From Dusk to Dawn, part 2


Nothing. Not a sound, not a word, not a single sight. Nothingness dug into the ear, and the only light to meet the eye was an orange glow to the right, the dimming light of the setting sun. Standing still on the ramparts, trained for years not to make a move, not to make a sound, lest the enemy sneak up past your post when you weren’t looking; such was the guard’s duty.

However, the guard’s mind still raced. Where his body lacked movement, his mind moved like lightning. He thought of the past few months, almost frowning. The city of Tabula Rasa was waiting for another attack from hell. And after that, should they survive, another attack, and another, and another, until there was no one left to fight, at which point the glorious civilization would crumble like the castle walls around it.

The first sign of the end had come : the king was dead. In his place, the bloodline placed his cowardly brother, who was incapable of ruling the country. And so it was shown, when this brother fled, selling the city and everyone in it to the highest bidder. The whole concept was despicable, and now the guard was under the rule of strangers, a group of people who had just recently announced their possession of the throne. The town was not pleased. However, some, this guard for example, pondered who was worse, the cowardly brother or his replacements.

The guard had heard of this group before. They had been fighting the minions of hell for the past few months, traveling about, foiling his plans as much as a group of normal humans could. Although they were far from normal, they were human, and just like anyone else, they could be killed. By taking possession of this town, they most likely would be.

The guard’s thoughts were interrupted as something broke his vision of the landscape. A long line across the plains before the city walls, barely visible in the fading light of the setting sun. At first he thought his eyes deceived him, but after a minute longer of watching, he saw the line was moving towards the city, and that it wasn’t just part of his imagination. Only one thing could be that large, and be coming toward the city.

"Aw hell."

The guard ran from his post and to the side of the ramparts, where the tower that led down to the town stood. On the way, he shouted as loud as he could, "They’re coming! The demons are coming!"

When he finally got down to ground level, there was a bustle of activity from the barracks. Ignoring this, he mounted a nearby horse, and began riding through town, still screaming his warning. Houses lit up in the night’s approaching darkness, and soon the town was alive with alarm. The guard continued his mad ride to the castle, and when he did he did not stop his horse at the gate. Riding past the guards, who ignored him and began running toward the outer walls, he rode into the courtyard.

"The demons are here! Hell has come!"

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The horse had been born in the Arcadian stables, the colt of one of the most praised steeds in the kingdom. He had been raised to carry the king himself, and was more than up to the task. His legs were stronger and faster than all but a few horses, and he carried both himself and his rider with pride. Somehow, probably because he was only outmatched by his mother, he became the steed of General Xantos, one of the country’s most honored generals.. He carried the general through many battles, including his last. It was because of this that he was now dead.

The siege on Dorado had killed him. After the general had been pulled off of him, the horse had its heart torn out by a demon. Two days later, he was resurrected into an undead form. His strength and agility remained, but the crest of the Crimson empire had been removed from his saddle, as was every other sign of his former life, save one. As the undead corpse of the horse trotted through the broken dirt and mud surrounding the city of Tabula Rasa, it left the mark of a scarred hoof on the ground, the sign that the horse used to be a steed of Arcadian royalty.

Abadon could care less for the horse’s life before his raising, but had he known of the horse’s great beginnings, he would have almost smiled at the irony. Now he rode the steed toward a castle ruled by a man who had been a partial owner to the horse, even if that ruler was voted into the position he now held. Abadon gazed at the monstrous fortress now before him and scoffed. He looked at the mighty walls with boredom, looked at the defenses as if they were nothing, for he was certain, without one inkling of doubt, that they would soon fall before the might of hell.

A sound reached his ears, the sound of a catapult firing. Abadon did not slow his pace, nor did he even look up as he heard the projectile falling towards him. He even heard a crash behind him, but he continued riding, oblivious to the sound of something crunching against the earth. However, he was alarmed by a sudden explosion which erupted from behind him, and he turned around to look. A charred, blackened crater stood where previously had tread at least a hundred undead zombies. Abadon frowned, wondering how such a feat had been accomplished.

He heard another catapult firing, and this time looked at the projectile. It seemed to be an ordinary barrel, as opposed to the rocks which most catapults usually fired. Intrigued, he rode forward, staying out of the object’s path. As it drew closer and was falling upon another group of undead, Abadon thought he could notice a rope tied around the barrel, with one end of the rope on fire. He raised an eyebrow as the barrel crashed into the ground and cracked open, spewing forth its contents. The barrel contained what looked to be black sand, a substance that Abadon had seen once before. He frowned as he remembered the siege on Dorado by the Crimson Empire. The initial attack had been made by the dropping of barrels onto the castle walls, which burst open and let out a similar black powder. Then, the army had shot flaming arrows…

Abadon watched as the rope that had been tied to the barrel had its end touch the powder, and flare up for a split-second before causing the powder, and another large group of zombies, to explode. Abadon heard another catapult firing, and scowled. He turned back toward his army, a look of anger on his face. When he spoke, his voice amplified across the entire force of demonic power.

"CONTINUE ON YOUR COURSE! DEMONS AND GARGOYLES! CHARGE!"

There was another explosion within the ranks, but Abadon scarcely heard it. Instead he listened to the sound of hundreds of leathery wings taking flight, as a swarm of dark shapes flew over his head. Turning his undead horse, he urged it to a gallop, it obeying his commands without question. On either side of him, Celes and Atlas held back, leading the undead army. The zombies slowly lumbered along, not noticing when a portion of them exploded, and in fact scarcely even noticing when they themselves exploded, in an enormous flash of fire and smoke.

Meanwhile, Abadon rode on. He was not angry, just slightly annoyed. He drove his horse to an unimaginable speed, quickly outdistancing the flying demonic creatures overhead. He headed straight toward the outer wall of the city, not slowing. He was headed straight for the moat, with no way across, and on the other side an immense wall. Still, he did not slow or stop. The horse blindly galloped under Abadon’s command, as only a dead creature would do. Then, they reached the edge of the moat, and the horse jumped.

Abadon remained on the horse’s back for only an instant before he quickly lifted his legs up, dug them into the back of the horse, and pushed himself up and forward in an amazing feat of acrobatics. Headed straight for the wall, Abadon did not even flinch as he held his arms out in front of himself, and collided with the solid rock wall. His fingers dug into the solid stone, their metallic sharpness piercing the stones as if they were butter. Below him, Abadon heard the sickening crunch as the horse he had ridden crashed into the wall at an amazing speed, and its neck severed in two. The horse, it’s head limply hanging by but a few tendons, slid down the wall and the edge of the moat, leaving a trail of cold blood. It quickly sank into the dark waters of the moat, darkening them even further with a crimson stain. Even as an undead abomination, the horse would rise no more.

Abadon again ignored all this, and began lifting his left hand out of the wall. He then lifted it a few feet, and dug it back into the wall again. Pulling himself up by the sheer strength of his arms, he began conquering the wall. Looking up, he saw that he was spotted, as a guard began directing his crossbow at him. Abadon just smiled and continued climbing, even after the bolt left the crossbow. Embedding itself in his shoulder, the bolt did not phase Abadon. It began slowly moving, Abadon’s metallic body slowly shifting the bolt to another position. It slowly moved out of his shoulder and fell to the ground below, the wound it left melting back into place. During this time, Abadon continued climbing, much to the shock of the archer.

Abadon smiled as he pulled himself over the edge of the ramparts. He looked on casually as 2 guards approached him on either side, each armed with a sword. Abadon crossed his arms and waited, smiling as they drew ever nearer. He did not even flinch as two of them thrust swords through his chest. The guards, startled by this man who seemed to know no pain, were startled even further when they could not pull their swords back out. In fact, the swords were sucked into Abadon’s body, melting inside him. He then extended his arms, and out of each palm grew a blade, followed by a hilt. The swords reconstructed in his hands, and Abadon’s grin widened. Before the guards could react, he had one of the swords through a man’s chest.

The other three rushed to attack him, but two of them were without swords, and were easily dispatched. He was struck by the third guard, but was again unharmed, and soon the guard was decapitated. He grinned wickedly, and turned, looking out across the landscape. His undead armies were approaching, but his army of gargoyles and demons was even closer. He watched with anticipation as the demonic creatures began flying over the city walls. He stood on the edge of the ramparts, laughing diabolically.

"Yes my minions! Storm the city! Soon none shall stand before hell’s wrath! Leave not a single soul alive! Evil conquers a-"

Abadon was suddenly interrupted by something crashing against the back of his head. Losing his balance, Abadon flew through the air, falling off of the ramparts and down to the moat below. With a mighty splash, the ruler of Dorado and powerful demon of hell fell deep into the water.

In a few seconds, a hand with 5 blades on it, one at the end of each finger, reached out of the water and grasped the edge of the moat. The hand pulled up the rest of Abadon, soaking wet and burning mad. He rose to his feet, the water dripping from his body, and looked up at the ramparts, scowling.

"You shall pay for this insult, heroes. Dearly."

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"Good shot, D."

D looked at Mercy and frowned slightly. "That stake was supposed to go through his head. I must be out of practice." D took another stake out of his belt. He then began walking toward the ramparts, mercy following.

"Well, you are still recovering."

"I’m fine, Mercy," he said flatly as he opened the door to the tower containing the stairs up to the top of the ramparts. The two of them began climbing the stairs, but halfway up, the sound of battle could be heard from above. D and Mercy looked at each other and began running up the stairs. Just as they reached the doorway out onto the ramparts, it flung open, and Shin stood before them. He did not look pleased.

"Where the hell is that so-called king? We’re under attack up here!"

D shrugged. "I believe he’s by the catapults, making sure that substance he calls gunpowder is loaded properly."

"Well what are we supposed to do up here? We’re being overwhelmed!"

D looked past Shin. "Well, first you’re supposed to duck."

Shin looked at D, confused. "Duck?" Suddenly the realization hit him, and Shin fell to his knees. D reached for his belt and threw something over Shin’s head, and Shin heard it strike with the breaking of glass. Turning around, Shin saw a demon only a few feet behind him fall to the ground, writhing in pain. The skin on its torso and face were burning off, and the demon’s vile black blood was leaking everywhere. The demon continued to burn, its body disintegrating until nothing was left of it but its bottom half, and a demonic skeleton where its upper half used to be.

Shin looked on, wide eyed. "What did you do to it?"

D pulled out a vial at his belt, filled with a clear liquid. "Holy water."

D pushed past Shin, not waiting for a response, and stepped around the dead demon. He ran over to where he saw a line of archers trying to drive off a few demons, and grabbed the shoulder of one of them.

"Give me your helmet."

The soldier looked confused. "Why, sir?"

"No time for questions, just do it."

Still confused, the soldier took off his helmet, and D grabbed it. Then, with strength only possible in a half-vampire, he smashed it against the side of the ramparts, and then let it go. He had flattened the bottom of the helmet, so that now it rested on the edge of the rampart like a metal pot. Quickly, he took the vial of holy water in his hand and broke it inside the helmet, and then turned to the guard.

"Dip your arrows in this before you shoot, got it?"

