It was night in Seek Valley, but it was not dark.
A full moon shone down from the clear, cloudless night sky, bathing the valley in its bright white glow. The snow glittered, reflecting and magnifying the light, banishing every shadow. The snow was white, pure... except where littered with the bodies of beasts. Icy black shards were all that remained of the guardian of Seek Valley's treasure.
The treasure itself did not appear to be anything special: just a plant, about the size of a man. Its flower was very attractive indeed, a purple blossom that looked carved from ice. The slightest breeze, it seemed, could shatter it. Yet it had been guarded by a ferocious beast, and could determine the lives of many men.
A gloved left hand appeared over the snow-covered ledge. In a moment, another hand joined it, this one clutching a weapon: a simple sturdy black staff. The hands' owner pulled himself up with a slight grunt, getting a foothold and coming to his feet. After steadying himself, he turned and lent a hand to his companions: Lightning Flik, Humphrey the Silent Swordsman, and Dragon Knight Milia.
Flik was the first to notice the crystalline flower. "Could this be moonlight weed?" He pointed at it with his sword, the name "Odessa" etched on its blade.
Milia looked up sharply. "Probably." Her people stood the most to gain from this fragile-looking blossom, but she showed no emotion. A truly military mind, Milia.
The young man, McDohl, smiled, relieved. With this herb, they could cure the dragons, thereby gaining the alliance of the Dragon Knights. They were one step closer to toppling the Empire.
"That's moonlight weed, all right. It's used as a restorative." The voice came from nowhere, and everywhere, as if the very air itself had spoken to them. McDohl froze. He could see nobody, but he knew that voice. He knew it all too well.
"Who's that!?" shouted Flik, brandishing his sword. "Come on out!" He glanced around suspiciously, sweeping his blue cloak out of the way in preparation for battle.
A circle of light appeared on the snowy ground before the four travelers. Out of it rose a well-dressed, beautiful woman. She was smiling, but it was the smile of snake about to bite. McDohl stepped into a ready stance, his weapon in striking position. He heard Milia and Humprhey do the same. The sorceress Windy stood before them, she who was at the beginning of McDohl's adventure, and would probably be a constant threat until the end.
"I'm impressed that you made it this far," she said in a tone that made it clear she attributed this accomplishment to luck. "But I can't let you leave with the moonlight weed." She snapped her fan open, completely unnecessary in the valley's cold climate, but very effective in establishing her point.
Flik was not impressed with her appearing act. "Whoever you are, we had a rough time getting here! We're taking this flower!" McDohl knew from experience that Flik would never give up the weed as long as it offered hope to the Liberation Army.
Windy glanced at Flik briefly. "Oh my, what an energetic young man. But I'm talking to this boy, so please be quiet." Her gaze returned to McDohl, dismissing everything else as unimportant. McDohl could feel Flik's anger, but had faith in the blue-clad warrior to keep his temper.
"McDohl," continued Windy, "you must be getting tired of this Liberation Army game." She pointed at his hand. "You will give me the rune on your right hand, the Soul Eater."
The young man glanced down at his hand. Hidden underneath the glove was a symbol, imprinted in his skin. It was one of the 27 True Runes, the Runes responsible for the creation of the world. His hand bore the Soul Eater, the Cursed Rune. He looked back at Windy, his expression steely. He would never give it to her, cursed as it was.
Windy laughed. "Don't look so angry, boy. I won't force you to give it up. I have something more elegant in mind." She raised a hand and smiled, her eyes flashing like diamonds. "Come on out, Ted.
Another circle of light appeared on the ground. Out of it rose a young man, blond and outfitted in fine clothes. He looked a little thinner now, and his eyes were sunken, but McDohl still recognized him. He found himself dropping his weapon; he couldn't raise it to Ted, his best friend since childhood.
Ted smiled, but it was a tired smile, an empty smile. "It's been a long time, buddy," he greeted McDohl. "I thought I'd never see you again." The words stung McDohl; his gaze fell. "I forgive you for leaving me behind," Ted reassured him. "We're old friends."
McDohl was wounded by the words. He had had to leave Ted behind once, had to leave his friend in the hands of the Imperial Army. He had thought his friend dead, but the joy of seeing him alive was tempered by the words, and the truth of them. He had abandoned Ted, and that abandonment's necessity didn't make it easier to live with.
McDohl looked up to see Ted, his hand outstretched. "Now, will you give me back the rune I lent you?" His voice took on a desperate note. "I was able to live three hundred years because of that rune, so I need it. Please give it back."
McDohl hesitated. When last McDohl had seen him, Ted had begged him to take the Soul Eater. Ted had seemed glad to be rid of the Rune, for good reason. It was only good for one thing: destruction. McDohl considered giving it back, considered ridding himself of the Cursed Rune forever.
