From Dusk to Dawn, part one


Xeiss turned around, searching for Severen and Kain. They were nowhere to be seen, when just moments before she had been standing watch over them in their campsite. They had been in the middle of an unsettling forest, within a small clearing that the moonlight barely even entered. Now, the scenery had changed, from the forest clearing they had been resting in to a vast, grassy plain. Confused, she began walking, not knowing where she was going but knowing that she would not gain any ground by standing in one spot.

The blades of grass whipped at her ankles, punishing her legs for continuing on. The trek seemed endless, yet when she looked back she could not discern taking a single step. All she knew, all the felt, was the torturous sun and grass, causing her to want to submit to the angry blades, to sleep, to give in. Looking off to the side, she thought she saw a rotting animal carcass, its journey having already ended. As she watched a swarm of vultures use the body to suit their own purposes, she took a step toward the creature, considering helping it. She stopped, realizing the creature was already dead, and there was nothing she could do. She continued on, but with a heavy heart.

Not long after, she began to see objects in the distance. There was still no sign of the forest where she had been teleported from, but two objects, which appeared to be the size of human figures, were far off in the distance. She quickened her pace, perhaps hoping for some aid. The two humans continued their steady, rhythmic steps toward her.

As Xeiss came nearer and nearer to the other two humans, she began to recognize details. They were exactly the same height, and seemed to be the exactly alike in frame. As they approached even closer, Xeiss could have sworn they were identical twins. Then, as she finally saw their faces, she froze in mid-step. The two figures continued their pace, and were soon directly in front of her. She stared at them in shock.

She was staring at herself, twice over.

The two were almost identical to Xeiss in every way, nearly every feature was the same. There were only two differences Xeiss could see, one being that although they wore the exact same clothing as she did, all their attire was a dull, grayish-black. The second difference were the weapons they carried. The one on the Right carried, at her belt, two swords, each engraved with much precision a carving of a closed eye with an arrow sticking through it. The one on the left carried a familiar staff which glowed slightly, and had a deadly blade on the top end. Xeiss, on the other hand, was unarmed.

Other than these small differences, they were so similar to her, and each other, that they could be mistaken easily for Xeiss. She almost felt them probing her mind, reading the surprise within it as they used her own powers against her. They both grinned slightly, identical in their amusement as well as their form. They began walking toward her, the disturbing grins still on their faces, to take Xeiss, defeat her, and perhaps make her one of them.

Xeiss backed away slightly, reaching for her belt. Again she remembered she was unarmed, and wished she had her swords with her. The two copies of Xeiss grinned wider, still identical. Then, the one on the right closed her eyes. Opening them again, she stared back at Xeiss with glowing red eyes, eager for blood. The clone on the left closed her eyes as well, and when she opened them, they did not glow, but instead the structure of the eye had changed to that of a serpent, reminding Xeiss of another she knew with a similar feature. The two copies of Xeiss drew their swords simultaneously, and without so much as a gesture or signal to each other, attacked.

Xeiss quickly rolled out of the way just as the sharp end of the staff held by one copy embedded itself into the ground where she had stood. Xeiss observed that it had been thrown at her, and thought she saw her chance. Running to reach the staff in time, she was nevertheless beaten to it by her double, and felt the blunt end of the staff connect with the side of her head before she could dodge. She fell to the ground, dazed, but with still enough presence of mind to roll out of the way as the other clone tried to hit her with a swipe of her swords.

Xeiss leapt to her feet, shaking her head as she did, for she was still shaken from the blow by the staff. She looked back at her two doubles, and jumped back as one of them took another swipe at her. She backed away, trying to keep them both at a safe distance and avoiding their attacks. She didn’t have a weapon, and she couldn’t get close enough for hand-to-hand combat, and was thus forced to dodge endlessly as the one-sided fighting continued.

One of the clones, the one with the staff, suddenly began to charge her, and Xeiss prepared to move out of the way or grab the staff to acquire a weapon. However, before the woman reached her, she thrust the blunt end of the pole into the ground, pole-vaulting high into the air. Xeiss spun around as the clone landed gracefully on her feet and spun around, brandishing her staff. She swung once at Xeiss, who easily dodged.

However, Xeiss had made the error of forgetting about the other woman. Xeiss screamed as a blade dug deep into her back. The woman with the staff thrust forward at Xeiss, now helpless on the end of a sword, and the blade on the end of the staff embedded itself into Xeiss’s chest as well. Then, the second sword held by her clone was thrust into Xeiss’s back. Xeiss’s scream subsided to a strangled gurgle as the three blades were raised and Xeiss was lifted off her feet, supported only by the weapons piercing her flesh.

Xeiss flailed about in the air, the pain unbearable. Xeiss should have been dead, but instead she hung there, at the end of the blades, suffering like she never had before. She looked down in horror at the woman in front of her, the one with the serpentine eyes. The woman was smiling again, reveling in Xeiss’ pain. Her lips parted.

"Surrender to us, Xeiss. Surrender…"

Xeiss tried to respond while coughing up blood, but it was impossible.

The woman grinned even more. "Simply nod your head, and the pain will be over. Surrender to us or you will live on in insurmountable anguish."

Xeiss almost nodded her head, then heard the woman’s words again in her mind. If she did not surrender, she would live on in agony. She was already living in pain, not here, but every day. She thought the pain would have been relieved by taking her revenge upon Scarlet and Exile, but she still felt the guilt from Celes and Kashya’s deaths. She felt the pain of guilt, shame, and grief within her, like three blades stabbing through her chest.

It was a dream, a nightmare, one that she lived every day and faced every night, yet had never conquered. She never surrendered, but she never won either. The two doubles of herself were portions of herself, for they were the guilt that had come with the death of Kashya and Celes. With red or serpentine eyes, they were images of Xeiss in her mind-controlled state, the state which had led to the deaths of two of those she cared about. They even fought with the weapons of those they had killed, Celes’ staff and Kashya’s blades. They could cause Xeiss pain beyond belief, but they could not kill her. Only by surrendering could Xeiss die, only by taking her own life would the pain cease, and the feelings of guilt be purged from her soul.

Xeiss fell to the ground, the blades exiting her body and falling with her. The grass was stained red from the blood she had lost, and she felt as if she had no blood left within her at all. She could not hear her heart beating; she could only hear her guilt approaching her, footsteps rustling in the grass. Xeiss’ face was wet with tears; she didn’t know how much longer she could stand the pain. A sharp impact in her chest told her that she had been kicked, and she vomited in response, the fluids in her stomach mixing with her blood on the ground to add injury to the insult of her wounds. She was kicked again, and this time she rolled over on her back, looking up at the sky.

Her vision was blocked by her own face, her guilt looking down upon her with the eyes of a dragon. As she stared at her mirror image, it contorted and deformed itself into another face, the face of Celes. The eyes remained the same, still snake-like, yet the face and body had changed exactly to how Celes looked when she died. Two arrows pierced her chest, one at an odd, killing angle. Blood leaked from Celes’ mouth, dripping onto Xeiss’ chest, running into her own wounds.

"Why… why did you let Scarlet kill me, Xeiss? Why didn’t you stop her? I thought we were friends. Why didn’t you help me, Xeiss? I’ve died, Xeiss, and it is your fault!"

The words bit into Xeiss’ flesh more than the blades had. She closed her eyes and groaned, the assault truly tearing her apart from the inside. Xeiss felt almost ready to surrender, to take her own life and have it all end.

She saw herself again, bent over with red eyes piercing the darkness. Her face shifted again, and Xeiss saw her image turn into Kashya, eyes glowing red and her own sword thrust through her heart. She grasped the blade as if in horror, directed toward Xeiss.

"You killed me, Xeiss. You drove your sword through me while controlled, but then you, yourself, finished me off. You took my life, Xeiss. You murdered me, Xeiss! How could you murder me! How could you kill me in cold blood!"

Xeiss could not face the pain anymore. Her hands searched for release, any release, even death. Finding none, she looked up at Kashya, at the sword, and lifted her hands, wrapping them around the hilt. She looked up at Kashya, who was now grinning slightly, as was Celes. Xeiss looked back and forth at their faces, at their eyes, the eyes of those that had controlled her. The eyes were controlling her again now, not through mind control, but by her own mind and feelings turning against her. She started to pull the blade out of Kashya to use as the weapon to take her own life, but then she stopped. Kashya and Celes waited for her to continue, but Xeiss surprised them by coughing up blood, clearing her mouth enough to speak.

