Rocco Cremonese

Disclaimer: I don’t own the characters, Namco does, and I’m making zilch off this. >D Please don’t sue me.

Foreword: While I don’t spell out the ending of the game here, there are a few subtle references, so you’re forewarned if you’re worried about spoilers. The story takes place roughly 50 years after the ‘past’ time in the game. Feedback can be flung at the e-mail addy listed above.

Somewhere, far up in the heavens above the thriving kingdom of Alvanista, a sound very much like a faint breath of wind was heard. Had there been anyone around that could fly, or perhaps a nearby bird smart enough to recognize the sound of a living, breathing being instead of the chaotic nature of the winds, they would’ve thought that the breath of wind sounded quite like a sigh…

It was. Had any bird stuck around after that, it would have heard the sobs of a being too energetic, or perhaps too smart to bottle their emotions inside, but too proud, too independent, or possibly too alone to let those sobs be seen or heard by any but the wind.

When the sobs stopped, that same bird would have likely screeched and spiraled out of the way. A large pink blur would have soared past it, seemingly hell-bent on pushing the limits of existence while flying deeper and deeper into the dim blue sky…

But there were no birds around, no people to watch, and as a result no one saw Arche Klaine screaming through the sky on her broom, her pink eyes rimmed with tears comprised of despair, frustration, and a little bit of anger. They marred a face normally accustomed to a joyful, excited, thrill-filled smile, but one that hadn’t held that smile consistently for years.

If someone could have looked into those eyes and seen the soul underneath, they would have seen a spirit struggling to get that smile back, but meeting a self-imposed barrier each time. Even so, nothing could dim Arche’s determination, so she continued her maniac flight; trying as hard as she could just to get that thrill, that feeling of being truly alive again. That feeling that she might die, or that she might pull off some maneuver she’d never been able to do before; that belief that she could change her life’s conditions just a little! The thrill never came, but whether her sadness was reduced as the life-giving air in the sky thinned, or by exhaustion at pushing the magical abilities of her broom to their limits, Arche couldn’t tell.

All she knew was that she’d worn herself out trying to recapture her luster, but feeling worn out was better than what the despair she’d been feeling. She arced her path back down towards Alvanista, crossed her legs around the broom’s saddle, and descended back towards the ground. Her petite face was a mask of fatigue, and the thought of a warm, cushion filled bed the only thought that might perk her up, if only for awhile.

Her drab, dark green dress fluttered behind her the entire way down. So unlike the clothes she’d once worn, it now seemed to be a reflection of her very soul. She found her eyes wandering down it. What did it matter? It kept her warm, it kept her from being naked, and she’d stopped wearing her old outfit several years ago. Clothes reflected a person, and she just didn’t feel lively enough to wear what she once had.

She wound up in a bar on the western edge of Alvanista instead. It was too early to go to bed, and in spite of her feelings she had already decided that there might be something else around to perk her up…

…If only she hadn’t been so alone. She’d gone out with Klarth once or twice a year to reminisce after the battle with Dhaos, and before she’d met Cless, Mint, and Chester; her drinking adventures with Lia, (who she’d literally dragged by the arm a time or two) were legendary. But that was back when Harmel still existed. Lia was long dead, and Klarth had passed away five years ago. Her mother; the only companionship she knew at the moment, probably wouldn’t want to leave the elven village. The only other three people she’d have gotten a kick in of dragging out to the bar, including a special, blue-haired one in particular, weren’t even born yet. It had been this way for five years.

So she went for the only other companion she had, the only one she could talk to and not get a confused stare, the only one who wouldn’t question whether she’d been drinking or reminiscing a bit TOO much… If that thing questioned her, she’d just drink him down and order another. Alcohol wasn’t very talkative, but it was the only comfort she had, if she could call it that. In truth it was probably as destructive as the notion that had caused her downfall.

That was the position she found herself in; the glass in front of her was empty and rimmed with only a few sparkling drops, the way her heart and soul felt about now; if she hadn’t been so terribly drunk. Right now she couldn’t feel anything, but those emotional wellsprings were threatening to flood forth once again… So she did the only thing she had a mind to do. She stared up through bleary eyes at the bartender in front of her, trying to work up a seductive smile.

“Can I have another glass…” She began, before an inebriated belch interrupted her. She shakily raised a hand and waved it off, too drunk to realize that the noise had come from her own body. Around her, several of the bars patrons, most of them ugly, brutish, and scarred adventurers, admired her in disbelief. There were a few more bottles in front of her than there were men twice her size! She looked around, not even caring, and then realized she’d forgotten to finish her slow, slurred sentence. “…Please?”

The bartender, a well-built, brown-haired man with mutton chop whiskers, glanced over the glass at her and wiped his hands off on a messy white apron. He loved the bar (Jarn’s Tavern) that carried his name, and though he received a lot more male patrons than he had in the past, women were not entirely uncommon, and he thought he recognized a broken heart when he saw it. Just as important, he recognized when a person had had enough; or too much in this case.

He was unfazed by the smile, focusing on the person who possessed it. “Young lady, I think you’ve had enough to drink. You’re supposed to enjoy this stuff, not drown your sorrows in it... Can’t you hear the music and revelry around you? You look the type more accustomed to a smile than a drink…”

The girl jumped up from her stool, long pink, tied-back hair billowing about her, and for a moment the bartender thought he might actually have to defend himself from an attack. But no attack came, and she winked at him while wobbling all the while, her voice slurring with each wobble.

“I’m not young… I’sh… seventy-eventy-even years old…! And beshides… I’m smilin’… I’m smiling! See?”

Jarn thought he caught a glimpse of a wide-toothed grin, before the girl stumbled and seemed to melt, sliding down her barstool until the only thing resting on the bar was her chin. The only thing that kept her from toppling over being that the barstools had been designed for much heavier patrons. The padding boosted her, slowed her fall, and softened her impact with the floor.

Concerned, Jarn leaned over the bar, only to find the woman looking up at him with plaintive, wide open-eyes, as pain replaced the seduction her smile once held.

“Can I have one please?” She begged.

Jarn sighed, acquiesced, and reached behind the counter for another bottle, pouring a glass of what by the woman’s accounts looked to be a fine white wine, before sliding the glass in front of her. She let out a whoop and guzzled it before wiping her mouth off with the corner of a sleeve and resting her head on the bar next to the glass.

“Funny tastin’ stuff…” She murmured, but there was no hint of rejection in her tone or on her face. “Which year’s the…the… whash the word… vintage?”

“4202” Jarn lied smoothly, ignoring the fact that the bottle the “wine” had come from was labeled “water”. He would have felt guilt over the deception if he was greedy, but he’d already decided he wasn’t going to charge this woman for this drink. She looked to have been through enough trouble already. His only worry now was that she’d see through his deception…

“Forty-two-oh-two?” She questioned, turning it into a sigh, and her lips contorted inward until her drunken smile turned into a slightly sad one. “Good year… that was the time I met… him…”

“Who?” Jarn pressed, eager to get the woman’s thoughts away from alcohol, not to mention just the slightest bit curious to see what could cause such a young woman to mess with her life so readily. He’d seen younger types come in here before, but usually they’d traveled with a host of other friends. This one didn’t seem to have any, for what friend would let another friend consume such an unhealthy quantity of wine without song, fun, and whatever else? The woman must’ve had a hell of a tolerance for it, but that tolerance had apparently reached its limit.

