Once Upon a Time, part three


“How dreadful knowledge of the truth can be… When there is no help in truth.” -Sophocles

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Stretching out his arms, Glitterspike looked into the morning sun as it peeked up in the far east. To him, the streets had a sharpness about them that only comes from knowing something very well. With the shroud of night, so had left the rain, and only a thin drizzle remained. Today he’d have an opportunity very few men have ever had, to watch his own fate play itself out, so it was here that the heroes waited. He and each of the others took turns looking over the side of the building. They were two floors up, on the roof of the inn. From here they’d have an eagle eye view of the days events as they unfolded, and as history had dictated that they would. Glitterspike pointed to each of the places he noted as he spoke of them.

“Sometime in the next hour, Hammerstar will make his way down this street from the southwest. He’ll pause as he sees my younger self walking from the blacksmith’s where right now I am having my armor refitted. The sun will be well on it’s way up into the sky by that time, and that’s when destiny will play the role I expect it will play.”

Both Kain and the Prince they called ‘Fearless’ looked the situation over closely. There was still one thing that Kain was unclear on.

“Tell me, how is it that the dragon was able to escape her cell? I had thought they had been specifically designed to prevent such a thing from happening.”

Glitterspike, like all Paladins of Westmarch, who had been witness to or had been told of the events of that spring morning, had been wondering the same thing for many years. As anyone who had ever laid eyes on a cell as sturdy as the one which held the dragon they had in their custody, would have.

“No one knows exactly. It was a mystery that was never solved. The strangest part of the whole escape was the fact that afterward, the cell was left in perfect condition. It was almost as though she walked right through the bars, although that’s impossible due to how closely they are pressed together.”

Not often do chances as rare as these present themselves. Kain knew this, coincidingly, a devilish smile came over his face.

“There’s nothing I enjoy more than solving a mystery.”

“No,” the Prince said sternly, “we’ve taken enough chances interfering with the natural course of events as it is. Any man who wishes to start testing the limits even further will have to first fight me to do it. I know it may seem as though our actions do not have consequences, but I can assure you that they most certainly do.”

“Fine,” Kain said reluctantly, “but I’m still awfully curious as to what is going inside the building where they’re holding her, even right now as we speak.”

Two stories below, and little more than a block away, a mockery was being made of the best detention area in all of Westmarch. Scarlet sat on her bunk, watching in amazement as these events had taken place. She had not lifted a finger, yet now her two captors laid dead in pools of their own blood. Through the thin separation of the bars, a man’s hand slipped through. She watched the hand as it motioned for her to come closer. With nothing to lose, she walked up to it slowly, and grabbed it firmly. He squeezed her palm tightly, and in one motion pulled her toward the bars.

Before she knew it, her body had passed directly through them, as though they weren’t even there at all. She marveled at the magic that this man commanded, almost envying it. Looking him right in the eye, she spoke.

“I suppose I should be grateful. Had you not shown up, they’d have executed me by noon… So to whom is it that I owe my thanks?”

The necromancer smiled a dark grin, he would have given his real name, but was far too wise to risk opening such a Pandora's box.

“A friend,” he said smiling.

The young Scarlet smiled back, jealous of his power, but even more jealous of the very expensive looking stone he held in his right hand.

“Fair enough, ‘friend,’ is there any way I can repay you?”

The necromancer looked deeply into the green eyes of the oblivious Scarlet. He was staggered by the mere thought of in the coming years what terror she’d yet see, and what terror she’d yet inflict on others.

“Yes there is… At this very moment, a young boy is making his way past, he is returning from the blacksmith. Kill him before sunrise, that is all the repayment I ask.”

The girl’s smile made it clear that she would be only too happy to do as the mysterious necromancer had asked. She walked toward the huge wooden double door, but paused as she posed one last question.

“Will I ever see you again, necromancer?”

Now his smile grew even larger.

“I’m pretty sure that you will.”

With a moment of ponderance, and a wink to the necromancer, she walked out into the streets of Westmarch in the early hours of that morning. Watching her go, Intruder held the soulstone up into the dim light. ‘If this land had thought it had known terror before,’ he thought to himself with a smile, ‘what I have in store will redefine the term.’

Not far away, Hammerstar made his way through the emptied city streets. As a senior Paladin, it was his duty to be the first to check on the dragon girl that they’d found the night before, and make certain she was ready for the day of torture that they had in store. He knelt down on one knee in the dusty street. He put his hand to the ground, feeling for moisture. There was quite a bit, and that was unfortunate. For if they decided that they wanted to drag her through the town square, the ground was now softer than it normally would have been. But before he could return to his feet, he stopped. The ground, if only ever so slightly, vibrated.

His puzzlement soon subsided, as he saw rounding the nearby corner not far from the church belfry, a dragon. She was the same one they had caught last night after the raid, had somehow managed to escape, and now the monstrous twenty ton beast made it’s way down the street toward him. Although the sun was rising, most of the town was still fast asleep. He drew his sword as he knew, the dragon would be very angry, and he was the only target in it’s path.

With his shield ready, his sword drawn, and his courage glowing like an aura around him, he slowly walked closer to the dragon. It’s massive wings were folded behind it’s back, and it’s tail swayed as it walked. Although he was still over fifty yards away, it had not seen him, and it’s eyes looked as though they were searching for something. What he then saw bothered him even more so than the prospect of facing the mighty dragon on his own ever could have. It was his former squire, and near adopted son Glitterspike, unexpecting, he walked through the town square, returning from the blacksmith and his weapon not with him.

The dragon had spotted it’s target, slowly at first but then faster, it trotted toward the young Paladin. Hammerstar now broke a cold sweat. He threw down his shield and began to run at his best speed toward Glitterspike, knowing full well he would not reach the boy in time.

The dragon reared it’s head, and it was at that moment that the young Paladin finally looked up and saw the beast only meters away. Instantly, a bright red jet of flame shot toward him, throwing aside his armor he was able to duck out of the way. Watching from the roof, the now more seasoned Glitterspike stood wide eyed, faced with the most terrifying few seconds of his life all over again, this time from the third person perspective.

His jaw dropped as this was where history diverged. For where as before at this point, the dragon had moved on to the more menacing Hammerstar, this time she continued to pursue the now running boy. The three warriors knew they had to do something. A sense of guilt crossed each of them as they also knew, something they had done, or something they had said to someone over the last few hours had set into motion a chain of events that had led to this, changed the past as it had originally unfolded. They could only watch as now, history was writing itself as it went along.

The dragon watched the boy run his fastest, but she well knew that it would not be enough. Rearing her head again, she shot another red jet of flame forward. This one, Glitterspike was not able to avoid. It grazed the boy’s arm as he fell in agony, yet even so, that was not the most remarkable event taking place at that instant. Atop the inn, the now much older Glitterspike grabbed his arm, wincing as the pain forced him to his knees. With the aid of the Prince and Kain, he rolled up his sleeve. He had on his arm a burn mark, a very old one, and it seemed to be growing right before their eyes.

The young Glitterspike squirmed in the street, cradling his arm as it had been burnt almost clearly through to the bone. As the massive dragon hovered above him, ready to tear him apart in her massive claws, she was surprised in a way she hadn’t expected she would be.

A sharp pain pierced through her left shoulder. Looking down at it, a sword was protruding out from it. Hammerstar had used the opportunity to sneak up on her, and at the very least had delayed the young Glitterspike’s death a few mere moments as the dragon ended his life as well. She grabbed Hammerstar by the neck, and lifted him high into the air. He fought her grip, punching her arm as hard as he could have, but to no avail. The pollution of the past was about to rob a city of hero, in addition to a Paladin who would one day be one of it’s favorite sons.

Kain steadied his arm as best he could. He lowered the bow downward, taking aim at his target. He knew he’d get only one shot, and if he missed, the damage caused may be irreparable. A bead of sweat rolled down his cheek as he removed the hood covering his eyes. Concentrating, he let the arrow fly.

It sailed through the morning air, finally reaching it’s destination… The bell inside the church belfry was held but by a single rope, and now as an arrow had split it, the rope ripped and the bell fell, breaking the thin wood platform it’s ringer had walked on, and ricocheting down the interior of the steeple.

The thunderous rings could be heard for over a mile around, and was more than enough to wake the entire village of sleeping Paladins from their beds. Within moments, more Paladins than many men had ever imagined would flood the town square, and have only one thought on each of their minds; ‘recapture the dragon, and kill her if she resists.’

Hearing the bell fall, Dragoneyes was alarmed. She had not expected to be interrupted as she enacted her vengeance, yet was nonetheless. She threw Hammerstar to the ground, and gave one last look to Glitterspike. That wound, she knew may kill him, and at the very least would make certain he would never forget her for a very long time. Sensing her time shortening, and knowing that the dragon slaying Paladins would soon be approaching from all sides, she extended her mammoth wings, and swung them outward. With a few strong strokes, she was airborne. The young Glitterspike shielded his eyes looking up toward her, now silhouetted in the rising sun.

It wasn’t long until the armed Paladins of Westmarch rushed to the aid of the burnt Glitterspike and battered Hammerstar, but by that time, the dragon girl had long disappeared into the early morning sky. She had flown off in the direction of the distant western mountains, and had left only two shaken Paladins, an empty cell, and a fallen church bell as evidence that she had ever been there at all, behind her. But this town had long from felt the last of her wrath, and that boy had long from ended his revels with her. For that scar was but yet another on her memory, and for that young Paladin, the true terror he would see at her hands, had not yet even begun.

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Later that morning.

He had almost forgotten how beautiful days like these could be. By most standards, a morning in which the clouds were thick, thunder rolled in the distance as a light rain fell, and the cold breeze blew over the land with each strike of far off lightning, was a terrible start to day. But this warrior had seen far worse days than this. It was almost a pity that never again would he smell the fresh air as only a mortal could smell it, or hear Celes speak as only a mortal could hear her. Being a vampire meant far more than a change in diet, it meant a change in spirit, and with that change so disappeared his appreciation for the things most mortals take for granted, something as simple as hating or loving a dreadful or beautiful morning just as this one was.

From where he watched the clouds roll overhead, he was protected from the rain and the light rinsing it gave the city of Dorado around him. It was in from that rain, that he saw a familiar figure emerge.

“What have you been up to?” He asked the figure who approached.

“Returning some old favors,” Intruder answered.

The necromancer made his way over to where Atlas was sitting. Adjusting his cloak, and relaxing his staff, he sat down next to the barbarian and rested his feet as though he’d been walking quite a distance, and for quite some time. Seeing this, Atlas spoke to him.

“Do you still have it?”

From his cloak, Intruder pulled an object.

It was the soulstone, the same they had stolen from Severen, and the same Scarlet had caught a glimpse of in Westmarch earlier that same morning. Both of the warriors sat doing nothing but looking at it, as the rain fell from high above and cascaded off of it gently. Finally, Intruder palmed it and slipped it back into his cloak from whence it had come. After a few long moments of silence, Atlas stared off into the empty street as the water ran down it’s length and accumulated in several large puddles.

“I suppose there’s only one thing left to do,” he muttered.

“Yes,” Intruder answered. “…Abadon.”

Before being dispatched to find Severen, after learning that the soulstone had been taken from Dorado fifteen years in the future, Abadon had told them to stop at nothing to recover it. And now that they had, their mission was clear, they were to return through the Colossus and go back to the future, there Abadon would be waiting for them, and his prize, the soulstone they had recaptured.

“Then we must head for Tristram,” Atlas whispered.

Although that is what they had been instructed to do, the Colossus had presented these two warriors with an opportunity so golden, they could not turn their backs on it. Now that they were in the past, and had found the soulstone, they had made other plans, contrary to those that Abadon had assigned them.

“That’s right,” Intruder said slowly. “We go to Tristram, gain access to the entrance into Hell, and find the Abadon that resides here, fifteen years in the past.”

There was another long pause. They had gone over this plan many times already, now they were merely repeating it in still trying to grasp it’s magnitude.

“…When we find the Abadon that resides here,” Atlas said quietly, “we’ll kill him. Thus preventing him from ever taking Dorado, and raising Diablo again.”

Intruder smiled.

“With the power of the soulstone, and both our combined and extensive knowledge of the future, it will be very easy to raise our own armies, and take Khanduras now, fifteen years in the past… It’s such a hopeful land, an innocent land, it should be very easy to conquer… I can see only seven problems that stand in our way.”

Atlas returned his attention from the street, back to Intruder. Thinking of Celes, he answered.

“If all has gone according to plan, those seven problems, or at least a good portion of them, have been eliminated for hours now. All we need to do now, is wait.”

