Once Upon a Time, part one


In every moment, somewhere in the world, a baby is born. Be that baby a peasant, a soldier, a sorcerer, a shopkeeper or a king, since as long as any mortal man can remember, they have all been entering and leaving this world. However, those kinds of people are common place, while some other kinds are anything but. Scarcely once in a generation is another breed of man born, a hero, set on this earth with a purpose higher than all others and with a spirit more divine than a mortal man’s wildest dreams. And of those heroes seldom does one emerge, a hero among heroes, and a king among kings. His bravery limitless, and his destiny written in stone. His journey not complete an ounce short of perfection, yet all too often it is. When his time has run out, and his hour glass has let fall it’s last grain of sand, so ends the hero of heroes, and the world mourns to know that in he rested their last hope… And sheds a tear for they also know, never will they ever see another hero as great as he again.

But then again, for each one taken, one is returned. Again the seeds of hope are sown and so begins another hero’s trek. In this land, they pray that his journey is safer than the last, his destiny more sacred and his deeds worthy of far richer song.

But only time knows, and only time will tell… As on this night, time was something that one of these ‘heroes’ was short on.

He’d failed twice to lose them thus far, the lights ahead he knew would be his last opportunity for escape. The night sky was dark, yet clear. The land seemed to spring with life as in the past weeks it had seen such horrors as the wrath of the Holy Grail, the second siege in four months at the gates of Dorado, the dark campaign against the fortress Tabula Rasa, and the less than definite end of Diablo, that had been brought on at the hands of Abadon. Yet still perhaps the best was yet to come.

As the forest thinned, it was clear that these lights hadn’t been merely a mirage as often they’d been before. It was a town, one not marked on his map but perhaps safe haven none the less. He wiped the sweat from his brow as it had been many a day’s ride from Dorado far to the north. The mist marsh had revealed sights that he’d surely wish to soon forget, and never would he speak of again. Despite that, excusing the two who followed, it had been well worth it.

He rode even closer now, and it became clear that a tall wall stood around the outside of the village, it’s towers and embattlements dotted with patrolling guards.

“Let hope they’re hospitable. I’ve seen more than my fair share of unwelcome meetings which have ended in bloodshed,” he whispered.

From behind, the horsemen that pursued him from the darkness, came closer. Their torches flickering only a few hundred yards in the direction from which he had come. They’d tracked him for days. Although, it’s no surprise they were so adamant when considering what he’d done.

Atop the towers, the guards saw the horseman coming. Many readied their bows and drew their swords, they didn’t seem too familiar with visitors at this time of night. Galloping his horse at full speed, the lone horseman rode, toward the drawbridge as his horse reared. Finally stopping, the man looked up at the mighty wall.

“Who goes there?” A voice called out.

The horseman knew this was no time for tact, his hunters approached, and unless they were to let down their drawbridge it would mean his death. He tried his best to catch his breath as he yelled in defiance of their question.

“I don’t have time for this! Let me inside and I will explain.”

The men atop the tower snickered. They thought this stranger a beggar, who’d stolen the horse and wanted to spend the night within the safety of the town walls.

“No one gets in here unless we know their name.”

Now very frustrated, the horseman could see his time was growing short.

“My name is Severen, now let down the damn drawbridge!”

With those words the guardsmen atop the tower looked up. They saw the lights approaching fast from the distance, and at that moment knew why this ‘Severen’ so badly sought refuge.

“Who are those men that are after you?” The same guardsman atop the tower asked.

Drawing his sword, Severen answered.

“Minions of Abadon.”

The guards looked at each other, now only slightly more concerned, but at the very least taking him seriously.

“What have you done to warrant their pursuit of you?”

With his eyes fixed on the oncoming riders, Severen reached into his sleeve. From it he drew a tattered piece of cloth with an object wrapped inside. Slowly he pulled free something none of the guardsmen had expected, and held it high in the night air.

It was the soulstone, and it glistened in the dim moonlight.

“Let this stone and I be captured, and I guarantee it means death for us all.”

With a nod to someone below, one of the men atop the tower motioned. Instantly, two massive chains bracing it on either side let loose, the drawbridge began to lower. Severen steadied his horse and waited as it inched downward. This would be close, and they all knew it.

Relieved that they had come to their senses, Severen quickly rewrapped the soulstone and slipped it back into his sleeve, he then again wiped his brow. The gate hit the ground, and spurring his horse in he rode. On the inside of the huge stone arched entrance, two men at arms were waiting to greet him.

“Welcome, Severen. Abadon has brought us no justice, any enemy of our enemy is our friend.”

Looking in awe of the town inside the walls, Severen stopped as his eyes met something the likes of which he had never seen. In the town center, there stood a monument of some sort. Easily fifty feet across and fifty feet high, it looked as though it was carved in the crude outline of a head, but the darkness made it difficult to see.

“What is this place?” Severen could barely say while still in awe.

The men at arms looked at each other and then to Severen. One of them answered.

“This is the land governed by the Paladins of Colossus. We are among those paladins, and that monument is from what we, and this town, draw our name.”

As fascinating as this was, they were now even shorter on time.

“That drawbridge wont keep them back for long. Abadon cares a great deal about this item, he’d kill any mortal man to get it back. It wouldn’t surprise me if an army of thousands were en route here already.”

As the drawbridge raised by torch light, the Paladins pondered what next they would do.

“There may be only one place within our walls that is safe from Abadon’s armies…”

The Paladin paused.

“…But the price you may pay to find that safety could be far higher than Abadon recovering that artifact.”

Severen was unconvinced.

“No price is too high to ensure that the soulstone is kept from his possession… Even if that price is my life.”

Solemnly, the Paladin raised his finger. He pointed toward the monument on which Severen’s eyes had moments ago been fixated.

“Then ride into the mouth of the Colossus. But be wary, only the wise man may enter, and only the tin man may escape…”

Severen was confused. The last thing this was the time for, was cryptic directions which he couldn’t make head or tails of. The Paladin continued.

“When you reach the entrance, utter these words: ‘Felix qui potuit rerum…’”

Severen cut the Paladin off, as he had heard this phrase spoken before.

“…Cognoscere causas.”

The Paladin smiled. He lifted his hand and put it on Severen’s shoulder.

“You are a wise man, Severen… Where you’re going, you’ll need all the courage you can muster. The prophecy has come true.”

Severen didn’t understand, and he didn’t care to understand. Within moments, armies of the undead likely thousands strong would march on the town, and despite the bravery of these Paladins, they’d be helpless to stop it. If this mysterious ‘Colossus’ was his only chance for escape, he was more than willing to accept the risks that the knights spoke of.

“I owe you for this.”

There was a moment of silence, the Paladin responded.

“No, Severen. We owe you.”

Still not understanding, but now even shorter on time, Severen prepared to ride. Reaching down, he sheathed his sword and searched for his dagger, but could not find it.

“My dagger, it’s…”

Before he could finish, something else caught his attention. From across the courtyard, his eyes met the stare of a middle aged man. He looked strikingly familiar, but Severen could not place his face, nor did he have the time to attempt to do so. From the cloak he wore, the man drew a dagger, he held it for a moment, then returned his attention to Severen. Obviously using a great deal of his strength, he lobbed the dagger into the air toward the three of them. Being a jack of all trades, the ability to catch a tumbling knife by the handle among them, Severen caught it just so. Looking down at the knife, there was no doubt that he recognized it. It was a knife that he knew belonged to the Prince they called ‘Fearless,’ and was one of a kind. It even had his initials, ‘A.M.C.’ etched into it. Looking back up from the knife, Severen again met eyes with the man. His familiarity struck Severen even more now, but who exactly the man was still mystified him.

As the man watched, Severen rode toward the massive stone head. In the distance he could hear the shrill, unmistakable cry of Abadon’s warriors as they approached, they would soon try and over run any defenses that stood between them and the soulstone. As he came to a stop before the monument, now he realized it was even more magnificent than he had first surmised. The giant head was made of an exotic stone, perhaps marble. The cold stare of it’s eyes would bother any man, but it was their mortality that scared him most of all, almost as though they were watching him, or peering into his soul. It looked ancient, but well preserved, pity he didn’t have anywhere near the time to more closely study it. A dimly lit stone staircase led into the mouth of the Colossus, and it was from this spot that Severen spoke the words the Paladins had instructed him to say.

“Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas.”

The statue gave no reaction, but he knew as well as any that that didn’t mean all that much. As the screeching grew closer, the Paladins of Colossus took up arms, and their cries of battle beckoned on the outer wall. Severen dismounted his horse and walked inside. What awaited him would answer all of his questions, but by the same token ask many more. One thing above all else was certain, it was by no stretch of the imagination what he expected he would find, and the chain of events he was now setting into motion, promised that upon their conclusion, the land of Khanduras would never be the same again.

*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*

Fearless in association with the Souls of Sin present…

“Once Upon a Time”

*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*

Far to the east of the embattled Colossus, a band of these ‘heroes’ were waking. The night had been long, and it was always difficult to fall asleep in a town one was unfamiliar with. Some were off to find food, others sharpening their swords in preparation for the killing that this day may bring, but from behind the tavern, in the shadows of the trees where most of these warriors waited, one in particular pondered. Leaning back against one of those trees’ trunk’s, his eyes opened to be greeted by the unmistakable glare of the early morning sun.

“Shin!”

The warrior sprung awake as he heard his name being shouted. Once his vision was focused, he saw imbedded in the tree an arrow. It had missed his head by only inches. Looking on, Mercy frowned.

“My aim isn’t improving.”

She was standing a mere few yards away, and was being guided by Kain’s hand as she held a freshly shot bow. The look of discontent on her face made it clear, she was finding out that archery was much harder than it may have first appeared to be. Kain drew another arrow and rearmed the bow.

“Not so tense this time… Become one with the weapon.”

Mercy took aim again, and the arrow let fly. This time missing her target by less, but still plenty.

“I can see we have a lot of work to do,” Kain whispered under his breath.

Shin Hikaru raised his hand to his head. It hurt like hell, and it was no wonder considering the strange dreams he’d had lately. Some were of his death, others of the death of his friends, but perhaps the strangest of all was one in which he dreamt he had entered a magical kingdom of dwarves, and Abadon’s armies had followed him. The ending saw him pitted against Abadon himself, and to escape he grew wings and flew into the sky. Thank God it had just been a dream, and nothing more. He knew his showdown with Abadon would one day come, but never in a such a fashion as that dream had pretended. The grass was damp with morning dew. Shin looked around to see not only Kain and Mercy working on their aim with an arrow, but Glitterspike, who had not woken up yet, not far away. The others were conspicuously absent however.

“Where did the others go?”

Neither Kain or Mercy gave an answer as they were busy lining up another shot. Not hearing, Glitterspike rolled over, still fast asleep. Standing up, Shin stretched out his arms and yawned. Few nights he had ever spent were as uncomfortable as that one, and few days he had ever lived were as peaceful as the ones he’d had lately. Being a cautious man and a veteran of trouble however, he suspected that this was merely the calm before the storm.

Looking over, he saw something stuck into a nearby tree stump. Standing erect was a dagger that had been thrust into it. It was Fearless’ dagger, and looked as though it had been put there intentionally. Shin reached for it, gripping his fingers around it, Mercy was quick to warn him.

“I wouldn’t touch that if I were you.”