Her only response was to bury her head in her arms, shoulders heaving, and after a moment Jarn realized she was beginning to cry softly. So that was it, Jarn guessed. Whoever the man was, she’d referred to him in the past tense, and she hadn’t been the first person to come into the bar with a broken heart, after all. didn’t know whether the person she had been speaking of had died or if the two had merely split up, but by the agonizing look on the woman’s face, it didn’t look as if she expected to be seeing him anytime soon.

The only thing that confused him was that 4202 was a good 55 years ago, long before he had been born. The woman shifted slightly in her misery, and that was when Jarn noticed the slightly pointed ears. Half-elves were common in Alvanista, but he had to admit that the population of his bar wasn’t very diverse.

“That explains a lot…” He muttered, having heard that half-elves could live at least half as long as elves, probably more, and those elves lived for a good four, five centuries? She couldn’t even expect to see this guy of hers in the afterlife for a good two hundred or so years if he was dead, and if the woman hadn’t been lying about her age. His heart went out to her, but there was nothing he could do. What could it possibly be like to find love, and not only lose it, but to have to live with that loss for so long? He realized he was staring, and decided he’d better say something if he was going to be so nosy.

“Do you want to talk about it?” He asked softly.

“No… how can you…talk about loving someone… not even born yet?” She mumbled, not even bothering to look up.

Jarn eyed the woman suspiciously. Maybe she wasn’t heartbroken at all… maybe she was just drunk. How could someone be in love with a man not… born yet, the way she put it? She was far too slim to be pregnant, for one thing. He put his suspicion in the open air, thinking out loud.

“Maybe you have had a bit too much to drink.”

“That’s what they…” Her voice cut off as she hiccupped. “…Always say.” She finished, before groaning softly and returning to her miserable tears.

He turned away at that, wanting to leave the woman to her privacy, the cries of another patron wanting a drink suddenly too loud to ignore. When he turned back some time later, he realized the sobs had stopped, and looked down to see that the woman was asleep. It was late in the morning, and most of the men had staggered out the door, having squandered what money they’d had on their night of fun. It was time for the bar to close.

Hoping that there wouldn’t be an incident, Jarn poked the woman gently on the shoulder, surprised to find that his fingers met only cloth for a good inch or two further than he’d expected. This woman was more slender than the dress she’d worn revealed. Did she want to look fatter than she was? Most girls this size would’ve been wearing something at least slightly more form fitting, or so he thought. The clothing seemed to mirror her attitude. He was lucky that he held a code of respect for his patrons to respect each other, or someone might very well have tried to take advantage of this one.

“Closing time, miss.” He muttered.

The woman raised her head slightly, stared up at him with bloodshot eyes. “That’s the… least of my… problems…” She murmured, blinking her dried eyes once or twice to try and moisten them, and leaning heavily on her elbows before raising her head once more. Jarn’s heart went out to her, but business was business. She’d obviously been able to take care of herself this long…

“I’m sorry things haven’t turned out your way, but I’m going to have to ask you to leave. We’re done for the night. It’s time. Maybe you should go talk to a friend for awhile, or rest there…” Jarn said softly. He wasn’t prone to giving advice, but he figured the woman would be suggestible enough in her current state.

Her only response was to give the bartender a smooch on the cheek (Jarn burned bright red) and to stagger wobbly to her feet.

“Thanks, chief… ish was as great for me as ish was for you… But don’t go thinking I got problems… After all… we’re… we’re… fated to have things happen to ush… Time… time… it’s all about time, and just when it seems we have plenty of it, it doesn’t matter… because we… we… don’t have a damn bit of control in this world… Ha ha… at all… Fate’s my real problem… Not yours…” She hiccupped again and staggered towards the door.

Jarn could only watch the pink-haired woman depart and sigh. It looked like the weight of the world had crushed another soul, as far as he could figure. He laughed at the notion of fate, though. His life was his to mold, to enjoy. He was surprised that the woman hadn’t thought so herself, since he had shaped his philosophy from watching younger people. Love, or loss thereof could do that he supposed. He was grateful that he didn’t have to worry about it, that his wife and four children were snug at home, away from any dangers.

He washed the bar off with a damp white cloth and hoped that if he ever saw the woman again, it’d be under better circumstances. Those eyes seemed too unaccustomed to sorrow, but she was in it deep. If they’d held any previous luster, it had been drowned by despair… Much the way the woman had drowned her feelings this very night, he mused. That was when he’d noticed that two bottles of wine he’d left on the counter were missing. Funny, but he hadn’t thought that he’d served that many drinks that night, though he supposed he could’ve been mistaken…

Arche mounted her broom with two bottles of wine tucked securely away, and loopily willed it into the air. Though quite drunk, she was aware enough to know where she wanted to go; it was only while drunk that she could squash her feelings enough to do what she’d been dreading for the last five years. The bartender had hit a nerve, and despite her drunken state, Arche had decided to heed his advice, that some time spent with a friend might be best.

Even if he was dead…

Arche awoke several hours later, wondering why her left leg and upper back felt so sore, as well as what she was doing in the middle of a forest. The sun shined down upon her through the cracks in the forest’s canopy, and the trees were old, but not terribly old, with some markings and chips, but without the lordly presence older trees had, the way they’d stretch endlessly into the heavens. She’d have guessed about 75 years or so, which ruled out the Treant Forest.

She’d have wondered why she had a splitting headache, but had been intoxicated often enough over her lifetime to know a hangover when she felt it. When she rolled over the pain in her leg and back instantly diminished. Rising shakily to her feet, she glanced at the soft earth and realized she’d fallen asleep with her broom under one leg and two bottles of wine under her back.

Trying to get her bearings, she gathered up her broom, the bottles, and herself before walking through the forest, hoping to find a hill or something upon which she could stand and survey her surroundings. A sudden thought pounded through her headache, and she realized she HAD to have had a lot to drink to have not thought of it before…

Muttering something nonsensical, she mounted her broomstick and soared over the tree line, recognizing a mountain range to the south and a town in which the construction of several buildings were underway. Given the temperate climate, and the fact that Alvanista hadn’t built anything new for a hundred years, she figured that she was looking at Euclid. And the last time that she had been near there was… Five years ago?

“Oh no…” She groaned. Was she ready for this? She hadn’t been the last four times she’d tried, though those times had coincided with the times of her deepest sorrow. She just didn’t ever want to visit Klarth’s… Klarth’s…

“Klarth’s grave.” She said, speaking the name of the site aloud and bringing what she hated to think of to light. Her heart damned the fate that she felt forced her to say the words and do the deed, but it was time.

“Fate… damn fate… I guess I’m SUPPOSED to visit his grave at least once… I can’t stop it… Like I used to.” Her voice trailed off into the wind, and she closed her eyes for a moment, remembering the words that had racked her to her core and finally dominated her soul, after fifty years of fighting.

“Most of your lives are already predestined and can’t be changed… the reality is that you only have a little control over your life.” Harold Morison, the man in the distant future had said.

She hadn’t believed it then; at least hadn’t accepted it. Her life was her own; that belief had been what powered her, provided her with that luster; ever since she was a child, she was determined to wring the most enjoyment out of everything. But the thought of fate, what Harold Morison had been getting at, had distressed her greatly. Maybe Cless, Mint, and Chester could handle it, and Klarth certainly hadn’t seemed to let it bother him in their conversations, but they didn’t have one hundred years of life to live before they saw one another again.

