Avalon:Volume 0 Chapter 6 Old

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Chapter 6 - The Black Prince, The Red Knight

"Full drive shutdown, proceed on drift," ordered Captain Arkadi.

"Affirmed. Full drive shutdown, proceeding on drift," Navigator Lysette repeated.

The Somerset had been decelerating on minimum power for hours before reaching high orbit around Brocéliande. Then, to minimize any chances of detection by orbital security, the ship spent several more slow and agonizing hours drifting towards the planet while maintaining complete stealth. But now, as we made our final approach towards the number seven maintenance dock, the benefits of keeping the drives warm in case something went awry had lost most of its value.

"Maneuver for docking, full core shutdown. Tinchebray control please wait until point beta before lock."

"Turning ship," Lysette confirmed.

"Fusion core shutting down," replied Engineering Officer Korey.

"Gravity beam ready. Signal markers confirmed. Awaiting point beta before lock," came the response over the communication channel. "You're cutting our margins awfully thin, sir."

"If you need that much safety margin then you're not focusing enough," Arkadi half-joked.

"Ship aligned," reported Lysette. "Point beta reached in five... four... three... two... one... gravity beam lock confirmed."

On the bridge's main holographic display, the green ship labelled Somerset crawled towards the open gates of an enclosed commercial starship maintenance dock. The invisible gravity beam guided the destroyer, forcing it to undergo final deceleration. Then, as the ship entered the dock and slowly slid to a halt, the massive gates closed in behind them.

"Fusion core shutdown completed," Korey noted.

"Disengage stealth field."

"Stealth field dismissed," repeated Executive Officer Kaplan. "Main systems dropping to standby. We are in your hands, Tinchebray control."

"Affirmed. Welcome to Brocéliande orbit, Somerset."

The operator who spoke over the communication display was a thin young man who looked no older than eighteen and dressed in civilian garb. But it was apparent from both his confidence and his mere presence here that he was an operative capable enough to be trusted with the well-being of this alpha-priority mission. Yet so far, he hasn't looked directly at the screen for more than a passing glance even once. It was likely the visual feed went only one way.

"Captain," he called, "I've just received word from the Node that Orbital Command Three remains unaware of your presence. Will you be continuing with Plan Charlie?"

"Yes," Arkadi replied. "Please give our regards to Director Magnussen."

"Understood. Our men will board and secure the ship in exactly fifteen minutes' time from now. May your endeavors be successful here in the mystical forests of Brocéliande. Tinchebray out." The operator blessed before he cut off the transmission.

Captain Arkadi looked around the bridge as he reassured everyone with the next set of orders:

"Alright everyone, you know the drill. Korey, wipe the data banks and delete all records. Kaplan, Lysette, make a final check of the crew quarters and destroy all remaining personal possessions that can't be brought. Minimize the leak of anything that may be used as a trace object to scry our personal information. Haidar, confirm that Node Seventeen's homing markers at the Brest safehouse are active with the code they provided and prepare for group teleportation in ten minutes. Kannon, with me. We meet at the loading hatch in eight."

"Affirmed!"

"One last thing," Arkadi interjected just as everyone began to move. "Captain Marius will not be joining us on the planet. We made him sleep for a few more hours and will be leaving him in the capable hands of Node Fifteen."

I instinctively focused my gaze to the side of Arkadi's eyes. I could tell that for the first time since we met, he just told a blatant lie. Marius was neither sleeping nor staying behind, and he certainly wasn't on the bridge with us...

"Kannon," Arkadi called as he stepped towards me from the Captain's seat while others hastily strode past towards the bridge doors. "Things will likely become more dangerous once we're planet-side. Just to be safe, I would like to give you several more pieces of defensive equipment."

"I don't have any armor proficiencies," I blurted out the dreadful thought that floated to my mind. But what Arkadi pulled from his utility belt pouch was a small emerald pendant on a thin platinum chain.

"Put this on first. Brocéliande's atmospheric heavy metals are harmful to normal humans and you don't have the nanite packages we do for adapting to this planet. We need to give you the bio-enhancement package once we get to Avalon. But in the meantime this will protect you."

