Following the Shadows

by Ian N. Cohen

All was finally quiet within the Grindery. Ghaleon, the Magic Emperor, was defeated for good, beaten at the hands of Dragonmaster Alex and his friends. Luna, in reality the goddess Althena in human form, was safe in Alex's arms and free of Ghaleon's evil clutches. Finally, the long struggle was over, and everybody was smiling, thinking of their victory-Alex, Nall, Nash, Jessica, Kyle, Luna, and-

Well, almost everybody.

Only Mia's face wasn't smiling. She did not share the feelings of joy and victory. All she felt was sorrow for Ghaleon's death. Ghaleon had been to her the father she never had. She remebered him teaching her how to read, taking her for walks in the gardens of Vane, showing her a kindness he never showed anybody else. And she had been forced to help kill him to save the world. Now he was dead, and had died in disgrace. No longer would Ghaleon be remebered as one of The Four Heroes who had saved the world from the evil demigod Zophar. He would only be known as Ghaleon the Magic Emperor, the murderer, the monster, the fiend. To make things even worse, he had died for nothing. He had wasted his life trying to avenge the death of his best friend, Dragonmaster Dyne, believing the goddess Althena to be responsible for Dyne getting killed. But Dyne was still alive, going by the name of Laike.

"It's all Dyne's fault," she thought bitterly. "If Dyne had told Ghaleon he was still alive, none of this wouldn't have happened. HE is the one who destroyed Ghaleon, and he shall not go unpunished!" But she kept these bitter thoughts to herself.

Eventually, they reached Meribia, where they were given a full heroes welcome. Everyone was there to greet them, and it was all Alex and his friends could do to look humble and avoid the crowds (except Kyle, who absolutely basked in the crowd's praises). In the crowd, they recognized Tempest and Fresca; Jessica's father, Master Mel de Alkirk; Ramus, Alex's best friend from back home; Mia's mother, Lemia Ausa; and Laike the Traveller, who Alex and company now knew as Dyne. Up until that point, Mia had mangaed to sustain a polite smile, and grinned broadly when she saw her mother. But at the sight of Dyne, the smile faded from her face, and the eyes that used to be so shy, and then so sorrowful, had now turned cold and bitter.

Mia's anger did not go unnoticed. Lemia saw the bitterness in her face, and it terrified her. The last time she had seen such sorrow and bitterness, it was upon Ghaleon's face after Dyne's supposed death. Since that black day, Ghaleon had never smiled, never found joy in anything, and turned his devotin to Althena into pure hate. Eventually, Ghaleon's hatred for the Althena had caused him to ally himself with Xenobia and the Vile Tribe; to kill Quark, The White Dragon, and so many others; to blast the magic city of Vane from the sky; to control Althena's power and use it to conquer the world. Now Mia was feeling the same bitterness that Ghaleon had felt. What would such bitterness do to a shy sixteen year old girl who had just helped destroy the man she loved as a father in order to save the world? Lemia shuddered at the thought.

"No. Not my daughter. Please, not my Mia..." she prayed. "I've already lost Ghaleon. I won't lose Mia too. I cannot lose her! She's all I have left."

That night, a great celebration was to take place in Master Mel's mansion. Mel was sparing no expense to honor the young heroes, his own daughter among them, who had saved the world from destruction. The smell of food was so strong, all of Meribia could smell it. The young girls who had been rescued from the Grindery were combining their angelic singing voices in glorious song (Kyle tried joining in, but threatening looks from Jessica stopped him). Mia, however, stood apart, and refused to acknowledge anybody.

Jessica saw Mia's despair, and felt sorry for her. They had been friends for most of their lives, and Jessica knew what Ghaleon had meant to her. She couldn't even begin to imagine the grief she must be going through. She wanted to go up to her and comfort her, but something told her that this wasn't the time.

Nash also saw Mia standing by herself. He truly loved her, but he couldn't understand her sorrow. He too had revered Ghaleon, but once he saw Ghaleon for the fiend he was, that respect had turned to scorn. How could Mia feel sad for such an evil monster? If Mia should be sad about anything, it should be for the loss of Vane, their home. But Nash wanted her to calm down first. He didn't want to upset her any more than she already was.

Alex was also worried about Mia. Since he hadn't known her for very long, he didn't know how to comfort her. Still, he couldn't bear to see her standing by herself, hidng from everyody. He hoped she would recover soon, and once agin be the kind, gentle Mia that he had come to know.

