Most lands are little more than soil and trees, perhaps a few rocks as well. Certainly, the beautiful ones are arranged more elaborately, but at it’s heart, most land is not much more than a small piece of earth. Not some land however. When a farmer passes his saddle to his son, more than just sand and rocks are being handed down. And when a flood erodes that soil, more than just dirt is being washed away. With it is the sun that shines down, the water that runs through, and the sweat of every generation before who once tilled and toiled there.
Here, every ounce of water and every grain of sand had that way about it. This was the land of Khanduras, here magic and sorcery was carried in the wind, on the air, and through this hills and it’s forests. Mystery flowed like a mighty river, whose whirlpools from which no person who lived here could escape. This was a brutal land, unforgiving, and it forgot nothing. This land remembered from where each scar in its surface had come, and knew every story by heart. This was a place for the strong, the brave and adventurous, filled with wonders and dreams the likes of which most mortal men couldn’t even dream, and horrors the likes of which even the worst of their nightmares wouldn’t dare comprehend… No matter how much it seems the right thing to find, some secrets are best left uncovered, and some legends unpursued. That was a lesson that some people here had learnt well. They’d found the truth they had at times sought after, was something that once found was often far more terrifying than ignorance could ever have been. It would take many more deaths before everyone would learn that lesson however, as on this night, it was a bad evening to live in Tristram.
Riding from the horizon, their horses’ hooves scared the ground beneath them. At twilight, from Tristram, two familiar figures watched.
"They’re coming," Kain whispered.
And they certainly were. The cloud covered sky was darkening, night would soon come and with it the horsemen they saw approaching from the distant western horizon. These weren’t just any horsemen however, they were far more skilled than most, and far greater in number. From here, the bridge into the ruined city, our two heroes had watched them come for almost a quarter of an hour.
"How many do you suppose there are?" Mercy asked.
Kain did not answer, for he couldn’t recall ever having seen so many men in one place at one time, let alone armed ones marching toward him, many on horseback. Atop Triesque, Mercy pondered. In number they were likely over fifty thousand, each wore black and carried a torch, which now as it grew darker, looked as though the heavens were beginning to fall, and thousands of stars had crashed into the surface of the earth. Their marching brought them closer as their sheer numbers blanketed and blacked out the western landscape from whence they had come.
"We’d better get out of here," Mercy said, preparing Triesque to leave.
Kain would hear none of it, he stood steadfast, he would move for no man, even if there were many thousands of them. It was a dreadful evening, as with the shroud of darkness that fell over the land, a soft rain came and the lanterns of the few remaining town’s buildings would soon flicker on. From the shadows, a small girl watched, she likely couldn’t have been more than eight. She, like most of the townspeople had come out to see the great many soldiers that had come. They stood in the main street, not knowing what to make of what they saw, but knew what they felt. The ground shook as under the weight of their trek, fifty-thousand plus marched in unison toward them.
Ahead of the marching men, three horsemen rode. The brevity and tenacity of their horses’ strides, made it clear that these were soldiers, and men of breeding. Better than most of the scum that wallowed away in tiny towns such as these, and certainly better than the few who remained in this one. They wore black, and on each of their arms they wore a red crest, both Kain and Mercy had seen men like these before. They rode quickly, and by the time they had reached the bridge, the thousands like them following behind were less than a few hundred meters away.
The three horsemen approached our heroes, and one of them, perhaps the leader, slowed is horse as the others followed suit. Slowly, the horsemen strode closer toward them, stopping as they were near. The leader was a young man, no more than twenty-two, and in the light rain he looked down at Kain from horseback, to which Kain only returned a cold stare.
"I’ve seen that look many times before," the man noted, his voice laced with conceit, "on thousands of men, across dozens of countries… All of which are now dead, or serve us."
Kain remained expressionless as the many thousands of soldiers marched forward. The man continued.
"Is this the town of Tristram, as I expect it is?"
"It is," Kain answered, still showing not a hint of fear.
Hearing this, the man smiled. He turned to the two other horsemen as they smiled as well.
"Do you have a name?" He asked spitefully, as though he were the undertaker asking for the name to put on Kain’s grave.
Kain did not respond, and for a few moments with the light rain falling, they watched each other in silence. Mercy finally broke the tension.
"His name is Kain, and I am Mercy."
Triesque gave Mercy a bothered look, how inconsiderate he thought. Little did he know, she had a very good reason for doing as she had. The man looked on, unimpressed. As behind him, the bulk of his fifty thousand men came to a stop at the thin river which stood between the untamed country and the tiny scorched hamlet of Tristram.
From his saddlebag, one of the other men drew a book. It was large and had three tarnished gold rings binding it at the seam, he handed it to the young leader. Mercy and Kain looked on, as the man fumbled through the pages, finally stopping as a smile crossed his lips.
With the page he had found, opened, he motioned the book forward toward Kain. A picture of something unlike anything Kain had ever seen took up an entire page of the ratty old book. While showing it, the man asked a question.
"Do you know what this is?"
Still, from Kain there was only silence.
"Have you ever seen it before?" The man added.
Kain stayed still silent as again he had no answer. Looking over, Mercy was quite confused.
"It just looks like some old worn out gold cup."
The man closed the book suddenly, almost offended by how she had referred to it.
"Ignorant fool, that picture isn’t just of some ‘worn out gold cup.’"
The man paused, his next words would amaze all of them.
"It is something far greater, and with more power than all of the people in this town combined could possibly imagine."
Again, Mercy and Kain looked to each other, both not sure weather this young man was crazy or fanatical, but both sure either trait being paramount in a man who commanded at least fifty thousand others, was a very dangerous thing. Speaking softly, the man continued.
"It is what legend calls ‘The Holy Grail,’ a cup put on this earth by the son of God himself. Any man who drinks from it, is guaranteed immortality… And any army that carries it before them, is invincible."
There was dramatic pause as to themselves each contemplated the situation, the man soon continued.
"I have reason to believe that that same cup, is here, in the town of Tristram. I will do anything that is necessary to secure it for my King, even if it means killing every man woman and child I come across, including you two."
The man’s arrogance and obliviousness to the ways of Khanduras struck a familiar chord with Kain. This young man reminded him a great deal of Fearless, the nineteen year old boy they had come across some weeks ago and who had been traveling with them for the last few. They were about the same age, although this man was perhaps a few years older, and both wore the black uniform and red crest of the Crimson Empire, as all these many thousands of men did. Looking up at the man, Kain spoke.
"You’re from the Crimson empire."
The man smiled, that was uncommon. Not many of those he conquered had heard of his empire, for when a city or village was taken, few were left alive, and certainly no one was allowed to escape. The Crimson tide swept across the countryside often far faster than word could travel.
"I am," the man answered. He went on, "my name is Tanus, General Tanus. I am a campaigner of the Crimson Guard. We have come from our far off capital of Arcadia, and have been traveling for many months. The Crimson empire controls everything between here and the western edge of the earth, and soon to that we shall add this tiny town, and the perhaps mythical Holy Grail."
"And if the people of this town do not wish to become part of your empire?"
The seriousness and business-like tone of Tanus’ answer would strike fear into even the most courageous of men.
"Then they will die, and under our might this village will be wiped from the face of the earth."
In the distance, the lightning struck as the thunder rolled above them. With a motion of his hand, Tanus signaled his troops to line up shoulder to shoulder along the bank of the thin river. Within moments, they had done so, as though they had rehearsed it. They stood shoulder to shoulder, along the river’s edge, ten men deep in most places, and extended as far as the eye could see in either direction. Kain drew his swords, as he did, Tanus and his officers laughed. Peering over his shoulder at Mercy, he whispered to her.
"Run Mercy… Run as fast as you can."
Turning Triesque, Mercy spurred him. Off they both rode into the town and toward the eastern end of the city, the watching crowd of townspeople parted as she made her way through. Again motioning with his hand, General Tanus pointed at them, as they were now several hundred yards away.
With those words, two horsemen broke rank and galloped off in pursuit, their swords drawn and their shields in hand. Seeing that their pace would in time easily overtake her, Kain returned his attention to Tanus.
"You’ll have to get through me, first."
Still smiling, Tanus looked down at threatening, but single, warrior. He spoke to his first officer.
"Let this one live, I enjoy his overzealous courage."
Unsheathing his sword, the menacing Tanus raised it high in the air, every one of his fifty thousand plus soldiers hanging on his every word. He shouted so that all could hear.
"Today, we complete yet another in a long line of victories for the Empire, my brothers."
There was a pause, he soon continued.
"On the brightest day, in the darkest night, no evil shall escape our sight. Let those who follow the Devil’s light, beware of our power, Crimson might!"
As though they were words for posturing, every last one of the seemingly infinite soldiers drew their weapons. Some were archers, some were pikemen, some were knights, but all were Crimson, and all were prepared to give their life for victory, and tonight, they would stop at nothing to taste it. Putting away the tattered book, Tanus steadied himself on his horse. With his sword still raised, and looking out toward the ravaged town in front of him, the rain lightly falling down around, again he yelled.
"Our revels now are ended Tristram… From Hell’s heart, I stab thee!"
And with those words, a mighty cheer went up from the legions of Crimson soldiers, it was a call to arms as across the river and massive bridge one twentieth of a million warriors charged. Frantically, the townspeople scrambled for their lives, but is was futile. The city would be razed and it’s inhabitants slaughtered, yet the adventure was just beginning, and the true killing had not yet begun.
Fearless in association with the Souls of Sin present:
"Once More Unto the Breach"
In their wake, mud and smaller stones were thrown into the air. The pace they kept was relentless, and by no means the posture of lady. This was no time for elegance however, the two Crimson soldiers were gaining, and unless Triesque could pick up the slack, they would soon be overtaken.
"Faster Triesque!" Mercy shouted.
But her shouting would make him go no faster, he was sure to remind her of that. The Crimson guardsman were closer now, less than twenty meters. Looking back over her shoulder it was clear one of them was drawing a bow. He arched it back as Mercy turned forward.
"If we can make it into the forest, we may stand a chance."
But that was far easier said than done. Many yards stood between here and there, and seeing as how the Crimsons had taken to using their bows, that meant many arrows did as well. Seconds later, one was let fly, Mercy was able to duck, missing her arm by only a narrow margin. As they continued to gallop, arrows seemed the least of their problems. The two soldiers were now within ten feet, they drew their swords as within moments they’d be within distance to strike Triesque down by the steel blades in their own hands.
"We’re not going to make it," Mercy shouted.
Unwavering, Triesque kept stride as the tips of the Crimson swords were now less than five feet away.
"We’re too heavy," she continued, "if I jump, you may stand a chance of reaching the forest."
Triesque wouldn’t hear of it, there’d be no way he’d willingly leave Mercy behind.
"You don’t have a choice I’m afraid," she whispered.
From his back she leapt, hitting the ground and rolling for several feet as Triesque continued on. He pondered stopping, although had he, it would have likely cost his life. She rolled to a stop and found herself face down in the mud. Turning over, she was greeted by the silver tip of a sword held only inches from her face. With all three now halted, they watched the brave unicorn ride off down the wooded path. But as he did, the Crimson soldier again drew his bow, if he were to fire with enough accuracy, one arrow in the head or leg would be plenty enough to bring down the beast before it could reach the safety of the trees.
"No!" Mercy shouted.
But it would not be enough. With sweat rolling into his eyes the archer took aim. Scrambling to her feet, Mercy tried to intervene, but her actions cost her dearly. With the blunt end of his sword, the soldier who had been holding her at bay, swung, knocking her on the back of the head. As she fell face first back into the filth, and before she blacked out, perhaps the last thing she saw was the arrow taking flight toward the galloping Triesque, as now everyone, save God himself, was helpless to stop it.
Some time later.
East of Tristram, warriors rode. For them, the coming of night was a lonely time, a depressing time.
"How long has he been like this?" D asked.
