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by RisanF
Rated: 13+ · Fiction · Family · #2133171
Andy's grandfather tells him the story of his youth, and the tragedy that ensued.
Different and Cool FT: It's Never Too Late

By Reid M. Haynes




Note: Some elements of this story are influenced by Japanese Anime (characters with technicolor hair, etc)

The story so far:
8th grade student Andrew Champion knew he was in for a wild ride when he decided to befriend Tarah Reichardt, the nerdiest girl in school. But he could've never guessed how special his new friend was. Tarah is actually the gatekeeper of another world called Broodring, home of the tree of life, Yggdrasil. Now, with the help of his martial arts trainer Maru Mari, Andy explores his relationship with Tarah both in school and in the realm of the fantastic tales.

(Read the other “Different and Cool” stories for details)

*****


         "Hold onto your hats, Mary's masterpiece is chuggin' on in!" Aunt Mary crowed, arriving at the dining area with a large, frosted cake in her grasp. Adorned with sweet-shop vines, flowers, and leaves, there was barely any room for the "Happy Birthday Tarah" message to be applied, though Mary had managed to squeeze it in between a candy caterpillar and a strawberry Venus fly trap. Fourteen candles stuck out from the icing, casting a warm glow on the family and friends that had gathered at the Champion residence for the party. Their faces were bright with candlelight and awe at the Champion woman’s confectionery competency, and their tongues sweated with anticipation.

         Placing the cake in the center of the table, Mary stepped away with arms folded in triumph. "Well, that should do it!" she bubbled, looking over to Tarah with a effusive smile. "Make a wish, birthday girl!"

         Tarah giggled, her pigtails shaking with mirth. "But I got what I wanted!" she said, sharing a smile with the rest of the gathering. "I have Andrew, and a cake with caterpillars on it!" Nevertheless, the blonde, bespectacled girl drew a big breath and blew out the candles, prompting a modest series of applause for her effort.

         "Alright, it's cake time!" Mary announced, to the profound relief of the hungry guests. Mary Champion's cakes were the talk of the Starlight City suburbs, after all, reaching legendary status even as far as the villages way on the Emerald Veldt. That's why she invited the Reichardt family over to celebrate Tarah's fourteenth birthday, including Tarah's mother Margaret, her father Samson, and Tarah herself. They were a odd coalition, but somehow Andy's interest in Tarah had brought the two clans together, so they learned about each other as they went.

         "So here's one for Andy," Mary was saying, moving clockwise around the table and presenting her nephew with a small slice of cake, bearing a caterpillar on top. "Though I don't know why you wanted him to have this particular piece, Tarah."

         "Andrew should have the slice with the caterpillar on it," Tarah explained, as Mary went back to cut another piece.. "I wanted to make sure he got it, since that's his motif."

         "I think YOU'RE the one that decided that," Andy shot back, weakly suppressing the grin forming on his face.

         "Doesn't it fit pretty well?" Tarah turned to Andy, her blue eyes like reflective puddles within her glasses. "You inched your way upward, avoided the predators, and now you're a butterfly!"

         "That's why I never fought it much." Andy smiled, placing a gentle hand upon hers.

         "Whoops, better dial it down, kids!" Mary laughed, coming back with another slice of cake. "Save it until after dessert." She placed a piece of cake before Tarah, bearing the "Happy Birthday" message on it. "Here's one for the birthday girl!" she cooed, beaming down at her.

         "Thanks, Mrs. Champion!" Tarah said, smiling back.

         "P'shaw, call me Aunt Mary!" Mary insisted, putting her hands on her hips. "You're practically one of the family now!" She blinked a few times, peering closely at Tarah's hair. "Oh, but you have a little bug clinging to your hair. Just let me look a sec."

         "That's okay." Tarah winced, leaning away from Mary's encroaching fingers. "I was digging in the garden before I came here, you know."

         "Wait, wait, I've almost got it," Mary mumbled, rummaging through Tarah's hair as if plucking a needle from a haystack. "You're always so dirty, Tarah. Don’t you put on bug spray to get rid of those creepy crawlies you're always looking at."

         "No, don't kill it!" Tarah protested, trying to shake free of Mary's meddlesome hands. "It might be a rare beetle from the summer migration!”

         "C'mon Aunt Mary, cut it out," Andy sighed, leaning his cheek in his hand. Ever since Tarah and him started dating officially, Mary had taken it upon herself to mother the girl to death, including all the fussiness that came with it. He was glad enough that Aunt Mary accepted his girlfriend, since Mary didn’t really share Tarah's penchant for insects, but he wished Mary could let them do things their way without butting in all the time.

         "Oop, there it goes!" Mary gasped as the bug, which turned out to be a small, green dragonfly, bounced out of Tarah's hair. It flew right into the outstretched palms of Tarah's mother, who looked at the creature as if it were a long lost relative.

         "The women of our family have always been attuned to the life of the planet," Margaret Reichardt mused, cradling the bug in her hands. Raising her hands to the window, she opened her fingers, and the dragonfly twinkled out of the house and into the brisk summer evening, hopefully away from Mary's mollycoddling. "My daughter cares for nature, and therefore attracts it."

         "Hmph, the only nature that exists is 'kill and protect'," the man beside her groused, moving aside his malt beverage as Mary placed pieces of cake before them. "And you get rid of the weakest threat first, as quickly as possible. That’s how it works in wartime, back in my millitary days.”

         "Samson honey, it's Tarah's way," Margaret soothed, nodding her thanks to Mary in lieu of her husband's inattentiveness. "She knows about Survival of the Fittest, but chooses to walk her own path."

         "Daddy, you don't always have to kill everything,” Tarah chided, looking at her father with a stern frown. “Even cats and dogs can live together, you know.”

         "Still, it helps to have a good firearm by your side," Uncle Noah interjected, murmuring a brief "thanks" to Mary as she continued to work her way around the table. "Preferably one with real stopping power."

         Samson smirked, twirling his blond goatee as he latched eyes with the other man. "Reichardt Arms is already working on the next line of compact combat equipment,” he crooned, and Noah's eyes lit up like Tarah’s favorite fireflies. “The Chekhov Mark 1 promises to be the cutting edge in law enforcement, punching through body armor at a convenient carrying size. We’re in talks to supply your SWAT unit with these puppies even as we speak.”

         “Heh, I’ll drink to that!” Noah grinned, raising a glass of milk to tap Samson's malt beverage.

         “Daddy!!!” Tarah shrieked, clenching her fists. “Why can’t you just talk about science, instead of your guns?!”

         “It’s Freedom through Strength, Tarah.” Samson peered at her through straw-colored locks the same shade as his daughter's. “Before you leave my house, girl, you’re gonna learn how to fire a gun. It might save your life one day.”

         “Mmmmmmm...” Tarah frowned down at her cake, reflexively petting the chocolate lady bug sitting in the middle of the frosting. Andy just patted her shoulder, whispering “it’ll be alright” in a coaxing voice.

         “Here’s one for you, Father Moses!” Mary said, giving a smaller portion of cake to Andy’s grandfather. Moses mumbled his thanks, but said nothing else, his eyes seeming to drift past the celebration and into the evening sunset, shining just beyond the windowpane.

