Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn
by Aaron Nowack


Disclaimer: The Genso Suikoden game series is made and owned by Konami.
As I am neither a corporation nor Japanese, that would not be me. The
title of this fic is stolen from the title of a fantasy novel series by
Tad Williams, who is also not me. This fic brought to you by the GOLDEN


Part 1: Memory

Thought is the arrow of time; memory never fades.
What was asked is given. The price is paid."
- _The Shadow Rising_ by Robert Jordan

The Rune of Life and Death, also called the Cursed Rune, but best known as Souleater. One of the Twenty-Seven True Runes, formed from the primordial void at the dawn of creation, one of the jewels that adorned the twin brothers Sword and Shield, from whose conflict the world was born. Like its brethren, part of the foundation of the world, the bedrock on which all of reality rested.

It allowed Life to exist, and caused it to end at Death. Without its power, neither would exist, and the world would be unrecognizable. That power was awesome, and there were many who sought to wield it. However, like all awesome power, it came with a terrible price. It was that price which gave the Rune its more common name.

Unlike the more common Runes, the Souleater allowed access to its power only as it saw fit. It would twist fate so that its bearers' loved ones would fall one by one, their souls trapped forever within the Rune. As each was consumed, the Souleater would grant new power to its 'master'. Over time the bearer could control this process, or even stop it, but it was a feat that took centuries to master. The wielder would have all the time he needed, for like all the True Runes, it granted the painful gift of immortality to any it allowed to carry it.

Because of the curse it bore, few could stand to keep Souleater long enough to accomplish this, instead choosing to end their own lives or pass the burden to another. And so, Souleater had had many masters through the centuries.

In the year In Solis 455, it had fallen to a young man named Tir McDohl to wield the Cursed Rune, as destiny chose him as its agent to change the course of history. Over three long years of war and suffering, Tir gathered the 108 Stars of Destiny to his banner. Through their combined efforts, they brought an end to the corrupt Scarlet Moon Empire. The evil sorceress Windy was vanquished, her plans to control the Cursed Rune come to naught. A new power was rising under the banner of the Toran Republic, and young McDohl was chosen as its leader.

All this had passed as the mysterious sage Leknaat, keeper of the Rune of the Gate, had foreseen, bringing her plans to fruition. Her blind eyes now turned northward to the lands of the Jowston Alliance, where she could feel the strands of destiny already beginning to ensnare a new hero.

But just because the Gate Rune Wars have ended does not mean that the story is over. Even without the force of destiny pushing him to greatness, the wielder of a True Rune is never allowed to merely float passively along the river of history. To him is given the ability, and with it the responsibility, to guide and shape the flow.

For him, the story never ends.


Fall had come to the Golden City of Gregminster with surprising suddenness. Tir found it hard to believe that it was only a month ago that he had lead the Liberation Army in triumph to the walls of the capital, sending the demon Yuber's army scattering to the four winds, or that it was a month ago that he had defeated the Sovereign Rune's monstrous incarnation. Most of all he found it difficult to believe that only a month ago Barbarossa Rugner, the last Emperor of the Scarlet Moon Empire, had leapt to his death from the Floating Gardens.

Those gardens were gone forever now, destroyed in the magical backlash of the cataclysmic final conflict. The lower palace had weathered the destruction surprisingly well, and it was nearly restored to its former splendor already.

The same could not be said for the city of Gregminster. The scars of war ran deep, and it would be years before they were healed. Thousands of refugees lived in the rubble-strewn streets, having fled the devastation that was all that remained of the once-rich province of Arlus. As the rest of the Empire had been liberated, the people of the capital province had borne more and more of the burden of keeping the Imperial Army in the field, eventually driving even the richest to poverty. And now, the remnants of that army had turned to banditry to survive, and had stolen most of the little that remained. Rockland, the town where Tir had committed his first open act of rebellion, was little more than a ghost town, and most of the region's other cities were similarly deserted.

Tir rubbed his head, trying to fight off a rapidly approaching headache. He looked around the throne room, where the provisional leadership of the Toran Republic had taken to meeting each day. At Tir's right hand sat Lepant, recently chosen as Tir's Vice President, while Warren, who had assumed the position of Chairman of the Provisional Senate, sat on his left. Further down the table sat those military leaders who were presently in the city- Admiral Sonya Schulen and Generals Valeria Haia and Kwanda Rossman. At the foot of the table sat Hanzo, chief of the Rokkaku ninja. Joshua Levenheit, commander of the Dragon Knights, would normally be seated next to the ninja, but he had returned to the Knighthood of the Dragon's Den to handle his own affairs. This was the Provisional Council, and it was the extent of the Republic's government for now.

"Is there any word on grain shipments?" Tir asked. Food would have to be found and sent to Gregminster soon, or starvation would be added to the list of the occupants' woes.

Warren shook his head. "We have some coming up from Kouan, thanks to Lepant, but the other cities in Gouran don't have any surplus grain to send."

"And we don't have enough ships to bring grain from anywhere else fast enough, even if we could afford to buy it," added Sonya.

"That's very well, Admiral," Lepant said, "but not very helpful."

Sonya glared at Lepant for a moment. She had been one of the Five Great Imperial Generals, loyal almost to the end, and she despised those who had abandoned the Empire before her. "I have no help to offer. Only a handful of ships survived the destruction of Shasarazade, and it will be years before my navy can be rebuilt."

"What about Kun To?" Tir asked.

"That old scoundrel?" Lepant said, but after a moment he nodded. "He loaned his fleet to the Liberation Army once, perhaps he will see fit to loan it again. Hopefully he won't ask for too high a price." The Vice President jotted a note to himself on the paper that lay before him. "The next matter is... the situation with Jowston."

Valeria broke her silence. "The situation is not good. General Hazil has taken command of the northern checkpoint, but Jowston still controls the fortress of Moravia."

"My scouts tell me that the enemy has occupied the entire Banner Pass," Hanzo said. "If we do not push them out soon, they could threaten Gregminster itself."

Lepant shook his head. "I've told you a thousand times, Hanzo, we don't have the men to retake Rokkaku and still maintain the northwestern front. There's little chance of them coming out of the pass, anyway, as after the first snow they'd be cut off from Jowston."

Hanzo might have frowned behind his mask. "We must do something," he said. No one answered him.

After a moment's uncomfortable silence, Valeria spoke again. "The only good news is that the only cities we seem to be facing are Tinto and South Window. The other cities seem to be more concerned about the border skirmishes with Highland."

Kwanda nodded. "If Muse or Two River were to join the offensive, we would be in dire straits. We just don't have the soldiers to hold off the full might of the Jowston Alliance."

Tir sighed. "There's really nothing we can do about that now, General Rossman. What is next on the agenda?"

Lepant shuffled the papers that were strewn about him. "The Stonecrafter's Guild is requesting a twenty-year tax exemption in return for their help in rebuilding Gregminster..."

Tir closed his eyes as Lepant continued. He had thought that once Barbarossa was dead things would be simple, but fate seemed intent on proving him wrong.


Kasumi heard an almost silent footstep behind her, and reacted instantly, dropping to a crouch and rolling away. A shuriken hit in a nearby tree, the force of the impact causing a few leaves to flutter to the ground. Kasumi quickly spun about, throwing a shuriken of her own at her opponent, but was not surprised when he dodged the missile easily.

Kasumi, using the other ninja's distraction to close the distance between them, lashed out with a series of lightning-fast punches and kicks. Most of the attacks were blocked or dodged, but enough got through to send Kasumi's opponent stumbling to the ground.

Holding back a sigh, Kasumi offered the fallen ninja a hand, which he accepted. "You still have a lot to learn, Fuma. I heard you trying to sneak up on me." Chief Hanzo had given her the task of training the new recruit, a responsibility which irked her to some extent- she would rather be helping to evict the Jowston forces from Banner Pass and reclaim Rokkaku.

"I don't think it's possible for anyone to sneak up on you," Fuma complained.

"I can," Hanzo said.

Kasumi nearly jumped. Fuma actually did. Muttering a curse under her breath, Kasumi turned to her chief. "Don't scare me like that!"

Hanzo probably smiled behind his mask. "I will continue to 'scare' you until you can hear me coming as easily as you can hear Fuma." The older ninja paused a moment, then continued, "And watch your mouth with your chief."

Kasumi restrained the urge to utter a second curse, instead nodding. "I will try, Chief Hanzo," she replied.

Hanzo nodded back at her, then turned to Fuma. "You are getting better. Perhaps it is time I started training you myself."

"What would you have me do, then?" Kasumi asked.

"I am leaving Gregminster," Hanzo said. "Regardless of what Lepant thinks, it is time to for Rokkaku to be ours once again." If Hanzo was smiling underneath the black cloth that shrouded his face, the smile no doubt turned mirthless. "With the winter, death will come to the Jowston army. However, it would not do to allow our... alliance with the Toran Republic to lapse. Hence, you will take my place as Rokkaku's representative on the Provisional Council."

Kasumi bowed. "Thank you, Chief Hanzo." After a moment's wait she asked, "How was... President McDohl today?"

Hanzo's cold blue eyes stared at her and he was silent for a while before he responded. "That boy bears a terrible burden, Kasumi. I would advise you to forget your attraction to him, for your own sake."

