Avalon:Volume 0 Chapter 7

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Chapter 7 - Calamity Catalyst

Every step had gone so perfectly up until now, and suddenly everything went completely not as planned. Arkadi knew he should have expected this. There was always a debt to Murphy's Law after all -- the longer things went right, the worse it got when they finally go wrong.

But for the moment, he couldn't imagine it being any worse than this.

Not only was the enemy before him Shirayuki the Crimson Spectre, the most renowned assassin and saboteur in the Republic; not only did she recognize his face by reputation, precluding any chance of him talking his way out of this without a fight; but she also announced his identity as the Black Prince in full view of the gateport security system.

Years of success contributed to his overconfidence. He simply didn't anticipate this. Now, he was going to pay the price.

Even if he could have the system hacked right now, it would already be too late. Every feature of his face would be memorized by every 2nd District security operative before the end of the day. That didn't even begin to describe how much of a political disaster it would be for the Black Prince to be identified as a Captain from the 1st District Office of Naval Oversight, directly under the command of Marshal Comorus himself.

"Prepare yourself--"

Arkadi barely even listened to the rest of her declaration of engagement as he frantically prepared his own defense.

"Initiate Aegis."

There was no choice. He had to use his trump card or he would die by the first strike.

"--Sinner!"

The instant Shirayuki finished, both her murderous killing intent and her figure vanished from his senses.

No, not quite... She had accelerated towards his right to near transonic speed in but a second's time, with enough force that would surely turn any human not protected by inertial compensators to paste. But even in the split second before she left his vision, his enhanced eyes simply couldn't follow her, nor did any of his other senses respond to her movement. It was as if her presence no longer registered to his instincts. The only way his senses would recognize her was if his focus locked onto her, which was simply hopeless given her blurring speed.

Furthermore, even her magic signature had completely vanished from the Aurasense magic he had been concentrating on. Normally, that was impossible. But she was Aura Dominion...

Before Arkadi could even turn his head to follow, he felt the red flash from his Aegis Vector Shield feed at the back of his mind. It notified him that her blade had just smashed into his rear. Thankfully, he felt neither burning pain nor the taste of blood. It would seem that the shield worked.

The problem was that this experimental shield couldn't be recharged by his ether and only had enough magic to work up to ten minutes. Worse yet, there was a way to bypass it as long as one considered its functions calmly and had the martial prowess to overcome the handicap.

Shirayuki obviously had both the intelligence and speed to accomplish that...


-----


It wasn't even metaphorical anymore. Kannon watched as Shirayuki literally flew a circle around Arkadi while he barely turned his head. She lifted into the air and spiraled in from his right, then slashed away directly behind him, before spiraling back out and stopping at precisely the same location she set out from.

Yet despite the unbelievable speed, her sword hadn't moved any faster than normal. In fact, her arms had began the swing the instant she started moving. Even at stop, she had barely regained the balance of her blade.

Somehow, her katana-saber had bounced off Arkadi's Vector Shield instead of penetrating. Not just deflected but reflected all the way back to its initial stance.

Shirayuki stood dazed for a second before her surprised face quickly turned into one of contempt and disgust. For some reason, she had absolutely no presence to speak of right now; her figure seemed to blend into the background right before Kannon's senses and it took concentration just to notice her. But that only made her angry voice worse as it seemed to originate from the very atmosphere:

"Vector Reflection Shielding -- you bastards have some nerve to experiment on the body of Aegis Paramount!"

"To fiddle with your own yet deny us our right. Isn't that hypocrisy?" Arkadi mocked in response.

"It is not your right when it is not your own!"

Does she mean Human experimentation? Just when I thought the laws couldn't get any worse than slavery...

"Because you were obviously your parents' belonging when they chose to manipulate your genetics," Arkadi shrugged. "Besides, under Republican law, Arvitors of the Crystal are part of our belongings. I mean, Genies? Arcane Servitors? Come on, you people are just begging to be used by the rest of us."

Kannon could hardly believe her ears. Even though she was trying to keep an open mind about the whole Arvitor business, she still thought that was going too far. Then it hit her as she realized his obvious lie:

He's provoking her, but what for?

A steel spike soared from Shirayuki's hand, its aim locked directly onto Arkadi's face. Yet instead of being reflected back, the projectile was only deflected off course. It tumbled through the air before plunging tip-first into a table three steps away, when Kannon noticed at last that it was made of the same violet-shaded metal as the starsteel chain on her arm. To deflect a material that completely resisted normal magic...

That shield's magic is at the level of a Grand Sorcery!

They were spells of the tenth grade. Magic so powerful it bordered on the deific, overwhelmed lesser arcana, and only partially influenced by antimagic. The might of Grand Sorceries knew few limits and often bent even the rules of magic, but was also rare enough that official sources estimate its number of current practitioners to be in the single digits.

Shadows descended upon Shirayuki's expression as she brought her katana-saber down to a low stance, with the tip of the blade just barely above the ground.

"May your blackened soul scatter to the winds and nourish the mana of this planet." Her solemn voice spoke as if announcing the final words of his epitaph as her left hand pulled another katana-saber from an orbiting torchlight. More red paper magic channeled into it before she kicked off again to continue the duel.

