Zieg was on his back, blinking against the spots that swarmed his vision, when Kanzas's voice sounded in his head, as clear as it'd been before he'd been a rock for apparently several thousand years. You have fucking terrible taste in women, Zieg. All the women in Vellweb literally throwing themselves at you, and you pick the ones that can kick your ass in a fight.

The blond man eyed the girl who'd knocked him flat – small, kinda cute, and in no way letting on that she had a right-hook like he hadn't felt since the last time he'd sparred with the man currently starring in his delusions – and disagreed. Sorry, sweet and saintly isn't really my type. Besides, I'm pretty sure Shirley could have killed you from a lot greater distance than arm's-length.

A light kick to his ribs summoned Zieg back from his conversation with a dead man, and he looked up to see the woman's face hovering above his own. "Leave me alone, or else you'll get more from where that came from." He watched her stalk off, shoulders held stiff and guarded.

When she was out of sight, Zieg climbed stiffly to his feet. It felt like he was still half-petrified, his joints and muscles not responding with the fluidity that he was used to. He'd tried to dodge out of the way of the short girl's attack, but his body just wasn't keeping up with his battle instincts. "Why'd she have to try and hit me, anyways? 'S not like I was doing anything."

Shirley's laugh rang bellike against his thoughts. Zieg, you were following her. You asked for it.

The girl been staying at the same inn in Bale that he had, and there was something about her that struck a chord in him. Maybe it was that she looked just as lost as he felt, just as unsure of where she should go or what she should do. He was curious. And honestly, it wasn't like he had anything better to do. Left to his own devices, he just talked to the dead people in his head, and Zieg was pretty sure that wasn't exactly healthy. So he'd followed her when she left, and they'd made it to a forest outside the city before she'd turned around and decked him.

He kept a greater distance between them then, telling himself (and his hallucinations) that he wasn't following her – they were simply on the same road. They had nearly made it to some tiny hamlet called Hoax, the halfway point between Bale and Lohan, when Zieg noticed that the girl had stopped to fight off a flying monster of some sort. The other creatures that accosted her had been dispatched with ease, but this one seemed to be giving her some trouble.

As he closed the gap between them, Zieg recognized the bird-monster attacking her. It looked a little different – smaller, maybe – but it was without a doubt one of the magically-engineered birds that the Winglies had created to scout out Dragoons. They were Wingly-quick, almost impossible for a normal human to land a hit on. Even if you got lucky and managed to hit one, they were surrounded by a magical field that absorbed almost all damage, even from a Dragoon. They were relentless in their attacking of normal humans, but once they sensed even a dormant Dragoon spirit, they were programmed to flee and alert their Wingly masters to the Dragoon's whereabouts.

Zieg fervently hoped that they hadn't changed enough to lose that part of their programming. The woman was bleeding from multiple wounds, but was still doggedly trying to hit the thing. If it wouldn't run, they'd have to, and that would likely require use of his Dragoon spirit. If there was anything that screamed "Oh hey, look at me, I'm a freak of nature," it was bursting into flames and growing wings. He rushed the bird as best he could, sword drawn and joints screaming in pain.

The bird shrieked in alarm as his sword grazed its left leg, and abruptly whirled, winging north with all haste. Zieg wasn't sure where it was headed – as far as this world was concerned, the Winglies were all long gone. Instead he turned to the bleeding woman at his side, dug a potion from his pack, and handed it to her. "Hey, are you alright?"

She bit the wax stopper off the bottle and downed the potion. "Thanks. There are certain mixtures of herbs that are apparently poisonous to those things, but I ran out on my way to the Continent. That one was nothing compared to the one that attacked the boat I took from my home. How'd you get it to run like that?"

Zieg shrugged. "Just dumb luck, I guess." He tried for a guileless innocent smile.

The woman's lifted eyebrows made it clear that she wasn't buying it. "Well, in any case, I appreciate it. I'm Claire."

He extended a hand. "Zieg. You're not going to punch me again, are you?"