The guard once again looked confused, but he saw a demon fast approaching. Quickly drawing an arrow, he dipped it in the helmet and nocked it in his bow, letting it fly in only a matter of seconds. It hit its target directly in the chest, and the demon howled in fury. It then screamed in pain as it began to be eaten away from the inside. The guards watched on in fascination as it disintegrated and fell down to the moat below.

Without hesitation, the rest of the guards near D began dipping their arrows into the holy water, and wreaking havoc on the demonic intruders. D nodded, satisfied, and continued walking across the ramparts, followed by Shin and Mercy. They had more holy water to distribute.

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The world was full of unexpected things.

Xeiss, for example, had never expected such ability from the horse she rode. She had found the horse just west of Silveryn, wandering through the forest, as if looking for her. Since she had ridden him, she had more then once fallen asleep on his back, something she had never done before she had found this horse. Even more surprising was that when she woke up, the horse was still walking, carrying her on his back. Despite the constant riding, the horse’s movement was so smooth she had no aches from riding for so long, and it seemed as if the horse had no aches either. Xeiss had to wonder when he slept.

But now she faced something more unexpected than a mysterious horse. As she broke through the treeline, she saw, at last, the city of Tabula Rasa. Unfortunately for her, it was under siege.

She looked across the landscape as well as she could in the moonlit night, for the sun had set just recently. Armies of undead were attempting to find entrance to the castle, but failing. However, winged demons were easily breaking through, and were assaulting the city from above. The defenders were somehow driving them back, but the army was still enormous. Xeiss couldn’t help but wonder how much longer they could hold out.

Xeiss’ thoughts were interrupted as an ear-piercing shriek met her ears. Xeiss’ eyes widened, and a look of fear crossed her face. She knew what the source of the sound was even before she saw the enormous shape flying through the night sky. A wave of fire burst forth from the enormous object, and met the defenders on the wall with deadly accuracy. The fiery blast flung light which glittered off of the dark red scales of the dragon, Scarlet.

The horse Xeiss was riding suddenly stopped in its tracks. He backed away slowly at the sight of Scarlet, even at such a distance away, and Xeiss had to nudge him forward. He resisted, looking at the burning soldiers on the castle wall with fear.

:::Please. Be brave…:::

Xeiss realized that she needed to give this horse a name. She looked down at his black coat, thinking about how smooth his movements were, and his mysterious ways.

:::Shade. How do you like that name?:::

The horse looked up at her for a moment. She could swear he was actually thinking about it. The horse then slowly nodded his head, accepting it.

:::Shade, I must help the city. Please.:::

To her relief, the horse began moving forward again, heading straight toward the dragon. Shade picked up speed, increasing to a gallop. Xeiss looked at Scarlet and asked herself if she knew what she was doing. Her reason quickly responded, "Nope."

They were close now, Xeiss and her mount, close enough that Scarlet’s tail could have struck them if they got in its way. Xeiss told Shade to stop, and then looked up at Scarlet, gulping. She knew

she had to get Scarlet away from the city, or she would destroy it. Still, what she had to do was the most idiotic thing she had done up to this point.

"SCARLET!" Xeiss screamed as loud as she could. However, with the chaos of battle and her distance from the dragon’s head, she was unheard and ignored.

Xeiss, frustrated, looked up at Scarlet’s face. A dragon’s mind was hard to follow, it had hundreds, even thousands of years worth of knowledge within it. However, Xeiss sensed something. She dug into the dragon’s mind, and smiled at her luck. She then screamed again.

"DRAGONEYES!"

Scarlet’s eyes widened as her true name was spoken. Despite the fray, she had heard the word loud and clear, screamed at her from below. Her head whipped around, and she saw a single mounted figure below her. No one should have known that name, especially a human. As she gazed at the human, it turned and galloped away, and Dragoneyes finally recognized the figure, realizing how her name had been revealed.

Scarlet shrieked in fury. "XEISS!"

With agility which seemed almost impossible for a creature of her size, Scarlet turned around and began flying after Xeiss, who rode as fast as she could, her life depending on it. However, the mighty beats of Scarlet’s wings against air allowed her to easily gain on the two. The horse continued galloping, but he was no match for the dragon. Scarlet reached out with a claw and wrapped her talons around Xeiss’ body, lifting her off of the horse and into the air. Shade whinnied in surprise and turned, looking back at the dragon, his rider captured.

Xeiss struggled with all her might, but she was trapped. Her arms were held against her sides by Scarlet’s firm grip, and she found herself looking down at the ground far below. She saw her horse rearing and whinnying at Scarlet, but Scarlet simply smiled and breathed a tongue of flame at the creature, and the horse ran off, terrified. Scarlet then turned her full attention to Xeiss.

"HOW DARE YOU SPEAK MY NAME IN THE PRESENCE OF OTHERS!"

Xeiss’ ears rang from the dragon’s booming voice. "Stop hiding behind your fancy facade, Dragoneyes. What do you have to fear?"

Scarlet snarled, squeezing Xeiss a bit and crushing her for a second before Scarlet loosened her grip again and spoke, without raising her voice’s volume above normal. "You need to learn respect, human."

"I don’t respect traitors."

"And I don’t respect thieves. I want my gold back," Scarlet said, snarling again.

"I don’t have your gold."

Scarlet smiled. "You do not, because it is in that city, which will fall before the forces of Abadon and myself."

"Not if I can help it."

Scarlet’s grin widened. "You can’t."

"The others will stop you. You forget that they are in Tabula Rasa, and commanding the defenses."

"I do not forget anything, Xeiss. However, I think I will take care of that problem. Mind-controlled servants work very well against their friends."

Xeiss’ eyes widened, and then she scowled. "I’ll never let you control me again!"

"You have little choice in the matter. Gaze into my eyes, Xeiss…"

Scarlet’s eyes were already fixed on Xeiss’, so when she tried to turn away, she couldn’t. However, Scarlet was surprised to find something blocking the path to Xeiss’ mind. She grinned.

"A mind block? How amusing. I will enjoy breaking it."

Xeiss reeled as a mental blast assaulted her. She concentrated, trying to keep her mind focused on blocking the mind-control, but Scarlet continued to assault her. It would not be long before the mind block collapsed, and let the river of Scarlet’s thoughts burst through.

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Celes frowned. She looked down at the moat, looking at the water running through it. The moat had been dug around the castle and then connected to the nearby river, so that the water flowed through the canal and out the other side. Celes was trying to think of away across when Atlas interrupted her thoughts.

"We could just swim through and climb up the wall on the other side."

Celes looked at him with surprise. "You really are new at being a vampire, aren’t you?" At Atlas’ blank stare, she continued. "If you get in running water, you’ll disintegrate completely within a few minutes."

Atlas eyes widened, and then he frowned along with her. "I guess that eliminates swimming through it, then."

Celes nodded, and then looked above her. Two demons were flying overhead, toward the castle walls. Quickly, she whistled as loud as she could, and the demons looked down at her. They looked at each other and then flew down, landing in front of the two vampires.

"Yessss?" one of them hissed at her.

She stood firm against the demons, despite the fact that they were both two feet taller than her. "We need you to carry us onto the wall. Now."

"And what do we get out of it?"

"We are like the left and right hands of Abadon. Help us, and you may gain his favor."

The other demon frowned. "You don’t gain his favor, you only lose it, in which case you are killed."

Celes crossed her arms. "And how much longer do you want to live?"

The demons looked at each other, and one of them growled and looked at Celes again. "Fine." The demon turned back to his counterpart and smiled. "I get the female."

Atlas gripped the handle to his axe hard. "Try anything and you’ll see what it’s like being in two pieces."

The demon just smirked at him and scooped Celes up in his arms, flapping his wings as he did. He flew up the castle walls, followed by the other demon, who had a considerably harder time carrying Atlas. Finally they reached the top, and the two demons flew off as Celes and Atlas looked around. Burning corpses lined the wall they stood on, which was not surprising since it was the one Scarlet had attacked at. Celes looked down at the undead army below, then at Atlas.

"Soon, we’ll lower the drawbridge, and this city will never be able to hold back the waves of undead."

"And maybe Abadon will appreciate us for once."

"No, that demon was right. You don’t gain Abadon’s favor, you only lose it."

"So if we don’t lower the drawbridge…"

"We’d best not go back."

Atlas nodded and began walking along the ramparts with Celes, headed for the heart of the outer wall.

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Kerran ran.

Something ahead, just ahead, was drawing him, pulling him, moving his legs for him. He ran as he had never run before, not thinking about where he was going or what he was doing. Some event was pulling him, and he did not know what it was. All he knew was that it was big.

"Kerran! Wait up!" Kiera yelled between heavy breathing. She could not understand how Kerran could run like this, run this far without tiring. She was about to collapse, but Kerran didn’t even notice. His eyes were set on the trees before him, maneuvering about them, trying to reach his goal.

:::Kerran, you’re starting to scare me! Slow down!:::

Kerran’s hand around Stormbringer gripped tighter as he ran, for he was drawing closer and Zalarnx was attempting to gain control. Off in the distance, he heard a woman screaming out in pain. His pace quickened, an almost impossible feat.

Then, he broke through the treeline, and came upon quite an unexpected sight. He was witnessing an enormous red dragon, standing not 10 feet away from him. Luckily, its attention was somewhere else, and he met the dragon at around its hind legs. He looked toward the front of the dragon, and saw that it was staring intensely at a woman in its claw, the woman staring back and screaming out every few seconds, as if the dragon was stabbing her with its gaze.

:::So this is what you were running to…:::

Kerran shook his head. :::No, Dae’lah, this is simply in the way.:::

:::But we have to help the woman!:::

:::I… can’t… I can’t possibly fight a red dragon:::

:::Yes you can, Kerran. You don’t have to win, you just have to distract it from the woman and then escape once she’s out of danger.:::

:::But I sense Diablo’s minions nearby. An overwhelming force, which means that this dragon is probably his, and I do not know if I can fight Zalarnx off…:::

:::I will help you. Just help the woman, and I’ll be here with you.:::

Kerran looked at the dragon, trying to decide, unable to move. Then, the dragon spoke, not to him, but to the woman in its claw.

"Your shield was weak, Xeiss. Now you are mine!"

The woman writhed in the dragon’s grip, but her eyes were fixed on the dragon’s. As the dragon gazed at the woman, the woman gazed at the dragon, and as Kerran gazed at both of them, he saw the woman’s struggles become less desperate, her face less resisting. The dragon began grinning.

But the dragon’s grin soon disappeared as it let out a shriek of pain. Lifting its head and screaming into the sky, the dragon dropped the woman, who fell to the ground, rose to her hands and knees, and began shaking her head, as if waking from a trance. Kerran pulled Stormbringer out from in between the dragon’s scales, noting the trickle of blood left by the blade’s bite. He then backed away and looked up, the dragon’s head looming at least 20 feet over his. The wind almost knocked him over, for the dragon had taken to the air, and looked down at him like a bug ready to be squished.

"HOW DARE YOU STRIKE AT ME, YOU PATHETIC HUMAN!"

:::Kerran, I’m starting to think this was a bad idea.:::

:::No kidding.:::

Kerran tried to muster up as much courage as he could. "I don’t care if you are one of Diablo’s minions… you don’t intimidate me…"

"I AM NO ONE’S MINION!"

