JUST LIKE OLD TIMES (A.K.A. ANOTHER FINE MESS)
On a beautiful spring morning, Alex lay in bed, trying to get used to the fact that he was going to be sixteen in two weeks.
He wasn't sure what he thought was stranger: actually hitting the big one-six, or having done so much before even reaching that age. He and his parents had invited all his friends, and all of Burg. While he was looking forward to seeing them again, he was dreading the thought that his mother might gush over him in front of everybody. He was already semi-embarrassed that he still lived with his parents. Fortunately, Luna had mentioned something about them getting a place of their own soon.
He remembered the adventure they had six months ago, and every time he remembered how close he had come to losing Luna to Magic Emperor Ghaleon's evil, his heart chilled. But then he remembered that he had beaten the odds, and she was safe.
Things had been quiet ever since.
Alex hadn't realized how much he had actually enjoyed his adventure--the excitement, the thrill, the knowledge that he had made a difference in the lives of the people of Lunar. He almost laughed as he recalled how the adventure had begun. A simple little trip with his best friend Ramus to the White Dragon Cave in search of a Dragon Diamond had led to an epic battle with the fate of the world hanging in the balance. As much as he enjoyed being home and knowing the world and his true love was safe, he almost wished for another adventure. He had sacrificed the Dragonmaster's power to save Luna, and there were no other adventures to go on.
Alex smiled at the thought of Luna, and turned over to look at her. She never failed to make him smile (except for the time she was under Ghaleon's influence and was trying to destroy him). He stared lovingly at the beautiful girl beside him. By Althena, she was so lovely... the serene look on her face... the flow of her blue-black hair, standing out against her ivory skin and crimson nightgown... her gentle smile. It was easy to believe that she was once the goddess Althena, even though she lived the life of a mortal. And he was waiting impatiently for her own birthday, two months away, when he was planning on proposing to her. With Luna as his wife, his life would lack nothing, no matter what. Just two more months and....
"Excuse me, sonny," said a voice behind him. "Can ye help a poor ol' man find his way?"
Alex turned around upon hearing the voice... and stared right into a familiar, furry face with a huge smirk on it.
"Good morning, Nall," Alex sighed.
"Gee, and I thought eyesight was the first thing to go!" Nall said in his regular voice.
"Knock it off!"
"You know, Alex, I had to start lighting your birthday candles today. Otherwise I'd never get done in time for your birthday!"
"That's it, shrimpy!" Alex said. "You're a dead dragon!"
"Can you boys keep it down?" Luna said, in a high-and-mighty tone. "I need my beauty rest!"
Nall said, "Oh, I wouldn't worry about that. You're beautiful enough already!"
Alex laughed. "Hey, fuzzball, find your own true love! She's already spoken for!"
"Oh, my hero!" Luna said sarcastically.
Nall grinned. "Alex, this is a side of you I haven't seen! Has Kyle been giving you lessons in--AKK!" He ducked as Alex launched his pillow at him. "HAH! Missed by a mile, and you don't have another pillow!"
"Here, Alex, you can have mine," said Luna sweetly, before belting Alex upside the head with her pillow.
"Whose side are you on, anyway?" Alex cried, once he recovered.
Suddenly Alex's mother started pounding on the door. "If you CHILDREN are done making a mess in there, someone is here to see you, Alex."
Alex fixed up the bedsheets as neatly as possible and went to open the door, wondering who it could possibly be. When he opened it, he saw his old friend, Ramus.
"Hi, Alex!" Ramus said. "Surprise!"
"You're telling me!" Alex laughed. "How have you been? And what are you doing here?"
Ramus grinned. "You don't think I'd forget my best friend's birthday, do y'a? Besides, business in Meribia has been slow, ever since what happened to Dross three days ago...."
"Dross?" Nall asked. "That little rat who tried to steal Quark's Diamond? What happened to him?"
"You haven't heard? Three nights ago, Dross was found murdered in my shop!"
Alex was grim. Although he disliked Dross for trying to steal Quark's Diamond during the beginning of his adventure, Dross didn't deserve to die.
"And that's not all of it!" Ramus exclaimed. "Whoever it was swiped Quark's Diamond too!"
"Does Master Mel have any idea who stole it?"
"Nope," Ramus said. "But all his men are searching for the thieves. Actually, that's another reason I'm here. I want to go get it back myself, and I was wondering if you'd like to come along."
Alex was uncertain. "Me?"