Arche tried to remind herself that it was only fifty now, but the way she felt, it would be an empty fifty. The last five years had arguably been the worst of her life, for no reason other than her outlook. She was still the same person; but she couldn’t realize it. She saw herself only as a person who could do nothing, and who’d want to be friends with a hopeless girl?

She missed Chester, but that wasn’t the real poison in her soul. She could at least see him in her dreams and remember his smile. She thought she loved him, believed it to be so, but she didn’t really know yet, wouldn’t until she looked into his eyes again in fifty years and interacted with him. She didn’t doubt that the dramatic turn her outlook on life had taken had something to do with him, but it wasn’t the real problem.

That damn Morison had been the real problem, but the catalyst to her despair was Klarth. She remembered how he had died: stricken down by a natural disease and so unlike her father, who’d died peaceably in his sleep. Both of them were of an advanced age for humans; Klarth was 80 and her father was just a bit over 92; but she’d fought so hard to save Klarth, to cheer him up, to let him know what he had to live for…

Mourning wasn’t something she’d been accustomed to; she figured that when you were dead you were dead, as long as you’d lived your life as vigorously and enjoyably as possible. Klarth, Lia, and her dad… she had kept all of them close to her heart. She wanted to remember them as people, not headstones… But that wasn’t her real reason for not visiting. She didn’t want to visit because she looked at it as the final nail in the coffin. Visiting Klarth symbolized that she had no control over fate at all, whether it was hers or someone else’s. It reminded her of the terrible burden she was going to have to live with, chained by fate, unable to exercise any control over her future.

She’d reunited with her elven mother despite the little difficulty of herself being a candidate for execution if caught in the forest, but how could she tell her mother what hurt the most? That even if she… they, she reminded herself, for she knew her mother would approve, had tried their hardest the elves wouldn’t have considered admitting half-elves for a hundred years? She’d seen the future. And if Harold Morison was right… She didn’t have a damn bit of control over it at all.

That was part of the reason she’d lost her luster, certainly why she’d lost heart, and mostly why the past five years had been miserable. A bit of control over her life wasn’t enough for her; she needed all of it. If it hadn’t been for the death of Klarth, if she’d been able to save him, even for a few years, she might have gone on believing she HAD all of that control, and damn that Morison for making her think otherwise.

But Klarth had died, and at that remembrance, she couldn’t help but think back to when it happened. A single tear slipped down her slender cheek. It soon had friends, as she remembered the day her spirit was broken…

“Klarth? Are you in? I went all the way to Ary… that town they’re building in the north... remember? They’ve got some kind of winterberry tonic that’s to die for… said it was an old home remedy… maybe it’ll work better than the last five things I’ve brought you?” She’d skipped up the steps like she always did, believing above all else that this was the cure that would work. She was wearing her bracelets and earring, but she’d been so quick in getting to Ary and back that she wasn’t clad in her pink pants or light shirt, but a fuzzy parka that made her feel like a polar bear.

There was only silence in reply. Though Klarth had been ill, he’d kept busy, writing and reading; he claimed summoning took too much out of him now, but she’d walked in a time or two to find him conversing with spirits. This time though, her ears detected nothing. No turning of pages…No hint of that voice, which had become so much quieter in recent years.

Fear rose in her heart, but maybe Klarth was just playing a mean trick on her! She checked the study, no sign of Klarth there. She went into his bedroom, but he wasn’t there either. Maybe he’d gone out? It wasn’t as if he couldn’t walk, and she was running out of places to look…

She found him in the library off the corner of the study, sitting very still. His favorite hat, weathered and torn, but still in one piece after all these years, was on the table beside him. He looked to be asleep, and Arche breathed a sigh of relief. She’d devoted nearly two years of her life to finding a cure for him; but she’d never once entertained the thought that he would die anything other than a happy, natural death years from now.

“Klarth…?” She whispered, bending down to be closer to his ear. His hearing had been going as of late. “It’s time to get up and try this tonic… Don’t go thinking of me as your nurse or anything! You’re going to have to wake up and drink it!” She put it down beside him and tapped him on the shoulder. He’d been even more out of it than usual the past couple of days, but had always welcomed her. Fifty-year-old friendships had that special quality.

But this time he didn’t stir, and Arche gazed at him, hoping for some sign of movement. She put two fingers to his neck, two to his wrist, but there was no pulse. He was very cold, and would never move again. She ran from the house anyway, screaming for a doctor, a healer, anything, but there was nothing she could hope to do. He was gone.

The funeral was brief, though Klarth apparently had a lot more friends and contemporaries than she’d once thought. Alvanista had sent a full envoy, with Runeglom at the head. He’d noticed that she was trying to keep her composure and maintained a respectful silence. They buried him next to Mirald, his one-time assistant, and eventual wife. She’d died two years ago.

Arche helped to bury him on the hill overlooking where his home had been, sent him off, and then left, wanting to never see the grave again.

She’d been railing against Morison’s damning words for the past fifty years, but had never fully escaped them. She’d believed she could do anything, and always had, but that belief had been smashed when Klarth died, because she didn’t think she’d worked harder at anything else in her life.

Having done that and failed, how could she ever hope to meet the elves and reunite with her mother without having to sneak around, fearful of execution? How many other half-elves had to go through the pain she did? If fate were truly real, and she was starting to think it was, then everything would be the way she’d seen it in the future, and one-hundred years from now she still hadn’t achieved anything, except the elves were talking. TALKING. No word on a decision either way…

“Quit being stupid, you didn’t come to do this…” She thought. She wiped the tears from her eyes and continued on her way, dismounting her broom and walking down the hill to the gravesite. The two bottles she had under her arms couldn’t go to waste, and if she had to finally bend to fate, having faced the event that had broken her again; she might as well do it showing Klarth a good time… Maybe her spirit wasn’t completely crushed just yet. She uncorked one of the bottles and started.

One and a half bottles of wine later, she found herself in a state that could only be described as tipsy. Observers would have thought her most disrespectful, but she was dancing an imaginary jig with Klarth’s imaginary arm hooked onto hers, having poured three fourths of one bottle over the headstone that read, “Klarth F. Lester, Died 4252, buried with his beloved wife, Mirald Lester, died 4250.” He had to have been thirsty after five years, she’d reasoned of the symbolic gesture.

The thought of Mirald brought a slight smile to her face. Though she didn’t know the woman as a great friend, she’d certainly come to know her better over the past sixty years even though Mirald was much older than she was. The two had had quite a time at the wedding, with Arche embarrassing the hell out of Klarth with stories of their time on the road and Mirald following likewise with some of the more intricate details in his life. Arche had had the ulterior motive of remembering almost everything that had gone on… she wanted to be able to tell Cless, Mint, and Chester about it when she saw them again. Mirald had gone so far to provide her with a book to write the accounts in… unfortunately the book was Klarth’s journal. Klarth had been pretty pissed to find Arche’s handwriting all over the section he had reserved for his wedding.