Luna, seeing Mia alone, felt guilty. What if she had never decided to walk among her people as a human, but had remained on the Blue Star as a goddess? She could have prevented it all: the Black Dragon's insanity, Dyne's "death," the suffering of those people of The Frontier. Was she the one responsible for Ghaleon's crimes and Mia's sorrow?

Kyle, of all people, was the only one willing to actually go up to Mia and try to comfort her.

"How are you holding up, kiddo?" Kyle asked her.

Mia said nothing, only staring in silence.

"Look," Kyle said. "I know how much you looked up to Ghaleon, and you have every right to be upset. But you can't blame yourself for helping kill him. We had no choice. It was either him, or us and the rest of the world."

"What makes you think that I blame myself for Ghaleon's death?" Mia said, rather icily. Her voice was little more than a cold whisper.

"C'mon, Mia, I've seen you moping around. You haven't said a word since our slugfest with Ghaleon, and you look like you're gonna greak down crying at any time. I'm your friend. We're all your friends here, and we only want to help. And not just us. Mel, your mom, Laike--"

"Laike is no friend of mine!" Mia snapped.

Kyle heard the venom in Mia's voice, and it spooked him. "What are you talking about? What did Laike ever do to you?"

"Laike is responsible for Ghaleon turning evil! Instead of telling Ghaleon he was alive, he changes his name and just wanders around without a care in the world! I will never forgive him for that!"

Lemia came up to her. Her beautiful face was grave. "Mia, I need to talk to you."

Mia said "So talk."

"Alone. My room. Now."

Mia followed her mother to her room. Upon arriving Lemia said "I heard what you were saying about Dyne. I'm very upset about it."

"Why, mother? Don't you see? He's the one who made Ghaleon into a monster! It's his fault!"

Lemia's face was sad and fearful at the same time. "Ghaleon said those same words fifteen years ago."

Mia froze.

"Ghaleon blamed Althena for Dyne's death. His grief cost him his own life and the lives of man others. In the end, it nearly destroyed our world. Is that what you want to become, Mia? Do you want to follow in Ghaleon's footsteps? Become a monster like him?"

"How dare you?" Mia shrieked. "You didn't know him! I knew him better than anyone, even you! He was the only father I've ever known! If Dyne had told him he was still alive, he never would have gone bad!" She fled from the room in tears.

That night at the victory banquet, a private affair just for the former and the new Heroes of Althena,there was a eerie feeling in the air. Everybody was looking at Mia with concern. She was heir to the Magic Guild, and she looked up to Ghaleon like a father. Many had heard her harsh words about Laike/Dyne. Was she going to follow in Ghaleon's footsteps?

Laike was especially apprehensive at the banquet. He understood Mia's reasoning for blaming him for Ghaleon's downfall. For himself, he had no fear. Besides, it wasn't really his fault. He would have contaced Ghaleon and the others, if only the cave-in in the Black Dragon's cave hadn't given him amnesia. By the time he recovered, it was too late. But Mia didn't know about that, and had to let go of her hatred, or she might one day be as much of a threat as Ghaleon.

>From across the table, Laike carefully looked into her eyes to see what she was feeling. After all, the eyes are the windows to the soul. Unfortunately, all he saw was sorrow and anger. Then Mia turned towards him. Her eyes seemed to have turned to ice, and the look she gave him was one of pure hate. Laike looked away, Mia's eyes being too intense for him. He felt real fear for the first time in many years. He wondered what bothered him more-the fact that Mia hated him, the idea that she may one day be a threat to the world, or the possibility that she was absolutely right.

In the middle of the night, Mia was unable to sleep. She had seen everybody feasting away at the banquet, celebrating Ghaleon's death. Even Dyne, who Ghaleon called his closest friend, was living it up, laughing with his bold laugh. Why should Dyne, who the world belived dead, be feasting and enjoying himself because Ghaleon, the man who had sacrificed everything for him, was the one who had died? Dyne brought this misery to the world, had destroyed Ghaleon. He didn't deserve to live himself! And if she had her way, he wouldn't.

She may not have been trained as a warrior or thief, but she could sneak around silently when she had to. Slipping into Laike's room, she found a small dagger with his personal belongings. Taking it, she slipped over to the bed, and prepared to plunge it into the sleeping Laike.

"Can I help you with something, Mia?" a deep voice asked, and the light of a torch suddenly illuminated the room. Mia whirled in alarm and saw Laike, sitting nonchalantly in a chair. His face was half amused, half disappointed.