         “And I’ll just have a little piece for myself then.” Mary settled down with a tiny sliver of cake, her eyes lighting up like a casino marquee spelling the word "SUGAR." That light that was soon to be extinguished, however, as Noah reached out and nicked the plate from her place-mat in a movement as quick as a jackal.

         “YOU are on a diet,” Noah reprimanded her, quickly moving the slice of cake out of reach. “This will be waiting for you once you lose seven pounds, my dear.”

         “Noooooooooo!!!” Mary wailed, struggling to snatch the slice of cake back. “It makes me happy!!!”

         The rest of the group just laughed, drinking in the scene of Mary’s near-hysterics. Andy joined in with them, putting down his bite so that he wouldn't choke. Mary had actually asked Noah to help her stick to her weight-loss plan, telling him to hold firm even if she balked later. Andy should’ve known Uncle Noah would go all in on their agreement, and Aunt Mary should’ve known too.

         After the laughter died down, Andy brought his fork back to his mouth, but Tarah’s outstretched hand arrived first. “Oh, Andrew, you have a bit of cake on your lip!” she said, dabbing a wet napkin around his mouth. “Hold on.”

         “T-Tarah...!” Andy winced a bit, a heated blush coming unbidden to his face as his best girl's fingers brushed around his lips like the wings of a butterfly. Tarah, for her part, maintained her concentration as she finished cleaning his face, giving his cheek one last wipe before she pulled away. “All clean, Andrew!” she cheered, nodding her head as she took in her boyfriend’s features with a smile.

         “Awwwwww!!!” Mary and Margaret clasped their hands together as they observed the young couple, and Andy felt like shrinking into his shirt to avoid their gooey gaze. Tarah just looked around at their audience, her eyes wide with confusion.

         “Just like the mating dance of the sandhill cranes,” Margaret noted, spreading her hands with a flourish. “Your auras are in tune with each other.”

         “Auras nuthin'.” Samson stuffed a wad of cake into his mouth, chomping into it as if he were a snake devouring a mouse. “Boy, if you want to be a good companion for my daughter, you have to man up. Sit up straight, show some spine! You’d have been kicked out of my old unit in three days, the way you are now.”

         “Andrew’s a nice person!” Tarah defended her boyfriend both verbally and physically, putting her hand upon Andy as if to shield him. “And he likes it when I talk about my bugs!”

         “I could teach him some basic disarming skills,” Noah figured, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “Been meaning to do that for some time.”

         “He’s perfectly fine the way he is!” Mary harrumphed, scowling at the sugar-free caramel Noah had graciously allowed her to have. “He’s taking martial arts from Mari, remember?”

         “What does a girl like that know about fighting without being battle-tested?” Samson shot back. “Only on the battlefield can a man truly know what he’s truly made of.”

         “Some things are instinctual,” Margaret said, closing her eyes and pressing her palms together. “The lion protects its pride without compromise or hesitation.”

         "Mari's really good!" Tarah agreed. "She's just dumb when it comes to animal classification in biology."

         The conversation continued to get rowdier, with flecks of cake flying about as the group waved their forks like conductor wands, trying to direct the dialogue back towards their own individual expertise. Their light tones and sparkling eyes exposed little malice, though, and they continued to banter back and forth about the cherished ideals and beliefs they held. The only one relatively quiet this evening was Grandpa Moses, who calmly tended to his cake with his fork. Even now, his eyes remained dull and his features ghostly, as if he were not really there at all, but in a world far, far away.

*****


         About thirty-minutes later, the party was winding down, with Tarah and her family preparing to depart before the evening sun set completely. Mary and Margaret continued to discuss gluten-free recipes for pound cake and pie, while Samson regaled Noah with the exploits of his latest hunts, featuring his trusty double-barreled rifle. Tarah winced when they got to the part about how the bullets shattered the skull of the deer like a dropped pineapple, her face paling two shades. She turned back towards Andy, offering him a smile as they tried for a more cheerful topic.

         “Thanks so much for my present, Andrew,” Tarah said, hugging her new copy of ‘Scientific Discoveries of the New Century’ to her chest. “I wanted something to read when going to bed, so this is great.”

         “I’m actually surprised I did so well,” Andy admitted, rubbing the back of his head at her gushy compliments. “I figured you knew most of this stuff already, like there’d be nothing new in it for you.”

         “Oh, that’s not true!” Tarah beamed at him, tilting her head to one side. “There’s lots of neat pictures and graphs I can’t get from the monthly Scientific Bulletin. And they don’t organize their material very well, the bulletins, I mean. It’s wonderful, Andrew!”

         Stepping forward, the slight girl gave Andy a quick peck on the cheek, earning a massive blush from the green-maned boy. “Let’s go on a date sometime!” Tarah said, and her own cheeks started to turn pink. “Maybe at my house? I like it when we can be alone together, even if we're not in nature.”

         “If your dad will trust me enough,” Andy mumbled, looking over to the ex-Sergeant and current arms merchant. "He's like the complete opposite of your mom."

         "Yeah, it's kinda weird." Tarah giggled.

         “So, you two continue to stand against Fate,” a low voice rumbled from the staircase, like tank-treads over gravel. Andy and Tarah flinched at this, and looked up to find Grandpa Moses standing halfway up the stairs, peering at them through grim, blue eyes. He was still wearing his gray vest and brown slacks from his job at the accountant's office, his wild, gray hair complimenting his generous mustache and trim beard. The upstairs light created a corona around his head, giving him the appearance of an otherworldly visitor, with otherworldly knowledge surely in store.

         “Grandpa?” Andy said, inching towards the staircase. As if in sync, Tarah maneuvered to the boy’s side, standing hand-in-hand with him.

         “Perhaps you'll be able to forge heroic paths after all.” Moses’ eyes seemed to glaze over, as if he didn’t really see Andy and Tarah at all, but rather some other young couple standing in their place. “Though the tides of Destiny don’t spare all lovers.”

         Before Andy could ask what he meant by that, the old man had already gone back upstairs, doubtless to the attic room he spent much of his time in these days. Andy and Tarah looked at each other, with Andy shrugging his confusion, not really knowing what to say.

         Another five-minutes passed, and the Reichardts were hauling back home in the family station wagon. Andy watched them go for a moment, thinking over his grandfather’s words as Mary and Noah began to clean the table off for another day. Grandpa Moses was not an unkind person, but he had been oddly lukewarm to the idea of Andy becoming acquainted with Tarah, ever since the two first got to know each other through Mr. Clark's special free-will project. Moses had expected their relationship to fall apart any moment, but since Andy was now actively dating Tarah, the old gentleman seemed to have reconsidered his position.

         “Well, that worked out pretty well, I’d say!” Mary was saying as she swept some cake crumbs up into a small trash-bag. “I never knew Margaret had such a knack for cream-pie recipes.”

         “I’m just glad we have a connection now with Reichardt Arms,” Noah said, pushing his chair back under the table. “Samson really knows the difference between the best and worst when it comes to armor-piercing rounds, and I bet he can cut me a real deal."

         “Yes, dear, we all know about your new best friend.” Mary rolled her eyes with a chuckle, gathering up the plastic knives and forks that littered the table. Looking back to the now-almost-clean table cloth, her gaze fell upon a small pipe lying where Grandpa Moses had been sitting. “Oh, Father Moses forgot his pipe!” Mary cried, picking up the aforementioned object to regard it with a curious eye. “Andy, be a dear and take it back up to him.”