Kasumi grimaced, and lowered her eyes.

Hanzo sighed. "It is, however, your decision to make. I wish you happiness in your choice, whatever it might be." With that, Hanzo turned away. "Come with me, Fuma."

Kasumi watched the other two ninja leave and shivered, though not because of the cold wind.


Tir McDohl, provisional President of the Toran Republic, entered the Gregminster Palace graveyard with a trembling step. It seemed his daily walks always ended in this morbid place. The setting sun cast long shadows over the quiet landscape. Tir let out a breath he hadn't realized he had been holding, and began to walk down the earthen path that lead into the heart of the graveyard.

The palace graveyard was huge, containing centuries worth of dead, going back to before Kranach Rugner had founded the Scarlet Moon Empire. The oldest graves were positioned closest to the entrance, and it was almost dark before Tir reached the graves he sought.

The first was that of an old friend. Pahn. He had been a mentor, a guardian, and sometimes almost a father to Tir. Despite that, Tir had never known much about Pahn's past. All he knew was that Pahn had fought against Tir's father during the Succession War, switching sides after Teo spared his life. Tir laughed bitterly at the irony of his guardian's death, slain by the same man who had spared him so many years ago.

Tir absently scratched his right palm, then turned to the grave that lay next to Pahn's. Tir knelt before the tombstone, wishing he could find tears to shed. He had made sure that this body had been delivered to Gregminster, even though it was at the height of the war. He knew that his father had wanted to be buried here.

It should have pained him more. Here lay his father, and he was the one who had killed him. He knew that the histories would always mention that the "Victor of a Hundred Battles" had finally known defeat at the hands of his own son. It had the feeling of a legend already, and the story would no doubt live on long after the war was forgotten.

Tir bowed his head a moment. "Father..." he said, searching for words he could not find, as he did each night. He could not say how long he knelt before his father's grave, as darkness fell around him. The first night he had done this, he had caused a panic, as none had known where to find him.

Tir's right hand suddenly pulsed, and he rose, unthinkingly summoning a ball of cold, bright light. He glanced about, his eyes finally falling on Barbarossa's empty tomb. "Who's there?" he called out harshly.

After a moment, a lithe form leapt from the tomb's roof, gracefully landing just inside the range of the light. Tir nodded curtly, and relaxed somewhat. "Kasumi. What do you want?" The question came out a bit harder than he intended, and he saw the ninja wince slightly.

"I... I just want to talk to you, Tir," she said softly. "It's not healthy for you to do this every night."

Tir laughed. "Is that all? I assure you, I'm perfectly healthy. My Rune sees to that."

Kasumi shivered. "I don't mean it like that, Tir. You can't do anything for the dead. It's the living that need you now."

Tir smiled, but the smile did not touch his eyes. "They died for me. Father and Pahn. Gremio and Ted. Mathiu. They all died because of me. This seems the least I can do."

Kasumi shivered a second time, and changed the subject. "How

can you stand the cold? It's freezing out here." "Is it cold?" Tir asked, frowning. "I didn't notice."

"That's scary," Kasumi said.

Tir felt another pulse in his right palm, and with a sick feeling in his gut he realized that he could feel Kasumi standing before him, feel her warmth, her life. His stomach twisted again as he felt the Souleater reaching out, pulling at her. "You should be scared," Tir said as he wrestled with the Rune.

Tir fell to his knees, the Rune burning on his hand. "No..." he muttered. "Don't..."

Kasumi raced forward as Tir fell. "What happened?"

Tir looked up at her. "Get away!" he screamed.

Kasumi came to a halt. "What..." she began.

"Leave! Please," Tir begged, and after a moment Kasumi complied. As she left, Tir relaxed his mental struggle. Pure destruction emerged from his palm, streaming hungrily in the direction the ninja girl had gone.

After the rune's power was spent, Tir rose, staring at the rune on his palm, now quiet, showing no sign of the life it had just displayed. After some time, he stared up at the full moon, estimating the time of night.

After another moment, he nodded, and set off for his chambers. If he was lucky, he could be in Lenankamp by dawn, and past the Fortress of Kwaba before it could be alerted. ***********************************************************************

The next morning, Kasumi rose early to attend her first meeting of the Provisional Council as Chief Hanzo's representative. When she arrived, only Valeria was there. "What's wrong?"

Valeria sighed. "President McDohl's gone missing. One of the maids found his bed empty when she brought him breakfast this morning."

"All right," Kasumi said quietly. "Take me to his room."

Valeria nodded, and shortly the two women arrived there, finding the rest of the Provisional Council interrogating the maid who had discovered that Tir was missing.

Kasumi ignored the conversation, instead stepping through the open door and examining the room. It had been Barbarossa's, though Tir had removed many of the more ostentatious decorations, most of which were then sold to finance the staggering cost of running the Republic.

"Has anyone touched anything in here?" Kasumi asked.

After a moment of too harsh questioning, the maid managed to convey that she had run to tell someone as soon as she had seen that room was empty, and that she certainly hadn't destroyed any evidence.

Kasumi nodded. "There's no sign of a struggle. I don't think anyone could kidnap him without some sort of fight, so we can rule that out." The other members of the Provisional Council muttered their agreement. Kasumi ignored them, instead concentrating on searching the room.

After a moment, she announced, "He took his staff and his backpack, and most of his traveling clothes. It's safe to say he's not planning on coming back in the near future."

"What do we do?" Lepant asked.

"If the people find out that President McDohl is gone, they might lose their faith in the new government. The whole Republic could collapse," Warren said, stroking his beard.

General Kwanda frowned. "If that happens, then you can count on South Window's flag flying over Gregminster by the end of next summer."

Valeria grimaced, but after a moment she nodded. "Rossman's right. Our situation just isn't stable enough to take a shock like this."

"I'll have to temporarily assume the duties of President," Lepant said. "If necessary, we'll announce that President McDohl has gone into seclusion to consider how to solve the problems we face. Someone send a fast messenger to Kwaba, and alert the commander there of the situation."

"I'll see to it myself," Kwanda said. "I'll make sure he understands the matter is to be kept secret."

"And I'll alert the forces guarding the Banner Pass, in case he heads that way," Valeria said.

Kasumi nodded. "I will track him down. I have the best chance of finding him quickly, before word of this gets out."

"All right," Kwanda said. "I'll get a squad of men to accompany you."

Kasumi smiled softly and shook her head. "They couldn't keep up me," she said, seeming to vanish into thin air.

Kwanda cursed. "How, by all Twenty-Seven True Runes, do those ninja do that?"


Author's Random Ramblings

1) All comments are, of course, greatly appreciated.

2) Thanks goes to Ryan Hupp for his incredibly thorough prereading, without which this fic would be far poorer.

3) The name Tir is used for the main character in this fic, as that is the name used in the official Japanese novels.

4) As you may have noticed, this fic is not based off the optimal ending to Suikoden. The sequence of events assumed for this fic is that all 108 Stars of Destiny get recruited, but Pahn dies in his duel against Teo, and so Gremio is not resurrected at the end.

5) Rabid Suikoden fans may protest that the last name I gave Valeria (Haia), is in fact the name of her swordsmaster, who is no relation to her. I have an explanation for this! In the continuity of this fic, Roundier Haia's students took his name as a sign of respect. So therefore, Anita would be Anita Haia, were she to appear in this story (which she won't). *********************************************************************** ***********************************************************************

Part 2: Sorrow

"The sorrow for the dead is the only sorrow from which we refuse to be divorced. Every other wound we seek to heal- every other affliction to forget: but this wound we consider it a duty to keep open."
- Washington Irving

Almost immediately, Kasumi faced a difficult question: which direction did Tir go? The walls of Gregminster were still broken in a dozen places, so interrogating the gate guards would be useless. It was too much to hope for that he would leave some evidence of his passage. Even this early in the morning, far too many people would have entered and left the city for any such trace to survive.

Still, Kasumi decided that heading south was the best option. Tir would almost certainly try to leave Arlus, and the only easy ways out were Banner Pass to the north and the Fortress of Kwaba to the south. The Banner Pass was under Jowston occupation, and Kasumi doubted that Tir would try to slip through enemy lines.

It was close to noon when Kasumi reached the city of Lenankamp, one of the few cities in Arlus besides Gregminster to have survived the war mostly intact. Tir would almost certainly have passed through while most people were still asleep, so Kasumi conducted only the most cursory of investigations before continuing on her way.

The Fortress of Kwaba provided more enlightening information. The fortress guards remembered the boy who had been waiting outside when the gates had been opened in the morning, and they agreed that he matched the description Kasumi gave of her "runaway brother." Knowing that she was most of a day behind Tir, Kasumi chose to press on despite the fact that it was already closer to nightfall than noon. She spent a cold night in a grove of trees halfway between Kwaba and the village of Seika.

Kasumi reached Seika early the next morning, and spent an hour interviewing the villagers only to find that no one there had seen Tir. Without any further clues, Kasumi decided to continue to head south along the main road to Kouan. She could only hope she would find something of use there.

It was well past noon when Kasumi noticed the smell of smoke on the air. Worried, she sprinted to the top of the next hill, only to stop at the sight that greeted her. A large caravan was spread out before her, wagons overturned and burning in some places. Nothing seemed to be moving among the wagons- the horses all appeared to have been killed while still hitched.