"You..." hissed Mia. "You destroyed Ghaleon."

Laike said nothing.

"It's YOUR fault he's dead! You should have told him you were alive! Then he never would have turned evil and... and..." Mia felt the tears coming "...would still be alive."

"Mia," Laike said gently. Now there was only concern in his voice and his face. "I never wanted any of this to happen. I would have told Ghaleon and the others instantly."

"Then why didn't you?" she snapped.

"Let me give you a history lesson, Mia. Fifteen years ago, the Black Dragon took human form, and fell in love with a human woman. She got infected with a plague, and since Althena had just been "born" as a human again, she wasn't there to answer his pleas. He went insane from the grief and the loss. He went on a rampage destroying and killing. I, being the only person to know where Althena was and sworn not to tell anybody, took it upon myself to stop him. Ghaleon insisted on coming along, so I let him.

"During our battle, I lost all my magic power casting a spell that would seal away the Black Dragon's soul. However, the Black Dragon's body still stood, and thrashed around violently, causing a cave-in. Ghaleon managed to escape, but I was struck in the head, and lost my memory.

"For years, I wandered around under the name Laike, a name given to me by a young boy whose mother took me in when I was lost. Eventually, all came back to me, and I was eager to let Ghaleon know I still lived and what had happened. However, as I prepared to meet him, I overheard him discusing his plans with Xenobia of the Vile Tribe for deposing Althena, by finding her in human form. Immediately, I pieced together what had happened. Ghaleon wanted revenge on Althena for letting me die. He had made a blood oath with Xenobia, and if he were to break it, he would die in unimaginable agony. I couldn't let that happen to him, so I let him think I was dead.

"Later, though, I couldn't resist revealing myself to Ghaleon and trying to talk him out of his plans. He wouldn't listen, saying he had gone too far, and could not turn back. There was nothing I could do to stop him. I was no longer Dragonmaster, and I had no power. I had no idea what to do. Mel and Lemia had settled down, and would be no match for Ghaleon anyway. I gave up all hope-until I encountered Alex and the rest of you.

"The Black Dragon and Ghaleon both wanted revenge on Althena for the loss of their loved ones. In the end, however, it only brought ruin to themselves and sorrow to countless others. Do you really want to be like them, Mia?"

Mia said nothing, her head bowed, her eyes filled with tears.

Laike rose from his chair. "If so, and if you truly believe I am responsible for Ghaleon's downfall, then go ahead and kill me. I won't stop you."

Mia still kept silent, her hand tightly gripping the dagger. Then, her arm trembling, she lifted it high, preparing to strike...

The knife clattered to the floor.

"Laike, I-I'm sorry," she sobbed. She rushed towards him, crying uncontrollably now.

Laike embraced her, letting her vent her sorrow. "I can't bring back Ghaleon, Mia, and I can't make people who hate him stop hating him. But I know that he never wanted to hurt you, and he wished to spare you the pain. And I know that he was never truly evil. So the best way to honor his memory is to not become like him. You are to be the next Premiere of the Magic Guild. Don't keep the smiles from your face like he did, or let vengeance cloud your judgement. That is what he wanted of you, always."

Mia dried her eyes, and silently left the room. Laike watched her leave, wondering if she would listen, and accept his words.

The next morning, everybody was gathered downstairs together in the main hall. Everybody except Mia.

Lemia went over to Laike. "I thought you calmed her down, helped her out."

Laike hadn't told her how Mia had tried to kill him. "I did. But I can't be certain that it helped."

All conversation stopped as they heard quiet footsteps approaching the Great Hall. Mia quietly entered the room. Alex, Nash, Luna, Kyle, Jessica, and Nall watched her approach anxiously, not knowing what to expect. Finally, she came face to face with them. Her eyes were heavy, tired from lack of sleep... but warm and gentle, not sorrowful or bitter, even while she looked on Laike. She smiled, shyly as usual, but with a warmth to it.

"Sorry I'm late, guys. I must have overslept."

Alex and his friends couldn't have been happier. This was the Mia they had all known and become friends with. They all smiled, and said that they were gald to have her back.

Nash stepped forward, a mischievous grin on his face. "There's just one way to make sure that you really are back to normal." He took her in his arms, and kissed her full on the lips. She stepped back a bit, her cheeks flushed, muttered a few words, and knocked Nash off his feet with a low-level ice spell. Nash gazed up at her weakly and smiled.

"Welcome back, Mia."

Back to the Library of Vane.

Back to the Shrine to Ghaleon.