         “Don’t think this gets you out of clean-up duty, though!" Noah chimed in as Andy arrived from the foyer. “You head on back after you’re done and help wipe the floors.”

         “I got it.” Andy pinched the pipe in his fingertips and turned heel to head upstairs as Mary and Noah continued cleaning. Reaching the second floor, he walked past his bedroom and down the hall to a smaller staircase near the bathroom. Andy climbed the staircase, noted the musty smell as he always did whenever he visited Grandpa's attic. Moses always said he'd clean his room himself, but Andy suspected he'd never even touched half the things that occupied it.

         Opening the door to the attic, Andy proceeded towards the small fold-out bed, placing his grandfather’s pipe on the pillow. Not seeing Grandpa Moses anywhere, he prepared to leave, but decided to take a look around the room, since he hadn’t been here in awhile. The plain wood paneling was adorned with various memorabilia from forty years back, along with a series of small, black-and-white photographs. Many of them were of Grandpa Moses in his prime, appearing as the spitting image of Andy himself, right down to his mane of wild hair and deep, sparkling eyes.

         A gleam of metal caught his attention, and Andy ventured to the corner of the room, finding something he had never seen before. A large, steel case was leaning against the wall, lacking the layer of dust that covered most of Moses’ possessions. Andy took a moment’s pause, wondering if he shouldn't get on out of there, back to the dining area to help his aunt and uncle finish up. Curiosity won out in the end, and he pulled the case to the center of the room, which clanked from the unknown objects held inside.

         The case bore no lock, so Andy had no trouble opening it and revealing its fold-out compartments. He did have trouble, however, understanding just what he had stumbled onto. Inside the case was an arranged set of crystal "kunai" knives, with hollow insides filled with an unknown red liquid that seemed to glisten and pop even in the dim light from the attic’s sole lamp. Andy was so transfixed, in fact, that it took him a moment to realize there was a second compartment underneath the first, and his eyes widened even further when he pulled aside the first compartment to reveal the mother lode.

         Inside the second compartment, wrapped up around itself, was a chain-link whip with a handle bearing a vicious scorpion motif. The whip was at least five meters long, a length that could only be handled by a skilled flail master. Alongside the whip were various attachments for the tip, including a metal ball, a piercing spike, and an odd mechanical hand that reminded Andy of the plastic skeleton Tarah insisted on keeping in her closet. In the center of the case, printed in gilt lettering on a silver plaque next to the whip itself, was the word “CRACKSHOT”, and it send chills down Andy's spine.

         The green-haired boy stared transfixed at the weapon before him, having never seen anything remotely similar in his life. Then, he tentatively reached toward it, almost as if to take the whip in hand.

         A sharp pressure attacked his wrist like a bear trap, causing Andy to gasp in pain. He looked up to find Grandpa Moses next to him, his eyes having lost their former malaise in favor of a violent, blue fire. "You!" Moses growled, his teeth gnashing like fangs. "Why have you opened this case?!"

         "G-Grandpa, I'm sorry, I...!" Andy stammered as a great fear of his grandfather rose up within him.

         "I told you never to touch my things!" Moses hissed, slamming the steel case shut as he continued to hold Andy's arm in a vise-like grip. "These are sacred artifacts, all that I have left! Don't you understand?!"

         "W-What?" Andy struggled to grasp the meaning of Moses' words. A burst of clarity broke through his fear, and he tugged back in an attempt to free his arm. "Let go, Grandpa!" he shouted, confusion giving way to frustration. "You're hurting me!"

         Moses' vicious expression remained unchanged for a moment longer, as if Andy's protest had not yet reached his ears. Then, his eyelids flew up like the blinds of a window, and he let go of Andy's wrist as the boy broke away. He stared transfixed at his grandfather, who was panting as he held onto the steel case like a lifeline. The old man's lined features had lost their tightness; he looked not so much like a man with a weathered spirit, but one who still carried fresh wounds in his soul.

         "A-Andy..." he stammered, his eyes shining with unshed tears at he focused on his grandson. "I didn't mean to...I..."

         "What's going on in here?!" a harsh voice broke out from the bottom of the stairs. Andy and Moses turned their heads to find Noah stomping up to the attic room, his brow furrowing with anger. "Dad, what do you think you're doing to the kid?!" he demanded, forcing his way between the two as a means of protecting the boy.

         "Andy!!" Mary followed Noah up the stairs, arriving at Andy's side and looking him over. "Are you alright?! Did you get hurt?!"

         "I'm fine, I'm fine Aunt Mary." Andy tried to reassure her, offering a wan smile.

         "Damn it, Dad, I thought you were past this!" Noah yelled, grabbing his father by the shoulders. "You've got to stop living in the past, or you'll lose your mind!"

         "It's okay, Andy," Mary soothed, helping the boy to his feet and guiding him back downstairs. "Your grandpa is in another one of his moods again. Let's just finish cleaning up the dining area, okay?"

         As she hustled him out of the attic, Andy could hear Noah raging above him, continuing to berate Moses for his sudden violence. He could no longer make out the words, but he knew in his heart that Grandpa Moses was not a happy person, and had not been happy for quite some time.

*****


         The hiss of the television static provided a comforting white noise for Andy, Mary, and Noah, as the three of them sat on the couch with plates of small sandwiches saved from last week's game night. Mary and Noah ate in silence, looking down and chewing their food reflexively, until Andy was sure it had turned to a mushy paste. For his own part, he just played with his food, pushing his sandwiches around the plate until they formed several different mosaic patterns. Even though it was dinnertime, and they hadn't had that much cake, none of them were really hungry that night.

         "I can't believe Father Moses lost control like that," Mary mused, her hand caressing the condensation of a glass of water. "I thought he had finally gotten over it."

         "I thought so, too." Noah's mouth twisted up into a scowl, his mustache giving him the look of the fiery law man that he was. "But it seems the past will follow that man until his grave. A cryin' shame." He looked down at his plate. "He'd been so great before."

         Andy stayed silent, but his mind was already going back to the incident in the attic. That incident, and other moments that made up the image of his grandfather.

         Moses Champion. Fifty-seven years old, father of Uncle Noah and his mother, and a fatalist for as long as Andy could remember. But he was known as quite the journeyman in his youth, and Noah would often tell stories of how Moses and Grandma Eva would travel the world, helping those in need. Yet Grandma Eva had died long before Andy was even born, and he only knew Moses as the morose, taciturn man he was now, the simple accountant that had moved in with them when Andy's parents passed away.

         What secrets lie in Grandpa's mind? Did Andy even have a hint of the whole truth?

         Andy placed the plate of sandwiches on an end table and stood up from the couch. "I'm going back up there," he decided, looking down at Mary and Noah with a face set in stone.

         "Andy, are you sure that's a good idea?" Mary said, reaching out as if she intended to pull him back. "Your Grandpa is..."

         "I have to know," he said, a cool air of determination hissing from his voice. "Why Grandpa has been like this for so long. What that whip was."

         "Andy...!" Mary started to argue, but Noah raised a hand to stop her, his gaze as firm as his nephew's.