Shin looked at her, puzzled. But before he could ask why, from the trees he heard a horse approaching. They all looked up, as at full speed toward them, Xeiss rode from a thin path in the thick forest. Shin leapt out of the way as her horse barreled through. Reaching over, she grabbed the dagger, pulling it from the stump and held it in both her hands. Her horse came to a stop and she let out a quick laugh. Still smiling, she began to stroke her horse’s head as she whispered to him.

“Well done, Shade.”

“Watch where you’re going!” Shin yelled angrily.

Shin’s dreams had made him edgy as of late, so Xeiss dismissed his harsh tone. Then, seconds later, from along the same path as Xeiss had come, another horse could be heard. Again they all looked up as the Prince they called ‘Fearless’ emerged, in much the same way that the rogue just had. Unlike her, he stopped his horse suddenly, then looked down to the missing dagger and over to the smiling Xeiss. His clothes were dirty, as though he’d fallen from his saddle. While speaking, he dusted himself off.

“That wasn’t very sporting of you.”

Xeiss threw him the knife, the Prince caught it and slipped it into his belt.

“That’ll teach you for trying to pass me on the inside… I told you I could beat you to the river and back.”

The Prince shook his head.

“Only due to the fact that you cheated.”

With those words, Glitterspike woke up. Barely half conscious, and with a moan, bracing himself as he rose. He shielded his eyes from the sun, he then ran his hand through his hair and looked at the warriors who were all taking note of his waking.

“Has Severen returned yet?”

Remembering, Mercy and Kain looked over as well now. They all thought silently about where their friend may now be. Shin said aloud what little they all knew.

“If he followed the plan precisely, he should already have the soulstone in his possession. We can expect him to be here by no later than noon today… Otherwise…”

Xeiss cut him off before he could finish.

“There’s no need to say it, we all know what Abadon does to those who defy him.”

There was silence, as to themselves each questioned how good an idea this may have been in the first place.

“It had to be done, though. Abadon could not be left to harness the soulstone’s power unchecked. Severen is a very courageous warrior, I’m sure fate will lead him back to us,” Shin said authoritatively.

To himself Glitterspike whispered.

“I wish I was so sure.”

“Besides,” Shin added with a smile, “Ethon is the one we should truly be worried about. He’s the one whose job it was to stay behind and nurse Lesya back to health, and you know how the saying goes…”

“…Hell hath no fury like Lesya’s scorn,” Glitter finished, now smiling as well.

At that moment, from the far side of the tavern, the band of travelers heard someone coming. Instinctively, they all readied themselves expecting the worst, while each hoping these footsteps in the morning were signaling Severen’s return, and not someone whose blood they would need to spill so early on in this young day.

Kain postured, ready to slit the throat of whomever it was, be their intentions anything but noble. The sounds of footsteps came closer, and it was clear that there was a pair of them, jogging, perhaps running. Out from behind the tavern the two figures emerged, with almost lightning speed, Kain was quick to grab one and hold a sword to his neck.

The boys were startled by this to say the least. They came back here twice a day, and finding a band of well armed strangers, one of which holding them at bay with a six foot long sword, was something they had not expected.

“He’s sorry,” Shin said to the boys, as Kain lowered masamune hesitantly. “Kain would apologize himself, but he doesn’t speak all that often.”

The two scruffy looking boys were left standing wide eyed. Each were no more than eight, dirty as boys that age always seemed to be, and both had a makeshift wooden sword in hand. Remembering days in which they were once that young, and had done the same, fought friends with wooden swords, dreaming of the adventure and mystery that awaited ahead, many of the warriors discreetly smiled.

“Would either of you boys happen to know the name of this town?” the Prince asked.

With the glance they gave each other, it was clear that the boys were somewhat awestruck by the travelers. The smaller boy could barely blurt out an answer.

“Tri.. Trium… Triumvirate.”

There was a pause. None of them had ever heard of ‘Triumvirate,’ yet it seemed a fitting name seeing as how the town resided at the nexus of three large rivers which met at the it’s center. The other boy, also stuttering, now asked them a question in return.

“…You’re heroes, aren’t you?”

To these children with big dreams and high hopes, these real live ‘heroes’ stumbling onto their doorstep must have been like meeting their mentor or idol.

“Some define us as such,” Shin answered, “yet to others we are merely mortal.”

Anxiously, the boys kept asking questions…

“Who’s the strongest?”

“Who’s the fastest?”

“Who has killed the most soldiers?”

“Which of you is the greatest hero?”

Shin raised his hand to signal the boys to stop.

“We are all heroes in our own right, comparing one to another is not necessary. Of us, there is no greatest hero.”

Shin walked to the boys and patted each of them on the head.

“Train hard, and one day you’ll be as great a pair of heroes as any.”

Shin smiled at their youthful innocence, the looked back over his shoulder toward the others.

“Who’s in the mood for breakfast?”

Most of the adventurers nodded, but Fearless was not one of them.

“Breakfast can wait, we must find Severen. Our actions of the next hours could mean the difference between us securing the soulstone, or having Abadon summon it’s power indefinitely.”

Again it seemed that this spoiled young Prince was questioning his judgment, but likely because of his splitting headache, or the fact that he hadn’t yet fully awoke, he decided he’d keep this unconfrontational.

“Breakfast first, track down Severen second.”

With that, Shin smiled again at the two boys and walked off toward the town center. The others were quick to follow. Grudgingly, Fearless soon did as well.

It wasn’t long until the boys were left alone behind the tavern by themselves. Once the heroes were well out of eyesight and earshot, the boys erupted with admiration.

“Did you see that? He actually held his sword to my neck! The one in the black cloak was the coolest!”

The other boy, with more than enough expression and body language, mirrored his friend’s amazement.

“That was awesome! Just think, real live heroes right here in Triumvirate! One of them patted me on the head!”

“Me too!”

Full of joy, the boys drew their wooden swords. They prepared to duel.

“I get to be the Paladin!”

“And I get to be the easterner!”

The boys grappled, and with this inspiration, there was no doubt that for them… The adventure was just beginning.

*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*

By now, the mid-morning sun was well on it’s way upward into the spring sky. The securing of the city had been a drawn out battle, the bodies of many of the once proud Paladins littered the streets as their blood ran through them. Their swords and battle axes long quieted, and their white armor tinted red with blood, and silver where it’s color had been scraped away. Disarmed and surrounded, three were left standing in the center of the town. A portion of the outer wall had been breached, and now in silence, Abadon’s minions held the once proud city they called ‘Colossus,’ under their occupation. With the dark legions looking on, a familiar necromancer paced back and forth before the bruised and beaten warriors. Even the wind seemed to remain quiet as all that could be heard was the dust that was thrown up by his heals as he slowly paced and pondered. Looking the youngest of the Paladins in the eye, he whispered.

“What do you mean ‘he’s not here’?”

The Paladins gave no answer. Their adamance was obviously beginning to frustrate Intruder a great deal. With a motioning of his staff, he signaled to a handful of the invaders. From inside one of the larger buildings, a smiling Atlas brought forth a woman and a small boy. Fighting to break free, their strength was no match for their captors which held them. They squirmed but to no avail. Intruder stepped closer to the Paladin, and with their faces less than inches away from one another, he again looked the young Paladin in the eye and whispered.

“We have searched every building, every basement, and every attic in the city… And nowhere can we find either the wanderer called Severen, or the soulstone.”

Not breaking his stare, but pointing his staff, he noted the woman and boy Atlas and the demons had brought into the town square.

“I know that this woman is your wife, and that this boy is your son… You’ll tell me where Severen is, or I’ll have them both butchered before your eyes.”

The Paladin’s cold stare in response, gave Intruder the answer he was hoping for. Before the necromancer reacted, he backed off as to make sure that the Paladin would be able to see the error of his ways. He then called to Atlas.

“Kill the woman.”

With those words, Atlas wrapped his massive hands around the woman’s head. With one flex of his mammoth muscles, he forced all his strength into a single squeeze. The sound was horrific, but at the very least her brief screaming had been stopped. When the barbarian opened his hands, what covered his palms, no words could describe. The headless corpse collapsed to the ground, as he wiped his massive hands on the woman’s son who has but a few steps away.

The Paladins all stood stone faced. Not giving so much as a glance at the body in front of them. Intruder knew many cold men, but very few as cold as this. He leaned in even closer now, and whispered even more quietly.

“I’ll ask you one more time… Where did the wanderer go?”

There was still no answer. Intruder made one last appeal.

“Don’t be a fool, Paladin. Your son is a young man, he could have many years ahead of him. Don’t throw his life away just to protect a stranger…”

Almost as though he had momentarily emerged from a trance, the stone cold knight spoke.

“I am a Paladin of Colossus, and God willing one day my son will be as well. I loved my wife with all my heart, but we have all vowed an allegiance to God. We’ve pledged our lives to protect this land from the devil’s tyranny, and we are all prepared to give our lives to that end. If God has sent you to take my son from me as well, so do your duty, necromancer.”

Raising his voice, the Paladin then shouted to his son.

“Are you prepared to give your life for God, my son?”

The boy shouted back.

“I have always been, father.”

Reaching up, the boy grabbed Atlas by his very large wrists. He slowly guided the barbarian’s hands down until they rested on his cheeks. He then shouted again.

“Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Bring us this day, our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the…”

With a nod from Intruder, Atlas now clasped his hands tightly around the boy’s head as well, and squeezed. As the horrific sound echoed throughout the town again, and the boy’s headless body collapsed to the ground, the three Paladins whispered to themselves, they finished the prayer their friend’s son had started.

“…Kingdom, the power, and the glory. Amen.”

Upon finishing, they returned to their silence. They stood proudly as Intruder lowered his head, and raised his hand to his forehead, realizing that this method may never work. He took a deep breath as he thought it best if he tried a different approach, after all, they were running out of innocent family members. He stood ready to speak, but paused as he took note of the huge stone head which stood in the center of the town.

It was the first thing he’d noticed after they took the city, but this was the first time he noticed the staircase leading inward and down it’s throat. He thought for a moment, then raised his finger at it and yelled aloud.

“Have we searched there as well?”

Not one of the thousands around him answered. Starting to wipe clean his hands, Atlas walked over and spoke quietly.

“Intruder, you said ‘leave no attic or basement unsearched,’ that monument is neither.”

He was fed up with incompetence, but bit his lip in holding back harsh comments.

“Then we will search it now. It’s the only place he could have gone.”

He raised his voice so that all could again hear.

“If Atlas and I do not return within the hour, burn this city to the ground and kill everyone we’ve captured. Then march teams of a hundred at a time in after us, until Severen and the soulstone are found. Send no one in otherwise, I want his death to be at my hand and no one else’s.”

Breaking away from his close quarters with the Paladins, Intruder began to walk toward the head of the Colossus. Soon to follow, Atlas wiped his hands, soaked in the his son’s and wife’s blood, on the Paladin’s face. They stood at the entrance and looked on at it in awe.

“Don’t you get the distinct impression that it’s watching you?” Atlas noted.

Intruder nodded his head and took another step closer. From twenty or so meters away, the Paladin who now had blood smeared on his face, called after them.

“Be cautious necromancer… What awaits you inside the mouth of the Colossus may give you the answers you seek, but the price you pay, may cost you far more. Venture inside if you wish, but…”

Before the knight could continue, Intruder cut him off.

“…Be wary, only the wise man may enter, and only the tin man may escape.”