And waiting is exactly what they did. They last two days had been quite an adventure, they had earned this time they now used to rest. Lightning struck in the east, and in the rain they each watched. It wasn’t long until, much in the same way Intruder had, another figure slowly became visible, approaching from the distance.

“Speak of the devil,” Intruder muttered.

It was Celes. Her clothes were stained with blood, and her hair a mess. She made her way over to where the two warriors rested, and sat down next to Atlas. There was silence for a time, as they each continued to do nothing but watch the rain.

“It’s done, Atlas,” she whispered.

Despite the scope of what it was that she had ‘done,’ Atlas’ expression didn’t falter in the slightest, and Intruder didn’t even do so much as look at her, he only asked a question.

“All of them?”

The young sorceress held her sleeve in both hands and rung it out. It was heavy with both blood and rainwater, a clear red mixture of both dripped to the ground as she squeezed.

“I managed to kill the easterner and the Paladin girl without even waking the others, the one with the mutated hand soon after. The rogue put up a fight, but in time, I was able to finish her off as well.”

“And what of the other three?”

As Intruder asked, a lump swelled in Celes’ throat.

“‘Other three?’ …I was aware of just four.”

Quickly, both Intruder and Atlas looked at her. The stare they each gave more than told her what it was she needed to do. With a sigh, she rose back to her feet, and stepped back into the rain.

“I’ll find them, and finish the job I’ve started.”

Walking off down the main street, Atlas called after her.

“Thank you Celes, the King appreciates this.”

She did not look back, and only waved her hand as to dismiss them both. Regardless of whether she had actually killed them or not, she could never get used to being told to do so.

As she disappeared into the distance, and into the thin streets and forgotten alleys of Dorado, well out of earshot, Intruder turned his attention to Atlas. He asked aloud what both had been silently pondering.

“Do you believe her?”

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“Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice. From what I’ve tasted of desire, I hold with those who favor fire… But if it had to perish twice, I think I know enough of hate, to say that for destruction ice is also great and would suffice.” -Robert Frost

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From here, the storm raging that day over the eastern cities of Dorado and Tristram was but a tiny speck of light dotting the distant horizon. In this land, the sun shone brightly, and the day couldn’t have looked as though it would shape up to be any more pleasant than it already was. Most of the city’s residents were out enjoying the morning sunshine, but this man was not among them. While others smelled flowers and the spring breeze, he smelled death, and the mustiness of one very old book. He flipped slowly through the pages of the ancient book which was bound by three tarnished gold rings, finally stopping as he saw the picture he had been looking for.

“The Holy Grail,” he whispered.

He looked the picture over closely, as underneath the book, on the giant table, a map of the entire known world laid spread out. The map showed near every tree, every blade of grass, and grain of sand that had been discovered, even as far east as the impassable mountains. The light beamed in through the massive two story window which led to the grand garden. It filled most of the room with light, this the room known only as ‘the great hall.’ Dotted on the map were a series of ‘X’s, most of which had been crossed out at one point or another. Those were the points at which their searches had determined that the Holy Grail was not where they had estimated it was, and at that, they were running out of places to put ‘X’s.

His close attention to the map and old book was broken, as a knocking came at the two huge wooden doors which served as the entrance to the hall. Trying to ignore it at first, the knocking continued until he could no longer concentrate. He closed the book quickly and shouted authoritatively to whomever it was that dared disturb him.

“Come in or don’t come in, but at the very least quit that infernal knocking!”

The door opened, and in walked one of the few who would have fathomed crossing this man’s path and still expect to live. Seeing this, the man smiled and spoke to his friend, someone whom he had known for years and who had been like a cousin or brother to him.

“Welcome General Aramon, may I ask why it is that you disturb me as I try to work?”

The young Aramon smiled, for he knew very well how frustrating the search for the grail could be. He had spent years assigned to the task, and only through his failure was this man appointed in his place.

“I see that the search for the grail has left you angry General Xantos, from someone who is experienced, I suggest that you calm your nerves with a walk through the grand garden.”

These were Generals Aramon and Xantos, two of the most celebrated campaigners of the Crimson guard. They knew each other well, and knew the taste of victory even more so. Here, from the great castle at the heart of the million plus strong city of Arcadia, they met that morning. Arcadia was the capital of the Crimson empire in the far west, and had not known war inside it’s boundaries since the end of the period known only as ‘the great awakening,’ a reformation of faith. Xantos leaned back in his chair, his eyes exhausted after having spent days reading the only surviving book from that reformation, cover to cover countless times.

“Why is it that you disturb my work, Aramon? I haven’t slept in days, and need every ounce of concentration I have left.”

Aramon knew the feeling well, smiling, he answered.

“I wouldn’t have bothered you for just anything, Xantos. There is a messenger here who claims he has an urgent letter for you. He says he has been traveling for days, and was given specific instructions to speak to no one but you and you alone.”

From his breast pocket, Aramon drew the letter, he handed it to Xantos as the tired General rubbed his eyes, trying to focus them on the task at hand. He took the letter, it had been folded twice and quite clearly spelt in someone’s best writing were the words; ‘To General Xavier Xantos, campaigner of the Crimson guard.’ Looking down at the letter, the General spoke.

“Did he say from whom this letter was sent?”

Aramon, looking out the massive window into the grand garden, hearing him, shook his head briefly. Seeing this, Xantos continued.

“I’ll need silence to read it. Bring me the messenger who delivered this letter, if he didn’t say where he came from, I want to speak with him directly.”

With a nod, Aramon turned from the window, and left through the huge wooden doors to fetch the messenger. Once his footsteps could no longer be heard, Xantos unfolded the piece of paper that Aramon had given him. The light was dim, making it difficult to read. Instead of lighting a candle, he decided to make his way closer to the window, the mid morning sun would give him the clarity he desired.

Once there however, under the sun’s glow, something else still bothered his now wary concentration. Voices that came from behind him… It was laughing.

From far down the length of the great hall, two young boys ran. One no older than four, the other not much older than he. They each had swords proportionate to their size, and fought each other fiercely, laughing, as only children do, as they did so. Each spoke as they struck at one another.

“You are the saddest excuse for a swordsman I have ever seen, Alec Crimson,” the older boy shouted as he lunged forward.

The smaller boy had several cuts, but still fought bravely, he lunged back at his comrade in arms.

“You are mistaken, Alec Tanus, I am twice the warrior that you are.”

They each ducked in and out of the colonnade, dodging one another's’ strikes, and each delivering a peppering of their own. Seeing this, and being distracted while trying to read, Xantos yelled to both of them.

“Alec Crimson! Alec Tanus!”

The boys stopped immediately and dropped their swords as they stood at attention. They both panted with exhaustion, and were barely able to keep their balance.

“What do you two think you are doing, sword fighting with so many expensive antiques and irreplaceable artifacts around you? You both know very well that you shouldn’t be so careless.”

Hearing this, at the same time, they both pointed at and tried to blame the other.

“But it was Alec…”

Xantos raised his hand, and instantly they stopped.

“I want both of you to calm down. You are the Crown Prince Alec Crimson, and you Alec Tanus will one day undoubtedly be a highly decorated officer. The first duty of either title is honor. When a warrior betrays that honor, somewhere, perhaps everywhere, a little piece of the world dies… That you must always both remember. There is nothing honorable about rampaging about the castle, causing trouble for those of us who have work to do… I want both of you to recite the code of the ancient texts right now...”

The boys looked at each other and then strained to think back to the texts they had both read from since they’d been old enough to open their eyes. Stuttering, they made their way through.

“Alpha… Beta… Gamma… Delta… Epsilon…”

Again raising his hand, Xantos stopped them.

“No, that is too easy. I want you to do it backwards.”

Now an even more perplexed look came over their faces, they had to strain even more so.

“Omega… Psi… Sigma… Omicron…”

The Prince cut his friend off.

“No you fool, Upsilon comes well after Omicron. The backwards order is Omega, Psi, Sigma, Upsilon, Chi…”

Now Tanus cut the Prince off.

“You have it all wrong, Chi is after Upsilon.”

“Are you suggesting that I don’t know the code of the ancient texts off by heart?”

“Your words are doing the suggesting, I am merely pointing it out.”

“Brave talk, if only you were as brave when I have a sword in my hand.”

“Maybe that cut on your face didn’t make it clear enough to you who is the better swordsman.”

“If you question that I cannot defeat you with a hand tied behind my back, a demonstration can be arranged very quickly.”

“Quit it!” Xantos yelled. With that, the boys both went silent. “I need quietness to read this letter, I want both of you to get out of here right now.”

“Yes sir,” they both said proudly.

“And practice reciting the code of the ancient texts backwards, you’ve both butchered it.”

With a nod, both boys picked up their swords, and scurried off into the grand garden. They made their way outside, into the sunshine.

The garden was very big, at least fifty yards across, and was shaped in an oval. The castle surrounded it on every side, while balconies and countless windows looked out over it. It was here that the boys were preparing to duel again, but it was then that they saw someone else in the garden with them. It was Jessica Tanus, the younger sister of the older boy, Alec Tanus.

Seeing her, the young Prince turned away, as he was afraid she would see him as well. Alec had drawn his sword, and was ready to fight, yet saw his friend cower away under the shadow of a very large balcony, which was not far from where they stood.

“What’s wrong, Alec?” Tanus wondered, not understanding why his friend had hidden himself away.

Whispering, the Prince responded.

“It’s your sister, Jessica Tanus. She is on the far side of the garden.”

“So?” Tanus asked, still unclear as to what the problem was.

It didn’t surprise the Prince that Tanus did not understand. He had never cared for someone as much as the Prince cared for that girl sitting only meters away in the garden.

“I can’t let her see me! What if I make a fool of myself?”

Tanus lowered his sword, not sure what it was he was hearing. Realizing, he stood wide eyed.

“You like my sister!?”

The Prince cringed in hearing how loud Tanus had yelled it.

“Quiet! What are you trying to do, have her find out?”

Tanus smiled, he walked into the shadows with his scared friend and put his arm around him, as only a true friend would have.

“Relax, Alec Crimson,” he whispered, “I have overheard her talking about you to her friends. If I am not mistaken, she likes you as well.”

The Prince’s eyes lit up. That had sounded almost too good to be true.

“She does?”

Alec Tanus nodded.

“That’s right, and I’d bet that she’s just as scared to see you, as you are to see her.”

It took all of the young Prince’s courage just to peek his head out. Slowly walking out of the balcony’s shadow, they both watched her as she was sitting on the grass, reading a very large book.

Her hair was tied back with a red ribbon, just as it always had been, and just as it always would be. Still watching her, the Prince whispered, not taking the chance she would hear them.

“I don’t know Alec… She is so beautiful.”

Tanus grabbed the nervous Prince by the shoulders and looked him right in the eye.

“Listen to me Alec Crimson, you have to be fearless. I want you to walk right over there and tell her how you feel.”

For a moment, the Prince was energized. He spoke with a renewed enthusiasm.

“You’re right!” There was a pause, his new confidence fading. “…But what if she only likes boys with blonde hair?”

Now Alec Tanus was becoming frustrated.

“We could stand here all day and worry about ‘what ifs.’ The best advice I can give you is to take the chance, live fast and die hard. Just walk over and talk to her. Trust me, she’s been waiting for you.”

The Prince took a deep breath. He then ran his hand through his hair and dusted himself off. Tanus helped him by straightening his collar.

“How come it feels as though I’m going off to fight a difficult battle, Alec?” The Prince asked jokingly.

“Because you are,” Tanus answered, “your opponent is fear.”

The Prince gave him a curious look. Tanus then quoted a line from one of the thickest stories that they had both once read from the ancient texts.

“Once more unto the breach, Alec Crimson,” he said smiling.

Recognizing the line, the Prince now knew he could summon the courage that he needed. From a nearby thorn bush Alec Tanus drew a single rose, and handed it to the young Prince.

Taking the rose, and with a deep breath, the boy nodded.

Then with a first few cautious steps, and soon more confidently, he walked closer to the girl whom he loved oh so much. He looked down at the rose, then back at his friend, who was still egging him on. With one last deep breath, he then took the final strides toward her.

It wasn’t long until he was right in front of her, and she looked up from her book, shielding her eyes from the bright sun that blanketed the entire garden.

“Hello, Alec Crimson,” she blurted out, obviously very nervous as well.

Unsure, the Prince sat down next to her. Seeing her book, he asked the only question he could think of.

“Hello, Jessica Tanus. What is it that you’re reading?”