"I was… controlled… by Scarlet. I was… controlled… by Exile…"

Xeiss, instead of pulling the blade out, pushed the blade in, thrusting it into Kashya all the way to the hilt. The image of Kashya gasped in pain and surprise, looking upon Xeiss with horror.

Xeiss could barely see through the tears that gathered in her eyes. She tried to scream out the last few words, but they game out as more of a whimper. "I will not be controlled… by you!"

Kashya fell back, and Celes retreated as well. Xeiss could feel the pain fading away, the wounds caused by her guilt closing. The pain did not leave her, but it was no longer overpowering. The felt along her bloody clothing and felt no wounds. All that was left was her blood and tears.

And Kashya.

Xeiss turned herself over and crawled toward Kashya, the sword still sticking out of her chest. Her eyes were no longer those of a dragon, no longer reminded Xeiss of Scarlet, but were instead the true eyes of Kashya, staring directly at Xeiss. The eyes were not filled with fear or hate, but instead with relief, despite the sword in Kashya’s chest. She almost smiled at Xeiss.

"Xeiss…"

Xeiss knew at once that the apparition was not her guilt in Kashya’s guise, but Kashya herself. Eyes widening, she reached for the sword to pull it out of Kashya’s chest. As she grasped the hilt of the sword, Kashya’s hand came up and wrapped itself around Xeiss’.

"No. There is no need. I am already dead."

"But… but how? How are you…"

"As a Sister, we must swear to each other that we will always be there for each other. Even death cannot break that promise. Yet I am only a spirit, held deep within your heart."

Xeiss’ head lowered and she closed her eyes. There was a pause before she spoke. "I… I’m sorry, Kashya. I don’t know how to begin telling you how sorry I am for killing you."

"Xeiss, you did not kill me. You saved me from Andariel’s clutches, a fate worse than death. You released me, Xeiss."

"I still can’t… I still know that it was I who took you from this world. I can’t ignore that fact."

Xeiss’ eyes were still closed, her hand gripping the hilt of the sword through Kashya’s chest. Kashya released her hand, but Xeiss’ hand remained on the hilt. Kashya then brought her hand up to Xeiss’ face, rubbing her cheek soothingly. Xeiss slowly opened her eyes, which were now filled with tears.

Kashya brushed one of her tears away with a finger. "No, the pain will not go away. The guilt, those apparitions of yourself, will return. But you can beat them again. They are weakened. You have overcome them, and you can live on with your life…"

"How can I live on when everyone around me dies, Kashya? When you aren’t there to guide me?"

Kashya sighed softly. There was a long pause before she spoke. "Who was that woman? The one with the staff? I thought I recognized her."

"Celes. She was a good friend of mine. I… the woman in our group named Scarlet… she was a dragon, and to overcome Exile’s mind control she used her own. She betrayed the group, and… I… I protected her while she killed Celes in cold blood."

"And you blame yourself for this?"

Xeiss’ eyes closed again and began sobbing, unable to answer the question. Kashya reached up her other hand, holding Xeiss’ head in her palms.

"Xeiss. Xeiss, look at me."

Xeiss opened her eyes, still sobbing, her eyes red from crying and barely able to see Kashya through the tears.

"Xeiss, you cannot live like this. I know from personal experience…" Kashya paused for a moment, then continued. "You cannot blame yourself for our deaths. It’s not your fault."

Xeiss sobbed again, her words broken by tears. "I… know… I… just… can’t…"

"You can, Xeiss, if you stop placing the blame on yourself."

"I… tried to avenge… but that just made it worse…"

"Xeiss, stop living your life for those friends who have died along the way. Live for those who still live. Help them. Protect them."

"How can I protect them… when I can be controlled and forced to… to…?"

Kashya wiped the tears from Xeiss’ eyes, and lowered her hands. "Speak with Akara. She will show you the way." Kashya looked down at the sword in her chest, the wound not even seeming to bother her. She was more interested in Xeiss’ hand resting on the hilt.

"I gave you a gift, Xeiss. Use it along with your own, and use it wisely."

Xeiss sniffed, wiping her nose with her arm, and looked down at the hilt of the sword. She grasped it in both hands, and began pulling it out. As she lifted it out of Kashya’s body, Kashya began to go limp, not in pain, but as if her soul was leaving her body. As Xeiss continued to pull the sword out, the hilt beneath her hands began to glow a shade of blue. As she drew the sword further and further out, the blade began to glow as well, a white light emitted from it. Finally, the sword came completely out of Kashya’s body, and as it did her entire frame disintegrated into nothingness. The sword in Xeiss’ hands glowed so bright it was difficult to look at, yet Xeiss stared at it with fascination through tear-filled eyes. The light intensified to a blinding white light, until Xeiss could no longer see. Then, the light faded, and everything turned to darkness.

Xeiss opened her eyes slowly. She felt the tears beneath them, and struggled to see. It was dark now, and her head was uncomfortably resting on a rock. Raising her head, she sat up and looked around, wiping the tears and sleep from her eyes. Trees surrounded her, and the smoke from a campfire nearby, which had burned itself down to nothing, rose into the treetops. She was back in the campsite.

She must have dozed off during watch, and had been unprepared for the dream. She wiped the remaining tears from her eyes, still remembering what Kashya had said. She could remember every part of the dream down to the last detail.

There was a soft light nearby, and she looked down to see, at her belt, one of her swords. Both of her swords were still at her belt, in their scabbards. However, their hilts were glowing a faint blue light. Xeiss reached down and drew one from its scabbard, feeling a tingle of energy enter her fingertips. The blade shined with a pure, white light for only a moment, and then faded, as did the light of the hilt.

She sheathed the sword once again, and rose to her feet. She would not be able to sleep tonight, even though, deep down, she felt a sense of peace she had not felt for a long time. She looked over towards where Severen and Kain had been before, but surprisingly, they were not there. She shook her head and began walking out of the clearing.

"Leaving?"

The voice came from above her, and she looked up to see Severen sitting in the branch of a tree, directly above her.

"Don’t you ever sleep, Severen?"

"Only when I’m supposed to. You didn’t answer my question."

Xeiss sighed. "Yes, I’m leaving. I’ll be back, but… I have to go see someone first."

"Who?"

"I can’t say. Where did Kain go?"

"He left after you fell asleep."

"It seems we’re all splitting up… you are going back to the party, right?"

Severen nodded.

Xeiss reached to her side and pulled out a scroll, handing it to Severen in the tree as he unrolled and looked at it.

"That city it indicates is to be our new headquarters, bought with Scarlet’s money. I was already discussing it with Shin. I planned to lead the party there, but after what happened with the grail…"

"Where you are going has nothing to do with the grail."

Xeiss paused, thinking. "No. It doesn’t."

"Does this have anything to do with your dream?"

Xeiss was alarmed. "How did you know…"

"You began crying in your sleep a while ago, and when you woke up your swords were glowing for some strange reason. I suspect both of those are related to some sort of dream."

Xeiss turned away, and began walking through the trees. Severen dropped to the ground, landing on his feet gracefully, standing behind her.

"Kashya is that warrior woman from the rogue camp, right?"

Xeiss halted for a moment. "Yes."

"You were muttering her name in your sleep."

Xeiss did not respond to this; she turned away and exited the clearing, walking eastward. Severen did not attempt to stop her. He climbed back up in his perch above the clearing. Since Xeiss had left, someone would have had to keep watch, but now there was no one to watch over, save himself. Severen drew a dagger from his clothing and began spinning it absentmindedly on the tip of his finger.

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A few days later…

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"You let them go!"

"I apologize, Shin. I was not aware that they were being held captive."

Severen leaned casually against a tree, cleaning the dirt from beneath his fingernails with a dagger. He had let Xeiss go a few days ago, and had met the party just this morning. Instead of a joyful reunion, Severen was met with questions as to the whereabouts of Kain and Xeiss. He was not even looking at Shin, who was screaming at him, nor the rest of the group, which had also surrounded him.

