Avalon:Volume 0 Chapter 8 Old

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Chapter 8 - Bridging Time & Will

The torrent of blurred imagery felt like a simulation record played on fast-forward, moving through day after day at breakneck speed. The surrounding scenery switched between a multitude of locations, but was mostly either the rooms of a residential home or the classrooms of a school. Yet no matter which location the images showed, no matter how high the sun was in the day, there was always one thing in common.

Within the immediate area was a playful yet serious little boy around ten years of age, with black hair and deep-violet eyes.

Scene after scene followed his everyday life as a primary school student. His parents were seldomly home; but he had a brown-haired little sister a few years younger, as well as a blonde-haired best friend who would return home from school with him every day. The three of them seemed almost inseparable once school was out. They ate together, finished homework together, went to parks and stores together, linked up to virtual reality networks together, and sometimes even slept together. They fought each other as well, but always made up within a day or two.

Even their parents seemed to be the best of friends. During the precious few days when they were home for more than just chores and sleep, both families would often cook and watch movies and take trips together.

The perpetuating smiles at the dinner table, the carefree laughter on the way home, the innocent cries of mirth in the park -- It was the image of two ideal families, their lives the very definition of happiness.

Then, one day, none of their parents returned. Nor did they return the next day. On the third day, the kids huddled together in a dark bedroom and wept until they fell asleep from exhaustion. They stayed inside the house for several days after that. The two older boys took turns comforting the little sister while they did their best to put together what passed for meals.

Time slowed as the days became progressively darker. The kids were visited by some stern-faced adults, who left all three of them quite distressed. The adults returned to examine the house the day after. Another day later, they came to evict the children from the homes with little more than the personal belongings they gathered.

The kids were moved to a run-down orphanage at the edge of the slums, where they shared a small, dilapidated room together. They were forced back into school several days later, except even their new educational institute was like a ghetto filled with troubled if not criminally inclined youngsters.

But even though they moved, the boy would skip school after noon to return to the old district he lived in. Day after day, he would visit a large government building and loiter about in the area with a large gym bag. At the beginning, he would often be stopped, searched, and then chased off by security guards. But as time passed by, even the soldiers stationed there stopped caring.

He was just a curious, harmless little kid, after all.

He returned to the orphanage late each night. His friend and sister would be worried sick. But even though the caretakers berated him, even though his best friend chided him, he continued to visit and hang around that building every day. It was as if he was looking for something, waiting for something.

Then, over a month later, the day he had been waiting for finally came. It began in the morning as he dug into the huge, messy trunk of miscellaneous goods he had brought over from his old house and pulled out the last thing a child should wrap their hands around. As he pulled the black slider all the way back and heard it spring satisfyingly back into place, his friend entered the room and immediately ran towards him, trying to wrestle it out of his hands. But he proved the stronger of the two. After throwing his friend down to the ground, he stuffed the item into his gym bag and ran out of the orphanage.

He took the public transit into the city before stopping at a park to rest, an old place where the three of them would play around in almost every other day. He stayed there, hidden amongst the bushes, until the sun neared noontime, before emerging to loiter about the government building once again.

The flow of time gradually returned to normal pace as seven government and military officials walked out of the building, conversing in casual tones even with the presence of several guards following them. The boy began to tail them at a distance, trailing them until they entered the lobby of a large fancy restaurant nearby. He then circled around to a back alley behind the restaurant, where he pulled out a set of clean and neatly folded dress shirt and pants. He quickly changed into them, then took out a brand name jacket and slung it over his shoulder. Lastly, he pulled out the black pistol and shoved it into the jacket's inside pocket.

Walking back to the front and into the restaurant, he happily told the waitress that his father was still upstairs at a business dinner and he had left temporarily to check out a nearby store to quench his boredom. He was stopped twice more as he skipped up the stairs, but managed to shrug off the waiters with the same excuse. At the third floor, he also told the waitress that he forgot the room number his father was in and requested to check the guest list. Sure enough, 'Kernow' was on it, and only one level above. The boy thanked the pretty miss and bounced his way up another floor. As he neared the door, he pulled out the gun from his jacket, held it flatly over his shoulders, and covered it with his jacket. Without bothering to knock, he opened the door and strutted in like he owned the place.

But the boy's face quickly turned to feigned surprise as he saw five military officers in uniform and two civilian officials in suits seated around a table. Behind the man with the admiral's insignia and at the two far corners of the room also stood three armed guards. Everyone's attention was focused on the kid as he stopped instantly.

