Disclaimer: If you've read any of my other fics then you already know I don't own it. If I did then I would just hand it over to Lor so she could get to work ASAP on the sequel.

Note: I guess I should warn you all that this isn't my usual style. It's a bit dark (in my opinion). This is an Alnel fic, so future chapters will resolve more around that aspect. This is also the sequel to Inside My Heart. This chapter takes place before that fic starts.


Prologue:

Hate. It's a useless emotion. When harbored, it can eat you from the inside out. It can cloud your thoughts and tamper with your perceptions. It can focus your energy in one way and direct your path in another. It's a duel process of bending it to your will and doing its bidding. Hate. It's a useless emotion, but it has its advantages.

And what of love? Is there such a thing? Pure love - now there's a joke to be felt and not told. With so much in the ways of hate is it possible to love? Or is it only possible to hate those you love? It is the fault of others that cause you to love and in that love it is easy to hate. But that hate extends the boundaries of the soul. It is not possible to truly hate those you love; but it is possible to hate yourself for loving those you hate. Or better put, for loving those you once hated.

It had been a long night and sleep had eluded him once again. For the past two weeks Albel was only allowed a few hours a night. Some nights that privilege was also taken from him. Tonight he sat alone in his room. His only company was the candle that flickered in front of him. His eyes held his stare as the flame leapt and twisted under his faint breath.

He no longer saw fire as he once had. The fire had taken life away from him. The fire had drowned out years of his own life. He had always held contempt for fire. It was as if the fire was a living thing and his silent enemy. That was no longer. Things had transpired and the fire was as it had always been – it was fire.

In the small flame he saw the emptiness that was once his soul. There was a space in him that held nothing. A nothing deep and scarred. It was like a black hole in which nothing survived and nothing was left. All in all, it was the absence of life.

He lifted his gaze long enough to study the ceiling. Closing his eyes, he shook his head and returned to the task of filling out the official request form. Starting in a few short days if the king allowed, he would be off on his own and searching. Searching for what, he wasn't sure but it was a search he had to take on. His life and soul depended on it.


Prelude to the Soul

Chapter One

In fantasy the heroes can slay the beast. In fantasy the enemy is one which can be fought face to face. But in reality our foes dwell in the darkness we want so badly to ignore. Our enemies are the demons which live inside. The demons of our souls.

Albel walked through the desert alone. The desolate land tugged at him with a familiar force. This land before him was as lonely as he felt. In a barren place, it was easy to clear things from ones mind and escape harsh reality.

His thoughts taunted him. His memories conjured ghost of things that had been and things that never were. He needed to reflect on the events that had taken place in the dungeons underneath the castle. He needed to rid himself of this burden. He needed hope but hope was not kind.

Sweat poured from his brow as he set to the task of relieving foe after foe of life. He spent hours, alone, with no one but his sword for company. The only sounds he issued from his course and dry throat were the grunts associated with the swings of his sword. He didn't stop to drink but once an hour. This was his punishment to himself. He wouldn't allow himself to die of thirst, but luxuries were a thing to be denied. The raw pain in his core ached for release. Instead of releasing that pain, he would cause his body to suffer in equivalence.

He thought he was alone, until he heard voices.

The sounds carried over the rock pile which sat close to the pathway back to Surferio. He sheathed his sword and cautiously approached the pile. It was suicide to come out to the desert, and he was weary of anyone who would be in such a place. Of course, he was there, but in his case it was this or a breakdown. If he died in the desert, then that was clearly better then the alternative.

At this point in his life, he felt that his reputation was all he had. He couldn't afford to look incompetent. He needed something, and that was all there was to keep him going. There had been many times he felt the will to give up. After what he had confronted in the dungeons, he felt emptier inside then ever.

The desert was where he started his search. He didn't know what he was looking for, but he was sure he would find it. No matter what it took or how long he had to look. He welcomed the pain but refused to let it win. Had he truly sat to think of his actions then he would surely think himself insane.

He deftly climbed the rocks. The sun was high and the heat almost unbearable. It was at times like this he knew he was still alive. His pain was, to a certain point, his friend.

On the other edge of the rocks was a group of Aquarians. It was a small battle brigade. This was obviously one of their training grounds.

It didn't take but a brief scan for him to locate the brigade leader. A familiar face. He watched the whole training session, curious to see how she was doing after the whole celestial ordeal.

It appeared that she was no longer a member of the Secret Legion, but the captain of the Crimson Blades. He had always seen her as one to follow orders and only take the lead when deemed necessary. He found it odd, yet entertaining, to see her in command. She had been in command before, but this was the first time he really noticed.

From his position, no one would notice him. He had found a spot to observe from that was high and the sun was to his back. If any one did look up, they still wouldn't see him due to the blinding sun.

Wiping the sweat from his face, his eyes locked on the group's leader. She would walk along the line of soldiers watching their form and technique. Once and a while she would stop a soldier and spar. When the soldier failed to fend off all her attacks, she would send them back to town. She did this until she faced the final one.

As with all the others, the woman fell before her. He watched as she shook her head as the final soldier retreated. It would seem that none of the recruits were up to her standards. She stood there alone and returned her daggers to their place on her back. Crossing her arms, she rested her chin under her scarf and closed her eyes. He could see the disappointment on her face.

She kept this stance for a couple of minutes before she walked back in Surferio's direction. He could do nothing but watch her leave. For a brief moment, when she was the only one left, he didn't feel so alone anymore. For a brief moment, his torment had stopped long enough for him to observe life beyond himself.

Once she was out of sight, he climbed off the rock mound and made his way back into the caves. He had already made his camp for the night and the dusk was quickly approaching. He stopped at the entrance to the sandy fields and let his eyes wonder over the dreary scene.