Her thoughts raced, she knew she could not let him see what it was she had been reading. Quickly she closed the book and rested it as far away as she could have reached without getting up from where she sat. Making well sure to face the cover downwards. The title on the book was written clearly: ‘Everything you ever would have wanted to know about the Crimson royal family.’

The Prince looked down at the rose, and then up at her again.

“I brought this for you,” he somehow found the courage to say.

She took it, smiling.

“Why, thank you very much. It’s beautiful.”

Now was the moment of truth, he gulped as he knew that this is where the battle against his fear would be won or lost.

“I’ve come here to tell you that… I think you are the most beautiful girl in the entire world…” He paused briefly and then went on. “I would race to the ends of the earth, and fight ten thousand monsters, just to look into your eyes for one brief moment.”

Blushing, she turned away. His heart beat a mile a minute, he knew his fate, whatever path it may take, would make or break itself right here. Turning back, she looked strangely at him.

“You know you have a streak of mud on your cheek, don’t you?”

The Prince lifted his hand quickly to wipe it away, but was guided down by the young girl.

“Relax,” she said reassuring him. She reached out and touched the mud, taking some on the tips of her fingers. She then raised her muddy fingers to her face, and smeared some along her cheek as well.

“See, there’s no need to be embarassed,” she then said with a smile, “you’re very sweet Alec Crimson… I was wondering how long it would take you to find the courage to come speak to me, and I’m so glad you finally have.”

Reaching down, he took her hand and held it in both of his. The battle had been won, and he had been victorious. He’d beaten his fear, and now delivered the final blows so that never would his enemy return again. He whispered quietly, so that only she, and mostly not her brother, would hear...

“No words I could ever say could even begin to do you the justice that you deserve. In fact, a million poets writing for a million years, could not come within a million pages of ever expressing how truly beautiful you are, or how thankful I am for having met you. I love everything about you, your hair, your eyes, your smile, the look you get after you’ve just told off your older brother Alec Tanus… Everything. For you, I would do anything, and without you, my life is not worth living.”

From far away, where Alec Tanus watched, he could see his sister leaning in and whispering something into the Prince’s ear, afterward they both began to laugh. He knew that from this point forward, his friend would be much more than he had been before. He would be almost arrogant with confidence, and difficult battles would be something he sought out, and no longer something that he avoided. Alec Tanus then unfolded his arms and picked up both their swords. He carried them off back to the armory, for now he’d leave them alone. Fate permitting, he also at that moment wondered if this could one day lead to Alec Crimson becoming his brother-in-law…

But little did these pint sized warriors know, destiny had a far different plan in mind. One which was far darker, and would end almost exactly fifteen years to the day later, at the altar inside the church in distant city of Tristram.

Caught well off guard by the letter’s contents, Xantos needed a moment to take it all in. He held the tattered letter, not sure what to make of it, but terrified by the prospect that it’s contents may be every bit as true as the messenger claimed they were. He put it on to the table, and raised his hand to his head in contemplation. Soon after, the massive door inched open, and into the great hall slipped Aramon, in his company the messenger whom the Prince known as ‘Fearless’ had met in Westmarch some nights before. He marveled at the great hall, never had he seen a room so large, let alone so much gold and silver in one place at one time.

With the letter in hand, Xantos approached the man. He held it up to the his face and spoke very quietly.

“You are the messenger who has delivered this?”

“I am,” the messenger answered, still in awe of the room he now found himself in.

By Xantos’ actions, Aramon was now very confused. This was by no stretch of the imagination the protocol when receiving a strange letter.

“What does the letter say?” Aramon asked curiously.

With a stunning seriousness, and an odd calmness, Xantos unfolded the letter and read it aloud.

“‘To General Xavier Xantos, campaigner of the Crimson guard.’”

Pausing, Xantos looked the messenger over again, and went on.

“‘Dear General, these are dire times in which we find ourselves. I know very well that what I speak of in this letter may be very difficult to believe, perhaps impossible. I only ask that you bear with me, and accept the possibility that I am who I claim, and the events that I spell out have happened, must happen, and will happen again… I am Crown Prince Alec Crimson of my empire of the same name, and am technically speaking, the same boy you know to be less than five years old, and are no doubt looking at as you read these words. However, in every tangible way, I am not. Through means that are far too complex to explain, I have traveled almost exactly fifteen years back through time, and have arrived here, under a sun that I know to have set a very long time ago… The reason I write to you is of the utmost importance, and it is imperative that you make close note of what I am about to make you aware of… The ancient texts, stolen from before the time of the great King Illiad, do not lie… The creature we knew only as legend, ‘Diablo,’ does indeed exist, and resides beyond the eastern mountains. In little more than fourteen years, in the late winter of the 421st year, an army numbering of more than ten thousand men, led by General Joseph Aramon, will discover, in those same eastern mountains, the passage that legend calls ‘Illiad Valley.’ The valley leads beyond the mountains, and even to the entrance to Hell itself, and the once thought to be mythical city of gold. Under normal circumstances, those facts would be a cause for celebration, after all those cities and the dozens of others near them would make powerful additions to our mighty Empire. However, I am sorry to report that they will not… On the same night that Aramon and his men find the valley, a beast who is as vile a servant of Diablo as any, will send his armies of the night against our own. The ten thousand Crimson guardsman will be slaughtered, and the very next day I will slit Aramon’s throat to end his suffering. Under direct command of the King, an army of ten times that many men will be commanded to tame, conquer, and conquest the evil lands of the east in the greatest crusade in all of our four hundred year history. This time led by no one other than yourself, less than a week after the massacre at Illiad, your army will march on the city of gold and on every city in between… It will soon spell the most stunning defeat ever recorded in our history. Every single one of those hundred thousand sons of the empire will be killed, including yourself. The servants of Diablo will unleash their armies on our capital of Arcadia not long after. In the days that follow, more than one million citizens will die defending the city, including every member of the royal family, even my father the King, and my fiancé Jessica Tanus. Less than a month after the discovery of the valley of Illiad, the entire empire will be thrown into chaos, finally dissipating and disappearing, and existing no where else but in history from that point forward… This cannot be allowed to happen, and these events cannot be allowed to take place. As soon as this letter has reached you, you must gather a force the likes of which the world has never seen. Within as little time as possible, you must march our armies through Illiad valley, whose coordinates I’ve provided on the back of this letter, and beyond the once thought to be impassable eastern mountains. Wipe every single town you find on the other side from the face of the earth. Let no soldier or demon live, and let no building stand as far east as the city that will be called ‘Ashguard.’ Only then will the land be cleansed, the Devil be defeated, and our future be safe. The future of the entire Crimson empire rests on your shoulders Xavier, I know you well enough to know that you will not disappoint me. On the brightest day, in the darkest night, no evil shall escape our sight. Let those who follow the Devil’s light, beware of our power, Crimson might. Long live the Empire. Sincerely - Prince Alec-Michael Crimson… P.S. The northern fortress of Tabula Rasa may at first glance appear invincible, but taking it is simply a matter of sending an elite group of soldiers to assassinate it’s King, as his successor is not half the leader that he is. P.P.S. The correct reverse order is; Omega, Psi, Chi, Phi, Upsilon - but you know that as well as anyone I’m sure… Also, I have promised the messenger twice his weight in gold for delivering this letter, please give it to him as I have assured him that you will.’”

As Xantos stopped reading, the room was left in silence. Aramon paced back and forth with his head lowered, and Xantos stared the messenger right in the eye again. He whispered very quietly, as though he were either very angry, or very anxious.

“I’ll ask you this only one time… Where did you get this letter?”

The messenger glanced over at Aramon who was looking out over the grand garden, and then back at Xantos who could have shattered a glass with the stare he gave.

“A town called ‘Westmarch.’ It was given to me by a man, not even twenty, he wore a black uniform as you do, and had a red crest on his arm. His hair was a light black, and his eyes were a bright blue.”

The silence continued, Xantos’ stare becoming even more intense. His eyes turned very angry, as he finally spoke.

“What kind of fool do you take me for?”

The messenger had not expected that response.

“Excuse me?”

Xantos looked down at the letter and quoted directly from it.

“‘Beyond the eastern mountains’… ‘Diablo exists’… It didn’t make any sense whatsoever why someone would dare walk in here with such lunacy as this… That is, until I read the last line; ‘I have promised the messenger twice his weight in gold for delivering this message, please give it to him as I have assured him that you will.’”

Xantos looked up from the paper, and stared directly into the man’s eyes again.

“I have no idea how you have learned such secret things as our oldest and most sacred saying, or the contents of the lessons which I have taught to the young Prince… But I promise you will regret that you have… You see messenger, every official letter from one member of the royal family to another, or even to a campaigner such as myself, has a symbol drawn in the bottom right corner to certify authenticity… This letter does not have that symbol.”

The messenger was left speechless.

“It was raining a great deal… I fell off my horse many times and the letter got very wet… Perhaps the symbol has just washed off.”

Both Xantos and Aramon snickered as the messenger scrambled around for answers, when he so obviously didn’t have them.

“I’ll tell you why the symbol isn’t on there, messenger. It is because the letter did not come from a fairytale town called ‘Westmarch.’ You fabricated it, trying to have us hand you over twice your weight in gold… As you know, we have very few prisons in the Empire, that is because there is essentially only one punishment we assign, and you my messenger friend, are under arrest.”

The messenger was stunned by those words as Aramon was quick to grab him by the arm.

“What are the charges?”

Xantos smiled, surprised that even still the messenger tried to act as though he was unfamiliar with the workings of Arcadia law.

“There are no ‘charges.’ I am a campaigner, if I say you will die, then you will die.”

From behind the man, two royal guards approached. Before he could defend himself, one used the butt-end of his sword to knock the man unconscious. Shortly there after, with a nod from Aramon, the messenger was dragged away. Shaking his head in disgust, Xantos walked to the window where his comrade was standing. Picking up a nearby candle, Xantos held it to the letter, lighting the corner on fire.

As he held it, the fire traveled slowly up the paper, and as it reached the tips of his fingers, he dropped it. The burning letter hit the ground, and soon was little more than ashes that blew away with the spring breeze that traveled in from the door that the two boys had left open.

Now that the letter and it’s lies were gone, and the messenger as good as dead, Xantos and Aramon both looked out the monstrous window in silence. They saw before them the budding spring flowers of the grand garden, and the young Prince sitting closely with the girl near his age named Jessica Tanus.

“You must promise me something Alec Crimson…” The young girl whispered to her prince. “…That for me, and forever, you will always be fearless.”

There was silence for a moment, as the young Prince’s heart melted.

“For you… I promise,” he whispered back to her.

Little did the two veteran warriors know while looking out the massive window, but behind them at that very moment, the young Alec Tanus had taken an interest in the ratty old book bound by three tarnished gold rings, as well as the map the Crimsons had been using to search for the grail. Glancing through the pages in awe, he paused and read aloud one of the few passages which had managed to catch his attention.

“‘Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, remembered by no one, and signifying nothing…’” He would be sure to remember it.

‘The future,’ the letter claimed, was in their hands. For now it seemed, with that letter in ashes, that future would be allowed to play itself out however their fates had decided that it will. God help them all.

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

Far to the east at that same moment…

They passed the fountain, walking down the center of the street, the infamous and dreaded church in front of them. The puddles were deep, and there were plenty of them in most places. The rain still fell lightly, but the teeth of the storm had long past in the late hours of the morning. The sun was still hidden, and so were the town’s villagers. They hadn’t seen a soul since leaving Dorado, as the weather had kept almost everyone in doors.

The closer they had come, the more the necromancer had noticed it. As they neared the entrance to hell, the soulstone resonated softly in the pocket in which he carried it.

The near gothic building was overgrown with vines, as the entire town had that same certain illiterable mystique about it. They reached the stone stairs which led into the church, and were somewhat surprised to see that the door was slightly ajar. Both Atlas and Intruder looked to each other, giving one another final approval for what it was that they had planned. Once Abadon was dead, they knew there’d be no going back, and the future they remembered would in every realistic sense, cease to exist. With no one to challenge their power, taking all of Khanduras would be an easy task, the only hinges being that they would need to destroy the forest Colossus, so that no one would follow them back, that and block the Valley of Death in the western mountains, so that no foreign armies would ever come through as they had once before. When the task they now set themselves to was completed, all of the world would be theirs to command.

They took a step up the stairs, and it was then that the doors swung open. Two figures emerged from the darkness, and as they became clear, both Intruder and Atlas knew what had happened. They were Shin Hikaru and the western Prince they called ‘Fearless.’

“Welcome to Tristram,” Shin said smiling.

They had been betrayed, that much was now a certainty. At some point, Celes had been coerced by the travelers as history had written that she had been once before.