What happened next was almost impossible to track by even an enhanced eye, and certainly not from a range as close as that of Arkadi's. Shirayuki's figure blurred into the very air itself as she launched into a tempest of strikes. Her impossible speed left behind little more than an afterimage as she spiraled about in the air, streaking by Arkadi every few seconds and causing his aegis shield bubble to flare repeatedly. The sapphire-blue magical shield, a far difference from the usual deep-violet color of his ether, was being struck from every angle. It lit up again and again before the glow from past impacts could even fade away.

Shirayuki intended to pummel his shield until it collapsed from sheer ether drain.

Captain Arkadi, on the other hand, was virtually helpless to stop her. Against Shirayuki's avalanche of blades, which consistently targeted the his back no matter which way he turned, Arkadi could only make wild sweeping counterattacks with his swordstaff.

"He'll be overwhelmed at this rate..." Korey muttered with a mixture of awe and distress over the channel. "We have to do something!"

"But-but what!?" Haidar replied, his tone more challenging than questioning.

The entire team was in battle-ready stance. But the Crimson Spectre's dance of death had them all dumbfounded on what they could possibly do without being killed the instant they revealed themselves.

Shirayuki's level totally outmatches every one of them... this encounter is like meeting a final boss during early game; Arkadi is only staying alive because his equipment far surpasses anyone else.

"Burst Aura Emanate, Hemisphere Up!"

Arkadi called as he turned his swordstaff to point directly down before shoving it, along with the orb of magical energy gathering at its tip, straight into the ground at the center of the rotating casting array. A jet of steam and the sounds of two cartridges hitting the ground erupted at the same time.

"Plasma Blast!"

A wave of energy rushed out from him and dissipated after reaching five meters. It left the air inside crackling with electrical discharges and simmering in a bluish hue as the intense heat burnt away the very atmosphere. But Shirayuki charged straight into this field of scorching air as if it didn't even exist. Whenever she moved in, the burning and crackling air would return to normal, shifting back to its energized state only after she passed.

In Kannon's eyes, it was just like how the barriers of fantasy would sweep aside to allow the passage of their master...

No, not just like. This is magic. and Arkadi's choice of parameter words had been 'Aura Emanate'.

"We should withdraw," Kaplan plainly stated.

"You're just going to abandon the team leader?" Korey challenged in defiance. "Besides, where would we withdraw to? The 2nd District must have surrounded this facility already--"

Kannon tuned out their argument to focus her thoughts.

Over the past few days, she had read through dozens of documents on magic that she found in Somerset's database, hoping to give herself a crash course in the sorcery so inherently necessary to this society. Among her findings was that Avalonian spells, regardless of their cultural or linguistic origins, had evolved into a unified approach.

Spells were broken down into components, each enabled by opening specific magic-conduit nerve pathways in the caster's body to form an internal magical array, which did the actual casting while external arrays merely augmented. These activation patterns were programmed into the body through repetitive training and triggered through mnemonic spellwords. Target words like Select; parameter words like Hemisphere Up; effect words like Plasma Blast; composite words like Union; and enhance words like Expanded -- wordspells were formed by assembling these five types of key words and phrases together.

Arkadi had projected a spell of the Aura type, probably so he could use its persisting area effects to bypass her Vector Shield when a directional energy burst couldn't. Except Shirayuki had introduced herself as 'Aura Dominion', a title that implied her mastery over all Aura magic.

She was probably concealing her presence through the same ability, as spirituality did claim that all living beings radiated an aura of presence.

Likewise, her absurd speed could be answered by the spell she had cast before engaging -- Impulse Shift, Union, Float, and Aura Emanate -- and manipulation the momentum-altering aura's strength for her exceptional acceleration.

"Don't deploy auras!" Kannon shouted through telepathy. "She's controlling it!"

"I know!" Arkadi's reply sounded agitated, almost desperate as his shields continued to flash under her assault. "But I must do something, these shields are draining too fast!"

Arkadi had backed to a nearby wall, guarding his back with the obstacle and forcing Shirayuki to attack from the front and sides. But his attempts at counterattacking hadn't even come close to scoring. Furthermore, his lack of composure had also revealed the greatest dilemma:

He's out of ideas.

It were moments like these, when the team could only stand idly and watch, that really spoke volumes for just how important Arkadi's judgment was for the entire team.

Although Shirayuki could no longer fly circles around him, she now flew from side to side in front of him, using the span to shake off his eyes before moving in to strike. Her phenomenal acceleration allowed her to turn instantly and made it impossible to predict her movement. But she did have a critical limitation: she relied more on her velocity rather than her own swings to make slashing attacks. The tenacity of her grip would falter after each burst of strikes. It forced her to break off the attack run, reaffirm her hold with a flourish, and then charge back in...

The proverbial light bulb turned on in Kannon's mind:

"Haidar, can you evoke a plasma wall in front of the Captain?"

Kannon knew the first shot would expose their position, therefore the first hit must be decisive and bypass any Vector Shields. Instead of directing an attack towards Shirayuki, they needed her to walk into an offensive effect already placed over the area...

"--Course! But without Aura Emanate, it'll disperse in under a second."

