Jared Milne

Doma had always been a land of peace and prosperity before the Second War of the Magi. A realm where fierce warriors ruled, and the battle-hardened men, moogles and yeti of the realm clashed almost constantly with the goblins and giants. Sometimes the goblins and giants won territory, but usually they were pushed back. And those made impoverished or widowed or orphaned by war were always willing to help others. It was part of the Doma code-they who need help from others must receive it.

Many proud knights, generals, and other types of warriors fought in the great Doman army. One particular warrior was Sidern Arrowny, a proud and determined fighter whose fighting skill was the envy of all those who contested with him. His prowess on the field and in the war room was unmatched, and many a fell foe had fallen to his wicked blade.

Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Sidern was a very hard and harsh man. He constantly demanded more and more from his troops, and his discipline was extremely harsh. Men had been known to stand at attention for hours in the blazing sun for hours simply because their quarters were less than clean. Some of the higher-ups felt that he should not be so harsh on his troops, but few had the courage to tell him that. For he was a tall man, with dark, fierce eyes and cropped black hair and a pointed nose that made him look like a fierce dark vulture.

His discipline was meted out on his wife and young son Clyde. Tyria Arrowny was kept busy cooking and cleaning, while Sidern trained his young son in the arts of the blade and the fighter almost viciously. The poor lad, only seven years old, had a very difficult time learning to master the blade.

"Raise your guard, you little idiot!" Sidern barked as Clyde desperately tried to comply. His little chest heaved with weariness, and he was about ready to collapse. Once again, the practice blade smacked him full on and he fell to the ground, groaning. "Damn fool! What was in that woman's blood that gave birth to such a weakling? Get up, or next time I'll use a real blade!" Sidern roared. Tears started in Clyde's eyes as he tried again to comply.

The verbal and mental abuse continued for years. Clyde did not possess great physical strength like his father, but he did have a very agile body and exceptional manual dexterity. Sidern refused to let his son continue to practice these arts, instead putting his son through worse and worse physical trials.

One night was particularly bad. Sidern had received a harsh talking-to from his commanding officer about the way he controlled his soldiers, and also about his personal temper and angry manner. He boiled with fury all the way home, and eventually stormed into the room, screaming at his wife and son to bring him mead and meat. "You little idiot! What are you waiting for?" Sidern demanded, as the youth just stood there. Now fourteen years old, his eyes glared at his father with sheer hatred. Sidern matched the glare, and raised his hand to strike the lad. As his hand came down, his arm was gashed open by a dagger. His dagger. How had it come from his belt?

"I've been practicing my manual skills, in particular pickpocketing, father," Clyde said calmly. As Sidern cried out in pain, Clyde thrust his knife forward as his father tried to block it. Too fast for his father, Clyde plunged the knife into his throat, then pulled it out without passion.

Tyria came into the room, and dropped the mug of mead she was carrying as she saw her husband lying dead on the floor and her son holding the knife he had used to slay him. She cried out, and began sobbing uncontrollably, wondering what the authorities were going to do to her and her son.

Calmly, not even wiping the blood from the dagger, Clyde came forward.

"Do not weep, mother. The evil has been purged, and I have already signed a confession. You will be looked after by your parents, I am sure. As for me..."

"What about you?" Tyria said, shaking.

"I am gone," he answered. She could only watch as he took food and water from their stores, and walked out the door. It was the last time Tyria Arrowny ever saw her son.

A week passed, and Clyde was beginning to run low on food and water. His dagger was his only weapon, and he had little training in it. If monsters found him, he knew, he would be dead.

As he contemplated this, a throwing star flew past him, embedding in the tree to his right. Looking around warily, he raised the dagger. He could see no one. Then, as if by magic, a man wearing dark robes and a cloak leapt from the trees. He raised a pair of ninja daggers at the youth.

"Give us the food and water, and you get to live. Resist, and we kill you and take the provisions anyway. Simple enough, isn't it?" the ninja smiled evilly.

Clyde had no intention of giving up his provisions. Flipping the dagger in his hand, he came forward, swinging the knife at the ninja. A volley of throwing stars flew from the trees, but Clyde, moving with amazing agility, managed to dodge most of them, taking only one hit on the shoulder.

