Avalon:Volume 0 Chapter 7 Old

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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 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. 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 sword.

Somehow, her katana-saber had bounced off Arkadi. 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 my 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 air surrounding us:

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

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

"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!"

"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."

I could hardly believe my ears. Even though I was trying to keep an open mind about the whole Arvitor business, this was just going too far.

(No, there's no way he believes in that lie. He's definitely 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. I finally noticed that it was made of the same violet-shaded metal as the starsteel chain hanging off my arm.

To deflect even that...

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

Spells of the tenth grade. Magic so powerful it bordered on the deific, overwhelmed most arcana, and only partially influenced by antimagic. Such was the might of the Grand Sorcery, rare even in mentions in the material I read.

Shadows descended upon Shirayuki's face 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. She channeled more red paper magic into it, then kicked off once again to continue the duel.

What happened next was almost impossible to track by the naked eye, and certainly not from a range as close as that of Arkadi's. Shirayuki's figure seemed to blur 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.

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 inaccurate 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 stances. 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 entire encounter was like meeting one of the final bosses during early game; Arkadi was only staying alive because his equipment far surpassed the others.

"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.

Shirayuki then 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.

It was just like how the barriers of fantasy would sweep aside to allow the passage of their master...

(No, not just like.)

This was indeed magic, and Arkadi's choice of parameter words had been Aura Emanate.

"We should withdraw," Kaplan stated plainly.

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

I tuned out their argument to focus on my thoughts.

Over the past few days, I had read through dozens of documents on magic that I found in Somerset's database, hoping to give myself a crash course in the sorcery so inherently necessary to this society. It would seem that Avalonian spells, regardless of their cultural or linguistic origin, 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 a magical array. 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.

Was that how she was concealing her presence? Spirituality did claim that all living beings radiated an aura of presence.

What about her absurd speed? That spell she had cast just before engaging -- Impulse Shift, Union, Float, and Aura Emanate. She was probably manipulating the momentum-altering aura's strength for her exceptional acceleration.

"Don't deploy auras!" I 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 moved 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 was 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.

(We really have to do something, and fast!)

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...

(That's it!)

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

(She'll notice us after one shot, so the first hit must be decisive and bypass her Vector Shield. Instead of directing an attack towards Shirayuki, we need 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."

I could feel both Kaplan and Korey's eyes suddenly turn toward me in surprise as Haidar 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 with barely more than a whisper; but it sounded more like a shout over the telepathy channel.

(Accounting for the response and cast delays, I have to preemptively announce the moment of her attack. This meant that the moment her blade was readied...)

"Now!"

"Plasma Blast!"

A ray connected instantly, forming a 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.

Shirayuki's sash and the edges of her robes burst into flames as she touched the rapidly dispersing plasma barrier. But a magical field instantly slammed into place over her body as her vector shifted to graze the side of the barrier rather than passing through completely.

"Contingent Energy Resist?" Kaplan remarked, recognizing the cause of our failure.

Her sash had been burnt to dust. Most of her skirt and loose outer sleeves had suffered a similar fate, exposing the biker 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!"

As I had expected, Haidar's magic had instantly given away our position. A single fiery-red shockwave released from Shirayuki's right sword flew towards us.

"Ether-cept!"

With one word from Kaplan, the magic that enveloped us in invisibility suddenly tore away. It formed five beams of his dark-blue ether which intercepted the oncoming attack in midair.

It had protected us from the attack, but at the cost by blowing our remaining cover.

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

We stood up from our crouching positions as the rest of the team readied their weapons. There was no point in trying to hide anymore.

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 (probably communicating through telepathy just like us) before making their way towards the shattered glass wall that their aircar had broken through.

Meanwhile, hurried footsteps could be heard from the hallway behind us. Security forces were about to reach us any moment now.

(We're running out of time.)

"What trickery is this, Black Prince?" Shirayuki spoke as she stared directly at us.

(...Or is it just at me?)

"Kaplan?" Arkadi sounded just as confused.

"I haven't done anything, sir."

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

"Well then!"

