Chapter 0: Farewells

Someone knocked at her door.

Venris Dastonia irritably turned from her mirror, her ribbon in her hair still undone, clinging feebly to her long platinum tresses.

"Yes." Her voice came out ice-cold, matching the glacial blue of her eyes and dress.

A maid opened the door slightly and shyly poked her head into Venris' room.

"Lord Dastonia needs you in five minutes, Miss Venris. The guest is going to arrive any moment now."

"I…see."

"Do you need me to do some errands while I'm on my way to the kitchens, Miss?"

"Let me think…" Venris looked back into the mirror, peering at her own reflection, looking for anything lacking on her person.

As she was inspecting her image, she noticed that for some reason she was getting the impression that she was…fading. Her face had a shade of weariness painted on it. Her skin looked paler than ever before. Whenever she tried to smile to scrutinize her look, it lacked even the faintest flicker of mirth.

She was not much of a beauty, in fact there were many peasant women more pleasant looking, and more amiable, than her. The one thing that made her so attractive though, was that she was unattainable; too ethereal for them to touch.

She was one of the famed ghosts of the fickle Alberta society; one of those people who could be seen one moment, and vanish the next without a trace. She slips in and out of gatherings, a wraith. But even if people didn't see her very often, her face was quite well known, for she was one of the favorite subjects for portraits.

She was an icon.

And because people didn't see her very often, and never knew much of her life, they made fables about her, about how her cold, glacial eyes sparkle with pleasure as thieves and merchants kill each other to gain her favor. How it took such extremes to make her feel emotion of any sort.

Of course, they were all urban legends spurred by her frosty, distant demeanor.

"Oh."

She noticed that her rouge was of the wrong shade. Too pale, she decided. Too… cold.

"Rumika?"

"Miss?" The maid carefully opened the door wider and let herself in the room, her back rigid against the doorframe, anxiously waiting for her mistress' orders.

"Come here beside me," Venris beckoned for Rumika with a slight gesture of her hand to the stool standing just beside the dresser where the mirror was mounted. "And sit there."

The maid Rumika looked puzzled, but hurriedly complied and sat herself primly on the stool, letting herself get a full view of her mistress' likeness. Her almost gaping expression as she stared seemed to say, Oh, beautiful.

Venris did not seem to notice. "I look very pale, do you not think so?" she asked, her voice completely void of its cold edge earlier. "Do you have anything that would make me look…warmer, perhaps?"

For want of a better term, she thought. But good enough.

The maid brightened up, being given a task where she, Rumika the Prettiest Maid in the Dastonia Household, the Keeper of the Albertan Merchant's Hearts, excelled. She bounced off the chair and walked closely to Venris, examining her mistress' visage all too closely.

"Hmm…" Rumika tapped her chin for a moment. Then she smiled. "What an astute observation, Miss!" She exclaimed, totally happy that she was able to use a-complicated-word successfully.

"The frosted look is very becoming on you, Miss Venris, but I think you should use a richer shade of pink instead of carnation for your lips."

"Do you have a rouge in the shade you're recommending me?"

Rumika nodded, proud that her pretty mistress was asking her, her, for beauty advice. And it seemed that she was going to borrow her things too.

"Why yes, Miss. It's a bit…used, though…"

"That is no matter. May I borrow it?"

"Oh, but of course!"

Rumika scampered off, leaving Venris alone in the coldness of her room.

She faced her reflection in the mirror once more.

The Venris in the mirror seemed to taunt her. Why the sudden urge to change your appearance, Venris?

"Because…"

But she couldn't finish.

Because? Because you couldn't stand being the untouchable Venris Dastonia your stupid society wants you to be? Do you want out? Have you have had enough of the silly parties and gatherings your father makes you attend?

"Do I have any choice?" Venris asked, her voice tinged with utter tiredness. "Father…is the law."

Don't you see? He doesn't care for you. He sees you as nothing more than a pawn. In fact, he could very well sell you off to the highest bidder if he so chooses.

"He may be the wealthiest and the most powerful merchant, but that's too far even for him."

You need to get out.

"I can't."

You know what you're lacking, Venris? It's hate. Hate your father. Hate the social circles. Hate everything that put you, here. Hate everything that made you lose the will to make your own path.

"I'm too tired."

You've become what they want you to be, Venris. What a pity.

The pecopeco-drawn carriage rumbled through the busy afternoon streets of the port city, past the docks, past the vast marketplace where goods and zeny changed hands.

Inside, Diradem Tarkis slouched in the plush-cushion seat, absent-mindedly fingering one shiny zeny piece. He could hear the collective murmur of the market outside, the shout of his driver trying to guide the carriage through the crowded road, the return shouts of accosted passers-by, the cawing of the two pecopecos dragging the cab. He stared at the coin in his hand, watching the light streaming through a curtained window play upon it.

It's all different these days. So not like Morroc, he sighed. He rolled the coin over the knuckles of his left hand effortlessly, watched as it turned over and over. He should never have left Morroc, Jewel of the Sograt Desert. How long had it been-five, six years?

He had been raised by his uncle, a thief called Abd who taught him the art: cutting purses from unwary folks, casing the merchant stalls, and general appraisal of the actual zeny value of things. His uncle had told him many times, "You're a natural, boy. Plus, it helps being taught by the best." But Abd was small-time crook, a hand-to-mouth footpad. Sure, he knew the trade but he lacked the talent.

Diradem flipped the coin, made a show of catching it with one hand, but actually palming it with the other. Anyone watching him would have been fooled by the trick. He opened the hand containing the zeny piece.

Zeny. It all came down to that. It made the world go round. His uncle had trouble with zeny those last days: always being visited by burly men with serious faces, faces only their mothers surely could love. His uncle seemed to acquire bruises as if by magic after those meetings, but said nothing about it when Diradem asked. And so, Diradem wasn't surprised when he walked into their home one night after a day of thieving and saw Abd sprawled over a table, face down in a pool of his own blood; what surprised him was the sudden bursting of the City Watch into the room. He barely escaped getting captured. That was when he fled the city, harried by the soldiers of the Watch...

He came to Alberta to begin anew. His talents attracted the attention of the Albertan Shadows, and he rose quickly through ranks of the thieves' guild in the six years he had stayed in the port city. The Shadows controlled crime in Alberta: everything, from the vast network of beggars and pickpockets that ply the streets day and night, to the white slavery trade on the waterfront. And then there was the protection racket siphoning off more zeny from the merchants.

Six years. Feels like a lifetime. Maybe it's been too long.

He took out the note from the pocket of his silk vest and reread it for perhaps the hundredth time since he got it the other night:

"Secure Lord Dastonia's alliance."

He knew what it meant, of course. It irked him, this new plan of the Shadows. He wasn't sure what it is exactly-only members of the Inner Circle was privy to that, and while he had a high rank in the guild, it wasn't high enough. He also knew now that it required the full cooperation of Lord Dastonia, perhaps the richest merchant-prince of Alberta. And Diradem was to "secure" that by marrying Dastonia's only daughter.

