A cool breeze blew off the Minea Sea, bringing a soft scent of salt to the small village. The stars glittered like diamonds. A pale moon showed, illuminating a silhouette standing by a window.
Ronfar smiled at the beautiful night. Tonight marked the anniversary of one of the saddest and happiest days of his life-- the day he thought Mauri would be lost forever, and the day he brought her back. He turned to see his wife sleeping soundly in bed. How beautiful and peaceful she looked, how innocent. It had been tough, even after Zophar. They both still had nightmares. But it didn't matter. The only thing that mattered was that they were together, and he knew he would never leave Mauri alone again.
He walked back to bed and sat down. His slight movement woke Mauri immediately. "Ronfar? Why are you still awake?" she asked, concerned, "Is everything all right?"
Ronfar bent and kissed his love. "Yeah, everything's fine," he assured her. "I was just thinking how wonderful it is to be with you. There's nothing else that important."
Mauri blushed softly. How wonderful it was to be married to this sweet, golden-hearted, and somewhat rough around the edges man. "You're still a flatterer," she teased, "but then, you have been from the beginning."
Ronfar grinned. "You still remember?" he asked.
"How could I forget?" she countered. "My knight in shining armor right away. You should get some rest, though, my heart. We have that meeting in Azado tomorrow."
"You're right," Ronfar agreed, "but then, you always are." He stretched out lazily, wrapping an arm around Mauri and holding her close. She sighed and drifted back to sleep. Ronfar was still thinking, though. About how their rocky past and terrible separation had eventually led to this peaceful contentment.
Ronfar wiggled impatiently. "Aw, man, do I really have to go to school?" he asked.
His mother tweaked his nose. "Son, you need your education," she told him. "Every child must attend the Raculi school at age eight. I've taught you the basics, and now you need a real teacher to set you on the right path."
"Yeah, right," he scoffed, "like I'm going to spend my life in a book like those priests do." Aw, well. There would be kids to meet, and maybe try that gambling game his father had taught him. Poker, it was called. A way to make a little money.
"And don't even think about bringing those cards," his mother continued. "Oh! Your father and his poker games. Luckily, they don't play for money anymore."
"'Cause Dad wins all their money," Ronfar explained. Fortunately, the luck ran in the family. He picked up his bag and lunch, (after an inspection for said cards), kissed his mother, and ran out the door. To school.
Ronfar picked a good seat near the back and watched the kids who piled in. All the kids attended the school until they got to be fifteen, when they could stop or continue on in bigger cities like Meribia. The choice scholars went to Pentagulia. He snorted. Why continue the agony for more years?
Most of the kids were older, a few new. He suddenly noticed a stern-faced beast kid a little older than he come in, looking for a seat. Behind him was a beast girl, his age, looking frightened. Her brother (had to be her brother) held her hand and chose a place a few seats ahead of Ronfar.
Ronfar stared at the girl. Not because of her race, like some idiots. She was... beautiful. Not just beautiful like his mom, but beautiful like an... an angel, he thought, embarrassed. She had a look of purity that reminded him of the Althena statue near the town entrance. She looked around a little nervously, then looked back at Ronfar. He smiled at her, and she smiled back, tentatively. Shyly, she turned around. Her brother glanced back at Ronfar, his face expressionless. Wow, what a serious-looking kid, Ronfar thought. Of course, with a sister like that...
"Okay, kids. Let's get going," the teacher announced. "Welcome, you new ones. I like to start the day with a story. This year, we'll hear the story of Dragonmaster Alex." Cheers erupted, as the story was a popular one. Ronfar was delighted to discover that the story was exciting, and he sat forward eagerly to listen.
Ronfar was still glad for recess. He looked around for a ball, considering starting a kickball game or something.
"Leave me alone!" A girl's voice broke through his musings. Ronfar looked around. The pretty girl with the stern brother was in the middle of a circle of kids. They were pushing her.
"Think you're better than us because you're smart, huh?" one asked. "We don't like snots like that." He pushed her again.
Angrily, Ronfar ran to the group. "You leave her alone, you jerks!" he snarled.
"Hey, are you that big brother she told us about?" another asked.
"No, but I won't let you keep picking on her!" Ronfar replied. He pushed one boy away, then smacked another in the jaw. He ran off, howling in pain. One boy charged him, while Ronfar stuck out a foot and tripped him. He got up, moaning, and left. The others followed.