The Paladin was stunned that anyone but someone of this town knew those words. Intruder, seeing his bewilderment, gave an explanation.

“I have said those words far more times than you have, Paladin.”

He turned his attention back to the entrance. The dark stairwell was wide, yet went down much further than the light would let them see.

“What waits for us down there?” Atlas asked quietly.

“We will soon see,” Intruder answered.

And with those words, in they went.

*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*

Kneeling down, he ran his fingers over the freshly left tracks.

“I’d say early this morning, not much longer than that,” D reasoned.

The thick mud of the road was scarred deeply. Every person who walked, every cart that was pulled, and every horse that had been ridden here, had left a mark on it’s surface.

“These are definitely Severen’s tracks. The space between the steps looks as though he was moving very quickly.”

Mercy had stepped off of Triesque, and was looking closely at another set of tracks which weren’t too far away.

“It looks like he was being followed, as well.”

She pointed down at two more sets of tracks which looked as though they were laid at about the same time. All three sets led to the southeast, and toward the city they had seen in the distance only a few minutes before.

“I’d say that this is excellent encouragement,” the Prince said contently, “this is the first proof we have that he has managed to escape Dorado, and with that we can assume the soulstone as well.”

“Let’s not be too hasty,” Glitterspike countered, “his lifeless body could still be at the end of these tracks, and the soulstone nowhere to be found.”

The Prince steadied his horse, preparing to ride.

“Then I suppose there’s only one way to find out, isn’t there?”

Nodding in agreement, off they rode. The others were quick to follow closely behind.

It was only after a mere few minutes of riding, when they were awestruck by a sight that had done the same to Severen that very morning. Hidden in the dense forest, and at the end of the path they rode, was a town. Heavily walled, they were able to hear a great deal of commotion inside. A portion of the wall had been brought down, and bodies lay strewn on and about it. Cautiously they approached, seeing two breeds of warrior dead at their feet.

One kind, to them, was very familiar. The undead, loyal to Abadon. The other however, not so familiar. They were Paladins, their armor white and each of their chests painted with a red cross. They obviously looked a great deal like Glitterspike, and all Paladins of Westmarch, but no one said it aloud. The tracks led to a stop not far from the thin moat that surrounded the town. The thick chains which held up the mighty drawbridge had been broken, the drawbridge itself brought down.

From the trees, a group of men became visible. They charged out, their swords drawn and preparing to fight. They wore the white armor and the red cross of the Paladin’s whose bodies were littered about. Only six strong, they were bloodied and bruised, and surrounded the seven adventurers. They did not attack, but postured as though they were about to.

“Who are you?” One shouted, his lip sneering and his anger and his suspicion apparent.

“We are travelers,” the Prince answered, “we’ve come looking for our friend who we believe rode through here this morning.”

The Paladin did not waiver, he silently stared as he tried to assess the situation. Shin spoke up.

“His name was Severen, and he may have carried with him an odd looking stone.”

The Paladin raised his hand to signal the others to lower their weapons. They were very clearly tired from having fought for hours. The lead one walked to each of them and shook each of their hands.

“Welcome to Colossus.”

‘So that’s what this place is called,’ each of them thought silently to themselves.

“We are among the Paladins who govern this land, protecting it from the devil and cherishing it under the glory of God.”

That made them Paladins all right, Mercy asked the question that was on the tips of all their tongues.

“What has happened here?”

In the tone of the Paladin’s answer, he spoke as if the weight of the world rested on his shoulders.

“Your friend did come through here… But he didn’t come alone. An army sent by Abadon followed him, and they’ve taken control of the entire city.”

This didn’t surprise the adventurers all that much. Razing the homes of innocent people was, to say the least, textbook Abadon.

“And where is Severen now?” Xeiss asked.

For a split second, it looked as though the Paladin would give a straight answer, but he then simply smiled, and brushed the question aside with his now token cryptic responses.

“Far, but close. In danger, but safe. I’m afraid I can’t be more specific than that.”

Xeiss was ready to grill him with more questions, but seeing this, he thought it wise to cut her off.

“The undead have taken the entire city from us. At least eighty holy men have been slaughtered. They’ve threatened to burn every building to ashes and kill the entire population. But despite that, we wouldn’t dare help any demon, let alone one as wicked as Abadon.”

“You say you’re Paladins?” Glitterspike asked complacently.

The knight squinted as he looked closely at Glitterspike, and more specifically his armor.

“You are of Westmarch, the dragon slayers of the far north,” he concluded.

“I am, and I know nothing of a ‘Colossus,’ or Paladins of it.”

The Paladin grinned.

“Your forefathers did. How unfortunate that they have not taught you your heritage. There was a time when our two faiths were as one, but dissension and time grew between us. Even as recently as fourteen years ago, Paladins of Westmarch would ride here to attempt to loot and pillage our city. They thought us too fanatical about our religion, their raids were the primary reason the wall around the city was built, and the moat dug. In time, it inspired them not to bother us any longer. We seek only peace with the land and peace with it’s creatures. But will defend ourselves against any demon until the last ounce of our last Paladin’s blood has dripped away.”

This was all news to Glitterspike.

“I was not aware of any of this. There are old stories of bands of crusaders we have sent out to tame the heathen lands, but never have I heard of another city of our distant relatives.”

Now all the Paladins laid down their arms, as the lead one walked closer to Glitterspike.

“As men of God, we do not hold a grudge, especially against our own brothers. Besides, there is no need for us to fight, when a far greater evil and pestilence poisons our land.”

A curious look came over Glitterspike’s face.

“I am curious, Paladin. Why did your families decide to settle here? As best I can see, there is nothing remarkable about this clearing as opposed to any other.”

The question was far more difficult than Glitterspike had ever intended it to be. The Paladin tried his best to answer.

“At the center of the city, there is a monument known only as ‘the forest Colossus.’ It is of a head, and stands almost sixty feet high. It is ancient, and of an unknown origin. Although we don’t know for certain, we suspect that along with the head, underneath the soil and stone of the forest floor, rest an entire body of equal proportion. When the first Paladins of our sect ventured out in search of holier lands, they were looking for more than anything, an omen or sign from God to guide them. This ‘forest Colossus’ which stood in stark contrast to the surrounding countryside, probably seemed as likely a candidate as anything they could have imagined… It wasn’t long until they discovered that the Colossus had far greater powers than they had first assumed. The rest, as they say, is history.”

Glitterspike’s eyes narrowed as he asked another question.

“What ‘power’ do you speak of exactly?”

“To a Paladin of Westmarch I might say, but never could it’s secrets be spoken of in the presence of strangers.”

Taking that as their cue, one by one the seven adventurers rattled off their names.

“I am Glitterspike, and this is…”

“Shin Hikaru.”

“Algorith Van Demonican… But I go by ‘D’”

“Crown Prince Alec-Michael… Call me ‘Fearless’”

“I am Mercy, and this is Triesque.”

“Xeiss. Xeiss Rasha.”

There was a pause as the Paladins were left looking at Kain. Seeing their reactions, reluctantly he rose his head and spoke.

“Kain.”

The Paladin paused and smiled.

“Very well. You are all in the company of friends.”

The Prince, having been trained for years as a diplomat, saw this as the right time to press.

“And whose company is Severen in?”

Still smiling, the Paladin saw how the boy had taken advantage of the situation. He answered nonetheless.

“As the city was being taken, with our aid he rode into the mouth of the Colossus.”

The adventurers looked at each other, not sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing.

“And where does the mouth of the Colossus lead to?”

No matter how thorough his training, or talented a speaker he may be, no one save God himself would see those words escape the lips of one of these Paladins.

“Friends or not, you’ll have to discover that for yourself. You may follow him in if you wish. But be warned, the price that entering the forest Colossus might cost you, may be far greater than the reward of finding the one you call ‘Severen.’ Only the wise man may enter, and only the tin man may escape.”

“Tin man, as in man who forsakes his emotions?”

The Paladin shook his head.

“It is not my place to tell you that, that as well is something you will have to determine for yourself.”

Again the adventurers looked at each other as they exchanged significant glances. The Paladin continued.

“Abadon’s undead control the city. In order to get into the center of the town, where the Colossus rests, you’ll need a distraction, that much we can handle. We know that at least two of the invaders have entered the Colossus as well, a necromancer and a barbarian. You’d be wise to watch for them once you’re inside.”

Without anyone even having said it, each of them knew who the Paladin was referring to.

“How soon can we get underway?” Shin asked.

The Paladins raised their swords, saying with their actions that there’s no time like the present.

“Excellent.”

After a moment of huddling and quiet discussion, the Paladins broke rank. The leader again spoke.

“All right, here’s what will happen. Dismount your horses and take up a position just inside the main gate. My comrades in arms and I will enter the city through an exterior entrance. We’ll try and get their attention, and when we do, make haste for your destination.”

Glitterspike extended his hand in thanks.

“Good luck, brave Paladins of Colossus.”

The Paladin shook his hand firmly.

“As to you, brave Paladin of Westmarch. Where you’re going, you’ll need it far more than we ever will.”

After a proud look which they then gave one another, and a final glance at the rest of the party, the Paladins scurried off. The adventurers climbed from the backs of their horses, and surveyed the drawbridge with their eyes. Cautiously they walked forward, sure to move quickly, but careful to remain hidden by the shadows.

Once across the moat, they had their first glimpse into the city. Bodies laid unburied in the streets and servants of evil swarmed about like a hideous colony of ants. They hid themselves behind the guard tower which stood only feet away from the inside of the outer wall. Peering around at the carnage, there was one thing they certainly couldn’t help but take notice of.

“I think it’s fair to reason that… That head is the ‘Colossus’ into which we must run,” Mercy whispered.

As they all maneuvered to get a better look, they were all dumbfounded, all except one, who was terrified. Xeiss’ hands began to tremble and her eyes became near as wide as saucers when seeing the face, she had to take hold of Kain’s shoulder just to keep her balance.

“Xeiss, what’s wrong?” Fearless asked quietly.

It took her some time to gather herself, but she was able to speak softly, her voice shaking.

“Kain, do you remember the library?”

There’s no way he could have forgotten. A mere few weeks before, after the horror they’d witnessed in Tristram and the catacombs beneath, their search throughout all of Khanduras had brought them face to face with the Holy Grail itself. It’s power sent them miles away in a matter of moments, and into an ancient library much older than any legend remembers. Inside were countless books, yet one stood out among all others. Thicker than most, it had been set aside for them, and the horror it had shown Kain, Severen and Xeiss bothered all three of them deeply even still. From a book more than four hundred years old, they had seen pictures of themselves and everyone they had ever known. Almost as though a guardian angel had been watching and recording their history the entire time. The book’s writing was of a language that was indiscernibly foreign. They were forced from the library before they had a chance to examine the book’s next chapters. Although, in risking her life, Xeiss was able to turn the page and in effect see into the future. She afterward told them by the bank of a river, that she could never put into words what it was she had seen.

“Of course I remember, it would have been impossible to forget.”

She spoke even softer still, as though she were lightheaded.

“One of the two pictures I saw, Kain, the ones on the next page which I could not put into words… Was of that.”

Raising her finger, she pointed right at the Colossus. Most of the others didn’t seem quite as concerned, but Kain was very much so. He had known the tip of the fear that she had, yet he could only imagine what it was she was now feeling. She soon summoned the strength to continue.

