A Leap of Faith

by Solana

The summer day was a beautiful one, the sun shining warm and the rolling waves of the Minea Sea splashing softly on Raculi's protected bay. It was a good day to work in the fields.

I am Celeste. Some people refer to me as simply 'Ronfar and Mauri's daughter', but I am my own person. I am seventeen and a paladin-in-training, embracing the path of both knight and priestess. It's tough, but it's how I want to spend my life. My family and friends have always supported me, and those who don't aren't enough of a barrier to my dream.

But, anyway, back to the fields. Raculi has a huge community farm plot that everyone works on and is distributed to need. Dad and Leo were busy plowing, I was picking up stones to throw out, and Mom and Mercy were working on the second planting of corn for the year. Oh, yeah, I need to explain my wonderful aunt Mercy.

It's a cool story, how Leo and Mercy met. The four of us were going to a huge priest convention in Azado a few years ago. Mercy was escorting her young nephew Ryan back home to Vane. On the boat, the waves were getting nasty, and the boat was tipping a lot. Ryan wanted to check out how big the waves were, and one caught him and flung him into the icy Minea. Leo jumped in after him, and saved his life. Mercy offered to take Leo to dinner as a thank you. Then another dinner followed. The rest was history.

Dad took a break, and Mom joined him for the jug of water kept nearby. Mom got him a dipper of water, and then splashed him. Dad gasped, while Mom giggled. Dad splashed her back, and a huge water-fight would have ensued, but for- "Hey! Save some for the rest of us!" Leo shouted sternly.

"Aw, come on, buddy," Dad protested, "We've been working hard all morning."

"Leo worked me like a horse this morning," I pointed out, touching the sword at my waist. He had, too. We had run through sword drills, weight training, and some running all before lunch.

"Well, that's what makes you the best," Leo replied. "I'm proud of you, my dear."

"We all are," Mercy added. Leo smiled and slipped an arm around his wife.

We all took a drink. Dad, oddly, didn't want any more. He looked kind of pale, but was ready to plow some more. I shrugged. Having two priests for parents and training to be one myself makes me a little paranoid.

We got back to work. I had most of the stones removed, and was ready to think about supper. Leo was done, and Dad was finishing his row. He stopped suddenly, and promptly collapsed.

"RONFAR!!!" Mom screamed. She dashed over to Dad, reaching him before any of us. A flash of light signaled a healing litany attempt. I looked down, and was suddenly scared.

Dad was even paler, shaking with cold. Even his teeth were chattering. That didn't make sense! It had to be at least seventy degrees out here!

"My love, what is it?" Mom asked softly.

"Cold... so c-c-cold... not norm-m-mal," Dad shivered. "D-d-don't know... w-w-what it is..."

"Come on, let's get you inside," Leo remarked slowly. He carefully helped his oldest friend to his feet, slinging an arm around his shoulders. I helped on the other side, and we led him back home.

Dad looked grateful to get in bed. Mom and I fetched all the blankets we had, while Leo loaded the stove with firewood. Then Mom tried to break whatever was going on.

"I call upon the power of holy light to break the ailment on this man! Come to my aid to banish the sickness away!" she cried, and a flash of light appeared, and then vanished. "No! What is this?" Mom moaned in despair.

"Something even Mauri couldn't break," Leo muttered to himself. "This isn't good."

"Let me try!" I begged. "Mom, let's try together!"

Mom looked at me, and nodded. I concentrated, while Mom and I repeated the litany together. Light, I reached for any light I could find, channeling it towards Dad to dispel whatever had happened to him. An even brighter light flashed, but vanished.

"No! Come on, please..." Mom murmured under her breath. "Don't do this to me.." I sucked in a breath as we tried again. Nada.

"NO!" Mom screamed, ready to try once more, but swaying with exhaustion.

"Mauri, no," Leo said softly. "It won't work."

"It must!" she replied hotly, "I must..."

"Mauri..." Dad reached up and took his wife's hand. "N-nothing's t-t-touching it. It m-m-must be a sp-spell of s-s-some k-kind..."

A neighbor picked that moment to enter and ask, "Lady Mauri? Lord Ronfar? Is someone there who can help?"

Mom sighed wearily and faced him. "What is it, Randall?" she asked.

"I-" He stopped, looking at Dad worriedly, and continued, "My wife just collapsed. She came down with a terrible fever, just like that."

"Ronfar appears to have something similar, except with cold," Leo remarked.

Mom shook her head. "I'll go see," she decided. "Celeste... Leo... will you stay here?"