The girl smiled at him. "Thank you for helping me," she said softly. "My brother was playing with some other kids."
"No sweat. They needed a lesson," Ronfar declared. "I'm Ronfar. You are?"
She blushed. "Mauri," she replied.
Ronfar grinned. Mauri. What a pretty name. "Where do you live?" he asked, "I'm in that small house in the middle."
"Oh, we're from-" Mauri began.
"Mauri! Are you all right?" The stern-faced kid came running up. "I didn't see right away... I came as soon as I could..."
"It's okay, Leo. Ronfar here helped me," Mauri assured him.
Her brother looked Ronfar over. A small smile appeared, making him less forbidding. "I thank you, Ronfar," he said, almost formally. "My name is Leo. I'm Mauri's older brother. I try to look after her."
Ronfar grinned. "I think you just got another recruit," he answered.
Leo looked shocked for an instant, then slowly smiled. Mauri looked shy, but smiled as well. Ronfar held out a hand, and Leo shook it solemnly.
That day started a friendship of a lifetime. Ronfar was drawn to Mauri's sweetness and sincerity. Mauri liked Ronfar's easygoing nature and desire to help others. At first, Leo hung around Ronfar as if to scope him out, but before too long accepted him.
All too soon, graduation day was coming. It was time to decide what they wanted to do. Ronfar still didn't know, but he wanted to help people and stick close to Mauri. The night before the ceremony, they had a bonfire on the beach.
"What are you going to do, Mauri?" Ronfar asked, chewing on a grass stem, "Stay here in the village?"
Mauri and Leo looked at each other. Mauri then began slowly, "I've known since childhood what I wanted to do. I want to enter the priesthood. I want to bring hope to those who have none, and I want to be able to heal people's pain, physical and emotional."
Ronfar considered. Entering the priesthood had been a thought for him as well. He, too, wanted to heal, after losing his mother to a disease. To be able to save others... "Well, looks like you'll be putting up with me for more years," he drawled.
Leo choked in surprise. "You? Taking the cloth and vows?" he asked. "Ronfar, do you know how many years of work it will be?"
"Sure, buddy," he replied. "But, it makes sense. They can keep me out of trouble, and you know how I feel. Besides, I can look after Mauri, be with her." Mauri blushed and took his hand. "How about you?" he asked wickedly. "Gonna give up this knighthood thing? Join us?"
Leo shook his head. "No," he replied, "I believe in protecting people before they get hurt. To stop criminals and those who go against Althena... that will be my service."
"But you'll stay in Pentagulia for a time, right?" Mauri asked worriedly.
"Yes, dear sister," Leo replied, "I'm going to train for some time. Talk has begun about a guard service, and I'd like to join it, help where I'm needed."
"Then it's settled. We'll take Pentagulia by storm!" Ronfar declared.
"Don't forget about the test," Leo cautioned his friend. "You must have potential to be accepted into the priesthood."
"No problem," Ronfar said confidently, "I'm sure we'll both pass with flying colors."
Aw, man! What was I thinking? I'll never pass! Ronfar thought to himself. He, Mauri, and three other candidates stood in a line, being looked over by high members of the Chosen. They were critical, and seemed to stare at Ronfar longer than the others. Finally, they began.
"If you pass this first of tests, you will be allowed to begin your training for the Chosen," one began. "The path of the Chosen is maybe the hardest path to the Goddess, but the most noble. It requires years of study, obedience, and honor of virtues. But, the rewards are well worth the effort. We will now teach you the Litany of Potential. You will ask if you are suited to the path. A light shown will be your approval and potential. Let's begin."
Ronfar listened carefully, going over the words in his head. He looked at Mauri. She was calm and serene, so certain of her path. She smiled at him hopefully.
"Jacinta, you're first," the leader called out. The girl walked up, closed her eyes, and recited the litany. A soft, pearly light shone on her, then faded. "Welcome to our school, my dear," he said, patting her on the back. Her face radiated happiness.
The next two boys were obviously there because of their parents, and failed miserably. "Try another path to the Goddess, my sons," the leader proclaimed. "Mauri, your turn."