Diradem shifted in his seat and peered through the window. The carriage had left the bustle of downtown Alberta behind, and was now clattering over a winding road that passed through well-kept lawns of verdant green punctuated by elm and ash. In the distance, on top of the hill, his destination sprawled, proclaiming its owner's wealth. Lord Dastonia's Sea Side Villa.

Dropping the note and coin back into his vest pocket, he leaned back, watching the manor grow closer. It's all so different these days.

As soon as she was done putting on finishing touches to her appearance, she went down to the drawing room, where her father and the guest waited.

"I'm here, father." She stood by the open doorway, a sight of brilliant, ghostly platinum. The only hue that made her more real was the warm shade of dark pink painted on her lips, but even that didn't even seem to dispel the overall frosted appearance.

"Venris, you're as beautiful as ever," greeted her father with an odd cheer as he stood up from the chair by the fireplace, opening his arms to beckon his only daughter, his precious Venris, into his arms. The guest, who was seated at the chair opposite Lord Dastonia's stood as well, and bowed. His piercing gaze bothered Venris slightly.

Like a dutiful daughter, Venris kept up the facade and stepped into her father's embrace, but immediately removed herself and stepped back.

Her father continued to smile his sickly-sweet grin. "I'm so pleased to see my daughter looking so stunning today, especially at this very special moment."

"What's so special about today, father?"

"Well, Venris," her father gestured to the guest, "Meet Diradem Tarkis."

She regarded him with a slight nod of her head. "Nice to meet you, Sir Tarkis."

I know him.

"My pleasure, Lady Venris," Diradem replied, offering his hand which Venris gingerly shook. "And please, call me Diradem…" His voice trailed off, somehow distracted.

By what, Venris had no idea.

"Venris, Diradem," Lord Dastonia clasped his hands gleefully. "You are to be married next week."

Venris gaped at her father, forgetting all about her air. Diradem shifted about nervously.

No one spoke a word for a few moments. Venris stared at her father, who was smiling proudly, then at Diradem, who now couldn't look her in the eye, and then back at her father, who either didn't know about her daughter's disbelief, or just feigned ignorance.

Her conscience's voice replayed in her mind.

Don't you see? He doesn't care for you. He sees you as nothing more than a pawn. In fact, he could very well sell you off to the highest bidder if he so chooses.

"Am I to be married…to a thief?" she murmured numbly. Trembling ever so slightly that the two men didn't notice it, she caught hold of the ornate mantle behind her for support.

Lord Dastonia's eyebrows shot up to her remark. "Now, now, my dear Venris, don't be so unkind," he said, trying to appease her. "Those were just mere rumors. Diradem here just happened to be…"

"That is alright, Lord Dastonia," Diradem interrupted, hastily cutting off Lord Dastonia's awkward explaining; his voice now firm. "Venris has a right to know about the identity of her future husband."

"But…"

Diradem ignored him. "Yes, you are correct, Lady Venris. I suppose you know about the Guild of the Albertan Shadows, though calling us mere thieves do us a great disservice. We prefer to call ourselves adjusters.

"We alter Alberta's economy to the most favorable arrangement."

Venris was not impressed. "A pretty long-winded explanation, Diradem Tarkis, but a thief is a thief," she said coldly. She then turned to her father.

"I want to know what the Albertan Shadows has done for you, father. I want to know why you're giving me away so…" her eyes narrowed. "…Eagerly," she added nastily.

Her father, if he was just pretending to be in good spirits right from the start, just as easily turned into his true colors. "Do not use that tone on me Venris," he said, clearly indicating where Venris got her demeanor. "You very well know that I am doing this for your own good. No parent would-"

"-wish harm upon his child," Venris completed for him, her voice replete with venom. "You told me that almost a million times, father. Those words mean nothing when they come from your mouth."

"Why, I should-" Lord Dastonia lifted his hand apparently to strike Venris, but Diradem caught his hand.

"It's not right to strike a lady," Diradem said, then roughly dropping Lord Dastonia's hand down.

Lord Dastonia seemed to be a tad chastised after that. His face red with held-in anger, he started to walk out of the drawing room, but paused as his hand gripped the door handle.

"You will marry Diradem Tarkis whether you like it or not, Venris Dastonia," he said, not facing his daughter. "Escape is impossible, all of the people in Rune-Midgard would gladly hand you over back here when they learn that your return will reward them with one billion zeny."

With those words he left, closing the door behind him.

Venris covered her face with her hands and inhaled deeply, then composed herself. With a grace only she could muster, sat down on a nearby chair and crossed her legs, elbows planted on her knee. Her chin rested on her laced fingers as she regarded Diradem with hooded eyes.

"If you've got any decency, Tarkis, you'd know that it is not right to marry an unwilling woman," she said quietly.

"I know." Diradem sat himself on the windowsill, arms crossed. "I am willing to retract the engagement-"

It was Venris' turn to cut him off. "That's not necessary, Tarkis. My fianc. My father is right. I have nowhere to go to if I try to escape this marriage. He has probably announced our imminent wedding," She laughed mirthlessly. "Backing out would probably brand me as a scarlet woman. You know how society goes," she remarked off-handedly with a wave of her hand.

"I'll…take care of you. I promise," Diradem said, gazing at the sprawling garden of the Sea Side Villa outside.

"That won't be necessary either," Venris answered. With her total disappointment, her being violated, and her numbness, she was getting the hang of contradicting people. It was so easy after all.

She took a rightful perverse pleasure from it.

"All I want, fianc," she called him with mock sweetness, "is that you leave me alone at daylight." She cocked her head to one side and smiled her usual cold grin. "You only need me at night anyway. I shall do my wifely duties whenever you so wish, Tarkis, even nightly."

Diradem snapped his head up, looking at Venris incredulously, his face reddening. "My Lady, I-I…"

Venris ignored him. "You may own the right to my body, Tarkis. I don't care." Despite her grin, tears started to well in her eyes. "Now that's over and done with, I'll leave you now." she stood up from her chair and started to walk out of the room.

"I'm not like that, damn it!" Diradem tried to catch up with her, but seeing her tears he just stood there, rooted to the spot.

"I don't care," she repeated as she closed the door.

Old Man Spinner looked up from his book when Diradem burst into his room. His two guards were holding on to the man, but the struggling thief still managed to drag them to where Spinner lounged in a comfortable sitting chair.

"Let go of him and leave us," Spinner commanded his guards. He watched silently as the pair withdrew, bowed to him, and went quietly out of the room, casting uncertain glances at the spiky-haired thief dressed in fine clothes. He eyed the young thief and chuckled, "You look more a rich fop than a cutpurse, kid."

"Your new guards could use a lesson in respect for their superiors," muttered Diradem, irritably trying to smooth out the creases on his silk suit. Briefly, a hand strayed to his hair, checking if his spiky locks were still intact. He turned on Spinner with irritation in his eyes. "I want some answers."

"Wine? It's real Al De Baran '76. Not the watered-down swill they push at the docks." Spinner gestured the small mahogany table at his side where a bottle of wine stood, flanked by two wineglasses. One wine glass was half-empty.