“I believe you have something that belongs to us,” the Prince said forcefully.

From his cloak, Intruder produced the soulstone. It glowed dimly and perhaps even vibrated softly in the palm of his hand. Lifting it up, Intruder spoke with a great deal of confidence.

“Do you expect us to just hand this over to you, without a fight?”

“Of course not,” Shin said cheerfully, “I expect you to hand it over to us, with a fight.”

From the shadows surrounding the church, Glitterspike and Kain soon became visible. Intruder turned quickly, only to see Xeiss and Severen behind them, while Mercy, D and Celes closed in on either side.

“Why, Celes?” Atlas asked, stunned by the fact that she had sided against him.

“I’m doing this for you, Atlas, for both of us. I don’t want to live in a world governed by evil. And I certainly don’t want to live only as a vampire, a mere reflection of the person I am now. I deserve better, you deserve better, Khanduras deserves better. I’m sorry, but believe me when I say that this is for your own good.”

There was a tense moment as Intruder, Atlas, and the nine heroes drew their weapons and postured. Seeing that a battle was imminent, Atlas spoke.

“I’ll kill each of you, or die trying… All with the exception of Celes of course.”

Shin smirked.

“That’s just what I was hoping you’d say.”

With those words, the battle was joined. The thin cold rain fell in Tristram and ran through the streets on that wet spring afternoon of fifteen years in the past, as on that night, the blood spilt would surely do the same.

Once Upon a Time, part four


“See, I told you they were there,” the Paladin said, pointing at the flickering lights in the distance.

Squinting, the other guard atop the tower slowly nodded.

“There looks like quite a number of them, seven or eight perhaps.”

From the tallest tower of the fortress Colossus, the two watchmen peered out into the darkness of the forest. They saw approaching the torches of seven horseman, and could hear clearly the sound of a wagon that they likely pulled behind them.

“I doubt that they are Westmarchers, they’d not dare come back so soon after the sound thrashing we gave them only a few days ago.”

The two Paladins watched as the lights made their way closer, and soon the darkness showed that they were indeed horsemen, and pulled behind them a wagon with three bodies spread out and tied to it. As the horsemen reached the gate, one of the watchmen called out his standard greeting.

“Who goes there?”

Shin Hikaru looked up at the massive tower, and shouted as loudly as he could have.

“We are travelers, just passing through. We have come to see the forest Colossus.”

“Not just anyone can see the forest Colossus,” the voice was quick to shout back.

Severen stepped forward, motioning Shin aside with his hand.

“Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas.”

Only quietness was heard from the tower. Soon the gates to the city crept open, as to welcome the travelers inside. Cautiously forward they rode, their cart with three bodies tied to it not far behind, none of them sure how the perhaps hostile Paladins would welcome them.

Inside the gates, they found their caution was more than unjustified. Shoulder to shoulder, every step of the way from the gate to the Colossus, the Paladins lined the streets, paving the way for them. One, very surely the leader, welcomed each of the heroes with open arms.

“Welcome to Colossus. Here, you are among friends.”

It may have been unclear to an impartial observer, but to these fundamentalist Paladins, anyone who spoke the creed of the sacred Holy Grail, was almost sacred themselves. Shin, somewhat uncomfortable with, and uncertain why they had been assigned this attention, made sure they knew exactly why he and his group had come.

“We’re from fifteen years in the future, and we need to return through the…”

The Paladin cut him off.

“We know Shin Hikaru, we know exactly who you are and why you’re here… We know each of you, just as time knows each of you. Not only Shin Hikaru, but Algorith van Demonican, Severen, Captain Xeiss Rasha, Alec Crimson…”

He paused looking at Kain. Answering a question that it was clear was about to be asked.

“I’ll let you determine that for yourself, Kain.” He continued. “Celes, the Paladin Mercy… Even the Paladin Glitterspike, who at this very moment is laying on that cart you pull behind you, pretending to be dead, because he fears that we hold a grudge against our Westmarch cousins.”

Opening his eyes suddenly, Glitterspike rose up from the cart to which he was tied, smiling as he realized that these Paladins knew the forest Colossus, and the forest Colossus knew the power of the Holy Grail, and the Holy Grail knew everything.

“We also know the barbarian Atlas and the necromancer Intruder.” The Paladin paused as he put his hand to each of their heads, as they were unconscious, strapped to the cart as well. “They are unconscious, but will survive.”

Not planning on bringing the cart through with them, Intruder and Atlas would have to be cut free and carried, as if they were to die, they could not be allowed to die in the past. Severen reached down to his belt and withdrew his knife, but stopped abruptly as he remembered from where he had gotten it. He remembered the night he first rode into Colossus, and the old man that had tossed it to him. The knife that bared the initials of the Prince they called ‘Fearless,’ and how mystified he was that the old man had it.

“Fearless…” Severen said, holding up the knife, “let me see your dagger.”

The Prince reached down and pulled out his dagger. It was identical to the one which Severen held, perhaps his looked a bit older. Other than that though, it was the same right down to even the initials and the smallest detail. By this, the Prince was staggered.

“But that is impossible… This dagger was engraved for me on my tenth birthday, it is one of a kind. Where did you get that one which is so similar…?”

Left dumbfounded as well, Severen turned to the Paladin.

“From an old man when I originally rode in… Paladin, can you explain this?”

Carrying a very serious look about him, the Paladin stared deeply into Severen’s eyes and spoke.

“Only the wise man may enter, and only the tin man may escape.”

The Paladin had said it as though it was the clearest of answers possible, yet to the nine travelers, it clarified nothing. Seeing that they were still confused, the Paladin took the knives from both Severen and Fearless’ hands. He gave the knife Severen had held to Fearless, and the knife Fearless had held to Shin Hikaru. The Prince and Shin were left looking at each other, not sure what to think of all this. The Paladin then raised his finger and pointed directly toward the mouth of the giant stone head which they called the ‘Colossus.’

“It is time. Time to venture into the heart of the Colossus,” he whispered.

When the Paladin said ‘it was time,’ these travelers weren’t about to assume that it wasn’t. They knew that now is when they would venture back, hoping that the future they found was the one they had protected, and not an everlasting shrine to how badly they had polluted history or a tapestry unraveled, now is when they would walk forward. D lifted Intruder over his shoulders, and it would take all the strength of Kain, Fearless and Severen combined to lift Atlas over theirs. As the bulk of the group made their way off toward the forest Colossus, Xeiss, Shin Hikaru, Glitterspike and Mercy did not do so. They stayed back with the twelve year old Celes, who would not be returning to the world from which the others had come. Lowering Atlas for a moment, the Prince spoke to her.

“I wish time had afforded me the opportunity to know you better,” he said with a great deal of admiration as he shook her hand.

Kain had words to say to her as well. As he spoke, his voice was something that it rarely was, laced with a great deal of emotion.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t able to protect you Celes,” he whispered.

She looked at him strangely.

“But nothing has happened…”

“It will,” he answered softly, “and you have no idea how sorry I am that I wont be able to prevent it.”

Kain and the Prince walked off, leaving Celes still confused. Shin Hikaru extended his hand, gathering herself, she grabbed it and shook it firmly.

“It was good seeing you again Celes, you did an excellent job.”

As Shin let go of her hand, Mercy hugged her around the neck tightly.

“Take care of yourself, Celes.”

Glitterspike also shook her hand.

“If you’re ever in Westmarch, there’s a young man who has a very sore arm. He could use a friend as good as you’ve been.”

With one last look, the others walked away, leaving only Celes and Xeiss alone together.

“What can I say…” Xeiss said, as she used her right index finger to touch the exact spot that an arrow would one day hit, “…You’re a good kid, Celes.”

After a strong glance they then exchanged, Xeiss leaned in and hugged all that remained of one of the best friends that she had ever known.

“I’ll miss you…” She whispered softly.

They both knew what they would now have to do.

“I’ll need your help for this, Celes.” Xeiss said, wiping the stray tear from her cheek, “I can’t do it alone.”

Xeiss raised both her hands up as she held her palms against Celes’ face.

“I’ll miss you as well, Xeiss,” Celes then said finally.

And with that, Celes closed her eyes. The beautiful rogue had to use every ounce of her strength to concentrate, as the sorceress tried her best not to resist. As she channeled all of her mental energy, she could feel herself start to become lightheaded as she spoke.

“Do not remember,” the rogue said softly.

As her concentration reached it’s climax, Celes collapsed to the ground, and was instantly in a deep sleep.

Xeiss gathered herself and looked down at her friend. She soon knelt and began dusting the dirt from Celes’ clothes. The Paladin walked closer, and Xeiss spoke to him.

“When she wakes up, she wont remember any of what’s happened over the past few days. I have favor to ask of you…”

The Paladin knew exactly what it was that he had to do.

“Don’t worry Xeiss, when she wakes up, she’ll be in Dorado. A large rock and her favorite book will be resting next to her. She’ll think a piece of one of the buildings fell on her head from high above, and she was knocked unconscious, causing her to lose the last two days of her memory. The next time she sees you, will be many years from now, near the town of Arkanok, when you raise your sword to try and kill Intruder. From this point forward, she will be oblivious to all of the events that you’ve told her will happen… Even the arrow.”

“Thank you,” Xeiss said to the Paladin, while rising to her feet.

From near the forest Colossus, Shin called to her.

“Xeiss, hurry up, we don’t have all day.”

“Coming, Shin,” she yelled back as she turned to leave.

But before she did, she gave one last look to Celes, who as anything but a monster, she knew she would never see again. Again wiping a tear from her eye, she ran down the center of the street, between the rows of Paladins which stood respectfully looking on.

To one of the Paladins, a boy ran up, his age about two. He was the son of the Paladin, and hugged his father’s leg.

“Hi daddy,” the boy whispered, careful not to cause too much of a disturbance.

Seeing his son, the father lifted him into his arms, and held him closely. They were over fifty yards from the Colossus, and they each looked on as the travelers ventured closer to the statue that would send them home. The father whispered to his son, as they were well out of the heroes’ range of hearing.

“Hello, son. I see you have come to watch the travelers return home.”

The boy was a little bit confused.

“But where is their home exactly, Dad?”

The father smiled.

“Very, very far away. But I promise, you’ll one day be there.”

The boy, who had overheard the conversation between the Paladin at the gate, and the heroes as they had entered mere moments ago, had even more questions.

“Daddy, what’s a ‘tin man’?”

“A ‘tin man,’” the father explained, “is a man who forsakes his emotions.”

“And why do the travelers have to be a ‘tin man to escape’?”

As the father and son watched, one by one, the heroes began walking into the mouth of the forest Colossus.

“It’s very simple son, if any warrior carries around too much emotional pain, then they are living in the past, and why would someone who is living in the past, need to return to the future?”

As one by one, the warriors walked through, the father explained even further to his son, using each hero as an example.

“That hero is a vampire hunter, he has recently lost someone crucial to the role he was destined to play, yet lives in the moment and couldn’t care less about his past… The necromancer he carries on his back, has betrayed his past, leaving everyone he cared about behind. They are both the ‘tin man.’”

They continued to watch as even more of the heroes walked through.

“That man is a nomad, like the vampire hunter, he thinks little about the future and even less about the past. Many skeletons hide in his closet, prominent among which is a girl in the mountains he once had to leave behind, but he is still a ‘tin man’…” The father went on. “That man is a Paladin of Westmarch. He once had some very strong emotional pain, but he has traded it for a small burn scar on his right arm… That man was once the Prince of an entire empire. He perhaps carried the deepest pain of all, but he feels it has all been removed by the sending of a single letter. Little does he know, that the pain is still there, the letter will not achieve it’s goal. Nevertheless, they are both the ‘tin man’… That man has a mysterious past, and as such, is the most ‘tin’ of all men… The barbarian they carry with them, is not a man like you or I, his vampirism and belief in evil make him ‘tin’ as well… The female Paladin is still very young, and hasn’t had near the time to accumulate the amount of pain that would prevent her from returning to the future… The rogue carries very strong pain, and on most days, hers would be too great for the Colossus to let her through. But recently, in her dreams and a near-death experience, she has found peace, and although that may not completely relieve her burden of emotion, today it will lead her home…”

The father and son looked on as only one hero remained.

“And what about that last hero, daddy?”

The father looked closely at his son, and made sure that above all else, his son heard what it was that he was about to say. He hoped that his son would remember it, even if he remembered nothing else of what he had just said.

“That hero, son, is Shin Hikaru, the hero of heroes. A man set on this earth with a purpose higher and more sacred than all others. His mission is to free the land of evil’s grasp, and deliver us all from the scourge that will one day grip all of Khanduras like an iron claw…”

The boy looked back at his father, surprised by this.