I nodded, and Mom gave me a quick kiss. "Do not overextend yourself, sister," Leo cautioned. Then he shook his head ruefully, adding, "As if I don't know you and my esteemed brother-in-law well enough. Just be careful."

"I will. Thank you, Leo," Mom replied, giving him a quick hug and leaving.

I looked down at Dad, thinking of my training. "We'll have to keep the fire going," I remarked. "Do you guys have spare blankets? I'll go see what Mom has for anti-chill herbs for tea."

"I will find our spares," Mercy offered, and left.

"I will go chop more firewood. It will surely be needed," Leo decided, and then looked at me, adding, "I am proud of you, my niece. That cool head of yours will be noteworthy in trials to come." He smiled, grabbed our axe, and left the house.

Cool head. Yeah, right. I dropped to my knees, looking at Dad worriedly. He was still shaking, but looked a bit more comfortable. "I'll b-b-be all right," he said, trying to reassure me, "Th-th-this is n-n-nothing comp-p-pared to Zulan. Th-th-this is like a f-f-fan."

"Just rest, Dad," I whispered, "We'll take good care of you."

He grinned in that wonderful cocky way he had, the expression I always imagined he had had against Zophar. Then he added, "D-d-don't worry, j-j-just help your m-m-mother."

I smiled back. Dad was tough. He had battled Zophar in Mom's subconscious all by himself and won! He was one of the Five Heroes! I went to go mix a cup of tea with Mom's best herbs.

/ / / / / /

Mom came back about two hours later. Her eyes were red with weeping, and she looked ready to drop. "Eight more cases," she explained as I handed her a cup of invigorating tea. She sipped and gave me a grateful smile. Then she sighed. "And I could do nothing! Raculi already had a plague!"

"Did you learn anything?" Leo asked. "Anything unusual?"

Mom paused. "Yes," she admitted. "Everyone who has gotten sick has been full humans. No beast-folk have fallen ill, and no half-beasts either." I pondered. There were a few other mixed couples in Raculi--Mom and Dad were by no means unusual.

"How very odd," Mercy commented. "Are there any immune system differences between the two?" Mercy was full human, like Dad.

"A very few," Mom replied. "We don't catch colds as easily, and we also don't get fevers as often--that's it! All of the cases were extreme cold or extreme heat!"

"Dad said something about it maybe being a spell. Maybe someone has something against humans?" I wondered aloud. Silence reigned.

Leo broke it first. "This isn't good," he commented. "I wonder how far this has traveled, or if it is confined here? We must be careful that it does not spread."

"If it's magical, maybe we should contact Lemina," Mom suggested, standing up slowly. "She may be able to help us."

"Good idea," Leo agreed. "I wish dearly that Lucia were still here, but contact would be nearly impossible. In the meantime, we must do what we can for those who are ill."

"Perhaps some rest would give us more insight in the morning," Mercy suggested delicately, watching Mom. Mom sagged, and nodded.

"We'll be by in the morning," Leo promised. "Get some rest, both of you." I nodded, indicating that I would make sure Mom would. He winked at me and took Mercy's hand as they left.

/ / / / / /

When I got up, I discovered that Mom was already gone. She had to check on other patients. I wondered how she had the energy, after the three visits during the night. I wished fervently that we had more priests in Raculi, but we had to make do. I poured a cup of herbal tea for Dad and went to check on him.

He was asleep, and looked about the same as yesterday. I tried to set the cup down quietly, but he was sharp. "Th-th-thank you, Celeste," he murmured. "Wh-wh-where's Mauri?"

"She went to check on others in town," I replied. "She'll be back."

"Ugh," he muttered. "I sh-sh-should be helping, not st-st-stuck in bed."

"Hey, we all gotta be patients at times," I reminded him, which he had told me often when I got sick. I added, "How are you?"

Dad smiled tiredly. "F-f-feels like I'm st-st-stuck in N-nall's cave," he answered, "Celeste, if anyth-thing happens-"

"No!" I cried. "Don't even start thinking like that! I won't allow anything to happen to you, Dad! I swear it!"

Dad grinned at me. "R-r-reminds me of a y-y-younger me," he drawled, or as much as you can when you're shivering. He sighed, and then added, "If tr-trouble occurs, I w-w-want you t-to t-t-take the m-magic iv-v-vories."

What? I looked where he pointed. Wrapped up in a miracle bandanna were his dice, the magic (and loaded) dice that had served him in Larpa, all the way to his battle with Zophar, and even after a few times. I stared at them, and then glanced at Dad.

"I m-m-mean it!" he insisted. "Pr-pr-promise me, Celeste." He paused, then added, "And m-m-maybe not t-t-tell anyone."