"Sorry, wrong room." The boy said in a half-apologetic tone before he turned around and began to walk back out. As he reached the doorway, he turned halfway around again and grabbed the handle to close it. Yet just as the door was about to slam shut, the kid suddenly pulled his right hand off the shoulders like he was yanking down his jacket, and pointed the covered gun barrel towards the admiral.

The guards took a second too long to realize what was going on. Before any of them even leveled their pistols' sights towards the boy, he had already unloaded half a dozen shots -- old-fashioned chemically-propelled bullets.

But although it seemed the boy had some knowledge in using handguns, his aim was far from perfect. The nearest officer's right shoulder burst with blood as a bullet bury into it and exploded. The guard behind the admiral suffered a worse fate as three bullets went into his torso, shattering his chest organs milliseconds later. Yet, even though the admiral stared straight at the boy and did not move a single muscle, not one of the projectiles managed to hit him.

Unfortunately for the boy, seven shots were all he had time for. The wooden door before him shattered as explosive needles -- shot out at hypersonic speeds by electromagnetic accelerators built within pistols -- buried into it and detonated. His cover broke into wooden fragments and pierced him with dozens of splinters. His right arm was reduced to waste within a second as five more shots flew into it and destroyed both his elbow and shoulder.

He dropped to the ground with an excruciating scream as blood seeped through his white dress shirt. His right arm was bent in grotesque angles, two of which weren't even at joints.

Yet, by some miracle, he was still alive when the admiral held up his hand. Both the remaining guards instantly stopped their volley. One of the them kept a watch in the room, while the other swiftly moved over the boy's thrashing body to secure the hallway. Everyone else who had been sitting around the table were now either taking cover behind their chairs or cowering in fear on the ground.

"You sure have a lot of guts, boy," the admiral said in a implacable yet mildly impressed tone. "Who sent you?"

"G-ghost of my father, oath to my mother... sworn in god's name!" The boy spat back as he continued to writhe in pain, spraying blood from his mouth with every syllable.

The admiral stood up and stepped over to the boy, then yanked him off the floor by his hair and stared into his eyes. Although the kid's expression was distorted by pain, his gaze held firm with overflowing hatred as he stared directly into the pupils of his parents' killer.

"The son of Iseul and Nika Simarshall, I see."

The admiral pulled the boy up to face level, lifting the child's feet off the ground. The kid screamed in pain and did his best to kick the admiral, but it didn't seem to inflict even the slightest injury. The same could not be said for the response as the admiral hurled the boy into the room's eastern wall like a rag doll with but a swing of his arm.

Yet even then, in between coughs that sprayed blood onto the carpet, the boy tried to push himself back with his one intact arm.

"Boy, I am truly intrigued by your courage and tenacity."

"I came here... to send you to hell," the kid responded. But his defiance only accentuated the faint smile curling its way into the corner of the admiral's mouth.

"Then how about an offer from the devil himself?" The admiral said as he pulled up a bloody chair and sat down upon it, completely ignoring the other officials still in the room, including the injured one still on the ground. "I will give you a chance for vengeance, for honor, for whatever it is that you wish. I'll provide you the education, the opportunity, the experience. The only thing I require is your servitude."

"Fucking... nonsense."

"On the contrary, I am absolutely serious. After all, I am heir apparent to the position of the 1st District Marshal. Training the next generation of proteges is one of my top priorities, and you, boy, has shown great potential. So here's your offer in full right now: serve me, and you can do whatever your wish entails should you climb to the rank of Marshal... Or, you can die in vain right now, and meet the tortured soul of your sister in hell within the week."

The admiral pulled out his pistol and pointed it at the boy's forehead at point blank range.

"What would it be? Choose... now."

The kid's expression was almost frozen, stunned in shock by the sheer inconceivability of what he heard and the clear impression that the man before him was utterly insane...

"Shame, it appears decisiveness is not a virtue. Well, it's been an interesting time, boy--"


My eyes suddenly sprang open. Cold sweat covered my entire body despite the auto-regulated temperature of the bed.

(Just what the hell was that?)

A dream? I haven't dreamed anything but my own memories since I was ten. Even then, none of them ever felt this real, nor did they remain in my mind with such clarity afterwards.

The strangest part was simply that I wasn't even in my own dream.

I raised my arm to wipe the sweat from my forehead, and realized that not only was my arm sluggish and sore, but so was the rest of my body. It felt like I had just finished a triathlon; or at least, I imagined it would feel this exhausting.

(Could it be another one of those hallucinations?)

I've been seeing things ever since I went through that shipwreck, and even more since I came to this world. Information that I wasn't supposed to know popped up before my eyes, while illusions that should have fooled my senses looked like they were merely a transparent shadow.