"They… well, they’re not, but… you shouldn’t have let them just go!"

"Why not?"

"Because… well… would you please look at me when I’m talking to you?"

Severen looked up for a moment. "No." He then went back to cleaning his fingernails.

Shin seemed about to kill Severen, but Mercy put her hand on his shoulder. He turned toward her, and she gave him a halting gesture. She then stepped forward.

"Now, Severen, it’s not that they’re being kept prisoner. We’re just worried about them. They have been awfully secretive lately, and we don’t want anything to happen to--"

"Heaven forbid that Xeiss bring back another ton of gold this time."

Mercy paused in mid-sentence. "Point taken. But we just want to know where people are going before they leave the group."

"Kain is a nomad, and will return to the group when he so desires. Had I stopped him, he would have left the group soon after we arrived. As for Xeiss, she went back home."

Mercy looked confused. "Home? The monastery?"

"Well, probably not the monastery, but I am confident that she is heading toward the rogue encampment at this moment."

Shin rolled his eyes. "I suppose you read minds now too?"

Severen grinned. "No, I do not hear the thoughts of others. I hear most everything else though."

"Well, we don’t know where Kain is, but we know where Xeiss is. Do we go after her?" Glitterspike asked.

Severen shook his head. "No, she said keep going."

Shin raised an eyebrow. "Keep going? Where?"

Severen produced a scroll from seemingly out of nowhere and handed it to Shin, who began studying it intensely. "You should understand what this means."

"Yes. The headquarters. All right, let’s get moving then. We’re heading towards a town named Tabula Rasa"

They took a few steps out of the clearing, then Shin frowned. "How did you know that I knew what the map was leading us to?"

"I haven’t been spying on you, Shin. Xeiss told me. You certainly are paranoid."

"One has to be when you’re in the group."

Severen grinned. "I’ll take that as a compliment."

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Miles and miles away, another mouth was grinning. The mouth did not belong to a human, although it appeared to be. No, this mouth belonged to a demon, one in a human guise who, despite recent events, appeared pleased. It was surprising to note that as his troops returned from yet another defeat at the hands of the city of Tabula Rasa, Abadon did not seem displeased.

"Finally, a true challenge."

As his undead slaves returned to Dorado, he watched from the ramparts of the castle, looking down on them. Their numbers were significantly reduced, but it was of no consequence to him. He could make more undead easily. His attacks on Tabula Rasa were mere trifles to him. Taking the city would mean more to him than conquering the small surrounding villages ever did. It reminded him of a game of chess. A checkmate in a few moves was never satisfying enough. It was much more fun to keep the opponent guessing the next move, thinking he is winning, and then destroy his hope with one fell swoop.

Abadon heard someone approaching him, but he did not turn around. He knew who it was.

"Welcome back, Celes."

"Abadon, I’m afraid…"

"That the attack failed."

"…yes."

"I did not expect the attack to succeed."

Celes was confused. "Then why…"

"I am simply wearing them down, yet giving them a sense of hope. A sense of hope that I will enjoy extinguishing."

"We have extinguished some of it already. In this recent battle, the king of Tabula Rasa was killed."

"Hmm." Abadon paused for a moment. "Checkmate, then. Sooner than expected. Who takes the throne?"

"His brother. Not half the leader he was."

"Well, the challenge is gone then. I suppose we should start planning the final assault."

A shadow flew overhead, and Abadon looked up. A large silhouette blocked the sun, moving towards Abadon on top of the ramparts. Abadon calmly waited for the immense object to fly down onto the ramparts, easily towering over him. Abadon stifled a yawn.

"Find your gold yet, Scarlet?"

Scarlet snarled, a tongue of flame shooting from her mouth, then retracting. "The merchant was not in Westmarch. I want my gold back and I want it back now!"

"I would help you if I could, Scarlet, but I have no idea where your gold is. If I see any large treasures being transported around, I’ll be sure to call you."

"Where is Xeiss? She knows where my gold is, all I have to do is control her mind again…"

"Neither Xeiss nor the rest of the group has been seen since Tristram. Who knows where they could be now. For all we know, they could be stealing from your lair again as we speak."

"No, they are not. I have moved my lair so this will never happen again."

"Well good. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a siege I have to prepare."

"You should be helping me find my gold, you miserable demon! I have lost a fortune because of you!"

"Scarlet, I have done all I can, but remember that I take orders from Diablo, not you."

Without another word, Abadon left the ramparts, leaving behind a furious dragon and a vampire. The two stared at each other, neither moving. Celes’ emotions were quickly leaving her, but she still had a deep-down hatred for Dragoneyes. Scarlet hardly even looked at Celes, although she couldn’t determine if it was on purpose or not. They were nevertheless allies at the moment, and would have to tolerate each other for the time being. Scarlet took to the sky with a mighty gust of wind, almost blowing Celes over.

Like Abadon, Celes tried to stifle a yawn.

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:::Just a little bit further, and then you can rest as much as you want. Just a little bit further.:::

The horse, whose hooves had slowed for a moment, quickened their pace once again. The gentle nudge of hope entered its mind, driving it forward when otherwise it might have collapsed hours ago. It had been driven hard, without much sleep, for the past few days, and was tiring quickly. As the sun set below the horizon, the horse’s last ounce of strength was being used, and soon the steed would collapse from exhaustion.

Xeiss felt sorry for the poor creature. She regretted suggesting to its mind that it run just a little bit further, but she knew she was almost to her goal, and time was of the essence. Despite the creature being a horse, she could read traces of its thoughts, those of exhaustion and fatigue. In fact, she thought she could trace deeper thoughts, thoughts that told her of the horse’s determination and resolve, as if it knew her purpose. She quickly cast aside such delusions. However, she could not deny that he, for Xeiss had determined the horse to be masculine through its mind, was being driven farther than any horse was usually willing to go, perhaps more than the average horse was capable of going. She looked down at her steed’s legs, both in worry and in pity. When she looked up again and saw her destination, she sighed in relief, half of this relief being for the horse.

The horse slowed its pace somewhat, and Xeiss allowed him to. In fact, she jumped off of his back to relieve him of her weight after such a long journey. The horse slowly walked beside her, she leading it on through its mind instead of by its reins, for it had none. She had ridden him bareback, and although she was used to such an act, the ride seemed more comfortable than usual, as if the horse had been avoiding jolting her, despite the speed he was running. Stroking the horse’s smooth, black coat, she apologized to it in its mind for what she had influenced it to do. The horse nudged its nose under her hand gently, and she continued stroking it, smiling. There were no hard feelings, it seemed.

As she walked into the encampment, she noticed the rogues had not hidden themselves as the group told her they had before, when they had been coming to save both Xeiss and Celes. The guards glanced in her direction, but did not make any attempt to stop her. They instead nodded in greeting, even though Xeiss had never seen either of them before. A fleeting trace of their thoughts reminded her of the scar on her arm, the one given to her during her initiation into the Circle of Sisters so many years ago. She looked down at the scar; her armor and clothing being sleeveless for just such an identification process. As she looked at the scar, she began remembering the past, when the monastery was not in such dire times. She often looked at the scar, and gave her a sense of comfort, yet along with this often came a feeling of homesickness. Even this encampment could not replace the halls of the monastery.

A nearby rogue walked up to Xeiss. "Would you like for me to take your horse to the stables for you, captain?"

Xeiss was confused. "Captain…?" A gentle probe of the rogue’s mind indicated that the woman was referring to the swords at Xeiss’ belt. They were Kashya’s swords, and were to be given only to the one she chose as her successor. Such had been the way the title of captain was passed since the beginning of the Circle of Sisters, for the captain was in charge of all military affairs within the organization. Xeiss had not remembered this until now.

Xeiss smiled slightly. "No, no, I’m not…" Xeiss stopped in mid-sentence. Pondering, she remembered what Kashya had said. She had given Xeiss her swords and her title for a reason, and Xeiss should use them. "Yes, thank you."

Xeiss sent a small mental command to the horse to follow the rogue, and it complied. Xeiss then continued on, alone, to a tent off to the side. Xeiss paused for a moment outside the tent flap, then entered. There was a single occupant in the tent, who stood to greet Xeiss as she entered: Akara.