I grinned. Mom had wanted Dad to get rid of them after the battle, and he had planned on it, but he just couldn't give them up. Oh, people had tried to win a few games, but now Dad didn't take money. He said it wasn't fair. And oh, why would he say that if the dice weren't loaded? But to tell me to take them--it scared me.

"I will, Dad," I answered. "But we won't come to that point."

"Hello? Mauri? Celeste?" Leo called. I smiled at Dad one more time and went to meet Leo.

"I got some more wood ready to throw in the stove," Leo said. "How's your father?"

I shrugged. "About the same," I replied. "Mom went to go check on the others."

"Here, I brought some more blankets!" Mercy called, coming in with a pile. I thanked her, and we added some to the pile on Dad's bed. He thanked us warmly, and went to sleep. Mercy and I decided to get a meal going for when Mom came back, letting Leo fill the stove.

I got to work brewing a fresh pot of the invigorating tea, figuring we'd need it. Mercy had baked some of her famous biscuits, and went to call Leo. She was walking very slowly, I noticed. Suddenly, she gasped out, "Leo?!" and fell.

I was fast, but Leo was faster. He caught his wife in his arms, looking worried. "Mercy, my love?" he asked. "Oh, not you, too!"

"Heat or cold?" I asked.

Leo felt her forehead. "Heat," he replied grimly. "Very intense."

"Here, put her in my bed, and we can watch over both of them," I offered. Leo nodded and carried his half-fainting wife into my room. I quickly prepared a cup of cooling tea, grateful for all of those hours spent weeding Mom's herb garden.

When I brought it in, Leo had opened my two windows and had the comforter off the bed. Then he looked at me gravely. "I know that Mauri has had no luck yet," he began slowly. "But, if there is a chance-Celeste, could you try?"

I looked at my poor aunt, sweating and uncomfortable, and nodded. I walked to the side of the bed, bowed my head, and tried a fever-breaking litany. I concentrated hard, entering the state of mind needed, grasping for bits of holy light and directing them towards Mercy.

"I call upon the light, break the heat and bring coolness. Quench the fire of illness and bring wellness in its wake! Gather the power to cure the sickness!" I cried out. Light gathered and flashed, but disappeared. Gritting my teeth, I tried harder, gathering more and more. The power leaked away.

That's when I lost it. Angrily, I snatched fistfuls of powerful light, demanding that they heal, demanding that they do the work intended for them. Power roared through me, light was shining everywhere... and slipped out like water. My head pounded, and was filled with darkness. I didn't remember falling.

/ / / / / /

"...let my daughter do that? Leo, she's only an apprentice!"

"I know, it was very selfish of me. But, I thought, since it happened so fast-"

"You don't realize what could've happened? Leo, when we fail, it's dangerous. If we're lucky, we just fail. Many times we pass out. But, there's always a chance that people will throw their life's magic into it, and can die."

A pause. "I did not know. You two have always been so strong. You know that I would sacrifice my own life before letting any harm come to Celeste."

"I do know. I'm sorry, Leo. You've been such a pillar of strength, you and Celeste. But, some other way must be found."

I coughed a little and woke up entirely. "I'm okay," I managed to squeak. I was lying on the floor next to my bed, with a few pillows under me.

Mom knelt down. "Are you all right, darling?" she asked worriedly.

I nodded. "Lost control," I explained. "Not the first time, won't be the last time."

"Probably not," Mom agreed, rising. "You should still take it easy, though."

"No way," I protested. "Gotta harvest some more herbs, and help you guys." I started to get up, but my head pounded fiercely. I quickly lay down again. "Or not."

"Here, I brought some of these over to kill time," Leo said, and handed me a book.

I looked at the cover and gasped. "Gwyn? Hiro's Grandpa Gwyn wrote this?" I asked, stunned.

Leo nodded. "After his death, he left a few of these to me, and told me to give the rest to Hiro upon his return," he explained. "You know we became close. Just rest and look at this for awhile, until you're fully recovered."

I sighed. "Thank you," I replied. I was interested, but I should be helping! Oh, well.

Mom and Leo smiled and left, and I cracked open the book. Hmmm, it was about magical relics from all over Lunar. Interesting.

/ / / / / /

Mom had made another circuit of her patients and was sleeping. Leo had taken the Destiny to Azado to request help, and to go see Lemina. I brought Dad and Mercy their tea, filled Dad's stove, and replaced Mercy's cloths with cool, wet ones. With nothing else to do, I opened the book again.