She kicked off from the ground and soared straight towards us, right before she suddenly braked in midair as two shots, fired from behind us, crossed path with her would-be trajectory. They smashed into the wall on the far side, leaving two bullet holes behind.

Her vector shield didn't even trigger to alter the trajectory. Either the bullets missed by enough or, more likely based on her reaction, they were starsteel bullets that punched right through her vector shields.

"That's enough, Crimson Spectre."

I spun around alongside Haidar and Lysette, eying the three new soldiers that stood before us.

Two of them had lieutenant insignias, both holding 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.

A flicker of light drew my eyes to the silver rectangular locket that hanged from his neck, the exact same design as the locket attached to Arkadi's pistol.

"Lancet of the 3rd District," Shirayuki called out in discontent. "What are you doing on Brocéliande?"

"You have what you needed already," he responded, 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, yet his hardened voice was filled with familiarity and nostalgia, relief and sorrow. It seemed this man knew the Captain quite well.

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

The locket was no mere coincidence. 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 I 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 my mind yet 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 stated flatly while gesturing for us to move in his direction. "I have changed."

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

(But is it really as simple as that?)

My mind left the present for a moment as Korey's hand grabbed me and pulled me along while Kaplan led the team into a run.

"Shirayuki must have destroyed the Tintagel Gateway already," Arkadi then spoke 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 me 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."

I never heard the response. Strong winds blew over my ears as we came near the window's edge, covering over any sounds still coming through the hallway. Before us was a drop hundreds of meters through the air to the ground below, a terrifying height that sent chills through me and made me 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 my mind as the vector shield's connection to my implant informed me that we were under fire from the rear.

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

One moment I was shaking but still on solid ground; the next moment my body almost froze as it went into free fall over the city's air lanes.

We weren't even any safer out here -- red hot stilettos of energy cut into our position and caused our shields to flare as two armored military crafts strafed us.

"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!" Arkadi's voice called, and I realized that it was his arm that had pushed me and then wrapped itself around my waist.

Our speed quickly slowed to a gradual descent as if our bodies were 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 I had already experienced it once, the feeling of teleportation was simply impossible to prepare oneself for. My entire body chilled as if it were suddenly enveloped by ice, then scattered into the air as though sublimated into gas. My consciousness felt like it was suddenly pulled through a tiny hole in the fabric of space that materialized before my eyes, while my surroundings dissolved into it like scenery flushed down a drain. Then, as quick as it came, everything returned to normal. Except my body still felt like it was reconnecting itself while my vision swapped with one of the forest floor, facing the humongous root of an ironwood tree that easily rivaled the size of a building.

...No, that wasn't all...

As my recognition returned, I noticed that we were in a jungle of small, dilapidated structures, built from concrete and plates of ironwood. They were grouped together densely, with nothing more than a small dirt path littered with trash separating entire blocks of adjoining buildings. Our 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 my stomach as the foul smell entered my senses.

We 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.

For some reason, we had teleported into the slums, a large district which stretched on as far as I could see.

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

"Yessir," Haidar responded as his swordstaff quickly pumped out four more cartridges while another magical circle expanded below his feet. The Captain then followed by stepping away from me 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." Arkadi commented after seeing my confused expression.

I looked around and realized that many of the onlookers were already moving in; their blank eyes filled with insatiable desire to reach where we were. But before any of them could reach us, Haidar finished his spell again...

"Astral--"

I had to somehow steel myself for three more teleports before I could try to wrap my head around just what exactly happened back there.


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


"What exactly happened?" Arkadi asked with suppressed anger as we 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 it even more obvious just who was at fault for missing such an important piece of information during mission 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 would assume my arrest warrant is already circulating."

"Yes." Elias confirmed with dread. "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 request 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, 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 Brocéliande 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 Brocéliande'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."

I searched the data downloaded into my 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 Altayic 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."

"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 damn well," shrugged Haidar. "The Avalonian corporates dominate too much of the market these days... 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 rapidly 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 my 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. Even the conscious thought that we were alone in his assigned guest quarters had been pushed aside; although thankfully, my 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 Haidar's spell, 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 silenced my words instantly. "I know you don't consider yourself much of a contributor yet, but that's because you don't have the right information. Yet 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.)