"Welcome back, Captain Rasha."

Xeiss sighed. "Akara, you have called me Xeiss all my life. Why do you give me a title now?"

"It was given to you by Kashya, and it is our duty to respect her wish that you become her successor."

"But… I’m not ready to take the title."

"If you were not ready, it would not have been given to you."

"You don’t understand, Akara… I… I’m not destined to…"

"Xeiss. Remember what I told you about destiny and fate."

Xeiss thought for a moment. "Yes. None of us have a destiny… or a fate…"

"But we all have a purpose."

"I know, but…"

"You doubt yourself too much. You do not trust yourself."

Xeiss frowned slightly. "No, I do not. That is why I came to see you."

"You said when you left that you would not return save to kill Andariel."

"I… changed my mind."

"Kashya sent you, didn’t she?"

"Sometimes, Akara," Xeiss said as she grinned slightly, "I think that you’re the one who can read minds."

"It is no feat, Xeiss. Last night I had a dream in which Kashya told me you would be coming. I have been expecting you."

"Kashya has been in a lot of people’s dreams recently, hasn’t she?"

"That is because she is in our hearts."

Xeiss nodded sadly, then walked over to a nearby chair and sat down. She drew one of her swords and held it in both hands in front of her, the blade resting in her left hand and the hilt in her right. It held no trace of the blue glow she had seen before. It seemed to be unique, yet ordinary, blade.

Xeiss stared at the blade as she spoke. "Where did these blades come from, Akara?"

"They have been passed down since the beginning, when the Circle of Sisters was founded."

"Are they… magic?"

"It is said they are no ordinary blades, and that they have mysterious powers of their own. However, these powers are only known by its wielder."

"Did Kashya know?"

Akara paused, her eyes looking past Xeiss for a moment. She turned away, contemplating something. Unfortunately, Akara was one of the few who had established a mind block to prevent someone from reading her mind. Xeiss wished she knew what Akara knew, and was not telling her.

Xeiss stood up. "Akara?"

"You have changed the subject, Xeiss. You did not come here to ask me about swords, did you?"

"Well… no…"

"Then let us not speak of them. Why did Kashya send you to me?"

"Because… because I was fighting my guilt, blaming myself for the deaths of Kashya and Celes."

"Celes? The woman who was captured along with you by Andariel?"

"Yes. The woman Scarlet mind-controlled both of us, then betrayed the group, and I sat idly by while she killed Celes."

"Because she was controlling you?"

Xeiss nodded.

Akara sighed. "Xeiss, you must stop blaming yourself for things beyond your control…"

"But… I feel like I could have prevented being charmed into the service of my enemies… somehow…"

"You couldn’t have. Unless you have a mind block, you cannot fight back against an assault on your mind."

"A mind block?"

"Yes, like the one I have placed on myself."

"Yes, I am aware of it. Is that a magic spell?"

"No, it is more like a concentration of thoughts. It takes practice to keep it up constantly, especially in the beginning."

"Akara, could you…"

"Teach you?"

Xeiss nodded, closing her eyes. "I don’t want to… I can’t be controlled again."

"Very well. It will be hard at first, but with practice, you should at least have a chance of fighting back if someone tries to take over your mind again."

"Thank you, Akara."

"It is my pleasure, Captain Rasha."

Xeiss shook her head. "I wish you would call me Xeiss."

"You do not wish to be called ‘Captain’ because you are afraid you cannot control your own actions, and thus you believe you cannot possibly be made responsible for the actions of others, else you should fail them."

Xeiss shook her head sadly. "Again, Akara, you are wise."

"As will you be eventually, if I have anything to say about it. Now, let us begin your training."

-------------------------------------------

:::Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me… I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind, but now I see…:::

:::Dae’lah, not that your singing is bad, but I’d rather you didn’t do it.:::

:::We’ve been walking for days without encountering anybody. I’m bored. What else do you expect a sword to do?:::

Kerran grumbled. "I don’t care…"

"What was that?"

Kerran glanced back at Kiera, having forgotten she was there, again. She moved far too silently for his taste. Not that he didn’t respect the ability, but it was unnerving to have someone following him from behind without making a sound, even if they were an ally.

"Like I said to you earlier, I sometimes talk to myself. You’ll have to get used to it."

Kiera eyed him for a moment. "For some reason I have the suspicion that you’re not talking to yourself…"

:::She’s on to us!:::

:::Be quiet, Dae’lah.:::

Dae’lah’s worrying was in vain. Kiera seemed disinterested in the subject, and changed it. "So where are we going? Do you wander about like this often?"

"Yes. But this time…"

"We’re going somewhere specific?"

"Well, yes and no. We’re going somewhere specific, I just don’t know where."

Kiera gave Kerran a confused look. He responded by saying, "Just keep walking."

:::If you won’t tell her, would you at least tell me where we are going?:::

:::I don’t know. I just feel drawn towards… something. I don’t know what.:::

:::Diablo?:::

:::Perhaps. I get the feeling something is about to happen, and I’m heading straight towards it.:::

:::Sounds a bit suicidal. Mind if I stay behind?:::

:::That would be even more suicidal. If you…:::

There was a pause as Kerran ceased his thought to Dae’lah, and even stopped in mid-step. Kiera stopped beside him, looking up at him.

"What is it?"

Kerran was looking around, as if searching for something. His hand grasped tightly around his sword, startling her a bit.

:::Not so tightly!:::

:::Dae’lah, help.:::

:::With what?:::

:::I sense… someone. Someone who Zalarnx might try to kill.:::

:::I see. I’ll try to help, just make sure you keep a tight grip on me. But, well, not THAT tight. If I had lungs, I’d be suffocating.:::

"Kerran, is something wrong?"

Kerran turned toward Kiera. "Keep an eye out. Someone is nearby."

"Who?"

"Just keep an eye out."

"I wish you would trust me enough to tell me what’s going on."

"Shhh."

The two of them continued on, Kiera looking around for any sign of movement. Kerran did not. The one he sensed was not far in front of them, yet Kerran continued walking straight forward. It would simply take too long to try and go around. Besides, Kerran had a feeling that this person sensed him as well, and was therefore impossible to avoid. As Kerran and Kiera broke into a clearing, they saw who Kerran had sensed.

A man stood before them, his body covered in a black cloak that revealed nothing of his face save his eyes. The eyes were glowing, flickering, as if lightning surged through them. The man had two swords strapped across his back, in a position that seemed to defy gravity. They had scarcely entered the clearing when the man reached back and unsheathed the two swords. Kiera stepped back, hiding behind a tree, but Kerran did not draw his sword.

The man’s voice was deep and intimidating. "Hello, demon."

"There’s no need for insults. I mean you no harm. I only wish to pass."

"I can sense the evil in you. You will not pass."

"Well then fine, I’ll go around."

"You will not go around. You will not turn back either. Your only choice is to fight me, and lose."

"I don’t like that choice, especially since I did not intend to fight you in the first place."

"A demon that doesn’t want to fight? That is a first."

"I’m telling you, I’m not a demon!"

:::Well, that’s not exactly true…:::

:::Aren’t you supposed to be helping to contain that part of me? I feel the urge to kill this guy.:::

:::That’s not because of the demon, it’s because he’s being annoying.:::

"Your aura says otherwise."

"Well if you’re so smart, what DOES my aura say?"

"That you are in conflict with yourself, and one of the sides is completely evil. I am here to end that conflict."

"By killing me."

"If that is what it takes."

"But that side of me is dormant, and will continue to be as long as I don’t meet up with people like you, who insist on trying to destroy it."

"And how can I trust your word?"

A voice came from behind Kerran, the voice of Kiera. "You can trust me! I’ve been with Kerran for a while, and he hasn’t done anything evil, and he certainly isn’t a demon!"

The man turned to Kiera, frowning. "I can hardly trust you; you have no aura."

Kiera gave the man a confused look, but did not falter. "Listen, he’s not evil. If anyone here is evil, it’s you, threatening to kill innocent travelers."

The man frowned, and turned back to Kerran. "Look, draw your sword. I do not want to have to strike you down where you stand without giving you what might appear to be a chance."