Opal of Faith- An accessory that enables the wearer to cast Priest Litany. Also increases wisdom. A holy stone reputed to have been a piece of Althena's tower. Not seen for one hundred years, location unknown.

Orb of Althena- A stone used for healing. (I perked up.) Used specifically to combat magical illnesses. In the hands of a skilled priest, can clear an entire town of any sickness. (Really?) Forged two thousand years ago against the curse of a rogue mage. The orb was stolen by the mage's followers, but reclaimed by Dragonmaster Lia. After the curse was broken, the orb was reputed to have been given to the black dragon for safekeeping. Not seen since then.

Wow. This might do it! The orb was probably still in the black dragon's cave. Let's see, Dad visited it with Hiro, and it was in the Zaback mines...

Quickly I grabbed our map of Lunar and studied it. Darn, Raculi only had ships for the Minea, and Zaback tended to ship to Neo-Vane and Horam. It would take forever to sail to Azado, track to Meribia, and follow the sea that way. I wished the Destiny were still here.

Or was there another way? Neo-Vane had a transporter to Zaback. Since the aura was taken from Borgan, Neo-Vane rested in the mountains on our continent. A person could climb to Neo-Vane, transport to Zaback, and go in the mines to the cave. A crazy person--or a determined one.

I knew what I had to do. Mom was needed here, and Leo was busy. I'd have to go myself. Luckily, the mountains were home to me. I had spent many hours running and climbing them to build my body as a future knight. I figured my healing skills would be sufficient, but no sense taking chances. I quickly packed a small tent, herbs, a few pricey dover nuts, starlights, and a single silver light. I also grabbed food, all my money, some climbing gear, and armored up. Lastly, I grabbed my sword.

I did remember to write a note to Mom. I knew I'd get busted when I got back, but I didn't care. Dad, my aunt Mercy, and everyone else needed help. I looked in on Dad, who did look a little better. Then I spotted the dice, resting in Dad's bandanna. Dad wanted me to take them in a time of trouble, and I did promise. I grabbed the bandanna, blew a kiss to Dad, and headed out.

/ / / / / /

After about an hour, I wondered if I should've waited until morning. No, Raculi needed help now, not later. Just then, a trio of Bat Knights showed up. I drew my sword, adjusted my shield, and got in a ready position.

One swooped, and I slashed quickly. Another screeched, and blasted a ray of magic. I dodged, and finished off the one I'd injured. The third quickly dove, and clipped my arm. I cursed my slowness, and countered, cutting high and fast. It vanished.

The remaining one looked at me, and then decided not to try me. I sheathed my sword and inspected my wound. A simple heal litany took care of it, and I continued on.

The sun was setting rapidly, and the valley was getting dark. It's a lot harder to fight by yourself in the dark, so I started setting up my tent. The poles were metal stakes that could fold and fit in my bag, very convenient. I had just finished tying the last one when I heard a screech and whipped around.

What the heck was a Fatal Hopper doing here?! These suckers needed magic to go down, or I could be slashing for an hour or so. Or maybe not. I grabbed Dad's dice, shook them a bit, prayed for evens, and threw.

Apparently, the luck ran in the family. I scored an eight, and the flames roasted the thing. It squeaked and vanished. None more came, and I sighed in relief.

I dug out flint and steel and started a small fire, boiling water for tea. I hoped everyone was okay, and I hoped that Mom and Leo would trust me and not send a search party. Mostly, I hoped I could find the orb. Dad had helped to return the black dragon's aura, so I was willing to bet it would help me. Of course, dragons can be unpredictable. Nall and Ruby certainly could be.

Well, my strength would certainly be needed for my quest, so I doused my fire and called it a night.

/ / / / / /

The journey to the mountains I needed to climb took only a few days. My sword and healing were enough to keep me going, thankfully, although I had gone through a few starlights already.

I made camp on a level spot in the foothills, deciding to rest up before the real trial began. I woke up refreshed and went over my sword exercises to help keep me in shape and loosen my muscles for the task ahead. I also decided to get a good breakfast now, since a fire would be tougher on the mountains and for the energy I would need. While I ate, I checked my climbing gear. Ropes, harness, climber's spikes for my boots. I put on the last two, steeled myself, and began.

The rest of the foothills were relatively easy. There was only a stray Bat Knight here and there to contend with, and I was grateful. The hills got steeper and steeper, and I clung to the side of the rock at times to help keep my balance. I figured that going down would be easier, which cheered me immensely.

The path ended, so I fastened the rope to my harness, then threw it over a projection. Grabbing the other end, I began the climb. At the top, I hopped on the projection, unhooked the rope, and went again.