         "Just keep your cool through it all," Noah told him. "You might not like what your grandfather has to tell you."

         Andy blinked a few times, but the man's eyes remained hard. Finally, he nodded, and left his aunt and uncle behind to climb back into the attic, where his grandpa had been since an hour ago.

         When he found Grandpa Moses again, the old man was sitting on his fold-out bed, his mane of gray hair overshadowing his eyes like a snowy canopy. In his grip was the mysterious chain-whip called Crackshot, the steel ball now attached to its tip. The whip fit comfortably into his callused hand, his eyes knowing every inch of the weapon, every link in its chain. It seemed a part of him, like a scorpion's poison-tipped tail.

         As Andy approached, Moses gave no other indication that he had seen him, but simply started speaking. "Andy, I'm sorry I acted like that," he said, quiet but sincere. "The memories have caught up with me once again. Too many reminders of an old man's folly."

         Andy nodded hesitantly, and sat aside his grandfather. "Grandpa, what happened back there?" he asked, placing his hands on his knees. "I've never seen you like that before."

         Moses turned to peer at Andy through one eye. "You and that girl Tarah..." he began, his cracked lips morphing into a frown. "You had found unity, even with everything working against you. What you have reminded me of what I lost...and how I failed."

         Andy paused for a moment, wondering how he should continue the conversation. "Grandpa, what's that whip?" he tried, pointing at the weapon in Moses' grip. "I haven't seen it before, but it looks important. Nobody ever told me you knew how to handle a weapon like this. But it's like...it's bound to you somehow."

         Moses snorted. "You don't need to know." he said brusquely. "Too much for a kid like you."

         Andy shook his head, his green locks lofting back and forth. "I'm almost fifteen," he reminded the man. "I'll be entering high school this fall, and I've even had to defend myself with my own martial arts. I've handled big problems of my own, so I think I'll be able to at least hear yours. Please, Grandpa." He looked Moses in the eye. "I want to know what really happened."

         The old man stared at the boy for a moment, in particular at his wild mane of hair, so much like his own. "It was around thirty years ago," he finally confessed, looking down at Crackshot. "Back during my days as an adventurer. Your aunt and uncle never told you, but we were quite skilled fighters back then. Your grandmother..." Here, he let out a sigh. "Well, perhaps we should start at the beginning..."

*****


         The white moon poured down on the Emerald Veldt, enveloping each blade of grass with a crystalline sheen like a bed of daggers. Tall, snowy mountains encased the fields and isolated them from the nearby towns, much to the inconvenience of any travelers braving this haunted night. Along the lone path leading through the canyons, a woman ran top-speed through the fields, tossing frantic looks behind her in hopes she was creating some distance between herself and her pursuers. To her horror, they were steadily gaining ground, and she picked up her pace as best she could, though her long skirts hampered her.

         Just two meters away, armed with large battle axes, were three R.E.M Nocturnals, their sagging, blue faces seemingly soulless, yet eternally hungry. The woman was so transfixed by their empty gazes and foul fangs that she tripped on a series of stones and flew towards the ground, scraping her knee against those same stones. Scrambling back to her feet, she was up just in time to find the R.E.M.s looming over her, their axes raised high. She screamed and covered her head as the two Dream Demons started the arcs of their sweeping assault.

         A silver streamer shot though the air, colliding against the three R.E.M.s and pushing them back onto the road behind them. The woman opened her eyes to find a young man fighting off the monsters single-handedly, his gleaming chain-link whip twirling around like a gymnast's ribbon. With a ferocious howl, he knocked aside their feeble axe swings, sending his whip flying out once more in a moonlit swath. Before even a few seconds had gone by, he had already disarmed all three R.E.M.s and knocked them down, their bodies splayed on the ground as they struggled to right themselves.

         The young man, a tall green-haired fellow wearing a brown hat and a similarly-colored cape, retracted the chain back into his grip, coiling it around his arm. "Eva, let's finish them!" he roared, looking towards a figure lurking just behind an oak tree.

         The figure, a lithe person in a brown robe, emerged from the tree and put out two hands, which bared magical glyphs on their backs. "#!!#X#!!!XXX##" the figure chanted in an unknown language, the hood of the robe flying back to reveal a young, blonde-haired woman with a pale complexion and round, wholesome features. The grass stems and flowers flew up around her as blue tendrils of light sparked from her fingertips.

         CRAAACK!!! A cerulean bolt of electricity split the night as the woman thrust her palms, even though there was nary a cloud in the sky. Striking the two R.E.M.s, they screamed in agony before disappearing in a flash of blue mist, leaving only a smoking crater as evidence to the slaughter.

         The young damsel looked up at the man and woman, in awe of their display of might and light. "Who...who are you?" she gasped, struggling even now to catch her breath.

         The man smiled, putting an arm around his partner. "We are Moses and Eva." he told them, his eyebrows locked in determination. "Warriors of light, and bane of the night."

         "Pleased to make your acquaintance," Eva added, moving closer to the man as she flicked the last remnants of electricity from her fingers.

*****


         The warmth of the campfire wrapped the two travelers like a conflagration cocoon, driving away the remainder of the nighttime monsters. Moses and Eva huddled together in their threadbare blanket, their weapons discarded for the moment as they watched the flame dance in the chilled wind. Eva's long, blonde hair was free to flow in the breeze, and her green eyes carried the same warmth as the smile on her lips. Moses watched her with a wry grin, content with the serenity she provided in the deepest of darkness.

         "That lady was quite generous after her rescue," Moses said, tossing about a small bag of coins in his hand. "We should be able to afford more Demonbane Daggers, and a new spell-book for you."

         The young woman smiled, placing her glyph-marked hands in her lap. "I would've thought we were more altruistic than that," Eva chided with a teasing tone, nestled in her husband's neck. "You've become more of a mercenary than when we started, I think."

         "We need supplies for the mission." The man put the money back into one of his combat pouches. "Both for weapons, and the kids back home. The generosity of strangers is proof enough we're doing right. The people know fighting Dream Demons is full-time work."

         "And we are the only one who can do it," she agreed, clenching a glyph-marked hand in determination.

         Moses and Eva hadn't originally planned to become Demon Hunters, had wanted just to travel the world before settling down with their children. Yet the calling could not be quelled, as they soon saw the Dream Demons couldn't be sated with just a humble helping of nightmares. When the Demons saw fit to attack their two sleeping kids in their own home, they had crossed a line even monsters seldom dared. Thus, Moses and Eva hit the road once again, this time as warriors, using their arcane arts and specialized equipment to bring the fight to the Dream Demons, taking them down one by one."

         Eva signed, looking down at the campfire's wafting waves. "It seems though, that newer and stronger Dream Demons are arising from the darkness," she mused, putting her hand to her chin. "They now attack brazenly on the roads and highways. It's quite strange, Moses."

         "We've built up a reputation, my Eva," he told her. "The leader knows we won't disappear, that we're gunning for him. Soon, we will force his Dream Demons out of the Starlight City area. The people will sleep at last without fear."

         "A cornered animal always fights," she warned him, creating the image of a translucent rabbit with the sparks of her magic. "I fear the worse is yet to come, love."

         "Whatever they try, they aren't strong enough to face us two together," Moses boasted, grinning at Eva and crushing the magic rabbit in his hand. "Our skill grows every day, and soon we will be able to extinguish them at the source."