Ronfar watched eagerly. Mauri walked up slowly, her face pure and composed. She bowed her head and repeated the words of the litany. Suddenly, a shower of brilliant white light shone on the girl, dissipating slowly.
"By the Goddess! We've never had a candidate with this much potential!" one gasped. "Mauri, our most heartfelt welcome. You will do great things."
Mauri smiled happily, and came back by Ronfar. The leader nodded at him. "Ronfar, is it?" he asked. "Your try."
Nervously, Ronfar stepped up. He silently prayed for composure, and prayed out loud for acceptance. Like for Mauri, bright light encircled the young man, and disappeared.
"By Althena... two star candidates! You two and Jacinta, welcome," the leader said. Leo came down to hug his younger sister, who had passed the first test of her dream. Ronfar grinned, surprised and a little embarrassed. He noticed two members of the Chosen talking quietly.
"...two gems of Raculi. What do you think?" one asked.
"I think one will serve quite well. Soon..." the other replied. Ronfar frowned, not liking their expressions.
"Ronfar! We made it!" Mauri cried joyfully, throwing her arms around him. Ronfar hugged the girl he loved tightly, glad that they would be together for their futures.
Mauri and Ronfar truly were star pupils. They spent many nights studying together, practicing their healing, but also just enjoying the other's company. Leo would join them as often as his schedule permitted, but would strangely leave early many nights.
"I think he's trying to tell us something," Ronfar commented one night. He and Mauri were taking a study-break, watching the Minea Sea splash the holy white walls of Pentagulia.
"Yes, I think so, too," Mauri agreed, "but, I'm grateful for his understanding." She squeezed her beloved's hand, receiving a squeeze in return. "I'm so glad you're enjoying our studies."
"I'm surprised I am," Ronfar admitted. "I hated studying as a kid. But, there's so much good to be learned and passed on. Plus, the feeling you get when you stop someone's pain..."
"That's what it's all about." Mauri finished. She smiled up at him, and he bent down and kissed her softly.
Normally, the priesthood program took seven years. Mauri was ordained after four, Ronfar after five. A huge party was held in the graduates' honor.
"I'm so proud of you," Mauri commented, looking splendid in a red robe. For the night, she had pinned her long hair up.
Ronfar, relieved at a break from priestly garb, was clad in more casual clothes. "Thank you," he replied. "I can't believe it."
"It's a miracle, all right," a voice drawled. Leo came up, handsome in a white uniform.
"Thanks, Leo," Ronfar replied dryly, "I knew I could count on you to believe in me."
"I did, all the way through," Leo said. "Well... after the first six months, anyway."
Ronfar rolled his eyes as Mauri giggled. Suddenly, a harried-looking messenger arrived. "Forgive me, Lady Mauri," he began, "but an urgent message has arrived for you."
"Excuse me," Mauri said to her brother and love, then followed the messenger.
"You know what I mean," Leo continued. "You really showed your commitment, Ronfar. I'm truly impressed."
"Speaking of commitment..." Ronfar began, pulling a small box out of his pocket, "I bought Mauri a special gift last night. I want to give it to her tonight, and I wanted to get your approval first."
Leo looked surprised, then grinned. "Asking big brother for permission, eh?" he asked. "Ronfar, I love you like a brother. You and Mauri are soul mates, and there's no one who can make my sister happier than you. Go for it."
"I plan on it," Ronfar replied, stashing the box.
Suddenly Mauri returned, upset. A letter was in her hand. "What's wrong?" Leo asked.
"It's home... A plague has swept through the village," his sister replied. "Our parents are very sick. No one has been able to cure it. I'm going to hire a ship to Raculi immediately."
"I'll go with you," Ronfar offered, "I'll help."
"No," Mauri replied, "I don't want you to get sick. I can handle this, I know I can. Just be waiting for me when I get back."
"But, Mauri, what if you get sick?" Ronfar asked, a question that would return to haunt him.
Mauri kissed him. "I'll be fine," she assured him. "Don't worry, I'll be careful. I have to go pack and find a ship." She hugged Leo, then left.
Ronfar sighed and thrust his hands in his pockets. "I don't like it," he muttered. "Well, I'll have to wait. I'll give it to her when your parents are better."
Ronfar paced angrily. He was worried. Mauri had written him every other day of her progress, or lack of, and now it had been four days. Mauri, what if you get sick?