"I don't really like to drink. You know that." Diradem's voice froze the air between them.

Spinner appraised the young man standing in front of him. Diradem stood a couple of inches short of the average man's height. He reminded Spinner of a stalking mountain cat, lithe and explosive. He was damn proud of what the boy became, and now was the time he completed growing. He smiled at Diradem. "Sit, kid," he said, indicating the other chair across the room.

But Diradem remained standing, staring intently at him.

"Very well," he began. "Times change. People change. When the head of the Shadows was replaced last month, we began a new agenda. It seemed like business as usual at first. But then, the guildmaster dealt with the Black Circle." Diradem started at the mention of the infamous cabal of mad sorcerers.

"You've heard of them, kid?"

"Yes. They're...evil."

Spinner shook his head. "Good and evil have a lot of gray areas in between. The Albertan Shadows aren't a guild of thieves anymore. We're moving in a new direction." He reached for the wineglass and gulped its contents. "I'm not the most moral of persons on Rune Midgard, Dir, but this, what the Shadows is involved in, is definitely wrong. I should probably retire, find a nice house in Comodo and live the rest of my life there. I'm old, Dir, and tired."

"What are they planning really?" Diradem walked to the bay windows lining one side of the wall. It offered a pleasant view of Alberta Bay where a two-masted sailing ship was pushing out into the open sea. It would sail north up the coast to Izlude, or maybe across the sea to far-off Turtle Island, and briefly, Diradem wondered what it would be like to just sail away. And then, the realization: he will sail away, away from all this, maybe somehow find what he really wants-

Spinner's words brought him back. "... Venris as your wife, you'd be the main inheritor of the Astergarden estate..."

-Venris Dastonia.

He looked back at Spinner, ran his hands through his hair. "I won't do it, Spinner. I quit."

The old man didn't reply. He knew the boy would never stay, knew it as fact since he saw the boy six years ago, hungry and afraid, a newcomer to Alberta, fleeing a past he wouldn't talk about.

Their eyes met in silent understanding. The old man nodded to the young. A smile creased Spinner's face, answering Diradem's brief one.

"It's been a good six years, Spinner. Thank you."

Diradem turned and walked away.

Spinner poured a shot of Al De Baran vintage with trembling hands raised it in toast.

"Goodbye, old friend," he said to an empty room.

The dressmaker fussed over Venris as he fitted the voluminous white wedding gown on her, sewing hemlines here and there as Venris stood for him as still as a statue. Mirrors surrounded them, giving Venris a rather full view of her wearing the filmy confection of chiffon and finest Payon lace.

It was also then that Venris noticed that she was paling more than ever, giving her a whitewashed look that was worsened with the pristine whiteness of the translucent fabric of the gown. Her complexion was not all that was worsened, but also her lack of energy. For the past two days since her father had announced her marriage to Diradem Tarkis, the thief, she refused neither to go out of her room nor to eat her food. It was only when she was fed up with the free-flowing messages of best wishes for her and her husband-to-be that she decided she was through with it and resorted to entreating her father to go here, to Payon of all places, to get her dress done by their Royal Dressmaker, just so she could get away from the rather grating well wishers for two days at least.

The empty dressmaker's studio served as a temporary refuge from the chaos that was her impending doom. Venris was rather thankful that the Royal Dressmaker kept his mouth shut and did not poke his nose into the latest Dastonia affair, for which she felt very fortunate, since the whole Rune-Midgard added the Dastonia family to their list of favorite hobbies. There were the gossips, the stolen portraits, and Pronteran upper-class ladies copying Venris' latest dresses…the list just went on and on.

Finally the Royal Dressmaker had taken the gown off her and lovingly wrapped it in crushed velour and put into a box. He handed the packaged wedding gown with a bow. "I am very much honored to create the gown for your very special day, Lady Dastonia," he smiled, hands clasped together, apparently satisfied with his work.

Venris had a sudden great urge to spit on his face, but instead smiled prettily as she took the package from his arms, and walked out of the studio.

Poker-faced after she went through the door, she charged through the robust bustle of activity that filled Payon's streets. Happy tourists from Prontera populated most of the Archer Village's grounds, and gleeful squeals of children watching Payon archers strut their skills could be heard from many meters away. The gaiety of the surroundings irked Venris.

She hugged the package closer to her as she strode, as if it would protect her from possible prying of people who would recognize her. Eventually she caught sight of her carriage and she half-ran, half-walked towards it, grateful that she would be out of sight soonest.

In her eagerness she accidentally bumped into a hunter, who was lugging around his catch, a wolf. Her package spilled into his lap and the lupine carrion fell into her arms, and the dead weight caused her to lose balance and fall.

"Gah. Lady…" the hunter winced as he patted the rather ludicrous apple-o'-archer (speared with an Arrow of Shadow, no less) on his head, which was slightly squashed with the impact. "…Could you be more careful next time?"

"You're the one to talk," Venris muttered as she, with great effort, pushed off the dead wolf from her body and tried to stand. The hunter offered a hand to help her up, which she gingerly accepted. "I thought hunters and archers possess sight as sharp as a vulture's." She scoffed. "Apparently, I'm wrong."

The hunter was about to mouth a retort, but for some reason he stopped himself, his eyes clearly indicating that he recognized her.

Venris inwardly groaned. Great. Now news will spread that Venris Dastonia is a damned klutz.

But instead of the awkward excuses and apologies Venris expected, the hunter looked scornfully at her. "And now I'm regretting that I helped you up," he said. He then thrust the crushed package at her. "Your behavior is what I expect from most of you noble-borns…narrow-minded and prejudiced." He picked up his quarry and hoisted it up his shoulders, looking at her with disdain. "All of you rich kids are the same. Go back to your purty life, Dastonia. You don't belong here among us low-lifes."

But he was not done yet. He paused and looked at her over his shoulder. "Oh right. I heard you're going to be married to Diradem Tarkis. Congratulations," he sneered. "A spoiled rich kid and a high-class thief. Figures."

A brief spurt of laughter from the surrounding crowd followed the hunter's outburst.

Stunned, Venris just stood there, biting her lip, trying not to cry. She clinched the package so hard that its fragile contents were almost bursting out of the cardboard material.

What gives you the right to talk to me like that? Do you even know me? She wanted to say those words to him, but her mouth felt dry.

It was then that she noticed people were staring at her, pausing from their business, murmuring amongst themselves, and at times laughing with covered mouths, eyes furtively staring at her. It filled Venris with indignation so harsh it raged inside of her.

This is enough.

"What are you all staring at?!" Venris shouted to all of the curious passers-by. "Is this the first time you've seen a woman trip and fall? Is this the first time you've seen me humiliated? Is this the first time all of you, yes, ALL OF YOU, ruined my life?"

The people looked at her blankly.

"I HATE all of you!" Venris screeched, now attracting the attention of all those within the crowded area. "You think you know me better than I do, you despicable idiots, when you're not-"

"That's enough, Venris," a soft female voice behind her said, effectively cutting her off than any harsh retort.