“And is he a ‘tin man’?”

The father hesitated in response, as he held his son’s head close to his chest and the cross thereon.

“He is burdened by having failed in the mission he has been entrusted to do, and has not recovered from having come so close, yet so far, so many times to fulfilling his destiny. The scar in his forehead is tangible proof of that, his emotions, hate, guilt, anger, overpower him… He is not the ‘tin man,’ the Colossus will not let him pass.”

As they watched, Shin followed the others down the stairs and into belly of the ancient and massive forest Colossus. The Paladins looked on intently, as they walked away and out of view.

It was a few moments later, that only Shin emerged from the mouth of the beast, and was surprised to see not a single one of his companions around, and even more surprised to still find himself in the past.

“I don’t understand… This should be the other side, the future… What has happened?”

The Paladin walked to Shin, who was about to go back inside, but turned as he saw the Paladin approaching him.

“Only the tin man may escape.”

Shin was now starting to understand.

“Are you saying that I’m not a ‘tin man’?”

“Some are, some are not. You Shin Hikaru, the hero of heroes, are not.”

Shin wasn’t prepared to just accept that.

“Give me another chance, I know I can prove to this monstrosity that I am every bit the ‘tin man.’”

Along the main street, the two rows of Paladins which lined either side, broke rank. Returning to their daily routines and lives as they would have on any other day.

“No,” the Paladin answered, “each man is allowed only one chance to prove himself, and you have used that chance. If you enter again, the Colossus will ignore that you are even there at all… I’m sorry.”

The Paladin, with a grim face, turned and walked away. Shin was left standing in the middle of the bustling street, just now coming to grips with what this meant his future would be. He shouted to the Paladin who was now many paces away.

“Well what am I supposed to do now?”

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

“And the wild regrets, and the bloody sweats, none knew so well as I. For he who lives more lives than one, more deaths than one must die.”-Oscar Wilde

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

As they walked closer, the light became brighter. They’d left the darkness of the night behind, and now made their way back down and up the same two flights of stairs that they had ran on to reach the past two and a half days before. The arch was even closer now, and it wasn’t long until they reached it, and walked out into the afternoon sunlight, the sun’s rays beating down. Perhaps never, in all the sights that they had seen collectively, was anything more refreshing than the sight they then saw.

They were in the town of Colossus still, but not the same one from which they had just come. Most of the buildings were left in ruins, bodies of slain Paladins littered the streets, and the ground was tiled with stone. From here they could see that a drawbridge raised and lowered outside the castle walls, there was not merely a gate as there had been fifteen years in the past. They were home, and while some of the heroes took deep breaths of the air to which they were so accustom and had missed, others fell to the street and kissed the very ground that they at times doubted that they would ever see again.

Seeing them, the Paladins scrambled, and in silence, stopped what they did to look on at the heroes. Among the inhabitants of the city were many familiar faces, many of which the heroes recognized, although they now looked much older. One of the Paladins, the same one whose instructions had guided them in, approached them and spoke.

“The cycle is now complete… Time has resumed it’s shape.”

But D, Kain, Severen and Fearless had larger concerns than more of the Paladin’s backwards riddles. While passing through the threshold and the darkness that followed, Intruder and Atlas had been seemingly lifted from their shoulders. And now that they were on the other side, neither were anywhere to be found.

“What’s happened to the barbarian and the necromancer we carried with us?” D asked with confusion.

The Paladin smiled as though he had heard this kind of question asked many times before.

“They did not enter the Colossus at the same point in time that you did, that sometimes means that they will leave the Colossus at a different point in time as well.”

The heroes knew that meant Atlas and Intruder may not emerge from the Colossus for days, or perhaps they had already hours ago. Looking into the sun, the travelers were amazed to realize that it was in almost the exact same place it had been when they had left two days before. For a thinking man or woman, that was almost too much of a coincidence. Mercy looked to the Paladin, and asked another question.

“How long have we been gone?”

“You may have lived days since embarking on your trip, but to us, it was a mere twenty or thirty minutes ago that you left.”

“And what of the armies of Abadon that occupied the entire city?”

“Not long after you entered, they were called away… We suspect that Abadon has other plans for this town.”

But now the most pressing of concerns came to their attention, looking around, they could see that Shin Hikaru was also not with them.

“What happened to Shin?” Severen asked the Paladin.

“Shin Hikaru,” the Paladin answered, “was not a ‘tin man,’ he was not able to escape, and he never will be.”

Surely he didn’t mean what they thought he meant.

“Are you saying that Shin is trapped fifteen years in the past?”

Slowly, the Paladin nodded. Seeing this, Kain piped up for the first time since they had stepped back through.

“We can’t just leave him there… He was the hero required to seal Diablo, no other man can fill those boots.”

“What would you have us do?” Severen asked, “go back for him?”

“You seven travelers can never go back again,” the Paladin noted.

“Well we can’t just abandon him, Severen. He’s alone in a strange land, with no friends, very few people he can safely talk to, and for protection he has only his sword and…” Kain was alarmed by what next he realized. “…Fearless’ dagger.”

The Prince drew the dagger from his belt, the one whose twin was given to Shin Hikaru by the Paladin minutes before. The Paladin had given Shin the newer version, while Fearless now retained the older. And Severen had received the older version of the same one of a kind dagger, from an old man as he had originally rode in.

Far across the town, that same old man, shrouded in a tattered cloak, rested against a nameless shop’s wall. Knowing that his time had come, he rose up from where he sat, and with his head lowered, walked toward the mouth of the Colossus where the seven heroes waited. The Paladins parted and moved for him as he walked steadily closer. Finally reaching them, the old man stopped. He removed his hood, and it was then that Severen realized why the man had looked so familiar when he had seen him from a distance several nights before.

“My God… Shin, is that you?”

He didn’t have to answer, because although his face was graced with a thick beard, his skin lined and wrinkled with age, and the rest of his exterior bruised by time, to these warriors who knew him so well, there was no question that he was the same friend whom they had left only a few moments before.

With his jaw dropped, Severen circled the old man, having to make certain that it was who it seemed to be.

“We only left you a few seconds ago, just after Xeiss hypnotized Celes, and the Paladin gave you the knife…” He said in awe.

For the first time, the old man spoke. His voice parched, and his manner strikingly familiar.

“For you it may have been only a few seconds, but for me, those things happened almost fifteen years ago.”

Moving away his now much longer hair from his eyes, the signature depression in his forehead was as obvious as ever. Over the years, it had grown in somewhat, but was still unmistakable. It was no surprise, that for most of them, including Severen, this was very difficult to accept.

“You’re an old man Shin… Surely there is a way that we can reverse or fix what has happened somehow.”

“I’m afraid not,” Shin said with an eerie frankness, “I have spent the better portion of two decades trying to find a way to correct this error, sadly I have found nothing even close. Even if we were to send someone else back in time to recover me, they could not remove the guilt from my soul, or hate from my heart, and those are the things that will always prevent me from passing through this damned statue again.”

“Is that how you’ve spent the last fifteen years,” Glitterspike asked, “trying to undo this horrible injustice that has been done?”

“Largely,” Shin answered, “there isn’t much more I could have done, not without having interfered with the way history had originally unfolded. And above that, I have learned, there is no greater crime.”

“But surely,” Severen reasoned, “you could have used the soulstone to seal Diablo and defeat Abadon, say, six months ago… It would have been very easy, and the damage to history would have been only minimal.”

“No I couldn’t have, Severen. After defeating Intruder and Atlas at Tristram, I let you carry the soulstone, I did not have another one to use.”

From his sleeve, much as he had done once before, Severen withdrew the soulstone from where he had carried it. Reaching down, he took Shin’s weathered hand, and planted the stone in it firmly.

“You may not have had the soulstone then, but you have it now.”

Shin held the soulstone for a few seconds, as he knew that this was a moment he had waited all of fifteen years for. With it grasped tightly, he raised the soulstone to his head. He pressed it up against the partially filled in pit of tissue, and with all his might, pushed downward. Making a blood curdling sound, the small stone slipped back into the place it was always meant to be. Time had made him so bitter, that even this pain barely phased him. After a moment of collecting himself, Shin spoke to the seven heroes which surrounded him.

“That’s right, I do have it now. Right this very moment, we will ride to Dorado and into the lion’s den… With our courage, cunning, and guile, and the aid of the soulstone, we will face the heart of terror, Abadon. I will finish something I should have finished a very long time ago.”

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

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate. Rough winds do shake the darling buds of may. And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.” -William Shakespeare

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

“Celes, wake up,” She heard a voice say.

Slowly opening her eyes, Celes found herself in the familiar city Dorado, her companion Atlas leaning over her. She needed time to focus her eyes, as she felt the back of her head. It throbbed very badly.

“Atlas… What’s happened?”

Atlas helped her sit up straight, and began wiping the mud off of her face as he held a rather large rock up which sat next to her.

“You were a day late coming back to Arkanok, I was worried about you. I came searching, scared something had happened and you were hurt, lying in a ditch somewhere… It turns out I was right, I found you here a few minutes ago, with your face down in the mud. It looks like you were sitting down to read, when this rock broke off somewhere high up on the castle, and hit you on the head.”

Still feeling her head, Celes was disappointed that he didn’t think she could fend for herself, but happy he had come nonetheless.

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

Hearing herself say those words, she gave herself a very strange feeling.

“Wow, déjà vu.”

Holding her close to him, he tried to fix her hair which was all strewn about in a mess as he asked her a question.

“What’s the last thing you remember?”

She thought back as hard as she could have. Never before had her memories seemed so unclear.

“The last thing I remember, is walking over to the stand outside the bookstore, and asking William the owner if he had bound for me the latest royal publication on astronomical study… Then I remember waking up just now… That’s all.”

That was odd, but being hit on the head, they both supposed, may play tricks with one’s memory. Atlas helped her up. She tried to stand on her own, but was still dizzy and could not walk straight. Seeing this with a smile, Atlas scooped her up off of her feet and into his massive arms, preparing to carry her.

“Thanks Atlas, I owe you one.”

“No you don’t Celes. Seeing you smile is the only thanks I need.”

With Celes smiling brightly, he began to carry her off, but stopped as she tapped him on the shoulder.

“I forgot my book.”

He carried her back, and leaned down so that she could reach and retrieve the rather large book that she had been reading. She opened it as he continued to carry her, but as a look of curiosity crossed her face, he stopped once again.

“What’s wrong?” He asked curiously.

An odd thought for some reason then came over her, she asked him a strange question completely out of the blue.

“Do you ever think about the future, Atlas?”

“You mean like how long it will take us to get back to Arkanok?”

“No, not like that… I mean do you ever wonder where we’ll be in five, ten, or fifteen years, what we’ll be doing, and what we’ll be like?”

There was silence as the barbarian thought about it, he finally gave his answer.

“Not really… I leave most of the tough thinking to you, Celes.”

‘Good old Atlas,’ she thought. She threw her arms around his neck, and with that, he continued to carry her down the main street of Dorado on that summer afternoon. With the sun shining down brightly, the townspeople scurrying about their business as they normally would have, and in each other’s arms, to these two pure hearts, it must have seemed as though the future couldn’t have looked brighter. They must have thought that things could have remained this perfect forever.

Little did they know, how very wrong they would be.

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

He led them with a determination, that even in he, seldom had the heroes ever seen before. Maybe time had made him senile, or maybe he had just forgotten how terrifying an enemy the dark forces of Dorado could be, but in either case, most of the group agreed that this was almost certainly suicide. Through the darkness of the night they rode, they’d soon see the city’s hellish glow in the distance. They all remained quiet, focusing on the task that was laid out before them.

Riding far behind her fellow warriors, one of the heroes held her head low, she had troubles that to her ran far deeper than any dagger could have pierced her skin.

“I recall seeing a similar look,” the Prince noted, “on my face, not long ago as we rode along a path not unlike this one. Then, it was you who asked to know my thoughts, and what was troubling me. Now I ask you the same, Rasha.”

His speaking to her had broken the deep contemplation she had been in, she raised her head suddenly, having to think for a moment about what it was he had just said.

“It’s not something just anyone would understand.”

The Prince sat up on his horse confidently.

“Try me.”

She pondered for a moment if she should, and when considering how far away Dorado might still be, she’d thought there’d be little harm.

“What’s happened in the last few days, going back in time, and seeing Celes again, has really got me thinking…”

“…That there are some things about your past that you wish you could change?”