Glitterspike responded with only a shrug. Under the thick black clouds and rising crescent moon, the six of them plodded along. Five of which rode side by side along the wide country road, but one rode ahead. His head was lowered, and his spirit seemed all but broken. Unsatisfied by Glitterspike’s answer, D turned to Severen.
"Do you have any idea how long he’s been like this?"
Bothered, Severen looked back.
"Do I care?" He snapped.
As time passed it became clearer a wedge was growing between them, with each day both Severen and Fearless grinded on each other’s nerves even more. Perhaps they still respected each other as warriors, but as Human beings a mutual understanding was long lost. His riding ahead and distance from the others as of late, made it even more difficult to fully understand the young Prince who had only a short time ago first crossed their path.
"If I could pin it down to an exact time," Shin interrupted, "I’d say it was at about midnight, the night before the hail storm."
"Really, why would you say that?" Shin’s apparent insight seemed to peak D’s curiosity.
"We were talking one night, and I left to eat a late supper. After I returned, he wouldn’t say a word."
That was definitely strange, and now it interested all of them. Severen cut in.
"And he gave you no clue as to why?"
"Not that I can tell."
In silence the warriors rode further. They’d need to find a clearing or cave for the night, the rain was light now, but soon it could become something much stronger.
"I’ve had enough of this guessing," D finally said, "I’m just going to go ask him what’s the matter."
D steadied himself on his horse, preparing to ride forward, quickly, a hand rose up and grabbed his arm.
"No D," Xeiss said as she released his arm slowly, "I’ll go."
Looking back, D looked at her as though she were just a child, and this was not her place. She recognized that look, and wasn’t impressed by it at all.
"Don’t give me that look, D."
D slowed his pace as his horse was now again lined up with the others, his silence made it clear he was washing his hands in the situation. After one last stare, Xeiss rode forward toward Fearless. Hearing her come, he raised his hand to his head in frustration.
"You’ve been awfully quiet as of late."
With his eyes on the road, he didn’t so much as glance at her, almost as though he didn’t acknowledge that she was there at all.
"I’m not the only one wondering why, either," she added.
Still he didn’t answer. After a few more uncomfortable moments of silence, with a tap on its side, Xeiss stopped her horse abruptly. Seeing this, the others did as well.
"Quiet!" She yelled.
As she did, they became so. Now paying attention, Fearless stopped his horse to look at her. With a soft warm night wind blowing, Xeiss looked into the darkened forest… As though she were listening for something. She whispered as the others who were all now within a few feet, trying desperately to hear what is was that had startled her… But to no avail, they heard nothing.
"Do you hear that?" She whispered.
They all listened, but still, not a single sound uncommon to the pitch black countryside.
"No," Fearless whispered.
Hearing him, she spoke loudly again. Looking him in the eye, she smiled.
"Neither do I, and that’s the problem."
Realizing what she had done, the others found it funny. They stayed back, as perturbed, Fearless gave her a look of disgust and rode forward. She caught up to him shortly and spoke.
"Well, at least we know you can still talk."
Now he was visibly bothered by her persistence.
"Why do you bother me, Rasha? D and Valas have already spent the entire day doing the same."
"We’re worried about you, you haven’t said a word in almost four days."
"What I do or do not say should be no concern of yours."
He was angry, that much was obvious. Still, she kept pressing.
"Is there something bothering you?"
Again he went quiet.
"Forgive me, Fearless. I thought I was talking to man with enough courage to talk about his feelings. But now I can see I’m only talking to a boy, too afraid to tell a friend what’s on his mind."
She let back, keeping a few paces behind him. This was now the second time she had hit his nerve, and read him like a book. They both knew he couldn’t let end any conversation on that note.
"Come back here, Rasha. I’ll explain."
Satisfied, she rode forward again, ready to listen. This time the Prince spoke with a much more hospitable tone.
"Yesterday was supposed to be a very important day for me."
"Yes, I know. Yesterday was the day we were supposed to return to Westmarch."
That wasn’t it, nothing so petty or trivial could’ve forced him into the kind of silence he had been in.
"That’s not it."
"Then what is it?"
He was hesitant. Although he had gone over this many hundreds of times in his mind, saying it aloud was in many ways much different.
"I once knew a girl," he paused, trying to word it well, "one I cared about a great deal…"
He struggled to find the words, she tried to fill in the missing pieces.
"No," he was quick to counter, "she was far too beautiful to be from this Godforsaken place."
Xeiss was taken back by that.
"That’s not what I meant."
"It better not have been."
Their horses plodding along, the Prince thought how best he could reword it, more carefully this time.
"I loved her more than life itself… But now…"
For the young Prince, this was obviously a difficult subject.
As it turns out, that hadn’t been half as petty as she expected it would be. Now, in a way, she somewhat understood why he had been so quiet as of late. Trying to encourage him, she looked up, speaking softly.
"It wasn’t your fault."
The Prince shook his head as the light rain continued to fall.
"Yes it was. My blind pursuit of honor and glory has cost not only the lives of everyone I love, but the lives of everyone I have ever known."
Now she was also at a loss for words, her amateur psychiatry had by this point went well past its boundaries.
"This, like all wounds, with time will heal."
He looked at her, solemnly.
"This is one wound I hope will never heal."
"But why has this been bothering you more lately than before?"
"This is the longest I’ve ever been away from her in the two years since we’ve met… And yesterday…"
It was obvious what he was about to say was, at its heart, what had been weighing heavily on his mind.
"…Yesterday was to be the day I would’ve married her."
By this point, Xeiss was sorry she’d come up here at all. This was far from something any of these five warriors could solve. Of course, now she was left in a precarious position, she’d have to say something.
Luckily for her, fate intervened. From the distance, and toward them, someone rode. The horseman moved quickly and they were directly in his path. Seeing him, she drew her two short swords.
"Someone’s coming," she muttered.
Now the other warriors stopped as well. They readied their weapons as seldom were strangers in this land at night anything other than highwaymen or servants of Abadon.
"Who do you suppose it is?" The Prince asked.
Closer the horseman rode, they would soon find out. As the nearer he came, the more visible he was.
"In a few moments, we’ll see."
Night had fallen in Tristram. It was while massaging her head and coping with a stinging headache that Mercy awoke. Opening her eyes, she was surprised at where she found herself. Inside the church, laying down in one of the pews, she was quick to spring up. Immediately she saw Kain, sitting complacently not far from her. It was nearing midnight, yet the church sprung with life. Dozens of soldiers, not unlike the ones that had captured her, were not far away. They busied themselves as at the altar, the man who called himself ‘General Tanus’ was conversing with his officers. She gathered herself enough to whisper to Kain.
"Kain," she whispered, "what are we doing her?"
Leaning over, Kain whispered back to her.
"Tanus and his men have taken the city. About an hour ago, they brought me in here, he’s made this church something similar to his base of operations. They dragged you in not long after, for a time I thought you were dead."
Now she remembered. The siege, the chase the arrow that grazed her… ‘Triesque!’ she thought, ‘What have they done with Triesque?’ The last thing she could recall was the archer’s arrow flying through the air. Leaning over, she again whispered to Kain.
"Do you have any idea what they’ve done with Triesque?"
Kain lightly shook his head, he knew nothing. Ending his conversation, Tanus walked over. Following him were two soldiers, each of them holding a plate of food. Had not so many of them been around, Kain surely would have tried to run him through. Reaching them, Tanus spoke.
"Sleep well, paladin?"
Mercy gave him a disgusted glance. Looking down, she took stock of the cut she now had from where the arrow had grazed her arm. Tanus signaled to the soldiers, quickly they produced the plates of food for both of the warriors.
"I’m sure you’re both hungry."
Both had missed breakfast and lunch, grudgingly, they took the plates from the soldiers and started eating as though they hadn’t eaten in years. In between chewing her dinner, and surveying the church interior with her eyes, Mercy posed a question.
"What have you done with Triesque?"
There was a pause as Tanus smiled, Mercy and Kain went on eating. They tore apart the odd meat with their fingers as neither had ever ate something so strange before.
"Well?" Mercy persisted, now frustrated by the arrogant smile on his face.
With his eyes, Tanus motioned down to their plates. While chewing, Mercy looked to him, confused… Soon she understood, and as she did, a look of horror came over her. Now his smile grew even larger.
"I didn’t have any myself, but my officers tell me he tastes excellent with a generous helping of red pepper."
Kain looked down at his plate, pausing in the middle of his bite. He threw the plate to the ground and spat out what little he had in his mouth, as next to him Mercy looked as though she would throw up.
"He left us few options. One of our archers was skilled enough to strike him down before he was able to escape into the forest. Our resident cook happened to mention that he had heard of an excellent recipe for unicorn… Well, you get the picture."
Mercy was almost in tears.
"You’ll die for this, Tanus."
Tanus and his soldiers laughed.
"That’s what the King of Macious said, seconds after he realized I had tricked him into swallowing a few generous helpings of his own son… But as you can see, I am very much alive, and he is most certainly dead."
Angry, Kain looked back up at him.
"Tell me, why haven’t you killed us as well?"
The smile left Tanus’ face.
"I thought it wise to keep alive someone from this land, should I need a question answered or somewhere to assign blame."
There was no arguing that logic.
"There’s no ‘Holy Grail’ in Tristram," Kain said bluntly.
Tanus motioned for the soldiers to leave, they did so, and soon he responded.
"I know." There was a pause. "The Grail is underneath Tristram."
Mercy and Kain looked at each other, they both knew nothing much lied under Tristram in the labyrinth of catacombs. Tanus went on.
"There was a period in my empire, many hundreds of years ago, known only as ‘the great awakening.’ During that time, ministers, priests, and anything holy was burnt, destroyed or driven beyond our borders. We abandoned all faith, and adopted complete atheism."
Tanus signaled for one of his guardsmen, with him he brought the large book which he had shown them hours before on the bridge before the invasion. As he looked through the pages, he continued his story.
"In the Crimson royal castle of Arcadia, there is a room. We call it only ‘The Great Hall.’ It’s several stories high, and over two hundred meters long, but before the great awakening, it was a library. It was filled with hundreds of thousands of books, perhaps millions. Many were older than even the oldest records we had. Some… We have no idea from where they came. It was where every book was placed, from every library, from every city our empire had ever conquered."
Kain cut in.
"Why didn’t you just leave the books in the cities where you found them?"
"You’re just a traveler who can handle a sword well, I didn’t expect you to understand how one goes about running an empire… Information, is often a very dangerous thing."
That’s when Kain knew, when eventually he decapitated this arrogant child, he’d enjoy it much more than he normally would have. Pacing, Tanus continued yet again.
"Many of the books were brought into the city square and set ablaze, but most were taken by the ex-communicated bishops and friars. Legend says, that a group of those bishops, raided the great library and took the balance of the books therein east, on a caravan across the mountains."
"But more than that, they took in their raid the crown of the royal jewels, what we now call, ‘The Holy Grail.’ No one knows for sure where it came from, or what powers it has. Some believe it came from a continent which has now for centuries been swallowed by the ocean, or from an ancient civilization which has died out tens of thousands of years ago. Some even claim it was fashioned by the son of God… As for what its purpose is, rumors have ranged from things such as it’s discovery will make armies invincible, men immortal, or even set in motion an armageddon in which God himself would come from heaven and pass judgment on us all…"
In their travels, Kain and Mercy had seen a lot of strange things and listened to many a strange story. But it was probably safe to say, that until that moment, neither had ever heard a stranger tale or a more amazing legend than that one. Still thumbing through the book, the General finished the story.
"I don’t believe any of those things however. As an atheist, all these outlandish fairytales of a God and Devil hold no water with me. Although I’ll admit… This land of Khanduras does boast some interesting secrets not easily explained by science. However, I believe the purpose of the grail is something far simpler and far more terrestrial."
"Which is?" Kain asked angrily.
"Somehow, it should lead to the location of the many thousands of texts taken on that day four hundred years ago. The location of the library where all the books, the culmination of the western world’s knowledge, are stored."
"But what makes you so sure that you’ll find the Grail here?"
