A dark and stormy night raged as a silent conclave gathered in the Azado tower. The night echoed the mood of the gathering.
"I'm telling you! Lady Mauri is a danger to us all!" one of the gathered, a priest, declared. "Who is to say that she is truly freed from Zophar?"
"You're wrong!" another argued, "Lord Ronfar freed her two years ago! She is back to her old self, and Zophar is gone forever."
"Is he?" a new voice rang clear. The gathered stared as the newcomer revealed himself--High Priest Adair, leader of the priesthood.
"Of course!" Mauri's defender, a priestess named Joslyn, said, "The Five Heroes defeated him, and his taint is gone."
Adair shook his head. "You poor, naive little one," he said softly, "I'm afraid that may not be true, that his taint may live on in our dear lady."
"How could that be?" asked Adair's assistant, Will.
"Listen. You know that Althena's power remains, for calling on for healings, though she took human form and died?" Adair asked. The group nodded. "Why should Zophar be any different? And how could Ronfar himself break the curse when Althena's power could not?"
"He loves her," one answered uncertainly. "Love can make miracles happen."
Adair snorted. "Or make them blind," he snapped. "I believe that Zophar's power merely waits to break through. It is dormant, and will come again."
The group hesitated. They had all been fooled before. And there was always a chance...
"Do you all want to see another holocaust? Remember the firestorm here?" Will asked. Silence reigned.
"I think you're all wrong. The fire that burned in Lady Mauri is gone, and her gentle spirit is back," Joslyn protested. "I know. I spent a good deal of time with her when she was enslaved, and I see the difference."
"Then go," Adair growled. "It will be on your head when Zophar stirs again."
"A chance I'm willing to take," Joslyn retorted, and left.
Adair turned. "So we're agreed?" he asked. "We must protect our Lunar at any cost. We cannot let any more disasters happen." Heads nodded slowly.
"To execute such a gentle lady..." a voice murmured. "But, to protect Azado..."
"I'm afraid that Mauri is not the sole target," Adair said slowly," Blood passes on generations, so..."
"Wait a minute!" came a protest. "I understand about Mauri, but you expect us to execute an infant because of bad blood?"
"We cannot take any chances!" Will snapped, "That infant will grow up, and we cannot take a chance that she too will turn into a monster! If Zophar's blood lies in Mauri, so it will in her daughter as well!"
The group stirred uneasily, but no more protests came. "May Althena guide us in our quest to expunge the evil," Adair sighed. "You all know what to do."
No one seeing Mauri at work would've seen any connection between her present state of contentment and her enslavement to a cruel tyrant over two years ago. Mauri was busy setting a patient's broken leg, singing softly. Expertly, she tied the splint securely and finished. "There you are, Josam," she said. "Come see me in four weeks, and we'll take it off. Keep it elevated, and I'll give you some tea for any pain. And be careful fishing off the coast in the future!"
Josam grinned at her. He was an old friend of her and Ronfar's parents. "Almost worth getting banged up, to be healed by your sweet smile and gentle hands," he commented.
Mauri blushed softly and got together the tea she'd promised. Josam continued, "It still amazes me to see you grown, married, and now a mother. I still remember you as a toddler, trying to keep up with Leo."
"It's so wonderful, being actually married to Ronfar. I love him so much--he and Celeste mean everything to me," Mauri replied. "I think... I think he was scared to propose. You see, he bought a ring the night before he was ordained, and then..." She shook her head briskly. "Never mind. We're together now, and that's what's important."
"Yes, it's the future that counts," Josam agreed. "But today, we celebrate two years of peace!"
Mauri nodded happily. Today was the anniversary of Zophar's defeat, two years ago. A huge party was planned at the Carnival, and a reunion was planned. Even Hiro and Lucia were coming from the Blue Star! Everyone wanted to see the four month old Celeste. As Ruby had put it, "I'd like to see what kind of kid Ronfar could come up with."
Briskly she handed Josam his tea and bid him farewell. Then she walked to the women's locker room, exchanging her plain white healer's robe for her mint-colored ceremonial robes, and went to the foyer to meet up with Leo and Ronfar.