"Sure! For an experienced, cosmos-saving adventurer like you, this is just your kind of thing! Besides, getting the Dragon Diamond was our first big adventure! Are we gonna let a pack of cutthroats keep it?"
Alex couldn't deny that it was tempting. The thought of adventure again... but he couldn't miss his own birthday celebration; his parents would never let him live it down. Besides, the last time he and Ramus had gone on a "little adventure," it had ended up as a war with all of Lunar, not to mention Luna's life, at stake. Plus, he no longer had the power of the Dragonmasters.
"I'm not the Dragonmaster anymore..." was all he could say.
"So? You did lots of awesome stuff before you became Dragonmaster! This'll be a piece of cake compared to that!"
"I've heard that one before," said Luna who had overheard the whole thing.
"Hi, Luna!" Ramus said. "You're looking great!"
Luna smiled demurely, and then turned to Alex with a concerned look. "Are you going to do it?"
"I don't know. I want to... but I can't. I don't have the Dragonmaster armor anymore, or Althena's sword."
"No problem!" Ramus said, handing him an elegant sword. "Fresh from the Meribian swordsmiths, plus the guys on Black Rose Street juiced it up a bit!"
Alex handled the sword, testing its balance and weight. It felt like a strong weapon, but there seemed to be something unusual about it. Still....
"I can't leave you behind, Luna," Alex said solemnly.
"I'll come with you," she said.
"Absolutely not! I won't allow you to put yourself in danger again!"
"I can handle myself, Alex. Besides, I can see in your eyes how much you miss adventuring. I want you to do it, and I want to be there with you."
"You'll be back in time for your birthday," Ramus said.
Alex stared at Luna and Ramus, and then smiled. "Okay. I'll do it."
"Not without me you're not!" Nall exclaimed.
"So we're all going?" Ramus asked.
"Yeah," Alex said. "We're all going."
Meanwhile, a tall figure stood on the edge of the village of Burg. She wore a black robe with a hood. All that was visible of her were several locks of blonde hair, and a sneaky smile. The smile widened as she saw Alex, Ramus, Luna and Nall leave the house and head on her way. She continued to stare at them secretly for a few minutes, and then went to tell her companions who were waiting for her return.
Everything was going according to plan.
"So what's our first move?" Ramus asked.
"Meribia," Alex asked. "Maybe we can pick up any clues to see who the thieves were."
"Works for me," Nall said.
The party traveled to Saith, and arranged for travel to Meribia. "And make sure you have the freaking map this time!" Nall warned the captain. As they sailed for Meribia, Alex couldn't help wondering what lay ahead for them. Why did Ramus and Dross still have the Quark's Diamond after all this time? Was Dross the target and the Dragon Diamond merely stolen for its value, or was it the Diamond itself the thieves had come for? Was a new threat about to surface, and did it need Quark's Diamond to carry it out? After all, Alex didn't know much about Dragon Diamonds except their value and... source. Did a Dragon Diamond have a power that could be harnessed as a weapon?
At last, they arrived in Meribia, where they received a warm welcome. After refreshing themselves in the tavern, they met up with Master Mel D'Alkirk and some of his men, who were at Ramus' store.
"Well, well, the Dragonmaster's back!" Mel exclaimed. "So y'a couldn't stay away from the action, eh? Ha ha! Well, we're glad to have ye here, Alex, and we'd appreciate anything you could do t'a help."
"Thanks." Alex asked, "By the way, is Jessica around?"
"Nope. She moved out a few days ago and moved in with Kyle. A fine man, that Kyle, even if he is a little rough at times."
"Man, THAT's the understatement of the year!" Nall muttered.
They walked inside the shop. Apparently, everything had been untouched since the discovery of the robbery, although the body was removed.
"Whoever aced Dross did a messy job of it," Mel was saying. "The poor little fell'a was split right in half!"
Alex and his friends looked ill at the news. "How could that happen?" Nall asked.
Mel sighed. "The few witnesses we have say that it was a gang of thieves led by a man with a red mask and scimitar. The leader's bodyguard was a huge guy with an axe. They say the bodyguard chopped Dross in half with a single stroke."
Alex's stomachs lurched at the thought.
"Anyone you know?" Alex asked.
"Afraid not, lad. We've never heard of 'em before. Probably some leftovers of the Vile Tribe, or a new gang makin' a new first impression."