"Charge up the spell then, I can tell you exactly when she's moving in to attack. Kaplan, could you please cast a second wall few meters outside Haidar's, in case my timing is off or if she tries to break off from Haidar's."

Kannon felt both Kaplan and Korey's eyes suddenly turn toward her in surprise. Meanwhile, Haidar simply nodded before aiming his swordstaff towards Arkadi.

He might be a bit foolish, but he also seemed to be a trusting and reliable person, all things considered.

"Barrier Wall Radial," He chanted by shouting over the telepathy channel instead. Kaplan joined him a second later.

Accounting for her response time and their cast delays, Kannon knew she had to preemptively announce the moment of Shirayuki's attack. This meant that the moment that katana-saber was readied...

"Now!"

"Plasma Blast!"

A ray connected instantly, forming a semi-circular barrier of plasma just three steps away from Arkadi as Shirayuki soared in for her next strike. With her speed working against her reactions, she had less than a fraction of a second to respond, and she just wasn't fast enough. The edges of her robes burst into flames as she glazed the rapidly dispersing plasma barrier before veering off, only to run straight into a second energy wall from Kaplan. But by then, a magical field already slammed into place over her body.

"Contingent Energy Resist," Kaplan stated as though berating himself, identifying the cause of their failure.

Shirayuki's outer sleeves had been burnt to dust. Most of her skirt had suffered a similar fate, exposing the cycling shorts she wore underneath. Even the edges of her short apple-red hair looked badly singed. But the rest of her body looked fine as she immediately launched a counterattack.

"Select Arms, Catalyst Dispel!"

With their position blown by spellcasting, the still invisible members found themselves the target of a single fiery-red shockwave released from Shirayuki's right sword.

"Ether-cept!"

The magic that enveloped them in invisibility instantly tore away with one word from Kaplan. It formed five beams of his dark-blue ether which intercepted the oncoming attack in midair. The volley protected them from the attack, but at the cost of blowing their remaining cover. The team swiftly stood up from their crouching positions with readied weapons. There was no point in trying to hide anymore.

Yet instead of pouncing upon them, Shirayuki halted her assault and landed on the other side of the court; her eyes widened in surprise.

The four other members of the Eclipse emerged from the smoke coming out of the gateway room. Two of them carried bags slung over their shoulders while the other two stood with swords drawn. They nodded once towards Shirayuki -- a sign of their silent, telepathic exchanges -- before making their way towards the shattered glass wall where their aircar had broken through.

Meanwhile, hurried footsteps could be heard from the hallway behind Kannon. Security forces were just moments away from reaching the combat zone. It was a clear indicator that both sides -- Shirayuki's and Arkadi's -- were running out of time.

"What trickery is this, Black Prince?" Shirayuki spoke as her angry gaze locked onto Kannon's, sending a tremble down the young girl's back.

"Kaplan?" Arkadi sounded just as confused.

"I haven't done anything, sir."

The few seconds of silence was enough to answer Shirayuki's question as a gracious yet predatory smile emerged from her expression.

"Well then!"

She kicked off from the ground and soared straight towards the team, right before she suddenly braked in midair as two shots, fired from behind them, crossed path with her would-be trajectory. The starsteel bullets bypassed her outer vector shield as though it didn't even exist. It missed her by half an arm's length, then smashed into the wall on the far side to leave two bullet holes behind.

"That's enough, Crimson Spectre."

Kannon spun around alongside Haidar and Lysette, eyeing the three new soldiers that stood before them.

Two of them had lieutenant insignias, both on guard with the same type of swordstaves that Arkadi and Haidar used. The tall blond man in the center however wore the outfit of a colonel, with a sword in one hand and a pointed carbine in the other.

"Lancet of the 3rd District," Shirayuki growled in discontent. "What are you doing on Broceliande?"

"You have what you needed already," he replied, completely ignoring her question. "Withdraw now, Lady Shirayuki. I can't stop you from leaving, but I will stop you from advancing, at least long enough until reinforcements arrive. Will you jeopardize your entire mission for this?"

"You're taking the side of these impudents!? Krivoshein has fallen low indeed." Yet despite the anger in her words, she flew backwards, straight for the collapsed glass wall without waiting for a response. There she followed the other four as they leaped out into the city's airspace.

"What about you, Kadi?" His pistol redirected itself towards Arkadi, his hardened voice heavy with familiarity and nostalgia, relief and sorrow. A flicker of light drew Kannon's eyes to the silver rectangular locket that hanged from his neck, the exact same design as the locket attached to Arkadi's pistol.

"Are you going to let us leave, Kayeten Hans-Rudel?" Arkadi asked as he turned to face him directly, his tone formal yet traced by the same emotions.

The locket is no mere coincidence, Kannon felt certain. These two were definitely close friends once upon a time... but does that imply him to be an ally?

"Eighteen years, Kadi, eighteen years and that's all you have to say for yourself?" Kayeten almost shouted, his words a mixture of sorrow, regret, anger, and betrayal. "Kernow? The Black Prince? We thought you had died, died because I had failed to stop you. Yet now here you are, working as the son of our parents' murderers!?"