Yet instead of putting it in my hands like I was expecting, he unclasped the chain and reached around my neck with his hands, flipping my uniform's collars as he went. Images of last night flashed before my eyes as I instinctively took a step back before he could fasten the hooks behind me.

(There are boundaries to a professional relationship; mistaking such will bring Lysette's contempt, which only hurts my position.)

"Sorry," he said, covering up his surprise with an apologetic smile after only a split second, his expression without a trace of worry.

I forced a smile and shook my head in reply, determined to shake off the strange, rising disappointment and pressed myself to focus on the real business.

Arkadi pressed the emerald pendant gently into my hands before he reached back into his pouch. It was one of several attached to the magical utility belt that more or less functioned like hammerspace pockets by accessing the fourth spatial dimension. He then pulled out a cylindrical-looking device with a crystal rod inserted through its center.

It was the same component that was strapped onto each of their belts' backs.

"This is a Vector Negation Shield Generator," he explained. "It's an ether-tech device that generates a bubble field around yourself, capable of immediately dropping the relative inbound velocity and momentum of any incoming attack to zero. It only affects the vector component perpendicular to the shield surface of impact, negating movement in the direction of the surface vector cross product and leaving only the tangential... Basically stopping any direct hit cold while deflecting any glancing hits."

I thought back to the spherical shield flares I had seen so many times...

(So this was what they had used.)

It was magical technology, ether-tech, that rely on the fundamentals of Euclidean Mathematics and Newtonian Physics.

"But make sure you stay behind us and out of melee. Any close-combat specialist will know how to form a Resistance Field around a weapon, which will delay the shield's effect just long enough to pass through. Direct hit bullets may not be useful at zero relative velocity, and even a triggered explosive shot won't pierce through the secondary shielding projected just over the body; but polearms and swords are a different matter."

"The shield will still cancel out their velocity and mitigate most of the impact force. But once the Resistance Field breaches the shield, the synergism effect of the overlapping fields will allow the rest of the weapon will enter unimpeded. Shaft thrusters and swordback boosters are also installed on most weapons to further boost the attack once the shield is penetrated."

Since the shield didn't negate force and acceleration, a sharp edge that pushed through the outer barrier could speed up again.

"What about missiles and the likes?"

I wasn't sure if they used missiles as personnel weapons. But insofar as my knowledge of the military went, everyone used missiles for starship battles at long ranges. I doubted it was hard to adapt a miniaturized version.

"Since the advent of point-defense spells and miniaturized turrets, personal anti-personnel missile launchers have mostly fallen out of use. Even with Resistance Fields, self-propelled burst missiles are large, bulky, and easy to detonate on interception, while most self-propelled slugs can't accelerate fast enough after penetration to breach the secondary shielding before gravity pulls them down."

"The real danger to vector shields at ranged really comes down to magic-resistant starsteel ammunition and those knights adept enough to bind telekinetic effects onto Resistance Field spells. Also, the shield depletes ether from the crystal rod to negate motion, so avoid open areas where heavy ranged fire may overwhelm it."

I nodded hesitantly, trying to grasp all the technical implications. Arkadi then put both of his hands on my shoulders and assured me with his confident tone:

"Don't worry -- I will keep you safe. These are merely a precaution."

(Yes. He will. But for now long can I rely upon those words?)

Thinking back to Marius, I came to the conclusion that if he was neither coming nor staying behind, neither with us nor sleeping in this critical moment, then there was but one explanation:

He was dead.

"I'll be in your care," I responded with a forced smile.

(I have only one choice if I wish to stay alive in this world: make myself useful and seize a supporting role before my value as an information source runs out.)


----- * * * -----


"Clear!"

"ID markers check. Aura signatures check. No polymorph or illusion magic detected. It's them, sir!"

There wasn't a window in sight. The blinding lights overhead illuminated us perfectly, while at least eight armed troopers were hidden in the shadows behind the stone pillars that surrounded us.

"Welcome to Brest, Commandant Arkadi Kernow."

