding up his hand in defiance, he cried out in anguish. "No! Don't do it!"

"Then answer me!" Narnuud snapped. "I won't ask again!"

Alex still hesitated. His lip quivered. His throat tightened. How could he answer this? What would his answer mean? His body shook, and he saw Narnuud grow more impatient. Finally, he could hold it no longer. He screamed out the truth, clenching his eyes shut and throwing his hands against his head in panic.

"NO!"

"HA HA!" Narnuud howled. His voice was dangerous and animalistic, but it was in more triumph. Alex's eyes filled with tears that he had to make that terrible choice. He clenched his head, his headache growing for the Black Dragon Armor. However, Narnuud pointed an accusing finger at him.

"That is your downfall, boy! That is your weakness! I knew it all along. I just made you prove it to yourself. Your emotion makes you weak. Fool...did you ever stop to imagine what would have happened had you killed her, whether or not she had recovered? You would have saved the lives of all who didn't escape Vane. You would have prevented terrible destruction to the face of this world, and the deaths of many others. By killing Luna, you would have totally ruined Ghaleon. All of his plans would have come to nothing. But he knew...yes boy, he knew...that you'd never bring yourself to kill her. No matter how many times he told you that she was his, how many times he told you she was in his plan, you didn't strike her down. And how many lives suffered for that, child?

Narnuud snickered and leaned back in his chair, as Alex continued to glare at him with anguished eyes. "And in the end, boy...if the only option left was to kill Luna after she became the Black Goddess Althena...you wouldn't have done that either. You would have let this entire world dwell in darkness and misery forever...you would have let millions die...but you would not have harmed a hair on Luna's head. That is your weakness, simple child. That is why you were never fit to be the Dragonmaster. That was why you foolishly threw the responsibility aside. That was why you failed to grasp the relevance of any of Ghaleon's actions.

"You are indeed a mere youth. You are no man. You think like a child. You reason like a child. You dream like a child. The world is not always rosy, and there are not always happy endings delivered to you on silver plates. You've dealt with forces strong enough to rip this world asunder and treated them like they were toys. You know nothing. You have dealt with nothing. You've skirted the ultimate responsibility, and you've paid the price."

Narnuud smiled a bit wider, leaning back in his chair.

"And today...we'll see if you are still ready to pay more."

"Hurry! There is no telling how much time Alex has!"

Fresca didn't answer. Her face was resolute and determined. She kept her bow at the ready and continued to race down the hallway. Laike was right behind, with their fellow forces following as well. Their feet clicked against the metal floor as they rushed onward through the fortress of Narnuud. They had already encountered trouble, descending their main tower. But they had managed to overcome it so far. Yet it was only a matter of time before the full force was against them. And if Narnuud was dealing with Alex personally...then they might just encounter Ghaleon. That was a danger in itself.

Two machines suddenly turned the corner of the T intersection in the metal hall ahead. Acting quickly, Tempest and Fresca both raised their bows as one and let a bolt fly from either string. Moments later, metal ripped as either arrow shattered right through the brains of the machines, and then fizzled and collapsed. Another victory without being hit. But their luck wouldn't hold forever. Quickly, both braves reloaded their bows and continued to charge forward, their feet shooting by the fallen machines to either side of them.

They reached the end of the hallway soon after. They looked around a bit, and soon found a staircase. It lead downward, and both of them took it. Tempest was in the lead, holding his drawn arrow ahead of him. Fresca fell in behind, closely followed by Laike and the rest of the troop. They encountered no difficulty, however. Though the darkway was dark and lit only by a few white globes, they quickly descended, and made their way to the bottom as quickly as possible. Tempest wasn't sure if they were in the center yet, but it didn't matter to him. They also had to reach the bottom while they still could as well. And so this place was as good as any. Tempest continued to descend until they reached the bottom of the staircase, and an opening led them into a new hall. Quickly, Tempest turned and charged down it, with Fresca following closely behind.

Tempest took a look around the area as he moved. It was full of cables and gears. Tempest had never seen this kind of place before, but to him it looked like the central workings of the machine. Indeed, had he went with Alex into the Grindery, he would know this to be true. At any rate, his attention soon focused ahead, on an upcoming door. Tempest frowned at it. An ambush could be behind it. Or it could merely be locked. In either case, it would be a hindrance that he hadn't the time or patience for. Away from the calming waters of Althena's Spring, he felt his mood grow hostile and uneasy. But he managed to push forward, readying himself for whatever would come of his arrival.

Suddenly, the doors before him slid aside. Quickly, Tempest froze and took his firing position, ready to send a shot into the area beyond. For a moment, he saw something within it. He saw a flash of crimson robes, with a black lined face...and two hands with green light around them raised. Then, suddenly, Fresca was on him. She leapt on top and wrestled him to the ground with one heave. Tempest cried out and misfired, sending his arrow to the side wall instead. Yet it was lucky that she had done that after all...for immediately a cloud of green energy erupted from the form on the other side of the door, and smashed into the troop of soldiers behind him. They tried to avoid, but it was too late. They all grew pale as one, and then fell to the ground, slipping into unconsciousness.

Tempest glared up from beneath Fresca. He soon locked gazed with the man himself...Winson. He grinned grimly, obviously appreciative of his handiwork. But he quickly turned his look to the two fallen ones, just as Fresca pulled her own bow back and prepared to fire. A green light began to gather in Winson's hand, but stopped from erupting as Fresca pulled back her bow. Both sides froze, not moving an inch at all. They glared at each other.

"Miss me and die." Fresca snarled.

Winson merely smiled. "What makes you think I'll miss? Or that I still can't let the spell fly if you shoot me first?"

Neither of them said anything else, but Winson kept his smile, while Fresca began to sweat and grow nervous. But as for Tempest, he suddenly was puzzled. He turned back to the fallen soldiers, and realized that none of them were one particular warrior...

"Where's Laike?"

Suddenly, as if on cue, a slapping sound hit the ground from behind Winson. Tempest saw a flash of red and yellow. Winson, distracted, turned his upper torso, along with his magic-wielding hand, to the side. That was all the instant Fresca needed, and had been waiting for. She let the arrow fly, and it shot straight through Winson's head as easily as it had gone through those of the machines. Winson's eyes bulged in shock. The spell flew from his hand, harmlessly striking the wall. Then, his body went limp, and he collapsed to the ground. With him down, and now bleeding on the floor, the grinning form of the man behind was revealed. But he looked to both of them with disapproval.

"I thought I taught you better, you long haired brat. When you're walking into so obvious a trap, take a different way or plan a trap of your own. And what do I get when I find you here? You two don't have time for this."

Both Tempest and Fresca looked in confusion for a moment. But then, they realized their position. Both muttering, they quickly rose to their feet again and reloaded their bows. Afterward, they turned their heads behind them. Sadly, Winson's death hadn't broken this particular spell. The rest of the force was still stricken with the illness. Tempest frowned a little.

"They can't come with us or help us now."

"Then we go the rest of the way on our own." Laike answered boldly. "I have a feeling we ain't too far now."

"Why, Alex?"

Alex turned his head to this. Inside, his body was craving the armor more than ever. He felt sick and weak, but didn't dare show it. His mind was also driven a bit by what Narnuud had said. He was right. He would have done anything to save Luna...even risk the life of Lunar in order to do it. And despite all that was at stake, he didn't honestly know if he could have struck her down if no other option was left. Yet his heart feared that the answer would be no indeed, just as he had answered when forced too.

"What?"

"Why throw your life away...for the dream of a foolish man?" Narnuud slid off of his thin lips. "Don't be a fool. I'm not telling you to take the easy path...but the only rational path. Your death means nothing to me, and it will save nothing."

Alex merely scowled at him. Narnuud chuckled, and continued.

"Why do you do as Dyne wanted? Did you ever think that it was he that was mistaken, not Ghaleon?" Narnuud snorted. "What did Dyne ever do for you...but stay in the shadows while you risked your life? This was his responsibility, boy. This was his mistake. Yet he didn't even have the courage to deal with it."

"He never could have." Alex protested, though his own soul began to burn at that statement. "He hadn't the power."

"And who's fault was that, boy?" Narnuud sneered, smiling at how he had countered that. "The fool... And he...he would be the last of the Dragonmasters...he would give birth to a world without them... He knew nothing, just as you do not. In the end, he had to rely on the very power he spurned to undo his mistake and save the world he claimed he had loved and would protect. But it was not his life on the line, dear child...it was yours. He left the largest mess in history behind to be cleaned up, and expected you to do it. You risk your love...your life...the lives of your friends...and all for his 'lofty' vision...his 'noble' ideal. Admit it boy...he betrayed you, and he betrayed the rest of Lunar with it. You accused Ghaleon of doing monstrosities to get what he wanted. Dyne did the same. He just wasn't so blunt...and his choice fed your greed, as well as everyone else's on Lunar...by giving them a bit more power...and some snobbish ideal of self-sufficiency."

Alex's face flushed anger. "Liar!"

Narnuud grinned wider and laughed. "You only wish I was, child. Dyne was a failure. Everything he has done has brought Lunar to ruin. The world did not face its greatest crisis and its darkest hour until he made his foolish choice. Never were men so divided. Never has Lunar lacked so much order. He has forsaken this world for chaos...him and Althena together."

Alex trembled. He refused to hear this. He couldn't hear it. Yet there were no spells this time. There were no tricks. Everything that came now was coming just from words. If there was anything working against his will...it was his own rationality, fueled by Narnuud's words. "You lie. All you've ever done is lie."

Narnuud merely laughed again, and slowly shook his head. "Simple, simple boy...close your eyes and count to ten beneath your bed...chant 'you lie' seven times and maybe the big monster will disappear... You are so much a mere child. Look around you, fool, if you claim to have any sense in your head. Look, and see something that you cannot deny no matter how much you wish. The entire world, and all the people in it...they lay firmly in my grasp. I have totally conquered the world. From here on in, I will only grow in power and might...forever. Yet none of this would have been possible if Althena had not released her power...had not given me the means to take it from people...had not given me the means to attain limitless strength. I will reign eternal. No, young Alex...there is no escape from this nightmare. Not now. Not ever. This is what Althena and Dyne left to the world...a legacy of death...an endless horror forever. Now you tell me, boy...can you, standing before me, honestly tell me that what Dyne and Althena did was right?"

Alex froze. He was sweating now, partially from the growing pain, but mostly from the words of Narnuud. They were challenging him, challenging everything he believed in and commited himself until now. He had never once thought before about what Narnuud now said. Yet it all seemed to be true. He couldn't deny it. Much as he wanted to he couldn't. Dyne had left him to clean up his mess. Lunar was worse than ever since when Althena had left. And now...this monster had control of the entire planet...and there was no way to stop him. It was all because of Althena that he was where he was now. No, he couldn't answer.

Narnuud smiled slightly.

"You begin to understand, young Alex... Little Prince...you will soon be ready to take your throne."

Tempest fired one arrow, and then another, and then another. Three machines went down, one with each bolt. He still had to dash forward, turning and avoiding the storm of weaponry that was blasting at him. Fresca likewise dodged a lightning bolt, then fired a Flash Arrow to scatter two machines in her path. Laike, crying out in a war yell, smashed through another three that stood in his way. More machines popped up behind them, and more joined the frontal assault as well. Yet they still moved on, not stopping for anything. It was too late to turn back now. They had to go on to the end.

"Another division is coming behind!" Laike cried.

"Focus in front!" Tempest snapped back, firing another Flash Arrow. Three machines in front of him were scattered. Not pausing to see of they were truly destroyed, Tempest planted a foot on one and vaulted over it. Fresca and Laike fell in close behind.

Their speed was having its desired effect. The enemy was thinning out before them. Tempest knew they couldn't give up now. His passion was beginning to swell, but he could focus it when they were so close to their goal. He reached behind, seizing another arrow. He only had one third left, but it was enough. He sent another arrow before him, and another, and another. He had to keep fighting. After exhausting a fourth arrow, the brave put his hand before him and summoned a blast of wind. Four machines in front of him were bowled over by the power, and Fresca and Laike rushed by to slash them to pieces while they were on the ground. They had to keep going. They were nearly there.

"Door up ahead!" Laike cried abruptly. Tempest looked, and through the few machines that still barred their way, he saw that there was a door indeed. It had some sort of push button to open it. Quickly, Tempest fit another arrow, aimed while running, and fired. The button was smashed, and the doors slid open.

"Quickly!"

Fresca and Laike continued to cut their way through the wall of metal through them. Laike's blade flashed tirelessly, while Fresca concentrated all effort on firing Flash Arrows now. They not only blasted away machines, but caused explosions of light to guard them as they dashed on forward. At last, the three of them reached the doorway. Once there, Tempest and Fresca spun around and began to fire arrows out at the enemy behind them. Meanwhile, Laike dashed over to the button on their side of the door. He mashed it, and immediately the metal doors slid shut again. Panting, the three of them sighed and turned around into their new room.