One other ninja was slow in moving back to cover. Clyde threw the knife sidelong at him on instinct. The throw was dead on, and the ninja fell dead in an instant. A split-second later, half a dozen more ninjas leapt from cover and raised skeans and shurikens to slay the youth.

"Hold, brothers," the first man said. Walking towards the youth, he looked down at him. "You have great agility, speed, and throwing power. You are also running low on food,"

"You may be right on all accounts," Clyde countered, "but what have they to do with me?"

"Join us, and receive the training of the ninja. You would be a perfect addition to our brotherhood. You have the spirit and skills of the ninja. Another young man has just recently joined us, as have two women. Join them and receive food, water and money. Perhaps most of all, you will receive companionship. What do you say?"

"I flee from the authorities," Clyde answered.

"So do I. So do a few others, in fact. It makes no difference."

"Very well then," Clyde said flatly.

Clyde's training was rapid-learning the arts of fighting with ninja daggers, fighting with two blades, throwing deadly weapons, and learning the thieving arts of stealth, pickpocketing and lockpicking. His master was amazed at the young man's prowess.

The group made its living by robbing trains and merchant caravans in and around Doma. They made quite a bit of money off their banditry, and went into the less policed cities for a round of boozing, whoring and celebration before returning to their robbery and plunder. The city of Blaxer lay at the border of Doma, and was just above Zozo in evil and anarchy. Few of the authorities of Doma bothered with it, so it was a virtual city-state unto its own, and a haven for criminals.

Clyde had met a young man named Baram, who came from similar circumstances as he-a broken home, abusive parents and no other family in the world except his ninja band. Their Koga master was conniving and ruthless, but he always planned the robberies with perfection.

However, things were becoming worse at court in Doma...

King Diammed slumped into his throne. It had been a long day-merchant after merchant was complaining of the robber bands. Cyan Garamonde, his confidante and faithful retainer, was luckily on hand and willing to listen to his king vent his frustration.

"What are we to do, Cyan? Those damn robbers plunder us as if we're lambs being ravaged by wolves. If our trade continues to drop..." He put his head in his hands.

Cyan patted the shoulder of his king in a reassuring manner. "Mayhaps I have a suggestion, My Liege,"

"And that is?"

"Fill a train with goods and wealth-too much for the knaves to resist. Put the passengers and crew disguised as guards, and have the operators of the train be engineers with combat training. The knaves shan't escape. By your leave, Majesty, I shall be the leader of this mission, if it please you."

Diammed smiled. "Of course, Cyan. No cowardly ninja could beat you in a battle of steel..."

The trap was soon set. Thieves in the king's employ were sent to spread rumors about the massive train and its goods, which were said to be worth over a million gold pieces. Guards and engineers in disguise were set to guard the train, and other men were set to be stationed at various points along the lines to prevent the men from escaping.

The Koga master smiled evilly. He knew he would hit the motherlode with this robbery. Some of the other ninjas felt that it must be too easy, but the leader would hear nothing of it. He promised to let his band live like kings when they had pulled off this heist! It was too much for the greedier members of the group to resist, and their combined voices outweighed the doubters by a huge margin. Clyde and Baram were trembling with excitement at the thought of the loot they would take...

The train sped through the forest, as did the ninjas who planned to rob it. Sneaking past the guard points as if they were sneaking by sleeping ogres, they rapidly ascended the trees by the railroad tracks and prepared to leap down on the unsuspecting fools below.

The train soon passed underneath. As precisely as a well-oiled machine, the ninjas leapt down one after the other, and prepared to make their way down into the train and slay the guards at the side.

However, no guards seemed to be on the outside railings of the train. Suspiciously, the Koga Master ordered half his troops to the front of the train, so that they could take the engine, and the other half to the back of it, so they could keep anyone from fleeing. At the signal of a thrown Spark Skean, the robbers would begin their work.

Clyde and Baram were assigned to the team taking the engine. They rapidly leapt into the engine and the front passenger cars, expecting to kill the guards that did not know they were there. The passenger car was elaborately decorated, as befitted the fat and lazy merchants that traveled on large trains like these. However, despite the elaborate decoration and the obviously valuable paintings and other objets d'art that adorned the place, they could still see no guards. Clyde and Baram glared suspiciously, while another two men advanced on a gold statuette that sat on a side table, begging to be taken.