Kneeling at the grave, having done her best to have fun and hopefully make Klarth think of the way she used to be, she had nothing better to do but tell Klarth and Mirald about the past five years. She tried her best to leave out the sad, boring parts, but there were a lot of them. She was just getting to an apology for not visiting sooner when she could have sworn she heard Klarth’s voice. It was tinged with an urgency she hadn’t heard for years; not since the time the two of them had taken it upon themselves to venture out on the road in search of “One more spirit”, as Klarth had put it.

Those had been happy times… Klarth had kept a more distant view of their friends, knowing he’d never see them again, but he’d put up with every one of her own moments, whether she was saying, “I bet Cless would get a kick out of this…” Or, “Be more careful, you dope! Mint isn’t around anymore!”

But the way she was feeling, for the second time in less than a day, “One more spirit” had a special meaning to her as well... She reached for the remains of the second bottle, began to lift it to her lips. As she did so the birds that had been chirping the entire time abruptly stopped. Arche was too focused on the liquid slowly creeping down the bottle’s neck to notice the signs that something was amiss, but not so out of it that she failed to notice the shout that suddenly pounded into her mind, eliminating the need for thought.

“Look out!”

Wondering if she was hearing things, Arche flung herself to one side anyway, the wine bottle flying in the opposite direction. A large man dashed past her, arms outstretched as if he’d been trying to grab her from behind. He spun around, amazed that the woman had escaped him… He thought he’d been quiet. Arche took advantage of the opportunity to clamber to her feet and size up this surprise.

“Damn you!” The man snarled, getting to his feet and lunging at Arche again, but she was nimble enough to sidestep him. He wore a bloody bandage over his head, had stubble on his chin, and was wearing a tattered and mud-stained workman’s cloak, but the thing that was frightening about him was the desperation in his coal black eyes; like a man on the run with nothing to lose.

She reached desperately for her broomstick, not sure if she’d use it to fly or fight. Spell casting would have been fine if her head hadn’t been so clouded with liquor, but it was, so she stepped away from him, hoping adrenaline would surge to banish the haze. At least this guy hadn’t been after her last night… What if he had come through a few hours earlier, while she’d been asleep? She banished the distracting thought and glared at him, trying to match his stare. She’d seen bigger.

“What the hell do you want?” She shrieked, hoping her brashness would frighten him away. Her experience was that would be robbers only picked on scared, helpless victims, and she viewed herself as neither. But the man’s breathing was labored, and his voice came out in harsh, wild gasps.

“The town guard’s after me. I’ve already killed two people… Come here girl, and be my hostage… or you’ll be the third.” Arche rolled her eyes. Didn’t this man know whom he was talking to?

But if the man sensed her confidence, he didn’t care. He took a step towards her (She saw that he was wearing only bloody bandages for shoes) and produced a knife, tossing it from hand to hand to attract her attention, to show he knew how to use it. Fair enough, she decided. It was time to get his attention in return. She knew how to use her weapon just as well, even if the method she had in mind was a bit unorthodox.

“No… please… don’t hurt me…” Arche murmured softly, opening her eyes wide, freezing, and trying her best to look terrified while clutching her broom and shoving it in front of her on the ground as if to ward him away. Thinking he’d won, the man took the bait, which was exactly what she intended. She continued to watch his footsteps, calculating as he neared the broom, which he didn’t seem to consider as a weapon, even as he purposefully stepped over it. “YES!” She thought, raising the broom and belting the man squarely between the legs, a grin of triumph on her face. Think she was helpless, eh?

But instead of the groan she expected to hear, her grin vanished with the snap of wood and a metallic ring, splinters of wood stinging her hands as the broomstick broke in half, leaving her with a very short handle, not at all of use as a weapon… or a tool of flight.

“That was supposed to work! That ALWAYS worked!” She shrieked in disbelief, the fake fear in her eyes giving way to real fear. Actually, she’d never tried it before, simply for the fact that she’d never let any adversaries get this close to her, but she’d run it through her head thousands of times…

The man regarded her coldly, and his tone left absolutely no doubt about what he intended to do, as he spat out every word with bone-chilling precision. “Do you think you’re the first person to try that? Since you cooperate, I can’t let you tell them I was here…” The wild look in the man’s eyes returned, and Arche turned to run, but the man was already upon her.

She brought up both hands to grasp his right arm, which still clutched the knife even as they tumbled to the ground. Arche knew she was in trouble; the man’s excessive height and weight kept her legs pinned, and it was all she could do to hold back the knife. She just didn’t have the build for hand-to-hand combat. Panicked, she began the only option she had left, spell casting. It wasn’t as if she could miss with the man on top of her anyway!

She felt the flow of magic around her, and began the incantation to the fireball spell… But she never finished. The man’s left arm closed expertly around her throat, muffling her voice and choking her. It all seemed to happen in slow motion, as she struggled to breathe, struggled to hold the knife back. But the light in her eyes began to grow dim.

“I’m going to die here? Never!” She thought, but she was losing and she knew it. Her eyes, bulging before, began to droop, and the man dropped the knife, realizing that strangulation was the best way to kill the woman that was offering so little resistance now… He couldn’t afford it if she’d screamed. The guardsmen might be coming after him any moment.

Arche’s eyes fluttered, but she was barely aware. Was this her fate? “At least it doesn’t hurt much…” She thought. Her peripheral vision vanished, a signal that she was losing consciousness. Pain was never the concept that turned her away from death, only the thought that she’d be losing years of her life. Her muscles went slack, her heartbeat slowed. She might have flailed her arms defiantly now that they weren’t holding back the knife, but it was impossible to tell… She was dying.

Out of nowhere, a voice rang through the heavens, a confusing, unfamiliar voice that caused the robber to hesitate for a moment in sheer surprise.

“SYLPH!” Came the cry, and a moment later the robber found himself flying through the air, being buoyed by wind produced by what seemed to be four to six little…

“Dolls?” He thought, before being thrown against a tree, his world dissipating into darkness. Unfortunately for him, the knife followed with the wind, and he never got the opportunity to regain consciousness. The guardsmen would find him dead the next day, and for a few weeks the town would be abuzz with rumors of a criminal-hunting vigilante, since the man clearly hadn’t taken his own life.

But that was in the future.

In the now, beside Klarth’s headstone, Arche coughed weakly, gingerly feeling her bruised throat and wondering how she was still alive. She’d been too out of it to hear the winds, only able to vaguely wonder what the man that had been attacking her had gone. She crawled to her hands and knees, finding she was steady, and warily stood up, heart still pounding from the ordeal. There was a large slash in the hem of her dress where the knife had fallen when the man had dropped it, and she realized she’d avoided death by not one, but two means. Looking for the knife, she spotted it in the gut of the man, prompting her to change her relief into a confused stare. What in the hell was going on?

“Is… someone there?” She murmured softly, but she saw no one. That was when she sensed a luminescence and realized that there was a soft blue glow emanating from behind her. Turning hurriedly while thinking, “What now?”, she saw someone she’d never expected to see again. This time, she was unable to stop the flow of tears she’d worked so hard to keep in check when she’d arrived at the grave.

Standing in front of her with a small smirk on his face was Klarth F. Lester, clad in his favorite hat, dark-brown vest, and breeches that looked to have been made of animal hide.

“KLARTH?” Arche screamed, but whether it was in shock or joy could not be ascertained. Bystanders would have went with joy, as Arche immediately leapt through the air trying to embrace him, before flying through the image and crashing to the ground with a thud. She lay there for a moment, trying to comprehend what had just transpired, but Klarth did it for her.