They stopped immediately.

"I think we found the core." Tempest stated.

That much was painfully obvious. For now, they were in a room that was stuffed with cables and conduits, much more full than the previous corridors had been. There was some sort of massive metal restraining device in the center of it. What caught the attention of the three was what was in it. There, locked down, unconscious, and having the life drained out of him just like everyone else, was Nall. He was in full dragon form, but was restrained and locked down just as the other dragons had been a year ago in the Grindery. He too had a cruel bit in his mouth, and was jabbed with wires all over him. He appeared to have been there for some time. The three stared in shock for a few moments.

"Nall..." Laike remarked.

Tempest scowled. "Some people never change."

"He's draining him, just like he drained me." Fresca stated.

"I should have known." Laike snarled. "Only the power of the White Dragon could have gotten this thing off of the ground."

Tempest merely kept his frown and reached for a fresh arrow, and fitted it into his bow. He raised it, and aimed straight for Nall's headpiece, meaning to shatter the bit with one shot. "Then what are we waiting for. Let's place this monstrosity back on the ground."

"Sorry...but you're the only ones who are headed for the ground."

The three heroes turned again, looking to the right. But they were too late. They were only in time to see Taben grin at them before he threw a switch, and pulsing energy began to rip through them.

Tempest tried to cry out, but his voice weakened before he could. His hands withered, and his brown hair turned whispy and white. His strength vanished in an instant, and he fell to the ground. Laike and Fresca likewise soon looked like they were ninety years of age, and likewise fell to the ground. Soon the whole lot was helpless. Taben snorted, and then threw the switch, turning off the power.

"All too easy." He snorted. "If I knew it was going to be that simple I would have tried to take over the world myself. Anyway, I've been commanded to kill you three, which I could do just with a well aimed blow to the heads for each of you at this point. Yet I'm eager to exploit my machine's full capabilities. Let's see if I can't turn you three into dust."

Narnuud smiled slightly all of the sudden, as if something had been whispered in his ear. Satisfied, he turned his head and looked back to Alex.

"The last of your force has fallen." He told him.

Alex's eyes widened in surprise. No...it couldn't be possible. He knew that Laike, Tempest, and Fresca could find a way. It wasn't so. He had to be trying to trick him. "It's not true."

Narnuud smiled and laughed even harder than before. "Oh, do stop with that feeble lie excuse, boy. It grows old. Don't believe me? Very well...we shall sit here and wait for them to succeed. But they won't. They're mine now. They have been since I started. All belongs to me now, child. Including you."

Alex couldn't believe his ears. This couldn't be possible. This couldn't be right. Yet the fear and dread sank heavily on him now, and he feared the absolute worst. And in his heart...he knew it was true. Narnuud wasn't lying to him this time. His heart felt hollow. His stomach plunged. Yet through it all...he also wanted the Black Dragon Armor.

"It's all over, dear boy. You now are the only one on Lunar who opposes me. But I assure you, try to stop me and you will perish as simply as all else has. Just accept it, young Alex. I have won. You haven't a glimmer of hope. The sooner you realize that, the better off you will be."

This was a nightmare. This had to be a real nightmare. Alex would have pinched himself if he hadn't feared that he was wrong. His heart filled with terror. He quivered, and stood before Narnuud. It was over? It was really over? Alex's heart beat fiercely in his chest. Had it really come to this? Sadly...he knew the answer was yes. He hadn't a chance now. He had been beaten...totally beaten. It drove his face into sadness, and he stared blankly at the ground as his eyes welled with tears.

Narnuud sighed and shook his head. "Once again...just a child." He muttered. "A child who doesn't deserve to have pain so great at such a young age. Oh, come now Alex...don't be stubborn anymore. Don't be foolish. Don't delude yourself any longer. I want to give you so much. You have only to take it. Do as I say...and you'll never cry again."

Alex closed his eyes and clamped them shut, but he couldn't keep the tears from flowing. He was alone now. No friends left. No allies left. ...No Althena. The only one he could rely on now was himself...and he finally had to admit that wasn't enough. Yet even now...he couldn't let him have total victory. If he was the one thing outside his grasp, he would stay that way. Slowly, he shook his head, and he forced his jaw to clamp tight.

"I'll never join you, Narnuud."

Narnuud merely smiled in reply. "Yes you will, boy. Yes you will. I get everything I want now, and I swore this day that I would have you. You see...I do have the one thing you will never say no too."

With that, at long last, the darkness at one side of Narnuud's throne was illuminated. It shone down in a bright white cylinder, instantly turning Alex's attention to it. But it wasn't light from the ceiling. It was light from the cylinder itself. It shone bright and pure, and shimmered. Alex knew in a moment it was energy. Yet his attention was turned away to what was in the energy cylinder. He gasped and choked out the word breathlessly.

"Luna..."

She was in there, trapped. A white energy band encircled the lower half of her face, rendering her totally mute. But she pounded against the walls and stared at Alex, reacting to him strongly. She had changed too. Narnuud had returned the garments of the Dark Goddess to her. She was clothed in them again. But her eyes were still soft and alive, full of tenderness and kindness. And now, they stared at Alex in terror. Gritting his teeth, Alex turned his head to Narnuud.

"Let her go!" He screamed.

"I intend to." Narnuud calmly replied. "Actually...I intend more than that. You are the legacy of the world, Alex. It belongs to you. You have only to claim it, and rule it forever as the Dragonmaster. With Ghaleon as king, and I as master, you shall be the prince of the world. When Ghaleon passes on, it will be you will be stand as king. And your children...and theirs...and theirs...forever. I'm giving you more than sonship, child...I'm giving you a royal legacy...a dynasty.

"Yet you are just Prince Alex the Dragonmaster..." Narnuud mused in mock quality. "What is a prince...without a princess?"

Narnuud turned and gestured to the energy cylinder. Luna's own eyes filled with wonder as she heard that, and she stepped back. "Behold, my young friend...your bride...Princess Luna the White Songstress. She is the embodiment of Althena. No fairer creature is there on this world, nor one that possesses so much talent and power. It is most fortunate you desire you so much. She is the only fitting bride for you. That is why I have arranged a wedding."

Immediately, the lights came to life in the left of the dark chamber. Alex wheeled his head around, and was totally astonished. Where there had once been a dark throne room was now a complete wedding chamber. There were lines full of tables stocked with food for a wedding feast. White flowers decorated the entire area, with white birds roosting and fluttering. A cake was stacked high on a white table in the back, on the top perched a pair of crowned likenesses of Alex and Luna. There was even a pile of wedding presents too. A white tunic and cape stood on a mannequin for Alex, while a long elegant dress similar to the Songstress' garb was on another for Luna. Lastly, over half of the throne in the center, a great stone arch now extended overhead, white, covered with flowers, and having a great silver bell, half shrouded in the middle, ringing a great note. Narnuud smiled at him devilishly, like some demon tempting a man with riches.

"Today...you and Luna become one forever, Alex. I fulfil this great desire for you. I end the war. I spare your friends. After all...we need guests."

With that, four flashes erupted next to Alex. He turned his head in an instant, and gasped again. Imprisoned in cylinders like Luna was were his four best friends. They were dressed all in white, as if ready for the wedding as well. But their mouths were bound like Luna's. They were all unconscious and floating in the cylinders too. What more, they were old. All of them looked not a day younger than ninety to Alex. Furious, Alex whirled to Narnuud. "What have you done to them?!"

"Drained their vitality." Narnuud calmly answered. "I'll restore it, if you do as I say. I'll even let Jessica preside over the wedding if you like. And when it's all over, you will be rulers of the world. This can be the happiest day of your life Alex..." Narnuud paused, and then gestured to the other side of the room. "Or..."

The lights came on over there, and a horrible sight awaited Alex. Everything was a twisted parody of the wedding. There were still tables there. They were decked in black now, with black roses and ravens swarming over them. The feast was the same however. Instead of presents, however...there was a mound of dirt. The arch that had been beautiful was now gothic, and the half of the bell that it held was dark, stony, and somber as it announced dark notes. Where there had been bridal garments there were now elegant, yet gray and drab uniforms for both of them. Burial clothes. Lastly, where there had been their table there was now a pair of caskets laying open, with a tomb awaiting both hungrily. Both Alex and Luna's names were inscribed on it, as well as their born and death dates...today.

"They can be pallbearers at your funeral."

Alex's face flushed into anger, and he turned and glared at Narnuud.

"Please, boy..." Narnuud scowled, sounding bored now. "Don't act like a child any further. And don't be a fool. You can't win. Everything now is my decision, no longer yours. You only have one decision now. Which will you pick? Will you take everything...including your beloved wife? Or..." With this, Narnuud rose, Duunran carrying him, and walked slowly over to Luna's imprisonment. As he arrived, the cylinder vanished. But before Luna could run, he seized her and yanked her over to him. Then, he pressed a talon against her throat. Luna tried to break free, but after feeling the prick she stopped.

"Will I have to stain her pretty new dress?"

Alex glared at him. He hesitated, quivering. He didn't know what to do. He didn't know what he could do. At last, he spoke, much less commanding than before. "Let her go, Narnuud. It's me you want."

"You're wrong, boy. I want you both, just as I want Ghaleon. I want a family. And I'm not asking much in return. Just take the armor...and it will all be over."

Alex hesitated longer. Luna looked to him with panicked eyes, but couldn't even mumble at him. He licked his lips, and then suddenly lashed out again at Narnuud. "Why don't you undo her mouth so she can tell me what she thinks?"

Narnuud instantly went furious. "I'm not asking this girl! I'm asking you! The only reason I continue to let the pulse of her tender neck run past my finger is because I wanted you to either grant her happiness or seal her fate! And if I did let her go, and she foolishly screamed for you to not do it...then what?! You will have gained nothing! Nothing at all! You'll both be dead and I shall rule still! But I already know you far too well, boy... It doesn't matter if I let her talk to you forever. You'll never let me kill her. You'll do exactly as I say.

"It's time, child. Once more, a Dragonmaster has a choice to make. But this time the lines between doing something wise and something stupid are far more clearly defined. What choice will you make? Will you doom this world to me, or will you save it? The choice is yours now, Alex. Think hard...for I will not recant a wrong answer this time."

Alex couldn't believe it. How could he be like this? How could he be so totally at his mercy? But in all honesty...he didn't know what to do. He couldn't strike him down in time. Even if he tried...his pain was so great right now that he'd never hold it back. What more...Narnuud made it worse. Slowly, the armor lowered. It glimmered in the pale light, and looked so beautiful to him. Seeing it made his head ache more. He craved it so much. But the pain continued to build as it got closer. It would kill him this time. There was no denying it. If he didn't sate it, it would destroy him. He felt his insides turning. He felt his mind burning. Ghaleon stood and awaited his decision. Narnuud pressed his talon closer to Luna's throat. She looked at Alex in anxiety. Alex's spine turned cold. His stomach churned. He wanted someone...anyone in the world...to give him a reason to say no. Any reason... If saying know would have saved the life of an ant at that moment he would have done so. But no one was there. He was all alone. The choice was his, and there was no way he could escape it. His hunger mounted. The armor stood before him, and rested. So close...so easy...

"Take it...my young prince... Answer now...yes...or no..."

Then, finally, what Alex thought would never happen did.

He broke.

"YES!" He suddenly screamed, bellowing at the top of his lungs, tears streaming from his eyes. He shot forward his hand and placed it on the armor.

It immediately took place. In an instant, the armor faded and materialized on his body. A flash consumed all around him. As he screamed in his own anguish and in the pain of rebirth, the full powers of the Four Dragons surrounded him and penetrated him. They filled him with power, unspeakable power...power he hadn't tasted for so long. Only now, his body greedily devoured it. His ambition, his wrath, all of his portions that wanted power and craved to use it were brought to light and screamed for joy as a feast lay before their insaitiable hungers. Within an instant, the flash died. But Alex still stood there, panting and hunched over.

The Dragonmaster was fully reborn.

Narnuud, smiling simply in victory, released Luna. Half of the lights went dark, and all that remained was the wedding chamber. Luna immediately rushed for Alex. Meanwhile, Narnuud waved his hand, and the bond was released around her mouth. Luna instantly began to call for Alex's name. But Alex kept his head low. He didn't cry...but stood there somberly. He had broken. At long last...even he had fallen to Narnuud. Yet now, his body's lust for power had been rekindled. His innocent spirit had been broken. He couldn't play the innocent, the one who had no other choice. He was no longer the Alex he knew before. He stood there totally silent.

Luna reached him, her own eyes breaking out into tears. Furiously, as she wept, she banged her fists against Alex's chest. He didn't move an inch. "Damn you!" She cried. "Why did you do it?! Why?! You should have let me die! You should have let me die! Damn you..."

