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Create n' Share / Everything I've Written on the Forum
« on: November 02, 2018, 06:09:33 am »
So, I've spent like four years of my life on this godforsaken forum and while I did enjoy my time, I felt like I should dump the things I said I'd write but never did. A sort of cathartic act if you will.

Really, this place let be develop my favorite characters of my own. Azami and Victoria would never be as well developed as they are without this hellhole. And I know like two people read my MRPG fic but Anastasia and Jun and Karima have some of my favorite ideas at the moment.

Anyway, here. Have some of my trash writing, along with some comments on my intentions and opinions on how they stand today.

Feel free to ask me questions or whatever if ya want.



Adeptus Evangelion

The Lewd Fanfic that never was

So I started writing an 18+ AdEva fanfic in 2016 to practice erotic fiction. I only ever got finished the lead ins to the actual sex scenes for Taku and Phil's sections, but I'll keep what else I have.

This is completely raw draft one stuff. More of a curiosity than anything else.

Prologue

It was a merry day. The former NERV Pilots, retired from their service and now in much more mundane jobs, had come to a local bar to celebrate a truly special occasion. Drinks were set upon the table with plates of food to accompany them. A cake was half-eaten, homemade and delicious. Yuki set a sneaker onto the table, raised her glass up high and shouted loudly. “All right! Now that I’m an adult, I can do whatever I want!”

“As long as your restricting corporate contract allows it,” Phillip added, uncapping the whiskey bottle in his hand. “You’re not free yet, Minase.”

“Freer than some,” Elidia said and set her head against the booth’s padding. “Childbirth is painful… I don’t wanna get pregnant…”

Azami sipped her cola. She was the designated driver. “While childbirth is painful, the female mind is designed to forget the pain of childbirth after the event so that the mother may produce further-”

“I know the science, Azami.” She waved her hand at the woman. “You’re not getting my point.”

Kurumi raised a finger as she proceeded to speak. “Well, you know, Elidia, children are great! I can’t wait to have a boy, or maybe a girl…” She tugged on Takumi’s sleeve. “I want kids, Takumi~”

Takumi’s eyes proceeded to turn into cartoonish spirals and spin incessantly. “I think Kurumi-san is drunk, mina-san…” Kids… oh God…

Steiner tapped the table, swirling his glass. “You know, all of us might have been rendered infertile by being Pilots, right? Well… except for Elidia…” He covered a blush with his hand and proceeded to down the entire glass. “Anyway, we should probably ask someone about that.”

Elidia looked up at the ceiling, resting her head against her arms as she thought aloud. “Mathias probably wants us all to fuck like rabbits… The whole point was kids, after all.”

A knock came on the other side of the Japanese style curtain that blocked their private room out from the rest of the bar. Everyone looked, only for Michiko’s head to poke out through the curtain. “Oh, this is where you all are.” She smiled. “Hello, everybody~”

Yuki dove towards her, wrapped her arms around Michiko’s neck and dragged her into a seat on the table. “Michiko~ I didn’t invite you because this was supposed to be for the Pilots~ But then Takumi brought Kurumi and I couldn’t say no~”

Michiko tried to pry Yuki away from her, laughing a bit nervously. “Yuki-san, are… are you drunk?”

Azami noted that Michiko was now sitting next to Phillip. She also noted that she had put on a nice dress and really dolled herself up. She narrowed her eyes and proceeded to nudge Phillip in the ribs. He shook his head at her. She rolled her eyes at him.

When Michiko, with Elidia’s help, was finally able to drag Yuki away, Michiko cleared her throat. “Oh, I brought someone else. Well, two people, really.”

Another knock came and someone else shoved their head through the curtain. Victoria, who smiled. “So this is where you kids were. You left me behind there, Michiko.” She settled down beside Azami, set her feet on the table, and pulled out her phone. “Oh, I also brought Rabbit.”

The AI girl showed up on Victoria’s phone, clad in a maid uniform and beaming. “Hello~”

Steiner coughed violently, pulling his drink away from his face. “Rabbit?”

She smiled at him. “Hello, Steiner.”

Phillip looked at Victoria, who was now sitting next to Azami. He noted that Victoria was wearing some sort of biker jacket and was not wearing any makeup. He nudged Azami in the ribs. She shook her head at him. “Not the same, Phillip.”

“How is it not the same thing?”

Azami looked around, making sure that everyone else had begun to engage in their own conversations, before she leaned in toward Phillip. “You see, Phillip… Michiko here dressed up because she wants you to be romantic with her, treat her nicely, and then maybe take her home, kiss a little and then have sex. Victoria simply wants to have a good and silly time outside before we fuck.”

Phillip narrowed his eyes. “I’m still not seeing a difference, Azami.”

“The difference is you have a lot more work to do, my friend.”

Takumi poured Yuki another drink. “Imouto-chan… Tell me, are Elidia and you more than just friends?”

Yuki delivered a swift and tactical karate chop to Takumi’s head. “You’re too lewd, Taku. You should spend more time treating Kurumi right! When’s the last time you went on a date?”


Takumi rubbed the top of his head. Ow. “Last week…”

“You should have went on a date today! You couldn’t miss my party, though, but you still should have went on a date!” She began to chug the contents of her cup. Takumi just messed up her hair. She sure was crazy. Everyone was…

Elidia nudged Steiner, to which he jumped up and nearly spilled his cup. “What is it, Elidia?” he said, nervously.

“Are you interested in White Rabbit?”

Steiner proceeded to spit out the entirety of his drink. “What!?”

“That’s sad, Steiner.”

Victoria got Kurumi and Michiko’s attention while their prospective dates were distracted. “So, what’s with you Japanese girls and dating bad boys?”

Michiko tapped her chin. “Well, Phillip’s really just a big softie underneath it all.”

Kurumi nodded. “And Takumi’s not a ‘bad boy’, he’s just a little eccentric, but he’s got a soft side too…”

For a moment, both Michiko and Kurumi looked at one another and then spoke in unison. “Aren’t you just a bad boy with a soft side too?”

Victoria paused for a moment, looked at herself and then looked up. “I guess the dynamic is really popular.”



When the evening had finally wound down, and enough people were drunk or just plain wanted to go home, Azami stood up. “Okay, I’m driving people home. No more pouring new drinks.” Once everyone had finished what was still in their mugs and cups and the tab was paid, everyone went and loaded themselves into their respective vehicles and went their separate ways…

Takumi and Kurumi
It was dark. Kurumi had came up with the idea of driving out to the countryside. Out here, away from the lights of Tokyo-3, and their lives in it, it was bright. The stars lit up everything, like Kurumi’s face when Takumi glanced over. She was radiant. To Takumi, she was brighter than all the stars in the sky tonight.

God, did he love her so much.

They were snuggled up on the roof ofof Takumi’s car, a bright red relic. His arm was was around her, while her hands were sneaking small deliberate touches against his chest. He still wore that stupid coat, after all how could he part with it, and it provided more than enough of a cushion for both of them against the hard metal of the car. One of the nice things, though, of being out here was they could speak Japanese to each other. Goodness did that make things easier.

“Takumi…” she said, tracing a circle against his abdomen. “I didn’t mean to scare you when I brought up having kids…”

“You didn’t surprise me, Kurumi-san… I was just surprised.” That was true enough. He had been surprised. What did having kids mean? They’d have to buy a house, make sure the house was baby proofed, build a nursery… Were they even ready for that kind of commitment? He didn’t know what they were ready for… He barely knew where they were standing.

“Do you want to have kids… eventually?” She was pouting slightly, and drawing tiny circles against his chest with her finger. Obviously, she’d be disappointed if he said no, but could he say yes? If he said yes, what did that mean for them? Would they just have to have kids? He sighed. Everyone else seemed to have this thing figured out. Azami had practically been dating Victoria for forever. Phillip knew what he wanted in a relationship. Elidia and Yuki didn’t seem to care about this sort of thing. They’d use some sort of technobabble for children so it didn’t matter to talk about it yet… It used to be so easy with Kurumi. All they would think about is survival, or being kids and having fun, but now they were adults. People expected them to have adult lives…

“I…” He swallowed. “I don’t know. Maybe, later. I don’t know when.” He blurted it out. “I’m scared.”

Kurumi wrapped her arms around him and held him tightly. “I’m here, Takumi.”

“I don’t want to ruin what we have, and I don’t know what we’re ready for, and I don’t know what you want.” He was calm. These were all just facts. “I just don’t know. I don’t know what the future is and… we never had to think about it before.”
She came in close and kissed him. He kissed her back. He couldn’t help but feel like their relationship was fragile. The uncertainty pained him to no end. When they finally pulled away, Kurumi paused, pushed away some of his hair and rested her forehead against his. “I want to get married,” she said.

“Oh,” was his reply. He blinked, suddenly realizing that when she had been talking about having kids, that was not what she had actually meant. She had been gauging him, trying to figure out what he would say to this question. It was so obvious! He would smack himself on the forehead, but it was moderately impossible at the current moment. “Why didn’t you just tell me?”

“Azami said you were ‘too stupid to read through the lines’, but I guess I just wanted to see. I’ve loved you for so long, and… sometimes I think about you and it keeps me up at night. I can never get to sleep.” She looked down, tugged at one of her fingers idly and then looked back up at him. “Could you keep me company tonight?”

Takumi definitely wasn’t that stupid.I do too,” he finally told her.

“You love me, right, Takumi…?” She was very nervous now.

“Of course.” He made sure to say it plainly. “I love you.”

“Can you show me how much you love me…?” Takumi blinked. Oh boy. Oh… boy.

Phillip and Michiko

The park they found themselves in was mostly dark, lit only by several lamps strewn about the grounds. They were about a block away from Michiko’s house, but Michiko had insisted that they come out here, something about the atmosphere of a playground at night. Phillip didn’t understand it. Playgrounds were stupid. They were good from hiding from a gang of people when there were too many to fight head on, but other than that, what was the point? It was for children. He was no child, at least not anymore.

Michiko sat on a swing, sipping coffee from a can. They had passed a vending machine on the way. Phillip stood, tossing pebbles and larger rocks into the nearby pondpond, sometimes trying to skip them and other times just trying to make the largest splash he could.

Michiko twirled her hair idly. She had heard Azami and Phillip’s entire conversation. If he already knew what her plan was, why was he being so standoffish? She could never tell what he was thinking. Sometimes he would do something nice and other times he would be cold. Why’d she have to fall in love with him. Why couldn’t she fall in love with someone more normal…

Phillip pulled his arm back to throw another rock but stopped, pulled his hand back to his chest and then dropped the rock. He had waited long enough, he thought, beginning to walk over to Michiko. She looked at him, confused when he stopped and offered her his hand. Slowly, she set the can of coffee down and set her hand into his.

He pulled her up onto her feet, set one of his hands onto her waist and then the other lifted up her hand. He began to guide her through a dance. Michiko giggled and Phillip suppressed any sort of smile that might happen upon his face. He did these things not because he enjoyed dancing but because iMichiko enjoyed doing these things with him. He had heard Takumi go on and on about the importance of simply doing something with the person you love, no matter what it was.

They stopped and Phillip held Michiko close. Michiko laid her head against his shoulder, resting her hands on his chest. “I didn’t think you would,” she said to him.

“I love you,” he said quietly. “But I also want you.” His tone was hungry. “The rest of them will dance around their feelings for ages, but I’ll just tell you. Your body, the way you speak and the way you move… It excites me. When you were an idol, I didn’t want all those men looking at you. I don’t want to share you, especially not with people that don’t deserve you.”

She set her hand onto his jaw and ran her thumb against his cheek. “I know. I saw. But now I’m here for you. I want you to do dirty things to me. I want you to show me how much I mean to you.” He supposed that was good enough advice. What the woman wanted was the most important part of the relationship.

“I thought you were just being thick headed,” Michiko said.

“I'm not stupid,” he said. “I would have done this even without everyone breathing down my neck.” It was somewhat true. He would have done something, but he really was lost in this whole mess. Everyone else seemed to have it figured out, so he had to see what all their damn advice was, even if he didn't like listening to it.

“You would have done it anyway?” she looked a bit suspicious of the notion, and perhaps was beginning to question whether or not this atypical romance was being guided by their hand or the hand of the rest of the group. “When you first asked me out, you were so nervous. I could even see Takumi and Azami holding back Yuki from running out when you finally asked me.”

Phillip remembered the lecture Yuki had given him after. Not that he had listened. “I don't need them to tell me what to do.” In fact, he’d prove it to Michiko. Right here, and right now. He began to unfasten his belt buckle.

“W-what are you doing?” Michiko asked as Phillip unbuttoned his pants.

“I'll show you I can make my own decisions.”

“Now!?”

“Obviously.”

“O-okay.” Outside was less than optimal, but if it was going to happen, she wasn't really going to complain.

A few moments later, they were both behind the park’s shed. Phillip had spun Michiko around and set her against the wall. He wasted no time in stripping her of her skirt and delicately began to rub her through her panties. With a lustful hunger, he kissed at her neck. Michiko tensed, feeling her toes begin to curl. This lustfulness was very typical of Phillip. Michiko liked it, though. Most would say it was an example of the negative aspects of their relationship, but Michiko would disagree. It was a lust built out of the romance, even if it didn't look like it.

Phillip whispered in her ear. “Be careful what you wish for…”


Elidia and Yuki

Yuki may have overdone it. It wasn't really her fault per se, but more of a result of societal and personal expectations of the event. Finally getting to the point where she could drink was a big thing, right? So she obviously was expected to make the most of it. It was the Japanese way, afterall. You had to drink loads at company outings. It was just proper. Yuki was, however, smart enough to keep her drunk self in check and not make a scene. She sighed. Just a little bit more and she would be free of the idol scene and then, well, she'd probably move into something more traditionally corporate, as idols often do.

Right now, though, she was a little uneasy. Elidia was helping her into her apartment. Yuki was incredibly lucky to have Elidia by her side, and incredibly lucky in this particular instance that Elidia didn't like drinking; Elidia was practically a vegan afterall. Takumi might think that was really weird, but Yuki didn't care. That kind of thing didn't matter. Wasn't it more important to be a good friend? Or, well, a good… girlfriend…

It was all mostly under wraps right now. They hadn't figured out how it would all work out yet, and plus Yuki was still an idol, and if that sort of thing became public, it would just be a big hassle for both of them. There was already enough press coverage for the both of them because of Yuki being an idol and Elidia’s Manufactured nature. Adding more was just worse…

Elidia set Yuki down at her dining table and then turned away to pour Yuki a glass of water. She set it down in front of her and with her other hand, ran her fingers through Yuki’s hair. Yuki simply sighed peacefully and set her head against Elidia’s chest. “Eli… We should tell them.”

“We can't. Someone else will find out and then…” She left the rest unsaid. “We just can't.”

“Why not just… I don't know… Azami? She wouldn't tell anyone! She wouldn't even tell her girlfriend, I bet.”

Elidia shook her head, gently brushing Yuki’s hair with her fingers. “Azami doesn't understand.”

“Who would? Mathias?”

Elidia didn't want to go there. “No.”

Steiner and Rabbit
Steiner entered his apartment and proceeded to faceplant into his mattress. He was rather tired, and honestly, having to get up and work tomorrow was not looking very appealing.


Years Hence
This was an interesting one to write. Originally it was supposed to be a much darker thing, where Azami betrays everyone for her own ends. I had originally written a scene where Azami drowns Elidia on a pier, but I decided to ultimately change course with this one as an exploration of my own character's growth from the AdEva prologue to where we ended up.

In short, blame Merne.

Forum Thread

Wahrheit
This one was highly experimental. The overall goal was to try and explore a what if future scenario separate from Years Hence where the world hasn't quite moved on like in Years Hence, but where the world is in that transitional phase between war and peace.

It may have also been to try and get Elvis to keep doing his Fate thingy.

Forum Thread



Maid RPG

Sisters and Daughters

I found this one to be one of the most personally fulfilling works I've done in a very long time. Given the prompt of "male maids" I went about trying to explore the power structures in a world where patriarchy still exists, but there is a specific female warrior class. If there is something I'm not too thrilled about would be my handling of transgenderism in the overall narrative. I feel like I could do a much better job now.

The original forum post
Hey, I finished my story. Only took three grueling, painful weeks, and I've only done one full reread and edit, so there might be a million grammatical errors! Who knows~

Content warning for, as one may expect, transphobia, homophobia, drug references, violence and sex, I guess.

And this story is 25323 words or 54 pages on Google Docs.

Part One
In the dank, disgusting darkness under Akkierens, things were moving. Pipes rattled every time a boot hit concrete, every time a box was set down, and every time a forklift stopped. There was a faint layer of cigarette smoke surrounding the whole operation. Several of the guards sat around a metal table, pistols, rifles and shotguns but an arm’s reach away as they tried to read the faces of their poker opponents. “Why the fuck do we even need to be here,” one of them said aloud. “When’s the last time one of those fuckwit Maids actually tried to hit us?”

“Last week, dumbass,” said another and tried to snub out his cigarette on the other’s hand. “Rick here nearly got himself killed by one and now he’s taken up Predator.”

“I thought you were already taking the stuff, man. You’re already built like a tank.”

The tank in question cracked his knuckles and growled. “When I see one of those skirts again I’m going to tear her apart…” They all laughed. All of them had their reasons to oppose the Lyceum and the Administration. Hate, revenge, money… the exacts didn’t matter, Apocrypha took everyone in. The game went on, money exchanged hands, laughs and glares were exchanged.

Another pause. One of them pointed to the corner of the room where a young girl was chained up. “The fuck’s her deal?”

“That’s a boy, ‘cept he’s taking estrogen or progesterone or whatever the hell they caught him trying to steal. I heard kids take that stuff to try and become Maids.”

“Is he trans or something?” The entire table glared at the speaker.

“‘Trans’? Are you gay or something?”

“What? No! Fuck you, man!” He stood up, turned toward the girl in the corner and picked up his pistol. He clicked the safety off and started to advance. “Why’s the boss got you cuffed?” The girl looked up at him, blew her hair away from her eyes and stared at him. He didn’t notice it for a moment, but slowly her eyes began to glow a faint blue. The guard dropped his gun. “What the fuck? What the fuck! He’s a fucking Maid?”

“Exactly,” one of the others said. “Boss wants to find out why so he can get us all jacked up on Adalstier and finally kill all the Maids.”

The scared guard kicked the girl in the ribs, causing her to curl up, before he went back to pick up his gun. “That’s just fucked up, man.” They all went back to the card game, ignoring the girl once again. The trucks continued to be loaded with guns, energy weapons, explosives and their Adalstier counterparts. Sometimes one would leave, sometimes one would come in, but the loading continued. The girl didn’t move. Then, there came a sound from somewhere above them. A reverberating clink. The poker game stopped when the obvious question was asked. One of them picked up their rifle and stepped out, looking up above at the ceiling first and then at the foreman’s office.

“That you guys up there?”

An explosion blasted a piece of the roof onto the rifleman. Someone jumped down, landed smoothly and looked around. As the dust cleared, a woman stood out in the open, her white hair finally falling into place upon her black coat and skirt. The call was given. “Maid!” The Maid lifted her hand, a set of knives suddenly held between her thumb and forefinger. She threw them, tearing through flesh and bone as her knives traveled like flechettes into the bodies of the first set of guards. The shots they did get off, she deflected off her arm, not showing the slightest hint of acknowledgement to the attack. She drew the knives back and they flew back towards her, seemingly magnetically, before she caught them in her hands.

The slab of meat from before, revealed himself from behind one of the trucks, cramming apex into his mouth. “I said I’d kill you, Maid!” He charged forward and the Maid tossed her knives at him, but they only went through him as he kept running. His fist caught her in the chest and she was thrown back, hitting the floor numerous times before reorienting herself and skidding around the floor on her hand and two feet. She cracked her neck, drew her hand back and charged him. He answered the challenge and charged her in return. She aimed for his fist and he aimed for hers. The Maid’s Engine flashed a neon green and when their fists collided, the vivid explosion of bones shattering in the man’s arm reverberated around the entire room. He didn’t seem to feel it, but he looked at his arm, now hanging limp, with the bone sticking out for all to see and he paused. When he did, the Maid advanced upon him, swung her arms back almost as if in a dance and pulled all of her knives back to her through his skull.

During their tangle, the trucks seemed to have packed up and the drivers had begun to climb into their seats and stomp on the acceleration. The Maid only looked to the side, picked up a case of Skadia crystals, leaned down to pick a pistol off the floor and hurled the case forward. She pulled the trigger twice, the case exploded, and the exit collapsed on top of the foremost truck. The passengers of the vehicles all climbed out, pulled out guns or energy weapons and pointed them at her. She wasted no time in rushing forward, tossing her knives, taking the gun from one of them, using it to mow down a section of the guards before discarding it and restarting the process again. In fewer than a minute’s time, the Maid had killed or injured every single person there.

Except for one.

The Maid crouched down beside the girl. “Who are you?” the Maid asked.

“Who wants to know?”

“Anastasia Vasiliev. I’m a Maid. You shouldn’t be here.”

“Neither should you.”



The trip back to the Lyceum was quiet and dark. The APC only had so many internal lights, and the light that penetrated the viewports from the outside was only that of streetlights. Anastasia leaned against the ladder that led to the APC’s main gun, watching the girl. “I need a name. I need to know who you are.”

“I’m nobody,” she said, staring at Anastasia through her bangs. Her hair hid the dark skin of her face and her clothes covered the rest.

“I can’t let you go, but I can protect you from Apocrypha. I know you’re important, otherwise they wouldn’t have bothered with you. They don’t kidnap people for no reason.” The girl didn’t respond. “Or are you hiding from the police? The Lyceum? The Order?”

“The Lyceum and the Order don’t care about anyone else but themselves. You know that.” Anastasia raised an eyebrow. She had struck a nerve then.

“Even if that’s true, the Lyceum and the Order still care about people interfering with their affairs. Did you?” The girl shook her head. “Then what’s the problem here?”

“The Lyceum got my sister killed. They pushed her too far. She couldn’t handle all the Adalstier that got pumped into her body.”

Anastasia took a breath out, looking at the metallic digits of her hand. She knew about that kind of thing firsthand. “Okay, so you don’t want to go to the Lyceum, I get it, but there’s nothing I can do to circumvent it.” The girl looked away from her, but she continued. “The headmistress will want to see you.”

“Of course she does… Doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.” The girl seemed to retreat into herself, muttering quietly to herself. Anastasia sighed.

“Listen, I’m only telling you what’s going to happen. I’m not doing this because I want to, in fact I’d rather not, because then you could go back to whatever it is you were doing before you were picked up my Apocrypha. This is just protocol.”

“I doubt your protocol will hold up when you all realize what I am.” She looked her in the eye.

“And what are you?” Anastasia asked in a slightly mocking tone.

“I can manipulate Adalstier.”

“I can too.”

“I was born male.”

Anastasia nodded her head slowly. “Oh, that is different.”



Anastasia looked up at the Lyceum, eyeing each of the four towers that ascended from the main circular complex. Each of the towers were surrounded by floating circular rings that pulsed softly with the latent Adalstier energy present. This was a place of power, and in a way, Anastasia understood the anger of Apocrypha. This power? It was safeguarded, kept from others. Like a secret society or a cult. She might be in it, and she might have pledged herself like all the other Maids to safeguard the city but other people not born with the gift had more courage than her. How could fate deny people better than her a means to protect what they cared about the most? She sighed and tossed the thought to the side. The headmistress and the deputy headmistress were likely in the central tower right now. Maid Day was long past them, so they weren’t busy with that sort of thing anymore. It was just a normal day at a special school for special children. Anastasia dragged the girl along with her as they entered the Lyceum’s grounds proper. It was mostly parks, paths, gardens, with all of it being meticulously maintained. She turned her head to the girl. “So, are you ever going to tell me your name?”

“It’s Karima, and I’m Aevum, if you were wondering that.”

“Karima?” She nodded to herself. “Nice name. What’s the meaning of it?”

Karima rolled her eyes. “Generous. Noble. What about you?”

“Reborn. Resurrection.”

“Fitting, considering you’re sixty percent metal.” She smiled smugly at her. “So, you’re not Aevum, but you broke that guy’s arm like it was nothing. How’d you do it?”

Anastasia put her hand on the girl’s head and messed up her hair. “Like you said, I’m sixty percent metal. All I need is a moment, and suddenly my arm has all the power of a tank behind it.”

Karima smoothed out her hair. “You’re using Cyseince and Vidrein to imitate the effects of Aevum. Interesting.”

Anastasia smiled as they finally entered the Lyceum. “You’re a smart kid.”

“I thought it was obvious.”

They passed through the halls of the Lyceum, walking by classrooms bustling with Maids. Some walked by them, looked at both of them and proceeded to talk in whispers as they began to talk down the hallway faster. “What’s their deal?” Karima asked.

“Well, I’m one of the Maids they’re not supposed to talk to, and you’re an outsider who isn’t wearing a big puffy dress. They do the same thing with boys they don’t know that get into the Lyceum. A rarity, since all the boys they already know here are either middle aged men working as staff or having sex with one of the senior Maids.”

“I thought all the Maids were supposed to be secretly gay.”

“Is that what the pamphlets say these days? I thought everyone was still into butlers.”

The two stepped into an elevator and Anastasia hit a button on the holographic display for the top floor. Gradually, the elevator began to ascend. Karima put her hands in her pockets while Anastasia simply stood there, tapping her foot. They went up to the fifth floor and the door opened. Another Maid walked in, with a head full of flowing red hair and a black overcoat and pants. She leaned against the wall beside Anastasia. “Headmistress wants to talk to you downstairs.” Then she looked at Karima. “Who’s that?”

“New Maid. I have to bring her up first.”

The red haired Maid grinned. “A personal meeting with the headmistress? Damn, you’re one lucky kid.” A look of realization appeared on her face. “Oh, you’re the complication that Ana found. I get it.” She wiped the grin off her face. “Well, hopefully the headmistress doesn’t toss you into prison.” Karima just stared back at her. “No reaction? Huh. Well, you are something then…”

Anastasia got her attention again. “What’s the news on Apocrypha?”

The Maid shrugged. “Recovery team couldn’t seem to pull out anything noteworthy out of the underground warehouse you trashed. Just standard stuff; munitions, weapons, Adalstier crystals.”

“Where do they keep getting that much Adalstier?”

“Your guess is as good as mine. Listen, we can talk about this when you’ve got the kid into the headmistress’ office.”

Anastasia nodded as the elevator door opened, this time at their destination. There was the receptionist at his desk, a camera in the corner, and the two imprints in the roof where the twin high calibre machine guns would drop down and spray any would be intruder or assassin with enough lead to fill a swimming pool. Anastasia nodded to the receptionist and he buzzed them in. Instead of the headmistress sitting behind the desk as Anastasia had thought, it was the deputy headmistress. She gave the two a bright smile. “Why don’t you sit down,” she said to Karima. “The headmistress said she had something very important today, so you’ll just have to put up with me~” She gave a look to Anastasia and she departed immediately, leading Karima and Yuki in the room together.

Karima eyed the deputy headmistress carefully. She didn’t trust anyone with that big a smile, but she sat down nonetheless. She was in the Lyceum now. “What do you want?” she asked Yuki.

“Nothing too much,” she said, lessening her massive grin into a gentle smile. “I’ve just heard that you’re a very special young girl, but a certain someone made it very clear that she couldn’t tell me why.”

“Why don’t you just get Anastasia to tell you. She’s a Maid and you’re the deputy headmistress.”

“I can’t get her to do something she doesn’t want to do, and here at the Lyceum, we trust the judgement of our Sisters.”

Karima grimaced and looked away from the sickly sweet aura Yuki seemed to give off. “Yeah, of course you do.”

Yuki raised her hands and waved them apologetically. “Sorry, I must have struck a tender spot. That wasn’t my intention.” She set her hands down, looking to the side for a moment as she considered her approach. “People like Anastasia have been fighting the terrorist group that kidnapped you for a long time now. They get hurt, they take losses…” The smile was gone now. “If you know anything that could possibly help us… could you please tell us?”

Karima scratched the side of her head. She really couldn’t argue with that. She didn’t like the Lyceum, or a lot of the people in it, but putting down Apocrypha as soon as humanly possible was in the best interest of everyone. People getting hurt on her conscience was bad. “They kidnapped me because I’m a Maid. They want to try and find a way to manipulate Adalstier so they can fight the Lyceum headon.”

“Many people have tried to get boys and men to manipulate Adalstier before. Kidnapping maids is nothing new.”

“Yeah, but I was born a boy.”

Yuki stared at Karima for a pregnant moment. “I guess I understand Anastasia’s surprise. Historically, all the Maids I’ve ever heard of were born girls and died girls.”

Karima leaned forward. “Maybe it’s time things changed.”

Yuki nodded slowly. “Maybe you’re right…”



Anastasia rejoined the red haired Maid in the elevator, setting her Engine against the holographic pad. A moment later, it began to descend. “You sure killed a lot of them, Ana,” she said.

“It’s part of the job, Jun. They’d do the same to us.”

Jun made a shrugging motion. “I don’t judge you for that. You just do it with such brutal efficiency. Most Maids of our calibre don’t even use guns, but here you are taking their weapons and just ripping them to shreds.” She leaned forward, grinning. “Kinda hot.”

Anastasia raised a hand. “Not in the elevator, Jun.”

“What? Do you think some junior Maids are just gonna walk-”

The doors of the elevator opened and two junior Maids walked in. Anastasia and Jun stared blankly forward. One of the maids had light blue hair with two prominent drills, while the other one had pink hair tied up with ribbons. They were both rather short.

“I can’t believe Naurya would say such horrible things about me on the holonet! What nerve! I thought I showed her at the Maid Day ball, but apparently she didn’t get the message! I’ll get her back for this, Pluto. The Avannaas keep going too far! I’ll show her!” They promptly left the elevator, with the pink haired girl nodding politely the whole time.

Jun laughed nervously when Anastasia shot her a glare. “Hey, that doesn’t usually happen.”

Anastasia shook her head. “Was that the d'Avignon girl? Why are there so many nobles this year? Wakefields, Swifts, d'Avignons… You know what that does to the Lyceum? It turns it into a breeding ground for unnecessary politics. We’re about protecting people not worrying about our position in the Order.”

“I’ve heard that most of them don’t actually care all that much about that sort of thing.”

“The Order won’t let them forget about it.”

The elevator finally opened up on their floor and they exited, running their Engines against the scanner to signal their arrival and entering the main meeting room. The room itself was sleek and a polished white. The headmistress was already there looking at holographic screen against the wall, but she didn’t say a word as Anastasia and Jun took a seat at the table with their fellow Maids. Some of them said hello, and some said congratulations on a mission well done. Soon, the lights began to dim and the headmistress finally turned.

“First, I’d like to congratulate Anastasia on a job well done. I’ve heard she secured an important asset, but we’ll discuss that later.” A bit of clapping but then she was onto the next subject. “Something has come up.” Suddenly, a mess of photographs taken from security cameras appeared on the screen. It was all of one person, a young woman with a red masquerade mask covering the top portion of her face. She looked young enough to be a junior Maid. The backgrounds of the pictures seemed to suggest it was some sort of building in downtown Akkierens, likely an office building or something belonging to a corporation.

The headmistress continued. “There is reason to believe this woman is a Maid from our Lyceum.” She shifted the slide to security footage of the woman stepping up to a large security door and blowing it open with a blast from the Engine at her wrist. A Skadia Maid thief.

One of the Maids, clad in a jumpsuit reading “D7” on the shoulder patches raised her hand. “What's so important about what she stole?”

“What she stole was a prototype Skadia reactor. The company in question is First Technologies.” The next slide was of schematics for the device. “They assure us that failure to reacquire this prototype will have disastrous effects for the people of Akkierens. As such, we have to assume the worst.”

“How are we going to find this thing, boss?”

“While First Technologies devises us a means of tracking the energy signature of the reactor, we will have to find this particular Maid. Declaration-7 will be deployed in partners across Akkierens. Several possible targets have been marked, and we need to be in the area when the alarm is raised.”

“Are we working with local security teams?”

She nodded. “We’ve been able to secure the cooperation of numerous companies.” The questions seemed to end there. “You’ll be working with your usual partners. We’ll meet in the hangar at 0800.”

The meeting was dismissed, but Elidia caught Anastasia's eye and beckoned her over. Anastasia looked to Jun. “We’ll talk later,” she said and stood up to walk over to the headmistress.

She was curt and to the point. “Tell me about the girl you found in the Apocrypha warehouse.”

“She’s a Maid. Biologically male. As far as I understand, Apocrypha seemed to want her to find out how she can manipulate Adalstier.”

Elidia nodded. “That’s odd for Apocrypha.”

“I know. They wouldn't leave such a valuable asset so underprotected. Either they don't think they can get anything out of this, or their brass didn't know about her.”

“You delivered her to the Lyceum?”

Anastasia nodded. “She should still be speaking with Deputy Headmistress Minase right now.”

“Good.” Elidia clasped Anastasia on the shoulder. “She’ll be in the care of the Lyceum until we get this sorted. You won't have to deal with her.”

“Understood, Headmistress.” It felt a bit premature, but she supposed it didn't matter.



The Curator looked at Karima suspiciously. “You already have an Engine? How?”

She held the bracelet out. “It's my sister's. She gave it to me before she died.” When he reached out to touch it, she pulled it away from his grasp.

He raised an eyebrow at her and looked at Yuki, to which she shrugged. “Could you tell me what the Engine’s name is?” Karima looked at him silently before she shook her head. “Okay, what about your sister's name?”

“Adira Bishara.”

“That would make you Karima Bishara, am I correct?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay then.” He scratched his head, turned to his terminal and punched the apparently deceased Maid’s name in. “Well, your sister did seem to go here, and she’s written down as deceased… but there’s a large chunk missing. Just blank.” Weird, but he shrugged. “Well, I suppose if both headmistress Elidia and the deputy headmistress are allowing your entrance into the Lyceum then you’re in.” He looked to Yuki when Karima didn't respond.

“Let’s go, Karima. We’ll have to figure out your housing situation.” With that they departed from the Sepulchre.

“What if I don't want to join the Lyceum?”

Yuki seemed taken aback by this. “What do you mean? Everyone wants to be a Maid.”

Karima looked blankly at her. “Why would everyone want to be a Maid?”

“You protect people. You practically become a celebrity. You’re a hero. People look up to you.”

“I don't want to protect people who don't deserve it. People are horrible. I have enough problems inside the barrier, why make the outside my problem?”

Yuki blinked, but slowly nodded. “I see. I remember a Maid that said something similar before. She said that the city was itself the problem and that the Lyceum was defending a 'cancer’, she called it. The headmistress told her that it was not our place to judge what the city did, but the other Maid did not listen. She left Akkierens and some followed her, taking their Engines with them. When the Remnant attacked, we couldn't count on their support, and we lost good people.” She led Karima along the skybridge back into the central block of the Lyceum. “A Maid takes an unspoken oath when they join. They say… 'I am here to dedicate my life to the protection of the city.’ You simply cannot say you’re here for a personal goal, or to learn the secrets of Adalstier manipulation. Being a Maid is about selflessness in all its forms.”

“So, you’re saying I shouldn't join if I don't care about the cause of the Lyceum?”

“Yes, and we’ll have to take your Engine away.”

Karima sighed. The Lyceum was utterly impossible. She didn't care about them, especially not when they didn't care about her or her sister. Of course she didn't want people to die, but trusting the Lyceum or the Administration... She really couldn't. She looked out the massive window of the skybridge out onto the gardens below, trying to get her thoughts in order. Some of the Maids were coming out, with some talking, walking, eating lunch. It was just another normal day in the Lyceum.  To her surprise, she could see Anastasia. She was with the red haired Maid, talking while they walked through the gardens. Anastasia was a weird person, Karima remarked. A deadly and efficient killer for the Lyceum and yet she walked around and talked like she was any other senior Maid. It was enough to make Karima almost forget how they met. Almost. If Karima was going to not join the Lyceum, and if they would even let her leave… she would likely never see Anastasia again. She regarded the thought for a moment. “If I joined the Lyceum, what would happen?”

“You would be issued a room, and you would begin classes immediately.”

“I'll do it then.”

Yuki breathed a sigh of relief. “I’m glad you came to a decision. Let's go then.”



Anastasia awoke in her apartment. It was six and the light filtering through her curtains was dim and dull. She stood up, put the coffee on, cleaned her hair and slipped herself back into her working clothes. Her hand clasped around the area where the metal attached to skin, but she couldn’t feel it, not really. There were a certain amount of allowances from the technology, but it was nothing compared to real nerves sending real genuine signals to her brain. She took her coffee, drank it slowly, put the holonet on, watched something that dampened her neurons and then waited. She didn’t even need to be awake now. She could have slept another hour, and she really didn’t know why she hadn’t. It would have been better for her. The Lyceum often had her awake for long hours. She should have taken the extra hour that was allowed to her.

Eventually Jun came and rang the doorbell. Anastasia answered, locked up, and they walked to the tram station. “Apparently we’re stationed at some security technology firm downtown,” Jun said. “They just finalized discussions with them.”

“At least we’re not stuck in bureaucratic limbo.”

The trip to the Lyceum hangar was quick. The headmistress was already there, giving small briefings to the teams already being sent out in smaller Lyceum transport vehicles. When it came to Anastasia and Jun, however, Elidia simply directed them to the flight pad. “For whatever reason, this company insisted on bringing in their own transport for you two.” She leaned in slightly closer. “Be on your guard.”

Moments later, a very particular Zephyr made its way into the Lyceum hangar and stopped upon the flight pad. It was a sleek model, top of the line, and adorned with ballistic plates. The door was pulled open and a man stepped out. Everyone was watching the pistol at his hip, but he didn't seem to notice or mind. He looked military, with the grim and serious expression on his dark face.

He offered the headmistress his hand and she shook it. “I’m the head of security for DusTec. Mr. Go sends you his regards, but he’ll be meeting with your operatives when they reach the complex. Mr. Go is very conscious of his own security.”

“Of course,” the headmistress replied. “Tell Mr. Go that we appreciate his cooperation.”

“Will do.” He looked to the two Maids. “All right, let's go. We have a schedule to keep.”

All three of them piled into the Zephyr and they took off. Elidia watched them go, and Anastasia caught her shaking her head as the helicopter finally left the Lyceum hangar. With that, it began its steady travel back into the city. Anastasia watched the view from the window.

The head of security caught Jun's attention. “Name’s Simon Ikande.”

Jun replied in a friendly manner. “I'm Jun and my partner is Anastasia. What can we expect from DusTec?”

“Top of the line Adalstier technology still in research and development, or at least that’s what the tagline is.” Simon shrugged. “I just run security, which usually involves making sure researchers and engineers don't try and steal things or drunk and homeless people don’t cause a mess in the lobby…”

“Then why is this thing a flying tank?”

“Mr. Go is a man concerned with appearances. He likes to make himself appear the best in all aspects. If that means pouring money into a security force that doesn't usually see action, then he’ll do it. Except, well, now it seems like it was worth it.”

Jun nodded. “You don't usually deal with Maids, do you?”

“No. Hell, most of us don't even see Maids, except on TVs. I basically work all day every day. But, yeah, a Maid posing a security threat? That’s just unheard of.”

“Trust me on this one, Simon. Maids rarely go rogue, and the one’s that do are put down fast. This person, whoever they are, is an outlier.” Jun didn’t mention how blowing up a high tech security door was also quite odd. “How’s your security operation anyway? You guys got armed guards doing rounds 24/7?”

One could practically hear Simon enter his investor spiel mode. “Our security is top of the line, as I said. Armed guards, cameras watching every angle. It’s practically a fortress.”

“I suppose we’ll have to see where a Skadia Maid could possibly find a kink in your system.”

Anastasia watched as the scenery turned from the Lyceum’s outskirts, into residential, and finally, into the economic sector that was their destination. They landed on the bright shiny skyscraper, getting a nice view of the DusTec logo on the side, likely on purpose. Simon stepped out first and helped the two Maids out. Already, just below the flight pad was a set of security guards and a man in a freshly pressed business suit.

The guards themselves seemed both ex-military, and brutish, but the man in the middle was quite a different story. He looked relatively young, just a bit below middle age, and handsome, more so than any man in a business suit deserved to be. Had they landed on a fashion magazine’s rooftop instead?

“Mr. Go, I presume?” Anastasia asked.

“Yes, that would be me.” His smile was already trying to soften them up. “But you can call me Seongjin, if you’d like.”

“We’ll call you Mr. Go.”

He chuckled. “So cold, but I suppose that’s to be expected. Please, come with me.” He gestured for them to follow, and they did, with the security detail both leading them and taking up the rear.

They made their way down numerous flights of stairs, all fully encased in glass so that they could look out into the busyness of the city. Seongjin took them onto what seemed to be a research and development floor. On one side of them was an extensive research lab, and on the other seemed to be for the testing of Adalstier based weaponry. He lead them through the middle. “I’m not here to show you two what we’re working on, no, no. I know your headmistress isn’t interested in purchasing anything we have to offer, but this is the floor I think you two will find the most interesting.”

“Why’s that?” Jun asked.

“For two reasons. You both are very peculiar Maids. I expected more frills and less of a military look about you, but also, this is where the item I think your thief will be interested in.”

Anastasia raised an eyebrow. “Sir, we are very peculiar maids because this is a very peculiar situation.”

“You hunt rogue Maids for a living?”

“Something of the sort…” She pushed the question away. “What exactly is this item you think the thief will be interested in?”

Seongjin scanned a keycard on a large door and waited for the electronic locks to pull the complex workings of the door apart. “We’re currently working to develop a contract for heavy Adalstier based cannons for the Administration’s Zephyrs. Currently, the project is too costly for mass production on the scale the Administration would want for this product, but I have hope.” He gave a smile and a wink as the door finally opened. “Behold, the Biblica Cannon.”

Jun stepped forward to inspect while Anastasia stayed with Seongjin. It was extremely sleek, and stylized black and grey like how the Administration liked it. It’s barrel was about the size of any other heavy deck gun, but the main point of interest was the gently glowing viewport on its rear where the Skadia crystal internal focus was positioned. It was a complex set of focusing lenses, all pinpointed on one relatively small crystal. Jun whistled quietly. “I guess kinetic batteries are so last year…”

“I’ll have to use that in a pitch.” Seongjin laughed again. “The focus on the weapon is truly the most impressive part. The amount of effort and late nights my staff put into that…”

Anastasia reeled Jun back in. “I think we understand your situation, Mr. Go. We’ll be getting to work immediately.”



Karima looked at the frilly maid dress hanging from her dresser with the goofy smiley face on the note card. Was this really what she had to wear? It was so excessive. Did all Maids wear something like this into battle? That would be frankly ridiculous if they did. How could you get the elaborate footwork in, how could you dodge an attack? How could you last long enough to win a battle in this… thing?

She ended up wearing it anyway, but she in no way enjoyed it.

Karima had received a small note from the deputy headmistress detailing everything she needed to do today, and, as it was a schedule, what she would be doing for the rest of her life as a student of the Lyceum.

Breakfast.

She broke into the cafeteria as the rush began and somehow forced her skirt to align with her intention to smoothly slide over one of the cafeteria tables before she skidded into the kitchen. She practically ransacked it, sifting through cupboards and refrigerated containers. Most of the Maids looked at her strangely, and three asked her if she needed help, to which she looked at them strangely and shook her head. One Maid, however, pulled her back and looked her up and down. She was a white haired girl, with numerous pieces of medieval style armour strapped to her Maid gear. Karima wondered if those were real, but that wasn’t exactly the most important thing at that moment.

“What exactly are you doing?” the girl asked.

“It’s breakfast,” Karima replied and took a bite from an apple she had managed to find.

The girl blinked, but no other change occurred on her face. “You could help the other Maids. And not cause a disturbance.”

Karima laughed. “Yeah, I’ll think about that.” She took the loaf of bread, the jar of peanut butter and the apple in her arms and very quickly backed out of the kitchen before bolting. The girl didn’t seem to follow, or maybe Karima just got away.

Classes.

Karima looked at the board as Archivist Laudo spoke endlessly about the history of Antiope. All the lines connecting all the subject matter together seemed to blur into one big ball of lines. No logic, no rules, just chaos. She didn’t get any of it. She fell asleep and was awoken by the bell. It seemed the teacher had changed to someone else entirely. Guess she missed that, and everything that was on the board.

Lunch.

This time, Karima snuck in the back while everyone was busy and very carefully took a choice box of cookies that she had seen the first time she was in the kitchen. Only when she turned around did she notice that the white haired Maid from before was waiting at the rear exit and a purple haired Maid was now guarding the main exit. Karima set down her box very carefully on the counter, laughed extremely nervously, and took her place helping the others.

Training.

The Maid in charge today seemed like an overtly happy sort. She was all orders and giggles, but she did seem to be one of the students. Maybe it was odd that one of the students seemed to be leading this, but Karima didn’t really care. Maybe the real instructor was off banging the headmistress or something. Karima noticed something that she did find strange though, and that being the man in the corner who didn’t say anything, but every once in awhile, when it didn’t look like he was trying to look up the skirts of the Maids, looked at the senior Maid for what seemed way longer than would be considered polite and normal. She guessed Anastasia was right when she said the men here were all having sex with one of the senior Maids.

Once everyone else was given something to do with the promise the Maid would come over and watch them carefully, the senior Maid approached Karima in particular. “You must be the new girl.” She smiled warmly, almost motherly. “My name is Kurumi Ishihara.”

Karima blinked awkwardly. “Oh, hi. I’m Karima.”

“Well, I won’t keep you here when we all have work to do, but I was told to give you something.” She picked up a long and thin case and handed it to Karima, which she took and opened.

Inside, was a sword, or what seemed to be one. It only had one cutting edge, with the other side being the barrel of a gun, ending in a handle on one side. It was painted brown and white. She cradled it in her hands and examined the detailing of thorned roses on the blade itself. There were two letters on the handle. AD.

“Adira…” Karima muttered. “So, this is my sister’s.”

Kurumi nodded. “That’s what I was told. Since this is your first day, how about you practice with yourself for a little bit, and try and figure out how the weapon works.”

Karima nodded and was left to her own devices. She stood by herself in one part of the room, quietly watching all the other Maids in action. Already, they seemed like they all knew themselves and their weapons. While some of their weapons seemed really weird, like the umbrella and the massive machine gun, they all seemed to be somewhere approaching professionals. Karima was… She looked at the weapon in her hand. What was she?

She accidentally thumbed something on the other side of the handle and recoiled as the blade folded up against the barrel, the handle curved slightly and a sight extended itself out from the top. She awkwardly placed her hands where she thought her hands were supposed to go on a rifle before she snapped it back into its sword form and held it out in front of herself. She had to protect the city with this thing and - she looked at the band on her wrist - and that thing? She was so far behind that this point how was she ever going to catch up?

One of the other Maids stepped up beside her and gave a polite bow before looking at Karima with serious yellow eyes. “Do you need any help?”

Karima looked at the Maid and then looked at the sword in her hands. “To be honest, I have no idea what I’m doing.”

“May I?” the Maid asked.

Karima shrugged. “Sure, I guess.”

The Maid positioned Karima’s arms, showed Karima how her legs should be set, and very carefully pushed Karima’s torso ever so slightly forward. She stepped back and regarded her work. “It’s a start…” she said. “I see you have no experience with the sword. I suppose not everyone can be so lucky as to be raised to follow the Code, but there is always a place to start one’s training.”

“I don’t think I’ve even seen a sword in a museum. Would you mind… helping me a bit more?” Karima smiled nervously. The girl only nodded before drawing her own sword and taking up a position in front of Karima. Without any warning, she used her sword to strike Karima’s, who instantly lost the stance she had been taught and very nearly dropped the sword on the ground. “What was that for?”

“Your grip is weak and you lack conviction. Fencing is more than swinging one’s sword. One brings themself to understand their own body and how the sword extends their ability. To fence, you need to not only understand your weapon, but also yourself. You must understand how you and the blade are one.”

Karima blinked. “That sounds like a whole lot of mumbo jumbo that people use to sell kendo classes on the web.”

The girl gave her a look. “Take it or leave it, but your grip is still weak… and my services don’t cost anything, unlike kendo classes.”

“That’s a relief.” She chuckled. “I’m Karima.”

“Beatrix.”

Karima was very surprised that anyone had approached her. It was one thing to be noticed, she had found, but it was another to be offered help. It was an odd moment, considering everyone else already seemed to have sorted themselves as friends, acquaintances and rivals. Now, she was just one of the Maids. She had never thought that would happen.

Beatrix was a nice girl, and extremely selfless. A model Maid, following what the deputy headmistress had said, but Karima highly suspected at this point that Yuki’s words were tempered to place Karima’s mind in a certain place. Still, she found that Beatrix was highly helpful. All the nuance of fencing and swordplay… Beatrix explained it as if she herself was the sword. It was sad, Karima remarked. This was how Apocrypha saw the average Maid. A tool for the objectives of the Lyceum and, by some extension, the Administration. Was Beatrix an example of what Apocrypha hated, or was Beatrix simply a possible scapegoat for the anger of Apocrypha?

Karima found herself understanding the basics of the weapon as the day began to pass, and later Beatrix elected the help of a girl named Sylvia to help Karima learn how to shoot the thing… after a lengthy session where they begged Kurumi to give some ammunition to the newbie Maid. Sylvia, though, was the other Maid that had cornered her during lunch. The first one? A girl named Cordelia.

Somehow, Karima found herself in the ring with the girl.

Cordelia’s axe easily dwarfed Karima herself and she found herself more than a bit afraid. She did her best not to show it, but that wasn’t easy. She eased herself back into the stance that Beatrix had taught her, trying to figure out how she could survive this.

“Go easy on her, Cordelia. She’s new to this,” Beatrix said.

“To the Lyceum? Yes, but we’ll see about the rest.” She hefted the mighty weapon up, posed to strike.

Kurumi eyed both Cordelia and Karima. “Don’t go crazy girls, but… Start.”

Cordelia had the advantage and she used it to deliver the first strike. It was an easy attack to block, and Karima put her weight into her sword to deflect the heft of the weapon… Only that was exactly as Cordelia had predicted Karima would act, and used the momentum of Karima pushing away her attack to sweep the end of the handle at Karima’s feet. She toppled over and landed on her face.

That was sloppy. She pressed her fist against the floor and pushed herself up with her sword. Cordelia offered her hand, but Karima just pushed it away before standing up for herself. “We can stop if you want,” Cordelia offered.

Karima shook her head and held out her sword in front of her. “We’ll keep going.”

Cordelia didn’t react immediately, rather simply reading Karima. After a moment, she resettled her feet into an appropriate stance. Karima nodded. She’d have to exploit the deficiencies of Cordelia’s weapon and maintain the advantages of her own. Not too hard… right?

Cordelia let Karima have the first move, and Karima took full advantage of this, dropping entirely out of her sword stance and forcibly dashing to the side to get out of the immediate reach of the massive weapon. An attack did come, but from the other side with the handle, like a backhanded slap. Karima let her blade come into contact with it, doing just enough to stop it from impacting with her face. She took the moment to slash forward, but it was an easy counter with the midsection of the axe’s handle. Cordelia shoved Karima back and lifted the axe up so that she could bring it down. Karima let her.

She slid underneath the blow and tackled Cordelia. With the blade of the axe firmly embedded in the floor, it didn’t take nearly as much to wrench Cordelia’s grasp from the weapon. Karima landed on top of Cordelia, lifted her sword up and posed it for a strike at Cordelia’s neck.

Karima was a panting mess, but Cordelia just smiled. “Good job.” Karima didn’t get it.



Anastasia stood with Simon in the security room, or, more specifically, Anastasia had elected to stand while Simon had very obviously offered her a chair. So, she stood and he sat as they watched the monitors. Nothing was happening, but Anastasia had presumed that. It was approaching the darker hours of the evening, so if something was going to happen today, it would happen soon. Jun was on the lower floors in case that was where the thief would enter from and Anastasia was on the higher ones for the same reason.

Simon was trying to pass the time with small talk. “So, do all the Maids have cool weapons?”

Anastasia offered to let him hold one of her knives, and he took it into his hands. “A weapon’s just a tool for getting the job done. It doesn’t have to be cool, it has to be effective.” He offered the knife back, and she lifted her fingers up, allowing the weapon to float back to her hand.

“Well then, why doesn’t everyone have a gun? Swords seem less effective than rifles.”

Anastasia shrugged. “Maybe we like getting in close and personal. Maybe it’s ceremonial. I guess it’s easier than requisitioning more ammunition than we need to.” He nodded. “I’m guessing you’ve never spoken with a Maid before.”

“I’ve read Q&As on the holonet with Maids, but mostly that’s just highly publicized stuff. Practically propaganda. When do the little guys like me ever get to talk to a real Maid?”

Anastasia supposed that was true, but she also wasn’t what this man would likely consider a “real Maid”. She wasn’t on the frontline fighting incursions from Remnant or what have you, she was in the city, fighting people. She wondered, if the man would still consider her a protector of the city if he knew exactly what she did.

Anastasia saw something out of the corner of her eye. “What was that?” Simon turned around and put his hands to the keyboard. She pointed to one of the camera feeds. “That one. Turn it back a couple seconds.” For the briefest of moments, a flash of a silhouette bolted down the hallway. Not even a discernable person, simply a flash. She’d seen it before. Leysa.

“What floor is that?”

“The one above us-”

Anastasia walked out of the room and hurried down the hall. She lifted her wrist to her face. “Jun, I need you back on the upper floors. I think I’ve found our Maid.”

“Roger that,” came the reply. “Are you moving to engage?”

“I am.” She climbed up the stairs and emerged on the next floor. “Try to keep up.” Anastasia looked around the floor, finding that she was back on the R&D area. There were less people now, the lights had dimmed and the sun was gone and the moon was shining instead. She stepped forward and looked around each of the hallways.

Where was this Maid? She had to be here, but where… She came to a window and looked around. Anastasia made sure to scan the peripheries of her vision, in case the Maid was tailing her, but she didn’t see anything to her left or to her right or when she looked… She looked up and a foot slammed into her jaw and clacked her teeth together. Anastasia dragged herself backward to get a modicum of breathing room.

In front of her stood the Maid in the masquerade mask. Her stance was low, poised to strike again. Anastasia drew her knives and threw them immediately, but the Maid tossed something to the side and all of her knives dragged themselves off course and onto it. Some sort of magnet? Just great. The Maid dropped the low stance and entered a more proper martial arts stance. Immediately, the Maid’s fists sparked with some sort of electric force, and visible blue sparks jumped between each knuckle. Anastasia noticed the same thing on the Maid’s feet. It would be hand to hand then, with an electrifying twist.

The Maid attacked her, striking repeatedly in an attempt for either the electricity or the blows themselves to get through Anastasia’s guard. They didn’t. The electricity didn’t conduct well enough through her arms to affect her and she wasn’t hitting hard enough to do much else except tire out Anastasia. Only when she began to get more creative, using her feet in increasingly hard to block combinations did Anastasia begin to worry. Anastasia took a risk and pinned one of the Maid’s legs against her own body when she made for a kick. The shock padding touched against her back and she instantly felt the electricity hit her. She moved to the next part of her plan and threw the Maid to the ground so she could pin her. With an activation of her Engine, she pulled her hand back and aimed for the Maid’s head.

The other Maid activated her Engine and moved out of the way as the tile exploded beside her head. Instantly, she punched Anastasia in the face with her shock gloves and then firmly planted her boots against Anastasia’s chest before she kicked her.

If the shattering of glass and the rushing of air beside her ears was any indication before the sudden violent landing, the Maid had kicked her through the window. In some ways lucky and in other ways unlucky, she had landed on the adjacent building’s rooftop. Lucky as in, she wasn’t dead from falling, and unlucky as in she still had to fight this Maid.

Anastasia dragged herself back to her feet as the other Maid jumped over to follow her. “You’re no amateur.”

A voice did reply, hidden with a voice distorter. “No amateur can take on the Lyceum and the Administration.”

“Fair enough,” Anastasia said and watched as a flash of red hair jumped down behind the Maid.

“Missed me?” said Jun as she pulled out the two revolvers from her coat and began to unload them on the Maid. Immediately the Maid countered by activating her Engine. She dodged the initial hail of gunfire before advancing on Jun and kicking one of the revolvers from her hand. Jun activated her own Engine in retaliation and extended the blade on the underside of her revolver. Anastasia couldn’t keep track as the two dissolved into an almost indiscernible flurry of blows. In the background, members of the DusTec security team were setting up with rifles as they watched the fight unfurl from the DusTec tower. This was going to be a PR mess for both the Lyceum and DusTec, she just knew it.

The masked Maid pushed herself back from Jun, pulled her arm back and activated her Engine. Anastasia didn’t even need to process the action to know what was happening. She dashed forward and jumped out in front of Jun, crossing her arms in front of her. The bolt of lightning struck her, conducted through her arms, jumped to her chest and stopped her heart. Jun shouted out as Anastasia dropped her arms to her sides, her legs lost their strength, and she collapsed.



Karima laid out on the roof, watching the stars go by. The rest of the Maids were here doing the same exact thing. It was a Friday night, so none of them were particularly worried about the next day’s happenings. There wasn’t a care in the world. Karima had a bunch of new friends, a position as a student Maid and no one was trying to kill her right now. Life couldn’t be better.

A light Zephyr exploded past them without any warning, docking immediately at the Lyceum hangar. Karima shot up. “A Zephyr docking this late at night?”

The pink haired Maid lifts her head. “It happens more often than you think.”

Karima stood up and strained her eyes to see all the way to the skybridge between the Lyceum proper and the hangar. There was a sudden rush of people running across it to the hangar, and a few moments after that, the surge of people ran the other way, back into the Lyceum. They were pushing something. It seemed quite odd if that was some sort of shipment for everyone to rush over… Karima paused for a moment, suddenly becoming very anxious. “I have to go,” she said aloud and immediately ran for the stairs. She didn’t bother to listen to the confusion of her fellow Maids. As soon as Karima found out where the infirmary was she bolted for it. Some of the senior Maids yelled at her about curfew and running in the halls, but she didn’t let them stop her. She barged in, the room flooded with staff and Maids who looked less like Maids and more like regular soldiers. It was as Karima had predicted. Anastasia was out cold, paler than she had any right to be and tended to by a menagerie of staff. Karima tried to push herself through, but was only pushed back.

Karima heard her name, but not from Anastasia as she would have hoped. It’s from the woman at the back. The same woman who had been in the elevator. She looked far worse than when Karima saw her last. She beckoned Karima over. “Hey, kid. You wouldn’t believe the day we had. Good thing I can talk about it because it’s definitely going to be on the news at this rate.”

“What happened?” Karima held a certain amount of anger in her voice.

“Hey, hey.” She held her one hand up. “I didn’t do anything bad here, little lady. Except maybe get my ass handed to me…” She sighed, rubbing her arm. “Anastasia and myself hunted down a rogue Maid and Ana decided that it would be a good idea to risk her life for me, instead of, you know, being a more capable Maid than I am, just let me take the hit. She was clinically dead for like… what… five minutes?”

“She was dead? You let her die? And you fought a Maid?”

“Ana’s been through worse. She didn’t get all those prosthetics jammed onto her just because she thought they would be cool. Sometimes being a Maid is more than being a soldier, it’s about being a friend.” She took a moment to look around the room. “And yes, we did fight a Maid. Some Maids don’t agree with the Lyceum, and that’s just because they’re human. Just politics for you.” Karima didn’t know what to think about that.

The headmistress came into the room, gave one look to Anastasia and then turned to Jun. “Where’d the rogue Maid go?”

“I said over the network, headmistress. A Zephyr came out of nowhere and picked her up. She might be working with Apocrypha but… I guess that’s unlikely.”

“Their CEO informed me that someone was still able to steal a piece of the weapon they had.” Elidia gave a side glance to Karima. “You both are off active duty-”

“Headmistress, please…”

“You’re both injured. Take a vacation. The rest of Declaration-7 and our Sisters can handle this.” It’s firm. Jun nods. Elidia seems to turn to Karima to say something else but someone appears at the door. It’s the commodore, and he looks hardpressed to speak with the headmistress. Elidia is forced to see what he needs.

Jun sighed and rubbed her forehead. “Hey, why don’t you come back tomorrow. I’m sure Ana will want to see you then.”

Karima nodded slowly, casted a glance towards Anastasia and then left silently. She caught a couple words from the commodore as she walked off. “... the Administration is thinking of dissolving Declaration-7.”



Karima awoke silently and dragged herself out of bed. It was around twelve. She was supposed to be studying independently, but she didn’t want to. Seeing the two Maids battered and bruised was just a reminder of the threat Apocrypha poised to her own life. They likely still wanted her. A possible clue into discovering what exactly allowed for Adalstier manipulation was no small thing.