"Tristram is a holy city. The catacombs beneath it contain the skeletons of thousands of holy men. My advisors tell me that if those same bishops did die in Khanduras, the odds that they’re bodies are here are better than one chance in three."
Still very upset over what had happened to Triesque, Mercy was unimpressed.
"You’ve taken fifty-thousand men and traveled across mountains, swamps and forests to find a few dirty old books?"
Now Tanus was angry as well.
"These aren’t dirty old books, my dear. In them contains everything every man has ever learned since…"
He paused as he wasn’t sure.
"…History began. What is beyond the great ocean, why the stars stay in the sky, and what is the meaning of life. All those questions and infinite others, those ‘dirty old books’ can answer. So I suggest you show a little respect… But before we can go any further, we must first find the grail."
Now Kain knew this boy Tanus was the fool he appeared to be.
"The catacombs are a maze of tiny tunnels and long forgotten passages, it could take a search party years to find any particular skeleton, that is if the skeleton you’re looking for is even down there at all."
"I agree, that is why I plan to send a hundred search parties. And if they return with nothing, I will send a thousand."
Opening the book he held to the page which on was the picture of the grail, Tanus raised his hand to it. He spoke quietly as he felt it’s texture softly.
"At any cost of life, resources, men and time… The grail will be ours."
"You’re sure they wore the crest of the Crimson guard?"
Full of passion, Fearless spoke. On the lonely road, it had only been a short time since they had seen the person riding toward them.
"I’m sure," Triesque said as he panted, "I was barely able to escape. They shot an arrow at me but it only skimmed my leg."
"How many were there?" Fearless was quick to ask.
"Mercy thought there were at least fifty-thousand… I know they captured her, we have to go and get her back before they execute her or something, I heard what the General said, ‘every person found in this town will die.’"
"Which General? …This is very important Triesque, did he give you his name?"
Triesque thought back. He knew he had heard it, but couldn’t quite recall what it was exactly. As the seconds ticked away, the Prince became ever more anxious and impatient.
"Remember the name you stupid beast!"
Xeiss got off her horse to take a closer look at the wound on Triesque’s leg. Several of the warriors gave Fearless a look of discontent for how he spoke to the unicorn. Seeing this, the Prince calmed down.
"I’m sorry for shouting, Triesque. But you must understand it is very important that you remember what the General’s name was."
"Tanus… I think," Triesque answered, almost unsure.
Looking down, the Prince was alarmed. He was deciding what next he would do.
"Do you know him?" Severen asked.
The Prince smiled.
"Oh yes, I know Tanus very well."
Looking up, he went on.
"There were five senior Generals of the empire, campaigners they’re called. One was a man named General Aramon, who two months ago I slit his throat after he had received a fatal wound, that was the last thing I did before I came to this damned country. Another was named General Xantos, he was the man who led the hundred thousand soldiers to Dorado and sieged the city, I suspect he also died there…"
"I remember the pillar of smoke," D noted.
"I still owe you a beating for what you said to me that night, Fearless," Glitterspike added.
Ignoring Glitterspike, the Prince went on.
"Two of the Generals command armies on our northern borders, but the fifth one is a man named Tanus. We grew up together, I count him as one of my few friends and without a doubt my best one. We trained against each other for years, and although he was four years older, I often gave him a challenge. At twenty one, he was the youngest man ever appointed General and the title of campaigner, most are at least double that age before it even becomes a possibility… I would have liked to become a General as he had, but I was of royal blood, my place was to one day lead the entire empire. Tanus was not, even though had destiny not intervened, he would have been… I was once very close to his only sister."
From treating Triesque’s wound, Xeiss looked up. The stare she gave asked a question. Fearless, once realized, answered.
"Yes, she is the same one."
Sauntering his horse over, Shin put his hand on the Prince’s shoulder.
"If this ‘Tanus’ has Mercy and Kain, are they in danger?"
"I doubt that there are very many places anywhere that Kain would be in danger, but in Tanus’ dungeon may be one of them. To be honest… I’d be very surprised if they weren’t already dead."
Silently they all wondered what was going on in Tristram, they also knew they’d set out soon, sleep would have to be put off for them yet again. Glitterspike spoke up.
"But didn’t you say that the Crimson empire had been destroyed?"
The Prince thought for a moment, since Triesque had told them what had happened, he was pondering how this was possible.
"The capital, Arcadia, was liquidated, the over a million people there killed by Abadon. The feudal nature of the empire meant that, once centralization was gone, so goes any order it once had. Chaos would ensue, hundreds of factions would make a play for power…"
Working it out, he thought back.
"I remember vividly the night I left to lead the conquest of Dorado. My father, the King, had told me that three armies were en route to Illiad valley, the pass that once ran through the mountains which would lead us here. One of those armies parished there, I saw it with my own eyes. The second made it through, which is the one whose bodies now litter the fields surrounding Dorado. But the third… Could have been Tanus’. My father may have given him a different quest, a portion of which may have led him to Tristram. If Tanus and his men have been on an expedition for months, they may not have any idea that Arcadia has fallen… We must make haste to meet him, sleep will have to wait for another night it seems."
Yawning, Shin was reluctant to agree.
"Kain and Mercy may be in danger, but I’m sure they can handle themselves for the night. Who does their killing at this time of night anyhow?"
The Prince wouldn’t hear of it.
"We will leave at once. I must warn Tanus… I may be wrong, if his orders are to march to Dorado, he has no idea what he’s in for."
Hearing this, Shin was not happy. This wasn’t the first time Fearless had tried to undermine him.
"This may surprise you… Boy. But you do not lead us, I do… And I say we sleep."
"I don’t care what you think you lead, Shin. I will ride where I please and will not be dictated to by some filthy easterner."
Dismounting their horses, Shin and the Prince stood toe to toe, staring each other in the eye. Both looking ready to strike down the other with their swords then and there. Seeing the tension, and knowing this was neither the time nor the place, Triesque cut in.
"Quit it, both of you. We don’t have time for this, Mercy and Kain could be fighting for their lives as we speak."
Grudgingly, and while still nose to nose with Fearless, Shin spoke.
"Fine. We ride to Tristram tonight… But know two things Fearless…"
Shin raised his fist near both their faces, two fingers extended, he soon lowered one and continued.
"One, we ride to Tristram only because I say so…"
He lowered the other finger.
"And two, if you test me again, be prepared to die."
The Prince smiled, almost mocking him, but did not say a word. Breaking the stare, he turned to Triesque.
"How are you feeling, are you in a good enough condition to make the journey back?"
Triesque turned to Xeiss who was still tending to his wounded leg.
"I don’t know. How am I feeling?"
Xeiss looked up, satisfied with the bandaging job she had done.
"You’ll be OK. But next time, this is someone else’s job."
"Excellent," the prince said as he remounted his horse.
Slowly at first, then picking up the pace, he rode off. Ethon, D, Triesque and Xeiss soon followed. Shin also remounted his horse, walking over, Severen spoke.
"Next time, he wont back down so easily."
"I sincerely hope he doesn’t," Shin answered.
"Fearless hasn’t made many friends among us, and if he has, I’m certainly not one of them."
"Neither am I," Glitterspike added.
"Know that if there comes a time when we must choose who to stand behind, I will follow you before I follow that arrogant child… I’m not the only one who feels this way either. I suspect that Ethon, Xeiss, Mercy and D don’t care much more for him than I do. And I know Glitterspike doesn’t… As for Kain, I doubt he trusts any of us."
Looking at each other, the three of them knew what it was that may lie ahead. Getting ready to ride, Shin looked back at Severen.
"It’s good to know where your loyalties are."
With that, they spurred their horses and rode off. Next stop, Tristram.
This is Dorado, or as some know it, Hell’s manifestation on earth. If Khanduras was a dragon, then surely this city was the fierce fire lit in its belly. As though they had grown from the land, the mighty walls towered around the city. Quite a sight for any eyes, but only the dead bared witness. Inside the monstrous throne room, a being not of earth waited. The very sight of him had been known to paralyze grown men with fear, and send to their deaths even the most hardened of warriors. He was Abadon, and he ruled this land.
On this evening, from a massive window, he looked out over his kingdom, covered with the cloak of darkness. If he were to raise his hand to the window, it would seem as though he could crush all of Khanduras with the closing of his palm. And almost ironically, if he were to raise his hand to his armies, he could just as easily do it literally as well. His deep concentration was broken by someone approaching.
"We’ve found him," Intruder smiled a dastardly smile as Abadon turned to look at him.
Entering with Intruder was Fuji. They carried with them a corpse, which had rotted away so badly, that it was now more skeleton than it was man. Each holding an arm, the body’s legs dangled beneath him, its head slumped over with an arrow pertruding from the back. Seeing this, Abadon walked over. Slowly he reached for the skeleton’s hair, and with it grabbed pulled up its head. Now they could all see the ghastly face.
"It’s him all right," Abadon whispered.
The face, although eaten away by the elements and vermin, was unmistakable. It was General Xantos, the sieger of Dorado.
"He has caused me much trouble…"
Abadon paused as he smiled.
"…But now he has met the fate that all who oppose me inevitably will."
Looking into the General’s hollowed eyes, Intruder spoke.
"We found him in a pile of bodies eight men deep, the arrow that runs through his skull seems to be what killed him."
Letting go of the hair, and turning away, Abadon returned to the window.
"String him up."
Hearing him, Fuji hoisted up the battered remains. Pinning the wasted body to the wall, it hung limply, as on either side of it, dozens of other bodies did the same. They were all men who had at one time or another crossed Abadon’s path, committed a crime as he saw it against him, and now no doubt regretted it. Xantos, despite his awful condition, likely looked the best among them.
"Another fine addition to the wall," Intruder commented.
Abadon however, was otherwise occupied. He had turned to watch a two foot high hour glass which stood not far from them. Despite that the hole through which the grains of sand passed, was not much larger than a pin prick, it was almost completely drained. The sand went through, almost in single file. It was now down to the last thimble, it must have been draining away for weeks or perhaps months. Both watched as the last grains dripped away, leaving an empty upper chamber. Abadon smiled.
"Now, we have new problems."
Without warning, footsteps came from the hallway, at almost a running pace, more like… Skipping. Both Intruder and Abadon watched, as now in the doorway stood a small girl, no older than eight. She had been the girl who had watched the taking of Tristram hours before, not to mention the only citizen there that was able to escape with their life. She smiled as Abadon came to realize her true nature.
Seeing the General strung up, Exile, posing as the girl walked over. Looking with curiosity at the once proud leader of thousands, whose bones were now crumbling to dust in front of him.
"He’s far less menacing, now that he is unaccompanied by his soldiers and catapults," Intruder noted.
Regaining his concentration, Exile turned to Abadon.
"Something has happened in Tristram."
Intruder and Abadon had gone over this many times before, they knew there was only one thing to which he could be referring.
"The third Crimson army."
Abadon turned back to the window. Since he had learned of the third army, half as large as the one that had marched on Dorado, the one that had been trapped on the eastern side of the mountains with the closing of the valley of death, and the one that was on an unknown mission, he’d been preparing for this day.
"There were approximately fifty thousand of them, correct?"
Exile nodded, in the window’s reflection that much Abadon could see. Intruder cut in.
"But we still have no idea what their mission is, or if they even have a mission at all."
"I have spent a great deal of time preparing for their incursions into my kingdom. I well know that no army of that empire is sent out without a specific quest… But you’re right Intruder, for now we have no idea what this one’s is."
Exile paused, stunned by the thought that came over him.
Quickly Abadon rushed to Exile, who as a little girl was easy to lift. Taking him by the collar of the dress, he lifted him several feet off the ground.
"Tell me, or join Xantos on the wall."
Fumbling, Exile tried to think back to what the General had said and the picture he had seen from a distance.
"The Holy…" trying his best, he still couldn’t remember.
"The Holy what?" Abadon shouted in frustration.
Giving in, Exile decided he’d never remember.