Leo was waiting with Celeste in his hands. Softly he cooed to her, his face radiant. Mauri grinned to herself. Leo was the perfect uncle. He loved Celeste like his own, and spoiled her rotten. "She's a strong one, sister," he commented. "Celeste will be a swordswoman, without a doubt."
Mauri smiled and took Celeste in her arms. "Is that a prophecy, or are you volunteering?" she asked.
"Both, I suppose. With Ronfar as her father, Celeste will need all the help she can get," Leo replied slyly.
"I heard that." Ronfar came out of the men's locker room, dressed in his Justice Clothes. "If anything, we have to make sure you don't screw her up, old friend. There's a lot of gambling tricks to teach her first."
Mauri rolled her eyes. Is this how it's going to be for eighteen years? she wondered. Leo was ready with a comeback, when one of the novices came in. "Lord Ronfar, thank Althena you haven't left yet!" he gasped. "You're needed immediately. Two more patients came in with heart attacks! We were hoping you could take one."
Ronfar frowned for a second, and then nodded. "I'll catch up with you two," he told his wife and brother-in-law. "These can take awhile."
"I could help, if Leo could take Celeste..." Mauri began.
Ronfar kissed her gently. "I'll handle it," he assured her. "You two take the Destiny, and I'll catch up to you."
"We'll meet you in Azado, then," Leo said. "Good luck, my friend."
The novice started. "Oh! I almost forgot the other message!" he began. "Since you guys are going past Azado, they were wondering if milady could take a message to High Priest Adair."
Mauri nodded and accepted the envelope, then kissed Ronfar good-bye. Ronfar smiled at his little daughter. "Behave yourself, Celeste. Be a good girl."
Celeste smiled and waved her little hands around. He laughed and gently kissed her good-bye, and went back to the locker room. Mauri stared after him. "What's wrong?" Leo asked.
Mauri shook her head. "I don't know," she admitted. "I just...I have a bad feeling."
Leo frowned. He did, too. Beastmen were more prone to intuition and instinct than full humans. But, they were going to a celebration!
"Don't worry, sister," he assured her, " I'll protect you." Mauri shook her head again and they left.
It was a short trip to Azado, with the Destiny cutting through the Minea Sea. Before Hiro had left for the Blue Star and Lucia, he had insisted on returning the Destiny to Leo. "I know how much it means to you," he had said. "It served our purpose, and belongs to you."
Leo skillfully maneuvered the dragonship into the dock, and the siblings disembarked. "I'll go deliver this to Adair," Mauri decided.
"I'll go order a meal at the inn and I'll meet you there," Leo said. "Do you want me to take Celeste?"
"No, but thank you. I'll be right back," Mauri answered. Leo nodded and took off.
Mauri shifted Celeste and took the envelope out of her pocket. As she walked to the temple, she tried to drown memories of the past. She remembered vividly Zophar using her body and the power of the Red Dragon to burn the city, to catch Lucia. Most of the people had forgiven her, understanding Zophar's role, but some eyed her nervously. It couldn't be helped, though it ripped her heart in half.
At the entrance, Mauri bowed, making the sign all priests made before entering holy ground, then entered. It was a lovely structure. After Pentagulia had been destroyed by the dragons, Azado had taken over as the head of the priesthood. Adair had been one of the highest ranked Chosen members, then had served as Mauri's right hand during her ordeal as the Red Priestess. He had been elected the head after the battle, and was held in high regard.
A novice stood outside Adair's chamber. She bowed politely. "Here to see the High Priest, Lady Mauri?" she asked.
"Yes, I have a message for him from Raculi," she answered.
"He's expecting it. Please, go ahead," the novice said. "Oh, what a lovely baby!"
Mauri thanked the novice and entered. Adair was waiting by his desk, many of the group from the meeting flanking him. Mauri bowed to him, and greeted him politely. "It's a pleasure to see you," she commented. "I have a message for you, from the temple in Raculi."