An explosion of energy blew the two men apart as the couch exploded from the wall. The troops that had been hiding behind various articles of furniture leapt from their vantage points, weapons drawn. The samurai who had performed the Draw Out that had slain the two bandits looked grimly down at them, before raising his katana.

Cyan raised his katana. He pointed it at the group of bandits that they surrounded, smiling grimly at the small group of ninjas that his men surrounded. The Koga Master stared daggers at Cyan, but the swordmaster did not even blink.

"Goddamn you, Garamonde..." the Master cursed.

Cyan smiled coldly. "All these art objects and the gold are fake. Paste gems, fool's gold, and so forth. We are all professional elite soldiers, not the common men that usually guard these trains." As he spoke, the train began to stop.

"Your second in command and his troops have no doubt been subdued, as have the men at the back of the train. Surrender now and the magistrate will show some leniency," Cyan said calmly.

In response, the Koga Master threw a red globe into the midst of Cyan and his men. Flames erupted from the skean, and the ninjas began to make a break for it as the soldiers stumbled back in surprise. The Master came forth, two katanas drawn. The other ninjas began to split into two groups, one running for the back of the car, the others trying to cut through Cyan and his men while they still were shocked.

Cyan was unfazed, and his single blade and shield met the twin swords of the Master, fighting wildly as swordmaster and ninja dueled fiercely.

Clyde and Baram made a break for it to the back of the car. Throwing stars cut down two soldiers, but a hugely built, heavily bearded man wielding a massive sword as if it were a fencing foil stepped in their way. Inexperienced youth using twin ninja daggers were at a huge disadvantage against a capable veteran using a two-handed sword.

The man made several sweeping horizontal cuts, forcing Clyde and Baram back. Clyde attempted to duck under the blade and sever one of the man's hands with his dagger, but he was easily blocked by the iron gauntlets the man wore. The flat of the blade crashed into Clyde, and he fell back into a wardrobe where he lay half stunned.

Baram raised his knives nervously as the man took a swing at him. The sword glowed an odd greenish light, but Baram had no time to contemplate this as he attempted to parry the blade with one of his knives while spinning to absorb the shock. He succeeded, and thrust up at his foe's face as the huge man stumbled. He cut a long gash down the man's left cheek, and then thrust with his dagger, hoping to slip it through the mail and land a killing blow.

No such luck. The man recovered from the parry, and swung his sword in a long sweep, the blade glowing with the same green light. It blasted through Baram's defenses and tore a long gash down his side and leg, leaving him bloody, weak, and most of all, slowed. He realized then that his foe was a knight, and a knight who had used an infamous weakening strike. He was lucky that the knight had not shattered his equipment!

The knight raised his sword for the killing blow, smiling grimly, but then his face contorted with pain. Shadow had recovered and tossed a shuriken into the man's back. The man collapsed, wounded but still alive.

Clyde could have finished him at that moment, but he was more concerned with Baram. The young man was bleeding heavily, and he had lost one of his knives when the knight had struck him. Shadow grabbed him, and began hurrying him off the stopped train, hoping that somehow, some way, they could escape and he could find a healer for Baram.

The Koga Master swept twice at Cyan's face, then crossed his blades and brought them down in an X strike at the man's chest. Cyan simply ducked the first attack and blocked the second on his shield. A blue aura surrounded him as he thrust forward, knifing the Master's gut open with a Dispatch. The Master could barely raise his strikes, and Cyan struck again and again, not with a Quadra Slam, but just to end the fight. Soon, the Koga Master's head rolled on the ground. Most of the other ninjas had been killed or subdued.

Clyde had miraculously taken Baram past the security lines and they were fleeing through the woods, although Baram was bleeding heavily and was a true burden to Shadow. Clyde knew that soon, the Doma soldiers would do a head count of the ninjas, and that huge knight would remember that they were missing. Perhaps they had a ranger or beastmaster that could track them...Clyde shook his head at the thought. Then, he heard the snarling yells of tracking dogs. They didn't need a ranger-they could easily track Baram by his blood.

Finally, Shadow set Baram down to take a rest. Gazing back at the way they came, he could see the lights of soldiers in the distance and the howls of attack dogs. He hesitated, knowing that at this rate they would be caught.