"Dammit! I can't take it anymore!" he shouted, slamming a fist on his desk. Quickly, he threw together a bag, then ran to the port. "When's the next ship to Raculi?" he demanded.
The clerk looked up. "I'm sorry, sir, most of our ships are gone. The other three are in repair," he answered apologetically.
"Please? It's an emergency!" Ronfar tried.
"I wish I could help you," the clerk sighed, "The only ship here is the Dragonship Destiny."
Ronfar blinked. Of course. Leo would take him to Raculi, now that he was the captain. "Thanks," he replied, and took off.
The barracks that housed Althena's Guard were quite close to the port. Ronfar ran, looking frantically for Leo's new room. Let's see... the one with the crest on the door... ah ha! Ronfar banged on the door.
"What the hell?!" Leo's voice rang out. He opened the door. "Ronfar! What's the matter?" he asked, concerned.
"I'm worried about Mauri," Ronfar blurted out. "I haven't gotten a letter from her in four days. Can you take me to Raculi on the Destiny?"
Leo sighed. "Of course," he replied. "I'm concerned as well. Like you, it's been days since I received a letter. Let's go."
Ronfar paced the huge ship, impressed but wishing it could go faster. It seemed to take forever to cross the Minea Sea to their destination. He leaped off as soon as he deemed it safe.
"Hey! You're s'posed to wait 'til the ship comes to a complete stop... hey!" A guard yelled, cut off a by knock from a fellow guardsman. Leo shook his head and followed his friend.
"Lord Leo! Ronfar! Oh, thank Althena you're here!" an older man named Josam called out.
"Why is that? What's happened?" Leo asked worriedly.
Josam lowered his head. "'Tis this plague," he answered, "Everyone's been dying. I'm sorry, but you both lost parents."
Ronfar cursed under his breath. "How's Mauri?" he asked.
Josam hesitated. "Ronfar..." he began, "She... she's caught it, too. Didn't want me to tell no one, but you'da found out sooner or later."
"Nooooo!" Ronfar moaned, then took off running for her house, Leo right behind. Ronfar knocked hard, but no one answered. Leo dug out the key and opened the door.
"Mauri! Where are you?" Leo called out. The two men looked around, making their way to the bedroom.
"Leo?! Ronfar?! What are you doing here?" came Mauri's weak question.
Ronfar stopped when he saw his beloved. Mauri was very white. She looked thinner, and had some red that indicated a fever. She also looked very exhausted... and a little mad. "I told you not to come! I didn't want you to get sick! I-" The scolds broke off as Mauri began coughing frantically. Ronfar got her a glass of water to drink. She downed it quickly.
"Mauri, I told you I want to look after you," Ronfar said. "I love you, and don't want anything to happen to you."
"Family must be together in hard times," Leo added, "No matter our responsibilities, you're the only sister I have."
"I'm sorry," Mauri apologized, "I didn't mean... I just didn't want anything to happen. And I didn't want you to be here... when I ... died."
"No!" Ronfar contradicted. "You're not going to die! We're going to cure this, Mauri! I won't lose you that easily!"
"Ronfar, everyone who had this has died," Mauri explained sadly. "I couldn't cure anyone, not even my parents. There's just no way... ahhhhh!" A moan of pain cut her off.
"Ronfar's right," Leo remarked. "We must have hope. We must try."
"Okay, time to put some learning into practice. Leo, get on the other side of the bed and help me out here," Ronfar declared. "I'm gonna try."
Mauri shook her head, tears welling up. "It's too strong," she protested, "There's... there's something wrong with... this... ohhhh..." She moaned in pain.
Ronfar steeled himself. He lowered his head and chanted the strongest healing litany he knew. He was not going to let the woman he loved die! Not like this! He concentrated, gathering healing light and turning it towards Mauri.
"Ahhhhhh!" she screamed, "It's... getting worse... help me! Leo! Ronfar!"
"Just a little more!" Ronfar grunted. "Hold on, Mauri!"
"Stay with us!" Leo added. "Fight, Mauri, fight!"
"I won't let you give up!" Ronfar declared.
Mauri tried, tried to shove away the horrendous pain growing. It was too strong, even for a powerful priestess like herself. It rolled over her defenses and struck. A scream of pure agony slammed through her.