Adair smiled at her, and accepted the envelope. "Thank you, Mauri, but the message wasn't urgent," he replied.
Mauri frowned. She didn't like his smile, or the way he looked at Celeste. But, that was stupid! He was a good friend... "Well, if you'll excuse me, my brother is waiting for me. Good day," she said.
"I'm afraid he'll be waiting a lot longer, my dear," Adair commented. "You see, that was no message. I just needed a tactic to bring you to me. And bringing your child with you helped a lot."
"What?!" Mauri gasped, startled. The door slammed shut, and was locked. She turned around, but guards blocked it. She faced the high priest, confusion on her face. "What's going on?" she demanded.
"For starters, you and your child are going to be kidnapped. You'll find out more later," Adair answered. "We're taking a little trip."
"No! I will not allow it!" Mauri retorted, calling up her defenses. Maybe she had lost the power of the Red Dragon, but she was by no means defenseless!
"I'm sorry to hear that you will not cooperate," Adair mused. "Very well. I call upon Althena to aid me in sealing this evil!" He gestured.
Power slammed into Mauri, as a Bright Litany sapped her energy. She gasped in fury to feel her strength leaving her. What did he mean by 'this evil'? she wondered as she sank down. Her last memory was of fighting hands trying to take Celeste from her arms.
Leo sipped direly at a tankard of cider, worried. It had been nearly half an hour now. He knew that Adair was a busy man, but Mauri was a very highly-ranked priestess. And her task had merely been a delivery.
Come to think of it, why would they ask Mauri to act as a messenger? He frowned into the tankard. Something wasn't right here, and he intended to see about it. He flipped some silver onto the table and left the inn.
He walked up to the temple, admiring the beauty of the building. He himself had aided in the reparations, but he had no talent for fine details like the stained-glass and elegantly carved wood. Spotting a priest, the former knight walked over to him. "Excuse me, but has my sister Mauri returned from seeing High Priest Adair yet?" he asked.
The priest goggled at him. "Lady Mauri?" he repeated. "No sir, she has not entered here."
Leo frowned. "She was to bring a message to him," he said sternly. "You have not seen her?"
"No, sir," the priest repeated. "Lady Mauri never came here. Perhaps she had other business first?"
Leo thanked him and left, asking around. No one in the temple had seen her, and people outside swore they hadn't seen her at all. Leo definitely had a bad feeling now. Either someone had ambushed her, or someone was lying. And Leo hated liars above all else.
I think it's time Ronfar got up here, he thought grimly. He's got a talent for getting information. If he had been in the Guard, we would've found people twice as quickly. Of course, my men would've lost their paychecks twice as quickly, as well. Leo sent a high-priority telegram to his brother-in-law, and resumed the search.
It wasn't too long before Ronfar arrived. He looked nervous, and jumped off the ship the second it touched the dock. Leo stood nearby, waiting grimly. This was news he didn't want to break to his old friend.
"Leo! What's the problem?" Ronfar gasped, out of breath from his run. He looked around. "Where're Mauri and Celeste...?" he trailed off, seeing the answer in Leo's eyes. "No! Leo, what happened?" he asked. "Please, tell me!"
"Ronfar..." Leo began. "I don't know where they are. Mauri left to deliver the message to the temple, and I waited for her at the inn. She never arrived, and no one has seen her."
"You mean you let Mauri walk all the way to the temple by herself?" Ronfar demanded. "In this city? Leo, have you lost it?"
"What?! What are you talking about?" Leo shot back, insulted.
Ronfar moaned. "She never told you, did she?" he asked, wearily. "What happened the first time we came to Azado together after the battle?" Leo shook his head, impatient. Ronfar continued, "We came through Azado right after we got married, to go on our honeymoon in Meribia. A couple of people started trying to stone Mauri, for revenge for burning their city." He lifted his sleeve, showing some scars on his arm. "I tried to chase them off. They haven't forgiven her, or forgotten."
"Did you report them?!" Leo asked. "Did you make sure they... well, that's not the point for now. It means they won't help us, and are likely accomplices."