Kerran looked surprised. "Really? That will make this easier then…"

Kerran suddenly jumped out of the way as a flaming tide nearly engulfed him, emanating from the dragon’s mouth. Rolling once and then jumping to his feet again, he looked up at the dragon looming above him.

"All right, maybe not so much easy, per say..."

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The door burst open. Within the same instant, bows were dropped, no longer directed through the arrow-loops, and swords were drawn. All eyes, twelve eyes of six guards, turned to the doorway, ready to meet the intruder head-on. They expected a demon or gargoyle, but were not in the slightest prepared for what they saw.

Nothing. The doorway hung open, a steady breeze flowing through the doorway, blowing in a light mist and revealing nothing except silence. The sounds of battle could be heard outside, but no battle seemed to await the six guards inside the room. They knew they would be attacked eventually, for in this room held the levers and cranks which kept the drawbridge shut. They had fully expected for the door to burst open just so, but they had not expected nothingness to stand against them.

One of the guards cautiously stepped forward. He began walking slowly toward the doorway, looking for any sign of guards. There should have been two guards outside, and since no one stood at the door, they must have still been guarding, opening the door for who knew what reason. Looking out the doorway, he saw no sign of the guards, not even their weapons. He looked straight ahead, over the ramparts, and saw monstrosities beyond imagination attacking the castle walls, but still there was nothing attacking him.

The man turned around to return to the room, and he finally saw the guards. On either side of the door, out of the peripheral vision of a person exiting the tower, lay two headless men. They looked as if their heads had been sliced off cleanly, and fallen over the side of the ramparts. Blood dripped from their naked necks, sliding down the rampart wall and forming a puddle which could not be seen except from this direction.

From this direction could also only be seen another gruesome sight, the bloodied axe which had taken the guards’ heads, still dripping in their blood. It was held in the hand of an extremely large man, built like a cross between man and monster, with perhaps with the mind of both. The man hung upside down from the wall, sticking to it by his hands and feet without effort, holding the bloody axe in an outstretched hand. A grin crossed his face, and as it did, the man’s fangs were revealed.

The guard’s scream was suddenly cut off as the man leapt from the wall and bore his axe down on the guard’s head. A sickening sucking sound echoed through the night air as the axe split open the man’s skull, continued down through his neck, and did not stop until it was embedded deep within the man’s chest. The murderer than used his incredible strength to twist the axe as he cut down, and turned it to the side, and sliced out. Pulling his axe back, the man admired his handiwork, as the upper-left portion of the guard’s body fell apart from the rest of the body, which soon fell to the ground as well. The fact that the guard had been wearing chain mail did not seem to phase him.

The guards in the room stepped back, but one raised his sword and stepped toward the door. The large man just stood there, brandishing his axe, watching as the mist that had entered the room began to solidify behind the guard. The other guards let out a gasp as the mist created a woman directly behind the guard, and the woman reached up and grabbed his arm. Before he could turn around, the woman pulled on the arm with such force that a loud crack was emitted as she twisted the arm back more, and then drove it forward, impaling the guard with his own sword, in his own back, with his own broken arm.

Before the rest of the guards could react, she turned and moved to another guard, crossing the space in an instant. She grasped his neck and began choking him. Then, suddenly bored with the concept, she squeezed harder, gripping so tightly that she crushed his neck, feeling it crunch beneath her fingers. She quickly let go of the man and looked at another guard who was approaching her. She raised a hand and pointed it at the man, muttering arcane words as magic swirled in between her fingertips. The man suddenly stopped in his tracks.

A gurgle emerged from the man’s throat as he began choking uncontrollably. He began coughing, a trickle of blood staining his lips and running down his chin. He then coughed more violently, falling down on his hands and knees as explosions of blood spurted from his mouth. Then, in one final, vicious cough, the guard’s body suddenly became still, his eyes wide, and his mouth no longer coughing. A stream of blood fell from his mouth, along with a dark red glob of muscle. The guard’s corpse fell to the ground, and the fist-sized object that had he had coughed up beat a few times, then was silent.

The other two guards backed away, slowly at first, then running for their lives. However, they quickly met with the large, bloodied man in the doorway, and soon after met with his axe, face-to-blade. Both the man and the woman grinned, their fangs gleaming slightly in the room’s torchlight.

"That was invigorating, wasn’t it, Atlas? Lower the drawbridge, if you would."

Atlas nodded and went to the crank which lowered the drawbridge, and began uncranking it, faster than any mortal possibly could. "So, Celes, what do we do now?"

Celes smiled and bent down next to one of her victims, lifting his blood-red heart from the cold floor. "We were to stay and guard the drawbridge."

Atlas grinned. "And since there are all these freshly killed bodies just lying about…"

Celes nodded, grinning as well. "We feast." Celes’ fangs dripped saliva out of anticipation as she wrapped her mouth around the guard’s essence, and drank.

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"King Fearless, we are managing to keep the demons at bay. The walls are adequately defended."

Fearless nodded, almost smiling at his title. However, now there was little time for pride, for the battle still raged around them. On all sides they saw the walls of Tabula Rasa, illuminated in torchlight and flames, the silhouettes of clashing figures on each rampart, each side fighting for its life. The defenses of Tabula Rasa were serving well. For once, Fearless thought they might come out of this battle alive.

His hopes were soon dashed by an enormous creaking sound. The sound of metal chains could be heard, and Fearless looked to the direction the sound was coming from. He watched in shock as the drawbridge to Tabula Rasa, the gateway to its heart, began lowering.

"General Westrich! What is going on! Why are they lowering the drawbridge!"

The general was flabbergasted. "I… I don’t know your majesty… GUARDS! SOMEONE RAISE THAT DRAWBRIDGE BEFORE ALL HELL BREAKS LOOSE!"

Unfortunately, it was already too late. Even as a few soldiers nearby ran to ascend the ramparts and raise the drawbridge, Abadon’s minions were already pouring through the front gate. The portcullis had been raised as well, so that nothing kept the troops from entering the city except for Tabula Rasa’s army.

Undead moved forward without regard for their life, for they had none. They did not cease their relentless assault, shambling across the drawbridge only to be cut down as they had seen the other zombies before them do so. Tabula Rasa held strong, but suddenly, the tides changed.

Through the darkness of the night, and even greater darkness could be seen. Approaching the city gate, it could be seen as a mounted figure wearing black plate armor and carrying an enormous warhammer. As it approached the drawbridge, it did not stop, or even slow, but instead quickened its pace, urging its horse to go faster, until it rode toward the resilient Tabulian army at a full gallop. Its imposing figure rode like lightning, and struck just as violently, its warhammer swinging widely and bashing the heads of 2 soldiers at once. The head of the first one had simply exploded in a shower of blood and gore, while the other man’s head flattened from the blow and he slumped to the ground.

The deadly knight did not slow its pace, beating in the heads of those around it with its vicious blows. Those around the knight tried to strike back, but they were soon felled like saplings. Then, the mob of attackers parted, and the dark knight was faced with another mounted foe. In contrast to his black armor and horse, his opponent rode a white horse, and almost seemed to shine on his own, despite the low light of the night. The dark knight put away its warhammer, and took out a lance. In response, the shining knight lowered his halberd toward the dark knight, and spoke.

"I am Glitterspike, and I command thee to come back whence ye came, or else you shall fall and never rise again."

The dark knight responded only by charging. Glitterspike urged his horse forward as well, and the two of them galloped toward each other on the narrow drawbridge. The bystanders watched as the two nearly collided, but instead hit the other with their weapons. The dark knight’s lance was only inches off its target, but this caused it to slide harmlessly off of Glitterspike’s armor. Glitterspike, on the other hand, hit dead on, his halberd connecting with the dark knight’s head. There was a loud clang as the two metals connected, and the knight’s helmet flew off, tumbling down into the moat below.

Glitterspike turned, fully expecting to have knocked the knight off of his horse. However, when he turned around he saw the knight still mounted, with only one thing missing. Its head. This was not what surprised Glitterspike, though. What surprised him was that the knight, headless, began moving toward him.

Glitterspike, eyes widening, began backing away, but he found that in jousting, he had exchanged positions with the knight. As he turned his horse around to run, he saw, blocking his path, four more of the dark knights, empty of all substance and emotion, save their need to follow their single order: to kill.

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

Kerran jumped out of the way just in time to avoid Scarlet’s second blast of flame. That one was close, any closer and he would be cradling a singed arm. Fighting the dragon from the ground while it was in the air was an impossible task. Besides, it was taking all his concentration not to be burned to a crisp by the dragon, and so he hardly had time to fight it.

Frustrated at his dexterity, the dragon landed again, shaking the ground as it did. Letting out an incredible roar, the dragon whipped its tail toward Kerran, but he dodged. However, as he looked up, he turned around to see the dragon snapping at him with its giant maw. He had no time to react, and the only reflexive action that he could manage in the few milliseconds before he died was to shut his eyes so as not to see his demise.

Yet somehow, he was not eaten. He heard an ear-piercing shriek, and when he opened his eyes he saw the dragon’s head far above him, crying out in pain. Beside him he saw the woman he had saved earlier, holding a sword in each hand, one of them dripping with dragon blood. Kerran looked at her, surprised.

"Weren’t you the helpless damsel that I just saved from that thing?"

The woman frowned. "Damsel, maybe, but helpless? Hardly. The name is Xeiss."

"I’m Ke-"

He was cut off as both he and Xeiss had to dodge another tail swipe. Unfortunately, while Xeiss was able to avoid it, Kerran was not, and he was thrown into the air. He landed quite a few yards away, and Stormbringer flew out of his hand, embedding itself into the ground a few feet away.

As soon as he hit the ground, and Stormbringer left his fingertips, he felt Zalarnx rising up inside him. He screamed and tried to force the demon back into the hidden corners in his soul, but the force of evil around him was too strong. Kerran’s eyes began to glow red as his mind was conquered. His eyes slowly rose from the ground saw two legs standing in front of him. They then kneeled, revealing Xeiss’ concerned face.

"Sir, are you all right?"

Zalarnx smiled at Xeiss, looking at her with much interest, staring at her face. She was reasonably attractive, but what concerned Zalarnx was the innocence in her face, the trust in him. He had been away too long.

"Yes, I’m fine…" he said as he reached for his belt. He pulled out the rod hanging there, and instantly turned it into a long staff, a long bladed staff capable of dealing death with much pain. He grasped the staff with both hands and swung it in front of him while still kneeling. Xeiss’ eyes widened for a split second before she moved her hand, her instincts blocking his attack with her sword.

"Sir, what… what are you doing!"

Zalarnx attacked again, but the woman blocked him once more. Scowling, he struck again and again, trying to get in a blow, but not succeeding. Every time the woman blocked him, her swords always being at the right place at the right time. The battle continued, until suddenly Xeiss was struck from the side by Scarlet’s tail. She was thrown to the ground as she let out a scream of surprise and pain. Rising to her feet, she saw two adversaries approaching her, and she knew she had no chance in holding them off.

Xeiss suddenly heard a whinny off to her right. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a black shape moving toward her. At first thinking it to be another enemy, she was relieved to see Shade running toward her at a gallop. Xeiss sheathed her swords and began running toward the horse, knowing that she was crazy to attempt fighting against both the dragon and the stranger named Kerran.