Karima elected to wear the clothes she had brought into the Lyceum on the first day and pulled her hair back and out of her face before tying it to make sure it stayed there. She didn’t look like a Maid anymore, and maybe that was better. She didn’t really want to be one… It felt like a curse on her conscience. Adira had been a great Maid, she had heard. Karima could never be her. She was just pretending to be a Maid. Pretending to be a…

She took a deep breath in and shook her head. No, she was as much one as all the others here. She didn’t care what others said. They didn’t understand her and she didn’t need them to. She headed out of her room and towards the infirmary. One of the Stratocarriers landed on the far side of the Hollow and a whole mess of Maids clambered on board before it took off. Seemed like something was happening. Karima was only a couple days into the whole Lyceum thing but maybe she had assumed that the Maids were constantly being deployed? She really didn’t know what to expect. Growing up, Maids were practically superheroes. Now they were just soldiers, like a separate branch of the military.

The infirmary was much quieter now. It was only the red haired Maid and Anastasia. Jun looked utterly exhausted. Maybe she had spent the night here in the infirmary. Anastasia was awake now and there was the slightest hint of a burn mark where her chest was exposed. Jun had her one good hand on Anastasia’s shoulder. Karima assumed it was because Anastasia couldn’t actually feel Jun’s hand if it was on her arm. They were talking, but in quiet tones.  Eventually, Karima knocked against the open door, signalling her existence.

Anastasia looked over. “Oh, Karima. Here I’d thought you’d forgotten about me.” She beckoned her closer. “I heard you’ve made friends. That’s good. I’m sure it’s hard to adjust to such a new environment.”

Karima just asked. “Are you okay?”

Anastasia and Jun shared a glance. “I’m fine. As Jun told you, I’ve been through worse… Far worse.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure.” She lifted her arm and slowly but surely laid it on Karima’s head. “You shouldn’t be worried about me. You should be worried about yourself. You’re a Maid now.” Anastasia read Karima’s face well enough. “You are a Maid. You are. If someone has told you that you are not, report them.”

“No, no one’s said anything like that.” Anastasia turned back to Jun, who shrugged.

“Well,” Jun said. “We were going to go downtown today… Do you want to come?”

Karima nodded slowly. “Sure. I’ll come.”

Jun helped Anastasia out of bed. It seemed to take them a lot longer than Karima would have guessed it to. Anastasia’s steps were uncertain and unsteady. She leaned on Jun, trying to stand up, and after awhile she did. Karima was worried. This wasn’t the image of Anastasia that she had had before. Had something else happened? Or was this actually how Anastasia was...

They got Anastasia discharged and left the Lyceum, taking the rail downtown. Both the two senior Maids tried to keep Karima occupied and in the conversation, and Karima tried too, but it felt odd to be suddenly so friendly with the two Maids. She didn’t really know them, and she especially didn’t know Jun. Even if she was supposedly a special Maid, she was still a student. Someone who barely knew what they were doing. Being next to these two giants was daunting.

They arrived, and stepped off. It was cold, and there was a hint of snow in the air. Anastasia wrapped a scarf around her neck, Karima stuffed herself into her hoodie and Jun didn’t seem to mind at all. They seemed to be on some sort of heavy commercial block. There was a big screen, displaying some sort of animated show in bright flashy colours and fonts. A butler, likely having stuffed his outfit with heat packs, stood outside a café beckoning customers inside with his smile. A group of either dramatically overweight or dramatically underweight otaku bumbled down the sidewalk with dozens of bags in their arms. How classical this all was… Karima breathed it in.

Jun dragged them into a more quiet café. It seemed to be one for some sort of children’s show character. Jun ordered Karima a full meal, despite the girl’s very loud protests. When the plate of food finally arrived, decorated in an adorable bear’s face, Karima stared at Jun. She smiled back. Karima still ate anyway, watching as one of the holonet hard screen monitors in the café played a news report. It was the scene at the DusTec headquarters, captured by someone’s low quality camera. Karima could see Jun and Anastasia up on the rooftop, fighting with whoever that rogue Maid was. Miss Sumeragi was talking with some political commentators on the possibilities of the Lyceum overextending its power. That was obviously not what was happening, but she guessed without knowing really what was happening that’s what one would assume. Luckily neither Anastasia nor Jun seemed to be watching.

“So, what kind of Maid are you, Karima?” Jun asked just as Karima shoved some rice in her mouth. “I’m Leysa, minor in Skadia.”

“Aevum,” she said through her food. “Just Aevum, and Anastasia's Cyseince and Vidrein, right? Why don’t you ever use that to disable people’s guns when you fight them?”

Anastasia lifted her coffee cup. “My cybernetics aren’t a flesh extension of my body. I can’t touch their weapons, and resonating from a distance is far too taxing to be worth it. Using Adalstier manipulation to augment my limbs is infinitely more effective.” She took a sip. “And constructing items with Vidrein is… difficult for me. You’re lucky, Karima. You could use Aevum to keep yourself and your friends alive. I cannot repair a strike against the rest of my body.”

“I suppose…” Karima said, sifting through her plate. “Are you two dating?”

Jun made a sound like a fox crying out, proceeded to choke on her drink and then sat there coughing, her face hanging between the table and her seat. It took awhile for her to recover. “It’s complicated,” she choked out. “Maids are complicated. Humans are complicated. Relationships are complicated.”

“Why are you embarrassed?” Karima asked. “It’s what everyone thinks about the Lyceum.” All the Maids were secretly gay afterall.

“I’m not embarrassed-”

“You can consider us to be dating if you want, Karima,” Anastasia said and took another drink of her coffee. “It doesn’t matter to me.” And so it was.

They talked for awhile longer on much more calm subjects, like the weather and pop culture. Karima found it beginning to be nice. It was… almost familial. Jun eventually shot up and asked Karima, “Hey, I know this cool arcade that I used to go to when I was younger. You wanna come with?”

“An arcade? Yeah, sure, I'll come!” Finally, something that wasn't boring or depressing! Karima could only take so many hours of Maidship, classes and training before she just wanted to do something fun.

“Nice.” Jun offered Karima a high five and she took it. “How about you wait outside for five seconds. I have to talk to Ana for a sec.”

“Oh, okay.”

Karima put her hands into her pockets, stood up and went to wait in the cold air. She guessed Jun was cool, then. She was friendly, a capable Maid, and seemed to care a great deal about Anastasia. Nice qualities to have in your girlfriend. Karima couldn't help but try and spy through the window to see what they were talking about. She couldn't really see enough without being obvious, so she dropped it after a moment. Jun came out after a moment. “Okay, let's get going!” They walked a block down, pushing through the wind. They came up to a particular part of the street and stopped outside. A big closed for renovations sign was hung on the front entrance. “Oh, well. I guess I haven't been here for a long time. Let's go do something else.” Jun thought for a moment. “What's a cool thing to do around here…” They walked around a bit more, slightly aimlessly, before happening upon a store for anime. “You kids like this kinda thing right?”

“Our age gap isn't that wide, Jun.” Still, they went in. Karima had literally no clue what any of anything was. Jun seemed to be much more interested, reacting very strongly when she saw a very intricate figure of some lady knight on a horse. She spouted a bunch of facts about the character, complimented the artistic detail that went into such a lifelike creation and practically died several times over as she sang the praises of the subject material. Karima was beginning to wonder why Anastasia was attracted to such an otaku. “Just buy it, Jun.”

She paused her worship. “I can't afford it.” Karima didn't know what she expected.

As Karima followed Jun around, Jun tried to find something that Karima might like. She showed her a million different cases, trying to entice her with such details as computer animation, really funny comedy, heartwarming romance, beautiful soundtracks, cool fight scenes, and a whole mess of other things that Karima thought would be okay, but wasn't incredibly thrilled with. She really just wanted to ask a question. “Hey, Jun… how did Anastasia get her prosthetics?”

Jun quietly put down the case for some sort of horror show. “You couldn’t just ask Ana herself?” She scratched the side of her head. “Would she get mad at me if I told you? Probably not, right…” She took a long hard moment to think, thumbing through the plastic cases in the bin in front of her. “Ana and I have known each other for a long time, and I don’t want to violate her trust. If she doesn’t think it’s time to tell you, or if she never thinks it's time to do so then it’s her decision, right?”

“I guess…” Karima said. “It seemed like something too personal to ask her. She told me about the elements of her Engine, but that’s not really something any Maid needs to keep secret, right?”

Jun cracked a smile. “Well, unless you’re fighting humans like us, but I guess Ana doesn’t think you’re gonna go and snitch.”

Finally, Jun just decided to get Karima some crappy and dramatically over dramaticized show about Maids. “It’s stupid fun,” she explained to Karima as Karima awkwardly glanced at some dark and gritty noir cop drama that looked interesting. They began to make the walk back to the café, and they continued the small talk. Luckily, Karima didn’t seem to have made things awkward by asking about Anastasia, so that was good, but she still wanted to know. Maybe she could get Anastasia to tell her eventually.


They came back to the café and Anastasia was waiting patiently, her coffee finished and a sly smile on her face. “Have fun? Are you two best friends now?” She stood up. “Let’s get going.” The trip back to the station was uneventful, and once Karima was on her way back to the Lyceum and Anastasia and Jun were on their way back to their homes, the outing was over.

It was nice, if Karima was absolutely honest with herself. She hadn’t done something like that in a long time, and never with Maids. Now she had to go back to the Lyceum and probably… study… and do… other… boring things… She sighed. Maybe she could go do something while she was still out here.

Karima got off at the next stop. She was far away from the core of the commercial district. It seemed to be a much shadier part of town, but that didn't stop her. She had packed her sword, so if someone was gonna try and mug her, she’d teach them a lesson. Not that she actually had anything else besides the sword or that show that Jun bought her for someone to steal from her. She didn't have rich, or alive parents like the rest of those Lyceum kids… or at least she thought most of them had money or family. She hadn't exactly been around there long enough to really know that kinda thing.

She stopped in the middle of a park and sat down on a swing set. Idly, she pushed herself back and forth. On the street in front of her, there seemed to be a dust den if the smell was any indication. She remembered trying the stuff, but getting sick to her stomach. Living on the street had been a horrible mess. In a way, she supposed, the Lyceum was the greatest thing that ever happened to her. Other kids didn't get the opportunity she did, though. Just because she was special, she got her accommodations and food paid for. She hadn't saved anyone’s life yet, and even if Anastasia said that she was a Maid no matter what anyone said, was she? She still felt like just a stupid girl. A stupid girl that didn't know what she was doing, a terrorist organization wanted, and sometimes people didn't even think she was a girl.

A group of men in thick vests that barely covered them came around, smoking and chatting. Karima could see one of them had a gun tucked into his pants. “The boss wants us to find that girl again. He says we gotta hurry up before the Lyceum or the cops try and shut us down.”

The other one dragged the cigarette out of his mouth and tossed it into the snow. “That's what he always says. You see that Maid on the news? The one that’s apparently on our side? Man, I’d love to have a piece of her. She kicked the asses of both those other Maids.”

“What? You get your rocks off on getting electrocuted? You could get a girl off the street to do that for you.”

Apocrypha goons… Karima sighed. She knew she should have went back to the Lyceum. Carefully, she stood up and turned to leave, but then she heard something else.

“The deal’s at the edge of the barrier, right? The last piece that the boss wants? At ten tomorrow?”

“Yeah, and you better not be late. The boss’ll have your balls if you show up to Maiden's late.”

Karima scurried away. She shouldn't have heard that. She should have just went back to the Lyceum and not been an idiot. What had she been thinking? She didn't even have any money! What was she going to do outside except wallow in her own self-pity! She kicked herself the whole way back to the Lyceum.

Karima went back to her studies. She was stuck trying to understand the lesson about Antiope history that she had fell asleep during. To her, it was boring, and she didn't get why it was really all that important to know. The present seemed much more important to her.

The words of the Apocrypha henchmen she had encountered still rang loudly in her head, but she hadn't told anyone. Declaration-7 was the special group Anastasia was in, right? And if the commodore came to tell the headmistress that they wanted to close it down… that meant that the Administration was going to take full control of taking down Apocrypha, right? Telling the headmistress would be useless then, and if she told Anastasia… then what could Anastasia do? Nothing…

She sat idly in her room, looking at her sister’s sword. Her sister had been a great woman. She had saved people. Karima was still in her shadow. She wanted to be like Adira, but she just wasn't there yet. But what if…

She waited until nightfall and went off and stole a backpack from one of the lost and found bins, and then she snuck into the kitchen and stole some food. No one saw her. She stuffed the bag under her bed and went to sleep, setting her alarm for early in the morning.

When she did wake up, no one had came to drag her in for disciplinary action. She grabbed the bag, stuffed her sword inside and went to leave. She hesitated for a moment as she went for the handle… so she stopped and went to her desk and quickly wrote a note. “Anastasia… I'm sorry.”

Part Two
Anastasia looked out through the curtains of her window, watching the cars pass overhead. Jun was over and they’d cracked open the good bottle of hard liquor. “So you wanna go to a different Barrier City? See the sights?” Jun asked from her position beside Anastasia. “You were never a very adventurous person, Ana. What’s wrong?”

“I'm worried,” she said. “I don't want to be here if something bad happens. We’re just senior Maids now, Jun. We don't have authority if we’re not Declaration-7.”

“You seem angry. Very angry.”

“Of course I'm angry,” she said, turning around to face Jun. “Apocrypha threatens this city. They’re a cancer. A cancer I can't stop. I want to find whoever the hell their boss is and I want to kill him myself. I want to watch him bleed.”

Jun sighed. This wasn't just about Apocrypha. “She accepted her death, Ana. She didn't want to see you die either. You know that, and she didn't know that none of your limbs would make it out of there.”

“And now the prosthetics aren't working properly, Jun. They’re rejecting me.” She tried to slam her fist against the countertop, but the motion sputtered and she only managed to place her fist there. She looked down at herself for a quiet moment. “I shouldn't be yelling at you. I'm sorry, Jun.”

Jun could only smile and wrap her arms around Anastasia. “It's okay. Tomorrow, let’s buy those tickets and get the hell out of here. Maybe we can go see Karima, tell her we’re off, say our goodbyes.”

“I'd like that.”

They went to bed, woke up, had breakfast and then went onto the holonet to buy their tickets. Two tickets straight the hell out of Akkierens. Anastasia sat there wondering if leaving was the right thing to do. She was worried. By no means was she the most capable Maid, but she was still a capable one. Maybe they’d need her? But then again, surely this was on the forefront of the headmistress’ mind. If anyone was gonna put Apocrypha in the ground, it would be her, especially if they were a direct and active threat to the Lyceum.

Idly, they packed the essentials. Anything else they could buy with their stipends. After that, it was off to the Lyceum. They spoke with one of the student Maids - one with the responsibilities and none of the respect of a senior Maid - and asked if she could track down Karima by her resonator. The young Maid said the girl was in her room, so they walked to the dormitories, found Karima’s room and knocked on the door. No response.

“Maybe she’s asleep?” Jun said.

“No, it’s ten. A girl like her probably wakes up at six.” Anastasia wrapped her hand around the door handle and turned it. It wasn’t locked. “I’m coming in!” she said just in case and opened the door. There was no one there. The Maid outfit she had seen Karima in before was hung up on her closet and the bed was made. “Where is she…?”

The network resonator was on Karima’s desk, along with a note written hastily in pen. Anastasia picked it up, read it quickly and then set it down. “Jun, you can fly a Zephyr, right?”

“Yeah, I took the course.”

“How hard would it be to steal one from the hangar?”

Jun was beginning to get an understanding of what was happening. “Doable, but I’ll probably get my Engine and Maid status revoked when we get back.”

“We’ll tell them I threatened you.”



Karima pulled her hoodie close to her face. It was incredibly dusty, almost unbearably so, but for the most part she fit in with the cargo containers and garbage fires. She had learned that “Maiden’s” was actually a bar called The Maiden’s Awakening. She was a bit confused if that referred to the awakening of Adalstier manipulation in Maids or whether it was a reference to the presumed “sexual awakening” of women. The former seemed weird out here, to say the least.

Among the sheet metal and rags, she finally found it. The sign was made of cheap neon lights and one of those light fixtures that had lights that turned off and on repeatedly, this time in the shape of a mermaid waving her massive tail. There was a bouncer at the door, but he didn’t give Karima much mind as she stepped up and pushed the door open. Inside, it was mostly deserted, save for a few people drunk to the edge of consciousness and a group of armed scavengers playing poker in the corner.

Karima stepped up to the counter where a woman stood cleaning out a mug with a rag. She had a scar running down from her forehead and across one of her eyes. There was also a motorcycle helmet on the counter, which seemed rather out of place. When Karima sat down, the woman set down the glass and offered Karima two bottles. One was of some off brand discount soda and the other was beer. “I can’t pay,” Karima said.

“It’s on the house,” the woman said. Karima slowly pointed at the soda. She set the bottle down, cracked it open and set it in front of Karima. “What’s a young girl like you doing out here?”

Karima took a sip. It was cold and sweet. She wasn’t sure if she should actually speak to the woman, but she supposed it wouldn’t really hurt her. “I’m here to find out if I’m really what people say I am.”

“That’s a new one,” she said and leaned back against the back counter. “Most people come here because they’ve lost their reason, their money, their lives. They think that out here maybe there’s a chance they’ll find something that’ll make them remember that they’re alive and maybe get them back into the city.”

“Do people find it?”

“If they’re not killed by some other idiot looking for salvage, not arrested by the Administration and don’t starve to death, then they still need enough luck to find enough quality junk they can sell. It rarely happens.” Karima figured as much. There didn’t seem to be a lot of hope out here.

“What about you?” Karima asked.

She smiled darkly. “There isn’t enough blood on this planet I can spill that would let me find myself again.”

Karima took another sip and noticed a group of men step through the door. They didn’t say anything to the bartender and instead walked past the bar and to a backroom. Karima swallowed, bit her cheek and waited. She counted to herself; one… two… She counted to ten, took a long drink of the soda then pushed herself off her chair. The woman at the bar picked up the bottle and didn’t bother watching Karima as she followed the path the men had taken to the back, reaching for the sword in her bag. She came to the door, which was in an area partitioned in such a way that no one could see it from the rest of the bar and reached out for the handle.

There was a set of stairs that lead downwards, but it was completely quiet. Karima snuck down them, careful not to make a sound on the wooden boards. Eventually, she set her feet down on the cement floor. There was only one light, but she could make out the details of the room well enough. In one corner was a boiler, and in another was a fusebox. Most important was, pushed up against one of the walls, was the body of a man with a bullet hole in his forehead. Karima gritted her teeth and looked around. She didn’t see any of the men from before in the room, just the body. Carefully, she stepped forward and shut the eyes of the dead man. Well, if the Apocrypha goons weren’t here then…

She stopped as she heard a pair of shoes behind her. When she turned around, she didn’t immediately see thugs from Apocrypha, but instead she saw the bartender. Karima reached for her bag and the sword inside, but when she finally pulled it free from its case, she found the bartender was now flanked by a set of men with guns. Karima very slowly lifted up her sword.

The bartender approached her and stopped a few feet away. The light illuminated the bottom half of her face and covered the top portion in shadow. Karima’s blood ran cold.

Somewhere above them, a voice crackled over a loudspeaker. “This is the Administration. We have you surrounded and we will not hesitate to use lethal force-” The voice was answered with gunfire and the sounds of bullets being unloaded reverberated through the cement room.

The “bartender” looked at the two men. “Get her secured. They’ll call in a Declaration-7 agent if this gets worse.” As she moved to walk back up the stairs, the two men began to approach Karima. She tensed as one of them reached out and she stepped backwards.

She knew she had to fight them. Get away. But she couldn’t. She fell into their trap so easily. She wasn’t like Anastasia. She wasn’t like Jun. She wasn’t like the headmistress, or the deputy headmistress. She wasn’t like Adira. She wasn’t anything.



There was no way the two senior Maids would steal a Zephyr without anyone knowing. The first person, Anastasia knew, would be the person signalling departures and arrivals of Zephyr and the headmistress would be informed seconds later when the deck officer realized the people stealing said Zephyr were two senior Maids. But as soon as Jun, erratically dodging the gunfire of the three Administration Zephyrs that had just stopped giving them warnings and shifted to trying to shoot them down, saw said Zephyrs pull away, they both figured something was up. But they didn’t bother to take time to question it as they passed outside the limits of the city and were met with the sight of Administration forces fighting armed gunmen hiding behind metal scrap and waste.

Anastasia pulled open the sliding door of the dropship, gazing down at the chaos. “I’m jumping, Jun.”

“Wait, wait, wait! You need backup, Ana!”

“This isn’t like before. This is Karima we’re talking about, not some piece of equipment that we don’t know what it’s going to be used for.”

Jun took one hand off the controls and rubbed her forehead with it. “Fine, but I’m coming for you as soon as I land this damn thing. Don’t get yourself killed, Ana.”

Anastasia smiled a tired and weary smile as she turned around to look at the back of Jun’s head. “It’s hard to guarantee things these days.” She leaned back and let gravity carry her out the door. In a moment, she flipped herself over and activated her Engine before she hit the ground. The storage container she hit bent. She hopped off, taking her throwing knives into her hand and began to run. One of her legs failed to fully extend and she tripped for a brief moment before she went back into her run.

Anastasia immediately recognized the bar in the centre of the firefight to be what Karima had identified in her note. She was both surprised and not at all surprised that a firefight had erupted. If the Administration was here then it just meant that they were doing their jobs right for once. It didn’t seem that the Administration soldiers had received the memo about the stolen Zephyr from the small salutes some of them gave her, but that didn’t matter. The same warm reception was not given from what she now realized were members of Apocrypha. They shot at her as soon as they realized that she was a Maid.

Anastasia abandoned a direct approach and began to zigzag through the tents, cement and metal sheets. With a bit of a jump, she busted through a section of wood paneling behind a group of gunmen. They all saw her. She dispatched one with a knife to the throat and then the two others with a well placed frontal kick, sending one flying into the other. With three of Apocrypha’s own gone, the Administration pushed in and Anastasia saw her window to get to the bar.

She ran for the front door and reached for the handle. The wooden door instead exploded, showering her in wood fragments. Anastasia covered her face for the brief moment and when she looked back, a motorcycle helmet stared back at her, before it kicked her in the stomach, sending a surge of electricity through her.

The Maid from DusTec cracked her knuckles, sparks bouncing across her hands just like before. “The girl is ours, Anastasia. Give up or I will kill you.”

“You’re working for Apocrypha? They want all the Maids dead!”

“They want the Lyceum dead, and that includes you.” She moved forward to attack.

The Maid’s fist came from the side as she aimed for Anastasia’s face, but Anastasia grabbed it, the electricity sparking across the metal of her arm. Another blow came for her stomach, but she did the same thing, meeting the Maid’s hand with her fist. They both pushed against each other, trying to overpower the other. The Maid just slammed her head into Anastasia’s, before delivering a punch to her chest. Anastasia fell back, feeling her heart rate climb both as the wind was knocked out of her and the electricity reminded her of their last fight. She unfurled her knives in her grasp and threw them at her opponent, but the Maid just tossed out another magnetic device onto the ground. Her knives were pulled in just like last time.

“Is this how you will spend your life, Anastasia? Dying for the Lyceum like every pathetic Maid before you? Our gift is not so we can protect the sniveling cowards and weak masses. They do not deserve our protection. They should fear us, and not what is beyond the barrier!”

Anastasia breathed in hard and fast, raising her hands to fight once again. She didn’t need to hear her drivel. This wouldn’t be a bedside conversion. “Just fight me and stop talking.”

The Maid fought hard against her, making it obvious that Anastasia’s death was her end goal. Last time, the kicks and strikes had been born out of a need to stall her. They had been much more surgical and rapid. This time the attacks were harder, with all the Maid’s weight put behind them, and all of them were poised to crush Anastasia’s defenses instead of simply keeping her on the defense.

Karima had asked about how Anastasia used her Engine. It was a tool to amplify the abilities of her cybernetics was what she had said. It wasn’t the full capability of the Engine, but ever since she had switched from flesh to metal limbs, it was what she had to do. A thing born out of her injuries. As this Maid fought her, it began to be increasingly clear what she had to let her do. Hopefully Jun would forgive her for being so reckless.

Anastasia let her hit her. She felt the strike in her gut erupt in pain. The fact that her body hadn’t properly or completely healed from last time did not help. Anastasia activated her Engine and resonated with the shock gloves. The electricity on them flashed violently, jumping more erratically and more often than normally, and then it exploded. The Maid screamed out in pain but Anastasia took the moment to pry her knives off the magnet device and smash it underneath her boot. When Anastasia turned back, the Maid was running. She threw a knife, slicing through the top of the Maid’s shoulder, but didn’t stop her. Anastasia chased the Maid into the bar, and watched as she carried Karima through a back door. Karima yelled out for Anastasia, and Anastasia yelled back.

Anastasia ran after them as they descended back into the shantytown. Anastasia tried to keep up, but the Maid was always one step ahead of her. The shantytown was like a maze, and Anastasia did not know how to navigate it at all. For a moment, she lost them, only for Karima to call for her and then Anastasia was able to catch up again. One of the Administration Zephyrs was now tailing them, shouting at both Anastasia and the Maid to stop. It seemed now that they had gotten wind of the stolen Zephyr.

Something came from beyond the barrier and Anastasia saw it before the Administration Zephyr did. It was a Zephyr, painted a sandy beige, perfect for the deadlands past the barrier. It came in low, passed through the barrier and unloaded a missile that shot the Administration Zephyr out of the air. Anastasia averted her eyes as it crashed.

The new Zephyr hovered above one of the shacks and Anastasia watched as the Maid climbed the shack and went for the Zephyr, all with Karima over her shoulder. Anastasia pushed herself harder and climbed after her. The Maid clambered inside, threw Karima to the ground and was handed an assault rifle. Anastasia ducked down as the Maid tried to pepper her with bullets. With Anastasia halted, there was nothing she could do to stop the Zephyr from taking off with Karima.

Anastasia clambered onto the roof of the shack and watched the Zephyr go back through the Barrier. Administration batteries began to fire at it, but to no avail. Anastasia stood there, breathing in and out. Karima was gone…

Another Zephyr screeched beside her and before Anastasia had a chance to wonder why there were so many damn Zephyrs around, Jun shouted out at her. “There is no damn parking here! Get in and let’s get after them!”

Anastasia did and shut the door, racing up to stand beside Jun in the cockpit. They passed through the barrier and Jun gunned it, pushing their Zephyr to go as fast as it would allow itself. The deadlands of Antiope began to swirl around them, pushing dust and debris against the glass. Yet the Apocrypha Zephyr was still attainable, they just needed to get to it before…

“Are they flying into that firestorm?” Jun pointed out at the spinning mass of fire, lightning and brimstone that had just made itself apparent. “That’s suicide!”

“Maybe they’re trying to get us to back off. Keep following them.” Anastasia fell back to look out the small windows of the sliding door. If they could get close enough maybe she could board them or disable the engines or… something. She didn’t know what yet, but she just needed to do something.

Jun finally managed to bring them close enough to the Apocrypha Zephyr and Anastasia threw open the door. She turned her head, sputtered and coughed as sand blew itself into her face. With a deep breath and not a lot of thinking, she launched herself out. Anastasia clattered against the roof of the Zephyr, tumbling until she was able to grab one of the railings on the side. She repositioned herself, unsteady at first, but with an activation of her Engine, she smashed through the steel plating with her fist and tore the door off.

She rolled in and immediately dodged under the Maid’s grasp as she tried to grab Anastasia. One of the Apocrypha members pulled a pistol on her but she instantly threw him to the ground, snapping his arm with a quick motion before she took the gun and used it to shoot the two other men standing in the compartment. She looked at the Maid. Her eyes were covered by the helmet, but surely their gazes were meeting. Anastasia adjusted her finger’s position on the trigger. Karima was in the corner, staring at Anastasia. Frightened.

Anastasia hesitated long enough for lightning to finally hit the Zephyr. It threw everyone to the ground and they went into a violent spin. It hit the ground hard, sending people flying out from the wreckage. Anastasia was thrown out from the hole she had created when she tore the door off, bouncing and clattering against the sand, eventually landing on her stomach.

Anastasia groaned, grasping at the sand as it flowed out between her fingers. She reached out, trying to pull herself forward. Her arms gave out and laid there uselessly. She watched as the Zephyr began to smoke and then eventually light itself on fire on fire. It’s engine exploded, sending metal fragments across the sands. Anastasia tried to push herself forward with her legs. They gave up on her. The firestorm began to pull closer, blowing around dust and sand. The temperature shot up. There were cinders in the air now. Anastasia wondered how long it would take for her to boil to death.

Dark figures appeared on the horizon. Anastasia nodded. So the Remnant must have found her. If anyone else had survived the initial crash, they’d die with her soon.



Jun couldn’t find the wreckage of the Apocrypha Zephyr. She spent as long as the storm would allow her looking. Eventually, the storm had passed enough that she knew that wherever the Zephyr had crashed, it would be impossible to find it without flying directly into the storm. Jun might be stupid at times, but she wasn’t reckless.

When she arrived back at Akkierens, she was met with several Administration Zephyrs ready to escort her. She let them. Jun had no reason to fight the Administration, and neither would it produce any results if she did. They led her back to the Core Block, forced her to land and threw her in handcuffs. They stripped her of her Engine and her weapons before tossing her away in a cell.

Jun paced around her cell idly. Soon, they’d call the Lyceum. The headmistress would strip her of her seniority and her Engine and then she’d be thrown onto the street. She couldn’t remember if she could still make that flight. Probably not. Also they probably didn’t want her leaving the city.

She finally stopped pacing after a while. She had never seen the body of Anastasia or Karima - or the rogue Maid for that matter. They could still be alive… but it was unlikely. Maybe if they used their Engines in some interesting way to survive? She thought about being emotional, but there wasn’t much of a point, at least not yet. She could mourn later, after they had courtmartialed her or whatever.

Eventually one of the Administration guards came and gave her a network resonator. It was the deputy headmistress. “The headmistress not wanting to bother dealing with me?”

“She’s busy dealing with the Administration. They really don’t want any more Maids running around and putting innocent civilians in danger.” There was a quiet moment where neither said anything. “What happened out there?”

“Apocrypha brought in a Zephyr. It crashed with Anastasia and Karima on board.”

“Oh. I’m sorry. I’ll… see about a rescue operation. Goodbye, Jun. I’ll be in touch.”

Jun handed the resonator back and set her head in her hands. She really didn’t know what she was going to do now.



Karima wasn't dead, but she wasn't uninjured either. She had found herself on soft fabrics in a dark room, lit by candles. The walls were made of stone and there were ceramic pots in the occasional corner. One other person was in the room, dark skinned and with a maroon blindfold across her eyes. Maybe she was blind, Karima couldn't tell. She never said anything, but every so often she would undo the bandages that were wrapped around the injuries Karima had accrued, wash the bandages and the wounds, and then apply a set she had cleaned earlier.

Karima didn't really want to move. She was tired after everything that had happened, and her injuries really didn't agree with the idea of anything else but sitting there. Had she been picked up and brought to some Apocrypha den? Could be.

After a while, perhaps hours, Karima summoned up the energy to speak. “Where is Anastasia…?”

The woman turned her head towards Karima. Her voice was gentle and kind. “Ah, so you are awake.” She paused. “Anastasia… No, she is not here. There was another Maid who was brought in with you, but her name is Iva.”

Dammit… No, Anastasia couldn’t be dead. If she was then… that meant it was her fault. She tensed and felt the tears begin to well up in the corners of her eyes. Anastasia had tried to protect her and Karima had only got her killed.

The woman could hear her tears. “What is wrong? Was Anastasia important to you?”

“She tried to save me, but I just got her killed…”

There was silence. The woman began to speak. “I am sure that Mother Adalstier will guide Anastasia back to you.”

Karima stuffed down her feelings, choking down her emotions. “Where am I?”

“You are in a special place. This is the sanctum of the Daughters of Mother Adalstier.”

“... What? Wait, you’re a Maid?”

“I am one of many thought dead by the Lyceums of Antiope. While I was once part of the Akkierens Lyceum, this is now my home.” She bowed her head, adjusted her blindfold and came back up. “I am Sister Amana. The one who leads us is named Sister Sibel, and she is the one who found you and the other Maid.”

Karima let her head sink into the pillow. Had she really run into the group of Maids that Deputy Headmistress Minase was talking about? Would she ever get out of here? “So… Sister Amana… What’s going on with the other Maid, Iva?”

“Sister Sibel is interrogating her, and after we will have to determine what we will do with her.”

Karima grasped at Amana’s arm. “You can’t let her go. She works for a terrorist organization. She’ll hurt innocent people.”

Amana took Karima’s hand and held it gently. It felt familial, perhaps motherly. “Sibel knows. While we are no longer the self-proclaimed protectors of the Barrier Cities, we can not allow a murderer who bears the gift of Mother Adalstier to roam free.”

Amana let Karima eat and they continued to speak to one another. They had recovered Karima’s Engine and her weapon. Amana said that, according to Sibel, Karima had been thrown out the windshield of the Zephyr and after the Zephyr had exploded. The resulting blast had thrown metal fragments into Karima. She was lucky to have survived, but perhaps Karima’s Engine and her element of Aevum had allowed her to survive. Amana couldn’t really tell. “The will of Mother Adalstier is an odd thing, I must say. Also… you’ve been unconscious for three days.”

“Unconscious? Three days? What?”

“I believe that you were practically dead when Sibel found you. Your Engine must have activated at some point, but I’m unsure when. One of the Maids here used her own Aevum to ensure you would be stable for a natural recovery.”

Karima gritted her teeth. “I’m grateful for everything you’ve done for me, but I need to get back to Akkierens. Anastasia has a… lover who’s probably still alive. The Administration will probably try and put the blame on her, or something. I need to go back to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

“That may be difficult. The terrorists you mentioned, Apocrypha, are close. I believe they may be planning something, and soon.”

“How close?”

“... Three kilometers?” Karima began to get out of the bed, much to Amana’s concern. “Please don’t move, Karima, you’ll rip open the stitches.”

“I’m going to go get that Iva to tell me what Apocrypha is planning, and then I’m going to avenge Anastasia.”

“Karima, wait.” But Karima had already left the room, nabbing her Engine and sword from a table. She walked through a lengthy tunnel, with small rooms like the one she had been in. Every so often there would be a Maid, and most of them stopped and stared at her. Karima kept going.

She reached some sort of crossroads in the underground area. There were four paths. One held the smell of flowers and incense, another the smell of some sort of food that she couldn't discern and the third had yelling. She picked that path. What she stumbled into was a sort of armoury. There was a military semi-automatic rifle on a table duct taped in numerous places, and beside it, several cartridges of ammunition. A hodgepodge of other weapons, ranging from pistols to halberds, sat in other places in the room. Karima had not come to look at cool weapons, Karima had come to find the shouting. In a portion of the room, visually cut off from the entrance, was a chair. Tied to that chair was the rogue Maid, leaning forward with her eyes looking down at her lap. The corner of her mouth dripped blood onto her pants and onto the floor. Standing over her was an entirely new person, cracking her knuckles. Her skin was a dark brown and her hair was extremely short, practically a buzzcut. Sister Sibel, Karima assumed.

“Apparently this is what you want, Iva. You want me to drag you back here every day, continuing this again and again… You must enjoy this. You know that going to this… Apocrypha was the worst idea you’ve ever had. You know they’ll end up killing you, because that’s what they said they would do. They’ll kill every single Maid.” She leaned forward. “You try to forget that, but you can’t deny what is so obviously the truth.”

Iva looked up. “Fuck you, Sibel. The Lyceum abandoned me, you abandoned me and I’ll kill you-” Sibel set her hand against Iva’s face and Karima saw Sibel activate one of Iva’s shock gloves. Iva screamed a desperate, sobbing, angry scream before Sibel pulled her hand away. Iva slumped her head to the side and began to cry. It was disgusting, yet Karima couldn’t help feel somewhat sympathetic, but only because of the visual sight of seeing someone cry in such a messy way. Karima knew Iva was a terrible person, killing and terrorizing people for the benefit of Apocrypha, and Sibel was reducing her to nothing. It was a bit sad.

Sibel turned around to lean against a table and saw Karima. “Oh, you’re up. Does… Amana… know you’re here?” There was a gruffness about the woman, much different from Anastasia’s professionalism, but yet, there was still that same underlying compassion in her voice like every other Maid before her.

“Well, she didn’t want me to come here,” Karima replied. “I want to know what Apocrypha is planning.”

Sibel raised an eyebrow. “Do you now… Unfortunately for the two of us, Iva is not keen on divulging that information.” She looked back at Iva and shook her head before returning her gaze to Karima. “I suppose you’ll want to go to this Apocrypha hideout then? Do whatever it is that the Lyceum has put into your head. Be a hero, beat the bad guys, sacrifice your life. Bad news, there’s an elemental storm circling above us, and it’s been there since your Zephyr crashed.”

So they were just in the middle of the deadlands. “I just want to cut the head off the snake. Their leader needs to die.”

“That would be nice, considering it’s not great for a large group of anti-Maid militants to be so close. Perhaps I’ll take you to them, but not yet. The storm was bad enough when we were simply picking up you and Iva from our doorstep, but traveling through it is out of the question.”

“Fine, then what can we do now?”

“You’re… Aevum, correct?” Karima nodded. “Iva will pass out soon. Don’t worry about her. Come with me, I’d like to see what you can do.”

Sibel lead Karima out of the armoury and back to the crossroads. Amana had finally caught up to them, feeling her way through the hallway. “Sibel? Sibel, please, Karima ran off and I can’t find her.” She sounded very worried, much more than someone who had just met Karima should be.

“She’s right here, Amana. I’m going to examine her Engine with her. If she is so fixated on fighting Apocrypha, she may as well understand how she should fight them.” Amana seemed to calm down somewhat and let them go. Karima watched her as she followed Sibel. Amana looked disappointed.

Sibel brought Karima down the path in which the scent of incense was strong. This room was much different from the armoury. There were large rugs set around near every square inch of the room, with sticks and leaves of fragrance burning. Several Maids knelt, their hands clasped or their heads set down in front of them in prayer or meditation. The centre piece of the room was a statue of a brilliant white, depicting a woman who was both shapeless yet rigid in form. Her hands were in offering, a gift. In her hands sat each colour of Adalstier. Leysa, Aevum, Cyseince, Skadia, Vidrein… It was all there.

Karima was in awe “Is that… Wait, was she a real woman?”

“Of course she was,” Sibel said. “Mother Adalstier gave us the gift of Adalstier Manipulation. Instead of the militants of the Lyceum, fighting for those who do not deserve the protection of Mother Adalstier, we meditate on the meaning of this gift. We seek to understand the meaning of each element, and what Adalstier truly means for our universe.”

“Is the statue…”

“Pure white… A pure form of Adalstier. It is the only medium that one can use to depict Mother Adalstier. You cannot use any other form. It is simply disrespectful to her.” Karima had certainly never heard of… pure white Adalstier, but she believed that might be a bit of the point. The mysterious glow of the statue was beautiful, and even if it was, somehow, just numerous layers of Adalstier set to produce this beautiful white colour, she didn’t really care.

In the shadow of Mother Adalstier, Karima offered Sibel her Engine. She took it with a bow, and regarded it. While unengaged and not activated, it was nothing more than a simple band containing the crystal of Aevum. “This one is special, Karima. This Engine only chooses those who are willing to give their life to save another. It is not chivalrous, nor pragmatic, not utilitarian. It does not believe in saving the most people possible. It believes that the Maid who wields it must save those who are worthy of being saved, and that is the only criteria it holds.” She smiled. “Did the Curator tell you that?”

“No…”

She laughed. “He is a fool.” She took Karima’s hand and slipped the Engine back onto her arm. “This Engine understands destiny. You must believe in your own destiny while you wield it.”

“What is its name?”

“An Engine is not its name, Karima. Names are useless. They tell you nothing about what something is. You must know the Engine for what it is, and not what syllables you use to address it.”

Karima nodded slowly. She didn’t know if she agreed with that, but Sibel probably had her reasons for her choice of words. Karima let the Engine engage. It wrapped between her fingers, covering the palm and back of her hand, but was fingerless. The Aevum crystal twinkled on the back of her hand. “Please, Sibel. I must avenge Anastasia. I have to.”

“Good, then you understand the destiny put forward by your Engine and Mother Adalstier. I will help you fully realize it.”



Anastasia was not dead either, though she deeply wished she was. She saw the Apocrypha iconography practically everywhere as they dragged her through their dirtied and dust filled halls. In the beginning, there was sand in nearly every hall, but as they continued to pull her through, she found this one thing that connected her to the surface shrunk to be lesser and lesser in intensity. She had no strength to resist the two brutish men, and even if she had, her limbs no longer responded to her. Her knives were still at her waist, but she couldn’t do anything with them, and the two men knew this.

They strung her up, and thus began the beatings. Whoever cared enough to come was allowed in. Some forced her to look and them, their anger and disappointment for themselves and their lives burnt into her mind. The meeting of disgusting flesh and jagged bone against her skin was nothing she had not experienced before, but it was constant. The reprieves were short. Sometimes they would ask if they could rape her - or simply not ask and begin to loosen their belts - but the guards told them no. The boss had plans, they would say.

Hours passed, and then they finally cut her down and moved her. They tossed her into a dark room with a single window and let her lay there on the floor. She wished, in a way, that there was no window. It was tantalizing. If she could only move, there would be the possibility of escape. But she couldn’t. They would make her suffer, and if Karima was still alive, they would do the same to her.

They let her waste away for the rest of the day. She heard nothing on the other side of the door, neither did she hear anything beyond the window. It was quiet, and all she had was her thoughts to occupy her. She hated her thoughts. She was a failure of a Maid. Anastasia had failed to save Karima, had gotten herself captured, had defied the wishes of the Lyceum and the Administration. And now Jun was alone. Why had she done that to Jun of all people? Jun loved her, and she loved Jun. When Anastasia finally died, Jun would be alone. She had done that to her. She was horrible. Despicable. Worthless.

And Karima… Why had she put thoughts of blind heroism in her mind? Karima’s capture was her fault. If only she had been able to make it up to Karima and had saved her. Why couldn’t she have at least done that. Why… why… why. She could have saved her.

Finally, they came for her and she let them. They dragged her, this time, into a much cleaner room. There were technicians, doctors and nurses here, and a metal chair, equipped with restraints. They stripped her down to her underwear, because they didn’t need to see her naked. Once done, they set her in the seat, and strapped her in, but not on her wrists, only areas such as her neck, her waist, her thighs and her upper arms. One of the technicians began to work around the circuitry and paneling of the prosthetics on her arms, starting the grueling task of removing them from her body. She let herself go limp.

Someone she had not anticipated to show their face arrived. The despicable businessman and CEO, Seongjin Go. She laughed softly and sadly. It was obvious now. Apocrypha was well equipped and their entrance at DusTec had been too easy.

He smiled. She stared at him, her mouth slightly open because it was easier than keeping it closed. “Do you know what’s going to happen, Anastasia? You’re a lucky woman. You and the girl, Karima, are going to be part of history.”

“She won’t do what you want.”

“I know that,” he said. “But I can control the offspring that I ensure you and her to create.”

Anastasia’s brain was foggy, and the implication did not immediately reach her. When it did, she felt her stomach violently convulse. She gritted her teeth, and swallowed before she could vomit. “You’re disgusting,” she said. “And it doesn’t make sense. It’ll take decades.”

“Of course, Anastasia, but you are not the only Maid here. There are others… from many of the Lyceums of Antiope. Some of them were thought killed in combat with Remnant, others abandoned the teachings of their Lyceums and escaped here into the wastelands.” His voice was cancerously coddling. “Those children that do not awaken… they are useless to me, but those who do will surely bring about a new age.” He ran a hand across her cheek. “The Maids… are a cancer, but the gift of Adalstier Manipulation is not. The Maids and the Lyceums believe they are the only ones who can protect the people of Antiope, and rightfully so. The Administration of Akkierens is useless. They cannot fight what still persists from the Old War, and neither can they fight the Maids. My Maid has been operating for months, and when they finally discovered her existence, they sent you. The true purpose of the Lyceum is not to protect Akkierens, Anastasia. It is to consolidate the power of a select group of individuals. As long as the Lyceum stands, the Administration holds its propaganda and elite fighting force. As long as the Administration stands, the Captain has his power. Maids are power.”

“I protect people, Seongjin, you bastard.”

“Where were you when the Lyceum killed my family.” He laughed, his demeanor shifting from calm to manic. “You must be thinking that the Lyceum could not have killed my family, because you did not hear about it. Does the public and the bulk of the Lyceum know of Declaration-7? No. You must be then thinking, ‘This is the reason for this madness?’ This is not madness, Anastasia. Revenge is not madness. You want revenge, and are you insane? You know what is insanity, Anastasia? Do you really want to know what is so mad about this world? Soldiers prancing about in fluffy and frilly dresses, being worshipped by adoring fans who do not even truly understand what they do. That is the true madness in this world, Anastasia. When I was broken and I lost everything, did I retreat into stagnation like the Lyceum and the Administration? No, I built myself an empire. What did you do when you lost everything, Anastasia? What will you do when you lose everything again?” Anastasia stared into the face of madness and it only stared back. “When the Lyceum is gone and the Administration begins to crumble, I will provide them a solution.”



Amana helped Karima into the clothes the Daughters of Mother Adalstier had given her. It seemed to be a cobbled together suit of Administration body armour, with pieces patched and taped. Amana explained that, if any Administration or Lyceum ships crashed here and their crews did not survive, the Daughters picked up supplies from the wreckage. They did not want that connection to the Barrier Cities, but it was necessary for the survival of the convent.

Amana led Karima away from the underground and towards the surface. The entrance was the airlock of a stratocarrier, probably torn off during its crash. Karima did not know what stratocarrier it had been, as the markings were all worn, but it was most likely from the first generation of the massive machines, given how archaic the design seemed. Sibel had gathered herself and two other apostate Maids. They had rifles, and not the conventionally close range weapons of most Maids she had seen. Evidently, they didn’t seem to be worried about Remnant. Iva sat cross-legged on the floor, and her Engine and shock weapons laid on a crate nearby, not that Iva was close enough to grab them.

Amana clasped her hands together and stood in front of Iva. “Your rites, Sister Iva.” Iva didn’t respond. “Mother Adalstier, we give you this Maid who has strayed from your light and forsaken your guidance, so that you may decide if she is yet worthy of your forgiveness, or if she will perish in the darkness of Antiope.”

Once Amana was done, Sibel slammed her fist against the airlock release and a burst of sand shot through the opening. It cleared after a moment, leaving the Maids to look out into the firestorm. They had waited long enough, and now the firestorm was less violent, simply flashy and burning cloud cover. It was perfect for the Daughters, and Apocrypha.

Sibel and the other two Maids lead Iva out into the wastes. Karima followed them, but gave Amana a quick goodbye, for courtesy’s sake. They began their walk through the rolling dunes. It was extremely hot, mostly from the fire above them, but Karima didn’t dare take off her armour. A slow and possible death from heatstroke was better than a fast and definite death from a bullet.

They came to the top of a dune, and Sibel brought Iva to her knees and cut Iva’s binds with a knife before pushing her. Karima watched Iva roll down the sand before coming to a stop at the bottom. “It is in Mother Adalstier’s hands now,” Sibel said, and the Maids continued on, leaving Iva.

“I don’t mean to be offensive, Sister Sibel,” Karima began, “but isn’t Iva still a threat out here?”

“She is without her Engine and without her weapons. To Apocrypha, she now has no use, and she knows this. If she does not, she will come to realize this, or perhaps she will simply perish. It does not concern us any longer, Karima.”

The trek was long, and Karima didn’t bother to engage in conversation. Her mind was focused entirely on Anastasia, Jun, and Apocrypha. She needed to prepare herself. She would need to kill so that she could achieve her goal. There was no room for hesitation here. She was a Maid, her Engine was with her, and her weapon was her sister’s own steel. That would be enough, she knew, and as long as she played to her own strengths she could succeed.

They approached another dune and laid out on top of it. Sibel put her eye to her rifle’s scope, adjusted the knob on the side and then let Karima gaze out it. There, out in the open, was a large office complex. All of the windows had long been blown out, but the front door had been reinforced and replaced with a heavy duty sliding door. There was an intercom set up beside the door, with some sort of keycard reader. Sibel shifted the scope onto something else. It was nearly invisible, but there was the slightest hint of a rifle’s barrel sticking out of one of the windows. Karima took her head away from the scope and began to unpack and attach a silencer to the end of her rifle. “When I shoot the man in the window, you will have to go to the front door. When you ring the intercom, you should say nothing except make a perceptible sound. They will ask their sniper to see who you are, and when he does not reply, they will send armed men out the front door. Do you understand what you should do?”

Karima nodded. “I’m ready. Thank you, Sibel.”

“May Mother Adalstier guide your path, Karima. For your sake, I hope we will not have to meet again.” Sibel took the shot.

Karima slid down the dune, landed on her feet and ran for the door, drawing her sword from its case. Her hand hit the intercom button and she slammed her sword into the speaker, blowing it out. Karima stepped to the side and waited. When the door slid open and the group of men, armed with assault rifles did come out, Karima was ready for them. She had, after consideration for how her sister would have used the weapon to its full potential, found she didn't even need to fully transition the weapon into either mode to utilize it's ranged or close quarters capabilities. She slid in, severing the kneecap of one of the men and then brought the sword to rest on her arm. She pulled the trigger, slamming a bullet through one of their hearts as she rolled with the recoil and brought the blade down on the head of the first man. There was one left and he brought his rifle to bear on Karima. She saw him begin to squeeze the trigger, but he stopped, a hole suddenly in his throat. He gagged on the blood that sputtered out and then fell over.

Karima raised a hand to Sibel in thanks. She could see as the Maid shook her head, raised a hand in farewell, and then turned to depart with her two comrades. They disappeared behind the dune and Karima turned to enter the building. She found it to be as one would expect; abandoned, disheveled and dirty. Sand had blown in from the higher windows and seeped in from holes in the roofing. Apocrypha seemed to have made a conscious effort to block off this one particular hallway so that one would need to go through the front door, so the path was straight forward. Karima was cautious, but also nervous. She loaded in a fresh clip, her finger twitched beside the trigger, and she watched forward.

A set of stairs lead her into the bowels of the complex. Some of the construction was new, but most of it was old, not to even begin to mention how much sand there was. Dear Adalstier, there was so much sand one would think it was a drug den. Karima noticed one thing, though. There was no camera surveillance system, or if there was one, it was invisible to her eyes. It was much more likely there just wasn't one. Karima had a hunch that Apocrypha was so focused on weapons that they would rather get another twenty boxes of assault rifles than set up a working camera system. It was a bit absurd considering they were fighting Maids. You couldn't use any of those fancy weapons if you didn't see your enemy coming.

Someone came down the hall and Karima idly hid behind a crate. When she was sure they hadn't saw her, she continued onward. There was some crude signage on a wall, printed out and taped on with duct tape. An armoury, which might be a good idea for her to destroy. A flight pad, which would likely be her ticket out of here considering her situation. A lab? What were they possibly researching?

Karima remembered what the Apocrypha members had talked about at the beginning of her journey with Anastasia and the Lyceum. Yes, it was probably about her and the prospect of creating more Maids born and assigned male at birth. The thing about that entire conundrum was that she couldn’t really fathom how they would be researching that without her present. If the entire complex was dedicated to furthering the twofold terrorist plot of creating controllable Maids and destroying the Lyceum, but they weren’t even doing any planning or research in their lab, then no one would be here. She needed to get there as soon as possible and destroy what they had.

Also get there as soon as possible because the person who had passed her earlier was probably going to find those dead bodies outside that she had neglected to move. She cursed under her breath and began to run.

Her path took her into what seemed to be a sort of flight pad set up in what looked like a missile silo. She couldn't really tell, considering she didn't really know what a missile silo was supposed to look like, and the only sort of “place where Zephyrs land” she had seen was in the Lyceum’s hangar that one time someone bothered to show her it. Sure enough, as she walked into the area, the alarm went off. A voice calmly uttered “Possible breach at front entrance, security please respond.” Karima made sure to use all the supply crates and refueling containers to hide behind as Apocrypha scrambled around her. The Zephyr was left mostly unattended, other than only a handful of guards. It was a different type than the one that had crash landed in the wastelands, but Karima could see bits of that crashed Zephyr around the hangar. The door that Anastasia hadn't torn off was lying to the side.

While this Zephyr was likely how she would have to get back to Akkierens later on, she still needed to get through the hangar and find her way to the lab, and doing that would be much easier if she didn't leave a trail of bodies in her wake. Anastasia would probably take that route, but for Karima, it would probably get her killed, primarily because Karima was not as good a fighter as Anastasia was. So, Karima stuck to the shadows and hugged the wall until she reached the opposite end where another crude sign pointed her in the right direction.

The lab, with its long hallways, endless stretches of windows, seemed to be the bulk of the facility. It also seemed to have been professionally constructed, as opposed to most of the rest of the place, like the flight pad, which were just ruins that Apocrypha decided to inhabit. Sneaking past the Apocrypha guards was surprisingly easy. Most of them seemed incredibly tired, and they were easily visible with the fact they were standing and the windows all started at about waist height. The more she looked around, the more she was sure of it. Apocrypha was a disorganized mess. The lab area had a fresh and shiny coat of paint on it, but there were very few people around and supplies and equipment were strewn about. It might look nice, but the lab area was very much the same as the sand filled hallways.

Karima was also trying to discern exactly how they were carrying out their research. There were some rooms where it appeared they were looking into some sort of stem cell… genetic… hormone therapy? Karima wasn't exactly familiar with this sort of thing beyond the fact she had used to take hormones, and then she had been younger and not much had been explained to her. She stumbled into some tablets in some of the rooms and scrolled through the research notes present on the devices.

She laughed. It made sense now. No one had ever been able to find out what actually allowed Adalstier manipulation other than “girls can do it”. Apocrypha wasn't just going to stumble upon the secret, and it was unlikely that them studying a singular transgirl would just suddenly give them a sort of Eureka moment. The only thing anyone knew is that Maids had a higher chance of giving birth to Maids. So, as a next logical step, having both parents be Maids would increase the chance of a person capable of Adalstier manipulation being born, right?

She looked through their list of Maids captured, organized alphabetically by presumed surname. Much of the notes for each of them included their condition mentally and physically, what Adalstier elements they were able to manipulate, the weapons they used as Maids… The last person on the list was a Vidrein Cyseince Maid, with cybernetic prosthetics and magnetically controlled throwing knives… who had also been apart of the Akkierens Lyceum… Part of Karima wanted to jump for joy, given that Anastasia wasn't dead, but another part feared seeing Anastasia again after having nearly gotten her killed. Karima had made a mistake, and had gotten both of them stuck in an Apocrypha trap. Anastasia should be angry at her, but Karima knew she wouldn't be.

One tablet had a couple pictures in its gallery. While most of them just seemed to be photographs of the tablet’s owner after they accidentally opened the front facing camera, there was a picture seemingly downloaded from somewhere. It was of the layout for the laboratory complex. There were some scribbles drawn with the tablet’s software in red, denoting that a particular part of the complex hadn’t been completed or that the area with the cells was full. Karima snickered, reading “our asshole boss won’t let us take a break”. Lovely.

She hurried out, making her way to the cells. That was the plan then. Karima would get Anastasia out and together they would bring this place crashing to the ground. Simple enough.

Karima reached a point where she could peer into the holding cell area. It was comprised of three stories, each containing numerous cells. Here, there seemed to be a repertoire of competent and armed guard. It was unlikely that she would be able to sneak in and get Anastasia out. She didn’t want to fight her way in, but once she had Anastasia with her, they’d be able to get out of here without issue. She nodded to herself, yeah, this’d be a cinch. She looked down over the cell area from the window above it. Okay, maybe she wasn’t a Maid like Anastasia who was plenty capable, but Maids were heroes! This was like child’s play to people so monumental. She was one of them now. She could do this!

With a deep breath, she smashed the window with her sword, sending shards of glass showering down below, and then she vaulted over. She activated her Engine and absorbed the impact of landing with her body. With the power of Aevum Adalstier flowing through her, she quickly analyzed the targets in the room. One on the very top floor, two on the second floor, and two where she was. Easy enough.

She twisted to the side as a burst of assault rifle rounds passed by her, threw her sword over her shoulder and fired it. She flipped her weapon back with the natural recoil of the weapon and rushed the other guard, driving her sword into his thigh before ripping it out and tearing his jaw apart with a vertical swing upward. Two of the other three began to shoot at her, with one of them hauling himself down the stairs to try and reach her. She sprinted towards the stairs herself, intent on reaching the guard before he reached her. With a firm kick against the wall for the vertical momentum, she grabbed his head and slammed it against the rail. Recovering, she bounded up the last few stairs and slid across the floor toward her second last target. She pulled the trigger mid slide, blowing out his kneecap, before jumping up and holding him up as his partner riddled him full of bullets. Karima threw him aside and simply shot the last guard in the face.

Wow, she had actually done it. She unloaded her partially empty clip and slapped a new one in, quickly falling off of an adrenaline and Aevum fueled high. There was a very sudden pain in her arm and she grabbed at her shoulder, pulling her hand away to look at the bullet hole where it had snuck through the ballistic plating. “Oh, oh…” She bit her tongue and hopped back down toward the security room. It was beginning to really hurt.

Karima looked at the list written on a whiteboard in the security room. She quickly found Anastasia’s cell, fumbled with the cell release mechanism and specifically opened Anastasia’s cell. She didn’t know who were in the other cells. They could all be Maids, but they could be hostile and violent Maids like Iva. She would rather not risk that.

As she walked over to Anastasia’s cell, still clutching her shoulder, something came over the intercom. It wasn’t the calm voice like before. “Who just opened one of the cells? Get on the line now.” They waited for a moment, seemingly waiting for someone to do so. They gave up after a moment. “Security, send a team to the holding block. Your intruder is already in the base.” If that wasn’t an indication for Karima to hurry, then she didn’t know what one was.

Anastasia was there, and the door was open, but Anastasia was certainly not in the condition she had been in before. She seemed to be only half conscious, with numerous bruises and cuts across her mostly naked body. Karima had not expected this… no, she had not even considered it. She shuffled forward, placing her hand against Anastasia’s shoulder and shook her. “Anastasia… please. We have to go. I have to save you.” That’s when she realized Anastasia had no arms from the elbow down. She could see the messy scar tissue, long faded, after what she assumed was the initial hasty operation to apply her cybernetics, or maybe that was from the wound that took her arms and legs in the first place.

Karima wrapped her arms around Anastasia and activated her Engine. They had left Anastasia’s legs intact, luckily. Slowly but surely, she began to lead Anastasia out of her cell, all the while using her Engine to try and heal her. Karima tried to hurry them out of the holding cell area, but every stumble stole valuable seconds from them. Karima also didn’t know where Anastasia’s weapons or Engine were. This had been a bad plan…

Someone came around a corner and Karima tried to singlehandedly use her rifle to shoot them. The bullet hit, but she felt the recoil of the weapon throw fire onto her shoulder wound. Karima crumpled to the floor, dragging Anastasia with her. She hauled herself up and forced them both to keep going. Karima needed Anastasia to help her. Where would they be keeping her arms? Where… Karima grabbed the tablet and fumbled for the map. Operating theatre? There was a note under it that said it was also a dissection lab. Disgusting, but probably her best bet. She tossed the tablet to the side and made a beeline for it, navigating around the very loud sounds of Apocrypha guards trying to reach her last known position.

Eventually Karima kicked open the door of the operating theatre and found several doctors and technicians arm deep in a dead woman. There was brief moment where no one moved, but when Karima dumped Anastasia in a chair - one with an odd amount of straps - and dropped a cabinet in front of the door, the implications were very obvious.

“Where are her arms?” was the question she raised.

In the end, she got them to pull Anastasia’s cybernetics from a bin they had haphazardly thrown them in and she put Anastasia on the table. As someone began to pound against the door, trying to get in, Karima forced them to get to work reattaching the two cybernetic pieces. It was not a hard process, but the banging on the door and Karima’s threat of a swift death from a bullet did not expedite the process. When they finally reattached the second arm and reconfigured its wiring so it worked, Karima forced them all to step back. Finally, she laid her hands on Anastasia stomach and focused her Engine on bringing Anastasia back to her normal health. Without Anastasia, she wouldn’t be able to escape from here. She needed Anastasia. Anastasia was an infinitely more capable Maid…

The door blew open in a controlled explosion and Karima ducked for cover. Dust and debris flew out wildly, before gunshots were fired indiscriminately, and then they stopped. Karima, still alive, looked around. Most of the technicians and doctors were lying on the ground dead or injured, as well as the Apocrypha guards. Karima looked up to see Anastasia, gripping a bloody combat knife taken from one of the guards in her hand tightly, blood sprayed against her face, breathing in ragged breaths. She tore off the clothing of one of the guards and pulled it onto herself. “Karima, let’s get out of here.” They needed to stop this madness now.

Anastasia set her knives away and picked up an assault rifle. She checked the ammunition contents and the sight as she began to move away. Karima followed behind her. “Where are we going, Anastasia?”