Alex looked around. Whoever had done this certainly wanted to make a mess. Were they covering something up? The theft of the Dragon Diamond? And a giant with an axe... that sounded familiar, but why? And why was their no bloodstain on the floor? Surely such a brutal murder would leave a stain. There was something weird going on here....
"What else was stolen besides the Dragon Diamond?" Luna asked.
"Nothin'. Maybe they felt that diamond would be plenty for 'em."
Possible, Alex thought, but not likely. The remaining jewels would be worth a fortune, and no thieves would turn their backs on them. Unless greed wasn't their motive.
Later, when they were finished at Dross' shop, he shared his ideas with his companions.
"How could somebody use Quark's Diamond as a weapon?" Ramus wondered.
"Since Dragon Diamonds come... er... right from the dragons, maybe the thieves think the diamond contains Dragon magic or something," Alex suggested. "But the real question is who stole it and where did they go?"
Nobody answered. Then, one guard said, "Uh, there were reports of a large band of horsemen riding west...."
"East, you dummy!" Alex heard somebody whisper.
The guard's face turned deep red. "Uh, yeah! Right! I meant east!"
"Yeah, yeah, the east,..." a nearby merchant said. "I'm pretty sure it was them... but not completely."
"It's worth a try," Nall said.
"Yeah... okay," Alex said. Something was wrong. Who whispered to the guard? Why didn't that person just speak up himself? Come to think of it, nobody was really taking this seriously--not even his companions or Mel. Not only that, but he also had the feeling he was being watched. He turned around, and in the background saw a strange hooded figure. A lock of blond hair was visible, even beneath the hood. The lower part of the face was faintly visible, definitely feminine, and with a strange expression. Not quite sinister, but something else. But when he tried to get a closer look, she was gone.
What was going on?
The hooded blond woman watched Alex's investigation from the shadows of a nearby alley, and frowned slightly. Those idiots had almost blown it. Alex had almost discovered the ruse. She could tell he knew something wasn't right. She just hoped he wouldn't spoil everything. But for now, the plan was still working.
She shrugged and went to join her three companions on Black Rose Street. They also wore black robes and hoods. Only the lower parts of their faces showed.
One of them, a dark young man with a deep voice, said, "Do we REALLY need these stupid robes? It's not like it's a big deal if people know who we are!"
The blond woman smiled. "It's more fun this way."
Another one, a dark-haired woman asked, "Does Alex have any idea what's going on?"
The blond woman said, "I doubt it. He knows something is weird, but he doesn't know what."
The dark young man still wasn't satisfied, apparently. "I still don't see why we can't reveal ourselves now."
The blond snapped at him, "We've been putting this together for three months. If you can wait for that long, you can wait a few more hours."
The fourth hooded figure, another young man, said, "So when do we get to meet up with Alex?"
"Soon." The blond smiled mischievously. "We'll meet up with Alex after he and his friends leave Meribia. And I can't WAIT to see the look on his face when we do!"
Alex and his friends continued east from Meribia. While there were signs of several groups that had been traveling, there was no evidence that any of the tracks they followed had anything to do with the thieves.
"This is pointless," Alex said.
"Well, it's not like we have any other choices," Nall said.
"I still think we should have checked out Meribia some more."
"There wasn't anything for us to do there," Ramus said. "We'd just be wasting time."
"Besides," Luna said, "we can't let these thieves escape with Quark's Diamond."
Alex agreed, and they were silently on their way, pondering their next move. But once again, something struck him as wrong. His friends were anxious to get on their way. Why? Or was he just over-cautious after what had happened in their last adventure: Lemia being impersonated, Ghaleon secretly being The Magic Emperor, Nash seemingly betraying his friends. Was he seeing enemies where there were none? Besides, they probably wanted to get this over with quickly, too. Ramus was never much of an adventurer, and Nall didn't sound so eager to face a huge axe-wielding giant.
A strange rustling sound from a clump of nearby bushes interrupted their silence. Alex immediately drew his sword. "Who's there?"
Was it imagination, or did he hear a strange, mocking laugh?
Alex protectively placed himself in front of Luna. "Show yourself!" he demanded.
A mocking female voice sneered. "You never were one to be taken by surprise, were you, Alex?"
From out of nowhere, four figures wearing black robes and hoods appeared--two men and two women. Their faces were hidden by their hoods, but one figure had a lock of blond hair visible. Alex recognized her from Meribia. Apparently, it was she who had spoken. All of them showed smiles... but despite their dark robes, their smiles were more mischievous than malicious.