Zalarnx snarled and ran after her, angered by her cowardice, lusting for her blood. He watched as she reached the horse, which stopped as she approached, and in one fluid motion jumped on. The horse turned and began galloping away, carrying Zalarnx’s target with it. Zalarnx ran faster, but was suddenly forced to stop by an obstacle in his path.

His scowl deepened at the one interfering with his plans. Dressed in a black cloak, the man’s hood was drawn over his face, but his eyes could easily be seen, for they shone with an azure light, as if they were about to spew forth lightning. The man held two long blades, the only reason Zalarnx had stopped and not run the man over. Zalarnx held his staff ready to deal with this threat, and then move on to more important matters.

When the cloaked man spoke, he stepped forward. "I knew if I followed you, you would eventually reveal your true self."

"Strong words," Zalarnx snarled, "From a man who hides behind a hood!"

The man before Zalarnx stood there for a moment, unmoving, then reached a hand up. Still holding his blade, he pushed his hood back, revealing a man as dark as the shadows his hood gave him.

"I do not hide behind the mask of another. I am Kain. And you, demon, are evil."

Zalarnx suddenly felt his instinctive reflexes fling his staff before his face, just before one of Kain’s swords met with his skull. Furious at having been unable to deal the first strike, he countered by trying to swing the other end of his staff at Kain’s face, but he was also blocked by Kain’s other sword. Undeterred, he jumped off the ground and performed a backflip, his foot connecting with Kain’s chin. Zalarnx landed gracefully as Kain reeled backward.

Kain raised the back of his hand to his mouth, and scowled as he saw the blood on it as he drew it away. He spat at the ground, spitting out blood, and looked back at Zalarnx through intensifying cobalt eyes.

"That’s one. Let’s see if you can get another.," Kain said calmly as he rushed at Zalarnx, swords raised for the kill. However, Zalarnx stood ready. He blocked both swings, but as he tried to counter with one of his own, he found himself blocking another of Kain’s swings, and then another, and another. Forced into a defensive stance, he was unable to get a hit in. Desperately, he attempted a wicked thrust, but it was knocked aside by one of Kain’s swords, and the attack was soon followed by a counterattack by Kain. Zalarnx howled in fury as Kain drew his sword out again, the blood dripping off of his blade as well as dripping out of the large gash in Zalarnx’s arm.

Zalarnx continued to defend, but his wounded arm was causing his blocks to be painful and clumsy. It was not long before he again found himself on Kain’s blade, this time run through his chest. Pulling back, he fell to the ground, clutching the bloody wound in anguish. Kain stood over him, mercilessly. With one swift swing, he knocked the staff out of Zalarnx’s hand, leaving him defenseless. Zalarnx looked up at his opponent furiously, daring Kain to kill him.

Meanwhile, Kiera watched from the forest, not daring to come within sight of the dragon or the mysterious man with two swords. However, when she saw Kerran fall, she knew he needed help, and without it, he would die. Kiera did not dare fall under the care of anyone else, for she might become more like property to another man like Morcalavin. Stepping cautiously forward, she made her way toward Kerran’s sword.

The sword had fallen only a few feet from the forest, and thus she was in the perfect spot to retrieve it. It seemed laced with power, and she almost feared picking it up, thinking it would burn her hand off. Nevertheless, she touched it, and then lifted its hilt, gazing in wonder at its brilliance.

:::Give the sword to Kerran.:::

The voice in her mind almost caused Kiera to drop the sword in shock. She looked all around her for the source of the voice, but found none.

"Who are you?" she asked to the air.

:::Give the sword to Kerran, Kiera.:::

"How do you know my…"

Kiera was distracted by a thump caused by Kerran’s staff landing at her feet. Looking up, she saw Kerran on the ground, defenseless, with the mysterious man with two swords standing above him, ready to make the kill. Panicking, she obeyed the disembodied voice. Turning the blade around, she tossed it at Kerran, hilt first, and shouted, "Kerran, catch!"

Through some habitual reaction to his other name, Zalarnx turned to the voice and saw a blade flying through the air toward him. Startled, he reached out and grabbed it by the hilt in midair, then turned back to Kain. As he spun his head to look at Kain, it was almost like shaking his mind back into place, for Dae’lah was already purging Zalarnx from Kerran’s mind. Kerran looked up at Kain with new eyes, eyes that saw a blade descending down upon him. Lifting Stormbringer, he blocked the blow and was surprised to hear a scream of pain come from the dark man for the first time. Electricity surged up Stormbringer and into the man’s blade, knocking him backwards to the ground. Kerran jumped to his feet and held Stormbringer poised over the man, who clutched his burned hand in pain. Kerran was also forced to clutch his chest as well, the adrenaline not able to overcome the pain. However, he began stumbling forward toward Kain, to finish him off for being so stubborn.

Kerran’s revenge was interrupted by a echoing chuckle. Turning around, he saw the red dragon behind him, looking at the two humans with amusement, watching and enjoying a battle between her enemies. Kerran frowned as he remembered who his true enemy was, and turned around. He held Stormbringer before him, and pointed at the dragon. For a split second, the dragon’s laughter paused, and its grin faded, just before crackling blue lightning shot from Stormbringer, and sizzled through the air, piercing the night as it sped toward the immense beast before Kerran.

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

Xeiss looked back, almost fearing to but not able to resist the temptation. She had to shield her eyes from a bright light which was almost bright enough to turn night into day for an instant. The light was met with a roar of pain, one that shook the earth around her. Xeiss turned back and looked ahead of her, and saw her next challenge.

Shade stopped in his tracks. Before Xeiss lay a massive army, attacking the city of Tabula Rasa. Through the lowered drawbridge, undead poured into the city, and though Xeiss saw valiant defenders of the city holding some of the undead back, they would not be able to do so for long. Xeiss watched as the city attacked the army with explosions somehow, causing many a charred and blackened zombie body part to lay on the ground around her. She looked at the mass of undead, and began to doubt if she would ever make it back to the city alive. She had to try though.

Sighing slightly, Xeiss gripped onto the horse with her legs and drew her swords in each hand. Holding them before her, she bowed her head slightly and closed her eyes. "Help me, Kashya," she asked the air, almost praying.

To her surprise, when she opened her eyes, her swords began glowing. The hilts began to glow blue and the blades glowed white, and Xeiss was reminded of her dream. Trying to set her mind at the task at hand, she urged Shade forward, and reluctantly he galloped toward the army of undead.

Xeiss’ swords almost moved instead of her hands as she struck down the first zombie in front of her. To her surprise, as soon as she sliced her sword into the zombie’s skull, the wound began to glow white, much like the sword itself. The zombie let out an inhuman scream and collapsed to the ground, writhing in pain. The zombies around Xeiss looked at her, and began shambling toward her, trying to pull her off her horse. She struck each of them in turn, and each one was wounded with the glowing swords, each wound shining a white light and causing the undead immense pain.

Xeiss’ hope finally improved, and she looked at the drawbridge, still incredibly far away, as if it was only a few feet from her. Galloping into battle, she began fighting her way to Tabula Rasa, leaving a trail of undead in her wake.

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

Fabric ripped as Celes tore off a section of the dead guard’s clothing and began wiping off her bloody hands. She caught herself, thinking for a moment, and smiled as she dropped the rag and began licking her fingertips instead, savoring the sticky red substance like wine, making sure to lick up every last drop.

The room was now full of dead guards. Each guard which had come to raise the drawbridge had been killed in a matter of seconds. Celes smiled to herself as she looked across all the dead bodies in the room, half in triumph and half in anticipation. As she sucked on her fingertips, she heard a soft "thump" in the center of the room, and turned around. She hissed and drew back as she saw a bulb of garlic lying in the center of the room. She looked to the door and her scowl deepened.

"Severen, is this some sort of an insult?"

"Of course not," he said with a voice that sounded as if he was talking to a regular person, a friend even, and certainly not a vampire. "I would never insult a friend, even if they have become a blood-sucking zombie with no respect for human life."

Celes frowned. "I thought you said you didn’t insult friends."

"Odd," he said confusedly, "I thought you would have taken that statement as a compliment."

"Atlas, kill him please."

"It would be my pleasure," he said eagerly, approaching Severen with two axes raised. Severen drew two daggers, and Atlas chuckled for a moment, then burst out laughing. "You’re going to fight me with those puny things!"

To Atlas’ surprise, Severen leapt towards him, made a deep slash in his chest, and then jumped back, almost in a split second. Atlas winced but did not cry out, his pain turning to anger and his anger urging him on to kill Severen. When Severen struck again, Atlas blocked his thrust with his axes, and made a counterattack. Severen somehow managed to block the enormous axe crashing down on him with one of his daggers. However, the axe hit with such force that Severen was knocked do the ground, stunned. He quickly rose to his feet and was soon after attacked by Atlas again.

This time, however, Severen decided not to fall prey to Atlas’ blows again, and dodged to the right. Atlas’ vampiric abilities gave him just as much speed, and he quickly blocked an instantaneous thrust by Severen. The two continued fighting, numerous blows falling every second, Severen somehow matching Atlas’ speed and strength.

Severen was doing well until suddenly his back went up in flames. Severen screamed and fell to the ground as a fireball from Celes struck him from behind, and he caught on fire. Severen quickly began rolling on the ground, putting the flames out, and kneeling when he succeeded. His back was completely burned, as if he had gone to sleep on top of a fire. He winced slightly as he tried to stand, but failed.

"This is going to be rather uncomfortable when I try to get some sleep tonight."

Celes wrapped her hands around his neck, choking him slightly. "It won’t matter when you’re dead, Severen. I think I’ll actually kill you by draining your blood, we could use a vampire like you."

Celes bent down and revealed her fangs, going for Severen’s neck, but suddenly her eyes went wide, and a gurgle came to her lips. She released Severen and looked down at her chest. Sticking out of her chest was a wooden stake, driven directly through her heart.

Behind her, in the doorway, D drew another stake from his belt. "Well, perhaps I’m not as out of practice as I thought."

Atlas could not believe his eyes. "CELES!" Running to her, Atlas dropped his axes and held her in his arms. She looked up at him for a moment with a lifeless gaze, then became limp in his arms. Atlas stared at her, trying to force the tears out, but he couldn’t. He could feel the overwhelming sense of loss, the grief, but not the sadness. Abadon had taken it from him when he had turned Atlas into his undead minion.

Atlas still had his anger though. Grabbing his axes, he looked up at D, but D held a stake at a throwing position. "One step towards me and you end up the same as her."

Atlas scowled, then looked at Celes. Letting out a deafening warcry, Atlas swung one of his axes, not at D or Severen, but at the wall of the castle. An enormous crash resulted as the axe burst through the stone, shattering the wall and shaking the entire room, which caused D to fall to the ground. The rock wall fell away to reveal the front of the castle, the hole in the wall created just to the left of the drawbridge below. Atlas quickly strapped his axe to his back, lifted Celes in his arms, and ran for the hole, jumping out before D could react.