A deep and imposing voice called out from the darkness before its owner stepped into the chamber's lights. He was a massive man at over one-ninety-five (6'5") in height, with his uniform sleeves rolled up to openly display a pair of thick muscular arms that could snap a horse in half. His flatly trimmed vermilion hair and beard formed a mane around his squarish face that made him seem even more formidable.

"My most sincere thanks for your hospitality, Director Elias Baugency," Arkadi greeted with a bow before stepping up to shake the director's hands.

The Captain was by no means short or scrawny, but he seemed almost tiny in comparison as the giant shook hands in a toothy, homely smile before reaching over with an one-armed embrace.

"Always the formalities, Arkadi. Come on, I watched you grow up. It's only natural for me to help out."

There was genuine respect in the director's eyes, but only an amateur would be fooled by the familial tone.

"All the more reason for me to uphold my manners and avoid being spoiled by your continued generosity," Arkadi smiled in response, as genuine and warm as one would towards any member considered family. "Besides, I'm sure father would be even more pleased by your professionalism in supporting this most important mission."

(Father? Now that I think about it, where else have I heard the surname Kernow before?)

I had gone through one too many people's names during all my research over the past few days.

"We live to serve the 1st district, after all." Elias bowed with the all the grace of a bear.

Were it not for Arkadi's courtesy and the obvious seniority Elias held, one would think that a mighty beast was pandering up to the expectations of his master at this moment...

(A scene that should only befit a boss henchmen and his master villain.)

"Shall we move to the operations room as we finalize your plans of return?" Elias motioned towards the dark hallway ahead with an open palm.

"Of course, director. After you," Arkadi returned the gesture, doing his best to avoid putting himself on the higher pedestal that the other was inviting him onto.

"Our plans are moving into place even better than expected," Director Elias continued as he led us down the dimly lit hallways, while his two bodyguards screened ahead with four others from the chamber shadowing us from behind. "The 2nd District doesn't appear to have a clue of your presence here on Brocéliande. It seems they presumed you were heading back directly for Avalon after breaking through their search net -- which is reasonable given the operational ranges of a strike destroyer. With the security procedures at the gateport unchanged, our earliest window of opportunity for your return is tomorrow."

"That is indeed fast work, director. I must express my gratitude once again, for both myself and the leadership who anxiously await the findings we might receive from this mission."

"It was a piece of cake!" Elias replied proudly with a bark of laughter before quickly suppressing it. "And anything for you, commandant!"

The group soon arrived at a large diamondsteel blast gate, which quickly retracted upwards to let us into the quiet operations room. It was empty at the moment, painted white and brightly illuminated to make it seem even more spacious. It was occupied by only one large display table in the center and four reclining chairs with hardwired implant links on the far side.

The four guards following us stayed behind in the hallway as the gate closed after our passage.

"If the current plans meet your needs," said Elias as he stopped and turned around to face us, "one of my men will accompany you to the gateport tomorrow afternoon. Two of our agents will have complete control over a security checkpoint for that shift. You should be able to easily make it across, disguised only as officer trainees headed for the Tintagel Academy."

"That would be most convenient. The equipment regulations are always viewed far more open-mindedly for transiting training personnel," Arkadi replied. "A question first, if I may -- we haven't been able to tap into the network during our journey here, as communications were opened only on a need-know basis. I must ask of the current political situation surrounding the Hadrian's destruction."

Elias looked taken back for a moment, and Arkadi chuckled in response:

"There's no need to beat around the bush when I'm sure a director of your caliber has already connected the facts surrounding our mission."

It wasn't just a line of flattering words; it never seemed to be for Arkadi. There was genuine recognition and trust in his eyes, and that made all the difference.

"Of course," the massive man replied with a satisfied grin. "The current political situation is rather precarious, although we have no doubt it will blow over given time. The House of Lords has ordered for an investigation into the incident. But based on the silence of the 2nd District, they have no proof to make accusations with. It would also be foolish to openly antagonize us right now in the public's eyes while the fate of the system hangs in the balance. Honestly, given the complete destruction of the fortress, I doubt they'll find anything useful."