/ / / / / /

Many hours, bruises, and screaming muscles later, I made it as high as I needed to. Thankfully, I didn't need to reach the summit. Now I needed to go around, and down a bit to Neo-Vane.

It was suppertime, so I sat down to rest a bit and have some jerky and dried fruit. I wondered again about Dad and Mercy. Shaking my head, I realized I needed to keep on towards my goal. Neo-Vane, Zaback, black dragon cave, orb. That's all.

I used the rope as I made my way around. Neo-Vane waited below.

Screech! Squawk! I looked up. I spotted a type of bird monster I had never seen before. A huge flock of them. Every one looked angry--and ready to dive-bomb me.

Well, it was steep here, and I couldn't run down. If I used the rope, they could cut it easily or get me as I climbed down. So, I did the only alternative. I dropped the rope and dove into a roll.

Ow! Ouch! I guess a mountain would have to have a lot of rocks on it. Let me tell you, I was grateful for my armor. It kinda hurt to roll on my pack, but I figured it would hurt a lot worse to have talons and claws ripping through me.

As I approached Neo-Vane in my way, a flare of magic appeared, toasting the screeching beasts after me in one shot. I managed to stop and get up wearily, and then searched for my rescuer.

A young woman, probably in her late twenties. She smiled at me, and I grinned back. "Thanks, you saved my bacon!" I told her.

She smiled and shook her head. "No problem," she replied, "Are you all right? This area... isn't exactly used often for mountain climbing."

"Emergency," I explained, and then took stock of my injuries. Lots of bruises, scrapes, and I was coated with mud to boot. I started casting Heal Litanies until I felt halfway normal again. I felt a twinge in my arm and looked at it, cursing a little. I had twisted it.

"Would you like to see my husband? He's a priest and can fix that up for you," the woman offered.

"Thanks, that'd be nice. I'm still an apprentice," I explained. "Oh, by the way, I'm Celeste."

"What a lovely name," the woman replied. "I'm Rachel. Can you make it to Zaback? I live there."

"No problem," I answered. "I made it all the way from Raculi so far, and Zaback's where I want to go anyway."

Rachel looked shocked. "All the way... from Raculi?" she repeated. "I'd certainly like to hear your story after we get you patched up."

It was nice to leave Neo-Vane. Something bothered me, though. The name 'Rachel'. It sounded familiar, but I couldn't quite place it. From a story, maybe?

Zaback was cool. I had been here before for healings, and knew it was a big mining town. It was much better now that Borgan's reign of terror was over. People could work for themselves instead of as slaves.

Rachel led me under the bridges that connected the roofs to a small hut towards the back. "Tristan, honey?" she called as we entered. "I have a patient for you, one who's either crazy or in need." I chose not to comment.

A very handsome man, about thirty, came to meet us. He kissed Rachel hello, then looked at me. "What on Lunar did you do?" he asked teasingly, "Roll down a mountain?"

"Um, yes, actually," I answered. "My name's Celeste."

"Tristan," was the reply. "What do you need, my dear?"

"Well, I was rolling down a mountain. My armor helped, and I fixed my bruises, but I need some help on my arm," I explained. At his look, I added, "I'm an apprentice priestess."

"Okay, let's have a look," he instructed. I reached out my arm, and he looked it over carefully. He quickly chanted a Recovery Litany, and bright light encircled my arm. Delighted, I twisted it around. It felt brand-new.

"Hey, thanks a lot!" I said. "Um, what do you charge?"

Tristan waved it away. "I would consider your story, especially rolling down a mountain, quite sufficient payment," he replied, eyes twinkling. Rachel nodded fervently.

I told them my story, about the strange illness in Raculi, my discovery of the existence of the Orb of Althena, and my journey to find it. "Have either of you heard of it?" I asked hopefully.

Rachel and Tristan looked at each other. "No," Rachel replied regretfully. "But I would be pleased to help you on your path. I know where the black dragon cave's entrance is."

"You would?" I asked in shock, "Why?"

"Firstly, you need help," Rachel answered. "Secondly, I owe a debt, in part to your father. For freeing us."

Suddenly, I remembered. Dad had told me about this girl. "You... you were the little girl alone in the mines while your family was in Neo-Vane!" I blurted out.

Rachel nodded. "Yes," she admitted. "After Borgan was defeated, my family returned to Zaback and we were reunited. I discovered later that I had magic, too, spread out over fire and lightning. My sister never recovered and moved back to Neo-Vane on adulthood, but she visits often."

"I would be pleased to help as well," Tristan added quietly. "And we would be honored if such a brave soul would spend the night here first."