D ran to the hole, looking down, and saw Atlas, with Celes in his arms, splash into the moat. Atlas let out an unearthly scream as the running water began disintegrating him, but he nevertheless managed to reach the edge of the moat. Somehow climbing up with Celes in his arms, Atlas came out of the moat, the lower half of him half-burnt. Forcing himself to his feet, he ran, carrying Celes in his arms, and became lost in the undead army below.

D scowled. "We lost him."

D was interrupted by a rock falling past his head. Looking up, he saw the stone above him crumbling and the individual rocks breaking off, left unsupported by the hole in the wall. He looked back into the room, and saw more rocks were falling out of the ceiling. D looked at the roof wide-eyed as he realized that it was about to crash down around them.

Running to Severen, D helped him to his feet without saying a word, although Severen already knew. Once on his feet, Severen ran on his own, D following, as the rocks from the roof fell more and more frequently. As the room collapsed around them, they could only hope that no one was below them, suffering the same fate.

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

Glitterspike did not hear the rumbling at first, busy fighting off the four soulless knights who wouldn’t die. Every time he hit one with his warhammer, it would continue fighting him, even if he knocked off an arm, leg, or even a head. Even worse, the detached body parts would reattach in a matter of seconds after being broken off. There was no way of defeating these black horsemen, as far as Glitterspike could see.

When the rumbling increased, however, Glitterspike was forced to look up. To his surprise, he saw a portion of the castle crumbling, the rock wall falling down to the drawbridge. He needed to get off this drawbridge quickly, but one of the black horsemen blocked his path. Then, through the rubling of rocks, he heard a loud hum. To his amazement, a huge explosion of red light met his eyes, as red lines of light shot through the black horseman in front of him. Tearing apart both horse and rider, in only a matter of seconds, both were destroyed. As the horseman fell, Glitterspike looked across the bridge and saw Ethon, holding one of his weapons, waving at Glitterspike to cross.

Glitterspike quickly agreed to Ethon’s thinking. Glitterspike galloped past the remains of the horseman, trying to get back in the castle, but his horse suddenly reared as it was struck in the head by one of the falling stones from the castle. Glitterspike lost his balance and fell off the horse, which fell to the ground and was struck by another rock and killed. Glitterspike rose to his feet but was knocked down by a large rock crashing against his armor. Glitterspike frowned and concentrated for a moment, chanting ancient words known only to the order of paladins. When he finished, a white shield flared around him, just in time as a rock fell directly on top of him. The rock, instead of hitting him, slid off of the shield as if it was pushed away from Glitterspike by an invisible force.

Standing up, Glitterspike heard a cracking, and looked down to see the bridge below his feet cracking and splitting from the pressure of the rocks falling from above. His eyes widened, and he began running for his life toward the castle. As he was almost there, a large section of the wall crashed into the bridge, and it destroyed the wooden structure, almost shattering it. Glitterspike flew through the air and landed hard on the other side, rolling a few times. Looking back, he breathed a sigh of relief, having barely escaped the black horsemen. His relief was cut short as a zombie shambled up to him, and Glitterspike gripped his warhammer tightly, looking to Ethon, who stood by his side. The night wasn’t over yet.

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

When the bridge sank, Xeiss’ heart sank with it. Just when she thought she was going to make it to Tabula Rasa, part of the castle wall had collapsed and destroyed the drawbridge. Now she was stuck in the middle of an army of undead, fighting for her life. She had struck down countless undead already, but she didn’t know how much longer she could hold out. She was tiring, and the only reason she had been successful so far was because of the mysterious power which her swords seemed enchanted with. Nevertheless, she continued fighting back the living dead, fighting the hopeless battle with her life on the line.

Then, the waves of undead came less frequently, and Xeiss saw through the glowing light of her sword that the undead had stopped approaching her altogether. Ahead, by the bridge, 4 armored riders which had been attacking the castle were discouraged by the collapse of the bridge, and needed new targets. They had turned around and seen her, and were rapidly galloping toward her. Xeiss gulped and prepared herself for the onslaught.

Using her two swords to fight back two of the knights which had charged directly at her with lances, she beat them back until they cast aside their lances for warhammers. Without even requiring Xeiss’ urging, Shade backed away from the knights, but heard the roar of the undead behind him, and winced as one of them slashed at his flank. They were trapped.

Xeiss frowned and urged Shade forward, and he ran toward the knights at a gallop. Surprised at this maneuver, the black horsemen could not react fast enough, and Xeiss was able to ride in between them while attacking them at the same time. When she had ridden past them and now stood against the moat, Shade turned around and Xeiss saw she had severed the head of one and the arm of another. She smiled for a moment, then the smile faded as the head and arm began moving across the ground. They rolled up next to the horsemen, and then sprang into the air. The pieces then magically reattached themselves in a matter of seconds.

One of the riders approached her, but Xeiss wasn’t about to give up just because her opponent was invincible. Raising one of her swords above her head, she chopped down on her attacker, hoping to cleave the armored warrior in two. At this sudden movement, the black horseman’s horse reared, and instead of hitting the horseman, the sword bit down into the head of the horse. As Xeiss pulled the sword out, the horse’s eyes rolled back in its head, its legs crumpled beneath it, and it took its rider down to the ground.

To her surprise, Xeiss watched as the horseman, without his horse, began dying. The armor fell apart, and the emptiness inside was fully revealed. Then, the armor itself began disintegrating, until finally there was nothing left but a dead horse on the ground.

"Interesting… kill the horse and you kill the rid-"

Shade suddenly reared, and Xeiss saw another of the black horsemen out of the corner of her eye. She turned just in time to see the warhammer crashing down on her.

Shade’s sudden movement had prevented the warhammer from bashing open Xeiss’ skull, but the glancing blow still managed to knock her unconscious. Xeiss slid off of her horse’s back and fell to the ground, her swords falling out of her hands, their glow diminishing.

Shade looked down at Xeiss and nudged her gently with his hoof, but there was no response. Slowly turning his head toward the black horseman that had struck her, he stared out with his green eyes, which seemed to intensify as he looked at the villain. Only the black horseman was close enough to hear it, but had anyone else been there, they would have heard a low growl emit itself from the horse’s throat.

With amazing speed, Shade reared up again, and his hooves came crashing down on the head of the horse that the horseman rode. Using the horse’s head for support, he mercilessly pounded on the horse’s skull, eventually driving his hoof into its eye. When he pulled it out and fell down on all fours again, the horse and rider fell to the ground, the horse dead and the rider destroyed.

Another horseman galloped toward Shade from behind, but he mule kicked the horse directly in the head, and the momentum from the horse and the force from Shade’s kick broke the horse’s neck. He then turned around looked at the last horseman coming toward him. The horseman swung his hammer at Shade’s head, but Shade somehow managed to duck underneath the hammer, then get up and, in a surprising show of ferocity, bite the neck of the other horse. Even more surprising was when he tore his head away, tearing away a large chunk of flesh out of the horse’s neck. The horse fell to the ground and quickly bled to death as Shade spit out the horse’s flesh, his teeth looking almost carnivorous for a moment.

Shade turned back to Xeiss, looking worried. He bent down and nudged her with his nose, and to his relief she stirred. She slowly opened her eyes and looked up at Shade, then looked around, quickly grabbing her swords and standing up after remembering where she was. She spun around, confused.

"Where are those black knights?"

Xeiss looked at Shade, and it almost looked like he was smiling. She came closer, and saw that the smile was an illusion created by blood in the corner of Shade’s mouth. Xeiss sheathed one of her swords, and reached out to the corner of Shade’s mouth. Touching it gently, she felt the blood on her fingertips, and looked at the horse, confused.

"What kind of horse are you?"

Shade ignored her question and nuzzled his muzzle against her hand affectionately. Xeiss smiled and stroked the horse’s head.

"Such a cute scene," came a voice from the darkness. "Xeiss and her pony. It’s sickening."

Xeiss immediately faced the onlooker, drawing her other sword at the same time. At first she thought it was another of the black horsemen, for he was wearing black armor and rode on a black steed, but then he dismounted. Walking toward her, his helmet began to melt and mold with his skin, eventually revealing his grinning face. There was only one demon who had the capability to do that. Xeiss took a step backward in surprise.

"Abadon!"

The demon’s grin widened. "Greetings, Xeiss. We meet for the first and last time."

Whinnying, Shade put himself between Xeiss and Abadon, looking at the demon with distrust and contempt. Abadon raised an eyebrow, then casually made a swipe with his hand. As he did, his fingers extended to long blades, blades so long that they reached the horse and dug deep into its skin. The horse whinnied again, drawing back in pain, the claw marks raked across it’s body.

"Shade!" Xeiss exclaimed as she sheathed her swords and ran to the horse’s side. The wounds were deep, and the horse could possibly die of blood loss if they were not tended to. However, Abadon was not about to let anything like that happen.

Xeiss heard the sound of metal behind her, and quickly turned around, drawing her swords. She barely had enough time to block Abadon’s swipe of her hands with a sword, causing Abadon’s grin to disappear. Abadon drew back, extending his arms, and turning them to long blades, mimicking Xeiss’ two-sword style. As soon as the transformation was complete, he leapt toward her, chopping down on her as she tried to block.

Xeiss made a counterstrike, but was blocked as well. The two of them exchanged blows, their pace increasing. While Abadon used his ungodly speed, Xeiss used her incredible swordsmanship, neither one able to get the advantage. Abadon smirked at her. "You seriously think you are able to defeat me, Diablo’s most powerful general?"

"His most powerful slave you mean. And not long ago, you were nothing more than a common blacksmith."

Abadon’s eyes widened, and his face was a mix between shock and a scowl. "How did you know about that!"

"Even a demon’s mind can be read, Abby."

"DON’T CALL ME ABBY!"

Abadon’s anger increased tenfold, and as Xeiss blocked one of Abadon’s blows, his blade suddenly became wavy and flimsy, changing from a blade to a whip. The whip wrapped around Xeiss’ left arm, traveling up the arm and causing Xeiss to try with all her might to pull free. Even when she chopped at the tentacle with her other sword, she could not cut through. Xeiss could do nothing as the tentacle traveled up her arm, then her shoulder, and finally up to her neck. Once it reached her neck, the tentacle wrapped around it, and contracted.

Xeiss let out a scream, but was soon cut off by the crushing tentacle. Xeiss struggled and continued trying to cut through the tentacle with her sword, but it was no use. Xeiss’ life began flashing before her eyes.

Then, Xeiss remembered how she had made it this far. She remembered her swords, and their mysterious power. With her last chance for breath, Xeiss let out a single word, "Kashya…"

As soon as the name was spoken, Xeiss’ swords suddenly burst into a blue flame. The sword in her other arm leapt up and bit deep into the metallic tentacle, and sliced it in half. As Abadon screamed in pain, Xeiss fell to the ground, the tentacle loosening and allowing her to breathe. She choked and gasped for air, pulling the tentacle off desperately. Finally, when she could breathe, Xeiss slowly stood up, looking at Abadon. Abadon stared at his severed hand with shock, and then at her with anger. He attacked with his other arm, but Xeiss blocked the blow with her swords, and Abadon’s other blade was severed from his arm as well.