Venris turned to look at the one who dared interrupt her outburst. Her furious blue eyes were met with identical, yet calm and emphatic blue orbs. She was about to snap at her, but the huntress gave off a look that told her that she was not one to be crossed.

The ash-blonde huntress looked reproachfully at the crowd. "What are you staring at? Venris Dastonia isn't that special. Leave her alone. Shoo."

She then threw daggers at the hunter who mocked Venris. "And you, we're going to talk later."

The hunter wordlessly raised his palms, a gesture of admitting defeat.

A gentle but firm hand held Venris' shoulder. "Let's go."

It took a week to settle all his affairs in Alberta and prepare for his departure.

His last day in Alberta saw Diradem walking down the cobblestoned street to the docks, dressed in comfortable travelling clothes over which he wore a stylish leather jacket. He carried a light backpack slung over his right shoulder; it contained a few pieces of clothing and most of his savings. A pair of sturdy boots rounded out his outfit.

The custom-made dagger sheath strapped to his right arm and hidden by his jacket's sleeve carried the emveretarcon-sharpened dagger which would slide down into his hand with a casual flick of his arm. The dagger's twin lay tucked into his left boot.

A refreshing breeze blew in from the sea, carrying with it a salty smell and off-setting the fading heat from the vanished sun. The night was young, and Alberta's taverns are just starting to get into full swing. There was noone on the street before him, but a surreptitious glance behind him confirmed that they were still following him. The Albertan Shadows.

There were two of them, faces hidden by that annoying smiling mask that King Tristram was trying to push on the populace. He easily spotted them a few blocks ago, when they fell in some paces behind, trying to appear casual. Damn novices, he thought disdainfully, who trains these new guys?

Diradem continued making his way to the docks. The smiley pair weren't a problem. He can always find an abandoned alley somewhere ahead where he can spring an ambush. He turned at the next corner and stopped. Now that could be a problem.

At the end of the block, a dozen other thieves stood in a cluster. Most of them turned circular masked faces towards him. More Mr. Smiles, more Albertan Shadows. Somehow, Diradem didn't think they were here to wish him well on his journey.

A glance on the other side of the street showed light streaming through the glass windows of a open kit shop and he immediately veered towards it. That might buy him some time. If nothing else, he could always try to escape by the shop's backdoor.

The sign said "Von Prontera's Convenience - Open All Night"-a strange concept indeed. Diradem briefly wondered who would want to shop at night, but he supposed such a store really was convenient. At least, it was for him right now.

He peered into the window: a single storekeeper and no patrons. Behind him, Diradem saw the two thieves walk past the shop to join the larger group. He pushed on into the store.

The store was one big room, lined all around with shelves displaying an assortment of weapons, armor, and sundry goods. The storekeeper, a huge bearded middle-aged man, sat upon a long stool behind a counter filled with bulbous multicolored potion bottles. The whole store smelled faintly of pungent herbs and bitter-sweet oil.

Diradem turned and peeked out the door. The thieves began to spread out, covering the street. He shut the door, saw the triple door bolts set upon it, and bolted them, one by one. He would have to think of something fast.

"Oho! A customer!" came a voice from behind him. "Come to see Izlude's wares, have ye?"

"Oh? Are all of these from Izlude?" Diradem turned and walked towards the counter, glancing at the shelves to his left and right for inspiration. A two-handed sword lying naked beside its tooled leather scabbard, a large rounded shield made of steel, some hooded lanterns, a crossbow...

"What?" Confusion tinged the man's gravelly voice.

"I'm sorry, what?" asked Diradem, equally confused. He picked up the coil of silk rope he was fingering. He continued scanning the shelves for more inspiration.

"Ah! Izlude's wares, prospective customer! Not from Izlude. I am Izlude! These are my wares." The man had stood up from his stool and was at the moment gesturing grandly at the shelves with huge beefy arms.

Diradem paused an awkward moment to acknowledge the man's claim. "I see," he said.

A wide grin split Izlude's bearded face. Diradem went back to rummaging through the shelves. Quick glances through the window showed movement, but the thieves do not seem to be making an attempt to kick the shop's door down. At least, not yet.

There was a barrel filled with beef jerky-traveller's rations, Diradem thought, I'd better get used to that soon. Beside that were a pair of shields, smaller ones this time. One of those may come in handy tonight. He picked out a small round metal buckler that strapped to one's shield arm, leaving the hand free. He strapped it on and nodded. The weight was just right.

"Excellent choice!" Izlude exclaimed. Now that Diradem was a few paces away, the merchant noticed the excellent make of the thief's clothes. A rich kid,he'd be making lots of zeny tonight. "That's imported from the armor-smiths of Prontera, no less. We've got a spiked model out back. Good fer stabbin' without losin' protection. 'course, the metal spike'll cost you extra."

"These are fine, thank you." Diradem reached the counter and dropped the rope on the small space free of potion bottles. A glance through the shop's front window showed two smiley faces peering into the store from outside.

"This rope's made of the finest Payon silk, spun from Creamy cocoons. It'll bear the weight of five men as stout as meself, it will. I assume you're gonna use it for climbing and not for other...ah, exotic uses? May I recommend a grappling hook, then?"

"Please do," Diradem began counting out zeny from his pouch. He tossed the payment onto the counter.

Izlude pulled a black three-pronged grappling hook from behind the counter and carefully attached one end of the coil of rope to it. "There!" the merchant presented Diradem with the coil.

Diradem quickly inspected the knot then slung it across one shoulder. A knock sounded from the shop's front door.

"Sounds like your friends be tired of waitin'," remarked the merchant.

"They're not my friends."

"I know. Business here is bad enough without the Shadows muckin' it up." The merchant turned and opened a door behind him. "My storeroom's beyond here. There's another door there that'll let you out the back."

More knocks on the door.

Diradem nodded, "Thanks."

"Don't ye mention it. About time someone knocked some sense into those damned hooligans."

Diradem paused at the back door in hesitation.

"Hey, go on! I can take care of meself. Been so long since I've retired from active service. I'm actually itchin' fer a fight," said Izlude. He pulled out a large triangular shield emblazoned with the knights' crest of Prontera and grinned at Diradem.

Diradem nodded at the merchant again. Yeah, the man looks like he can take care of himself. Besides, if push comes to shove, the merchant looks like he can just sit down on his enemies.

"They may be using poisoned blades."

"They would, would they, those bastards. No worries there. Got me a whole batch of green pots right 'ere." A large thumb jerked in the direction of a box of bottles filled with a bright emerald liquid.

There was a sudden crashing sound, the sound of a body slamming into the door.

"Go. I'll keep the smilin' lads busy."

Diradem turned and disappeared through the door. He had to move slowly through the piles of crates and sacks to avoid falling over and found the door set into the rear wall. After unbolting it, he opened it a crack and peered at the alley beyond. Noone there.

More crashes came from the storefront behind him. He heard the merchant shouting in his loud voice but couldn't make out the exact words. Silently, he let himself out into the alley. Faint illumination shone from a gas light at the mouth of the alley. More boxes and rubbish littered the dead-end alley. Muddy puddles from the previous day's rain huddled among the broken cobblestones. It smelled strongly of urine and rotting fruit.