Ronfar nodded grimly. The two men were lost in thought, worried for the woman they both loved. Suddenly, a girl's call broke their reverie. "Uncle Ronfar!"
Ronfar looked around. "Hey, Rosa," he replied. "Leo, this is Rosa, my friend Balse's niece."
Rosa dropped a quick curtsy to Leo, then turned back to Ronfar. "Are you guys looking for Aunt Mauri?" she asked.
Leo nodded briskly, while Ronfar grabbed the girl's arm. "Please, what do you know?" he asked.
Rosa looked around. "We were going to see some friends of my parents," she said softly. "We were waiting outside, and I saw Aunt Mauri go into the temple, with Celeste. I wanted to go say hi, and see the baby, but we went inside then."
"So they were lying!" Leo snarled, his hand flying to his sword hilt. "I'll tear-"
"Cool it, Leo!" Ronfar cautioned his friend, grabbing his sword arm, "Rosa, why did they lie about Mauri?"
Rosa looked down. "Many are afraid of Aunt Mauri, and the firestorm two years past," she whispered. "They are afraid it might happen again. But, I know she's different."
"Well, let's go find out if Adair feels the same way," Ronfar decided.
"Wait," Leo interjected. "Perhaps it would be wise to increase our numbers. Many heads think better than two."
Ronfar stared, then grinned. "Just like the old days," he drawled. "All right, let's head to Madoria on the Destiny, and pick ourselves up a posse."
Mauri came to slowly, feeling a slight rocking. She was on a boat, she guessed. Looking around hurriedly, she saw that Celeste was safe in a cradle, sleeping peacefully. That was a relief.
Realizing that she was in a jail cell, however, was less so. Adair stood waiting on the other side, Celeste's cradle nearby. "You recovered quickly, my lady," he commented, sarcastic on the last part. "Of course, you were quite the powerful priestess before the... ah...."
"Perhaps we should get to business, Adair," Mauri interrupted coolly, wishing to skip the dance of fake manners.
Adair shrugged. "As you wish," he replied. "I suppose you are wondering why I set up your and your daughter's kidnapping."
"Yes, I am. What is the purpose of this... this deceit?" Mauri asked, "What is so important that you would risk your standing as the High Priest?"
"I'll tell you what's so important!" Adair shouted. "Our city, and the cities of others who suffered your wrath! The lives of those destroyed at your hand!"
Mauri flinched. "That was not my hand," she insisted. "How many times must I explain? That was the wrath of Zophar! Do you all not think that I tried to overcome it?! It tore my heart up, as a priestess and a human being, to watch myself forced to bring pain and fear to others, powerless to stop it!"
"And if Zophar should rise again?" Adair asked softly.
Mauri blinked. "What? He's gone forever, Adair. Leo and Ronfar and the others destroyed him forever!" she replied.
"Althena's power remained," Adair said intensely. "Why should Zophar's be different? And we have no proof that you are truly free from his grasp. All we have is the word of your family and friends, who would be blind to Zophar's cunning."
Mauri gasped. This was what this was all about. But, she was free at last. Ronfar had found her heart that Zophar had tried to lock away forever, and had brought her back to herself. "I am free from Zophar," she explained. "Ronfar... my love saved me in Serak Palace two years ago. I am no longer a slave to his will."
Adair shook his head. "A heartwarming story, Mauri, but not a feasible one," he sighed. "I am afraid that if Althena's magic could not cure you, as it did for the others, certainly the efforts of one man could not."
Mauri was astounded. "Have you no knowledge of history?" she demanded. "Do you not realize why the battle was fought?! Humanity has an amazing capability for love and miracles. How can I prove it to you?!"
"You cannot," Adair answered. "When we get to the Palace, Zophar will show his face in you, and you will be put to death. As will your child."
"NOOOOOOO!" Mauri screamed. "Do to me what you will, but do not harm Celeste! She is untouched by the events of the past!"
"No, Zophar's blood would travel through bloodlines. She, too, must be cleansed, to protect our world from another monster," Adair replied. "We will deal with you first, my lady. That is our mercy." Adair threw the keys to a single guard. "Stay near the child, and make sure she doesn't try anything," he ordered. The guard nodded wearily.