"Clyde..." Baram said, moaning. The ninja looked down at his friend.

"Before you go, you need to use your knife...don't let them take me, please. You know what kind of punishments Doma has for bandits..."

Clyde hesitated. How could he kill his best friend?

"Please..." Baram moaned. Clyde hesitated further. The howls and lights were drawing ever closer. If he stayed any longer, they would both be caught and likely tortured under Doma's supremely harsh laws. His hesitation cost both of them dear. The soldiers were less than thirty feet away, but Clyde simply could not bring himself to kill his best friend. He sprinted off into the woods, leaving the wounded Baram to the soldiers. The attack dogs and soldiers came up around the wounded youth, the mutts slavering at the thought of the wounded young man. The soldiers looked down at him grimly, and picked him up, preparing to put him in shackles. Baram screamed in pain and despair as the soldiers prodded him with spears to keep him up, and cried out in despair and anger at the friend that abandoned him.

Clyde heard those cries as he fled through the darkened forest, hoping that some monster would find him and finish him, to spare him of the intolerable grief that was already setting in...

Cyan conversed with a lieutenant, preparing a report to send back to the king on the defeat of the robber band. Most of the ninjas were arrested or killed. Cyan felt some pity for the ones that were arrested. The ninjas would likely be tormented by the merchants in Doma's extremely harsh justice system, wherein the victim has a chance to get revenge on the criminal. Better that they were killed.

"How many of the knaves didst get away?" Cyan asked his lieutenant.

"Just one youth," said the huge knight, who had fought Clyde and Baram. "We got his friend, who I wounded in the fight on the train, but he himself managed to escape into the forest. I doubt he's worth pursuing, since he doesn't seem like the type who'd be able to form a group of his own..."

"Perhaps," Cyan answered. "But it may well be that those damned money-grubbers will choose to send mercenaries or adventurers after him. I feel sorry for the poor lad. If the merchants catch him, his death will be most horrible, and there's not a damn thing we can do about it. I have spoken to our Liege about this, but the merchants wield a great deal of influence in the court," Cyan said sadly.

Clyde knew this as well as Cyan, and he fled for over two years, praying that no one would follow him. Sometimes, at night, he was plagued by dreams of Baram being arrested by the soldiers, and was plagued by the guilt of leaving him behind to be captured by the Domans instead of being killed as he wanted to be.

Crossing through the wilderness, Clyde passed through several small villages that had no allegiance to any nation, and even manage to bribe passage on a boat that was rounding past the continent on the far east. Very few settlements existed there, and the crew of the boat felt Clyde was mad to go in that direction. Still, he was willing to pay, and they asked no further questions.

Soon, Clyde began to run dangerously low on food and water. He had replenished his provisions at the last outpost, but he had traveled far, and was soon to die. Inside, he wondered whether he secretly wanted to go to this godforsaken realm so that some beast, the elements, or simple attrition would end his miserable existence, as sort of a self punishment for abandoning Baram.

At least, that's what it seemed like until he came to the small town on the northeastern peninsula. He walked into it, looking around curiously at the houses. They didn't seem to trade with anyone at all, and were so far out in the wilderness not even any bandits would bother to rob them. Who were they?

As he surveyed the scene, a group of peasants came from the surrounding cottages, looking at him curiously. Some wore expressions of fear, others of amazement. Finally, an older man, who appeared to be in his late fifties, came up to Clyde.

"Who are you, young one?" the old man asked.

"Clyde Arrowny," the man answered, seeing no reason to lie.

"I am Strago Magus. Welcome to Thamasa." Other people began murmuring amongst themselves, and several glared at him suspiciously.

"Who's to say that this one isn't sent to get revenge on us for the War of the Magi? Damn fools could still hold a grudge, you know," a burly man with a brown beard said.

"Peace, Monten," a man in his mid forties said. He was dressed in stately clothing, and was obviously the leader of this town. "If he were to do so, why would he come alone? It would be pure madness, would it not?"

"Indeed, Monten," Strago said with a smile. "This lad looks as if he could use a good meal! Why not give him a good meal and bath at your fine establishment!"

"I'll not serve some stranger who comes in on the edge of the winds! Mayhap he's a scout to an invasion force, or running from the law in some other nation!"