Kasumi cautiously descended the shallow slope, alert for any danger. When she had convinced herself that no attackers remained, she searched the wagons, and quickly came to the sickening realization that this had to have been one of the grain caravans destined for Gregminster. The attackers, almost certainly bandits, had stolen any valuables that might have been present, but had left a large amount of the grain behind. Most of it was ruined from exposure to the elements.

Oddly, Kasumi could not find any bodies, but an answer shortly presented itself. To the side of the road she found a series of low mounds, roughly carved wooden grave markers placed atop each. Kasumi frowned. No bandits would have buried their victims.

A more careful search revealed signs that a large body of men had left the caravan, heading east towards the Great Forest. However, there were also signs of a more recent passage. A single pair of footprints that had probably been made no earlier than noon. Kasumi had a strong hunch as to who might be following the bandits.

After spending a moment in silent prayer for the dead, Kasumi added another set of footprints to the trail.


Tir McDohl expertly blocked the first two wild sword blows with his quarterstaff, then whirled the weapon about to slam into the bandit's head with a bone-shattering crack. Even before his opponent had fallen, Tir swept the legs out from beneath the bandit's comrade. Before the second bandit could regain his feet, the iron-clad tip of Tir's staff had crushed his windpipe.

Tir let out a heavy breath. He had managed to kill the two sentries before they were able to sound the alarm. It had been remarkably easy to track the bandits here at first- they had not even tried to hide their trail until they entered the forest. After that, Tir had been forced to leave behind some old Liberation Army markings in case the bandit's hideout proved to be too well defended and he was forced to return with help.

Fortunately, it did not seem as though that would be a problem. Stepping past the sentries' corpses, Tir entered the hideout. The first cave was empty, save for a roughly cut set of stairs leading up to another chamber. Obviously the bandits had been here for a long time.

Tir quietly climbed the stairs, then snuck into the next cave, back pressed against the wall. He was in luck. Most of the bandits seemed to all be gathered here, clustered around a few large sacks bulging with valuables.

One of the bandits, apparently the leader, growled as he began to empty the bags onto the stony floor. "Most of this is only copper! This wasn't worth our time."

Scattered mutterings of agreement met this statement, and the bandits began to glare daggers at a portly man clad in a filthy Imperial uniform, who gulped audibly. "But, Skoros, by stopping that caravan, we've dealt a telling blow to the rebel..."

The leader cut him off with an angry wave of his hand and another snarl. "I don't care about the government, Kanaan! You told us the caravan was filled with treasure."

Tir had to suppress a growl himself. Kanaan! The former Vice-Captain of the Imperial Guards, the man was an embodiment of all that had been wrong with the Scarlet Moon Empire: corrupt, incompetent, and a coward to the core. Tir hadn't recognized him at first- despite his still vast size, he had lost a great deal of weight since the last time Tir had seen him.

Kanaan threw himself to his knees. "Lord Skoros, thanks to this raid, we have enough food to last us through the winter!"

Skoros stepped forward, lifting Kanaan up by his neck with one hand- an amazing feat of strength, considering Kanaan's bulk. "And that's the only reason I'm not going to kill you right now for lying to me." The bandit tossed Kanaan against a nearby wall and smirked. "But I'm not gonna tell them not to, either." Kanaan moaned and stumbled away from the group as the other bandits drew their swords, smiles matching their leader's.

Tir decided that this had gone on long enough. He wanted to see Kanaan punished for his true crimes, not killed for lying to bandits. Smiling grimly, Tir stepped into the torchlight. Almost immediately, all attention was focused on him.

"Who are you?" Skoros roared.

Tir ignored him. "This is your first and only chance to surrender. Lay down your weapons and I'll let you live."

Skoros laughed. "There's only one of you, and two dozens of us. Get him, boys!"

The bandits raced forward, and Tir sighed. As they approached, he shifted his staff to his left hand and raised his right. His palm burned, and the torches went out, plunging the cave into near-darkness. Tir could feel space folding and twisting before him, and could hear the bandits' screams.

After a moment, the burning in his palm ceased and Tir smiled. Only Skoros remained standing. The other bandits had fallen where they stood. Tir struck quickly, before Skoros's eyes could finish adjusting to the darkness. Unfortunately, he managed to get his sword up in time to block the attack, then struck back with a series of vicious blows.

Tir's smile widened. Skoros was surprisingly skilled, but he was far from good enough. Tir used his superior speed to dart out of the way of a sword thrust, then brought the bottom of his quarterstaff up between his opponent's legs. As Skoros doubled over in pain, his weapon dropping from suddenly weak hands, Tir swung down with the other end of his staff, solidly connecting with the bandit's head.

Skoros collapsed, unconscious, and Tir didn't hesitate before killing the man with a quick jab of his staff. As he glanced around, he grimaced. Kanaan had fled during the brief battle. Tir considered searching for the former bureaucrat, but decided against it. "After all," he said, thinking out loud, "if I let myself get too distracted, they'll close the Fortress of Garan before I can get through it."


Kasumi frowned as she inspected the two corpses. It didn't take much skill to determine that they had been killed by a blunt weapon and without managing to score a blow on their assailant. Kasumi checked the bodies' temperature. They weren't warm, but they weren't quite cold either. They had died not too long ago. Assuming her hunch was right, she was gaining time on Tir.

The previous night she had pushed herself hard, finally resting close to midnight inside the boundaries of the Great Forest. It had taken her almost an hour to relocate the bandits' trail, but she had found some old signs used by the Liberation Army's scouts, and followed them here.

Deciding not to waste any more time, Kasumi strode into the cave and up the stairs she found within. In the next chamber, she found the rest of the bandits- most of them with not a single mark on their bodies and quite chill to the touch. She knew exactly what had caused those deaths, and shuddered involuntarily as she remembered the last time she had seen it happen.

It had been during the final storming of the Imperial Palace. Ain Gide, the Emperor's last loyal general was dead, but the surviving Imperial Guards had fought on, refusing to surrender. Tir had lead the spearhead of the assault, determined to find and slay Barbarossa before the Golden Emperor could escape to one day raise the banner of the Empire once again. It had seemed that they could hardly take five steps without another squad of elite soldiers pouring out of a side corridor with battle-cries on their lips.

Yet each time, before they could strike, Tir had simply raised his right hand and summoned forth the power of his rune. Reality itself would seem to twist into impossible configurations, and when it was over the guardsmen would be dead. Somewhere along the course of the assault, Kasumi had been separated from Tir, and she hadn't witnessed the final confrontation with Barbarossa, but given the stories Valeria had told her of it, she felt that was no great loss.

Shaking her head to clear it, Kasumi stopped reminiscing and pondered the problem at hand. She knew that Tir had to have been here- this was the Souleater's work, after all. The question was where he had gone next.

Kasumi's head almost jerked up as she heard a shuffling behind her. Out of the corner of her eye she noticed a portly man in an Imperial uniform holding a rusty knife and attempting- rather poorly- to sneak up behind her. She waited until the man was almost upon her before whirling about and disarming him.

A moment later she was holding the man's own weapon to his throat. "The man who did this," she said. "Tell me where he went if you want to live."

"He... he said something about the fortress of Garan!" the man managed to squeal out after babbling incoherently for a moment.

For a moment Kasumi considered killing the man- he was most likely another bandit, after all. But in the end she decided it was better to stick with her implied promise and lightly pushed the man aside. "If you've lied to me," Kasumi said pleasantly, "I will track you down and make you wish you hadn't."

Her captive almost immediately began to babble about how truthful he was and how much she could trust him. Kasumi decided he probably was telling the truth, for he seemed far too frightened to lie. After making this decision, Kasumi wordlessly left the bandit hideout. It was already close to nightfall, but Garan was on the far side of the Gouran region from the Great Forest. If she hoped to get there before Tir, she would have little sleep that night.


Vice President Lepant sighed as he shuffled the latest reports around on the table. The much reduced Provisional Council was meeting, but Lepant found himself distracted. The future constantly preyed on his mind- would the Toran Republic live to replace the Scarlet Moon Empire, or would it wind up as little more than a footnote in the annals of history?

Lepant looked up as the double doors at the front of the throne room opened, revealing Valeria, the dust of her quick journey still on her uniform. "Ah, General Haia. Timely as ever."

Valeria slumped into her usual seat, nodding briefly at Joshua, who had returned from the Knighthood of the Dragon's Den while she was away. "Where's the Admiral?"

"Sonya's gone to oversee the rebuilding of Shasarazade," Lepant said. "Do you have any news for us?"

"Our forces near the Banner Pass have been alerted, but there's no sign that President McDohl is headed that way. I take it Rossman hasn't reported yet?"

Warren shook his head. "Not yet. However, we have received a report from General Hazil, and your input would be greatly appreciated."

Lepant nodded. "Yes." The report was passed down the table to Valeria, who quickly perused it. She rubbed her head softly. She had ridden with almost no rest to quickly reach the Banner front and return, and being presented with this immediately afterward was too much.

"I see," she began. "This is very troubling news, if accurate. Does anyone have a map?" After one had been procured, Valeria studied it a moment before continuing. "According to the report, Jowston forces have managed to breach our defenses east of the northern checkpoint. If they manage to start another push before Hazil can close the gap or winter falls, there's any number of troublesome things they could try."