Mauri sank to the ground. There must be a way to save Celeste. If only she could get to the deck, grab a lifeboat... She rearranged her skirts and sat down to think.
The Destiny pulled into the plains, just outside the Carnival. Cheers erupted, as the famous ship was recognized.
Leo and Ronfar disembarked, saddened but still looking forward to greeting friends. Everyone was waiting by the entrance, and greetings abounded.
"Hey! You guys made it!" Ruby called joyfully.
Ronfar grinned, despite the weight on his heart. "Happy to see me, Red?" he joked.
"Of course! I still wanna see the baby!" Ruby replied.
"Yes, Ronfar, where is Mauri? Didn't she come with you?" Jean asked.
Ronfar's expression sank. He looked at Leo, then the others. "Mauri and Celeste were... maybe kidnapped," he replied.
"What? What happened?" Hiro asked, concerned.
Ronfar and Leo explained the events in Azado. "People still afraid of what she couldn't help... how horrible," Jean murmured.
"Yeah! So, what are we going to do?" Lemina asked, ready to get moving.
"That's why we're here," Ronfar explained. "Would you guys help us?"
"You need not ask," Lucia replied. "We are friends, are we not?"
"I think the key may be to see this High Priest, Adair," Hiro commented thoughtfully. "The message was for him."
"And the novice specified that Mauri was to bring it..." Leo remembered.
"Which is when she disappeared," Ronfar finished. "Definitely, we talk to him. Likely, he's got Mauri and Celeste somewhere. But, why?"
No one knew. Leo let out a growl. "Let's go ask," he said decisively. Everyone nodded and boarded the Destiny.
Mauri stood up, an idea in hand. The trick was to get the guard to her. A conversation with Ronfar came to mind.
"People believe what they want to," he had said. "Appearance is everything to some. If you're in a fix, you can use that against them."
That was the key. Mauri knew that many people saw her as gentle and innocent, incapable of a plot. She reached in a pocket to check for a key item, which was still there. Getting a sleep litany ready under her breath, she turned to the wall and shrieked.
The guard started. "What's the matter?" he asked, a little annoyed.
"Mouse!" Mauri shrieked, "There's a mouse in here!"
"Where?" he asked, standing up.
"There!" Mauri pointed to the wall. "Please, can you see? Celeste is terrified of mice."
The guard made a point of dropping the key onto a table, and walked over. Quickly, Mauri shot her hand between the bars and grabbed his wrist, transferring the sleep spell. He dropped instantly.
Mauri knelt down. "Please, may you and Althena forgive me," she murmured. "I do this only to save my daughter." She reached into her pocket and pulled out a small linen bag. It appeared to hold only a lady's mirror and assorted hairpins. On closer inspection, the pins were unusually shaped.
Mauri had not wanted to learn the art of lock picking, but Ronfar had insisted. "It's not just for thieves," he declared. "It's good if the temple's locked and you need to do a healing, or need to get into a house if a child is locked inside. Sometimes, you need to deal with people who don't play by the same rules we do, and we need an edge. It's not bad itself, it's what you do with it."
Mauri took out the small mirror and thrust her hand between the bars, angling the mirror to see the lock. It was an easy one, poorly put together. Meant for someone helpless, who would try nothing. Big mistake, when threatening their kid. Quickly, the priestess drew out the long pick with a peridot at the end, and the smaller quartz one. She reached between the bars, bending her wrists to reach the lock. A push here, a slip here, and a twist there, and the door swung open. Quickly, Mauri replaced the picks, stepped over the sleeping guard with another apology, and gratefully took Celeste in her arms. The girl was sleeping soundly, no doubt due to a spell. Well, it would make escape easier.
Mauri quickly scanned the hall, saw no one, and crept silently by. She needed to reach the deck, and would make her escape on the lifeboat. She could make it to Raculi, and go to Josam's house for now. Eventually, she needed to contact Ronfar, tell him she was safe and about Adair's plot. But, escape first.