It felt a bit surreal to see the 'villains' of the story discuss why they were going to get away with their latest act right in front of me. I was certain that the 'public' he mentioned wasn't quite the general population that the word usually referred to.

"Then all that remain is for us to return home in one piece and let time bury the truth," Arkadi finished. "In that case, let's discuss the details of tomorrow's operation. It will be of great disappointment to father if we blow this at the last moment..."


----- * * * -----


"Hey Lysette," I called towards her bed as I closed the display window, taking a break from reading all the reference documents I downloaded from the Somerset. "Mind if I ask something?"

"Go ahead," she answered cheerfully, but her eyes continue to scan the window that must be opened before her. It seemed like she was always reading during her spare time unless the Captain was around. At least, whatever it was, it always put her into a good mood.

(But... why the deep blush and gleaming eyes?)

"I'm just wondering but, who exactly is Arkadi's father?" I asked. "He seems to be quite an important character."

"You've finally realized how outclass you are, haven't you?" Lysette's voice quickly shifted to one between amusement and scorn.

(It's not like anyone spoke of his familial connections until today...)

"You see," Lysette continued, still not bothering to look towards me. "Captain Arkadi Kernow of the 1st District Office of Naval Oversight is also Commandant Arkadi Kernow of the Black Hand -- one of the three anyways -- and the adoptive son of Comorus Kernow, Marshal of the 1st District."

I could feel the surprise take hold of my expressions as the news registered. This man who personally undertook the most dangerous of missions was actually an heir to one of the Avalonian Republic's 'thrones'?

"Does that mean he's training to become the next Marshal?"

Lysette shrugged.

"Probably, although succession doesn't necessarily lie amongst family and close relations, even with all the nepotism. Take the Marshal of the 3rd District, Sidika Krivoshein, for example. She was simply a top military officer who earned the patronage of her predecessor. Well... god knows what else happened under the table."

"Marshal Comorus is quite the pragmatic professional though. So if I were to guess, it'll all depend on which one of his proteges prove to be the most successful. But as far as I know, his son -- his actual son, Commodore Marcus Kernow, would be the most likely candidate."

Grooming one successor in the light, while the second served as a stepping stone in the shadows. It wasn't an uncommon tale for dynastic families. But Arkadi wasn't born to it; he chose to enter its service...

"Strange, isn't it? My parents would name me after the most unattainable perfection, and now here I am, leading a team of black ops."

Was it desperation? Or was it ambition that shaped Arkadi into the courteous yet callous leader he was now?

"An advice of goodwill from me, little girl," Lysette stated as if warning me. "Don't involve yourself with the Captain too deeply, if you know what's good for yourself."

Was that her view as a professional? Or was she preemptively challenging me as a lover out of misunderstanding?

"I only intend to keep a necessary relationship--"

(Why do I feel unsatisfied saying that?)

"--But what of yourself?"

Lysette raised her arm upright; a dagger with trailing rope attached instantly appeared in her palm. She finally turned to look at me. Her burgundy-red eyes were neither tranquil nor shimmering in excitement, but as hard as stone when she retorted with in an irritated and angry tone:

"Don't compare me with a sheltered little princess like yourself!"

The ferocity behind her outburst struck me speechless for a second. I hadn't heard her yell like this except during the height of combat.

"It pisses me off that you even think you could understand our lives! What do you know about black ops!? How could you understand anything about what it feels to be nonexistent to society, to live only as false identities, to serve as nothing more than disposable tools and never be anything more than that--!?"

Lysette's angry face began to calm itself as her eyes grew glazed with a dreamy, far away look:

"--Being used, drained, taken advantage of until one is completely spent and worthless -- that feeling, it's just... perfect... I doubt people like you can even begin to understand it."

'Worthless' was just about the anti-thesis of my life.

(I doubt I even want to understand. This girl... is definitely missing a few screws.)

A few seconds passed before Lysette shook off her imagination and coughed once. Her cheeks were still permeated by a deep blush. She then returned her glaring eyes upon me.