Abadon drew back, shocked that some mere mortal could harm him. He would have to fix that. Leaning back, Abadon made a vicious kick at Xeiss’ head, but she was able to duck in time. Not only that, but as she ducked, she spun around and made a swipe at Abadon, managing to cut off his other leg. Abadon fell to the ground in pain, and let out a demonic scream as Xeiss dug her other sword deep into his chest. Abadon fell slightly limp, but managed to still look up at her.

"Well, Xeiss…" he said, almost growling. "I underestimated you…"

"I made the same mistake with a certain prince. Such overconfidence can cost you your life."

Abadon managed a grin, despite the sword in his chest. "I couldn’t agree more…"

As they spoke, Abadon’s severed limbs began to form behind Xeiss, creating one large puddle. Then, without Xeiss knowing, the puddle began to rise and mold itself, directly behind her back…

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

Severen looked back at the collapsed portion of the ramparts, breathing a sigh of relief. It had been close, but D and Severen had managed to escape just in time. Now, Severen was slumped against the ramparts, looking out over the undead armies, while trying to ignore his burned back.

As he waited for the battle to cease, one way or another, he was shocked to see Xeiss down below, fighting for her life. He looked toward the drawbridge, but it was destroyed, leaving Xeiss stranded in the middle of an army of undead. Worse, she was forced to face the black riders Glitterspike had so much trouble with. He watched with concern as she fell from her horse, unconscious, then surprise when the horse managed to defeat three of the deadly horsemen.

The battle with Abadon was what really surprised him. Just when Xeiss seemed lost, she managed to fight back, her swords glowing with the mysterious light Severen had seen earlier. Now, Xeiss stood over Abadon’s broken body, her sword in his chest.

However, Severen knew one thing that Xeiss didn’t. He watched as Abadon’s severed limbs began to shape behind Xeiss’ back. He watched as they rose, and sharpened into what looked like another tentacle, but was more like a deadly, living spike. It was aimed at her back, pointed directly at her heart.

Severen, panicked, let out the loudest scream he possibly could. "XEISS! LOOK OUT!"

Somehow, Xeiss heard him over the din of battle, and turned just in time to see the tentacle strike. Instead of digging itself into her back, it thrust itself into her chest, and she let out a shriek. The metal spike pulled itself back out of her, and she fell to the ground.

Severen looked at Xeiss, then back at Abadon, whose extension was already combining with his body. Forgetting his injuries, Severen climbed up on the edge of the ramparts and jumped over without thinking. Diving down into the moat below, he should have screamed in pain from hitting the water from so high up, but Severen was oblivious. He dove into the moat and pulled himself back out on the other side in a matter of seconds.

Running toward Abadon, he drew from within his clothing a large battle-axe. Not slowing one bit, he made it to Abadon just as the demon stood up and looked at the wounded Xeiss.

Abadon grinned as he looked down at her. "For giving me a challenge for a few brief moments, I’ll make your death qui-"

Abadon was cut off by the sound of metal piercing metal. Looking down, he found a battle-axe stuck about 3 inches into his chest. Fighting the pain, Abadon scowled at the one holding the axe, Severen.

Severen heard the sound of metal scraping, and looked down at the axe. He felt the handle beneath his fingers move, and realized that the entire axe was made of metal. He instantly let go of the handle, just as an explosion of spikes covered its entire surface. Abadon smiled and pulled the axe out of his body, hurling it aside and looking at Severen with amusement.

"Are you eager to die as well?"

Severen reached into his clothing for another weapon. "Leave now before you get hurt."

Abadon couldn’t help laughing. After a few seconds, he finally stopped and looked at Severen again, even more amused. "I am not afraid of you, mortal. I’ll crush your bones with my bare ha-"

Abadon was one more cut off by the sound of a thousand screams from behind him. Normally, this would please him, but these were the screams of the undead. Turning around, he saw a bright light shining through the night above his army. Somewhere within, someone was attacking and destroying the undead at a rapid pace. Abadon looked at Severen, then Xeiss, then back at the shining light, and scowled.

"I’ll be back for you, Severen!" Abadon yelled as he made his way through his skeletal army, moving toward the mysterious white light.

Once Abadon was gone, Severen knelt down beside Xeiss, who was bleeding profusely. Xeiss looked back up at him with pleading eyes, hoping that there was some chance that he could help.

Severen looked down at Xeiss solemnly. "Don’t worry, Xeiss, help will be here soon…"

Xeiss looked directly into his eyes, also looking directly into his mind. "Liar…"

"Xeiss, just hold on, we’re going to help you…"

Xeiss shook her head, a tear coming to her eye. "No… it was meant to be…"

Severen frowned. "That’s not true. You were not meant to die here."

Xeiss looked directly at Severen again. "Yes, I was… Severen… in the library, the book that showed our past… showed our future…"

Severen’s eyes widened, remembering back at the library, which they had found after taking the holy grail. When they had to escape from the library, Xeiss was the last one to come. She had been the only one to see the next two pages in the book.

Xeiss continued. "The book… each page had a picture… the first…"

Xeiss looked up at him, at her bleeding chest, at the entire scene, nodding. "The first showed this exact scene…"

Severen’s eyes widened. "You knew…"

Xeiss nodded, resting her head back on the ground. She began to close her eyes, but Severen shook her to keep her awake. Xeiss looked back up at him, then at her hands.

"Severen… give me my swords… don’t let me die without a sword in hand…"

"Xeiss, you’re not going to die-"

"Please, Severen!" Xeiss exclaimed, then suddenly came down with a fit of coughing, sometimes coughing up blood. Severen’s solemn look increased, but he reluctantly reached over and grabbed Xeiss’ swords. He placed one in each hand, and noticed that neither hand grasped around the swords.

Xeiss sighed and closed her eyes again. "Thank you, Severen…"

Severen shook Xeiss again, but this time, Xeiss did not open her eyes as her body went completely limp.

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

Abadon was furious. If it wasn’t one thing, it was another. First he had been thrown off of the castle walls, then Scarlet had run off, then the drawbridge had been destroyed, and now someone was decimating his army from the rear.

:::I have countless minions, how is it that they’re all too mindless to take care of things themselves?:::

As he approached the mysterious white light, he pushed his way past his undead soldiers, not caring about a single one of them, only caring about what they were supposed to be doing. One thing they were not supposed to be doing was dying. As he drew closer to the light, he noticed that he was still fighting his way past his own army, but now they were running past him, as if trying to get away from something. He continued on despite this, for he feared nothing and no one.

Finally, he saw his adversary. Wearing a rather unremarkable cloth tunic and blue cloak, he looked normal enough, yet he was destroying undead left and right. He held a blacksmith’s hammer, as large as a maul, above his head, and struck down on the undead with frightening precision. The maul grew with a holy white light, one that the undead could not stand. The corpses of men and women killed, reanimated, and killed again lay all around him, but he ignored them, his glowing blue eyes only looking towards his next undead victim.

Abadon could not believe his eyes. He had banished the man, sent him to another dimension along with the rest of his accursed slayer friends. The slayers should have all been removed from this world completely.

The undead parted, and the man stood alone. He looked directly at Abadon, his eyes flashing a bright blue, and pointed his glowing hammer at the demon, his voice echoing across the landscape. "ABADON!"

Abadon scowled. "You are not supposed to be here, Cabal."

"You should not be here either, demon! You should be purged from this earth! And I have made it my duty to make sure you are!"

The man wasted no time, immediately charging at Abadon, his warhammer crashing down. Abadon, however, moved to the side, and counterattacked with his arm, sharpened into a blade. Cabal was able to block, and immediately afterward tried to hit Abadon again. Abadon ducked, and made a swipe at Cabal’s legs, but he jumped into the air, coming crashing down with his hammer on top of Abadon. This all took place over the course of two seconds.

Abadon made no effort to stop the hammer’s path, and it struck Abadon directly in the head. His head flattened somewhat, and there was a loud clang, but Abadon’s facial expression hardly changed. His head began to flow around the hammer, wrapping itself around the weapon, the handle sticking out of his forehead. He began grinning widely.

"You forget, Cabal, that I am the master of metal."

Cabal smiled, much to Abadon’s dismay. Abadon then felt an odd sensation all over his body. He began to glow, dimly at first, then increasingly brighter. He looked at his hand, shocked, and saw it begin to shine before his eyes. With the brightness came pain, and Abadon fell to his knees, letting out a loud scream that would freeze most men’s hearts. Cabal still held the handle of the hammer, watching as the demon howled in pain before his eyes. "You are the one who forgets, Abadon. I was a blacksmith, so I am also the master of metal, and with the divinity on my side, you are doomed to failure."

Abadon screamed in pain once more as he released the hammer, its head still glowing with a holy white light. The light in Abadon’s own body subsided, and he lay on his hands and knees before Cabal, breathing heavily.

Cabal brandished his hammer. "Leave now, demon, and take your foul undead minions with you."

Abadon looked up at the slayer. Because of the light, his face was now half-melted, as if it had been splashed with acid. Still, his overwhelming hate toward the slayer was obvious in his features. "I made a mistake when banishing you, slayer. I should have killed you. We shall meet again."

In an explosion of metal, two wings burst out of Abadon’s back. Before Cabal could react, Abadon used demonic magic and his wings to lift himself into the air. Cabal swung at Abadon with his hammer, but it was too late. Abadon flew southward, quickly disappearing into the night.

There was a deafening howl from all around Cabal as the undead realized their leader was leaving. Confused and without orders, the undead stopped in their tracks, unsure of what to do. It did not take long for a projectile to launch from the castle, and cause a massive explosion within their ranks. Upon seeing some of their number destroyed, the undead immediately began to scatter. Most headed southward, towards Dorado, while others simply crumbled to the ground, their decayed bodies piling on top of each other as if they had died as living soldiers in battle. Those inside Tabula Rasa confusedly looked for escape, and were quickly struck down.

Cabal raised his hammer, and began the long and tedious process of making sure that few, if any, undead made it back to Dorado.

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

Scarlet cringed as another storm from Stormbringer surrounded her body. The waves of electricity were hurting her, but not doing enough damage to her to the point of defeat. When the storm subsided, Scarlet once again looked at Kerran with immense hatred.

:::Kerran, I can’t keep this up much longer…:::

:::I know Dae’lah. We’re running. Now.:::

Scarlet snapped at Kerran, but Kerran quickly jumped, gaining an unnatural height in the air because of the demonic presence inside him. He came back down at the spot he had been at, but this spot was no occupied by Scarlet’s head. Landing on top of it, he held on for dear life as Scarlet shrieked in fury, shaking her head to try and get him off. He attempted to attack with Stormbringer, but as Scarlet shook her head, the blade was thrown out of his hand, landing on the ground far below.

Kerran looked down helplessly at Stormbringer, but was surprised to see something else. In the darkness, he saw a small figure run towards the sword. Scarlet, seeing that Stormbringer had been dropped, turned toward it, and both Kerran and she watched as Kiera ran over and picked the sword up. When Kiera looked up, her eyes grew wide as she saw the dragon staring directly at her.

"Kiera!" Kerran shouted as he stood up on top of Scarlet’s head. He leapt down to the ground, rolling as he did to lessen the force of the impact. His wounds from fighting Kain rocked his body with pain, but he ignored them. He quickly stood up and ran to Kiera, lifting her in his arms, and began running toward the forest.