Mauri crept to a corner, and peeked around. One guard was standing close. Again, she prepared a sleep litany and touched the man. He, too, curled up into sleep.
The ship was small, and Mauri had one more staircase to the deck. Quickly, she scanned the deck, seeing two guards this time. At opposite ends of the ship. What would serve as a distraction to them both?
Mauri stared at the floor, deep in thought, holding Celeste close. Then she looked at her sash. Of course! It was a heavy brass chain, accenting her green robes. Well, she could always buy another in Meribia. Quickly she unclipped it, rolled it into an awkward ball, and tossed it hard. It flew over the rail and hit the water with a heavy splash.
"What was that?" one guard asked. Quickly, he and his comrade dashed to the railing, checking the water. Mauri dashed up quietly, and hit them both with sleep litanies. Down they went.
There was the lifeboat! Mauri ran to it, and hopped the railing into it. Carefully, she made a nest of coiled rope for Celeste. She then surveyed the knot that kept the boat tied to the ship. Drawing her priestess dagger, Mauri sawed at it until it came loose. Then she pulled the ropes to let the boat down to the Minea Sea... and freedom.
"Escape! Mauri has escaped!" a voice bellowed in rage. Footsteps pounded hard. Mauri redoubled her efforts, lowering the boat as fast as she could. She was about a quarter of the way down when Adair came and looked down. "Oh, no you don't!" he screamed, unrecognizable in his fury. "Guards!"
Quick as a flash, Adair and two guards vaulted the railing and landed in the boat... between Mauri and Celeste. Mauri leaped forward, but Adair grabbed Celeste and held a dagger to her throat. His priest dagger.
"I am truly impressed by your cunning, Mauri," he spat. "But, it will not save you. We are going to Serak Palace, and you will cooperate, or I swear by Althena I'll slit this brat's throat immediately."
Mauri slumped, defeated. She had tried, and she knew Adair was not lying. He would do it. He had done many abominable things as her right hand under Zophar. "You win, Adair," she whispered. "Please, do not hurt Celeste."
"That's better," Adair replied. "To Serak Palace, boys. The ship will go to Dalton, to throw off pursuers."
Pursuers. Mauri held a spark of hope. Leo and Ronfar would track them, she was sure. She just had to wait.
It hadn't taken long for the group to discover that Adair had left Azado on a ship. Well, there was only Raculi and Dalton as destinations now. The Destiny was speeding along, Leo at the helm.
Ronfar looked at his oldest and closest friend. A fury burned in his eyes, a fury that he hadn't seen since two years ago, when Leo had laid eyes on the evil Zophar that had ruined his life in so many ways. He pitied Adair, knowing that mercy was not Leo's strong point.
"Boy, seems I'm always on this ship on a disaster," Ronfar commented. "Back home to the virus, to Larpa..."
"Let's not forget locking me in my own cell," Leo interrupted, dryly but with a touch of humor.
Suddenly, Ronfar grinned. "Say, Leo," he began, "I've always wondered. How long were you in that cell? We had a heck of a head start getting to the Illusion Woods."
Leo grimaced. "Four hours," he replied.
Ronfar chuckled. "Four hours?" he repeated, "Why? How did that happen?"
"My men thought that Lucia had stolen my voice and was trying to trick them into freeing her," Leo answered. "I sentenced them all to deck duty. Until we got to Pentagulia, our decks were clean enough to eat from." He paused. "By the way, old friend, how long did it take to recover from the Magic Arrow?"
Ronfar groaned. "Until we got back to Nota," he said, "I still can't eat cotton candy!"
"Cotton candy?" Leo asked, one eyebrow raised.
"Well, you can't go to a carnival and not get cotton candy!" Ronfar defended himself.
Leo laughed heartily. "Leave it to you, my friend, to be chased by the entire Guard and stop to get cotton-" he began.
"There's a ship!" yelled Jean, who was on watch. Leo steered the Destiny until it was alongside, and the group boarded.
"What do you want?" asked a young priest. Ronfar recognized him as Will, Adair's assistant.
