The acrid wind whipped his long silvery hair wildly about his head. Brittle chunks of dirt crumbled beneath his booted feet as he gazed into the blacken depths of the cave before him.
Ghaleon let out a breath and brushed a lock of wayward hair behind a pointed ear. It would do no good for him to just sit out here in the temperate desert of the Frontier. He would just dehydrate, which of course would accomplish nothing; either for him or for his purpose.
But my purpose is now empty, isn't it? Dyne is alive. And my fight was to avenge the injustice of his death.
The dry wind picked up again, and Ghaleon moistened his lips. His path had been chosen though. There would be no backing away from it. On one side, Xenobia and the demons of the Vile Tribe waited on his commands, and on the other, he had become a renegade wizard by killing the dragon Quark. And all this had to happen before he learned that Dyne was really alive.
"How could you do this to me, old friend?" Ghaleon murmured aloud. "Now I have no choice but to follow through."
The cave before him belonged to the mighty black dragon, who Dyne and Ghaleon had battled over fifteen years ago to prevent its insanity from harming anymore people. Ghaleon thought Dyne had died in that battle when the ceiling collapsed beneath the soulless dragon's death throes. But he had been wrong, so very wrong.
And now the young boy, Alex, was on the next to last step of his quest to become Dragonmaster, receiving the black dragon's approval and Armor; for only a Dragonmaster would have the power to halt Ghaleon's ambition.
Ghaleon shook his head to clear his mind. Too many thoughts; too many memories... He had no time for either. No, there was only the present. The past may have formed the present, but the present posed the danger to him now, not the past.
He sucked in a deep breath, held it, and then slowly let it out. All right then, he would enter the cave, follow Alex to the black dragon's lair. He needed to know if Alex was indeed the next Dragonmaster the rumors foretold. Yes, he needed to know.
Ghaleon stepped inside the dimly lit cavern, and it resembled entering another world. Gone were the gray skies and dun-colored earth. Gone was the withering wind. The air inside blew cool and sharp. And light seemed to resonate from the great amethyst walls. He shuddered as the breeze whipped alongside him. But his face remained cold, emotionless.
The sounds of footsteps reverberated from further within the cave. Alex would not expect him to come from this direction. Ghaleon had entered the cave through another entrance, a third entrance; neither the one on the western side of the mountains Alex discovered earlier, nor the one below the shrine in the hamlet of Marke. Ghaleon knew this cave far better than Alex did, and he knew where their paths would join, and the stalking could begin.
He placed a gloved hand against a crystalline wall to steady himself, aware that the gemstone floor in this area could provide treacherous footing. Ghaleon took a tentative step forward. Then feeling that the soles of his soft leather boots would indeed grip the rock with some measure of safety, he allowed his hand to fall back down to his side. And he cautiously loped down the tunnel.
Ghaleon hadn't the slightest idea how Alex would win approval from a dead dragon, but if there was a way, he would have to know. Alex was his enemy, whether he liked it or not. The boy had the green eyes as the tale of the next Dragonmaster foretold. He possessed an incredible amount of determination and spirit, qualities that a Dragonmaster needed, just like Dyne.
His pace slowed, and Ghaleon chided himself. No, Alex was not like Dyne. Perhaps they had the same fiery ardor, but the resemblance ended there. A powerful spirit was useless unless forged in the proper fashion. Even if Alex became Dragonmaster, Ghaleon knew he now had more power than Dyne ever did when he was Dragonmaster. What could a mere teenage boy, Dragonmaster or no, do to him, the Magic Emperor?
A warmth sluggishly flowed through his veins, reassuring him of his attitude, and Ghaleon picked up his speed again. As he passed through the tunnels at a pace somewhere between that of walking and running, a familiar voice drifted in his direction.
"Oops! Wrong turn. Well, back up again..."
Ghaleon ignored the scathing retort to the words his former apprentice had uttered. Nash had his uses. The young man proved untrustworthy to his cause, but that was to be expected. However not all of Ghaleon's subordinates had that kind of foresight. Somehow Nash managed to escape the Frontier after "betraying" Alex and his friends, ostensibly to aid his former master. But Ghaleon and his apprentice both knew that it was a lie. It was only a matter of who would accomplish what they wanted first. When Nash eluded Ghaleon's forces, the Magic Emperor felt it only proper to award credit where credit was due. But he would not be so lax the next time his wayward student approached him.
At least Nash's mistake would allow Ghaleon more time to catch up with Alex's party. He had to know what they intended to do!
The mage stopped suddenly, having kicked something semi-solid and dense with his foot.