Hope had not been kind to him. But somewhere out there among the dead, there was life. Plants and animals had adapted to live in the desert. There was life in a place marked for death. Perhaps then there was hope for his blackened heart. As his soul cried for release, he sheltered himself from further thoughts. He had much to ponder before he could reach his destination. He had to find what he sought first, before he could clearly see his way.

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That night his dreams twisted form and shape from one fathom to the next. His former foe of fire would appear only to be replaced by another foe – darkness. In his dreams he was trapped in a darkness that was broken only from time to time by various sounds.

"You did this," the phantom voice of his father would chant.

"Truly a disappointment," the phantom voice of his mother would add.

These voices would repeat their words nonstop soon to be joined by other voices from the dead. The sounds of cries his wounded men would issue before death took them added to the chorus. The screams of those he killed in war would ring through the jumbled song.

In the darkness he was surrounded by death.

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It had been a week since he had first stepped foot in the desert. A week and his time was up. He would have to return to Airyglyph and perform his duties until he could take another leave. The week had given him only time to think. Time to ponder and wonder. And a really dark suntan. His time had been spent in the desert and thanks to the gel he had packed; he was tanned and not burnt.

He neared the trading town of Peterny and paused. Normally he would walk right through, or around it, but this time he felt an uncanny urge to linger. He dropped this bag and set to the preparations.

To start, he removed his claw. Thanks to his journeys in the stars, he was given his arm back. After returning home, he had a new claw fashioned to fit over the regenerated limb. Not only did the claw help to define him, it had become a part of him. He was only slightly surprised by the loss he felt without it.

He grimaced at his arm. His right arm had deepened its hue. During his time in the sun he had removed the sleeves from his arm to lessen the heat. Now his left arm was the counter to his right.

He mentally shrugged it off and placed the claw in his bag after removing a light cloak. After the cloth was in place he donned the hood and lifted the bag. For once he didn't want to draw attention to himself or to who he was. It was unexplainable but unavoidable. He felt somewhat childish, but also shrugged that off. In his current mental state not much made sense and he was growing tired of trying to figure it out.

He entered the town and walked straight to the pub. After a week of living on rations, he was ready for a full meal and some mead. He was irritated. He never expected to gain his answers in just one week, but he felt he had yet to even put the smallest of dents in his search.

Determined not to draw attention to himself, he forced himself to enter the pub in a civilized manner. He felt like throwing the doors open and biting off the head of the first person to speak to him. His anger generated from his frustration and his frustration generated from his depression. And his depression generated from his inability to understand himself.

He scanned the room and noticed that only one table was not taken. One table was all he needed and he didn't care. As long as he was able to get his food and drink, not much else mattered. He sat and when asked for his order he was direct, talking only when necessary. The waitress had tried to lure him into conversation by asking where he was from, but one growl and she had decided against any further questions.

He had his hands on the table before him and focused his attention on them until his food had arrived. He began to wonder why he had wanted the meal in the first place. The food before him didn't appeal to him any longer.

He picked at his plate, and after a few bites he gave up. The food was bland and every bite sickened him. He knew there was nothing wrong with the meal. Nothing to warrant his nausea. This was a result of his 'condition'. He pushed the plate to the side and took a sip of his drink. Thanks to his lack of taste, the alcohol gave no sting as it slid down his throat.

He sat with the cup in front of him as he stared aimlessly into the dark liquid. The noise of his surrounding buzzed in his ears. He was reminded that life was still being lived and that things don't stop because of just one man. His somberness weighed on him like a ton of bricks. His shoulders physically slumped under the mental pressure.

Then a familiar voice caught his ear. He turned slightly and peered around the rim of his hood. He had been correct and at the next table over sat none other than Nel Zelpher herself.

He watched with mild amusement, only able to see the side of her face when she turned to respond to someone at her table. He could hear her voice, but her words were incoherent. He didn't try to hear what she said; he simply sat motionless and let the sound of her voice calm him.

He nearly jerked out of his seat at his thoughts. Her voice could calm him. After a week of being alone with no distraction, why was it that just the sound of her voice could have such an effect? He turned back to his cup and drained the remainder of the liquid with one gulp.

"Excuse me sir. Is the meal not to your liking?"

Albel lifted his gaze only slightly to the waitress. "It's fine," he mumbled.

"Then perhaps you would like your cup refilled?"

He answered her by pushing his cup out from him. Once it was refilled she left.

"No." The voice from the table beside him caught his ear again.

Her voice again. He allowed his eyes to wonder back to their pervious activity of watching her.

"Lady Nel, what was it like to be among the stars?"

Nel turned to look at the soldier. "I would rather not speak of that now."

He could clearly identify the discontent in her voice. For an instant he felt she understood. Perhaps he was not the only one affected by the truth. But then again, he had never been a religious man. He didn't feel empty in the absence of a god. He felt empty in the absence of…he wasn't sure what he lacked. That's why he had burdened himself with his search.

He guzzled down his drink and left the pub. The night had been long and for the first time in a week he would sleep in a bed and not on the hard ground. He almost felt he was allowing himself too much. He had taken refuge in his own self inflicted punishment. But he knew too many questions would rise if he returned Airyglyph and was found sleeping on the floor. He had to work himself back enough to at least fool everyone to believe that nothing was wrong.

The bed he would sleep in tonight was just another way to act through the show he would have to put on.

End Chapter One


Blue thought: Yeah, re-reading that it sure sounds really depressing to me. Well, I'm going to take a chance and put it up anyway. Like I said, this will be an Alnel fic. It won't all be as depressing though.