But Luna couldn't be mad anymore. Instead, she swept her arms around Alex and hugged him as tight as possible. Much as Alex wanted to reject it, he found himself hugging her back. He loved her too much. He enjoyed her presence immediately. He loved her touch...her feeling...her smell...and now they were together. But his soul burned. Inside, accusing fingers pointed at him and called him weak. He could have rejected him. He could have at least kept his integrity at the end if nothing else. Yet he broke...and he lost. He had Luna...but now he felt guilty. Terribly, terribly guilty...

Narnuud continued to smile. "I told you Ghaleon... Now look on him...the prince and princess together. And now...they are mine forever. Let us celebrate. After all, today is their wedding day."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Thirteen

"Just have to make a few more minor adjustments..."

Tempest slowly cracked his eye open. He gasped a little, but realized that his voice sounded a lot deeper than before. Puzzled, he turned an eye to either side, trying to remember what had happened. But the look was all he needed. From the appearance of Laike and Fresca, it had become obvious that the same fate had befallen them as had the rest of the army. However...he wasn't sick like they were. He was conscious. Before him, like the dark troll he was, Taben gleefully turned switched and dials, obviously shifting his machine for some other purpose.

"I wonder what they're bodies will look like after this..." He mused gleefully.

Tempest clenched his brittle teeth. He wished he could suddenly leap to his feet and snap the man's neck with one twist, physically weak and pathetic though he was. But his own body had been reduced far too much. He couldn't do it. He couldn't move and he couldn't stop him. He could only glare darkly...

...No. It can't end like this. I swore to myself countless times that even when I was an old man I'd still hunt my own meat until the day I die. I have to have the power. Besides, my vitality is already returning. I have to have enough...just to end this...

Tempest looked to his gnarled hands. Yes...his bow and a fit arrow were still in them. And Taben was still so preoccupied with his machine that he didn't notice that he had awakened. His smugness in victory would be his downfall. Trying to keep his deep breaths down to a minimum, Tempest slowly raised his arm off the ground. It was hard, for his strength had been drained as well as his vitality. But he was going to do it, and he had to do so without straining, or he would alert the man. Slowly, he did so, and brought the bow to aim straight at Taben's head.

"Just one more thing..." He mused.

Tempest, hearing that, knew he had to hurry. Struggling not to pant, for he knew that Taben could kill him with his bare hands now, he brought his other hand forward and grasped his bowstring. With some fumbling, he managed to hold the arrow. His other arm already grew tired from having to hold the weapon, plus he hadn't a lot of strength left to pull his bow backward. But he had to try. Clenching his teeth, he began to pull it back. He just had to do a little...just enough...to end this...

Taben threw one last switch. "Excellent. We're ready to begin." Tempest, for a moment, feared the worst. He still hadn't drawn it back enough yet. But before Taben could push it, he suddenly froze. "Oops! My mistake! I nearly set it to drain me as well... Well, easy enough to select me and turn it..."

Suddenly, in the corner of Taben's specticles, he saw what was going on. Abruptly, his face flushed into surprise, and he wheeled his face over to glare at Tempest, just now finishing pulling the string back. "You!" He yelled. "Impossible! You should have been out for a good hour!"

Tempest began to buckle. He was losing his strength, and he had to fire now. But his aim quivered. He finally released the bolt, and it shot forward. But it didn't mark Taben as expected. Instead, it hit him in the shoulder, going through and lodging itself in his shoulder. Tempest's eyes filled with fear. While it was a hit, it wasn't lethal. And he couldn't load another. Taben cried out in pain nonetheless, and in his rage he smashed his hand against the machine on the wall. Yet then, he did something unexpected to the young old brave on the ground. His eyes gaped in shock.

"No!" He screamed. "I was still selected!"

Tempest's eyes then filled with shock as well, as he watched something terrible happen. Taben as well began to age, much more quickly than the three of them had. His hair turned white, his eyes glazed over with an onset of blindness, and his body became withered and decreped. But it didn't stop at ninety. His skin continued to wither, and his bones continued to grow weak. He hunched over, and slowly his hair began to fall out of his head, leaving only his bushy beard. He tried to keep screaming, but his voice faded into nothing. His fingernails became brittle, and then began to fall out. His nose and ears shriveled. His teeth came out of his head and his skin began to stretch tightly over it. He grew thinner and more frail, becoming only skin and bone in his garment. His beard finally started to fall out, and as it did his eyes sank into his head and his body became nothing more than a skeleton with skin across it. Then, as he held out his bony fingers, the skin began to erode and split, losing all flesh color and growing gray. It broke apart and split over his body, over his head, and over everything. To Tempest's shock, his flesh soon disappeared all together, leaving only brittle, gray bones. They too continued to wither, and then began to break apart. As they did, and hit the floor, they broke into dust. Still frozen in his dying position, Taben abruptly collapsed into a heap on the ground. But by then, there wasn't anything of Taben left anymore. Just his garments mounted on a pile of dust. The machine switched off, and it was over.

Tempest stared for a moment, as Fresca and Laike began to stir as well. However, his gaze was cold, and he spoke in a deep voice.

"Poetic justice...for a man who thought his monsters were beautiful."

Luna continued to stare at Alex, half expecting him to do something unexpected. But he did nothing, but calmly led Ghaleon lead the both of them toward their wedding attire. This was a horrible, sickening parody to her of what their wedding day should be like. Stuck here, in this fortress of death, with this horrible monster looking over them. Narnuud was calm throughout, smiling, gloating in his victory. And Alex somberly did everything he was told now. However, just as they were led to the side, Ghaleon suddenly turned his head, and then turned back to Narnuud, as if something had surprised him.

As for Narnuud, he suddenly reached a claw hand to his eyes for a moment, as if something hurt him in his vision. But after only a moment or so, he recovered, shaking his head. Luna looked at this in puzzlement. Perhaps...his sight had been with one of the two that he sent out before. At any rate, his smile vanished and became a frown. Slowly, he lowered his head and glared at Ghaleon.

"Find them and destroy them."

Ghaleon hesitated for a moment. "Shall my son accompany me?"

Narnuud shook his head. "He shall stay and prepare for the ceremony. On your return we shall proceed with the nuptuals."

Ghaleon nodded, and at once summoned the ring of light around him, and vanished away. With him gone, Narnuud turned to Alex and Luna, the former staring at him without expression, the latter staring at him in fear. He smiled again, and gestured to the side.

"I don't expect you two to change right before me. There's a dressing room nearby for both of you to prepare in. I'll be waiting for your return."

The door shut automatically behind the couple. Alex was still grim, but Luna was still surprised and tense. Immediately, with somewhat of a look of disgust, she threw down the clothing on the floor that she had taken from the mannequin, then turned to Alex. "Alright...so what now?"

"Get dressed." Alex replied somberly. "We're getting married soon."

Luna gaped a bit at that. Until now, she thought that maybe this had been some act or stunt of Alex's. But he was perfectly serious now. He began to undo the cape, meaning to throw it over his shoulders. Luna suddenly reached forward, grabbed his chin, and turned it to her. "What are you doing, Alex? We can't do what he said!"

"We have no choice, Luna." Alex responded. He placed the cape down, but he stepped back from Luna, withdrawing her hand from him. He turned and looked down to the side and sighed, all while she stared at him in disbelief.

"I've lost... After everything that happened, I lost. And even though I want to deny it, I can't. The world is a worse place for having lost Althena. And even if my intentions were the most noble, there's no way I can deny that I didn't feel, somewhere inside me, even if I didn't know it or rejected it and didn't let it motivate me...a little more powerful after Althena released her power. When I abandoned the power of the Dragonmaster and became Alex again, I won't deny what I felt. Something inside me missed it. I craved it, and I wanted to use it...just as any other power hungry person craved strength too. I thought getting back a piece of it would release me. But the more I got, the more I wanted. I couldn't help it. I was hungry for it, Luna... I desired it more than anything. And no matter how in control I am, I know now that desire is a part of me. And now it's out.

"I can't fight against him anymore, Luna...because part of me doesn't want to. Now that I have the power of the Dragonmaster again...I'll admit...I'm not eager to let it go. And after all I heard, after all the things that attacked my values...I'm starting to think it might be a better idea to keep it. I'm not perfect, but maybe I can keep people safe from Narnuud in this position... I still have no choice. He has our friends... He has our world... And they'll all die for nothing if I stand against him. I don't even believe in what I'm fighting for anymore. Dyne did betray me. And Althena betrayed us. And it still doesn't matter anyway..." Here, he looked up slowly to Luna's own blue eyes. "You're all that matters to me now. Narnuud was right. I would have let the world fade away rather than kill you. And can you honestly scold me without dreading what would happen if I said differently?" Alex lowered his gaze and sighed again.

"I'm just going to have to be his prince, Luna...but I'll understand if you never want to see me again after this..."

Luna was shocked. Immediately, she crossed over to Alex and thrust herself right in his face. "Alex...listen to you!" She exclaimed. "This isn't you talking! This isn't you at all! The Alex I know would never cower like this or just submit! Why are you acting like this?"

"It's no use, Luna. I'm acting like this because I finally have seen the truth."

Luna frowned. "You've seen Narnuud's version of the truth! Althena gave us great power too by what she did! Maybe the world isn't in the best shape as it was before, and maybe the crisis that arose was the greatest ever. But it wasn't Althena who defeated Ghaleon, it was you! Even when he had the powers of a god you defeated him! And it didn't take any power at all in order to bring me out of what Ghaleon put me in! All it took was an ocarina and you, Alex of Burg!"

Alex looked a bit more intensely. "Luna..."

Luna's own face fell a little bit in sorrow. "A year ago, when I was at the top of the Goddess Tower, I was convinced there was no hope left. I told you to leave and what you would do would be futile. But I was wrong, Alex. You proved that to me. You swore that we could find a way even if everything else said it couldn't be done. And you can find a way now."

Alex closed his eyes and shook his head. "It doesn't matter, Luna. They've beaten me. I did exactly what they wanted. I'll be honest...I like having so much power. Now that I'm back as the Dragonmaster, I've gotten just like them. I want to keep it. I want to use it. I feel complete at last, and I'm not scared anymore. This temptation...it's too strong. I was able to release it last time but it left me feeling empty inside. Now that I have a desire...I'll crave it forever. Even if we win, one day I might yet snap...just like Tempest did. Then I'll be as bad as Ghaleon...worse. And if I could release the power of the Dragonmaster again..." Alex hesitated, began to quiver again in his own self fear and hatred, and sighed. "The hunger might be so great that it'd kill me..."

"No, Alex!" Luna insisted. As Alex's eyes began to water at his own sad fate, Luna suddenly wrapped her arms around him and brought him close to her. Despite how much he loathed his own desire, this touch felt so much better than the one in the throne room. He closed his eyes and held her as well. "That won't happen! I know it! You gave me strength once, even when I didn't have the will to carry on. Let me give you strength now, Alex. We will find a way...to beat Narnuud, to save the world, to save our friends...and save you too."

"Luna..."

"You wear the armor, Alex...the armor doesn't wear you. It doesn't decide who you are or what you do with your power. And it doesn't make you one of them. No matter what you wear...Dragonmaster...Magic Emperor...or just plain old Alex...nothing can change your heart. And nothing can change who I love inside that armor, or my faith that you can succeed."

Alex said nothing for a few moments, but this latest word, words that supported him for the first time in ages, sank into his saddened spirits. He kept holding Luna for a while, thinking about the last time they hugged this fiercely...back on the Goddess Tower. They had succeeded when everything else said it couldn't be done then. Alex wouldn't let Luna go, and wouldn't let her give up. And now, she was going to do the same for him. A new look formed in his eyes, and a strength beyond that of the Dragonmaster's attire began to grow in him. After a few more moments, he pushed away from Luna. Both of them seperated, and stared at each other. Alex's look was firm and resolved.

"Run." He told her.

Luna was puzzled. "What?"

"Run." Alex repeated. "Get out of here. Our ship is still docked. I'd give you the White Dragon Wings but I need them."

"What about you?"

"I'm going to end this...once and for all."

"Let me help you then."

Alex shook his head firmly. "You can't. Narnuud was still right about one thing. I would have never given up on you...even if everything else was at stake. As long as you're here, he can make me do anything he wants. You have to get out."

"But our friends." Luna insisted. "Kyle, Jessica-"

"I'll get them out." Alex promised. "Or die trying."

With that, Alex stood up and moved away from Luna. He then reached into his pocket for a moment, and withdrew a tiny pair of Dragonfly Wings. He tossed them over to Luna, who caught them. After that, he took out the White Dragon Wings himself. Luna looked to him again.

"Where are you going?"

Alex's eyes narrowed. "To face my 'father'."