I started to protest, but realized it was a good idea. It was after supper, and spending the night an hour's journey into a mine did not appeal to me. Rachel's offer of a good meal and bath before a comfy bed did. Besides, I wouldn't get attacked by monsters here.

"I thank you both for you generosity," I replied. "Know that Raculi will be grateful, and I shall be forever."

"What, Lord Ronfar's daughter that formal?" Tristan joked.

My jaw dropped. "You've met my dad?" I asked.

Tristan nodded. "Fine man," he declared. "Liked him on sight. He cares more for tending to people than to following rules. He's brought a lot of people and respect to the priesthood, when it could've lost out after the deal with Zophar."

"Well, Celeste, you look ready for a hot meal or hot bath. Which would you like first?" Rachel asked.

I yawned. "Maybe bath," I admitted. "Thank you."

/ / / / / /

After a quick breakfast of fruit, porridge, and pancakes a la Celeste, we took off for the mines. I was glad to learn that Rachel was a talented sorceress, and Tristan a skilled priest. I gave thanks that I had run into kind and useful companions for my quest.

As we entered the mines, Rachel explained their economy to me. This mine was very fruitful, especially in black dragon diamonds, the magical stone Borgan had used to keep Neo-Vane afloat. Now, the stones were useful for forging magical weapons and armor. A smith who was a mage could instill certain elemental properties, or even just increase the power. I was fascinated, and explained what I knew of Raculian smithing.

"Shh!" Tristan hissed, too late. A group of Boomba Kids had shown up. I drew my sword, and Rachel had her staff ready. "Try and hit each one, I'll finish them with a flame," she whispered. I nodded, and got to work.

The first was taken by surprise, the second tried to dodge. I caught it with a backhanded slash, and moved to the third. The last exploded on sight, showering me with flaming bits of metal. I quickly caught the third. "Now!" I yelled.

Fire whooshed and caught the three bombs, which thankfully vanished without exploding. I sheathed my sword and happily went to Tristan. He had told me to concentrate on the sword, and it was nice to have someone else's power heal me.

We continued on, going down floors here and there. As we got lower, I realized suddenly that no more monsters were around. This worried me, and I mentioned it to my companions.

"Just be grateful," Tristan advised. "No need to borrow trouble."

Rachel wasn't so sure. "I think Celeste may be right," she said slowly. "My papa always said, 'When it's quiet, get your staff ready.'"

"Let's just be ready for anything," I suggested, keeping my sword in my hand.

Rachel nodded and led us down a corridor, around a turn. "The next turn is the entrance to the black dragon cave," she whispered. We took it...

/ / / / / /

...and stared at the huge mushroom monster guarding it. It snarled at us and waved huge green tentacles angrily. "Good call, Celeste," Tristan murmured. I shook my head at him, gripping my sword and shield tightly, and got in front of my companions. Leo had drilled it into me--fighters in front, mages and healers in back.

The monster struck with a tentacle, going for Rachel. I countered neatly with a Flash Blade. Rachel aimed a Flame Bomb where I had struck. The mushroom screamed and flailed at Tristan, who dodged too late. A flash of light signaled a litany, and he was ready to go.

We circled grimly. Suddenly, I looked at Rachel, pointing to the left tentacle, then pointed to my sword and the right one. She nodded. I let out a battle yell, and then lodged two Flash Blades against my part before breaking away. Fire lashed out against the other tentacle, followed by a few arrows from Tristan.

The mushroom roared and swiped. I ran forward to slash, and then got slammed in the belly by the other tentacle. I got thrown against the wall, and my sword went flying- behind the tentacle.

"Celeste!" Rachel screamed, then loosed a spell to distract the thing. It didn't work. I fumbled for Dad's dice, grateful again, and thought of odds. An eleven erupted into a burst of flame. The monster whipped away, and I leaped over the tentacle, landed in a somersault, and grabbed my sword.

The monster struck at Rachel, who responded with a burst of flame. The monster recoiled, and then hit us all with a rock spell. I yelped in pain, wishing my magic defense was a bit better.

A wash of cool light helped. "Okay, Celeste?" Tristan asked worriedly.

"I'm fine now!" I yelled back. "I don't take magic hits too well."

"Celeste, hit the mouth!" Rachel instructed. "That's where the rock came from!"

Bingo! "Hit the tentacles, keep it busy!" I replied. "I'm going in!" I gripped my sword tightly and dashed up. I landed two Flash Blades to the mouth.