Hesitantly, he shook his head, and pulled his hand away from his old friend. Something was wrong. Despite his own feelings of guilt, McDohl knew that Ted would not normally have mentioned leaving him behind. Ted would have insisted that there was nothing to forgive. Further, Ted's tone seemed... strange. It was hard to define, but McDohl had known Ted most of his own life, and his tone was wrong, somehow.
A sudden tingling along his right arm brought McDohl out of his thoughts. The tingling was familiar, one he'd felt hundreds of times since his journey began. It intensified, as he'd known it would, becoming a shooting pain in the space of a few seconds. The Soul Eater was activating, but for once he wasn't telling it to do anything. The Rune was acting on its own, or else...
Flik had time to see the dark glow around McDohl's hand, time enough to whisper "Th-the rune..." before an apparition came into being: the familiar cloaked figure bearing a scythe. It floated ethereally overhead, giving off an aura of darkness. The darkness shot outward in every direction, beams of shadow piercing everything, but leaving only a chill where they touched. Faster they shot out, and faster still, until the apparition suddenly exploded outward in a ball of shadow and light. It engulfed the ledge, and then...
In the darkness, only two figures stood: McDohl and Ted. Time was frozen as the two of them silently stared at eachother, and they were all that existed. And then...
"... can you hear me..."
The voice was distant, soft, but clearly Ted's. McDohl tried to respond, but found that he could not move his mouth. However Ted was communicating, McDohl couldn't do it.
"I don't have much time..." Ted's mouth didn't move, but his voice came through clearly this time. "A strange connection remains between the rune and the one who carried it, that is, me. I'm speaking to you through the rune."
If McDohl had been able to move his mouth, he would have smiled; this was the Ted he knew, this the tone of voice with which he was so familiar. And yet there was pain in his tone, and sadness.
His mouth still motionless, Ted continued, "My body has been taken over by Windy's Conqueror Rune, and is no longer mine. The Conqueror Rune will eventually take over my soul as well..." On that statement, Ted's voice suddenly faded, as if speaking was a great effort. It returned after a moment, strained. "And that is why I must hurry."
McDohl tried again to speak to Ted, tried to argue with him. No Rune could take over Ted's soul. Surely something could be done. There had to be a way. But he could not. Whatever link Ted had with the Soul Eater as its long-time master, McDohl did not yet have it. The darkness began to waver... Ted was losing whatever strength allowed him to forge this link.
Ted's voice returned, far away and all but silent. His tone was sad... but McDohl sensed an unseen smile. "You must promise to forgive me for what I am about to do."
Before McDohl could respond or even think about the statement, the darkness was swept away by an all-encompassing light, and he felt time return to its regular speed. The light faded, and he was once again in Seek Valley, the snow crusting around his boots, his allies behind him, Ted, Windy, and the flower before him.
Windy glanced around, bewildered and irritated at her own confusion. "What was that?" she demanded of nobody in particular. She shook her head and pointed her fan at McDohl. "Ted!" she barked, "Hurry up and take the Soul Eater!"
Windy seemed to believe that Ted could take the Rune against McDohl's will. He didn't know if that was possible, but if Ted was merely her puppet, he wasn't about to give it to her... even if it meant...
Ted followed the command of his mistress, and approached McDohl. McDohl himself had no choice but to slip into a battle stance, brandishing his staff. "Please, buddy, give me back my rune. Or else I'll take it by force." He took another step.
McDohl looked carefully at his hand. It would be so easy to simply give up the Rune, to be free of it. He could still lead the Liberation Army without it, and it was possible that Ted could break free of the Conqueror Rune with the Soul Eater's power. But if it didn't work... If Windy gained the power of the Soul Eater... McDohl looked up from his hand, into his friend's eyes. He saw pain there, and decided.
"I will not give you the Soul Eater."
Windy laughed at these words. "Oh, so you plan to fight Ted?" Her expression could only be termed a smile in the loosest sense of the word. "You kill your own father, send your servant Gremio to his death, and now you want to fight your best friend?" She gave a decidedly cruel-natured chuckle. "How sinful you are."
Abruptly, Ted began to speak, his tone still wooden. "Soul Eater, I spent 300 years with you. I know all about you, the meaning of your curse, your evil intentions."
Windy attempted to interrupt, but Ted ignored her. As he spoke, his tone changed, became the familiar tone McDohl had known so well. "On the day I lost my home, you stole the souls of everyone I knew in this world. During 300 years of wandering, you caused a great many wars and plundered countless souls." He began to shout, his voice thick with emotion. "Including Odessa's! And Master Teo's! And Gremio's! You took them all! You steal the souls of those closest to your master, and grow in power!"