He made his way down the narrow alley, taking care not to step on any of the trash.

"Diradem Tarkis, I'm afraid the Shadows have rejected your resignation, kid."

Diradem froze as he heard the familiar voice from behind him. Old Man Spinner.

He turned around.

Spinner stepped out from the shadows at the end of the alley. Through the old man's dark leather cloak, Diradem can barely make out shiny metal studs. Diradem couldn't remember when he last saw the man in studded leather armor.

For a moment, the two men regarded each other in the dimness of the deserted alley.

"I won't fight you, Spinner," Diradem finally said.

"But we've got no choice, kid. I was ordered to bring you back. Dead." Spinner pushed aside his cloak to reveal a naked blade in one hand.

Diradem extended his right arm and felt the mechanism of his custom sheath click, releasing the dagger into his hand. He twirled the dagger in his hand-once, twice. He dropped his backpack onto the ground. Spinner was the last man in the Albertan Shadows that Diradem wanted to fight. The man had saved him. Despite the age gap, they had become good friends.

"Let's begin this dance." Spinner dashed towards him, surprisingly fast for a man of almost sixty winters. Diradem barely had enough time to bring his buckler in line. Sparks flashed as Spinner's sabre skidded off the wooden shield.

Diradem leaped back, thinking fast. "Spinner, there must be way-"

But Spinner's face was a grim mask as he pressed on his attack. Thrice the sabre thrust with blinding speed towards Diradem's heart and thrice the young thief was hard-pressed to defend with his buckler. He stepped back with each strike, mind a-whirl, thinking.

And then Spinner paused, blade lowered slightly. "I'm an old man, Diradem," he said simply. "I should've retired last year. Got a hut in Comodo. Live my last years in peace."

"We can still do that. Come with me." Diradem began edging away, towards the alley mouth.

"No...I'm in too deep this time, kid." The old man once more raised his sabre, and began running towards him. Diradem tensed, ready to catch the blade on his shield-arm. But Spinner did not attack. Instead, the old thief launched himself into a somersault, cloak fluttering in the air. He landed behind him.

Diradem heard the blade whistling through the air. He couldn't see it in time, couldn't twist fast enough to block it. He dove down, rolling away from Spinner. Mud and refuse soiled his clothes. Spinner was upon him as he recovered his feet. Diradem quickly raised his dagger, and the old thief's long blade rang along the shorter, stopping at the hilt-guard. Diradem pushed him back.

"Damn it, kid. Fight me!"

"I can't do that, Spinner," Diradem cried, voice tinged with despair.

"You have no choice. Only one of us must leave this duel alive." The old thief said as lowered his was soft click and a viscous greenish liquid ran down the slender blade, bathing its entire length. Argos venom, was Diradem's errant thought, a most potent poison.

"So which one shall it be, kid?"

Spinner raised the dripping blade towards Diradem. The moon peeked through the darkclouds overhead, lighting the grim scene in the abandoned alley. Their eyes met, Spinner's green with Diradem's dark blue. There was a plea in the old man's eyes that Diradem noted. But he could not deal with the implications of granting that request.

"Spinner, we're better than this."

"There's no honor among thieves, kid."

"I know. But this-?"

"It's your only way out, kid. You must do it."

Spinner stepped towards him, thrusting the poisoned sabre. This time, he did not grant the young thief any quarter. His long blade blurred as he kept on attacking, cloak whirling about him.

"Don't you remember this place?" the huntress asked her. They were sitting in the middle of a meadow lying on the fringes of the Payon Forest, a small garden notable for its beautiful carpet of tiny white flowers.

Venris hugged her knees closer to her, thinking. She was surprised at how comfortable she was around this certain girl. The huntress, clothed in standard hunter's gear and threadbare tights seemed to be more than what she appeared. For Venris, her presence was oddly comforting. Like she knew for the longest time…

Then her thoughts drifted to faded childhood memories so blurred that only bits and pieces could be recalled. There were flashes of a brief image showing a garden…

"Mm…I guess not," the huntress sighed, then laughed. "Come to think of it, don't you remember me?"

Venris snapped out of her reverie and took notice of the other girl's eyes. There's no mistaking it, we have the same eyes…

"Am I supposed to know you?" Venris finally blurted out.

The huntress shrugged. "Actually, no. Your father made sure that my existence was kept secret." She smirked at that. "Well, almost. I am still alive, after all. He got my mum though, bless her soul."

"What do you mean?"

The huntress toyed with the leather lacings of her short skirt. "Well. To cut the story short, I'm your father's illegitimate child. Err…you don't mind, do you?" She looked up at Venris, seemingly regretting her words.

Venris shook her head, occupied with recollecting her earlier memories. Images of a garden flashed through her mind, and of little girls' voices, filling the air as they played…

She does look familiar, Venris decided. I could not forget her eyes…and that rather mousy hair…

"We used to play together…" Venris said, hesitatingly. "There was this garden…"

The huntress nodded encouragingly. "You're getting to it," she winked. "You shouldn't forget family, after all."

A name came to her.

"Rottie…" Venris mouthed the syllables softly, a whisper, a small remnant of a past that had almost escaped her. "I called you that, but your name is Selrotta…"

"Good enough!" the huntress clapped her hands in glee. Then she stopped, and held Venris' hand solemnly. "You were taken away from us when you were nine years old, Venris. You should not have forgotten about me so quickly." There was a pregnant pause.

"But anyway," Selrotta sat up and hugged her long-lost half-sister briefly. "I'm glad we met again, Ven. What were all those rumors about you? Were they true?"

"Heh. It doesn't matter if they were. It wouldn't change the people's view of me anyway," Venris said drily. "You're lucky. I bet you can do anything you wanted."

"As long as it's within the constraints of the financial budget (which isn't much), yeah." Selrotta shrugged.

There was a period of comfortable silence between them. Venris plucked many of the tiny white blossoms and along with their stems produced a perfect white crown of flowers. I haven't done this for a long time now, Venris remembered. I must have been an expert at this when I was a child…

"I remember you used to love playing in this garden, little sis," Selrotta remarked, out of the blue. "You used to complain about my mother not letting you go out here much, because you were so little and she was so worried that he would take you. Which he did."

"Mm."

"You loved these asters so much…"

"Asters?"

Selrotta lay down on the white floral carpet. "These flowers are called asters, Ven. We used to call you the Princess of the Aster Garden."

That thought made Venris smile. "Really?"

"Yeah. And you turned out to be a princess after all," Selrotta stretched out, yawning. "Lord Dastonia decided that one of his bastards-er, female bastards, if there are any-should become his heiress. He picked you because you were cuter than me," Selrotta pouted.

"I'm not going to be a 'princess' any longer. You heard that I'm going to be married off, I suppose?"

"Of course. It's one of the biggest news tidbits in Rune-Midgard."

Venris winced at that. She herself did not know the extent of the publicity laid out for the event. "I thought so."

"I bet you want out, huh."

"Do I have any choice?"