         Eva smiled, leaning against her husband. "Starlight City, without Dream Demons," she murmured to herself, looking off into the twinkling starlight overlooking the Emerald Veldt. "Who could say 'no' to that?"

         "Not our children, Eva," he told her, placing a hand on hers. "And not the people of Starlight City."

*****


         "Damn you, Adol!" Moses shouted, flinging a fist in defiance. "Let her go, you coward!"

         "Moses, please run!" Eva cried, straining against the grasp of her captor. "He's stronger than we thought!"

         "Listen to your darling one." The cold voice emanating from the shadow was like the void of space: lifeless and hollow. "There is no other recourse for you."

         Moses growled, his hand clutching the handle of Crackshot in preparation for a furious strike. Before him, holding the struggling form of Eva Champion, was Adol, the highest ranking Dream Demon they had encountered thus far. With a swash of blue hair and a cloak of shadows, he appeared human and yet utterly alien, a notion further highlighted by his glowing, ethereal eyes. Held before him was his Spectral Spear, a large, flaming trident made entirely of dark energies, and it was pointed straight at Eva's neck.

         "I didn't wish to be so brazen," Adol explained, as if he were discussing the weather. But your wife and her magic will allow us to eat dreams without all this violence. We can stay in Dreamscape, connected to the earthly realm by the tendril of her magic, and we will never have to raid a child's room for dreams. Ironic that our greatest enemy should help us achieve this, but that is the whimsy of Fate.

         "Fate?!" Moses spat the word out, his teeth gnashed and grinding.

         "We are all tied by the pathways Fate has laid out for us," Adol said, lowering his head as in tragedy. "My fate is to find sustenance in the dreams of the living, to feed upon nightmares and survive in the world between worlds. Your wife's fate is to supply the magic necessary to strengthen our fangs. And your fate," The otherworldly man frowned. "is to fail, like so many others before you."

         Moses snarled, and took a step forward with Crackshot brought up to bear. Adol paid the aggressive move little mind, and dragged his captive up in the air, the two of them floating under some sort of mysterious power.

         "If you wish to challenge Fate, do so at the Tower of Trials," Adol said, who even now was becoming translucent in the dim starlight. "It matters naught, but I owe my greatest foes that much. We will await you there."

         "Moses!" Eva screamed, vanishing into the night.

         "EVA!!!" Moses spread his arms wide in despair, sending a flock of bats flapping away from the nearby trees.

*****


         "No!!" Moses swore, scrambling to pull out his last Demonbane Dagger. "Why isn't this working?"

         Before him, at a towering fifteen feet, was a Night Terror-class Dream Demon, wielding a halberd like it weighed but a ounce. With ethereal muscles and a leaden gaze far harder than the Demons he had previously faced, it dominated the battleground with heavy moves and an arsenal of special skills. The Night Terror whirled its halberd with one clawed hand, creating a wide parameter where Moses could not cross, where the Crackshop whip could not reach. Moses preferred fighting up close, but he was now restricted to long-range attacks, which seemed just as fruitless in this kind of pitched battle.

         With a desperate shout, Moses flung the glistening knife towards the beast's forehead, his last desperate strike against the fury of the Night Terror. But the beast simply knocked it out of the air with a flick of its halberd, sending it clattering to the floor and breaking off one of its sharp points. Staring down the young warrior, the Night Terror snorted his contempt, hot steam emerging from his large nostrils like volcano smoke. And Moses could feel the heat, could feel his knees starting to weaken, his strength failing.

         Moses Champion had made it to the 35th floor of the Tower of Trials, fighting each level in hopes of making it to the top, where Adol promised his wife waited for him. Every floor was harder than the last, featuring more and more Dream Demons, like a festival for the damned. Moses endured each round, flinging his Crackshot like mad, striking down each demon that came before him. It was at the 35th floor where the madness faded, and he realized the truth.

         He just couldn't do it.

         Moses looked one more time at the Night Terror, who seemed to laugh at his indecision. Then, with a heavy breath, he turned and ran out of the room, down to the staircase that would lead out of the tower and back onto the Emerald Veldt.

         "I'm sorry, Eva..."

*****


         "That was the day I learned the limits of my power," Moses finished, clenching Crackshot's chain in his grasp. "I was arrogant with prior success, but there was always something stronger, something I could not conquer. I went back home, and never braved the Tower of Trials again. I lost my wife forever." His mouth became a thin line, underneath which were surely clenched teeth. "My partner, my Eva..."

         "Grandma..." Andy looked at his grandfather, seeing the crumbled man that had been left behind when the Night Terror had broken him. "Why didn't you ever try again, Grandpa?" he asked, peering at him closely.

         "Because there is no stopping the mechanisms of Fate," Moses told him, letting the whip rest in his lap. "I saw it clearly that day, the truth that Adol had shown me. No matter your so-called willpower, sometimes you just can't pull yourself up by your bootstraps and make it happen. Limits are there, by happenstance, by opposing forces, by your own weaknesses."

         "But whatever happened to Grandma?" Andy asked. "Did...did she die? Or..."

         The gray-haired man sighed. "She's probably still there," Moses said, looking up at the white ceiling of the attic. "When Dream Demons capture a magic user, they often use Memory Stone to freeze them in stasis while they siphon off their power. Your grandmother was a very accomplished witch, a match for anyone but a high-level Dream Demon. She'd be a well spring for years, a power source to match all others."

         Andy frowned, clutching his knees and crinkling the material of his jeans. "I don't believe it," he said finally, pounding his knee with his fist. "There must be something you can do, some plan you haven't tried."

         Moses cut him off with a shake of his head. "I'm old, Andy," he told him, gathering up the whip and putting it back into its steel case. "I gave up that life to finish raising your mother and Noah, to put my time and energy into that which was still useful. The sun has set on me, young lad," He smiled as he closed the case. "but Fate seems to favor you."

         With a small heave, he hoisted the case onto his lap and passed it onto Andy's, who looked between the man and the case. "Continue practicing your martial arts, and keep that girl Tarah close," Moses said, his eyes harboring the ghost of a once great man. "Then one day, challenge the Tower of Trials for the life of your grandmother. It's too late for me," Here, he let out a wry smile, another hint of a former hero. "But your star is still rising into the night."

*****


         Andy was still pondering Moses' words the next day, on a quiet afternoon with birds and squirrels calling out from the trees. He was at Tarah's house, sprawled on the living room rug watching TV while her parents were out at Samson's firearms expo. Tarah seemed enthralled at the program: some sort of scientific study on the missing link between dinosaurs and birds. It was just moving images and sound to him, though; Andy's thoughts were almost completely on his grandfather.

         "Look, Andrew!" Tarah squealed, nudging him in the side and nearly knocking over his cup of gluten-free noodles. "My hypothesis was right! I knew the Archaeopteryx genus wasn't the only fossil connecting birds to dinosaurs. It's not just about feathers, you know."

         "Yeah..." Andy mumbled, his eyes moving past the television and towards the ceiling.

         The pigtailed girl readjusted herself on the rug, squirming like a glow-worm, with almost as bright a disposition. "I wonder if they've dated it yet," she pondered, putting a finger on her chin. "It's tough to do unless the fossil is intact, but that's hard to find."