“I know that if we go through there, it will be the greatest mistake we have made to date. And that even if we do manage to escape, nothing will be same again. I don’t scare easily, but the ‘forest Colossus’ scares me. Scares me in a way I thought I could never be scared.”

“Now I’m even more curious,” the Prince said while smiling at her.

Swiftly, she raised her hand and slapped him across the face. He cradled his cheek as he was stunned that she had done that.

“This isn’t some game, Fearless. We’re not toying around with Abadon or Diablo anymore. This Colossus was shown to me by the Holy Grail, the most holy of holy objects. Somehow I know that the power it possesses, not even the most secret of spells compares to.”

“Xeiss,” D asked quietly, “do you really believe that we’re making a mistake in chasing after Severen and the soulstone?”

She took a deep breath and answered.

“As sure as I’ve ever been about anything in my life.”

“Quiet!” Shin said, almost shouting. He had been paying no attention to Xeiss’ turmoil and watched closely the small band of Paladins make their way onto one of the higher roofs on the far side of the town square. “They’re getting into position.”

It was not less than a hundred yards from where they stood out of the limelight across the stone floor of the city street to reach the Colossus. Many demons stood between where they were, and their destination. If this distraction was anything short of brilliant, there was little chance at best that they all would make it that far in one piece.

“Do you have any idea what they’re planning?” Mercy asked.

“Not a clue,” Shin answered.

It was hard to make out, as they were looking almost directly into the sun. The warriors shielded their eyes, and were amazed by what they then saw. Without warning, an explosion erupted from the upper floor of the building the Paladins had been standing on. A fireball billowed out into the street as though it were a wave of death that swept over the entire area surrounding.

Immense confusion and commotion followed. The dark army had been left scrambling to secure the situation and determine what had happened. There was no question that this was the distraction that they’d been waiting for and that the Paladins had promised they’d deliver. Shin stepped into the street, but was grabbed on the arm by Kain.

“Wait, Shin. What of the prophecy that the book has made? That entering the Colossus is the gravest mistake we will ever make.”

Using his free arm to remove Kain’s hand, Shin pulled away and sneered at him.

“I don’t give a damn about some moldy old book. If the mouth of the Colossus is where the soulstone has gone, then that’s where I’m going. You’re either with me, or you’re not.”

One last look, and off Shin ran. His sword in hand and his spirit ready for battle. Thinking twice, Kain followed. The others soon did as well, although at first Xeiss had to be helped along. The revelation she’d had had made her even weak in the knees.

“Come on, Xeiss!” D shouted.

Still she ran with a limp. The Prince halted for a moment until he was by her side. He whispered to her.

“I’ll race you. Last one to the Colossus forages for firewood tonight.”

Amazingly, even that didn’t get her moving at the pace they needed her to. He tried one last angle.

“You are without a doubt, the sorriest excuse for a warrior that I have ever seen.”

He ran a few steps ahead as her eyes grew very cross. Seeing it was working, he continued while smiling

“Not to mention you have worse aim with a bow than a blinded and crippled child… If that has angered you enough to want to slap me again, I’m afraid you’ll have to catch me first.”

With that, off he ran at full speed. It was no surprise that she now had a new inspiration to run at her best speed as well. Her pace quickened and it wasn’t long until she was caught up to the others.

Gradually, the loyal but less than genius demons who held the town hostage, realized what this had been. Five armed men and two armed women sprinted across the square and were headed straight for the Colossus. Quickly, soldiers were dispatched to intercept them, but it was far too late. The adventurers had reached the stairwell which led downward, and were seconds away from venturing into the darkness beyond.

Left alone, and out of most sight, a man watched. He wore a tattered cloak, and leaned against the wall of one of the more distant buildings. He was the same man who had seen Severen ride in the very same place that morning, and was the same man who had thrown him the dagger. A look of seriousness swept across his face, and the thick lines there on, proved that he was a man not accustom to smiling all that often, and he hadn’t been for a very long time. Time was something that he knew well, he had been it’s victim and knew it’s wrath all too vividly.

He watched as all seven entered, and the demons broke off their pursuit. The Paladins’ rouse had worked to perfection. Intruder had given explicit instructions that no one was to follow he and Atlas in, and now, perhaps foolishly, those he had instructed obeyed. Seeing what had transpired, the man spoke with an eerie insight.

“You’ve made a mistake, Shin Hikaru,” he whispered, “a terrible, terrible mistake.”

*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*

“For I have dipt into the future, as far as human eye could see;
Saw a vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be.” -Alfred Lord Tennyson

*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*

“I think the stairs have ended,” Shin observed.

They stood in complete darkness, with only the faint light of the entrance far above them. Seeing this, Mercy made a comment.

“At least we’re not being followed.”

“It seems that way,” the Prince agreed, “Intruder and Atlas must have given them instructions not to follow anyone inside.”

Directly opposite the staircase, as their eyes all adjusted to the darkness, another distant light became visible. It was high above them. Stumbling forward, the adventurers discovered a second staircase which led toward it. The entire chamber was symmetrical. Feeling for their balance, they all started to make their way up. This light seemed the only escape and what awaited them at the top was at the very least sacred enough for men as honorable as the Paladins of Colossus never to speak of, and to give their lives to protect.

As they made their way closer to the light, it appeared to be a doorway. A stone arched one much like the one which had led them into the forest Colossus moments before. What they then realized surprised them most of all. The light was of a distinct kind, the kind given off by only the sun, and not that of a torch or candle.

“That couldn’t be an exit to the outside,” D said while running as quickly as the others, “if it were, it’s so close to the entrance that we wouldn’t even surface outside of the city wall.”

He was more correct than he ever would have guessed. The exit led to a place that was near, but far. In danger, but safe. It may have seemed cryptic when Paladin had first told them, but once they emerged it would seem as clear as any warning they had ever been given.

Toward the light, they ran closer. Reaching the top of the staircase, they all stepped through the stone arch. Nothing could have prepared them for what they then saw.

It seemed as though they were back in the town square. The exact place they had entered the Colossus only moments before. Yet things were much different than they remembered. The town was still alive, but not with minions of Abadon. The Paladins, hundreds in number, rushed toward the city’s outer wall. The city was obviously under siege, but not from the undead as it had been before. The town’s buildings were in pristine order, all completely intact, and there was not a single dead soldier in the streets. The particular building which the Paladins had destroyed to create a distraction, was in perfect condition, and even the roads themselves, once tiled in stone, were covered by nothing more than the God given dirt and mud. Some of the warriors turned to look at the archway from which they had come, and were stunned to see that it was the same forest Colossus into which they had ran, it’s eyes still motionless, yet it’s gaze more terrifying than ever.

“My God,” Shin whispered, “Where are we?”

By them ran a Paladin, Shin grabbed him by the arm and spun him around. He was definitely of this town, just as the others they watched all were as well. The Paladin gave the travelers an odd look as Shin spoke.

“What has happened here? How have you managed to retake the city and restore the buildings so quickly?”

The Paladin gave no answer. Shin pressed even further.

“Is it the minions of Abadon who again attack? For God’s sake man, we were only inside that…”

He quickly searched for the right description.

“…That ‘thing’ for a few seconds… Weren’t we?”

The Paladin looked Shin and the others over closely, and then delivered a stunning response.

“Less than that, traveler. You have come from the forest Colossus, a gateway.”

The adventurers were puzzled. Seeing their confusion, yet obviously needing to get back to defending the city, the Paladin kneeled to the ground, and unsheathing his sword, he planted it down in the sand, making a mark as though he were drawing something.

“You and I, and everyone we have ever known is here, and we have always been here, and we always will be here,” he said as he made a small circle in the sand.

Steadying the sword with his left hand, he used his right one to point directly at the sun which was high in the noon sky.

“While that,” referring to the sun, “is here, and always has been, and always will be here,” he said as he drew another larger circle not far away.

Then, from the smaller circle, he slowly drew a line which surrounded the larger circle.

“And that is our path.”

Pointing to a certain point on the ‘path,’ he spoke.

“That is spring, where we are now.”

He noted another point, on the same circular path, but directly across from the point he called ‘spring.’

“And that, is fall.”

He then went on to name two other points, ‘summer’ and ‘winter.’

“Each day, each week, each month,” he continued, “we travel along this path. Us circling that,” he said as again he pointed to the sun. “We all move at a fixed pace, but the Colossus has the power to change that pace.”

Quickly, the Paladin traced the line along which he claimed ‘we’ traveled, fifteen times.

“You seven travelers have done that,” referring to the fifteen lines, “in matter of seconds. Only not forward…” He retraced the fifteen lines, only this time in the opposite direction. “…You have gone backward.”

The Prince knelt down next to the Paladin, and looked over the diagram closely. Shin was now even more confused.

“Are you saying this isn’t the city of Colossus, that we have traveled across a great distance, to a town on the far side of the world?”

The Paladin lowered his head as he realized he had failed to communicate to them what had happened. The Prince looked over the sketch thoroughly, then spoke to everyone.

“No… If I’m not mistaken, that wasn’t what the Paladin has said at all. This is still the town of Colossus, but not the one we know.”

The Paladin raised his head, suspecting that at least one of them had interpreted him correctly. The Prince went on.

“There is an old theory, decades old in fact, conceived of by some of the greatest minds my empire has ever produced… It is that the world is not flat, and it is in fact round. That is why we can only see the tips of the mountains from a great distance… If that were the case, the known world would be far more like a sphere, than it would be like a platform… If I remember correctly, they also reasoned that this ‘sphere’ may be circling the sun, and not the other way around as it may seem.”

The party looked at him as though he were talking gibberish. Ignoring them, he went on.

“Most of their premise for the theory was derived from what little they could translate of the ancient texts, but if they were correct, or even partially correct… It may mean that this ‘sphere’ is the small circle the Paladin has indicated in his drawing, while the sun is the larger one. What he is trying to tell us, is that we haven’t traveled to a different location… We’ve traveled to a different time… Backwards in time, fifteen years to be exact… That is, if I’m not mistaken.”

Smiling, the Paladin raised his hand and put it on the Prince’s shoulder.

“Only the wise man may enter.”

With that, the Paladin rose to his feet. He nodded to each of the adventurers and rushed toward the gate of the city. Shell shocked, the seven of them didn’t know what to think of the situation they now found themselves in the midst of.

“Regardless of what the date is, we must help these Paladins defend their city from the tyranny of Abadon and the onslaught of his armies,” Mercy charged.

Shin shook his head, still in partial disbelief.

“This town is under attack, of that there is no doubt. But fifteen years ago, Abadon was nothing more than a blacksmith employed by Diablo, these are not his armies that are upon us.”

“Then who…?”

But before Mercy could finish her question, the gates to the city burst open. There was no drawbridge as there was no moat. Into the town square rushed dozens of riders on horseback. They battled the knights of Colossus, Glitterspike’s eyes lit when he saw who these invaders were.

“Paladins of Westmarch!”

Mercy thought back to when the Paladin they met outside the city had said that, ‘even as recently as fourteen years ago, Paladins of Westmarch would ride here to attempt to loot and pillage our city.’

“The Paladin spoke of this,” she whispered.

Glitterspike looked on in deep thought, as the others almost ignored the slaughter raging around them. D spoke.

“If this really is fifteen years in the past, things in Khanduras are much different…”

Shin cut in.

“Right now, far away from here, I am in a deep sleep.”