Strago sighed, and muttered something under his breath about a stubborn idiot, and announced that he would take the young man in. As the young man and old man went to the house just off the village square, the crowd slowly dispersed, but Monten still glared at the young lad suspiciously.

One year led to another, and Clyde now turned twenty-four. He had begun courting a lovely young woman, who just happened to be the daughter of Monten, who was the local innkeeper. Monten at first opposed the marriage vehemently, saying that there was no way in hell he would let that young man live under his roof, but Strago, who was an old friend of his, managed to calm him sufficiently to allow them to live under his own roof. The old man and the young couple lived happily for that short while, and finally Clyde's lover was with child. Strago and Clyde were stunned. Clyde privately marveled at how much his life had changed, and silently thanked whatever deity might be listening for forgiving his sins and allowing him a life of peace.

Life went well for a year or two-Clyde adopted a young hound that promised to be raised into an excellent fighting dog. In the several months that he owned it, the dog was growing considerably, with fangs already as sharp as knives. Clyde decided to call it Interceptor, due to its incredible skill at hunting.

His wife, who was named Tori, gave birth to a beautiful little girl during that time. They named her Relm, for Tori's great-grandmother. Relm was one of the loveliest things that Clyde could ever have. A beautiful wife, a faithful friend, a faithful dog, and a beautiful daughter. How could life be any better?

Eventually, however, a group of men appeared, the second group of strangers to appear in Thamasa in as many months. Some of the younger people were thrilled to have even more new people visiting their homes. Other older people, like Monten the innkeeper, were wary of all these new visitors. In his eyes, strangers were trouble. Although he put them up in his inn, he only gave them the very base of courtesy, and while he fed them and put them up for nights, he only did so because of the excellent coin they gave.

Clyde paid no heed to them. Why should he? His life was just short of perfect. Little did he know how much his laxness would cost him.

Late that night, Tori had gone to bed and taken Relm with her. Strago and Clyde were having a drink before preparing to go to bed themselves. They had revealed each other their pasts: Clyde of his life as a bandit, even the death of Baram, while Strago told him the history of Thamasa and his adventures against Hidon. It was then that they heard the knocking at the door.

Getting up, Clyde went to answer it, wondering who could be calling at such a late hour. As he opened the door, a bolt of energy knocked him back and fell to the floor, fumbling for his daggers. In strode the six men who had been staying at Monten's. Strago stood up, drawing his flail.

"Who are you?!?" he demanded.

"Our business is not with you, old man," said one of the men, who was obviously the leader. "This man is a wanted criminal in Doma, and shall face justice. We have been hired by the honorable merchants of Doma to bring him back for trial."

"He's trying to atone for his sins. He's trying to make a new life. He has a child!" Strago retorted.

"We care nothing for that. The merchants have paid us well, and we have a job to do, old man," the leader answered.

Strago sized them up. A huge yeti barbarian with a battle-axe, two twins with raised spears, a tall, evil-looking man with a sword, and a weaslly-looking moogle who was obviously a thief of some sort, plus the leader. Not good odds.

"Those merchants probably made their fortunes off the backs of the peasants. At least he's trying to atone," Strago snapped.

"You shall pay for that insult!" the leader retorted. Sword raised, he egged his companions forward.

Strago unleashed a wave of watery bubbles in a powerful Aqua Rake attack which knocked most of them back, and knocked a deck of cards from the moogle, who was now obviously a gambler. The twins with spears leapt well over the wave, however, and Strago groaned, realizing they were dragoons. He raised his flail, and fumbled for his dagger, wishing he had his shield with him.

The moogle scrambled for his cards as Clyde leapt forward. His daggers tore into the leader, killing the fighter stone dead. The yeti roared as he came forward. His axe came down, as Clyde dodge desperately. He prayed that Tori would stay upstairs, and that none of these men were evil enough to take her or Relm hostage. Another bolt of energy came from the tall man-probably a general. It smashed into the wood stove which the yeti had already damaged, shattering it completely. As he rolled back, he threw a cloud of shuriken at the yeti. It roared in pain, wounded but not finished. The moogle, meanwhile, shuffled his cards and snickered.