Kerran kept his hand on the hilt of Dae’lah, but did not draw it. He remained there, and the man sighed, stepping forward. However, when the man was in striking distance, Kerran drew his sword in defense.

The man smiled. "Ah, finally. Now this will be interesting." However, the cloaked figure paused, looking at the sword. He looked at it for quite a while, then at Kerran, then at the sword again. He then stepped back and sheathed his own swords.

"Well, perhaps there was some truth in your words. Perhaps not. I will have to wait and see."

With that, the man turned and exited the clearing quickly. Kiera was shocked, Kerran was relieved, and had pride not been one of the seven sins, Dae’lah might have committed it.

:::Well, that solved that problem, now didn’t it?:::

Kerran smiled slightly, sheathed Dae’lah, and turned to Kiera. "Come on, let’s go."

"Why did he stop? Not that I’m complaining…"

"Let’s just be happy that he did."

Kerran turned an exited the clearing, Kiera following. Kerran still felt uneasy, though. He could still feel the man’s presence, even through they had exited the clearing. As they walked further and further away, the man’s presence seemed to come with them. He was obviously following them. Kerran frowned and shook his head. It was going to be a longer journey than he thought.

-----------------------------------------

Two days later…

-----------------------------------------

"Are you sure you don’t want Triesque and me to scout ahead?" Mercy asked for the third time.

Glitterspike shook his head. "It is nothing against you, Mercy, but the last time someone scouted ahead, she used it to betray us."

"But Shin says we should have been there by now. Why aren’t we?"

Severen decided to join the conversation. "Because he miscalculated."

Shin frowned. "I know where we’re going."

"Yes, but you didn’t consider some factors when deciding how long it would take to get there."

"All right then, genius, when do you think we’ll get there?"

"Within five minutes."

Shin laughed. "You can estimate it down to five minutes?"

"I’m not estimating."

"All right then, you want to make a bet on that?"

"No."

"You’re not certain enough of your answer?"

"I’m certain of it, I just don’t gamble."

"Because you’ll lose.

"No, because I don’t see the point."

"What do you mean?"

"You don’t have anything I want."

D changed the topic abruptly. "Isn’t that a light up ahead? Like the forest breaking?"

Severen looked ahead. "Has it been five minutes yet?"

D shrugged. "Don’t think so. Only 2 at most."

Severen grinned. "Well, Shin, I guess it’s a good thing for you that I don’t gamble."

As they exited the forest, the light from the setting sun reached their eyes, obstructed slightly by an immense object with loomed before them like a gigantic beast. The dark shape was a castle, walls seemingly impenetrable, more impossible to climb than a cliff face.

Yet from the surrounding area, it looked like many had tried. The grass was scorched, and bodies lay everywhere, obvious signs of a recent battle. The corpses were in various stages of decay, from those that were burned to a crisp, to those who had been dead for a week perhaps, to those who looked like they had been dead for months, the flesh barely clinging to their bones. It was a gruesome site, and with such devastation it was hard to comprehend how the castle had stood up to such a massive onslaught, yet it still stood. It was an immense fortress, a citadel that seemed like it could keep out Diablo himself. This was quite fortunate, because it would have to.

Severen smiled. "Tabula Rasa, I presume?"

"It’s…" Mercy said, a little awestruck. "It’s… enormous!"

"It’s just what we need to stand up to Diablo," Shin said, smiling.

Fearless did not seem quite as impressed. "The Crimson Empire fell before Abadon, and Dorado fell before the Crimson Empire. No castle is unsiegeable, including this one. Besides, how exactly do we plan on obtaining this fortress?"

"This kingdom recently lost its king. The new one is a fool and a coward. We’re doing this city a favor by buying it from him."

Fearless raised an eyebrow. "You’re buying it? Where are you getting the money?"

"It’s coming to us by caravan."

"Who is making the donation?"

"Xeiss was able to swipe it out of a dragon’s horde."

Fearless rolled his eyes. "Seriously, where’d she get it from?"

"Find it hard to believe?"

"Quite, since dragons don’t exist."

Shin sighed. "You truly are ignorant."

"I am not ignorant, everyone knows that dragons don’t exist."

"We’ve seen one."

"It must have been your imagination."

"Imagination!" Shin exclaimed as he gripped Fearless by his collar. "Listen you, just because you used to be a prince doesn’t give you the right to treat everyone else like they are below you! You’re just some lousy foreigner who has no idea what this land is like! You don’t know anything about dragons, you haven’t seen one of them betray you and then kill one of your friends! Celes died because of a scheming dragon, and you won’t even respect her death enough to acknowledge that her killer exists!"

The entire party was silent for a moment. Fearless’ face did not change its expression, remaining calm. "I thought I heard one of you saying that a woman named Scarlet killed Celes."

"Scarlet was the dragon you idiot! She joined our group, then when we were unprepared, turned back into a dragon and tried to kill us!"

Fearless paused again before speaking. "I see."

"What do you mean, ‘I see’? The ‘I see’ which means ‘I believe you’ or ‘I’ll let you continue with your delusions’?"

"Just ‘I see.’"

Shin Hikaru scowled for a moment longer, then let go of Fearless’ collar, turning away and walking toward the fortress. "Let’s just go, it’s almost dark."

The group slowly began to follow. Not another word was said as the party moved through the field of scorched grass and decaying corpses, especially Fearless, who was adjusting his muffed collar.

------------------------------------------

Some time later…

------------------------------------------

"I feel so useless though."

Mercy shook her head. "I’m sorry, but if you don’t rest, it will only take you longer to heal, D. You already exhausted yourself by traveling here."

Algorith Van Demonican was not pleased. He hated being out of the battle for long periods of time. He sulked on the bed within the castle of Tabula Rasa, laying on it with his arms crossed, wanting to get up but not having the strength. Now he was forced to rest while everyone else initiated the deal with the king of Tabula Rasa to buy the entire city.

He sighed. "I suppose you’re right. It never takes me this long to heal though."

"You’ve never been this mangled before. You were healing from your battle with Celes, but after Tristram… what happened down there?"

Algorith’s hand, Valad, spoke up. "He doesn’t want to talk about it."

Mercy shook her head, as if this had not been the first time she had heard this, but apparently she decided not to pry. "I’ll come back after we meet with the king and tell you how it went."

Algorith nodded. "Thank you."

Mercy turned and left the bedroom, closing the door behind her. She began walking down the hallway, and soon met up with Shin, who was going in the same direction as she was. She looked around, but saw no one else. She walked alongside Shin, a bit confused.

"Where is everybody else, Shin?"

"Glitterspike said something about praying, and Ethon said he wasn’t sure he was suited to talk to kings, since where he comes from, there are none."

"What about Fearless?"

Shin paused for a moment. "He had a similar reason for not coming, not wanting to talk to a king, but his reasoning was more along the lines that he would have trouble paying respect to a kingdom that a few months ago he would have enjoyed taking over by force."

"And Severen?"

"I don’t know where he is. As always."

"So it’s just us two, I guess."

"Right. You know, Xeiss should be here. She was the one who decided upon this castle in the first place."

"She’ll be back eventually."

"She’s away from the group more than Scarlet was!"

"Come now, Shin, you don’t seriously think Xeiss is out to betray us, do you?"

"One can never be too sure…"

Mercy was shocked. "Shin!"

"Mercy, I can’t trust anyone anymore! Intruder, Scarlet, Fuji, all of them betrayed us! How are we supposed to know who is next? I can’t trust anyone in the group!"

Mercy turned away from Shin, looking ahead of them. "What about me, Shin? Am I just another possible betrayal waiting to happen?"

Shin did not answer. The two continued walking in silence until they reached the end of the hallway, at a set of double doors which led into the throne room. A guard stood on each side, and these two guards opened the doors as Shin and Mercy approached. Entering the throne room, they found only one occupant, the one sitting on the throne.

The king was a wiry man with pale skin, and he hunched over on his throne like the weight of the entire castle was upon him. His eyes stared at them with contempt, although they suspected that he held a contempt for anyone. His gaze made them both uncomfortable, and Shin was forced to break the silence.

"We came to negotiate the deal for the castle…"

"Do you have the money?"

Shin hesitated. "Well… you see, the money is on it’s way here…"

"You don’t have my money. I take you in as guests and you don’t even have the money for the deal!"