“Do you think that’s strange?” The Prince added, “right now, my empire of near twenty million is flourishing, I am only three or four and think that the devil is nothing more than an old fairytale.”

Each of the travelers thought back to where they were at about this time. One by one, they spoke about their past.

“I was in Silveryn,” Mercy said quickly.

“I have no idea where I was,” Kain said contently. Because of that fact, for him this was probably the least traumatizing of all.

“The monastery,” Xeiss whispered.

There was a pause as everyone was left looking at Glitterspike, who was still intently watching the battle around them. Mercy tapped him on the shoulder.

“And where were you, Glitterspike?”

It took a moment for Glitterspike to get over the lump in his throat and answer.

“I was in the town of Colossus.”

“No, I mean where were you fifteen years ago?”

“I know exactly what you meant, Mercy.”

Following his line of sight, it was soon clear what he was looking at. In the folds of the chaos, there was a young Paladin. His armor was too big, and his courage far too plentiful for his size. He was no older than twelve or thirteen, and he ducked and weaved in and out of the sword fights around him. Mercy’s jaw dropped as the young boy carried a familiar glow about him.

“Surely you’re not saying… That this young Paladin is you.”

“I am,” Glitterspike said, almost in a trance. “I remember this battle well, it was the first crusade in which I was allowed to participate. I must not have remembered the name of the city, as it had been so very long ago, and I was so young…”

“Are you sure?”

Raising his finger, Glitterspike pointed toward a knight who was charging at the boy from behind.

“In a few moments, that man will charge at me. I will spin around and plant my sword in his stomach, it is the first time I can recall killing. Afterward I will let forth a scream as I pull the blade from his chest.”

As they watched, the scene played out just as Glitterspike had predicted it would. The man charged closer and the young boy spun quickly. He plunged his sword into the man’s stomach, and soon the man fell to the ground. The young boy then summoned all his strength to remove the sword, and as he did, yelled as loud as his lungs would let him. As they continued to watch, an older Paladin of Westmarch, mounted on horseback, called out.

“Glitterspike! Don’t run off, too far.”

From in front of the forest Colossus, where the now older Glitterspike watched, he recognized the man well.

“Hammerstar.”

“Hammerstar?” Mercy asked while giving him an odd look.

“He is the senior Paladin who taught me for much of my youth. He died only days after this battle. It’s something I don’t care to talk about… I would give anything just to shake his hand one last time…”

Glitterspike broke his near trance-like staring and began to walk toward the Paladin he called ‘Hammerstar.’ But before he could take more than a few steps, several of the adventurers grabbed him, holding him back. The Prince spoke.

“You can’t do that, Glitterspike. If I am correct, and we have traveled backwards in time, anything we do to effect the events as they originally transpired, could have grave consequences on the future.”

Glitterspike turned to look at him as he didn’t quite understand. The Prince tried to explain further.

“It’s analogous to removing the foundation of a building, every moment of time is built upon the last. By doing something as simple as shaking a hand, diverting someone’s attention at the wrong moment, or even breaking the wrong blade of grass, all of the last fifteen years of the past may be changed. Even the simplest and most seemingly harmless of actions, could set into motion a chain of events that may rewrite what we know of as history.”

As the battle still raged around them, Glitterspike raised his hand to head. It’s not everyday one can visit their past, and certainly not everyday that a man may have come within meters of changing it forever. A stern look came across Kain’s face.

“Then we have a very serious problem… At least three of them I’d say.”

The others looked at him, not sure to what he was referring, but as silently each of them realized, a similarly stern look crossed their faces as well. Realizing it himself, Shin said it aloud.

“Severen, Intruder and Atlas have been loose in this land for almost half a day. By the time we find them…”

“We can only hope that they’ve reached the same conclusions we have,” D said, “and that they aren’t foolish enough to try and change history.”

Mercy had even considered another problem.

“Not to mention the problems that could arise if the soulstone were to fall into the wrong hands at this point in time. This land has not yet lost it’s innocence, anyone with such a powerful artifact in their possession would be able to take control of all of Khanduras quite easily.”

Shin spoke out as the voice of reason, as this speculation was now getting out of hand.

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

“Shin’s right,” the Prince said.

The adventurers paused as those are words many thought they’d never hear leave his lips. He went on.

“They haven’t been loose for too long, and I think it’s safe to assume that they’ve gone north, as there is very little to the south. That narrows our search considerably.”

D came to the obvious conclusion.

“We’ll have to split up.”

“Excellent idea, D,” Shin said. “You, Mercy, Xeiss and I will head for Dorado, there’s as good a chance as any that Severen would have ventured there. While Glitterspike, Fearless and Kain can make their way even further north, stopping to search Tristram and Westmarch…”

The six other travelers all nodded in agreement as they thought that suitable. Shin had another thought.

“Speaking of Xeiss…”

The six other travelers looked at Xeiss, she had remained almost completely silent since they had crossed the threshold. She stood leaning against the jaw of the statue, her arms crossed and slightly shivering as though she were cold. Mercy whispered to Kain.

“She must still be upset over having recognized the Colossus from the picture she had seen.”

Shin walked over to comfort her. He put her arm around her and spoke softly.

“It’s okay, Xeiss. We’re all right now. It’s simply a matter of finding the others and then returning home. We know this land very well, it shouldn’t be all that difficult. See, it wasn’t half as bad as you expected.”

She looked at him sternly.

“We haven’t even scratched the surface yet, I’m as worried now as ever.”

Looking up, she saw Fearless, with her finger she motioned him over. Once he was close enough, she again slapped him with all of her might. Most of the group had to look away, even the hardened Kain. Shin laughed as the Prince felt his cheek. Xeiss spoke with authority.

“That’s for saying I have poor aim with a bow.”

“But I was simply trying to get you to pick up your pace, if you hadn’t…”

As the Prince continued to explain himself and cradle his swollen face, Xeiss clenched her fist and slugged him.

“And that’s for calling me the ‘sorriest excuse for a warrior that you have ever seen.’”

Most of the party snickered, but while this was going on, a problem had arisen. The young Glitterspike had taken an interest in the strangers, and was looking at them with his sword lowered. Once the group realized this, they knew they may have caused problems that nothing they could do would ever be able to repair. As he stared at the adventurers, and they stared at him, he was oblivious to the fact that a Paladin of Colossus, armed with a mace, was posturing behind him. Seeing this, Glitterspike quickly ran toward the boy, but he was too late. The Paladin swung at the young warrior, and knocked him unconscious and to the ground. As he poised to swing the mace again, this time for the kill, Glitterspike finally reached him. Using his battle axe, he cut the Paladin down in short order. Seeing that his counterpart was injured badly, he was quick to lift him over his shoulder.

There was no time to argue over the effects this may have on the future, as had he left himself lying there, it would only have been a matter of time before a stray knight from Colossus would have finished the job that his now dead comrade had started.

With his much younger self in tow, Glitterspike made his way toward the city’s main gate. Following his lead, the others soon caught up. Their mission would be to find Severen, and recover the soulstone, not to mention keep an eye out for both Atlas and Intruder who were by this time up to God only knows what. As they passed through the stone archway, and left the skirmishing Paladins in the city behind, they had a momentous task ahead of them. They were short on supplies, strength and knowledge, but not on time. Here, in Khanduras, fifteen years before the rise of Abadon and the theft of the soulstone, time was the one thing that they had plenty of.

Once Upon a Time, part two


His eyes were well out of focus by the time he came around. Squinting, he realized he had been laid on his back while someone watched over and nursed him. As his eyes fully opened, the person, who was a woman, spoke.

“I had no idea you were such a good looking young man, Glitterspike,” she said.

The boy tried to sit up, but his head still hurt a great deal where the maceman had hit him. A beautiful Paladin woman watched and leaned over him, feeling the lump on his head.

“Too bad that didn’t last very long,” D said snickering.

The others laughed loudly at the comment. Having been through what he had been through, and having been attacked as he had been, and now being fawned over by a Paladin girl, it was no surprise the young Glitterspike asked the question he then did.

“Is this heaven?”

Again the travelers laughed, but one by one they gradually stopped. Each realizing that, compared to the evil world from which they came, this practically was heaven.

“You’re definitely not in heaven,” Glitterspike said to his younger self.

Recognizing his armor, and noticing a familiarity about the way he carried himself, the boy looked at his older counterpart strangely.

“Who are you?”

Glitterspike hesitated in response.

“A friend,” was the answer he finally decided on. During the boy’s unconsciousness, the group had collectively decided that revealing their true identities would be far too risky.

“Where is Hammerstar and the rest of my Paladin colleagues? Was the siege of the city successful?”

There were so many questions the now much older Glitterspike wanted to ask himself, but chose to bite his tongue instead.

“The siege was not successful, that much you can be sure of. The city of Colossus will be around for many years to come. As for your Paladin colleagues, the battle separated you from them. Once you are of fit health, we will have to return you to Westmarch ourselves.”

As the three Paladins went on conversing about the current state of affairs, Kain couldn’t help but notice that his rogue friend and Shin Hikaru had gone missing. A quick look around revealed nothing, but a more thorough one and he could see their faint outlines not far off in the dense forest.

He was quick to reattach his sword to his back, which he had been sharpening, and then make his way toward them. No sound could be heard but a soft sweet chirping.

He parted the branches of the trees and there they both were. They were both lying on their stomachs, looking at something as Kain walked closer.

“What are you two doing?” He asked.

Indicating that he should be silent, Shin pointed to a small bird that had perched on Xeiss’ finger. It was blue, and had on it’s chest a gold stripe. It seemed quite comfortable around them, and sung the sweetest tune that any of them had ever heard.

“I can’t recall ever having seen a bird such as that one,” Kain said quietly.

“Of course you haven’t,” Xeiss whispered, her eyes glowing with enjoyment. “This is a golden speckled bluebird, the last of them went extinct almost ten years ago.”

“They were over hunted,” Shin added, “the gold on their chests was for a long time believed to be real gold… If I had the chance, I’d save every last one of them. They’re so beautiful”

As the three of them looked on, the bird extended it’s wings and flew upward. It’s song and golden stripe disappearing into the mid afternoon sky.

The boy was now resting his head, Glitterspike and Mercy took the opportunity to take a stroll through the forest.

“How do you think you’ll feel, going back to Westmarch and all?”

Glitterspike thought of an old saying that seemed strangely fitting.

“They say ‘you can never go home again.’”

Mercy smirked.

“Yes, ‘they’ do say that, but I’d bet that ‘they’ have never been sent fifteen years back in time and put face to face with an earlier version of themselves.”

There was a pause as she was trying to ease into a certain topic, now is when she would make her move.

“You never did tell me what happened to Hammerstar. I am curious, you say he will die not long from now, may I ask how?”

This was obviously difficult for Glitterspike. He spoke from the heart.

“Not long after I returned to Westmarch, we learned that in our absence, the garrison of Paladins had captured a dragon. By some unknown means, the dragon was able to escape our best cell. It charged through the center of the town and I was faced with it, it’s massive body only meters away…” This was obviously where the difficult part came in, “until that moment, I had never been face to face with a dragon before. In a flash of cowardice, I jumped out of the dragons path, seconds before it would have scorched me…” There was a pause. “Hammerstar was left to fight the beast alone, and it ripped him limb from limb right there in the town center on that spring morning...”

Mercy had no idea it had been such a personal experience.