"I just don’t remember…"
With those words Abadon lifted Exile up even further, he called for Fuji and Intruder as now Exile was only inches from the wall. To no one’s surprise, this quickly jogged his memory.
"I don’t remember the name, but I remember what the object they had come for, looked like…"
Dropping Exile to the ground, Abadon reached for the now bottom heavy hour glass. With a swipe, he tipped it over, spilling the millions of grains of pure white sand out onto the floor. Scornfully, he talked to Exile who looked up at him.
Wiping away sweat from the little girl’s brow, Exile looked down at the thin layer of perfectly smooth sand which sparsely covered a few square feet of the floor. Using the girl’s tiny finger, slowly he drew. As what he created took shape, Abadon was stunned. He spoke quietly, as he had to make certain of what he was seeing being created was in fact what he thought it was.
"The Holy Grail."
Now Exile’s memory had returned.
"Yes, the Grail. The darkly dressed General called it the Holy Grail."
The girl stood up, her knees were bloodied from where she had kneeled in the broken glass. As she did, Abadon closed his eyes, engaged in deep thought as he considered what next he would do. Nonchalantly he waved his hand, governed by some strange force, the sand rose from the floor and climbed back into the shattered hour glass. The many shards of glass that lay scattered around, and even those that were imbedded in the girl’s knees did the same, reassembling the hour glass and returning it upright. Had Exile blinked, he’d have missed it happening, it was as though the hour glass hadn’t been touched at all. Intruder, wise in the ways of magic was unimpressed by the parlor trick, he was quick to address Abadon.
"So what if the Crimson General seeks the Holy Grail? He’ll likely never find it. And if he does, surely an atheist could never understand its true power."
Abadon spoke very seriously.
"Are you willing to bet your life on that?"
"Abadon, you and I both know he probably subscribes to one of the hundreds of myths that have been floating around for centuries about it. That it can provide strong growing seasons, gentle winters, make armies invincible or men who drink from it immortal. I doubt very much that he will have the faintest idea of what to do with it if and once he finds it."
Abadon didn’t answer for a moment. And when he finally did, his voice didn’t carry it’s usual overbearing tone and sharp edge.
"All of those things are true… And at the same time none of them are."
There was silence, Abadon spoke in riddles and had confused both Intruder and Exile. He continued.
"What happens when the grail is found, depends entirely on who finds it. It amplifies the spirit of the person who first touches it… If the spirit of the finder is a good one, unfathomable mystery and fortune could be uncovered… But if the spirit of the finder is an evil one, no one can predict what havoc and devastation that could be cast upon this land."
Now they understood. Intruder knew what is was that next they must do.
"I’ll assemble your armies at once, Tristram must be retaken before the grail is found."
The thin moon was bright tonight, but the closer they came to Tristram, the darker it seemed to become. It wasn’t an optical illusion, or a hex cast on the countryside. For the last few miles, something had been blocking out its light more and more.
The closer they rode, the denser they’d been packed. Lining the road, on either side were massive crosses. If only that was all there was… Nailed to each one was a citizen of Tristram, perhaps they all were here. The seven warriors had passed hundreds of them, and the closer they came to the city, their number only increased. Some crosses stood ten feet high for the young men who had died in the city’s defense. Yet some stood only six feet for the children who’d been struck down by arrows in the back as they tried to run away. Blood dripped from each of their wrists and foreheads where the steel spikes had been hammered, thank God it was too dark to make out the expressions on their faces.
Soon the town was close enough to see. Fire dotted the city, and even from here the commotion could be heard. It was hard to make out, but it appeared as though above the church, a handful of soldiers were flying a flag. On it was the coat of arms of the Prince’s house, the seal of the once mighty Crimson empire. With the large wooden bridge in sight, the warriors continued on. Reaching the river’s edge, Shin proudly strutted up to the two guards that held a vigil, sentries watching for anyone foolish enough not to have been deterred by the many hundreds of crucifixions along the roadside for the last two miles. The guards were taken back by Shin’s appearance.
"What on earth are you?" One asked rudely.
They’d never seen someone from as far east as Shin, to them, he must have looked like a monster or a deviant. Seeing a problem, Xeiss rode over.
"We wish to get into the city, to see the one you call ‘Tanus.’"
The guards snickered, just as they had when they’d seen Kain draw his sword in anger there a mere few hours before.
"You can wish all you want, but unless you turn and leave immediately, you’ll join those already nailed to the crosses."
Stepping forward, and out of the darkness, Fearless approached. Seeing him, they paused in disbelief.
"You’ll take us to Tanus at once," he said with authority.
Hearing him speak, they were now sure of who it was. They dropped to one knee and planted their swords in the ground. Stuttering, the guard again spoke.
"Young Prince… We had no idea you were traveling with these savages, I apologize."
Looking back over his shoulder at them, D, Ethon, Triesque, Shin, Xeiss, Severen and Glitterspike, Fearless commented.
"Only some of them are savages…"
Looking Shin in the eye, he made an amendment to that statement.
"You can guess for yourself which ones I’m referring to."
Parting as to let them pass, the guards ushered them through.
"Tanus has taken up residence in the church, young Prince."
Preparing to ride, the Prince motioned for the guards to rise from their kneeling.
"Very well, as you were."
The soldiers saluted, as over the bridge the warriors rode, now they could see the true scope of the devastation. The Prince had led many an invasion, he knew the resistance must have been stiff for this much damage to have been caused.
"This damage is excessive," he observed.
With obvious insight, Glitterspike spoke.
"No, Tristram was very badly damaged long before Tanus and his soldiers came. He may have caused a few fires but he has barely scratched it."
Down the main street they continued to ride. Perhaps because they were likely the only non-Crimsons still alive here, they were given stares by almost everyone. As each soldier saw the Prince, whispers spread through their ranks, they were well busy securing and repairing the town. As he passed, each one dropped what they’d been doing and kneeled in respect. Soon they reached the church. Outside it was where the bodies were assembled in a rather large and disorderly pile, as not far away, badly damaged buildings were being dismantled as they needed milled wood to construct the crosses. Dismounting their horses, the warriors walked up the steps toward the gigantic steel framed doors. One had been left slightly ajar, seeing this Severen reached for it. But before he could pull the handle, half a dozen nearby soldiers rushed quickly to do it for him. Somewhat stunned by this, the warriors walked inside, Fearless leading they way.
The interior of the church was very dark, much darker than it had been in the evening. They entered from the back and looked down the long aisle. They could see nothing but shadows of the gothic pillars, a faint outline of the elegantly painted ceiling, a large cross which stood at the front, as at the altar, there waited Tanus. He had with him half a dozen soldiers and on the ground were a man and a woman, both with their hands tied behind their back. The seven warriors walked closer down the central aisle, but the darkness made them invisible to anyone who watched from the front. They saw the guards lift the two prisoners to their feet, it looked as though an execution was about to take place. Soon they were within earshot, and were apparently catching the tail end of a conversation Tanus was having with the prisoners.
"On the brightest day, in the darkest night…"
Now the Prince was sure this was an execution, those were often the last words any General would speak to an enemy of the state. One of the prisoners was a girl, despite her struggling, the guards held her as Tanus grabbed her forehead as he went on.
"…No evil shall escape our sight. Let those who follow the Devil’s light…"
From the cloak of darkness, the Prince’s voice came, he finished the poem that Tanus had started.
"…Beware of our power, Crimson might."
Hearing the voice, the Crimson soldiers froze. Tanus let go of the girl and squinted to see from where the voice had come.
"It couldn’t be…"
From the shadows, the Prince emerged. The guards were stunned, Mercy was relieved and Tanus grinned ear to ear.
"Alec Crimson," Tanus whispered.
Now the Prince smiled as well.
"Alec Tanus," he countered.
Walking forward, Tanus approached the Prince.
"The infamous Alecs of the twenty first generation of the empire are reunited."
Reaching him, they shook hands and hugged each other, both somewhat disoriented by the experience. Tanus spoke to the Prince in a way that until that point, he hadn’t spoken to anyone in Khanduras, as an equal.
"Now I’ve seen it all. Crown Prince Alec Crimson has made the journey from across half the world, to join us on this great crusade."
It had been a long time since the Prince had spoken with someone who knew him, and months since he’d last talked to Tanus, his best friend. It was a comforting feeling that he’d been missing for a long time now.
"I see you’ve been up to your usual tricks Alec Tanus. Riding in I saw the crosses, they were a nice touch."
"I’m glad to see that you’ve come to personally witness our moment of triumph, my friend. I made sure that raising the Crimson flag was the first order of business after the populace had been terminated. I remember how upset you were when I took over two hours to do so after the battle to take the Rebula swamplands."
It had been two years since that battle, the Prince had almost forgotten.
"Your memory is sharp Tanus, I wonder if your sword is still as sharp as well."
Both of them still not able to remove the smile from their faces, Tanus reassured him.
"You need not worry about the sharpness of my sword. Do you forget the time when we dueled for sixteen hours without a pause? I’m sure I taught you more than few lessons in swordsmanship that day."
"I won that fight Alec Tanus, more than once. You are only fortunate I had pity enough to spare your life."
By this point it took all their composure to not burst into laughter. If they didn’t feel it necessary to maintain a certain dignity around their guardsmen and prisoners, they surely would have. Now also from the darkness, the rest of the party emerged. Seeing them, Tanus was surprised.
"Who are they?"
There was no easy way to sum up the history of this motley crew.
"Travelers, and friends of mine."
The Prince raised a finger to Kain and Mercy.
"They are as well."
Hearing this, the guards instantly untied and released them. Tanus looked at Mercy, who only a few moments ago, he’d been poised to kill.
"Well paladin, if you’re a friend of the Prince’s there’s something I’d better tell you…"
Mercy looked on, still furious with him. But before he could finish, out from the darkness came Triesque. Seeing him, Mercy was left speechless as a tear rolled down her cheek.
Running over, she threw her arms around his neck, thankful he was alive and more thankful it hadn’t been him after all that she’d been served for dinner. The Prince recognized the look in her eye.
"You still do to prisoners what you did to the King of Macious, I see."
Tanus again smiled at the Prince, he then looked to the other person whom he had held captive, the one who wore the dark cloak.
"It seems keeping you alive was a good idea after all. Had I known you were a friend of the Prince…"
Kain didn’t let him finish.
"There’s no need to mince words. In these lands, all warriors, are cold warriors."
Identifying with that, Tanus turned to the strangers which watched him in silence.
"Any friends of Alec are friends of the Empire, you’re all welcome here." He signaled to the guards, "prepare them all warm beds, fresh clothing and fetch them dinner… Not the diseased rat we passed off as unicorn like the last time, the finest steak we have for everyone. It’s not everyday royalty graces our presence."
The guards scurried off, as they left, Tanus’ smile only grew larger.
"We’ve already begun raiding the catacombs under the city, we’ll find it soon."
Rare artifacts and archeology were Severen’s alma mater, that comment peeked his curiosity quite a bit.
"What will you find soon?" He blurted out.
Tanus reached for the book bound with three gold rings, it sat not far from him. He had by now bookmarked the picture which he now showed for the third time. Seeing it, Severen’s jaw dropped, he was barely able to speak.
"That’s… The Holy Grail… It does not exist."
Now the Prince understood, the search for the grail was something that had been going on in the eastern half of his empire for many years, but never beyond the mountains. Until the discovery of Illiad valley, it was generally accepted that the eastern mountains were the boundary to the edge of the universe. Finding the grail in these, lands much father east, must have been the quest his father had sent Tanus on.
"I assure you traveler, it does exist. It was taken from our capital four centuries ago and brought to the far east, in other words, here."
Severen was skeptical.
"But some legends claim outrageous things. Like that finding it will make blood rain from the sky, high waters flood the entire world, make no man, woman or child die for a thousand years, or even that God himself will send his son to deliver us from all evil. Surely you can’t believe those things, no magic is that powerful."
This was something Tanus had for months been wondering, he gave the conclusion that he had long ago reached.
"I’ve heard most of those legends, and many more about the grail. I find that the truth of any history, if not recorded exactly, can become quickly obscured with each person through which it passes."