“I wouldn’t try that again, Arche… I’m not exactly here, you know.” The voice was stretched and sounded ethereal, but Arche recognized it as well as she’d recognized the face. She turned again and looked upon him, only to find herself face to face with…

“A ghost…?” She murmured, more in clarification to herself than anything else. The ghost of Klarth, insubstantial if she trusted her suddenly sore ribs, rolled its eyes. This was Klarth the way she’d wanted to remember him, young (she never believed his garbage about him being old at the age of 29) and vibrant, fully in tune with the spirits he’d contracted to. The blue, misty hue around him seemed to enhance his appearance rather than detract from it.

“Obviously…” His tone conveyed annoyance, but his smile brushed it away. “ Look, I don’t have a lot of time to talk. Summoning Sylph took a lot out of me, but it looked like you needed the help…” Arche winced and let the statement go. She didn’t want to think about how close to death she’d come, so she questioned him instead. Besides, she was curious! He’d just done something she figured was impossible…

“How can you summon a spirit when you’re dead?” She asked pointedly, and Klarth only chuckled in reply. He hadn’t found this loophole in the laws of summoning for idle questions, and she probably would’ve understood, but it’d have taken HOURS to explain…

“I wrote the book on summoning, remember?” His response was classic, and in spite of her sadness, she had to smile at it. Her smile vanished as he got straight to his point. “Now look… What’s bothering you?”

“I dunno…” Arche said, not wanting to burden her friend with her problems, especially if he only had a little time with which to talk. Klarth frowned, and Arche got the fleeting suspicion that she wasn’t going to get out of this line of conversation that easily.

“Don’t give me that. You know full well what’s been bothering you, so spill it. I’ve been watching you mope around for the past five years, you know.”

“But…” She hesitated again. Klarth snapped.

“I just saved your life, so I think I’m at least entitled to know why you’ve been screwing it up!”

Arche wasn’t used to such full confessions, but that got her talking, so she began to give one in the easiest way possible; quickly, pointedly, and with as few details as possible. There was a lie there though; or at least a truth being withheld, and she hoped he wouldn’t see it in her face or in her eyes.

“It’s for his own good,” She thought.

She spread her arms wide, trying to encompass the world and explain to Klarth the depths of what she felt, or pretended to feel. “I miss Chester, but that’s not it… I miss Cless and Mint too… It’s fate that’s affecting me a lot more than it did in the past, because I don’t see anything good in my future BUT him…” She paused, trying her best to keep her expression neutral. That reason wasn’t entirely true, but could she tell Klarth what the truth of it was? What sent her on her downward spiral? Klarth took her hesitation as her being finished, so he interjected.

“Chester wouldn’t want to see you unhappy, I think. I don’t want to see you unhappy… I’ve seen quite enough of THAT. Hell, you’re probably the happiest person I once knew, to the point of annoyance! You’re the one who refused to say good-bye to our friends; you were so confident you would see them again… What happened to that girl?”

Arche sighed, and her delicate eyes glanced down at the ground as she revealed a bit of the truth she was feeling. “I don’t know… but I just can’t… help… it. How do I tell someone else I’m in love with a person who hasn’t even been born yet? How do I enjoy life; the thrills, the risks, the ups and downs, if everything is going to happen regardless? If I bust my butt trying to get elves to allow half-elves in their village, it’s always in the back of my mind that 100 years from now, the elves still haven’t changed their minds… How can I be happy knowing one of the things I want won’t ever happen? I never used to feel this way… Before that damn Morison.” She finished, sounding and feeling weaker than she ever had before.

Klarth was sympathetic, but he couldn’t yet understand why Arche had made herself a slave to fate, because that’s what she sure sounded like. He’d never believed in fate even after Morison told them so… He had his own reasons for that, he mused. He racked his brain, a faint “Hmmmm…” echoing from his lips, before he responded.

“That’s true, but this never seemed to bother you when I was around… or you never voiced these concerns to me. On the contrary, I remember the fuss you put up when Morison told you about fate…” His tone lightened, and he smiled again, remembering how Arche had her blissfully confident moments on the road. “ I remember how adamant, how SURE, you were that he was wrong… What changed your mind? I suppose a psychiatrist would say we need to get to the source of this matter.”

His face crinkled in confusion as Arche’s bright eyes rimmed with tears at the request, and he considered what was wrong. It wasn’t an unreasonable request, was it? Tell him what had set her on this path? He hadn’t figured it out in five years of watching her, and she’d never spoken of it to another living soul.

But Arche only hung her head in reply, thinking. Could she truly hold this against him? Blame him for something that she so surely felt in her own soul? Klarth tapped his foot impatiently, and though it made no sound, Arche caught the gesture. She had to at least try to tell him, didn’t she? Even if it was what he wouldn’t want to hear her say?

“I…” Her voice broke off again, and her conscience butted in. “…Forget about it. I don’t want to tell you.”

“You can tell me…” He said gently, hoping the delicate approach would work, as he tried to use humor to get that smile back on her face. “It’s not as if I’m in any position to tell another living soul, you know.”

“You… No. I can’t. It doesn’t concern you.” She said coldly. It was for his own good, but even as she spoke the words she felt anger welling up in her heart, and realized a part of her, purely instinctual, wanted to tell him, even with the knowledge that it could break him.

“The Arche I know wouldn’t be stumbling all over herself! It doesn’t concern me? It doesn’t concern you? What do you think Chester would say to you acting like such a coward?” He screamed with every fiber of his being, tying to goad her into replying. It worked.

“You went and died!” She snapped in reply, words spilling from her as quickly as her tears of anger and guilt, almost like a torrential downfall of words and tears as Klarth gasped in surprise. “I was so desperate to save you… Gave it everything I have… and I still failed! In the past I’d have just been happy with giving everything I have, but… If fate is fate, than everything I have isn’t good enough anyway! It wouldn’t let me save you… YOU had to die. It’s your fault… Or fate’s… or both.” She turned away and deliberated whether to run crying from the grave. If she was right, she might’ve just put her friend into a living hell, because she was essentially placing the blame for the last five years on his shoulders.

But it was true, she thought. Why’d he have to die and crush her? Why didn’t one of her cures work? He didn’t believe in fate, and she knew it, so why had he succumbed to it? Why hadn’t he fought?

Klarth sighed long and low, and the sudden change caught Arche by surprise, though she’d expected to make him sad. The strength seemed to leave him, and even though he was a ghost, he sat down on the headstone as if it were his desk. They stood unspeaking there for some time, Arche’s back to him, but she didn’t leave. Her heart wouldn’t have let her even if her mind had said yes. She glanced back over her shoulder to see him sitting there in the same position, staring. Clenching her teeth, she whipped around, sending her hair every which way, and blew a sigh out through her nostrils, taking with it some of the anger.

“Look, I’m sorry, but…” She began, but Klarth silenced her with an angry wave of his hand.

“Regarding that… If THAT’S what’s got you in such a funk…Believing in this fate… not saving me… well… I have a confession to make… I don’t think that I really wanted to get better when you were trying to find a way to heal me.”

The statement came as sharply as if Klarth had reached up and slapped her in the face. She’d never expected to hear that. It confirmed what she wondered; he’d given up instead of fighting! The anger returned, and defiance crept into her voice, but she had no desire to run away now. This was a different kind of pain, so different from the despair she’d been feeling lately, and that in itself felt good. In Klarth she felt she could argue with fate.