"Either way, there's no reason for a naive little girl who never once even had to risk her life, who couldn't even begin to fathom the concept of losing everything, to join the likes of us! We've already sold our souls to the devil. The last thing the Captain needs are bleached words from the likes of you!"

I couldn't deny her accusations.

Sure, I haven't said anything yet. But naive, superficial words were indeed all I have, all I could give...

(It was my limit.)

But... that was a present already passed. The past never needed dwelling upon, especially not that of my own.

"You're right. I am too inexperienced to understand. But you're also wrong about one thing -- I'm not a naive princess any longer. I can't be one any longer even if I still wanted to. I don't have anything except myself in this world. Unless I put myself on the line, I have no means to survive."

"So are you wh--I mean, investing yourself? On the Captain?"

(I guess that's one way of looking at it. But the truth is much simpler than that.)

"No. I'm just doing my best to help the only person I could depend on right now."

(Our relationship may be all for naught within a few days of time, but facing the present is all I can do.)

"Hmph... then I await your performance, princess," Lysette concluded with a mocking tone as she returned to her reading.


----- * * * -----


"Alright sir, you're clear. Please gather your belongings and have a good trip."

Passing the security checkpoint went as smoothly as one could ask for. In fact, given the shrunken TSV-9 craft packed inside nothing more than a large luggage case, they must have purposely ignored some major details; maybe they swapped the scan results with prepared fakes.

With his job finished, our contact with Director Elias saluted us from the other side of the gate with all the formality one could expect from a young noncom tasked with sending off several officer trainees.

We saluted back in return.

The Avalonian military salute had been easy to learn. It involved simply holding the left hand thumb, index, and middle fingers straight while bending in the other two, then pressing it to just above one's left eyebrow, tilted upwards.

"Well then, let's be going," Arkadi said in a far less authoritative tone than usual. His uniform was decorated by only the single star and double stripes of a junior-grade Lieutenant rather than the star plus four stripes of a full navy Captain. But it looked the same in just about every other way, except without the shoulder armor exclusive to close-combat troops. It was also slate-gray in color instead of pitch black.

The most surprising part was that his 'disguise' kept more or less the same appearance. Other than a pair of thin sunglasses, some chestnut-brown hair dye, and one less hair-tie to let loose his long hair, which went from but one strand to a full waterfall cascading half-way down his back with the help of growth acceleration magic, there really wasn't anything else in the way to keep others from recognizing his face.

In fact, every other member of the team had undergone a similar makeover, relying on no more than common hair dyes and some hairstyle makeovers. My own long blossom-pink hair had been dyed a deep chestnut color and tied into a sleek ponytail to make it 'not stand out' as much. I had found it surprising that we used chemical dyes instead of a simple magical spell, but they had explained that illusion and alchemy detectors were amongst the most common installations that gateport security had.

Apparently, the best way to beat security was not fancy complexity, but easily-overlooked simplicity.

The part of our disguise that had worried them the most was actually the starsteel chain still locked on my wrist, since it would attract attention from far more than just the security checkpoint guards. I was told to simply claim it to those who inquire as a heirloom 'fire meteor hammer', an exotic chain weapon that mostly vanished into history due to its difficulty of use. To avoid looking suspicious, Arkadi simply gave me an uniform jacket to sling over my left shoulder, covering my arm from all directions with the chained tucked into an inside pocket. A long cord hanging loosely around my neck held the jacket in place as we walked across the gateport.

The gateport was also far different from what I imagined. Unlike the transit hubs from my worlds of origin, this port did not involve transportation vehicles. In fact, the gateport was simply a network of structures, built hundreds of meters off the ground onto the sides of Brocéliande's gigantic ironwood trees, which enclosed a network of persisted and anchored Teleportation Gate spells. The city of Brest was actually built around this gateport, which acted as the central transit hub for the entire planet.

"Lieutenant?" Kaplan's stern voice called out.

We all stopped and turned around. Thankfully, despite the heavy flow of people, the corridors were wide enough to prevent crowding.

Ten meters behind us, Captain Arkadi had halted in the middle of the walkway. His eyes were gazing towards the terminal's south side, where a large group of people had just departed from a gateway room and was moving this way.