“I suppose you could say it that way… There was a part of me that wanted so badly to ride east, all the way to the monastery, and grab that little girl that I once was, and just hold her, and to tell her it’s all right and no one would ever hurt her again.”

There was silence for a moment, as the Prince silently pondered. With a smile on his face as though he was recalling a fond memory, he gave his response.

“That would be dishonorable though, Rasha… A man whom I admire very much once gave me some valuable advice; the most important virtue of any hero is honor. When a hero betrays that honor, somewhere, perhaps everywhere, a little piece of the world dies.”

“I know it would have been a lie,” she said sadly, “but the thought that there was a little girl out there, who was hurt so badly, never having known her father, and having lost her mother, I just would have wanted to tell her she is not alone.”

Now the Prince understood.

“And just when you thought that pain had ended, and you had found someone in whom you could trust, Kashya and Celes, they were taken from you as well.”

“Most of the group from those days are gone. Long before you joined us, there was a time when it was only Intruder, Atlas, Shin, Scarlet, Celes and I primarily. Each of them is either dead, or has surrendered their souls to sin and evil, all except Shin and I. Now that Shin has changed so drastically, I'm the only one left. I feel as though I’ve been left all alone once again.”

This was definitely something with which the Prince could identify.

“There was a time when I was also left alone in this godforsaken world, when not only everyone I have ever loved, but almost everyone I have ever known, was taken from me…”

Stopping his horse, the Prince grabbed Xeiss by the shoulders and looked right into her eyes.

“But you don’t have to feel that way anymore, Xeiss. Kain, Severen, Glitterspike, Mercy, the rest of the group and I, all care about you a great deal . I promise we’ll never abandon you, and you’ll never be left alone like that again… You’re not alone anymore, my rogue friend.”

Xeiss paused for a moment before responding.

“I had no idea you considered me your friend.”

The Prince took a deep breath as he reconsidered.

“On second thought, I don’t. Most of my friends are dead, I’d hate to see you end up that way as well.”

For a time, there was silence.

“Do you mind if I ask you something, Fearless?”

“All right,” he said reluctantly.

“What were you writing in the forest, when Mercy and Glitterspike interrupted you?”

The Prince lowered his hands from his grip on her shoulders, and slowly began marching his horse away.

“It was just what I said it was, a sketch of the diagram the Paladin had shown us.”

He was getting pretty far away now, Xeiss spoke loudly so that he would be sure to hear.

“You’re lying.”

“Am I?” He shouted back.

“Yes you are. As I read parts of your thoughts, it’s clear you’re trying to hide things from me.”

He turned and rode back to her. Close enough so that the other heroes who rode far ahead would surely not overhear.

“You must understand something, Rasha. When you care for someone so much you would do anything, even give your life for them, it is very difficult to pass on an opportunity to save them from dying before their time.”

Between his explanation and the fragments of thoughts she now picked up, it was clear what he had done.

“You sent yourself a letter… Warning yourself of what the consequences were if you pursued certain courses of action.”

“Sort of,” the Prince answered, “but that doesn’t matter anymore. Something has gone wrong, the letter either did not reach it’s destination, or it’s contents fell on deaf ears. The warnings I gave were ignored. History has progressed exactly as it would have, even had I not sent it.”

There was a pause.

“Well Fearless, since you’ve passed on advice someone whom you admire once gave to you, I feel somewhat obliged to do the same. It may not be as deeply philosophical, but I’m sure you’ll be able to appreciate it’s potency and truth.”

She motioned him closer, and whispered into his ear.

“Stop living your life for those who have died along the way, live for those who still live.”

After exchanging a glance, she rode ahead, leaving the Prince mulling over what it was she had just said. Dorado was nearing, and for that every ounce of their concentration would be needed. They were about to stray into a place from where only very few had ever returned. The moment of truth would soon be upon them.

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

Looking out over the city, they might as well have been staring with their eyes closed. The shroud of night was so thick, that not even the most distinct of the countryside’s features could be made out more than a few feet beyond the mighty wall. Nevertheless, the three servants of evil gazed outward from the balcony, perhaps not looking as much as they were thinking.

“How long do you suppose that she’s been gone?” Exile asked.

The other two who watched with him had no good answer.

“I don’t know,” Celes said softly, “but it’s Atlas and Intruder that worry me, they’ve been gone for almost three nights in pursuit of Severen.”

“It isn’t surprising that they haven’t returned,” Fuji said interrupting, “Abadon instructed them to recover the soulstone, they wouldn’t dare come back without it. Don’t you agree?”

But neither of the others responded, they were occupied by another matter. From the darkness, a faint outline came closer. It was a massive figure, and it sailed toward them through the night sky. It flew silently, although gusts of wind were blown their way from it’s monstrous wings, which was more than enough to spark their attention. As it made it’s way closer still, it was clear that it was the someone whom they had been waiting for. A familiar dragon, Scarlet had returned.

She glided toward them on the large balcony, seeing her come closer, and as it appeared that she would not stop in time, each of the three minions scrambled. Swooping down, the dragon buzzed the balcony, and then did so a second time, sending those on it ducking for cover yet again.

Finally landing steadily on the thick stone rail, the gruesome beast underwent a stunning transformation. Before their eyes, the twenty ton dragon slowly mutated into a beautiful young girl. The girl wore a red dress, and was no taller than five foot six or so. No matter how many times outsiders saw it, the sight still amazed them.

Gingerly, Scarlet jumped down from the rail. She turned to the three servants of evil, who were just now coming out from their hiding places.

“I’ll never get tired of doing that,” she said smiling.

Celes dusted herself off and rose to her feet.

“What have you found?”

Scarlet paused as she wasn’t sure if she should be discussing this with anyone but Abadon, but decided to continue on anyway.

“The band of adventurers is…”

“…On their way here, to Dorado,” a voice finished from the darkness.

Stepping out was the demon Abadon. Each of the others on the balcony nodded to him in respect, all except Scarlet, who was loyal to no one but herself.

“You saw them, Scarlet?”

“Yes,” she said as she looked down at her left shoulder. Faint but still visible, almost invisible in fact but still there, was a small pink line, a scar from where she had once been stabbed a very long time ago. “Twice, I realize now.”

“Were Atlas and Intruder with them?”

Scarlet looked at him scornfully.

“Don’t take that tone with me Abadon, I’m not one of your lackeys…” As the look of anger in her eye subsided, “no, it was merely the eight heroes.”

Hearing the answer, Abadon walked to balcony edge. He stared out over the pitch black landscape and asked her what it was that he truly wanted to know, the answer to which was the reason he had sent her to locate the group in the first place.

“Is it true what I’m told about Shin Hikaru, that he’s aged fifteen years?”

She hesitated in response, likely because an observation such as that one, was something that she never thought she would be the one to confirm.

“I didn’t get a good look, but he did appear a bit more frail than usual…”

They had not lied or been mistaken as Abadon had assumed that they had. The undead which kept watch over the forests surrounding Dorado in the night, had said the very same thing hours before. But it took the words leaving the lips of someone with Scarlet’s experience, to truly convince him of it.

“That isn’t all Abadon, they have the soulstone.”

He had expected as much. If Atlas and Intruder had not returned with it as yet, there was only one place it could be.

“I’ll bet he’s lodged it back in his head, hasn’t he?”

Scarlet nodded. All five thought in silence, only the sounds of the Khanduras night echoed around them.

“What do we do now?” Celes finally asked. “Do we send someone to dispose of them?”

“No,” Abadon said quietly. “I want the drawbridge lowered and the undead hidden away in the bowels of the city… If that old man wants one last chance to test my power, he shall have it.”

“Abadon, don’t be a fool…” Exile interrupted.

“I am not a fool, Exile. If it’s one last fight Shin Hikaru wants, then it’s one last fight Shin Hikaru shall have.”

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

The unique glow of Dorado from a distance, lit up the sky like a halo around the city in the night. The mighty wall towered over the surrounding plains, and a carpet of death blanketed the ground for more than a mile around. Between where they were and the gate, there were more bodies than any man would ever want to count, and perhaps too many even if for some reason he did want to do so.

The question of how they would all get inside, and reach Abadon relatively unnoticed, was the most pressing of concerns which had weighed on their minds during the journey from far in south. But now, as they saw the infamous city of pain on the horizon, the drawbridge lowered as to greet them, it created a sense of bother far worse than the previous had been. It was almost as though he was encouraging or daring the heroes to come. Although no one said it, they all to themselves wondered if his power had become so great, that he now feared nothing, not even the hero who had defeated Diablo.

“This I surmise,” the Prince pondered, “is when our battle against evil will be won or lost.”

But it was also a battle that Shin Hikaru had long willingly surrendered to. With his age came caution, restraint, contemplation, hesitation, all virtues of a scholar or leader who would plot a battle, but enemies of the young warriors who would go off and fight them. The fearless Prince wasn’t the only one of the group who had noticed how collected Shin now seemed. He carried his new maturity well, but at times it was almost as though they were speaking to a man other than the one whom they had known for so long.

The closer they came to Dorado, the more the tension built. They’d spent months doing their best to track down the soulstone and be presented with an opportunity such as this one. Now that they had, it was nothing close to what they had expected. Legions of soldiers did not stalk them through the forests or hunt them in the night. In fact, they had been uninterrupted by any of evil’s servants, save the massive dragon whom a few hours before they had seen hover far above them. Somehow, it would have been more calming had they been fighting their way through this, the eerie silence scared them more than a platoon of fallen heroes or battalion of the undead ever could have.

It wasn’t long until the eight heroes found themselves before the lowered drawbridge into the city. Looking down the main street, it appeared as though nothing stood between them and the castle at the city’s center. They each dismounted their horses, and with a tap, sent them on their way. Even if they were not to return, they would be sure that the horses who had treated them so well, would live to see another day.

Many of the heroes were anxious to cross the moat and enter the city, Shin in particular, but Xeiss called them all back.

“Wait… Everyone come back here,” she shouted.

Listening intently to what troubled her, the seven warriors gathered around. As she spoke, there was a sense that even if heroes such as Ethon, Kerran, Cobalt and others were not there, they were present in spirit. She looked around to the faces of all the heroes, Glitterspike, Kain, Mercy, D, Severen, Fearless and even Shin Hikaru.

“Where we’re going, is a place we might not be coming back from,” she said very factually. “I would just like each of you to know, that although I’ve known many of you for only a short time, I trust each one of you with my life. Having known you all, is something I will always be proud of.”

D could see where this was leading.

“Eight of us will go in, but eight may not come out… Perhaps none will come out. Let’s make a pact, regardless of whatever happens in there, this is how we’ll always remember one another. The bravest crusaders in all the world, courageous enough to risk their lives to vanquish evil and liberate all of Khanduras, on their way into battle.”

“Agreed,” each of them murmured with a smile.

Every one of the warriors then exchanged a glance that perhaps none of them will ever forget. Whatever petty differences or quarrels that they had once had with one another, were for the coming hours instantly dissolved. Now is when they would walk forward, across the drawbridge, into the fearsome city of Dorado and into the waiting arms of destiny.

“Had his chest been a cannon, he’d have shot his heart upon it,” the Prince whispered. It was a passage he had once read that seemed strangely fitting for this moment.

Once inside the city, the air seemed bitter. Somehow they knew, that on warm spring mornings this air did not smell of dew, and on cold winter’s nights the stars did not shine as brightly here, in this the city covered by the cloak of evil.

Inch by inch, with their weapons drawn, they walked slowly down the main street of the notorious Dorado. The buildings and royal castle were lit, but not a soul or a soulless demon could be found. A figure watched them from the sprawling castle courtyard. It was Abadon, and he stood alone, almost teasing them with his brazen presence. His eyes met with Shin’s, the expressions on their faces made it clear that this was the moment which both these beings, the most evil of evil creatures, and the hero or heroes, had waited all of their lives for.

Abadon’s arms were crossed as he watched the eight travelers, while Shin was anything but as cautious. He may have been fifteen years more seasoned a man than he was when last he saw Abadon, but his hate for this demon had been what had condemned him to this fate, and so it would be what would lead him away from it. Taking a few hesitant steps, but then walking more confidently, Shin, followed by the others, strode forward. His anticipation had forced him into a run, and as quickly as his legs would have carried him, he was a mere twenty feet from Abadon.

Rising up from the abandoned houses and burnt out shops of the city, his minions came. They each carried staffs with a torch tied to the end, and soon the courtyard was near as bright as day with the light emitted from them. Thousands of the creatures surrounded the promenade, to the heroes it near must have seemed that every evil being in all the world had been there. The beasts came from the castle’s balconies, and even lined the streets around them. The heroes now found themselves engulfed in hell’s heart, as the demons and undead were now many thousands more than them in strength, and the only path that remained unobstructed was the one leading back to the main gate and out into the untamed countryside.