“What?!” She exclaimed, her pulse pounding with the sheer energy of her emotions, so clearly did this contrast with her own outlooks on life. Those hadn’t changed even when she’d succumbed to despair. “Why would you ever want to die?”

Klarth’s ghost closed its eyes, and he was the one that looked away this time, trying to figure out how to explain. Arche knew he was thinking; he even took his hat off. His answer was simple.

“Whether it’s with Chester or someone else, I think you’ll understand some day…” He paused and put the hat back on, standing up and looking her in the eye. He didn’t want Arche to miss this lesson. “I hope you’ll be better prepared to deal with it than I was.”

She was about to scream out that she still didn’t understand, but she caught herself. Mentioning Chester put her on alert. She thought she loved him, yes, and… then she had it. Fifty-five years ago, she probably wouldn’t have understood what Klarth meant, but now that she’d been thinking about Cless, Mint and particularly Chester for that long… She knew what it felt like to get attached to someone and not see him or her again. She would see her friends again, this she knew. But Klarth had come to peace with the fact that he wouldn’t see them, had even accepted it readily. So what did he mean…?

The realization suddenly hit her, as clearly as if Klarth had used one of his voluminous tomes to crack her over the head.

“Mirald…” She murmured, and as Klarth’s ghost closed its eyes again, both their thoughts immediately going to the woman that was Klarth’s wife. Arche’s anger waned with the awesome realization; replaced with a feeling as if she’d just crushed a puppy. “Klarth, I’m sorry… I didn’t even think that… Well… I’ve never been so attached to someone that I seriously thought about life without them… Or… I guess I never had to face it…” She looked away, a tear of guilt seeping into her eye. Klarth couldn’t put a hand on her shoulder to get her to turn around, so he did the next best thing. Arche had been a bombastic young woman; and she’d responded to this kind of talking earlier...

“Shut up!” Klarth shouted. “I’m here to make you feel better, not put you into another little pity-party!” His anger failed to produce the desired affect though, as Arche remained apologetic, and the tears continued to fall.

“But… I was always talking about how much longer you were going to live instead of helping you grieve for her…” She still felt bad, but felt an old disagreement welling up in her as well. “…Still… I don’t think wanting to die was right. You’d have seen her in a few more years…”

“You can’t fully understand yet, Arche… But I’m not here to defend myself…” He’d died naturally all right; it was just of a disease aided by a broken heart. Could he have gone on living if he’d wanted to? Probably, and that was why he was so pissed that Arche was blaming it on fate, and had used that blame to power her despair. He didn’t think his death was up to fate at all; it had just happened, and maybe if he’d made a different choice it would have come at a different time. But Arche wasn’t in the mood to hear it; he needed her pissed off again, not wallowing in despair! He did the only thing he thought might work quickly and readily, starting to fade away as if he were leaving.

Arche shouted back at him. He’d wanted to make her feel better, but she didn’t feel any better yet! It was only that she sympathized with Klarth instead of being angry with him.

“Damn it, Klarth! You don’t understand! Life doesn’t matter to me anymore if everything’s predestined…” She fumbled for words, staring at him as if it would prevent him from leaving. “I need my own choices! I need to know that if I go to talk to my mother and try to convince those elves that half-elves are okay, I’ve got a chance in hell of convincing them! I don’t even need to know if I’ll succeed or not, but only that if I try and try and keep trying, I have control over what happens in my OWN life!” She stopped, chest heaving for air, nearly hyperventilating with the sheer energy of the claim, she was probably whining; she didn’t care. Klarth was the only person she had that she could readily trust with these fears right now.

He seemed not at all impressed at her outburst, his voice mocking her before building in confidence.

“Bitch, bitch, bitch… Yes, I know. You’ll find a way to persevere through it all Arche, if you only give yourself a chance. There wasn’t anything wrong with the way you looked at life before, but there are plenty of things wrong with the way you’ve been acting in the past five years! Do I have to paint the picture for you?”

“Paint it, you bastard!” She screamed, angry at the notion he wasn’t taking her seriously.

“ If I wanted to die, than that wasn’t fate, that was a choice I made, and no amount of prodding by you, bless your soul, could have made a difference! What seemed like fate to you was a very clear choice by me…it was my choice to make. What’s fate for one person only seems that way because it was someone else’s choice to make…”

She opened her mouth to reply, but Klarth leaned in close to her face, his voice dropping to a whisper, making sure he had both of those pink eyes locked firmly on his own.

“I’ll catch hell from Origin for this, but he told me… Regarding Harold Morison… that time isn’t meant for mortals to understand. It made perfect sense to me, but… well, I’m not mortal anymore, am I?”

“What the hell does THAT mean?”

“Maybe the only thing about fate is that fate determines who gets born…”

“So you’re saying that Morison in the future was wrong? That we do impact our lives, we’re not just walking down a set path?”

Klarth winked at her, smiling with hidden knowledge.

“Maybe. It might be more that we impact others lives in addition to our own…” Arche flailed her arms in exasperation, focusing on the first word. She wasn’t the kind of woman to chalk things up to ‘Maybe.’

“Maybe? MAYBE? Damn it, Klarth F. Lester!” She couldn’t recall the last time she’d used his full name. Klarth couldn’t either. He pulled his final card as hesitation creased her face once again. He had no choice, and she wouldn’t be able to do anything about it now. It was time to reveal his proof.

“Remember how Morison told us that he couldn’t tell us about our futures? Well, I peeked anyway. I wasn’t trying to, but I couldn’t sleep one night, and I wound up reading a very sad story about a half-elf that died in the Euclid area.”

Arche had no idea what he was getting at, and said so. “What’s that have to do with anything?” She groaned, and Klarth angled his head towards the spot where the dead man lay in reply.

“She died today, Arche.” He whirled and pointed at the body near the tree, making sure Arche had a good look. “ She was killed by that man, choked to death! Her body was found at my grave, with two empty bottles of wine. No one knew who she was, but the look on her face was so sad that local legends began to spring up about her.” He heard Arche gasp in recognition, suddenly getting the picture, but decided to complete the scene. “Not to mention that, well, pink hair isn’t the most common sight around here…” He murmured, figuring that ‘pink hair’ was a dead giveaway to the half-elf’s identity.

“But that means…” Her voice halted, stunned by the implications of what Klarth was saying. Idly, she reached a hand up to touch her pink hair, her bruised throat… and wondered what could have been, before looking up at him. He was smiling at her, in an almost patronizing way. Did she get it yet?

“A bit macabre of a joke, don’t you think?” She glared, just to see if he was kidding. But Klarth’s voice was dead serious.

“No. You were supposed to die today if you believe what that book says, but you didn’t. Think about it.”

She did, but she had to be sure this wasn’t a deception. If it wasn’t… A wild hope slowly surged within her, a hope she hadn’t felt for some time. Klarth saw it, but he was turned away again, as she questioned him instead of acknowledging what he’d found. This was starting to get annoying.

“What makes you think the book was real?” She challenged.

