Genso Suikoden

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Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn
A Genso Suikoden Fanfic
By: Aaron Nowack

Part 3: Thorn

"The rose and the thorn, and sorrow and gladness are linked together."
    - Saadi

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 a random cat. Sonya.

"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 between chapters of Shades of Gray, 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.

5) Previous parts of this story are available on my website and at