“I’m sorry, Glitter. I had no idea…”

With a wave of his hand, she took the hint that this was something she’d better drop. Fortunately for her, they now had something else to distract their attention. Alone, and obviously intentionally out of sight, Fearless sat. He held a crude quill, and was scribbling something down on a parchment.

“Fearless, what are you writing?” Glitterspike asked.

The Prince’s head shot up suddenly, he was quick to cover the paper with his hand and slip it into his sleeve. He spoke confidently, although in once being an heir to an empire, both Paladins knew, this nineteen year old boy could lie very well.

“Nothing really, I was merely trying to recreate the sketch that the Paladin had drawn for us in the dirt outside the forest Colossus… Should for whatever reason we need to refer to it again.”

They would never call him a liar to his face, but they knew the reaction he gave wasn’t of a man recreating a map. Glitterspike tried to have the Prince incriminate himself.

“I remember the diagram well, perhaps I can help you… May I see what you have so far?”

From his sleeve, the Prince drew a piece of paper. It was very much alike the one they had seen him writing on, but it struck them as perhaps slightly different. Unfolding it, the Prince handed it to Glitterspike. Surveying it, it was clear to both the Paladins that what they looked at was a drawing, that at least supported the Prince’s claim. Somehow, they both had the sneaking suspicion that he had switched papers after having slipped the original up his sleeve.

“Did I recreate it correctly?” The Prince asked very innocently.

“Well enough,” Glitterspike answered as he handed the paper back.

The Prince smiled, and in courtesy the others did as well. Although silently they both had to wonder, ‘was there another paper still up Fearless’ sleeve?’

*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*

“Nothing is written.” -T.E. Lawrence

*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*

One and one half days later.

Days like this were the ones she loved. The breeze was warm, the townspeople were out going about their business, and the smell in the air was that of the fallow fields just outside of the city. The sun rose up into the soft clouds, the scene was so lovely that she just had to stop and take note of it. ‘My God,’ she thought, ‘Dorado is such a beautiful place in the springtime.’

She strolled down the main street past each of the shops. On days such as these most had tables set up outside, so that they may do their business while still taking advantage of the wonderful weather. It was the book store that she was most interested in. The owner had promised to have made up for her a copy of the latest royal publication on astronomical study, she had been waiting anxiously for it for months now. Venturing all the way to Dorado was no easy journey, but for a day as peaceful as this one, there was no doubt it had been well worth the trip. She saw the bookstore’s display set up in the market and toward it she walked and was soon standing in front of it.

“Do you have the book I asked you to bind for me, William?” She asked the old man sitting behind the table.

The old man raised his head and shielded his eyes from the sun. Seeing who it was, he smiled at her, because even though she lived so very far away, she was still his best customer.

“Of course I do, Celes. You just wait right there.”

The old man stood up from his chair and walked inside the store. Celes was left looking at the marvelous display. There were candle stick holders, bows, trinkets of every kind, and enough books to keep anyone reading for quite some time. She took particular note of a tiny mechanism which sat on the table. If she didn’t know better, she’d say it was a clock. She had never seen one, but only heard rumors of their use as a method of keeping time. This one was small enough to easily fit in the palm of her hand, and ticked as softly as the sound of slowly dripping water would have made. She looked at it closely and even reached down to pick it up. As she put it to her ear, she smiled when realizing this little box was in fact where the ticking was coming from. ‘Remarkable,’ she thought. She put the clock down as she heard a voice speak from behind her.

“There’s never enough time,” the voice said.

Without looking back, she well knew who it was that spoke to her.

“Enough time for what?” She said smiling.

“Enough time to do all the things we wish we had,” the man said, now smiling as well. “Enough time to be with those you love, and enjoy days as beautiful as this one.”

He put his arms around her and went on.

“Enough time to read each of these books cover to cover twice, and then be able to live all the adventures you’ve read about.”

“Oh Atlas,” she said, “we both know you don’t like reading the books I bring back from Dorado...”

“Maybe not,” he acknowledged, “but I like it when you read them to me.”

She had to smile at that comment, as she hugged the arm he had put around her.

“I’m almost thirteen now, you don’t have to keep following me from Arkanok just to protect me.”

When she turned to look at her companion and guardian Atlas, it was a shock she had not expected. He was the same person, but looked somehow different. His clothes were dissimilar to any style at the time, and perhaps his arms were a bit larger. The look he gave her delivered a reassuring feeling that it was him, but at least for a moment, the lines on his face and the weathered look about him, made her question it.

“Atlas… What’s happened to you?”

Atlas looked himself over, he could see nothing wrong with his appearance. Obviously she saw something he hadn’t, so he tried his best to make up an excuse.

“I had a rough time getting here. Have I really changed that much?”

Maybe that was it, but his haggard image made her feel that it was much more.

“I know it’s you Atlas, but you look so… Different.”

“You don’t,” he was quick to respond, “you look as wonderful as the first day I met you.”

With that he hugged her again, and she hugged him back. But as she did, she couldn’t shake that feeling that he now gave her. It wasn’t only his appearance, the entire aura about him had changed. He squeezed her so tightly she almost couldn’t breathe.

“Atlas,” she gasped, “you’re squeezing me too tightly.”

He let her go and looked her deeply in the eyes again. She gently brushed her hair back over her ear as she tried to catch her breath. How he looked at her, now gave her a creepy feeling as well.

“Geeze. You’re looking at me like you haven’t seen me in years.”

“Maybe I haven’t,” he answered. “In any case, to protect you isn’t why I have come… I need your help.”

“Anything for you, Atlas.”

He paused, thinking how to word it properly.

“There’s a traveler I’ve been looking for… He’s very dangerous and I only know that he’s loose somewhere in Khanduras.”

“What’s his name?” She asked, now worried by his tone.

“His name isn’t important, but the artifact he carries with him, is. It is crucial that I find him, and I think we both know that problems like these aren’t my strong suit. I thought who better to ask than the smartest person I know, you Celes… Will you help me?”

That was an easy enough question to answer.

“Of course! Why wouldn’t I? If this traveler is dangerous, it’s our responsibility to find him before he can cause any trouble.”

Atlas grinned.

“You were always my better half Celes.”

She gave him a puzzled look.

“‘Were’?”

He opened his mouth to explain, but then stopped abruptly. His face grew very serious as he watched someone over her shoulder.

“What are they doing here?” He whispered.

“What are who doi…”

He pulled her toward him quickly, and faced them both away from the group who now walked not far from where they stood. Celes was now utterly confused.

“Who are we hiding our faces from?” She asked quietly.

“More bad people, these even more dangerous than the one I had been looking for.”

Making sure they weren’t seen, they slipped into the shadows of the buildings and back alleys of Dorado. As moments later, the group of four people whom they had hid from, made their way up to the display outside of the bookstore. Just as they did, the owner emerged from his shop, a thick and newly bound book on astronomy in hand.

“Excuse me,” he said to the group of four, “there was a girl here a few moments ago who asked me to get this book for her, did you see where she has gone to?”

As Mercy, D and Shin glanced over the books and trinkets, Xeiss answered.

“I’m sorry, we didn’t.”

With a shrug, the old shop keeper put the book down, and sat back in his chair. As he did, the four adventurers looked over all the things he had for sale. D took particular note of a small clock which caught his eye on the table. He adjusted where it sat, someone with little knowledge of clocks had picked it up and not put it back properly.

*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*

It would have been very embarrassing, had anyone else but the animals of the forest been watching them. Granted, the Prince they called ‘Fearless,’ didn’t know this country all that well, and the young Glitterspike was barely twelve and had a sizable bump on his head. But those weren’t excuses that Kain and the now much more seasoned Glitterspike could use. They’d been stumbling around in the dense forest of the north for hours, somewhere west of Tristram but east of the mountains and Tabula Rasa. The only thing that they knew for sure, was that they were lost, and as best they could tell, would be so for quite some time.

“As people who’ve lived here all your lives, shouldn’t you know your way around these forests by now?” The Prince asked sarcastically.

Glitterspike, now also frustrated, snapped back at him.

“It’s not my fault that the roads are as they are. We should be walking down the center of the main route which leads right into Westmarch, but there is only forest here.”

What the adventurers had failed to realize before setting out, was that all roads of Khanduras were made of dirt, and cut between two points. If a distant town had since sprouted or dried up, the roads between them may have been different in the past. This puzzled the young Glitterspike. Westmarch was a closely knit community, and never had he seen this Paladin before. What made it even stranger, was that although he wore the colors of many crusades, he readily admitted that he didn’t know his way around even the roads leading into Westmarch.

“Tell me Paladin,” the young Glitterspike asked, “you claim you are a Paladin of Westmarch, yet you do not even know your way around the roads leading into it, how is that possible?”

Glitterspike looked at the boy firmly.

“I wouldn’t be so quick to judge if I were you. After all you are a Paladin of Westmarch as well, yet know your way no better than I.”

There was no disputing that logic, as Kain and Fearless both cracked a grin in realizing the irony. The older Glitterspike would in fact be just as ‘quick to judge,’ because they were, when it all boiled down to it, one in the same person.

As they plodded through the thick trees and tall grass, they knew not if they were even walking in circles. They’d just as soon be out of this forest as quickly as they could, it had an odd presence about it, almost as though it watched them.

Yet each time they turned their head quickly, expecting to find someone there, only more trees and foliage stared back at them. It was when this feeling became particularly intense for Kain, that he signaled the others to stop. He whispered so that only the other three travelers would have been able to hear him.

“Do you get the feeling that we are being watched?”

Each of the others looked around, one by one, they began to nod. As it turned out, their suspicions were soon validated. But not near in the sense that they would have expected.

With his eyes fixed on a point high up in a nearby tree, Kain tapped each of the other travelers on the shoulder. Once they saw what it was that had caught his attention, they were as surprised as he had been.

From the tree dropped a boy, his sudden appearance had caught them off guard. They stood looking at each other for a few moments, not sure what to make of one another.

Finally, Kain spoke to him.

“Hello.”

There was no response as the boy looked all of them over, and then stared aimlessly off into the forest. The travelers then looked at each other once again, still not sure what to think of him. He was small, and was well into his early teens. What he wore looked as though it was much older than he was, as his clothes more closely fit the definition of rags than they did clothing. His hair was jet black, and his eyes a startling green.

“My guess is that he’s either deaf, or he’s otherwise retarded in some fashion,” Glitterspike said while looking at him.

From the boy’s appearance, it was easy to see how he had reached that conclusion. The Prince approached him slowly, leaning in closely, inches away, he looked into the boy’s eyes. It was almost as though the Prince were studying him. It was while doing this, that he spoke to the others.

“No… This one is not retarded. One look in his eyes will tell you that much.”

“How are you so sure?”

“It is very simple to understand, my Paladin friend, but not so easy to explain.” The Prince lowered his tone as he spoke to the boy as much as he did the others now. “When I look into his eyes, I can see that more than emptiness looks back. Right now, he’s figuring us out, trying to determine what it is that we’re doing here.”

“Ask him what his name is,” the young Glitterspike whispered.

“I wont bother, he has no reason to answer.”

It was then that the Prince they called ‘Fearless’ extended his hand. Perhaps it was because he wore a strange uniform the likes of which the boy had never seen before, or perhaps it was due the fact that the Prince was not a paladin, whom the boy seemed to be cautious of. But it simply may have been because he was the only one among these travelers who treated the raggedy little forest dweller, who was only a child, as though he were a man. But for whichever reason, he reached out and shook the Prince’s hand.