"NO! Mauri!!!!" Ronfar yelled, throwing every bit of power he had into it. Just... a little more... must... keep trying... no good. He passed out, having used too much power. Mauri screamed again, then passed out herself.
Leo stood, stunned. He had never seen Ronfar fail, nor Mauri. What had Mauri meant, about this sickness being... wrong? He shook his head at Ronfar. "You little fool," he muttered, not meaning it. "Don't know your limits." He picked up his friend's limp body and deposited him in the bed next to Mauri's. He then sat down to think.
Ronfar came to some hours later. He thrashed his way out of the blanket that Leo had draped over him. "Mauri!" he called.
"She's asleep... or still passed out," Leo replied quietly. "At least she's not feeling pain."
Ronfar tried to sit up. The room spun unmercifully, but he still had to try... "Lie down!" Leo ordered sharply in his best commander voice.
"I gotta try again, Leo!" Ronfar protested, but laying down. "Mauri needs me!"
Leo's face softened. "I understand," he replied quietly, "but, my friend, you are drained. You threw too much power into your first attempt. I am afraid we must find a different way to cure Mauri of this illness. I sent the Destiny back to Pentagulia, along with an urgent request to High Priest Adair for his immediate assistance."
Ronfar relaxed slightly. "When?" he asked.
"After I placed you in bed after your collapse," Leo answered. "The best thing that you can do for Mauri now is to rest and regain your strength."
Ronfar sighed. "But I failed her," he murmured. "I failed to protect her when she needed it the most."
"My friend, you are only human," was the reply. "You did your best, Ronfar. I've never seen a healing spell that strong before. Never blame yourself for trying your best, only when you do not."
"I'll rest, I promise," Ronfar assured his friend. "Maybe you should go watch for the Destiny coming back."
Leo hesitated. "You will be all right?" he asked. Ronfar nodded. "Very well. Stay in bed," he ordered, got up with a groan, and left.
Ronfar turned on his side to check on Mauri. She looked even whiter than before, her face tight with pain. "I'm sorry, Mauri," he whispered, tears coming. "I'm sorry I wasn't strong enough for you."
About half an hour later, Leo returned. In his hand was a letter, and a bottle filled with a strange red solution. His face was filled with relief. "Adair wrote me that they had a new cure-all just made. He assures us it will cure this," he explained.
"Great, let's try it," Ronfar said, taking the bottle in his hand. A strange tingling shot through his hand, then faded. He frowned, then shook his head. He still felt light-headed. He sat on the side of his bed nearest Mauri. "Mauri," he called, "we have something for you. Leo sent a note to the High Priest, and they sent something for you."
Mauri opened her eyes wearily. "It's too late," she murmured. "Nothing can break this."
"No, you're wrong," Ronfar argued. "Please, you must try this. Can you drink it?"
Mauri looked up. Seeing the love and hope shining in her beloved's eyes, she started to hope herself. "Yes, I'll try," she answered. Leo helped his little sister to sit up, and Ronfar held the bottle to her lips.
Mauri tasted it, and shuddered. "No!" she cried out, "Ronfar, please... something's wrong... I can sense something wrong... take it away!"
"Mauri, whatever it is, we'll take care of it! Please, for your life!" Ronfar begged her.
Mauri steeled herself and downed the bottle. She gasped as a fire raced through her veins, working to burn out sickness. The illness was going away, but... the fire remained. She could feel it continuing to burn inside her. Not just for sickness, but... burning her very soul. She also felt exhausted.
"How do you feel?" Leo asked.
"The illness... it's going, but... I think I just need to rest," Mauri answered. That was weird. She had meant to mention the fire, but... she hadn't.
"Just take it easy, my love," Ronfar advised her, "We'll let you rest."
No! Don't leave me alone! "Thank you," Mauri replied, and curled up for some sleep.
The two men left the room, relieved. "I can't believe it... but that appeared to do it!" Ronfar exclaimed happily.
"I'll write a letter to Adair immediately. No, I'll go thank him in person!" Leo decided joyfully. "Ronfar, will you stay in Raculi awhile and look after Mauri? Just to make sure?"
Ronfar grinned. "Leo, you worrywart," he scolded, "Mauri will be fine. She said that the illness was going. Go thank the High Priest for both of us." Leo smiled and nodded.