Selrotta sat up again, brushing off the bits of grass and petals off her upper garments. "Yeah. If I have any choice in the matter, I wouldn't let my favorite little sister be pushed around." She groped her side pockets for a pen and a piece of paper, then laying the strip of paper against her left palm she scribbled a short note on it, then folded the paper and handed it to Venris.

"This note will be your ticket out of this shit. Just say the word, now, that you want out."

"But..."

"Just say it."

"…"

Steel on steel rang out into the warm Albertan night.

The full moon rode the sky, unobscured by any cloud. It shone down into a small alley in downtown Alberta, where two friends were locked in a mortal struggle against each other. No wind blew in from the sea, as if everything waited in bated silence for the outcome of this fight.

Spinner struck aside the Diradem's dagger, sending it whirling away into the dark corners of the alley.

Diradem dropped down to one knee, breathing hard, feebly warding away Spinner's unending thrusts. His clothes were cut in several places and he could feel the burning of a dozen tiny cuts, feel the potent venom coursing through his veins, feel his entire body weakening...

I must defeat him before he kills me, his thoughts ran wildly. But I can't...he's my friend.

Spinner looked down upon the young thief. His voice was choked with sadness. "You should have fought with poison, kid. That would have given you a chance."

Moonbeams caught the tears on Spinner's eyes, followed them down his face.

"I'm old, Dir. It won't make a difference if I die. But you-you're life's just beginning. You can make a difference. Argos venom works quickly through one's system. You've only got a few seconds left. This is your last chance," Spinner had stopped his attack; now, he raised his sabre high above him, two hands gripping the handle. And then he brought it arcing down.

Diradem had no choice. His life was failing, he needed an antidote fast, and Spinner was relentless. This is the only way to stop him.

Time seemed to slow down as the sabre fell down to finish him off. He reached into his left boot with his shield arm, pulled out the emveretarcon-sharpened dagger he kept as a spare weapon, and pushed a hidden catch on the pommel. As livid purple venom sprayed upon the blade, he brought it up in a smooth motion-

There's no time to hesitate, Diradem Tarkis!

-and buried it into Spinner's gut with a final burst of strength. The dagger plunged through the boiled leather of Spinner's armor. The sabre halted its deathly descent.

Spinner staggered back, clutching his stomach. "Anacondaq venom...very good, kid." His face contorted into a grimace of pain. The old thief dropped his sabre and fell to his knees. Then he keeled over.

Diradem crawled over to the old man. "Damn it, Spinner! It didn't have to be this way."

The old thief chuckled, coughing out blood. "Kid...listen...the Black Circle...this plan...you must stop it-"

"Don't talk, Old Man. Hold on. Izlude has antidotes with him. Maybe-" He cradled the Spinner's head onto his lap, searched around for something, anything!

"No, kid..." Old Man Spinner smiled with blood-flecked lips. "There's a...warehouse...the Shadows keep...an artifact there...destroy it...and the plan...will be stopped...They'll leave you alone, then..."

"Don't you die on me, Old Man-"

"Promise me..."

Tears rolled down Diradem's face. "No...hold on, Spinner!"

"You're...the son I never had..." A sudden coughing fit wracked the dying thief's prone form. "So tired, kid...so tired..." gasped Spinner as he closed his eyes and shuddered one last time. Then, he was still.

"Stupid old man..." Diradem cried as he held Spinner's lifeless body.

That artifact. I will destroy it. He had no idea what the artifact looked like, but he knew the Shadows kept a warehouse along the docks, a cache for smuggled goods. For Spinner.

But first he had to hurry back to Izlude's shop and drink some green potions.

He tried to get up but found that his legs had turned into jelly, his vision had began to dim. The argos venom...too late-!

As the adrenaline surge left his body, the poison took over. Diradem collapsed upon Spinner's corpse.

Far above the alley, the full moon disappeared behind dark clouds racing a sudden gale.

If Venris were to be asked right that moment whether she had the guts and will to escape, she would say no. But at that night, in her room, she found herself tying several blankets end to end, making a makeshift rope. Hands fumbling, she repeatedly made mistakes in that simple task but still she managed to produce a fairly stable rope to aid her in her escape.

She then stood up and rubbed warmth into her arms, being immensely nervous. She was so used in going with the flow, in obeying her father's every command. And now-what she was going to be went against every little thing that she did right from when she taken under her father's shadow.

She was not sure she could live through this major life-changing decision that she just made.

She took out the slip of paper Selrotta wrote for her and re-read it again for the umpteenth time. In the scant moonlight through the darkness of the room she could make out the few words written on it with blue ink:

Leo von Frisch,

Please make sure that the bearer of this note is granted admission to the Midgard Academy. This will change lives.

Blitz Harper

P.S. You goddamn owe me lots so you better make sure you get her into the academy, or ELSE.

She put it back into her pocket after reading it.

Selrotta neglected to tell her who "Blitz Harper" was and why she signed with his name as if it was hers, but whoever he was, Venris was almost certain he could be one of the top students into the academy, being able to pull strings within the institute.

So I am going to the academy as a student. And start a new life, maybe. But how can I, when my name is well-known?

There was still the problem of her recognizability; Venris's hand strayed to her face as she thought about it. I'll just have to deal with it.

Her gaze shifted to the newly-installed mannequin at the far corner of her room, the mannequin wearing her diaphanous wedding gown. The faceless mannequin also had the wedding veil on, obscuring its face.

What would I give to make myself anonymous.

Her thoughts were interrupted when she heard a light tapping against the glass of her window. Someone was throwing pebbles against it. Running towards the French windows, Venris parted the lace curtains and opened the window, leaning to see who was outside.

It was Selrotta, bringing with her the hunter who had insulted her the day before. Venris failed to keep her slight disgust in check.

The hunter noticed it, and could only roll his eyes at her.

But that night wasn't a moment of bickering.

"You ready?" Selrotta whispered loudly, her voice carried away by the salty wind of the Albertan sea, but Venris managed to hear and nodded.

"Well then, let's get down to business."

Venris hurried back inside and grabbed the makeshift rope, tying one end of it securely to the bars of her window and threw out the other end outside. It dangled ever so precariously over the side of the Sea Side Villa, swaying in the damp wind.

Well, here goes.

She started with lifting her leg carefully over the windowsill, straddling it. Her hands gripped the rope tightly; the sweat of her palms moistening the fabric. She eventually managed to lift both legs out of the window. Still sitting on the windowsill she leaned out and looked at the sharp drop below her, three floors beneath her. She gulped.

"You better make it fast, the sleep spray we used would not last much longer," Selrotta hissed. "Don't worry about falling, our falcons will snatch you up surely, and Blitz would be able to support your weight anyway." Selrotta pointed towards a pair of falcons circling overhead, watching over the scene.

Blitz? So he's Blitz Harper…of all the people to help me…

She eyed him critically once, letting him know that she was very much displeased with what he did to her the day before.

Blitz could only shrug.

Taking a deep breath, she slid off of the windowsill and let herself dangle. It was then that she found out that her arms were not strong enough to support her weight, and they began to tremble immediately.