"I don’t know what will happen when we find it…"
Severen cut in.
"Don’t you mean ‘if’ you find it?"
Tanus was sternly adamant.
"…When, we find it… But I know it will be worth our effort. I doubt very much it will be something negative anyhow, God was considered by many to be merciful and peaceful, I suspect his grail will be much of the same."
This whole situation had left most of the party awestruck. Saying one is the Prince of an empire is one thing, seeing the soldiers surrounding is quite another. This had also been the first time they’d heard Fearless’ true first name, strangely it was the same as Tanus’.
"You have the same first names?" D asked.
Either of them could have answered, the Prince did.
"Not exactly. He is ‘Alec-Peter’ and I am ‘Alec-Michael.’ Those names are seldom used however. Most have taken to simply calling me ‘young Prince,’ and no campaigner is ever called by his first name, except when in the company of friends."
The Prince’s words had reminded Tanus of something.
"Which reminds me Alec, how is my sister? You must be careful, she grows very angry when you leave for many weeks to lead invasions. And you no doubt remember her deadly accuracy with a bow for a hundred meters, I’m surprised she has let you come."
Instantly, Fearless’ expression changed, a calming seriousness came over him. Any whispering or motion by the others instantly ceased. A eerie hush fell over everyone as Tanus looked on in confusion. For the Prince, a terrible feeling knotted itself in his stomach as he knew that this was something he couldn’t beat around the bush about any longer.
"There are many things we need to discuss, Alec."
It was an odd sight to see. The time was past seven in the morning, yet over Dorado the land was still covered in perfect darkness. Rising up from the terror that was once the inner city, beasts of some unearthly kind flew in formation. They crowded the city streets and swarmed above like locusts. There were more among them than most men could’ve counted.
"Is this your work?" Intruder asked, curiously looking into the pitch black sky.
Abadon did as well, yet this was one of the few things to which he could only guess at an explanation.
"This is not my doing… This could only be the event horizon of the grail’s power. The closer the Crimson general comes to finding it, the stranger we can no doubt expect things to become."
Abadon removed his stare from the blackened morning sky, Intruder wasn’t so quick to.
"What do you mean by ‘stranger’?"
Abadon, although perhaps not knowing the answer, would never have admitted it. He phrased his best guess as though it were fact.
"I suspect the legends about the grail weren’t entirely rooted in myth."
Nine times out of ten, Intruder knew a liar when he heard one.
"You lie, Abadon. You have no idea what power the grail may hold… This darkness during the day could be the tail end of it’s fury, or just the beginning."
Abadon didn’t like to be called a liar, even if he was one. His tone grew harsher as his voice grew louder.
"You’re right, I don’t know for sure. But I have no interest in this being the way I find out… Standing here, watching the stars, waiting for things I have no control over to happen, I cannot exist that way. Whatever it’s power, we must reach the grail first, I will not wait for my fate to be dictated to me like some feeble minded peasant… All I truly know for certain is that the grail is ancient, older than any history book records. And that the spirit of it’s finder will shape how it’s power is released. It could be something harmless, something terrifying, or something more dangerous than the most dangerous of spells."
The beasts which enveloped Dorado began to cluster, they were converging outside the city as Abadon continued.
"I will not let any mere mortal reach such a powerful object first, and if he does, it must be taken from his possession by any force necessary."
Before they would set out, and the now gathering army of darkness would make haste for Tristram, Intruder posed the only remaining question.
"And if we reach it first, or are able to take it?"
"Then we will have a weapon of unlimited power. And all who oppose us will rue they day they decided to do so."
"…With my bare hands and a shovel I retrieved from the castle, I buried them both in the grand garden the next morning."
Alone, sitting on the steps to the altar, Fearless spoke to Tanus, who with his head buried in his hands, couldn’t believe what he was hearing. There were minutes of deafening quietness, during which it seemed as though not so much as a cricket chirped. Finally, looking up, the emotionally shattered Alec Tanus, spoke.
"I am dreaming… And surely this is the worst nightmare I have ever had… That is the only reasonable explanation."
This was a moment that no one else in the world would have be able to completely understand. How does someone go about telling his best friend that his entire family is dead, everyone he has ever known has been massacred, and his home has been burned to the ground. Somehow, the Prince had managed. He had a great deal of experience, after all, he’d been trying to convince himself that the same things had happened for almost two months now, yet there were parts of him that still couldn’t believe it. It was many more minutes more before Tanus would be able to speak again.
"Once we find the grail, I’ll assemble the men and tell them what’s happened… We’ll gather our supplies and venture south to Dorado. The campaign against Abadon will begin tomorrow at sunrise."
"Alec," the Prince whispered, "that is something we cannot do… I bared witness to the first attack on Dorado. Led by the legendary General Xantos himself, a hundred thousand men marched on the city… With double the men you have, they got no further than bringing down a portion of the outer wall, and only because Abadon allowed them to… If we send these men to siege the city again, they will parish, without even getting as far as the skeletons of our last attempt at it’s conquest."
Rising to his feet, Alec became very angry, not as much at the Prince as he was at the world he now found himself in.
"Unacceptable! …The King of the Crimson empire is dead! The capital of Arcadia has been attacked and the over a million who lived there have been slaughtered in cold blood! …Even the princess, Jessica Tanus, who was my sister, and the only girl you have ever loved, was killed by that foul creature…" He said his next words with more passion than anything that until that point he had ever said in over twenty years. "With the last ounce of strength in my body, I will make him pay for what he’s done."
This is exactly what the Prince had expected, after a moment he responded to Tanus quietly.
"There is not a moment that goes by where I wouldn’t give my life just to see Jessica’s smile one last time. Had I the choice, I’d have given my life to save her’s… But that is in the past. And the past, no matter how much we wish it could be, can never be changed… Have you ever seen more than one hundred thousand of our soldiers, every one of them a brother of the empire, sent to their deaths before your eyes?"
Tanus gave no answer, the Prince continued.
"You haven’t… Because until it happened at the gates of Dorado, that many of our soldiers hadn’t died in a single battle for over three hundred and fifty years… With my own dagger I slit General Aramon’s throat to end his pain, and have seen enough of my dead countrymen to last ten lifetimes… The killing must end."
There was a pause.
"One day, we will seek our vengeance in a last great crusade against these satanists and savages… But that day is not today. Today we must save our own lives to ensure that there are loyalists alive to avenge our dead brothers."
There is only a certain extent to which you can argue with a Prince, Tanus had reached it. He took a deep breath and sat back down on the small stairway which led to the altar.
"You are a wise man Alec Crimson, and I trust you more than any man I have ever known. But after we find the grail, promise me you’ll at least consider another assault on Dorado."
"For you Alec Tanus, I promise I will."
Those words were without a shadow of a doubt, the most difficult lie the Prince had ever had to tell. After the brief cooling off emotions that followed, an officer, with bated breath came rushing in from the street. He panting, obviously he’d been running, preparing to speak, as this had surprised both Tanus and Fearless.
"General Tanus, young Prince, I am honored to be in your presence."
After having been without it for almost two months, the Prince wasn’t interested in formalities.
Still catching his breath, he spoke.
"Much trouble is stirring…"
"Our sentries to the south have reported an army advancing on Tristram. They outman us at least three to one, not to mention look as though they’ve come directly from the depths of hell itself. Their rapid pace dictates they’ll be here within the hour."
"Abadon," Fearless whispered.
For Tanus, this was no big deal.
"Three to one is not all that impressive, at the battle of Sivas Rouge, we were outnumbered five and a half to one."
This wasn’t the same thing, and the Prince knew it.
"This isn’t the same thing, Tanus. The people of Sivas Rouge were farmers, they had only pitchforks and shovels… I assure you, Abadon’s demons have more dangerous weapons at their disposal than that. I’d estimate that the strength of one demon is equivalent to at least two well armed Crimson knights."
Now Tanus grew concerned.
"Mobilize the forces for the coming attack. I want catapults and archers mounted on every building, and two rings of fire surrounding the entire city."
Tanus reached for the tattered old book as Fearless picked up their swords, ready to leave. The officer added one last thing.
"That’s not all… Four of the travelers who arrived with the Prince are missing, we’re not sure where they went, but know they couldn’t have slipped past enough of the soldiers to leave the city."
"They’ve betrayed us," Tanus was quick to assume.
The Prince may not have known them well, but knew them better than that.
"They haven’t betrayed us, at least not to Abadon."
"Then where have they gone?"
Both Fearless and Tanus paused and looked at each other as they both reached the only reasonable conclusion. They were fools not to have realized it instantly.
"There’s only one place they could have gone."
Deep below Tristram there was what seemed to be another world. These were the catacombs. Here, dead holy men were kept, as had their bodies been buried in conventional graves, heathens and worshipers of the devil would have long dug them up. Being so dark, so cold and full of unthinkable terror, some had said of them, that you had to go through hell to visit the dead of heaven.
"I’ve seen enough caves to last me a lifetime," Severen commented.
After all, it had only been a few weeks since their eye-opening experience in the hellish prison camp of Minux Slavain. The four warriors, Severen, D, Kain and Xeiss had slipped away when the guards hadn’t been watching. They’d been searching these caves for the last half hour, the superior knowledge of the land they possessed they expected would allow them to reach the grail far faster than any foreign raiders could have. Struggling with it, D removed the glove on his right hand, underneath revealing the wrinkled little face of the often obnoxious Valas. Spitting out the lint that had accumulated in his mouth from the inside of the glove, he spoke.
"It seemed like I was in there forever, and I thought two those conceited westerners would never shut up… If you plan on hiding me away again, you’d better find a looser glove."
Valas' screeching voice and bothersome behavior was a staple they’d not missed much while gone. D spoke to him.
"I had to. Who knows what the atheists would think of you, Fearless says that where they come from, not even magic is used. They would have thought you were a deviant and they may have even tried to crucify us both, or burn at the stake or something."
Even though he knew D was right, it didn’t make him any happier. Led only by the dim firelight from the torch Severen carried, they made their way deeper into the caves.
"What do you know about the grail, Severen?" D asked, willing to ask anything to shut Valas up.
Trying to read the faint inscriptions on the walls as they walked, Severen answered.
"Not a great deal, but then again no one knows much more about the grail other than what it looks like, and old legends about what some claim it has done."
"Some of the things I’ve heard are so outlandish that I wont even repeat them… But there is one claim about it that appears in almost every text written on the subject… It is that what the grail does, depends entirely on the spirit of the person who finds it, or perhaps first touches it. If the spirit of the person is a good one, the grail will bring forward unfathomable prosperity. But if the spirit of the person is an evil one…"
Severen paused, wondering how best to word it.
"…God help us all. …If the person’s spirit is anywhere in between, I assume there’d be degrees of prosperity, or even degrees of terror."
After a few more steps, Severen stopped. Dusting away the carved lettering on the tunnel wall, he was becoming very frustrated.
"Most of this writing is decades old, the words and language they use is now almost totally obsolete. The deeper we go, the older it gets and the harder the writing is to make out… If only we could speak to someone who knew this language by heart."
Squinting at it, Severen felt a hand on his shoulder, it was D.
"I think I can help with that."
"You know this language?"
"Not exactly… But I can speak to quite a few people who do."
Algorith Van Demonican had an interesting and uncommon ability, the power to speak with the spirits of the dead. Preparing himself, he summoned his strength. Placing his hand on the wall, he felt the grove each carved letter left. These tunnels were filled with at the very least hundreds of bodies, and being men of the cloth, they were during their lives, very well educated. Cautiously, and with his eyes closed, D felt the damp tunnel wall, where perhaps no fingers had ran across in generations. Without warning, his eyes sprung back open, he collected himself and raised a finger toward one of darkened passages.
"It’s not far that way."
Following his lead, off they went, their torchlight soon disappearing into the labyrinth of hallways.