"Who are you?" Alex asked. "What do you want with us?"
"So the Dragonboy is on another adventure," one of the men said. His voice was deep, but with a mocking tone.
"Off to save the world again?" said the other woman. Some of her hair showed as well, and it was dark.
"What's it to you?" Nall demanded.
The other man gave an amused, haughty laugh. "Well, I'm afraid we can't let you continue...."
"Without us!" the blond woman said, and they all removed their hoods. Alex gaped as he recognized them.
Nash, Mia, Kyle, and Jessica stood before him, grinning like children in a candy store where everything was free.
When Alex was finally able to speak, he managed to squeal out "What... in Althena's name... are YOU guys doing here???"
"Uh, can you give me a few seconds for my heart to start beating again?" Nall said meekly.
Kyle laughed. "I heard about what happened in Meribia. While looking around, I noticed Ramus packing for a trip to Caldor Isle. Since we know you live there, who else would he be going to see?"
Jessica said, "Kyle told me, I told Mia, and she told Nash."
"And since we haven't seen you in a while," Mia said, "we thought we could meet up with you on the way and surprise you."
"You sure did...." Alex said weakly. "But what was with the robes?"
"My idea," Jessica said mischievously. "Just in case you saw us before we were ready to surprise you, we didn't want to be recognized. And, of course, to surprise you."
"Well, the surprise worked! It's great to see you all again, but what are you doing here??"
"We're here to help," Nash said. "Why didn't you ask us? We would have come!"
"Yeah, but you and Mia have been working on rebuilding Vane, and Kyle and Jessica said they wanted to settle down and start a family. I didn't want to trouble you guys or have you waste your powers with a simple jewel theft."
"Hey," Mia said, "wasn't it a Dragon Diamond they stole? What ordinary thieves would aim that high?"
"And besides," Kyle added, "whether you need our power or not, we're your buddies."
"We stick together, right?" Nash said.
"So what do you say? Can we tag along?" asked Jessica.
Alex couldn't help laughing. "Of course! I missed you guys too, you know!!"
After a few more minutes of small talk and re-acquaintance, the party was soon on its way.
"Reza," Kyle said. "That's probably where they went."
Alex was surprised. "I didn't think the people of Reza would be that vicious."
"They aren't. But this new gang might seek refuge there and try to unload their diamond."
"Unless they don't want it for the money," Alex muttered.
Nash said, "I really don't know any way they could use a Dragon Diamond for evil, unless they want to control a dragon. And since the only dragon left is Nall, they can't be THAT desperate!" He flashed a nasty grin.
Nall fumed. "And you also don't know how close you are to...."
"No," Alex said simply.
"Okay, okay," Nall grumbled.
Hours later, they finally made it to Reza. They asked around about a gang led by a guy with a red mask and scimitar with a huge axe-wielding bodyguard, but got no answers.
"Great. Now what?" Nall sighed.
"A group like this doesn't just vanish into thin air," Kyle said. "Not even mine."
"Unless if they used some sort of stealth magic," Mia suggested. "But I can't sense any traces of a spell like that."
The leader of the Thieves Guild suddenly approached the group. "Um... I don't know if this will help, but one of my guys saw a gang wearing red capes riding towards Meryod. It might have been the bandits you're looking for."
"It's worth a shot," Ramus said.
"What's in Meryod?" Luna wondered.
"Nothing," said Kyle.
Nall grinned. "Except a bunch of empty-headed bumpkins and a girl whose singing sounds like Kyle's snoring."
"WHAT? Why I oughtta...."
Luna sighed. "Nall, you're not helping by picking fights."
"He started it!"
"I got it!" Alex said. "Meryod leads to Tamur, and Tamur leads to Pao, which is where the Black Dragon Fortress is! Maybe they're hiding there!"
"Nobody would think to look for them at the Fortress," Mia agreed.
"And perhaps a Dragon Cave is the place they need to activate the Dragon Diamond's powers!" Jessica said.
"If it has any...."
Nall spoke: "But what about Tempest and the people of Pao? How could the thieves go through Pao without going through Tempest and Fresca?"
"They used horses. Maybe they're Plainsmen--even the people of Pao themselves," Kyle said.
Alex muttered, "And maybe they killed Tempest and Fresca."
Jessica grinned. "I think Tempest and Fresca can easily take care of a bunch of bandits."