"Oh no…" Venris let out, her voice strangled. Her hands threatened to give way, shaking violently as she tried her hardest to cling to the rope.

Her difficulty did not go unnoticed to the hunter-couple. "Damn, it's way too early for her to fall!" Blitz whispered urgently to Selrotta, who was unconsciously biting her nails.

He held out a hand upwards, to the falcons. "Beat!"

One of the falcons swooped down and landed on his shoulder, beak affectionately pecking at the apple-o'-archer perched on Blitz's head. He whispered to it urgent instructions and immediately sent Beat the falcon to Venris.

Venris still managed to climb down one notch despite the violent struggling of her hands to hold on. She even dared to look down, a big mistake, which gave her vertigo. "Ah!"

Blitz' falcon flew closer around her, watching and waiting for any sudden downward movement.

"Just hold on!" Selrotta said, wringing her hands. "Chopper!"

Selrotta's hunting falcon dived down and joined Beat in looking out for Venris. The two falcons now served as a lookout for Venris, ready to grab her shoulders should she fall.

"I can't do it…"

"Just climb down for a few more notches then you can let go, Lady Dastonia. The two falcons can't support you all the way if you fall down that high up!" Blitz warned.

"I'm…trying…"

But her hands just stopped trying and her grip slackened.

"Oh god, Blitz!" Selrotta's hands flew to her mouth in horror.

It all went too fast for Venris. Her skirts flying about, she fell… Into the Abyss were the words that passed her for that one mind-numbing moment until she felt the painful bite of the two falcon's talons on her shoulders, and the slowing of her descent.

The falcons eventually gave way to her weight though, and Venris fell with an oomph into outstretched arms. Blitz in turn crumpled under Venris' weight coupled with downward momentum. "Ack…Lady, if you weren't my beloved's sister…I'd have thought you're taking a fancy at me," griped the hunter of the Archer's Apple under Venris' weight. "with the way you're always falling into me-literally."

"No time to crack lame jokes, Blitz," Selrotta said as she pulled Venris up. "You have to at least bring her to the Midgard Academy's gates." So saying, she straightened her arrow quiver by her side and summoned Chopper to perch on her shoulders. "I'll have to take care of some business here." She looked pointedly at Blitz. "Alone."

"But-"

"We already went through this for a million times, Blitz." Selrotta said grimly. "Marrying Ven off to some thief is just the last straw."

"But Lady Dastonia is not going through with the wedding anymore!" Blitz protested, half-shouting now. "What do you think we're doing right now? Having a tea party?"

Venris looked on as the two argued. I barely even know them, she reflected. But they're both working to get me out of here. Incredible.

She then noticed the gleam on Selrotta's eyes as the latter fiercely defended her decision to stay. There's no way Blitz Harper is going to change her mind with that kind of determination.

"But why, Selrotta?" Venris said, all of a sudden. "What are you going to do?"

"Just because…" Selrotta closed her fists so tightly even Venris could see the knuckles whitening even in the pale moonlight.

Then Venris remembered what Selrotta said to her, in passing. "When you said he got your mother, did you mean…?"

Selrotta looked away. "Well, yeah. He took away my family. He even took away my right to have a surname."

"I see." Such a terrible fate.

Blitz took a deep breath. "I could give you a surname, Sel," he said solemnly. "But if you're going to keep on throwing your life away like this I may not even have the chance to."

"You worry too much."

Venris was about to give the pair their little privacy when they suddenly heard commotion above, from Venris' room. Lights flickered on in Venris' room, giving off an ominous orange glow the flowed out to the spot where the three stood.

"Damn, we lingered too long," Blitz spat. "Sel, you can't stay here!" He grabbed at the huntress' elbow, trying to pull her to him, but Selrotta was rooted to the spot.

"Let me go, Blitz!"

Urgent murmurings of Lord Dastonia's guards could now be heard from afar. They were losing time, but Blitz was still holding on to Selrotta…

"Miss Venris?" gasped a voice from Venris' window.

Venris' head snapped up. Oh, god. It was Rumika, her maid. I'm caught. It's too late!

But Rumika made no show that she finally "caught" Venris. Instead she threw a piece of filmy, translucent material out the window, to Venris. "You'll need this, Miss!"

"What?" Venris caught the fabric, and marveled when she realized what it was. My wedding veil?! She looked up to Rumika, questioningly.

"Cover your face, Miss," Rumika whispered with a smirk, and tapped a finger to the side of her forehead. "Common sense."

Heh. That was incredibly simple. Why didn't I think about it?

Blitz by that time gave up. "Come on, Venris," he muttered. "And be quick!" So saying he grabbed Venris' arm, dragging her away from the Sea Side Villa. "Sel's hopeless. She always goddamn is."

Selrotta waved a short goodbye to the two. "Be careful Venris. Our Princess of the Aster Garden." She smiled, ruefully.

"Be careful too, Rottie." Venris gave herself one last lingering look at her half-sister before she turned away. Mouthing a silent thank you to Rumika who watched on, she put on the veil as she and Blitz ran to the pecopeco tethered to a tree just outside the walls of the Sea Side villa. They were both thankful that the two guards stationed by the gate were still under the spell of sleep.

"I'll just bring you to the Academy's gates," Blitz grunted as he helped Venris up the huge riding fowl. He climbed on after her, and gestured for Venris to put her arms around his waist. "I'm going to have to go back to the stubborn bitch to make sure she's still breathing." He struck the pecopeco's side with his foot and they started their journey south, the pecopeco cawing in the night as they went.

Fleeing from the Villa and into the fringes of the forests surrounding Alberta Venris looked back to the slowly disappearing figure of her home, through the ghostly fabric of her veil covering her face.

Goodbye.

"Oho! He awakes!"

Diradem pushed through black clouds of unconsciousness. A round bearded face uncomfortably near his face. Izlude. And he could smell what the merchant had for dinner. He found Izlude's shoulders and pushed him away as he staggered to get to his feet. His head hurt but he seemed to be alright, otherwise.

He was not in the alley anymore. He was in Izlude's shop. His jacket and shirt was off, and bandages run the length of his arms and most of his chest. Several empty bottles lay on the floor near where he lay.

"Green pots. One wasn't enough to save you," the merchant beside him said.

"My clothes-"

"-were ruined. Had to cut 'em off to get to your wounds. Your pack's right there." Izlude gestured him to where his backpack lay under the counter. His buckler lay beside it, scratched and dented.

"Ah. No worries. I've got clothes there-" he clutched his head and staggered as a wave of vertigo assailed him.

Izlude came beside him, held him up. "Easy there. You're still woozy from the poison."

"I'm in a hurry. There's something I need to do before I leave Alberta..." He picked up his backpack, and rummaged through it finding a dark blue silk long-sleeved shirt.

Diradem noticed that one of the merchant's arms was covered with bandages and his face had some bruises. And the shop's shelves had all tumbled down, spilling the merchant's wares all over the floor. A Mr. Smile mask lay amidst the rubble. Izlude shrugged at the thief's unspoken question, "Heh. You be lookin' far worse than I do. 'sides, those smiling thieves were just kids. Darn brats, sent them off crying back to their mums."