Ghaleon frowned, annoyed at the interruption of his thoughts. But he knelt and peered down at the small blackish green lump in front of him. It had long decaying leaves and small vaguely spherical blue shapes hanging off of the various stems.
Ghaleon's eyes widened. Could it be? After all this time? But there was no other explanation. No one else had traveled this route into the cave since that very day...
"Hurry up, Ghaleon! We haven't got all day you know!" Dyne waited impatiently for his young friend, tapping the tip of his sword against his wyburn leather boots.
"Okay all ready!" Ghaleon puffed, skittering across the smooth floor of the black dragon's cave. He clutched his ironwood staff in one hand and a medium-sized sack in the crook of his other arm.
Dyne smiled despite the graveness of their situation as Ghaleon slid past him and smacked into the wall where the tunnel made a turn.
"You'd think that staff of yours would be useful for something!" Dyne chuckled.
Ghaleon groaned from his landing point on the ground. "How is a staff supposed to help me on as slick a surface as this? There's nothing for it to dig into!"
"You can help defeat a demigod, but for the life of you, you still can't keep your balance in this place." Dyne shook his head and grinned. "Well, I guess that's what friends are for. Here, let me help you up. You can lean on me until we get to the black dragon's lair. You remember the surface is a little easier to stand on in there."
"Yeah," Ghaleon agreed weakly, propping himself up into a sitting position.
Ghaleon frowned at the sack he had been carrying.
Since the black dragon had gone insane, Althena had called on Dyne to stop him. And the thought of his best friend fighting one of the most powerful creatures in the world had bothered Ghaleon to no end. Nearly two years had passed since he, Dyne, Mel, and Lemia were dubbed the Four Heroes. But they were not invincible, and they had lives to live.
Lemia had given birth to a young daughter just a few months ago. And Mel likewise had a new baby daughter. In addition to that, he had founded the city of Meribia not long before. The city needed his guidance now in this time of crisis more than Dyne his battle arm.
So that left Ghaleon alone to accompany Dyne on this perilous task. The other two couldn't afford to go. And there was no one else on Lunar who stood a chance at holding his or her own in such a battle. Even the red and blue dragons succumbed to the frenzied attacks of their black brother. Only Quark, the white dragon, remained. And at Althena's orders he was staying out of the matter. If the white dragon fell in the battle, and Dyne and Ghaleon killed the black dragon, all the magic in Lunar would die.
Only two people against the most powerful creature on Lunar next to the goddess herself... Heroes or no, this battle would be fought uphill all the way. Who knew what a deranged dragon could do?
So Ghaleon packed up a sackful of all the enchanted plant life he could get a hold of before Dyne threatened to leave him behind and fight the black dragon by himself. Ghaleon didn't see why they had to be in such a hurry. True, there was a greater likelihood of the black dragon killing someone in the meantime. But if he and Dyne died because they weren't prepared, that would leave everyone else at risk, wouldn't it?
Ghaleon huffed as he frowned at his previously neatly arranged sack. Everything had been stowed away so nicely too! And now thanks to his clumsiness he spilled all the various herbs and seeds of vigor around the darkened tunnel.
"Just let me get all my stuff," he told Dyne.
Dyne sighed and ran his gaze over the multitude of plant matter. "Did you really have to bring that much?"
"It wouldn't do for us to die, would it?" Ghaleon quickly scooped up the scented leaves and seed pods and began hastily piling them back into the sack. "And if only you gave me some more time I could have foraged for some more powerful herbs than these little jasmine suckers. I only got a few calm herbs and one-"
"One what?" Dyne asked tiredly.
"My Herb of Althena!" Ghaleon exclaimed. He combed the floor on his hands and knees, reaching into darkened nooks and crevices. "I could only find one of those with the time you gave me!" Ghaleon shook his head. "Those are so hard to get a hold of! So rare! And I actually found one out in the wilderness all on my own!"
"It's more likely the goddess turned your head and pointed you at it," Dyne remarked with a smile.
Ghaleon shot Dyne a fevered glance. "This isn't funny! That herb can mean the difference between life and death!"
Dyne held up his hands as if to fend Ghaleon off. "Now hold on and calm down. Losing an herb, even one blessed by the goddess, is not the end of the world. But if we don't stop this black dragon, it might be. Come on. Just forget the herb. We have a job to do."
"But..." Ghaleon looked into his friend's eyes and found no room for argument. "All right, I guess we can go," he sighed.
Dyne helped Ghaleon to his feet and kept a steady arm around his friend so that he wouldn't lose his footing again. He handed Ghaleon his sack of herbs and waited as his friend adjusted his grip around it.
Ghaleon silently nodded his thanks to Dyne and swung his ironwood staff out ahead of him to help take his first step forward. As the two slowly went on, Ghaleon cast a final, hopeful gaze behind him to search for his missing herb.