Quietly at first, but then progressively louder, among the servants of evil, a chanting began. It was indiscernibly spoken, but it’s pace and tone made the entire atmosphere almost surreal.

With a raising of his hand, Abadon signaled for silence, within seconds he had it. He looked coldly at the heroes, in particular the old man with a stone lodged into his forehead.

“I see time has been cruel to you. Yet still you have returned, Shin Hikaru.”

“I have,” Shin shouted back.

Abadon paused, and then with unwavering seriousness, he spoke again.

“You should have gone while you had the chance.”

Inspired by their leader’s words, the thunderous chanting began again, almost shaking the ground beneath their feet it echoed so loudly. Abadon raised his hand a second time, and like the last, the chanting ceased quickly.

“I see you haven’t come alone… You’ve also brought with you something that belongs to me.”

Shin reached up and touched the soulstone to which Abadon had been referring.

“Yes, I’ve come to kill you and end evil’s tyranny over Khanduras forever.”

This time, instead of chanting, sparse laughter could be heard from the ranks of hell’s servants, even Abadon cracked a grin as he had heard that comment.

“There may have been a day when I feared you, Shin Hikaru. But the sun on that day set a long time ago. You, like all peoples of this world, will bow before me or be crushed by my power.”

To that, Shin smirked in spite of him.

“Hardly, you fool… The world is a very large place, of which Khanduras is but a tiny portion, and even that your grip is not firm on. Since having seen such powers as that of the forest Colossus and Holy Grail, I know that compared to the power of good, evil will always be much weaker, and people as brave as these heroes behind me will always be standing ready to defy you.”

With a look of anger crossing his face, Abadon’s arms started to change their shape. He extended them outward, and it wasn’t long until instead of hands, he had razor sharp blades where his hands would have been.

“Here is you opportunity to prove that, Shin.”

Shin smiled.

“You have no idea how long I’ve waited for you to say that, you disgusting beast.”

The chanting erupted with a renewed intensity at full force as Shin readied his sword. Knowing that his magic would have little effect on the master of magic Abadon, he would have to rely on conventional tactics instead.

Shin lunged forward at the foul creature, missing him only narrowly. To an untrained eye it may not have seemed so, but to the veteran eyes of the group and Abadon, it was clear that Shin Hikaru had lost a step or two with age. It was now Abadon’s turn as he for the first time struck at Shin. Even if he had become slower and less accurate with time, Shin was still among the very best swordsmen who had ever lived, and was easily able to dodge most weapons brandished in his direction.

The two warriors needed some time to posture, and plan how best to go about disposing of each other. They circled one another, both bursting forward as their sword and blade met with spark on contact. They were practically nose to nose, and the age old foes went about staring the other down. Breaking the entanglement, Shin swung toward Abadon, slicing open his forearm deeply.

Abadon looked down at his arm, and the rather large gash that had been left in it. Instantaneously, both daggers which graced his hands, grew and turned the entire length of his arms into swords.

Seeing his opponent growing stronger, Shin knew now is the time he would have to act. He swiftly moved on Abadon, and struck at him with his sword again. Deflecting his katana away, the demon raised the blade that was his arm to Shin Hikaru’s throat, preparing to thrust down, and put an end to perhaps his greatest of all nemesises.

But fortune had presented him with a far greater possibility, one he could not surrender. He leaned his sharpened arm against Shin’s forehead, and turned it back into a hand. The battered hero grabbed Abadon’s arm, trying to break himself free, but could not despite his best efforts. Now the demon’s other hand, also having morphed back to it’s original shape, rose up and grabbed him by the chin. Shin struggled as best he could, putting all his force behind any number of punches to Abadon’s face, but it would not be enough to free him.

As the seven heroes looked on helplessly, Shin fought what was being done to him, he felt himself being weakened, and his blood almost being poisoned. With the crowd’s chanting at it’s zenith, the eyes of Abadon closed as the eyes of Shin Hikaru rolled backwards into his head.

In an instant, Shin was released, and fell to the ground as though his legs had been taken out from under him. The chanting of the crowd stopped abruptly, as every single one of the thousands looked on with anticipation. Shin laid on his back, and it was clear by how his chest slowly rose and fell, he was still alive and well enough to soon get up and continue fighting.

Shin shook his head as to recover his composure, then with all the brevity and sure-footedness of someone rising from bed in the morning, the once proud warrior climbed back to his feet. He picked up his katana from the ground and looked at Abadon who had completely dropped his guard as he also looked on.

Without warning, Shin turned to the seven heroes who still watched him as well. Focusing all of his strength, he dug his fingers into the pit of his forehead… From the socket in which it resided, he withdrew the soulstone, it’s suction fighting him every millimeter of the way. It glowed dimly as he held it in his palm. What he did next is something that none of the heroes, even in the worst of their nightmares, had ever imagined.

He stared into the eyes of each of his compatriots, perhaps it was that blankness and void that they could see in his soul that scared them. Although it may have been something that could not be put into words, and only a certain kind of person can know. The stare of a friend as close as any, and the empty look traded when you are not so any longer. Shin turned back to Abadon, and to him returned the soulstone, then falling to his knees, he kissed the ground that the demon walked on.

“No…” Mercy whispered, as each of the heroes had to turn their heads in agony of the sight they now saw.

Shin Hikaru, the hero required to seal Diablo, had been occupied by evil, and now stood a slave of the dark forces of Dorado. It was a sight they had never hoped to see, and dared not imagine to, oh how the mighty have fallen.

“He who defeats the hero of heroes,” Abadon noted, “becomes the hero of heroes… The only question is, who do I want to become the hero of heroes?”

He looked down the length of the seven shattered warriors, reviewing the candidates one by one.

“Severen the wanderer… Far too taken with himself to have such a title. Kain the mysterious traveler… He knows not his own past, let alone the ways of the hero of heroes. The Paladin Mercy and the Paladin Glitterspike… Far too holy to ever instill such a honor upon. Algorith Van Demonican the vampire hunter… Thus far the best choice by quite a margin. Xeiss the rogue… The last thing I’d wish to see is another Rasha playing that role.” Abadon paused as he was left with one last choice, the best of his choices in respect to his own twisted criteria. “The Prince they call ‘Fearless’, an excellent swordsman, but as an atheist who barely believes in magic and my power, if he were to defeat the hero of heroes, the legacy would leave with none of you… He is my choice, the one that will fight Shin Hikaru.”

“You don’t seriously expect us to stand by as you pit us off against one another, do you?” Glitterspike shouted.

“I do,” the beast answered, “if you take exception, you will be killed. You have no choice but to cooperate.”

It was then clear that there was no way out but the path Abadon had chosen, they each then knew that these events would now unfold largely as the now near omnipotent demon had decided that they would.

Fearless drew his sword and walked forward. It was the same sword he had pried from the hand of his father’s scorched and broken body, and the same one he had used to kill his best friend Alec Tanus, but at no time did it weigh heavier in his hands than it did at that moment. He was by most measures a boy, only nineteen. Yet he had been given the task of ending the life of the legendary Shin Hikaru, the now corrupted, but greatest of all heroes, of all time. This godforsaken land had handed him too many of his dead friends already, and looked as though it was about to hand him another, if he didn’t end up dead himself that is. Despite the conflicts they’d had, he’d still have given his life for Shin, for in no one was the rebellion against evil seen as clearly as it was in him.

This was almost a favor, whatever Abadon’s magic had turned him into wasn’t the warrior that they had once known. He was no more Shin Hikaru, than Celes or Atlas were the people that they had once known and cared for. Indeed, the easterner they knew would never have kissed the boots of Abadon, but sadly this withered skeleton of a man who had been swallowed by the cloak of darkness, had done just that.

Shin relented from his praise, and in short order retrieved his katana. The two heroes, the prodigy from the western edge of the earth, and the living legend from among the most eastern of eastern lands, summoned their strength for the coming conflict. Only one would be left standing and only one would be left alive.

Kain stepped forward, despite having been threatened with death if he were to do so, and yelled as loudly as he possibly could have.

“Stop this!”

The crowd, Abadon, even the two soon to be battling heroes paused to listen to what it was Kain had to say. He shouted upward, as though he were speaking to the crowd but no one in particular.

“I know you’re out there, all of you, and I know you’re listening.”

Many of the demons looked to each other, not sure as to whom he was referring.

“Intruder… Atlas… Fuji… Celes… Scarlet… All of you.”

From many dozens of stories above, on the same balcony they had been on earlier, Celes, Fuji and Exile watched and listened. While far below, concealed within the crowd, the newly returned and freshly scarred Atlas and Intruder looked on as well. As across the street from them, far from the limelight but still well within distance to listen, a waiting Dragoneyes heard Kain shout as well as anyone. He continued to yell to them, hoping and suspecting they were all within ear shot.

“Look at what you’ve done… Good men are fighting good men. One of these two heroes will leave here dead, and we have only your backstabbing and duplicity to thank… You’re all traitors, your greed, lust for power, and weak resolve when faced with temptation have led to this, a bad end to a good man, whichever one of these men falls… In either case, this will spell the dawning of a dark chapter for all of us, and even all of Khanduras… I had thought that perhaps there was an ounce of honor or sense left in some of you, I can see now that I was wrong… Abadon did not have a choice, he was born evil and is evil by nature. But you five had a choice, and made the wrong one. Turning your back on everything you should have held sacred… Anything that happens here today, know that it is no one’s fault but your own.”

His insight and blame had fallen on deaf ears. It was merely seconds after his last syllables had echoed into oblivion, that the chanting started up yet again. The ground trembled under the noise, it’s shrill pitch sweeping each of their minds into a near frenzy. The Prince, familiar with fighting only honorable warriors, then said what he only thought appropriate.

“Good luck, Shin Hikaru.”

Only the cold stare of evil answered, it said clearly that the sentiment was not returned, and that for the will of Abadon, he would fight to the bitter end.

So it began as the two combatants struck at each other. Older far before his time, more than twice the Prince’s age now, and polluted by the hatred of evil, the proud Shin Hikaru was not half the warrior he once had been. Nevertheless, with a fiercely brought forward swing of his sword, Shin ran the tip across the Prince’s stomach, just above his abdominal muscles but not deep enough to cause serious bleeding. Had he not been so quick, he already would have been dead, Shin having spilt his insides all over the courtyard of Dorado.

Regaining his composure, the fearless Prince for the first time struck back, Shin was sure to move quickly. He leapt from his feet, backwards into the air, completing a double somersault and landing perfectly upright, and well out of his attacker’s sphere of influence. Scarcely ever had the Prince seen an opponent of his complete such a difficult maneuver with so much precision. In order to leave here alive, he knew he would have to act very quickly.

Shin again postured. Looking each other over, they both knew that they had been brought here to play out the coming moments, and that what transpired there as they battled, would change the course of history forever.

The Prince prepared and soon swung again, this time a two-handed thrust toward the easterner’s head, hastily followed by another. Able to avoid them, Shin brought forth another swing, as best the Prince tried to block it, he could not, only force it downward. It grazed his leg and sent him falling to his knees. It was from there that he had to fend of a barrage of follow-up swings, and from there that the tide of the battle turned for the final time.

After having a months old wound on his face reopened by the last of Shin’s attacks, the Prince rose back to his feet. He swung feverishly, doing his best to get under Shin’s guard. Despite having been taken by evil, the gallant Shin still fought with a great deal of passion, and it was the look in each of their eyes at that exact moment, that will be frozen in time forever.

With another mighty swing behind which all of his power was placed, the Prince they called ‘Fearless’ thrust downward his sword with every ounce of his available strength, able to get under Shin’s guard, and landing squarely on his shoulder blade.

The steel edge went in, splitting his rib cage and puncturing his heart and lungs, stopping just short of passing entirely through him, as a great deal of blood poured into the street.

In the years to come, a few witnesses would tell of the legend of those final strikes, and that they could almost feel the hearts of a nation breaking…

Others would remember the empty feeling that filled the souls of those who knew him, forever from that moment forward…

But most would remember that sad day only as the day that the proudest, most noble man, they ever knew…

Finally fell.

“No!” D shouted.

“Be strong Shin,” Severen whispered.

For those who were his comrades in arms, to those who could call him ‘friend,’ to those in whose spirits in which he instilled so much hope…

This was the darkest day they ever could have possibly imagined.

He was raised to be the hero of heroes, to know the virtues of a warrior, to know the value of sacrifice, and to know the value of life. For those who had fought with him against the greatest evil, then came the shock of failure, and not having been able to help.