"What is it?" Haidar asked in curiosity over the telepathy channel.

Arkadi remained dazed for another second before he shook his head and began walking this way once again. A shade of surprise remained in his voice as he replied:

"I thought I saw someone I knew."

"In that case we best leave here as soon as possible," Kaplan stated. "The number three gateway room to Tintagel is just ahead."

"There's no need to make haste Kaplan, we'd only draw unnecessary attention to ourselves," Arkadi said confidently. "Let's just proceed as we have been."

As we walked through an enclosed connector bridge suspended in the air between two ironwood trees, I looked out the transparent glass wall and felt myself awed by the beauty of this metropolis' construction yet again.

The city of Brest was entirely built onto the trunks of an millennia-old ironwood forest. The tree trunks, already spanning dozens of meters in width, were reinforced on the outside by layers of diamondsteel. With the surface colored white and sculpted to look like the rough exterior of a mass of branches, the entire city seemed to be erected within a forest of white marble, rising up to a kilometer (0.6mi) above the ground.

Structures were built onto the trees in concentric rings of two to five stories each. They connected to one another through spiraling ramps, glass elevators, and suspended aerial corridors. All the buildings were also painted in various shades of green, beginning light at the bottom and then deepening progressively until the darkest hue of green stretched across the roof. Combined with the white marble trees they were built around, Brest looked like a perfect merge between the elegantly constructed elven cities of fantasy and the most modernized of arcology city designs.

Between the trees and structures flowed swarms of aircars, each with two VTOL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing) turbofan wings and supported by an ether-tech levitation field. The traffic felt similar to the impulsion-propelled aircars from my home planets. Except the steady hum of their engines that drifted in from open windows, combined with their wings, made them seem even more like insects and birds buzzing through a deep forest.

After reaching the other side of the bridge corridor, we could see the sign 'Tintagel Gateway III' before our eyes on the opposite side of a small but crowded food court. Yet just as we made our way around the seating area towards our destination, a chain of explosions rocked the entire building and sent smoke pouring out of the gateway room.

Chaos erupted in an instant.

People screamed in every direction as they began to panic. Some managed to remain rational as they ducked behind cover and tried to figure out what was going on first. Others simply scampered for their safety, deserting their belongings and running wildly in any direction that would put distance between them and the Third Gateway.

"Damnit terrorists! Why now?"

Haidar cursed out loud as the team bolted towards the nearby low wall that separated the walkway from the food court. It wasn't much cover to speak of, but at least it took us out of the way. The plants growing there would also provide us with some concealment.

As the team members crouched down, they began extracting their combat equipment from the 'extradimensional pouches' on their utility belts that were far too small to hold the items in question.

"Burst Hemisphere Up, Sanctum Union Spectrum Veil Expanded!" Kaplan chanted before all of our figures faded to semi-transparency. We were now invisible to everyone else.

Within seconds, a gaping hole nearly five meters (15ft) in diameter suddenly materialized in the transparent diamondweave glass wall on the east side after a mint-green beam struck it. A split second passed before the structure shook again, as an armored aircar crashed straight into the hole and tore through the glass wall. More civilians ran for their lives as the aircar's forward hatched opened into the hall.

At the same time, a petite girl stepped out of the smoke billowing from Tintagel Gateway Three...

Her presence took my breath away in an instant.

She was short at barely one-fifty-five (5'1"), around the same height as me, with a thin frame and small body about the same as mine. Her short cropped hair was a pristine apple-red, while a pair of brilliant heterochromic eyes, peridot-green left and blossom-pink right, lit up a charming teenage face full of focus and energy. She wore an odd-looking uniform: a black Japanese yukata of sorts with lavender and pink trim, but with a short pleated skirt instead of the usual. A gap cut down from the shoulders, connected by cords, separated the robe's main body from the short, loose sleeves, exposing the sheer white underlayer otherwise revealed only at the edges. Tight archery gloves hugged her forearms, while solid black stockings ran down to her black calf-high boots. A long sash was anchored to her chest with black cords, its remaining length billowing about her in the breeze.