Why was Arche making this so difficult? The answer was clearly in front of her…

“I’m here talking to you, aren’t I?” He crossed his arms across his chest. “Do you think that I learned how to do this overnight? Knowing me, I probably would’ve shrugged and said, ‘Why will I ever need to summon a spirit when I’m dead? It’s not worth the energy, especially with so many other things I could be doing…’ That attitude probably would’ve had me staring helplessly from heaven as that guy choked the very life out of you… You’d be sitting here with Mirald and me, playing cards with the spirits or something.”

Arche had it now, as recognition lit her face, but Klarth wanted to hear it out loud. He had to be sure, finding it ironic that when it came down to outlooks on life, the two were very different, but when it came to outlooks on fate… or at least, fate before he’d died, the two were quite similar.

“You found a way to summon while dead… for me? The only reason you’re standing there, right now, is because we have our choices after all…?” He smiled then, having heard the answer he’d most wanted.

“Right. Now think about this. If fate is truly fate, and we’re on some kind of uncontrollable path, do you think I’d have been able to do what I just did? Do you think you’d be standing here?”

“No… Because… You wouldn’t have had the choice… to make.” She stuttered, seeing it all in front of her, but not able to put it into words, especially because she was suddenly obsessing about how stupid she’d been the past five years.

“Right. I had a choice. If fate were truly as powerful as it supposedly is, surely you would’ve died there no matter what in the hell I did, but the point is you didn’t. Also, if you don’t think you make a difference in this world, think again! If you were dead to that future we visited, well… maybe today, in some other time, the world lost the reason the elves and half-elves united. Maybe you’ll make the difference, maybe not. But whatever happens, it’s because of the choices you make, not that stupid fate. I think it’s pretty obvious by now that you’ve been living according to a lie for the past five years, Arche. You haven’t been yourself, and that’s because you started believing in a STUPID theory. You used to say so yourself, so go right on believing what you did before I died.” If the message hadn’t been so filled with the words Arche wanted to hear, she’d have felt like Klarth was chastising her.

She nodded meekly anyway, still digesting it all, but when she looked within herself she found something that hadn’t been around much lately. The luster in her eyes was back, the anticipation in her heart, that desire; and belief, that she could squeeze everything out of life, everything she ever wanted. Klarth had watched it grow as her eyes had lit up with recognition, and he knew that it was time to go.

“I think you get my point. What’s in the past is the past. I’m more concerned about your future. Take care, Arche. Don’t expect me to watch your back for the rest of your life… that little trick I pulled was a once in a millennia thing. But if you need someone to talk to and don’t have anyone around, well… I suppose Mirald or I might just be listening. Give my regards to Cless and the bunch… I think I told you to five years ago, but you might’ve forgotten. I’ll be watching... Oh, and don’t drink as much! You’re supposed to be HAPPY when you’re doing it… at the rate you were going last night, you’ll be dead before you even get close to them.” He winked, removed his hat, and bowed mockingly before he continued. “Do as your heart tells you to, or some kinds of righteous drivel like that. You get to live a lot longer… don’t blow it on something stupid like misery. If you don’t change at all from here on, I’m going to wish I’d let that deadbeat kill you.” He grinned, trying to let her know it had been a joke, but he did wonder as he finished his lecture. “The bitter, depressive you is a hell of a lot less fun than the old you.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Klarth!” She spat, rolling her eyes and throwing her head off to one shoulder to be sure he caught it. He did. He also caught that smile, that lovely, confident, smile. He hadn’t seen much of it over the past five years.

He then faded from sight for good, leaving Arche to wonder if she’d been dreaming, but the pieces of her broken broomstick and the dirt staining her dress, told otherwise, though her throat no longer hurt. Regarding the dress, she stared at it dumbfounded for a moment, realizing how it seemed to suck the light out of everything, including her own appearance. It made her feel ugly, and she suddenly felt a whole lot more alluring than it seemed to make her look.

“Why in the hell did I ever wear anything like that?” She thought, making a mental note to go and find some REAL clothes the first chance she got. That was when she stumbled across the body of her attacker, still slumped against the tree. She stuck her tongue out at him, but as she walked away she spied the bottle of wine she hadn’t finished lying on the ground. Almost like a whisper, Klarth’s voice returned.

“Oh… is there anything left in that bottle? It does get a bit dry around here… If you get my drift.”

“Dry?” She murmured, before getting the point, raising the bottle to the skies in a silent toast, returning to Klarth’s grave to empty it, grinning like a lemur all the while.

“G’bye Klarth. And thanks... A lot. I do miss you…” She trotted away a few paces, before turning around and putting a finger to her lips in thought. If he was watching ALL the time, she might be having some fun soon. She trotted down the hill the rest of the way, getting to the bottom before turning to look back. His ghost had reappeared, watching her go, and for a second Arche could have almost sworn she saw Mirald next to him. She cupped her slender hands around her mouth and yelled at the top of her lungs.

“I might come back next year! Those punks in Euclid might try to piss on old man Lester’s grave or something, and I’ll have to stop ‘em! Give my regards to the missus!”

She’d only made it a few feet when a sudden thought crossed her mind, and she turned around again in the direction of the headstone, even though it was quite distant. She hadn’t thought of such things lately, but she could imagine Klarth as a lecherous spirit, particularly after the way he’d acted on some of their adventures.

“Don’t go peeking when I’m in the bathroom changing or something!”

“I’m married! Get the hell out of here already! Go visit your mother or something!” Klarth shouted back, the last words she would ever hear from him… at least until it was her turn to be dead. He faded from sight, one hand raised in dismissal, but somehow Arche knew he was still watching from somewhere…

The sun continued its march across the sky, parallel to her march on the ground. Arche knew she had a few miles before she got to Euclid, but aside from the dissatisfaction at having to walk, she looked forward to being alone with her thoughts. Klarth had, after all, given her a lot to reflect upon…

She looked up at the sky and made a silent promise to her as yet, unborn friends, hoping that somehow they’d hear anyway, whether in the future, the past, or wherever.

“I miss you guys… But I’ll be seeing you real soon, okay? Don’t go anywhere.”

With that done, she continued on her way again, imagination running wild. When she got her broom fixed, she figured she might try to pull off the triple loop that kept eluding her once upon a time. She thought she’d had it once, but she’d been so sick afterwards that the only thing looping might have been her head. Flying again was going to be FUN. On the contrary, she couldn’t comprehend why she hadn’t enjoyed it over the past five years. After a few more minutes of walking, she thought better of it, and began skipping instead. She was too happy to be merely walking, and since she couldn’t fly yet, it seemed to suit her… If only the damnable dress hadn’t kept getting in the way. Fixing that problem would be a lot easier than the problem Klarth had fixed, though…

Epilogue, One Week Later

Jarn couldn’t believe his eyes when the doors swung open and that pink-haired woman stormed through, grinning wickedly and half-pushing, half-dragging another pink-haired woman through the door. The first woman seemed comprised of the very essence of life, flashing a beautifully simple smile. Her long pink hair was tied back, one bright blue earring dangled precariously from her left earlobe, and a pair of eye-catching, impossibly baggy pants adorned her legs, secured by a belt with the most exotic buckler he had ever seen. Forearm length pink gloves competed the entourage, and though it was entirely too pink for Jarn’s tastes, it did make her look attractive. The other patrons laughed out loud at her choice of attire, but she seemed not to care, whistling innocently as she led the other woman to the bar. That one looked confused and lost, with even longer pink hair, and a more serene, worried look, not to mention a bright yellow dress of a make he’d never seen before. Jarn thought the first woman looked familiar, but she seemed so… different! Maybe it was those outlandish clothes; so much more vibrant than the drab dress that other woman had worn... or that hair. Were they the same person? Jarn couldn’t tell yet, the difference in their expression and demeanor just too pronounced.