The monster screamed, and I realized Rachel had been right. It was ready to counter with more rocks, when fire and arrows slammed into its sides. I followed up with more slashes. It swiped at me, and I dropped and rolled, then came up with an overhead slash to the mouth.

The monster retreated, and then launched another rock spell. I ignored the pain, welcomed the litany, and advanced. It swiped again. I dodged, and then slammed my sword into its mouth with all my strength.

The monster let out a bloodcurdling scream, and then vanished. Wearily, I walked forward to reclaim my sword.

"All right!" Rachel yelled in victory. I smiled and returned to my companions. Tristan healed us all up to peak condition.

"Ready for the black dragon cave now?" I asked, teasingly. The others nodded tiredly, and Rachel opened the door.

The black dragon cave was darker, seemingly carved of black crystal. Oddly, a magic portal of some kind was at the entrance. "I don't remember Dad mentioning this," I noted suspiciously. "They had to fight through it."

Yes, but my power is not trapped anymore. You have defeated my guardian; you may come. I looked around. Was that... the black dragon?

"Let's try it," Rachel murmured. I agreed, and stepped into the portal.

/ / / / / /

We landed in some kind of funky audience chamber. I noticed beautiful black crystals, seemingly growing out of the rock.

A figure was waiting for us. A tall woman with long and shining black hair that fell past her waist, and beautiful chocolate-colored skin. She appraised us with dark eyes. "Welcome, adventurers," she began, "I am Obsidian, the black dragon, also known as Sydia. For what purpose have you defeated my guardian and entered my lair?"

I stepped forward, and bowed politely. "Greetings. My name is Celeste, and these are my companions Rachel and Tristan. I have come to ask a favor, to borrow the Orb of Althena to cure the sickness of my village," I replied.

Sydia looked at me appraisingly. "Do you know what you ask?" she asked, suddenly frosty.

I was confused. Shrugging, I pulled out the book and opened to the page describing the orb. "As far as I know, it's to borrow a magical healing relic to break a magical illness," I answered. "Although I'm guessing that there's more that I don't know."

"Indeed, mortal," the dragon replied. "It is a wise one that admits what they do not know. The orb you seek was forged by my father, that same black dragon that was enslaved by Magic Emperor Ghaleon."

I blinked. I knew there was the dragon armor, but I'd never heard of dragons making anything else. Well, except diamonds, but that's another story...

"Unfortunately, insanity does run in my line at times," Sydia explained. "At one point, it hit my father, and he destroyed a village and many humans. When he came out of it, he wanted to sacrifice himself to cleanse his soul.

"At this time, a beast mage with a thirst for power for his people came to be. Using some of the diamonds from this very cave, he drew on their power to create a spell to cause a sickness onto humans, eventually killing them. My father was appalled that his power would be drawn on for harm, so he decided to help the humans to pay for his sin."

"That's what's happening at home!" I burst out. "The full humans in Raculi are all getting sick. We can't cure them."

Sydia shook her head. "Because the spell was created from the power of the black dragon, Althena's power won't fight against it," she explained. "However, the orb will, being from the same source. It is likely that the diamond that the sickness was sealed in was found and opened, releasing it onto your village."

"Please, can we borrow the orb?" I repeated, getting a little impatient.

"In time. You must know what you're asking," Sydia shot back. "My father used one of his diamonds, and encased in it a piece of his very essence. He gave the orb to a powerful priest to be used to defeat the sickness. The priest mistakenly thought that Althena had made it, and gave her the credit for the name. The important thing is that the orb cured the spell, although the mage sealed one bit of it away. We did not know of that until much later."

The dragon paused at this point, took several deep breaths, and finished, "We believe that my father giving away part of his essence to the humans was what prevented him from surviving the Grindery."

I gasped, realizing. Maybe this dragon wouldn't be so willing to help, after all.

"I ask you, future paladin," Sydia began, dark eyes locked to my green ones. "Will you now demand that my father's power, after being lost to a human, be brought to the world again? Must it be enslaved forever to the race that killed him?"

I looked at Rachel and Tristan. They smiled, and then indicated that I alone must answer. I would try.

I turned back to the dragon, and answered, "I am deeply sorry for your loss, Sydia. I am also sorry that it was through the actions of a human. I am not proud of what some choose to do. But I am proud of those who choose to overcome evil. People like Dragonmaster Alex and his companions, Hiro and the other Heroes, including my dad.

"I understand your father's desire to heal. My mother was enslaved to Zophar and was forced to kill and hurt many people against her will. Insanity is the same. Like your father, my mother has tried to heal, tried to pay for the sins that were not her fault. She has tried to do all the good that she could.