Luna hesitated, but then spoke again. "Come back alive, Alex."

Alex smiled a bit at that, for the first time in what seemed like ages. "Just as I could never strike you down, so can I never be kept from you again."

Then, a ring of light surrounded Alex, and he was gone.

"Hurry, Tempest."

"I can't move that fast like this."

"How much longer will it last?"

"I don't know...but my hair is starting to gray."

Tempest still felt rather drained, but he was still feeling better than before. He estimated he must have been down into the low eighties at this point. Still, he wished he were a few decades younger now. As it was, he had to struggle to hobble up the chassy that held Nall, carrying a hunting knife with him. He cut and pulled all the cables he could off of him, hoping that if he cut enough Nall would start to regain his strength faster than it could get pulled out of him. He and the other two were still decreped, and their vitality was taking some time to regenerate. Still...it was faster than he thought it would take.

Tempest reached the bit in Nall's mouth. He proceeded to hack away at it. Below, Laike and Fresca continued to hack at the bonds around his legs as well. After cutting and snapping for a few moments, he heard the great dragon beneath him start to groan. That made Tempest feel enthusiastic. Nall had to be recovering. Finally, the bit was hacked through. Yet at the same time, Nall suddenly had no more support under his head. It crashed to the ground in an instant, taking Tempest with it, and smashed onto the metal floor. Tempest cried out in agony from the impact. Immediately, Laike and Fresca stopped what they were doing and rushed to him.

"You alright, kid?" Laike asked...a rather badly worded question.

Tempest grit his teeth. His hip was sore from suddenly being stretched across the dragon's head on impact. But he didn't think it had broken. That was the last thing he needed. "I'll live." He spoke, for he was still in pain. He was about to urge the others on, when suddenly a weak voice spoke loudly beneath his body.

"Who...who's there...?"

Tempest looked up at that. The others did as well. Instantly, Laike and Fresca moved over to Nall's head. One of his large, serpentine eyes was slightly cracked. Fresca stared into it and smiled.

"It's us, Nall. Fresca, Tempest, and Laike."

Nall gazed at them a moment, then muttered.

"Man...how long have I been out of it...? Where's the grandchildren...?"

Fresca, Laike, and Tempest all looked to each other with slight frowns. However, they thought it was best not to argue for now. They had to move. Laike looked around the facility for a moment, his look grim.

"This thing isn't stopping. By now, it must be harvesting enough energy from the world to keep going without Nall's help."

"Doesn't matter." Tempest answered. "We still have to use it to drain the enemy machines anyway."

Fresca kept her gaze on the White Dragon. "Can you move, Nall?"

Nall closed his eye and struggled for a moment in vain. "No..." He moaned. "I'm totally drained..."

"Then can you at least return to your cat form?"

"I'll...try..."

Nall struggled again, keeping his eye closed. Nothing happened at first. But then, his body glowed white with what aura he still had left, and he began to shrink. His snout condensed and his teeth became much more mild. His powerful tail descended back into his body, and his scales began to vanish back under his feathers. His claws shrunk into mere paws, and his powerful glowing eyes returned to their feline stare. Lastly, his crest on his head became a mere tuft of brown feathers amid his white head. His body continued to lose its size, shrinking out of the remaining bonds. In the end, only a limp little winged kitten lay on the ground. Fresca quickly took him up in her arms.

Tempest sighed in relief. "Finally, something has gone right. At least we have the White Dragon back."

Then, just after saying that, a dark sneer sounded forth through the room.

"Hmph... Pity you're about to lose him again...along with your lives."

Abruptly, a ring of light shot down in front of the four. They stared and looked, and slowly a tall, ominous figure materialized in it, completely clothed in black. They didn't need long to see who it was as he appeared, bearing his long violet blade and glaring at them through his red visor holes. They immediately formed looks of shock.

"Ghaleon..." Laike announced.

Tempest grit his teeth. Quickly, he pulled another arrow into his bow and drew it back to blast right in Ghaleon's face. Yet quick was rather slow for him in this state. He barely had the strength to pull his string back the whole way. Still, he spoke bitterly at him.

"You're going to pay for what you did to me, my village, Luna, Alex, and everyone else."

The dark wizard looked unimpressed. "Feh...and what will you do to stop me, traitorous boy? What can any of you do to me in your wretched conditions? And even if you were fifty years younger...even if you had the power of the Dragonmaster with you...you'd still fail. You have meddled in High Master Narnuud's affairs for the last time. Prepare to go to the graves which you have been brought so dangerously near to."

The three braced themselves, but felt the futility of it all in them. They couldn't combat Ghaleon, not even at full strength. They were all finished. All they had to do now was make a last ditch effort, which would probably result in nothing but a delay...and hope that Alex was still around to do something. Ghaleon held up his sword, ready to strike with it. Fresca pulled her own bow out, and Laike...after staring at his old friend with a hard look...and telling himself inwardly one last time that Ghaleon was dead and replaced by this monster...he drew his own blade.

But before any fight could begin, another ring of light suddenly appeared right in front of them. A form materialized, and the light vanished. Then, the group stared on in amazement. It was Alex, now bearing the Black Dragon Armor and looking stronger and more fearsome than ever. His back was to them, but his gaze burned hard into the visors of Ghaleon's. Ghaleon held after that, letting his sword slowly fall again. The others stood and stared. However, Laike was the first to break the silence.

"Alex...you've returned to the Dragonmaster..."

"You get out of here." Alex stated cold. "Take Nall with you."

Ghaleon glowered at him. "Well...so much for being optimistic. For a moment I thought you might have actually come to help me in doing away with them. Yet fighting is futile, boy. You already belong to us. Your heart is like ours now. Don't deny your destiny."

Alex merely drew his blade. "This part of my destiny I'll shape for myself." Deciding they couldn't do anymore, the people behind him began to walk away, continuing their search for the control room. Ghaleon let them go.

"Fool...you've been defeated in every possible way. You'll gain nothing by this. And now you know that you can never escape who you are. Accept your fate with honor, son of mine."

Alex kept his frown. "I'm not your son."

Ghaleon raised his blade, preparing himself for combat. "It's time for one last torture, boy...and this time you will not survive it!"

Ghaleon looked like he would strike from his blade, but rather than do that he brought up his hand and fired a blast point blank at Alex. However, Alex had been ready. Instantly, a white shield evaporated around him from the White Dragon, and he leapt back from Ghaleon. Instantly, he screamed, and a red dragon materialized behind him. Fireballs erupted from the sky and bombarded Ghaleon. But he too was ready, summoning a pair of chaos orbs to surround him and absorb the impact. After that, he brought his hand forward again, and this time summoned a hailstorm of rocks to smash down on Alex. The boy brought his shield before him, and using it as a guard charged forward, shooting straight for Ghaleon. But he forgot that Ghaleon could easily summon two spells in a row. Moments after the boulders ceased, icicles erupted from his fingers. They cut through the air, nearly slicing Alex to ribbons. He twisted a little to late to avoid one, and felt hot pain slash against his side. Now off balance, he stumbled forward, and Ghaleon raised his blade to destroy him.

Quickly, Alex threw himself into a forward roll as the momentum continued to carry him forward. Doing so sent him shooting by Ghaleon's strike of his blade, and gave him the time to rise to his feet. The Dragonmaster spun around and swiped his blade at the Magic Emperor's head. But Ghaleon rose his blade before it could connect, and blocked against it. Then, moving with speed and power, he charged forward, slashing his blade again and again as he did so. His sword easily sliced through cables and conduits on both sides, and Alex was hard pressed to counter it, even with his new strength. At last, Ghaleon pushed Alex into a wall, and raised his blade to give him another killing blow. The young man, however, rolled to the side and barely missed the purple blade slicing him in half. Once at the side, Alex chanted again, and immediately a black dragon formed behind him.

A spinning vortex into the abyss suddenly formed behind Ghaleon. The Magic Emperor, in response, planted his feet and guarded his eyes. Alex knew very well that Ghaleon couldn't be killed by this attack...but it forced him to interupt his moves long enough to counter. Bracing his shield in front of him, Alex charged forward and smashed into Ghaleon's side, knocking him off balance. As he sprawled around and tried to stabilze himself, Alex leapt into the air and smashed his helmet into Ghaleon's face. Part of the helmet was dented inward, and both of the visors smashed. Seething in anger, Ghaleon swept his blade out blindly. Alex realized soon that he was too close, and tried to back up. But it was too late, and the front of his chest was sliced open by the power of Ghaleon's sword just as he backed up.

Both of them staggered backward, and then stood on their feet. They looked to each other and glared, both having damage now. Alex stood straight and cold with his blade out, ready for more. As for Ghaleon, he hesitated for a moment, but then reached up and pressed against his helmet. A hiss escaped, and he grasped the edge of it to pull it off. His white hair tumbled out, and for the first time in the equivilent of years Alex saw Ghaleon's real face. The Magic Emperor threw the helmet aside, his red eyes burning, and his lips curled into a frown.

"I'll enjoy finally being rid of you...Dragonboy." He sneered, and then attacked.

Tempest dashed as fast as he could, which wasn't that good. He wasn't sure what he was doing, putting as much distance between himself and Ghaleon or trying to get the controls at the bottom first. He was growing younger steadily now. His hair was all gray, and his body wasn't as nearly withered. He had to be in his seventies at this point. That gave him some relief. Pretty soon, at least Laike would be back to his old age. And the more time that passed, the more his abilities increased. Plus Nall was regaining his strength as well.

"Sure you know where we're going, Tempest?" Fresca called to him.

"No." Tempest honestly answered. "But if Nall was at the center, then we should be getting close to the bottom. How is he doing?"

"Still out." Fresca sighed in reply.

Tempest sighed as well, and was about to acknowledge it. When suddenly, he spotted something. There was a door ahead, and halls leading to it from the sides. From those halls, suddenly machines came out, moving in front of the door to guard it. They had their weapons operational and were turning to aim for the oncoming warriors. For a moment, Tempest nearly tried to shoot one with his arrows, or use his wind power to bowl them over. Then, he realized in shock, in his meager status, he could do none of that. And so, as they turned and faced him, he did the only thing he could do.

"Take cover!"

Immediately, Tempest ducked inside the nearest hallway. Laike, Fresca, and Nall quickly ducked into the one on the opposite side. Moments later, fire, ice, lightning, stone, and every other magical power there was ripped past them and obliterated where they had been moments earlier. Tempest gasped in panic, overwhelmed at how they had nearly missed this. Quickly, he began to go for an arrow and moved to load it into his bow. The firepower ceased, and he still hadn't loaded it yet. He cursed his slow body, but finished, and then poked around the side and fired a shaft. He soon cursed again, for his aim was so poor, his strength so insignificant, and his reflexes so shot that not only did his bolt miss a vital spot, but it didn't even go into the metal of one of the machines. Still, it had some effect. As he ducked back, the machines fired again.

"I'm still too old to fight them!" Tempest called over the firestorm to the opposite side.

"At this current speed, I won't be back to my old age for another ten minutes..." Laike mumbled. "And you kids still have nearly an hour."

Tempest scowled, feeling his anger surge. "Now what?"

The blades smashed into each other again and again as Alex and Ghaleon traded blows. Neither of them held back anymore as they smashed the conduits and wires all around them. Taben's remains were scattered as their boots trampled around, and both of their faces were filled with passion. Ghaleon was letting out his own anger now, showing forth the full measure of his rage against Alex for having foiled him time and time again and now having made a final rejection. Alex showed forth his determination. Abruptly, Ghaleon shoved Alex to the ground, and then fired off bolts of energy from his fingertips. Alex quickly rolled, but one of the bolts still hit him in the back. He arched backward in pain and cried out. Ghaleon moved in quickly to strike him down. Seeing this, Alex summoned his strength, rolled to his back, and then let the red dragon's fire burst forth again. Ghaleon, his shield destroyed at this point, covered his head and was blasted back by the force of the explosion. He cursed as he did so.

"Damn you!"'

Alex, panting, rolled to his feet, and forced himself to keep fighting. He paused only for a moment as Ghaleon landed on the ground far in front of him. He summoned a vigor spell to him, wrapping himself in a red aura. Then, brandishing his blade, he gave out his fierce war cry, echoing with the power of the Dragonmaster, and shot forward with incredible speed, meaning to impale Ghaleon on his weapon. But the dark wizard was still fast, and quickly got to his feet and crossed with his own blade, blocking against it. The two locked sabers and clenched their teeth at each other in fury, grinding together for a moment. Then, most suddenly, Ghaleon swung his own blade down and free. A huge wave of power erupted from it, slashing into the ground at Alex's feet. The power caught the young man, and sent him flying across the room. His body smashed into the wall and slumped downward, his face tight in agony. Blood trickled from his lip.