Alex agreed. But once again, he got an uneasy feeling about this whole adventure. It was too easy. It was like they were being deliberately being led somewhere. Was this a trap--for him and his friends? And why did they all agree immediately with whatever suggestion was made? What was going on?
"MORE walking?" Ramus moaned. Apparently, all this traveling wasn't doing Ramus much good.
"You've got a point," Nash said. "Hey Nall, why don't you turn into a dragon again and fly us there?"
"What do I look like, a coach?"
"No. Actually, from this angle, you look like a...."
"He's right, Nall." Alex cut in, anxious to prevent a fight. "Why don't you use your dragon-form and fly us to Pao?"
"And how come you haven't already?" panted Ramus.
"Hey, I'm still new at this! It's not that easy tooooOOWWW!!!"
Jessica, holding Nall's tail in a steel grip, said, "Listen, you little flying ferret! Either you fly us to Pao, or I will make Kyle sing to you!"
"OKAY, OKAY!" Nall shrieked.
"Hey!" Kyle grimaced.
Nall closed his eyes, and started to shimmer. The glow spread out as did his form... until finally, he was once more the majestic White Dragon.
As the pasty boarded, Luna looked uncertainly at Alex. "Was it like this on your last adventure?"
"Pretty much, yeah."
When the party arrived at Pao, they were in for a shock--all the people of Pao had vanished!
"I don't like this," Mia muttered.
"Where is everybody?" Jessica wondered.
"There's no sign of a struggle," Nash said. "Maybe they're all out hunting the bandits."
"Or maybe they were the bandits," suggested Kyle.
Alex disagreed. "Tempest and Fresca wouldn't permit that."
"So what the hell HAPPENED to everybody?"
"Man, this is getting freakier all the time!" said Nall.
"Hold it!" said Kyle. "I see some faint footprints that lead into the Black Dragon Fortress. Let's check it out!"
Drawing their weapons, they quietly slipped into the Fortress. The dust on the floor had been recently disturbed. Obviously, someone had been here.
Suddenly, they heard a groaning sound from the hallway ahead of them. Nall flew ahead to check it out.
"Oh no!" he cried. "Tempest and Fresca! They're hurt!"
Everyone rushed forward. Tempest stirred slightly. "Oh... Alex....? What are... you... doing here?"
Alex explained quickly. "We're looking for a gang led by a man with a red mask. We think they're hiding out here."
Tempest nodded weakly. "Yes... Fresca and I were... fighting them... but they were too much for us. Our... weapons could not harm them.... Is Fresca....?"
"She's fine," Jessica reassured him. "Unconscious, but fine."
"Where are all the Plainsmen?" asked Mia.
"In hiding... to protect themselves from these... invulnerable bandits. No match... for them...."
"So how are we supposed to fight them?" wondered a very nervous Ramus.
"Uh... I think we're about to find out," said Nall.
The party looked up... and saw they were surrounded on both sides of the narrow corridor by the bandits. There were about twenty of them, all of them were armed, and their masks and cloaks covered them completely, all save their cold, deadly eyes. Behind them was a giant of a man, also masked, holding a giant battle-axe in his hands.
The giant laughed, a harsh, mocking laugh. "So you're out to recover your precious diamond, eh, Dragonboy? Hah! You will pay for daring to interfere with us!"
Alex was puzzled. "How did...."
"How did we know what you were after? Heh heh. You don't know how good we are. We've been keepin' our eyes on y'a very closely! Y'e're a smart lad, trackin' us down like that. But now it's over for y'a!"
"Now what?" asked Nall nervously.
Alex was grim. "There's only one thing we can do... ATTACK!"
And with that, they rushed into battle. Surprisingly, Alex and his friends quickly gained the upper hand, despite their opponents' skill. Apparently, because of their possibly magical origin, the bandits were very vulnerable to magic. Nash and Mia blasted them with low-level thunder and ice magic, Jessica used her Holy Mace, Kyle attacked with his sword techniques, and Luna used her magical voice. Alex himself fought valiantly, striking down his enemies left and right. Whatever the Black Rose people had done to his sword, it worked. It went through armor and flesh like a hot knife through butter. But there was no blood, and left no wounds. Were these bandits mere magical constructs, disspelled by any enchantment?
Within minutes, it was over. It had been surprisingly easy. Too easy.
The giant, who had been watching the battle, approached threateningly. "Ye DARE to challenge us?? I'll tear y'a to pieces, y'a little brat!!"