In that moment I realized, even though I wasn't sure how or what it meant, that this girl was exactly the same as me; although her presence could not be any more different from my own.

"The Crimson Spectre," Kaplan's disbelieving voice was barely a whisper.

Four other girls, all sporting bright hair colors and wearing similar outfits as her, rushed out from the crashed aircar with sheathed katanas in hand. She sent them into the gateway room with but one gesture as her focused eyes continued to scan our area.

"Just what are you soldiers waiting for?" She jeered playfully as her feet began to advance towards us, pressuring us one step at a time.

"A honorable introduction, for one," replied Arkadi as he stood up and flipped over the low wall. The swordstaff in his grasp extended to full length while his appearance returned to normal after leaping out of the invisibility field. "But it seems none are necessary, are they? Crimson Spectre, Shirayuki Kaguya of the Eclipse."

The Moonlit Eclipse -- based on the information from the Somerset, they were an Arvitor terrorist organization and one of the three major terror groups. They mostly focused on surgical strikes against secret government facilities or to raid arvitor crystals from military installations.

(But then, what are they doing assaulting this public location?)

"Get out of here on my signal!" Arkadi ordered firmly over the communication rings. It was the first time I had heard his normally composed voice distressed by alarm and worry.

(Is this girl really such a dangerous opponent?)

A gracious smile stretched across Shirayuki's young face as she bowed with a quick yet elegant curtsy.

"I'd have preferred my title as Arvitor of the Sixth, Aura Dominion... But by name is still an honor, even if it is the foul, heartless, and lecherous Captain Arkadi Kernow, or should I call you the Black Prince?"

"How--?" Bewildered voices came from Kaplan and Korey at the same time, but neither over the open airways.

One of the first pieces of detail I checked after receiving access to the Somerset's database was information on Captain Arkadi and his team, only to come across nothing more than a name, a rank, and a blank page covered by a large 'Classified - Office of Naval Oversight' marker. Yet Shirayuki seemed to recognize him not only by appearance, but also by a title I only saw mentions of in the database: the 'Black Prince' was a notorious terrorist whose identity was unknown and didn't seem to be affiliated with any of the major terror groups.

The link didn't really surprise me. I knew Arkadi and his team were black ops. I had seen him kill thousands aboard Hadrian just to wrap up a mission to further the 1st District's agenda. But like the rest of the team, I was surprised by Shirayuki's knowledge of this. It didn't take a mastermind to realize the dire implications of blowing Arkadi's cover: it was circumstantial proof linking the 1st District to dozens of terrorist activities; proof that would serve as powerful weapons in a political arena as fragmented as that of the Republic's.

"...Avalon three," Arkadi responded grimly.

"You remember!" Shirayuki exclaimed as she happily clapped her hands together. "Even though you destroyed the entire outpost, someone did manage to see through your Mirage Veil and escape with memories of your real appearance." Her killing intent then filled her eyes and wiped away her smile within an instant. "Now, it's time to return the favor I owe you for the death and enslavement of my comrades."

Her right hand slashed downwards, and six silvery torchlights, each flying in midair like will-o'-the-wisps, shot out and began to orbit about her as though a layer of electrons. The hand then touched the tip of a torchlight, instantly materializing the silvery flame into a handle that she gracefully wrapped her delicate fingers around. With a single, fluid motion, she pulled the rest of the sword, a Japanese katana in style but with the blade curvature of an Arabian saber, through the shimmering air. The metallic blade leaving ripples behind in its wake as though drawn from water.

"Personal Aura Emanate, Float Union Impulse Shift!" She called out in flowing Japanese as the hilt of her sword ejected a single cartridge. Her boots left the ground and began to float in the air just a decimeter above. Simultaneously, a circular array of glyph-marked papers seemed to fall off her gloves to form a disk-like ring around her wrist, before disintegrating in a pulsating burst of red light that flooded into her sword before vanishing.

She then twisted the sword edge to face Arkadi before reaching down with her left hand to strengthen her grasp on the hilt.

"Prepare yourself to meet my blade of justice, sinner!"



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