Was this 'dream' yet another one of those? I didn't know. I didn't have a way to know. But somehow, somehow I felt like I knew--

(This 'dream' was real. This really did happen.)

I knew that this, was the first meeting between Arkadi Simarshall and Marshal Comorus Kernow.

Kayeten did say that Arkadi was now working as the "son of our parents' murderers". But he also stated that they last saw each other eighteen years ago, and I thought Arkadi looked no older than twenty years of age today.

(Am I still missing something?)

But regardless of whether this was real or not, regardless of whether I was seeing things or not, my mind thought back to words Lysette said two nights prior:

"We've already sold our souls to the devil. The last thing the Captain needs are bleached words from the likes of you!"

(I really didn't understand anything about Arkadi, did I?)

Yet those clean, whitened words were exactly what I tried to offer him last night. Virtues spoken from idealism when I couldn't even imagine the brutality of his past, the muddied source of his dreams.

"I have not spent the last eighteen years doing whatever it takes... I will continue to do whatever it takes until the day when I take the seat of the Marshal, or die trying!"

Greed and ambition had nothing to do with how it began. But was it really just revenge that Arkadi was after? Or even the protection of his little sister?

(It can't be that simple.)

If Kayeten was now a prestigious commander of the 3rd District, then, given how much he still value their old friendship, I would imagine that Arkadi's sister was also safe. As the commandant of an intelligence/special ops organization, there was no way that Arkadi didn't know this. Without worries over his relations, Arkadi had plenty of opportunities for an action as straightforward as assassination.

(No, there is definitely something more to it than that...)

Something that Arkadi wished for, which he would only be able to accomplish as the Marshal of the 1st. Something important enough that he was willing to throw away not only his life but sell his very soul for.

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

My headache was becoming impossible to ignore.

I called up a time display window and realized that I have been sitting here, cramming information into my head, for eleven hours straight already. I wasn't even one-seventh of the way to the goal yet, but my brain literally felt bloated as it struggled to digest all this data.

My stomach felt the exact opposite as it growled in protest.

I stood up from the well-cushioned armchair and left the guest room I shared with Lysette for the first time today. With the entire base in an uproar over both the commander switch and the new alpha-priority mission directly from the top, I figured it was best for me to stay out of the way.

(Besides, it's not like anybody needs me at the moment.)

Better to spend this time studying what I should be learning; it was going to take all my effort to even manage a basic grasp of these five thousand spell-words within a week's time like I told Captain Arkadi...

(Arkadi... I'd rather not think about him right now.)

The circumstances were simply too confusing. The images of last night still flashed vividly in my mind.

I shook the thoughts aside as I focused my concentration inwards to practice increasing my ether conversion. Meanwhile my legs continued down the hallway to the nearby kitchen, where the faint smell of Chinese takeout food still wafted out from.

Since our arrival, the team had taken advantage of the local restaurants instead of relying upon the limited selection of preserved foodstuffs available here; today was no different. It seemed someone had ordered bulk, originally enough for at least twelve, and just left them on the kitchen's mahogany counter for whomever interested.

I took a box of stir-fried chicken and put it inside the microwave for heating before finishing up the short ether focusing session that left me sweating. My thoughts soon returned to the study material, trying to keep anything unnecessary from entering my mind.

Of the five thousand spell-words, four of the categories had only a handful of terms each: target words determined whether spells affected area surfaces (Barrier), volumes (Burst), subjects (Select), or just the caster (Personal). Parameter words shaped the area and chose the exact number of recipients, as well as determine how the power of the spell was distributed (usually Split versus Multiply). Composite words determined how multiple effects in a wordspell were joined, be it equally merged (Union), following the earlier effect (Append), using one effect to augment another (Boost), etc. Enhance words determined a wide variety of effect boosters that included everything from quickening a transmutation process (Accel) to sparking a chain ether reaction (Catalyst).

Most of the spell-words however, belonged in the last category: the effect words (or more common than not, effect phrases) which really defined what a spell was capable of. The database Captain Arkadi gave me listed most of the commonly known ones, ranging from conjuring acid to controlling weather. They were grouped into six schools: alchemy and enchantment shaped the physical and the mental states, divination and illusion governed the access and counterfeiting of information, while conjuration and evocation created physical and spiritual entities and phenomenons. The spell-words were further broken down with subschools, descriptors, and power grades, then appended with a comprehensive list of information ranging from the emotional states required for a most effective cast to its etymology and common use cases.