"What's the worst case scenario?" Lepant asked.

"Worst case? That Jowston manages seize Antei and Scarletica, forcing Hazil to abandon the northern checkpoint or risk being cut off. If they manage that, we could lose all of Kunan and Lorimar in the spring offensives." She did not need to state that that would be a death blow to the Republic.

"What are our options?" Lepant asked.

"We'll have to send reinforcements. Hazil can't close the breach and regarrison Scarletica at the same time."

"But we don't have any reinforcements to send!" Warren protested with a grimace. "If we pull men off the Banner front, South Window will break through and attack Gregminster!"

"Didn't I mention?" Valeria asked tiredly. "The first snows have fallen in Banner Pass."

Joshua looked up. "Are you sure, Valeria?"

"Of course I'm sure," she replied. "Jowston won't be able to move forces through the pass until spring."

"But can we get reinforcements to Kunan fast enough to make a difference?" Lepant asked.

Valeria's shoulders slumped. "I doubt it. It'll take weeks, if not a whole month, to march an army that far."

The throne room doors opened again, and a young guardsman stepped inside. "Vice President, there is a Kun To here to see you."

Lepant suddenly smiled. "Send the scoundrel in." When the old merchant was presented, Lepant rose to greet him. "You got here quickly."

Kun To shrugged as Lepant lead him to a seat. "I was overseeing some deliveries to the Floating Fortress, and Admiral Schulen said you wanted to speak with me."

"That's perfect," Lepant said, his smile widening as he sat. "We have a cargo for you so your ships don't have to make the return voyage empty."

"What type of cargo?" Kun To asked.


Valeria did some quick calculations in her head. "Five thousand soldiers."

Kun To frowned. "Soldiers? And I suppose you expect me to provide provisions for the voyage?"

Valeria shook her head. "I think we can handle that ourselves."

Kun To pondered for a moment, then shook his head. "I already have a cargo lined up, one that will make me a great deal of money, not more promises that might never be fulfilled."

"I wouldn't be so hasty, old friend," Warren said. "You wouldn't want to have to have all that cargo hand-searched for contraband, would you?"

"You people wouldn't do that to a former comrade-in-arms, would you?" Kun To asked plaintively.

"Not if he acted like one, Kun To," Joshua said with a laugh.

Kun To sighed. "You're all out to ruin me." Then he chuckled and shrugged. "Ah, well. Once more for not-so-old time's sake, I suppose. But I expect the government to provide warehouse space for my cargo while I handle this."

Lepant nodded. "We can manage that. Valeria, if you would begin the preparations?"

Valeria nodded and rose, stifling a yawn. "Of course."

Joshua rose as well. "I will return to the Dragon's Den. I believe I can spare a wing of dragons to help Kasim." When Lepant nodded, he turned and followed Valeria out of the room.

Kun To began to rise, but was stopped when Warren spoke. "Before you leave, Kun To, I'd like to speak with you about grain shipments...."


Kasumi grimaced as she left the fortress of Garan. Far too many people had passed through recently for the guards there to remember whether anyone matching Tir's description had been among them. Once again without clues, Kasumi tried to figure out where Tir could be headed.

Much of this region was sparsely settled, and there were any number of places to hide. It was possible that Tir might head to the hills south of Rikon and set up a hermitage like old Liukan, but if that was his plan she had little chance of finding him. The villages of the region held little of interest, and Tir would surely be stopped at the northern checkpoint or the entrance to the Dragon's Den. That left Lorimar or Soniere Prison.

Both were in the same direction, so Kasumi set out without further delay. It took her a day and a half to reach the imposing fortress of Soniere. She was briefly surprised at the lack of guards, but then she remembered that the prison, once the final resting place for hundreds of rebels, had been left abandoned when the Empire had withdrawn from this region, the Liberation Army refusing to use such a painful symbol of the old regime.

Kasumi quietly opened the gate, which was slightly ajar, and was gratified to note a trail of footprints in the dust leading into the prison, but not out. It seemed as though she had finally caught up with Tir.

The silence was oppressive as she entered the fortress, taking a moment to light a torch, as the interior was dark as a tomb. Kasumi followed the trail of footprints deep into the fortress, past what had to have been the barracks for the Imperial garrison.

Kasumi froze as she heard a low moan, only to drop to the ground just in time to avoid a forked bolt of lightning. She whirled about, faced with the sight of a slightly glowing, ethereal form that held a playing card almost as large as it was.

She had heard tales of these spirits, called Nightmares. They had apparently been attracted by the misery of the prisoners in Soniere and infested the dungeons. The imperial garrison had done little to eradicate them, instead choosing to venture into the lower levels only in large groups. Since the fortress's abandonment, they must have escaped into the above-ground portions as well.

Kasumi darted forward, striking out at the spirit with her free hand. With a foul screech the ethereal being dissolved, but a moment later another had appeared out of the darkness. Kasumi tensed, preparing to dodge whatever magic the second spirit would summon.

Before it could, however, it vanished in a pillar of utter darkness. When the pillar dissipated, the spirit was simply... gone. Kasumi could somehow feel other Nightmares fleeing.

Tir stepped through a door and into the room, lowering his right hand. He stared at Kasumi for a moment. "Why are you following me?"

"Because you're needed back in Gregminster." Kasumi took a step forward, only to be matched by a backwards movement on Tir's part.

"No I'm not," Tir said. "Lepant and Warren run everything anyways. They can certainly handle it without me."

"But the people don't believe in Lepant and Warren, They believe in you, Tir. You're their hero, the one who liberated them from oppression."

Tir growled, suddenly taking a step forward. "I never wanted to be a hero, you realize. I just wanted to help my friends... help Ted, and then Viktor. I wanted to keep a promise to a dying woman, who saw something in me I'm not sure was ever there. I never wanted to be a hero, though." Tir laughed suddenly. "I never even wanted to be a general like my father. I just wanted to live a quiet life and for everyone to leave me ALONE."

As Tir spoke, darkness gathered in his right hand, and Kasumi shrank back. "Tir," she began, her voice trembling from fear.

Tir shook, suddenly seeming to notice the power in his hand. "No," he said coldly. Slowly the darkness faded away, and Tir slumped as though he had just fought a terrible battle.

Kasumi started to approach, but backed away when Tir raised his right arm. He slowly circled around her, until he stood between her and the exit. "Do not follow me again. It won't be safe for you," he said harshly, and turned to leave.

Kasumi waited only until he was out of sight before heading for the exit herself.


Tir frowned as he stared at the small campfire he had allowed himself this night. The feeble heat it provided did little to ward off the chill autumn air, though Tir hardly noticed the stiff wind that caused the flames to flicker fitfully. There was no moon in the sky, yet Tir found that he could see as well as if it had been present and full.

He slowly shook his head, staring at the silent rune on his palm. At times it seemed alive, with a will of its own, but for now it was quiescent. It was still amazing to him that such raw power was, for the most part, his to command. That so long as he held this Rune, he would never age.

Tir clenched his fist, nails biting into his palm. The Cursed Rune was aptly named. He would never age, yes, but he would have to spend his immortal life alone. He could not afford to become close to anyone, lest the Rune consume them as it had so many others over the centuries. Not even....

She had to have followed him, he knew. She was in love with him. Tir wondered what it would be like to love someone. He thought that, maybe, if things were different, he might have been able to love Kasumi. As things were though... she was an annoyance. An annoyance he was fond of, but irritating all the same.

Tir's right hand twitched, and he looked up. After a moment, he sighed. "You can come out."

Kasumi stepped out of the darkness. "How did you spot me?"

"I didn't." Tir ignored Kasumi's questioning look. "I seem to recall asking you not to follow me."

Kasumi took a seat across the small campfire from Tir. "Sorry," she said quietly. "I still have to take you back to Gregminster." Tir glowered at the ninja for a moment. "And how do you expect to do that?"

Kasumi dropped her gaze, and after a moment Tir sighed. "All right. You can take first watch. I'm going to get some sleep." When Kasumi nodded, Tir began to spread out his bedroll.

Kasumi watched him for a moment, then spoke. "Will you please think about going back?"

Tir looked up. "Tomorrow morning, we go our separate ways."


When Kasumi awoke, Tir was gone, as she had expected. He couldn't have gone far though. Even if he had left as soon as Kasumi had fallen asleep, he could only have a few hours' lead. Kasumi gathered up her few possessions and set about determining where Tir had gone.

It was surprisingly easy. Too easy, in fact. The trail leading north was obvious. It seemed as though Tir had put no effort into hiding his path. Frowning, Kasumi began to follow, keeping a careful eye on the trail.

An hour later, her suspicions were fulfilled, as she spotted a much better hidden path curving away back to the south. The northward trail continued on, but Kasumi knew that it would begin to vanish not far ahead. Kasumi shook her head. Did Tir really think that she would fall for that old trick? She was a trained ninja, not some half-blind soldier.

Kasumi was about to head back south when she heard thunder on the horizon. It was the wrong season for storms. Kasumi looked up, and her sharp eyesight quickly picked out a dust cloud not too far to the north. Cavalry, and moving at a quick pace.

With a regretful look at Tir's path, Kasumi turned again and began to run to the north. From the size of the cloud, there were at least a thousand men north of her, and that many soldiers never meant good news.