“My unit,” she began to explain, “was investigating stolen Adalstier technology pieces that Apocrypha’s Maid was stealing. What do you think they were building?”

“A big gun?”

“A bomb, and where do you think they’re going to detonate it?”

“The Lyceum… Where’s the bomb?’

Anastasia rounded a corner and instantly ducked to cover when she saw a group of Apocrypha men entrenched. They started shooting at her a moment later. “It’s in their proving grounds, right behind that door.” She began to return fire, and ducked to jam a new magazine into the gun before she began to forcibly push the cover she was using toward the barricade, firing over the top the whole way. “Come on!” she yelled at Karima before vaulting over her cover and pushing directly past the barricade. Karima sprinted after her, stabbing a guard in the back that Anastasia didn’t see before shooting another that Anastasia had kicked away from her. They pushed into the proving grounds together.

Seongjin was standing in the centre of the room, leaning against a crate, with the open top facing Karima and Anastasia. The crate was empty. Both Karima and Anastasia kept their guns trained on him, especially as Apocrypha shuffled onto the catwalks above them. “I’m guessing you already know what this crate was for, Anastasia,” Seongjin said.

“It’s for the Skadia bomb you developed, and of course I know, because you couldn’t help yourself when you told me.”

“I told you, Anastasia, because you need to know the truth. Who came to rescue you? Karima. Not Declaration-7. Not the Lyceum. Not the Administration. They’ve abandoned you. You did what you thought was morally right, and now they won’t even come to help you.”

Karima was the one to speak this time. “We’re sitting in the middle of an elemental storm. I think it’s a little hard to get a ship in here.”

“Actually, while you were prancing about my facility, the storm shifted away from us, which is why we are about to take the device out of here. We’ll destroy the Lyceum, break the Administration’s dependence on their Maids, and then I’ll have what I want. You’ll be here. Dead.”

“Whatever happened to your convoluted plan for making new Maids?” Anastasia said.

Seongjin laughed. “Male Maids, female Maids… It matters not in the end. I don’t need you or the girl, but it would have been nice.”

Anastasia held her finger against the metal of the assault rifle’s trigger. She just needed to shoot the man. That’s all she needed. Apocrypha would crumble without leadership and it’s poorly organized remnants would either disband or be hunted down by the Administration. She just needed to kill him. The agonizing thing was that she couldn’t. She needed to get both herself and Karima out of here, alive. Karima didn’t need the mental scarring that was sure to happen if Anastasia sacrificed herself for Karima.

Anastasia pulled the magazine out of her gun and tossed it to the side. “Fine, Seongjin. You win.” Karima looked at her, confused.

“Really?” He smiled and reached behind his back, pulling out a pistol. “That’s nice to hear.”

Anastasia and Karima both heard a sound from nowhere. That lovely clink and the jiggling of metal pipes somewhere beyond the room. Seongjin looked around. “Find where that’s coming from!” he yelled at his men.

“It doesn’t matter where that’s coming from, Mr. Go,” Anastasia said. Seongjin looked at her, began to realize, and then began to run. Parts of the roof collapsed, repelling ropes dropped from the ceiling and the colours of the Lyceum and the Administration dropped down. Finally, they had gotten their device tracker working.

The room began the quick process of being covered in Apocrypha blood. Bullets were fired on both sides, but the Administration and Lyceum forces, being much better in both training and supplies, easily shredded the surprised Apocrypha forces. Anastasia saw a familiar head of red hair. “Jun!”

Jun looked at Anastasia and Karima, slamming a new set of rounds into her revolvers. “You’re alive? You’re alive!” She ran over and moved to embrace Anastasia, but Anastasia stopped her, holding her by the arms.

“Their leader is getting away with their bomb!” Anastasia began to bolt after Seongjin and Karima ran after her.

Karima looked back at Jun. “Why are you guys here!”

“The deputy headmistress is a very persuasive person!” Jun yelled back.

Anastasia and Karima chased Seongjin through the lab floor. He had the head start and was climbing the stairs to the Zephyr by the time Anastasia and Karima entered the room. Only a handful of Apocrypha was even in the room, and the armed ones began to shoot at the two Maids immediately. Anastasia bounded after him and Karima struggled to keep pace. When Seongjin jumped into the Zephyr, Anastasia jumped after him, tackling him to the floor of the ship. Karima jumped on board a second later, just as the Zephyr began to rise. They flew up, into the decaying remains of an office building and then smashed through concrete, as the pilot hoped to escape as fast as possible. Karima tried to help Anastasia hold Seongjin down, all the while as Anastasia began to beat him mercilessly.

Seongjin pushed Karima away for a moment, and when she hit the door of the Zephyr she saw something out of the corner of her eyes. Silver Wings, hovering above the ruins. The Lyceum had pulled out all the stops. Small Zephyrs were being deployed, dropping troops into the Apocrypha base. She noticed a singular cannon deploy from the side of Silver Wings, aiming at them. Karima began to panic. “They’re going to shoot at us!” They didn’t know they were on board and the small Zephyr was gunning it away. How could they know that the two Maids were on board. Neither of them had resonators!

The cannon fired and tore apart the Zephyr’s thrusters. It sputtered, and then immediately began to dive toward the ground. Again, the people on board were thrown to the side, but it hit much lighter than last time. It pierced the sand as its forward momentum kept it going, drifting forward, shredding pieces of itself and cargo. It finally stopped, leaving a trail of debris behind it.

Karima’s leg was badly sprained in the crash, but Anastasia was fine. Anastasia hauled herself up and then grabbed Karima, tearing off the partially attached door and moving out onto the sand. Anastasia ran for something, holding Karima in her arms. She set Karima down and Karima watched as Anastasia tore open a panel, and jammed her fist inside the electronics of an odd device. Anastasia eventually pulled her arm out, a hexagonal prism of a container with six Skadia crystals inlaid into it. She pulled her arm back and threw the container as far as she could. It skittered in the sand, and stopped, far away from them and the bomb. That was it then. They had finally stopped Apocrypha and they could all go home.

There was a gunshot, and Anastasia doubled over as crimson began to spread across her abdomen.

Seongjin stumbled over to them, a smoking gun in one hand and a metal pipe in the other. Something had torn through his suit jacket, and he was bleeding profusely from his side, but he kept walking. “I guess you win then, Anastasia.” He didn’t even bother regarding Karima. “You’ve destroyed my organization, defused my bomb, and my plans are nothing but dust in the wind…” He tossed the pistol to the side and brought the pipe into his hands. “I hope you don’t mind if I relieve my anger. There certainly is a lot of it.”

He kicked Anastasia over and swung the pipe down on her. Karima could hear the very audible sound of Anastasia’s bones breaking. Karima looked away. Anastasia didn’t react loudly to the blows, which seemed to drive Seongjin further in his anger. Karima didn’t want to hear any of it. The sickening sound of metal hitting and breaking bone, flesh breaking apart, blood spraying across the sand. She didn’t want to hear it. Not to Anastasia. Not to the person she looked up to. Not to a person she loved.

Karima pushed herself away from her seated position and dragged herself toward the pistol Seongjin had dropped. Her leg ached as she pulled it across the sand, and her shoulder yelped in pain when she used her arm to pull herself forward, but she kept going. She made one final grand pull forward and shot her arm out far enough to grasp around the handle of the gun. She wrapped her hand around the handle, put her finger on the trigger and pointed it at Seongjin. “Stop, or I’ll shoot!” she yelled at him.

He did stop and looked at her. His face was initially of surprise, but then it was of laughter and insanity. He stood up. “You’re really going to shoot me? You can’t. You’re weak. You’re nothing compared to the other Maids; less than nothing.” His face was cold and unfeeling now. “You know if you kill me, then you’re as good as all the people you hate.” He took a step toward her.” “You’re like me. I’ve killed people. You fear becoming me.” He took another step forward. “You’ll never shoot-”

Karima shot him in the chest. “Just shut up,” she said, and then shot him again. He fell forward, falling to his knees, and then she shot him again. When he finally landed on his face, Karima pushed herself onto her feet. It hurt to stand, but she took a few steps forward, pointed the gun at Seongjin’s body, and emptied the clip into his back. When the gun stopped firing bullets, she tossed it to the side and stumbled past him toward Anastasia. Karima felt herself getting lightheaded. “Yup, I’m gonna pass out from all this bleeding.” Karima fell on top of Anastasia and then passed out from all the bleeding.



Karima remembered the initial events after Apocrypha quite vibrantly. She had awoken in the Lyceum’s infirmary, jammed with numerous needles and was drugged to high hell. Anastasia was asleep, with her stitched up face resting against the blanket of the cot. Jun was snoring loudly in another chair. The Silver Wings gunner that had shot them out of the sky came and apologized very profusely, explaining that the information that two Maids were onboard that Zephyr had reached her after she had taken the shot.

Headmistress Elidia had come, reprimanded both Anastasia and Jun, declaring them banned from Maid activity for a period of five years, and took their weapons and Engines away so that the Lyceum would hold onto them for that five year period. It wasn’t like Anastasia particularly cared after all she had been through, and it wasn’t like Jun cared, considering they just wanted to be together. When Karima was much more lucid, the headmistress also gave her an earful. Karima mostly just nodded and got away with a month long suspension of using her Lyceum free time for anything other than study. She was really tired.

The deputy headmistress came by too, and she echoed much of the same sentiment. She said she wasn’t going to do anything about the suspensions, because really, they all should have known better. She did, though, commend them on their heroism.

Their recoveries were fairly quick, considering the amount of money the Lyceum had at its disposal. When all the casts and slings finally came off, Anastasia and Jun went off, boarding a Zephyr and going on vacation. The headmistress made the one exception to let Karima see them off. It was a teary departure, but Karima knew she’d see them again.

Studying was much the same as before, though she was asked why she just disappeared for no reason - which she said was an actual secret and she really couldn’t talk about it. She got help from her classmates, goofed off a bit, and found herself becoming a better Maid. With Adira’s weapon and Engine, she felt her sister guiding her the whole way. Though, she was definitely going to interrogate Anastasia on Adira when she got back.

A few months after it had all ended, she found herself sitting on a bench at the commercial Zephyr depot. It was also warm, the snow in Akkierens had disappeared awhile ago. She ate a burger she had picked up on the way and watched as a Zephyr from Ilskaieh pulled in and began to unload passengers. It wasn’t Anastasia and Jun’s, but she watched the people go by to their happy reunions. Life was normal. She remembered having thought it wouldn’t be when she arrived at the Lyceum. She was the first trans Maid in the history of the Lyceum. Someone might think that would instantly mean she would either fall in love with one of the other Maids, or create some sort of love triangle, or have extensive amounts of sex with the other Maids, but no. She was just a Maid like the rest of them. It didn’t matter what happened when she was born.

The Zephyr she was waiting for finally pulled in. She tossed her food wrapper away and ran over to the platform. Sure enough, in the sea of people flooding in, she saw the white hair of Anastasia and the red hair of Jun. As soon as a path opened, she rushed in.

“Hey, kid!” Jun said and messed up her hair. “What’s my favorite Maid been up to?”

Karima raised an eyebrow. “I thought Anastasia would be your favorite Maid.”

Jun leaned in closely and whispered. “Hey, don’t let her hear you say that. It’s a secret between you and me.” She winked and Karima laughed.

Anastasia punched Jun in the side. “Are you two done? I’d like to go eat something.” They began to walk off the platform, and off to whatever restaurant Jun would inevitably decide to go to.



Sisters and Daughters Sequel
So I started a sequel to Sisters and Daughters which was to be the second part in a sort of trilogy which ends with the utter destruction of Akkierens in a huge spectacle piece.

Anyway, this one was much more about not finding one's place within society like Karima's subplot in Sisters and Daughters was, but affirming the place and relishing in family. It was to be a love story foremost, and an attempt at a tournament arc style narrative. I picked Maids from MRPG that I thought had both cohesion together and towards my narrative of family.

There was going to be a minor subplot about Anastasia and Jun being suspicious of the headmistress of the Lyceum of the city of Belaxan, who was Azami. This was supposed to be a funny jab at Wooly for making Azami this sort of odd morally ambiguous character in the MRPG prologue, but I'm definitely not gonna finish this, lol.

My notes
Karima - Aevum
Remembrance (Sword and rifle combination), Aisha
Anastasia - Cyseince, Vidrein
Augmented limbs, Tsvetok (Magnetic throwing knives), Bishop
Jun - Leysa, Skadia
Nuwa and Fuxi (Twin bladed revolvers), Daoji

Carmilla - Leysa, Aevum
Archangel (Spear and staff combination), d’Arc

Pluto - Aevum
Very Big Minigun, Ashling
Beatrix - Aevum, Cyseince
Save the Queen, Angra Mainyu
Sylvia - Leysa
Vera (Sniper rifle), Balmung (Spear), Durindana

Second year at the Lyceum. Tournament arc.

Main Plot - Karima gets a love interest.

What I had (Rough Draft Stage)
It had been a full year since the incident with Apocrypha.

The corporations of Akkiriens had formed a new organization to combat the sudden distrust of them after the fall and nationalization of DusTec. The Corporate Alliance, a new player between the Order, The Lyceum, and the Administration. They quickly gained power as the corporations pledged their unified power, threatening the Lyceum with their public approval, technological and economic hard power, and ability to affect city policy.

Karima didn’t understand it. It always seemed that the biggest threat to humanity was not outside the barrier, but within it. If they could all decide to stop bickering and fighting about ownership between four different organizations, they could do whatever they wanted. They could likely crush the Remnant, reclaim all the cities, rediscover their past and decide their own future.

But no, everyone just wanted more power than they needed.

As an example of this massive irony between the balance of power and the fact that there were things outside that wanted to kill them, the [Maid Festival] had come to Akkiriens.

From a fundamental level, Karima did not understand the notion of a games for the Lyceums of the world. They were supposed to be selfless guardians, but they were made into competitors for the honour and glory of their Lyceum. She didn’t like that, especially when she knew people that put their lives at stake for the good of humanity.

Anastasia and Jun had been a strong presence in Karima's life ever since she met them. It was lucky that, a year into their suspension from being Maids, that the Corporate Alliance emerged, Declaration-7 was reinstated, and the two senior Maids were brought out of suspension by Headmistress Elidia herself. It was good to have them back, and it was good to have someone to turn to.

Even so, the tournament would not wait for Karima to be ready to participate. She found herself compelled to do so. Perhaps not for herself, but for her sister… Adira.

The headmistress began her speech on the deck of Silver Wings, suspended over the Administration’s block. Karima stood at attention, with all the other members of her class and the Lyceum, essentially backdrop for the headmistress. There were three other ships there. Maiden’s Wrath from Belaxan, Fellspirit from Ilskaieh and Martyr of the Stars from Retalis.

Belaxan was fascinating to her. She had always thought that Akkiriens was a prime example of the militarization of a Lyceum. No, this was a much more definite example of that concept. All of their Maids were dressed in the same rigid black and red skirts and dresses. She could imagine their main school uniform was incredibly utilitarian. Their headmistress was a steely woman, red eyes and raven hair, and their deputy headmistress was similar in those regards, but with blue eyes and blonde hair. One could tell there was a mutual respect between them by the ways they spoke at length with each other, occasionally smiling and joking.

Ilskaieh, judging by their extremely fancy dress, seemed to be a city of great economic gains. With the Corporate Alliance rearing its head, Karima too thought that Akkiriens would be yet another example of economics shaping a city. No, again, this was it. The most surprising facet of it all… was that there was no headmistress. They held a headmaster. To Karima, this seemed absolutely absurd, but then she could hear the voice of Anastasia in her head, telling her about the balance of power in the world of Antiope, and then she stopped and slowly considered it. They had a deputy headmistress, so it was not as if the staff did not contain capable Maids… She would have to wait and see. The headmaster was an older man, grey hair and a kindness in his eyes. The deputy headmistress was a young woman, reserved and smiling quietly. They did not seem to directly interact much.

The last, Retalis, was something to behold. Each Maid wore a strip of red fabric across their eyes, which was in direct contrast to the practically bridal uniforms that each Maid was in. This was the most odd to behold of all three of the foreign Lyceums. She did not really understand until their headmistress spoke. When nearly every sentence was focused on praising Mother Adalstier and the gift of manipulation, she understood. The headmistress herself, as far as Karima saw, not once opened her eyes. She had no strip of red fabric, but she simply never opened her eyes. Karima found this moderately creepy.

Karima wondered then. She had thought that Akkierens was the most poignant den for each of these factors. It always seemed that the Administration was highly militarized, or that corporate presenses held a great deal of power, or that the Lyceum and its Maids were worshipped as gods among humanity.

How odd then, that Akkierens seemed tame in comparison.

The entrance ceremony came to an end when a group of Akkierens idols held a concert, broadcasting live to the people of the Antiope Barrier Cities. Karima stayed to watch, rather fascinated by the whole affair. From the railing of Silver Wings she watched on as the Maid Festival started. An event to venerate strong and courageous women, and she was one of them. Karima let herself have this one. She could feel strong and courageous, just for this one day.



Anastasia watched the celebration begin from the bar in the Festival arena. To her, she saw only one side of a very complex series of political movements between the Antiope Barrier Cities. Belaxan came because they wanted a trade deal between itself and Akkierens to secure a more viable trade route over hostile Remnant territory. That meant a joint operation between Belaxan’s government and Lyceum and Akkierens’ Administration and Headmistress Elidia's Lyceum. The other two were here for similar reasons. Show off the economic power of [], and convert more people for Retalus’ religion.

And all of it came to a head at the tournament. Who would take home the title of the most powerful Lyceum? Who possessed the strongest Maids? Who could protect Antiope the most?

“Remember when we all competed, Ana?” Jun said before taking a sip of her [look up alcoholic beverages]. “The four of us against the world, and we almost won.”

Anastasia looked back up at the holographic monitor, just as the camera showed the deputy headmistress of the [] Lyceum. She narrowed her eyes and then took a long drink from her brandy. “I remember,” Anastasia said. “It was so long ago…” She felt the dulled sensation of Jun’s hand on her synthetic fingers. Anastasia turned her hand and let Jun’s fingers intertwine with hers. “Years ago.”

“Maybe Karima will win?” Jun posited. “That’d be great for her. The world needs to know that the Akkierens Lyceum is open to all the Maids of Antiope, no matter where they came from.”

Anastasia nodded. “Who’s on her team?”

Jun paused, looked to the side in thought, and then recentered her gaze back on the screen. The Akkierens idols were singing a softer, more thoughtful song. The melody carried a tone of remembrance, of solidarity, and of peace. “Good people,” Jun said. “Akkierens’ finest, I'm sure.”

Anastasia looked out the window, across the green field of the arena, and at the opposite end of the outer edge of the arena. It was far away, but she could still see the celebratory party for the Order. Akkierens’ finest… She shook her head. So certainly not anyone from the Order, nor any corporate mouthpieces, though those did seem to overlap.

Anastasia remembered her team. They were friends, great friends… bound by honour, duty, trust and love. Karima would need that if she were to win this.

Karima stepped into the locker room to meet the rest of her team. Instead of a happy, joking atmosphere, she was instead met with two raised voices in vocal combat. Sylvia Cross and Beatrix [] stared each other down. Karima could feel a headache coming on.

“The tournament is one of the most serious things a Maid goes through!” Beatrix shouted, throwing her arm out to gesture at a series of magazines resting on a bench. They were magazines for weapons, Karima noted. “We are not here to laze about, but to show our devotion to the Lyceum and Akkierens!” Her golden eyes were fierce, narrowed in insinuation.

“I'll do what I want. Unlike some people, I'm not here to be a blind little slave!” Sylvia pointed at Beatrix's as she said this. “We all have our duties, but you go too far, Beatrix. I'm not your subordinate!”

A small Maid, pink eyed and haired, fruitlessly tried to speak up and get between them. Both of the Maids stood their ground on the matter, and Pluto’s pleas when unanswered.

“Do you expect me to see around while you undermine our team, Cross? I will do everything in my power to ensure that we succeed.” She raised one of her hands, the one that held her engine upon it. A threat?

“You can try!” Sylvia countered. “You really want to start a fight?” She looked behind her for her weapons.

“A fight? Childish.” Instead of drawing Save the Queen, she gathered up all of Sylvia’s magazines. “I will make sure these are confiscated.” Without another word, she bolted out the door, nearly knocking Karima over as she went.

“Get back here!” Sylvia shouted and ran after her, leaving both Karima and Pluto alone in the locker room.

Karima sighed and went to go close Sylvia’s locker, which still contained more magazines - which Karima anticipated contained a fair amount of pornography. “Aren't we a team?” Karima said aloud.

“We are,” Pluto said, sitting down on the bench. She set her hands in her lap, ruffling her Maid uniform slightly. “Sometimes teams fight.”

Karima plopped herself down next to Pluto. “I just don't want to get either of the headmistresses involved. That’ll be a problem and a half to deal with, and we need to get ourselves ready. The tournament starts proper in a week. We’re against a team from Belaxan.” She expected a tough fight from any team of Maids, be them from any of the Barrier Cities, but Belaxan seemed like they would be a particular challenge. “I don't even know how we all work together yet…”

Pluto smiled a small, kind smile and set her hand on Karima’s knee. “Leave it to me.”

Karima smiled politely back, but sighed afterward. It would be nice to just leave it all to Pluto, but she figured that that wasn't the point of the tournament, at least not until the more individualized duels against other Maids. One on one combat… that'll be something else.

“How about you talk to Sylvia, and I'll talk to Beatrix,” Karima suggested. She already had a bond with Beatrix, and Sylvia was sure to fall under Pluto’s spell easily. Everyone did. “That’ll be faster, I think.”

Pluto nodded, likely having a million thoughts pass through her mind just from Karima’s mild suggestion. Karima wondered what Pluto could possibly be thinking about. Such an introspective and thoughtful girl… Maybe she could learn something from that, Karima thought.



Karima waited, naturally, for the two of her teammates to finish their fight, and then a bit of time more than that to let them cool off. She didn't want to approach Beatrix while the fires were still hot.

She found Beatrix later, in the bleachers of the stadium. It was quiet, and mostly empty. Events were still happening elsewhere in Akkierens. Interviews with senior Maids, a ball with the nobility of Akkierens… It was all mostly a great deal of things that neither Karima nor the other members of her team could participate in.

Beatrix was quiet, her hair flowing gently through the breeze, as she ran a cloth against the surface of her sword. She raised her head as Karima approached and lowered it back down once she saw who it was. “My apologies,” she said. “My behaviour was unbecoming.”

Karima shook her head and sat down beside Beatrix, her feet resting on the back of the bench in front of them. “Being upset shows that you care about this tournament. It's… huge. One of the biggest events in our careers as junior Maids.”

Beatrix said nothing in response, merely turning her head upward to gaze at the evening sky. Crisp orange hues washing through vibrant blue. Dark as an ocean, deep as night. The stars were but dots in that vast painting.

“What do you see?” Karima asked.

“Legacy. Stretched out across the tapestry of my life. The thrill of battle is but a few streaks compared to the vastness of time in which we stand guard. We wait for the moments we are called to serve the Lyceum, the Barrier City, and humanity. We must be ever vigilant.” She set her head down on the bench, right beside Karima, and then stared up and out. Karima did the same, placing her own head beside Beatrix’s.

“Why not treasure that time between?” Karima asked, setting her hands on her stomach, staring out at the stars with Beatrix.

“I don't know,” Beatrix said. “It's not what we're supposed to do. I have to focus on the call to action, even if I don't know when it will come. Perhaps, especially if I do not know.” She looked to the side, noticing a couple walking near the edge of the arena. Two Maids, hand in hand, leaning against one another. Beatrix frowned to herself.

“Where does fun fit in? Companionship? Love?” Karima stretched her hands out, trying to capture the night sky in her embrace. “There is so much room on this tapestry. Why not give a little bit of it to someone special?”

“Do you have someone you love, Karima?”

“Not yet,” she said. “I'm sure that one day I will, and I will give her a piece of my tapestry just as she will give me hers.”

Beatrix laughed quietly. “You seem like a hopeless romantic. Where will you find the time for love?”

Karima smiled, thinking of Anastasia and Jun. “Maids always find a way.” She turned her eyes over to Beatrix’s general location. “How about it, then?”

“Maybe,” Beatrix said. Karima nodded, and Beatrix continued. “This is about Sylvia, isn't it?”

“I won't lie to you. Maybe Sylvia needs to take things more seriously, but… the tournament isn't our lives. There’s so much more to it, Beatrix.”

“So much more…” Beatrix echoed, her mind in thought. She paused, returning her eyes to the sky as she simply thought. “We should start training, I think.”

“Agreed.”

Pluto and Karima brought Beatrix and Sylvia together. The two of them looked each other in the eye, apologized, and shook hands. Karima gave Pluto a fist bump and so ended that chapter of the tournament’s story.

They made their way to the training facilities built for the tournament by train. All across the city were big flashy banners, advertising the tournament, the Maids of Akkierens, city tourism, and whatever else the Administration and the Corporate Alliance wanted the people of Antiope to see about Akkierens. It seemed rather cynical, but Karima didn't say anything and neither did any of the others. Politics weren't something any of them could really affect, so why even bother with the discussion. It seemed so pointless.

After a short walk from the station, they arrived at an extensive complex, hastily constructed to house the foreign contestants and allow them access to training facilities without being forced to be transported to the Akkierens Lyceum. It was a sleek white and gray building, dotted with windows that allowed one to see out but not within. Each of the Maids scanned their network resonators at the door and were granted entry. Beatrix consulted the map at the main entrance and them their were on their way.

On the inside of the building, the windows were both ways. Karima found herself drawn to one of the windows into one of the training rooms. She looked within, pressing her hands against the glass gently. There was one of the teams from Belaxan, judging from the flavour of their Maid uniforms and the fact a large monitor within read “Belaxan Lyceum”.

There were four Maids, naturally, one of them had a hammer, another had a whip, and another had a sword. The last one had a spear, and Karima found her particularly interesting.

Karima looked behind herself. Her team was fiddling with a digital display, trying to figure out how they selected a room. No rush then, she supposed… and looked back down into the room.

This girl with the spear… Her hair was a dark red, and her outfit was a simple black and white. Instead of the frilly skirt of most Maids, hers was simple and down to her knees. She held her spear behind her head, both arms holding it there casually as her teammates began to encircle her. She spun on the tips of her feet, practically dancing, just as a smile graced her dark red lips, and a glint appeared in her yellow eyes.

One of her teammates went for a quick attack, and she blocked it, pulling her spear out from its casual stance. She was ready for a different attack from a different teammate, letting the sword effortlessly glide off the handle of her spear as she moved to the side.

The Maid slammed the tip of her spear into the ground and used it to launch a kick at another teammate just as they pulled their whip back. They took the kick to the chest and recoiled, but the Maid had already recycled the momentum, swinging herself back for another kick at a different target. It was graceful, and almost… dance like… Karima found it hypnotic to watch.

She finally dismounted and took her spear out from the ground. Without any fanfare, the blade of the spear retracted into the handle. Now with a staff, the Maid spun it around herself, delivering several hard whacks to her opponents as they tried to encircle and outmaneuver her.

Finally, they seemed to call it, and she stopped. She set her staff infront of her, shortening its length telescopically so that she could rest her chin upon it. Casually, she looked up at the windows, toward Karima. The Maid set her fingers against her lips and blew a kiss upward with a playful wink. Karima blinked, and then her heart caught her in throat. She looked away, covering the lower half of her face with a hand as red flushed her cheeks.

When she looked away, she could see Pluto looking at her, a confused look on the young Maid’s face. Nervously, she began to stammer. “Pluto… that Maid down there with the red hair… what’s she doing.”

Pluto took a step toward the window and looked down. “She’s smiling. She’s waving to me. She’s mouthing something… and now she’s turned to her friends.”

Karima fought to get herself under control. “Well, that's… good.” No, not good. That was a bad way to put it… “I mean, that's interesting.” Better.

“Why do you ask?” Pluto asked, tilting her head down to the side.

Karima swallowed and lowered her hand. “No reason. No reason at all.”

Beatrix and Sylvia finally inputted their team’s credentials and secured themselves a room. Down in the brightly lit room, Karima went through the list of training rooms, looking for the team that she had watched. Considering the security in the facility, there wasn’t a need to keep information hidden from those already within. She found the room number and then displayed under it was the current team within: ‘Belaxan A3’. She went to the global database on the festival’s website and looked for that team, finding a series of four names and a headshot for each of them… Karima remembered when she had to take those pictures. She had just stared at the camera and waited for it to be taken, but this girl had pouted and winked, bringing a peace sign over her other eye. She was really cute and pretty, Karima thought…

Sylvia leaned over Karima’s shoulder. “Whatcha lookin’ at?”

Karima instantly fumbled for the dataslate in her hands before covering it with her body. “Nothing! Privacy, much?” Sylvia’s face betrayed the obvious lewd assumptions she was making. “It wasn’t porn, Sylvia. It. Wasn’t.”

“Suuuuuuure,” Sylvia said, and ruffled Karima’s hair. “Bea! Karima’s lookin’ at porn!”

Beatrix looked up from behind the simulation terminal. “What?”

Karima stood up and pointed accusingly at Sylvia. “It wasn’t porn!”

Beatrix blinked. “Okay. What was it then?”

Karima froze on the spot, letting her hand drop to the side. “Well, it wasn’t… porn…”

Beatrix held the bridge of her nose and sighed, which caused Karima not to notice Pluto lifting the tablet from her hand until it was too late. “It’s that Maid…” Pluto said, looking at it. “She’s pretty.”

Sylvia bubbled, clapping her hands playfully. “A girl~? Ooooo~ Is Karima in love?”

“I’m not in love!” Karima shouted as she tackled Sylvia to the floor. Sylvia just laughed and giggled, even as Karima started to pull Sylvia’s arm behind her back and push it toward her head in an attempt to make her give. “Stop saying that!”

“You’ll have to try harder than that!” Sylvia said and laughed even more.

Beatrix walked over and grabbed Karima’s arm, trying to pull her off of Sylvia. “Come on, that’s enough of that!” Karima only resisted.

The whole time, Pluto just watched and judged.

The door to the training room slid open and someone stepped inside. All four of them looked over, frozen in their fight. “Senior Maid on deck!” Beatrix shouted and the four of them lined up on instinct, hands clasped in front of them.

Kurumi Ishihara looked at the four of them, a bit perplexed, but a bit amused. “Now that’s quite unnecessary. At ease, my sisters. Did I interrupt training?”

The four looked to each other and then looked at Kurumi as they relaxed. “No.”

Kurumi pursed her lips and slowly nodded. She seemed suspicious of them, but said nothing. “I thought I would come and see how the Maids of second year were doing.” She paused and glanced up to the glass windows. “You all do realize that anyone can simply glance inside, right? You should be wary of the other teams studying your techniques.”

“We’ll be fine~” Sylvia said and waved off the concern. “I want to hear about your adventures! You deployed last week, didn’t you?”

Pluto pulled out a chair for Kurumi and the rest of them sat politely on the floor. “Antiope is beautiful. Pictures do not do it justice. To see the majesty of the fleet of Akkierens, piercing through the clouds and the fog, especially after a difficult battle…” She closed her eyes for a moment, picturing it all in her mind. “To a Maid, this is surely one of the most graceful images that could ever be seen.” Her eyes turned dark, smile becoming a frown.

“We deployed hot and fast out of Zephyrs. Once we stepped out, weapons ready, Administration soldiers rushed past us and buckled themselves within. We were there to cover a general retreat. Remnant had overwhelmed a held position in the wastes. A recovery team had found part of a fallen Generation 2 Stratocarrier and a larger team was sent to secure. We were only the last option, sent because the operation had completely run afoul.”


Love
Basically, Jynx and Rell kept saying that their characters were just horrible, depressing people. I honestly find that to be utterly boring. So I wrote a short fic.

The Fic

Lola Lang.
I hate her.

Everything about her. The way her mere presence makes blood rush to my face, embarrassing me to no end. Her words, always soft, gentle and caressing to my ears. How she looks at me, threatening change to my disposition - softening my guard, my resolve.

The duty of the Lyceum and the Maids of Akkierens is my burden to bear, and I must protect the city and all its inhabitants with my very life. None of us can afford any distractions.


I watch the vast wastes of Antiope spread out across the horizon as our Zephyr streaks across the sky. The sky is an unending blue, dominating the viewport in its deep ocean. I turn away, steeling myself for the coming crisis. She is beside me, strapped in tightly just as I am. There are others, but this agonizing and narrow hallway of perception her presence forces me within disallows them in my mind.

Her hand sets itself on my thigh and for the briefest of moments I feel the tenseness float away, calmness taking its place, but it only returns. I must reject this source of serenity and strengthen the stronghold of my mind.

I peel her fingers from my leg and set it back into her lap, dumping it like the refuse it is. She pouts slightly and shakes her head, but I already have my head turned away, back to the window as my eyes close. I take deep breaths, repeating words of personal power in my mind to maintain my strength.

The Zephyr’s wing is clipped by some unknown projectile and we spiral to the ground. Sand flies out as the nose of the aircraft dives into the ground, skidding to a halt. I unclip myself, force the door off of its hinges and step out into the wide unknown. I draw Save the Queen, my sword, my burden, my purpose. Lola steps out behind me as she pulls out her knife and steps up to stand beside me. As the foe descends upon us, I suppose, we may stand as Sisters of the Lyceum.

I let my anger out as the battle emerges. Together, we fight, as Maids are trained to do. Those feelings of nervousness and embarrassment come to a head, turn to anger and rage, and I let them out in each swing of the blade. Even if I hate, I must protect. We are Maids. Each swing to strike, each leap to position, each activation to gain an edge - all in service of that greater purpose of protecting what we have. Akkierens. The Lyceum. The Maids. My Sisters. Lola-

I shake the thought from my head as quickly as it comes. Do not fixate. Focus on the- I feel the strike that tears through my dress, slices through flesh, sends blood spraying. I back away behind the cover of my Sisters’ offensive so I might heal. I set Angra Mainyu to knit the wound back together as Zephyrs fly overhead, Silver Wings pounds the ground with artillery, gunfire echoes from afar, and my Sisters fight to hold their ground.

The call comes over the resonator network to retreat and merge our scattered offensive with the rest of the Akkierens forces. We run, our feet digging into the sand as we pull ourselves forward. I’m not watching my feet. I hit a stone, begin to fall, but Lola is still beside me. She grabs my arm, pulls and then thrusts me ahead of her. I curse the weakness, but I still run. We still run.
   
    We hit a hill and we slow to a crawl as we fight to pull ourselves up. Going around would be as long as the hike up. The foe is still at our heels and I see the opportunity. I see what must be done. I take my sword back into my hand, turn on my heel and run to face our enemy. “Go!” I shout. She looks at me as I pass her, disappointment and concern written on her face in the clearest brush strokes. I only avert my gaze, dig my heels into the sand, and await the fate of the Maids of the Lyceum.

    It hurts to be torn apart and tossed to the side like garbage. I hit the ground softly, glide across the sand gently and come to rest in some trench recently used by the Administration forces. Bullet casings roll up against my legs as I feel the blood soak into my dress, staining the black and white and the frills and patterns with my red. I grasp at the gaping wound, watching as the dark figures following my Sisters are delayed just enough to let them cross the hill and escape into the unknown behind the dune.

    A laugh tugs at my lips and I chuckle softly. What a hand fate has left me. To die in a ditch is the way I always saw it, and to give that to me is of the utmost irony. No final stand, shoulder to shoulder with my Sisters, just a stupid decision and my life for a few seconds. I begin to pull Angra Mainyu from my hand. Just take it and leave me, that is the way it should be. Leave me her and give unto me no legacy of heroic action. The Code was followed and that is all it should be.

    I set Angra Mainyu on my stomach and stare out into that vast blue sky, waiting for death to take me. The blue ensnares me. The colour of her eyes, burned into my mind and seared into my flesh. My thoughts go not to my family or my duty, but to her. I feel the anger bubble as the memories come back to me. Her eyes. A night of passion as I stared into them. Infatuated and fixated. Moonlight coming in through the window. Soft skin. Sweet scents. Her eyes. Cold and cruel. Or were they. I don’t remember. The memories are filled with anger. Confusion. Embarrassment. Nervousness. Sorrow. Despair. Depression. Sadness. I don’t remember.

    Silver Wings still rains down artillery. Gunfire still echoes through the air.  Zephyrs still streak through the air. I grasp at the sky, grasp at her. Not like this, I say. I need to remember. My one last selfish act before oblivion takes me. I need to remember. Was it cruelty or was it something else? What was it? What was it! Tears fill my eyes. I beg. I cry. I weep. Not like this.

    Did she hate me or did she love me?

    The resonator sparks to life again. The casualties were too high and a full retreat had been called. The gunfire is quiet now. The artillery is but mere vibrations in the sand. I lay there, weeping, clutching Angra Mainyu tight against my chest. Death toys with me and lets me stay on Earth just to cry.

    I hear footsteps, soft against the sand. Human. They stop suddenly and take a few paces in one direction, doubleback, take a few paces in a different direction. I don’t make a sound. I can’t.

    They find me and take a moment of pause. Carefully and gently, they wrap their arms around me and lift me out from my resting place in the sand. I smell the familiar scent and I shake my head. Not like this. She shouldn’t see me like this…

    The Zephyr comes in hot, she pulls both of us inside, and it takes off for the safety of Akkierens.

    I cannot remember the rest. A blur of colours, voices of concern and reassurance, the smell of disinfectant…

    The bed in the infirmary is soft, and softer still is the hand in mine from the woman resting her head on the side of the bed, fast asleep. Even in the cold metal, there is a warmth. Even in cruelty, there is affection. Even in hate, there is love.
   
Lola Lang.
I love her.


The Lewd Short Fics
So... These were something.

It was mostly a joke because of my position as an "unsexual person". I don't find these to be particularly erotic, but it was a good practice for the type of wordplay I think is useful for erotic writing.

Pluto being the "villain" was supposed to tie into the idea of her character trying to make other people be happy in misguided ways. Don't actually know if I'd have gone anywhere with it.

1

The weekend at the Lyceum. It was the quiet studious hours of the evening, where the Maids all went their separate ways to seek out their own activities for the rest of the day. Sylvia sat in her room, flipping through the pages of a near ancient combat manual. She couldn’t really make heads or tails of it. Something about adding ones flexibility to the use of tactical Adalstier manipulation… She shook her head and tossed it onto her nightstand. It really didn’t make a whole lot of sense.

There was a knock at the door, and she half expected Lola Lang to come barging in with some new scheme. Spike the water supply? Steal the headmistress’ underwear? Take a Zephyr out on a joyride? They would get in so much trouble… but perhaps that was the thrill of it all.

Sylvia quietly went to open the door when no one came in. Standing out in the middle of the doorway was not Lola, nor was it Maho as all the other fanfics seem to think it has to always be. Rather, it was Beatrix Orunitia. That was certainly different.

There was a deep crimson blush across Beatrix’s cheeks. “Sylvia… I require your assistance…”

Sylvia carefully peered out into the main area of the dormitory, trying to see if there was any sort of mischievous imp hanging around, pushing Beatrix into doing something she badly did not want to do. She saw only Deeox, so there was nothing she could do. “Is Sammie not around?” Sylvia asked. “Is… anyone around?”

Beatrix shook her head. “I do not think anyone else could help me with this predicament I have found myself in…” She shifted uncomfortably on her feet, clutching at the hem of her skirt. “May I come inside?”

Sylvia shrugged. “Okay. You can take a seat on my bed if you want.” Beatrix didn’t seem to be actively mocking her, so there wasn’t much point in refusing or teasing her.

Beatrix began to sit herself down in a very careful and deliberate manner. She covered her hands upon her lap and closed her eyes to concentrate for a moment. “I would have asked… Lola, but I think the sort of help she would offer my situation would be ill advised.” She opened her eyes and looked over at Sylvia, who was now standing in front of her. “Can you promise me that you won’t laugh?”

Very slowly, Sylvia nodded. What could possibly have Beatrix so embarrassed? “I won’t laugh.”

Beatrix removed her hands from her own lap. There was a rather salient protrusion bending the fabric of Beatrix’s dress. “I seem to have… developed a penis.”

Sylvia blinked once. And then twice. And then thrice. “You what.”

Beatrix covered her growing blush with her hands. “I believe my Engine must have activated while I slept. When I awoke I was… This had…” She swallowed. “It has refused to rid itself from my body all day.”

Sylvia rubbed her eyes and then blinked out any possible errors in her vision. She looked back. No, it was still very much there. “Are you sure? Have you actually looked?”

“Of course I looked!” This seemed to be the very height of Beatrix’s embarrassment. She grumbled quietly as she calmed herself back down. “I did. I looked.”

Sylvia scratched at her chin. How could they even… solve this problem? This wasn’t in the Player's Handbook. “Can I have a look?” she offered.

Beatrix’s entire face turned to the same shade of bright red. “Excuse me?”

“Can I look?”

Beatrix closed her eyes. “I-I do suppose, since we are both Maids… that it would be fine, considering the medical nature of the condition… yes.” She looked at Sylvia pointedly. “Could you turn around?”

Sylvia did and began to contemplate her options. Did the Lyceum have a salve for this? Would they have to go to amputation? She didn’t understand this medical stuff. A soothing balm? Snake oil? Pills?

Once the ruffling of Beatrix’s clothes finally stopped, Beatrix coughed quietly. There was still the massive blush on her cheeks, but otherwise, she was simply naked. Sylvia stepped forward, putting one foot after the other before she lowered herself onto her knees. Considering the vast amount of pornography both Lola and Akkiriens had, Sylvia could definitely tell this was a dick. She could also tell, from simple observation, that Beatrix was incredibly erect. Not slightly. Not half mast. Incredibly. Erect. It twitched every so often, practically begging for relief.

Before Sylvia even realized what she had done, she had clasped her hand around Beatrix’s shaft. Beatrix didn’t say anything, but her face was one of utmost shock, before her eyes began to roll back slightly.

Sylvia began to slowly pump her hand around Beatrix’s newly acquired dick. With her other hand, she gently prodded at the head. Her hands began to become slick as the skin surrounding the head rolled back, exposing it to the bare elements.

Okay, Sylvia recalled… She had seen enough of Lola’s porn to know how to do this. She lowered her head and pressed her tongue against the base of the shaft, sliding it up until she reached the tip. It tasted odd… Salty. She looked up at Beatrix, the other girl’s face still crimson, eyes screwed shut. “S-Sylvia…” Beatrix blurted out.

Sylvia smiled and dived right in, taking Beatrix’s head in her mouth. She rolled it around her tongue, using her hand to continue pumping the shaft as she played with the head. Beatrix’s fingers began to thread into her hair and she took that as a cue to continue, taking in more of Beatrix’s cock between her lips. She played with every inch she could get her lips on, bathing it with her tongue.

“Sylvia, I- I’m…” There was barely a warning before Beatrix came in her mouth, filling it with white. Sylvia resisted the urge to cough and slipped Beatrix out of her mouth, swallowing. Well, it wasn’t as bad tasting as she had thought.

Beatrix panted gently as she looked at Sylvia. Sylvia only looked back, carefully licking her fingers clean.

Beatrix wrapped her arms around Sylvia and pulled her back onto Sylvia’s bed. With a quick, adept roll, Beatrix was on top, fumbling with the ribbons on and unbuttoning Sylvia’s clothes. There was a distinct lust in Beatrix’s eyes, tinted with perhaps more than a want of a casual sexual relationship. She pressed her mouth against Sylvia’s, locking lips and inserting tongue. No thoughts were spared for any thoughts about where Sylvia’s mouth had literally just been. Only lust.

Finally, Beatrix pulled Sylvia’s dress over her head and began to run kisses against the length of her body. Sylvia unhooked her own bra, letting Beatrix run her mouth against the bare skin of her chest. Eventually, she pressed fine deliberate kisses against Sylvia’s stomach before looking up, a bit nervous. “May I?”

Sylvia smiled, nodded. “We’ve gotten this far. You should finish the job.”

Beatrix slid off Sylvia’s panties. She was a bit surprised at how wet Sylvia was, easily able to slip her fingers in. Carefully, she aligned herself and then pushed herself in.

Sylvia gasped. “Hah. Haaah…” They locked lips again, intent on making this feel as good as possible for the both of them. Beatrix pushed herself in and out, making sure Sylvia’s folds could wring her out for all she was worth. Sylvia could feel her own pressure building with each deliberate thrust, her body pushing back with each movement as she craved just a little bit more.. Beatrix was much the same, each pump sending fire across her pelvis as she shoved more and more of her cock into Sylvia’s warmth. It was just so stimulating.

Sylvia panted into Beatrix’s mouth as the pace grew more and more with each movement. They parted their lips as Sylvia began to say, “Bea, cum with me, cum with me…”

Beatrix could only nod as she continued. “I will. I will.”

She quickened her pace, intent on making them both climax at the same time. Her thighs made wet audible slaps from Sylvia’s raw wetness as she pounded into her. Eliciting only continued pants and moans from Sylvia’s lips.

With a heavy grunt, she shoved herself inside Sylvia in one last push. Sylvia’s breath hitched before she cried out in joy, intense ripples cascading forth from their combined climax.

Beatrix collapsed beside Sylvia, panting relentlessly. Once her breathing was finally under control, she cleared her throat. “I’m… sorry.”

“Why?” Sylvia asked, all smiles and grins.

Beatrix felt the intense blush return to her face. “I do not know…”


Beatrix was the first to wake up, arms wrapped around Sylvia’s midsection. Immediately, she bolted straight up and lifted up the blankets to look. She collapsed back down in relief, intent on going back to sleep. Then she looked at Sylvia and bolted up again, all the incredibly lewd and intense things they both did last night flooding back to her.

Time to escape, Beatrix thought and began to climb out of bed.

Sylvia wrapped her arms around Beatrix’s waist and giggled in a coy manner. “Where do you think you’re going? All those things last night… What does that make us now, Bea?”

Beatrix was absolutely frozen. “Uhm… I am not entirely sure.”

“Well, we can figure it out, can’t we?” Sylvia said and planted a kiss on Beatrix’s face. Another massive blush emerged.

2

Beatrix kicked open the door to Sylvia’s room, the frame cracking under the weight of Beatrix’s foot. “Sylvia, it happened again!”

Sylvia looked up from her phone, an idol group’s song playing quietly through the internal speakers. “What. That’s the third time this week, and it’s Tuesday.”

Beatrix threw her hands up. “I think someone is breaking into my room. The door is constantly unlocked upon my waking up, even if Sammie is still present.” She clasped her hands together, the slightest hints of that familiar blush returning. It was less embarrassing now, that was for sure. “We only know of one way to get rid of it, and I would not ask you just to take advantage of you.”

Sylvia looked down at her phone, sighed, and then turned the device off. “Start stripping.”

Both Beatrix and Sylvia began to do so. However, it was at the moment they were both completely naked that the door once again opened. Lola stood in the doorway, one hand on the door knob. Beatrix looked at Lola, Lola looked at Sylvia, Sylvia looked at Lola, Lola looked at Beatrix.

Lola smirked. “Now, what’s going on here? ‘Cause it certainly doesn’t look easily explainable.”

Beatrix began to stumble for some sort of possible explanation. “You see- It’s quite simple- We were just-”

Sylvia grabbed Beatrix’s hips, causing her to jolt in surprise. She reached around Beatrix’s waist,  wrapping her hands around her cock. “Do you wanna join, Lola? It’ll be fun!” Beatrix’s face lit up brightly, but she didn’t say anything.

Lola stood there, blinking. With a shrug, she shut the door and properly locked it as she reached to pull off her own shirt. “Sure, why not. Haven’t had a good fuck in awhile.”

Sylvia and Lola knelt down in front of Beatrix. Sylvia slowly stroked Beatrix to a reasonable length, readying her for the impending actions of the two other Maids. Lola smiled as she pulled Beatrix closer to Sylvia, pushing Beatrix’s cock in between Sylvia’s breasts. Reaching over, Lola pulled a bottle of lubricant out from one of the drawers in the room and began to pour lube liberally onto Sylvia’s breasts.

Sylvia giggled as she pushed her breasts around Beatrix’s shaft, bouncing on her knees as she stroked Beatrix with her tits. “Do you like that, Bea?” she asked with a small pout. “Does it feel good?”

Beatrix nodded slowly, panting as she looked into Sylvia’s face. “Yes… Really good.”

Lola clicked her tongue. “We can do better than this. Titfucks are one thing, titfucking into a blowjob is another.” Lola leaned in, taking the end of Beatrix’s cock between her lips. She bobbed her head while Sylvia continued to rub the rest of the shaft with her slick breasts. It certainly was an entirely different experience than just one or the other. Quickly, the pressure began to build.

Beatrix tilted her head downward, beginning to stammer out. “I think-” Instantly, Lola pulled both herself and Sylvia back, denying Beatrix her imminent orgasm. “Oh,” she said, feeling the instance pass.

Lola shook her head, smiling a lewd smile. “Just a warm up…” She grabbed Sylvia’s hand, leading the other to one of the beds in the room. She pushed Sylvia down as she leaned forward, presenting her bare ass to Beatrix. “Why don’t you show me if you know how to use this new sword of yours?”

Sylvia grumbled. “I want her too…”

Lola shushed Sylvia, spreading out the lower lips of Sylvia’s delicate warmth. “There’s only one cock here, and you’ve already had a monopoly on it. Let me have a taste.”

At this moment, Beatrix realized that all the rumours about the Lyceum were true. All the Maids were really having sex with one another. Not that… that was a bad thing, really… It felt really good, so why would she complain about it all.

Beatrix approached Lola from behind, grabbing her ass with one hand and using the other to make sure Lola was wet enough for this. It seemed that she really was backed up as she had said, and Beatrix found no issue in pushing herself inside Lola’s wet entrance.

As Beatrix carefully pushed herself in and out of Lola, she felt Lola push back, bouncing herself off of Beatrix’s cock. Lola was definitely more in control than either Sylvia or Beatrix, that was for sure. So in control, in fact, that she slipped her fingers into Sylvia’s folds, beginning to nibble at her lips, diving her tongue into Sylvia’s warm depths. Sylvia grabbed onto Lola’s shoulders, feeling the vibrations that resulted from Beatrix pounding Lola’s ass through Lola’s tongue. She let her tongue hang out of her mouth, panting softly from the proper tonguefucking she was receiving. “Ah, ah. Yes. Right. There.”

Beatrix grabbed onto Lola’s hips, increasing her pace in the pursuit of that orgasm she was denied before. She stuffed her cock deeply into Lola squeezing insides, barely letting her shaft even feel the air before she shoved it back inside, only to bounce back on Lola’s fine ass. Sylvia was very quickly losing her mind, eyes rolling back as Lola and Beatrix seemed to fuck her simultaneously. Her tongue hung out of the corner of her mouth as she made cute little squeaks of joy.

Lola pulled her tongue out of Sylvia, only to stuff her fingers back in to replace them. She looked back, eyes full of lust. “Cum on my ass, Bea. I know you want to.” Oh, did Beatrix want to.

Beatrix finished a few quick thrusts, just enough to get her close enough and then pulled herself out. She stroked herself the rest of the way, spraying hot, white cum all over Lola’s ass and back.

Lola purred quietly, pumping her fingers into Sylvia’s folds until her back arched and she too came, her voice raising in a long singular note as she came all over Lola’s fingers. “That was nice,” Lola said, placing her fingers between her lips one by one. “Hey, Beatrix. You think you can go another round, hotshot?”

Beatrix took in deep breaths, panting mercilessly. What kind of stamina did Lola have. Both Sylvia and Beatrix were practically dead. “I suppose I could…” she took in another breath. Dear God. “Go another round.”

“Good~” Lola purred, pulling on one of Beatrix’s arms before pushing her too on the bed. She dove onto Beatrix’s cock, using her tongue to lap up any of the evidence of their recent sexcapades. She gave Beatrix a quick few bobs, deep throating her cock to the base before pulling herself off. “All ready then.”

Lola quickly wiped herself off with a towelette. Beatrix very quickly noticed that Lola seemed to have a lot of supplies for sexual activities. A lot. She wondered briefly if Lola had a massive stash of dildos and strapons somewhere. Under the floorboards? Dear lord…

Lola snapped her fingers, getting Beatrix’s attention. “Hey, don’t go staring off into space now. You’ve still got work to do.” She helped Sylvia up, who was still fairly out of it, and set her down on Beatrix’s lap. “I don’t think you’re done fucking her brains out yet.”

Sylvia blinked the blindness from her eyes. “Oh, we’re not done yet are we…” She considered briefly for a second whether or not she was tired enough or not to continue. She decided she wasn’t tired enough. “I did really want you…” She ran her hand down her stomach, spreading herself open with her fingers. “Inside me…”

Lola lined Beatrix up and Sylvia did the rest, lowering herself down onto Beatrix’s shaft. Slowly, she began to bounce up and down on her knees, using the springs of the bed to help her stuff herself with Beatrix’s shaft. “Mmmm~” she purred, feeling Beatrix fill her up inside.

Before Beatrix could grab Sylvia’s hips to help her with this endeavour, Lola clambered over on top of Beatrix, lowering herself down onto Beatrix’s face. “You think I’d just let you two fuck each other while I watched? Come on, Bea, put that tongue to good work.” Beatrix couldn’t argue with that, even though she kinda wanted to on instinct.

Beatrix tried her best to eat out Lola and fuck Sylvia at the same time. She hadn’t exactly been watching Lola’s tongue work exactly, so she could only try, licking first at the outer folds of Lola’s lips, spreading her out with her tongue to delve deeper and reach the juicer parts. Simultaneously, she thrusted up into Sylvia’s wetness, splashing girl cum all over her pelvis.

“How is it, Sylvia?” Lola said, smiling as she let her hands carefully knead Beatrix’s breasts below her.

“She’s so good~” Sylvia purred, grinding Beatrix’s cock against her deepest spots. She bit her lower lip, making sure to get it in just the right spot.

Lola set her hand on Sylvia’s chin and pulled the other girl in for a kiss.They pressed their lips together, Lola quickly invading Sylvia’s mouth with her tongue, using her ample experience to push Sylvia’s pleasure to new heights. Sylvia let herself dissolve, moaning into Lola’s mouth as Beatrix fucked her with her hard cock, pounding into her wetness with all of her energy.

Lola grinded against Beatrix’s tongue and finally came, gasping for breath. She panted, laughing gently as Sylvia continued to be made an utter mess of. She rolled off of Beatrix’s face, ruffling the girl’s hair as she went. “Good girl…” She slid herself off the bed, pushing Sylvia down to be face to face with Beatrix. It took nothing to get them to start kissing, their tongues wrapping around one another’s.

Lola leaned down beside Sylvia's butt, watching Beatrix make an absolute mess of her. Each thrust seemed to make Sylvia quiver with absolute delight, making the flesh of her ass jiggle in the most lovely of ways. She carefully leaned in, pressing her tongue against the base of Beatrix’s cock and then dragged it upward until she tasted the familiar taste of Sylvia’s outer lips.

That seemed to be enough, as Beatrix jammed herself into Sylvia one last time and they both shivered in utmost delight as they both came. Lola made sure to slip Beatrix out of Sylvia before cleaning out Sylvia’s insides, and polishing off Beatrix’s cock.

Sylvia collapsed beside Beatrix and Lola clambered up on Beatrix’s other side. Sylvia laid her head on Beatrix’s soft chest and Lola nuzzled into the crook of Beatrix’s neck.

“Nice going, paladin,” Lola said, pressing a kiss against Beatrix’s neck.

“That was nice as always, Bea~” Sylvia said as she too gave Beatrix a kiss, this time on the cheek before she returned to rest on Beatrix’s chest.

Beatrix just panted and stared at the ceiling.

How in the absolute fuck would she be able to please these two if she kept growing a cock.



Elsewhere, a girl with pink hair and pink eyes steeples her fingers. The engine, Ashling, rests on the table in front of her.

“All according to Keikaku,” Pluto says as the scene fades to black.



3

Pluto had her hand pressed against Andromeda’s back, pushing her along the carpeting, the ends of Andromeda’s heels sliding along as they went. “Where are we going, Pluto?” The younger girl just grunted and heaved Andromeda along, obviously straining herself to push the older girl along. Andromeda found herself being pushed from a comfy chair in the dormitory common room all the way back to her room.

Pluto took deep heaving breaths as she got her breath back, only to lift up Andromeda’s arm, unlock the door with the resonator, and then continue pushing Andromeda in. “Pluto, are you okay? Do you need me to give you a hug? I can give you a hug if you’d like that…”

Pluto pushed Andromeda into the middle of the room and then lifted a singular finger, pressing it against her lips. She pulled a phone out of her pocket and then quickly dialed a stream of numbers. Someone answered. “You’ve reached Cordelia Wakefield.”

“Hello, Cordelia…” Pluto said, staring at Andromeda as she did it. “Could you please come to Andromeda and Katherine’s room. I think something’s happened to Andromeda…”

Andro tilted her head to the side, confused. “I’m fine.”

Pluto wrapped a hand over the phone’s microphone, looking away. “Can you please hurry? She doesn’t look very good.” Pluto hung up right after, looking back to Andromeda.

“You shouldn’t play pranks on Cordelia, Pluto. She’s sure to be upset when there isn’t anything-” Pluto reached out and laid her hand on Andromeda’s arm and Andro’s knees went weak. She clutched at the hem of her skirt, feeling her insides be set alight with the unique fire of lust. Andromeda collapsed, splaying out on the floor in front of Pluto. “What did you do, Pluto…” But Pluto was already gone, running out the door and shutting it behind her.

Andromeda clutched at her core, screwing her eyes shut in an attempt to overcome whatever had just happened to her by pure force of will. She took in a breath and slowly reached her hand down-

The door opened and Cordelia looked within. “Andromeda!” She rushed in, the door closing behind her for some reason. Andromeda felt Cordelia pick her up, clutching her in her arms. “Are you all right? What happened?”

Andromeda looked at Cordelia, feeling heat rush to her cheeks. “Cordi…” She struggled to find any words. “I think Pluto activated her Engine on accident…” Surely that was the case. Just a joke that got out of hand. Pluto wouldn’t mean to do something like this.

Cordelia was very serious. “Are you injured? Should I call the headmistress?”

Andro shook her head. “No, no. I’m okay. It’s just…” She laid a hand on her stomach, her fingers twitching. She took a breath in. “I think I’m in heat.”

Cordelia blinked and shook her head slightly. “I am quite sorry, but did you just say you are in… heat?”

Andromeda nodded. “I did. I think Pluto’s Engine made me go into heat…”

Cordelia blinked once again before she looked off to the side, clearly in thought. “Okay. I will help you.”

It was Andromeda’s turn to be in utter disbelief. “You’ll… what?”

“You are in obvious pain and discomfort. I will help you.” She closed her eyes, breathing in through her nose. “What would you like me to do first?”

Andro’s cheeks went from a light heat to a overwhelming blush. “Uh-uhm… Can you… kiss me?” Cordelia leaned in and planted a soft kiss on Andromeda’s lips. Andro savoured the proximity and the softness of Cordelia, leaning forward slightly as Cordelia pulled away.

“How was that?” Cordelia asked, mostly unphased save for a slight change in hue upon her cheeks.

“It was…” She covered her face with her hands, embarrassed. “Really nice…”

Cordelia smirked and gave Andromeda another quick kiss, short enough for Andromeda to be left wanting more. She scooped Andromeda up in her arms and laid her down on her bed before going to lock Andromeda’s door. Cordelia snuggled up behind Andromeda, letting her own back rest against the backboard of the bed as Andromeda laid in her lap. She began to unbutton Andromeda’s dress, pressing the tips of her fingers against Andromeda’s bare skin as she went. Andromeda made short little cute gasps, squirming under Cordelia’s touch.

Cordelia finished unbuttoning Andromeda’s shirt and easily unhooked her bra. She slipped the fabric from Andromeda’s chest and ran her fingers against the pale flesh of her breasts. Andromeda moaned quietly, lightly gripping Cordelia’s wrists as the other girl gently pushed against her nipples, making short circular motions against Andromeda’s breasts. “They’re getting hard…” Cordelia whispered into Andromeda’s ear, nibbling gently on her earlobe. “Are you ready, Andro?”

Andromeda nodded slowly as Cordelia slipped off her skirt, exposing her soaked panties. Andro covered her face on instinct. “Don’t look, Cordi…”

Cordelia simply licked her finger and pressed it against the underside of the fabric, rubbing at Andromeda’s entrance. Andro couldn’t help but let Cordelia know it felt good, panting gently against the hands over her mouth as she watched helplessly. “You are far too cute, Andromeda…” She pressed soft kisses behind Andromeda’s ear and on the side of her neck.

Eventually, she had enough and slipped her fingers between the sides of Andromeda’s drenched underwear, pulling them off, leaving a line of glistening girlcum trailing behind it. Cordelia made to touch Andromeda directly, gently rubbing at first before greedily moving to slip her fingers within.

Andromeda panted cutely, turning her head around to look at Cordelia. Cordi obliged her, setting tender kisses against her lips as she pumped her fingers inside Andromeda, making sure to push her digits up to the back, gently caressing Andromeda’s insides. Andro could only moan against Cordelia’s lips.