Even now, in the eleventh hour before a battle in which all their men, if not even they would die, they were not an ounce less confident. Even by their standards, they’d done an excellent job. Within only a matter of hours, the machine-like efficiency of the Crimson legions had almost completely repaired the city’s structures, traversed the endless tunnels underneath, readied as best they could for the approaching minions of Abadon, and still had more than enough time to execute the population and hang their bodies from crosses along the road leading in. Whatever happened in the coming hours, that would be a legacy that forever they would leave behind here.
Parting the huge wooden doors framed in steel which led out into the street, the Prince they called ‘Fearless’ and General Alec Tanus strode. They were greeted by something neither them ever would have expected.
"Isn’t it nearly nine in the morning?" Fearless asked, amazed by the soot colored sky.
"It is," Tanus answered, also not sure why it appeared as though it were near midnight.
"It seems as though the closer our soldiers come to recovering the grail, the more science and the laws of nature abandon us."
Tanus wasn’t listening, he was occupied seeing something equally as unique as the darkness at what should have been sunrise. Tanus held out his hand, the drizzle had halted hours ago, yet something still fell from the sky.
"What is it?" Fearless asked, seeing the General’s fascination.
Looking at his hand, it was clear what had left him awestruck. Tanus had removed his black glove and on his hand was blood, it was lightly spitting down from above. The Prince held out his hand as well, soon it began to turn a faint red also.
"It’s getting stronger," Tanus observed.
He was correct. It most certainly was getting stronger, even visibly so since they had stepped out of the church. As they watched in disbelief, it picked up slowly. Soon the thick blood dripped down their cheeks and dampened the street. As it ran into their eyes, they decided shelter might be a good idea. Stepping back into the doorway of the church, they watched the empty village of Tristram become ever more saturated with it, as it now formed puddles and in some places ran down the sides of buildings. Their soldiers were nowhere in sight, many were beneath the church, scouring the mazes that were the catacombs for the grail, as above ground thousands of them prepared at the city’s southern edge for the oncoming invasion. The blood poured thicker now, neither of the two young men had seen anything so unearthly before, although neither would ever admit it, perhaps a tiny bit it even scared them.
"…What on earth?" the Prince whispered.
His sentiment was something Tanus himself had been on the verge of saying. The blood came down even thicker still, it now covered near everything and ran through the roads like rainwater. Between the veil of darkness and the blood that rained down around, for these two warriors, relatively unfamiliar with the ways of magic and this land, it must have seemed as though the world were coming to an end… But then again, perhaps it was.
Wiping the blood from his eyes, he saw before him the first evidence of the men he had come to exterminate. Abadon looked at the crosses, impressed by the brutality employed in the Crimson methods. He knew that with it pouring down ever more steadily, it would be difficult for the Crimson general to light the arrows his archers fired, and the catapult debris he would let fly, with flame for more than few seconds at a time.
"This is virgin’s blood," Celes said as she smiled.
Abadon looked at her, she was licking clean her hands and forearms for what seemed like the hundredth time since the blood had started pouring down from the sky. This was an alarming sign that the grail in fact possessed the type of power he had guessed it did, and that the Crimson raiders were getting closer to finding it deep beneath the city. He only hoped Intruder and Atlas, whom he had dispatched, could reach it before they did. The only questions that remained was weather his forces would reach Tristram or be drowned en route, and what other devastation the grail may have in store on this day. It was perhaps literally impossible to scare this monstrous man they called Abadon. Today’s events supported that notion, as had this world anything that could have done so, this surely would have been it. He was not scared however, merely… Concerned, and very angry that this ‘Holy Grail,’ what looked like little more than an old gold cup, small enough to fit in the palm of his hand, casually threw around more power than he had ever at once commanded.
In the distance, difficult to see in the darkness, and more so with the sheets of blood raining down, peaked the belfry atop the church of Tristram. Surrounded by his armies of the night, he’d be there in the coming minutes. By now the defenders could see his forces sweeping closer… The next half hour looked as though it would see many deaths, but what weighed most heavily on his mind, was something about which he could do nothing about but watch… Because all knew, that now would be the time that the mysterious and powerful ‘Holy Grail’s’ end game would be played out. And everyone, even Abadon, could do nothing but hope and pray.
Oblivious to the carnage about to ensue a mere few hundred meters above them, the four adventurers walked slowly through the catacombs. The flickering torch Severen carried, shown down the passage in front of them. A few dozen yards away, they saw an arch, obviously well constructed, beyond which there seemed to be a larger chamber. Cautiously they walked forward, finally reaching and walking into the chamber. Slowly, Severen panned the light upward and around… The room was small, no bigger than twenty feet across and ten high, it featured two other arches which appeared to lead into other parts of the burial vault. But directly in the center, sat a robed and hooded skeleton, obviously a member of the clergy, instantly Kain recognized the symbol on the breast of the garment he wore.
"This is the bishop the Crimsons have been looking for."
They walked closer. The stale taste in the air, and the dried out woolen clothes of the bishop, made it clear no man, and certainly no outsider had been in here for many years, at least dozens, perhaps hundreds.
Looking down to what was clasped in the skeletal hand, there it was. What thousands had killed for, what tens of thousands were about to die for, and what every single person with conscious thought both feared and admired, ‘The Holy Grail.’ It was very dirty, and stained by time. Not too much unlike the picture they had seen, but far less glamorous than all of them had expected.
For Severen, an artifact hunter, and student of history, this was a day which even as a boy he never dreamed would come. Almost possessed, he reached for it. Kain smartly grabbed his hand before he could.
"Do you not remember your own words?"
Trying to regain his train of thought, Severen collected himself.
"Of course I do."
Those were just the incoherent ramblings of a man possessed, in the heat of the moment they had slipped his mind entirely. Xeiss refreshed the memory of the obviously dumbfounded Severen.
"You said that what the grail does, extreme good or extreme evil, depends entirely on the spirit of the person who first touches it."
There was a long silence as each of them considered silently. D finally spoke up.
"I’m a vampire hunter, that probably easily crosses the ‘evil’ line."
"True. D, under no circumstances go near the grail."
He took a quick step backward. Xeiss paced, as she continued thinking out loud.
"Kain, we have no idea what your past is. You’re one hell of a swordsman, who knows what you may have done. We can’t risk you touching it either."
Kain nodded in acceptance of that logic. Xeiss went on.
"Severen, since I’ve known you, you’ve killed more men than a small army. If you’re the first to touch it, we can probably expect the coming of the apocalypse."
"You got me there, Xeiss… That leaves only you."
"I suppose it does…"
At that moment, it was as though a heavy weight had been put on her shoulders. What this grail did, extreme good or extreme evil, or something in between, depended entirely on her. It knew all, it remembered all… That’s when every single skeleton in her closet surfaced to the front her mind, what seemed so harmless at the time, could now make the difference between death and life for thousands of people. One thing was clear, any second Crimson soldiers could come bursting into the room, and if they did, and were able to touch the grail first…
"Watch the entrances, we don’t need to be disturbed."
That was a task D and Kain were well capable of handling, so they did. Walking forward Xeiss leaned in, as Severen practically leaned over her shoulder to get a front row seat.
"Can you give me a bit of room Sev? Deciding the fate of the world with someone crowding over you isn’t easy."
He gave her a few more inches, but not many.
"You’d better not have any dark secrets you haven’t told us about."
Xeiss considered for moment, then looked at him.
She steadied herself, this was the moment of truth. Sweat rolled down her cheek, and off the tips of her fingers as she reached out. What happened next, is something none of them expected.
High above the catacombs and the destiny playing itself out below, two boys rested. By most standards at twenty two and nineteen, they were so, but between them, they carried the knowledge and courage of many men three times their age. It was silent in the darkened church of Tristram. From the dim candles of the altar, only talking could be heard… More like singing. Like brothers, Alec Tanus and the Prince they called Fearless were heard, their voices echoing throughout the great church.
"The minstrel boy to the war is gone, in the ranks of death you'll find him. His father's sword he hath girded on, and his wild harp slung behind him. ‘Land of Song!’ cried the warrior bard, Tho' all the world betrays thee, one sword, at least, thy rights shall guard, one faithful harp shall praise thee."
They smiled as each had remembered the song they sung as children word for word, bar for bar, even this many years later. Tanus spoke.
"I remember when we last sung that song together, Alec. It was the night we learned that our armies had finally secured the great city of Rawteg in the far south."
The Prince did as well.
"I remember it well, my friend."
They waited in silence, all that could be heard was the faint pitter-patter of blood rain that fell outside. They knew Abadon’s forces were inching closer, and that soon the city of Tristram they held by only a narrow margin, would be overwhelmed and would despite their powerful grasp, soon slip through their fingers.
Tanus raised his hand to his eyes, covering them. Today he was faced with the first defeat of his young career, one of only a few for the empire that either of them could remember. But more than that, he’d learned his only sister had been murdered, most of his friends had been killed, and the empire he’d spent his entire life fighting for and defending, had been fragmented, left in disarray if not all but destroyed. Keeping that in mind, it was no surprise, that this ruthless, near fearless and once proud young warrior shed a tear as it rolled down his face and dripped off his chin. He looked through the stained glass windows to the darkness outside. He whispered.
"We’re not going to win this one, are we Alec?"
Grimly, Fearless whispered back.
"No, Alec. We’re not."
Tanus knew it, he just needed to hear it said out loud.
"All our conquests, all our victories, where have they gotten us? Over the last four hundred years, our fathers and grandfathers have for the empire taken scores of countries, killed millions, enslaved hundreds of thousands more, and this is where it has led us…"
The Prince reached for the tattered old book, bound by three gold rings. The one that had told Tanus about the grail, and the only surviving book from the raid on the great hall, more than four hundred years ago. He flipped through the pages, as he knew the book well. He’d read it cover to cover many times, and from it both of them had drawn many an insight. Looking down at the page, he quoted directly from it.
"What a piece of work is man. How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty. In form, in moving, how express and admirable. In action, how like an angel. In apprehension, how like a God."
Tanus knew the passage well, and the story from which it came. As he knew all the stories in that book, wherever it came from…
"You never really considered attacking Dorado again, did you?"
"No Alec, I didn’t."
"I now understand why."
Tanus wiped the tear away, he thought for a moment, then looked right into the Prince’s eyes.
"I have a favor to ask of you, Alec."
"If it can be done, I will do it."
There was a long pause as Tanus phrased it as best he could.
"Fight me… Right here, right now, in this church with nothing but our swords… A fight to the death, only one man left alive… If I win, we march to Dorado and die like warriors… But if you win, we surrender Tristram and send our soldiers home to Arcadia."
For almost any other man, it’s request he wouldn’t have granted. But he knew this wasn’t a coup as it may have seemed, it was a request by a friend, to die with honor.
They rose to their feet and drew their swords. They shook each other’s hand, and then readied for battle. Fearless spoke.
"Good luck, Alec Tanus."
"As to you, Alec Crimson."
Atlas probably thought they were lost, but Intruder knew that wasn’t the case at all. They’d been stumbling through the catacombs for almost half an hour now, and still no sign of the grail. The novelty of teleportation for them, still hadn’t worn off.
"That was close," Atlas noted.
Less than a minute before, they’d narrowly avoided being seen by one of the raiding parties, that by now infested almost every single corridor.
"Not as close as you think," Intruder answered.
They walked forward, with no light, finding their way around was difficult. They couldn’t have risked lighting a torch, if they were to pass anyone it would give them away instantly. And although killing a pack or blood-thirsty Crimsons may have been fun, it wasn’t what they’d come down here for and time was running short.
"We’ve been going about this the wrong way," Intruder observed.
Kneeling to the ground, he found not far from him one of the many corpses they had passed. He raised his hand to it’s head.
"What are you doing?"
"Asking for directions."
Intruder concentrated on the hollowed pits of the man’s eyes. He gripped the skull so tightly, it almost shattered in his hand. Slowly he released it, the skull crumbled to dust in his fingers.
"The grail is…"
Atlas cut him off.
"…Only forty meters down this tunnel."
Intruder was amazed.