Ghaleon scowled and began to walk forward. "No friends to help you now, Dragonboy. No stays of execution. It will be the sweetest taste in the world when I clean your blood from my blade with my tongue."

Alex groaned and opened an eye. He was in pain, and that last hit had broken something in his back. Quickly, he summoned the Blue Dragon, and as he materialized behind him he felt the wonderful healing sensation wash over his body. Soon, his wounds were healed and his bones reknit. His slashes sealed up, and quickly the Dragonmaster got to his feet to face off against Ghaleon. However, he was beginning to fear the worst.

Last time, he had beaten Ghaleon only with the help of his four friends. He was on his own now. What more, Ghaleon was stronger than ever. And as for Alex's own power, he felt his mind began to be drained. Despite all the strength he had attained by returning to power, his mind wouldn't be able to keep up this bevy of dragon magic much longer. He had never used so much. And he had no silver lights with him. How was he supposed to beat Narnuud if he used everything he had against Ghaleon? Even then...even if he did use everything...would it even be enough? But he couldn't afford to just use his physical strength. The only way he could counter Ghaleon's power was by biting back just as hard, and he couldn't do that much longer...

Ghaleon shot forward with a lethal intent, and Alex barely swept his head aside before the man shattered the wall behind him. Alex, clenching his teeth, countered by swinging his blade around and smashing on Ghaleon's shoulder. His blade went through the metal and struck the flesh underneath. However, Ghaleon didn't react in pain...merely snarled and smashed one fist into Alex's face, sending him flying backward. Blood flowed from Alex's nose, and a cut was made in between his eyebrows. Yet he didn't stay dizzy long, and recovered. He continued to block Ghaleon's assault, which hadn't been hampered at all by the injury, but seemed stronger than ever. Alex was shocked. This wasn't going well.

"You will die for rejecting gifts, boy. You had everything, and you dared to throw it back in our faces."

Alex bit down and continued to block. "Is this what you call everything, Ghaleon?! Working for a parasite?! Presiding over a dead world full of dead people harvested like crops?! I'd rather die!"

Ghaleon thrust his hand in his face at that, and instantly summoned a blast faster than Alex could counter.

"Have it your way!!"

An eruption of energy exploded from Ghaleon's fist, and blasted Alex's body. The young man cried out as he was thrown backward again, and smashed into the wall so hard this time that he dented it. He fell to the ground afterward, his impact causing him to bounce. Alex winced, and then coughed a spatter of blood on the floor. But quickly, he rose again, and brought his sword in front of him. Inside, he knew he couldn't take much more. Ghaleon, his own teeth grit, continued to approach him. But they did not clash again.

"You don't deserve to be the Dragonmaster!" Ghaleon snapped. "Look at you! Foolish! Childish! Immature! Narnuud was right the entire time...you are just a mere boy. You should be thanking me for giving you a dose of reality! Yet for some reason I still wished to give you a world full of pleasures for you, and you dared to say no. Now you will die."

Alex kept his frown, but his voice was weaker. "If I die, at least I will have had a purpose. At least I wasn't a traitor. At least I didn't go to the side of evil."

"Do you honestly think I am hurt by the rambling rationalizations of a simple child?" Ghaleon spat back. "Use your mind, fool! Think for once! Or have you already forgotten all that Narnuud told you? In the wake of all that has happened...do you actually think this world is a better place? Can you honestly tell me it is?"

Alex hesitated for a moment, not speaking. He didn't want to justify that with an answer. But Ghaleon halted his advance, and continued to glare at him. His look was cold, demanding satisfaction. He snarled again.

"Answer me, Dragonboy! Is this world a better place?!"

Alex continued to stare for a moment, his look somber and dark. But finally, his frown vanished, and he sighed.

"...No."

"Then end this fight while you still can, Dragonboy. There is no reason for you to fight. What is there? To defend a faulty vision? To honor a foolish old man? Althena made a mistake. There is no need for you to make one or perpetuate it. Surrender. Stop acting like the fool you are and fighting for nothing, causing trouble where none is needed. Accept your destiny. What is there to gain?"

Alex hesitated a moment. Once again, he was deep in his own thoughts. He thought again of what had happened, and all that was coming. He once again thought of what Luna told him, and what everything else had been. He stared down the whole time, his face still somber. But in the end, he frowned a bit more, and then looked up and glared at Ghaleon. He stood cold for a moment. But then, he finally shook his head, as if both refusing, and being disappointed.

"No...Ghaleon. I won't be like you."

For the first time in the battle, Ghaleon hesitated.

"What did you say, boy?"

"I gave in for a moment, but not again." Alex snapped back. "You nearly succeeded, Ghaleon...though not in the way you wanted. You nearly turned me into you. You nearly destroyed my hope. You nearly made me as desperate and as pathetic as you have become. But I won't do it."

Ghaleon smiled. "If I'm so pathetic, how come you are the one who is losing?"

In reply to this, Alex slowly put his sword away. Ghaleon stared in surprise, but Alex kept glaring at him. "Just like you said, back at the Goddess Tower, Ghaleon. I have no need to fight you. You destroyed yourself far worse than I ever could. We are the same...we are very much the same. But there's a big difference between me and you.

"You were right. The world is unfair. And giving the power to all people, bad and good alike, may have caused much chaos. It may have let some wicked prosper and some of the good die. It may have enabled you to come to power along with Narnuud. It also may have let me defeat you. Perhaps this world could have been more peaceful with Althena here. Perhaps it could have been better with her leading us forever. Perhaps she should have even gone so far as to destroy all evil and injustice in the world, so that we'd no longer have any hardships or torment. It would have made things easier...simpler..." Alex hesitated a moment, but then lost his frown. "But Ghaleon...it would have killed all of us."

Ghaleon, on hearing that, suddenly lost his smile.

"People do suffer needlessly in the world. And the good can suffer while the evil prosper. But if Althena got rid of all of the evil in the world, Ghaleon...there'd be no one left. You've proven to me that even I have a dark side. There's no one blameless or totally pure. And if she got rid of all the hardship, made all our choices forever, and got us through all our personal challenges...life would have no meaning. We wouldn't be children. We'd be cattle. Nothing would ever challenge us. Nothing would ever motivate us. Nothing would ever give us reason for concern or action. There'd be nothing left for us, Ghaleon. Nothing at all. If we have our own decisions made for us, then we wouldn't even be alive. We'd be dolls, playing for Althena forever. That would destroy us, far worse than any evil could."

Slowly, Ghaleon began to lower his blade, and his expression looked mildly stunned.

"But now, Ghaleon...now we can make our own choices. Maybe we won't make the right ones. Maybe we won't even carry out our purposes in life. But if we do act good, if we do please Althena, then it will at least have been our own free wills. We will have chosen good over evil, overcome our own dark desires, and made the right decision. And if we choose evil, then we are all now personally accountable for it. We can't blame anyone else for making our choices for us, especially Althena. Maybe people will continue to choose evil throughout history, but those that choose good will be loved because it will be out of the goodness in their own hearts, not because they were forced to do it. Because what good is there if all of our actions, good or evil, are forced from us?"

Ghaleon continued to silently stare. He didn't say a word, but his hatred seemed to be gone from his eyes, replaced by deep thought.

"And Althena didn't abandon us. On the contrary, she's in all of us now, Ghaleon. Now we'll all be able to reach her and get her help when we need it, no matter where we are, no matter what we are. Everyone now can change, and everyone can turn to good when they need to. There's no more people who are forsaken or cast out. The Vile Tribe...this is their hope. This is the hope for everyone in the world. Althena lives on inside each of us. Now she is everywhere, and all of us can ask for her, and nuture her inside of us whenever we choose light over darkness.

"Ghaleon...you used to be like me. I admired you. You were one of my heroes. You were one of the heroes of the entire world. You were noble and great. And though you had been tormented you still chose good in the end. But you betrayed Althena, and you let yourself become so twisted and evil. You've even reached the point where you're helping this madman do something you'd never have supported. You let yourself become so lost to hate and disappointment because things didn't turn out the way you wished that you've let yourself become this way. I'm asking you...please...don't let this destroy you. Don't let it control your destiny. You can still change. Please...for once, in all the time I've known you...remind me of why I admired you so much. Become someone in real life that I can look up to."

Ghaleon stood in stunned silence. All of his anger had vanished in an instant, and his lip hung slightly open. His sword hung loosely at his side. But in another instant, a clang rang out as he let it fall. Standing in the Magic Emperor's armor, he moved not an inch. Alex's words had struck him, and for the first time he could remember...he was reevaluating his life, and the choices he had made. Alex continued to stand there for a few moments longer. But then, he took a deep breath, and sighed. Ghaleon, he felt, wouldn't try to stop him anymore.

The young man reached into his pocket, and pulled out the White Dragon Wings. He still had one opponent left, he thought as the energy surrounded him again.

Tempest scowled again. His hair was still gray, but his skin was smoothing. Yet it was all too slow. Laike's hair roots began to turn dark, and Fresca's hair was turning blue again. But they were in still too bad shape. Tempest only had one arrow left. While his skill was still increasing, and he believed that he could get a shot in the head on one of them, it wouldn't help them. He needed his wind power, but that was still a ways off. Fresca and Laike couldn't help either. Once again, the machines before them halted their firing. Then, Tempest heard them moving forward again. Scowling, he loaded his arrow, and turned around the corner to fire his last shot right through one of their brains. It fizzled and collapsed, and soon the whole force began to fire again. This was delaying them, but not forever.

"I'm out..." Tempest grumbled.

"We don't have time for this." Fresca sighed.

"We can't get around it."

"There has to be something we can do."

Suddenly, Fresca felt a stirring in her arms. She looked down, and there was Nall, stretching out like a cat awaking from a nap. He still looked rather tired, but he managed to start flapping his little wings, and get into the air.

"Let me try." He managed to say.

The other three heroes looked to him, all a bit nervous and tense about it. Nall still wasn't at his best. "Are you sure?" Laike asked.

"I'm little enough to get through the overhead ducts." Nall answered. "I feel weak...but I'll try my best. Just promise me a basket of fish and that'll motivate me."

Laike chuckled a bit in reply to this. "Glad you still have your sense of humor, Nall. Pull this off and I'll get you three baskets fresh from Lann."

Nall managed a smile at that, despite his weakness. He flapped his wings harder, beginning to carry himself into the air. "That'll do great!" He chirped back, a bit too hard, for he let out an 'ow' sound afterward. Yet he still managed to move. Flapping onward, he went to one of the nearest ducts that led in the direction of the machines. He quickly pulled off the surface of it, and then put himself inside and began to flap down the duct. The others watched him leave, and then turned to each other.

"I hope we can last that long..."

Chapter Fourteen

Alex rematerialized inside the dark chamber. It had changed, however. The wedding half was gone. Now, it was shrouded in darkness all over again, and in the throne at the top sat Narnuud. He kept his smile on. He was coming forth from Duunran even more than ever now, prouncing himself. Duunran looked like a pale version of himself. However, Alex didn't focus on him at all, but zeroed solely in on the dark mage in the seat.

"It's over, Narnuud."

"Dear boy...why have you so recklessly cast aside my offerings?" Narnuud calmly answered. "I saw that little speech you told Ghaleon. Very dramatic. But you'll not turn him. He can't deny what he is, just as you can't. You'd never survive without that armor now. It would be like cutting out a part of yourself."

"You're about to see me try to deny what I am." Alex answered.

"Impossible. You are my possession, just as Luna and Ghaleon are. I gave you the chance to act willingly, but I can make both you and Luna perform for me like puppets, if you wish. And I might if you don't surrender to me. I will see your marriage tonight. And after you are finished, and both of you lose your innocence...I will gain a new body. One that combines the strength of a Dragonmaster and Althena. Combined with the power of this world that I shall feed off of eternal, I will be the most powerful being in the universe."

Alex clenched his teeth, and drew his blade. "I'll stop you, Narnuud. You lose today."

"Don't be stupid, child. This is for your own good, after all. For as I harvest the living of this world forever, my power will endlessly grow. And it needs to. You see...the destroyer of the Blue Star is coming back. Even as we speak his power grows. He will return to this world, and will destroy everything in it. I am your only hope."

"I don't want the fake hope you offer me, Narnuud." Alex answered. "This ends now."

Alex immediately started to charge Narnuud. The man on the throne yawned, and merely pointed a finger at Alex. Instantly, the magical illness grasped him and grasped him hard. Before he could take two strides, he fell to the ground and began to shiver. His head swam, and his temperature surged. All of his body felt sick and weak. Narnuud kept his smile and rose from his throne, beginning to descend toward Alex.

"I could have been your best ally. I should have known that you, a mere child, would be stubborn. Now...I shall be the one that grants you torture, young Alex... For after I haven given you the worst beating of your life, it will be back to the dark solitude for you...this time for twenty years. You're mind will be gone after that. You'll do anything and everything I say. Pity it had to be so terrible for you..."