It was hardly the time to be shocked; but Kannon could see the composure slip from the expressions of every other person on the team, with the exception of Kaplan.

"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."

Arkadi's words returned to her mind again as rumbling footsteps, dozens of them as heavy as marines wearing powered armor, flooded in from the hallway behind Kayeten.

"Times have changed," Arkadi flatly stated while gesturing for his team to move towards the broken window. "I have changed."

There wasn't a trace of regret in Arkadi's words, only determination.

But is it really as simple as that?

Before Kannon's thoughts departed further, Korey's hand grabbed her to pull her along as Kaplan led the team into a run.

"Shirayuki must have destroyed the Tintagel Gateway already," Arkadi broadcasted over the channel. "We can only leave the same way they did: fly out of the wards and teleport. Haidar, prepare your spell!"

"Affirmed!"

As Korey dragged Kannon around the low wall towards the windows and Arkadi turned to join us, Kayeten kept up his gun's aim but did not fire.

"At least you're still the same honest person as you were, Kayeten."

Kannon never heard the response. Powerful winds blew over her ears as they stepped near the window's edge, covering any sounds still coming through the hallway. Before her was a drop hundreds of meters through the air to the ground below, a terrifying height that made her instinctively take a step back.

Then, a nearby diamondweave-glass window exploded outwards as an electrolaser beam smashed into it from behind. Two flares also came through at the back of her mind as the vector shield's connection to her implant warned that she was taking fire from the rear.

"JUMP!" Arkadi ordered, just as an arm pushed Kannon from behind and sent her over the edge.

In one moment Kannon was shaking but still on solid ground; the next moment her body almost froze as it went into free fall over the city's air lanes. She wasn't even any safer outside -- red hot stilettos of energy cut into their position and caused their shields to flare as two armored military crafts strafed away.

"Select Multiply Six--!" Haidar shouted from the air above, a two-tiered circular magical array rotating below his feet even as he fell.

"Select Split Six, Air Glide!" came Arkadi's voice, and Kannon realized that it was his arm that had pushed her and then wrapped itself around her waist.

Their speed soon slowed to a gradual descent as though cushioned by invisible air bubbles. Then, just after the two hostile aircraft strafed by a second time, Haidar finally finished his spell.

"Astral Teleport!"

Even though Kannon had already experienced it once, the feeling of teleportation was simply impossible to prepare oneself for. It felt as if her entire body was suddenly enveloped by ice, then sublimated in gas and scattered in the air. Her consciousness was pulled through a tiny hole in the fabric of space that materialized before her eyes, while her surroundings dissolved into it like scenery flushed down a drain. Then, as quick as it came, everything returned to normal. Except her body still felt like it was reconnecting itself while her vision swapped with one of the forest floor, facing the humongous root of an ironwood tree that easily rivaled the size of a skyscraper.

As her recognition returned, Kannon noticed that they were in a jungle of small, dilapidated structures, built from cracked ceramicrete and plates of ironwood. The structures were densely packed, with nothing more than a small dirt path littered with trash separating entire blocks of adjoining buildings. The team stood in the only clearing in sight, next to several massive trash dumpsters and what seemed to be a rusty old incinerator.

Nausea stirred in her stomach as the foul smell hit her senses.

They also weren't alone.

A handful of people milled about in the area, dressed in dingy clothes. More of them laid back on lounge chairs, seemingly asleep but had the telltale signs of wires trailing from the back of their necks -- physical-links to virtual reality. Most of them also looked like they have neither showered nor groomed in days if not weeks, and few seemed to be fed by a healthy diet.

Haidar had teleported them into the slums, a large district which stretched on as far as the eye could see, lying in the shadows of Brest in sharp contrast to the beautiful city above.

"The usual three to shake them off our trail should be enough, Haidar."

"Yessir." Haidar's swordstaff quickly pumped out four more cartridges while another magical circle expanded below his feet. The Captain then followed by stepping away from Kannon and driving his swordstaff blade into the ground.

"Burst Radial Aura Emanate, Enthralling Attraction."

Why is he trying to grab people's attention when we're fleeing...?

"That should be enough to draw people in and disrupt our spell residue with their auras; makes it near-impossible to track our teleports," Arkadi commented after seeing Kannon's confused expression.

Many of the onlookers were already moving in; their blank eyes filled with insatiable desire to reach where the team stood. But before any of them could reach, Haidar finished his spell again...

"Astral--"

Kannon somehow had to steel herself for three more teleports before she could try to wrap her head around just what happened back there.


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


"What exactly happened?" Captain Arkadi asked with suppressed anger as his team strode into the operation room. "That was far too many coincidences."

"I'm deeply sorry Commandant, but there was a particularly large shipment of Arvitor Crystals coming in from Avalon this afternoon."

Apologizing like a giant groveling before a man only made Director Elias seem more at fault for missing an important piece of information during planning.

"Why was the Lancet Centurion there then?"

"Our reports claim that Marshal Sidika Krivoshein of the 3rd District was in the gateport at the time. We knew that she would be coming later this week for the meeting, but you know how she has a record for traveling incognito... There was no way we could have known about the exact--"

Arkadi dropped himself into a nearby chair and closed his eyes to squeeze the bridge of his nose, his visage a mixture of exhaustion and irritation.