Alex prepared to meet the giant head on, moving in front of his friends. He shot a quick glace at Luna... possibly his last. Without the Dragonmaster's power, he might fail. And if he was killed, who would protect her? After all, the giant had been ruthless to kill a defenseless man. He couldn't let it happen to his friends. He wouldn't! He had won battles without the Dragonmaster's power, and he would do it again!
As the giant's axe fell, Alex quickly blocked it with his own blade. The shock numbed his arms, but only for a second. Again and again, the giant tried to deliver a fatal blow to Alex, but Alex blocked every stroke. But Alex's strength was giving out. The giant roared and prepared to strike again, but a low level ice blast from Mia, followed by one of Nash's thunder attacks knocked the giant off balance. Although Alex hated to take such an unfair advantage, he could not let the giant regain the offensive, and attacked. The giant blocked desperately, but Alex kept pressing hard. Eventually, the giant left his side open.
Alex's sword struck fast and struck true. The giant howled in pain, and slumped to the floor.
"AAAAAAAAARRGGHHH... y'a got me, y'a lousy... but... you haven't... won... yet!" The giant gasped. He roared again, and lay still.
Although the sword mysteriously left no visible wound, the giant appeared to be dead.
"Is he...?" Ramus asked in a nervous whisper
"Yup," said Jessica, kneeling beside the body. She had a strange expression on her face, like something was funny.
"Well, let's get going!"
"Hey," Alex said. "Don't you want to see who he was?"
"Later!" said Ramus. "We gotta stop the rest of these bandits and get the diamond back! Help Tempest and Fresca, and let's go!"
The party agreed. Tempest was strong enough to walk, and Fresca had also regained consciousness. She needed to lean on Tempest for support, but she appeared to be okay.
The group kept going, heading for the top of the fortress. Apparently, no other bandits were roaming the halls.
"There should be more guards," said Nash.
"Maybe they felt the welcoming committee downstairs would be enough," said Jessica.
After a few minutes, they finally reached the top of the fortress, and they approached the room the Black Dragon had once inhabited. Alex sighed as he remembered the mighty Dragons, destroyed by Ghaleon's insanity and bitterness. What a waste of life....
A strange chanting sound interrupted his thoughts. The group snuck over to the entrance to the room, stealing a quick peek. What Alex saw gave him the chills.
The Dragon Diamond was on a round, stone pedestal, with supports keeping it standing. Eight of the masked bandits were kneeling in front of it, whispering. Others stood on guard around it. A powerfully built figure with a blood-red mask and a mighty scimitar slung over his shoulder, apparently the leader, had his arms outstretched over the diamond. He was chanting some sort of incantation over it that Alex didn't recognize.
For some reason, Kyle chose this moment to start laughing hysterically, although he looked like he was trying to fight it.
"Shut up, Kyle!" Jessica hissed. "Do you wan'na give us away??"
But it was too late. The chanting stopped, and the kneeling bandits rose and drew their weapons.
"Infidels!" cried the leader. "How dare you interfere with our sacred cause!"
"What do you want with the diamond?" said Alex defiantly.
"Our task is not for infidels such as you to understand! Nor shall you live to ask again! Attack! Show no mercy!"
"Geez, could these guys be any cornier?" muttered Nall.
The bandits charged forwards, ready for combat. But Alex tore into them with incredible speed. His anger at the idea of someone profaning Quark's Diamond, using it for whatever darkness they had in mind, fed his anger and resolve. He would not let these monsters win. He owed that much to Quark. His friends determined that he would not fight alone--even Tempest and Fresca, despite their wounds. With Alex and his friends' skills and magic combined, the battle lasted less than a minute.
The leader drew his scimitar and lunged viciously at Alex. "You have violated our ritual, and you have slain my comrades. Now you shall pay for your evil deeds!"
"Evil deeds?" cried Alex. "It's YOUR deeds that are evil! You've committed murder, tried to violate the legacy of Althena and her dragons. You will be the one who pays!"
As the party rushed forward, Alex motioned for them to stay back. "This guy is all mine!"
The duel began in earnest. The sound of metal against metal rang throughout the chamber. But for all Alex's skill, his mysterious opponent was at least his equal. His broad strokes were strong and swift. His style was... familiar. It was as if Alex had seen him fight before. Even the scimitar he used looked familiar. And his voice... deep... confident... almost like....