Scarlet, not about to let her prey get away, swiped at them both with her tail. Kerran watched the tail out of the corner of his eye, and at just the right moment, leapt into the air. He hit the ground, still running, and came within feet of the forest. Furious, Scarlet spewed forth a breath of fire toward them, just as they entered the forest. Kerran and Kiera felt the trees behind and around them burst into flame, but Kerran continued running with inhuman speed. The explosion of fire spread behind them, licking at Kerran’s heels, but the flames did not catch them. The roar of the flames was met by a roar of fury from Scarlet.

Kerran continued running for some time, until finally Kiera shouted at him to stop, and he slowed, then stopped as he put her down.

Kiera breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank you, Kerran."

Kerran nodded in acknowledgment. As the adrenaline left his system, he felt something else rise up within him. Anger, hate, evil, all began rising up and trying to overcome him. Almost immediately, he tore Stormbringer out of Kiera’s hands, much to her surprise and shock. The sensations faded away, and Kerran heard the soothing voice of Dae’lah again.

:::Kerran, you lost me and retained control!:::

Kerran thought for a moment. :::I… I guess I did. I wish I knew how…:::

:::You saw Kiera in trouble, and instinctively went into action. You were so intent on saving her that you were able to keep Zalarnx at bay for a while…:::

Kerran smiled somewhat, looking down at Kiera. "You’re welcome, Kiera."

Kiera looked nervous. "Let’s get out of here. I don’t want to fight any more dragons."

Kerran thought for a moment, and tried to sense what he had sensed before. It was gone now, whatever had occurred was over, and the evil in the land was leaving. Perhaps overcoming Zalarnx wasn’t entirely his doing. Kerran nodded. "Good idea. I have to get my staff though."

Kiera lifted a short rod in her hand, the staff shortened to it’s portable size. "I already picked it up while you were fighting."

Kerran smiled and took it, nodding, then began walking. Kiera turned around and walked beside Kerran as they headed south through the forest instead of westward, and out of it. It was not long before Kerran sensed the mysterious cloaked man again, and soon saw the solitary figure. His hood was drawn over his head, so Kerran could not see his face, and he stood unmoving in their path, his arms crossed. Had Kerran not sensed him, he might have passed by, thinking the man was a tree.

Kerran frowned. "What do you want now? I don’t want to fight you."

The man’s lips, which were the only part of his face that Kerran could see besides his glowing blue eyes, parted. "Your two halves still fight for control. You fought against the woman and me, but then saved the girl…"

"And what of it?"

There was a long silence. The man then uncrossed his arms and spoke again. "There is good in you, just as there is evil. I cannot kill an innocent to destroy his other half, not while the better part of you is in control. Should you try anything, however, I will strike you down as quickly as any other demon."

Kerran frowned again, but ignored the man and began passing by him. Kiera, nervous, followed, but as she passed by the man, he grabbed her arm. In less than a second, Kerran had drawn Stormbringer and pointed it at the man’s throat. The man simply smiled, and looked at Kiera. "Make sure he keeps that sword at his side, child. Your life may… no, it does depend on it."

The man released Kiera’s arm, and, looking at Stormbringer the whole time, backed away slowly. As he disappeared into the trees, neither Kerran nor Kiera could hear his footsteps moving away. Frowning once more, Kerran sheathed Stormbringer, and continued on his way, Kiera following.

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

There were three colors, green, blue, and yellow, for everything was either the grass, the sky, or the sun. The plain stretched out as far as far as the eye could see, not falling over a horizon, but continuing on and on, vast as eternity. In the center of this plain stood a single woman, confused, lost, and alone. She looked to the sun for guidance, a compass heading at least, but it stayed directly overhead, fixed in the sky like a flame fixed to a candle.

Xeiss spun around, trying to find any difference, any clue that she should go in a specific direction. Desperately, she shouted, "Hello? Is anybody out there?" Her words floated out into nothingness, spreading across the plain without any hope of covering it.

Xeiss, for as long as she could remember, could not handle small spaces. Her claustrophobia overpowered her whenever placed in a situation where she was trapped, constricted, and left in the darkness. Now, She was in the most open space imaginable, with light and complete freedom, and yet she was trapped. She was trapped in nothingness, in solitude, and like her claustrophobia, it frightened her.

Her legs spurred to action, she began running. She did not know where or why she was running, but she kept running, away from the nothingness that was everywhere, to the edge of the infinite plain. Everywhere she ran, she was going nowhere, for this place was nothing. There were no towns, no forests, no rivers, only grass. Xeiss could not stop running, though her legs began to tire, and her breath became short. Finally, her body no longer able to support her slowly maddening mind, she fell to the ground, gasping for breath.

As the smell of grass drifted into her nostrils, so did a white light drift into her eyes. She pushed her arms against the ground, and forced herself to her hands and knees, still breathing heavily. Looking up, she saw a glowing white light before her. She shielded her eyes with her arm, trying to squint through the light and see what was causing it. Inside she saw the silhouettes of a group of people, but she could not discern any features that would make them recognizable in the blinding light.

To her surprise, one of the silhouettes began walking toward her, and though she would normally back away, she was too tired now to care. As the figure walked toward her, the light dimmed slightly, allowing Xeiss to look up and see the face of the one who approached her.

"Kashya…" Xeiss said, gasping at the same time, half out of shock and half out of exhaustion.

Kashya cracked a half-smile and knelt down in front of Xeiss. Kashya lifted Xeiss’ chin with a finger, and Xeiss felt her strength renewed somewhat. Xeiss picked herself up and sat on her knees, looking at Kashya solemnly. She was reminded of her gift, and Xeiss reached down absentmindedly to feel the swords at her belt, but was surprised to find neither was there.

Kashya said nothing, looking at Xeiss and waiting. Xeiss looked past Kashya at the bright light, then back at Kashya. Her voice cracked as she spoke to the one she knew now only in dreams. "Am… I in heaven?"

Kashya’s half smile turned into a full one. "No, Xeiss. Not yet. There is still much for you to accomplish in the land of the living."

Xeiss thought back to the battle, almost reaching back to scratch her back where Abadon’s blade had struck her. "But… Abadon killed me…"

"No, Xeiss, you are not dead yet. You are losing blood, starting to die, but you have not yet passed away. However, you must help yourself. No one can save your life but your own."

"But… aren’t I unconscious? Dreaming? This is a dream, isn’t it?"

Kashya pondered for a moment. "In a way, yes… but it is more than that. You are starting to lose yourself, beginning your journey here. Look at yourself, Xeiss."

Xeiss looked down, examining her hand. For the first time she noticed it was not whole, but transparent. She could see through her hand at the grass below, like her body was made of nothing more than colored glass. "What… where is this?"

"It is a place for a very specific few, a place where some of us go when we pass away. You will come here as well, Xeiss, but now is not the time. You must save yourself, and you must do so quickly, for we are running out of time."

"But how?"

"You must be strong, and fight death’s embrace. If you need help, you can turn to the swords…"

Xeiss suddenly became curious. "What are the swords? What is their power?"

"It would take too long to explain, for we have little time. You will learn soon enough. Now, I must introduce you to someone, and then you go back."

"Back? Back to where?"

Kashya did not answer, instead turning to the light. Another figure was approaching, and as the person stepped out of the light, Xeiss saw it was a golden-haired woman wearing long white robes. However, the robes were specifically cut so that fighting in them would not be a problem. As the woman knelt down in front of Xeiss, Xeiss noticed that the sleeve of the robe was torn off, revealing a long scar along the woman’s upper arm.

Xeiss looked up at the woman. "You’re a Sister…"

She nodded. "I am, or was. My name is Idreana."

Kashya looked toward Idreana and then at Xeiss. "Idreana will help you, Xeiss, you need only to call for her."

Xeiss, still confused, looked at Idreana as she offered her hand to Xeiss. Xeiss reached out and took it, and as Idreana rose, Xeiss rose to her feet as well. Idreana’s hand was very warm to the touch, and as Xeiss held it, she felt there was something more behind it, some power that Xeiss could not discern.

Idreana spoke calmly but quickly. "You must go back now, Xeiss."

"Back to where?"

"Shh… close your eyes and concentrate."

Xeiss did as she was told, and felt a warm hand press against her forehead. Idreana continued speaking with her. "Reach out, Xeiss, you must grasp something, reach and grasp a handhold to bring yourself back. You still have much to do, and you can only perform your purpose if you take your life back. Reach out Xeiss… and take it…"

Xeiss concentrated, trying to find purchase on something through the void. She felt with her mind, trying to touch anything with her powers. After what seemed like an eternity, she heard a familiar voice in her head.

:::Oh god, please don’t let her be dead.:::

Xeiss touched the thought and wrapped herself around it. Holding on with all her strength, she pulled herself back.

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

The group looked down solemnly at Xeiss. Severen had lost Xeiss’ pulse 2 minutes ago, and Xeiss had ceased breathing. Despite what wounds the group may have had, they ignored the pain, only to let in another type of pain that could not be healed by a paladin any more than Xeiss could.

Mercy wished she could do something, anything, to bring Xeiss back, but she knew it was hopeless. She had never felt so powerless in her entire life. Here she was, having just been one of those who helped drive away Abadon’s army, saving an entire city, and yet she could not save a single life. As Mercy knelt beside Xeiss’ body, she reached down to place Xeiss’ hands across her chest, perhaps in a vain hope to cover the hole on Xeiss’ chest.

The moment Mercy touched Xeiss’ hand, Xeiss’ finger twitched.

Mercy drew her hand back in shock, looking at the hand with a mixture of horror and fascination. Then, before her very eyes, Mercy watched as Xeiss’ hand began to wrap around the sword that Severen had placed there. Mercy’s eyes widened, and she looked at the rest of the group. They hadn’t seemed to notice, so Mercy pointed at the hand and let out a whisper. "Look!"

The group watched as the other hand also began to wrap around one of Xeiss’ swords. Mercy, shocked, muttered, "Xeiss?" Leaning forward above Xeiss, Mercy watched in amazement as Xeiss’ lips parted.

Letting out a small breath, Xeiss spoke a single word so quietly that only Mercy could hear it. "Idreana…"

Mercy drew back, confused, but as she did she saw the swords in Xeiss’ hands begin to glow with a pale white light. The light grew brighter, slowly moving to the hilt, where the light turned a pale blue. The swords continued to glow, becoming almost blinding. Then, the mysterious light began traveling up Xeiss’ arms, each sword sending its power through Xeiss. The light traveled up Xeiss’ arms, and eventually made it to her shoulders. The lights continued flowing, and flowed into the center of her chest, meeting each other. As they did, the light intensified, and the group had to shield their eyes from the blinding luminescence.

Finally, the light subsided, and Mercy looked back at Xeiss along with the rest of the group. Mercy’s jaw dropped as she saw Xeiss’ chest rising and falling to a rhythmic pattern of breathing. Even more surprising was that the hole in her chest was completely gone, only the blood surrounding the wound remaining. Mercy looked at the swords in awe as the last of the light faded from them, just as Xeiss slowly opened her eyes.

Mercy’s mood suddenly changed from confused to overjoyed. "Xeiss! You’re alive!"