Strago was overmatched by the twin dragoons. Wounded by both their thrusts, he leapt back and instead concentrated on a Lore to keep them back. A huge wave of water slammed forward, but the cursed twins dodged out of the way and the water drowned the moogle gambler, but not before a wave of spinning spades came at Strago. As one of the dragoons came down at him, he whipped his flail forward. The weapon wrapped around the man's leg, tearing into him, and he yelled in pain. With as much strength as he could muster, Strago whipped him into the path of the spades. The spades tore into the dragoon with a sickening tear, leaving him dead upon the floor.

The other dragoon was incensed at the death of his brother. Thrusting his spear viciously, Strago took two more nasty wounds, his dagger unable to fend off the blows. Reaching within himself, he concentrated on a Lore.

A metal weight appeared above the dragoon and came crashing down, much heavier than it looked. The "???" spell was one of Strago's favorites, doing as much damage back to an enemy as you had suffered. As the dragoon staggered, Strago came forward and stabbed him in the throat, killing him instantly.

Now the playing field was even. The general turned to regard Strago as the wounded man came forward, armed only with a knife and some powerful spells.

"I don't know what games you play, old man, but they end now!" the general shouted angrily, sending several blasts whipping at Strago. He dodged desperately, concentrating on a "???" spell.

The yeti, meanwhile, had gone berserk, and Clyde didn't even try to parry his blows. A chop from the yeti smashed Strago's table down the middle, and it came at him roaring.

Clyde leapt back, and took a small red sphere from his pocket. Charging it with power, he threw it. The Fire Skean exploded into fire, the yeti roaring as the flames charred it horribly. Clyde threw another shuriken into its throat, ending its madness.

The lone general looked at the two men furiously, and at his dead companions. Then, he noticed another target-a young woman at the top of the stairs, who looked at the scene in sleeping confusion. Charging forward, he sent energy blasts at Strago and Clyde, forcing them to dodge. Then, dropping his shield and grabbing Tori, he held his sword to her throat.

"Come with me, Arrowny, or the woman dies!" he shouted, well past the point of reasoning. Clyde dropped his knives and nodded. The man pulled Tori down the stairs and out into the night, Clyde being handed Strago's knife as he passed by the blue mage.

"Let her go. She means nothing to you," Clyde snarled to the man as he followed him out.

The man grinned evilly. "But she does. I might have some fun with her after I take your head from your shoulders." Tori whimpered.

Clyde slowly advanced, his dagger up his sleeve. "Release her, and I'll come with you. Leave her out of this, " he snapped.

The man released Tori, who began running past Clyde. Grinning wickedly, the general unleashed an energy blast at Clyde. He dodged successfully, but then saw the bolt heading for Tori. He leapt to push her out of the way and take the bolt for her...

Too late. The bolt struck Tori, and struck her dead.

Screaming with rage, Clyde drew his knife and flung it at the general, splitting his head down the middle. Then, he went over to Tori, hugging her corpse as Strago, having drunk a healing potion, walked out and placed his hand on Clyde's shoulder.

The villagers were aghast when they found out what had happened. Monten was livid-he demanded that Clyde be put on trial and executed. Most of the villagers did not go that far, but they would be far more wary of strangers now, and most of them wanted Clyde out of their village. Monten bore no grievance against Strago-Strago was an old friend and the innkeeper thought he had been taken in as the rest of them did. Strago knew he would be able to raise the child as his own granddaughter-he and Clyde had worked that out, and not even Monten would murder an innocent child- but Clyde would have to leave forever. He had already packed his travelling gear, and was leaving.

Interceptor followed, barking at him.

"You'll stay here," Clyde said. "My friends have a habit of dying,"

The dog barked.

"No!" Clyde insisted.

The dog growled.

"Very well then," Clyde sighed. "I suppose it would be nice to have some company around the fire at night..." He would now have to survive on his own-a mercenary, doing anything for money just like those scum that killed his wife did. He did not smile at the irony. The dark clothing he would need had already been purchased for him by Strago. With that disguise, he would be able to return to Doman, and then leave without any problems. No mercenaries would likely pursue him again, and if they did, he would deal with them. He also doubted that any of them would go to Thamasa-money grubbers like the mercenaries he and Strago had fought were notoriously secretive, not wanting to let competitors catch wind of the location of a possible bounty.

But in all this, he realized one thing...his life would never be the same again. His life was now a shadow of its former self.