Feeling better, my dear?
Who are you? What do you want?
I'm the one who just saved your life. My power removed the sickness. Of course, that's because my power caused the sickness.
What?! Why did you kill so many people? My parents... Ronfar's father... our friends... why did you save me?
My dear, we've been fishing for you for quite some time. Didn't you wonder why the antidote came up only when you were the only sick one left?
Leo said... the Chosen just came up with it... Leo and Ronfar just came now...
The Chosen came up with it because I told them it was time. I told them it was time to claim you as one of Althena's Heroes... or, actually, my Heroes.
WHO ARE YOU?! Why would you want me?!
You are incredibly powerful, my dear. My servants noted that you and your precious Ronfar were good possibilities. But you are even stronger than he is. You will learn to wield the Red Dragon Power well, in my service. And I... am Zophar, the Destructor, the Master of Chaos! I need human help to revive and make over Lunar to my liking.
NO! I will not help you! I am a priestess, and I serve Althena!
You mean... you did serve Althena. Did you notice the color of the liquid, my dear? Such a strange, crimson color?
You can't mean...
Yes, that was my blood. My blood flows in you, and will forever. You are mine, Mauri. You will be my mistress of death. And nobody will stop me.
The Chosen will stop you! They have priests stronger than I!
Oh, you are delusional. The Chosen are my puppets. And so is your precious brother. He thinks that he's serving Althena, but he's actually aiding me in binding her away forever. You have no hope of escaping me, Mauri. No one will ever learn of your enslavement. HA,HA, HA!
No... I will fight him. I can't let him take over. I must...
You won't. Sweet dreams, my dear. You'll never control yourself again.
Ronfar sat in his room in Raculi thinking. The past year had been... terrifying.
Mauri had recovered from the illness, but was... different. She had insisted on returning to Pentagulia immediately to resume her priestess duties. Ronfar had tried to talk her out of it, telling her she had to rest more, but she stood firm.
"I owe my life to Althena, Ronfar," she explained, "My life and my work. There is so much to be done."
Maybe so. A few weeks after her recovery, the christening of the new Four Heroes was declared. Some guy named Borgan made the Grand Black Wizard, a karate master named Lunn earned the Blue rank, Leo was declared the White Knight, and Mauri the Red Priestess. Ronfar had been so proud of both of them! Leo was so pleased, he just kept smiling the whole night. But Mauri...
The two had walked around Pentagulia after the ceremony. Ronfar had tried to hold Mauri's hand, but she didn't catch it. She was evidently thinking about her new duties.
"Get to travel on the Chosen's tab... send the message all over Lunar... and who knows what you'll get to cure," Ronfar mused. "Lots of frostbite in Zulan, I'd bet."
"Yes. But, Ronfar, I've been thinking. Where does sickness and strife come from?" Mauri asked.
"Huh? Well, sickness from little germs, and strife... greed, I guess," Ronfar answered.
"They come from people turning away from Althena," Mauri corrected him. "People disobeying her."
Ronfar stared at her. When had she gotten that fanatic gleam? And that smile... it almost looked... cruel. "Mauri?" he asked uncertainly.
"Ronfar, bad things happen to people who don't obey Althena. We as the Chosen interpret her meaning, and pass on her wishes. They must listen to us," Mauri said sharply. "And those who don't..."
"Those who don't?" Ronfar repeated incredulously.
"As it is, we work healings to clean up after sins," Mauri explained. "We must stop them. Those who disobey Althena are rewarded. They should be punished!"
"Punished?! That's not for us to decide!" Ronfar objected. "We're not Althena! Dammit, Mauri, where the hell are you getting all this?"
Mauri frowned. "My dear Ronfar, it is what we must do," she said softly. "I'm sorry if I upset you."
"I'm sorry I lost it like that, but... what about healing? What about peace?" Ronfar asked.
Mauri stared at him... like a stranger. "Peace will only come when all bow down," she hissed sharply, then appeared to soften. "I'm tired, Ronfar. I'm going home to bed." She turned away and left. Ronfar just stood, mouth agape. What had happened to his love?
That wasn't as bad as... the disasters.