It was at that moment that all five of them deep down knew, that this was the beginning of a new chapter, and to them, this boy would mean much more than most men they would ever meet in all their lifetimes. He was a diamond in the rough.

What struck the Prince most of all, was the nature of the boy’s grip. Both of his hands were without thumbs.

“He may not be retarded,” Glitterspike commented while noticing the thumbs, “but I’ll bet he’s a thief. One that’s been caught at least twice.”

That would have sparked a laugh out of the others under normal circumstances, but in this instance, they thought it would serve to only hurt the boy’s feelings. Growing up without thumbs, they reasoned, was probably what had forced him into this lifestyle in the first place.

“Do you know the way to Westmarch?”

By this point, none of them expected he would answer the young Glitterspike’s question. They knew that, although the boy may have the answers they sought, he would not give them. But the look he delivered said more than his words ever could have. It told them that he did in fact know the way, and he was prepared to lead them to it.

He turned suddenly and began to walk. It was obvious that this boy knew the forest very well, and knew how best to get around it unnoticed. He ran over the leaves and broken branches with so much experience, that the three travelers wouldn't even have heard him had they not been within a mere few feet. The boy's quick pace made it difficult for the travelers to keep up, but they would surely give their best effort. ‘If we’re having this much trouble,’ Kain thought, ‘I’d hate to imagine the troubles that the others are having.’

*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*

“It’s hard to believe,” Mercy observed, “that we’re now standing exactly where the altar will one day be.”

The sky darkened that afternoon as thick black storm clouds began to roll in high above. Here in the courtyard outside the castle Dorado, the four warriors wandered about. If you’d have asked them, they’d have told you that they were searching, but truth be known they were catching up on old times. It had been a long time since any of them would have been able to stand here without finding themselves knee deep in the Abadon’s minions.

“That’s where the bride will walk in,” Shin said while pointing, “and that’s the tower that the Ashguard ballista will bring down to start the siege.”

“Of course,” D added, “this entire block will have been burnt to ashes months before when the Crimson army of the far west marches a hundred thousand men here.”

Shin kneeled to the ground. He opened his palm and laid his hand flat on the stone courtyard floor.

“These lands haven’t yet been bittered by evil, they have no idea what it is that they’re in for in the coming decades. If these walls could talk…”

“…I’m sure they’d have quite a story to tell,” Celes finished.

Mercy, D and Xeiss all turned with the sound of her voice. The young sorceress stood not far away, she had been watching and listening to everything that they had said. This, to say the least, was something they had not expected. Being able to touch the past was one thing, speaking to ghosts from it was quite another. So young, and speaking with so much innocence, to these thick skinned warriors she must have seemed like a curious sheep walking into the lion’s den.

“Celes?” Xeiss asked, almost not believing her eyes.

“I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage ma’am, for I do not know your name as easily as you seem to know mine.”

It’s no wonder Xeiss couldn’t say it aloud, or even mouth the words. Looking at Celes, she felt as though her voice had been taken away. While on the other hand, as soon as she had managed to convince herself that her senses were not betraying her, Mercy stood poised with her longsword, anxious to fight. Xeiss was sure to guide down her hand and speak quietly to her.

“I know you’re angry Mercy, but fighting Celes wont accomplish anything. Killing her now may have disastrous consequences on the future. Besides, she hasn’t yet been corrupted by evil, and I’d bet that she doesn’t even know who we are.”

Bewildered by all of this, Celes took a few steps closer and looked each of them over more carefully.

“Do I know you?” She asked.

Shin Hikaru rose to his feet, he walked toward her as she extended her hand as to shake his. Much to her surprise, he ignored the hand and hugged her much as Atlas had when he first saw her not long before.

“No you don’t,” Shin answered, “but one day you will.”

She looked at him as though she didn’t understand. To them, Celes was a friend. From the world they came from, she may still be alive in body, but the Celes they knew in spirit died by an arrow and was buried in Westmarch quite some time ago. Whatever it was that Abadon had removed from the ground was not the brave sorceress that these travelers once knew and loved like a sister. This imprint left behind of her in the past was perhaps all that remained of that hero for which each one of them would have given their life. It was because of that perhaps, that Shin hugged her even more tightly.

“I’m very happy to see you again, Celes,” Shin whsipered

Little did they know what her true agenda was, and what Atlas had convinced her to do. One thing was clear, dark clouds brewed on the horizon.

*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*

“I sure hope this child knows where he is taking us,” Glitterspike said, looking up into the darkening sky.

The spring sky was turning a thick black as in the distance, lightning struck. They knew the rain would come soon, and they were all more than sure that they didn’t want to be caught in it. There was of course still the possibility that this boy was retarded as Glitterspike had first assumed, and that he had been leading them around in even more circles for the last two hours.

Fortunately for the boy, and the fearless Prince who had put his faith in him, the warriors were soon greeted by a surprise. Leading them out of the wood, they had apparently reached their destination. As the trees thinned and they slowly emerged, they saw before them a field. A rather large one, but it wasn’t it’s size that interested them. Not far away, a few hundred yards at best, the first homes at the edge of Westmarch stood. Glitterspike marveled at the buildings. After all, over the years, fire had taken most of them at one point or another, most others had been rebuilt due to their age or damage.

“Is it much different than you remember it?” The Prince asked.

“On the contrary,” Glitterspike said in awe, “I half expect to see myself come running down that path with a sword in my hand and Hammerstar not far behind.”

The young Glitterspike was amazed by the comment that his older counterpart had let slip out.

“You know Hammerstar as well?”

Glitterspike, overwhelmed by emotion and caught off guard, fumbled for the right words. Seeing that he had dug himself into quite a hole, Kain was quick to bail him out.

“Yes, he does know Hammerstar. They are old friends, although they haven’t seen each other in years.”

Satisfied, and then with much the same overzealousness they had seen during the siege of Colossus, the young Glitterspike ran forward, toward his home as the thick clouds rolled in even faster now and a light rain began to fall. He looked back over his shoulder and shouted over the sound of striking thunder in the distance.

“Thank you for helping me home sir, I will never forget it.”

With those words, off into the town center and out of sight he ran. The three travelers now for the first time in hours had a chance to speak freely without having to tiptoe around giving the boy knowledge of the future.

“Yes you will,” Glitterspike whispered softly to himself.

There was a moment of silence as each contemplated what next they would do.

“Our mission is complete,” the Prince reasoned, “we can now return to Dorado and rejoin the others.”

Kain extended his hand and turned his palm upside down. He could now feel more than a few drops per minute, and the rain’s pace was quickening. Glitterspike noticed this as well, and certainly wasn’t the only one of them who thought grimly of spending a night sleeping, or at the very least, walking in the rain. God knows they’d seen enough of those kinds of nights to last them many lifetimes. The warm beds and fond memories of Westmarch must have called him like a beacon.

“Would it hurt to just spend the night here? It is getting late and the rain is bound to pick up.”

“Unacceptable, we must do our best to avoid interaction with the people and places of this timeline as much as possible. We cannot risk the future bei…”

“One night couldn’t hurt,” Glitterspike said interrupting Fearless, “we’ll stay at the inn under alias’, no one will ever know that we were there at all come morning.”

It was obvious that the Prince wanted no part in this, but between Glitterspike’s enthusiasm, and Kain’s silent but sturdy agreement, it was clear his warnings would go unheeded.

“Fine,” he finally said reluctantly, “but we must do our best to stay out of history’s way.”

That sounded fair enough to the others. Looking down, the travelers knew there was one more person to whom they owed their thanks. But as quickly as he had come, he was gone. Although they stood in a field, somehow the raggedy little boy with no thumbs had managed to make an exit without any of them noticing. It was almost as though he had vanished into thin air.

“He’s gone,” Kain observed, quite matter of factly.

They had no idea why he had left, but by the same token, no idea why he had even come to them in the first place.

“He is,” the Prince noted, “but somehow I doubt we’ve seen the last we’ll see of the boy with no thumbs.”

After another glance around, the boy still nowhere to be found, the three warriors set out across the field toward the town. The rain beat down more intensely now, as the sun began to sink beneath the horizon and the thick black storm clouds above, inched closer. It was a peaceful spring evening, and that is likewise what the three men expected to find when they entered the town, however what they did in fact find was anything but.

The proud Paladins of Westmarch, after having returned from their raid on the southern fortress of Colossus, marched through the streets brandishing torches. That was uncommon, and they only would have done so had they a reason to celebrate. All the inhabitants were out despite the rain, and there seemed a great commotion toward the center of the town.

The travelers had not expected this, and cautiously made their way closer to identify what it was exactly that had brought the Paladins up in arms. They pushed their way through the crowds of chanting villagers, toward a podium which was at their center of attention.

“What are they chanting?” The Prince whispered to Glitterspike.

“Off with it’s head,” Glitter whispered back.

Finally reaching the front, and parting the crowd, nothing prepared them for what they then saw.

There was a beautiful young girl, a teenager but certainly not twenty. She was chained, shackled and gagged, and had obviously been lynched and attacked. Normally one would wonder why honest, hard working, moral townspeople such as these would have done such a thing to a seemingly innocent young girl, but not these warriors, and certainly not in Westmarch. Kain and Glitterspike knew this girl very well.

“Scarlet,” they each whispered quietly in unison.

Her capture had cost the lives of six paladins, not to mention she had injured at least twenty others in the process. With that in mind, it was no wonder she had been chained so tightly. For them it was a remarkable sight to see. When considering all of the familiar faces that these travelers had encountered since leaving the mouth of the Colossus, and how differently many of them looked and appeared fifteen years in the past, Scarlet was a mirror image of herself fifteen years in the future, she had not changed in the slightest. Every eyelash, each pore, even the crease in her red dress looked just as they remembered. The Prince ran his hand through his hair, brushing it back as it had become wet with the now steady stream of rain that fell at twilight that evening. This was the first time he had seen the face of the infamous traitor who had betrayed the band of travelers and taken their friend Celes from them, although he had been told many, many stories.

“Well, I must say,” he whispered, careful not to let anyone but Kain and Glitterspike hear him, “I am thoroughly unimpressed. If this child is the devilish mastermind who managed to outwit the entire party, you must be very ashamed.”

“I wouldn’t be so quick to judge, Fearless,” Kain was quick to snap back, “appearances can be deceiving. Besides, she isn’t much younger than you are.”

The Prince shrugged off the observation as he continued to look at the girl.

“It’s hard to believe that in another decade and a half, you’ll find yourself in a forest with her, and she’ll put an arrow through the heart of one of your best friends.”

“No she won’t,” Kain said sternly, drawing his sword, “I wont let her. I’ll end her life right now and save us all a lot of trouble.”

Glitterspike grabbed Kain’s hand much in same way that Xeiss had grabbed Mercy’s in Dorado hours earlier.

“No, Kain. If history repeats itself, she is the dragon that will eventually kill Hammerstar. Sometime tomorrow morning she’ll break out of her cell and be let loose in the streets. It is important that she be allowed to at least play out that part of her future, otherwise the past fifteen years of my life, and perhaps Westmarch itself, may be changed.”

Grudgingly, Kain lowered his sword. Although neither said it, the look he gave showed that they had a mutual understanding. He would let her live long enough to change the young Paladin’s future, but not a moment after. Seeing that the rain was worsening, and knowing that no matter how rowdy the townspeople seemed, she would not be killed this evening, the three men walked back toward the tavern. A drink wouldn’t hurt, and after the day that they’d been through, there was no doubt that they deserved it.