         "Mmmmmm..." Andy stuffed a wad of noodles into his mouth, not really tasting them.

         Tarah blinked, and propped herself up on her elbow. "Hey, are you okay?" she asked, blinking at him. "You look kinda weak. Was the noodle cup out of date or something? We got it half-price on a clearance sale, since Dad doesn't like to spend a lot on healthy stuff."

         "Huh?" Andy jerked up, shaking his head free of his conflicting thoughts. "N-No, it's fine." he said. "Just thinking about some things, that's all."

         "I bet you're thinking about your grandfather," she said with a smile. "That's what you said you were worried about last night, right? You should probably tell me the rest. I can help."

         Andy returned the smile, albeit sadly. Maybe Tarah could help, though not in the way she thought. "Tarah, remember that one Thursday last fall?" he said, trying to broach the topic as best he could.

         Tarah cocked her head at the sudden change in topic. "What?" she said, raising her eyebrows.

         "You know, during Mr. Clark's free-will assignment," he clarified, a lump forming in preparation for what he was about to say. "When Justin and Slick...were teasing you, and I..."

         Though he cut off his speech at that point, Andy knew Tarah remembered that day well. It was the day he had betrayed her, and refused to admit they were becoming friends when their relationship became more public. Tarah was looking down with a frown, old hurt swimming through her ocean-blue eyes. It was a face Andy hoped he would never see again, but he still pressed on with his question.

         "If I had hadn't gone back and apologized..." Andy struggled to force the words out. "If we had met later, years later...would you have forgiven me then?"

         A chilled moment froze the room, as the television continued to blare in the background. Tarah averted her eyes, the light catching on her glasses. "I don't know, Andrew," she confessed, with a calmness that belied the serious question. "It really hurt what you did, and I didn't think I'd ever have a friend again, so I don't know if I would've forgiven you."

         Andy's heart fell like a rock, and he sighed his disappointment. "I see," he breathed, stirring his noodles with his chopsticks.

         A moment's pause stretched into two moments, and then three, as Andy and Tarah dodged each other's glances in favor of the random decoration littered around the den. Tarah's TV program was over, moving on to a commercial about some kids game involving elephant masks. The copy of 'Scientific Discoveries of the New Century’ sat on the coffee table, drawing their eyes to it periodically. A symbol of the connection between the two of them, though it just as easily could never have arrived at all.

         Then, Tarah sat up on the rug, her lips pressed together. Mystified, the boy watched with his mouth hanging open as Tarah took off her glasses, place them carefully on the rug beside her. With two rough movements, she shrugged out her pigtails and bows, leaving these accouterments of eccentricity next to her discarded glasses. When her eyes focused on him again, Andy found himself staring back at a plain-faced girl with shoulder-length blond hair, seeming almost entirely different from the girl he knew, though she retained her pixie-like features.

         "Tarah...?" Andy ventured, screwing up his face in confusion.

         "It doesn't matter what I'd do before," Tarah told him, her gaze hardening like igneous rock. "Because I'm not the same anymore. If people were teasing you because of me, and you didn't like that, I'd give up my bugs, my glasses, and everything else. That's because I love you, and don't want you to be hurt."

         Andy goggled at this, this strange girl who seemed so unlike Tarah. And yet, it was very much like her, the girl who knew about self-sacrifice, and always gave her all. But she gave her all at being herself too. Could that side of her have disappeared, because of him?

         An idea came to his mind, and he flexed his shoulders in a mock-shrug, affecting an air of indifference. "Well, then, I guess it's time to dye my hair brown," she suggested in a relaxed tone, as Tarah's eyes shot open in response to this notion. "After all, gotta remain inconspicuous these days. If we want to be normal, that is."

         "No!!!" Tarah shrieked, pouncing forward and grabbing his shoulders. "Your green hair's the best, and it reminds me of springtime growth! Don't change it, Andrew!"

         Andy let out a hearty chuckle, and Tarah retreated backwards, blushing as if she had been tricked somehow. "And I don't want you to change either," he said, stroking a hand through the aforementioned sea-green hair. "Not for me, never for me. You have too much dignity for that. And it's not what you want to do, is it?"

         "I..." Tarah hesitated, her despectacled eyes still wide with surprise. "I...like my glasses," she admitted finally, blinking her shock away. "And I can't see without them."

         Andy's smile softened upon hearing this. "I knew it was going to be tough, throwing everything away, starting a new life with you," he said, touching her hand with the gentlest of motions. "But it was my choice, my challenge. And it's what I wanted. That's why you're my girlfriend now."

         "Besides." Andy picked up Tarah's glasses and placed them back on her nose. "I like you better this way."

         Clad in her heavy frames once more, Tarah stared at him through the glass lenses. and finally burst out into a big, sunrise smile. At that moment, Andy knew their loyalty to one another was firm, no matter the steps taken to get there. And he knew, somehow, that Moses and Eva had a love every bit as firm as theirs. He wouldn't let Grandpa forget it so easily.

*****


         A few minutes later, they had moved to Tarah's room, where they could feel a little more secluded, though Samson and Margaret hadn't gotten back yet. Tarah sat on her bed, trying not to sway too much as Andy attempted to braid her hair, though he was singularly unfamiliar with the process. With a pamphlet on hair styling as his only teacher. the boy finagled with the small elastic string that formerly bound her left pigtail, finding that it tended to slip from his fingers just when he got it stretched out. And yet he was stubborn, and simply redid the process; Tarah's hair was stringy, but not too difficult to work with.

         "So your grandpa lost your grandma to some Dream Demons?" Tarah was attempting to piece together what Andy had told her, though she couldn't turn to look at him without disrupting his braiding. "We've seen a lot of those, right?"

         "Yeah, and he just left her at the tower," Andy said, pushing the girl's head back into position when she jerked a little. "I got the idea that these Dream Demons were much stronger than the ones we fought in the sewers, but I can't believe he would try to forget about her, after all they've been through."

         "That's real sad," Tarah agreed, wincing a bit at Andy started to work on the second pigtail. "But he probably still wants to rescue her, though. He's just like you, Andrew. A stubborn guy with neat green hair. Before it turned gray, you know."

         Andy laughed in spite of himself, dividing the clumps of hair into three strands like what he read about in the styling pamphlet. "I think he expects me to pick up the burden," he continued, smoothing out her hair as best he could. "But he's not that old. I mean, I used to think he was kind of old, but he's only fifty-seven. I have a pretty young grandfather, when you think about it."

         "Yeah, your mom and grandma must've had kids real quick!" Tarah laughed, and Andy blushed at the impromptu insinuation, something strange coming from her. "But some animals couple up when they're young, and people are the same. I think it's great that they found love so quickly. It's just like us!"

         "Yeah." Andy's voice lowered almost to a whisper, thinking back to their earlier conversation: Tarah sacrificing for Andy, Andy sacrificing for Tarah, anything they could do to honor each other. "And when people are in love, they don't give up so easily. They make things work."

         The girl closed her eyes. "Some animals mate for life," she said quietly. "I'm happy we can do that, too."

         The boy straightened her pigtail once last time, making sure the red bow in her hair was secure. "There!" he spoke up again, stepping back and giving Tarah some room to take her old hairstyle for a spin. "How'd I do?"