"I assume my arrest warrant is already circulating."

"Yes." Elias broke the dreadful news. "Information about your entire team had been distributed throughout the security network. Every passage on or off the planet had its watch doubled. They also captured our two agents at the gateport."

"It appears our unwilling hosts have decided to keep us here... At least until the Marshal arrives from Avalon -- how very quaint."

"Why not just request one of the wayfarer mages to come here and teleport us--" Haidar proposed, but Arkadi lashed back as if the mere suggestion was insulting:

"I will not rely upon top-level resources that were not delegated to us from the Marshal!"

Given that Haidar's teleportation range was nowhere near even one astronomical unit when he was already an accomplished spellcaster, Kannon realized that these wayfarer mages capable of interplanetary teleportation must be exceedingly rare. But even with all the exhaustion and strain Arkadi was under, such an outburst was simply uncharacteristic of him.

"I do find it, intriguing, that Marshal Sidika is here on Broceliande this early, five days before the military council between the three districts convenes." Kaplan remarked as he stood stiffly behind Arkadi's chair, trying to divert the conversation away from the unpleasant situation. "Her hobbies notwithstanding, there must be a reason she would forgo modern communications and envoys -- a matter important enough for her to come talk face to face with the 2nd District."

No matter what the era or how advanced the technology, nothing can ever replace a genuine face-to-face meeting when establishing trust... especially for something big.

"What do you think?" Arkadi asked after a deep breath and some temple rubbing.

"A joint venture against the 1st would seem the obvious answer. There are countless options, but the first thing that comes to mind is that Broceliande's research capacity is in no way comparable to that of Avalon and Kunlun. They'll need help with reverse-engineering their own scans of the survey craft."

Kannon searched the data downloaded into her implant just to be sure:

[ Kunlun - The 3rd planet of the Shenzhou system. Kunlun is an extremely mountainous and high-humidity world where the valleys are covered by a persistent layer of fog, leaving the plateau colonies sitting above a sea of clouds. The 1st outer system planet of the Avalon Dominion, Kunlun was settled by cultural communities of Oriental and Altaic descent. Today it is the core world of the 3rd Military District... ]

"But Avalon runs the Republic's main naval shipyards. It's how our navies have managed to stay standardized," stated Director Elias.

"Yes, but while starships could benefit greatly from replacing ion maneuvering thrusters with gravitic impulsion drives, it's going to be the trans-atmospheric and planetary vehicles that gets an order of magnitude boost to effectiveness. They'll be upgrading from VTOL air-intake engines to true repulsorlift propulsion. Legally, we're required to share land designs too to stay standardized. But a few years in time lag is expected, which offers a window of opportunity as each district has their own ground production and support facilities."

"And with it swings the balance of military power within the Republic," Arkadi followed after Korey's explanation. "With the electorate and wealth of the 2nd District combined with the resources of the 3rd District, they would indeed overwhelm even the influence of the 1st."

"But do you believe they will actually forge an alliance against us?" Korey asked. "The Republic has always relied on the balance between the three powers to avoid devolving into civil war."

"Except that Marshal Comorus has done too well," shrugged Kaplan. "The Avalonian corporates dominate too much of the market these days... The 1st always maintained a majority in active forces, armaments industry, and military research; money had been our only real weakness."

"Not to mention Caerleon is due to finish terraforming soon," added Arkadi. "The 1st will gain a whole new high-magic planet. A population and economic boom is likely to follow."

"All I'm saying is that, depending on circumstances and intelligence, our mission parameters may shift radically in the next few days." Kaplan clarified and Arkadi nodded in agreement. "After all, we are the flagship team of the Black Hand."


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


"It's amazing how fast you managed to deduce that given your lack of experience with our magic system."

After ten minutes of nervously explaining her actions and the thoughts that led up to them during the gateport incident, the rush of euphoria from Captain Arkadi's approving words and encouraging smile had made everything worth it dozen times over for Kannon. Even the conscious thought that they were alone in his assigned guest quarters had been pushed aside, although her sense of modesty had not.

"Thank you for the praise, sir. But... all we ended up doing was draw her attention."

"Not quite. Shirayuki might have resisted the spells, but the important part is that you kept your composure while under pressure from a dire situation. Furthermore, you even managed to deduce what Shirayuki was doing and recognize the timing of her attacks despite having no magical training and little more than a few days of experience in our world."

"Though... you were the one who fought her off, the rest of us--"

"Once again, don't belittle yourself, Kannon," Arkadi reiterated in with a firm and commanding voice that instantly silenced her. "Being on the front lines and doing the flashy work isn't the only job, or even the most important. No military unit can survive without proper guidance, intel, and logistics. You're not contributing much yet because you don't have the appropriate training -- no offense Kannon, but if you could succeed so easily, it would imply my team is incompetent and no better than amateurs. What's more important is that you've already shown, twice now, that you can rapidly adapt and analyze a critical situation with only what you know in the worst of circumstances. That kind of calm and collected thinking usually took years to build up."

Calm? No way.