Her fears were confirmed when she got close enough to spot the banners. The flag of the Jowston Alliance was the largest, but there were South Window and Tinto banners scattered about the column. They had to have gotten past the northern defenses somehow.

Kasumi quickly estimated their position and direction, and grimaced. They were headed for Antei. Kasumi glanced towards the south for a moment, before turning and beginning to race towards the village. If she was fast enough, she could reach it in time to bring warning and organize a defense.

As she ran, the full implications of what was occuring ran through her head. She was no military expert, but she knew that if the City-states could get this many soldiers past General Hazil's defenses, it made the Republic's position on this front extremely weak. She did not want to consider what would happen if Jowston was able to cut Hazil's army off from the rest of Toran.

Close to noon, Kasumi left the road and began to cut across the countryside, but she didn't allow her run to slow. The slightest delay would be disastrous.


Frederick Granmeyer reined in his horse as he reached the top of the hill overlooking the village of Antei. Already flames were beginning to rise as the Tinto heavy infantry began to force its way into the small town. Frederick frowned a moment, then rode forward a short distance.

The South Window general slowly dismounted, then handed the reins over to a nearby soldier. Looking at the younger man was a painful reminder of his own age. Frederick's hair was now at least as much silver as black, and even the slightest exercise was accompanied by a multitude of aches and pains, the inevitable price of half a century of life.

He quickly strode over to where the mayor of Tinto was observing the proceedings with a collection of officers, servants, and politicians. As he forced his way through the crowd, Frederick nodded respectfully to the first group, ignored the second, and wished he could ignore the third.

"Do your scouts report anything?" Gustav asked him as he approached.

Frederick shook his head as the two walked away from the crowd surrounding the mayor to discuss matters privately. "No, Mayor. There's no sign that Hazil knows we're already past him."

"Good," Gustav grunted. "I'll be able to commit my reserves to the battle then."

"Your reserves? There should be no need for that. We're facing a village garrison, not the Hundred Man Brigade!"

Gustav shook his head. "Someone must have spotted us. The Torani had a few hours at least to prepare defenses, and we're going to take heavy casualties trying to get through them."

"Better not to try then," Frederick replied. "We can't afford the time. No matter how well my cavalry screen us, Hazil won't be blind to us for long. Just by striking at all, we've accomplished our goal. Hazil will be forced to abandon the northern defenses, or he'll be spread so thin trying to garrison all of Kunan that we'll be able to take them."

"Bah." Gustav frowned. "I won't let these scum think they've driven Gustav Pendragon of Tinto away!"

Frederick scowled to match Gustav. "Your Excellency, I must insist that you-" The aging general trailed of as his eye caught a flash of color and movement. "Get down," he hissed, sword springing from its sheath.


Kasumi growled a curse under her breath as the other man's warning allowed the mayor of Tinto to avoid her first attack. She spun around, delivering a solid blow to the side of Gustav's head that sent the man tumbling to the ground. However, before she could finish him off, the man who had warned Gustav interposed himself between them, and it took all of Kasumi's reflexes to avoid being split in two by his first lightning-fast sword blow.

Kasumi rolled to the left to avoid another blow, then raked out with her metal claws. Unfortunately, they did little more than scratch her opponent's well-cared for breastplate, and a third strike forced Kasumi to retreat.

"You're a quick one," the man said as he too took a step back. "A Rokakku ninja?"

Kasumi ignored the question, and fell into a wary defensive stance. This man was surprisingly good, considering his apparent age. Out of the corner of her eye, Kasumi noted a group of Jowston soldiers approaching, and regretfully decided that her mission was a failure. A pity, but even if the mayor of Tinto lived, she had managed to warn the Antei garrison of the attack in time.

Kasumi tensed to spring back, keeping a careful eye on her opponent. The man seemed amused, of all things! Kasumi risked a glance backward to confirm the position of the approaching soldiers, then pulled a small smoke bomb from her tunic and hurled it to the ground.

Kasumi closed her eyes to protect them from the acrid fumes, and began to quietly creep away. She smiled tightly as she heard curses from the nearby soldiers, easing her attempt to slip past them. A few moments later, she emerged from the smoke cloud, and her smile widened as she realized that she had a clear path back to Antei.

"Leaving so soon, ninja?" Kasumi's smile faltered as she turned to see her opponent striding unconcerned from the still billowing smoke cloud, sword ready. The man smiled and continued, "We can't have that, can we?"

After weighing her options, Kasumi turned and broke into a run. The man was simply too good for her to be confident of taking him down before the other soldiers emerged from the smoke cloud. However, she was sure she could outrun him, particularly as he was burdened by his heavy armor.

Behind her the man barked a harsh laugh, followed by several even harsher syllables. Kasumi instantly began to roll to the side, but she wasn't fast enough. With a hideous crack, Kasumi felt a bolt of lightning hit her from behind, and she was unable to bite back the primal scream that came unbidden from her throat as it spent its power on her flesh.

Kasumi fell to the ground, limbs still twitching from the shock, and she was unable to do more than moan in protest as her opponent approached and expertly disarmed her, then bound her arms and legs.

"I'm sure you have some more tricks up your sleeve, but that should hold you for the moment."

A Jowston soldier approached and bowed to the man. "General Granmeyer, Lord Pendragon is still unconscious. What are your orders, sir?"

The general turned and looked at the town for a moment. "Sound the retreat. We've accomplished our goal for today. And assign a detail to guard the prisoner. Make sure they search her thoroughly for hidden weapons."

The soldier saluted. "Yes, sir."


Tir stared up at the imposing walls of Fort Lorimar, which guarded the road into the province of the same name. This fortress, traditionally the site for traitors' executions, rivaled even Soniere Prison in the dread which its name inspired. However, unlike Soniere, Lorimar served a strategic purpose, and so was still garrisoned by the Toran Republic.

It had taken Tir quite a while to reach the fortress, as he had spent several days laying false trails to distract the pursuer he was sure he had. It surprised him that he had not seen her since he had snuck out of their shared camp. He had thought Kasumi was a good enough tracker to see past his deceptions. Surely she hadn't actually gone back to Gregminster?

However, a more pressing question soon came to him. It was well past dawn, yet the gates of Lorimar remained closed. Admittedly, there was not exactly a large crowd seeking passage, for he was the only one, but the fortress still should have opened its gates as soon as the sun rose. With a sigh, Tir decided that the only way to find out why they hadn't done so was to ask.

As Tir approached the gates, one of the gate guards spoke. "I'm afraid you can't pass. The fortress of Lorimar is closed until further notice."

"Why?" Tir asked.

"Haven't you heard?" When Tir shook his head, the guard continued. "Jowston attacked Antei three days ago. I hear they even captured one of the Provisional Council members. Until we're certain there's no further threat, the fortress is closed to all travelers."

"One of the Provisional Council? Who?" Tir asked, worried.

The guard shrugged. "I don't know."

Tir was sure he knew the answer, though. If it had been General Hazil, the soldier would surely have known. There was only one other council member in Kunan....

Tir turned and headed north.


Author's Random Ramblings

1) Thanks to Ryan Hupp for his thorough, if quite slow, prereading efforts. Without his aid, this fic would be far poorer.

2) Frederick Granmeyer is not the same Granmeyer who is South Window's mayor and appears in Suikoden II. Frederick is his uncle.

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Part 3: Thorn

- Saadi

"My, my, if it isn't President McDohl! What brings you here all alone?"

Tir looked up to see another man walking down the road beside him. How could he have snuck on him? In any case, it took Tir a moment to place the man's face. Leon Silverburg. Tir couldn't really say he knew the man who had haunted the ruins of Kalekka: he had spent most of his brief time with the Liberation Army closeted with his nephew Mathiu, and had vanished shortly after the fall of Gregminster.

Tir stared suspiscously at the strategist for a moment. "What business of it is yours?"

Leon laughed. "None, really. I find myself having the need to travel north, and I was hoping I could prevail upon you to convince General Hazil to let me through the northern defenses. Though I must admit I am curious as to what the President of the Toran Republic is doing walking through the middle of a war zone all alone."

Tir grunted. "You can convince General Hazil yourself."

"Most likely," Leon said with a nod. "Unfortunately, he is ensconsed in that fortress," he continued, gesturing towards the defenses on the northern horizon, "and the guards seem unwilling to believe that I am the famed Leon Silverburg, so I find myself unable to gain admittance to see the General. Perhaps you could aid me?"

Tir shrugged, and began to walk toward the fort. After a moment, Leon followed, and Tir thought he could hear the strategist muttering a few mild profanities under his breath. It took the two most of an hour to reach the fortress gates. The guards at first did not believe that Tir was who he claimed he was, but when he showed them the Souleater, they came around quite quickly. Less than another quarter of an hour later, the two were ushered into Hazil's war room, where the general was meeting with his advisors.

The general rose to meet them. "President McDohl, it is an... unexpected pleasure." When he caught sight of Tir's companion, his face hardened. "Silverburg," he said levelly.

"General Hazil," Leon replied, with a nod and a slight smile.

Hazil turned back to Tir. "What can I do for you, President McDohl?"

Tir walked over to the table in the center of the room, on which a number of well-worn maps were strewn. "Has Kasumi been captured?"