Zieg could practically hear Syuveil snort and roll his eyes. Smooth, commander. Smooth. Zieg ignored him.

Claire shot him a wary look. "That depends on you. Are you going to keep following me?"

"Worked out pretty good so far, didn't it? Maybe we should stick together."

"How do you even know that we're going to the same place?"

"We-ell, unless you'd intended on settling down in some village, this road leads to Lohan. From what I hear, there's some sort of festival and tournament there right now. Why don't we travel together that far, and then we'll see what happens after that. Deal?" Zieg held out his right hand, a friendly smile plastered all over his face.

Claire dragged a hand through her hair and shrugged. "Fine. See if you can keep up, old man." She waved over her shoulder as she started walking.

Zieg's longer strides quickly closed the gap between them. "So. You're an islander, then?"

The woman shot him a confused look. "What are you talking about?"

"You mentioned taking a boat from your home to 'the Continent.'"

She winced and mouthed a curse, then turned her head and fixed her gaze firmly to the road ahead.

Zieg raised his eyebrows. "Sore subject, then. Alright, I won't ask again." He shot his new travelling companion a sideways look. Small, dark, lean, and possessed of an alarming tendency to solve problems with her fists – Kanzas would be so pleased to know that his homeland hadn't changed much. Claire was athletically-built, with more muscle than curve, but what curves were there were nicely shaped. He was subtly admiring a few of those feminine attributes when Damia's quiet voice filtered through his thoughts like sunlight through water. What about Rose?

His eyes closed briefly, but snapped open as soon as the image of a pale, distraught face began to coalesce in his mind's eye. She's dead. Dead and gone.

Belzac's deep bass rumbled in his skull. So are we.

Zieg straighted his shoulders and lifted his chin. He and Claire spent the rest of their trip to Lohan in silence.

"The Hero Competition! If you're a daredevil, one of those live-fast, die-young types, sign up here! Test your might against the most powerful men in Endiness!"

The smell of blood and sweat and fear assaulted Zieg's nostrils as soon as he walked into the arena. The roar of the crowd thundered in his ears. Apparently the preliminary rounds of the 'Hero Competition' were well underway. He'd no idea what the tournament entailed when he'd mentioned it to Claire – sparring, perhaps, or fighting monsters. The very idea of the arena made him feel sick; the first-blood tournament was a far cry from the deathmatches of Kadessa, but it was still blood and violence the crowd was delighting in. Only this time, it was his fellow humans in the crowds, and willing humans fighting for 'glory,' all with children playing festival games right outside of the arena where men were bleeding. He swallowed hard and shook his head.

"So, you going to fight in that tournament or what? I think they're still taking sign-ups." Claire was wide-eyed and nervous about the crowds, Zieg could tell, but she'd decided to play it cool and pretend otherwise. He let her have her facade.

"No." He turned and stalked out of the arena, shoulders stiff. Half-running footsteps caught up to him halfway back to the bar, and a hand grabbed his forearm. His muscles bunched and twitched under Claire's hand, but he narrowly managed to keep from throwing her into the nearest food cart.

"This isn't what you came here for?" Claire's eyebrows were bunched and furrowed, disbelief in her dark eyes. "You mentioned this on your way here, and you obviously know how to use that thing," she waved at the sword sheathed at his side, "so I thought..."

Zieg sighed and shook his head. "It's not what I thought it'd be." I didn't think my own people, free of bondage, could be as bloodthirsty as Winglies. I thought we were better than that, than them. I thought that we would have peace. "I need a drink. Care to join me?"

He started back again, hearing a muffled curse and footsteps trailing after him.

The bar was nearly empty, so Zieg bought a bottle of whiskey and plunked himself down at a table with a sigh. Another sigh echoed in his head, one that sounded somehow fond and disappointed at the same time. Drinking again, Zieg? Her voice was shadowy and distant, and dammit why couldn't he remember what she'd sounded like?

"Shut it, Rose," he muttered under his breath.