"She also tries to help anyone, anywhere. Your father's sacrifice tells me that their souls are the same. Were it my mother, she would demand to be allowed to aid others if she could. Helplessness, not guilt, weighs down her soul the most."

Sydia was silent, pondering my words. "Why did you come alone? Why did you risk climbing mountains and getting killed?" she asked.

"Mom and Leo were needed!" I replied, "And the sick needed help. I couldn't help heal anyone, but my skills and friends got me here. I... hated feeling helpless. That's why I want to heal, and protect people from getting hurt in the first place. I ask you again, please help us."

Sydia smiled. "Yours is a mighty soul," she mused. "And your strength of arms is admirable. My father will help again. Take this." A small gem appeared, flashing with black and amethyst fire. I reached out and grabbed it, marveling.

"My father will tell you what to do, and will bring you all to your homes. It will return to me when the job is done. Good luck," she added softly.

"Thank you, Obsidian," I replied formally. "Know that I and Raculi will forever be in your debt."

The dragon smiled shyly and waved, gesturing for us to go. Then she vanished.

I turned to Rachel and Tristan. "Thank you both," I said, "If you ever need anything..."

"We are even," Rachel insisted, "Although I would be honored to call you friend."

"As would I," Tristan added. We smiled and shook hands, and then all touched the orb and vanished.

/ / / / / /

I blinked, and looked around. I was back in Raculi, and ran home.

Mom and Leo met me. "Celeste! I was so worried!" Mom cried, hugging me tightly, "Don't ever do that again!"

"Did you meet with success?" Leo asked, eyes suspiciously damp.

I nodded, and thrust the orb into Mom's hands. "Use this, Mom. You can make it heal everyone," I explained.

Mom looked at it, seemed to be listening, then bowed her head and began to sing. I couldn't understand the words. Looking at Leo, I realized he didn't, either.

The song continued, the orb filling with onyx-amethyst light. Suddenly, Mom threw the orb up, where it hung, pulsing with light. Her song grew bolder, insistent. She threw her arms out, her head back, singing louder.

The orb suddenly threw out the light, rays racing towards the houses. Two ran to ours. I watched, sick with hope. The light was everywhere, weaving a sort of pattern. The light flashed, then raced back to the orb. The orb turned dark, then vanished.

Mom stopped her song, and then staggered back a few paces, as if to regain her balance. "Mauri?" Leo asked, worriedly.

Mom shook her head. "I'm... all right," she replied, "The black dragon... he was there, telling me what to do. Someone found the diamond with the illness here, releasing the last bit. It's gone. Everyone should be well, now."

We turned towards home. Two figures appeared in the doorway, looking much better. Dad and my aunt Mercy.

"Ronfar! You're all right!" Mom yelled joyously, running to meet Dad. Leo wasn't far behind, running to his own love. The reunion was echoed all over town, as the previously sick reunited with their own loved ones.

My family turned to me and gestured for me to join them. I did, hugging everyone tightly. It was finally Dad who asked what had happened, and I told my story.

"That was a very brave thing to do, Celeste," Leo told me. "We are all proud."

"Takes after my side of the family, obviously," Dad remarked, grinning. Leo shook his head wryly.

Oh, that reminded me... I grabbed Dad's bandanna and dice off of my sword-belt, and held them out. "I borrowed these," I explained, "You told me to take them in a time of trouble. They saved me a few times."

Mom opened her mouth, and then closed it with a sigh. Dad looked down at my hand, smiled, and shook his head. "They're yours, honey," he replied. "I had my time, and now I have all the luck that I need, right here. I think they belong with you now. You'll have a lot more adventures in your time, a future paladin."

I smiled, and hugged him for a thank you. Leo suggested that a celebration was in order, and he promised to bake his famous chocolate-cherry cake. Dad agreed to set up a barbecue, while Mom and Mercy discussed salads. I returned the bandanna to my sword-belt, and followed.

As I did, I thought of Obsidian, Sydia. I felt I understood her a bit more. Dad, Mom, and Leo had gone through her father's trial, all in different ways. All of them had tried to make up for things, guilty or no, and this determination had made them all overcome amazing obstacles. Dad had cured Lucia, saved his true love, and helped save the world. Leo had found true justice and helped save the world. Mom had rededicated her life to service to others, and had saved more lives than I could count.

I fingered my new dice and smiled. My path had begun, a life of service as well. Service through protection and healing. I just hoped Dad was right. A paladin needs adventure in her soul, and the life I had chosen promised to provide all I could need.

Back to the Library of Vane.

Back to the Shrine to Ghaleon.