He finished dressing, tucking the end of the shirt into his leather pants. He picked up his backpack and buckler. "Where're my daggers?"

"Hmm? They're right there on the counter. Nice work you've had done on them."

"Yeah...hey, listen. Thanks for the help, Izlude von Prontera." He pressed a purse full of zeny into the large merchant's palm.

"Aww, you shouldn't have, you know." But the grin splitting Izlude's beard told him otherwise. And the merchant did drop the purse into his belt pouch readily enough.

Diradem smiled at the man, nodded and stepped out of the shop.

Now to break into that warehouse.

He stopped. The wedding would be three days from now. But by then, he'll be long gone from Alberta. He looked to the north. Past all these buildings is Sea Side Villa. And there, Venris Dastonia is...sleeping right now, probably. Could she have liked him if they met differently? Ah, but she won't. That's for sure. Because you're a scoundrel, Diradem Tarkis, and she's...she's everything you can't have. Don't be foolish, just forget her-

He was almost run down by the sudden appearance of a pair of riders on a single pecopeco. He watched as the giant flightless bird rushed past him. Gah, you'd think Baphomet himself was pursuing them. One of them even had a wedding veil on. Weird. Crazy newly-weds.

Shrugging, he made his way towards the docks, mind surging with conflicting thoughts of mourning for the friend he killed, and longing for the most beautiful woman he had ever met.

Leo von Frisch studied the incredibly pale-complexioned female standing before him closely. The hem of her white nightgown was torn and muddied; and she was even wearing a veil. All in all, she looked like a faceless ghost.

He was clutching the note she handed to him. Crossing his arms, he leaned his back against the damp stone walls of the Academy's main hall.

"Lady, you come in charging in here in the dead of night and demanding entrance to the Academy in the middle of a term? What's Rune-Midgard coming to? He sighed, and massaged his temples. "Normally, I would refuse of course. Midgard Academy is not a charity case."

"You'll be properly compensated when the time comes," Venris said, in clear tones. "I'll make sure of it."

"You're probably one of them runaway brides," Leo von Frisch remarked drily. "Properly compensated. You probably have big caches of money stacked somewhere."

"What an astute observation." Venris said, voice dripping with sarcasm. "Except for the part about 'big caches of money.'"

"Ohoh!" Leo von Frisch exclaimed, head thrown back with laughter. "Ladies. I like 'em with bite." He then composed himself and then walked over to a nearby desk and rummaged in one of its drawers, from which he produced a thick book and a pen. He put it on the desk and beckoned Venris to follow.

"Sign your name here," the Academy Instructor said, as he pointed at the page where the book opened, to the first blank next to the last name. "That's all you have to do to get in. You should be grateful that Blitz was the one who made the recommendation, or else I wouldn't even consider."

Venris took the pen from him and was about to sign her name, but before she was about to write V something struck her.

She paused for a long time.

Leo von Frisch raised an eyebrow. "Well? Don't tell me you forgot your name."

I need a new name. With a resolute shake of her head Venris bent over the desk and wrote her name on the Book of Lists:

Sevrin Astergarden.

It was a simple matter for a thief of Diradem's talents to break into the Albertan Shadow warehouse. He slipped easily past the two Shadow thieves (Damn novices, Diradem thought, not for the first time tonight) and entered the warehouse. He stalked through silent piles of crates filled with smuggled goods: cigarettes, narcotics, Al de Baran wine, even fruits. At the rear, he found a locked steel door.

He peered at the lock, nodded. Skilled fingers selected two long picks from a pack on his belt. Within a few seconds, the lock gave a satisfying click. He pushed the door open and stepped inside.

The small room was bathed with a throbbing glow, emanating from a cylinder set upon a table in the center of the room. An open crate lay beside the table. Beside the glowing cylinder was a book and quillpen.

Diradem edged closer to the table. The crate was empty, except from some packing straw. It probably contained the glowing cylinder. He flipped the book open. It contained records of the warehouse stock. A new entry read:

Unknown Device #2874SP

Diradem focused his attention on the cylinder. His eyes found it hard to latch on to its smoothness. The throbbing glow seemed to come from inside it, and yet the cylinder was metal, opaque. So this must be the artifact Spinner talked about. What is it exactly? A container? He couldn't see how it would open though.

He picked it up and nearly dropped it as a rush of energy surged through him. He could feel the throb now, as if it was a tangible heartbeat.

What is this?!

He turned it over and over but couldn't find any seams on it, no way of opening it, much less any idea how to destroy it. Finally, he slipped it into his backpack. He'd find a way to open it later, on the airship, when he's far away from here. Far away from the Shadows. Far away from Venris Dastonia. Irritably pushing that last thought from his mind—why is she suddenly invading my thoughts?—he slid out the door. And almost ran over the girl about to open it from outside.

For a moment, he stood in shock, staring at the girl's black robes emblazoned with a twisted circular rune. The young flame-haired Black Circle mage appeared to be in the same state of surprise. Diradem recovered faster. He spun low, catching the back of the mage's knees. The girl tumbled with a small scream.

"Thief!"

Leaping over the prone girl, Diradem raced through the crate-filled warehouse. Arcane words pursued him and he ducked just in time to avoid a blazing bolt of magical fire. Crates exploded in flames. He zigzagged through the warehouse, ducking behind piles of boxes, as the mage pursued her, destroying more crates with errant fire-bolts.

He broke through the last pile of crates, dashing for the warehouse doors. Just a few more feet, Diradem! The doors slammed open and the two novice thieves stepped inside, knives drawn. Diradem pulled short. The two blocked the only exit.

"Don't let him escape!" screamed the girl from behind him. A fast chant and then a wall of fire erupted at the door, catching the two novice thieves in it. Their screams mingled to the mage's mad shrieks. Burning flesh filled the air. And then the mage launched into another spell.

Diradem thought fast. He must escape before the mage locked onto him with one of those fire spells! Sucking in his breath, he made his decision: he charged straight for the two burning thieves, knocking them aside as he dived through the fiery wall.

He landed outside, hair singed a bit, but otherwise unharmed. He rolled to his feet and ran away, not stopping until he was several blocks from the burning warehouse.

He walked briskly through Alberta, frequently looking behind him for signs of pursuit. Luckily, there was none. Soon, he saw the Kafra Airship docked in the center of a circular flower field. It was near dawn, faint tendrils of sunlight were starting to creep across the sky.

At the ramp leading up to the ship stood a Kafra girl, a representative of the Kafra Corporation. She beamed at him. "Good morning, sir! We're happy to be of service! Where are you headed?"

He scanned the list of destinations on a sign next to the girl. "Uhm, Izlude, please."

"Wonderful!" the girl cried gleefully. She opened a notebook and took out a pen. "That'll be 900 zeny, sir! I'll need your name too, Mister—?"

Diradem looked back at the city, taking it all in. He's free now. He's starting again. It's like a rebirth. All I need now is a new name.

"Uh…Mister—?" The girl repeated uncertainly.

He turned back to the girl, smiling. "Elenium. Fynn Elenium."