Xeiss blinked and looked up at Mercy, and cracked a smile. "So I am."

"But… how? Your heart stopped beating!"

Xeiss looked slightly worried for a moment. "It did? Well… I’m not entirely sure how…"

Mercy looked at one of Xeiss’ swords. "Well, your swords started glowing, and they healed you, right after you…" Mercy paused for a moment. "Xeiss, who is Idreana?"

"I… I’m not entirely sure about that either."

Shin, who had been silent up to now, frowned. "Well what are you entirely sure of?"

Xeiss smiled, and pushed herself off of her back, sitting up. She sheathed each of her swords and looked up at Shin. "That I’m not dead."

Severen, kneeling beside her, smiled and stood up. He then offered her a hand, and Xeiss took it, rising to her feet. She looked at the rest of the group, smiling, then looked around at the surrounding terrain, instantly noticing the lack of undead walking around. "What happened to Abadon’s army?"

"They retreated when Abadon ran off."

Xeiss looked slightly confused. "I drove Abadon off?"

"No, but you weakened him enough so someone else could."

"Who?"

D smiled. "We’re not entirely sure."

"Oh, ha ha."

"Really, someone attacked and defeated him, but then ran off after Abadon’s army when it retreated. This person kept destroying the undead even as they ran."

"Interesting. And what about Scarlet?"

"She was gone for most of the attack, and came back after Abadon retreated. Of course, once she saw she didn’t have an undead army to back her up, she retreated as well."

Xeiss breathed a sigh of relief. "Then it’s over."

Severen turned and began walking back to the city. "For now."

Xeiss and the others nodded, and began walking back toward the city as well. A long, heavy wooden board had been placed over the moat as a temporary bridge since the drawbridge was broken during the battle. As they crossed it, Xeiss and Fearless were the last two over. Fearless had not said anything to Xeiss after she had miraculously recovered.

She turned toward him and talked softly to him. "I thought you were an atheist."

A look of confusion came over his face. "I am."

"Then why did you say ‘Oh god, please don’t let her be dead’?"

Fearless frowned. "I never said that!"

"Well, not out loud, maybe," she said, grinning.

Fearless looked at her in surprise, then frowned again. "It’s just an expression."

"Surely one you don’t have back home."

"You Khandurans are a bad influence."

"You just spent all night fighting the creatures of hell. Do you still refuse to admit there could be a higher power?"

Fearless’ frown deepened. "If there was one, we could have used some divine intervention in that battle."

Xeiss looked back at the battlefield, at the massive heaps of undead lying once again dead on the ground. "You never know, Fearless, perhaps we had more help than you think…"

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

Atlas looked at the wooden stake with contempt. Ever since he had arrived back at Dorado, he had considered plunging the stake into his own chest, ending his existence forever. However, Abadon had control over his minions, and such a thing was absolutely forbidden. Besides, vampires don’t often commit suicide anyway. Also, Atlas still had to avenge Celes, by killing the one who had murdered her, D.

"At…las…"

Atlas’ neck snapped up. He looked at the bed he had lain Celes on, thinking he had been hearing things. He stood up and walked over to Celes’ beside, kneeling. To his surprise, she opened her eyes a crack and turned to look at him. The wooden stake fell out of Atlas’ hands and clattered on the floor.

"Celes! You’re alive!"

"No I’m not, I’m undead."

Atlas stared blankly at her for a moment, then simply chose to ignore the statement. "I thought vampires were killed when someone drove a wooden stake through their heart."

"No, that is only temporary," she said as she sat up, looking down at her chest. She placed her hand where the stake had been driven. "Yes, you see, by removing the stake, you have allowed the wound to heal. After driving a stake through the vampire’s heart, the vampire killer must then chop off the vampire’s head and stuff the mouth full of garlic before the vampire will die."

"Oh." Atlas’ lips cracked a small smile. "I… saved you then?"

Celes smiled. "Yes, you did. Thank you, Atlas."

Atlas’ smile turned into a sheepish grin as he looked at Celes. Deep inside each of them, a small spark of humanity flared up, if only slightly. They stared at each other for a few moments, and Atlas leaned forward.

"ATLAS! CELES! COME HERE THIS INSTANT!"

The shout echoed throughout the castle, and it did not take a genius to know that Abadon was furious. After Atlas helped Celes up, they went to the throne room, which was almost on the other side of the castle. As they entered, they noticed a number of piles of bones on the floor, probably from Abadon venting his anger on his undead minions. Abadon sat on his throne, staring directly at the door, staring directly at them.

For a moment it seemed that Abadon had calmed down. "Atlas, come forward."

Atlas stepped forward, and once he walked close enough to Abadon, the demon suddenly thrust his arm forward, extending it and sharpening it to a blade. The blade went directly through Atlas’ stomach, causing Atlas to cry out in pain. Abadon then lifted his arm, lifting Atlas off of the ground by the blade in his stomach as the barbarian flailed his legs wildly. Celes looked on worriedly, but knew she should not interfere.

Abadon sneered. "I have learned that you are the one responsible for the collapse of part of Tabula Rasa’s wall. Do you know what that collapse is responsible for?"

Atlas spoke through the pain. "The… destruction of the drawbridge?"

"Correct. Do you know what the destruction of the drawbridge was responsible for?"

Atlas remained silent, not sure of this answer. Abadon scowled, and threw his arm sideways, hurling Atlas into a nearby wall. Standing up, Abadon thrust his arm forward and stabbed Atlas again, this time through the shoulder.

"IT WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR OUR DEFEAT!"

Atlas moaned. "I…am… sorry, Abadon…"

"I HAD THOUSANDS OF UNDEAD LINED UP TO STORM THE CASTLE, BUT THIS WAS IMPOSSIBLE ONCE YOU DESTROYED THEIR ONLY MEANS OF ENTRY!"

"I…was just… trying to save… Celes. If I had… not, she would be dead now… Both of us would."

"YOU SHOULD HAVE SACRIFICED YOURSELF FOR THE CAUSE! WITH TABULA RASA DESTROYED, I WOULDN’T HAVE NEEDED YOU!"

"I… am sorry… but the vampire hunter… snuck up on us while we fought… Severen…"

"I DO NOT CARE! IN YOUR ACT OF COWARDICE, YOU HAVE COST ME MY ONE CHANCE AT TAKING THE CITY!"

"YOU ARE ONE TO TALK OF COWARDICE!"

The new voice in the room was actually louder than Abadon’s, and came from right behind Celes, causing her to jump. She turned around and looked, as did Abadon and Atlas, at Scarlet, who somehow seemed more furious than Abadon. Abadon looked down at Atlas again, and retracted his blade, then walked over to the center of the room and crossed his arms, looking at Scarlet. As Scarlet stepped forward, Celes took the opportunity to run over to Atlas, and aid him in standing so they could sneak out while Abadon and Scarlet were talking.

Abadon again seemed to have instantly calmed down. "Hello, Scarlet."

"WHY DID YOU RUN FROM THE BATTLE! HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO GET MY MONEY BACK IF YOU RETREAT!"

"I ran because my advantage was lost. The drawbridge was collapsed, and my army couldn’t get into the castle…"

Scarlet scowled. "I asked one of those in your army, and they said you ran away after a battle with some human with a glowing hammer!"

"You have very little knowledge of what transpired, Scarlet; you were not there. In fact, where were you during the battle? You accuse me of retreating, when you stopped attacking the castle soon after you started."

Scarlet grew even more furious. "Xeiss knew my real name! I had to take care of her before she spoke to anyone else!"

"If that is true, how is it that she had the chance afterward to fight me?"

Scarlet growled. "I was ambushed by two men…"

"Two men? Is that all?"

"YOU FIND YOURSELF UNABLE TO DEFEAT A SINGLE MAN!"

"I do find myself able to defeat someone you couldn’t."

Scarlet raised an eyebrow. "And who is that?"

"As I said, I had a run-in with Xeiss. She lost."

"You mean… you killed her?"

"Exactly."

This seemed to only upset Scarlet more. "YOU FOOL! WITHOUT XEISS, AND WITHOUT TABULA RASA, THERE IS NO WAY FOR ME TO GET MY MONEY BACK!"

"You know I am fully capable of replacing your money," Abadon said as he headed for the door. "After the heroes are dead."

Scarlet grabbed his shoulder as he tried to walk away. "I want my money back NOW, Abadon!"

Abadon shrugged out of Scarlet’s grip, and continued walking toward the door. "And I want Tabula Rasa, but we can’t have everything, now can we, Scarlet? Good night."

Abadon left the room and closed the door, leaving behind a raging inferno.

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

The land was a feast of decay. All around the walls of Tabula Rasa, corpses lay, now unmoving. Some were in pieces, blown to bits by Fearless’ prized creation, gunpowder. Others were scorched, having been destroyed by a holy power unexplained to those in the city. Still others were rotting and festering in the moat, having been dumped out of the city after they had been stuck down within the castle walls. When the sun rose, the vultures and other scavengers would come, and see before them a literal feast of decay.

Xeiss looked out across the land from the ramparts solemnly. She felt sorry for all those lying dead below, many of them having risen from the dead only to go back. They had been used as tools, when they should have received the eternal rest they deserved. Death should give peace to those who embrace it in Xeiss’ opinion, especially if those who did not embrace it were doomed to turmoil. A long sigh came from Xeiss’ throat.

"Xeiss?"

Xeiss turned and squinted through the darkness, then sighed again. "Hello, Severen."

"You should get some rest. We’ve all had a hard night."

She nodded. "I will in a few minutes. I was just… looking for someone."

Severen raised eyebrow. "Who?"

Xeiss sighed again. "I don’t suppose anyone entered the castle after the battle? Besides us, I mean."

Severen thought for a moment, then shook his head. "I don’t think so."

"So that man who supposedly drove off Abadon didn’t come back?"

"No."

"And what about a man with a sword and a bladed staff? Anyone fitting that description?"

"I’m afraid not."

Xeiss sighed once more. "What about a horse? A black horse…"

"I’m sorry, no. What is this all about?"

Xeiss shook her head. "Nothing."

"Are you going to get some rest?"

"Yes, yes, in just a few minutes. I need to be alone for a bit."

Severen nodded and complied, leaving the ramparts. Life was full of mysteries, and Xeiss was forced to wonder how many would remain unsolved. Who was the man that drove off Abadon? Who was the one who saved Xeiss, and why did he try to kill her moments later? What was the truth about Shade? What power had brought her back, seemingly from the dead? Would any of these questions be answered soon, or answered several years from now? Perhaps they would never be answered at all. Still, it was slightly comforting to know that there were other heroes in the world, and though they be mysterious, they still fought for good with no less vigor than the group in Tabula Rasa. Also, if any of these mysterious heroes wished to join the group, they needed to only come to Tabula Rasa, now a beacon and example of strength and virtue.

As she looked out across the plain covered with corpses, it began to glow a soft orange as the sun pulled itself over the horizon. Xeiss took a moment to watch the new day appear, and then turned to descend from the ramparts. She knew that orange rays of sunshine were not the only things that came with the dawn. She would need rest for the new beginning now approaching, rising above the far horizon with a glow that signaled it’s arrival to the world.