He cocked an ear towards them as the brightly smiling woman ushered her friend into a stool before sitting down herself. Jarn watched as she practically hopped into her seat, tossing her hair every which way but confirming that she was half-elven, leading him to further wonder if this was the same half-elf that’d gotten completely smashed in his bar the last week. The other patron seemed completely elven, now that he had a half-elf to compare with, but he wasn’t sure. At any rate, he was able to overhear their conversation quite easily over the din of the music, since they were almost on top of him...

“Dear… I don’t know… This place seems so loud…” The quieter women stammered softly, still wearing a pained, almost forlorn expression. The other one seemed quite at ease in comparison.

“It’s no problem, mom! You said you wanted to know what I’d been doing when I was little, right? I was dragging my friends into places just like this one… granted it’s not as fun now because I’m OLD enough… but it’s not like I can check out whatever elves do for fun while that stupid law is in affect…”

“Not that it’ll be for long…” The first woman promised herself.

Jarn stepped up in front of them, and she regarded him, grinning broadly, the light of recognition in her eyes. He smiled back, but that smile turned into a look of uncertainty, as her response sent him for a loop. It confirmed his suspicions to the woman’s identity, no doubt about it.

“I remember you…” She paused, marveling how she recalled everything from that night, since she’d gotten SO wasted, and decided to cover her tracks. “I think. I’ve got a couple friends I want to drink to… Two Alvanistan wines, vintage 4202, if you please!” Apparently she hadn’t quite remembered everything

She couldn’t figure out why Jarn winced, but he thought he had a bottle… a REAL bottle… of the stuff anyway… Even if that vintage was regarded as possibly the worst in two decades. The maker, a man out of Mid Galds, had apparently been too worried about Dhaos to focus on his job at the time. Mid Galds was destroyed, so the wine was rare, but he decided against doubling the price. Though a collector’s item, it was also considered one of the worst tasting wines to ever grace the continent.

“No, I think I’ll just have a water Arche…” The second woman requested, but Arche, the first woman, cut her off.

“Arche. So that’s her name… Interesting. I guess it’s the same woman.” Jarn thought from under the bar, still trying to find the wine. If she ever came in here alone again, he resolved to ask her what made her feel better. He had to admit he was curious.

“Live a little, mom! I know you didn’t meet dad like that! Do you want me to order four instead of two?” Arche challenged.

“Dear…” She tried again.

“Come ON…” Arche said cajolingly, slanting her smile to the right side. Live the high life for a day! I didn’t brave bows and arrows and elven magic just to have you drink water, you know! You can drink all the water you want when you’re back in Ymir… THIS will let you think of me when I’m not around.”

“Dear… I appreciate you wanting to spend time with me… But I DO think about you always…”

Arche groaned.

“Mom… I think about you always too, but… Call me Arche! Arche! Or at least not dear all the time… do you want me to start calling you Luche? Or Mama? Or MOMMEEEEEEEE?” She said the last one with the screechy voice of a three-year old, not caring in the least that she was making a scene for the rest of the patrons, having done it on purpose.

“No, de- Arche. I told you, I’d really prefer water… I haven’t had anything strong in SO long…” Luche replied.

Recognizing a mother-daughter argument in the making, Jarn rummaged under the bar. He was right, he’d only had one bottle of the wine. As he reached for two glasses, he overheard the rest of the conversation between the two women.

“Fine, fine, we’ll compromise, okay? I’ll have two, and you have one… You’ll see how good alcohol is!”

“Dear… I would really prefer water… This stuff does bad things to me, and probably you too, if you drink too much of it…” She hoped her daughter would heed her advice.

“Arche, remember? Do you want me to make it three drinks to your one instead?” She put her hands on her hips and grinned, thinking she’d won. Luche surprised her though.

“NO.” She shouted in her daughter’s face, loudly enough that the rest of the bar turned and looked at her. She glanced around, realizing that she had suddenly become the center of attention, and blushed, putting a hand to her lips as if it would quiet everyone again. They returned to their activities, but she still murmured, “Oh my…” Arche just took it in and, grinned ear-to-ear, conceding the win to her mother.

She realized that she’d gotten her outspokenness from someone after all. A clock struck midnight, and Arche realized it was the first day of the rest of her life. She was determined to enjoy every minute of it. There wouldn’t be time to just wait for her friends all day… she had a race to reunite, and good times to be having. This was just the beginning.

She raised her glass to the ceiling to acknowledge the past anyway, and Luche, confused, mimicked her daughter. She thought she remembered something about a toast, but that had been many years ago…

“What is this about, Arche?” She asked.

“Nothing more than a salute to a dead old guy who helped me out a lot, and three people who I technically haven’t met yet, mom…” Arche said, grinning. Luche looked perplexed, but she didn’t let it show for long.

“I don’t know quite what you’re talking about, you’ll have to explain it to me sometime… but that sounds nice.”

Arche winked. “Sure thing mom, but promise me you won’t go thinking I’m crazy… or drunk.”

Their glasses touched, and Arche took a sip first, wincing at the taste. She was just about to swallow when what she saw caused her to spit it back out in shock, for Luche had thrown her head back and drained the glass in one gulp. The elf dropped it back to the bar with the air of a seasoned professional while her daughter stared at her incredulously.

“MOM! YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO SAVOR IT!” She shouted, trying to save face. Luche again tried to hide her embarrassment. She wound up with a face that came close to matching the color of her daughter’s hair, but flashed a smile that held a hint of mischief. Arche quivered in surprise, because that smile reminded her of the one she’d seen in the mirror this morning.

“An oath your father and I had going, dear…” Luche explained. “Do you want to hear about it? I suppose he never told you about the day we met…”

“Sure… I guess…” Arche stammered, still rattled from her mother’s feat. They apparently had a lot of catching up to do. Luche raised a hand and signaled Jarn over. She’d remembered what it felt like to be in a human bar.

“Another wine, if you don’t mind… They remind me of my husband.” She said softly, leaning in a bit closer and winking at Jarn.

She saw out the corner of her eye that Arche was regarding them curiously, even as her daughter tried to cover the spying by sipping her wine again. After the fuss Luche had put up earlier, she seemed suddenly willing to have another glass or two, which perplexed her daughter. She had no way of knowing her mom had an ulterior motive, which she half-whispered in the bartender’s ear, fully aware that Arche’s ears were acute enough to hear every word.

“I want my daughter to realize what too much of this stuff does to her.” She explained, winking.

This prompted Arche to spit her second sip of wine all over the bar to join the first, along with another cry of “MOM!” Jarn sauntered off to answer the request, and the two women wound up talking long into the night.

For Arche, the first night of those next fifty years flew by much more effortlessly than each night of the last five years…

In the afterlife, with his beloved Mirald by his side, Klarth looked down at the two of them and smiled. He was sure of a lot of things, but he was most sure that he’d made the right choices. Mirald agreed, but then, she’d been the one who’d found a way to let him visit the material world… He owed her a kiss even more than Arche owed him her life.

She got it.