The leader's voice interrupted his thoughts: "Give it up! I know you now, former Dragonmaster! You're nothing now! Do you hear me? Without the power of Althena, you're NOTHING!"
"No!" Alex said. "I may not have the power. But I have the courage and honor that earned me the title! And nobody can take that away from me! Not even Althena herself!"
And with that, Alex redoubled his efforts. Despite the exhaustion from his long journey and previous battles, he pushed himself to the limit. He would not let this bandit continue his crimes. For the sake of his friends, his world, and Luna, he would win! Finally, with one mighty lunge, Alex ran the leader through with his blade. The leader gasped, and slowly collapsed to the floor, without uttering a word.
As his friends came over to him, congratulating him on his victory, Alex looked down at the bandit leader. He had never liked killing, and he didn't even know what the man's plans had been. He wanted to see he face under the mask, to know who this amazing warrior was. But first things first....
He walked to the pedestal on which the diamond stood. He picked it up reverently... and then glared at it in anger.
"It's a fake!" he cried. "This isn't Quark's Diamond!"
His friends gasped in shock. "We came all this way for nothing!" moaned Nash.
Luna looked at him, feeling sorry for him. "I'm sorry, Alex. I know how much it meant to you."
Nall flew over to him, looking at the diamond. "Wait... there's an inscription on it."
Alex looked at it, puzzled. He read the inscription... and his anger turned to pure shock as he read:
"Wha'... what is this?" he stammered. He turned to look at his friends... who were now smiling at him broadly, with admiration and amusement.
"Man, if you could only see the look on your face!" laughed the supposedly dead bandit leader, getting up as if nothing had happened to him. Alex stared at him in even more shock, if possible, as he rose and unmasked, revealing... Laike!
"So y'a did it, again, eh, Alex?" said the giant bandit bodyguard, who had suddenly appeared in the doorway. He too unmasked, revealing the grinning face of Mel D'Alkirk.
When Alex had somewhat regained his composure, Alex asked weakly, "What... in Althena's name... is going on here??"
"It's your birthday present from us," said Jessica.
"What?" He looked around dazed... Laike... Mel... his friends, including a completely healthy Tempest and Fresca... and the "dead" bandits who were also getting up and unmasking, smiling like they were at a show.
"It was all fake. From beginning to end," he mumbled, not certain whether to believe his eyes.
"That's right!" Jessica said proudly. "From the moment Ramus knocked on your door. I should know. I set it all up myself."
"I told you--it's your birthday present! You've written to us in your letters that you sometimes miss adventuring. So what better birthday present to give you than another adventure! But since things have been quiet since you retired, I had to create one. I asked Laike and my dad to pretend to be the bad guys, and they agreed."
"But my sword....! I...."
Ramus grinned. "Hey, remember when I said that the sword was juiced up by the guys from Black Rose Street? That's what they did to it. This way, it wouldn't hurt or kill anybody."
"Mia and I helped out with that," Nash said.
Alex looked at Ramus with a puzzled look. "But Quark's Diamond?"
"In the safe in my store."
"On vacation, visiting his cousin in Lann."
"The witnesses in Meribia and Reza?"
"In on the whole thing," said Jessica.
"The villagers of Pao," said Fresca.
"The chanting over the diamond?"
Laike grinned. "An old Meribian drinking song."
"And my personal favorite!" said Kyle.
"But how did Mel get here from Meribia so fast?"
"Teleported by a mage on Black Rose Street," said Mia.
Alex burst out laughing, from the relieved tension and admiration of how well everything was planned out. He looked at Nall and Luna. "And how long were you two in on it?"
Nall grinned. "Ramus let us in on it on the boat to Meribia so we wouldn't worry."
"So," said Jessica, "did you like your present?"
"Yeah,..." said Alex, remembering the last time he had fought together with them--his closest friends. "It was just like old times."
He smiled, glad to know that everything was okay. "You guys are still coming to Burg in two weeks, right?"
"Wouldn't miss it," said Kyle.
Despite the joy of the occasion, Alex felt tears starting to form. He was truly blessed to have people like these for friends who would do anything for another each other. He looked at Luna, the admiration and support in her eyes. Luna looked at him as well, proud that the young man she loved would risk anything to do the right thing, and to protect those he loved--even his own life. No wonder they had been drawn to each other.
He sighed. "I think it's time we headed back. Burg's a long way from here."
On the way out, Alex grinned and said to Jessica, "Next year, just send me a card."