Mercy stepped forward. "The money is on it’s way, but it will take a while to get here. Do you realize how long it takes to transport that much money?"

"I don’t care, Xeiss, I want my money as soon as possible."

Mercy looked confused for a moment. "I’m not Xeiss…"

"You’re not? Then where is she? She initiated the deal via messenger."

"She’s… not here at the moment. Like the money, she’ll be here soon."

The king’s eyebrows furrowed. "You don’t have the money, and Xeiss isn’t even here, yet you sleep in my castle and demand an audience with me! How dare you! Guards! Sei…"

The door opened and a servant walked in, interrupting the king’s rant. The furious ruler turned toward the intruder in anger. "What is it!"

The servant nearly retreated back out the door. "A… a caravan just arrived sir… they said they are here to see you and some woman named Xeiss…"

The king continued breathing heavily, still furious, but the prospect of the money ceased his assault on Mercy and Shin. He brushed past them and exited the throne room, heading for the entrance to the castle. The two guards outside the throne room walked on either side of him, and Mercy and Shin were left to walk behind. The procession of five moved down the hallway, none speaking. It took some time to move through the hallways of the castle, but eventually they reached the front doors. These doors were opened before them, and they walked out of the main keep toward the gates of the castle. They did so more quickly, the King seeming to be eager with anticipation.

As they exited the wall of the castle and entered the city, they were quickly met with a caravan coming towards them, a long line of horses and wagons led by a single man. He rode towards them on horseback, and although he was obviously the leader of the caravan, he looked about as inspiring as a court jester. His clothing was extravagant, yet outrageous, as if he has just won a large sum of money and, being a commoner previously, didn’t know what to do with himself besides buy fancy clothes he didn’t want, need, or look good in. He was rather pudgy as well, the horse he rode seeming to suffer slightly under his weight.

When he finally reached them, the man dismounted from his horse, took two steps forward and bowed to the king. "Good evening, your majesty. May I ask as to the whereabouts of a woman that goes by the name of Xeiss? I have a delivery for her."

The king crossed his arms and frowned. "You may, but you will not receive an answer. I do not know where she is."

The man stood up straight. "Really? Well, that’s a problem. I have a schedule to keep."

Shin Hikaru stepped forward. "I was traveling with Xeiss, you can give the money to me."

The merchant rolled his eyes. "Oh, sure, I’ll just give millions of gold to a total stranger that claims he’s friends with the owner. Then she’ll come and get me within a week for losing all her money."

"It’s the truth!"

"If that’s the truth, then I’m king of Westmarch."

"Didn’t Xeiss tell you about the group she was with?"

"Briefly, but I don’t see what proof you can give me…"

Shin reached up and brushed his hair out of his face. He had grown his hair longer than normal in front to cover up his forehead. When he brushed the hair inside, there was a gaping hole, black and ominous. It should have been gushing blood, but through the power of the Soulstone which had occupied it, it stood now as only a grim reminder of what had been.

The man took a step back. "I see… that’s… proof enough, I suppose. Either way, I still get my portion. And with it I’m afraid I’ll have to be leaving you tonight."

The king looked surprised. "You won’t stay for a night?"

"I apologize, your majesty, but like I said, I have a schedule to keep. I heard that Tristram rebuilt itself somehow recently, and I want to get myself some property there while the getting is good."

The king seemed displeased. "Very well then. Lead your caravan into the castle, and then you may depart with your share." The king then turned to Shin. "You and I have some business to attend to."

"You aren’t going to wait for Xeiss to finalize the deal?"

"No, I want this deal done immediately. Tonight. Xeiss will just have to live with it."

--------------------------------------------

"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...

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…

The world shook around her. She fell to her knees, but the floor collapsed beneath her. She continued falling, until the oblivion surrounded her, and the was forced to break through the darkness.

"Captain Rasha, wake up."

Xeiss opened her eyes to the whispering voice. She looked up to see a rogue standing above her, barely able to see her shape in the dark tent.

The rogue kneeled down beside the bed. "Remember, you told me to wake you an hour after sundown?"

Xeiss remembered. She remembered where she was, remembered when she had fallen asleep, and she remembered the dream. She wished it had only been a dream, but it was more than a dream. It was a memory. She thought back to what she had seen on that next page, the page that told the future.

Xeiss tried to cast the thought out of her mind. :::None of us have a fate or a destiny, but we all have a purpose. What the book foretold doesn’t have to happen…:::

"Captain Rasha?"

Xeiss lifted herself out of bed and began preparing herself for travel. "Yes. Thank you. You may go now. Please, do not tell anyone of this, at least not until morning."

"May I ask why you went to bed this afternoon and wanted me to wake you up after sundown?"

"Because I don’t want anyone to know I am gone until morning."

"You’re leaving? But why?"

"I can’t explain… just don’t tell anyone."

"Is that an order, Captain Rasha?"

Xeiss threw her gear down on the bed angrily. "IT’S XEISS!" Xeiss exclaimed, then paused for a moment, regaining her composure. "I’m sorry… I… yes. That’s… an order. Please."

Xeiss, shaking her head, picked up her equipment and left the tent. She began walking through the encampment, toward where the horses were kept. She pondered sneaking her way there, to not be seen, but she then realized such an action would be fruitless. Knowing the rogues, she was probably being watched by at least 2 guards already, hidden from view. Hopefully they would think she was just going out for a ride, and wouldn’t tell Akara until morning.

It wasn’t that Xeiss didn’t want to say goodbye. She wanted to, but she couldn’t. Akara knew her as Captain Rasha now, and if she left, at least a portion of the encampment would go with her. Xeiss did not want to be responsible for any lives beside her own, for she wasn’t even sure if she could keep herself safe…

Finally, she found the horse she had ridden to the encampment on. He whinnied at her approach, but she quickly quieted him. Stroking his nose, she began telepathically talking to him, even though she knew he couldn’t talk back.

:::I need to ride you again. The same speed as before. I’m sorry.:::

The horse nuzzled her hand in understanding. Xeiss smiled and reached for a nearby saddle, but as she did the horse let out a loud whinny. Xeiss winced, worried that he had awoken the entire camp.

:::Shhh…::: Xeiss thought as she approached the horse, saddle in her hands. To her surprise, the horse began backing away from her.

:::You don’t want a saddle? All right then. I have something else for you though. I brought something to help…:::

Xeiss put the saddle back and reached into a pouch at her belt, pulling out a few red objects. She held them in her hand, out in front of the horse, and he examined them. They were a few dark red berries, almost like a cherry but smaller, and having an odd pear shape. The horse sniffed them once and then licked them off of Xeiss’ hand, devouring them quickly. Xeiss smiled.

:::They are spiritberries. They will help you run without tiring. I wish they worked on humans as well as they do for horses…:::

The horse whinnied again, eager to go. Xeiss mounted him, still curious as to why he had avoided the saddle. She shrugged and was about to tell him to go when he began galloping away from the encampment on his own. Xeiss held on tight to his mane and looked once more back at the encampment, then turned toward the west, eyes on her destination.

--------------------------------------------

"Enter."

The doors to the throne room opened, and a single man walked in. This was no ordinary man, though, for he was decorated with countless medals and honors. He had acquired much of the surrounding land from hostile monsters and vicious thieves. He had defended Tabula Rasa against countless foes, including the minions of hell. He was in charge of all the forces of the city, a supreme commander, and a man everyone in the city looked up to, sometimes more than they did to the king.

"You summoned me, your majesty?"

The king nodded. "You’ve been wondering about some of the current events in this castle." It was more of a statement than a question.

"I have, my liege. You have neglected to say who these guests of yours are…"

"I have. Before I do, however, I request that our discussion does not leave this room."

"Of course, my liege."

The king paused for a moment, then spoke. "This castle will not hold against the demons of hell forever, and any allies we once had have been annihilated. That is why, General Westrich, I have decided to cut my losses…"

The general looked confused. "I’m afraid I don’t understand…"

"I am leaving Tabula Rasa."

The general remained silent, still confused and unbelieving. "To.. find allies? Recruits?"

"No, I am running."

"But… we can’t move the entire populous…"

"We’re not. Those… guests of mine are here to buy the city. The people will stay in Tabula Rasa under their rule."