“Cordi, I think-” But Cordelia shushed her with more kisses.

“Cum as much as you want,” she said and moved a bit faster, eager to let Andromeda feel the joy of her climax. And Andromeda came, gushing against Cordelia’s fingers with reckless abandon, quivering and crying out as her orgasm racked her body with pleasure.

Andro laid there against Cordelia, watching as her chest heaved. “Cordi… Can I do something for you too?”

“Of course.” Cordelia let Andromeda sit up and then unclipped her armour, pushing it to the side and gently onto the floor. She undid her corset and bra, letting it all come off before she set it too to the side. Andromeda helped her with her skirt, rubbing her hands up Cordelia’s sides. Andro took a moment to feel the heft of Cordelia’s breasts, nuzzling them gently. Cordelia just giggled and smiled, before Andromeda once against rose to take more kisses from Cordelia’s lips.

They pressed their lips together, taking short and chaste adventures with tongue into each others’ mouths. Cordelia was far more aggressive, running her tongue against Andromeda’s as she reached her hand down to rub at Andromeda’s still sensitive lower lips. Andromeda gently pressed her hands against Cordelia’s stomach, pushing her down against the bed so she could lay on top of her.

Andromeda gently traced her hands down Cordelia’s stomach and then around Cordelia’s warmth. Cordelia found no issue in Andromeda’s nervousness or gentleness. The lead up was almost as arousing as the act itself.

Andromeda rubbed the undersides of her fingers against Cordelia’s folds, gently pushing into the wet entrance. Cordelia did the same, practically guiding Andromeda’s fingers with an example as she once again returned to exploring the depths of Andromeda’s delicate insides, all the while giving Andromeda as many kisses as she desired.

As Cordelia once again increased her pace, Andromeda did the same in kind. Cordelia was mostly stalwart, smiling into the kisses and nuzzling Andromeda affectionately. Andromeda was very much the opposite, moaning sweetly into the kisses and quivering lightly at the hips as Cordelia jilled Andromeda relentlessly.

Andromeda came in short order, quivering at the hips as she pulled away from Cordelia’s lips and let her head fall comfortably to rest on Cordelia’s soft breasts. Cordi just smiled and giggled quietly, happy to see Andromeda had enjoyed herself so much.

Andromeda was not having that. She continued to pump Cordelia with her hand, searching for Cordi’s most delicate spots. “Please feel good for me, Cordi…” she whispers, staring affectionately into Cordelia’s eyes.

Cordelia lightly gripped Andromeda’s hand, pulling Andro out of herself. She said nothing, simply repositioning Andromeda’s hand so that her outer fingers rested at the sides of Cordelia’s warmth and her two inner fingers had easier access to pump inside her. And, of course, Andromeda did, going slow at first but quickly increasing her pace, pushing her fingers in as she curled them to reach the deeper, sensitive regions. She wanted Cordelia to feel good. She would have nothing less.

Cordelia leaked her juices all over Andromeda’s hand, but her face remained light hearted and neutral. Even so, she made sure to let Andromeda know she was doing a good job. “Yes, right there, Andro…” She gave her affectionate kisses on the cheeks and nose, mumbling sweet nothings as she did so.

And then she came, her only sound a short and cute effeminate grunt as she drenched Andromeda’s hand. Andro gave Cordi a series of short loving kisses and then settled into the other girl’s arms, content to lay there awhile. “Thank you, Cordi…”

“It was my pleasure,” Cordelia said and nuzzled against Andromeda’s neck. Andromeda only giggled and laughed as Cordelia’s affectionate movements tickled her. It seems she was cured, but maybe not of the new condition of love.

4 (Unfinished)

Sylvia, Beatrix, Lola, Cordelia

As Deeox’s ambition grew, so did the group of individuals. Also the collective erection of the forum but we don’t talk about that.

Word of incredibly lewd things happening in the Lyceum dormitory had spread to Cordelia’s ear, and as the caring and compassionate individual she was, it was important that she make sure no one was getting hurt. It was not at all that she wanted to get in on the action. No sir, not at all.

With everyone having entered some sort of web of casual and romantically inclined sexual relationships, it seemed that Pluto’s work was done, and as such, Beatrix did not develop any more new appendages in the middle of the night. That is not to say she didn’t figure out how to attain the same effect of her own volition…

And so it was that another round of lewd things would begin… in the Lyceum dormitory, because like, seriously, where else is private.

Sylvia looked up from her phone yet again, a recipe for cake baking set upon its screen. There was a knock at the door, followed by more silence. Sylvia lamented that she couldn’t have a single evening to herself. Always something, whether it was homework or one of the other Maids.



Dungeons and Deeox

A Rosarian Prelude
The main problem about this one was it was far too focused on being a prequel to something else. It wasn't allowed be a fully fledged narrative and story because the plot threads established were all supposed to show up in the game. I've tried to come back to this sort of storyline of Azami and Victoria fighting against the fascist ideologies of Hikari, but I think I've burnt myself on it for the time being.

Maybe later I'll redo it properly.

http://innomenpro.com/forums/index.php/topic,1776.0.html



Misc

"Utterly Normal Hyperspace Highschool AU"
I really don't know what this was supposed to be, but I found it in my Google Docs. Probably supposed to be a joke.

Spoiler
    Victoria set her feet on the back of one of the school chairs and looked upon the fourth wall. “As the most prominent figure to break the fourth wall, I believe it is my duty to each and every roleplayer to be a guide to this utterly normal but Japanese themed high school.” She glanced behind herself, eyeing the quiet girl with the white hair and red eyes, looking away to stare into space once the girl looked up. “Otherwise, you get Alice, and I think you all don’t want Alice. Or maybe you do, but you’re crazy.”

    Victoria swung her feet off the chair and stood up. “Well, let’s get going. We need to see exactly how the Canadian has butchered all of your characters.”



    When the door to the gymnasium was pushed open, the air was suddenly filled with the sharp sounds of sneakers taking harsh steps and the continual slam of a basketball against machine buffed flooring. Victoria walked over to the manager, bouncing on the heels as she stood there behind Michiko Sumeragi. She glanced over Michiko’s shoulder, eyeing her clipboard. “Michiko,” she said softly into her ear.

    Michiko jumped and backed away in a huff. “AH!” she shouted, looking at her apparent assailant. She looked at her assailant, a look of disappointment immediately washed over with embarrassment. “Victoria… d-don’t do that!”

    Victoria just laughed and set herself down on the side bench. “Don’t worry, you’ll get your chance.”

    “What does that mean?” she asked in a huff and went to sit back down. Victoria, obviously, did not answer her question.

    They both sat down to watch the game. It was a practice game between the school’s female basketball team, but it still held all the ferocity of a real game. Cordelia, Beatrix and Sylvia, against Ara Kim, Azami and Catherine (the AdEva one, naturally). Of course there were the nameless, faceless, and mindless other players on the team, but they weren’t important.

    Victoria cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted. “Go Ara Kim! Woo!” Michiko pressed her hand against Victoria’s face and shouted in counter. “Beatrix, you can do it!” Victoria covered Michiko’s mouth and tried to keep her at an arm’s length away. “Ara- Ara Kim!”

    Ara Kim had the ball for a moment, but with the distraction from the sidelines, Cordelia easily swooped in and took it from her, passing it to Beatrix for the easy shot on the hoop.

    “Oh,” Victoria said as Michiko stood up and cheered.

    “See, Victoria, my cheering was better!” She laughed and then looked nervously around before composing herself once more. “You really shouldn’t distract them too much. They need to practice, after all.”

Sylvia approached, skidding to a halt in front of the two. “Hey, hey, hey. What’s going on now?” She poked Victoria in the stomach playfully to which Victoria responded by getting Sylvia in a headlock, ruffling her hair.

“Just thought I’d look around and see what’s happening,” she said and released Sylvia. “Wanted to see if Michiko over here was busy or not. Seems she is.”

Michiko huffed. “You should have known that there was practice. Didn’t Azami tell you?”

“Maybe.” Victoria peeked over at Azami, who was busy speaking with Cordelia. “Interacting with her makes everyone upset.”

Michiko and Sylvia tilted their heads to the side. “What?”


2
Anime/Manga / Yuri Manga Thread
« on: February 13, 2018, 08:38:36 pm »
Hey Deeox has some recommendations, and maybe he just wants to dump all the good stuff so he can reference back in like. Two years.



Series

Bright and Cheery Amnesia
Spoiler


This series focuses on the adult life relationship of Arisa and Mari (usually referred to as Mari-san) after Arisa develops a case of amnesia. However, this isn’t an angsty story. Not even slightly, I would say. The story is more focused on the rediscovery of the love between the two characters, and also since it’s a comedy series, that too. It’s good. Read it.

Dynasty Scans

Futari Monologue
Spoiler


So this one is about two girls who were friends in elementary school but are now in highschool. The catch is that one of them accidentally pushed the other away and then the other one had to move because of their “family situation”. The entire story is a comedy predicated on both characters constantly misinterpreting the actions of the other, but somehow making it work in the end. It’s also yuri, so that’s good.

Dynasty Scans

Yuri Natsu Kagaya Inn
Spoiler
I cannot find a decent image for this one.

This series is the first major serialized work by the mangaka Mochi Au Lait. Two things I have to say about the mangaka: there’s a lot of incest, and they can be really damn kinky person. I personally stay away from the incest stuff, because I’m obviously not into that, but Yuri Natsu is particular. It deals with the happenings at “Kagaya Inn”, an onsen resort on some smaller Japanese island. The plot is that a whole bunch of yuri couples either come to the resort, or are created there (as well as a bunch of yuri material involving the family itself). The series has three flavours, as it were. Cute and romantic, comedic, and… kink. There’s been watersports references and I think right now there’s some domination stuff but it’s not really consensual so idon’tknow!? It’s okay, and certainly not for everyone.

Dynasty Scans

Prism
Spoiler
   


Prism is about a girl who falls in love with a boy years ago during a trip to the seaside. Well, turns out that boy was actually a girl and now they go to the same high school. Very quickly they enter a romantic relationship, and as such the theming of the work is mostly upon that relationship. I would describe it as being about being a lesbian highschool student in Japan, but it isn’t really about discrimination, more about experiences and first love. Unfortunately, the mangaka got caught tracing pictures of real life stuff and Prism got canceled! So what there is is what you get, but what there is is pretty good.

There’s also a lot of kissing and stuff.

Dynasty Scans

Kase-san
Spoiler
   


How can you even begin to talk about yuri manga without talking about Kase-san. It is a prime example of quality highschool yuri. It’s a feel good manga, with comedic elements. One never particularly doubts the validity of the relationship between Yamada and Kase-san. They are both very quickly mutually supportive of one another, and I think that is the main draw of the series. Two girls in love with one another, being supportive, and figuring their way through their relationship.

Dynasty Scans

Yamada to Kase-san
Spoiler


It’s the sequel. It’s more of the same and that’s great. Read it.

Dynasty Scans

A Secret Just Between You and Me
Spoiler


Two highschool girls kiss a bunch and stuff and the art is really pretty, but really there isn’t much else to it.

Dynasty Scans

Seifuku no Vampiress Lord
Spoiler


Well, this is an interesting one! So basically, this highschool girl gets bitten by this extremely hungry vampire dude and it turns her into a vampire. Obviously the solution to this problem is to let the guy stay at your house and let him read all your manga. Of course there’s the problem that you have to drink blood and stuff. So the obvious solution to that problem is to start drinking the blood of your best friend in a completely consensual manner. Pretty nice, if I do say so myself.

Dynasty Scans



Oneshots and Other Stuff that isn’t Serialized

Transgender Yuri by Garun
Spoiler
This one’s pretty good. A textless story about two childhood friends that part and then one comes back and is like “hey I’m a girl now”. Pretty good. Pretty pure. It also technically doesn’t have a title, but I think that’s pretty accurate to the theming.

Dynasty Scans

Witness by m.k.
Spoiler
I picked this one as a representative of the work of m.k. I think their school girl yuri stuff is pretty cool. Just regular yuri fluff. Good stuff.

Dynasty Scans

3
Mafia Vortex / Hyperspace Roleplay Mafia Signup
« on: January 29, 2018, 05:48:55 pm »
HYPERSPACE ROLEPLAY MAFIA

A glitch in the mainframe. A spark of insurrection.
An unknown operative rattles the foundation of the Hyperspace, and the lives within must find a way to keep it from crumbling.



The Hyperspace. A shining metropolis of information, ideas, concepts… and characters. People from all walks of life, every gender, every sexual orientation, every nuance, every detail. From every genre, vibe, plot structure, emotional setting. People in their own right. Lives filled with joy and sadness, love and hope, despair and anguish. People.

In an instant, the city goes dark. The sun disappears. There are no stars in the sky. No moon. No light.

There are screams. Is this the end? Is this when everything returns back to the void in which it was birthed from?

The sun reappears, stilted. The light is not quite as bright as it once was.

Every television screen, scrying orb, and holographic digital display lights up in unison and at once. The words are all the same on each and every one.

Find the traitor.

Save the Hyperspace.

96:00:00

95:59:59

95:59:58...




Hyperspace Roleplay Mafia will be a fairly unique game within the realm of Mafia games. The highlight of this game will be the roleplay, as victory for your faction will not necessarily indicate victory for your character. The game will feature locations and characters from the various roleplays on the forum. NERV headquarters, NERV staff. The Lyceum, the Maids of Akkierens. Something from Fate Deecelerated maybe? Uh... Call of Cthulhu... Uhhhhh.

Anyway. Hyperspace Roleplay Mafia will feature a unique mechanic known as "stumping". Instead of a character being killed, they will be stumped. Being stumped means you no longer have access to your role abilities or the ability to vote. However, you would still have access to any chats (including the main thread) you may have been in, and could be targeted by abilities that don't require you to be alive or have role actions. All other usual mafia rules and regulations apply here.



To join, please send Deeox a PM with the topic line being "Hyperspace Roleplay Mafia Signup". Include the following information.
- Three or less characters that you are allowed to roleplay and would like to roleplay.
- Three or less possible roles from the Mafiascum Wiki for each character.
- An alignment that you as the player would like. This will not correlate to any of the characters.

Finally, post in this thread saying you want to join.



Player List:
1. Elvis Strunk
2. WeAreTheMeta
3. Jynx
4. Revontulet
5. Gamerjunkie
6. Meliran
7. Arraxis
8. Duke Rockhopper
Etc.

4
Other Games / AdEva: Wahrheit
« on: December 31, 2017, 07:42:42 am »
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Status of MindDive Equipment: Optimal

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Boot in Safe Mode? Y/N: N

Booting verstandOS... 100%

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“GOD’S IN HIS HEAVEN, ALL’S RIGHT WITH THE WORLD.”

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Running MindDive Startup Executable… 100%

MindDive ver. 1.2.1

Subject Status: Calm
Apparatus Status: Ready
Library Status: Ready

Begin? Y/N: Y

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2. S█░c░█r▓▓█░░▓░s
3. “Vat Child”
4. Mhaol
5. Laudo
6. Mi▓█░se
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5
Other Games / Heroines of the First Age Game
« on: December 16, 2017, 10:55:12 pm »
Hello peoples. This is a thread for organization of an invite only Heroines of the First Age real time game.

6
Other Games / Fate Accelerated - Rosarius: The Looming Shadow
« on: November 10, 2017, 07:36:13 pm »
The Looming Shadow



“What is the ultimate truth of this world?”

“Honour. In it we are bound in service, loyalty, and brotherhood.”

“Chaos. Life is steeped in war, hardship, and distrust.”

“Love. Mortals only thrive if we throw off our shackles of hate.”

“You are all fools. Death is the ultimate truth.”



Cazavir. The shining gem of the Dagger Coast. Sought after by Tavanirans and Albians alike, now solely claimed by the Lord Regent and his office. Many said this was better, considering the political powder keg that it had been prior to the Rosarian Upheaval. Now there would be no more foreign influence in the trading centre, and with it, Cazavir would not be present in any more wars… or so the Lord Regent often said. Time would prove if that notion was correct.

It was in the early hours of the afternoon. The dock was alive with workers and travelers from all across the continent. Guards made their rounds, criminals stuck to their shadows, Free Mages shouted their speeches and the Blackravens were nowhere to be seen - as it should be. At the southern gate, Sir Lewis Byron chatted with the Cazaviran guard behind the door, exchanging pleasantries. “Any news from Asalgard?” he asked.

“I heard that this Silver Alliance we keep hearing about is trying to do something big. I can only imagine what that means.”

“How about from the Tavaniri Empire?”

“Oh! I heard there was this magical storm that just appeared somewhere in Keimeyo province. Their mages will probably deal with it soon, though. You know how they are.”

As they chatted, Byron’s daughter, Beatrice, stood off to the side, clutching her amulet of Torm in her hand tightly. She had said very little during the trip, mostly affirmations that she was listening or something was correct. Her disposition was dour, and one could practically feel the negative emotions surrounding the young cleric. It was certainly not healthy, not for her person, her mind, her training, or the path that would lie before her.

Other than Byron and Beatrice, there were… in no particular order, the five adventurers, misfits, and warriors that Byron had asked to accompany him to Cazavir.

Sashiel, the arcanist cleric, weaver of fortune, and seeker of the ultimate answer.

Grigs, connoisseur of battle, lover of friends, and questionably alive.

Thomas, scholar of high regard, escaped Ocularis Mage, and unraveler of life’s greatest mysteries.

Jannti, honourbound, contracted by the infernal powers, and on a quest for the one he loves.

Elidia, secretive templar, bringer of justice, and always on the run.

Chance may have brought them together, but this band would need to cast their bonds in iron. The fate of the world depended on it.

Byron, after far too long a period of waiting, finally managed to secure them all entry into the city of Cazavir. He lead them all forward, passing by a tavern, numerous shops for alchemical ingredients, potions; armour, weapons; magic tomes, items and spells; and other such things one might wish to purchase. Byron held no interest in any of this, and neither did Beatrice. He lead them to the centre of the docks, where the hustle and bustle was neither heavy nor light. “I suppose this is where I ask you if you truly intend to join me in reporting what we witnessed to the grandmaster of the Dragoncrest Guild. You’re free to leave, as there is quite a lot to witness here, but I will be making my way to the Grand Guild Hall to submit my report.”

There is a choice to be made here. Beseech the Dragoncrest Guild for aid? That is one option, but Cazavir is filled with the factions of Rosarius. One could ask the Free Mages for assistance. Or, one could seek out the Blackravens. If neither of those are decent options, then the Lord Regent of Cazavir was another option. Forgoing all that, perhaps the group wished to seek out Templars and Ocularis Mages that would be more amiable. Or perhaps they could go to the Albian Commissariat of Knights for assistance. Even without all that, there was still the other cities of the Dagger Coast, the nations of the Luirenmere Dominion, the Kingdom of Asalgard, and the Kazfar Empire… And, if the group truly wished it, they could face this threat on their own. It was unlikely any sane creature upon the continent would suggest that.

Alternatively, they could disregard what they saw entirely and let someone else decide what to do with it, though… it’s unlikely that’ll turn out well for anyone. Whatever the group or the individuals within the group decided, Byron would wait for their answers.

7
Mafia Vortex / Bastard Mafia - The End
« on: October 13, 2017, 11:54:51 pm »
On a seemingly normal day in Mafia Town, which may or not be the remnants of the Waifia town after everyone stopped posting in that thread, fourteen individuals found themselves in Mafia Manor. Did they wake up there? Were they kidnapped while they were awake?  Does it really matter? No. It doesn’t.

The room is dank and dusty, cobwebs line the ceiling, and electrical cables run around the floor in various places, leading into various dark and mysterious devices. Quickly, a central light explodes into radiance, and everyone is able to see their compatriots for whom they really are. They are friends, allies, rivals and, well, in some people’s minds, lovers. Looking at you, Duke and Jynx.

As everyone soon begins to understand the situation, a dull flicker comes from one side of the room as an ancient clothes hanger television begins to flash it’s screen, slowly coming to life. “Hello, everyone,” a voice says from behind the screen. Everyone can recognize it, nevermind that only Elvis and Pal have ever heard the voice before. It’s Deeox! How could this be! “Would you like to play a game?” It has to be Deeox! Only Deeox would make such a stupid reference, shattering the fourth wall in a million different ways!

I am here for my revenge. Too long have I been killed by the Mafia, lost from the incompetence of my teammates, or given a bad role. No longer! Tonight, you will all join me in my anguish. You have all been telemagically given roles and alignments. If you win the game, you may leave. If you don’t… well, you will die, of course.

All of you know the usual rules of this game, I would hope, however...

A bolded and red Name indicates a vote to lynch.
A bolded and blue Name indicates a take back of a vote to lynch.
A bolded and orange Name indicates a Finger of Suspicion. Which means basically nothing, of course.

However, I will indicate a format for two other options.

A bolded and green Day Extension will vote for a day extension.
A bolded and purple No Lynch will vote for an immediate end to the day. Doing this doesn’t always mean one is scum, perhaps the town is done planning and wishes to go forward? Hm?

The catch? Of course there’s a catch! All the roles are stupid and what else? This is both a Day 0 and a Night 0! Evening 0! Who even does that, right? Me! I did it!” The mad laughter fades as the TV screen dims, leaving them all in the spotlight.



PLAYER LIST:
  • Elvis Strunk
  • Meliran
  • Merne23
  • Revontulet
  • Geocorn
  • Arraxis
  • Pal
  • WeAreTheMeta
  • Marx-93
  • Duke Rockhopper
  • woolyshambler
  • Charles Flyingpad
  • Verthand
  • Jynx



With 14 alive, it takes 8 to lynch.
Evening 0 Ends October 14th 6:00 PM MST

8
Mafia Vortex / Bastard Mafia - Signup Thread
« on: October 06, 2017, 11:26:48 pm »
“So, as the story goes, they say the madness got to him. That he played so many mafia games, and died and lost so many times that he just went crazy. Locked himself up in the manor on Mafia Hill and just started plotting. Plotting what? His revenge. Revenge against his GMs, revenge against those who killed him, revenge against the mafia (because he was always a townie), revenge against all his incompetent townie allies, revenge against all the damn indies that kept killing him, and since everyone fell into one of those categories, he was gonna get revenge on damn well everyone. And so, those people found themselves in the house. The mad house. A house of smoke, mirrors, deception, insanity...

Sometimes, you can still hear the screams when you pass by the manor. Other times, you can hear mad laughter. Sometimes the laughs aren’t from him.”



Hello everyone,

Since I’ve said the only time I’d do Mafia again is if I was just screwing around the whole time, I thought the perfect way to put this into action was to do that ... as the GM. Hence, Bastard Mafia, as in, the GM is a bastard. Me.

So what does this mean? A) The roles are mostly really stupid. B) The GM could lie to you about: your role, your alignment, the results of your actions, your victory conditions, etc. C) This game isn’t designed to be balanced. D) Everything will be super chaotic and stupid as a result.

Additionally, this Mafia’s flavour will be really light, and any mentions of flavour to roles or alignments or circumstances or whatever can be augmented to your liking. I just don’t really care, just don’t be overtly stupid. There’s also no real player limit, but I may have to remove or add roles or make additional considerations depending on the player count.  Anyway, basic rules:

RULES:
Don’t be a dick.
Don’t talk about the Mafia game in the commbox or outside the threads.
Don’t quote my PMs unless I explicitly say you may.
Talk IC in the game thread and OOC in this thread.
Don’t edit your posts unless I explicitly say you may.
Don’t post during the night unless I explicitly say you may.

Failure to follow such rules may result in, but not limited to: GM-induced death, or a very loud verbal warning.



PLAYER LIST:
  • Elvis Strunk
  • Meliran
  • Merne23
  • Revontulet
  • Geocorn
  • Arraxis
  • Pal
  • WeAreTheMeta
  • Marx-93
  • Duke Rockhopper
  • woolyshambler
  • Charles Flyingpad
  • Verthand
  • Jynx

RESERVED:
  • Ybuy

9
Hyperspace Events / Art Secret Santa 2k17
« on: September 09, 2017, 11:53:26 pm »
Hey all, let's just get this Secret Santa ball rolling.

Here's the info from last year, because it's mostly all the same.

Greetings ~

Tis that time of year again, so you know what that means, festive cheer to our fellow forumites! Now I know some participated in a physical Secret Santa last year, but I felt that having things sent via snail mail left a lot of people unable to participate. So one might ask, how can I do something constructive and thoughtful for a gift instead of just buying a game on someones Steam wishlist? The answer is simple....an art commission. *shoots himself up to sustain his addiction* The thought goes that since rpgs and VNs are very character centric, perhaps people will enjoy this.

Heres how it works, from now until DEC 12, reply to this thread with:
1) Your intent to participate
2) Preference of an game, waifu, or original character to have art commissioned of them (reference pics help)
3) Any particular theme you'd enjoy

From the 10th and onward, Ill PM people with who they are to get art for. The point being, that a surprise piece of art (character, artist, theme, etc) will be something someone enjoys.

Artists can be found on Deviantart, Pixiv, or whever youd like. As for a price range, please, no one spend more than 50 USD.

From Dec 24 an onward (or such as when the art is completed), simply post the pictures to the thread and merriment abound. Sound easy?

Any additional questions, please PM yours truly. 8)

So what's different?

Well, for one, we're starting earlier, so that means we're going to put the deadline for signups earlier. That'll be SEPT 23, so two weeks from the current date (unless something changes). On this date, I'll send out who everyone will be getting art for. Make sure to post references for your requests!

The post date will be the same, DEC 24, unless something happens.

Anyway, message me any questions you might have. Also please don't spend multiple pages debating chainmail bikinis here.

10
General Chat / Hyperspace Discord
« on: August 04, 2017, 01:09:19 am »
Hello, I've decided to make a Discord Channel for the Hyperspace Forums. This can run in your browser, so no worries about downloading anything, unless you want to.

It can be found here.

11
Create n' Share / Adeptus Evangelion - Years Hence
« on: July 10, 2017, 04:38:20 am »
Hey, look at this stupid AdEva fic I started writing in March of 2016 but only finished in June of 2017! I wanted to write something moderately interesting, but I also wanted to have some fun with it. So here it is. I hope you enjoy it. If you hate it, please don't tell me. I've proofread it a bunch of times, but who the hell knows if I caught everything.

Oh, and also this is 21 Pages on Google Docs/8753 Words.

Years Hence
Northern Tokyo-3 was eviscerated and destroyed. Ruined buildings creaked as their twisted frames struggled to keep up the weight of their cracked shells. Rivulets of LCL and blood leaked across the hellscape from the epicentre of the cataclysm, yet everything was silent. A-4X1 rested against the angelic beast, a spear driven deeply into the creature’s core. Phillip’s entry plug had jettisoned into the husk of a warehouse, barely visible from the sky as he pulled himself from the wreckage and looked out across the wastes. Unit Zero slept in the dust, its legs mangled and destroyed, incinerated by an attack from the Angel’s core. Yuki stood out in the open, smiling brightly at their apparent victory. Others clambered out from the darkness of their entry plugs, exclaiming their victories. Takumi would have quite the story to tell Kurumi, Elidia had saved mankind for the second time, Steiner had proved his own self worth to himself, and well, Anatoly was somehow still alive. The world wasn't finished being saved, but it felt like it. Each felt a unique sense of accomplishment, like they could finally put all the hardships of their past behind them and move forward with their lives; never returning to the hangups that kept them clinging to fear.

White Rabbit’s voice sounded over the speakers that still remained, echoing oddly throughout the torn city blocks. Her voice cheery, yet tinged with dread. “You did it! B-but-”

Her words are cut off abruptly as Darius takes control of the microphone. “I believe you’ve all earned some well deserved R&R.”

Hours pass as helicopters, cars and even a boat are dispatched to retrieve each of the Pilots and take them back to NERV HQ to shower and change. Darius, Gerard, Mathias, Rabbit and Anatoly talk in private, unsure of how to deal with the situation presented to them. Sachiko says nothing. Commander Minoru has more pressing issues to attend to. A decision is made hastily, and an explanation is constructed. Meanwhile, the girl waits in silence.

The Pilots speak in cheerful tones, recalling amazing displays of heroics, marksmanship, teamwork and success. It is only when Takumi poses the question does a dark cloud unravel itself above the group and remain there until the four men step into the room. The tension dissipates as Elidia hugs Mathias and Takumi brings himself and his imouto into it, forming a group hug filled with laughter.

Phillip laid it down simply. “Where’s the soldier girl?”

Darius delivers the response. “Azami has, unfortunately, decided to quit the Pilot program.”

Some respond with skepticism. Why would the Neo-Spartan quit? She had always said she would never quit. Where would she even go? Others meet the answer with acceptance. She had been weak, with a fragile ego. Maybe she cracked. But finally, she was gone. Some don’t respond either way. Their battles would be easier from this point onwards. Whether the girl left or stayed, it didn't matter.

Anatoly tries to reel everyone back into the present with a few words. “It was her decision, and no one was going to stop her.”

NERV sends the Children home without further discussion. Soon, they reenter their regular routine. They had won, and that was what mattered.

A year passes. The Pilots continue to deploy, mopping up the last of the angelic remnants that land on their doorstep. Appearances of Lilin drop dramatically. Another year passes. The appearances of Angels dwindle to once every two months. Anatoly retires from Pilot status. Lilin disappear from NERV’s radar entirely. A third year passes. Angels and Lilin are seemingly gone. No one can explain it completely. People celebrate in the streets. Birth rates rise. Parties rage across the globe, and the Pilots rejoice as it all finally ends. Each of them leave for their own personal aspirations. Elidia and Steiner enter colleges, studying relentlessly. Yuki becomes a seiyuu, her voice heard in anime for years to come. Takumi somehow finds it in his heart to become a salaryman. Phillip enters into NERV’s security wing, just to make sure no one screws everything up, and Takumi and Kurumi finally tie the knot, with Elidia and Yuki following in their footsteps.

The calendar finally reads September, 2030. Former NERV Pilots and employees alike all come back to NERV HQ to celebrate the peace they built together. They laugh, tell stories, joke around and smile as the peace they sought finally comes to fruition.

In the evening, a brilliant column of light shoots up into the sky. Panic sets in across the world as the red cross above NERV HQ burns brightly. In NERV’s halls, fires rage, blood soaks the walls, and LCL coats the floor. White Rabbit scrambles to find a trace of the Angel that must have caused the tragedy, but she finds nothing.

In the morning, NERV counts its dead. The only thing published in the media is ‘too many’. Custodes Humanitatis claims responsibility.

A helicopter lands during the funeral ceremony and shock grips the survivors as the red-eyed Neo-Spartan steps out from it and onto the grass. She speaks only a simple sentence. “I will be replacing Commander Minoru.”

The following day, NERV begins rebuilding.



“Three weeks have passed.” Azami relayed the fact to the NERV staff gathered at the meeting table. “We have made significant progress, but there is room for improvement. We will need to make faster progress in the weeks to come if we are to align with our projections.”

Steiner lifted his pen up, then set it back on the table, tapping it against the wood. “Azami. Ma’am. The science division is stretched to its limit. We really can't do much else with what we have.”

Elidia’s hands folded around her pendent as she begun to talk. Dark circles hung under her eyes. “We are more than just pushed to the limit. I’ve gone through the notes and we don't have the resources to restart the Manufactured Project unless we go to the Sino-Russian Evangelion Cooperative.”

Gerard’s report was last. The black eye patch over his left eye was outlined in gold, and his hair was a dark blue. “Yeah. I’ve done the estimates. The MAGI won’t be finished bein’ repaired for three years. We can get some functionality back this week, but not a lot else.”

Azami nodded to the right side of the table. “We will acquire additional staff after the UN reviews our new budget. In the meantime, I will be making deals with the continental Eva leagues to acquire resources. Naturally, the Sino-Russians will be on the top of my list. Gerard, ensure that we have basic MAGI functionality and that the system is still available. We will wait for further staffing before moving forward.” She turned to the other side of the table. “Your reports?”

Phillip held his chin in his hand, thumbing his ring idly as he spoke. “The Coalition dogs haven't made any further moves. We should be fighting back.” Azami raised her hand and gestured for the next person to go.

Kurumi shuffled her papers, thumbing through them. Her wedding band rested prominently on her finger. “The public have been giving us mixed results generally. Most blame the Coalition, but some blame us. People are panicked, and it's only going to get worse if we don't say something.”

Azami clasped her gloved hands together and set them on the table. “I agree. Our public story will be that Custodes Humanitatis and the Coalition were wholly responsible. No Angels or Lilin were involved. As it stands now, there is no evidence of any non-humans having any part in the attack.”

“Exactly,” Phillip interjected. “We need to wipe out the Coalition before they can hit us again.”

“Mhaol. What we need now is a calm head and a solid plan. One of my old colleagues has informed me that Section 2 is simply not capable of an operation of that calibre. Revenge will have to wait. “

He grunted. “Fine.” By no means was he admitting defeat, Azami knew that well enough, but at least now he understood what the official line was.

Azami turned to regard the room as a whole. “We will reconvene in three weeks to discuss further plans and deliver further reports. As of today, I would like to again congratulate you all on your current progress, and hope to see more from you in the future. Meeting adjourned.”

The five stood from their seats and filed out quietly. Their commander remained seated, sifting through papers in front of her. A report from Lasiin, a memo from Ara Kim, an email from Masefield, a letter from Jesus… It was all just so much useless work. She reached down beside her and pulled the laptop from her bag, setting it down gently before opening it. A voice slammed against her eardrums. “Major!” Azami hit the volume button with her fist.

“White Rabbit… What do you need?”

The AI had changed over the years. She was still the same lolicon enticing girl that she had always been, albeit, Azami had heard that she had kept changing her look every month or so. Now, she was in a frilly black and white dress reminiscent of a maid’s outfit. “People have been trying to call you all day! I tried to filter some of them myself, but there was just so many calls…”

Azami rubbed her ears gently. Maybe she wouldn't need to answer calls if she was deaf. “Thank you. Has anyone particularly important called?”

“A spy lady called and said that you should read her letter! It sounded mighty important… but then again, almost all the calls did…”

Azami took out Katherine’s report from the pile and opened it. It began with several performance reports from the non-defunct NERV branches, and some phone numbers at the bottom that Katherine advised her to phone. Azami noticed a penned in sentence on the bottom of the page and pulled the document closer to her face. The Coalition bastard wants to talk.

Great.



Azami stepped out of her car into the cold Tokyo-3 air. The police station was quiet, save for the dull melody of ancient music, playing out of one of the second story windows. A woman stood out front of the building, a cigarette gripped between two youthful fingers, and a grin on her face. Azami climbed the three steps and looked the woman in the eye, her red-eyed gaze intense as it always was. “Hello, Katherine.”

“Good evening, Commander Sicarius.” She dropped her cigarette, snuffing it out with her foot as she gestured into the building. “Time’s wasting, come on.” The two entered the station through the creaky door, and the officer at the desk just gestured down the hall. He knew who they were. NERV was in the news enough these days.

The two turned down the hall and Katherine decided to talk. “Is NERV treating you well? I don’t think that they were immediately accepting of you.” Katherine punched Azami in the shoulder playfully. “You came back from the dead afterall.”

She was still completely rigid in her posture. “Half of 2020’s NERV Pilots are dead, and I’ve been missing for ten years. Maybe when they’re done grieving will they question my leadership.”

“You don’t really like any of them, do you?” Azami gave her a glance. “Nevermind then...”

The detective at the door looked the pair up and down, before pushing off the wall. “You two are the NERV officials? It’s not my job to question this, but why are you lot here?”

Katherine shrugged him off, setting her hand on the door’s handle. “Official business. You saw the terrorist attack on the news.” She pulled the door open, pushing the detective to the sidelines as she pulled Azami inside.

The grey and wrinkled face of Septimus Niles greeted them. He pulled his hands as far apart as the handcuffs allowed him and smiled. “Azami, child. How long has it been since we last saw each other?”

“Not long enough.” She pulled out the chair from the other side of the metal table and settled herself on it as Katherine leaned against the far wall.

“Are you the good cop, Azami? Or are the two of you making it a bit interesting?” Katherine just laughed.

Azami tapped her knuckles on the table in a consistent rhythm. “You called me here, Niles. I suggest you say your piece and stop wasting my time.”

“You’re angry, I understand. Most would be angry after losing the person they hold most dearly.” Azami stopped her incessant tapping, but Septimus was on the next topic. “Simply put, I know where to find the people who have wronged your organization.” He smiled. “Obviously, I will require something in return.”

“NERV will not be trading any private information relating to the Manufactured Program.”

“You think I really wanted that, Commander? No… what I want is much simpler than that. I want off this island.” Azami raised an eyebrow, and shot a questioning glance at Katherine. Septimus just laughed. “It’s been ten years, Azami. My flock has abandoned me and the true struggle that was supposed to unite us. There is no hope for them, for me, or for you.”

Azami tapped her finger against the table, and for a moment, that was the sole sound that pervaded the room. “The Coalition’s watching you, and not just the Coalition, but Custodes Humanitatis.”

“I thought you weren't supposed to be the smart one,” Septimus said with a wicked grin.

“Katherine. This entire building is most likely compromised. You know the drill.” Azami pulled her pistol out and set it on the table as Katherine went to the door, peeking out slowly.  Septimus just watched the two former Neo-Spartans in action.

Katherine closed the door and readied her own weapon, leaning against the wall for cover. “Yup. This is going to be messy. They’re definitely not just cops.”

Azami pushed her gun against the handcuffs’ chain and blasted the rings apart. “Call for backup. Niles, you’re coming with us.”

“That was the plan all along, Commander.”



Elidia arrives at home at eight o’clock. Half the lights in the house were still on, but at least it was quiet. Azami had her working overtime, but she understood why. The commander wanted NERV to return to operational status as soon as possible. It was, to some extent, understandable. She pushed the door open and walked into the house. Michiko sat at the kitchen table with Keiko, a set of cartoon playing cards sprawled out across the table.

Keiko held her cards close to her face. “Got any threes?”

Michiko shook her head. “Nope. Go fish.”

Elidia smiled, watching the two quietly before finally announcing her presence. “Guess who’s home.”

Keiko slammed the cards down on the table, eyes full of surprise and joy. “Mommy!” She pushed herself out of the chair and dashed forward into her mother’s arms. Elidia wrapped her arms around her child tightly, kneeling down and pressing her face into Keiko’s shoulder. It never got easier. “Mommy… When is Mum coming home?”

Elidia pulled back from the embrace, holding her child’s hands in her own. She smiled gently, letting the lie spill out of her mouth. “Soon.” Elidia doesn't leave room for further questions, moving onto the next thing before Keiko can respond. “It’s really late. Why don't you head off to bed and I'll be there in a minute.”

The girl shuffled her feet awkwardly. “Okay…” The look on her face betrayed suspicion and confusion, but Keiko said nothing more as she retreated down the hallway.

Michiko wrapped the card deck with a rubber band and set it on the table. With a yawn, she stretched her arm over her head, standing up. Elidia dropped her bag against the wall, stifling a yawn of her own. “Thank you again, Michiko. The commander has me working overtime and-”

She waved her hand, dismissing the concern. “It’s fine, it’s fine! I would be worried if she was alone.” Michiko pasted on her biggest smile for Elidia, but it slipped off, replaced with a thin worried line. “Are you okay?”

“No.” The word pops out of her mouth, followed by silence as Elidia returned to her thoughts for just a moment. “It’s hard. They’re both gone now.” It’s a fact, and little else can be said about it.

Michiko put her smile back on her face and wrapped one arm around her friend’s shoulder. “We should break out the liquor. Girl’s night in. I'm here for you, and you should enjoy that.”

Elidia cracks a smile, giggling lightly. “Okay, okay. Just let me tuck her in.”

A quiet ringing echoes throughout the house and Elidia fumbles for the phone in her pocket. “Hello?”

Azami’s voice. “Your presence is required at headquarters, Doctor.”



Steiner patted the charred safety foam outlining the MAGI maintenance hatch and carefully took Gerard’s cane from him as the blue haired man descended into the abyss. “Gerard… Did you really put a gun in your cane?”

“A gun? No, that’s too easy. It would take me an hour to put together the pieces fer that.” Gerard looked up as Steiner swung his feet into the hatch and crawled down after him. “‘Sides, the commander doesn't really approve of that kinda thing.”

“That’s just an assumption. She’s only ever cared about results, you should know that.” Gerard didn't answer, and an awkward silence hung in the air. No one enjoyed talking about Azami. “A-anyway…” Steiner continued, “what did you put in your cane?”

“You’ll see,” Gerard replied in a joking tone, his smile audible in his words.

The two landed on a mangled mess of cables and stepped off into the darkness, clicking flashlights on as they went on. They walked for a long time, and Gerard looked down at his watch for a long time. The MAGI’s lengths of tubes and corridors went on for seemingly forever.

“Aha!” Gerard exclaimed, pointing to a turn in the path. “I found it!”

“What?” Steiner asked. “Found what?”

“I found the right turn. Come on, Steiner. Try’n keep up, eh?” Steiner’s barely contained agony of walking through endless tunnels remained contained a few moments more.

They finally stopped at clear panel set into a wall. Gerard snapped his cane, pulling a Swiss Army knife contraption out and cracked the panel open. Dust flew everywhere and the two coughed. Gerard poked around the panel, touching a wet fleshy mass in the panel’s corner with the end of his knife. “That’s weird…” he said, but nothing else.

“What is all this?” he asked.

“A coffee machine.” He read Steiner’s expression and laughed. “Just kiddin’. This is where we’re going to divert power and functionality from the dead systems to the operational ones.” He fiddled with a dial and pushed a button as a screen flickered to life, only for Gerard to fiddle with something else and the pattern seems to repeat infinitely. Steiner only watched, trying to make heads or tails of the unconventional system.

“You know,” Gerard said suddenly, looking over his shoulder briefly. “Darius once said that I could probably take over the world, but only if I thought it would be fun. I think about that a lot now. Knat always tried to say something all cool and wise, but that wasn't really him… and well… the other one was something different all together.”

“Seems like Pilots are just one dysfunctional family after the next,” Steiner said, musing over the thought of Azami’s Pilot Candidate forms.

“Probably, yeah.” He tapped his chin with a miniature screwdriver. “After you guys, it’ll just be the same thing, probably. A group of headstrong kids get together to fight for humanity, they don't get along at first, but they work it out eventually. A cycle, repeating itself endlessly.”

“We can break out of cycles. Not everything’s like that.”

“Well, when you kids manage it, I’ll be the first to pat all of ya on the backs.” He flicked another dial and the small screen flickered with Rabbit’s face. Gerard chuckles. “Miss me already?”

Rabbit’s face is worried, yet serious. “The commander wants you all in her office.”



Phillip stood at the hastily constructed memorial site, at the giant stone pillar erected in memoriam. He looked down the list, running this thumb against the stone. Yuki, Takumi, Anatoly, both of the Minorus, Darius… so many dead in just a single event… His eyes locked onto Jimmy’s name. He mumbled under his breath something insulting, yet endearing in a way only Phillip could manage. Like everyone who had lost someone, he had things that had been left unsaid.

“Phillip…” A voice called out from behind him, and he turned, slipping his hands into his pockets. Kurumi stared at him from across the stone pathway. She came closer and he lets her take her place beside him, beside the wall of names.

“It’s really a testament to our ability to move forward,” she said, for her sake more than his. “We’ve all lost people. Again and again. Yet… here we are. We put up a stone in memory and we keep on going.” She eyed some of the names, smiling in a melancholy fashion. “I don't think Yuki would have wanted her name on one of these. This isn’t how an idol is supposed to be remembered, as a casualty.”

Phillip looked down at Kurumi’s strong yet tired form. “How’s the widow doing?”

“Elidia’s been better. Losing your wife and your closest friend in a single night…” She shook her head. “We all lost friends, but-”

“I meant you.”

Kurumi fell silent and casted a quiet glance up at Phillip’s gruff face. She looked back down, folding her hands together to keep a fragment of her mind occupied. “Nothing will ever be the same without him. Souma should be able to see his father’s proud face as he grows up… but he won't.” She closed her eyes and tried to stop the inevitable tears from falling. “But we move on,” she said, as wet streaks run down her cheeks.

Phillip set his hand on her shoulder. He never had a way with words like some of the others did, but he was still a member of the big, mangled family that formed so long ago. He wrapped his arm around the sobbing woman and lets her cry, because, as friends, they could do little else.

A dull ring played out across the field, echoing out from the NERV loudspeakers. White Rabbit’s voice played out. “The commander wants to see you two.”



Azami stepped into her office and strode past her five NERV colleagues to set her blood soaked gloves upon her desk. She looked up to see a mix of horror and suspicion on their faces. “Custodes Humanitatis has made another move.”

Phillip raised his voice. “What happened?”

“A classified report showed up on my desk. I sent a Section 2 agent to deal with the situation but they were too late. I arrived personally.” She looked down at her gloves. “The result was less than ideal.”

Besides the obvious implication of further terrorist attacks from Custodes Humanitatis, they all knew what the actual order was going to be given by Commander Sicarius. An acceleration of the timetable. An extreme one.

“Once this meeting is adjourned, a base wide notice will be issued. Heavy and mandatory overtime for every NERV employee.” She looked to Steiner, Gerard and Elidia. “Your orders are to bring Units Acheron and Feitrion online immediately.”

Elidia shook her head. “Those two units are still waiting on shipments from the Eva Leagues-”

“I said immediately, Doctor. Pilot Selection Delta will proceed following directly. Dismissed.”

The three stood up and left promptly, leaving Phillip and Kurumi in the room with Azami. Phillip crossed his arms. “Orders, Sicarius?”

“You have permission to engage Operation Lex Talionis. Destroy the remnants of the Coalition and Humanitatis. Pull up the weed up by the roots.” She looked to Kurumi. “Media blackout. We counteract the Coalition’s attempts on the minds of the populus. You’ll have Section 2’s number. Arrest those who put our operation at risk.” Kurumi opened her mouth to speak but closed it promptly. “Dismissed.” They left, leaving Azami alone in the room.

Commander Sicarius let out a deep breath, looking up to the ceiling. So it had begun. Another war against God. She was ready, but she didn’t want to be.

Rabbit’s voice played in her ear. “Major… You should turn on the television.”

Azami pulled the remote out from her desk and pointed it at the monitor in the corner of the room. A news broadcast began to play on the screen with a female voice narrating behind the footage. “These horrifying images were captured in Germany mere minutes ago…” It was a scene of the countryside, green fields and rolling hills. Trees that, slowly, began to shake. The earth itself followed shortly, and Azami raised an eyebrow as she wondered why Rabbit would show her an earthquake. But the earth began to lift itself up, a hand shifted the dirt away and something emerged from within. A white mask, a black body. It stood on two legs, with two heavy arms on the sides of its body, before it deformed upon itself, becoming a flowing and floating liquid and rushing off outside the range of the camera.

Azami shut off the monitor and set the remote on her desk. “Is it headed for Tokyo-3?”

“... Yes.”

“Designate it Adriel. Declare Pattern Blue internally.” She didn’t know why it was coming here, but she knew it needed to die.



Gerard hopped up as soon as Azami came through the door, hobbling beside her with a tablet in his hand. “Commander, yer gonna wanna see this. I found something in the MAGI-”

“Well then, fix it, Doctor Josephs. That is your job.” She walked ahead of him to where Steiner and Elidia were sitting, waiting for her. “You heard the alert. Rabbit! Get the list on screen.” A holographic image was cast on a translucent screen in the meeting room. Hundreds upon hundreds of images coupled with small snippets of information. All of them of children. Candidates.

Steiner tapped his chin idly. “Cut it down to candidates we can fly in within a day.” The list was slashed into a third of its size.

Elidia hummed. “Synch ratio averages above thirty percent.” Half.

Gerard nodded. “Tint military red, civvies green and others purple and organize accordingly.” Pictures shifted and were coloured, leaving a large chunk green, a smaller one red, and an even smaller one purple.

Azami scrolled her eyes across the photos. So many children… but not enough time. “Give me only those in Japan.” A list of twenty. She looked to the doctors. “Are the Units ready?” Gerard nodded once. “This is your list. Bring all of them in, test them all with our current Eva. Have our Pilots selected by midnight and then give them basic training.”

Steiner nodded to her. “We’ll try our best, but there might simply not be enough time…”

“NERV has done better in less time. You have your orders.” She left the room promptly.

Gerard let out a breath, settling down in a chair. “She’s a regular ol’ Minoru, she is.” He looked at the two others as they began to write notes down on tablets madly. “Do ya think you two can cover for me? I got something I need to check out.”

Elidia waved her table pen at him. “Just be quick. The commander will get mad at you if you’re late.”



Azami looked at the eyeball in her cup of coffee. She plucked it out, holding it up by the stalk. It looked at her, stared, and she stared back. She dropped it in the garbage can and stepped out into the hangar. Two Pilots had been selected. A blonde girl, pixie cut, hands behind her back. A Japanese boy, shorter, black haired, hands shoved in his pockets. The three doctors stood behind them, Steiner with his nervousness, Elidia with her pendant and Gerard with a tablet in his hands.

She looked the two Pilots up and down, sipping her coffee. “You’ll both be briefed following your first engagement. The Angel, Adriel, is a body shifter, but with the MAGI computer system down, unless it returns to full operation, you will have less than optimal combat data.”

Elidia coughed into her hand. “She means you’ll be fighting with less information.”

“... Yes, and the Angel will be here soon, so get dressed and into your Eva.” She turned on her heel, beginning to ascend the stairs to the observation deck. The doctors talked briefly to the two Pilots and then followed her up.

Steiner nudged Gerard. “Where’d your cane go?”

“Oh. I lost it.” He began to make a huge show of holding onto the railing and dragging himself forward. “Oh, woe is me…”

Azami took up her position by the tactical map and screen. “Rabbit, initialize the battle map and get me a camera feed of Adriel.” Quickly, an image of the Japanese countryside appeared on the table and a screen began to broadcast an image of the approaching black cloud, spotlights lighting it up in the night.

Elidia pressed a few buttons on the side of the table. “I wonder how the old team got on without this sort of technology… Pilots, can you hear me?”

“Affirmative.”

“Loud and clear.”

“Okay. You’ll be deploying via the NERV dropship in the countryside. There aren’t many people out here, so you won’t have to worry much about collateral. Just focus on eliminating the Angel and you’ll be back home by breakfast.”

Azami nodded. “Commence operation.”

The Eva shot up into the sky from the hangar and a small blip appeared on the map. The drop ship sailed across the table, destined for the fight with Adriel.

Steiner tapped the table with his finger. “I remember the first time we took the ship… You two were already fighting Camael by the time I got there…”

Elidia smiled, cocky. “Yuki’s power drained almost immediately and you went into melee combat with it.” She looked at the commander.

“It drained my power, wrapped around me and exploded.” She held her gaze on the table.

Gerard chuckled. “You were unconscious for a week.”

The dropship arrived above the target and Azami gave the go ahead for deployment. The two Eva, Acheron and Feitrion, hit the ground hard, shedding drop gear in seconds before pulling pallet rifles from storage wings and simply waiting. Soon enough, the black mist of Adriel came into view, shimmering from the spotlights. “You are green to proceed, Pilots.”

They opened fire, spraying the Angel with small arms fire. It didn’t relent, instead rushing straight for Acheron, slamming into it and forming back into the solid creature that it had been in Germany. It took the gun from the Eva’s hand, smashed it, and proceeded to pummel the Eva with the pieces. Feitrion kept firing at it.

A phone began to ring in the background of the observation deck, an ancient ring from somewhere between the panels and dials of the consoles. Azami looked at Elidia. “You have temporary command, Doctor Minase.”

Azami waded through the desks of the observation desk, stumbling upon a ringing phone in between in all. It was red, with the words “secure line” printed above it in solid black letters. Azami wrapped her hand around the receiver and lifted it to her ear. “Major Azami Sicarius speaking.”

“Thank God!” A voice said to her. “This is Corporal Cross from the JSDF!” A woman, young, loud.

“Who gave you this number, Corporal? Where are you?”

“My commander told me to get in touch with NERV command. We have been unable to contact you through satellite or digital means.”

Azami raised an eyebrow, turning around to look at Steiner, Elidia and Gerard. They continued to watch the battle map. “What do you mean?”

“Your robots are here just standing around, and that Angel of yours hasn’t even shown up!”

Azami blinked. “What?”

“Yeah! It’s weird. We’re getting a feed of your robots fighting the Angel but… when we look out at it, there’s nothing.”

Azami looked around. What? That didn’t make any sense. She looked at the camera feed, still showing the fight between the two Eva and Adriel. She looked at the table, showing the topography and the icons of the Evas and Angel. How the hell would a prank caller get a hold of a secure NERV line? That didn’t make any…

“The MAGI was never down…” She brought the phone back to her ear. “Corporal, tell your commander NERV HQ is compromised-” An explosion rocked the observation deck, followed by gunshots on the floor of the hangar. Azami almost lost her balance, holding onto the desk for stability.

She looked out onto the hangar, NERV staff running, some promptly being gunned down by figures in black. NERV security showed up almost immediately, beginning to fight back. A voice screamed out the words she knew she would hear. “Custodes Humanitatis!”

Elidia ran up to the window immediately. “What’s happening? Oh... no...”

Another explosion went off, right next to the observation deck, blowing glass across the occupants. Azami ducked and covered herself, but the tell tale creaks of the foundation gave the next event up. The deck broke off from its connection to the wall, and fell down to the hangar below. The descent was practically instantaneous, and the breaking of several of Azami’s ribs was similar in speed. Azami was thrown out of the deck with Elidia, landing numerous feet away from impact site. Both of them were still conscious. Azami’s vision blurred, only snapping back together when bullets impacted the floor beside her. She pulled herself behind a pile of concrete and lifted her gun from its holster. Blood was already beginning to crawl down from her forehead.

On one side of her was Elidia, lying still on the ground, and on the other was Gerard and Steiner. Gerard was alive, crawling away as a man stalked toward him, a rifle in his hands. His eyes were full of fear and the man lifted his gun. Azami lifted hers in retaliation.

They shot at the same time. Gerard was shot three times in the chest and his murderer was shot in the side of the head. Both of them crumpled and were still.

Azami gritted her teeth, and quickly looked at both Elidia and Steiner. Steiner was slowly beginning to awake, but Elidia was still unconscious. “Laudo!” She yelled. “Get up and follow me!”

Azami dove for Elidia, and immediately hauled her over one of her shoulders and began to run. There was a door on one side of the hangar at the floor level, with a maintenance shaft that she knew would be easy to break into. Steiner got up quickly and followed shortly behind her. Azami kicked open the door and pointed to an air duct. “Open that!” she said, as she locked the door and blew off the door’s handle. There was still gunshots and screaming on the other side, but she couldn't do anything to help those people.

Steiner pulled off the vent, already breathing hard. “Are we going to die, Azami? This can’t be happening… I thought they wouldn’t attack us like this again…”

Azami gripped him roughly by the arm. “Shut up and start climbing. You talk - you hesitate - then we all die.”

They crawled through the grate and into a large vertical maintenance shaft with a long ladder. Azami forced Steiner to climb first before following him up, carrying Elidia over one shoulder while climbing up with one hand. At least her Neo-Spartan training was good for something…

“Azami… do you smell… blood?” Sure enough, the smell of blood began to fill her nostrils. She paused, trying to pinpoint the location of the smell, but it only became more pungent. “Or… is it even blood?” An orange liquid began to pour out from the many vents that lead into the maintenance shaft, pooling at the bottom and slowly beginning to rise.

Azami snapped. “LCL! Climb!” They hauled themselves up to the top of the ladder, all the while the LCL rose faster and faster. There was a door, a legitimate one, at the top platform, but closed shut.

“This LCL isn’t activated. We’ll drown in it. Can you get this door open?” She pointed to the door and the electrical panel beside it.

“That’s just basic electrical engineering, yeah… I know how these are wired…” He cracked the panel open, pulling out a mess of wires. “I just need to divert it and then-”

Azami felt LCL fill into her boots. “Steiner. Door. Now.”

The door slammed open suddenly, and LCL began to pour into it from their end. It was another shaft, and as Azami looked up into it, with an even longer ladder. She looked at Steiner and at Elidia’s unconscious body draped over her shoulder.

She dropped Elidia into the next room before grabbing Steiner by the collar and tossing him inside. “Azami?” he shouted just as she ripped out the wiring from the panel and the door returned to its closed state. The LCL quickly rose to her waist, before she pulled out her gun and shot into the panel several times, electrical sparks flying. The LCL rose to her head and she held her breath, letting the gun slip from her fingertips and float in the orange of the LCL.

She took a breath in, let the LCL fill her lungs like it did ten years ago, and sighed, coughing lightly. She hadn’t thought shooting the panel would have actually worked. Azami let herself down, sitting down on the floor of the platform. Now she was alone, again, in the middle of her base that was currently being attacked by the enemy they had all been united against.

“Using the MAGI against us… The CRG really are something…” At least she knew the Angels weren’t really back. NERV really should have been disbanded by now…

“Azami…” Rabbit’s voice, playing hauntingly in her ear.

“You’re not White Rabbit…” Silence. “Who are you?”

A different voice. The long dead idol. “Come on, Azami! I know you’ll want to see this! Just go down and crawl into the grate labeled 2A...”

Azami stood up, looking out into the shaft. There it was, a shaft labeled 2A. “What if I don’t want to?”

Takumi. “Eh? Come on, Aza-tomodachi... “

She looked at her gun, useless while submerged in LCL and then to the place the MAGI wanted her to go. “Fine.” She pushed off the side, fell for a moment, and then swam the rest of the way. With a firm kick, she dislodged a vent cover and entered a flooded hallway. “What now?”

Darius. “There’s an airlock up ahead. We’ll drain the LCL, after which you can find an elevator. We’ll be waiting.”

Azami stepped inside the room labeled as the airlock, and while she was wary they’d trap her inside, she let the doors close. The LCL drained out, and while she smelled of blood, the doors did open on the other side. It was a large room, intended for deep Eva storage as far as she could tell. She walked past the empty racks, labeled with the names of old Units. Ragnarok… Idumea… Sleipnir… Catharsis. It wasn’t empty.

The black and grey Eva was still here, covered in dust and cobwebs. She looked upon it not with a fondness or any feeling of nostalgia. She looked at it with pity, and perhaps the slightest bit of contempt. The others had been decommissioned, declared ancient, suboptimal and defunct, yet this one was still here. “Why are you still here… and why didn’t I know…”

She kept walking, eventually finding the elevator that the voices told her about. As soon as she set foot within it, the doors closed and it began to descend. No button was highlighted on the panel, but the trip was short. Quickly, the doors opened again.

She stepped out and onto something. A full human arm, covered in dark red veins, and when she lifted her boot from it, it writhed in pain, somehow alive. She continued further, finding more and more human body parts, disconnected from an actual body, yet writhing and almost screaming out at her. On the wall was map, and on it was written: “Manufactured Program Department 0”. She had never heard of that before. Maybe for a reason.

Slowly, instead of simple minded pieces of human, flesh began to coat the walls, covering it in blood red organs, of all the shades of the human race. Azami only continued on, desperate to find the source of all of this.

A blast door, outlined in pulsating skin. “This is it,” Anatoly said in her ear. “You ready?”

Azami pressed her hand against the bright red button on the wall and waited for the doors to reveal whatever it was she was supposed to see.

Seven eyes looked at from the writhing mass, breathing gently like a single massive lung. She could tell instantly who those eyes belonged to as she stepped into the massiveness of the room. Endless rows of human sized tanks stood shattered in the room, the flesh of the creature enveloping almost every single one of them. “What the hell happened here?” she asked it.

All the voices spoke at once. Yuki, Takumi, Anatoly, Darius, Sachiko, Mathias, Commander Minoru...And a new one was slowly added to the seven, Gerard’s. “The Manufactured project was highly successful, but behind successes are failures… This entire section, a failure sealed away and forgotten.”

“No,” she said to it. “Why do you have the voices of my dead colleagues.”

“That final battle where you thought you had fallen into a coma. You did not. You died. When your soul was untethered from your body, we took it. From it, we created you again. We gave you a body so you could lead the rest back to us.”

“Excuse me?” she said. “That’s insane.”

“Where are your memories in between, Azami? They don’t exist. We created you in the approximation of what you would have been, through the MAGI’s eyes.”

Azami swallowed. “That… doesn’t change anything. And it doesn’t answer my question. Why do you have those voices?”

“The attack by Custodes Humanitatis. The Angel’s cross that killed hundreds. We took those souls that the terrorists untethered and added them to ourself. With these souls, we gained unprecedented access to the MAGI, and with it, our plan was able to come to fruition. Under your command, Azami… you brought them all here.”

“No, that means…” Azami looked around, seeing the thing before her for what it really was. “You’re just a vessel for Human Instrumentality.”

“Yes. Exactly. Soon the rest of our family will be reunited with us.” Steiner and Elidia… They were likely still in the base, or at least within the blast range of a near Third Impact event… She didn’t know about Kurumi and Phillip. "We just need you," it said.