"How did you know that?"
Atlas grabbed Intruder’s shoulder and turned him around. Flickering, forty meters away was a dim light. Clearly they could both see a fair sized room around it. They both knew that this, the only room they’d seen down here, had to be where the grail was waiting. They both walked closer and were soon only meters away. Looking in, they were stunned by what they saw.
Standing in the room, hovering over the grail was Xeiss and Severen, as keeping watch over the other two entrances were Kain and D.
"What the hell are you doing here!"
The four adventurers turned quickly with the sound of Intruder’s voice. Kain was more than a tad angry it seemed, he ran at Intruder but what held back by D.
"This isn’t the time, Kain. It’s a small room, we can’t risk something happening to the grail or it falling into their hands."
Kain spoke with obvious discontent for Intruder.
"Don’t worry, after I’m done with him, he wont have hands for the grail to fall into."
Despite the commotion, Xeiss was still reaching out, her fingertips just inches away.
"Don’t be a fool Xeiss," scowled Intruder. "You have no idea what power you’d be releasing if you were to touch it. You’re in way over your head here."
She turned to look at him for a moment.
"I wouldn’t worry about me, if I were you Intruder. Once Kain has his way, whatever this grail has in store for us, will be the least of your problems."
They were a mere few seconds too late. Had he and Atlas gotten there a minute sooner, this messy showdown could have been averted.
"Fine you foolish girl, touch the grail… But from me and Abadon, take this advice… The Holy Grail is ancient, even Abadon doesn’t know how old exactly, only that it is far older than he is. It controls immense power, even as we speak the morning sky is dark and showers of blood rain from the sky because of it… Don’t expect it to give you gold, world peace, immortality or whatever else you’re hoping it does. Don’t even expect it to bring forth an armageddon or signal the coming of the son of God… What the grail shows you could be something far more terrifying… The Holy Grail can reveal mystery, but the answer to that mystery may not be what you had hoped, and I am almost positive that you will not like what it is that you find…"
Xeiss looked him right in the eye.
"Nice try, Intruder."
Reaching out… She grabbed the Holy Grail with both hands. It tingled slightly in her palms. Very slowly, the surface of the grail almost melted as it turned very soft, her hands left an impression. That was when she realized this may have been a mistake, and Intruder may not have been lying.
"For the love of…"
It’s surface solidified, as though it had taken a mold of her hands. Gradually it grew brighter, and brighter still. So bright that D ran as fast as he could to escape the light, deeper into the catacombs. Soon the light was so bright that they couldn’t even look at it, they had to all turn away. But even then the thick white light filled the room and even with their eyes closed they still couldn’t bare it any longer. They couldn’t even see their noses on their own faces, let alone each other or anything else.
"Make it stop!" Someone shouted, but inside it’s something that they all hoped it would do.
The five of them which remained screamed as the brightness of the light felt as though it was burning their eyes from their sockets.
In an instant, the light was gone, as also were Xeiss, Severen and Kain. Intruder and Atlas were left alone in the empty room, lit only by the dim torch which Severen had dropped.
"Where did they go?" Atlas asked.
Intruder had no answer. He put his hand on the ground. Far beneath even the catacombs, a rumbling came. It grew louder just as the light had grown brighter. The walls began to shake and the frail skeleton of the bishop which had for centuries watched over the grail, crumbled to dust under it’s force.
The thickly pouring blood made Tristram, even as close as it was, almost invisible. Each of them were soaked, but only a few of them didn’t seem to mind.
"Tasty," Celes said as blood ran down her face.
She then licked her hands clean yet again. The many thousands of demons marched forward. The ground was so bloated, that they sunk into the blood-soaked field up to their ankles. The demons that flew had been almost forced from the sky, the unwavering pounding of the even still growing stronger, thick red blood made their wings heavy and almost unusable. But nothing would stop them, the southern edge of Tristram was now less than a hundred yards away.
Hunkered down behind manmade shelters, the drenched Crimson soldiers waited. Their black uniforms bloodied so badly the black dye which stained their fabric began to run to the ground. Their catapults were readying and the archers were preparing their bows. The Crimson knights strode forward, thousands strong, they stood awaiting the coming onslaught in the sheets of blood which fell and the perfect darkness of the night. It was quite a sight to see. The army of death marched closer, eighty yards, seventy yards, sixty yards… Soon even more blood would spill and many graves would be dug come sunrise.
"For the Empire!" The Crimson knights shouted as they rode forward.
As from the legions of Abadon’s minions, a shrill cry of terror swept through their ranks and sounded like a stinging horn across the countryside outside Tristram.
Quietly at first but then growing louder, the same rumbling which far below Intruder and Atlas had heard, began to echo throughout the blood stained and darkened field. It seemed to rise up as the ground began to shake beneath their feet. It tossed knights from their horses, demons from their posture, many of the massive catapults toppled, and in Tristram like a thunderous earthquake, the weaker buildings collapsed to the ground.
The shaking of the ground only grew stronger, so much so that it split forming deep crevices into which the rivers of blood which had accumulated, flowed.
"They’ve reached the grail," Abadon whispered.
Not even he was certain as to what would happen next. In the narrow gap between Abadon’s demons and the Crimson soldiers, a hole opened from the earth. From it a bright light came. As bright as the one the raiders below had seen, this light stood much taller. Like a pure white pillar, it extended up into the sky, piercing the clouds and reaching God only knows where. Blinded by it, every man and beast who bared witness shielded their eyes or looked away. The circle of light began to expand outward, enveloping everything in it’s path.
Only Abadon had the foresight and power to defend himself, grabbing Celes, he knelt to the ground, surrounding them both in a shield of black magic. The pillar of light grew ever thicker, soon passing over them and not long after every beast and warrior, and even the mangled town of Tristram. It swallowed everything, blasting out like a mammoth wave over the foothills and forests of Khanduras, within seconds it extended farther than the eye could see in every direction.
Both the demons and Crimson soldiers looked down to their hands, even before their eyes, they were disintegrating away. They screamed, but their crys of agony would go unanswered. In a matter of seconds, over fifty thousand Crimson warriors, and three times that many minions of Abadon, had been taken apart piece by piece, and removed from existence.
The light dissipated, Abadon still surrounded by his shield of dark magic, lifted his head as to see what had happened. On his face, blood did not rain down. He heard something…
…It was the sound of birds chirping. He looked around in disbelief. The sky had cleared and the clouds which had once poured blood, were gone altogether. The sun shone as brightly as it ever had, and was at it’s right height for this time of day. The blue sky had about it the crispness and clearness of any spring morning, and the ground had sealed itself as though nothing had happened at all. He looked to Tristram, which in the morning sun stood empty, all it’s buildings completely intact. Even the blood which only minutes before had stained the land and ran over it like rivers, was gone. The ground was dry with the exception a warm spring dew on the plush green grass beneath him. With the soldiers wiped clean by the grail’s power and the land cleansed, the only evidence remaining that anything had been there at all, was the many bows, swords and shields left behind. Entire suits of armor lay in pristine condition, the longswords not far away, and even the clothes of the warrior once inside rested untouched. The soldiers and demons themselves, had felt the sting of the grail’s wrath, and had been taken from the earth and thrust into oblivion.
Rising up from the protection of Abadon, was Celes, her hands no longer bathed in the blood of virgins. She rubbed her eyes as they came into focus. Stunned, she spoke.
"Is this the Holy Grail’s doing?"
Abadon was still assessing the situation.
"Yes… It has proven it’s power."
Celes remembered what he had told her about the grail hours before.
"It seems that the spirit of the person who first touched it, was a good one."
Abadon knew magic well, the feeling he had was unmistakable.
"No, it was not… The spirit was not a pure one. It had many dark secrets, that much I can tell… The purification of Tristram was nothing, right now, somewhere other than here, the grail is letting loose it’s true terror."
With a blinding burst of light, they appeared. Thrown to the grass, the three warriors were left extremely disoriented. The light had been so bright, they’d all see spots for days to come. It had even produced a ringing in their ears. With shaky legs and squinting eyes, Kain, Xeiss and Severen managed to stumble to their feet.
It didn’t take long for them to realize, they weren’t in the catacombs beneath Tristram anymore. The sun burnt brightly in the sky. It had been the first time they’d seen the sunlight in many hours, so naturally, thrust into the mid morning sun required their eyes time to adjust. They saw trees around them, they were in a forest clearing. They could all also hear a waterfall somewhere not far away, the forest was thick as was the neatly trimmed grass on which they had landed. The entire area was very scenic, and very picturesque, almost as though someone kept care of it. Finally gathering himself, Severen posed a question.
Blinking their eyes back into focus, Kain and Xeiss looked around.
"He must have ran back into the catacombs when the light became too bright," rationalized Xeiss.
Looking around them, they all took stock of the situation. None of them had any idea where they were exactly, Kain made an interesting observation.
Kain pointed toward the western mountains, the others looked at them as well. From Tristram, the western mountains stood very prominently on the horizon, they almost swallowed half the sky entirely. But from here, wherever this was, the western mountains were little more than bumpy line in the extreme distance, no bigger than the tip of a thumb it seemed.
"Where are we?" Xeiss wondered out loud.
"It looks like we’re in the forest," Severen answered while smiling.
"Judging by the sun and the mountains," Kain reasoned, "I’d say we’re somewhere southeast of Spaniel."
That conclusion made sense, and surprised all of them. In only a few seconds, they’d been sent farther than they could have traveled by horseback in a week. On the ground, not far from where she had landed, Xeiss saw the grail. It had returned to it’s original shape and the prints her hands had left were gone. Reaching down, she picked it up. For the first time she looked at it closely, ‘how unremarkable,’ she thought. Still, none of them had any idea why it had sent them here.
"But why have we been sent here?" Xeiss asked.
But there was no answer. Kain gave the only explanation he could think of.
"The grail decides what it will do, based on the spirit of the person who first touches it, in this case, you Xeiss. If it judged your spirit to be neither tremendously good, or tremendously bad, sending us halfway across Khanduras may be all it has done."
While Kain spoke, Severen had been closely observing the surrounding area. At first, it may have looked like there was nothing relevant here, but upon closer inspection, there clearly was.
"Both of you, get over here," Severen called out.
Kain and Xeiss rushed over. Parting the tree branches, the three travelers could see that not far away stood a monstrous building. It was in another clearing and stood all alone in the dense forest. Without another word, the warriors walked toward it. Trees obscured most of it’s exterior, and vines crept up all it’s sides and over the few huge windows it had. It looked very old, gothic almost, and featured on the facade, large pillars of stone guarding the massive doors which led inside. It was so well covered that had they not been looking directly at it, despite it’s size, they’d most certainly never have seen it.
"It looks like a library," Severen noted, and he had seen many libraries.
They walked even closer, Xeiss with the grail in hand, and stood before the enormous stone steps, looking up to the ends of the columns where they met a magnificent arch. Carved into the marble facing were words, Severen read them aloud.
"Felix Qui Potuit Rerum Cognoscere Causas."
After hearing it, and reading it themselves, they still had not the remotest idea of what it meant.
"What language is that?" Severen asked.
"I’ve never seen anything like it," Kain muttered.
They then knew what they had to do. Led by Xeiss still holding the Holy Grail tightly, they approached the two huge doors. They weren’t locked, but with time had been rusted shut. It took the collective strength of all three of them, just to pry one open. They looked at each other and then the door. Each took a deep breath, as they knew, whatever it was that the ancient Holy Grail had wanted to show them, waited for them on the other side. They went through…
In single file, they squeezed through the small opening they had managed to create by all pulling on the door. Once inside, they paused completely trying to take in what they saw. The air was thick and musty, perhaps because no living person had been here in many years. They stood in gigantic room, so large that they couldn’t even see how far it extended. On either side, the walls dotted by the occasional narrow stain glass window, stretched up for at least four floors, and farther down they could see that it clearly opened up into many similar chambers. Every wall, on every floor, and even on countless shelves, there were more books than any single person could possibly imagine. Had any of them guessed a few hours before, they’d surely have assumed that there weren’t this many books in all the world. Severen had been right, it was a library, and it seemed as though there were more books here than a million people could read in a lifetime.