"My herb," Ghaleon whispered, looking at the fetid lump before him. Perhaps the herb was indeed blessed by the goddess as the folk tales said, because for the plant to have lasted these fifteen years down here and still be in an early state of decay... Ghaleon wondered if the battle with the black dragon would have ended any differently had he found the herb when he should of.
He slowly tugged off the glove to his right hand and reverently reached for the ancient herb.
Ghaleon hissed and jerked back as his eyes watered. He brushed his tears away with the back of his gloved hand, blinking to restore his vision. The fingers and palm of his other hand were burned where the unprotected skin had touched the herb. Ghaleon curled his fingers experimentally. The movement pained him. He clenched his hand into a fist. But he wasn't crippled.
"So Althena's power reaches out to harm me even now," he growled. "I guess you truly have forsaken me, goddess." The words came harsh and bitter. "As if I care anymore... You've planned such a cruel fate for me; toying with my sanity, twisting my aims, and robbing my life of purpose."
Ghaleon slipped his glove back over his injured hand and dropped them to his side as he slowly stood up. He felt so empty. He looked back down at the herb, seemingly so harmless against the sparkling stone floor. Even in its dying state, he could not touch it. He probably could destroy it with a spell. But that would accomplish nothing. The herb didn't help him back when he and Dyne fought the black dragon. And destroying it likely wouldn't help him now. With any luck, it would probably curse him as it went down in flames.
Ghaleon began to walk further down the corridor, around the bend which he had crashed into. No, Dyne was right. One little herb couldn't have made the difference in the battle.
He paused as he reached the point where his secluded path emptied out into Alex's. The Dragonboy was ahead of him. Ghaleon could hear the signs of a great battle raging in the depths further on. A mighty roar shook the cavern, and he hurried forward, careful not to loose his balance.
The black dragon was alive? How could it be?
Ghaleon slipped into the black dragon's lair, and hid behind one of the many onyx pillars that stood within. He peered out at Alex and his friends. He didn't know by what means the black dragon had come about its undead mockery of life, but it certainly was raging hell against the young Dragonboy. Could the magic Dyne used against the insane dragon have had some sort of bearing on this?
Alex thrust his sword at the black dragon's legs, about the only part of the massive wyrm he could strike. A dark-haired mountain thief followed Alex right on his heels with his sword swings. Mia and Nash hurled their spells from further beyond. And Jessica wreathed the party in magical shields to lessen the damage from the dragon's blows.
The dragon provided a challenge for the five. That pleased Ghaleon. At least they had not yet reached the peak that he and Dyne were when they fought the beast. But still, as Ghaleon watched the group of young heroes, he could not help but see bits of himself and Dyne in them.
Here they fought to save the world they grow up in and the people they loved. Alex dealt with the dragon up close with his sword, each of his swings reminiscent of Dyne. His fevered thrusts held the dragon's attention, allowing Mia and Nash to remain safe behind him.
Dyne had done his best to protect Ghaleon from harm. Perhaps he had protected him too well.
Ghaleon closed his eyes in thought. No, Dyne and I were not like them. They don't understand. They don't understand what Althena has done, what has happened. Althena has turned her back on me, and I shall do the very same to her! This is my life she has toyed with! Perhaps Dyne didn't die, but I can still find reasons to fight her! There is nothing else left for me!
The burn on his hand smarted, reminding him of her abandonment. He looked up as he heard the thunderous crash of the black dragon's corpse collapsing on the cavern floor.
Life could be so full of irony. The last time he prayed for the black dragon's demise it was to help the world. Now his wish would only hinder it.
As Alex brushed the sweat from his brow, Ghaleon clapped his hands in mock approval of Alex's victory.
Only one fate left to take, and Ghaleon resigned himself to it even as he spoke. "Very impressive, Alex." But he would walk it well. If he could not longer fight for Dyne, he could fight for himself. Oh yes, he could fight! "You just killed the only remaining means of becoming a Dragonmaster." He knew the Dyne of long ago wouldn't approve. And he laughed. He laughed at the spite he felt against himself and at all the irony he found before him. "You're making this way too easy. Now the goddess is complete unprotected; she's mine to control!" All his anger, all his frustration, all those years of bearing his pain in silence! He would at last have his revenge! No one would stop him, not even Dyne. No, not even Dyne!
A small thread of him wept, remembering what had once been. However one can never live solely in the past. All those memories he possessed would never leave him, even as he felt himself sink ever deeper into insanity. But that's all that they were; memories.
Back to the Library of Vane.
Back to the Shrine to Ghaleon.