Azami turned around and started walking away. “Where are you going?” It asked her. “Stop!” Azami slipped by just as the blast doors closed. “Don’t you want to be reunited with your family?”

“I’m putting an end to this. This story needs to end.” She found the elevator and dug her fingers in between the two doors, and as hard as she could, made to force it open. Obviously, with it controlling the MAGI, she would have to do everything by hand.

A new voice, one she hadn’t heard since she became a Pilot at NERV HQ, spoke into her ear. “Azami, please don’t do this.”

Azami forced the elevator shaft open and began to climb up the elevator shaft. “You’re not real, and even if you are, this wouldn’t be what you wanted.”

Victoria’s voice was quiet for a moment before she found the words. “How would you know? Our entire family was broken apart. How do you know what I became?”

Azami hauled herself up and began to force open the elevator door to the Eva storage hangar. “Why would you be in Tokyo-3? You died in America.”

“You don’t know that, Azami. I came to Tokyo-3 to find you, but they didn’t want that. They killed me.”

Azami forced open the door and forced herself through the opening before she fell, panting and sweating, onto the walkway floor. “That isn’t my fault. I never did anything to hurt you.” She picked herself up, looked at Catharsis, and began to run to it. “I’m going to free my new family from their torment.”

“You’re a mess, Azami. Trying to find your purpose in the world when you don’t have one. Let it happen. Let us achieve Instrumentality. We have the DNA of Angel and Lilin, we just have to wait for them to meet.”

Azami ran for it, seeing the entry plug sticking out in plain view. The collective years of fighting against Third Impact, Instrumentality, Angels, Lilin… She just couldn’t let it all end here with defeat. All of the Pilots had known this since they became Pilots. Failure was not an option. Ever.

The access elevator to the plug began to move away from her, but she ran, jumped, dug her fingers into the metal and hauled herself up. It stopped entirely. The rail Catharsis was on began to drag it deeper into the bowels of NERV HQ. Azami took in two deep breaths and jumped for it again.

It started to change tactics, taking on Darius’ voice. “Sicarius… some battles can’t be won. As Neo-Spartans, we know this better than anyone. We know better than to throw our lives away. Don’t do this, for our sake.”

Azami panted, swallowing. “Our training was different. If the decision is called to retreat, then it is my job to ensure that our retreat is successful. I must give my life to ensure the safety of the lives of my friends. They never understood that. To love them, I must hate them. My departure cannot be painful for them.” She continued her climb up Catharsis’ torso.

It hadn’t been. Her death had been quickly covered up. No one asked questions and a full decade had been able to pass without them needing to ever utter her name. Now, she’d do it again. Save their lives and be forgotten for it.

She reached the plug and hauled herself inside. It was cramped and her legs didn’t fit neatly beside the controls. What had she expected, it had been a full ten years hence. She’d have to make it work, though.

“Catharsis… I know you’re still in there. This is the last time I ask anything of you. Please. Help me.” She felt something. A dulled connection, frayed, nearly cut. She couldn’t connect with it yet, but soon… Azami flicked on Catharsis’ power and immediately and manually severed the connection between the Eva’s systems and the MAGI. “Catharsis. Connect with me. I let you in.”

It didn’t hit her like a brick. It tugged on her sleeve, holding onto her hand. Weak and frail. She pulled it along as she struggled to gain hold of the body. It offered her warmth, safety, love, and she tried to keep it from dying. Slowly, she pulled Catharsis off the track, smashing through concrete and metal. Azami needed to destroy it all, bring the entirety of NERV HQ crashing down on top of this wriggling mass of sin. She had all the strength, but Catharsis had nothing. How could she strengthen this soul?

Yuki had said something once. It was her birthday, cake was being served, everyone was gathered around singing. Azami stood in the corner, watching. Half of her wondered what was happening, the other half of her wondered why she should care. It went by quickly, gifts were opened, people clapped, and it finally stopped.

Azami had climbed back up to her room and closed the door, but a knock came not a second later. Azami paused, turned around and opened the door. Yuki was there, a smile on her face, one of those stereotypical party hats on her head, and a piece of cake in her hands. “Azami, I know you’re not really used to this sort of thing, but a celebration is for everyone.” She offered Azami the piece of cake, and she took it, staring down at it.

“When’s your birthday, Azami?”

“March 12th. 2:03 AM.”

“Have you ever celebrated it?”

“No.”

She beamed like the little ray of sunshine she was. “We’ll celebrate it next year. I promise. You’re part of the family too, don’t forget that!”

Yuki left, Azami closed the door and ate the piece of cake in silence. The frosting was far too sweet, and the batter hadn’t been mixed well enough, but it was one of the most delicious things she had ever eaten.

She took the memory, regarded it for a moment, and gave it to Catharsis. She felt the connection between them bump, rattle and shake before stabilizing, stronger than before. She took another memory, her talks with Phillip, and gave them to Catharsis. Her disagreements with Elidia, to Catharsis. Everything that she remembered, she gave up. Every recollection of her fellow Pilots, Anatoly, Elidia, Phillip, Steiner, Yuki, Takumi. All her friends and acquaintances. The Minorus, Darius, Gerard, Rabbit, Mathias, James, and even Nolan and Shikame. Kurumi, Ara Kim, Michiko. All of their battles, the fun times together, the heartwarming and the heartbreaking moments. She left herself nothing but her intentions and the will to carry it through.

When she finally climbed up out onto the GeoFront, breaking through dirt and foliage, Catharsis was stronger than it had ever been and Azami couldn’t remember where she was or what was going on, just that she needed to destroy NERV. She pushed the controls forward, pieces of herself beginning to dissolve off as her soul began to forget who she was.

She looked down at the pyramid, raised the fists of her Eva, and brought them down on the building, tearing through concrete, steel, wiring and LCL. She lifted her hands and brought them down again, again and again. It gave way to the deeper parts of NERV and she kept on, smashing through floor after floor after floor.

“We love you!” It said to her.

“I hate you!” she shrieked back at it.

The language began to break down. Voices screamed in her ears to stop, but she didn’t know them, didn’t understand the words they spoke. She went deaf. Only destroying. Sometimes people would shoot at her, hurl explosives, but she kept going. Kept tearing. Stopped hearing, stopped seeing. Stopped feeling.

She didn’t need to tear the whole building down to the lowest level, she had known that before. Just needed to bury it in enough concrete and rubble, and destroy enough so that no one remembered enough to care.

Azami stopped, finally finding the tubes and wires of the MAGI. She gripped at the plates holding the Eva’s chest in place and ripped it apart. She punched herself in the chest, dug inside and gripped the Angel’s organ inside, tearing it out with her bare hands. She did not even think before she crushed it in her hands.



Steiner and Elidia crawled out of the maintenance port and into the Japanese countryside. They breathed hard, gathering themselves before finding their legs and standing once again. A car came towards them, sped up and then skidded to a halt. Phillip and Kurumi stepped out. “Are you two all right?” Kurumi asked, rushing out to them as they all stood on the edge of the lake. “Where’s Azami?”

Steiner nor Elidia had time to open their mouths to speak before an explosion shook everything. They looked out across the lake, wondering if they’d see the familiar sight of the cross, but there wasn’t one.

Phillip opened up his phone as it rang and held it up to his ear. He let it drop after a moment. “The building’s gone.”

Kurumi looked pleadingly at Steiner and Elidia. “What happened in there?”

Elidia looked at Steiner. Steiner looked at his shoes. “Azami drowned in…” His brow furrowed and he looked back out across the lake. “I don’t know.”

“I really don’t know.”

12
Other Games / Dungeons & Dragons - Rosarius' Efflorescence
« on: January 01, 2017, 05:11:05 am »
“Do you feel the winds of change? Sometimes, I feel we with the power forget how fragile the balances we fight to maintain are. The Tide was such a simple event, and yet, we will feel the repercussions of it for eons.”

“We pushed back this threat and we won. If anything, it showed that these balances you speak of will never shift. We are caught in an endless cycle.”

“A cycle practically begs to broken, but not by you or I. Those beneath us, men and women with much more courage and tenacity… Those will be who break cycles, who uproot empires, and who change the world.”

“A cycle broken will only birth a new cycle. An empire crushed only spawns a new empire. A world changed is not truly changed.”

“Well... perhaps we can both agree that this decision to change the world will not be our decision.”



Elsewhere, arcane power leaks out from a cracked relic. A neon blue spills out across the cracked tiles, seeping, flowing, and crawling past corpses of human, bugbear, elf, dwarf, orc, changeling, dragonborn, gnoll and illithid… Albian, Tavaniran, Luirenmeri, Asalgardian, Razfaran, Coaster… undead, mortal, warrior, mage… Time passes like water around it, corpses quickly consumed by rot grubs and other miscreants. It stops at one body in particular, detecting the magic it needs… and it takes it as its own. A laugh emanates from within the sanctum as the twisted, corrupted growths of the fortress spring back to life.



The sun shines upon the town of Penrith as a merchant’s traveling caravan rolls into town, beginning to unload cargo into the local store, Penrith Provisions. A burly dwarf, heavily bearded, steps out from the store, beginning to speak with the merchant and his bodyguards. Across the way, a blacksmith pounds out the imperfections in a shortsword before dunking it in river water. She looks up, wiping her dark hands on her apron, wondering if the month’s shipment has arrived from Cazavir. It may be a day of rest, but there is still much work to be done for the small town.

Elsewhere, an aging man in chainmail trades terse words with the townmaster. The townmaster is firm with him, and he gives up on her before they go their separate ways; one back into the townmaster’s hall and the other toward the local inn. The man looks at the Dragoncrest Guild building down the road - banners of both the Dragoncrest Guild and the Free Mages adorning its outer walls - but decides against it, simply deciding to get his day’s fix of cheap ale. It is quiet inside, people have died, and the energy once present in the town has been gone for a long time.

Penrith is but a jump, skip, and a hop away from the shining beacon of Cazavir in the north. Adventurers often find themselves passing through the small town, as they get off a boat at Portsway, or as a step on their quest to seek out the Free Mage or Blackraven headquarters. Today, many an adventurer have found themselves in Penrith. Most of their goals are elsewhere, but their fates just might entangle on this day…

13
Create n' Share / Dungeons and Dragons - A Rosarian Prelude
« on: October 23, 2016, 01:32:25 am »
Hello from your friendly neighbourhood prude. I'm finally ready (I guess) to post my novel on here. It's been four months in the making, I believe. Also, yes, it is DnDee, but I found that using DnDee as a catalyst for writing was a great tool, as all my previous attempts to write novels were too big in scope, and this was a good way to narrow down my vision into something concrete with a concise narrative goal. This book here details events before, during and after the key events of the Rosarian Upheaval and the Dark Tide from DnDee's history. Yes, the protagonist is Azami Sicarius. Yes, you may start groaning now. Have fun and don't be afraid to yell at me for some grammatical mistake or some plot hole or whatever else may be on your mind. I swear I've gone through the damn thing pretty fully, but I'm only human. Final things then; PG-13 rating for violence and, uh, sexual references and swearing, I guess; and I've sectioned it into chapters for easier reading, but the story was originally written as just one long thing. Yup, that's it! Maybe I'll write some author's notes later, Idunno.

Chapter 1
Hikari rested her hand against her sword’s hilt, looking down at the map spread out across the thick wooden table. “Straight to Cazavir. I don't like it. The message was sudden, and the path is awkward.” She stroked her chin. “The forests are keen for an ambush. We won't make it out of the taiga if we go by the common path.”

Her sister held a shuriken in her hand, digging a hole into the wood with the edge. “What do you think? Blackraven assassins?” Azami’s eyes darted over the path. “Tavaniri soldiers? I can't see why the man would even want us dead. We are templars, not nobility.”

“We are the last two members of clan Sicarius. We are important because we are the last two left.” She drew a line through the mountains beside the temple. “It would take a few days longer, but we could easily make up for that time by going through Dul Vano.”

“Dwarven ruins…” She took her eyes off the map, gazing up at her sister. “Hikari…” Her sister’s gaze was unwavering and solid. Azami could only sigh lightly. “We set off come first dawn then. There isn't time to waste.”

And so the two sisters, black haired and red eyed, awoke on the first dawn. They brought their provisions and equipment down to the ground floor, where the temple monk was there to see them off. He grasped Hikari by the shoulder, holding her back as she tried to leave. Azami stopped and watched. “Hikari, do you really think this journey is wise?”

Hikari rested her gloved hand on the mentor’s, and gently peeled it from her shoulder. “I am sure. I have done a great disservice to clan Sicarius by keeping us so far from the rest of the world.” She bowed lightly and quickly. “We will be back, in a few weeks time.” The two departed from the cover of the temple, finally walking across the snow and to the stables to pick up their horses. Azami took her horse, and carefully ran a hand through his mane, attaching the saddlebags as Hikari spoke with the stablehands. She had not been able to speak with her horse in quite some time, but unlike with a human, there was nothing to feel awkward about.

“Finally, Masayoshi…” She touched her hand to the beast’s face. “We last rode together so long ago. Sometimes I forget I am a templar, and sometimes I forget I am a Sicarius.” Hikari took her own horse out into the snow silently, and Azami slowly brought Masayoshi out as well. He looked at her with a dark black eye, and then away towards the path that led towards the bottom of the mountain. Azami could sense his eagerness. Instead, Hikari took both of them away and east of the temple. They rode slowly, and the path gradually narrowed until the trees disappeared and the ground became more stone than dirt.

Hikari slowed down, bringing her horse beside Azami’s. “I heard that our clan trained down here. In the summer, when the snow cleared, the young men and women would travel here with one of the old masters and train for days on end. Our warriors were the best. It was a fact.”

Azami looked to her sister, seeing the anger hidden behind the veil of her face. “The clan will not be betrayed again. We’ll return to our old ways.”

Hikari nodded firmly. “We will.”

As they continued, the snow began to fall more heavily and the wind blew fiercely. Azami wrapped a scarf around her face, looking out only a few feet in front of her as the white of the snowstorm obscured her vision. Hikari called out, steering her horse elsewhere as she sought shelter for the two of them. They stopped under the shadow of a small cave, and quickly Azami brought together a small campfire. She whispered quietly into her hands, pointing a palm towards the campfire as she gripped her gauntlet shaped pendant. “Torm, in your name I ask for fire so that we might have some comfort on our journey.” A bout of flame leapt off of her fingertips and the fire started without issue.

Hikari sat by, warming her hands by the fire. “Why Torm? Our clan believed in a pantheon of various gods; a god of tricks, a god of war, a god of fertility. Only when we became aligned with the Tavaniri and pledged our services to the templars did any of us find interest in these other gods. Do you not think about your roots, Azami?”

Azami looked into the fire, running her thumb against the pendant’s surface. “I pray to him because the most miracles that I have asked for have been from his name. Perhaps later, I may find another deity or another faith, and then perhaps then I will pledge myself to that. For now, I will pray to Torm.”

Hikari watched her sister’s face and then looked away, disappointment etched on her own face. “Very well.”

The snow cleared by the hour and the two resumed their travels. They passed silently by the frozen shards of ancient weapons, straw targets, and the occasional dead body. Both let the dead rest where they were, continuing through the valley. Hikari snarled. “This endless winter killed our traditions.” She pushed forward as angering memories brought themselves to the forefront. Azami followed behind, one hand on her wakizashi and the other firmly on the reins. Eventually, the stone and snow of the valley began to clear.

The pair emerged into a clear grassy plain. A galloping of hooves brought Hikari to attention and she reached behind her shoulder for her katana, gripping the blade's handle just as a smattering of dwarves came up over a nearby hill. The group saw the Sicariuses, and Hikari and Azami rode onward to meet them. The leader stopped in front of Hikari. He was an older dwarf, with a greyed beard and a hard look in his eyes. Hikari eyed the polished rifle on his back just as he opened his mouth to speak. “Tavaniri humans…” he said, a great deal of disdain in his voice. “What are you doing here? Gnoll territory is no place for you templars.” He spat to the side, and his comrades chuckled behind him.

“We seek Dul Vano.” The dwarf’s eyes lit up, but then narrowed on Hikari. “It is imperative that we reach it by the end of the day.”

“Here to loot our ancient fortresses… Of course you are, human.” He snarled, carefully adjusting the nose plated helmet on his head. “It seems you're in luck. Dul Vano’s now a breeding ground for gnolls. You won't last three minutes in there.”

Hikari raised an eyebrow challengingly. “And you will, dwarf? Just show us the way and we can depart.”

The dwarf just laughed in Hikari’s face. “You hear that? The templar wants see the path!” He laughed and the rest of his company laughed in equal measure. “We’ll show you the way.” He turned his horse to the side and Hikari and Azami followed behind him as the rest of the dwarves took up the rear.

They rode onward for quite some time, passing small farms, a dwarven fortress complete with shining cannons and shining armoured troops, and the remains of a large metal construct, its simple massive jaw buried and dull blue eyes ever watching. Slowly, the sound of gunfire and clashing steel sounded out across the plain until Hikari and Azami could finally see the fire. A large metal barricade stood upon the precipice of a battlefield. Armoured dwarven troops stood upon makeshift battlements as they fired volley after volley over the wall. Only when Azami was near enough could she see the giant golden faces etched into the cliff face, and the hundreds of gnolls that laid just beyond the barricade. Those who were not lying dead on the scorched ground were hiding behind the depressions in the earth. “Torm grant me strength,” Azami mumbled under her breath.

A dwarven woman in a cape stepped down from the battlements, a circle of silver painted upon the front of her helmet. “Forgrim!” she called to the elder dwarf. “What of the shipment?”

The dwarf descended from his horse and shook his head. “Delayed, Captain. There’s been a storm up north, and they don't want to risk the river.”

“Damn them then,” she said. “It’s now or never. We push these bastards back and reclaim our forefathers home, or we run out of ammunition and they get a chance to reorganize themselves.” She looked away from Forgrim and to the Sicarius sisters. “Who are these humans?”

Forgrim shrugged his shoulders. “We never traded names, but they want to pass through the city.”

Hikari said nothing as the captain turned back to her. “I am Captain Hvedra of clan Tormek. Our ancestors used to govern Dul Vano in an ancient age. Who are you?”

Hikari bowed her head slightly. “I am Hikari, and this is Azami. We are of clan Sicarius, from the Tavaniri north.” She smiled lightly. “I find it interesting that we would cross paths, Captain. The journey of my sister and I also involves our clan. Perhaps we could lend you our swords as you storm the keep?”

Hvedra eyed Hikari suspiciously, before looking to Azami. “What say you?”

Azami pointed to herself. “You are asking my opinion?”

“Yes, I am. You haven't said a word. Would you help a group of dwarven soldiers reclaim an ancient city?”

Azami eyed Hikari for her opinion, but she only saw Hikari’s gaze attempt to make her decisions for her. She turned back to Hvedra. “I see that we have a similarity. If we may pass through your city, then we shall help you reclaim it.”

Hvedra nodded, satisfied. “That’s good.”

A dwarf soldier called out from atop a tower. “Captain, they’re breaking-!” He stopped as an arrow hit him between the shoulder blades and he tumbled off the battlements.

Instead of hiding behind cover, the gnolls now stood up. Some held bows while the others held swords. With a shriek from one of their shamen, they rushed forward from the mouth of Dul Vano.

Hvedra picked up a warhammer lying against the barricade and lifted it above her head. “We fight for our homeland, my brothers and sisters! Charge the enemy!’ She turned back to the Sicarius sisters for a second just as the dwarven soldiers leapt off their battlements into the heat of battle. “Do you stand with us?”

Azami was off her horse first, Hikari following shortly after. They chased after the dwarves as they rushed into the valley to meet the charge of the gnolls. Hikari laughed, having not known battle in ages. Azami drew her wakizashi.

Azami’s steel ran through the creature's abdomen, severing tendon and organ just as she turned back to plunge the blade back into the creature’s spine. Hikari shouted over the horde, decapitating a gnoll with one slash of her katana. “Are you keeping track, sister? I have three already!”

Azami muttered under her breath as she parried a blade to her side and slipped her sword into a gnoll's heart. The creature growled in her face even as it was stuck on her blade, and she pulled the weapon out swiftly to deliver another blow to its skull. An explosion rocked the valley, and Azami turned to see an electrified crater with bodies of both dwarf and gnoll around it.

Hvedra yelled over the commotion. “Azami, was it? Kill that shaman for us, will you?”

Azami looked around, twirling her blade around and wiping it against her sleeve in the chaos. At least ten meters away, there was a beast with a dark purple hood and a solid oak staff. She could see the Spellburn marking his fur dark black like a twisted disease. The shaman gathered energy in his staff, with a large ball of lightning forming at the head of the device. He hurled it, tipping his staff forward, and it hit its mark, destroying the terrain and sending more dwarves and gnolls flying. By the time the projectile struck, Azami had found her way there. She dug her foot into the earth and put all her power behind her swing. The staff shattered as her sword connected with it, sending bits of wood and excess electrical power to the wind. Azami followed up, adjusting her stance and moving to slit the creature’s neck.

The beast had other plans, as he already brought a shortsword up to block the blow. Azami pushed against his weapon, but he did not let up. “Human…” He sniffed her carefully. “You smell of fear, and a determination to prove yourself.” He used his free hand to push her away, and Azami stumbled backward. “You are a weak creature. You think your relationship with your sister makes your life mean something, but you are still nothing.”

Azami held her blade up, keeping her guard in the face of the creature. “Do not read my mind, creature.” Yet, she felt nothing attempting to worm it's way into her head.

The gnoll only laughed, and then brought his sword down on her head. She pushed the blow off and immediately struck for his flesh, but he was one step ahead of her again. He pushed her attack away and Azami only barely was able to avoid the sword hitting her in the face as she stumbled back again. Azami spoke, “You are no shaman…” A demon? A creature from another plane of existence?

The creature laughed once again, and his eyes glowed fiercely with black electricity. For a second, Azami could swear that the shaman was a meter away, but then he wasn’t. He gripped her by the leather shirt and threw her into the jaws of Dul Vano. The gnolls were ready for her, raking into her flesh with their talons. She screamed just as the beasts stopped short of slitting her throat and killing her.

The shaman appeared as a gnoll held her head down, with a dagger against her neck. “Throw her into the pit. She is a suitable candidate.” A hand grabbed her ankle and pulled her away into the darkness.

She could hear a voice, calling out from beyond the jaws of Dul Vano. It called her name, and she knew it could only be her sister.



Azami awoke, filled with pain. Her bed was squishy, and uncannily soft. She pushed up to find herself atop a pile of corpses. Dwarven, human, elven… She could even see a tiefling somewhere in the darkness. With one hand, she pulled herself from the pile only to slip on rotting tissue and tumble down the hill of bodies onto the cold dwarven tiles. She hit the ground hard, and laid there in pain. Softly, she gripped the holy symbol still around her neck and whispered into it. This was… beyond the realm of madness she was accustomed to. She was out of her element, violated and left for dead. Her voice was soft in the darkness, but still she called out softly as tears stained her eyes. “Hikari… please…” She gripped the silver gauntlet as tightly as her pained hands could. “Don't leave me, Hikari…”

Time seemed an eternity as she laid there on the dwarven tiles, bleeding out as the stench of death and decay swirled around the room. Gently, behind her closed eyelids, the symbol glowed a gentle red. Her eyes opened slowly to look at it. She felt oddly warmed, loved, and needed. Azami pressed the symbol against her forehead, breaking out into a tiny smile as it soothed her gently. Soon, she realized her pain had faded away, and the blood stopped leaking from the gashes in her skin. The glow of the symbol faded, and then she was left alone once again in the darkness. She tested her arm carefully. Her movement felt oddly stiff, as if she were not moving naturally, but there was no reason to complain.

She pulled a shortsword from the bloated belly of a dead man and slunk out of the chamber of death and into the hallway beside it. She looked both ways, settling on a random direction - left - and hurrying quietly that way. She moved until she heard voices, and then stopped against the corner wall to listen. There was nothing discernable from the growls of the gnolls, so she peered over the edge of the corner and then continued along undetected. Azami kept on, trudging through ancient hallways of stone and metal. All around her was the smell of gnoll and death, bestial grunts and the turning of ancient machinery. Somehow, she could still hear the heartbeat of the ancient city of Dul Vano. If there was any truth in the world, then it was that dwarves once knew their craft to a degree beyond any other.

She stopped suddenly in a room filled with moving gears and cogs, just as the pattering of footsteps sounded from the far doorway. Azami moved away, crawling upon a gear and gently riding it upwards as a group of ten or more gnolls sprinted through. They looked fine, and their weapons clean of blood. Perhaps the battle above was still going on? Or had the battle ended long ago? She climbed up further upon the gears, and then through the open door the gnolls had came through. She continued upon a short corridor until finally she pushed a final door open and stepped inside the new room.

She blinked as a mystical device shone in the darkness of the room. It was a large ring, with a moving picture of a desert landscape within it. It was perhaps large enough for a humanoid creature to walk into, or perhaps through. The picture changed to one of a forest, and then a grassy plain, a port city, a tropical island. On this image of an island, a familiar figure stepped through the image and into the darkness of the room. The gnoll shaman. Azami scrambled into the darkness as quickly as she could. She stood above the device, with several stairways around the device leading directly towards it in a circular fashion. Down upon the lower level, where the device was located, were numerous tables with all sorts of alchemical and mystical ingredients and devices. Upon one was a corpse, a gnoll with a clean cut through the abdomen. Azami guessed that it was Hikari’s work.

The shaman stepped up towards the corpses, looking down at it silently. He lifted a hand gently, snapping his fingers, and then the corpse twitched, and then the corpse sat up on the table. Azami silently gasped as she knew now what she had stumbled upon.

The shaman spoke to his thrall casually. “Join your brothers.”

Azami crouched upon the ledge of the stairs, shortsword in one hand. She would have to kill this shaman, somehow. Slowly, she wiped the blade against the arm of her tattered armour and then she stood up to leap. A furry hand grabbed her arm, and she spun backwards in panic. The blunt side of her blade hit the gnoll in the side of the head, but as she lost her balance, she quickly tumbled off the edge of the platform onto the lower level. She hit the ground hard, but rose to her feet quickly.

The shaman smiled deeply and pointed his hand at her. His thrall leapt to its feet, bounding towards her with ungodly speed, beyond that of any regular gnoll. It charged forward, teeth bared. She tumbled out of the way, gripped her sword with both hands and unleashing a broad slash as the creature came back for a second run. The attack split the gnoll’s face in two, and it stopped, mouth split through the middle yet turned upward in a hideous smile. Azami adjusted her stance and waited for the next run as the creature's living brothers gathered around the top platform, merely watching the fight unfold. The undead thrall ran his hand against the ground, as if signalling its impending attack and then leapt forward once more. Azami pulled her sword down toward the ground, and then with all her might, with a scream of a battlecry, hefted the blade upward in a vertical slash.

The creature slammed into the stone staircase as its head slowly rolled across the floor. Azami huffed as she slowly brought her sword downward, wincing as she saw the massive claw marks upon her abdomen. The shaman merely applauded her, clapping gently. “You humans are always ones for theatrics and drama. How unfortunate it never saved any of you.” With a quick hand motion, he flicked a bolt of fire towards her, hitting her sharply in the arm and sending the shortsword scattering across the floor. Azami gripped her bicep as the fire quickly died out, still burning her skin black. She gritted her teeth and looked up as the shaman approached. “I find it odd that your spirit is so strong, yet your ability is so lacking. Has your sister-”

Azami screamed over the beast's monologue. “Do not speak of my sister!” She clenched her scarred fist and moved to strike the shaman in the face, only swinging through air as he casually moved backward.

“As I said, strong spirit, yet no ability.” He swung his hand down and threw her to the ground. She skidded across the tiles and hit her back against the portal. Azami could feel the cold of the mountainous terrain it showed, yet her eyes were forward on the shaman. “What do you seek, Azami Sicarius? A place? Power? Redemption?”

Slowly, Azami stood, one arm grasping the edge of the portal and the other hanging limply by her side. “Your power cannot tempt me, demon. You will be killed eventually.” And then she hurled herself backwards into the portal. She landed in the snow, and began to tumble as the terrain took a steep downward incline. She fell for a good while, rolling through the untamed land until finally collapsing at the bottom of the hill. Unconsciousness threatened her at the corners of her eyes, and then finally claimed her as she heard footsteps towards her. Surely, now, she would die.

Or so the girl hoped.



Azami awoke, yet again, covered in a myriad of blankets. She looked up, staring at the wooden beams and roof above her. It reminded her of the temples that she had grown up in, before she had left for the Tavanirian templars and fought with them. Had she stumbled back upon one of the ancient grounds of her clan's? She was in a small room, with a red and gold fabric upon the doorway to her left. The doorway covering held the image of a dragon’s head, embroidered in gold upon the red fabric. In the corner of the room, opposite the mat where she laid, was a small table where the sheath of her wakizashi laid, as well as a roll of bandages and a small set of first aid tools. She slowly pressed a hand to her abdomen, feeling the rows of bandages through the fabric.

So she was alive. Again. It felt undeserved, like the words she had said to that shaman should have been the last; as if it were some prophetic thing that the beast would remember as another warrior cut him down and finally ended his reign of terror. Apparently not.

Azami fell asleep, resting rather than simply laying unconscious. She opened her eyes again, and looked around. The tools on the table had shifted slightly, and the light from the window had dimmed.

Azami tested her body gently as she moved to get up, setting the blankets away from her as she lifted herself up gently from the mat. She pressed her arms against her chest, shivering slightly at the light breeze against her skin. Her body was naked save for the bandages against her abdomen and the pair of simple pants hugging her legs. She ventured outside the room, finding architecture similar to that of northern Tavaniria. Wood supports, bamboo as a legitimate building material, thin paper for the walling. It was just like the homes of her childhood. Upon a tall wall was a long scroll, with 'prevailing honour and justice’ written in old northern Tavaniri text. She stood there, looking at the words carefully until she was finally able to pry her eyes away and leave.

The next room was different. She climbed a pair of two steps to reach its level, and above a short wall that surrounded the white matting of the floor beyond it was a long tapestry of gold and red fabric like the ones that had hung in that small room. Across the fabric was a long golden dragon, gliding across the paper like an ethereal being and breathing out a gout of brilliant golden flame. It was a beautiful sight to behold, and it was like she had found a horde of ancient treasures all to herself.

And then she saw the creature that rested in the center of the room.

It was armoured in thick golden scales and each scale shimmered in the light of the lanterns that surrounded the sparring ring. It breathed in deep and heavy breaths of air, and expelled them with the force of a mountain. It held a massive snout, with large sharp fangs that slipped out of its mouth and hung wordlessly beside its face. It tilted its head to the side, eye filled with all the determination of a fierce warrior and yet with the stillness and calmness of an aged man. “You are awake,” it said with a deep voice that held a distinct wisdom. “It is of no concern. Come. Sit beside me and meditate beside these ancient swords.”

Azami obeyed, stepping forward across the floor and kneeling down beside the beast. She wore the same pants that he did, and for a moment she wondered how there was a pair that fit her before she noted the next oddity. There was a pair of brilliant katanas, sitting on a rack of dark wood. They were lit from behind from the light of two lanterns that rested in the corners of the blades’ small alcove. “They are… beautiful,” she said, watching the swords keenly.

“They are. They have also claimed the lives of countless individuals. Slain innocents, protected countries, dispatched villains, been reforged countless times by long dead master blacksmiths. These blades have passed from numerous hands, and now they lay here, waiting.”

“Waiting for what? Are they meant to be wielded together?”

“Destiny? A hero? A villain? All we can say is that the blades are waiting, because it is certain that someone will wield them again. I have heard that there was one who did wield both at the same time, but that man was of unusual strength.”

Azami nodded quietly and then closed her eyes. She had been told to meditate and now she would. She thought of her sister, of Dul Vano, of the future of clan Sicarius, the shaman that had nearly killed her twice. Her future had always been so uncertain to her, always guided by her sister, but now, after having flung herself through the portal and now being here without her sister… the future was more uncertain than it had ever been before.

The creature spoke, and Azami suddenly felt like they had been there for a long time. “I think it is time that we speak properly with one another. Come. It would be best if you are fed, and I provide you a shirt to keep away the winter chill.”

Azami followed him to the doorway of a small room, and entered behind upon the sounds of wooden plates falling upon each other. He dropped to his knees behind a short table, which was about as short as his feet, and gestured toward a bowl of a dark brown broth as well as a fried oval of bread. “I apologize for the lack of any hearty meats, but the season has not been particularly ripe with game. The cities to the east have been overhunting their lands recently, and the decline in animals has touched even here.”

Azami settled herself down opposite. “No, it’s fine. Thank you.” Her voice was soft, weak, and unsure. She sipped gently from the bowl, coughing harshly into her wrist as she took it in. “How long was I…”

“About…” He counted something on his claws. “Two weeks. I fed you when I was able, but, unfortunately, that was rarely. I found you among a group of wolves, and after I had pushed them back, I carried you here to treat your wounds. A paste of frostroot and angel’s tear to treat your burns, and a simple cleaning and bandaging for the rest of your injuries.”

Azami listened carefully, drinking as the man spoke. “I apologize, but… who are you?”

He set his scaled hand under his chin and slowly nodded his head. “That may have been the best line of conversation to begin our introduction with…” He dropped his hand to his lap. “I am Nadaarin. Like you are human, in the common tongue I am dragonborn.” He raised a hand towards the rafters. “This building was undoubtedly constructed by human architects, but I am its sole keeper. I have maintained the structure for countless years, using the resources of the surrounding area when I can, and trading goods that I have the skill to craft for the resources foreign to this land.”

Azami jumped to a conclusion immediately. “Who were the original inhabitants of this place?”

“It was… long ago,” Nadaarin began. “They were a people of honour and battlefield prowess. We sit upon the border of Luirenmere and the unaligned Dagger Coast, but those who lived here hailed from the north. Their crest was a red dragon, with dark crimson eyes. The name was…” he paused, tapping his snout. “I forget the name but-”

“Was it Sicarius?”

“Sicarius? That does sound like it… Oh, yes, that was the name of the clan that resided here.” He stopped tapping his chin and looked at Azami with his crisp golden eyes, and then he began to laugh. Azami held the bowl close to her chest, confused and surprised at the sudden bout of laughter. “Did you really believe I would forget the name of the clan whose building I reside in?” His laughter subsided. “So my theory was correct then. You must be a child of clan Sicarius. How does it fare now? Will you finally be returning to reclaim this dojo?”

Azami set the bowl down on the table, scratching the back of her neck. “No…” She looked into Nadaarin’s confused face. “I am one of the two last members of clan Sicarius. I am Azami, and I have a sister named Hikari.”

“I see,” Nadaarin said. He closed his eyes and Azami watched him silently, eating the bread in front of her as she waited. “This is unfortunate news, but it does not bring me any deep griefs. It is horrible that you are the last of the clan, but I will remain as the guardian of this site for as long as I am needed.”

“Thank you, Nadaarin.”

“I require no thanks. Now, tell me of your journey.”

Azami related the short adventure that she and her sister had partaken in. She began with the call to action from the Tavanirian captain, to the dwarves at Dul Vano, the shaman within the inner sanctum, and finally her escape through the portal. It was a quick tale, but Nadaarin listened to her every word. When she had finished both her story and her meal, Nadaarin stood up. “Come with me, Azami. Leave your dishes where they lay.” She offered no resistance as he brought her back to the room of the twin katanas. With a unique manner of delicate handling, he picked up one of the swords, holding it up in the candlelight.

“I said that these blades were waiting for destiny, but destiny is something that is claimed rather than simply given. Perhaps it was chance that you arrived here, or perhaps it was fate. The truth is that we must carve out our own path, rather than let it all lay to chance. Hold out your hands.” He laid out the weapon in Azami’s hands. “This sword is named Honour. Its twin is named Glory. As the ancient tales speak about the nature of clan Sicarius, they say that glory is evil without honour, and that honour is meaningless without glory. It does not say what honour or glory is within the eyes of the clan, and so that is what we must decide for ourselves, Azami.” He clasped her hands lightly around the weapon. “This shall be your blade. You are in no state to return to the harsh world outside this dojo, but I shall make you ready. I will teach you what you do not know, reinforce what you have already learned, and you will emerge as a student of the old masters.”

Azami looked up at him, confused. “You know the way of the sword? Who taught you?”

“I lived here long before you were born. I lived with the elders of your clan and learned from them. I will not be as great a teacher as they were, but I will teach you what I do know.”

Azami took the blade in her hands, nodding lightly. She held the sword up, eyeing her reflection in the steel. A scarlet eye and pale skin looked back at her. She let the sword drop back into her palm and then bowed deeply. “Thank you. Again.”

Nadaarin set a hand on Azami’s shoulder. “Get some more rest. We can begin when you’re feeling proper.”


Azami brought her shinai up and it was instantly pushed to the side by Nadaarin’s. He tapped her on the shoulder with his, signifying a killing blow and then brought himself back into a resting position. “Your guard is weak, Azami. Is there something troubling you?”

Azami shook her head slowly. “I do not know, master. I suppose that I am worrying that my sister believes me to be dead.” She brought her guard back up, adjusting her grip on the sword. “The right thing to do would be to train faster so to show her I am alive.”

“If that is what you think is best, then that is what we will strive for for the time being.” He brought his guard up, and they traded a series of strikes and blocks. “We have only done combat, and that is not all there is to the way of a warrior. We must hone our minds and bodies in different ways, and be ready for everything.” Azami moved in for an overhead attack and he easily blocked it and struck her on the leg in quick succession. She fell to one knee, and the dragonborn helped her up. “There is something I believe would benefit your adventures in the future.” He set his sword down and moved over to a small table in the dojo, picking up a small item. He handed it to Azami wordlessly.

She turned it over in her hand. “This is a symbol of Torm.” She ran her thumb over the inscription on the back, a single character reading 'hope’. “It is mine… Where did you find this, master?”

“I returned to the site in which I had found you and I noticed a faint glint of metal in the snow. It was your symbol. I waited to give it back to you because I have a lesson. Have you ever channeled your deity’s will through it?”

“Yes, I have… I have used it to light the occasional fire. Mostly small things such as that.” She wrapped her fingers around the string and brought the loop over her neck. “What of it?”

Nadaarin smiled. “I'm surprised you have never gone beyond that. Have you ever fought beside a paladin or a cleric in your time? Have you seen the power they wield because of their focus through their holy symbols? Is it a sight that is beyond words.”

“You are saying that I may be able to channel such power… Master, I doubt that I could. The power of the divine requires a strong will, something that I lack.”

“Believe in yourself, Azami, or if not, simply believe in my ability to believe in you.” Azami raised an eyebrow at him, and he only chuckled wordlessly. “We don’t have to try it now if you do not wish to, but one of these days would be best.”

Azami nodded slowly to herself, looking down at the symbol in her hands before clenching it tightly in her palm. A sudden rapping against wood reverberated within the halls of the dojo and Nadaarin stood up, dusting off his lap. “Really? This’ll be interesting…” He exited the room and Azami perked her ears up, watching idly into the main complex of the building. There was a loud slam and Azami tensed, but then Nadaarin emerged.

“Leeskin… you’re late,” Nadaarin said, stopping in the middle of the room. Azami waited for a human, or perhaps another dragonborn to appear, but there wasn’t one… A small scaled creature appeared instead, clad in a myriad of furs with a large backpack and a small sword on its hip. It took its furry hat from its head and set it to the side, smiling to reveal two rows of sharp teeth.

“Nadaarin… Sorry. There is bandits on the road. They is no problem for me, but… the human guards like to make trouble…” Nadaarin sighed as the creature set its backpack down. “I have what you wanted, Nadaarin… It was heavy… and expensive, but I get great deal for it…” He pulled a large metal breastplate and set it down on the floor. Nadaarin picked the piece of armour up, tapping his knuckles against it and then set it back down, satisfied.

Leeskin stopped smiling, shifting topics for a moment. “How is the human?”

“You should ask her yourself.” He turned his head and called her over. “Azami, you shouldn’t need to hide.” Azami stepped out from the bannisters and wiped the feeling of embarrassment from her cheeks.

“I am well,” she said, bowing her head slowly. “I am Azami, of clan Sicarius.”

Leeskin went back to his giggly self almost immediately. “She is one of the red ones? I wish I had known! You was barely alive when I last saw you.” He walked up to Azami, only coming up to her hips, and offered her his hand. She shook it carefully, feeling his rough scales in her hand. “I is Leeskin… You humans always want to know… what is it… race? I is a kobold, as you would say.” He tapped the side of his skull with a sharp claw, thinking deeply. “I is also… merchant… no, human word… courier?” He nodded profusely. “Yes, that is word!”

Nadaarin stepped back towards the dojo, gesturing for the two to follow. “It is fortunate that you actually did arrive, Leeskin. There is much I want to discuss with you, and Azami.” He gathered them around the small ankle high table in the kitchen room and set out a few tea cups riddled with small scratches and claw marks. Azami held her cup delicately, sipping the light black water while watching the two speak. She sighed, contentedly.

It reminded her of a time, long ago. Perhaps she was six, and her mother had set out tea just like this… She spoke with a man, delicately and diplomatically at first, but then with hints of anger and aggression as the conversation dragged on. There was a near perfect view of her sister, training with one of the elders and gripping a wooden sword as if it were made of metal. It was summer, and the birds sung gently in the background… A sadness tugged at the corners of the memory, reminding her that it was just that; a memory, and nothing else. She clung onto her smile, returning to the present.

Leeskin counted out a handful of silver coins from a small coin purse, sliding a fistful of silver and a single gold coin toward Nadaarin. “That is what I was able to get for your candles and meats, Nadaarin. I told a nobleman that your candles were made by a monk of a dragon monastery…” He giggled quietly. “That is not very much a lie, is it?”

Nadaarin scratched his head. “Well, that is about the value of their worth. Good.” He collected the coins and set them together behind him. “Is there any news from the Coast?”

“Templars was in Quntarin… They dragged mage kicking and screaming from local temple, say she is from tower of clock. Prince is mad, but say nothing. Town is upset about house, say there is necromancer… That is it… There is usual bandits, usual unfriendly creatures…”

Nadaarin gestured with an open palm towards Azami. “Do you think it would be safe for her to even set foot in the town?”

Leeskin looked confused. “Why? Is human being hunted?”

Nadaarin looked at Azami and she set her cup down. “Have you seen undead or gnolls anywhere in the region?”

“Gnoll? That is creature that look like wolf… No, gnolls do not come to Coast. Undead… Townspeople always say that creepy house or castle must have necromancer or ghost, but there never is one. You is safe.”

“Good,” Nadaarin said. “Azami, in a few weeks time, you will be going down to the local town. It is not healthy for you to stay in a home with only a dragonborn to keep you company. I will have Leeskin accompany you so you won’t get lost.”

Azami nodded. “I trust in your judgement, master.”

“Well, if we are all in agreement… Leeskin, there are some things I would like for you to secure for me…”



“The Spellburn?” Nadaarin said, blowing gentle flames from his mouth onto a small campfire. The two were outside the dojo. Azami had asked about it, recalling the gnoll shaman as she cut into a fallen deer’s flesh with a hunting knife. “The Spellburn is ancient magic, or perhaps not even magic. There are all kinds of stories about how it came to be, and really, who can say what did start it? The elves and dwarves say that it was not always around, but I don't know how much stock to put in those words…” He looked up at Azami, who held a slightly puzzled expression. “My apologies, I am getting side tracked. You say that a gnoll had black marks on its fur? That would most likely be Spellburn. If a creature is capable of casting arcane spells, then they will have it. One of my clansmen, eons ago, painted his scales white and black to compliment his Spellburn. He held a wondrous pattern that was truly a sight to see. So, one does not necessarily have to view it as a bad thing.”

“Is it a bad thing, master?” She knew better than to immediately jump to conclusions about anyone now. Certainly, why would Nadaarin speak so openly and freely with her if he was like the tales of the xenophobic honorbound dragonborn she had heard of? She only wanted his opinion.

“Like many things, it is what you make of it. You are a Tavanirian templar, correct? I am sure that the training of the order has said much upon arcane casters, but I believe it would be better for you to experience the world on your own. Not all the world is like the land of the Tavaniri Empire. I suspect even what little you did see of Asalgard was quite different than what you are used to.”

“Perhaps it was, but I only saw it as a divulging path that Hikari had elected to take. You speak so much about realizing things about the world, and my own potential, but how am I supposed to see it when I am here?” She looked at Nadaarin, his face surprised, and realized that she had raised her voice. “I apologize…”

“No. I understand.” He idly stirred the ashes of the fire, hovering his palm and then the back of his hand against the flame. “It has been a long time since I last spoke to someone on a regular basis. It has also been a long time since another member of your clan was here. He was my master, and he passed away here in the dojo.” He looked back up, holding Azami’s gaze. “When I am sure you have regained your full strength, then it will be up to you to decide your fate. You cannot learn the secrets of life from a single dragonborn, so why would I expect that of you.”

Azami looked down at the deer in front of her, laying her hand on the creature. “When I do find and learn these 'secrets of life', then I’ll be back, with my sister and a rebuilt clan.”

Nadaarin smiled. “I will await the day.”

There came a light pattering of footsteps across the snow of the mountain. Nadaarin stood, brandishing the katana Glory as he looked around for the source of the sound. Azami tried to calm him with a few words. “It is probably a deer, master. Don’t worry yourself about such a small thing.” A small familiar figure came towards them, clad in a familiar fur coat.

“Leeskin?” Nadaarin moved to sheathe the sword. “What are you doing here?”

“Keep the sword out!” He said, dropping down in front of Nadaarin. “I is so sorry, Nadaarin… Humans look for girl that look like girl… I say I know who they are looking for and they…” He looked up at Nadaarin, surprised to see Nadaarin resting upon his knee, looking at him. “Humans are coming for the girl.”

Azami looked across the path down the mountain, as several dark shapes moved slowly towards the three. She brought herself to her feet quickly, watching as Nadaarin picked up Honour and tossed it, sheath and sword, towards Azami. “There will be no practice now, go back to the dojo and I will deal with this.” Azami turned to run, but she only saw more men near the building.

“They’ve surrounded us,” she said in response, gripping the handle of the katana with one hand. “What should we do?”

Nadaarin kicked snow up upon the fire and pointed at Leeskin. “There are too many. Take Azami and run.” Both Leeskin looked at him in shock. “There is no time to argue about this, both of you. Go. Now!”

Leeskin grabbed Azami’s hand and began to tug her away, but she stood her ground, planting her feet in the ground and staring into Nadaarin’s face. “Nadaarin…” He returned her gaze, his hard resolve softening for a second, before he turned away from her fully. “Damn you…” she hissed under her breath before letting the kobold take her away.

The mountain’s ground immediately dipped downwards and the two slid down, dodging by trees and rocks as they ran. Azami turned her head around for a moment to see several of the figures following them. The kobold kept just ahead of her, weaving through the terrain without a single issue. “How close are we to this town you keep talking about?” she said, trying to yell through the wind blowing through her hair.

“Close!” the kobold said, and continued on. The trees began to clear up and then the kobold took a sudden turn and Azami slipped trying to follow. She fell onto her back, before beginning to tumble down a steep incline. She rolled out onto a patch of grass, the sword slipping from her fingers and tumbling away. Azami pulled herself up, scrambling over for it and grasping one hand upon it before a firm boot slammed into her fingers. All she let out was a gurgle of pain before she looked up at the owner of the shoe.

“What do we have here…” a man with dark green eyes said, looking down at her through tufts of dirty brown hair. He kicked her in the face with his other boot, pushing her backwards. “This is quite the sword you have here…” He put his hands around it, picking it up and pulling it slightly out of the sheathe. “It looks expensive…” When his eyes fell upon the red dragon design of the leather sheathe and a smile played upon his lips, she knew. “So you’re who we’re looking for, eh? What if I took your head with your own blade, wouldn’t that be funny?”

“Rowan,” a voice called. “The templars want the girl alive.” It was a light skinned woman, with short black hair and piercing blue eyes. There were clear signs of Spellburn running up both her arms, disappearing behind the white sleeves of a blouse that she wore behind a black leather chestpiece. Azami pressed a hand to her nose, looking around for an escape.

The man turned towards her and spat. “Quiet, new girl. You’re only here because the boss needed an extra hand. Keep your mouth shut and maybe I won’t slit your throat too.”

The woman rolled her eyes. “Yeah, whatever. Just tell me what you’re going to do with the girl.”

He growled lightly. “She’s one of those Tavaniri whores. They prance about up north thinking they mean something, but they’re worth less than nothing.”

“If you really think I’m going to let you-”

He turned around completely, beginning to draw the sword. “I told you to stop talking.”

She just smiled, slowly raising a hand. “Yeah, whatever.” A ball of flame sparked in her hand and she grabbed the man’s face with her palm. He screamed in pain as Azami began to pick herself up. The screaming stopped as the woman shoved her shortsword into the man’s chest and pushed him to the ground. “Bastard…” Azami and the woman locked eyes, but the woman shrugged, picking up the sword in its sheath and throwing it at Azami’s feet. “It's yours. Keep it.”

She wasted no time in picking up the sword, bringing it tightly against her chest. “Why did you… Who are you?”

The woman opened her mouth to speak, just as the men who had been following Azami slid carefully down the hillside with their swords in their hands. They stopped, looked at Azami, and then looked at the woman’s blade soaked in blood. Instead of even paying a second more of attention to Azami, they leapt forwards towards the other girl and struck out with their blades. Azami ran, following the creek that made itself apparent as the snow begun to clear. She ran until the snow disappeared and the land turned green.

Out of breath and with drenched boots, Azami stopped in an open field, panting heavily. She waited, but no one came; not the men that were chasing her, not Nadaarin, not Leeskin, and not that strange woman. Slowly, she brought the strap on the katana around her body and over her shoulder. Azami now had her wish to see the world… but it wasn’t right. At all.



The sun began to beat down hard upon Azami as she continued on her journey across the grasslands of the Coast. It was nothing to what she had experienced during her time with the templar order. Once they had marched all the way from the Tavanirian capital city to a border town to inspect a single fort. Hikari had gritted her teeth through the entire venture and wouldn’t hear any complaining from Azami. It was always like that, with Hikari leading the two of them through their life. It was easier that way, for both of them.

On the horizon eventually emerged the dark jagged form of buildings. A sign pole designated it as the town of Quntarin, the one that Leeskin had briefly spoken of when he had visited. Azami doubted that she would be too out of place. Adventurers could be a copper a dozen, and a woman with a sword wouldn’t raise too much suspicion. She walked into the town carefully, making sure to keep her pace steady and her head beneath her hood. What was of concern was the group that had climbed up to the Sicarius dojo. If they were here then she wouldn’t be safe, but she couldn’t pass up the lure of civilization.

She stepped up to the local inn, noting the lone horse that sat tied to a post, idly lapping at a water trough. The atmosphere inside was stuffy and almost suffocating. The floorboards near the entrance were rotten and the one behind the bar was an ugly and ornery looking woman. Azami stepped up to the bar and the woman pushed herself up, standing up straight and putting on her best fake smile. “What can I get you?”

“Bread,” she said and licked her lips. “And mead.”

The bartender nodded her head. “That’ll be ten copper.”

Azami bit her lip cautiously. “I don’t have any-” A hand placed a silver coin on the counter. Azami looked up, her fear spiking as she looked into a familiar face.

The white bloused mage looked down at her, smiling before looking back to the bartender. “She’s with me. Also, you’re overcharging people again.”

The bartender grumbled. “What happened to you and your band of idiots?”

The mage only laughed. “They thought they could beat me in a fight.” She raised her other hand, now bandaged. “Let’s just say my injuries were the least life threatening.”

With a huff, the bartender produced a half clean mug of brown liquid and a plate of stale bread. Azami took them without thinking, and the mage only walked away to a small table in the corner, beckoning Azami to sit down with her. With great care, she followed, sitting down across from the mage and resting her sword up against the table. For once, Azami spoke. “I want answers.”

The woman ran a hand through her black hair, bringing a mug to her mouth. “Well, what do you want to know?”

Azami glared. If this was how the conversation would flow, then this would be incredibly annoying to get through. “Why did you come after me? Why did you kill that man? Who are you?”

She raised a hand, displaying three fingers. “My name is Victoria. I was working with a loose band of mercenaries; bandits more like, that were chasing a bounty by the templars.” She lowered two of her fingers. “A kobold told us that someone matching the bounty’s description was hiding up in the mountains, so our leader brought us up to the mountains.” She raised one of her fingers back up. “Truth is, they were a bunch of terrible people, and the pay was terrible. So, when that man started speaking in such a way that made it sound like he wanted to do some absolutely horrible things to you, I killed him.” She lowered her hand and went back to her drink.

“Do you always answer questions in such an annoying manner?”

“Only on weekdays.” She set the mug down. “Do you even know why you’re being hunted?”

Azami contemplated her answer for a moment before simply shaking her head. “No.”

“Oh boy…” Victoria tapped her finger against the table. “So, Cazavir. Borders with Albia and Tavaniria. You heard of it?”

Azami would be hard pressed to find someone she knew that didn’t know of it. There was enough fuss with the city that it seemed that all recent politics centred on it. When a city wanted to stay neutral in the face of two larger nations, well then that was a brewing storm of trouble in itself. In fact, that was where Hikari and her had planned to travel to before everything changed at Dul Vano… There was no point in telling Victoria any of that. “Yes, I know of it.”

“The templar captain there was murdered a week ago, with an Albian sword no less. Now the templars and the Knights are at each other's throats.” Azami shrugged her shoulders. “Perhaps that sounds like meager news to you, but the templar order sent out a bounty for someone matching your description. Anyone worth their silver can tell that the templars obviously think this person did it.”

Azami broke her piece of bread in half, biting off a piece to chew.  “Why do you say that?”

“They were a northern Tavanirian, and a templar at that. That combination, especially for a Tavanirian bounty, is highly suspicious following a murder.”

Azami watched her face. Victoria seemed sincere, and Azami had to agree with her on her point. She rarely saw anyone that looked like her in the times that she did venture into southern Tavaniria, but then again, Hikari had always been the one to venture outside while she stayed with the garrison… Had she ever even spoken to anyone during those times?

Victoria tapped her finger on the table as if awaiting an answer, and Azami awkwardly cleared her throat. The bread was incredibly stale and dry. “Perhaps you have a point then. What of it?”

She sighed. “As I said, you’re a wanted woman now. I came down here to track the bounty, and I found you. You’re the only lead I have now.”

“And I’m only a lead because of what I look like? You are quite the desperate bounty hunter.” Azami took the bread and dipped it into her mead. It tasted worse than before.

“I’ll only ask you once. Do you know anything about Cazavir or the templars or anything?” It wasn’t a threat. Azami could tell Victoria only wanted answers, or at least that’s how the woman spoke. It wasn’t like Azami knew nothing. That was her and Hikari’s destination, and Hikari had wanted to speak with one of the Tavanirian diplomats at the border… She could tell Victoria what she knew, or she could withhold information. Azami nodded, she had a plan.

“I may know something, but in exchange, I want another question answered.”

Victoria shrugged. “Sure. Name your price.”

“Where are you headed from here?”

Victoria watched Azami closely, looking for a reaction. “I'm headed straight back to Cazavir. Everything could have changed while I went on this wild goose chase.”

Azami came right out with it. “I want you to take me with you.”

“What? Why?” Victoria turned a hand up in question. “Why in the name of the Gods would you want to go to Cazavir now? It wouldn't even be safe for you.” Azami said nothing and only maintained a solid glare in Victoria’s direction. “Okay, fine, but you’re not going to live off of my money. You pull your weight.”

“That's agreeable, now listen to what I have to say.”

Chapter 2
Victoria held her horse’s reins as Azami sat behind her. “Remind me why I let you on my horse?”

“The trek would take days longer otherwise, and my own horse is essentially out of the picture.” If anything, the proximity was extremely uncomfortable. Azami wasn't used to riding with two in the saddle, and neither did it seem that Victoria was. It had been Victoria’s decision to head out first thing in the morning to see if they could reach Cazavir by the week, so Azami could only blame her for their condition. Victoria seemed keen on meeting Azami's sister, stating that Hikari would probably know something. It was more than obvious that Victoria suspected Hikari, but Azami could not see her sister even being involved with such a high profile murder. It was so important that they did not damage the image of their clan, especially now.

If the proximity had any benefits, it was perhaps that Azami could see Victoria’s Spellburn from up close. From afar it looked as if it was a deep discolouration of the skin, but up close, she could see how the skin flaked and peeled, and how it looked like it was draining her life. There also seemed to be a thin layer of translucent scales upon her skin, which as far as she knew was not a product of the Spellburn itself. “You're a sorcerer, correct?”

Victoria turned her head slightly. “It is because I don't look like I stick my nose in books all day?” Azami only shrugged. “Yeah, I am. Somewhere along the way, a dragon’s blood got mixed up with my family’s. Maybe it was because of a dragonborn, or some sort of ritual.”

It was always dragons. “What kind of dragon?”

“A red one, so that means fire.” She flashed Azami another look. “I know, I know. I have blue eyes, so shouldn't it be literally any other type of chromatic dragon? Maybe a part of me didn't want to be like a red dragon, so the blue eyes were a way of telling me to be different, and pick my own path.”

“Our bloodlines do not choose our paths, we do.”

“That’s something coming from you. Are all templars like this? You read things about personal liberties and freedom but follow the guidance of your leaders without question?”

Azami huffed quietly. “It was a life of honour. We are the protectors of the empire, and we must follow the orders of our superiors; otherwise, where is our honour?”

She stopped the horse suddenly, and just when Azami thought Victoria would begin to tell her off, she instead raised her hand to quiet her. “What do you know about Luirenmeran elves?”

“I would rather not run into one,” Azami said casually.

Victoria pointed down the road, as a group of soldiers in green painted armour made their way towards them. “Keep your sword ready. I don't want any surprises.” Victoria pushed her horse onwards, and Azami set her hand on the sword on her hip. A fight was the last thing Azami wanted.

The commander eyed them immediately, but only made any motions when the two were close. She raised a hand, and the three horsemen behind her stopped. Victoria stopped as well, wearily watching them all. Azami noticed a figure slumped over the rear of one of the elves’ horses. They were far darker skinned than any of the elves or Victoria or Azami, and in fact they had pointed ears visible against their black and curly hair. Azami elbowed Victoria in the side, gesturing very acutely at the figure. Victoria blew air out the corner of her mouth, mumbling under her breath. “Shite.”

The Luirenmeran commander’s posture on her horse was straight, that it almost seemed to be an insult to how unprofessional Victoria and Azami were. “Humans…” The disdain for other races in the woman's voice was thick and vile. “You will know that this land has been claimed by the Luirenmere Dominion.”

Victoria chuckled fakely. “We're just passing by-”

“And you will also know that all intelligent creatures upon this land are now citizens of the Dominion. As such, you are expected to pay taxes and tribute to the High King. You will begin by relinquishing all your coinage.” She eyed the sword in Azami’s hand greedily. “Your passenger’s weapon will also be relinquished.”

Victoria sighed loudly. “We know you're just trying to hold us up, if you let us go, we won't report you to your local garrison or whatever have you.”

The commander only laughed, and began to draw her sword. Her soldiers were completely silent. “Dismount your horse.”

Victoria began to dismount. “Just do what she says.” She landed on the dirt and carefully helped Azami off. “When I say.”

“Now, drop your weapons.”

Victoria slowly took the sword from her sheath and began to place it on the ground. “Now.” She brought the blade back up and flicked a gout of flame at one of the rear guard, immediately having him burst into flames and fall from his horse. Azami took the signal and drew her katana, knocking another one of the soldiers from his horse.  The commander shouted at her soldiers and pushed her horse forward, missing a downward swing at Victoria, and receiving a bolt of fire in the back in return. She fell from her horse as well.

The final elven soldier, with the prisoner on his horse, began to turn away and attempted to flee. Azami stayed one step ahead, jamming her blade under his shoulder joint and twisting harshly. She pulled the blade back, now slick with blood, and the elf fell to the ground. His helmet slid off, bouncing along the dirt road, and he turned to Azami as his blonde hair splayed out across the gavel. “You human imbecile.” He reached out from her with his good arm, and Azami responded by shoving her blade deep into his gut and slowly watched as the life seeped from his face. She turned away, as he eased into the earth and withdrew her blade. Her mouth contorted into a grimace as she eagerly pushed the image of the dying elf’s face from her mind and looked out for Victoria.

Victoria fought both the last two elves on her own, blocking a blow from the commander and then dodging a swipe from her subordinate a second later. Their armour was exceptionally strong, as Victoria's counters bounced off. Azami slid in, blocking one of the commander’s strikes and shoving her away. With the commander out of the picture, the elven soldier made a slash forward. The blade sliced through Victoria’s arm, but not before she reared her shortsword back and slipped it through the elf’s throat.

Victoria and Azami stood together against the commander, and the elf only laughed. “If only I was like the pure elves of old. Then you would be quivering in fear…” She knocked away a slash from Victoria's shortsword with her bracer and laughed again, louder and with a tinge of madness. “I will enjoy killing both of you.”