"She has." A previously unnoticed figure detached itself from one of the walls, and Tir quickly recognized the ninja Fuma.

Hazil hesitated before speaking. "She was taken defending Antei from a raid led by General Granmeyer, your excellency."

"Where is she being held?"

"We believe she has been taken to Moravia Castle," answered one of Hazil's advisors.

Tir grunted, and turned to leave. "You can't possibly be thinking of going there alone?" Hazil exclaimed. "President McDohl, I can't possibly let you put yourself in such danger."

Tir looked back over his shoulder. "She was captured because she was looking for me. I will rescue her."

"President McDohl, I would like to see her freed as much as the next man, but the risks are simply too great. The entire Jowston army is between us and Moravia Castle!"

Leon spoke. "But what if the benifits outweighed the risks?"

Hazil stared suspisciously at the strategist. "Explain."

"You said General Frederick Granmeyer was leading the South Window contingent here?"

Hazil nodded.

"That man is a tactician of no small repute, almost a genius, but more importantly he's also the only South Window leader with any taste for military adventures. If he were dead, Mayor Granmeyer would pull South Window out of the war at the first sign of trouble."

Hazil frowned. "I think I see where you are going with this, and I don't like it."

Leon continued as though the general had not spoken. "You should know, General Hazil, that a small band should be able to easily infiltrate Moravia. That band could just as easily assassinate Granmeyer while rescuing the ninja." The strategist paused. "The Jowston forces will be settling in for the winter. With Granmeyer dead, they will also be demoralized. If you launched an assault, you would take them unprepared, and push them back to Moravia Castle, and maybe even retake some of the lesser fortifications north of here."

One of Hazil's advisors nodded. "It could work, General."

Hazil shook his head. "We don't have enough men. If I had a few thousand more I might consider it, but we have too few troops to waste on such a scheme." He paused. "President McDohl, I must ask that you stay here until transport can be arranged to Gregminster. It is too dangerous for you to be wandering alone."

"And what of me?" Leon asked.

Hazil grunted. "You can do as you wish, Silverburg."

"May I ask for permission to head north, then?"

Hazil paused, then sighed. "If that is truly your desire, then go."


Kasumi stopped as she reached one wall of her small, unadorned cell. She whirled about, then began to count the paces to the opposite side. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. This ceaseless pacing was mindnumbing, which was the point. It took her mind off of the gnawing in her stomach that reminded her that it had been far too long since she had eaten anything.

Her captors had given her plenty of water, but no food. That they withheld until such time as she chose to cooperate and answer their questions. She was lucky that they hadn't chosen a more violent means of persuasion, but her position on the Provisional Council made them think her far more important than she was. Therefore, they wanted to keep her unmarked for any eventual ransom or prisoner exchange.

Likewise, she thought that they would give in and feed her if she truly began to starve. Therefore, she was determined to do just that. She just hadn't imagined that it would be quite this hard. She had been taught any number of techniques for resisting pain, but they availed her only slightly against her hunger.

Kasumi's eyes darted to the hallway outside almost before the sound of footsteps reached her. Over the past week, she had begun to look forward to these sessions, as the only event of any interest to occur to her since her imprisonment. As the footsteps drew nearer, she sat back against the wall farthest from the cell doors.

A few moments later the man who had captured her, who she now knew to be General Frederick Granmeyer, came into her field of vision, carrying a tray of meat and bread. He settled into a chair just outside her cell door, then popped a slice of meat into his mouth and began to chew loudly. Kasumi merely patiently watched and waited.

When Frederick swallowed, he smiled and looked at Kasumi for the first time. "And how is my favorite ninja doing today, hmm?" She didn't answer, and Frederick sighed. "Still not talkative, eh? It would be much easier if you would cooperate, you know."

Kasumi remained silent, and the general slowly shook his head. "You realize, ninja, that Mayor Pendragon is most displeased with you. He insists that if you won't talk, we send you to the torture chambers, and let the consequences be damned. I won't be able to protect you much longer."

Kasumi shifted slightly. The mayor of Tinto would have to be unreasonably angry to consider physical torture. The same concerns and customs that were protecting her, after all, were what would protect him if he were captured. Most likely, Frederick was simply trying to trick her into talking.

Frederick shook his head. "You have a strong will, girl. But then that's to be expected from a ninja, I suppose. Your people are certainly giving our forces in Banner enough trouble." He reached for a piece of bread and quickly broke it in two. He rose, eating one of the halves of bread as he walked forward to the cell door.

"Here," he said, offering the remaining piece to Kasumi through the bars.

Kasumi rose, then darted forward and snatched the bread almost faster than Frederick could see. She then quickly retreated out of the mans reach, suspisciously eyeing the bread.

"Go ahead," Frederick said with a sigh. "It can't be poisoned. I just ate half of the slice myself."

After a moment, Kasumi began to eat, and he returned to his seat, watching her with an overly interested eye. When she was done, he spoke again. "I don't suppose you'd be willing to tell me the location of Rokakku now? Or maybe Kasim's patrol schedules?"

When Kasumi didn't answer, he chuckled. "I did not expect so. After all, it takes more than half a slice of bread to buy a ninja's loyalty. Isn't that right?" The last was dircted towards someone outside of Kasumi's vision.

"I could not say. I know only my own price, not hers." Kasumi stifled a surprised gasp. She recognized that voice.

"I suppose," Frederick said. "How much did I pay you again, Kage?"

Though she couldn't see him, Kasumi could almost feel the other ninja shrug. "40,000 potch, to serve as your bodyguard until the end of the war."

"Let's see," Frederick began. "That's somewhere around 50,000 bits, I think. Or it was. Has the Toran Republic started minting coins yet?"

Kasumi couldn't have answered that question if she'd wanted to.

Frederick shrugged, then turned to Kasumi. "I don't suppose I could buy your loyalty with coinage, no?" Frederick paused. "Ah well. That's enough for today, I suppose. Would you like anything to eat, Kage?"



Lepant sighed as he watched the rest of the much-lessened Provisional Council file out of the room. It had been another fruitless session of arguing and worrying, with no real progress made on any issue. The only good news was that a grain shipment had finally reached the city, holding off for a time the impending mass starvation. But not for long enough, and the Council had neither the soldiers nor the brutality to put down the riots that would break out if food ran out.

It might have been a mistake to use Gregminster as the capital of the new republic. It was an important symbolic choice, a sign that the Toran Republic chose to be the heir to the Scarlet Moon Empire, a move that helped to prevent the Empire's former territories from shattering into a dozen weak, feuding nations. Yet with these benifits came risks. The population of Gregminster was hostile to the new regime, and it would take only the slightest spark to cause them to rise up in rebellion. The city was perilously close to the front lines with Jowston, and the remnants of the former Imperial army ravaged most of the countryside.

With winter coming, Lepant hoped they were in for a few months of quiet. Jowston couldn't possibly mount a new offensive on this front with the Banner Pass under feet of snow, and the bandits were hibernating in their lairs. If more soldiers were available, Lepant would order an effort to wipe out the bandits while Jowston was quiet, for if someone managed to regather those scattered bands into a functioning army it would be an utter disaster, and the longer they were allowed to exist the more that risk increased.

Yet there were no soldiers to be had. A bare skeleton force patrolled Gregminster, and a few thousad guarded the entrance to the Banner Pass. The rest were with Valeria on the other side of the republic. At this thought, Lepant sighed. By the time he had any news of the effort to stabilize that front, it would all be over. It was frustrating, as it might very well be there that the fate of the Toran Republic was decided.

Damn Jowston anyways. They were nothing but a bunch of jackals who could only put aside their feuds to pounce on a weaker neighbor. They had attacked the Scarlet Moon Empire both during and after the Succession War, seeking to grab whatever land they could. To the north their neighbor Highland survived only through near complete militarisation and a devil's pact with Harmonia. And one could not forget their long and bloody history with the Grasslands tribes.

Lepant slowly rose from his seat. These musings accomplished nothing. Not that anything he could do would accomplish much now. It was all in other people's hands, those of the generals and soldiers of the Toran Republic. He could do nothing but wait, hope, and pray.

And the thought was perhaps what galled him the most.


Tir stared out over the balcony at the confusion that engulfed the courtyard below. It was filled with a teeming mass of men and horses, moving about in seemingly random fashion, yet he knew that in those movements was a pattern that would by the end of the day see the five thousand new arrivals properly settled in, both in the fortress and the surrounding camps.

When the cloud of dust had been spotted on the horizon, all had feared the worst: Jowston forces come to invest the fortress and starve them all out. It would have been an audacious move, with winter already arriving, but it had a far too great a chance of success for comfort. The relief when the Torani banners had been spotted had been palpable. Tir had heard that it was Valeria who led the reinforcements, but he had not yet seen her. She was with General Hazil now, discusing whether or not to implement Leon's plan for a counter-offensive.

The strategist himself was standing slightly behind Tir, an irritatingly knowing half-smirk on his face. Leon had found reason after reason to delay his departure north, and when Tir had pressed him he had simply commented that he expected matters to become interesting shortly, and he wished to observe. Tir now thought that Leon had somehow known or suspected that Valeria was on her way.