Narnuud placed his hands together, summoning a ball of fiery energy in them. Alex weakly looked up, but he couldn't move. He couldn't do anything. He could only stay there, laying helpless on the floor. He watched the energy build, watched it ready to destroy him...and then saw as it exploded from Narnuud's hands and sailed right for him... His mind panicked. His heart raced. This was it. He had barely put up a mild fight. It was already over, before it had begun...

A black cape suddenly swept in front of his vision, and immediately he himself was swept into it. A powerful force ripped him off the ground and suddenly bore him high into the sky, hovering over the throne room below. The energy blast exploded into the ground where Alex had been, blasting a massive hole in the floor. Alex glared down, and as he did so he felt his illness begin to fade. Someone was taking it from him. Below, Narnuud frowned slightly, and looked up. Alex turned his own gaze to look to see his savior, and likewise was shocked.

"Ghaleon!"

The white-faced man stared coldly at the ground, where Narnuud was. However, his voice spoke harshly to Alex. "You blind fool... Didn't you know that'd be the first thing he'd try against you? You should have thrown up a protection aura before even attempting to fight him, not that it'd do you any good. Well don't worry...he won't be able to poison you again now."

With that, Ghaleon slowly hovered back to the ground. He released Alex, who quickly stepped away from him and stared in shock that he had actually rescued him. He never thought the day would come. He thought he hated him far too much to do so. But Ghaleon continued to glare at Narnuud. He stared back, and began to smile again.

"I trust there's some point to this, Ghaleon."

"The point...'master'..." Ghaleon seethed. "Is that I'm here to end what I began with your body."

Narnuud snickered. "You're joking, Ghaleon... You'd never be able to defeat me now. And don't you follow the boy and start denying what you are."

"I choose who I am." Ghaleon retorted. "Not you."

Alex, beginning to realize what this meant, found himself glaring at Ghaleon. He was actually going to fight? However, he spoke back to him. "This is my fight, Ghaleon, not yours."

"Don't be stupid, Dragonboy. If not for me, you'd already be dead or worse. You can't kill him alone."

Alex suddenly perked up his head at that. Had he just heard right? Was the impossible actually happening? "You actually want to fight him...together?" He ventured.

Ghaleon narrowed his red gaze on Narnuud. "Alone, neither of us stand a chance. Together we might be able to tip the odds in our favor."

Alex didn't know why, but he felt himself smiling. Even though Ghaleon had been his sworn enemy for so long, the thought of fighting alongside him actually made him a bit enthusiastic. He smiled a bit himself, and turned to Narnuud as well. "What do you know...after all those memories...it looks like it's going to come true after all."

Narnuud frowned. "Idiots. Both of you decide to betray me this day? Very well...I'd prefer not having to share with anyone. Your rebellion should have come long ago, Ghaleon. You've helped me to attain a strength far beyond anything I used to have. In addition...you remember what power I attained last time."

"Enough talk." Ghaleon snapped. "Time to die."

The dark wizard pointed his hand at Narnuud, at the same time that Alex summoned forth the red dragon.

"Althena's Breath!"

"Red Dragon Fire!"

A blast of blue and a hailstorm of red instantly pelted Narnuud, who soon vanished into the midst of the fiery, powerful explosions. The tremendous blasts of energy ruptured the ground at the feet of Narnuud, spitting up fragments of stone and flame everywhere. The power raged for a few moments after the explosions consumed the man. However, Alex and Ghaleon both had their swords drawn, and looked into the smoke. Still, Alex had never seen such a discharge of power on the personal level. He imagined that Narnuud probably wasn't too happy about that slap in the face. He prepared the White Dragon in his mind, ready to form another shield, as he saw the smoke clear before them.

But then, they were both overwhelmed. Narnuud stood there smiling. He hadn't a scratch on him. Not a speck of dust landed on him, and his clothes hadn't even been disturbed.

"Was that supposed to hurt?"

Gritting their teeth, both Alex and Ghaleon shot forward, both preparing powerful blows. As one, they struck their swords at the smiling Narnuud. Both of them easily sliced into his shoulders, and cut both of his arms from his body. Alex was a bit overwhelmed, seeing how easy that was. However, his surprise soon turned to horror, as both arms came to life and smashed both men in the guts. Ghaleon's armor cracked while Alex's felt his dent. Both of them were then smashed in the face by either of Narnuud's fists. Next, they were both seized by the next, and finally had blasts of energy send them both flying backward. They sailed through the air in agony for a few moments, before they flipped over and landed on the ground. Meanwhile, Narnuud smiled, and the arms reconnected on his sides.

Ghaleon grit his teeth again and fired another blast of magic fire at Narnuud. Meanwhile, Alex shot forward and gave a war cry, proceeding to unleash his Sword Dance manuever. But this time, Narnuud calmly dodged each blow, not easy when he was practically two people joined together. Right in the middle of the fighting, Narnuud intercepted the fireball Ghaleon fired at him, and calmly swung it to hit Alex instead. Alex gaped, but failed to raise the shield before the ball smashed into him. Alex went flying back. As for Ghaleon, Narnuud grinned evilly at him, then shot forward and smashed his entire body into the dark wizard, knocking him across the room and smashing him into a wall on the other side of the room. Blood trickled from Ghaleon's lip, but he looked up more fiercely than ever and rose back to his feet. Narnuud glared at him grinning.

"This is far too easy, Ghaleon. Come...make it-UGH!"

Narnuud suddenly whirled around violently. He saw Alex, his own head bleeding and looking rather tired, holding his bloodstained blade. He hadn't struck at Narnuud, but instead had struck at Duunran, his host, behind him. His arm had cut and was now leaking blood. And the pain hurt the dark wizard. Instantly, Narnuud whirled his hand around and backhanded Alex, sending the youth flying away and to the ground. He grasped the pale white arm in pain and roared.

"Damn you! Curse this feeble body!"

Ghaleon, meanwhile, rose to his feet and grinned. "Well done, Dragonmaster." He spoke, causing Alex to recover a bit more quickly when he used his title. "It appears as if Narnuud's leeching off of Duunran left his body weak as a baby's, and that the parasite feels the pain inflicted on the host."

Narnuud, snarling, suddenly appeared to bulge and stretch. Alex looked at him, groaning and getting off the ground, and saw that he looked like he was trying to rip his body free from Duunran's. Duunran didn't seem to care. He seemed almost dead. Ghaleon, however, held up his sword and yelled.

"We must kill him quick, boy! He's taken enough vitality to form a body of his own! If he breaks free he'll be invincible!"

Quickly, the two warriors dashed forward, and immediately swiped at Narnuud with their sabers as one. However, Narnuud was far from helpless now. He dodged their blows nimbly, growing more fierce and irritated at them the whole time. After dodging them a moment, he kicked one aside and blasted the other with a bolt of energy. Alex, staggering back in pain, didn't waste another moment. He quickly summoned the White Dragon again, putting a shield around him. However, it was very difficult. He realized that he had used just about the last of his power in casting it.

Ghaleon aimed his hand at Narnuud in rage and began to blast shards of ice at him. Narnuud merely flexed his body and bellowed in fury as he let the shards pierce him, doing no damage. Ghaleon, growling, intensified the power, sending two shards flying straight through Narnuud and cutting into the flesh of his host. Narnuud bellowed in rage. Immediately, a series of black rings of energy erupted from his chest and smashed into Ghaleon. Now, the wizard cried out in agony as his armor shattered from his body and a burning cut was sliced into his chest. But even as he did so, Narnuud failed to see Alex shoot forward with his Battalion Sword attack. When he looked, Alex had already shoved his sword through his body and partially into Duunran's side, and was ripping him off his feet to smash him into a wall at the side. He held for a moment, seething in rage at the man. But then, the foe grinned.

"Let me show you how it's done."

Immediately, Narnuud reached down, seized one of Alex's legs, and then bent it into a hairpin...the wrong way. As the snapping burst out, Alex screamed in agony. But Narnuud made it worse. He shoved the boy forward, pushing him by his horribly twisted leg, now bleeding from the bottom, and smashed him into the opposite wall so hard that it cracked and crumbled. Stones soon came raining down on him as Narnuud released him and let them fall, hitting his back and head. Moaning in pain, struggling not to go into shock, Alex fell to the ground. Then, Narnuud made it worse. Bolts of energy ripped out of his fingers and began to snake through Alex. The young man writhed and screamed further, the shield only protecting him from the first one before causing him more agony.

"You want a world without a Dragonmaster, boy?! So be it! You have drawn your last bre-"

Narnuud stopped and screamed as well as flames seared into his back. Grasping his bleeding stomach, now bare of any armor or clothing, Ghaleon heaved. More blood tricked from his mouth as his other hand held up his sword and aimed it weakly at Narnuud, having just summoned balls of fire to blast into his back. Yet somehow, despite all else, Duunran continued to breathe. The man was more feeble than ever but still alive. Narnuud, turning and snarling, suddenly extended his hand at Ghaleon. Instantly, Ghaleon was stretched out into an X shape, and began to hover in the air. Narnuud continued to extend his palm, and Ghaleon cried out in more agony.

"Dare to strike me in the back, Ghaleon?"

Alex, half buried in stone, slowly opened his eyes. The pain was overwhelming. He was about to go into shock. But still, he saw what was going on. Though one of his legs were useless, he struggled to get up and attack again. He managed to push himself free of the rubble with one leg, but then groaned and fell to the ground. He couldn't do it. Damn it...why wouldn't Duunran die? Ghaleon was now helpless, hovering in the air.

Suddenly, the man hissed and then freed one finger, enough to point at Narnuud and fire a single energy ball. The ball sailed and smashed into Narnuud's eye, causing a small explosion that would have blown out the inside of a man's head. But Narnuud didn't even flinch. His eye was unhurt. He grinned a bit, and then aimed his other hand at Ghaleon.

"Well...one good turn deserves another."

Narnuud then fired his own red ball of energy. Ghaleon gaped for a moment, seeing it shoot forth. But he could do nothing to stop it. Alex hadn't even been smart enough to give him the White Dragon Aura for protection. The ball sank into Ghaleon's left eye, and detonated. An explosion erupted from Ghaleon's face, and burning plasma and fiery fragments from the blast came from Ghaleon's head. At least...Alex hoped they were from the blast...but he feared they weren't...for Ghaleon now bellowed in total anguish. Alex looked, and soon stared in a mixture of disgust and fear. Where Ghaleon's left eye had been, there was now only a blackened crater. But the pain didn't stop there. Narnuud continued to tighten against Ghaleon's limbs, pulling them out even more, threatening to rip him to pieces.

Narnuud cackled in delight. "You destroyed my body utterly, Ghaleon... I'll enjoy returning the favor nice and slowly!"

Alex groaned on the floor. He had to be able to do something. But his sword was too heavy...he couldn't throw it. There had to be something he could do...something he could use...

Then, Alex remembered. Quickly, he dived into his pocket again, praying that Ghaleon, by some mistake, had restored it to him. His luck seemed to hold for once. There it was, the small dark cylinder...

"It's your time to die now, Ghaleon..."

Ghaleon's remaining eye gazed in fury as he continued to get stretched. But even as he did, he saw something behind Narnuud. He saw Alex. He saw him pop the small blade out of the top of his cylinder, pull his hand back, take careful aim at Duunran's head...

And grinned.

"You first."

Alex let the weapon fly, and a moment later it imbedded itself up to the hilt in Duunran's head. Duunran, barely alive anymore, spasmed once, and then ceased moving all together.

Instantly, Narnuud gasped like the air had been knocked out of him. He released Ghaleon, who fell to the floor in a heap and sighed deeply. As for Narnuud, he suddenly appeared to be choking and having a heart attack at the same time. He grasped for his neck, and then felt for his chest. He struggled once or twice to break free, but it was too late. Feeble as Duunran was, to Narnuud he suddenly felt like a powerful weight. He staggered around, trying to carry the man and failing. At last, he tipped over, and landed on Dunraan as the man fell dead to the ground. He grasped his neck, and then Alex saw something interesting.

Narnuud was shrinking. He was growing weak and pathetic as well, shriveling and growing smaller. Slowly, he began to sink back into Duunran's body. Narnuud grew desperate, and struggled to break free. But he wasn't going anywhere. His head nestled back into Duunran's chest, his legs vanished all together, and his torso returned to a flesh color. Unwillingly, Narnuud's arms crossed in front of him again, and rejoined with Duunran's flesh as well. Narnuud kept shrinking, and his voice grew smaller as well. It became piping, as if Narnuud was becoming a baby again. He kept sinking in, until he became a mere blemish on Duunran's chest. Then, even that sank in. All that was left now was Duunran's skeleton of a body, dead and bleeding on the ground.