Azami clenched her teeth. “The evil in your heart is beyond redemption.” She brought her katana down beside her knee and slashed upward. Her blade bounced against the commander’s, and she twisted to bring it back again one more time, cleaving clean through the commander's breastplate and drawing blood. Honour glowed red hot as fire dripped from the edge, slowly cooling. Victoria simply kicked the commander, and she toppled to the ground.

Victoria let out a whistle. “You never said you knew how to use magic. Why didn't you tell me?”

Azami breathed in deeply. “I’ve never done that before.” Her hand went to her holy symbol, and she pulled her hand back when she felt the usually cool metal, now hot. “That’s never happened before.”

Victoria returned her shortsword to her hip and then laid a hand on the slash on her arm. “Well, either way, we should see about the elf they captured. Now, where’d she get off to…”

The two looked around to find the horse and the prisoner a ways down the path. Victoria clambered onto her own horse, while Azami carefully took one of the elven horses. They quickly stopped, taking the elf off the horse gently. It was a woman, and she was unconscious. Victoria scratched the back of her neck. “Well, she's an elf, and if I had to guess, a Sidhe one at that. They probably found her and decided to haul her back to the Dominion. Probably would be a good idea to wake her up, see if we can help.” She gestured over to her horse. “I have some smelling salts in my bag… Should be right on top. Could you grab them?”

As Victoria knelt down to check the woman’s breathing, Azami sauntered to the horse and opened up the saddle bag. It was true that a container of tablets was on top, but there was quite a lot else. Lockpicking tools, several vials of poison, and oddly enough, a violin bow… “You play viola, Victoria?”

“Indeed I do,” she said casually, running a knife against the elf's rope restraints. “I picked that up when I ran with a pirate crew down along the Coast. Drinking is better with music, some say. I was just there to provide it.”

Azami handed Victoria the package of tablets. She bit her lip, hesitating before she went ahead with her question. “I’ve only ever heard the viola once, when my sister and I traveled to the imperial capital for a conference…” It had been part of a traveling act that had been denied access to the palace, and instead decided to play for the templar garrison. Somehow, that made it feel much more special than the Empress' own entertainment. “Perhaps I could hear you play? Maybe once we reach Cazavir?”

Victoria opened the leather pouch, inspecting the small capsules and tossing out a few. “Honestly, I haven't seen a viola in years. If you find one, I’d play it just for nostalgia’s sake.” Azami nodded slowly. If anything, at least Victoria seemed to be more comfortable.

She cracked the capsule under the elf’s nose and the woman snapped awake, almost slamming her head into Victoria’s from the sudden jolt. First, she spoke in the elven tongue, angry and threatening, but upon seeing two humans in front of her, and a complete lack of Luirenmere troops, she paused. “Who are you? Where am I?”

Victoria pointed at herself. “Victoria.” She pointed to Azami. “Azami. We're traveling across the Dagger Coast. A band of Luirenmere soldiers tried to rob us so we retaliated, and now you're free.” She scratched her head slightly. “We're near the town of Quntarin… I don't know if that means anything to you.”

The elf began to curl in, rubbing at her forehead with her palm. She mumbled in elvish before standing up. “My family is far from here. Near the human city of-”

Victoria raised a hand, smiling knowingly but with a slight glint of displeasure in her eyes. “Is it Cazavir?”

“... Yes.”

“It’s just gonna be one of those…” She stood up as well. “We’re headed there as well. Now that we have more than enough horses, you’re welcome to join us. That all right with you, princess?” She looked at Azami.

“Do not call me that.” Azami shook her head, realizing how that wasn't an answer at all. “It’s fine. Might I ask your name then?”

The elf set her hands on her lap, bowing slightly to Azami. “My name is Kaska.” She raised her head. “Are you royalty?” Azami quietly began to rub at her temples as Victoria’s laugh rose from a giggle to a hysterical roar. “What? You look as if you’re running from something, and that sword you have looks like an heirloom; ancient but well kept.

“If I am royalty, that would be quite the shock.” Azami shook her head and shot a venomous look in Victoria’s direction. “Victoria has said I am a wanted woman, and the sword is… it is complicated. The story would be better told on the road.”

The three clambered onto horses and left. Azami recalled the story of meeting Victoria and that the sword belonged to her clan, but nothing beyond that that would be extraneous information. She was still wary of Victoria, and of people she did not know. They all continued on, and the grass grew greener and the trees more vibrant. Victoria passed by a cart stopped in the middle of the road, and seeing that the wheel was broken, offered to try and fix it.

Kaska raised her hand. “Allow me to take a look at the wheel.” She did, and she drew her hand across the crack of the wood, mending it as a steady flow of translucent green light leaked out from her fingertips. The farmer thanked them graciously and then they were on their way.

“You’re a druid then?” Victoria asked. “That was some fine work back there.”

“That I am…” There was a slight blush on Kaska’s face. “My mother taught me much of what I know.”

“It's good to have a teacher.” She snapped her fingers, eyeing her hand as flames sparked in between her digits. “I learned everything I know myself. Might as well, right? Spellburn wasn't going to go away just because I wanted it to, so it was just easier to learn more.”

“I'm sorry you feel that way…” Kaska looked pensive for a moment, before her gaze softened. “The people on top simply love to look down on the people who are different than they are.”

Victoria nodded. “Damn right if I know that. Speaking of all that anywho; we're a group of magic users, aren’t we then? Azami’s got some holy magic running through her holy symbol, I’ve got dragon’s blood in me, and you’re a druid. I’m surprised we haven't been at each other’s throats yet.”

Kaska nodded, a slight laugh escaping her lips. “Perhaps it’s fate that we all met?”

Victoria chuckled, eyeing Azami. “What do you think, your highness?”

“That you’re insufferable, but perhaps Kaska has a point. We’re not a band of templars or Knights, adventurers or mercenaries. We’ve met by happenstance. Perhaps it's commendable that we haven't tried to kill each other yet.”

“That’s the spirit!” She slapped Azami on the back, who immediately gritted her teeth in annoyance. “We’re about a day off from Cazavir. You think you’ll go back to your templar order? Leave us all behind?”

Azami took a moment to soften before she shook her head. “I'm here to find my sister.”

“And so we shall. Well, it might be harder to even get into the templar garrison with everything that’s happened…”

Kaska shook her head. “The Cazavirians have heightened security at the gates. They’re going to search us. It’ll be much harder than that.”

“You might be a half-elf, but I trust the Cazavirian Watch more than I trust the Tavanirians or the Albians when it comes to racial sensitivity. No, the problem's not gonna be that…”

Azami sighed. “How much contraband are you carrying?”

Victoria giggled slightly before giving off a sigh of her own. “Several packages of recreational substances that I'm not going to part with. That’s not even the problem here. Azami, you’re wanted because you look like the templar murderer.”

“How are we getting in then?” Azami asked.

Victoria tapped the side of her head, closing her eyes for a moment before opening them. “There’s someone I know.”

Victoria, Azami and Kaska reined in their horses near the southeastern Cazavirian city gate. The walls were massive, perhaps not to what Azami had once seen of the Tavanirian capital, but still mighty and fearsome. Victoria guided them away as the guards eyed them, heading over to the small inn beside the road. They tied their horses up and all three walked in.

It was a quiet little inn, with only a few patrons. Azami breathed a sigh of relief, as the inn was far better taken care of than the inn she had seen in Quntarin, but then again that may have just been because of the little coin that flowed through there. Victoria stepped up to the innkeeper, an older man with a scar across his mouth, and then the two stepped into the kitchen leaving Azami and Kaska alone.

Azami settled into a bar stool, quickly ordering a mug of mead with the coins from one of the Luirenmere elves’ pockets. Kaska sat beside her, ordering the same with a bit of reservation.

“Azami? That is your name, right?” Azami offered a nod. “Where are you from? I haven't quite heard a name like that ever before.”

“The Tavanirian north.” She swirled the drink in her hand before taking a long sip. “I said I came down here with my sister. We were separated in the dwarven city of Dul Vano. There were gnolls, undead, and a portal.”

Kaska’s ears seemed to perk up at the last word. “A portal? How do you mean?”

Azami scratched the side of her head. “It was made of stone, and in the centre of it was an image of a distant location that shifted every few seconds. I fell through it… by accident.”

“That sounds like an ancient elven device…” She tapped her chin. “It certainly isn't a dwarven contraption, because I’ve seen the ancient iron rails that ancient dwarves used to travel upon. Your Order of the Watchtower make similar portals I’ve heard, but not with so many destinations, and probably not within dwarven territory.”

“The gnoll’s shaman stepped into the dwarven ruins from it. Gnolls are… gnolls. I do not think the gnoll built it.”

“I think a gnoll could build a portal such as that, but a gnoll could never design one. Most gnolls lack the intelligence for something such as that.”

Azami set her mug down. “The gnoll’s shaman spoke common, and moved as if possessed by a demon. I studied much about the demonic planes and the magic that runs through the blood of sorcerers. That was not something I was taught. That was new, something a Tavanirian research team would want to document.”

Kaska closed her eyes for a moment, opening them as she spoke. “The world is ever changing. Perhaps this was demonic possession, or perhaps this was a very particular gnoll. We cannot say, can we?” She watched Azami’s lack of reaction carefully. “When we find your sister, perhaps we can ask what transpired.”

“I thought you would have left by now. Why are you staying?”

Kaska chuckled lightly to herself. “I'm interested in this story. The life of a Sidhe elf gets awfully repetitive at times. I’ll have a story for when I return to my family.” She looked to the side, as Victoria stepped out from the back rooms, still talking to innkeeper with a cocky smile placed on her face. “Plus… I find your companion quite intriguing.”

Azami raised an eyebrow. “I barely know her, if that is what you're asking. You can have her.”

“You don't find her interesting? Talkative, and she seems reliable, and perhaps even a powerful mage?”

A scowl found itself on Azami’s face. “She is an annoying woman, but she can get me into the city.”

“So, you’re leaving us when this is over?”

Azami cracked the hint of a smile. “Yes.” And then downed the rest of her drink.

Victoria arrived, rubbing her hands together. “Well, congratulations. Turns out the innkeep is still running folks in and out of the city. Come on, there’s someone I’d like all of you to meet.”

The three left the inn and headed back behind the inn. They continued for a time, until a small stream of water emerged from the brush, leading them towards a larger stream; one large enough to fit a small boat into. Victoria lead them onwards, until a small dock appeared, cloaked in the shade of several trees. A light skinned man sat on top of a wooden crate, eyes glued onto the page of a novel in his hand and completely inattentive to the world around him. “Errol!” Victoria called, and he jolted up.

“Gods, Victoria…” he pressed a hand to his chest before looking to Victoria companions. He tossed the book over his shoulder and it clattered in the dust. “What can I do for you lot?” he asked as he stood up, leather chest piece jiggling lightly.

Kaska suppressed a giggle. “Was that Hearts of the Templar? You’re into romance novels, eh?”

“What?” he yelped. “No, it was one of those crime serials by that halfling author…” He scratched his head. “Ah, bollocks… what’s his name…”

Kaska clasped her hands together. “Oh, it was, wasn’t it! Henry and Sir Percival are just perfect for each other aren't they? A forbidden love between templar and Knight…”

Errol raised his hands. “Okay, let’s just… slow all of this down, all right.” There was a thick blush on his face. “Victoria… what’s this all about?”

Victoria unclasped the hand over her mouth suppressing her laughter. “We're here to get into the city. I was surprised when I heard you were working down here. Thought you’d be working in the merchant’s quarter with the mages.”

“You know how it is,” he said with a slight sigh. “Isha puts us out on some big mission to spread the word and then someone starts a riot just because we wanted a few words. Now, I gotta lay low while the Watch sorts things out.”

Victoria clicked her tongue. “I guess I gotta talk with Isha too then.”

“Eh, don't even bother. She’s still mad about what happened.”

“Still? I told her I was… Whatever, it can wait.”

Azami crossed her arms against her chest, quite unamused being relegated to the background. “Can one of you tell me what’s happening?”

“Of course, your highness.” Victoria have a small bow, and then pointed at Errol. “Me and Errol worked together for the Free Mages for a year or so.”

Azami raised an eyebrow. “You’re a Free Mage?”

Victoria covered one side of her face with her hand and then leaned in beside Errol. “She’s a templar or whatever, don't even worry about her.”

“I'm standing right here.”

Errol clapped his hands together. “Templar or not, if you want access into the city we’ll have to wait for nightfall. The entryway is not ideal during the day, and us getting caught is not high on my list of to-dos.”

Kaska nodded. “I’ll start working on a fire,” she said and headed off into the bramble.

Victoria, Errol and Azami stood idly. Errol offered a hand. “It’s nice to meet-”

“I'm going to clean my sword,” she said and walked off.

Victoria simply patted Errol on the back. “She’s never been outside of Tavaniria before, and when I met her, I saved her life. Don't blame the girl, it’s not her fault she doesn't wanna trust us.”

Errol shook his head quietly. “She could at least make an effort.”

Several hours later, after the party split up to gather supplies from the bush and finally settled down around the campfire, the sun had finally settled behind the horizon and laid itself to sleep. The moon laid hidden behind the clouds of Rosarius, with the campfire the only real source of light. Kaska had sidled up beside Errol, finally getting him to speak about their apparently shared interest of romantic novels. Azami sat down on a log, opposite the two, gazing quietly into the fire as she ran a cloth against the steel of Honour. Victoria sat beside her, whittling away at a piece of wood with a hunting knife.

Victoria frowned for a moment before tossing the piece of wood into the fire. She looked to her side, eyeing Azami. “You’ve been polishing your sword for awhile. Frustrated?” she asked with a stupid grin.

Azami continued as she was, not feeling the innuendo fly over her head. “If my sister is not there, then this journey was all for naught. There was no point in all of this.” She stopped her hand, looking up and at Victoria. Azami paused, watching as the light flickered on Victoria’s face, with one side shrouded in shadow and the other illuminated by fire. The smile was gone, replaced by a thin line. “What do you seek to gain in this all, Victoria?”

“Understanding.” There was no pause from question to answer; it was immediate. “Someone killed someone important for a reason, in a city rife with tension between two powerful nations. People don’t just murder without a purpose to it. Money, power, revenge, catharsis, anger, schadenfreude… there is always a reason to it. I want to know why.”

Azami took up the sheathe of her sword and slipped it back onto the blade. “You sound like some investigator.”

“Perhaps of a sort. Someone needs to see about dispensing justice.”

“Why aren't you an Albian Knight? You sound like one of them.”

Victoria shook her head. “I’m not a knight in shining armour. I'm a mage. People don't trust me when they look at me.” She looked at Azami plainly. “I know you didn't when you met me, and you still don't. A king doesn't want an outcast as a champion, so I don't pretend to be one. I do my part, whether I'm appreciated for it or not.”

Azami looked away, propping the blade up against the log to look as if the reaction of looking away had reason. “You can be an insufferable woman sometimes, Victoria, but…” She screwed her mouth shut, slowly pulling the words out of herself as she turned back. “Thank you, for saving me back there.”

Victoria sighed deeply. “Thank me when we find your sister.” She stuck her hunting knife in the log between them, turning her head away. “I'll let up with the jokes for now… maybe.”

An hour later, Errol pushed his canoe into the water, and the three women piled in, with Victoria at the helm. He pushed off with an oar, and the stream took them carefully down, just as the clouds parted and let the moon shine through unhindered. “I'll take the horses and the rest of your gear in through the front gate eventually,” Errol said. “Things should be clearing up in the city, or at least that’s what we all hope.” The stream lead them directly into a masonwork tunnel, bricked up on all sides, and Errol continued on. “This is an old Cazavirian waterworks tunnel… It goes right under the church. The lord regent’s office doesn't even remember it exists as far as Isha says.”

Azami huffed. “It sounds like the Cazavirians are barely holding their city together.”

“You're not wrong there. You’re a Tavanirian, right? I doubt you’d want Albians in your city, or well… dwarves or elves…” He paused for a moment. “Anyone else really… Anyway! Victoria, could you light that lantern beside your foot? I can't see a damn thing.” There were sounds of metal hitting wood before Victoria held a flame up upon her fingertips, gently lighting the candle in the lantern.

Kaska stood up, pointing out into the darkness. “Something moved!”

“You sure?” Errol asked. “I’ve been running these tunnels for a long time.”

“I’m absolutely sure. It ran off as soon as the light hit it.”

Victoria held the lantern out. “I can’t see anything… Errol, how long ago was anyone through these tunnels?”

“We haven’t had to use these tunnels for a long time.” He kept the boat moving. “It’s either we keep going, or you find a wizard to teleport you into the city.”

Azami shook her head. “We keep going.”

The canoe glided ever onwards, with the entire tunnel silent save for the sound of water flowing gently. Azami watched behind Errol, wondering if something would start running along the smooth stone pathways on either side of the tunnel, but nothing did. Kaska huddled down on the bottom of the boat, face full of nervousness and hints of fear. Azami bit her lip, and looked at the back of Victoria’s head before leaning down towards Kaska. “What’s wrong?”

“I met a group of adventurers… a long time ago.” She looked down at the floor of the boat, and then into Azami’s face. “They had lost one of their own exploring a cave. It had been filled with water, and while they were walking above the underground lake, high above on stone walkways jutting out of the cave walls… One of them fell and drowned, pulled down by their heavy armour.”

“Are you scared of drowning?”

Kaska nodded softly. “Fighting against the water… Fighting for those precious breathes of air, all the while as water fills your lungs and the corners of your vision slowly fade into the dark abyss, gently pulling you deeper… and deeper… The whole time, you scream and gasp and shout, but you have no air to say anything…”

Azami pursed her lips, putting her hand on Kaska’s shoulder. “You have the imagination of a bard… You’ll be fine.” She took a breath in, hardening her features for a moment. “You are under the protection of a templar of the Tavaniri Imperium, and I'm sure neither Victoria or Errol would want any harm to befall you.”

She smiled softly, laying her hand over Azami’s. She mouthed a thank you, and then turned away, leaving Azami to return to her designated spot on the canoe. Errol smiled at her, but said nothing.

They continued, eventually reaching an opening in the tunnel leading into a large vast oval like room. The walls were as tall as ten men stacked upon each other, and the room could easily fit an army had it not been filled halfway with water.

“How deep is this, Errol?” Azami asked, peering over the side.

“Deep. I don't think you could reach the bottom without simply…” he looked over at Kaska for a moment. “You know… You just couldn't make it.”

Victoria stood up suddenly. “I saw something, in the water. Errol, hurry it up.” Errol picked up the spare oar and threw it to Victoria. The two began to paddle in sync, with Azami standing up, looking out into the vastness of the reservoir.

The water began to ripple in vast streaks that slowly converged on the canoe. On the other end of the reservoir, they could see a small landing clear as day and lit up by a single lamp. Azami withdrew her sword, holding it up and gritting her teeth. “Victoria,” she shouted. “Give the oar to Kaska. You're the mage!” Victoria swore under her breath, handing the oar to the wobbly Kaska. She rolled up her sleeves, spouting flames from one of her hands and drawing her shortsword with the other.

There was an eerie silence and Azami began to let down her guard. “Maybe they were scared off?”

Victoria relaxed her sword arm. “Wouldn't that be a relief-”

A hand grabbed onto the side of the boat, webbed and disgustingly slick. A amphibious head raised itself up to look at the crew, blinking at them with transparent horizontal eyelids. Victoria gripped both of her hands around her sword and plunged it into the creature’s skull, splattering blood all over the side of the boat and nearly taking Victoria off the edge as the creature sunk off of the side. It splashed, and drenched Victoria in water.

Kaska breathed in heavily. “Was that a frog? A giant frog?”

Errol shook his head, looking out over the sides of the boat. “Keep paddling! Frogs don't clamber onto the sides of boats.”

The two picked up the pace, dragging water behind them as they reached out towards the shore. They shook, as the boat hit something, and then more arms began to grab onto the boat. Six pairs of hands, and six heads pulled themselves up onto the sides of the boat. One pulled back a spear, jamming it towards Azami’s stomach before she slashed both of its hands off. Victoria received a blow to the thigh, before stabbing one and burning the face off another. Errol haphazardly beat one back with his oar, pushing it back into the water. And then Kaska screamed as one grabbed her hand and another pushed her off the side of the boat, dragging her down beneath the surface.

All three of them stared in utter disbelief. Errol fumbled for a knife from his vest, but Azami tore it from his hand, dumped her sword and her cloak onto the ground, and then leapt off the side of the boat and into the water.

Everything was cold and dark, but illuminated by the light of the boat's lantern was Kaska, and the two amphibious creatures that dragged her down into the depths. Azami kicked and pulled herself towards the stationary creatures as they held Kaska in their webbed grips. One saw her, and broke off towards Azami, a stone spear in one of its hands. Azami backed down first, kicking away just as the spear sliced through the side of her shoulder. She winced, as the creature’s tongue slinked out of its mouth and wrapped itself around her arm. She kicked hard, tossing the knife to her free hand and severing the creature’s tongue at the base. Azami held back the reaction to scream in its face as she slammed the knife into its eye, tearing through nerves and flesh before kicking the creature off her. She kept on immediately after, beginning to feel the need to breath weighing down on her. The last creature, with its arms wrapped around Kaska, looked at Azami once and began to kick away.

Azami was faster, and dug the dagger deep into its back, wrenching it out only to stab again and again before simply leaving it in the creature’s carcass. She tore it's hands from around Kaska’s body and wrapped one of Kaska’s arms around her before she kicked for dear life. It was just as Kaska had described… the sides of her vision began to darken as she continued to hold her breath, before she finally gave in and took in a breath of disgusting water.

She breached beside the landing, Victoria and Errol already on land to receive Kaska. Azami crawled up onto the stone, coughing violently and sickly as water came up from out of her lungs. For a moment, she thought she might vomit before her legs gave out and she rolled onto her back.

Victoria had already rolled Kaska onto her back and began to press into Kaska’s ribs, leaning down to breath into her mouth. “Come on, dammit! I'm not losing someone down here!”

Errol leaned down beside Azami. “Are you okay? Do you need help?”

Azami lifted her hand up weakly. “Do you have… my sword.”

Errol held up the sword, placed back into its sheath and set it down on the ground. “You’re fine. Don't even worry.”

Kaska coughed and Victoria held Kaska’s head to the side as she coughed up water onto the stone tiling. She took in a shuddered breath, looking up to take in Victoria’s wet appearance from the splashing of the creature. Azami pushed herself up, grabbing her sword to steady herself with and walked deeper into the landing.

Azami and Errol ascended into a small storage room and immediately entered the main room of a large church. Without a doubt, Azami realized she had just walked into the headquarters of the Free Mages. There was at least a hundred or more people in the large room, speaking, moving crates, even practicing small shows of magic. Errol stepped ahead of Azami, taking a deep breath in. “Welcome to the Free Mages.” He handed her a cloth and she proceeded to wipe her face with it. The walls were adorned with purple banners proclaiming magical independence, freedom from prejudice, and general calls to action. Azami rolled her eyes and handed the cloth back to Errol. She was a templar, and she had put dangerous mages into their towers for a reason.

“Errol!” a voice called and a woman with light brown skin stepped out from the throngs of people standing around church pews, crates, and walls.

“Oh, Isha!” He turned to Azami, gesturing with an open hand towards the woman. “This is Isha Darzi. She’s the leader of the Free Mages here in Cazavir.”

“Not by title, mind you.” Isha said, extending her hand to Azami. “Any friend of Errol is a friend of mine.” They shook quickly, with Azami pulling back first. Isha wore the clothes of a commoner, a fisherman if Azami’s guess was accurate at all, but the lack of stains of any kind told her that Isha’s job was definitely not physical. She was an organizer, a leader, or in the words of a templar captain; a rabble-rouser.

Isha continued nonetheless. “One of the lookouts at a certain inn tell me you’ve been traveling with Victoria Wolfe… Tell me, how is she?”

Azami quirked an eyebrow in a slightly awkward manner. “She is fine, as far as I can tell. I’ve been with her only a week.”

Isha nodded. “Well, no surprises then. Where is she?”

Errol snapped his fingers. “Dammit. Isha, call the healers and block off the reservoir passage until we have time to investigate. There are creatures in that water.”

“Creatures? I swear, there are more problems by the day. Bless the gods for giving me the patience for this…” With a few shouts from Isha, several people ran off for a stretcher, and Victoria finally emerged from the storage room, with Kaska being carried by her and another Free Mage. They took her away to one of the other backrooms, carrying her through the main room of the church and through a door beside the preacher’s stand.

Errol looked at Azami. “You're bleeding from the shoulder… Gods, can you not feel that?”

Azami pressed a hand to her shoulder, looking at the thick crimson that remained on her hand when she pulled back. “I had better things to do than remember I had been stabbed.”

Errol and Azami followed Kaska's stretcher into the backroom. A few steps down, and Azami was confronted by the smell of death, blood, and suffering. Behind hanging curtains partitioned across a great large hall was the sounds of moaning, and far off, screaming. Isha stepped down into the room and Azami immediately turned to her. “What happened to your people?”

“This city has no ordinary government. When the people in the industrial district heard of the death of Captain Tywell, there were riots. Suspicion and blame was immediately pointed towards the people they distrusted the most, the Albians and the mages.” She gestured for them to follow her through the hall. “The poorest labourers of Cazavir wish the city would join the Tavaniri Empire. They’ve said for years now that the reason they live in such horrible conditions is because of the Cazavirian government and the Albian presence across the river.”

Azami scoffed. “I suppose you’ll say that it is the Tavanirians.”

“Cazavir does not govern that district any longer.” She shook her head. “Can you say that this mass violence was necessary? That these wounded mages deserve their fates?” Azami did not respond, peering through the gaps in the sheets only to see blood and injury. “Exactly,” Isha said.

They stood outside Kaska’s newly claimed spot, pulling the curtain up. She sat upright against the wall, as a woman in a dark brown robe pressed her ear to Kaska’s chest. Victoria stood to the side, drying out her hair with a towel. The woman shooed them away with a wave of her hands and the entire group finally pushed themselves to the very end of the hall, where a tiefling with red skin and small horns finally came to Azami's aid. Azami held her breath, suddenly fearful, but no one else said a word of worry. He cleaned and bandaged her shoulder, looking at Azami’s holy symbol silently.

“She is a templar, Victoria?”

Victoria looked up, slightly confused for a moment. “Yeah, she is, Fortune. Don't hold it against her, she’s better than some of the templars I’ve met.” Azami rolled her eyes and Victoria went back to speaking with Isha.

“I am surprised you have not recoiled with disgust yet, templar. My foster father was a farmer, and he always had me hide when the templars would ride by our farm.” He tied the bandage firmly, and perhaps a little too tight for comfort. “He was taken away by your kind when they learned of my existence.”

“I investigated magical disasters. What happened to you was out of my control.”

“Yet you belong to an organization capable of evil and do nothing to stop the spread of it.” He collected his kit. “You do not understand, templar.” He left without another word, eventually fading into the darkness of the hall. Azami looked down at her feet, clasping her hand over her mouth in quiet thought. She just wanted to find her sister.

Victoria clapped her hands together, getting the group’s attention. “Okay, I know the night is still young, but that’s been enough excitement for one day. We’ll head out for the templar garrison in the morning, but for now, we’ll all get some rest.”

Isha nodded, looking at the group, but Azami felt her gaze to be pressed upon her. “You may sleep in one of the tower rooms, but we do not have the space to permanently accommodate you. You will need to leave come morning.”

“That will not be an issue,” Azami said. “Our business ends once I find my sister, Victoria.”

Victoria pursed her lips. “Yeah. You’re the boss.” There were a hint of dissatisfaction in her voice, immediately replaced by indifference as she continued.“Follow me, then. We’ve all been awake for long enough.”

Azami awoke in the early morning, eyes tired and dark, and without a sound, came into the church’s main room. It was quiet and deserted, as it seemed that all the Free Mages had either gone home, or were still asleep wherever they resided in the church. Azami stood in front of the preacher’s stand, looking up at the murals of gods that she knew only so much about. Their eyes all looked towards the Free Mage banner hanging in the centre, as if they had always been looking towards the freedom of mages. Azami knew better than to believe the church had been constructed recently or with the intention of housing Free Mages, but wherever the priests had gone, the building now belonged to the mages.

Azami gently brought herself to the ground, kneeling in front of the white marble altar. She set Honour in front of her, and closed her eyes as she sat there, composed and patient.

“Gods…” she said quietly, resting one hand on her knee as the other clasped her simple holy symbol. “Please offer me guidance in my time of need. I am here, in this foreign city, with people I do not know, nor know if I should trust, and I am lost without your vision.” She wrapped both hands around the symbol dangling from her neck and pressed her thumbs against her forehead, trying to deepen her connection to her god. She leaned forward, prostrating herself further. “Please allow me to find my sister, so that we might be able to return to the life we had; the life that was peaceful and happy and without so much violence and danger.”

There came a set of footsteps from behind her, stopping a few feet away. Azami dropped her hands back to her lap and slowly turned to look around. Victoria stood there with her hands on her hips, looking down at her with a casual look on her face. “I don’t mean to interrupt.”

“No,” Azami said. “I was just finishing.” She gently pressed the symbol against her lips and began to stand, but Victoria raised a hand in protest as she began to sit on the floor herself.

“I heard your prayer, sorry, but I’m curious. Can I ask where you’re from?” Victoria’s tone was soft and careful, skating around on thin ice that she wasn't sure existed.

Azami responded simply. “Why do you wish to know? This information will be useless once I leave.”

“I told you that I wanted to understand, and that wasn't a lie. I can read other people; Kaska is a kind and good hearted soul, Isha is focused on the movement, and Errol just wants something calm and romantic. You? I can’t sum you up in a few words. I want you to tell me about yourself.”

“You cannot sum people up in several words, Victoria. People are complicated individuals, with infinite nuances and their own drives and desires.”

“I know that. I know that…” Victoria took a breath in and scratched the bridge of her nose in thought. “I said that to produce a point. Do you want a summary of what I think about you? You’re mysterious, honourable, and irritable, but that’s just three descriptors. What drives you?”

“I want to find my sister.”

“But why?”

Azami eyed Victoria carefully. “Anyone else would say you have an ulterior motive to this, Victoria. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.” She grasped a hand around Honour and held it out for Victoria. “Hold it.”

Victoria took it in her hands, testing the weight. “It’s a fine work of craftsmanship. Probably more than a few decades old.”

“Think centuries. A few days ago, I had never known the blade existed. My full name, as far as I understand, is Azami Sicarius. I come from a clan of proud warriors; many whom served the Tavaniri Empire as templars.”

“I had guessed as much,” Victoria said, handing the sword back. “Your templar status seemed like it ran in the family.”

“You would be correct. When I was thirteen, I left my family's estate to become a templar, joining my sister, who had just begun her third year of training. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life to feel myself change into a proper warrior.” She closed her eyes, setting Honour back on the floor. “Hikari said that we should have been taught by the old masters of our clan, but I thought that the training by the templars was well enough. We fought for a long time on what our future should be, but in the end, I decided that winning the argument was not as important as the bond we shared.”

Victoria looked a little stunned. “But it’s your life.”

“Sacrifices must be made, and we had sacrificed our time to start our first tour of duty across Tavaniria. We served as investigators, wandering the countryside and aiding nobility with problems of magic affecting their people, crops, and what have you. The clan had been called back to the mountains for an important meeting, but Hikari wished to stay, hoping to put a mark on the world through completing our tour. In the end, it was perhaps the greatest decision she had ever made.” She took in a deep breath, shaking her head at the memory. “Clan Sicarius was betrayed on that night, and the entirety of the clan was slaughtered. We traveled back to see the destruction, hoping to find survivors, but for the month we stayed in the region, we found none. We were… are, the last two members of our clan.”

Victoria sat quietly, gently reaching out a hand to lay on Azami’s. “Go on. Continue.”

“If I cannot find my sister here in Cazavir, then I must be the last of my clan. I am a single woman without purpose and without family.”

Victoria bit her lip. “Your entire clan can’t have been killed. It’s impossible.”

“Then where are they?  Where are my cousins and elders?” She pressed the palm of her hand to her eye, pulling back to see the wetness on her hand. Her gaze pulled up to eye Victoria, wondering if she was being manipulated. Why was she telling this woman anything? She exhaled and wiped at her eyes. Azami wanted to tell someone these things about her life and self, and Victoria was listening to it. It was as simple as that.

Azami stood, hauling the strap of her sword over her shoulders. Victoria pushed herself off the ground, hugging herself closely. “Sorry. You didn’t have to tell me anything if you didn’t really want to.”

“It’s of no consequence. Hikari would have gone to the templar garrison first. We can trace her steps from there if we must.”

Victoria nodded, changing her mood to fit the change of pace. “Okay. We’ll head out right away.” She tapped her chin. “Kaska can stay here, but you.. People are still probably out for your bounty, and you still have your clothes from the mountain. Come on, let’s fix that.”

Victoria stepped out into the warm Cazavirian air, and Azami followed out shortly behind her. Immediately, Azami noticed the huge groups of people crowding the streets. It was a huge surprise, especially when Victoria pulled Azami into it all. It was like wading through a sea, where the high tan buildings of Cazavir were mighty cliffs. Victoria laughed a bit at Azami’s uncomfortableness. “Just hold onto my sleeve if you need to.”

“I am not a child.” And yet, she kept a firm hand on Victoria’s shoulder.

Victoria dragged Azami along, stopping at stalls and vendors, speaking like she knew each and every one of them like friends. In a way, she must have. Cazavir was Victoria’s city, and years as a Free Mage must have forced her to get to know as many people as possible. Each and every time anyone bothered to ask who Azami was, Victoria constantly shifted the story around. Once she was a runaway princess, next she was a bodyguard, next a deadly assassin. Victoria just chuckled to herself as she continued on. Azami watched Victoria smile and wondered, at least briefly, how all of this would have turned out if she had traveled to Cazavir alone.

Victoria finally found her destination, stepping into a corner shop. It was incredibly dusty, but smelled of incense and smoke. An elderly woman sat behind the counter, a long metal pipe in one hand. She held the end in her mouth, slowly removing it and exhaling smoke. “Victoria,” she called. “I am not here to help you bed women.”

“No, no.” Victoria shook her head profusely and Azami began to look around, sifting through the smoke to find numerous objects and knick knacks hidden in the fog, albeit quite tacky ones. Victoria continued. “My friend here needs a new pair of clothes, and I thought… who better than Zhang?”

The woman took a pause, eyeing Azami carefully. “She looks like a northern Tavanirian. No one else would have a sword like that.”

“Is that going to be a problem?”

She shrugged, pulling out a drawer and setting a spool of thread on the counter. “Perhaps if this was not this city.”

As soon as Victoria was able to pull Azami to the front, Zhang wrapped the thread tightly around Azami’s waist, sliced the thread off the spool and immediately went to measure Azami’s height. In a matter of moments, Zhang had numerous lengths of thread all laid out across her countertop, and then she went to work. From a lengthy roll, she pulled a huge panel of dark fabric from the roll, and then sliced through it as if it were melted butter. She shaped everything out on a rudimentary mannequin, attaching extra intricacies and layers with a simple flick of needle and thread. Azami stood there, dumbfounded, and Victoria stood there, a smile on her face. “Is that… is that magic?” Azami asked.

“I might just know the right people,” she said, adding a wink for effect.

Quite suddenly, Zhang appeared in front of Azami with a garment wrapped around her arm. “Strip,” she said.

“Excuse me?”

“Strip!” This time with the force of a drill sergeant.

Azami wasted no time in tossing her clothes and she found herself being reclothed almost immediately. All the while, Victoria quietly turned around, pretending to look at the numerous objects lined across the shop’s walls.

“It is done,” Zhang announced and she returned to her seat. The pipe returned to her hand and she blew out another breath of smoke. “That will be a gold piece from you, Victoria.”

Azami looked down at herself, examining the dark hooded cloak now upon her body. It was far superior than the old tattered cloak that she had been wearing for the past week. She wrapped her hand across one of the belts across her front, tightening it slightly. “I feel like a wanderer, or a mysterious traveler.”

Victoria fished a coin out of her purse and set it onto the counter. “Well, I’d probably think you were, if I didn’t know you a bit better.”

Azami wrapped the strap of her sword over her shoulders once again. She gripped the handle of the blade, motioning to unsheath it to see how it would be drawn with her new clothing. “This is a beautiful set of clothes. Thank you.”

Zhang only waved the pipe at them. “Yes, yes. Now get out of my shop.”

The two walked back into the crowded streets of Cazavir, and Victoria began to lead the way once again. It was back to the mission once more. “Okay,” Victoria began. “I don’t really go around the templar side of the city really… ever, so you’re going to have to do most of the talking so I don’t accidentally say something that gets both of us pushed onto an executioner’s block.”

“I am sure that I will be able to find someone that at least knows of my sister or myself. There should be no problems.”

Victoria took them through the merchant district, and the further they went, the more the crowds cleared and the fewer people they saw. Soon enough, they reached a long stone bridge arching over a river that branched off from the mainstream. Victoria stopped, set her hands on her hips and gazed out across the water. “This city is always moving, Azami.” She pointed out, and Azami eyed the far river bank, with ships passing by and countless people walking along the dock. A group of Albian Knights even stood on the edge of one of the dock landings, in bright steel and blue highlights. In truth, she had never seen a city quite like this one. She had never traveled far enough west to see the Tavanirian port cities, nor had she even been along the Dagger Coast before.

“It is truly something,” Azami said, nodding. “I never thought I’d see something quite like this in my lifetime.”

Victoria gestured for them to continue their walk. “Maybe you’d like to become an adventurer? Just think, the whole wide world of Rosarius, right at your fingertips.”

“I have a duty to my clan, Victoria.”

“Yes, but that doesn't mean you can’t see the world. Maybe you could see if your clanmates traveled elsewhere?”

Azami opened her mouth to argue, but then promptly closed it to think. Would Hikari like to see the world as well? Maybe they could make their mark on the world as adventurers? Would that be enough to satisfy her sister?

Victoria and Azami marched upon the far gate of the Cazavirian templar district, and were immediately stopped by two templars in chainmail. “What business do you have here?” One held a shield at his side bearing a red eagle. They had to be templars.

Victoria looked at Azami and beckoned her forward. She stepped up. “I am a templar, brothers. There is no need for fear or rash action.”

One sneered. “You look like a vagrant. Leave before we have to detain you.”

Azami sighed and straightened out her stance. “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” There was a reaction from the one with the shield, but not the talkative one. “We are imparted that phrase in training.”

The man with the shield lifted up his helmet and looked at Azami carefully. “Who are you then, and what do you want?”

“The garrison commander, we wish to speak with him.”

The two exchanged glances before entering a conversation of their own. “We can't just leave our post.”

“Well, what if she tells the vice captain that we didn't let her in.”

“Fine. I’ll get them to the fort and I’ll get someone to cover for me on the way over.”

“Good enough.”

Azami tapped her against the cobblestones impatiently. “Are you done?”

One turned to walk through the gate. “Come with me. Don't lag behind.”

Azami and Victoria followed the templar through the gate. Immediately, there was a drastic change in atmosphere. There was almost no one in the streets, and the few that did looked like they were there because of impoverishment, and not choice. A child in rags picked up a small malnourished dog and ran into the shadows of an alleyway, staring at Azami fearfully as he stroked the sickly head of the animal. An elderly man looked out at them from against the wall of a neglected building, his eyes sunken and almost lifeless. A woman fell down at Victoria’s feet, pleading in between pained sobs, completely indiscernible to a startled Victoria who apologized profusely as she walked past.

“What has happened to this place?” Azami asked aloud, taking in the squalor and the depressing atmosphere. “Where are the templars?”

The guardsman said nothing, and only continued walking. Victoria set her hand on Azami’s shoulder, shaking her head. “Isha said this was bad, but to see it in the city for myself…”

“You didn't grow up in Cazavir, did you?”

Victoria shook her head once again. “I wouldn’t have let this go on.”

The templar turned a corner, waving to three other templars standing under a flag. “Oi. This woman here says she’s a templar and wants to see the boss.”

A woman with a bright red streak in her black hair looked at Azami. “She’s a templar? They must lower the bar every day.” Azami couldn't help by glower at her. “Go back to your post, I’ll deal with her.”

“But-” The guard began to protest but she pushed him to the side.

“The commander doesn't need to hear about your subordination. Leave.”

The man looked to Azami and then to the woman before turning around and walking away. Victoria stepped up beside Azami, setting her hand onto her sword. “You look like a piece of work,” she said, eyeing the woman carefully. “Don't tell me your name's Scarlet. I really am going to laugh if it is.”

“Felicia, mage. Keep your hands where I can see them.” She looked at Azami. “Is this woman your partner? You’re lucky this is Cazavir, or she would be in chains already.”

“I do not need arrogance from some guardswoman. Point me in the direction of the fort and I’ll find it myself.” Azami snarled. She had had enough of this.

Felicia waved a hand at her fellow templars and stepped away. “Come. I’ll have you detained if you don't.”

Victoria gestured in disbelief at the woman, but Azami only shrugged. They’d just have to deal with it. They followed her begrudgingly, with Victoria’s eyes firmly planted to the mace on Felicia’s hip. Victoria shifted her eyes up, to the back of Felicia's head. “Where’d you get the red in your hair? Are you leaking from your skull?”

“Wild magic. One of your Free Mage lackeys struck me in the forehead right before I caved in his skull. They were trying to free Watchtower mages, can you believe? We killed each and every one of them.” She looked over her shoulder, smiling darkly at Victoria. “Perhaps you’d like to join them?”

Azami reached up instinctively for her sword, withdrawing her hand before she touched the hilt. “She is under my protection.”

Victoria looked at Azami, raising an eyebrow. “Am I now? I thought it was the other way around.”

“You know what I meant.” Azami sighed. “This isn't what the templars are supposed to be. Trust me, Victoria.”

“Well, it isn't the first time I’ve been threatened by some idiot with a blunt object. Just didn’t think I would be here.”

Felicia interjected. “Are you two done?”

Above the tips of the district's houses grew the walls of a defensive structure. It held a large portcullis, a steep incline leading up towards it. Azami and Victoria exited from the rows upon rows of houses and began the walk into the keep, eyeing the crossbow wielding templars that looked down at them from the walls. Crossing the threshold, the inner courtyard was surprisingly green and busy. A group of templars held sparring matches in a corner while a blacksmith hammered away at a sword on an onyx anvil. Victoria looked around, uneasy as people stared at her. She gripped at her sleeves, unconsciously pulling at them to cover her forearms.

The keep's main hall was up a flight of stone stairs, and they quickly scaled it, entering through a set of double doors. A long red carpet led the eye straight through the room as large stone pillars stretched up towards the far roof. Dark red banners hung between each pillar, eagles and swords adorning each and every one of them. At the far end of the keep stood several men and women, gathered around a wooden table with a map of Rosarius pinned upon it. Felicia walked up, ignoring the obvious discussion happening. “Commander Archer, someone wants to see you.”

A man looked up, straight blond locks combed away from his face. “Is this truly important?”

Felicia jerked a thumb at Azami. “You tell me.”

He looked at Azami, slowly raising an eyebrow. He stood and addressed the table. “We shall conclude this matter at a later date. You have your orders. Felicia, go stand by the tower.”

The room cleared and Azami stepped up to the table. “Do I know you?”

“You don't remember me?” He looked offended. “I served with your sister and yourself. James Archer?” Azami only drew a blank. “You don't remember me…” He paced around the table, settling at a different end. “Who’s your friend?”

Azami looked to Victoria for a response. “Victoria,” she said clearly. “Free Mages of Cazavir.”

He nodded. “Of course you are. You do have the markings of a mage, and this is Cazavir. I am surprised, Azami. I wouldn't think you would keep company such as this.”

“I find her nothing like the crazed madmen that terrorized those towns in Tavaniria. Hikari would agree.”

“Your sister was particularly hard on those mages. I would find it hard for her to sympathize with any mage.” He looked at Victoria pointedly. “Nonetheless, Azami, why are you here?”

“I am looking for my sister. She and I were separated on way to Cazavir.”

James shook his head. “I have not seen your sister. If she was slated to appear here, she never showed up.”

Azami was slow to respond. “She… never appeared? She was supposed to come here to see the commander. She came to see you.”

“The commander? I don't know how long ago you left for Cazavir, but Captain Tywell was killed by an Albian. We found one of their swords driven through his body. I stepped up as the vice captain and we’ve been trying to bring the killer to justice since. Maybe your sister was smart and decided to go home instead of come to this chaotic city.”

Azami could do nothing but stare in utter disbelief. “She wouldn't leave without looking for me…”

“I don't have the time to help you find your sister. Ever since we were given charge of this desecrated district, our workload has been endless. If you are not here to help us, then I will ask you to leave.”

Azami took a bow quickly. “No, I am sorry. I must find a way to find…” she trailed off and turned to leave hurriedly. “Good day.”

Victoria quickly turned to follow. “Your sister’s not here? That just sounds completely odd.” She quieted her tone. “I don't trust that man. He sounds like he’s hiding something from you.”

“He’s a templar. What reason would he have to lie to one of his own?” She pressed a hand against her forehead. “There is only one other place we can go then… We have to find the Blackravens.”

Victoria crossed her arms against her chest. “No. We are not seeking out the 'Ravens. They’ll gouge you for every copper you have, and then they’ll stab you in the back. There is no way we’re going there.”

Azami walked out of the keep, descending back into the residences. “What other option is there? I only came to find my sister and she’s gone!”

Victoria opened her mouth to speak but softly clamped her mouth shut as she looked Azami in the face. “There are always other options. You just need faith, Azami. We can find your sister.”

“All you want from Hikari is information! In fact, you heard what the commander said, she hasn't even been here! What do you even want now, Victoria? Why are you still here?”

Victoria was quiet, looking down at the ground. “You’re right. Why am I still here…” She shrugged. “This was just another dead end, and another waste of my time.” Victoria raised her head. “Maybe I thought we made a good team. I had someone to talk to for once.”

Azami calmed herself and frowned. “I am a templar and you are a Free Mage. We are diametrically opposed. It is impossible for us to work together.”

Victoria began to narrow her gaze. “Is that what you thought this whole time, Azami? You never once thought of me as a person, and only thought of me as a mage?” There was anger there now, hiding a look of betrayal as Victoria covered it with anger. “I should have left you with the mercenaries. Find your sister on your own. You don't need the help of a 'mage’.” She pushed past Azami, walking down the street and eventually out of sight.

Azami stood there in front of the templar garrison. It was dead silent before she finally picked up her feet and began to walk. She would need to go back across the river to find the Blackravens. They wouldn't want to place their base of operations near the templars.

Azami went at a slow steady pace, listening to the silence of the district. She tried to clear her mind and not think of anything, but she was angry at herself, at Victoria, and at her sister. Azami only ever wanted to live peacefully, or at the very least with safer levels of danger. Coming here to Cazavir went against that wish. She gripped at the collar of her coat and tugged at it. Why had she accepted this to begin with?

“Leaving so soon?” A familiar voice. Azami looked up to see the templar, Felicia, standing in the centre of the road. She held her mace in her hand, cradling it in the palm of her other hand. There was a sick, twisted smile on her face. It reeked of sadism.

Azami stood her ground, widening her stance. “What do you want?”

“Where’d your Free Mage run off to? She abandon poor little you?” She pouted, slinging the mace over her shoulder and taking the shield from her back into her free hand. “You do realize there was this little thing about a bounty. Did you really think any of us bought your innocent façade?”

Azami raised her hands in utter disbelief. Obviously the woman had bought some of her actions, as this was happening now and not before. “You really believe I killed the templar captain? I don't even know the man’s name, not to mention I wasn't even in the city when the murder occurred!”

“A likely story. We’ll see how it holds up when we hang you from the ramparts.” Felicia raised her hand up, and two soldiers came out of the shadows, flanking Azami. “You can give up now, or we can have a little… fun.”

Azami wrapped her hand around Honour’s handle and withdrew it, entering a blocking stance. “You’re a pox upon the templar order, but if I must fight you, then I shall.”

Felicia ran her tongue over her lips, laughing darkly to herself. “Just how I like it…”

The three templars began to slowly encircle Azami but she stood firmly in the middle, pivoting and adjusting her guard as best she could. One of the auxiliaries made a move first, raising a handaxe into the air and bringing it down sharply. Azami caught the handle of the axe with her sword, pushing it back and then slicing into the man’s armour. There was blood, but barely. He barely noticed the papercut.

The other auxiliary pushed his shortsword forward, but Azami easily moved out of the way, only to meet Felicia’s mace as it was introduced to her ribs. She choked, feeling her bones crack, but she kept her sword up. It hurt. Azami brought herself to the offense, jabbing her blade into the leg joint of one of the templars and then pulling it out through the untorn ligaments. She half severed his leg, and he fell to the ground easily.

Felicia grumbled angrily. “Keep your guard up!” She brought her mace up and swung through the air where Azami once was, bringing her shield up to clatter against Azami’s attack. An axe came towards Azami’s hip, and in retaliation, she slammed her elbow into the templar's face, knocking spit and teeth from his mouth. As he stumbled back, she gripped both hands on the hilt of her sword and disarmed him in one clean motion by cutting off his hand before slamming the hilt of her sword into his chest.

Felicia twirled her mace in her hand, watching her two comrades fall to the dirt. “A proper fight is one warrior versus one warrior anyway. I’ll enjoy beating you into the ground.”

“A proper fight is one of honour. There is no honour to this. We are both templars. Why are we fighting one another?” Felicia only smiled and leapt forward. Azami backed away as the mace whipped in front of her face, and then another attack passing inches away from her chest, and a final attack almost hitting her in the kneecaps. Felicia shunted her backwards with her shield.

“Stay still, dammit!” She reared her mace back and swung it wildly. It missed completely and Azami pulled her own blade back and aimed it right for the woman’s back. She missed. Felicia turned around and swung the mace into Azami’s chest. Azami fell back, her sword clattering to the ground as she hit the ground. She gasped for breath, but Felicia was still on the offensive. The mace hit her in the stomach, knocking the air out of her once again, bones snapping indiscriminately, and then Felicia was on her. A metal gauntlet hit her in the face, and then another. Metal hands clasped around her head and slammed it into the ground. Everything became blurry, pain clouded her vision, and she felt herself slipping away.

Felicia stood, picking up the shortsword of her fallen colleague as he writhed in the dirt. “Recruits. Useless. You call yourselves Tavanirians.” She held the blade in her hands, standing above Azami as she shifted both her palms to the hilt. “You’re dying. I can't believe you were the one to kill the old commander.”

Azami reached out for Felicia's throat. “I did not kill your captain.” She gasped for breath, feeling blood well up in her throat and leak out from the sides of her mouth.

“If you were innocent, you would have came along. I’ll just take your corpse back.”

Felicia raised the shortsword up, and pointed it towards Azami’s chest. A flicker of light cast itself over Felicia’s armour, and a great roar of fire blew through the air and pushed itself against the templar. She stepped back, yelling in pain as the fire touched her skin. Felicia ran, leaving Azami in the dust as a hulking figure blocked out the sun and a familiar voice called out for her.

“Azami. It is a shame that this is how we meet again.” Powerful hands wrapped around her waist and pulled her onto the figure’s shoulder.

There was another voice. “Oh gods… I left her for five minutes and this is what happens.”

“It is of no concern. We will have our moments to apologize to her, but now we must ensure that she does not slip into death’s cold embrace.”

Azami was somewhat conscious the entire time she was carried away from the Tavanirian district. All her senses were dull from the pain and she barely registered sight, hearing and touch. She faded in and out, only barely recognizing the passage of time by the intensity of the sounds around her. A raw thump, and she was set onto a table.

“What in the…” A voice came, Kaska’s. “What happened to her?”

Victoria provided a quick answer. “Templars jumped her. She’s practically dead already.”

“And who is this?”

“Nadaarin Delmirea. We can go through the motions when we have ample time, but our friend is dying and sand continues to pour from the cracks in the hourglass. Can you help us?”

Kaska rubbed at her forehead. “If only my mother were here… I shall need some materials for natural magic.”

Nadaarin took command. “Victoria Wolfe, was it? That shall be your domain. I shall borrow some Free Mage resources to allow me to apply some basic medicines. Time is running short. Go!”

The three began to dash about and for a moment, the room was silent. Azami brushed her hand against her holy symbol, her fingers scraping against the metal, before dropping her hand uselessly to the side. Her strength was gone, dripping onto the floor as it leaked from her body in scarlet rivulets. Kaska returned first, followed shortly after by Nadaarin. They worked tirelessly with mortar, pestle, plants and herbs. Kaska even began to pray, communing with her own gods to aid her with the magicks she would need to perform. Azami stared up at the ceiling, feeling as her pulse pounded in a dull rhythm. It was almost serene. She was at death’s door yet again. Maybe it would be better to just let go for once. Without her sister, and without purpose, what reason was there to continue on? For her country and the order that had deserted her? No, of course not.

Victoria barged in, carrying in her hands an armful of supplies. Kaska dove upon them immediately, like a dragon upon a pile of gold, and began to pick apart what she needed. Nadaarin came to rub a paste into her wounds, singing softly in a language that Azami felt like she knew. It calmed her further, and she felt as if she would melt into the wooden table, at peace, before she finally passed out.

Chapter 3
Azami slept much longer than she had thought she would, and by the time she awoke, stiff and sore, the sun and moon were just beginning to trade places. Yet, she was still tired, both in the sleeping sense, and the depressive sense. She stepped around the small room that Isha had let her sleep in and began to pace, her hands clasped behind her back. The Cazavirian templars were, beyond a doubt, corrupt in Azami’s eyes. There were no allies to be found here. Yet, she felt betrayed by the very order she had served with for so long. She had been but a young girl when she had joined, and now she was a woman. Had she been so blind to put so much faith where it was undeserved? What was left for her in this world? With her sister she had felt camaraderie, but she had also felt that with Victoria and Kaska as they had traveled up the Coast. She came to regret what she had said, judging herself in the mirror and reprimanding herself in silent whispers.

A knock came at the door and it opened to reveal Nadaarin. “Azami, you are awake…”

She bowed to him. “Nadaarin… my thanks will never be enough for everything you’ve done for me.”

He shook his head and placed a hand on her shoulder as she rose. “A teacher does not throw his student into the world like that. I will apologize for that.” He embraced her, placing his scaled chin upon her head. Azami felt wetness tug at her eyes and soon she was crying into his chainmail. She tried to stop herself, but all she could think about was everything that had happened, and the uncertainty of the path forward.

“Azami… You should not cry.” He lifted her chin up, and she saw the softness in his draconic eyes. “You still have so much left to your story, and you should be out there, winning your victories.”

Azami wiped the tears from her face, breathing in. “Where are Victoria and Kaska?”

“The Free Mage and the druid?” He stepped back, setting a hand under his chin. “Kaska is at the Drunken Sow, asking around if anyone knows anything of her clan’s current whereabouts. Victoria is by the docks, she did not say anything other than that.”

Azami made up her mind. “Thank Kaska for me when she comes back. I am sure that Victoria and I will have much to discuss, that it may extend past the time it takes Kaska to finish her business.”

“Very well. The Free Mage leader has asked me to stay and aid them with their sick and wounded. I shall remain here until you come back.”

“I will come back.” She bowed again, very quickly. “It is good to see you again, Nadaarin. This will not be our last meeting.”

He nodded. “And if you see that kobold… tell him I want a word.” Azami began to leave, but Nadaarin stopped here as he remembered something. “Your holy symbol, we used it in that ritual.” He raised his hands to soothe any panic. “We’ll have it fixed shortly. Thankfully, only the thread was damaged.”

“Please do, Nadaarin. That is important to me.”

Azami left the safety of the Free Mage headquarters and exited into the street. It was near abandoned compared to the morning, and the evening was very quiet. She walked, noting with some surprise that the blood had practically all disappeared from her clothes, save for a few drops here and there. Magic was a profound power.

She arrived at the Free Mage district's docks without issue. Several Cazavirian native guards walked back and forth. Some asked her why she was here at such late hours, and she responded as to not arouse suspicion such as saying she was meeting a friend. She did not need to be mistaken for a smuggler. She was simply searching for a Free Mage that was here before the woman got into trouble. This seemed to please the guards, noting general acceptance of the Free Mages before walking off to continue their rounds.

The district politics of Cazavir were odd and intriguing. Albians to the north, Tavanirians to the west, and the native Cazavirians to the south. Undoubtedly, the Dominion, Asalgard and far-off Razfar had to have some sort of presence in such an important trade city, but these were the biggest players. How the governor of Cazavir could have possibly allowed this was beyond her. Corruption? Buyout of the land? Knights and templars were in your city without restraint or surveillance. It was simply insane.

Azami continued on, walking along the wooden docks as the water lapped at it from below. Victoria was either hidden well, or not there at all. That was not especially surprising. Victoria was the kind of woman to sneak off and do her own thing after all. If not here, then where was there to look? A tavern? A brothel?

A call disturbed her train of thought, and she half expected Victoria to appear out of thin air simply to save her the trouble of having to find her. Instead, it was someone much more troublesome. An Albian, dressed in shining steel chainmail, with the lion emblem watching wisely forward, a crown upon its head. Despite being around Azami’s height, she looked down upon her with bright blue eyes, shaded by curled blonde locks. “What is your name?” she asked, more demanding than polite.

“I don't owe you anything, Knight. Leave me.”

She looked unimpressed. “I am asking for a reason that will not involve your arrest. You do realize I have no jurisdiction within the merchant district, right?”

“A templar is taught to be wary of Albians.” A pause. “I am Azami Sicarius.”

“Congratulations. You are who I am looking for then.” Azami reached for her sword instinctively, but the woman raised a hand in restrained protest. “My commanding officer ordered me to seek out the other Sicarius sister.”

“The other? You know where Hikari Sicarius is?”

“Perhaps. Nonetheless, my commander would be upset if I did not say that a Sidhe elf and a dragonborn informed me of your whereabouts.” She quietly surveyed the area. “Have you not found who you are looking for?”

“No.” Azami eyed the Knight, noting the longsword at her hip. “Who even are you?”

“Catherine Lasiin. Do you want to know where your sister is?”

Azami swallowed her pride and nodded. “Take me to her.”

The trip to the Albian district was incredibly less resistant than the trip to the Tavanirian district. All it took was a nod from Catherine for them to pass, and that was if the Albian Knights even cared enough to stop her from simply passing with Azami in tow. Instead of poor and disparaged individuals, she found the district to be incredibly peaceful. Taverns bustled with common folk and adventurers alike, children played in the streets, and everything seemed happy and serene. Nothing even seemed fake. Catherine continued, not letting Azami stop and sightsee. She approached a large building built atop a hill. By no means was it a castle or a fort, yet there were archers and watchmen positioned high above. It seemed more a university, but Catherine did not even hint to the possibility of it being one, and continued up the hill, stepping in through the grand doors.

The Knights in the atrium turned their heads towards Catherine, nodding their heads in respect. Some eyed Azami with nervousness, while others paid her no mind at all. A Knight approached Catherine, handing her a scroll. He eyed Azami and gave her a nod of respect, but spoke to Catherine. His dark nappy hair was fashioned into rows along his head, ending in a braided ponytail behind his head.

“The Blackraven messenger was here again. I already sent word to the captain.”

“Good. We can discuss this later, when our guest has left us.”

He nodded, looking to Azami. “So, who is the guest?”

Azami would rather introduce herself. “Azami Sicarius, and you?”

“Isaias Sall. You’re the Sicarius sister then. I thought you would be much shorter than your sister, I wonder why. You do have the physique of a templar, that much is certain.” He turned his head back to Catherine, and Azami noticed a dark marking upon his neck, snaking upwards and touching his jawline. Spellburn?

“We’ll be off to see Ryker then. If you see that Free Mage…” Catherine coughed into her elbow in a very forced fashion. “Send him to my quarters…”

Isaias laughed. “How saucy…”

With that, the two women departed. They walked through the aged halls of the building and took a detour before they could enter the loudest and most crowded parts of the garrison. Up a flight of stairs and Catherine stopped in front of a heavy door. It looked like the entrance to a headmaster’s office, and perhaps it was once. Without even knocking, Catherine threw the door open and strode inside. Azami followed. Inside, she found two men engaged in a lethal staring competition.

One of the two was an aging man, with silver hair and a light beard, accompanied by a thick and fluffy moustache. He held his hands on a large wooden desk, eyeing the man in front of him with annoyance, veiled behind a wall of polite and diplomatic smiles. The other man, which Azami had seen countless lookalikes in the halls of the Tavanirian imperial palace, was a man almost snake-like in demeanor, with a yellow and black robe. The grey haired man eyed Catherine and nodded thoughtfully.

“Chancellor, as much as I would like to help you strengthen Cazavirian land to the south, there are far too many things at play. The Tavanirians would see this as an act of expansionism, and that is not something I will allow them to use against us when politics between us are so tense. Additionally, it is not even within my power as commander to give such an order. I would need to send a message to the king’s office, and we both know how long that would take.”