         Tarah turned her head rapidly, swinging her newly restored pigtails back and forth. She laughed as the braids and bows floated about her like party streamers in the wind. "They're the same!" she burst out, her glasses seeming to magnify the joy in her eyes. "Thanks, Andrew!"

         Andy smirked. "You really know how to rock those pigtails, huh," he teased, watching her hair sway back and forth.

         "Yeah, they're really neat!" Tarah cheered, the braids falling back into place by the sides of her head. "Like organic licorice whips, but they're yellow!"

         The boy grinned at the rebirth of the original Tarah Reichardt, glad he had managed to do so well. His mind suddenly locked onto the word "whips," and he rose from the bed in a rush. "Oh yeah, before I forget, I need to show you what Grandpa Moses left me," he said, as Tarah watched with curiosity. "Come take a look, Tarah."

         A moment later, they were on the floor, looking at the steel case Moses had given him. Andy had opened up both compartments to let Tarah take a gander at the Crackshot whip, its attachments, and the crystal kunai known as the Demonbane Daggers.

         "I don't know what I'm supposed to do with it," he grumbled, tentatively touching the various whip tips while trying not to puncture himself. "I'm decent with a sword, but I think I'd just tie myself up with something like this."

         Tarah said nothing, but focused on the Daggers, still filled with the mysterious liquid that Moses used to stop evil dead in its tracks.

         "I wonder why he left this juice in the knives, though?" he mused, looking towards the first compartment. "It must've been in here for decades. Seems dangerous, maybe?"

         "Andrew, the poison was put in here yesterday," Tarah told him, her eyes narrowing at the display of daggers before them.

         "...What?" Andy straightened up, looking closer at the Demonbane Daggers to see if there was anything special about them. "Are you sure?"

         "Yeah." Tarah traced her finger over the cool crystal compartment of the Daggers. "The juice is poison made from Sunfruit Extract, meant to destroy Dream Demons and monsters alike," she explained, tapping her finger on the crystal. "It's potent, but it degrades and breaks down after a week. It's meant to be used the day it's concocted. That's what I read in the Scientific Bulletins: Alchemy Edition."

         Andy looked down at the Demonbane Daggers, which sparkled from the light that beam from Tarah's window. The fluid inside seemed to glisten like a freshly-poured wine, giving it a dangerous beauty touched with grace. "Why would Grandpa continue filling and refilling these things?" he said, as Tarah moved closer to him. "Like he's ready to go off any day now."

         A glimmer of an idea was starting to form on the edge of Andy's subconscious. It would be two days before it fully crystallized, but it was the missing link in a chain as hard as the Crackshot whip.

*****


         The usual walk home from the accountant's office was more scenic than one might've thought. Moses spurned the noisy bus rides of the city, preferring instead to take a country road leading to his neighborhood, featuring trees lining each side and fierce fungal growth beneath his feet. This was one of the ways Moses tried to keep active in his later years, though he was no longer an adventurer. He had to admit, the sound of wildlife and rustling leaves offered some respite from the burdens of the past, by allowing him to focus on the present, the world of the living that still kept on living.

         A rough cry rumbled from the east, and Moses turned his head in response, realizing it was not a wild animal, but a human. The cry was joined by a second voice, as the old man left the country road to follow the commotion, finding both voices startlingly familiar to him. Rummaging through branches and grassy thickets, he felt an old desire to rush to the rescue, his heart-rate picking up as he picked up the pace. Exiting the thicket, he found himself in a small clearing, where three figures were engaged in combat under the afternoon sun, as violent as his old days slaying Demons on the Emerald Veldt.

         Andy and Tarah were rushing a small, shadowed figure, clad entirely in black swaths and wearing a mask resembling a foreign fanged devil. The figure was as lithe as it seemed, and dodged the duo's attacks with a fighting style both strong and fluid. Hurling forward in a spin kick, it knocked Andy and Tarah onto their backs, though they quickly leaped to their feet with twin grunts to continue the battle. Moses felt the bony hand of dread encapsulate his heart, as he knew the teens had no chance, knew just what the two teens faced by the beast's tattered clothing, demonic mofic, and sheer power.

         A Dream Demon.

         "No..." Moses dropped his suitcase on the ground, his fingers losing their strength. "Not again...not..."

         Andy turned to the old man, as if just noticing his audience. "Grandpa, help us!" he shouted, sparing only a glance as he turned back to contend with the Dream Demon. "It's really fast, and we can't do it alone!"

         "W-What?" Moses' eyes widened, and he winced as the Dream Demon landed a hard right on Andy's cheek, knocking him down in a cloud of dust. "Andy!!"

         "Mr. Champion, please!" Tarah cried, rushing to Andy's side in an attempt to shield him from the devilish onslaught. "Andrew's already hurt, so come help!" Her arms were flying about, knocking away the numerous blows the Dream Demon rained down upon her. It was too much, however, and a stray stroke caught her on the side of the head, sending her spiraling to the ground with a cry of pain.

         "I can't..." Moses lowered his head, trying to block out the screams of violence. "I'm no longer a warrior. I left it behind."

         "That's not true!" Andy yelled, as she struggled to get to his feet. "You haven't forgotten who are you. Deep down, you know!"

         As a newly revived Tarah executed a series of whirling kicks on the elusive Demon, Andy pulled back his hands, gathering power in his fists. "VITAL GUN!!!" he cried, punching forth with both arms and firing a ball of orange chi at his opponent. The Dream Demon flew back from the impact, its back colliding with the hard earth. From its twitching, though, Moses could tell it wouldn't be down for long, and Andy and Tarah both looked like they were running out of energy.

         Andy's eyes bore down on Moses, as if trying to impart their strength to him. "I've seen them, Grandpa!" he told him. "You refill the Demonbane Daggers every night, so that you'd be ready to challenge the Tower of Trials any day you wanted. You haven't forgotten about Grandma, and you haven't given up hope! If you won't give up hope, neither will I. And neither would Grandma, I'm sure of it."

         Moses said nothing, felt beyond all words. Andy hadn't given up on him. And Eva, had she not given up?

         "Here!" Andy was pulling something from a small satchel he had set aside. A shining object was soon toppling through the air, and before Moses had even realized it, he had caught the Crackshot whip in his grasp, fitting his calluses just as it did all those years ago. "I don't know how to use this!" Andy said, turning back to face the Dream Demon, which had already gotten to its feet. "It's yours. Take it!"

         Moses looked between Andy and the whip, hesitating to face the truth.

         Tarah walked up to Moses, as angry as he had even seen the girl. "You're a fighter, Mr. Champion!" she growled, and then her face erupting in fury. "So FIGHT!!!"

         Moses stared in shock at the fierce girl, at the fierce teens who prodded him on. There was something inside them, something he lost long ago, and they were giving it back. A movement flickered behind Tarah's head, and he looked to find the Dream Demon back on its feet, readying its stance. The beast let out an oddly feminine grown, and was rushing towards the three of them once more. Like twin hammers, its arms were raised to strike, wwinging towards Andy and Tarah.

         The Demon never even made it halfway.