Tir sighed, and turned away from the balcony's railing, only to turn back only a few seconds later as a new commotion engulfed the courtyard. He didn't see anything until he thought to look up, and saw five dragons flying low overhead, and coming back around for a landing. For all the poeple that filled it, the courtyard cleared surprisingly quickly, and the dragons were able to descend with only a few moments waiting.

One red dragon flew over by the balcony and began to hover mere feet away from Tir. "I thought I recognized you, President McDohl," the dragon's rider said as she removed the goggles she wore in flight.

Tir nodded to Milia. He tried to remember when he had last seen the Dragon Knights' second in command. He thought it might have even been before the fall of Gregminster - he couldn't recall seeing her at the victory banquet or his inauguration.

"What are you doing here, anyways? I heard you were missing," Milia said, shouting to be heard over the beating of her dragon's wings. Tir merely shrugged, and he saw her laugh, though the sound was lost. "You can answer me once I'm on the ground!" With that, the red dragon began to descend once again, and Milia had soon dismounted and left the courtyard.

Tir sighed and turned again to leave, noticing that Leon had already vanished. He supposed it was tiem to go meet with Kasim and Valeria. There was a lot of work to be done.


Kasumi looked up at the sound of footsteps. Since her last... session with General Granmeyer, her captors had begun to feed her somewhat regularly, if rather poorly. She could already feel strength returning to her limbs, and with this she was able to focus her mind on escape.

One of the guards - it was almost always a different one every day - appeared in her limited field of vision bearing a small tray. He walked up to the cell door and gestured for Kasumi to back up. She resisted the urge to smile as he entered the cell bearing a small loaf of bread and bowl of watery soup from the tray.

Once the guard had placed the tray on the floor and began to back up, Kasumi struck, grabbing the bowl and hurling it into the guard's face with surprising force. As he began to stumble back, Kasumi moved, leaping forward and grabbing the guard's sword from its sheath. She whirled the blade around with impossible swiftness before stabbing the guard in the gut, causing him to fall with a low gurgle.

Kasumi smiled, then walked through the still open cell door. Sword in hand, she sprinted down the prison hallway past the row of empty cells. She threw the heavy wooden door that awaited her aside, bursting into a guard room.

Three more soldiers were there, playing cards. They rose, swords half drawn out of their sheaths. Kasumi attacked the closest one before he could fully rise, sword stabbing into his back. Mouth still open in surprise, the guard collapsed onto the table as Kasumi withdrew the blade, scattering the cards. As the other two began to circle around to get at her, she leapt up on to the table, blocking a clumsy attack from one of them. She then leapt again, landing near the far door, and she was through it before the guards could react.

A few moments later she heard alarm bells beginning to sound behind her. She knew she wouldn't be able to force her way through a whole castle of soldiers, but she was hoping that they didn't know the layout as well as she did. The same route she had used to break into the castle earlier would serve to get herself out, she hoped.

With this thought in mind, she slipped through the closest window. Having no sheath for her stolen sword and needing both hands free, she was forced to abandon her sword, which she dropped to the cobblestones far below. This done, she began to painstakingly make her away across and down the castle's face, often having to pause beside a window while guards searched the room it opened into.

Most of an hour later she gratefully dropped down onto a balcony near the ground. She was now on the route she was more familiar with. Near the end of it, actually. From where she was she ought to be able to sneak her way out of the castle, or at least the main keep, rather easily, particularly with most of the search effort focused on the upper levels. After resting for a moment, she prepared to leap down to the courtyard below.

Then she felt a heavy hand on her shoulder. She quickly ducked under the hand, and whirled about to see the expressionless, masked face of Kage. She struck with a series of fast punches, but the other ninja easily blocked them. A wave of weakness ran through her, and she cursed. She'd already over-exerted herself.

A moment later Kage struck, and she fell into unconsciousness.


"Hold on tight!"

Tir had thought that it was hard to hold a conversation over the sound of dragon wings when the dragon was hovering. However, he had forgotten how loud it was once the dragon really got airborne, and the chill, roaring wind didn't help matters either. He couldn't see anything in front of him but Milia's armored form, but to the sides he could see the other four dragons flying in close formation.

All the dragons carried an additional passenger besides their usual rider. Valeria and Fuma were riding on two of them. On the other two were two soldeirs Tir didn't know, but Valeria had assured him they were both excellent fighters during the meeting where they had hashed out this plan. At the thought Tir felt the rune on his right hand pulse in anticipation. There would be killing soon.

The plan was simple in its audacity. Since the prisons of Moravia Castle were near the top, why waste time going through the bottom layers when you had access to dragons? They were simply going to fly north, swoop down on the castle, rescue Kasumi, and kill General Granmeyer. At the same time, General Hazil would be preparing for the counteroffensive, set to begin as soon as the rescue party returned.

Tir made the mistake of looking down as the dragon continued to spiral upward. Spread out below him was the entire line of fortifications, and the inumerable camps that surrounded them. It made him a little guilty when he thought of how he had abandoned his responsibilities by fleeing Gregminster. All these soldiers had chosen to fight for him. They fought for the Republic, yes, but he was in many was the embodiment of the Toran Republic, a nation that still existed more on paper than in reality.

The dragons stopped climbing and began to fight their way north against the stiff wind. Within moments Tir found himself chilled beyond anything he could remember, even with the thick leather jacket Milia had provided him. Almost as quickly though, the Souleater pulsed again and the cold ceased to bother him. He knew it was there, but it did not touch him in any way.

The dragons sped over the countryside, and Tir noticed how desolate it looked. He hadn't noticed during his brief expedition to the region before Jowston had captured it, but there were hardly any signs of habitation here, save for the empty roads and occasional half- ruined keeps. Jowston and the Empire had fought over this area so many times, yet from up here it didn't seem worth the blood that had been spilt over it.

Yet Tir knew why this area was so important. It sat astride one of the only two safe routes from Jowston to the Toran area, and the easier of the two. Banner Pass, the other, was closed by snow half the year, while the rest of the border was closed by the impassable Badlands, remnants of an ancient wizards' duel. Whoever held Moravia Castle would gain back in trade taxes a thousand times the cost of the war when peace came, and would be able to threaten the other nation's heartland when war ressumed.

As the hours passed, Tir fell into a half-trance. The miles sped by beneath him, but the only time he noticed was when the flight of dragons had to make a detour to avoid being spotted by a column of Jowston troops heading south to the front. As they traveled, the sun slowly moved in its great arc overhead.

When they reached Moravia Castle, it was already beginning to sink beneath the western horizon.


"Dragons!" The alarms began to sound from Moravia Castle's watchtowers as soon as the winged beasts were spotted on the southern horizon. Seige engines put in place for just this purpose were readied, and as the dragons swept in, they fired. Massive stones were flung through the air like pebbles, and mighty ballistas tracked the dragons and fired.

However, the scaled monsters were too manueverable to be hit by such attacks, though they were forced to slow as they swerved to avoid the barrage. As the catapult and ballista crews raced to reload their weapons, archers rose from concealment behind the castle battlements.

"Fire!" The shout came from a half-dozen different voices, and as one the archer squads released a hail of arrows. The lead dragon let loose with a burst of flame, stopping the arrows even as it continued to race for the main keep. Other dragons dove or rose with surprising speed, dodging the worst of the volley. The few arrows that hit bounced harmlessly off the dragons' thick scales.

"Draw... Fire!" The second volley was fired at a steep angle, as the dragons were already nearly overhead. Once again, their flame and armor served them well as protection, but a cheer went up as one screeched and swerved wildly, and arrow sticking out of its wing. The cheer stoped as the dragon steadied itself just before crashing into a small tower, and washed the tower's top with its flame. The men manning the catapult atop the tower screamed as they burned, but a few moments later were silent.

The dragon itself beat its wings and began to rise again, its riders unthrown. It soon rejoined its brethren, circling the main keep, almost daring the defenders to attack. They could not answer the challenge, for fear of damaging their own castle.

The alarm bells were still pointlessly ringing as a dragon swooped near the castle's bell tower, the highest. A moment later the bells had been silenced in a burst of flame. Another dragon came in to attack the walls, and the men guarding that stretch dropped their bows and ran for cover, panicking by the oncoming nightmare. A few were too slow, and died screaming.

The dragons continued these hit and run attacks for some time, and nobody noticed that each dragon had left behind a passenger on one of them.


Tir grunted as he hit the stone blacony, rolling to a halt. A distant part of his mind told him that a number of large bruises were already forming, but for the moment the pain was nothing but a minor irritant. He galnced around at the other four people who had recieved a similar landing as Milia's dragon flew away. "Is everybody all right?" he asked distractadly as he rose, his mind already working on recalling what he could of Moravia's layout.

Everyone nodded except for one of the two soldiers he didn't know. "I hit my arm something bad," the soldier said, wincing as he fingered it. "It might be broken."

"Can you keep up?" Tir asked, absentmindly scratching his right palm. After a moment, the soldier nodded in reply, and Tir continued. "Let's get moving, then."

The balcony doors were quickly found to be locked, but Tir knocked the heavy wooden doors down with one blow from his staff. Valeria whistled appreciatively. "I didn't know you were that strong, Tir," she said.

Tir paused and frowned a moment. He wasn't that strong. Or he hadn't been until recently. Souleater pulsed briefly, and he set aside the thought for later consideration. "Let's get moving," he repeated, and followed his own advice.