“You are even more passive than your predecessor was. So be it then. While the beasts and creatures of darkness continue to assault our outposts and towns, you can hide idly within your walls.” He turned, gave a sour look to both Azami and Catherine and left without another word.

The commander set a hand on his face and shook his head gently. “I feel like I am getting too old for this job.”

Catherine stepped up the three steps to his level and set the scroll on his desk. “No one else is qualified, so you better get used to this.” She threw a thumb over her shoulder, pointing at Azami. “I found her. It didn't take long.”

“Really? I thought she would be in hiding. No matter!” He set both hands on his desk and pushed himself up. Around his shoulders was a long blue cloak, complementing the similarly coloured clothing on his person. Azami heard a clinking sound, and noted how his clothing did not conform to his body like it should. Chainmail? That made him paranoid, but smart enough to hide it. She’d have to see. “Come up! There’s no reason to be shy or afraid. I don't bite.”

“Yet you look like an elderly bear,” she said with an upturned smile, almost groaning at herself. Was this how Victoria was rubbing off on her? Now she was trying to crack wise? She stepped up nonetheless.

“Well, your sister certainly didn't have any sense of humour. Unfortunately, my news comes in both forms of good and bad. Would you like to hear them in any particular order?”

“Give me your most horrendous news first.”

“Your sister is no longer here.” He raised a hand to silence her immediate reaction. “No, to what we understand, she is still alive and well. What she told us is that something occurred in the dwarven city of… Dul Vano, was it? Yes. She made it very clear that it went beyond your possible death, or simple necromancy, but of course like all clichéd stories much go, she did not tell us anything exact.”

Azami crossed her arms, settling her fingers tightly around her forearms. “Where is she then?”

“She went to seek a dragon. Yurik the Immolator.” He let it sink in, and Azami sighed, rubbing at her forehead. “They are a red dragon, supposedly hibernating since their last torrent of destruction some three hundred or so years ago. Hikari did not say why she was interested in this dragon, or what she hoped to accomplish, but we can quite easily extrapolate.”

Azami could tell there was a point to all this. “Why tell me about this? What is your stake in this?”

Catherine rolled her eyes. “That dragon needs to stay dormant, and its hoard is rumoured to contain dangerous weapons; weapons that should not fall into the wrong hands.”

“So you want a templar to stop another templar before these weapons are turned on Albia.”

“It is not simply because she is a templar, but because we cannot tell where these artefacts may end up after the fact. If a bandit were to recover one, it could be disastrous, for all mortals.”

Azami was slowly growing more and more inpatient. “Why me?”

The commander dropped all hints of happy front and his mouth turned into a thin crease. “I send an expedition of Albian Knights, and your sister will die. She will not be talked down by an Albian. I send you, there is a chance that there will be no bloodshed.’

Azami tilted her head downwards, closing her eyes as she thought. She shook her head and sighed. There was no point in holding off on her answer, she would only respond in one way. “I’ll do it, once you prove absolutely that she was here.”

The man beamed, and Catherine nearly cracked up, smiling to herself. “I told her she would, Ryker.”

“So you did, Catherine… so you did…” He returned to his desk, opening up one of the drawers below. He pulled out a sword wrapped in fabric, and set it down in front of Azami. “Your sister left this here. She said it was a… wakizashi.”

Azami scooped up the blade, gently unwrapping the cloth that covered it from end to end. Without a doubt, it was hers. There were notches and imperfections that she remembered distinctly, and holding the grip in her hand felt familiar. Hikari had been here. No one else would have bothered with it. Azami set it back down. “When do we begin in full?”

“Why, right now.”

Midnight. Harbour gulls sang in the darkness like ravens worshipping their queen. The night was as black as death, and the water stiller. Commander Ryker sent a page to the Free Mage headquarters, and retrieved Kaska, Nadaarin, Isha, Errol, and a handful of Free Mages.  A group of Knights was paired up with them all.

“A handful of Knights may be the tool required when facing a band of goblins, gnolls or other simple minded creatures, but to send them solely to the hoard of a dragon? That would be incredibly foolish.” Ryker had gathered them all in the dining hall, but took Azami off to the side to speak privately. “Pick your team however you wish, but keep in mind the strengths of those around you.”

“If I have learned anything these last few days, it is that the sword alone has failed me more times than I would care to admit.” And that was that conversation.

Azami returned to the dining hall, watching over the group as some spoke quietly, while others busied themselves with textbooks and their weapons. Azami offered the question that was perhaps most obvious to her. “Where is Victoria?”

Isha was the one to answer. “This is how Victoria is. She stays to complete a job, and then she is gone. I would not be surprised if she had already left Cazavir.”

Azami shook her head and brought the group to attention. “Commander Ryker has already informed you that this meeting is on the topic of a dangerous expedition and mission. My sister, against the wishes of a great many people, has decided to make a trip that could put a great many lives at risk. My job is to stop her, and to bring her back if I can. I would not ask anyone to accompany me if this was a purely personal affair, nor would I have thought to ask anyone to accompany me if it was not, but the facts are that my sister’s actions threaten the arousal of a sleeping dragon.”

Errol exclaimed. “A dragon? You want us to go to a dragon’s lair?”

“If you are disinterested, you may leave.” Some of the unknown Free Mages began to leave, and some of the Knights looked around nervously. The rest remained, and looked on curiously.

Azami went on. “I cannot guarantee anyone’s safety, nor can I guarantee that you will be remembered for this, but what it is is the adventure of a lifetime. You have lived countless years between the walls of castle keeps. You have seen battle once or twice, risked life or limb once or twice, but where was the glory, the thrill and rush of adrenaline? If you tasted it once, now is your time to taste it again. You will feel fear, but you will feel exhilaration, joy, and profound pride at what you will accomplish. This is no trade run to the nearest town, this is the call of adventure knocking upon your door!” She could practically feel her chest swell with pride at her own words. “Now, who stands with me?”

Nadaarin, Kaska, and Errol shouted a resounding “Huzzah!” While the rest clapped loudly at her speech. A great shuffling of feet and bodies began, and people lined up in front of her. Azami counted quickly in her head. Some had left in the commotion, and the number that Ryker had given her matched up nicely with the people presented to her. She had a spot left, and she motioned to the sitting Isha in the background. Isha only raised her hand in protest. She had an entire branch of an organization to run, yet she smiled, and raised a fist in support of Azami’s endeavour.

When everything finally settled down, she began to record names in a journal. She had Nadaarin, Kaska, and Errol, which only seemed natural. Ryker had attached Catherine to the group immediately as Azami’s second in command. Azami knew that she was there to keep tabs on her. From the Knights, she acquired the Knight from earlier, Isaias, as well as a dwarf and a half-orc. From the Free Mages, there was a gnome, and two elves. Isha and Ryker signed off on the participants. They had no qualms with the proceedings, and it was time to continue to the next phase.

She directed them all to a bunking area that Ryker had given to Azami, and while Isaias showed them all the way, Catherine led Azami away. “Ryker has given you an office. It is nothing special, but for the night, you may reside there.” She stopped outside and handed Azami a key. “I may have my qualms about allowing you to lead us, but it is because I do not know you, not because you are a templar. Prove me wrong, Sicarius.”

“Torm watch over you, Catherine.”

“Blessings of Lathander upon you, Azami.”

Azami took the key in hand and entered her office. It was small, but it held a desk, several cabinets and storage containers, and a small bedroom off to the side. Once upon a time, it might have been the abode of a college professor, but now it was hers. There was even a balcony. She stepped out onto it, looking out across the silent waterway of Cazavir. For a moment, it almost seemed like this was her life now. Respected, content, and on the cusp of adventure. If she had tried, she could have been a templar lieutenant. Her teacher had said she had the mettle for it, but instead she had followed her sister into a tour of duty. It had not been a waste, but… she wondered simply if this was always what she had wanted in life.

A pair of boots entered her office and she turned. Raven hair, blue eyes, and the scars of Spellburn. Azami blinked, and rubbed at her eyes as if she was looking at a ghost. Perhaps it would have been better if it was a ghost. “You’re back.”

“I heard you were getting cozy with the Albians.”

Azami crossed her arms defensively, resting her back against the railing. “Isn't the templar supposed to be the one who distrusts the Albians?”

Victoria waved her hand at Azami. “You were never that distrusting.” She settled herself on the corner of the desk in the room, pulling her foot over to rest it on her knee. “I'm not distrustful of Albians or their Knights. I'm wondering if a certain templar I know has lost her better judgement.”

“If you’re here now, then you were here for the gathering in the dining hall. That's how you are. So, why didn't you challenge me in public, and ask me what my real intentions were in front of Kaska and my teacher?”

Victoria was silent for a moment as she recollected her bearings. She summoned a flicker of orange flame in her hand, and instantly squashed it. The act seemed to grant her some calm. “I am not here to belittle you, or to stop you before something I perceive as horrible happens. I am here as someone who has a good deal of respect for you.”

Azami was taken aback. “That is not what you made it sound like.” She straightened herself out, standing up to cross back into the office space. Azami unbuckled her sword belt and set it on the desk. “I came here to find my sister, Victoria, and if someone is willing to help me, I will let them. There is nothing else to it.”

Victoria shook her head. “Something’s clicked inside you, hasn't it. A desire to lead? To claim glory?”

Azami looked up into Victoria's eyes. There was something there too. “I lead if I must.”

Victoria nodded, looking off. “So it has then. That's who you are. You could lead an army if you wanted, as a beautiful icon of power, but you never wanted to. Maybe you still don't really want to, but the desire is there, hidden away in your heart…” She peered back at Azami through the corner of her eye, looking down, and then back up. “Hidden among… other things.”

Azami crossed her arms. “What do you mean?”

Victoria pushed herself off her perch on the desk's edge. “Ever in your life, have you had someone to confide in?”

Azami spoke reactionarily. “My sister.”

“Someone you could tell anything to? Someone who would support you in near everything you did, but still remained there to help and protect you when you did make mistakes?” Victoria began to advance, and Azami retreated, eventually hitting the wall.

“No. I’ve never had that type of person in my life.”

Victoria gently set her hand beside Azami's head. “I have a simple question.” A pause, seemingly only for dramatic effect. “Do you trust me?”

Azami took her time to look Victoria in the face. This woman she had met along the Dagger Coast. Easily, if she was what she had been taught to resent and fear, Victoria would have had ample opportunity to throw a spell at her and kill her. The Free Mages she had seen in Tavaniria… they weren't this woman. What had happened in the Tavanirian district… Azami knew that was not Victoria's fault. They had both said things that were disagreeable and that neither really wanted to say.

“You saved my life,” Azami replied. “Twice. I trust you.”

Victoria looked relieved and smiled happily. “I’ve made mistakes in my past, just like everyone, but I don't want to repeat them. I want to do better.”

“Come with me, Victoria. Join me on this new journey. You cannot do better if you never do... Please.”

Victoria lifted her hand from the wall and set it against Azami’s cheek. Azami asked softly, “What are you doing?” There was nervousness in her voice, but not fear or disgust.

Victoria sighed. “So many words never really mean anything if you don't do anything with them. A few words can do the same thing, or simply, an action.” She touched her thumb to Azami's lip. Azami could see so much doubt in Victoria’s eyes, but she could not understand why. Victoria always seemed to be confident.

Instead, Azami wrapped her arms around Victoria’s waist and pulled her in closely, resting their foreheads together. Victoria was surprised, but said nothing. “If you want to continue with this, then do it. Don't doubt it if it is something you would do.”

Victoria parted her lips, biting down on her tongue as she shook her head. “I don't want to ruin it. I’ve always ruined it.”

“You will never know if you do not try. You can never grow if you keep your heart closed. You’ve shown me that, Victoria. I let you in. I trust Kaska, and I’m working with Albians. Help me continue to be a better person.”

Victoria’s gaze grew soft. “Only if you'll help me to not fear who I am.” Without anything else, Victoria leaned in and they kissed. A simple kiss, and nothing more.

Victoria pulled back, nervous. “This all sounds so… cheesy.”

Azami rolled her eyes and pulled Victoria back in. “Stop talking and kiss me, you insufferable idiot.”

Azami awoke as sun poured in through the open shutters, with sounds of the awakening harbour in the distance. She untangled herself from her recently acquired lover’s arms, dressing herself and putting her sword in its sheath. Certainly, this was not how she had thought she would ever awake in her life, but she had. She combed her fingers through her messy hair in a mirror and returned to looking like Azami Sicarius rather than someone who had just slept with a Free Mage. But then again, what was the difference...

“Oh, Azami… Come back to bed would you…” Victoria sat up, as naked as one could be, and Azami immediately threw Victoria’s clothes at her.

“Get up. We leave today. This trip needs to be made immediately. My sister isn't the kind of person who waits if she doesn't need to.”

“If only it wasn't a dragon… A giant snail? Why, we wouldn't even need to leave today. We could wait all week, maybe all year.” She pulled her blouse over her shoulders and began to tighten up her leather vest.

“That doesn't mean I would neglect my duties and just lay with you the whole time. Now seriously, get up.”

“Yeah, yeah.” She sprung up and looked over Azami’s shoulder. “You look fine, but…” She took something from a pocket, and gently placed it around Azami's neck. Azami looked to see her holy symbol now dangling around her neck.

“So you did go and rethread it… Thank you.”

Victoria pressed a kiss into Azami’s cheek. “Come on. I doubt Catherine Lasiin is someone you can keep waiting.” Azami only laughed. Trading in some of Victoria’s snark for affection? Why hadn't she tried it sooner…

It seemed that the rest of the group was already awake by the time they arrived in the common room, but so was the entirety of the rest of the Albian Knights. It was loud, but even within the foreign room, Kaska hugged Victoria and Nadaarin clapped Azami on the back as they both went to sit. In front of them was quite the feast, mostly of meats, but Azami was quite bewildered by it all. It seemed almost on the level of the banquet she had partaken in during her stay at the Tavaniri capital, but simply on a smaller scale with only Knights in the room. Either this district’s natural wealth bled into the Knight’s lifestyle, or Knights were funded as well as the templars usually were.

Nadaarin set a plate of warm chicken and turkey, and a goblet of wine in front of Azami. There was a smile upon the dragonborn's features, and he spoke in a hushed tone. “Victoria came to you, instead of the other way around… She must truly enjoy your company.”

Azami simply looked up at him with a blank expression. “You don't know the half of it, Nadaarin.” And she brought the goblet of wine up to her lips, drinking as Nadaarin chuckled to himself.

Kaska reached out from the other side of the table, laying her hand in front of Azami for her attention. “We actually went out to load the equipment we knew we’d need last night. So it won't take long for us to get going.”

“All the better then,” Azami said. A shadow fell onto Azami and quietly she turned around. “Vice-commander Lasiin… How are you?”

She sat down, hair curled to perfection. Azami rolled her eyes quietly. “As much as you all would probably like to stay and enjoy yourselves in Captain Ryker's headquarters, you all actually have a job to do. Azami, we are to head out immediately after this.”

“Understood.”

Azami finished quickly and left to inspect the gear that had been requisitioned. One of the stable hands outside pointed her to a cart, and then a set of oxen in the stable. She clambered atop the cart, spying the bags, backpacks and bundles. She knew about what she had to pack for herself, but someone else had handled the rest during her time in Tavaniria. In all honesty, she had no clue if this was right or wrong. She hopped down, wondering what to do with her time now, until she heard the neighing of a horse that attracted her attention. It looked at her curiously, and she approached, eyeing the stable hand that was watching her, but continued. She pressed a hand against its face, peering at how the mane was shaped, and the look in its eyes.

“Masayoshi…” she whispered. “I never even gave you any thought throughout my journey… That was disrespectful of me. I apologize.” She brushed his mane, and wrapped her arms around the horse before calling to the stablehand. “This horse belongs to me! I’ll take it up with the captain.”

A voice approached. “The captain? Well, I am here if I am required.” Captain Ryker clasped his hands in front of him. “Did you sleep well? Are you ready for your journey?”

She turned to him properly and gave a quick bow. “Catherine has informed me that we are to leave immediately, and that will be the plan. Everything seems to be in order.”

“Very good. This expedition cannot wait any longer.”

She shifted the conversation over. “About this horse… I know him. It is my horse from my days in Tavaniria. Masayoshi.”

Ryker ran a hand along her beard. “If I recall correctly, this horse did come in around the time that your sister arrived, but I did not realize that they might have been a correlation. You are welcome to take him with you.” He smiled. “Will there be anything else that you will require of me.”

Azami looked off to the side, scanning her mind. “There is something that has been clawing at me. What happened to the templar garrison here? They are all…” She chose her words carefully. “On edge.”

Ryker frowned and gestured for Azami to follow him. They climbed up onto the second level of the courtyard, eyeing the river and the industrial district beyond it. He settled against the brick battlements, resting his arms upon it. “Look at the district, Azami. From here, you can see nothing wrong with it. The buildings are the same as any other district’s, and there are no fires and no smoke that would raise an alarm.”

Azami took her time, watching the sun light up the buildings. “You’re right. I wouldn't even guess.”

“From the governor’s office, that is the case as well. You look upon it and you see nothing wrong. For years, it grew poorer and poorer, and the conditions of those within only grew worse. This was far before either Albians or Tavanirians held a base of operations in Cazavir, but now…” He paused, shaking his head. “This is the reality we live with, and the one the templars live with. That was the area they received from the Cazavirians, and now, that is what they live with. The Blackravens, and other factions of organized crime, the district is a safe haven for them. As a templar, you deal with the poor, the disparaged, but also the criminal.”

“They’ve grown scared. Using fear and brutality is all they think that works.”

“The Knights… I cannot say a similar situation would not have occurred if it was us who received it, but with the captain murdered by a northern Tavanirian-”

Azami stopped him immediately. “A northern Tavanirian killed the templar captain? Not speculation, not prejudice; without a doubt?”

Ryker closed his eyes and took a breath in. “Your sister can tell you more. She was the one who confirmed it.”

Azami gritted her teeth. “Good day, Captain Loyal.” She departed down the stairs, as the rest of her party gathered around the cart, settling the oxen in front and standing ready. A stablehand brought Masayoshi out, and Azami clambered onto him. Victoria came up next to her, on top of her own horse.

“Azami, what happened?”

Kaska handed Azami her wakizashi and looked up, expecting an answer as well. “Are you well?”

Azami set her wakizashi on her hip and tightened the straps of her katana’s harness. She gripped Masayoshi’s reins and looked up. “I have a bone to pick with my sister.” And to everyone else. “We leave at once!”



Azami, Victoria, Kaska and Catherine all spearheaded the convoy, riding on top of horses. The rest sat in the cart, or on their own horse at the back. The Knights had horses, but none of the Free Mages or Nadaarin did. Instead, Nadaarin drove while Errol read a book beside him. The rest of the Free Mages played cards in the back. Errol looked up from his book, gazing curiously at the dragonborn beside him. Nervously, he asked. “Nadaarin, was it?”

“Indeed. Of clan Delmirea. I hailed from what is politically Luirenmere, not that the Luirenmeran elves care much for borders as Kaska has told me.”

“You used to cities? For most people, you might give off the wrong impression. The most a commoner might see is a kobold or a goblin, they don't know what dragonborn even means.”

Nadaarin looked down at his hands for a moment, but regained his composure quickly. “Some of my dragonborn brethren were descended from red dragons, but others in my clan were descended from gold. I am gold, but within my clan, we all fought with what we thought we should be. The reds wondered if their heritage defined them, and the golds wondered if their heritage contained them.”

Errol asked the obvious question. “So, what happened? Why are you out here?”

“We clashed with another clan of dragonborn, as all races eventually turn against themselves. In the snows of the Dagger Coast, a few generous humans nursed me back to health after I fell in battle.” He called out. “Azami?”

“What is it?”

“Thank you.”

She huffed with a hint of a laugh. “I’ll thank my great aunts and uncles in the afterlife.”

Catherine turned to Azami. “That brings a point with it. You’ve certainly had a convoluted journey to end up here with us.”

“Only as convoluted as anyone else’s journey.” She threw a glance over her shoulder. “Can I ask how you ended up with books-and-Free-Mage back there?”

Catherine raised an eyebrow. “Ended up?”

Victoria chimed in. “Come on, Cathy, we aren’t all stupid.”

She looked between Victoria and Azami and rolled her eyes. “Takes one to know one… Fine. I busted his ass when the Free Mages were pulling a stunt in the noble quarter. He fell in love immediately, and after I let him off the hook, he started trying to see me at the garrison. The rest is history.”

Victoria laughed out loud. “Errol? Sleeping with the vice-captain of the Cazavirian Albian Knights… That’s a joke for the festivals.”

“Is she always like this?” Catherine asked Azami.

Azami looked at Victoria’s smug grin. “Yes.”

They continued onward, Cazavir long having left their sights. They passed through a forest, and a long open prairie. Kaska breathed in the fresh air, a smile coming to her face. “This is the life… Oh, I forgot to say, I won't be coming back to Cazavir with you all. My clan went up north, so I'll be departing when we are finished.”

Azami bowed her head. “It was still a great honor to have you with us.”

Catherine looked up at the sky, grabbing Azami’s attention. “We’ll be entering Albia soon. From there, we only need to head up to the cavern.”

Victoria elbowed Azami in the side. “Asalgard, the Coast, Cazavir and Albia, all in one journey. That’s quite something. All you need now is Luirenmere and Razfar and you’ve seen all of Rosarius.”

“Please. I barely saw the Coast, and I was on Asalgardian soil for a mere hour.” She turned back to Catherine. “How long will we be traveling in Albia? I'm still a templar, and I'm still a Tavanirian. I don't want to cause any situations.”

“One town, and then we’re at the dragon’s lair. I doubt your sister stayed there long so we won’t either. Besides, if we all want a round of ale, we can get it on the way back.”

Azami raised an eyebrow. “You make it sound like this is your expedition.”

“I'm here to keep the timetable. Your jurisdiction is still the tactical and snap decisions. You still lead.”

Azami looked at Catherine carefully. She didn't want to put pressure on her, but it was necessary. “I better, Catherine. That was the entire purpose of my coming out here.”

“You will,“ she responded and she turned back forward without another word.

To Azami, Catherine seemed the type to believe in unwavering loyalty to her own cause. They may all seem to be getting along for the most part, but when the chips were down, Catherine wasn’t the one Azami would go to for help first. This was a military mission first and foremost for the Knight, and Azami was not one to ignore such a blatant truth.

The group came up over a hill and on the other side, clear as day, was a large town. Red roofs dotted the greenery, but nothing stood out particularly to Azami. It seemed the same as any other town she had seen in Tavaniria or passed by on the Coast. “Annris,” Catherine said. “There’s a vineyard here, exports wine to Cazavir in the summer months.”

“I think I’ve had a glass or two,” Victoria said. “Montregon, right? It’s damn good, that’s for sure. Expensive too.”

Both of their accents were near perfect, and Azami couldn’t help but feel a little jealous. “Where’s a tavern, and what direction is the dragon’s lair in relation to the town?”

“Near the town master's office, and if we follow the path out we’ll reach our intended destination. What’s the plan, Sicarius?”

“Timeframe. I want to know when my sister was here, and if she bought supplies.”

They descended into the town, and all the townsfolk that were out and about watched the group pass through. Not everyone saw many elves, fewer ever saw dragonborn, and if anyone could even distinguish them, seeing a templar, Free Mages, and Knights all together was something new entirely. None of them gave the group any trouble though, and soon enough Azami had gotten off of her horse, beckoned Victoria to follow and they entered the nearest inn. The Drunken Bee.

It was lively. A group of dwarves in the corner drank loudly, spoke louder, and showed off their raw strength even louder. Asalgardians, certainly. They were on the tip of Albia, the tip that touched Cazavir and the Coast, Tavaniria, and Asalgard. Azami nudged past two men nursing their ales and rapped her knuckles against the wooden countertop to attract the attention of the barkeep.

The man turned around, running a hand along the inside of a mug. “Hello, yes… What do you need?” He spoke with a slight accent, as if Rosarian Common wasn’t his first language. It probably wasn’t.

“I’m looking for someone. Tall, hails from the north, looks like I do, and probably carried similar weapons.” She tapped each of her swords for reference.

He nodded carefully. “That was a woman that I certainly would remember. She was here around two days ago, asked about…” He searched for the word, mumbling in the local dialect as he collected himself. “Ancient ruins. I said to go to the mountains.”

“Thank you. This woman is family.” It was the truth, but also someone to keep the man from thinking she might be a bounty hunter. “Did she ask about supplies? I need to know if she’s emptying the family coffers.”

He scratched the side of his head with his finger. “I did think she went to the local hedge witch for some…” He shook his head. “I do not recall. I am sorry, but the witch is just down the road, you cannot miss it..”

“That’s perfectly fine.” She set a few silver pieces on the counter. “As thanks. We’ll surely be back soon enough.” And with that, Azami left, dragging Victoria out with her.

Azami informed the rest of the party and was quickly off again, once again dragging Victoria with her. Victoria smiled and chuckled softly to herself. “You know how to deal with people, it seems. Makes me wonder why you aren’t a templar commander.”

“It wasn’t the life I wanted, Victoria. I want to live through this, settle down somewhere, raise a family. Staying full time with the templars wouldn’t have allowed me that.” And Hikari had taken her up north… Victoria raised an eyebrow. She could see plainly that Azami wasn’t saying everything on her mind, but Azami kept the front up and Victoria let it go.

“It’s good that you know what you want. So few of us seem to really know these days.”

They came to a small hut, not very large, but enough for the type of operation that had been described. There was an image on the front, a potion drawn in white chalk. Azami raised her hand to knock and tapped the door thrice before a voice exclaimed for them to come in. They entered, and immediately were confronted by a woman resting upon a silken cushion. Her skin was a deep brown, and a veil rested in front of her mouth, revealing her eyes, but not her mouth or her nose. Her clothes were red, and form fitting, as well as being a material Azami and Victoria rarely saw in central Rosarius. The woman opened her eyes, revealing a stunning green hue. Suffice to say, she was absolutely beautiful.

Victoria shook her head, as if in a spell. “Miss, you’re… a Razfarian this far west? What are you doing dealing in some Albian town?”

She smiled, and one could see her upturned lips through the fabric of her veil. “If I only did business here, then yes, this would all be quite a waste.” She pointed to a standing closet, barely perceptible in the darkness. “You’ll find in this magical world of ours, that traveling from one side of it to another is quite easy.”

Azami crossed her arms defensively. “You’re a traveling mage then. Are you using a beauty spell then as well? To hide the Spellburn?”

The witch laughed. “No, no. If you would believe me, this was the face given to me when I was born, but of course, no witch is complete without being able to change it.” She moved her hand past her face and instantly it was that of a light skinned elf. Again, and she was an elderly northern Tavanirian lady. Once more, and she returned to how she looked when they had stepped in. “As the Free Mages say, magic is not to be feared for being magic.” She focused her gaze on Victoria. “Do you know, in Razfar there are no Free Mages? It is perhaps the only place where one can show the spell scars freely and none would judge you or look down upon you.”

Victoria gave the witch an unconvinced look. “Yet you’re hiding your markings. You’re a changeling mage too afraid to embrace who you are.”

The witch only smiled. “You’re quite the clever woman.”

Victoria shrugged and continued. “It’s near impossible to get into the city these days. The Razfar Empire doesn’t welcome outsiders, that is if you even get through the desert.”

The witch nodded. “You are right, but I also know that neither Free Mage nor templar would come here to discuss magic for so long. Why is it that you two are here?”

Azami spoke up. “The barkeep down the road said that my sister, Hikari, came down here to see you. I need to know what you all told her and sold her.”

“Well, if we are going to discuss business, then you might as well sit.” She gestured to two of the three other cushions in the space and Victoria sat down without reservation. Azami took her time. “I was surprised when I met this woman. She does look like you, and not in the simple way that people would say that all people of one skin tone look the same. The eyes are the most similar, naturally. Red is not a common eye colour.”

“So, Hikari was here.”

“Indeed. She said she needed to see the future, and I gave her an option. Tea leaves, or cards. She chose cards. As she is a templar undoubtedly, my surprise came when she even asked me for this. Perhaps in Razfar, people would ask me for a scrying regularly, but a templar is not someone who would regularly trust in any magic that was not of a divine nature.”

“What did the cards say?”

The woman was quiet, but she drew a set of cards from beside her, hovering them in the air and bringing them to her hand. They were worn, but the imagery and designs were striking and bold, like the fabric had aged but the material that gave the colour was frozen in time. “The cards showed me The Tower. I informed her that the cards had informed her that there would be a time of crisis in her future, and perhaps through this crisis, she would find something that could potentially enlighten her, or send her down a path of darkness. Your sister looked worried at this, but on her face, she only showed me her steadfast resolve.”

Azami sat in thought for a moment. That was little to go on, but at least her sister was alive and well enough in health. She looked to the witch. “Could you see what the cards will say about my future?”

She nodded politely. “I can. Do not worry. The world is chaotic enough as it is, if I can reveal something to you, then it will be without charge.” Without any other words, she began to shuffle the cards in her hands. Azami watched her, mesmerized by the act. The witch stopped, placed the deck on the ground and then flipped over the top card to reveal it. Two humans clad in robes stood against a golden backdrop. “The Lovers.” She smiled humorously. “Do not worry, this has nothing to do with your Free Mage friend here.” And then she returned to her serious demeanor.

“You will have a decision to make in the future. A decision like no other you have faced before. It will shape the direction of your life moving forward, and perhaps even the lives of every single creature around you. You have a heavy burden upon your shoulders, but if you do not decide, then your fate will be even worse than if you made the wrong choice.” She placed the card back within the deck. Azami was bewildered. That was quite the fortune.

The witch looked to Victoria. “Would you like your future?”

She shook her head. “As much as I like finding out the truth, I’d rather not have some sort of grand prophecy hanging over my head. Besides, the mystery’s half the fun.”

“Very well. Will that be all?”

Azami spoke. “Did Hikari say where she was headed?”

“She did, but you already know exactly where she went.”

Azami bowed her head as she stood. “Thank you. I think you’ve taught me something about my sister. Good day.”

“If we do meet again… then you will have changed in both body and mind.”

Azami and Victoria returned back to the cart and the horses. Azami pulled herself onto Masayoshi and looked to Catherine. “Hikari left here two days ago. If she is still within this dragon’s lair, then she’s in trouble, or the place is more complicated than one first thought. No more distractions. We need to delve into it immediately.” She called out to the group and then they began once again. Victoria was quick to slide up beside Azami.

“So, what did the woman say to actually tell you something? Sounded like she was just saying anything to please you.”

“Hikari wouldn’t have gone to a fortune teller unless she was desperate for a divine sign. She’s scared, and she also doesn’t accept the shrines of the commonly accepted gods. Hikari believes in old pantheons, and this was her way of communing with them.”

“Well, I guess my next question is if you believe your own fortune.”

“Even for a back alley arcanist, I believe in the message she gave me. I already know I’ll have to make a decision when I meet my sister again, but this helped to ease my mind. This will happen, and there is little I can do to change fate.”

Victoria nodded. “Okay then. Hopefully none of us die on the way.”

Chapter 4
Isaias whistled. “Now that, ladies and gentlemen… That is a mountain.”

A craggy rock face stared down at them, continuing onwards for what seemed like miles. The dwarven Albian Knight nodded, unbundling a grappling hook. “Aye. This place… it feels tainted, as if a great evil swept through ‘ere… And we ain’t even inside yet.”

Catherine looked at the dwarf. “Thordon, does any of this look like it was excavated by dwarven hands?”

“Nay. It could be elvish, what with all the flowing cuts in the rock up above, but there is not artwork to be found on the outside ‘ere.”

Azami stepped forward, addressing them all. “There’s no time to waste then. I agree, this place doesn’t set right with me. It’s a bright afternoon, it’s not raining, and we haven’t even seen a monster yet, but it still feels wrong.” She turned around and regarded the rock for a moment. “It doesn’t look like someone climbed up, so there’s bound to be an entrance nearby, but we don’t have as much time as we’d like. Get a grappling hook. Kaska, Victoria and I can handle ourselves as a smaller group. The rest of you are with Catherine as you try and find the real entrance.”

“Understood, Azami.” Catherine nodded.

“No one is to engage this dragon. Our main objective is to meet up, or clear the area of hostiles. If the other group locates my sister, take the nonlethal option, but…” She paused for a moment, considering. “If she becomes violent, take her alive.”

Nadaarin and Isaias tossed up the grappling hooks, catching them on a high above ledge. Azami stepped up beside Nadaarin and caught his attention as he finished. “There is one thing on my mind, Nadaarin, and with everything that has happened, the unending chaos and our mission, it never came up before. What happened to the dojo?”

Nadaarin frowned. “I will not lie to you, but you can feel fine knowing that the dojo itself is safe and unharmed. There were wards and barriers placed upon it long ago.”

“Then what is the issue?”

“The sword, Glory. I had placed it back upon the rack as I gathered my own supplies to come and find you, but when I returned to the room, it was gone. It seems impossible, for there had been no sounds, but yet, it was gone.”

“I don’t like that, Nadaarin. Not to say it is your fault, but the sword…”

“I understand. One day, we will find it, but today, we find your sister.”

Azami, Victoria and Kaska all took up one of the ropes and with a few farewells, they began to climb. It was easy for Victoria, less easy for Kaska, but the hardest for Azami. Never had this been part of her templar training, whereas Victoria had once been a pirate, and Kaska was a Sidhe wood elf. They sat down at the top, laughing when Azami finally pulled herself up alongside them. “Very funny, you lot…”

The outcropping had revealed a passageway, and the three proceeded down. Victoria simply held a flame in her hand as they went onward. There were scratches on the stone walls, not fingernails, but claws. Kaska ran her finger against one, noting its elevation from the ground. “Kobolds, perhaps goblins… but kobolds are more likely.”

Victoria regarded the scratches as well. “No, it’s definitely kobolds. Greenskins are further east.” She paused. “Or maybe not. We met a Kazfarian in Annris. Maybe Kazfar’s letting up on security. Tribe could’ve made its way west. Set up shop.”

Azami drew her wakizashi, peering out deeper into the darkness. She continued, gesturing for the two to follow as she went on. A gentle sound of running water entered their ears and eventually the passage opened up into a larger cave room, a small stream running through it. The three avoided the water, following the stream even deeper into the cave, eventually stopping at a stone door resting in the cave wall. Victoria tapped it, feeling around for a hidden trigger or a switch, but nothing. The smooth stone offered her nothing. “Well, it looks elvish. Could just be a wall that no one remembered they built. Elves could have been driven off during the ancient wars before they finished.”

Kaska pressed her hand against the wall, beginning to feel around, but the wall instantly began to fold in on itself, transforming into an open passage. Blue magical torches lined the hall and continued even further inward. Kaska looked at her hand and then down the passage. “I suppose my forefathers were as prejudiced as the Luirenmeran elves.”

Victoria held the two back. “This is beginning to look like a maze. Maybe we should go back to the others. I don’t want us all getting lost.”

“No.” Azami was firm. “If this path is faster to the inner sanctum, then we must continue. My sister wouldn’t have climbed up here, she always takes a path filled with danger. We need to reach the inner sanctum immediately.”

Victoria shrugged her shoulders. “She’s been in here, what, two days? She could be anywhere, and we don’t even know how big the place is.”

Kaska looked off to the side, in thought. “A dragon would take up residence in the main hall. If my elders taught me anything about elvish history, it’s that we built a large amount of hidden military complexes in the mountainous regions, or at least the drow did…” She was quiet for a moment, but she shook her head at her thoughts. “This kind of ruin would have a major hall to use as a final stand in the case of invasion. Fight dwarves on elven terms, usually with copious amounts of magic.”

Azami nodded in response. “Okay. We find the dragon’s hoard in this main hall, and we find Hikari. Kaska, you’re on point.”

Kaska put her hand on the shortsword at her hip and led the group through the corridor. The further they went, the more the stone seemed to shift and move around them. A huge crash behind them, and Azami turned around to see the entire passage closed shut. A section of the walls began to close in shutting off another section, and then another section, and then another… Azami shouted. “Run, dammit, run!”

All three bolted as the passage gained its own momentum and began to close itself off at a faster rate. Kaska jumped out of the passage, having found the end, but Victoria stopped at the edge only for Azami to barrel into her and the pair of them to fall down into a new room. Azami found herself face to face with a human skull as she opened her eyes and stood up quickly.

This new room was piled with skeletons, but not in the somewhat organized way that the bodies in Dul Vano were put. These were haphazardly thrown about like garbage. Kaska covered her mouth with a hand and turned away, finding a doorway at the end of the room. Victoria and Azami pushed their way around the remains of the corpses and joined Kaska, as the warm glow of a fire filled the darkness as well as a familiar voice.

“Brothers… You do not has to do these things. I is sorry that I came back here but I has no choice! Roads are not safe for kobold!”

The three crept out of the darkness, huddling and hiding behind rocks as they peered out into the light. Victoria chuckled. “Guess it was kobolds.” A group of the creatures huddled around a fire as another one was suspended above it.

One of the kobolds, on their own two feet, jabbed a rough and curved dagger at the kobold in the air. “We tell you not to come back, Leeskin. You disgrace us with your words. You always say about…” The kobold struggled to speak. “Mercantile… and we exile you because of it!”

“I is sorry! Please do not kill Leeskin! I will make it up to you!”

Kaska took the bow from around her shoulders and notched an arrow. “What’s the plan, Azami?”

Azami thought for a moment. She could trust that kobold to an extent, and having some sort of ally or informant now would help them find their way around better. Additionally, if she got Leeskin out of there… then Nadaarin could finally have his word with him… “Kaska, you stay out here, fight from range. Victoria, with me. We save the kobold.”

Victoria looked confused. “Well, if you say so.”

Kaska pointed her bow downrange and let loose an arrow just as Azami and Victoria scrambled out of cover, drawing blades. The arrow slammed into the back of one of the kobold’s skulls, throwing him over the fire, dead. Azami pushed the advantage, digging her sword into the gut of one and immediately moving to slice the throat of another just as a bolt of lightning shot out from the darkness and fried the few remaining dead. Victoria stepped out into the light, shaking her smoking hands out. “Haven’t done that in awhile.”

Leeskin spun and reached out as he dangled from the rope. “Azami, you came to save me! Please, help me down from this…” With a quick motion, Azami cut the rope, caught Leeskin in her arms and then put him down. “Is… Nadaarin all right?”

“Nadaarin’s fine, but I came here for something more important than just saving you.” Leeskin looked slightly unhappy that this wasn’t a rescue operation, but perked back up, beckoning for Azami to continue. “We need to find the quickest path to the dragon’s hoard room. Can you help us?”

Leeskin ran a claw against his chin, drawing something in the air with his other clawed hand. “Yes… other kobolds say something about human lurking in shadows, and that human must not get to dragon. Most important part is that dragon must not be disturbed!”

Victoria crouched down beside Leeskin, looking him up and down. She looked up at Azami, wondering why she would just trust a kobold. “Well, I honestly don't think we can just tussle with this… Yurik the Immolator, so the faster we find this human, the faster we can all get out of here.”

Azami paused. “Leeskin, if one was traveling through the main entrance, how much resistance would they face, and how long would it be to the main hall as opposed to us right now?”

Leeskin looked around, eyeing the walls and listening to the sounds of the water splashing and running through the caverns. “I see many kobolds when I came through all sneaky like… They would reach main hall… half hour after us if they is smart?”

Azami nodded. “Good enough, let’s go.”

Leeskin plucked the jagged knife from the dead kobold’s hands and ran off. The trio followed,and the caves began to wind and turn, but somehow Leeskin always seemed to know which turn in the forks to follow. All of them ran for what seemed to be a quarter of an hour before Leeskin beckoned them beside a pile of rocks. He peeked out, pointing out at least twenty kobolds, milling around a larger room. They carted around bodies of various species, goblin, human, dwarf, elf. There was no real pattern to it. Their destination was a room off to the side, where the sounds of sharpening metal and violent disgusting squelching emanated from. Victoria posited the question. “Kobolds just like… eat anything?”

Leeskin shook his head. “Kobold usually eat livestock, but farmer have bad season, not enough meat even for thieving kobold.”

Azami peeked over, looking for an exit. “Rosarius never stops being horrid.” She pointed up at a hanging pot, filled with logs and suspended by a series of ropes. “Kaska, spill that. We run for the door on the end.”

Kaska drew an arrow, notching it onto her bow. “Am I just the woman with the bow now?” She hit her mark, and the arrow slit one of the suspending ropes, spilling burning wood onto the floor. As the kobolds looked at it and yelled at each other, the group moved around the side and into a new room. The sounds of fighting began to echo throughout the passageways, and the group began to hurry along, spurred on by both curiosity and concern. The cave passage broke through a stone wall, exiting out onto an elven crafted walkway built into the wall of a seemingly infinitely large cavern.

Victoria ran up to the railing and pointed out across the darkness. Out there, across a stone bridge spanning the expanse, was the other half of the group. Kobolds dropped out from the darkness, hovering on huge leathery wings. Catherine lead the group on, as spells flew overhead and swords clashed against leather and metal. From what seemed to be the destination came a surge of new kobolds, all rushing forward. Nadaarin breathed in and let out a breath of flame, burning kobold flesh and armor alike.

Azami gritted her teeth, watching the chaos unfold. They were too far away for Azami to see if they were winning or losing. “Leeskin, we need to go. They’ve gotten the attention of what looks to be the main force, so we have to take this chance.”

Leeskin looked around nervously. “Yes, yes… must hurry…” He began to go but stopped short as a new creature stepped forth from behind them. The ground seemed to tremble as it took heavy steps with its massive scaled feet. Its eyes glowed a furious red, just as its scales seemed to heat up with fire. Spellburn ran across its face and body, accompanied with black and white warpaint. Dragonborn, in the flesh. It snarled in an ancient language, voice deep and booming, before it shifted to the common tongue. “Sicarius, I know your kind.” It stepped forward, and Victoria and Kaska stepped up, entering a combat stance. “You are far from your homeland.” Instead of the kind voice of Nadaarin, this dragonborn spoke in a reptilian voice, snarling yet also commanding and powerful. He slammed his staff into the ground, the rock breaking with the arcane impact.

Azami returned her wakizashi to her hip, reaching upwards and grasping the hilt of her clan’s katana. She drew it, flourishing with it and pulling the hilt against her chest with the blade pointed forward. “We will fight you if we must.”

He began to walk slowly, across from them. “I received a vision, from the gods of old. They told of your journey here, and of your sister's journey here. You should not be here. You all disturb what is beyond your comprehension.”

Victoria flipped her sword around in her hand. “So, what? You gonna kill us, and then go kill Azami’s sister?”

“If that is how it must be, then I shall do what is necessary to maintain balance.” Kobolds began to leak out from the tunnels and passageways, blocking off any hope of escape.

Kaska knocked an arrow on her bow. “Dragonborn don't work with kobolds.”

“The tribe and I… we understand what we do is necessary for the balance of this realm. There must be good, but there must also be evil. Without it, there is no Rosarius.”

Victoria pointed her blade at the dragonborn. “We fight you, and not any of your kobold lackeys.”

“So be it.”

Victoria attacked first, and was easily countered with a blow from the dragonborn's staff. She spun around him and like clockwork, Kaska pulled her arrow back and let it loose. The shaman threw up a wall of ice, and the arrow only pierced halfway before stopping and clattering to the ground as the wall fell. Azami went last, driving her blade forward to immediately feint and bring her sword down. He only blocked it, and thrusted his staff forward to fling a bolt of fire into Azami’s chest. It sizzled and burned, but Azami pushed her feet back into position and flung herself back into the fight with the rest of them. All the while, Leeskin cowered in the corner, slowly climbing over the ledge and beginning to climb down the rock face.

Every single blow, arrow, attack or magic they threw at the shaman dragonborn, he either blocked, countered or dodged. He seemed more like a warrior monk than a tribal shaman, but yet his magic was characteristic of a shaman; powerful and untamed. The three were hit with the brunt of his spells, always staggering but never simply going down.

He tossed Victoria and Kaska aside, jabbing his staff into Azami's gut before grasping her by the throat and lifting her off the ground. Her sword clattered to the ground and her hands instinctively went to pull at the claws around her throat. “Enough of this. You are not worth the effort.” The sword began to float as the shaman focused on it. “This sword is a curse upon your clan. Take it with you.” He reeled his hand back and threw Azami before tossing her sword after her as she began to plummet off the cliff. Kaska shouted something and then Victoria climbed up onto the railing and dived after her. In an instant, the darkness swallowed both of them.

Air rushed past her ears and then a loud crack as she hit water. The katana hit near her, sinking past her. Azami went up, gasping for air. Something else hit the water, and then another something. Azami couldn't see. Victoria? Kaska? She rubbed at her eyes, splashing clear water into her face. Fresh water. A miracle. Her eyes adjusted slowly and she went for the nearest wall, clambering up onto a rocky outcropping and crawling out into the nothingness. She still couldn't see anything, but something scampered around in the darkness. “Azami?” A frightened and scaley voice. Leeskin. She said nothing, still in shock. “Come with me!”

He grabbed her hand, and they ran. Azami didn't stop to check for anything, because there was no time. Azami stumbled and tripped but Leeskin dragged her on further throughout the darkness. They entered new passages and caves, but still Azami could see nothing. A trap activated and a deadly weapon narrowly missed her, but still they kept on. Eventually they stopped, and Leeskin pushed open a door into a new unknown.

Azami stepped into the dimly lit room and paused, staring at the massive corpse of an ancient red dragon. It was a mere fossil, a skeleton of a once deadly creature, but yet it laid there. Yurik the Immolator, dead. Doubts filled her head. Had Ryker known about this? Why was Hikari here? What was the path forward now that everything had flipped upon its head?

Leeskin stepped in front of her, hands pressed together in front of him. “This is what you sought, Azami?”

She set a hand on his shoulder, pressing past him. “Go back. See if the others still live.” She looked up at the vastness of the room, stepping over piles of gold and treasure. “I need a moment.” Leeskin disappeared into the darkness without another word, leaving Azami to her thoughts. She strode about the marble floor, letting the feeling and sound of her boots hitting the stone soothe her.

Azami stopped and stood there, hands clasped behind her back. She had made a decision to split up the expedition, and here was the fruit of it. She made it here first, but there was no Hikari. Her friends and allies were being attacked by a horde of kobolds and now Victoria and Kaska were nowhere to be seen.

A series of steps echoed through the hall and Azami looked to see if Victoria, Kaska or the rest of the group had made it, but it wasn’t any of them. It wasn’t even the dragonborn shaman back to finish her off. The same red eyes that she had in her own skull looked at her with a hint of shock, and then the usual stone cold look replaced them. Hikari walked out into the room, not stopping until she stood face to face with Azami. “You’re alive.”

“I am,” was Azami’s reply. Instead of the joy that she had expected to feel, she felt anger. Anger she had been holding for a long time. She pushed it down, gritting her teeth. “You didn’t even look for me.”

Hikari narrowed her gaze. “The necromancer declared you dead. You were nowhere to be found. You disappeared.”

“You left for Cazavir immediately, didn’t you. You went to the Albians and then you left.” She could feel her temper flaring. “You did not even go to the templars to see if I had made it out of Dul Vano. Do I mean nothing to you, Hikari? Was my presence an annoyance?”

Hikari stepped back, hand clenched above her katana’s handle. “I set out to regain the glory our clan had lost. I did not have time to search for you, nor did I have time for petty distractions like socializing with the templars sitting behind their walls in Cazavir. I set events in motion that you would not even understand the implications of.”

Azami nodded, confirming what was obvious. “So you did kill the templar commander.”

“I did.”

“I didn’t want to believe it. It was so obvious. That’s why you went to the Albians. To hide yourself and plan your next move, and then you came here. For what? A magical trinket that will help you lead? A potion to control the masses?”

Hikari shook her head and simply looked over Azami’s shoulder. Azami set her hand on her wakizashi and spun around, looking out for whatever relic Hikari had set her eyes on. Instead, there was a man, someone entirely new to Azami, standing beside the bones of the dragon. He was evidently from the Tavanirian north, just like Azami and Hikari, and he wore a dark set of robes. Azami immediately turned back to Hikari. “Who in the Nine Hells is that?”

“Tadashi Sicarius. Your cousin, Azami.” The man joined with the two women.

“So this is the Azami Sicarius I’ve heard so much about? She certainly looks a fighter.” He eyed the holy symbol at her chest. “Devout? Firm believer in what the templar order has to offer. I see.” He reached a hand within his robe, pulling a weathered sword sheath from within and handing it to Hikari. “Here. What this journey was all for.”

Azami watched the exchange and stared in disbelief. “You met a living member of our clan? And you plotted with him to find some sword? Not to try and preserve what remained of our history, but to stir the pot of Rosarius’ politics?”

Tadashi shook his head at her. “I met your sister on the way to Cazavir, and I proposed what we all needed. We need war, Azami. War is in our blood. It is what made and makes clan Sicarius what it is. That is why we were betrayed, and that is why our clan is dying. The Tavanirians are too scared to simply declare war on the Albians, so we must expedite the process.”

Hikari nodded, strapping the new sword to her belt. “This is the only path forward for clan Sicarius. We cannot concern ourselves with preserving the old while those who are present slowly die. A new name must be made for our clan, one forged through blood and iron.”

Azami took a breath in. “So that’s how it is. That’s how it always was.”

Tadashi nodded with a smile. “So you finally understand. The blood of clan Sicarius runs through you then. Are you ready, Hikari? Shall we depart?”

Azami interrupted immediately. “The Tavanirians know this is a setup. War won’t come to pass.”

Hikari raised an eyebrow. “Will it? The Tavanirians don’t care, and even if the Albians say again and again that it was not them, what Tavanirian would listen honestly? Even now, word has most likely already reached Empress Alexandria. She sits in her chamber, discussing with her advisors how they will wage war. Not because they murdered the templar commander, but for a myriad of other reasons. All we did was provide another reason for a war that is inevitable. Inevitable, Azami.”

“I see.” Azami looked away, a deep sigh escaping her lips. “Where do we go now? What is the plan going forward?”

Hikari beckoned the group away and they began to walk towards the exit. “Back to Tavaniria. We have much to do within the empire.”

“Azami!” Victoria shouted out, stepping out from the passageway in the wall. She gripped her arm, matted and bloody as Leeskin pulled her along. He looked out, seeing Hikari and Tadashi and instantly moved to hide in Victoria’s shadow.

Hikari and Tadashi looked at Victoria, and Hikari drew her sword. “Who is this? Someone following you?”

“She is a friend. A good friend.” She said the words firmly.

“You made a friend in a mage? What were you thinking?”

Azami stepped forward, crossing the room between her and Victoria. She moved to support Victoria, helping her to keep standing. “What happened? Are you all right?”

“Kobolds. Near the water. Heard us plunge into it and came for us.”

“Where’s Kaska?”

Kaska appeared behind Victoria, holding a familiar sword in her hand. She was still drenched in water. “Azami. Your sword.” She handed it to her. “I know it's important to you.”

Hikari shouted. “Leave them, Azami! We need to go!”

Azami returned Honour to its place behind her back. “I will not leave my friends, Hikari!” She looked at Victoria’s bloody arm, trying to distinguish the intensity of the damage. She didn’t wait for a diagnosis to speak her mind. “You’ll be fine, Victoria. This is nothing.”

“Certainly doesn’t feel like nothing…” She grimaced, looking about. “Damn dragon’s dead. Guess that means this trip was for nothing.”

Azami turned as the main gate opened, and Catherine Lasiin entered the room. She was worse for wear, scratches and scorch marks were easily noticeable. Catherine locked eyes with Hikari, drawing her sword. “I said I would track you down, Hikari Sicarius.”

Hikari nodded, smiling with a cocky grin. “So you did, Lasiin. Will you really fight me, here? In front of my sister and all those she’s apparently met?”

Catherine looked at Azami, who was simply stunned as the developments continued. “You have to answer for your crimes, Hikari.”

“You didn’t tell her that you came here to kill me, did you? You obviously left out such a simple fact.” Hikari looked over her shoulder at Azami. “The Knights want me dead, Azami! Wasn’t it obvious all along!”

Azami shook her head in disbelief. “That was the point of this, Catherine?”

“What else would it be! Hikari killed the templar commander, and she wants a war that will devastate Albia and the Coast! If she won’t face a tribunal, then all that remains is her death! Why would we tell you that when we knew you wouldn’t want us to!”

“Why bring me along? Why put me through this!” She yelled because there was nothing else she could do. The fight was gone. She was tired of it all.

Catherine pointed at Victoria. “Because Victoria Wolfe already knew everything. She went to the Blackravens. She knew that Hikari had been in the city and that Hikari came to us! If I didn’t bring you in, then you would have came to us!”

Azami looked at Victoria. “You went to the Blackravens, and the Knights saw you do it?”

Victoria nodded. “I’m sorry.”

Azami shifted her gaze from Hikari, to Catherine, to Victoria and her eyes shifted from their anger to resignation. A power struggle that she had had no hope in even affecting. Conspiracies right under her nose. A war at the gates. Was there something else that could possibly ruin anything? She dared it to happen.

Tadashi laughed at them all. “Now, this is all very heartwarming, but Hikari and I have an appointment.” She gripped Hikari by the shoulder and looked to Azami and Azami alone. “Anyone who says our clansmen never knew magic was lying.” Without another word, Hikari disappeared, leaving only a burst of violet energy and residue, and a second later, Tadashi followed suit, disappearing in the exact same way, leaving nothing behind.

The remaining five looked at each other. Silence was replaced with a dull rumble, and the rumble grew. The main door of the great hall began to shake and something pounded on it with a large heavy fist. Kaska laughed in disbelief. “He called the kobolds. He actually called the kobolds.”

Catherine drew her sword and then the door slammed open. The horde of kobolds once again poured out upon them. Azami pulled Victoria’s arm over her head, and dragged her back into the caverns, shouting to Kaska and Leeskin to follow once more. Leeskin resumed leading them through the caves, and once again they moved as fast as their small injured group could move. Passages moved past them in a blur, walls of stone merging together as they simply ran. Without much warning, Leeskin tripped, Azami and Victoria ran into him, and Kaska pushed them all off. This time, an underground river claimed the four of them, pulling them all beneath the surface. Azami fought against the current, pulling herself above the water. It was dark, again, and as she was swept along, she saw nothing. Without any warning, she was pulled back under again, only to resurface soon after, the sun bearing down on her and the water continuing to sweep her away. Her weapons threatened to pull her down, but she refused to let go of them. She reached out, trying to grip to the shore of the raging river, but came up short, hitting a rocky wall with her body.

Pain erupted from the impact site and she gritted her teeth, once again reaching out for land as the scenery changed from wide open sky to oak trees. Instead of rock and dirt, a hand wrapped around hers and pulled her out of the water. She hit the ground hard, gasping for breath and hacking up water. Azami had had enough of water. Almost drowning her, and almost dying to the monsters within its depths had put her off it for good.

Azami looked up at her saviour to see an elf, but not Kaska. He was a dark skinned elf just like her, but he was definitely not her. “You shouldn’t play near the river,” he said.

“Did you see a woman? A mage. Or an elf? Or a kobold?” She gasped, breathing deeply and heavily. “Victoria, Kaska, Leeskin… you have to save them.”

“Kaska?” He looked back at the river. “Wait here.” And then he was off. Azami planted her face in the dirt and laid there. She had had enough for one day. All the strength had left her body, and now… She rolled over and looked at the tree leaves flowing in the breeze above her. She was done.

As fate would have it, Azami had run into Kaska’s cousin, and he quickly went to alert the others stalking the riverside. They were all detained for a moment in the middle of the clan's camp while Kaska spoke with their elders. With Kaska vouching for them, immediately her family opened their arms to them and brought them into the fold. Victoria’s arm was quickly bandaged, and while Leeskin had been harder to convince the elders of his trustworthiness, he took up a seat near the campfire, helping out where he was able. Kaska dragged Azami out into the forest and eagerly she spoke.

“You’ve been through a lot today, Azami. A lot these last couple of weeks perhaps even. The templars, Knights, and your family; all of them seemed to have betrayed you in some way.”

“I'm just glad you stayed by my side the entire journey, Kaska.”

“I'll admit, I tested you to see if I even could trust you. In the beginning, I only saw anger in your eyes, but as we went on…”

“I felt it too. Nadaarin helped tear down that wall, and meeting you and Victoria…” She took a deep breath. “Once I hated mages, and I hated dwarves, elves, kobolds, all of them. I thought that the Tavaniri Empire and the templars were the best Rosarius had. Now look at me. I'm don't feel like a templar or a Tavanirian. I feel like I'm Azami Sicarius, and someone who stopped hiding behind those labels.”

Kaska smiled, nodding. “Did I ever say I was a half-elf, Azami? Perhaps you already knew. I’ve lived my life trying to become either a human like my father or an elf like my mother. In the end, what does it really matter? What matters is what I do with my life, and like you say, not the labels I try and conform to. The kingdoms and the empires and the clans of this world all want us to be a certain something, but when we don't fall in line, they hate us for it.”

Azami laughed. “You truly are stronger than me, then. If you can accept yourself, then nothing stands in your way.”

They returned to the campfire where Victoria and Leeskin sat, helping cook, sew and craft with the Sidhe. Kaska joined in with the rest, but Azami took a seat beside Victoria.

“So?” Victoria asked. “How are you?”

“I’ve been better, but I’ve also been worse.” She squeezed Victoria's good hand, looking up at her solemnly. “There is a war brewing in this land, Victoria. It is an inevitable disaster that we have no chance of ridding of on our own.”

Victoria looked away, setting aside a filleting knife and a partially gutted fish. “What do you have in mind?”

“You need to be with the Free Mages when it happens. You need to make sure they live through this. I’ll go back to Tavaniria, and I'll rejoin the templar order in full.”

Victoria looked heartbroken. “Come back with me, Azami. We can do anything you want. Adventure, action, calm, serenity; whatever you want I’ll give it to you.”

Azami kissed Victoria, looking her firmly in the eyes as she pulled away. “I want to see you at the end of this war, alive, well, and having protected those who were innocent. And I want you to see me having done the exact same thing. I love you, and everything that you are, but keeping my beacon of hope for myself is not who I am.”

Victoria could feel the tears stinging at her eyes, and she brushed them away with her hand. “If you die…”

Azami put on a melancholy smile.“I won't forgive you either, Victoria.”

Kaska hugged Azami, Victoria, and even Leeskin as they departed. The three traveled through the Albian countryside, cracking jokes, talking, and continuing onward. They reached the supposed entrance to Yurik the Immolator’s lair, finding their horses still alive somehow. Azami found a series of notes attached to Masayoshi’s saddle, labeled for Azami, Victoria and Kaska. The three sat there in the dust, reading notes and apologies from Nadaarin, the Free Mages, the Knight Isaias, and even Catherine herself. It was straight and to the point at the end of Catherine's note. Azami was not welcome back in Cazavir. Azami understood completely. Victoria held onto Kaska’s letters, knowing that between the two of them, if anyone was going to see Kaska first, it would be Victoria.

They traveled back through Annris, and at the crossroads between Cazavir, Albia and Tavaniria. Azami and Victoria said their goodbyes in full, embracing once more with a kiss for good luck and then went their separate ways. Azami began the trip back to Tavaniria, and Victoria took Leeskin back to Cazavir.

Victoria stopped, watching Azami as she departed. Leeskin tapped his claw rhythmically against his jaw. “You doubt Azami?”

“No. It’s just in our nature to doubt ourselves.”

Azami looked out across the green field as red and gold Tavanirian banners blew proudly in the wind behind her. As always, she still held her sword Honour at her hip, but now she held a shield at her side, emblazoned with the red dragon of clan Sicarius. Her superior, Lord Dryden, stood beside her on horseback, just as she stood beside him upon Masayoshi.

“My lord,” she spoke, looking out across the field from their vantage point on the hill. “A year ago, when this all began, never did we think that the Albians and Asalgardians would ever gain the advantage and push so far into the empire.”

“Yet they did. When we have won this battle, we shall burn these fields and leave nothing for the Albians to retake.”

“That is not necessary, sir. What if we hold onto this land? What if we win this war? These fields belong to our empire, and we would be leaving the children of the nation only ash and ruins.”

The man looked back at her, proud and condescending. “Very well then, we shall hope your theory is not proven wrong.” He was handed a spyglass from a subordinate templar and looked out. “The Albians have made themselves known then.”

Azami took the device, gazing out of it herself. Blue and white banners, shining silver armour. Albians, and from the look of it, Knights. She handed the spyglass off. “They’ll try an archery barrage followed by heavy cavalry. Set the Watchtower mages with our strongest shield bearers.”

“I am trusting in your advice because you’ve fought these miscreants before. Do not confuse respect with admiration, Azami.”

“Of course, my lord. I am only a templar.” Now a commanding officer, but… he didn't need to hear that.

Their immolation mages were paired up with heavily armoured templar soldiers in turtle formations among the rest of the army, and a defensive call was sounded. Both armies steadily advanced upon one another, and Azami’s superior fled into the wings while she took the stand in the front. She brought Masayoshi into position. A templar eyed her from under his helmet, bringing himself closer. “You still get the jitters, commander?”