Ronfar had been an assistant teacher in a history class, and had just finished, when the head teacher came in. He looked pale. "What is it, Balse?" Ronfar asked, concerned.
"Dalton... the place had a massive outbreak of fire!" he gasped, "Ten homes burned in one night! Twenty people are dead!"
"Oh, no, Mauri!" Ronfar moaned, "Mauri went to Dalton two days ago! Is she...?"
Balse gave him a funny look. "She's fine," he replied quietly, "There is talk... there are rumors...there is a possibility that she set those fires."
"WHAT? Mauri, doing something like that?" Ronfar exploded.
Balse put a fatherly hand on his friend's shoulder. "Ronfar, you know what she's been preaching," he said quietly. "Brimstone and retribution. The power of the Red Dragon would account for it nicely."
Ronfar shook his head. "They should be punished!" Those were Mauri's words. But she couldn't have. Not his Mauri, not the woman he still loved. "There must be another explanation," he whispered. "Please, Althena, there must be."
Ronfar tried to hold onto that hope. Mauri next went to Zulan, where a terrible avalanche hit the town, killing fifteen people. Then those disappearances in Zaback...
He sat at his table in Raculi, and opened a notebook. He had written a list of Mauri's travels, and any disasters. Nine trips, nine disasters. The dates matched. There must be another explanation, he would go talk to her...
Ronfar quickly picked up the notebook and trotted next door. Mauri was there, with that fiery look in her eyes. "Mauri, I've got to ask you something," he said desperately. "In all your travels for the Chosen, not one town has escaped catastrophe. At first, I thought it was coincidence, but... Mauri, did you do those horrible things?"
Mauri looked at him, wide-eyed. "Why do you bring these accusations to me?" she asked, annoyed. "They were merely sinners, paying for their acts."
No! "Mauri, what's happened to you?" Ronfar asked, ashen. "Where's the woman I fell in love with? Where's that sweetness, that purity that gave you my heart the first time I saw you?!"
Mauri trembled, then regained her composure. "I am no different from then," she remarked coolly, "Perhaps it is you. Leave me, Ronfar. I have work to do." She turned and left.
Ronfar sank down to the ground. No. His Mauri, his sweet Mauri, was... evil. She had changed, ever since... ever since her recovery. His eyes widened.
"Ronfar, please... something's wrong... I can sense something wrong...take it away!" she had begged him. Like an idiot, he had practically forced her to drink that potion, to stop his pain.
It was his fault. He had failed to cure her, and he had made her drink a potion that terrified her and changed into a vengeful creature that he hardly recognized. The woman he loved and wanted to protect forever.
If I can't save the one I love the most, how can I save anyone else? he thought. He couldn't stand it anymore. He had to get out of here, out of Mauri's life before he caused her any more pain. He had to leave the Chosen, too. He couldn't fail anyone else, the way he had failed Mauri.
Leo had been in town, and was set to leave in an hour. Ronfar sighed, and packed quickly. He left a note for Mauri, then walked out.
Ronfar walked up to the Dragonship Destiny, again. Two guards blocked the path. "I want to see Leo," he said quietly.
The guards looked at each other. Lord Leo had ordered no more civilians, but this one was special. "Follow me," one said, leading Ronfar to Leo's private quarters. He knocked smartly.
Leo answered, his eyes going wide at the side of Ronfar. "Ronfar! What are you doing here?" he asked. "Wait. Guardsman, return to your post." The guard saluted and left. Leo gestured his friend inside.
Ronfar whistled appreciatively. "You sure do travel in style, buddy," he remarked. Leo smiled. "Yes, they try to take care of me," he replied. "Are you here to bum another ride on the Destiny, my friend?"
Ronfar looked down. "I'm leaving the Chosen," he answered quietly. "And Mauri."
"What?! Why? Ronfar, you are one of the finest priests..." Leo began.
"No, I'm worthless!" Ronfar interrupted. "I couldn't save Mauri, so I forced her to drink that potion that turned her into... a fanatic psycho!" His tears gave way. "Mauri's been causing disasters all over Lunar. And it's my fault!"
"Ronfar, that potion saved her life!" Leo objected. "She would be dead by now. And maybe... the Chosen could help her..."
"I know I can't," Ronfar muttered. "Where are you going?"
Leo wrinkled his nose. "Larpa," he replied. "That cesspool of corruption. We have a few people we want to question."