"We want to speak to Adair, immediately," Leo answered. "Where is he?"
Will hesitated. "He's not here," he replied, "I'm sorry, but you'll have to wait until he returns to Azado."
"Where are Mauri and Celeste?" Ronfar asked angrily.
Will frowned. "I do not know what you are talking about," he said, fear in his voice. Ronfar frowned, seeing the man was lying.
"I'll ask you again," Ronfar said fiercely, in a tone no one had ever heard the priest use. "Where are Mauri and Celeste?!"
"I don't know! Go on your way, sir!" Will tried. Suddenly, Ronfar lost control of his temper. Two years of priestly conduct and patience fled, and the Larpan gambler returned. Ronfar grabbed the man's collar, and slammed him into a wall. The others on the boat gasped.
"Where is my family?!" the former gambler cried out. "I know Adair took Mauri, and she had Celeste with her! I lost her once, and by Althena I swear I will not lose her again! I don't care what it takes to find them!"
"All right, all right!" Will sobbed. Ronfar let him go, and the assistant sank to his knees, frightened. "You're right, Adair took her," he sobbed. "The note was to bring her to him. The extra patient was to keep you in Raculi. We didn't know Lord Leo would be involved. They're on the way to Serak Palace."
"But, why?" Leo asked, calmly. "What does Adair have against my sister?"
"Zophar," Will whispered. "Zophar may lurk in her yet, and the child as well. He believes that because Althena's power survived, Zophar's did as well."
"That's impossible!" Ronfar replied. "I cured her in Serak Palace myself! She's fine!"
"Besides, even if Ronfar had failed, it wouldn't matter," Lucia commented. Everyone turned to stare at her. The girl continued, "Althena's power remained because she tied it to Lunar. It was not a part of her anymore. Zophar kept his power to himself. When he was defeated for good, his power vanished as well. If Zophar's power had remained in Mauri, his death would have stopped the curse."
"Oh, dear!" Will commented. "And Adair... Adair plans on executing them."
"Let's get moving!" Ronfar called, "We have to catch up to them!"
The rescue team returned to the Destiny and made tracks for Serak Palace.
Adair carried Celeste, keeping his dagger near her throat. The two guards had Mauri bound securely, with special ropes that cut magic use. Mauri was still trying to think, but having little success.
They approached the looming structure of Serak Palace. Mauri looked at it fearfully, remembering well the events of two years ago. That had been her worst torture yet, being forced to give others the same potion she had been giving, making them slaves as well. She remembered her brief moment of freedom, seeing Leo standing there with his sword in his hand, ready to kill her. Ronfar had stopped him, and there was joy. But Zophar had had her yet, using her body and Red Dragon's power to try to kill this new hope. But Ronfar had succeeded! She, and everyone she had 'cleansed' were free!
"This was the site of your greatest evil, so it is fitting you should die here," Adair commented. "Forcing others to Zophar's will."
Mauri ignored his taunts. There was no point in responding.
Inside the foyer, Adair instructed his guards to secure Mauri to the wall, then leave to guard the door. Celeste was placed in a basin, still spelled asleep. Adair removed his priest dagger, and scrutinized the priestess with cool eyes.
"Do you remember the plans we made together, Mauri?" he asked. "Plans to take Lunar, to have everyone obey us?"
"That was Zophar's prattle," Mauri answered sharply. "Surely you know I was his instrument, unable to control him. I would never make such hideous ideals."
Adair shook his head. "You promised me things, Mauri," he sighed. "A throne for you, as the voice of divinity, and me at your side. I would serve you." He turned abruptly. "It was sick!" he roared. "I was in place already! But Zophar demanded you as the Red Priest! He waited for you to complete your studies, and forced you! I, who wanted your position, had to make up the potion for you!"
Mauri gasped. "That was you?! Adair, what are you saying? You wanted to serve Zophar?" she demanded.
"Yes!" he answered. "Let's face it, Althena left us! Zophar was more than ready to step in as the master this world needs!"