He closed his eyes, and a single tear rolled down one cheek.
Windy took advantage of the pause and stepped forward, as if emphasizing her dominance. "Ted! What are you talking about?!" she demanded. "Hurry up and get the Soul Eater." She was certain that her command would be obeyed.
For the first time, Ted turned and addressed Windy. He had a weak smile on his face, and he was sweating in the cold, but it was clear that he was no longer under her control. "Having the Soul Eater near me has given me power. Just enough power to move my own body."
Windy's eyes were wide, her body trembling with rage, but Ted turned from her as if forgetting her presence. He looked peaceful for a moment as his gaze met McDohl's. Then his brows lowered, his expression determined.
"Now, Soul Eater!" he shouted. "I command you as your former master! Take my soul now!"
McDohl tried to argue, tried to command the Soul Eater to be still, to do anything other than that one unthinkable act. But all he could do was reach out to Ted with his right hand, the familiar tingle running up his arm. He was no longer in control of the Soul Eater; Ted was. No matter how hard he tried to move his body, McDohl could only stand there, arm outstretched. In his peripheral vision he could see Flik and Milia, both similarly frozen. Windy, the only one not frozen, looked horrified at this new development.
Abruptly, the pain of the Soul Eater vanished. There was sudden silence but for the howling of the wind. Ted closed his eyes and dropped to his knees. "Good..." he whispered. "That's good. Who needs a body that can't be controlled?" His breathing began to sound labored. "I now return... the 300 years of life... that you gave me, Soul Eater."
Ted pitched forward, face down in the snow.
McDohl cried out, dropped his staff and ran to his fallen friend. He dropped to his knees and turned Ted over, hugging the boy's head to his own chest.
"Damn it!" Windy exclaimed, breaking the silence. "Unbelievable! I'll have to..." She approached McDohl, reaching for him.
McDohl did look up from Ted as a bolt of darkness struck the ground before Windy, throwing her off her feet. She fell to her back, the snow crunching beneath her. She looked up to see McDohl rise to his feet, his arm glowing with dark energy. He took a step toward her, his eyes narrow with rage.
She scrambled to her feet, her expression filled with fear, fear like she had not known in centuries. "Detestable creature," she spat. "I'll take that Rune from you some day." She vanished abruptly, without so much as a flash of light.
McDohl roared in anger, and the ground where Windy had disappeared exploded, leaving a crater the size of a man. The dark glow around his arm faded then, and he turned to see Flik, Milia, and Humphrey gathered around Ted, their eyes on McDohl. Wearily, he stumbled over to Ted's inert form and fell to his knees. He closed his eyes and bowed his head over his friend.
"Don't look like that..." McDohl's eyes snapped open to see Ted looking up at him. "I chose my path. I think it's... farewell for sure this time." He smiled up at McDohl. "Take care. Live your life to the fullest... for my sake too..."
Ted's eyes closed, and he seemed to slip into a deep sleep. For many long minutes, silence reigned in the valley.
Milia was the first to move. She walked over to the Moonlight Weed and knelt. "Everyone is waiting," she said quietly as she pulled a crystalline blossom from the stem. "Let's hurry and take this home." And she left. Flik and Humphrey both placed a hand on McDohl's shoulders, but he ignored them. They left, too.
McDohl was left alone kneeling over Ted's body. Silently, he carried Ted to the crater he'd created and carefully laid the body inside. Slowly, methodically, he began to gather rocks, placing them one after another in the crater. He covered his friend, starting at the feet and moving steadily upward.
At last, all that was left uncovered was Ted's face. He smiled now, his expression peaceful in death. Live your life to the fullest, the still face reminded him. McDohl smiled back at his old friend, and placed the last stone, hiding the peaceful face from the world.
As he placed the stone, McDohl felt the familiar tingle of the Soul Eater's power. He pulled off his glove to reveal the familiar Rune, glowing darkly. Somehow, he knew what it wanted, and put his uncovered palm on the last stone. The pain left, and when McDohl removed his hand, the sigil of the Soul Eater remained etched in the stone. As evil and cursed as the Rune was, it had still wanted to pay final respects to its former master. In the years and centuries to come, McDohl knew that nothing would grow on this one stone; it would be forever clear who was interred beneath.
McDohl donned his glove and picked up his staff. He gave a last glance to the grave, nodded to his friend, and turned away. As he descended the ledge, he never looked back. Live your life to the fullest, he had been told. He walked along, feeling the weight of guilt and pain lift from his shoulders.
In the east, the sun began to rise, but it wasn't necessary. Even in the night, it was never truly dark.