Kannon knew she was definitely just as anxious, worried, and frightened as anyone else. She was simply used to pushing emotions into a corner of her mind during unpleasant situations to focus on better thoughts, more useful thoughts...

"...Kannon, I'm thinking about getting you trained as an Auxilia."

Her thoughts came to an abrupt stop as her eyes widened to Arkadi's words.

"You definitely have the potential -- your magic aura hasn't stopped growing ever since you were exposed to ether-tech equipment. I can't be sure unless we do a thorough check on your body, but my estimate is that you would easily qualify for auxilia training. With your composure and open-minded deduction skills, you'll make a fantastic diviner or archivist tactical officer; although I guess we'll have to see what magic you have the most affinity for first."

Wait... really!?

Even with his cheerful grin, even with his amused eyes, Kannon could tell... the Captain was completely serious. Hope swelled in her chest as her mind replayed his words. It was like being offered a prestigious job before even graduating, before even applying. Yesterday she was still wondering how she could stay useful in this world, so she could be accepted into the group while she was here, and now...

"I'm not offering you a position yet, by the way," Arkadi chuckled as though he read her thoughts. "I'm simply offering you the opportunity to explore your potential, which I honestly believe to be greater than any of us ever expected. So... what do you say?"

Kannon nodded instinctively, her mind still recollecting itself.

"Is that a yes?" He asked with playful amusement. "It looks like you're just bobbing your head."

"Of course!" she nodded more vigorously, shaking the stupor off her mind. "A guardian of knowledge will remain one no matter the world she's in. I just need the time to adapt. You won't regret giving me this opportunity Captain!"

"Excellent! We'll have to get you tested for exact qualifications once we get back to Avalon. But in the meantime..." Arkadi's eyes shifted to focus on something in the empty air before him. Suddenly an AR window popped up in her vision, requesting her permission for a data transfer with his identification as the source.

Kannon focused on 'Yes' for a second and nodded to click it. Open data transfers always required more motion than most AR interactions due to their less restrained interfacing which increased implant vulnerability to hacking scripts and digital viruses.

"...I'm sending you three files. The first one is relatively simple and basically a crash course into the magic of our world. You've probably read much of it from the Somerset's data already. What I want you to focus on is the training it introduces in consciously refining the natural 'mana' we absorb from the environment into 'ether', malleable magical power that we may use to shape spells and power devices."

"The second is more straightforward. It walks over the Avalonian military's tactical doctrine, both battle line and special forces. It's just for getting you acquainted with the basic concepts."

"The third is far larger and more complicated. It's a database of more than five thousand spell-words, including all the important information regarding their use such as school, subtype, aura, pattern, technique, description, effect, limitations, etcetera. I don't intend for you to try learning these words, at least not yet. But in our wordspell system, knowledge and creativity can be just as powerful as actual magic potential. Knowing what words to use and what words to combine for any particular situation is half the battle."

Kannon nodded in agreement. Specifically tailored solutions were magnitudes better than generic procedural templates; this was a known fact whether it was management or applied sciences. With a system as adaptive and flexible as their wordspells, being able to assemble the right 'plan' and create the right 'tool' on the spot was invaluable.

But to ask me to help out with such a critical role before I could even be trained...

"Basically, I just want you to look that over and get a grasp on just what kind of magic is available out there. With the right information, you'll be able to help us out far more..."

Gratitude and happiness lifted her spirit to new levels as the thought of being a useful member went through her mind.

"Yes sir~!"

"No pressure though," Arkadi followed with a reassuring smile. "This process is normally spread over years of magic training, so don't rush yourself."

"...I'll be done in a week!"

With a slow, build-up style cognition, Kannon knew that focused studies was one of her strengths. As long as she stayed on one topic and had sufficient time to set up the big picture, she could work up a pace and absorb exceptional amounts of information.

Arkadi smirked, somewhere between amusement, encouragement, and challenge.

I will make that smile turn into one of appreciation and respect, just watch.

"One last piece of advice: think outside the box. Or better yet, don't fabricate a box around your thinking in the first place. Many of the best wordspells I've heard of are also the most unorthodox ones, so don't limit yourself with concepts like magic conventions and commonly accepted principles." He leaned back into his air cushioned chair and clasped his fingers in front of him with a knowing grin. "In fact, that's why I took out that introductory chapter from the first part I gave you."

"But... isn't there a reason they're the accepted guidelines and principles?"

"Most of them are merely remnants of the old school-based magic system that relied on pre-canned incantations, and--"

*Beebeebeep, beebeebeep*

The screen on the east wall suddenly lit up with the flashing red words 'Incoming Alpha-Priority Transmission'.

Arkadi stood up and nodded towards the screen to accept the call. Meanwhile Kannon got up from her chair and moved towards the door, but he stopped her with a raised hand and locked the door with a glance just before she reached it.

"Good evening, father." Arkadi saluted, his voice now completely flat and devoid of emotion.

Kannon quickly spun around from the southeast corner where she stood. An entire office desk was projected into the room through the AR interface, its presence so real that she thought it had somehow teleported in for a second. Sitting behind it was a stern-faced man dressed in a black uniform with a Marshal's four-star rank insignia. He was still in his late thirties, but his graying black hair, wrinkled forehead, and square jaw made him look not only older but even more imposing. His solid black eyes stared into Arkadi without the slightest emotion as he went straight into business without even a greeting:

"Arkadi, I trust you've received news of my departure for Rennes in four days' time?"