Ghaleon gasped for a few moments longer, and then looked up. He stared at what had happened, and then grinned. Despite the horrible injury on his face, he chuckled. Quickly, he tore off an amount of his cape, and then tied it around the injury so that his dressing was at the side on his head. The bleeding had already stopped, thanks to heat and thanks to him. He felt weak and drained. He had nearly used everything. But he was alive, and Narnuud was dead. His quest was complete.

"I suppose...we made a pretty decent team...Dragonmaster." Ghaleon spoke, his voice a bit hoarse. Alex was still standing over Duunran's fallen body, but said nothing. He merely stared at it. Ghaleon sighed, and slowly began to rise to his feet. He had numerous injuries. It would take him weeks to recover. But it didn't matter anymore. He was alive. He could atone for what he had done. The boy had actually opened his eyes to the truth. Whatever this dark force coming was, Ghaleon didn't care. He'd be there to destroy it when it arrived. However, Alex still said nothing. Ghaleon stared at him, not expecting him to be friendly right away, but still spoke to them. "Boy, did you hear me?"

Suddenly, Alex grinned.

"Oh, I did Ghaleon... And you did make a decent team...but not good enough. On the other hand, this child is a far better host than Duunran."

Ghaleon gaped in shock. Alex now turned to him, but his eyes now gleamed red with yellow centers. He looked healthier than ever now, totally ignoring his own grevious injuries. He crossed his arms and cackled darkly. Ghaleon glared at him. Alex had been taken...but how?

"That boy's will was strong enough to reject you..."

"Not anymore." Alex-Narnuud scowled. "My body is still gone, but my spirit's potency is stronger than ever now. I no longer need to find a darkened soul to possess. I can override anyone who doesn't know how to defend against me. You do, Ghaleon...but he didn't. Now he's mine. Consider this a gift, Ghaleon. I'll finally destroy the one foe that you never could, but in a way far worse than either of you could have imagined.

"His body gives me power that far surpasses my old strength. But I'll be stronger yet. In this form, I can trick that Luna into doing anything with me. I can still make her be with child. And after she is with one, I'll kill this boy and possess her child to be. I'll be reborn more powerful than ever."

Ghaleon grit his teeth in anger. "Althena's final incarnation is stronger than you realize. She'll know the truth."

"No one knows the truth, save you Ghaleon. And you won't be around much longer to tell anyone. But even if you were, who would believe you? This boy is the only one who knows that you have changed. I warned the boy, old friend...my victory is absolute. There is not a thing in the world you can do to stop me. Even if you managed to defeat me, my spirit will remain in existence forever. I'll find another body...and another...and another...and another... I have found immortality, Ghaleon. You can't live forever, even if you could destroy all my bodies. In the end...I will always emerge the winner."

Ghaleon paused for a moment, not saying anything. He didn't know what to say. He didn't know what to do. It appeared as if Narnuud had won after all. After all their toil and strife, after even changing affiliations...they had failed. Ghaleon cursed himself inwardly. He could have ended this too...if only he hadn't been so eager for revenge...if only he hadn't gone with Narnuud...if only he hadn't helped him reclaim his energy and his-

Suddenly, Ghaleon stopped, and smiled darkly. That was the ticket.

"A thought has come to my attention, Narnuud..." Ghaleon suddenly spoke confidently. Even as he did so, he held up a single palm to Narnuud, and inwardly began to chant and summon power. "I've realized that while your spirit may be strong, you can't take a physical form unless you drain the vitality out of a multitude of people. That's what this machine did..."

Abruptly, a ball of blue energy appeared in Ghaleon's hand, and he continued to summon power.

"Now...just what if I was to use a certain attack...the same one that destroyed you years and years ago... I'm stronger now, you see. The blast would not only destroy the Dragonmaster's body but half of this fortress. Then it would blow up and kill everyone else in it as well. Suddenly, you don't seem to have any immediate hosts available...but even worse, you don't have a means to drain vitality."

Suddenly, Alex-Narnuud's smile vanished.

"Yes...I see you get my point..." Ghaleon continued, beginning to sweat as he kept summoning the energy. "Taben is dead...and you carelessly killed Myght. There's no one left on this world to build another machine to drain vitality, Narnuud. And there might not be...not before this dark force comes...not before he destroys Lunar. Then what, Narnuud? You'll be a faceless wraith...you'll sit in the void that was this planet forever... How's that for solitary confinement, old friend? Trapped in the blackness of an eternal void for thousands...millions...billions of years...all alone...forever..."

Alex-Narnuud's face began to grow nervous. But then, he spoke back in defiance. "You're lying. You'll kill the boy, and his friends."

Ghaleon shrugged, continuing to strain under the power. "Whatever will be will be. He probably would have wanted me to anyway. Oh, but don't think you can escape using his White Dragon Wings. They can sense your aura. I remember...one of your miserable servants tried to use Dyne's years ago."

Alex-Narnuud swallowed. "The blast will kill you too, Ghaleon. You can't even survive casting the spell. You're using the last of your life force to do it now."

Ghaleon panted, but kept his grin. "Remember the question I asked Alex?" His grin spread wider. "I would have killed her. You forget...I would have killed myself for Althena or Dyne. And I will now for her world."

Alex-Narnuud grew outraged, but his face showed panic. "You're lying!"

Ghaleon weakly cackled, but it was a very dark and satisfied sound. "What's that you said before, Narnuud? You only wish I was, child..."

Alex-Narnuud quivered. He knew what this meant. Ghaleon spoke the truth. The dark wizard continued to pant and continued to summon energy. Narnuud couldn't stop him. His body was nearly drained of its own power. And it didn't matter...that blast would tear right through it and destroy the facility. All of his years of work...all of his best laid plans...they would come to nothing if he didn't do something now... Ghaleon's ball of energy began to hiss and burn...snaking over with energy. Ghaleon quivered, hard pressed to control it. It would release itself soon. Narnuud quivered again. Inside, he cursed. There was only one thing he could do. Leave the body...stop the attack with himself. It would drain nearly all of his strength, leaving him a weak wraith again, unable to enter any body but the most wicked... But he had too! It was the only way he could save this machine...the only chance he had at life again!

"Damn you Ghaleon!" Alex-Narnuud hissed. The ball was almost ready to fire now, indeed moments from it. He couldn't hesitate any longer. Crying in agony, a red cloud separated itself from Alex's body and shot itself into the sky, meaning to stop the blast from going any farther into the air than this room. Alex's pupils returned, and he blinked once. But before he could even realize what happened, he heard a strong, pleading voice in his head...Ghaleon's voice.

Boy...only I have the power left... Though you may not trust me...please do as I say just this once and submit to my control. The fate of the world lies in the balance.

Alex was stunned. But even as he did so, Ghaleon cried out in agony...as he reabsorbed his attack, drawing it back inward again. The pain was overwhelming. All of the effort left in his body had to be used to do it. A spell of that magnitude could easily destroy the caster if he tried to reabsorb it, especially quickly. But he had too. At last, the ball returned to Ghaleon's hand. Immediately, every bone in the arm was shattered, the flesh seared in and out, and the limb went totally limp, totally dead. Overhead, the red cloud paused, and saw in terror its mistake. Making an inhuman noise, it began to rush back for Alex. Right then, Alex heard the voice.

Now!

Alex didn't know why...he didn't know how exactly...and he didn't know, after all that had happened, why he didn't think over the matter more. Ghaleon was his worst enemy. And yet, right then and there...he did as he was told. He let go, and at once Ghaleon's consciousness flowed into him and took his body from his control. His green eyes grew pupiless, and with a look of ferocity he held both of his hands overhead and aimed at Narnuud, as Ghaleon transferred the last of his energy into Alex to give him the power to do one last attack.

"Black Dragon Anger!"

Suddenly, the form of the Black Dragon materialized behind Alex. Narnuud hesitated in fear, but the delay was too long. A black vortex, blacker and darker than all of the emptiness and evil of the room, opened up behind the cloud. Like a monstrous, starving black hole, it began to draw into it everything in the area into an oblivion. At once, Alex was himself again. And as he stared at the vortex, he gaped, for it was bigger and stronger than anything ever he had made. The cloud shrieked, and tried to run away from it, but it began to draw it in immediately. Not only that, but it began to draw in the rubble from the area as well.

Alex, in terror, suddenly realized that he would be drawn in as well. He hadn't the strength to resist it. But before he could, Ghaleon suddenly leapt on top of him and threw him to the ground. Once more, his cape swept over him, and a shield formed around them both. Ghaleon, using all of the strength left in his battered body, focused and struggled to keep himself and Alex from being drawn into that hole. Narnuud screamed overhead, fighting to overpower the pull. The wedding and funeral sights themselves were torn to pieces and sucked into the oblivion. The arch was broken and drawn in as well. The throne that Narnuud sat on was yanked in, as was the dead body of Duunran. The ground fractured beneath Ghaleon and Alex, but did not draw them in. Ghaleon, using so much strength now that his ears began to bleed along with his nose, kept fighting, refusing to give up. The rubble continued to be drawn in, and Narnuud kept fighting.

But at last, the dark spirit used the last of its energy. Screaming one last time forever, it was sucked into the empty blackness. It vanished into the swirling darkness, and in a crack that shattered the floor all the way down the room, the portal shut forever.

Tempest sighed, sweating now. It was no use. Laike was almost back to his old age, but Tempest's hair was just starting to turn brown again. Fresca herself still had a little gray on her temples. She had just fired the last of her arrows down the corridor, taking out the last machines that they could. Laike still couldn't fight. Even if he did go out there, he'd never be able to beat them all. Not with just a sword against them. Tempest groaned, and looked to them again. The machines were nearly upon them now, firing another stream of energy.

"It's now or never! I'm not going to get the chance to feel any better! I'll have to use the strongest wind attack I can muster!"

The two nodded regretfully, and both of them braced themselves to run. Laike kept his sword out, ready to slash as many machines as he could that fell. Tempest licked his lips, and waited for the moment. As soon as the energy diminished, he would give it all he had. This was it...their last manuever. Slowly, he watched the energy fade, and the attack cease. He sighed, and then jumped in front, holding his hands before him and ready to give the machines everything he had.

Then, he suddenly froze and stared in puzzlement. The machines hadn't stopped firing on purpose, it seemed. They had drained out. They stood there now, slumped over, with no lights on and nothing working. Not a noise came from them. Tempest continued to stare blankly, until Fresca and Laike came out and stared as well. They walked forward, and looked at them all. All stopped. Tentatively, Tempest raised a hand and touched one of them. It proceeded to collapse on its legs, without any life whatsoever. Tempest turned and looked to Fresca and Laike.

"What happened?"

"Did they run out of energy fighting us?" Fresca wondered.

But Laike merely smiled. "Hardly. Here's the culprit now."

Tempest and Fresca both looked ahead to the shut doors behind the machines. They slid aside, and, smiling and looking much healthier than before, Nall flapped in on his tiny white wings and came right up to the three of them. He gave a toothy grin and a look of triumph on his face. Fresca and Tempest readily smiled as well.

"I did it!" He chirped in joy. "I'm feeling stronger all the time now..." Suddenly, Nall hesitated, and blinked a few times. He gave a good hard look to both Fresca and Tempest. "Hey...weren't you guys older the last time I saw you?"

Tempest rolled his eyes.

"They'll have fun telling you about it later, Nall." Laike retorted with a chuckle. "Don't be too shocked now, they're gonna get younger yet."

"Neat!" Nall answered. "Guess what? I found the others! The controls had where they're keeping Jessica, Kyle, Mia, and Nash! And Luna's alright! I heard her voice over some box. She's back at the ship, waiting for us!" Nall smiled, but then suddenly looked confused. "But how did we get a ship?"

"Nevermind that, Nall." Fresca answered. "What about the energy? Was there anyway to put it back to the people it took it from?"

Nall frowned. "Sorry. The only thing it could go back to was where I was held. So I made the machine give all the power in the area from all the machines back to that one point."

Suddenly, the lights overhead flickered. As they did, Laike, Tempest, and Fresca all suddenly turned white and sweat a little. They stared at Nall, who suddenly began to look nervous. "Um...by all the machines...I suppose I could have told it to take it from the entire fortress..." He swallowed. "I made a mistake, didn't I?"

The other three looked to each other. "Let's find our friends and get out of here before the whole thing crashes...or blows."

Alex blinked a few times. He was still in a lot of pain, but he managed to open his eyes. He was laying in a crater now, with Ghaleon on top of him. The older man was breathing deep and shallow, and rasped below him. Alex could barely remember what had just happened. Everything had been so sudden. But from what he could gather, it seemed Narnuud was finally gone. He looked down to the man below him, and with some effort pushed himself back, out from under him. Then, placing his hands on Ghaleon, very gently he rolled him off of him. He hesitated afterward.