The general was shocked. "But you can’t just desert your throne!"

"It is my brother’s throne. I am simply choosing a different heir."

"But the bloodline!"

"General, only a very brave or a very foolish ruler would remain here while hell assaulted him. I am neither."

"But you have a responsibility to…"

"General Westrich! I did not summon you here to convince me to stay. I summoned you here to give you the opportunity to come with me."

The general frowned, a black cloud falling over his face. "Come with you?"

"Yes. Should I be attacked after leaving the city, I will require protection…"

"With all due respect, your majesty," he said, his voice edged with sarcasm and spite as he spoke the title, "I wish to remain here."

"I expected as much. But I will have you come with me, general. I order you to come."

"I serve and obey Tabula Rasa, and its throne. When you leave, you no longer sit on it, and you have no power over me," the general said as he began leaving the room.

"But while I remain here, you cannot disobey me. If you do not agree with my decisions, fine, but remember that you agreed our conversation would not leave this room."

General Westrich stopped, his hand on the doors leading out. He turned his head, saying, "I will not speak of this to anyone before you leave, but not because you are king. It is because, unlike you, I have honor."

The general pushed the doors aside and left the throne room. The doors were quickly closed again by the guards outside, and the king frowned. "Very well, general, but your honor will not save you when you find our treasury is empty, and the money brought by the caravan is gone. For this additional risk, I will take all of their money, leaving these foolish adventurers with nothing to rule a kingdom on. See how your honor serves you then."

The king rose from his throne, heading toward the door. He glanced back once at the throne, knowing that he was giving it up, giving up any power he had. Then he thought of the money, and knew he could find more power in it than in this doomed city. Opening the doors, he walked out, and left the throne room forever.

-------------------------------------------

"Only a fool would put someone like him in charge!"

Fearless frowned. "Shin, I am standing right here."

"I don’t care! You are the last person in this group who needs to be in charge of a city!"

"I am of noble blood. I am the most qualified in ruling a kingdom, and certainly more qualified than you."

"I am the leader of this group, and…" Shin began to scream in Fearless’ face.

"Self-appointed leader."

"I’ve been here longer than you have Fearless, and I will not take orders from you!"

Mercy tried to interject. "No one here is taking orders from anyone else. No matter who is appointed ruler, we’ll still treat each other as equals. They are to be king over the city of Tabula Rasa, not the party."

D, lying on the bed, for they were in his bedroom, frowned. "I still don’t see why we can’t have a democracy."

Fearless turned to D. "The town is used to a king, and the transition will be hard enough without them having to listen to more than one of us."

Shin smiled slightly. "D has a good idea. Let’s vote on it. Who should be king, Fearless or me?"

There was a long silence as the members of the group looked at each other. Glitterspike was the first one to break it.

"I’ll say Shin."

Shin smiled, but his smile disappeared after Ethon spoke. "If Fearless has experience with royalty, he should be king."

Mercy nodded. "Fearless is more qualified for the job."

D shook his head. "I have to say Shin should be the new king."

Fearless crossed his arms. "It seems we have a tie vote."

"Really? I thought we had an odd number."

Everyone in the room turned toward the door, where Severen was standing. Severen smiled, obviously very intrigued by the fact that his was the deciding vote. He looked at Fearless and Shin, deciding between the two of them, each candidate not knowing which of them Severen disliked more. Finally, Severen spoke.

"Fearless."

Fearless was astonished. Severen had always disliked Fearless, and it was a shock that he would ever choose him over another person. Of course, Severen had been fighting with Shin a lot too, but it was still a surprise. Shin seemed as shocked as Fearless was.

Mercy broke the astonished silence. "Now remember, Fearless, you still treat the rest of us as equals, you just rule over this town, all right?"

Fearless nodded absentmindedly. "Yes, yes, I know. Well… I suppose I have some matters to attend to then. Good night, everybody."

Fearless had scarcely left the room when Shin turned to Severen. "Why? Why did you make him king? Do you realize how incredibly egotistical and condescending this will make him act?"

Severen grinned. "Do you realize how incredibly busy he’ll be running a city? Why, he might even have to miss out on a few adventures…"

Shin opened his mouth, about to begin saying something, but stopped, closing his mouth again.

"I’ve found that the best way to rid yourself of an annoying child is to give him a nice toy. Don’t you agree?"

Shin smirked. "I see what you mean."

"Good. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some work to attend to."

Severen began leaving the room when Shin spoke. "What kind of work?"

Severen turned his head, grinning. "Work."

Before Shin could question him any further, Severen left the room, and the rest of the group, save D, followed him. Shin muttered something unrepeatable to himself, and exited.

---------------------------------------------

Xeiss shook her head, trying to cast off the sleep in her eyes. Despite having left after sundown, the short nap she had taken before she left was hardly sufficient rest. Now she was falling asleep just before the sun started rising. Although she would benefit greatly from the slumber, falling asleep while on the back of a horse wasn’t usually a good idea.

She dared not stop, for she had to reach Tabula Rasa in time to finalize the deal for its purchase. Because the new king was capable of selling his noble heritage to the highest bidder, she suspected foul play, and wanted to make sure he delivered. She feared the group would be swindled, or possibly imprisoned, their money taken by the king while they rotted in the Tabulian cells. Rest was secondary, despite how much Xeiss wanted to rest her eyes for just a moment…

She shook her head again. It was getting harder and harder to stay awake. The rhythmic hoofbeats and gentle sway of the horse beneath her was lulling her into a deep slumber against her will. She had never been comfortable enough on the back of a horse, even saddled, to be able to fall asleep, but somehow this horse was different. He had slowed to a walk a while ago, and now his back felt so comfortable, Xeiss could not help laying her head on his neck, his soft, black mane like a down pillow with the faintest trace of a heartbeat beneath. Unable to stop herself, she smiled as sleep fell over her. She thought she could hear a gentle voice out there somewhere, wishing her good night, just before the night embraced her.

It was a few minutes before the horse felt his rider slipping from his back. The horse stopped, and, seeming to know somehow, adjusted his body under Xeiss’ to support her. She once more became balanced on his back, and the horse continued on, carrying his rider slowly across the lands of Khanduras with her dreaming peacefully on his back.

---------------------------------------------

The next morning…

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Mercy breathed in the fresh air contentedly, sighing slightly. Her open bedroom window revealed the bright, sunny morning outside, and a smile crossed her face as she looked over the kingdom that technically now belonged to the group. It was still rather early, the streets less crowded as a result. In fact, the streets were nearly empty, only a few people milled about their daily business.

Mercy continued smiling for a few moments more before a contemplative expression crossed her face. She leaned out the window and looked closer, examining the road. She saw nothing but wagon tracks, cut fresh. Her eyes widened at the sight, and she turned her head left and right, seeking something, something that perhaps had been moved to the end of the street, or someone besides the courtyard. A realization donned on her, and she ran from her window, to the door of her bedroom.

She had scarcely burst out of her doorway before she ran into Glitterspike, nearly running him over. Glitterspike grabbed her, confused. "Mercy, what’s wrong with you?"

"Glitterspike, the caravan is gone!"

"What?"

"The caravan, the wagons full of gold, they’re all gone!"

Glitterspike looked shocked. "But… that’s impossible! They came in just last night!"

"Well I woke up this morning and they were gone!"

"We have to tell the others. Come on!"

Glitterspike practically pulled Mercy along by the arm as he began running down the hallway. Soon they had the entire group awake, except for those not present, which included Xeiss and, mysteriously, Severen.

"Who could steal all that gold?"

"Wasn’t it guarded?"

"How could you let this happen!"

"Me? What do I have to do with this?"

"You wanted to be king, you’re responsible!"

"That’s absurd, I couldn’t have possibly known…"

"Where are they?"

"They couldn’t have gone far, maybe we can catch them!"

"But we don’t know which direction they went in!"

"Let’s ask the town!"

"Yes, the king, we can ask him!"

"You’re going to tell the king that his money is gone?"

"No you tell him!"

"I’m not telling him!"

"Yes you are!"

A scream drowned out all the other voices in the hallway. "Quiet!!!"

All heads turned toward the voice. None of them had seen the man before, although from his appearance he looked to be very important, or at least acted like he was.