"Yes, father."

"There is a task I want completed before then, now that your departure from Broceliande has been... delayed."

Several seconds of silence followed as Arkadi stood without moving a muscle, waiting only for Marshal Comorus to continue.

"I trust Elias has been dealt with accordingly."

"I believe it was of sheer coincidence that the Crimson Spectre managed to expose us. As Director Elias has saved your life in the pas--"

"Tell me, Arkadi... are you a tool, or are you garbage?" Comorus interrupted, his deep voice resounding in the room with crushing authority.

It's obvious that their relationship isn't that of father and son. But just what kind of question is that to ask, even to your subordinates?

"I am your tool, father."

"THEN HOW LONG DO YOU PLAN TO SIT AMONGST TRASH INSTEAD OF INCINERATING THEM!!!"

His sudden outburst of feral rage would have sent everyone within a mile into a cowering silence if this room wasn't soundproof. In the corner of the room Kannon suddenly found herself huddling shakily next to the cold walls as her skin paled instantly. She focused her thoughts on Arkadi to help push the fear away. But he didn't even avert his gaze. He just stood there, still meeting the Marshal eye to eye without a trace of emotion.

"Missed information, delayed response, voided precaution, withdrawn cleanup... Tell me, was the preservation of our flagship operation team merely a game to him, or to you as well?"

"It was of utmost concern."

"Then one must exact the proper punishment for a failure of such magnitude."

A second passed in silence and stillness as Arkadi steeled himself, before sealing the fate of the man with but one line: "Affirmed. Discipline will be upheld."

"Consider this part of your punishment for allowing the details to slip through once again."

This man is beyond merciless. Words like callous and cruel barely scratches the surface.

"Now, onto the real task. Thanks to your blunder, Sidika Krivoshein's presence on Broceliande has been exposed. Yet the 2nd District is still foolishly trying to hide it. This offers us a window of opportunity to temporarily neutralize the 3rd, provoke their relationship with the 2nd, and cut off the terrorists' backing all at once with but one stroke."

"You are to eliminate her using whatever methods deemed necessary, but it must be done before my arrival and any open trails should point towards the Amber Skies. Those bastards are always trying to provoke a conflict between us and the 3rd District. Let's give them and their 2nd District paymasters a taste of their own medicine."

According to Kannon's information from the Somerset, the Amber Skies was the most indiscriminate and unpredictable of the three major terror groups. Most of its members were either Arvitor extremists or criminals from impoverished population centers. Furthermore, the only identifiable goal from their actions was to incite hostility between the three districts in hopes of breaking down the current system through civil war. To imitate those madmen in assassination would require not surgical precision but unmitigated slaughter.

"Affirmed."

"Sidika is also accompanied by two of her best: Lancet Centurion Kayeten Hans-Rudel--"

Arkadi's face froze as his widening eyes looked upon the screen that popped up behind Comorus, which displayed the image of Kayeten and another young lady standing next to a middle-aged woman.

"--And Cross Knight-Procurator Linnaea Tesarik, whom we believe to be Sidika's correspondent with the Seventh Cross. You are to eliminate both of them with prejudice."

The Seventh Cross was the third of the three major terror organizations. It originated as a rogue branch of the Cross Knights Order. Although denounced by the 3rd District, they were widely viewed as the 3rd's black ops unit. On the surface, they were the least active of the three. But the scale and complexity of their few raids on corrupt corporations and secret military installations completely outmatched the others.

Yet it was obvious to Kannon that the Cross did not concern the Captain. For several seconds after Kayeten's name was mentioned, Arkadi's expression had lost all composure and revealed his shocked surprise. Logically speaking, he must have known that Kayeten would be an obstacle to the assassination after appearing at the same time as Sidika. But as Kannon mentally replayed their exchange from the gateport, she realized that their relationship was far deeper than Arkadi was willing to reveal.

He simply hadn't believed that he would need to kill Kayeten, despite the obvious...

"You may utilize all resources available to Node Seventeen as its Acting Director, as well as any you deem necessary from the other local nodes, minus those involved in the Tinchebray-Crecy-Poitiers operations. I am initiating our strategic plans early thanks to your blunder, and for obvious reasons Sidika's head will be added as a new high priority objective. Even the loss of all other pieces of the Broceliande network is acceptable as long as you take it."

Marshal Comorus isn't just serious. He's desperate.

Even if the adoptive son relationship could be kept secret, which was unlikely in Kannon's opinion, circumstantial proof that the Black Prince was a Captain of the 1st District Office of Naval Oversight would surely spell a crushing defeat in the political arena. Unless Marshal Comorus could reverse the situation quickly by sending his foes into chaos, it was likely that his career would soon be in serious jeopardy. Within their centralized power structure, a disorderly transition of command could lead to political fragmentation and bring disaster upon the entire faction.

"Affirmed."

Arkadi's response was worse than monotonic. Even the most rudimentary voice synthesizer would be considered emotive compared to the hollow voice that spoke that single word.