The room they first entered was fortunately empty, and the infiltrators didn't encounter anyone as they raced the short distance to the castle's prison. This luck ran out as they reached the guardroom immediately outside the hall of cells, where eight ready soldiers waited for them.

Fuma moved incredible speed, and one guard dropped, clutching his throat. Tir was the only one to see the shuriken the ninja had thrown. Before anyone else could move, he raised his right hand. Souleater's power flowed out with unrestrained eagerness, hungrily reaching for the enemy. There was darkness, a strange feeling of... twisting, then screams, and then... silence.

When the darkness lifted the enemy guards were dead, fallen where they had stood moments before. Tir knew that the corpses were already cold, and that there was no mark on the bodies. Behind him, he heard a nervous gulp from one of the two soldiers... he still didn't know their names.

Tir wordlessly opened the next door, and stepped into where he knew Kasumi would be. Two people stood near a cell on the far end of the hall, and he recognized both of them. One of them was Kage, a fact that caused Tir some small surprise. The other he recognized only from descriptions as General Granmeyer.


Frederick's eyes rose and locked with the boy's. This could only be the young McDohl he had heard so much about over the past few years. The boy looked closer to fourteen than than the eighteen he had to be. Could the old rumors that the Liberation Army's leader wielded a True Rune be true?

Frederick slowly drew his sword, nodding to Kage. The ninja leapt forward past McDohl, and one of the Torani soldiers dropped to ground under a flurry of blows. Frederick saw a redheaded woman fly at the ninja with sword outstretched before his attention returned to the boy in front of him.

"You are General Granmeyer?" the boy asked, his pale eyes cold.

Frederick simply nodded. "You would be McDohl?" His answer too was a nod. "Surprising that your handlers let you come here."

McDohl did not answer, instead shifting his staff to his left hand before slightly raising his right. A chill settled into Frederick's bones, and for a moment the world dimmed and spun around him. Frederick shook his head, and it cleared. He advanced on McDohl. "Whatever trick that was won't save you, boy."

McDohl frowned, his staff readying and leaping into place to block Frederick's first, swift sword blow. He counterattacked, expertly using his quarterstaff's far longer reach to force Frederick back.

"You're good for a boy," he commented as he danced back, avoiding a low sweep. "Who trained you?"

McDohl grunted, but did not answer, instead pressing his attack. Frederick retreated, dodging most of the strikes and blocking a few. "Not very talkative, are you?" he asked.

Behind him he heard a door swing open, and he risked a quick glance backward to see a man - another Rokkaku ninja, he guessed - helping Kasumi from the cell. "Damn it all," he muttered as he saw Kage being forced against a wall by the woman and the other Torani soldier before refocusing on his duel.

Frederick raised his left hand, a harsh syllable springing from his lips almost unbidden. Lightning arced from his mailed hand, leaping at McDohl, who raised his staff as though to block the bolt. This didn't avail the boy, and Frederick felt no small satisfaction at the pained screech that forced its way out of McDohl's mouth.

Yet there was no time to gloat. Frederick spun about and charged the two ninja behind him. The red-clothed ninja made as if to protect Kasumi, but Frederick forced him out of his way without much effort. Before Kasumi could react, he had grabbed her and his blade was across her throat.

Frederick slowly turned around, bringing himself and Kasumi around to face McDohl, who by this point had recovered from the shock of Frederick's magical assault. Behind him, Frederick could see that Kage was down, dead or unconscious. "If anyone moves, the girl dies," Frederick said coldly.

Almost immediately all movement stopped, and Frederick smiled. To his side he could hear the other ninja stirring, but he did not rise. Kasumi remained still, almost seeming paralyzed. Frederick spoke again. "All of you. Drop your weapons." After a moment, McDohl complied, his staff hitting the ground with a loud clatter. The other Torani followed suit.

Frederick began to ponder his next move, but the choice was taken from him as Kasumi moved with surprising swiftness, somehow slipping out of his grasp faster than he could see. A curse escaped his lips as he struck out with his sword at the fleeing ninja. Kasumi tried to duck under the strike, but was too slow.

Even as she fell, the Torani leapt into action. The other ninja sprung up, heading straight for Frederick. A wild sword blow forced the ninja back, but Frederick knew that he could not prevail against so many skilled foes for long. His quick mind began to race through his options, but it was unable to find an acceptable solution.

The Torani woman was the next to reach him, and Frederick soon found himself hard pressed. Whoever she was, she was an excellent swordswoman, one of the best he'd fought in a long time. Frederick retreated, trying to buy himself some breathing room, but the woman pressed her attack.

A moment later, Frederick's tired sword arm was unable to manuever his blade in time to force aside one of the woman's strikes, and her sword scored a narrow line of fire down his side. At that moment, he knew he was about to die.

"Valeria." The voice was McDohl's. "He's mine." He rose from where he had been kneeling by the fallen Kasumi's side.

The woman facing Frederick slowly backed away, though she kept her sword ready. Frederick caught his breath, watching carefully as McDohl approached. His eyes darted to where McDohl's staff lay, abandoned, on the floor. "You don't think you can defeat me without a weapon, boy?"

McDohl's face was cold, and he raised his right hand. "Die." It was a simple command, with no emotion.

Frederick blinked, and a moment later his world ended in darkness.


It was almost a month after the raid on Moravia Castle. Winter had fallen on the northern lands with full force. The army of the Toran Republic had struck north with a force almost as strong. Leon Silverburg's words had proven true, and the Jowston forces had been driven back with surprising ease. Moravia Castle had been retaken in the past week, and with that fall the fighting had for the most part ended.

South Window's forces were already withdrawing, and reports from Gregminster said an emissary had arrived to sue for peace. Tinto showed no signs of following suit, but they could not muster the forces to threaten the Republic alone, just as Toran could not risk an invasion of Tinto. In fact, the war was already over, but it would be some time before the diplomats and politicians caught up with the soldiers.

In a small courtyard nestled between the northern checkpoint's main keep and the infirmary, Kasumi was slowly running through her excercises, occasionally wincing slightly as she pulled at the not- quite-healed wound on her back. She was fortunate: had the blow landed slightly differently, she might have died or been paralyzed for life. Even so, it was only recently that she had been able to leave her bed, and it would be a while still before she was fully healed. However, she would heal, and for that she was grateful. Even in her few years, she had seen enough of death to know not to take her own life for granted.

Once the wound was fully healed, she was to return to Gregminster. She would rather have gone to Rokkaku, now free of the Jowston threat, to help with the rebuilding, which was in full swing, but her duty was in the capital. Fuma had told her on his last visit that in a few months she would not be able to tell that Rokkaku had ever been destroyed.

Somehow she doubted it. The images of General McDohl's sudden assault were etched firmly into her memory, however much she wished they might fade. She could still recall the heat of the flames, the panic that had fallen on the village as the cavalry had rode through it, striking down anyone in their path. She could remember her brother's scream as he had been impaled on a lance... and she could remember the feel of that soldier's blood on her hands, the first man she had killed, but not by far the last.

She had never told Tir about that, she realized. She had never mentioned the guilty joy she had felt when she had seen his father fall. A part of her suspected she never would. There was little point, after all. Sometimes the past was best left buried. Buried with the dead.

Kasumi heard footsteps behind her, and she turned around to see Tir approaching, staff in hand. She was not surprised. His visits were not uncommon, though they were not nearly as frequent as she might have liked. She nodded to him in greeting.

Tir returned the gesture, and stood silently for a moment. Moments before Kasumi would have decided to speak, he said, "I will leave tomorrow."

After another moment, Kasumi nodded. She had suspected that he had been planning to leave for the past week, but was only waiting to be sure that she would recover fully. "What will you tell Vice President Lepant? And General Hazil?"

Tir grimaced. "As little as possible. The Republic is strong now. With the recent victories, it can weather my disappearance."

"I suppose." Kasumi was silent a moment. "Do... do you want me to come with you?"

For a single, heart-rending instant, Tir seemed to hesitate, but then he shook his head. "It wouldn't be safe."

"I can defend myself." Kasumi's eyes flared, but the fire vanished at Tir's next words.

"From me?" Tir clenched his right fist. "Souleater wants you. I can feel it right now, pulling at you." He looked at Kasumi, eyes cold. "If you came with me, you would die."

As Kasumi searched for a response, Tir turned and began to walk away. Just before he left the courtyard, he half-turned and said one last word. "Goodbye." With that, he was gone.

It would be over three years before the two met again.


Author's Random Ramblings

1) And that's it. Given that this was supposed to be a short ~40k story to be written in a week
or two, it took far longer than I expected. But that's okay.

2) I present the psuedo-official soundrack to MST:

Series OP: Neon Genesis Evangelion - Tamashii no Refrain
Tir Character Theme: Styx - Show Me The Way
Kasumi Character Theme: Vanessa Carlton - A Thousand Miles
Part 1 ED: Boa - Duvet (Acoustic)
Part 2 ED: Blue Oyster Cult - Don't Fear the Reaper (Live)
Part 3 ED: Tori Amos - Enjoy the Silence

Wasn't that fascinating?

3) Thanks to Ryan Hupp for his excellent (but slow) prereading.

4) All C&C is of course welcome.

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