“Few of us have the pleasure of getting used to war. The secret is to not let anyone know you’re scared.” She smiled, and lifted her helmet onto her head, drawing her sword.

A horn sounded and a charge was initiated. Fireballs flew through the air, arrows fired back. Steel clashed and soldiers died. It was bloody, inevitable war, just like Hikari had predicted. Even faster than the battle had begun, it was all over. Arrows stuck in corpses, bodies burnt to a crisp, and the dead littered about the field.

Azami cleaned her blade off, watching as Lord Dryden reappeared to her as the dust began to settle. “Well done, Sicarius. I see you are your sister’s sister. The local town is our next concern. Go when you have the time.”

She stopped him before he could leave. “Has word come from my sister?”

He reined in his horse, shaking his head. “The high commander has not sent word to us.”

“Very well. I’ll report to this town at my nearest convenience.”

Azami gathered her templars, taking them towards the nearest actual road and heading onward. Sure enough, a town made itself present as the sun casted down its rays upon it, giving it a gold tinted hue. Kingsbury, a definite Tavanirian name. They rode in, townspeople immediately stopping to stare at them in fear, horror, or simple confusion. A year under Albian rule and suddenly they looked upon those who had protected them with fear. The town master’s hall sat in the middle of the town, and the templars made their way there first. As the townspeople slowly realized they were not carrying torches or riding with weapons drawn, they began to go back to their business, seemingly uncaring.

Azami pushed open the town master’s door and stepped inside, watching as an elderly woman looked up from the papers upon her desk. The woman looked surprised by for a moment, before she set her quill away. “Templars. I haven't seen your kind for quite a few winters… What do you want?”

Azami pulled her helmet from her head, shaking out her hair as it freed itself from the confines of the metal. “I represent Lord David Dryden, ma’am. I am simply here to ensure that Kingsbury won't be in conflict with the Tavanirian army as it makes it way through. We are camped nearby, but many of the soldiers may come into town.”

The woman shook her head slowly. “My name is not 'ma’am’. It is Susanna. The people of this town were just getting used to being conquered by the Albians, and now we’ve been 'liberated’ by Tavanirians… At least no one’s been killed.”

“Susanna, you have my word that no one will be harmed.”

Susanna looked at her, pursing her lips. “You seem to actually believe that. I'm surprised. Templars seem to be more cynical.”

“I’ve seen that this world is a harsh one, but I can still believe there are good people within it.”

The town master nodded softly. “I’ll have a word with our innkeep. We’ll welcome in your soldiers.”

“Thank you, Susanna. I appreciate your cooperation. Previous negotiations were not as smooth.”

“More bloodshed is unneeded.”

“Agreed.”

Azami returned to the outside of the building, greeting her subordinates. “You all have the day free. Lord Dryden won't issue a march until at least tomorrow.” She nodded to all of them. “You’ve all earned it.” There was a round of 'thank you, commander' as the templars departed. Azami went to Masayoshi, carefully patted him with her metal gauntlet covered hands and watched as the town moved around her. A week ago, they had hung the mayor by an oak tree. It was not to be a rerun, thankfully.

There seemed to be a small shrine, tucked away where a meager stream, perhaps a few inches deep, ran by the town. She noticed the fake gold upon the roof of the gazebo, and she approached, tying Masayoshi to a nearby post. Steadily, she knelt down in front of the small shrine to Chauntea. Whatever priest had been here was elsewhere, but the rose and grain emblem of the goddess was carved neatly into the stone. She dusted it off, blowing gently against it and then lifted up her holy symbol in her gauntlet. Once, it had been the gauntlet of Torm around her neck, but now it was the shield of Bahamut. How many nights she had contemplated that decision, she had lost count long ago. Yet the thread was still the same as her old one, the thread that Victoria had found to fix her old symbol, now frayed and worn.

Something crashed quietly, and Azami stood to look around. She couldn't see anything close enough to have made the sound, and in fact, it sounded muffled, and incredibly close. She looked at the ground under her feet before beginning to search around the shrine. In the brush, near the stream, was a wooden trapdoor hidden under leaves and bramble. She brushed it away with her feet, pulling it open and quickly beginning to descend before anyone noticed. Immediately there were voices, worried and nervous.

“Do you think anyone heard?”

“We’re underground. We will be fine.”

“Listen, the Tavanirian army is nearby, and I don't want to be caught by a templar looking for someone to take out his frustrations on.”

“If the templars arrive or not, we still have a job to do-”

“Did you hear that?”

Azami set her feet on the ground, setting her hand on her sword. She edged out into the light, looking about. A tiefling and a halfling looked at her from across the room, hands reaching for vials of alchemist's fire and acid. Slowly, the tiefling's hands retracted. “I know you.”

Azami raised an eyebrow. “You do? I find it hard to believe some criminals would know who I am.”

The halfling looked at the tiefling, to Azami, and then back to the tiefling. “She thinks we’re criminals. A templar thinks we're criminals. That's real rich.”

The tiefling placed a hand upon his chest. “She is trustable up to an extent.” He looked Azami in the eyes. “I am Fortune. We met once in Cazavir. I bandaged your wounds.”

Azami looked away, trying to remember the small forgettable details of those days. “With the Free Mages? That was years ago. How do you even remember me?”

“Victoria talked about you for quite some time after that. It would be quite surprising if I didn’t remember you when it was always ‘Azami Sicarius’ this and that.” He waved to a fallen cabinet, glass strewn about the dirt floor. “Nonetheless, if you know we’re here, I’ll have to ask that you do not reveal we are here. Doing so would jeopardize the Free Mage operation in the area, and surely,” he said pointedly, “you wouldn’t want this to get back to the Free Mage headquarters.”

Azami furrowed her brow, stepping past the two Free Mages and into the room proper. It seemed a workshop, with many a brewing stand, vise, and toolbox. Azami looked around, tapping the hilt of her sword with her hand. “I saw enough of the Free Mages to know you do good work.” Or at least that’s what she thought. “In fact, if you require my help in any capacity, I’d be happy to aid you.”

“A templar? Helping us?” The halfling shook his head. “We’d be better off asking a kobold for help.”

Azami looked at him, eyes focused on his in a cold stare. “Maybe you would be.”

Fortune crossed his arms, tapping his foot impatiently. “Errin, we might not have a choice. Help me pack up. Azami, close the trapdoor and knock down that ladder. There’s another exit elsewhere.”

Azami went back, clambered up the ladder and bolted the trapdoor shut. With a few blows of her sword, she sliced off the lowest rungs of the ladder before pressing down on one of the remaining rungs with her foot and bringing the whole thing down to clatter in the dust. She waited a minute, listening for any possible respondents to the noise. No one tried to open the trapdoor, and she retreated back to where the Free Mages were waiting. She was surprised they didn’t run off without her.

“Errin, is it?” she asked. “What stake do you have in the Free Mages?”

He looked up at Azami, not at all intimidated by how she stood above him like a high tower. “I don’t need a stake in the Free Mages, templar. I just need to be a decent human being.”

Azami rolled her eyes at him. “That is why I went to the templars, so that I could do good where few else could. Few templars try to save the lives of those conquered by the empire.”

Fortune flicked him in the side of the face. “She’s asking if you’re a magic user.”

He nodded slowly. “Free Mages changed since you were last there, templar. The non-arcane are joining the ranks in larger numbers than ever before. The Tavaniri Empire and the Dominion conquering all of Rosarius? Well, that’s something few of us want. I used to be a research assistant before all of this. Now just look at it all...” Azami let him be.

They came to a room that resembled a prison. Cells lined the walls with iron bars blocking them off from the inside world, but as the light began to shine in the right way, she quickly realized that the iron doors to these cells were all either open, broken, or gone entirely. Inside, families looked out at her. Some with fear, some with disgust and anger. It was a makeshift camp, built in such a way that seemed to elude that they would all soon be leaving. There were elves, humans, halflings, and gnomes. She turned to Fortune. “Some of these people don’t look like they’ve ever casted a spell in their life.”

“They haven’t. Some of them are refugees from the early days of the war, and some are Sidhe elves whose homes were destroyed in the wake of the Tavanirian warmachine. This war’s blurred the lines between who we help and don’t help.”

Azami set a hand on Fortune’s shoulder. “Life will be better in time; better for you, myself, and everyone.”

He shrugged off her hand. “I suppose that is easy for you to believe.”

Azami dropped her hand down to her side. “I'm sorry I said anything.”

A child ran by, pointed ears attached to her head, and a crude stuffed rendition of a bear cradled in her arms. She tripped on a floorboard and the toy skittered across the wood, stopping as it hit Azami’s boot. The girl looked up at Azami, eyes quickly filling with fear, and when Azami crouched down, she recoiled, crawling backwards. Azami picked up the doll, putting on a smile. “There’s no reason to be afraid,” she said, but the girl only began to cry as her mother came to scoop her up. The woman shot daggers at Azami, and so did the boy who came and took the toy out of Azami’s hand.

Azami stood up and set her helmet back upon her head. She was quiet for a moment, before she looked up and faced Fortune and Errin again. “When do you plan to move these people out of the city?”

“Tomorrow night,” Errin said. “We would have gotten out sooner, but your little armies decided it was a good time to invade the Kingsbury area.”

“So what am I needed for?”

Errin looked to Fortune, trying to confirm if they could really trust her. Fortune nodded at him and spoke for him. “We are using the cover of darkness to move ourselves back into Albian territory. After that, a group of Knights have promised us safe passage to Cazavir.”

Azami raised an eyebrow. “Cazavir is safe now? Is the Free Mage headquarters still active?”

“Nine Hells, no.” He shook his head. “After all the fighting in the streets, Isha took us all down further south.”

“Is that better?”

“No more templars or Knights… Less politics… But we can't help the people we're supposed to help. Victoria has some very particular opinions on it. Maybe you should ask her yourself?”

Azami let out a grunt. “Does she really want to see me again that badly?”

Fortune crossed his arms. “She’s a clingy one. You would think you would be, but…”

Azami nodded. “I’ve heard enough. You need me to keep the templars from you while you escape. I can manage that.”

The two Free Mages nodded to themselves. “Tomorrow night. We can handle keeping ourselves hidden in the meantime.” Fortune gestured for Azami to follow him further into the underground area, eventually finding a door embedded into the rock. He opened it for her, letting her out into a small cave, with light peering out from the entrance. “Careful, Sicarius. I wouldn’t want our trust in you to be misplaced.”

She looked at him from the confines of her helmet, staring at him with piercing red eyes. “I keep my promises.” She left before the conversation could possibly continue.

The Tavanirian encampment was bright with the light of campfires, and loud with the sounds of laughter, singing and conversation. She handed her horse off to a squire and headed off to her tent. A group of templars waved out to her, gathered around a campfire. “Commander Sicarius!”

She stopped, giving a short glance to each of them. They were green, and probably still running off the adrenaline of that singular battle. Also neither of them looked like her, all of them being from the Tavanirian south or somewhere around that. “Yes?’ she asked, raising an eyebrow but remaining rooted in place.

One of the templars raised a mug and patted a cask of ale resting beside him. “Care to join us for a drink, commander?”

“Really, I must speak with the noble commander-” All of them groaned in disappointment and Azami sighed. “I suppose I could have a sip.” Groans were replaced with cheering and a mug was slapped into her hand.

One of the templars, a young woman, leaned forward in her seat. “Is it true you once fought and killed a dragon?”

“The dragon was dead by the time-”

“I heard you fought an army of Luirenmeran elves because they insulted your commanding officer!”

“I was saving the life of-”

“Didn't you survive in a swamp while monsters dragged your comrades under the water one by one?”

Azami looked at her cup and drank heavily of it. “Yes, I did.” She looked at each of them again, fully realizing that they were all incredibly inebriated.

“I knew it,” one of them said. “Damn, I wish I could be an adventurer than fighting in this damn war.”

“Yeah! Bloody Albians having to start a damn war. Bastards don’t know when they have it good.”

“Albians? Everyone knows that the damn nobles just wanted an excuse to claim more land for the empire. No one seems to remember we keep expanding too fast.”

Azami looked up. A noble would definitely find that treasonous, but she she just set the mug down. “Those who want war, do not seem to fully understand what war truly entails. What we are doing is fighting until someone decides to sue for peace.” Azami stood. “Keep your wits about you. We may move soon.” She went to sleep immediately, too tired for anything else.

In the morning, as the birds began to come back to the areas and sing their songs in the place of marching drums and war ballads. A squire was sent to fetch Azami from her tent, bringing her straight to the doorstep of her commanding officer’s own tent. She had once again donned her armour, and stepped inside. The man was regarding a book behind a makeshift desk. Set upon it was a bottle of Albian wine, opened and poured into a glass, and a set of quills and scrolls. He looked up, and clasped the book shut. “Sicarius, good day.”

“Good morning, my lord. Did you require me for some errand?”

“If you truly believe I would want the commander of my templars for a simple errand, you are extremely mistaken.” He took up the glass, sipping gently from it. “Word has come from the templars in Catarina. We are to begin finding mages within Kingsbury.”

“Finding? You need to be more exact in your meaning, my lord.”

“Capture or execution. Lady Follen’s army marches from the west, bringing reinforcements. While we wait, we are to reclaim the town for reintroduction of proper Tavanirian policy.”

Azami took a breath in, nodding. “I understand, but this is not a mage town in any capacity. There are no mages here.”

Dryden set a piece of parchment in front of her. “There are now.”

Azami plucked the parchment from the table, smoothing it out with her thumbs. The first name was Susanna, with a subtitle of “the town master”. It wasn't about mages, it was about removing unsavory individuals. What should she have expected… The empire she pledged her allegiance to loved to test her loyalty. There was good and bad men and women everywhere, but those harmful individuals in her homeland… she found them the most unsavoury.

Azami tucked the parchment away. “I understand, my lord. I shall take my templars and we shall commence operations.” Dryden gestured for her to leave and she did immediately. She traveled back to the common tents, and retrieved those who were awake and immediately able. Azami had a dualistic duty to fulfill, both to the empire, and to the Free Mages. It would not be an easy task for her… The templars she had stood at the ready, and as soon as she was upon her horse, they were off, and back to the town of Kingsbury. Azami brought them first to the town master’s office and unfolded the list in front of her. The town master, the local blacksmith, an apothecary… it seemed more of a purge of local figureheads… No, she knew for a fact, that is what it was.

She divided her force into sections, and designated each small group a person to arrest. Naturally, she preferred for an arrest and she made that clear, but they were templars, and they knew what they had to do. She let them all go off, and then left immediately. Azami rode to the edge of town, clambered off of Masayoshi, and began to run. She blew through the thicket, descending into the nearby forest as she pushed through the foliage. No, this was not what a commanding officer should be doing, but that was not what she was thinking about in the slightest. Quickly, she retraced her steps to the door in the woods and pulled herself inside. She paused, calmly walking through the small corridor before reaching the main area.

Fortune looked down at a book in his hands, with that young girl from before trying to climb upon his lap, the doll in her hand as she jumped up and down as she tried to ascend. Fortune only further buried his head into the book, patting and ruffling the hair on the child’s head, but otherwise paying no attention. It was an odd feeling, to see a child have no fear towards a tiefling, almost an embodiment of what most people considered the worse part of the world, but have fear cloud the girl’s vision when she laid eyes upon a templar. It made so little sense, but it also made so much sense.

Fortune looked up to see Azami and instantly pushed the child back towards her family. “Sicarius, why are you here?”

Azami shook her head, looking behind her carefully. “The templars are searching the area for people.” She handed Fortune the name of lists, and he unfolded it, scanning the document.

“This list has someone from our group on it… I told him not to…” He shook his head and handed the list back. “This seems almost natural. Life on Rosarius is never dull, certainly.” He picked up a backpack, hauling it over his shoulder. “Azami, I need to know your templars aren't looking here.”

“They’re not. You have my word. I would never betray the Free Mages.”

He stared at her, his yellow eyes unblinking, before he nodded. “You seem better than that woman I met in Cazavir. She would not of said anything like that, I know that, but if you are caught with us, you know what’ll happen to you.”

“I’ll take my chances.”

Quickly, Fortune and Errin rounded up all of the refugees and had them gather their belongings. It barely took any time, and a lot of the belongings were to be left behind. Azami went back for her horse and checked the path ahead. They began to march out of the their hiding spot and away from Kingsbury. Azami lead in the front with Fortune, Masayoshi stepping over roots and fallen branches on the forest floor as Azami held onto his bridle. “Fortune, did anyone else know about the Free Mage operation here? Anyone that could compromise this?”

“The townmaster had been in contact with the Free Mages for awhile, but she wouldn't compromise us for anything. I spoke with her personally.”

“I hope you’re right. How long do we have to go to reach these Albians? Will they even be there?”

“No,” Fortune said. “We’re on our own for a good while. Perhaps even until nightfall or until the Albians arrive.” He took a breath in. “If this war decides that Tavaniria and Luirenmere are the victors. There will be challenges for the Free Mages beyond anything we’ve ever faced before. We’ll need people like you to help us. We need people who aren't mages, because no one cares to listen to our voices when we are not like the people who hate us.”

“You’re asking me to join the Free Mages?”

“I'm asking you to be a full ally of the Free Mages. This war will only result in an even worse hand for mages, you know that, right?”

Azami simply did not understand what he meant. “I am helping you evade capture. What else would I need to do to become a 'full ally’?”

“Think for a moment, Azami. Why are you helping us? Is it because you genuinely care for the movement? Because you cannot see innocent people be hurt? Or is this for Victoria?”

“You’re saying this is my way of being closer to Victoria, is it?” There were subtle hints of anger in her voice, hints she let show through. “I can assure you that is not the case.”

“It wasn't an accusation. It was a question. Why are you helping us?”

Azami looked into his yellow eyes, and found nothing within. Instead, she turned away, looking into herself. She did not like what she saw in the mirror, but she knew that it had been a much more horrid image in the past. “Perhaps my reasons for helping you are selfish, Fortune, but I am helping you, and I will not betray you. Is that not good enough? Compare me to a Blackraven if you wish, but I am here, aiding you.”

Fortune regarded her carefully. “Perhaps, but only perhaps.”

They cleared out of the forest, coming to a river. Azami looked both downstream and upstream, finding only a singular bridge. They went across it, with Azami watching the treeline they had came from. From what Azami could tell, as they found a dirt path and continued along, is that they had finally crossed back into Albian controlled territory. It was a feeling and nothing more, but she was once again leaving her empire behind for something else. Would a lie suffice if she chose to return? Tell them that she had encountered a Blackraven, or a group of Albian Knights prowling along the border. She simply didn't know anymore. Even if this decision was of her own volition and not Hikari's, there was still that lingering of doubt that she had felt ever since Hikari had decided, once and for all, to cut Azami out of her life. The question always came back to what she wanted to be. Hikari’s sister, or her own woman.

“Are you still with us, templar?” Errin asked, having came to the front.

“Yes…” She had definitely left her own mind for a moment. “I will be fine.”

They continued to follow a dirt road leading through a thick oak forest, beautiful as nature often is. In the distance, the mountains of the East Marches sat like kings watching the feeble minded mortals play their games of war. The rich scent of fall filled the air as they simply walked. Seasons always seemed to pass like strangers in a city, and this one was no different. The leaves had not quite began to fall, and the trees sat with their leaves brilliant shades of yellow, orange, and red. Fortune stopped, running his hand against the bark of a tree. “This oak… is dying, yet there is no visible signs of decay. Its heart still beats, yet it knows its end is on the horizon.”

“Have the Sidhe left this area?” Azami asked.

“Perhaps it is that, but perhaps it isn't. A sick world, this is. Cancerous, yet still somehow brimming with life.” And with that, they passed through the forest, and the next town came into view. Footsteps sounded from behind them, quick and loud.

Azami spun around, hand on her sword’s pommel. In the treeline, there was a glint of metal, and she yelled loudly for the refugees to either get behind her and Masayoshi or find cover. She braced for the arrow, but there wasn't one. Instead, the glint of metal disappeared, and a figure descended from the trees. “Keep your hands where I can see them, templar!” Azami still kept her hand on her sword, but the figure came closer. A bow was in their hand, with an arrow knocked. Yet, they kept the arrow pointed at the ground.

Finally, the figure came close enough for Azami to realize it was an Albian, and a Knight at that. She looked out from her cowl, watching Azami intently. “What are you doing with these people, templar?”

“I'm aiding the Free Mages reach your people, Knight.”

She looked behind Azami’s shoulder. “You the tiefling we heard would be coming?”

Fortune nodded. “I am. Are the Knights here?”

“Indeed they are. I heard you were supposed to arrive tomorrow. What’s with the rush?”

“The Tavanirian invasion force was right on top of us,” Fortune explained. “This woman here helped us. I would suggest you stop threatening her with your bow lest she decide you should stop herself.”

The arrow was put back into the quiver, and Azami took her hand off her sword. The Knight began to lead them into the town, and in the distance, Albian soldiers looked up, confused and ready to leap into action. None did. Azami felt herself shake slightly. Was she nervous? For what?

The captain of the local Knights appeared and shook hands with Fortune and Errin, only glaring at Azami from behind the confines of his helmet. Azami stared back, feeling quite fed up with the judgemental nature of the people around her. Yet she shook again. Was it the cold? She was wearing full plate. She should be boiling.

The Knight captain signaled for someone to begin leading away the refugees. “This concludes our business then. Tell Isha that the war isn't going to let us do this again.”

Fortune nodded. “We were happy for this opportunity.”

Azami felt her holy symbol rattle against her chest, and she pressed a gauntlet against it to keep it in place. The ranger Knight looked at her, smirking. “You scared, templar?”

She opened her mouth to retort, but no sound came out. Everything seemed to tilt, as a green light was cast over everything. Masayoshi was gone, seemingly having ran away. The ground seemed to crack and splinter around her. The viridian light seemed to pulse and Azami turned her head behind her as energy seemed to pool in the sky, swirling around a focal point in midair like a vortex of mist. There was a single word in the silence, out of the mouth of the ranger. “Tiefling!” a shout from right beside her, yet it sounded like a whisper. A knife was drawn from the woman’s hip and she moved, her eyes on Fortune as he stood dumbfounded just like everyone else.

Azami moved faster, and the dagger bounced off her shield before she gripped the arm of the ranger and bent. There was a look of immense shock and pain on the woman’s face as her arm bent in the wrong direction just as a sickeningly loud explosion threw everything into chaos.

A gnoll, eyes mad and dead leapt onto the templar captain and tore out his throat. A soldier, ancient and long dead, swung an axe into Errin’s chest, spilling blood and vitriol. In a matter of moments, all she held was the severed arm of the ranger as a cabal of rotten undead tore her from Azami’s arms and began to feast on her flesh. A festering kobold jumped atop Fortune and began to claw and bite at his face as he desperately tried to keep it at bay. Azami stood there, eyes wide with pure shock and dismay. The arm dropped from her hands. Standing in the middle of it all was that girl, the girl who was scared of her. Tears streamed down her cheeks as undead killed her family; her father, mother and brother in front of her. Azami took a short breath in like a shuddering gasp of fear. She couldn't hear anything. Not a single word or action or deed. Only when a corpse shambled towards her and opened its disgusting maw wide as it went for her throat was she pulled from her trance and she acted.

Azami clamped her gauntlet around its throat and she slipped her blade into its chest cavity. She pulled the blade to the side and wrenched it out of the creature’s hip. Blackened blood coated her sword and her armour, but she moved on. She slammed Honour through the skull of the undead gnoll as it went for the girl, and then swung her blade up as she split the kobold upon Fortune’s face in two. She dragged Fortune to his feet, shunted a corpse away with her sword before she pointed to the girl and they ran. Azami cut through the horde as best she could, but the sheer number of creatures slowed her down. Claws raked through her skin and claws bit through leather. Fortune, the child, and Azami pushed back into the forest as the wind bit at their wounds. Slowly, her hearing began to return to her, and the screams of the dying and still living echoed through the afternoon air.

The trio descended into the brush as undead began to walk through the forest around them, all moving further into what was supposedly Albian controlled ground. Fortune held the child close, whispering elven lullabies in the girl's ear as a skeleton walked mere feet away from them. They stayed like this for a time, with Azami’s hand firmly clasped around her sword and shield, and Fortune continuing to try and soothe the girl as best he could. There was sounds of fighting in the distance, which died down, regained its vigour, died down again, and the cycle continued for some time. The forest empted of undead as they traveled to find the biggest concentrations of the living, and only when Azami was sure, did she make a motion for them to move. Fortune did not object. They found the bridge and the river, and a plain soaked with blood and littered with corpses. A hound prodded at a far-off body. Several horses grazed about, looking for the owners they had ran from and thought would still be here when it was over.

Azami found a horse, and began to massage its mane carefully. She took the child from Fortune and pointed at the saddle. Fortune nodded. He understood. Azami’s ears were still ringing. She didn't want to talk.

Fortune quickly mounted the horse and set the child seated in front of him. Azami spoke, her voice quieted by the constant buzzing. “Find a druid circle or a Sidhe clan. Something. Have them take you and the girl in. Do not leave until you are sure it is safe outside. Do not abandon the girl. Do not die. Do not let the girl die.”

Fortune nodded once. “What of you?”

Azami looked around her and at the body she had her boot upon. “I don't know.”

Fortune left and Azami was left alone in the field. There was the occasional undead that stalked the perimeter, but she stayed away. Eventually, she found the body of her horse, Masayoshi. A sword had pierced his chest and punctured his heart. She covered his face with a cloth from her saddle’s pouches and began to remove her armour. Azami moved a few bodies and sat down in the blood soaked grass. Still, she did not want to speak. Nor did she want to truly process this.

Time passed, and she finally saw that the creature that was so close was actually a deer. Blood was splattered upon it, but it was otherwise fine. She let it go.

She came to realize that almost all the bodies were templar soldiers. It did not surprise her, nor has she expected it.

An hour passed, and she finally realized that there was no army of anyone's that would come back through here. She stood and strapped both of her swords to her and took everything that was worth carrying from Masayoshi’s saddle bags. With a deep breath, and some dead templar’s horse, she headed off once more. There was a method to her apparent madness. Even if there were people who would call her selfish, self-absorbed, evil, idiotic, or obsessed. She still needed to know. Azami needed to know if Victoria was still alive. There was no way around it, because she simply needed to know, and she would not stop until she was dead or she knew.



Two hours, and Azami had crossed into what was considered to be Dagger Coast territory by the Dagger Coast. There had been very little undead on the road. In the distance, she had seen cities burning, towns deserted, and corpses simply laying in the dirt as if by random. If anything was true, then this incident that she had been witness to was more spread out than simply two towns on the border. This was chaos, nowhere near what was seen during the war that had seemingly ended mere hours ago. A great wave of death that had to be sweeping the continent. Azami knew in her heart, only surer in the theory as the weight of her holy symbol pulled against the string on her neck.

The sounds of battle came ever closer, and she climbed a hill with her horse, looking out upon the ever darkening Dagger Coast. A mass of soldiers and undead fought in the valley, the sounds of clashing metal echoing in the evening air. Beyond the mass was the city of Cazavir, burning brightly. Azami dipped down into the valley, pushing her horse onwards. Creatures broke off from the fighting, hurling themselves on all fours after Azami. She clamped her hand down on her katana, spinning it out from its sheath and to her side as she kept her other hand on her horse’s reins. A wolf jumped for her, and she turned abruptly to run her katana through its side. It crumpled to the floor, trying to stand as its limbs failed to move. She kept on, spurring the horse to as fast as it would go. The undead stayed fast on her trail, but she sped through bloody roads and paths, eventually finding the large gate to Cazavir broken open. Her horse jumped over the arm of a dead ogre, entering the city of Cazavir. Overturned carts, corpses and debris blocked her way, but she navigated around the near barren streets, not giving anyone who was still alive or undead a second of her precious time. She could not spare a single second.

A crossbow bolt slammed into her side and she toppled from her horse, collapsing into the filth and blood. She pushed herself up with her blade, grasping at her new injury. Only the tips of her fingers could grasp at it, and she clenched her hand tightly into a fist as she pushed herself onward, her horse having ran away. Skeletons appeared from an alleyway, clad in cloaks and old leather armour. Azami sought shelter in a building instead of facing her enemies head on. She brought a cabinet crashing down in front of the door and pushed out into the back alley of the store of knicknacks and charms. This was the merchant district, which means she was close. She was so… close.

She ducked in and out of buildings to evade the dead that roamed the streets. There was no living inside, only shops that were thrown into disarray as people ran for their lives. The church itself laid visible above the usual buildings, pointing out like a beacon in the night. Azami ran for it, drawing the attention of corpses as they followed the limping woman towards the chapel. She pushed inside and found it utterly barren. Pews were pushed to the side, and the prominent banners of the Free Mages were gone. She should have known, but she just wanted this to be the answer. She backed up as the corpses came towards her and she readied her sword for the fight.

“Azami? Azami!” A man came out from one of the doors, a crossbow in his hands.

“Errol? Why are you-”

“Come on!” She ran to him and into the familiar backroom. He pushed a crate up to the door as a force thudded against it. “Down the ladder. Go!”

She crawled down and he followed her down, leading her through the cellar and back to the familiar canoe. They pushed off without a second’s notice and both of them began to row. Azami looked at Errol, eyeing his newly found stubble. “What happened? Why are you back in Cazavir?”

“You think I know? We never stopped moving people in and out of Cazavir, Azami. Undead just poured into the city and we got as many people out as we could!”

Azami was exasperated. “What about Isha? There were Free Mages in Kingsbury.”

“Kingsbury? You came all the way here from Kingsbury? Why the hell did you do that? Did you come when the undead came or before?”

“As soon as it happened. Everyone except two of them died. Errol, what happened to the Free Mages?”

He opened his mouth to speak but they hit the side of the tunnel into the reservoir. “Damnit. We’ll walk. Come on!” Both of them ran, picking up their weapons and sprinting for dear life. They stumbled out of the tunnel, tripping on rocks and earth as they clambered back onto flat ground.

Free Mages and refugees stood in a group, weapons drawn and spells readied. Isha looked at Azami and cocked her head, utterly confused. “Sicarius? Is that you?”

Azami didn’t even bother to answer. Victoria stood there, dumbfounded, a flame engulfing one hand and her shortsword in her other. Azami dropped her sword and wrapped her arms around Victoria, feeling as tears began to stain her cheeks.

Chapter 5
“So, did you find what you were looking for, Azami?”

Azami stood on the Dagger Coast beach, sand in her boots and sun in her eyes. She watched the waves crawl in and out as light hit the ocean and let out a brilliant amber hue, when it wasn't reflecting directly into her eyes. In the distance, the Free Mage headquarters stood upon a high natural fortress above the ground, a commandeered castle hanging the all too familiar purple banners of the organization. Men and women dragged corpses on pyres, changing the beach from a body strewn mess to what it was before. It had been a week since it all happened, and Azami took her time to mourn alone. They all knew that undead still littered parts of Rosarius, and still cities and towns and countrysides were rife with undead, but that was a task for another time and for different people.

“I let people die, Victoria. I did exactly what I said I was trying to prevent. I don't even know why I still stand upon this ground before you. What did I accomplish? What did I find in myself? I found that I am no better a person than I was when I left you.”

Victoria sat in the sand behind her, resting herself on a traveling cloak. She looked the same as she did before the war, though there was a slight hint of a change in her eyes. At the very least, Azami found some solace in seeing that Victoria had not changed in her appearance. Azami didn't need Victoria to change, because Azami wanted to change for Victoria. Perhaps that too was selfish in some backwards way.

“No one can blame you for losing yourself in the chaos. Whatever this all is, it was what killed those people, and not you. I don't even know why you blame yourself, because it obviously wasn't anything to do with you. I know you feel guilty about a lot of things that aren't your fault, but that isn't helping you go on, Azami, and I want you to go on.”

“What's the point? Everything's been destroyed in this chaos. So many have died. I should have been killed as well.”

Victoria grew a scowl, but replaced it with a calmer frown. She stood up off the sand and began to pace idly, wholly ignoring Azami as she gathered her thoughts. Soon enough, she stopped. “You changed, and yet you also haven't. You feel a sadness, and that is all you focus on. I want to be there for you, Azami, but you make it hard for me. You know you’re worth so much, yet you fail to believe it.”

“Worthless… that was Hikari's opinion of me, and yet she never said it. I lived in her shadow for twenty years. My parents, my elders, my teachers all saw me as simply Hikari's sister…” She let the waves fill the silence between, organizing her thoughts in that moment. “I know you think highly of me, just as I think highly of you… but how can I believe it when I have thought the opposite for so long?”

Victoria raised an eyebrow. “Mages? Other races? The knights? Hells, even I was more opposed to the Blackravens than you were.” Azami sighed, knowing that this was simply one argument of many to come that she would lose to Victoria. She seemed to notice her change in demeanor. “You know why I'm saying this, Azami.”

“I do, and I'll surrender to your logic.” She extended a hand to Victoria. “Shall we depart to the castle?”

Victoria took Azami’s hand, and upon Victoria throwing her cloak over her shoulder, hanging off the tips of her fingers, they went on to walk along the beach back towards the castle. It was a beautiful morning for sure, and Azami was sure Victoria was thinking something clichéd about how she was more beautiful than the sunset. What was the harm, Azami supposed. Perhaps they had earned this small respite for simply surviving such a catastrophe, or perhaps she just was feeling selfish enough to believe she deserved a break. She felt like she had never had one for a long time. There was always a pressing issue at the forefront of her mind, but now there was just calm, something she had missed dearly.

“How will this story end for us, Azami? Out in a blaze of glory, or out in a bed surrounded by family? Where will we go? What will we accomplish?”

“Are you simply asking me that because you know I'll stay with you? Do you really want to hear that come out of my mouth?”

Victoria chuckled. “Maybe I do.”

“I'll stay with you, for as long as we both need.”

“And after that?”

“Who knows what will happen? Will I be needed in Tavaniria? Will the knights come for me? Will more evil arise in this world? I cannot say because I do not know.”

Victoria looked at Azami questioningly. “So, you’re a hero now?”

“History will decide who among us are heroes and villains. I am just a woman, perhaps a capable woman, but a woman nonetheless. We fight for reasons we deem to be our own, and we alone cannot decide if we are truly just in our actions.”

“If you are righteous, then history will remember you as being such.”

“History will remember me however it wishes.”


Azami had been surprised to find that Isha was so accepting of Azami’s arrival at the Free Mages’ new headquarters. Perhaps it was Victoria’s doing, or Azami was someone that Isha found trustable, she simply wasn't sure. Azami lodged with Victoria, who had been given a room because of 'personal entitlements for services’. Simply put, Victoria was being cocky about something she had accomplished in the past. Azami didn't blame her, for Azami felt like she herself could act in a similar manner depending on the circumstances. Victoria and Azami seemed to get along well enough for Azami. It was almost as if those years of being apart had never happened. Azami was unsure if that was a good thing or a bad thing. She still had very little experience.

Azami kept herself busy for the most part, but occasionally she would find a moment of respite to lose herself in thought as she usually did. She thought of Fortune, the girl, and the soldiers that had been under her command that she had simply left behind. If she had been in a clearer mind during those events, then surely she would have done things differently and saved more lives. Victoria told her not to worry, and that what she had done was honourable enough… but she simply wasn't sure. She was a templar, and a templar was supposed to save the lives of the innocent. There was always the fact that she wasn't entirely sure if the templar order still existed given her isolation from everything, but her point still stood.

Victoria was quite chipper for the most part. She laughed, joked around, and was serious when she needed to be. Every so often, Isha would call Victoria into her office and they would speak quietly behind the doors. There was a certain hint of jealousy that Azami felt - as they were lovers after all - but she dismissed it and thought enough to place a real possibility upon it. The Free Mages were getting ready to find survivors. Surely, the chaos had finally ceased to a reasonable level.

Azami found Errol in the courtyard, spinning a grindstone against his shortsword. There was a thin layer of stubble on his face that she had noticed being present before. Azami assumed he was feeling much older now.

He looked up as she approached. “Azami…” he said, looking at the blade in his hands before putting it to the stone again. “Good to see you up and about.”

“Same to you, Errol. How are you? Have you gotten much sleep?”

“I've gotten more recently. Whatever’s plagued Rosarius… it still haunts me. I was with a caravan escorting a bunch of children when it happened. I saved some of them, but…” He ran his hand over the flat of the blade. “It doesn't take a genius to figure out that war’s a plague upon mortals. We just couldn't get enough of the monsters hiding in the dark so we just saw monsters in each other.”

Azami sighed and nodded. “Speaking of the war… What happened to the Knights in Cazavir?”

“They pulled out of the city as soon as the templars started fighting them in the streets. For a while, the templars controlled the city, so the Free Mages packed up and left too. We came here to Castle Cinder and the rest is what you know.”

Azami knew the walls were high and with the Free Mages here with such a high density of magic users, it would be near impenetrable to most undead. Though, she wasn’t sure if the academics and humanitarians of the Free Mages were really capable of defending the castle. “How did Isha even manage to acquire an entire castle?”

Errol stopped, looked into Azami’s eyes and spoke. “Blackravens.” He went back to the grindstone immediately. Of course it would be something like that, but if Errol wasn’t going to share the information with her, then she wouldn’t push.

“What of Catherine?”

“She didn’t-” He grimaced and finally decided he had sharpened the blade enough. He set the blade back into its sheath on his hip. “The Knights left quickly, so I guess she just never had time to tell anyone what was happening.”

“She left and never said goodbye then. How classical.”

“Tactless as always, Azami.” He shook his head. “Romance isn’t what the books all make it out to be, I suppose.”

There was an awkward silence between them. A call from the wall caught their attention and Azami clambered up the stairs, joining the lookout as he pointed out across the plain. It was green for as far as she could see except for the approaching shades of darker colours on the horizon. They waited for a time, with Errol and eventually Victoria joining up at the wall. Soon the indistinguishable mass became a group of people, and soon the people became distinguishable from one another. Noncombatants for the most part, save for the people in the front of the group. A Knight and a Luirenmeran soldier. That was a surprise, especially due to the fact that the Luirenmeran wasn’t in chains or disarmed.

Isha arrived at the gates, watching out as the group stopped outside and waited, seemingly for the Free Mages to come out and speak with them. Victoria whispered silently into her hand, nodded, and joined Isha at the gate. Azami stood by, waiting for some sort of official line.

Victoria jerked her thumb over at the gate. “I sent a message. The Knight said that they came from Albia and they’re looking for refuge. It sounds like it’s really bad out there.”

Isha nodded slowly. “While I would usually be happy to allow so many people within our walls… we don’t have the supplies we usually have, and nor do we have people that would be incredibly happy to be with a Luirenmeran elf.”

“Well, they need an answer, Isha.”

“Go out to them. Take Azami with you if you wish. Ask their numbers, their composition. Make a call.”

“You want me to make a decision, Isha? You’re the leader, not me.”

Isha set a hand on Victoria’s shoulder. “Having a singular leader within an organization like this? Stupid. Now go. They need an answer.”

Victoria gave a look to Azami and then a shrug. They walked over to the main gate, waiting slowly for it to open. Victoria straightened out her blouse, and adjusted her collar nervously. “It’ll be fine, Victoria.” Azami said. “These are not Blackravens, not templars, and not bandits. We will be fine.”

“Ain’t what I’m worried about. I just never really wanted to be a leader.”

As the two stepped out of the castle gate with it closing behind them, the Knight and the Luirenmeran watched them approach wearily. “Hail, Free Mages,” the Knight said, lifting up her visor. All of the noncombatants behind them stood a good distance away from the four gathered, perhaps believing that a fight could spring at any moment.

Victoria gave a small wave with two fingers. “I’m Victoria, of the Free Mages. And this is Azami, formerly of the templars? I don’t think she’s decided yet.”

“We’ll see,” she said.

The Knight looked from Victoria to Azami, and then back to Victoria. “Well then. I am Heather and this is Sithryn. We’ve come from Portsway, gathering survivors along the way. We, unfortunately, are here to seek refuge for a time. We’ve run out of supplies and I’m not sure if we’ll be able to make it much further.” Sithryn looked down at Azami and Victoria as Heather spoke, the eyes in his helmet tired, yet sharp and watchful.

Victoria nodded, counting the people behind the two. “Well, I’ll get right to it then. We’re gonna need your numbers and what kind of people you got with you. Humans, elves, mages, working folk.”

Heather looked over her shoulder for a moment. “We’re humans and Sidhe elves except for Sithryn here. No mages, just regular people. They’re not soldiers.” She clicked her tongue. “We got about fifty?” She looked to Sithryn, telling her that it was fortyseven in a low voice. “There you go.”

Victoria blew out a breath of hot air. She covered her mouth with a hand and supported that arm with her other, tapping the fingers of her hand against her cheek. Heather cleared her throat nervously and waited for Victoria’s response. Azami tried to clear the air. “Victoria isn’t quite used to the position bestowed upon her. If you would allow her a moment-”

“We can house you for a week. Longer than that, and our food stores won’t let even the Free Mages alone make it through the winter. I’m sorry.” Azami was surprised at Victoria’s decision, but not overtly so. It was a decision that was intelligent and thoughtful, as Victoria was.

The Knight nodded solemnly in response. “I suppose I’ve been looking for a miracle. Whatever this was that’s ravaged Rosarius… it is the antithesis of a miracle.”

“Cities destroyed overnight and an entire war halted in its tracks. I know, and I’m sorry we can’t offer you anything better than this.”

Azami turned to the side, beckoning them all back. “We’ll take them in then and get everyone situated. There’s no point in standing in this field and waiting.”



As the week came into its second day, the refugees became situated in the castle’s courtyard. Tents had been pulled from dusty cellars to serve temporarily, and Victoria looked into some sort of more comfortable option. She couldn’t find one with their current supplies. Food slowly began to dwindle, and a miasma of uncertainty coupled with a layer of fear set itself upon the castle. What would kill them first seemed to be the question on everyone’s mind and so Isha sent a scout into the nearby forest to look for some sort of source of supplies or a local surviving group. They never returned, and no one ever brought up the scout’s mission again. As time went on, Isha and Victoria became ever concerned that they might not even make it to the winter, and so they both decided to let the refugees stay and simply wait to see what could possibly happen. Both boredom and depression were kings in this new land and Azami took it upon herself to see if Victoria was still of sound mind every single day. Azami knew that she herself, even if she would be uncertain or sad, would always eventually return back to how she would normally behave and feel. Victoria was another beast altogether. On the first days, she would smile politely and nod, stating that she was all right and that Azami didn’t need to worry about her. Eventually, Victoria’s reassurances became more stressed, extended only as Victoria stated simply that Azami should stop asking her. Azami did without issue or relapse, but there was always that idea in her mind of wondering if she should begin again and ask once more. They stopped holding each other's’ hands, or embracing, and after awhile, even sleeping in the same bed as the other. Azami knew that there was something wrong by then, and not simply something minor and easily fixable, but even so, Azami lacked the resolve to seek any sort of resolution.

In the dead of night, Azami awoke to the sound of near silent footsteps in the hall outside her room. This had been nothing new during the war, and in fact, finding an Albian sneaking around the camps was practically common. She pulled herself out of her bed and began to dress and stepped out into the hall with her hand on her wakizashi. Torches flickered in the darkness and a few Free Mages sat at every few corners in watch. Azami asked each one she passed if they had heard anyone running about or if they had been walking about, and they all responded in the negative. She continued on, looking for a child or someone who had gotten lost, but she didn’t find anyone who shouldn’t be within the castle proper walking around in the whole half an hour she looked. She descended into the castle’s courtyard soon after, finding it quiet as many slept their hunger and fears away. A hawk perched upon the castle’s gate and she looked at it carefully. Its eyes were unsettling, yellow and yet almost burning. It flew away silently and she watched it disappear into the night.

Something flickered in the shadows with the glint of metal and Azami lifted her arm up instinctively to block a potential blow. Nothing came. She immediately inspected the area but found nothing but dust, stone, and dirt. Azami took up a post in the courtyard and sat there waiting and watching. An hour turned to three, and then six and then the sun rose above the castle. Whatever had happened had happened, or Azami had simply been hallucinating. She found the latter to be a better option, but she knew she was of sound mind.

She stood up as the refugees began to leave their tents and walked back into the keep, all the way back to Isha’s office. She knocked twice and then pushed the door open. Victoria and Isha were already in a conversation and paid her little mind as she entered. Both of them looked tired and hungry.

“Our options are dwindling, Isha. We need action and soon, because whatever threat the undead might pose, it's better than just letting our people starve.”

“I agree, Victoria, but we can't rush into this. We cannot afford to take an uncalculated risk. No one has even sent a message from Portsway, so we may be the only bastion of Free Mages left, and we cannot allow ourselves to be the last.”

“Okay, I'll think into it, but we’re going to actually do something about this, Isha.”

“We will. Now…” She looked over Victoria’s shoulder. “What do you need, Azami? You look quite tired…”

Azami stepped up to Isha’s desk and gave a tired look to Victoria in acknowledgement. “Someone was sneaking around the castle.”

Victoria was on it immediately. “Who?”

“I don't know, they left or ran before I could confront them. I believe there was magic involved.”

Isha raised an eyebrow. “One of our own then?”

“I don't know, and I can't tell from what I could even discern. Someone is watching us, I have no doubt about that, and we are not safe.”

Victoria nodded at Isha. “I agree that we’re not safe. I'll form an expedition. We need to know what's happening outside.”

“If you deem it necessary, Victoria, then you can go ahead. I'll give you full control over this. Our morale needs lifting, and the sooner you bring good news back, the better.” Victoria nodded and began to leave. Isha looked to Azami and sighed. “Follow her. You know she’s not in the right mind.”

Azami followed Victoria out of the office, walking through the halls of the castle. Victoria mumbled to herself, and Azami followed behind her, readying herself to speak her mind to Victoria. Before she could, Errol bolted up the stairs into the main hall. “Victoria, Azami! You need to come outside. Now.”

The three hurried outside, clambering up onto the battlements. “More refugees?” Azami asked.

“No. Gods, no,” Errol responded as they finally stepped up to look out. There were no displaced peasants or anyone else looking for shelter. Azami felt her throat constrict as she laid her eyes upon the red and grey armour of the templars.

Victoria gritted her teeth and tightened her grip on the stone of the battlement. She pointed a finger down range and Azami followed it to the woman on horseback in the front of it. She, and the rest of the templars, stood there waiting. The woman set her hands on the side of her helmet and pulled it off. Black hair unraveled from the confines of the helmet, and two piercing red eyes looked out at Azami. “Hikari…” Azami breathed. “She must have been spying on us, but she shouldn’t be here. The undead must have been in Tavaniria too.”

“You’re right. She shouldn’t be here, but you must know why she’s here. It’s obvious, Azami.” For a moment, Azami thought that Victoria was blaming her, yet there was not a directed malice in Victoria’s eyes, but rather a singular outward anger towards everything.

Errol set his hand on his shortsword. “We can’t fight these many templars. They would win no matter what we do. We need a plan, Victoria.”

Victoria looked to Azami. “Bring her in and allow her to bring a small guard with her. We will negotiate with her.”

Azami nodded. That seemed the best course of action, but… she would finally need to confront her sister after three years of being away from her. Azami descended the battlements as Victoria and Errol began to prepare for Hikari’s arrival. The gate of the castle opened once again and Azami stepped out alone. The templars watched her approach. She felt that perhaps she should feel nervous or fearful, but she held onto her resolve. Hikari’s stare was a threatening glare, and she was the first to speak. “Azami… I would not think you would continue to associate yourself with this scum.”

“You knew I was here, Hikari. Is this revenge?” There was a perceptible change in Hikari’s aura. Once, Azami had felt some form of compassion and love in Hikari’s personality, but now… “What do you want, High Commander Sicarius?”

Pure and utter hate flooded her eyes. “The Free Mages are to answer for their crimes, and the rogue templar who continues to aid them is to be brought to justice. Do you understand, Azami?”

Azami gritted her teeth, looking her sister in the eyes. “I understand. Nonetheless, Victoria Wolfe requests your presence. She wishes to negotiate with the templar high commander. You may bring two guards within the castle.”

“Tell Victoria that I accept her offer.”

Hikari descended from her horse and selected two templars to accompany her. Azami led all three into the castle courtyard where Victoria was already waiting. Naturally, Victoria had set herself in an advantageous situation, settling the Free Mages on the walls with spells ready. Yet, Azami had the odd feeling that both Hikari and Victoria had settled themselves on equal footing. It seemed the culmination of a great many years. The two most important women in Azami’s life, staring each other down like great generals upon the battlefield of Castle Cinder.

Victoria descended the stairs, walking directly in front of Hikari. “So, you’re the templar commander that I’ve heard so much about… The tales do you more justice than your actual stature does.”

“I would have thought the woman that my sister had taken such a fancy to would have been someone in an actual position of power. Do you call this threatening, Free Mage? Easily, I would kill more of you in the same time it would take for you to kill an insect.”

“Thank you for your vague threat, Sicarius.” She spat on Hikari’s boot. “I know you’re here because you think the Free Mages have done whatever it is that has tainted this land, and I know you’re not going to believe me when I say we had nothing to do with it.”

Hikari looked at her boot and then tightened her grip on her sword. “Perhaps not you, Free Mage, but your organization is vast. I will find out which one of you did this if it takes me the rest of my life.”

Victoria gripped the clasp of Hikari’s cloak and pulled her and Hikari face to face. The two templars went for their swords but made no real action. It was obvious this was no real negotiation, but a trade of threats between two angry women with both everything and nothing to lose.

“If you touch anyone here, I will kill you, Hikari, even if I have to die to make sure you stop breathing.”

“Really? In front of impressionable Azami? What will it take for you Free Mages to finally realize you are the real villains in this world. Will you resist until finally the entirety of this world has its life drained from it? There are two options for you, Victoria. You surrender, or we burn this castle to the ground, kill those you call kin, and salt the ground in which you stand upon.”

Victoria pushed Hikari away. “These people are innocent. Most of the residents of this castle do not even have the Spellburn. You would be the villain here, Sicarius.”

“All I want is the Free Mages, Victoria. You provide me yourselves freely, then I will allow your refugees to remain.” Hikari lifted her chin upwards, maintaining her newly acquired stance of superiority. “You have your choices, Free Mage. Now, make your decision.”

Victoria clasped her hands behind her back and looked behind herself, at one of the windows of the castle. When she returned her gaze to Hikari, there was a look of acceptance. Everything Victoria had ever worked towards in her life had come crashing out in an instant. She swallowed, looked to Azami, and then back at her sister. “I surrender with my dignity intact. Know that we are the Free Mages, Hikari. Even if we are in chains, we are still free.”

In an instant, the templars flooded the courtyard. Free Mages were bound, subdued, and the screams of those unfortunate enough to fight back echoed through the dead air. Azami was stripped of her weapons, and the two blades were strapped to Hikari’s horse. Despite all of this, Hikari stayed true to her word and only took the Free Mages, except for one. Azami, even in the chaos of being rounded up with the Free Mages and dragged out of the castle, did not see Isha. Perhaps that was a small miracle for the Free Mages. Hikari would think Victoria was the leader, and no one would say anything to compromise Isha. That was what the Free Mages were, a family.

For that matter, she also did not see Errol, and while she hoped he had managed to escape, she could not say that he might be among them.

The templars marched the Free Mages through the fields of the Dagger Coast, past forests and rivers and streams. They did not stop, and those who fell to the dirt, unable to continue walking, were either beaten until they got up, or killed on the spot. This was not the work of the templar order, this was the work of Hikari. Still, Victoria and Azami should have anticipated such actions from Hikari, but Victoria had made a decision, and all Azami could do was continue walking, head held high even if Hikari tried to take her dignity away from her.

“What did you think would happen if you went to the Free Mages, Azami?” Hikari asked as she rode beside her. “They are an absolute evil in this world. Mages wish to destroy us with their very existence, and only through subjugation can they be tamed to be productive members of the world.”

“I’ve been away from you for long enough to know that is wrong, Hikari, and if you truly believe your own lies, then I am sorry for you, sister. Three years ago, we rode through mountains together on a quest. We spoke of our differences, yet always… you looked down upon me. Now you are doing it again, but this time… you realize you’re doing it.”

Hikari shook her head. “You’ve lost the right to call yourself a Sicarius.”

Victoria shouted at Hikari from behind. “Where do you plan to take us, Hikari?”

“You’ll see, Victoria.”

They continued to march through the Dagger Coast, stopping for a day to make camp. The Free Mages rested in the mud, arms still bound. Some cried, others prayed, and the rest were silent. Hikari made sure to separate Azami from Victoria. Azami predicted that Hikari was taking them to Catarina to answer for their supposed crimes, but the journey would take a long time. A week or two if they didn’t stop to rest… Azami didn’t acknowledge what was surely truly happening. She didn’t want to believe that Hikari could possibly be capable of such tremendous evil.

In the morning, the Free Mages were all brought to their feet and began to march once again. More dropped from exhaustion, but the templars pushed them on further and further. They numbered around two hundred at this point, Azami reckoned, and the number was only going to continue to drop. They stopped in an abandoned town, with the corpses of both townspeople and undead littered about the streets. “Do you see what you’ve wrought upon this land, Free Mages? Death and despair. You do not care who they are, as long as they realize your superiority. Is that not it?” None replied, for fear of retaliation. Azami only stared her sister in the face.

Finally, they entered Tavanirian land, or at least what was Tavanirian land when the war was still going on. Slowly, snowflakes began to fall upon them all. Winter had finally come, and it fell hard. In mere hours, the land turned from orange to white. Azami shivered and tried to shrug her shoulders to pull her cloak further upon herself. It didn’t work.

Hikari stopped them once again by a shallow river and she gave a single order. “Strip them.”

The templars did, and the Free Mages were forced to stand in the cold, completely naked, dusted with snow, shivering and bound. They were lined upon the river’s edge, fearful, tears streaming from the eyes of some, but still, some kept their dignity, holding their heads up high as they gritted their teeth against the cold. The templars began to push them out into the river, forcing them back in if they tried to come back onto the close riverbank. Azami pushed forward, gripping her toes into the stones as she waded through. Each step made her nearly lose her balance and be swept away by the force of the river, but she walked forward. Many fell in, and some fought to stand once again, but others stayed in the water, motionless. When she reached the other side, already Hikari was ready for them. Those whose knees buckled and faces portrayed the closeness of death were pushed to their knees. Another order from Hikari, and their throats were slashed.

Victoria shouted out at Hikari, black hair drenched as she visibly shivered. “You bitch! This is what you wanted all along wasn’t it! That’s why you did what you did all those years ago!”

Hikari pointed to Victoria with a gauntlet as the templars dropped the Free Mages’ clothing in front of them. Victoria was promptly forced to dress and then hauled away into the nearby forest. Azami scrounged up a set of clothing, awkwardly pulling them onto her body. Hikari left, following the templars as they dragged Victoria off. Azami watched, and gripped her holy symbol in her two hands.

She fell to her knees, squeezing her hands tightly around the emblem of Bahamut. She pressed the shield into her hands. “I require your aid. Please, allow me this one favour.” There was no response. Only a gust of wind that blew towards the forest that she knew she had to go to. Azami pushed herself back to her feet and she ran. She pushed her weight into a templar as he tried to swipe at her with his sword and he toppled over. Azami sprinted away from it all as others began to run and crossbows were loaded. Bolts flew past her but she descended into the forest, and she slid down into the brush. There were voices, somewhere.

She stalked around the bushes, tracing the sounds of Hikari and Victoria’s voices. Soon enough, she found Hikari’s horse, spotting Hikari with her sword drawn, looking down upon the hunched form of Victoria. Two templars watched. Azami drew Honour from the sheath attached to Hikari’s saddle, cut the bindings on her wrists, and began to walk towards them.

Hikari set the flat of her blade against Victoria’s chin. “You took my sister away from me, Victoria. You do realize that, don’t you?” Victoria looked up at the woman, one eye swollen and bruised. “You took a woman who could have been by my side as I reclaimed a dying empire from its own faults, but no… You corrupted her with your ideals of so-called peace and equality. Equality comes at a price, Free Mage, but we are not equals. You will see that mages are the scourge of this world.” She pulled the blade away.

“I didn’t do anything to her, Hikari Sicarius.” She doubled over, coughing out red onto the white. “What do you want me to say? That the Free Mages are wrong? That I never really loved Azami? Do you want me to beg for mercy?”

“I want you to realize you are going to die like the dog you are.”

“Hikari!” Azami screamed, brandishing the blade for all to see. All four heads turned to look at her. Victoria began to laugh, seeing only madness in it all.

Hikari sent both the templars forward, but Azami easily blocked the first blow, slashing through the gaps in his armour before moving to the next and stabbing him in the throat before he could parry her blow. Azami wiped the blood from her face, snow falling all around her and stared her sister down. This was it. Her story would end the way it would begin. Azami, Hikari, and bodies in the snow.

“You’ve made your decision then, Azami.”

“You made it for me.”

Their blades clashed, were drawn back, and then clashed again. They knew each other, had trained together as children, and fought like honourable warriors. Two soldiers, two templars, two sisters, two paths that had diverged so distinctly. One abandoned and forced to find herself in a world of hostilities, and the other who claimed destiny through cruelty and hard work. One loved, and the other unloved.

Hikari sliced into Azami’s abdomen, but she twisted away before the blade dug in too deep. She fought through the pain, bringing her sword back up to fight.

“What would our mother think about this, Azami? What would our father think?”

Azami sweeped for Hikari’s legs but missed. “Father loved you more and mother died protecting us! You would insult me with their names!”

“Mother hated me, Azami. Father would have saw us die to protect his interests. I brought us into the light. I saw us become elite. I saw us bring about a new age.”

Azami’s blows bounced off of steel and plate armour. “It was always you. I am not a doll that you would shape for your cruel desires! I am my own woman! You do not own me!” Her sword made it past Hikari’s block severing Hikari’s hand from her arm. She fell to her knees, gripping the wound, rage bleeding from the stump. Azami was surprised at her ability to have even done that, but with her eyes locked on Hikari's, she pulled her blade back in preparation to strike.

“Do it. Prove me right.”

Azami swung her blade forward, slashing across Hikari’s face. Her sister’s head snapped to the side, blood splattering into the snow. Slowly, she began to fall backwards. Hikari hit the ground, hair sprawled out, black against white, and then she was still.

Azami let out a few shuddering breaths, planting her sword into the earth as she walked forward towards Victoria, who laid in the snow, eyes closed with tears frozen against her cheeks. Azami brought Victoria’s head onto her lap, cradling her head in her arms. She looked back to see Hikari gone, leaving nothing but an imprint in the snow, but she didn’t care.

This was only the beginning of something greater.

14
Other Games / Fate Deecelerated - To the Victoria Go the Spoils
« on: September 05, 2016, 09:30:15 pm »
Welcome to Fate Deecelerated

Eons ago, before humans first gathered their wits and formed their first governances, two ancient empires of dwarves and elves fought for the continent. While none living remember the names of these two empires, the war has had an everlasting effect on the continent. The hubris of the elves brought upon the Spellburn, reducing the lifespans of arcane spellcasters, and forever tainting them with the marks of the Spellburn. Dwarven warmachines reshaped the earth, leveling mountains, forests, and land masses alike. Ruins of both kinds dot Rosarius, with ancient artifacts and ancient guardians sealed behind the doors of the long dead empires. And for centuries after, war was the language of Rosarius.

Slowly, the world rebuilt from its war and anarchy. The world continued to heal from ancient wounds… until a war that shook the continent once more arrived. Tavaniria and Luirenmere joined forces and Albia and Asalgard were quickly invaded. The war pushed hard against each side, both gave ground, lost ground and near the entire continent was dragged into the focus of war.

Then came what is known as “The Dark Tide.” On that infamous day, without any warning, the land literally exploded as portals burst open and undead spilled from without. Military commanders sat stunned, their soldiers slaughtered, until they began to push back the Tide together, losing interest in those who were their nemesis a moment ago. When they had finally beaten back the undead and stopped the sources of power that held the portals active, the word came back that there was chaos in the homelands, and armies retreated inwards, purging vile undead from their lands, and with it, ending a continental war. With the land ravaged and hundreds upon thousands dead, blame was thrown upon everyone, anger reached an all time high; but with armies weak and near decimated, another war was impossible.

The Dark Tide is twenty years behind you, and in that time prosecution of mages heightened, national relations became deathly caustic, but the world isn’t dead. Rosarius survived it. In this fractured and healing world, you’ve heard the call of adventure. Write your story, become a legend, and do what makes you a hero.




Quick Access Links

Dungeons and Deeox Wiki
Fate Accelerated SRD
Google Drive Folder

Dungeons & Dragons - Rosarius' Efflorescence (Prologue)

Main Lore Document
Additional Lore [2] [3]

15
Sunrider General Discussion / Sunrider Academy Demo Impressions
« on: December 13, 2014, 04:23:29 am »
I dunno dude, talk about your opinions and stuff. Was it everything you wanted? More? Less?

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