"Marcus will arrive in Broceliande orbit with Task Force One the same day as myself. His men have been given authority to take command of Node Seventeen should it remain functional at that time." Marshal Comorus declared, clearly highlighting what would happen to Arkadi even before he finished his order: "This is your only chance to correct your mistake. Failure will not be tolerated."

His projection then terminated with a flash, leaving the room in absolute silence.

Arkadi dropped back into his chair as if someone had cut his strings. What he received was no mere order. It was a life or death ultimatum -- to carry out a mission even he could not bring himself to.

"Captain," Kannon broke the silence with barely a whisper.

"Sorry... about that. You may leave now." His speech was quiet but steady, but... even as his fingers closed up into fists, his hands continued to shake against the armrests of his chair.

Kannon bowed and turned around before hesitation seized her.

Throughout her entire life, the number of people who had entrusted her, relied on her, she could count with only her fingers. Yet here was a man who did so, several times, in the span of merely a few days after their first meeting. Even if he rescued her for his own goals, even if he trusted her due to dire circumstances, she felt glad. Even if he had the worst reputation on this side of the galaxy, even if he betrayed his family to become a mass murderer for his parents' killer...

I can't really bring myself to think of the man before me as just an evil person.

"Are you really... going to do this?" Kannon forced out as she turned to face the challenge.

But no response came. Arkadi wouldn't even look at her. His head was still slumped, directing his gaze towards the floor before him.

"Even if you are Black Ops, even if you are used to killing... That man, he's one of your closest friends, isn't he?"

"What choice do you think I have?" Although his words weren't loud, his anger still went through Kannon like a shockwave, backed by the glare from his eyes as he finally turned to looked at her.

He then leaned back into his chair in exhaustion. His words returned to a far more even volume, but still one shadowed by contempt:

"Just what do you think you know about me, Kannon? Just how many days do you think we've actually met? I've spent almost my entire life fighting for this cause. I've orchestrated nearly every evil known to man. You think... do you seriously think I'm going to be fazed by this?"

Arkadi's fingers swung towards where Marshal Comorus' image was just a minute ago. Yet although his voice was steeled by determination, his straightened hand continued to shiver in midair; his bitter eyes still filled with turmoil. It was obvious that this order had finally shattered his composure, finally reached past the limit of his willingness.

Just what exactly continues to push him forward?

It wasn't his own neck; Kannon had no doubt of that. He was a Captain who always dove into danger first, broke away from peril last, and spent more time than anyone else staring down death. He resolved himself to meet any objective, not because he had no sense of morality, but because his goal demanded it so.

Is it merely power? Is it the Marshal's position that interested him? Or is there something else, something far greater?

In leadership philosophy, those with personalized power motives sought power as an end in itself. Characterized by a desire to dominate and collect symbols of prestige, such leaders were impulsive in behavior and self-doubting in truth -- a mirror opposite to Arkadi's style. The alternative was a socialized power motive: power as a means to achieve desire higher goals. Kannon couldn't guess what that was. But she was also far beyond the point of simple curiousity. It was concern, sympathy, and a desire to repay kindness that drove her forward, to reach out towards a man who lived by gambling with his very life.

I want to know. I want to help.

"...You're right," Kannon replied as she took a step towards him, feeling the quivering of her own unsteady legs. "You're right that I don't understand right now. But even I can see that you desperately wish against this. Even if you are to join the ranks of history's most heinous villains, you'll still be human; you'll still have family and friends to care about."

Another step, and another. Even though the shaking in her legs was worsening by the second as she moved closer to his enraged eyes, her instincts continued to tell her that this was a distance she should try to close; that this was one gap that she must reach.

"So please, could you tell me? Just what are you trying to achieve? What is it that you want?"

Seconds passed as the room plunged into silence yet again, broken only by the soft sounds of her footsteps as she continued to advance towards him.

Yet just as Kannon neared arm's length of him, Arkadi suddenly stood up from his chair. With a single swift motion, he pulled out the pistol from his belt and pressed it directly into her forehead. The silver locket attached to the handle, the very same design that Kayeten wore, bounced on its string once before it quickly wound down to stillness right in front of her eyes.

"Don't--"

An unnerving calm had returned to his voice, and the last facade of her courage shattered in an instant. All the fears that she had been desperately trying to suppress and ignore for the past ten minutes rushed back into her in an instant...

"Don't you even dare."

His slow words were cold and flat, drawn out without a trace of mercy or forgiveness as the simmering fury ruptured from underneath his cracked composure.

"I have not spent the last eighteen years doing whatever it takes so I could be lectured by a naive little girl like you on how I am to live my own life! My parents have not died to breed a half-assed failure! I will continue to do whatever it takes until the day when I take the seat of the Marshal, or die trying!"

Seconds dragged on into eternity as his fiery eyes glared down upon Kannon. Then, without any change in expression, Arkadi lifted the needler-pistol barrel from her forehead and plummeted back down onto his seat.

Her legs fell out from under her in less than a second as she collapsed onto the ground.

"Get out, Kannon. This is your last warning." His exhausted voice was the last thing she remembered that night.



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