"You're crazy!" Mauri shot back. "How could you believe his filthy lies? Adair, he used you! He used anyone he could get for what he wanted! Zophar would never have let anyone near his power! I know! He was in my head for ages!"
"And now, he's gone," Adair said mournfully. "I shall have my revenge on everyone who is responsible. You first, for stealing my position. Plus, that will hurt your precious husband and brother more than anything. The sweet little girl they rescued, gone two years later at my hand. Perhaps Lady Miria will suffer next."
"This is all about revenge, then," Mauri spat. "I never asked to become what I did, it was forced. So all that talk about cleansing..."
Adair shrugged. "Even I can't do everything by myself," he replied. "But, I think the child shall go first."
Ronfar and the others disembarked from the Destiny quickly, and dashed inside the Palace. The two guards had swords ready, but Hiro and Leo quickly took care of them. They burst into the foyer.
"Mauri!" Ronfar called. "Are you all right?"
"Stop Adair!" she shouted. "He's going to hurt Celeste!"
Adair was already running towards the child. Suddenly, the floor shook, and huge spikes of earth shot up around her cradle. Adair turned and glared at Leo, who had just finished his spell.
"Ruby, go!" Hiro yelled. Ruby swooped and grabbed Celeste's blanket in her claws, carrying the baby to Leo. Ronfar ran ahead and cut Mauri free from her bonds. Everyone turned and faced Adair.
He smiled. "This is perfect," he snarled. "Everyone responsible for Zophar's death is in place. I shall take revenge upon you all!"
"What's he talking about?" Lemina asked as she readied her staff for battle.
"Adair wanted to serve Zophar as his Red Priest," Mauri answered sadly. "He wanted to kill me, for having what he wanted."
"So this isn't about Zophar's blood or taint," Leo growled, drawing the Silver Sharion, handing Celeste to Mauri.
"You're all geniuses," Adair sneered. "And you die today!" He raised her arm to cast a nasty thunder spell, and started the battle.
Adair had a nasty supply of spells at his disposal, but he was no Zophar. Lemina softened the spell with a magic shield, while Mauri healed everyone. Lucia blasted him with an Atomic Ray, while Leo and Hiro brought their swords into play. Ronfar wielded his mace brutally, dropping back to help Mauri heal every so often. Jean was throwing punches and kicks like a tornado.
Adair was weakening, but he brought out his trump card. Drawing on his lifeforce, he aimed one last spell--Annihilation. "If I die, so shall you all!" he screamed defiantly.
Lemina and Lucia threw all their strength into a shield, while Ronfar and Mauri prepared their strongest healing litanies. Everyone's combined strength was enough to weather the death spell, but it left them battered. Adair was gone, by his own hand.
Ronfar checked on his wife and child, until he was sure they were all right. "I was so scared..." he commented, embracing his love tenderly. Mauri clung to him, feeling safe and secure in his arms as always.
Leo smiled down at his tiny niece, relieved. "Hey, that baby is actually cute!" Ruby commented.
"Of course," Leo answered. "She's my niece." Everyone laughed at that and took turns holding tiny Celeste, commenting on how much she looked like her beautiful mother.
"She has your eyes, Ronfar," Jean commented. "And that little smile."
"What smile?" Ronfar asked, taking back his little daughter.
"The one that says you're up to something," the dancer replied. Choruses of agreement followed. The group then started to leave the Palace, to return to the celebration.
Ronfar looked a moment at his daughter, smiling. He turned to leave, then noticed Mauri staring at the wall. "Mauri?" he asked.
She turned, her eyes bright. "Will it ever end?" she asked. "The nightmare, the terrible years of destruction... and all the fear."
Ronfar pondered his answer, the spoke slowly, "Mauri, the nightmare is over. All that's left is people's thoughts and plans for the future. Maybe some will never let the past go, but we have. What we must do is rebuild the priesthood, and Lunar's future, to make a good world for Celeste."
Mauri smiled. "For Celeste," she repeated.
Ronfar wrapped one arm around his beloved, the other around his child, and the family left the Palace in peace.
Back to the Library of Vane.
Back to the Shrine to Ghaleon.