         It let out a grunt, caught in the chest by a small ball from the tip of a whip. As the creature went flying back, the chain retracted back to its owner, who gripped it with a hand containing an ogre's intensity. Moses stood in a wide stance. his former fragility completely absent for the moment. In its place was a warrior's resolution, and a fighter every bit as skilled as he was in his prime.

         "Get away from my grandson," he hissed, staring down the Dream Demon like it was a gnat to be squashed.

         And two smiles started to form on Andy and Tarah's faces.

         Moses rushed forward with the speed of a man half his age, meeting the Dream Demon head on. The Demon snarled, and fired a bolt of chi similar to Andy's own Vital Gun technique. It was to no avail, as Moses simply span around the shot, twirling like a figure skater executing a favorite technique. With teeth clenched and muscles tensed, Moses brought back his Crackshot whip, and sent it flying towards the beast to batter its chest with a resounding CRACK!!!

         Andy and Tarah watched as Moses continued to savage the beast with fierce blows, the chain whip whirling about in a silver shine blur. Strike after strike landed on the Dream Demon, as it struggled to keep its defenses up in the midst of the furious lashing. With a roar, Moses turned the whip in a lateral arc, and the Demon was sent once again flying backwards onto the earth. And this time, it didn't look like it would be getting up so easily.

         Moses drew the chain back into his grip, watching for the Dream Demon to make its next move.

         And Andy sauntered up to his grandfather, a curious levity in his step. "Yeah, that should just about do it," he said, smiling at the older male.

         "Yeah!" Tarah bubbled, coming up to Andy's side. "That was real cool!"

         Moses stared at the two teens, who were standing about as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Then, he looked beyond them as a low, human-like moaning emerged from the Dream Demon, who was struggling to climb to its feet. With a grunt, it removed the hooks of its fanged mask, letting it clatter to the ground aside its feet. And when a stream of long, green hair poured out of its hood, Moses could see it was not a Demon at all, but a young, teenage girl with blue eyes and a wry, teasing expression on her face.

         "Well, that was somethin' else!" Maru Mari grinned at the three of them, wincing a bit from the fierce thrashing she had been dealt. "Pretty good for an old coot. Better than Nana could've done, anyway."

         Moses looked at the girl for a moment, his lip raised in disbelief. Then, he turned back to Andy and Tarah, a look of realization in eyes. "It was a show?" he asked, the chain of his whip drifting to his side like a dead snake.

         Andy nodded. "I know you'll never be happy until you settle things with Adol yourself," he explained. "And I knew you still had the will to fight. I just wanted you to know it, too."

         "So we decided to talk to our friend Mari and arrange a fake fight!" Tarah smiled as she sidled up to Andy, who welcomed her in with an arm around her shoulders. "Andrew knew you'd be able to save us, and that you'd see you're still a great fighter even though you're older!"

         "I was fighting against a little girl, all this time?" Moses asked, looking back towards Mari with a scowl.

         "I wouldn't undersell it." The green-haired girl grinned, straightening up as she rubbed the marks on her arms her special body-armor had only just managed to blunt. "I wasn't holding back, and you still kicked my butt. Kind of embarrassing, really! Thought I was pretty good, but you're a bit better."

         "She's my trainer, the strongest fighter in Starlight City," Andy said, with upmost certainty "And if you can beat her like that, you can beat your Night Terror, and Adol too. You can make it all work. It's never too late."

         Moses stood gaping at the boy for a moment more, as the three teens continued smiling at him. Then he burst out into wild laughter, erupting from deep within his gut. "Such crazy kids these days!" he cried, clutching his stomach in sheer mirth. "How could I ever deny willpower, with the things you do!"

         Andy, Tarah, and Mari continued watching as Moses tried to gather himself together, smiling at the renewed energy emanating from the old man. And the Crackshot whip remained in hand, his warrior's grip stronger than it had been in thirty years.

         "Ow!!!" Mari winced, stroking her skin where the welts were beginning to develop. "Wish he had gone easier on me...!"

*****


         "So you're leaving now?" Andy asked, looking on as his grandfather placed the last Demonbane Dagger in the bandolier around his shoulders.

         "Precisely" Moses adjusted of the straps of his apparel, making sure they had been secured properly. "I called in my spare vacation days from the accountant's office. Though that job never suited me anyway. I'll be glad for the break."

         Tarah beamed cheerily, taking in the man's clothes with appreciation. "You look cool, Mr. Champion!" she told him. "I hope Andrew looks as cool when he's fifty!"

         Moses smiled gently behind his mustache, the sun stroking his face and shining new light on the formerly despondent man. He was now dressed in a red vest and red slacks, the outfit of a warrior who wished to fight with a sense of style. A wide-brimmed hat covered much of his gray locks, and a brown and gold cape gave the ensemble a rather adventurous touch. Along with the bandolier of Demonbane Daggers, the Crackshot whip was strapped firmly to his side, completing the look with the cool veneer of violence.

         Andy stepped forward. "Take care of Grandma Eva, alright?" he said. "She's waiting for you. I know she is."

         Moses nodded, and placed a hand of the boy's shoulder. "You gave me back my free-will," he told him. "I'll never lose it again."

         With a flourish of his cape, Moses spun to face the open road, leading away from Starlight City and into the Emerald Veldt. Looking behind him, he tipped his hat, his eyes burning with determination. "I'll bring her back," he assured Andy. "I promise."

         Andy and Tarah watched Moses go, who was now running towards the Veldt at a rapid pace. As the adventurer disappeared behind a crop of trees, Tarah turned to Andy with a smile. "That was really nice what you did for your grandfather," she said, nodding her head. "I know he'll be able to find what he wants!"

         "What WE did for him," Andy corrected her, smiling off to where Moses had vanished. "Thanks for helping out," he told Tarah, grabbing her hand. "Without you and Mari, I could've never made Grandpa see the truth."

         "It's cause I'm your girlfriend, you know," Tarah beamed at him, leaning forward for a kiss. "I gotta help you with your weird ideas!"

         As their lips touched, Andy put an arm around Tarah, feeling the warmth of the girl he held so dear, a partner forged in the fires of loyalty. He hoped one day, Moses would be able to feel the warmth of Eva again, a woman he no doubt shared the same bond with. Pulling away to view Tarah's face, Andy found hope and promise in her eyes, something they had built up together from the ground up. Now, it was Moses' turn to build something for himself, and maybe, just maybe, find what he had lost.

*****


         Deep in the far reaches of the Emerald Veldt, black clouds hung over the grassy plains, cloaking what should have been lush greens and browns with a haze of gray and black. Craggy mountains sneered down at the denizens of the wild, chasing away all whom would stand against the terrible darkness. One man wasn't cowed, standing alone in the courtyard of the large tower, and even the stone gargoyles couldn't match his fury. The gates beckoned to him, to the whip in his hand, his feet eager to get moving.

         "I've been away for too long," Moses growled up at the Tower of Trials, knuckles whitening around the handle of Crackshot. "Too afraid of the darkness within the depths, and inside my heart. But I have the warm wishes of my grandson, and the memory of the woman I love. I won't lose this time!"

         He raised Crackshot, and slashed the wind with a furious shout. "Cower in fear, Adol!" he roared, stepping forward. "The morning sun will vanquish the horrible night!"

         And he rushed towards the Tower of Trials, ready to finish a battle thirty years in the making.

                             END
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