Shin collapsed to the ground, his sword dropping to the stone courtyard floor one last time in a pool of blood, as a billion stars and near that many torches lit the night above him. The seven heroes all rushed to his side, in these the last fleeting moments as the sun was to set on an unequalable legacy. Shin emerged from the spell of evil, but it was far too late for redemption now.

Kain drew his swords, ready to finish what his friend had started, he’d fight Abadon with his bare hands if he so had to.

“No Kain,” D said sternly, “the day for our vengeance will come, but not on Abadon’s turf, and by his rules. The night we seek our poetic justice will not be this one.”

“I know it’s not your fault Fearless,” Shin said, as blood dripped from either side of his mouth. Then turning to the other six warriors, he spoke to them as well, “promise me… Kain, Severen, Mercy, D, Glitterspike… That whatever you do, you wont give up until you've freed this land from evil’s tyranny, given the people who live here the peace that they so sincerely deserve, avenged all of our fallen friends, and completed the quest against the dark forces that I have started.”

“We promise, Shin,” Kain answered softly as he lowered his swords and placed his hand on the brave warrior’s shoulder.

Shin then raised his bloodied hand to Xeiss’ head, pulling her down, he whispered quietly into her ear.

“You’ve been a good friend Xeiss, I’ll miss you… The journey that lies ahead for me, is one I can’t be followed on… It’s now your duty to lead the heroes, in the same spirit in which I have led them thus far.”

The beautiful rogue was caught completely off-guard in hearing those words.

“But Shin, I’m no leader…”

Hearing this, the dying Shin was quick to cut her off.

“Great men and women do not seek power Xeiss, they have it thrust upon them.”

With Shin’s bloodied hand rested on her cheek, and the remainder of the adventurers looking on, still staggered by all of this, she then said perhaps the only thing she could have said.

“I’ll try my best, Shin.”

Looking up at his successor, not the hero of heroes, but still a courageous young warrior with a heart of gold, there was at least one thing he could say which he knew to be true…

“If only he could see his brave daughter now… I know Tal would be proud of you.”

Obviously having that comment effect her a great deal, Shin gently lifted his hand from her cheek as the rogue rose to her feet. He then motioned Severen down to him. Grabbing him by the hair, Shin whispered so only the wanderer would have been be able to hear him.

“Make sure to keep an eye on Mercy, Lesya, Fearless and Xeiss. Be their guardian angel Severen, after all they’re just kids. Don’t let them stray down the wrong path or be corrupted by evil as too many good warriors already have.”

As though he was holding back tears, Severen then spoke quietly as well.

“Shin… Of us you’ll always be the greatest hero.”

There was silence for a moment, as an emptiness began to fill Shin’s eyes, slowly he released Severen’s hair. It was then that he exchanged a final glance and smile with each of the others.

As the grin he wore faded from his lips, it became painfully clear that with it escaped perhaps the last vestige of hope the world would ever know.

“Thank you… All of you, more than any words I can express,” Shin whispered.

“My God, what have I done…” The Prince whispered as blood still streamed down his face.

“I love you, Akira…” Shin mouthed silently.

“No,” Xeiss shouted, “it can’t end like this!”

But it would…

For a land to live, a man had given his all and more.

The empty silence that followed is something no of them would ever forget, it shouted as loudly as any decree could have, the true burden of their fear and regret.

If hope was a tunnel, and at the end salvation’s light, then today that light was darkened, and in their hearts each of these heroes cried. This was the night all hope had ended, the hero of heroes, Shin Hikaru…

Had died.

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

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.
It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity.
It was the season of light, it was the season of darkness.
It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” -Charles Dickens

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

...The aftermath.

“I’m glad they left it off the final carving,” D said quietly.

“Agreed,” Mercy said, “that blank stare in his eyes at the end is something I’ll never forget, but it seems the craftsmen have ignored it, thankfully.”

Both D and Mercy, like all the heroes, gathered in the center of the southeastern city of Triumvirate that afternoon. The entire town drew it’s name from the fact that it rested at the nexus of three rivers, and at the city’s center was an island, one on which a twenty foot high statue now watched over the countryside. Severen leaned to Xeiss as they, like the entire town’s population, all looked on at the freshly constructed stone monolith.

“That’s just how I’ll always remember him, with his sword extended and the soulstone lodged in his forehead,” Severen noted. Then smiling, he asked a question, “wouldn’t you agree ma’am?”

A slightly angry look came over Xeiss.

“I dare you to call me ma’am again.”

The statue was brand new, and was of the bravest man they had each ever known, Shin Hikaru. It was of him as his younger self, as the old man they had recently known was but a shadow of the great hero. The statue stood in sharp contrast to the surrounding country, and one by one, as far as the eye could see, peasants, soldiers, shopkeepers, knights, travelers, and every manner of person in between, had come from miles around and lined up just to catch glimpse of the fitting tribute to the fallen crusader. But despite the sheer number of people, there was almost complete silence, little more than the sounds of nature could be heard.

Approaching the statue from the depths of the crowd, Kerran looked closely at the inscription on the plaque which adorned the huge stone base, he read it quietly to himself.

“‘Here lies Shin Hikaru. The hero of heroes, and greatest one the world has ever known. In his courage rested our last best hope for peace, so to heaven do we commit him forever. No man’s destiny has ever been more sacred, and no man’s deeds worthy of richer song. All who once knew him, and even all those who didn’t, shed a tear to know that never will Khanduras see another warrior as great as he again… Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.’”

After having read it, Kerran slipped away, leaving as mysteriously as he had come.

As beautiful a place as this was, his friends would have liked to have erected it somewhere closer to the spot on which he had actually died, Tristram or Westmarch perhaps. But every town short of this one had refused them, likely fearing a reprisal from the evil forces of Dorado.

It was perhaps not so faint an irony, that a golden speckled bluebird perched itself on the statue’s arm. Something he had done in the last fifteen years, after all, had prevented an entire species from going extinct.

In the shadows, the Prince they called ‘Fearless,’ waited. Kain sauntered over to him as the young man looked deeply troubled. Seeing him come, Fearless spoke.

“I’m condemned Kain…”

“Condemned to what exactly?” Kain asked in confusion.

It took a moment for the Prince to gather enough concentration to say it out loud.

“Condemned as the man who killed Shin Hikaru.”

Kain, not renowned for his subtlety or tact, spoke very frankly.

“I’m sorry Fearless, that’s just something you’ll have to learn to deal with.”

The Prince lowered his head to his hands as Kain left him alone, it was obvious the young warrior had more than enough to think about.

From the sky, a good friend whom they’d been without for quite some time, Cobalt, flew. He had gripped two letters, and flew toward were Glitterspike waited.

“Letters,” he whispered as he dropped them both in Glitter’s lap.

The other heroes gathered around as Glitterspike unraveled the first one. It was from Westmarch and he read it to himself. He was stunned by it’s contents.

“It’s from Hammerstar, he wants to know when I’m returning to Westmarch!”

Hammerstar, the fellow Paladin and mentor of Glitterspike had, thanks to their interference, been shown a different path along which to walk. Where as before he had died on that wet spring morning fifteen years ago, their intervention had altered that fate, it was clear that he was still alive and a proud resident of the city which he had fought for decades to so adamantly defend.

Still trying comprehend the scope of what it was he had been responsible for, Glitterspike opened the second letter. It was from the Paladin who had shown them into the forest Colossus, Glitter read it to the others.

“‘Greetings Glitterspike, the brave Paladin who reads this in the company of our friends… I write you this letter under extreme circumstances. If you are reading it, it must mean that I am already dead. Not long ago, the necromancer and the barbarian emerged from the Colossus, and made their way back to Dorado. Abadon, upset with our having helped you, and no doubt still angry over having temporarily lost possession of the soulstone, has decided to seek vengeance against the peoples of this town… His armies have stormed the city with many times the force that they had last time, our defenses were soon overrun. I, like few of the valiant Paladins who have been left alive, are trapped within the church, the only building they have not yet taken. We have been without water for two days, and without food for twice that long, but our resolve is no less strong. Our swords are wearing dull, and in seconds we will let fly the last of our arrows. We can hear their battering ram thumping away at the main door. It wont be very long until they break it down and are upon us, out numbering us at least a thousand to one… However, thanks to the blessing of the forest Colossus, many of our people were able to escape into history and the future, our heritage will surely live on… I ask that you let our Westmarch cousins know that we died bravely, with a weapon in each of our hands and fighting evil to the very end. Our condolences on the death of the great Shin Hikaru, we are sure that the legacy he has entrusted to each of you will live on just as strongly now as ever… My time grows short, so I am afraid I must bid you adieu for now. We wish you luck with your quest noble travelers, and may God bless you all… P.S. We’ll be watching...’”

The heroes each pondered to themselves. In all the past days had shown them; the forest Colossus, the new fate of Hammerstar, the unextinction of an entire species, seeing Celes again, the death of Shin Hikaru, and the boy with no thumbs to name a few, perhaps these Paladins who were so holy, and knew the power of the light so well, were what had most surprised them.

There was really only one question that the past days had left unanswered, Severen finally posed it.

“Why do you think Shin’s last words were ‘I love you, Akira,’ what does it mean?”

“‘Akira’ sounds like a name,” D observed.

“Yes it does,” Xeiss agreed, “but the name of what, or who?”

That would only be left to their imaginations for now, as it was an answer they would not learn so quickly, although in time perhaps they would.

Well out of the warriors’ view, a little girl ran up to the giant stone statue. She looked as though she had been trained to be a swordsman, or a swordswoman rather, and couldn’t have been older than eight or nine. She pressed her palm up against the plaque, and traced each letter with the tip of her finger as she read them, as well as the words that they formed.

Without warning, another woman, her mother most likely, came over and knelt down next to her daughter. The girl asked her a question.

“Mommy, did you know this man?” She asked in reference to the statue.

The mother smiled.

“Why yes I did, dear. I knew him very well… I met him many years ago, almost fifteen exactly, he claimed he had been stranded here from a far off place. Years later he told me that he had come from the future.”

The small girl was now utterly confused.

“The future, but how…?”

“Don’t worry about it sweetheart,” the mother whispered, “I’ll explain it better when you’re older.”

The girl looked back at the inscription, paying close attention to the structure of the name on it.

“His name is just like mine.”

“No,” the mother whispered, “your names are different. He was ‘Shin Hikaru,’ you are ‘Akira Hikaru.’ …As I said, I knew him very well.”

“Really?” The girl asked.

“Yes, really,” her mother answered.

The girl read the inscription a second time, she’d be sure to memorize it… As she did, two boys, both about her age, walked up beside her. They carried short wooden swords, and were obviously residents of this town.

“Did you know ‘Shin Hikaru’?” She asked one of them.

Huge smiles crossed both the boys’ faces.

“Yeah,” one said.

“We met him once,” the other finished.

“It was only about a week ago, him and his friends were waking up behind the tavern.”

The young Akira Hikaru hearing this, then shook both their hands.

“It’s nice to meet you then,” she said smiling.

Taking her mother’s hand, Akira was pulled away. She saw the boys disappear into the distance as her and her mother were enveloped into the folds of the crowd.

Walking over and bending down to their eye level, and oblivious to who had only seconds before been standing on that very spot, Xeiss saw the two boys.

“Don’t I know you two?” She asked in a sly sotto-voce sort of way.

The boys were both flattered that she had remembered them.

“Yeah! We know you, you’re the pretty hero lady who was with Shin Hikaru!”

She smiled and patted both of them on the head.

“He was your friend, wasn't he?” One asked.

“As a matter of fact, he was,” she answered.

“Did you have any adventures together?” The other asked.

“A few,” that was to say the least an understatement.

“Which one was the coolest?”

She had to think hard about that one.

“There were so many, it’s hard to choose just one.”

“Could you tell us about some of them?”

Grinning, Xeiss stepped closer to the statue. She sat down, crossing her legs and leaned up against it. With her hands, she motioned both the boys to come over. When they did, she sat them both down on her knees.

“Sure I can.”

The boys’ faces lit up. She put an arm around each of them, then took a deep breath as though she were about to go on for quite some time.

“The first thing that you should know about Shin; is that he was the hero of heroes, the greatest warrior to ever live, and that he came from the far, far away mysterious lands of the east.”

She looked at their smiling faces, in them so much hope for the future. A future that now seemed oh so much darker. She wouldn’t disappoint them though, she’d tell them a story the likes of which they would never forget. Smiling, she took another deep breath as she began to tell them of the greatest of all tales.

“Once upon a time, there was a man named Shin Hikaru, and one day…”