"Who's Rose?" Claire was looking at him like he'd grown a second head – and maybe he had, being petrified for 11,000 years probably had its drawbacks – but he just shook his first head and took a pull straight from the bottle.

"...Riiight then. I'll go get us some glasses." She slipped off to the counter, and he eyed her ass as she left. Very nice, really.

She slammed the glasses on the table and took the bottle away with probably more force than was necessary. She filled both glasses, drained her own, and filled it again. "Okay buddy, what's your deal, anyways?"

Zieg glowered at her for a minute. "I dunno, what's yours?" He took advantage of her surprised blinking to grab the bottle and flee to the roof.

He was looking out at Lohan, his legs dangling off the roof and only a couple of fingers' width of whiskey left in the bottle when Claire came trudging up the steps. I could never hear Rose coming. It was like she walked on air.

He opened his mouth to tell her to fuck off when the words came tumbling out of his mouth, unbidden. "I was a soldier. I fought in a war for a cause I believed in, and now everyone I ever loved is dead."

She settled herself on the roof next to him, pulling his bottle from a mostly-unresisting hand. "Did you win?"

"Yeah...I guess so...We wanted to change the world, and we did. But I was their leader, and I sent them to their deaths."

"So you're feeling guilty for making it when they didn't?" The world was covered in a pleasant sort of haze, and it didn't hurt quite so bad as it had before, so he nodded and flopped back on the roof.

"Did you kill them? With your own bare hands, did you kill them?" Her chin was lifted, jaw set, but he thought he saw her hand tremble as she raised the bottle to her lips. Was probably the booze, though. Everything was a little swimmy.

"...What? I mean, I guess not...I as good as killed them, though -" Don't be stupid, Zieg. He blinked – he wasn't sure whose voice that was supposed to be. Sounded like it might've been all of them.

"No. If you didn't do the thing yourself, then you have nothing to feel guilty about. They were fighting of their own volition, weren't they? They chose to be there?"

"Yes..." They'd all joined by their own will – except Kanzas, but he had chosen to stay with Shirley, so it was damn near the same thing.

"Then stop fucking blaming yourself. You do nothing but dishonor their sacrifice by refusing to live in the world that you fought to change." Her voice was acid-harsh, and her eyes looked watery. She swallowed hard and shoved the bottle at him. "Stay up here and mope if you want. I'm leaving tomorrow for Tiberoa. You can come, if you're not too hung over. Or fell off the roof in a drunken stupor."

Zieg pulled himself back into a sitting position, eyed the alcohol left in the bottle, and drained it before dropping the now-empty bottle off the roof to the ground below. It shattered and shone back up at him. He barely managed to clamor to his feet and back into the inn – falling off the roof sounded counterproductive to that whole "living in the world" shit.

The bar was full of hotshots bragging about battle scars and how many men they'd beaten that day. It filled him with a perverse sense of amusement – he had escaped a life of fighting in an arena to fight in a war to allow his fellow man to fight each other in the arena. It was kind of ironic, if you thought about it like that. Zieg slumped onto a barstool and laughed until he cried, at which point the bartender had him hauled off to his room.

He woke up the next morning to a boot nudging him in the ribs and the floor underneath him sticky with drool. "Rise and shine, old man. We've got walkin' to do today."

Zieg cracked open an eye and stared up at Claire. Her uncaring mask was firmly back in place, but if she really didn't care, why was she waking him up? She played tough, but there was a vunerable girl buried not so deeply under that skin, and he was really curious to know what her story was. She knew part of his, after all – it was only fair.

For good or ill, she was the only person he knew on this whole damn planet, and he'd probably feel like shit if he let her down. Easier to drag himself to his feet and out the door than face another one of her right hooks.

"Gods above, why is it so goddamned bright out?"

"It's called a hangover, Zieg. It's your body telling you that you were an idiot last night."

"I see you're doing just fucking fine."

"I can hold my liquor. Unlike some people."

He was beginning to think her mouth was more dangerous than her fist.