Shin was still furious over the group having its money stolen. "Who in the world are you?"

"I am General Westrich. I command the army of this city, and I am… was the king’s second in command."

Mercy raised an eyebrow. "Was?"

"The king has left. And apparently he has taken more money than you had agreed upon…"

Shin scowled. "He took all of it!"

"I see that now. If I had known he was going to take all of it, I would have stopped him."

"You mean you knew he was leaving?"

"He told me last night, after having me swear not to tell you."

Shin’s eyes widened. "You mean you knew and you didn’t tell us!"

"I gave my word…"

"Your word cost us millions!" Shin began approaching the general. "How are we supposed to run a country without money! Your honor doesn’t help anybody!"

"It will help us."

Shin nearly jumped, and spun around towards the voice. "Severen, don’t do that!"

Severen grinned. "Do what?"

Shin scowled. "This is no time to be kidding around, Severen. We just had all our money stolen!"

"No we didn’t, we paid for the castle and then took what was left and put it in the treasury."

"The king ran off with our money! It’s not in the treasury!"

"Yes it is."

"Since when?"

"What kind of work do you think I was doing last night?"

Shin opened his mouth, but lost the sentence he was about to say. "Y… you… moved our gold?"

"Yes. Now, apologize to the nice general, Shin."

Shin scowled again. "Don’t mock me, Severen, or I’ll…"

"Yes, yes, I know. Just try to keep up the relations with the local folk, if you would. You wouldn’t want to make the army of Tabula Rasa mad at you, now would you?"

Shin grumbled and turned to General Westrich. "I’m sorry for accusing you of being responsible for the loss of our money."

The general nodded. "Thank you. I…"

Severen interjected. "Well now that’s all settled, thank you, general, for your honor, and not deserting us like your king wanted you to. Now, I must be off."

Severen left, leaving a dumbfounded general. General Westrich turned to the rest of the group. "How did he know about that?"

Mercy smiled. "He has a habit of knowing things he shouldn’t and disappearing. You’ll get used to it." She paused, and smiled wider. "Unless you’re Shin."

The general nodded. "By the way, the populace isn’t going to like being under the rule of a new group of people, but you’re going to have to tell them sooner or later."

Fearless nodded. "I think immediately would be a good time. That is, if everyone else wants to of course…"

Fearless looked around and saw everyone leaving, in different directions.

"Good luck, Fearless."

"First duty as king."

"Watch out for the rotten vegetables they usually throw."

"Unless they have rocks."

"Oh yeah…"

Fearless muttered something under his breath and began pondering how he was going to get through this day alive.

---------------------------------------------

A few days later…

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The jingling of coins dancing across fingertips was the only sound in the room. Almost gleaming as brightly as the gold, two eyes watched the precious coins, accompanied by a greedy grin.

A few months ago, he would never have thought he would be living in Tristram. He still could not understand the miracle which had rebuilt the entire town. Nevertheless, the buildings were owned by no one, allowing him to move into the only mansion in the town while retaining his fortune. The fools in the rest of Khanduras thought the town was cursed, and that those who lived there would face certain doom. He knew better.

He had learned early in life that the majority of people were idiots. Luckily, exploiting this idiocy had been simple for him. His most recent act of exploitation had made him his fortune, which wasn’t surprising, considering he had stolen the money from a dragon’s horde.

His pay had been a handsome sum, too large, he thought, considering he had no problems stealing from the dragon’s lair, the dragon being mysteriously absent. Best of all, the majority of the money was now in Tabula Rasa, which meant the dragon, should it choose to reclaim its horde, would go there first. For once in his life, this merchant felt safe and secure.

While he pondered, there began to rise from beneath his feet a deep rumbling. Then, he was nearly knocked out of his seat as the earth shook and his ears were pierced by a deafening roar. His eyes widened in fear as he heard the sound, recognizing immediately what it was. Then, he heard the first scream.

He quickly jumped out of his chair and ran to his nearby bedroom. Hurriedly, he began unlocking the multiple locks he had placed on the door. Once he had the door open, he ran straight to the reason he had locked his room, a chest full of gold sitting beside his bed. True, it was not his entire fortune, but it was the only part he could get to quickly. Trying to ignore the screams erupting from outside his house, he began trying to pull the chest out of the room. Moving an inch at a time, the merchant found he could not escape with the chest full of money. Still not willing to part with his fortune, he unlocked the chest and began stuffing gold coins into every pocket he had, eventually taking the pillowcase from his bed and scooping the gold into it.

There was suddenly an enormous crash, and the ceiling came down. The merchant quickly jumped underneath the bed, which protected him from the falling wood. However, the bed was soon thrown aside as if by an enormous hand. The merchant then realized that it had been.

A claw, larger than the man himself, wrapped itself around him, gripping him so tightly he could scarcely breathe. He let out a frightened yell, a fruitless cry for help that no one save his captor could hear. With fear and awe he looked up, staring directly into the eyes of a very large, and a very angry, dragon. The merchant let out a bloodcurdling scream.

"SHUT UP!" the dragon commanded, in a voice so loud and booming it was deafening.

The merchant’s mouth still hung open, but his scream was now silent. The dragon frowned and sniffed him slightly.

"YOU SMELL OF MY GOLD, HUMAN!"

The merchant’s tiny voice rose to meet the challenge of the dragon. "Your gold? Your gold? I didn’t know this was your gold! I… some woman gave it to me as payment for.. something!"

The dragon snarled. "WHAT WOMAN?"

"Xeiss! Her name was Xeiss! And she’s in Tabula Rasa! Take all of your gold back, I don’t want it, just please don’t hurt me!"

The dragon grinned. "TABULA RASA… THANK YOU, HUMAN. NOW, WHAT DID YOU DO TO RECEIVE MY GOLD?"

"Uhh… I…"

"TO RECEIVE SUCH A LARGE AMOUNT COULD ONLY COME FROM ONE SERVICE. GETTING IT IN THE FIRST PLACE! ALL THOSE WHO STEAL FROM MY LAIR MUST FACE THE PUNISHMENT OF DEATH!"

It seems that merchants, at least the plotting, lying ones, are chewy on the outside, and crunchy on the inside.

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The next day…

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"Now you see, this is where you two will come in. If you manage to lower the drawbridge, our armies can storm the city, and there will be no stopping us. However…"

Abadon was interrupted by the doors to his throne room bursting open. Celes, Atlas, and he looked up from the battle plans they had been drawing out for the past few days. Considering the spontaneity and lack of permission, Abadon knew who had entered before he even raised his eyes to meet the intruder.

He smiled slightly. "Scarlet. How goes your quest for reacquiring your gold?"

For the first time in a few weeks, Abadon did not see a mask of fury on the dragon’s face. In fact, she seemed slightly pleased for once. "I retrieved a third of it yesterday. It took me all day to transport the riches to my lair, but it was worth it."

Abadon raised an eyebrow. "Oh really? Where did you find your gold?"

"In Tristram. It seems the merchant who stole it from me under Xeiss’ direction was settling down there."

"And what did you do?"

Scarlet smiled. "Let’s just say that Tristram is ruins again."

Abadon nodded. "I see. So where are the other two-thirds of your gold?"

Dragoneyes’ expression now became serious. "Abadon, we must attack the city of Tabula Rasa immediately."

Abadon grinned, and beckoned Scarlet forward with a finger. She frowned and came forward, standing next to Celes, much to her displeasure. Abadon directed her to look down at the table they were standing at, and the papers on top of it.

"These are the battle plans for attacking Tabula Rasa. We will be heading out tonight, arriving there when the sun sets tomorrow."

Scarlet grinned. "Excellent. We can kill three birds with one stone…"

Abadon raised an eyebrow. "How so? I thought there were only two, your gold and the destruction of the city."

"Xeiss is in the city as well."

"Oh really? Then I suppose the rest of the group is there as well?"

"Most likely."

"Well then, if this attack is successful, our plans will be furthered to the point where no one can stop us. I assume you will be accompanying the attack?"

Scarlet nodded. "I want my gold back, and I would siege the most heavily defended city to get it."

"Excellent. Tomorrow will go down in history as the day mankind lost its final battle against the forces of hell…"