"It did lead us to the library, after all," Kain said in awe.
His words confused the others. He thought he’d better explain.
"General Tanus had said, that he thought the grail would somehow lead us to a great library. The library which housed the countless books which had been stolen from his empire’s capital over four hundred years ago… He said that some were older than they could even determine, and that they contained answers to every question ever asked. They were the accumulation of all the western world’s knowledge since as far back as history records… These are those books, and this is that library."
Down the center of the long hall, oak tables, each at least fifty feet long, stretched. Nothing was on them, and they were covered in a thin layer of dust. Severen walked up to one of the nearest of the almost infinite bookshelves, he withdrew a book and looked at it’s spine. The hardest thing he had to decide, was just where to begin.
Before he could open it, Xeiss noticed something out of place. On the inside, the entire building was in immaculate order, yet something stood out. On one of the tables, a very out of place book rested, almost as though someone had left it there on purpose for them to see. It was easily three inches thick, and was top to bottom over a foot high. Following the young rogue, Severen and Kain walked over. She looked closely at the strange book and sat down at the wooden chair directly in front of it. Carefully, she rested the grail on the table and pulled the book closer. It was a deep black, and it’s cover had on it an age’s worth of dirt and dust.
Right then is when she recalled vividly Intruder’s advice about the grail. He said that it had the power to answer many questions, but the answers to those questions, most certainly wouldn’t be the ones she had hoped or expected to find. Somehow she knew, that this was the book about which he spoke, and that inside it’s cover would be those terrifying answers.
With Kain sitting next to her, and Severen hovering above, she peeled back the cover to a random page. The writing was of the same language as they’d seen on the facade at the entrance to the library, but it wasn’t the writing that alarmed them. On the page there was a picture, it was of a man, and one they had to look twice at to believe.
"I think that’s a picture of…"
Severen couldn’t even finish his sentence, so Xeiss did.
"Tal Rasha… My father."
They watched the picture in silence, not sure what this meant. Kain finally said aloud what bothered him very deeply.
"But that’s impossible… This book is at least over four hundred years old."
None of them had an explanation. Her hand shaking, Xeiss turned the page. What they all saw then frightened them even more.
"It couldn’t be…"
Surrounded by even more of the strange language, there was another picture. It was faded but still clear. It was of two men, one much larger than the other.
"That looks like Shin…" gasped Xeiss.
The picture looked like it was of the ending of a long battle, the easterner which bared a striking resemblance to Shin Hikaru, was plunging his sword into some type of beast, the surroundings looked as though it took place in the depths of hell itself. Xeiss, with hands quaking, turned the page again.
This picture perhaps alarmed and stunned them most of all. It was when they realized what they were looking at, they became most so…
"That’s me…" whispered Severen, paralyzed with a cold nauseous feeling brewing in his stomach.
It wasn’t so much how this book had known so well their past, as it was the fact that they knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this book had been written generations before any of them were even born.
Slowly she flipped through the pages, each one having on it a picture they recognized. They were of every place the travelers had been, Arkanok, Westmarch, Checksum, Arcadia, Dorado, Tristram, Montross, Spaniel, everywhere… And of every person they had ever met, Abadon, Intruder, Kiera, Baal, Ikana, Scarlet, Kerran, the list went on and on… They saw pictures of everything that had over the past months and years, at their heart, shaped Khanduras. Almost hypnotized by it, Xeiss again turned the page… As much as what they had seen so far had eerily bothered them, nothing prepared them for what they saw next. It was the true tip of the terror which Intruder had tried to warn them about.
The picture took up both sides of the page, and for a few moments they weren’t even sure what they were looking at. Once they realized, fear surely overwhelmed all of them. The picture was of three people, two men and one girl. They were in a library, and the girl was sitting down at a very long table flipping through a rather large book as the other two, a wanderer and a dark cloaked man looked on.
"My God…" Xeiss whispered.
The picture was of them, right there and then as they read… Xeiss, with her hand marking the page, closed the book. She looked at the filthy cover, with her sleeve pulled over her hand, she began to wipe the dirt and thick dust away. Beneath the layer of dirt, was the book’s name. The cover had simply three words on it, and once uncovered, they shone a bright red. Xeiss read the three words aloud.
"Souls of Sin."
They each looked at each other, not understanding what it meant.
"What does it mean?" Kain asked.
Looking for logical reasons behind the things they saw, was futile by this point. Xeiss re-opened the book to the page she had marked with her finger. A revelation came over Severen, the pictures they had seen had progressed chronologically, and now they saw this picture, apparently of the present, and the book was only near it’s beginning. Nervous, and with his voice shaking slightly, he spoke to Xeiss.
"Xeiss, what is on the next page?"
As she turned the page he wondered, this book had predicated their past so well, perhaps it could predict the future as well...
Before the page could be turned, the library turned very dark, as though someone had closed all the windows. The huge steel door which guarded the entrance, was slowly swinging closed. It had been closed for almost half a millennia, somehow they doubted it would mind closing for another, trapping them inside.
"We have to get out of here!" Kain shouted.
He ran for the door as he was the closest. He could have made it out, yet stayed trying to hold it open for his two friends.
"Hurry up!" He yelled.
Severen ran for the door as well, it was closing tighter and now would take both their strength to hold it open for much longer.
"Come on, Xeiss, we don’t have time!"
Xeiss reached for the grail and picked it up. Holding it under her arm, she wasn’t planning on leaving without at least a glance at the next page. In a motion she flipped it, and it’s sight instantly took her breath away. Barely able to keep her balance, she ran toward the door. Running as fast as she could, she squeaked through seconds before Severen and Kain couldn’t hold it any longer, and the mighty door slammed closed, leaving the three warriors on the outside.
Kain and Severen had fallen to the ground, Xeiss leaned over with her hands on her knees, struggling to catch her breath. As soon as she was able, with the grail in hand, she ran into the forest as fast as she could. This took both her male companions by surprise, getting up, they ran after her.
She ran through the forest toward the sound of the waterfall that earlier they had all heard. She saw a clearing ahead as the sound of the rushing water became louder. Emerging from the trees, she saw below a huge canyon, a thin waterfall fell from not far away, to the raging river, a hundred feet below. Standing at the edge, she steadied her feet and arched her back.
"Don’t do it, Xeiss!" Severen yelled.
His words fell on deaf ears. She let go and flung the grail with all her strength, over the ledge. Falling… Falling… Finally splashing into the river below. As Severen and Kain finally reached her, they couldn’t believe what she’d done. Severen spoke quietly.
"That was the Holy Grail you just threw into that river… Do you have any idea what you’ve just done?"
"I know only too well, Sev."
Severen still couldn’t believe it, a treasure any artifact hunter would kill for… Thrown away in a single rush of fear. To himself, he could only watch in silence as the rapids carried it who knows where. Xeiss was calming down. She sat up against a tree and ran her hand through her hair. Kain, after a brief glance over the side, looked down at the upset young woman.
"What did you see that scared you so much?"
In as long as she could recall, she’d never been asked a harder question to answer.
"I can’t put it into words, Kain… I don’t think I’ll ever be able to put it into words…"
For now, they could accept that. After they’d all caught their breath and gathered themselves, they’d simply return, pry the door open again, and see for themselves.
"Severen, the grail’s gone. The current down there is so strong, it could be anywhere by now… We’d better get back to the library."
Severen, slowly and grudgingly turned his head away from the canyon. He had been so close, yet oh so far. Without a word to Kain, and certainly not one to Xeiss, Severen walked off toward the forest.
"Severen, where are you going?"
"Back to the library…"
Kain looked at him, with a strange look in his eye. He raised a finger pointing in the near opposite direction.
"The library is that way."
"No it isn’t."
"Yes it is."
That’s when they both realized they were lost. But much more than that, without being sure, and with it so well hidden, they knew there was only a slim chance at best that they’d ever find the library again.
"Damn it!" Severen yelled, as his voice echoed throughout the canyon.
Kain knelt down next to the internally disturbed Xeiss who rested against the tree.
"Can you tell us anything else you were able to see before you closed the book?"
"There was one thing," she answered.
Severen, still very angry with her, even turned to listen. She took a deep breath and tried to remember.
"All the writing in the book was the same as that strange language we saw on the front of the building, atop the stone pillars… Except one small passage I was able to catch a glimpse of…"
"What did it say?"
"I’m not sure what it means, but it sounded very mysterious… ‘Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, remembered by no one, and signifying nothing…’"
They all looked at each other, not sure what it meant exactly or how it related to any of them in any way.
"What do you think it means?"
"I haven’t the faintest idea."
Meanwhile, many miles away, destiny of a different kind was unfolding. At the altar, inside the church in the now liberated city of Tristram, two warriors fought.
"You are twice as a quick as I remember, Alec Crimson."
"…And your courage, Alec Tanus, is many times as strong."
With their swords in hand, they grappled. They’d been fighting for almost an hour, both had taken numerous cuts in making near deadly errors, yet both still stood strong. Sweat rolled down their arms and over their brows, the two boys who had been like brothers since they were children, were now letting end one young man’s life, the only question would be which one.
They struck at each other, they the bloodied and battered warriors poured every once of passion, and every ounce of available strength in to what at any time could have been their final blows. The fighting paused, as they both summoned their last ounces of strength.
"It’s strange, Alec," Tanus said, "I’d always thought that I’d die an old man in Arcadia, a hundred cities sieged and half a dozen countries conquered to my credit, a retired campaigner…"
The Prince smiled.
"You lie, Alec Tanus. I know you far too well to think that were true… ‘Live fast and die hard,’ you always said… This is how you wanted it to end… In cold blood… With a sword in your hand… Warrior versus warrior… ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends.’"
Tanus was not surprised.
"You know me very well, pity we will not have the years ahead to continue our conquests together…"
With the quickness of striking snakes, and the precision of skilled craftsmen, each of these sons of Arcadia, fought on.
The Prince they called ‘Fearless’ swung, missing Tanus. Tanus swung, missing the Prince. Their swords met with a spark at their contact, Tanus able to break the deadlock with lunge… He’d made his fatal flaw, and now left himself open as the Prince knocked his sword from his hand, it fell to the ground and rested at their feet. The Prince leaned in and held the tip of his sword to Tanus’ heart. Seeing this, Tanus looked the Prince in the eye…
"You have been a good friend, Alec Crimson. I shall miss you."
"As I shall miss you, Alec Tanus."
"For the Empire."
With those words, the Prince pushed down. The blade of the sword pierced his heart and instantly Tanus collapsed to the ground. Now impaled, the sword ran completely through him, and it’s tip peeked out inches from his spine. The Prince knelt close to him, trying to ease his friend’s pain.
"Tanus… Wherever it is that you’re going, when you reach there… If you see Jessica, tell her I still love her more than anything in the world."
With a trickle of blood running from his mouth, and his sliced open heart pumping blood onto the steps leading to the altar, Tanus nodded. Together, they said something that they both knew they would, when eventually this moment came.
"On the brightest day, in the darkest night, no evil shall escape our sight. Let those who follow the Devil’s light, beware of our power, Crimson might…"
Putting his boot on Tanus’ stomach, Fearless pulled the sword from his chest. As his eyes became emptier, his voice became less as daunting, as well as much quieter.
"’ Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, remembered by no one, and signifying nothing…’"
The prophecy made by the ancient text thousands of miles away and hundreds of years before had rung true, although neither of them knew it. The Prince knelt down and hugged the limp and near lifeless body of the once proud General Alec Tanus. His heart broke seeing his best friend like this. He’d buried too many friends as it is, yet the numbness was still not there, he felt a debt owed to each one, and above all others, this one. He then drew his dagger and prepared to slit Tanus’ throat, to hasten his death and end his suffering. But before he did, there’s one last thing he needed to say.
"I’m sorry, Alec. Please forgive me…"