Ghaleon was a mess. His face was covered with sweat, and he had serious trouble breathing. His eye had begun to bleed again, and blood ran from his ears and nose. He was cold to the touch. One of his arms was withered now, and he appeared to not be able to move. However, he was awake. He saw Alex looking at him, and then managed a very weak smile.

"That...was Narnuud's...end..." He slowly gasped.

Alex didn't know what to say. But at the end, this came out. "Don't speak. You're in bad shape."

"He'll...face a torture...infinitely worse...than yours, Alex... He will spend...an eternity...being nothing...seeing nothing...hearing nothing...until the end of time... The world...is safe..."

Alex continued to look down on him. The man...he had saved his life. He could have easily done just as bad by obliterating the fortress. He might have even saved himself, if he had done something weaker. But he had saved him. His old enemy...his sworn foe...Alex owed him his life. He owed him for saving him from something worse than death. But he could say nothing. After a moment...Ghaleon swallowed and spoke again.

"You must...stop...that foe..." Ghaleon spoke slowly. "When the time...comes...the girl from...the Blue Star...will come to...help you..."

Alex nodded in reply to this. Ghaleon had to be going delirious in the pain. He was babbling nonsense. However, the young man tried to reassure him. He had to keep him quiet. He was right...Ghaleon had saved his life. He owed it to him. And he couldn't hate him anymore, not after what he had done. He had to try and help him.

"Stay still." Alex told him.

"My regret...is that...I'll never...fully atone..."

Alex shook his head. "No, you will." He would have given anything right then to have enough strength for a Blue Dragon Healing. "You can make up for what you've done. You already have. You've become the person I admired when I was younger again. You can do great things for this world, Ghaleon. You can help people. And you will."

Ghaleon merely smiled, and let out a weary chuckle. "Simple boy..." He spoke with a sigh. "The world...does not...always have happy endings..."

Alex stopped, and stared at him.

"I deserve it..."

"No...Ghaleon, you can't die." Alex insisted. "You saved my life. You saved the world."

Ghaleon exhaled slowly and smiled. "You...would forgive me...?" He asked, and then chuckled. "You're the only one...who even cares...Alex... Don't be sad... I'm not... I have to reap...what I have sown..."

Alex stared at him longer, but then clenched his jaw tight. "You saved me, Ghaleon. I have to save you. I have to do whatever I can to do so."

"Believe me...boy...you have..." Ghaleon spoke in a slow exhale. "I...was so blind...so deluded...expecting so much...that things could be...but one way...I never saw...what could come...that was good... You opened my eyes... You were right..."

Ghaleon managed to open his eyes again. For the first time ever...Alex saw real happiness in them. No malice...no hate...just contentment. A small smile was spread over his face. He drew in a deep breath, and exhaled again. "You will succeed...Alex... You will...survive...without the armor... But know forever...you were...a Dragonmaster... You were never...too weak..."

Alex continued to gaze at him, realizing the awful truth. No one would ever know this happened. He was the only one who was with him now, and there was nothing he could do to stave off death. Slowly, Ghaleon's eyes closed again, and he drew in one last deep breath.

"Farewell..." Then, with a joking slight smile, he added. "My son..."

Ghaleon's head slumped slightly...and it was over. Alex sat there next to him for a moment, gazing down on him. He said nothing, just sat there.

Then, he shed the only tears Ghaleon would ever receive.

Suddenly, the door to the side burst open. Luna, at the helm of the carrier, turned and stared back at what was happening, almost fearing an attack. But none came. Instead, Fresca, Tempest, and Laike dragged in four, limp, aged people with white hair. Nall flapped in behind them. As he hovered in the air, they went out, and both began to drag in eight more people, all stricken with magical illnesses. Luna stared for a moment at them all, but then in amazement began to recognize their faces. As she did, Nall looked up to her as well, and grew shocked too.

"Luna?!" He exclaimed. "What are you doing dressed like that?!"

Luna continued to stare in shock. "Laike? Tempest...Fresca? Why are you both middle-aged? And...what in the world happened to the four of..." Suddenly, Luna trailed off, turning her gaze fully to the flying Nall. Instantly, her face burst into joy. "Nall! You're alive! I thought I'd never-"

"Tearful hellos and explanations can wait until later, Luna." Laike said, quickly rushing to the carriers cockpit. As he did, Tempest quickly went into the back of the ship. He was down to about his early fifties to late forties, and had enough power to cast the spell at will by now. As for Laike, he was back to his previous standing, and quickly took the helm controls. As he did, the dock around them fizzled, beginning to short out. A few snaps and pops were heard from elsewhere in the Flying Fortress. He shouted behind him.

"Ready when you are, Tempest!"

"Wait!" Luna protested. "Alex is in there!"

"Don't worry about him." Laike responded. "He has the White Dragon Wings. Let's move!"

Tempest summoned his spell at once. Luna continued to look back at the others in curiousity, but the ship began to lurch forward. Laike turned the wheel and aimed the ship outward, and slowly it began to push forward. Once it was straightened out to move away from the Flying Fortress, it began to pick up speed quickly. It bore them away from the Flying Fortress, and just in time. The entire facility began a slow wobble in mid-air. It waved one way and the other, as snapping and popping began to take place on it on a grand scale. Sparks and electricity exploded from one side, while a fiery explosion blasted off one of the eight towers. Luna continued to stare at it in amazement, waiting and hoping. Fresca turned back as well, as Tempest intensified the air and pushed them farther away, faster and faster. The Flying Fortress became framed in the back of the carrier, and Luna still watched.

But then a ring of light appeared next to her. She turned her head, and instantly gaped for joy. Alex stood there now, looking out dark and hard at the area in front of them. Luna's face soon turned to concern, for she saw that he was horribly injured. The others quickly noticed that as well. One leg was covered in blood, and his face was dotted with injuries as well. Yet he stared solidly out. Seeing him there, Nall instantly grinned in delight, and flapped in front of the young man, yelping for joy.

"Alex! You're alive!" He screamed. Yet Alex didn't move. He just continued to stare somberly ahead, not doing anything. Both Luna and Nall grew concerned at this. They feared he might be in shock. "Alex?" Nall asked.

Suddenly, Alex snapped awake. He turned to Nall, stared at him a moment, then suddenly wrapped both of his proportionally large arms around the flying cat and hugged him hard. Luna smiled a bit again at that. "Nall...you're alive..." He spoke, suddenly seeming overjoyed and regular again as he crushed the kitten.

Nall smiled at first, but then gaped for air. "Yeah, yeah..." He replied. "If you want to show your thankfulness...you can give me fish...don't press me like one!"

Alex released him, and Nall instantly flapped a small distance away. But then, he smiled as well, his own little red eyes filling with tears. They were together again at long last. But something interrupted them. They heard an exceptionally large boom behind them, and both turned their heads, along with Luna, and gazed back to the Flying Fortress.

Abruptly, a huge blast came from the main tower, and the central spire collapsed in on itself. When it did, the whole rounded fortress broke like an enormous wafer in half. It lasted that way only for a second, but then exploded all at once. A huge wave of pure energy, drained from all of the exploits until now, came forth and swept in a huge round aura through the air. Alex and Luna hadn't seen the destruction of the Goddess Tower, but this incident was quite an amazing sight in itself. They both stared on and watched the place burn, all of its metal being destroyed, melted away. Alex continued to glare at it for a moment, watching it burn and collapse. But the blast slowly died down again, and the sky was once again clear. After that, Luna and Nall turned to him. But Alex continued to stare out at the ruin, where the Fortress had been.

Nall looked concerned. "Alex, where were you? Why didn't you come sooner?"

Alex merely stared back, and then softly spoke back.

"I had to say goodbye...to a friend..."

Both Nall and Luna were a bit puzzled at this reply. But then, Luna took a closer look at Alex's face. "Alex...have you been crying?"

Alex hesitated for a moment longer, not saying a thing, not moving an inch. But then, he turned his head back to Luna and Nall, and smiled again.

"Just because I'm so happy that we're together again...for good."

With that, he hugged them both, and showed no more melancholy for the day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Epilogue

One Month Later

Alex hadn't the heart to leave Ghaleon behind. But he knew the others would never understand. He set his body down first, teleporting outside the Fortress to drop him off on the ground, then teleported back to the carrier. Later, when they had settled down and were tending to the wounded, Alex returned to Ghaleon's body, and buried him at the top of a mountain, similar to Dyne's. He found a lone tree for his headstone, and placed his sword into its trunk as the marker. He left him there, and returned to the others.

Much had to be done. First of all, the vitalities had to be regained. A day of rest did that. The next morning, everyone was back to their old age again. But Alex's friends and the entire countryside were still stricken with the magical illness. Tempest and Fresca had to rush back to the Stadius Zone, grab as much of the Black Dragon herbs as they could find, and rush back. They healed Alex's friends as as many healers they could find. Once they were up, they were able, with a great deal of toil, to set about curing the others. Still, it was going to be a few day task. They could only revive some to begin with. Those quickly gathered the rest of the sick and healed them as well.

After all the anguish that he had gone through, the group suggested that Alex take a nice, long rest as well. Unfortunately, they insisted on it all the more severely when he tried to tell them what had happened with Ghaleon. They thought that it had all been a dream of his, even Laike. At one point, Luna even took him personally to bed, and told him like he was a child that it was all over, and that he was just confused and would sort things out eventually. Just as predicted, no one believed him about Ghaleon. He was the only one who knew, him and Narnuud, banished into a black dimension forever. History would continue to defame him as the Magic Emperor forever.

Alex tried to search for information on this dark force that Ghaleon and Narnuud mentioned. He searched the library again and again, but all he could find was something that supported one of Ghaleon's last words. Althena, according to legend, had left a girl on the Blue Star to take care of it after the people had moved to Lunar. Was she who Ghaleon had spoken of? At any rate, there was no dark force mentioned anywhere, in any of the history books. As for the end of the Blue Star, it was merely the same legend again and again...the people had grown too evil and the world had died. Nothing more. Eventually, he searched so fervently that Jessica personally banned him from the library, and he was stuck back in bed. Eventually, he decided to give it up.

The people were eventually all healed, and Alex found himself praised more than ever. Now that he was in the guise of the Dragonmaster, everyone recognized him. Some even bowed down to worship him. He scolded them for doing so, and thought what Laike would think. But he didn't know. The man had conveniently vanished again into the shadows. All that was left was for the group to celebrate. Once they were all recovered, along with everyone else, Vane and Meriba both threw a city-sized party in either district. The Zone Confederation was done away with, but it didn't matter. There was peace now. Alex was endlessly praised for destroying Narnuud. And as the praise came, he felt guilty again and again at each speaking of it. He hadn't destroyed Narnuud. Ghaleon did. Ghaleon had saved Lunar. And he would never receive any of the credit due for his sacrifice.

Alex stayed weeks in Meriba and Vane with Luna and Nall, taking a well-deserved break. They lived with their friends and had a great time. Tempest reluctantly stayed as well with Fresca, for which Alex was glad. But in the end, he bid farewell and left as well. Though his tribe was down to a mere twenty five members, he planned to live on the Stadius Zone anyway. After spending their month at the two cities, Alex, Luna, and Nall finally set out for home again. Alex's appetite for adventure was sated for now. As a parting gift, Ramus, who had been the biggest to benefit from the sales of the parties, gave Alex an elegant, silver trimmed case...for his armor. Yes, Alex still had that. He wasn't sure how he was supposed to get rid of it again yet. But he was content to be Alex again, in appearance if not inside.

Once he had returned, he restored the sword to Dyne's monument. The case Ramus had given him was buried under the floorboards in the underground storage room. His parents had some dispute about it, but were still glad to see him back. They, of course, had heard absolutely nothing of the crisis that had taken place last month. And it was a good thing for Alex. If they knew in what bad shape he had been, they might have made him stay in bed all summer and spoon feed him chicken broth. Nall, on his part, kept his big mouth shut...most likely because he was stuffing it with three baskets of fish from Lann that he had gotten from a mysterious benefactor...

Now, it had come to this. Alex was alone at Dyne's monument. Luna was back home, waiting for him. She was safe again. The world was safe. Yet still, he knew that the world was still full of danger. And as for that dark force mentioned...the one that destroyed the Blue Star...what was it? And who was the girl from the Blue Star? Would he be coming...and would he be worse than what they had seen so far? Alex had overcome his greatest challenge, but he knew that more would come. And like it or not, some might be even stronger than this last one. Some might come closer to destroying him, if that was possible. And he was still the last Dragonmaster...with power he still had to find a way to relinguish...

But one thing had changed. Whether he had the armor or not now, Alex felt complete. This journey had taught him many things, but first and foremost that the worst enemy one can face could be themselves...but that even that enemy could be conquered. And if Ghaleon could turn after all these years, then there was hope for him too. There was hope for the future.

Quite possibly, there was hope for everyone.

The End