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

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

(Huh!?)

"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, I could tell...

(He's completely serious.)

Hope swelled in my chest as my mind replayed his words. This was like being offered a prestigious job before even graduating, before even applying for that matter. Yesterday I was still wondering how I could be useful in this world, so I could be accepted into the group while I stayed here, and now...

"I'm not offering you a position yet, by the way," Arkadi chuckled as if he read my 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?"

I nodded instinctively, my mind still recollecting itself.

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

"Of course!" I nodded more vigorously, shaking the stupor off my 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 my vision, requesting my permission for a data transfer with his identification as the source.

I 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."

"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."

I 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 my spirit to new levels as the thought of being a useful member went through my 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!"

I may normally be a slow thinker, but focused study was one of my strengths. As long as I stayed on one topic and had sufficient time to set up the big picture, I could absorb exceptional amounts of information... Even a doctrine guide and five thousand spell-words should be manageable once I build up a pace.

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 I got up from my chair and moved towards the door, but he stopped me with a raised hand and locked the door with a glance just before I reached it.

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

I quickly spun around from the southeast corner where I stood. An entire office desk was projected into the room through the AR interface, its presence so real that I 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 Brocéliande 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 I suddenly found myself huddling shakily next to the cold walls as my skin paled instantly.

I focused my 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 was beyond merciless. Words like callous and cruel barely scratched the surface.

"Now, onto the real task. Thanks to your blunder, Sidika Krivoshein's presence on Brocéliande 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 information from the Somerset, the Amber Skies was the most indiscriminate and unpredictable of the three major terror groups. Many of its members were criminals from the most 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 has he looked upon the screen that popped up behind Comorus with bulging eyes, where the image of Kayeten and another young girl standing next to a middle-aged woman displayed.

"--And Cross Knight-Komtur Linnaea Tesarik, whom we believe to be her 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 were unmatched by the others.

Yet it wasn't the Cross that concerned him. For several seconds after Kayeten's name was mentioned, Arkadi's expression had lost all composure and revealed his shocked surprise.

Logically speaking, we already knew that Kayeten had appeared alongside Marshal Sidika and would be an obstacle to the assassination. But as my thoughts replayed their exchange from the gateport once again, I 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 Tinchebray and Operation Crecy. Even the loss of all other pieces of the Brocéliande network is acceptable as long as you take Sidika's head."

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

Even if the adoptive son relationship could be kept secret, which was unlikely, 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 he could reverse the situation quickly by sending his foes into chaos, it was likely that his career would soon be in serious jeopardy.

"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 Brocéliande 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.

That was no mere order. That was a life or death ultimatum -- to carry out a mission even he could not bring himself to.

"Captain," I broke the silence with barely an utterance.

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

I bowed and turned around before hesitation struck me.

My entire life, the number of people who had entrusted me, relied on me, I could count them with only my fingers. Yet here was a man who did so, several times, in the span of merely a few days after our first meeting.

Even if he rescued me for his own goals, even if he trusted me due to dire circumstances, I was 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?" My voice asked as I turned around to face this challenge.

No answer came. Arkadi wouldn't even look at me. 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 me like a shockwave, backed by the glare from his eyes as he finally turned to looked at me.

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?"

His 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 shake 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... I 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.

Was it power that he's after? Was it merely the Marshal's position that interested him? Or was there something else?

(I want to know. I want to help.)

"You're right," I replied as I took a step towards him, feeling the quivering of my 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 my legs was worsening by the second as I moved closer to his enraged eyes, my instincts continued to tell me that this was a distance I should try to close; that this was one gap that I 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 my footsteps as I continued to advance towards him.

Yet just as I 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 my 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 my eyes.

"Don't--"

An unnerving calm had returned to his voice, and the last facade of my courage shattered in an instant. All the fears that I had been desperately trying to suppress and ignore for the past ten minutes rushed back into me 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 me. Then, without any change in expression, he lifted the needler-pistol barrel from my forehead and plummeted back down onto his seat.

My legs fell out from under me in less than a second as I collapsed onto the ground.

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



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