Ronfar considered. Larpa had no regard for the Chosen. The sanctuary there was a mockery, really. A perfect place to forget his past. "Sounds good," he decided.
Leo stared at him. "Ronfar, there must be something else you can do!" he tried. "What will Mauri say when she finds out?"
"She'll probably be glad," Ronfar answered dully. "I won't be there to keep scolding her. Leo, please, I need to get away from here. I know what I'm doing."
Leo thought about it. "Ronfar," he began, "I do this only because you are my brother and I hope you will change your mind on the way. I just hope you can find peace with yourself, because you won't feel better until you do. What happened was not your fault." He laid a hand on Ronfar's shoulder.
Mauri walked over to Ronfar's house. For a time, she had regained control of herself, and planned on spilling the story and begging his forgiveness for her words. "Ronfar?" she called. No answer. She then noticed a note on the table.
My dearest Mauri, I have decided to leave the Chosen. I couldn't save you, and I don't see how I could ever save anyone else. I'm also leaving for you, that I will never cause you any more pain. Something changed in you, my love, something that I don't understand and probably never will. Please know that this will be the best thing for us both, and don't come after me. You should have someone who can care for you the way you deserve, and I am not good enough for that. I will pray that you have a good life, and be able to find your path.
"No..." Mauri moaned, "Ronfar, my heart, why? What happened was not your fault! It was the potion... no! Leave me alone!" She sank down, her grief leaving her open to Zophar again.
Ronfar stood at the side of the Destiny, watching the Minea Sea splash softly under the ship. This hurt. It hurt more than anything he had ever done. But it was for Mauri, and he knew he would brave anything, death or worse, to ensure her happiness. He would always love her, but he couldn't be with her.
What was that in his pocket? He hadn't worn these clothes for a while. He reached in... and pulled out a small velvet box. He gasped. The ring he had planned to give Mauri on his ordination day lay there.
He watched it sparkle in the moonlight, shining with hope for a new life. How much had gone wrong in that year. His hopes for a good life with Mauri were dashed forever. He pulled the ring out, stared at it, and threw it into the Minea Sea. Then he lay his head on the railing and sobbed his heart out.
"Whoo-hoo! Twelve thousand, baby!" Ronfar called out joyfully, scooping up the pot.
"Ah, not again!" his opponent moaned, "My money..."
Ronfar grinned and took a gulp of ale. He flipped a coin to the loser. "Cheer up, friend," he said happily. "Next week you can try again."
He shook his head. "I know when I'm beat," he muttered, and left the table.
Ronfar grinned and counted his winnings. Not bad for a day's work. Two years had established him as the best gambler in Larpa. He was good at cards, but had a master hand with the dice.
The Chosen had at first tried to re-initiate him, but had given up. They now turned up their noses at him. Ronfar didn't care. He was done with them. All he needed was his Casa, his dice, and a good ale now and then. That was all he needed to be happy.
Leo had come a few times to try to change his mind, but Ronfar would have none of it. He knew that Mauri was much better off without a loser like him, and was fine where he was. During the day, anyway. His guilt and loss would return in nightmares, to haunt him...
Not again! Stop it about the past, man! he scolded himself, and sampled another taste of ale. Larpa's finest, not that that was saying much. Tasted more like pond water, which gave a good kick in some cases...
A strange group of people (which says a lot for Larpa) entered the tavern. A young man in blue with a ratty yellow cape, a strange pink flying cat, and a young woman. Ronfar squinted at the woman. She looked ill, but had a look of purity... like a young girl on her first day of school...
Ronfar shook his head and tried another swallow of ale. He wondered if they knew how to roll the bones...
Ronfar smiled at the memory. He'd never have guessed that that day would be the rebound of his life, the first step towards making amends and giving him the life he had always wanted-- with Mauri. He had saved Lucia, and gotten back his confidence. Also, a new hope... a hope which was realized in Serak Palace, with Lucia's help. Zophar and his treachery were gone forever.
There were scars, yes. There had been tough days. But it was worth it. He and Mauri had come over every obstacle together, and could face anything ahead. Ronfar gently kissed his sweet Mauri, and went to sleep himself.
Back to the Library of Vane.
Back to the Shrine to Ghaleon.