But as the others walked off, the Prince left his two companions and went back to the chained and struggling girl. Despite the projectiles, and the numerous profanities being shouted and chanted, he was able to get close enough to her so that when he spoke, only the two of them would hear. He caught her attention and looked directly into her eyes.

“You don’t look half as menacing as I had expected, Scarlet.”

The rolled up cloth that gagged her prevented a response, but the look she gave said more than her words ever could have. Still looking right into her eyes, the Prince noticed a green shade about them.

“So that’s the color of duplicity.”

That comment would have made her angry under any circumstances, but after having been through what she had for the last hour since her capture, and not knowing what it was that this dark haired young man who wore black was referring to, she was even more so than she typically would have been. In a very sarcastic tone, he made one last remark that angered her perhaps the most of all.

“Sugar and spice, and everything nice, that’s what little girls are made of… Not little dragons however.”

With that, he got up and walked off, pushing his way back into the folds of the angry mob. Now she grew even angrier, seldom did anyone dare call Scarlet ‘little’ and live for more than a few brief terrifying moments afterward. His insolence was something she would not soon forget, dragons as old as she don’t forget an awful lot, after all. At that point neither knew it, but many years later on a mountain miles to the west, it would be that same dragon who would be responsible for the death of thousands of his countrymen by reporting their location to Abadon. And as for the insolence of this town, one day she knew she would have her revenge on it as well. Looking around her in spite of the rocks being thrown, perhaps all that kept her sane was thinking of how sweet it would one day be to burn this miserable city to the ground, raze the buildings, and reduce whatever remained to dust.

Finally reaching the event horizon of the chaos, the Prince took a few steps toward the tavern where Kain and Glitterspike waited, but stopped when seeing a horseman watching the entire scene from a distance. With the rain starting to pour now, he approached the horseman. He was a weather beaten old man to whom it was obvious didn’t know wealth all that well.

“Excuse me sir,” the Prince said walking closer, “are you a messenger?”

Clearing his throat and wiping the water from his eyes, the man called back.

“Why, yes I am.”

Smiling, the Prince finally reached him. He handed the messenger several gold coins, the messenger took them with a stunned look on his face.

“Do you know how much this is?” He said in shock.

“Yes, I know it’s an awful lot of money, but I’m not giving it to you for nothing. I require your services immediately.”

“Of course, sir!” The man was quick to say. For that much money, he’d have done almost anything.

“I need you to deliver a message to some colleagues of mine.”

“In Dorado?” The man asked, obviously having traveled the route between here and there many times.

“No, I’m afraid it wont be somewhere near that close, and where I need you to go is a far more demanding and dangerous journey.”

The man stood ready to set out at once despite the weather, the Prince would have expected no less. Reaching down, from his sleeve the Prince pulled a piece of paper. It was definitely the same paper he had authored earlier that same day, as Mercy and Glitterspike had stumbled over him writing it. It had been folded twice, and the Prince made sure that the rain never so much as came near to touching it.

“There are directions written on the back of this paper, follow them to the place it must be delivered to. Make sure to keep it dry. And just so you’re honest, the person to whom it’s addressed, after having read it, will give you twice as much gold as I’ve just given you.”

The man took the paper and looked it over closely in the rising moonlight, careful not to get it wet, but straining to read the writing. He then refolded it and slipped it into a pocket under his cloak. With a nod to the Prince, the messenger rode off.

The young Prince, with a grin ear to ear, watched the messenger disappear into the forest on that spring evening. For him, all of a sudden the future was looking very much brighter. In this case, there was no doubt that the pen was far mightier than the sword. One letter was perhaps about to succeed where hundreds of thousands of well trained soldiers had failed.

*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*

The rain beat down steadily on the overhang above. The thin shingled roof prevented them from getting wet, but the stone floor was anything but comfortable to sleep on. It was well past midnight and the warriors had chosen this place, a small covered area in the castle courtyard, to sleep. They would have liked to have stayed in an inn, but the only currency accepted in Dorado was the official currency of the royal family, and in the time they had come from, Abadon had melted every once of it he could find when he first came to power. Having any at all was extremely rare, having enough to rent a room for the night was impossible. Only a flickering torch lit the small twenty by twenty area in which they slept. Shin rested against the wall, likely sleeping with one eye open. D and Xeiss had both curled up in a far corner, while Mercy and Celes laid sprawled out, each with their weapons in hand.

As lightning struck, Celes’ eyes sprung open. She had faked sleeping for hours now, and thought it safe to now rise as it had been a long time since she had heard one of the others stir. The young sorceress lifted herself from the ground, and dusted herself off. Just as she had expected, the four mysterious travelers were fast asleep. The strong pace at which the rain beat down would be ideal for what she was planning to do.

Careful not to wake anyone, she made her way over to Mercy with the sound of the pouring rain around her. She drew from the Paladin’s belt, a dagger. Perhaps feeling her dagger was missing, Mercy turned over. Celes froze in her tracks, she knew if she were to make one wrong move, Mercy may awake.

After a tense half minute or so of barely breathing, Celes was confident that Mercy suspected nothing as she apparently went back to sleep, with no knowledge of what the young sorceress had just done.

As she held the dagger in the dim torch light, she again had serious inner doubt, wondering if this was really the right thing to do. These travelers looked harmless enough, but she knew to her Atlas would never lie. He would never have asked her to do this had he not had a good reason. In him, she would always have faith above the words and claims of strangers.

With the dagger in hand, she tiptoed through the darkness, finally stopping as she reached Shin Hikaru. With his guard down, his eyelids closed and his sword rested at his side, it would be very easy to do as Atlas had instructed. As lightning lit the darkness again briefly, she rose the knife high above her head. In moments she would plunge it downward, and end the life of a person whom Atlas claimed was a grave danger to all of Khanduras. But before she could, fate intervened.

“I’d think twice about that, if I were you,” a voice whispered into her ear.

She looked down to see the razor sharp blade of a sword pressed gently against her throat. She dared not swallow, and barely dared breathe, as she knew one false move and her’s would be the only life ended today. She turned her head slightly so that she may be able to see the face of the person whom, despite how quiet she had been, had been quieter.

The striking lightning for a moment made Severen visible, with a look on his face as serious as he had ever worn. Between his wet clothes, cut face, and tense demeanor, it was obvious he had been through one hell of a day.

“Shin,” he said loudly, “wake up.”

Shin slowly opened his eyes, and as he saw Celes with a dagger raised above him, instinct forced him to jump out of the way. He quickly reached his sword and drew it before even he had realized he had done so. This commotion awoke the others. Stunned, Mercy, D and Xeiss rose to their feet, happy to see Severen, but surprised to see his sword to the throat of Celes, who held Mercy’s dagger raised above her head. Still somewhat in shock over what she was looking at, Xeiss spoke.

“Severen… Are you okay?”

With his eyes fixed almost hypnotically with anger on Celes, he spoke very slowly and with a remarkable calmness.

“No, Xeiss… I’m pretty damn far from okay.”

Dropping the dagger, Celes was now sweating a cold sweat, she made sure to hold perfectly still as a thin trickle of blood dripped from where the blade touched her neck. Had Severen not been as sure handed as he was, her neck would already have been split open entirely. She tried to speak.

“I was sleeping, then this psychopath crept up from behind and attacked me, it’s a good thing you four woke up when you did, otherwise…”

Severen, still speaking very slowly and calmly, and with obvious discontent for her, cut her off mid-sentence.

“Don’t… Even try it, you witch. When I walked out of the darkness, you had Mercy’s dagger raised above your head, ready to kill Shin.”

Celes let out a short laugh as to dismiss his accusation as a lie, but Severen would have none of it. The tensing of his hands as though he would run her through, was well enough to get her to stop instantly.

“She’s working with Atlas, the one from the future. He was able to find her earlier today before you were. He’s convinced her that you’re all evil and plan to kill the King of Dorado. Had I been a few seconds later, right now Shin would be little more than just another blood spot on the courtyard floor.”

“Do you have any proof of this?” Shin was quick to whisper.

“The cut on my head is all the proof you need. I’ve been running from Atlas from the moment I managed to escape from Dorado, but he is a much better tracker than I gave him credit for… I was attacked by both of them outside of Tristram yesterday.”

Almost treating the Celes situation as irrelevant, Xeiss’ eyes lit up.

“Then you did it? You managed to escape with the soulstone?”

“Yes I was, the secret entrance you told me of in the moat worked perfectly. Getting to the actual soulstone wasn’t all that much harder.”

“And where is it now?” D asked anxiously.

Now Severen’s face grew even crosser.

“I don’t know. You should ask your traitorous friend here… It was taken from me after our battle, and I was left for dead.” He now leaned in even closer to Celes. “Not finishing me when you had the chance was a grave error, one I’m sure you already regret.”

“How long did it take you to figure out the Paladin’s riddle, the one with the circles and the fifteen paths?”

“I didn’t. I rode into Colossus at night time, it wasn’t until I reached Dorado and asked someone the year that it all became clear, and I finally realized what had happened.”

“You wont get away with this,” Celes said interrupting. “I may not be all that experienced, or that strong, but I have a very capable command of magic, and I’ll do everything in my power to stop you. Even as we speak, Atlas is informing the royal guards of what you’re planning, you wont get anywhere near the King.”

Hearing her speak, and say those words, these warriors who would one day be her friends almost felt sorry for her, and how she had been manipulated. Xeiss walked right up to the scared but brave Celes.

“Would you believe me if I told you we have no interest in killing the King of Dorado? …I know this may be too hard for you to believe, but that Atlas isn’t the same one that you know and love. He’s just a shadow of that Atlas, and has tricked you into helping him and used you to get the soulstone. He hasn’t gone to warn any ‘royal guard,’ right now he’s well on his way back to where he came from, soulstone and all.”

Celes remained unconvinced.

“You’re right, it is too hard for me to believe.”

Xeiss knew she would have to try a different angle.

“Surely you’ve noticed how strange he looks and how odd he must be acting.”

Celes remained quiet, acknowledging that she had. That was the grip that Xeiss had been looking for.

“Listen to me, Celes. We’re not your enemies, we’re your friends. We want peace in this land as much as anyone, but you must trust us first. You may be the only one that can fix what has happened, we can’t do this without you.”

Xeiss reached over and grabbed the dagger out of Severen’s belt. She put it firmly in Celes’ hand and raised the dagger so it’s tip touched her own heart. She then continued.

“If you think that I am a liar, then push down on the dagger and kill me. Because if someone I care about as much as you doesn’t trust me, I don’t deserve to live.”

Above them the lightning struck and the thunder rolled as the young sorceress stood holding the knife in her shaking hand. Celes pondered pushing it through the rogue, but then decided that anyone willing to put that much trust in a stranger, was worth at least listening to.

“If I’m going to help you, first I’ll need some answers.”

“Anything,” Xeiss whispered.

Celes surveyed the eyes of each of the warriors who looked on intently. She then began posing her questions.

“Where exactly is it that you travelers come from? And why are your clothes so strange? Furthermore, why do you often refer to events that have yet to happen in the past tense? What power exactly does this ‘soulstone’ have?”

With the exception of the rain, there was complete silence. Xeiss took a deep breath, this would take quite some time.