The spellwords themselves can be changed based on the learner's preferences. After all, they were merely mnemonics for the process of configuring one's magic-conduit nerves in a partial spell array. But that also meant it was best not to use words and phrases spoken in everyday life -- hence why the 1st and 2nd Districts taught its mages in latin, while the 3rd varied to several ancient dialects (e.g. Old High German) depending on the trainee's cultural origins. These partial arrays were overlaid on top of each other as multiple words combined, forming runic arrays within one's body that shaped the ether which passed through into manifested spells.

Between all the terminology and the rules that governed its use, learning the wordspell magic system was like adapting to a new language -- one mixed with the 'physics' of how it alters reality.

The microwave beeped to signal that it has finished heating my food. I took the carton out, moved it back to the counter, and looked for a spoon in the drawers...

"The utensils are in the cabinet just left of the sink."

My arm froze instantly as I heard Arkadi's voice, as friendly as it was usually. Yet fear still flooded back into my emotions as the final moments of our meeting last night replayed itself in my mind: not just the feeling of a cold gun barrel pressed into my forehead, but the far deadlier expressions that Arkadi revealed when his mask had finally cracked, or the machine-like resolution and mercilessness that truly defined whom he was.

I've realized it before, in one form or another. But knowing and experiencing were worlds apart.

I couldn't turn around. I have no idea how I should turn around to face him.

(What should I say? What kind of impression should I make? What--)

Before my mind could even spare enough to recognize his closing steps, his hand had already reached that of my own. Yet even though his touch was soft and gentle, the resonating feelings that shot up my nerves were nothing short of icy dread.

I swallowed and pressed with every fiber of logic my mind could summon to calm myself down.

(Last night had been an exception, and Arkadi is back to his usual self now. Nothing bad should happen as long as I behave myself -- right?)

As Arkadi slowly pulled my right hand over and clasped it between his two palms, I gradually turned to face him. A bittersweet smile had filled his comely appearance, and his fatigued yet bright eyes radiated both apology and sincerity.

"Kannon...・He began in a voice filled with remorse, with but a trace of lingering hope for forgiveness. "I am truly, deeply sorry for what I did last night. Many things happened yesterday, and there were plethora of reasons why I had completely lost control of my rationality; but none of them excuses the fact that I did, and what I did to you as a result of it, especially when you were trying to help me."

(Trying to, yes, but certainly not in the right way.)

I doubt it was his intention to, yet I couldn't help but feel guilt grow inside me as I thought back to my words and his circumstances.

"I fully realize that my despicable actions were of such magnitude that no apology is enough. I certainly don't deserve forgiveness," Arkadi continued. "But you deserve at least this much from me, and I hope you will believe in the sincerity of my words now. I'll also do anything you request, as long as it is within my capacity, to try to make this up to you."

Silenced returned to the short distance between us as Arkadi finished, and my mind clogged up once again.

In a way, I expected this from him. It wasn't my pride speaking as much as the simple fact that this kind of behavior felt more consistent to his character. But however I might have expected it, I also spent the entire day trying to steer my thoughts away from such topics. Once again I was experiencing just how well, or unwell, I could handle delicate subjects of interaction without preparation...

I didn't doubt his sincerity for a second, nor was I unwilling to let last night go, especially given the strenuous circumstances of yesterday's events and the order to assassinate an old friend that topped it all. But... it was the inner self that he revealed during those moments when his composure slipped that worried me, that frightened me even now.

(It's like the protagonist carries the final villain deep inside him...)

Seconds passed before Arkadi closed his eyes in acceptance and let go of my hand to leave. After all, he had only come to give an apology, a genuine one without any attached expectations.

But if I didn't say something now, then it would only leave more awkwardness between us; that was something I certainly didn't wish for. Nor, for that matter, would any employer want with a potential employee like myself.

My fingers fumbled to grab onto the end of his shirt sleeve, to stop him before he left...

"A-anything?" I blurted out the first word that came to mind.

"Anything within my professional limitations." Arkadi didn't even try to hide that as he turned back to face me. Within his eyes flashed the light of rekindled hope, as though a child who sought desperately for a chance to redeem his accidental mistake.

A smile finally worked itself back onto my expression; still somewhat forced and fearful, but also one of relief and acceptance.

"I'll be certain to take you up on the offer in the near future." My reply came out far more natural than I expected, and his worried expression lightened up before my eyes. "I accept your apology too, and... I-I'm sorry for saying some pretty unnecessary stuff myself," I finished with a bow.

"No, what you said was perfectly reasonable." His voice was considerate and thankful as he replied with a smile, but the steely edge of hardened determination also worked its way back in. "It's just that there are some special circumstances on my side... I hope to be able to tell you in the future, but at the moment I can only request for your patience and forgiveness."

I nodded in response, unsure of what else to say. Then...

My stomach growled audibly in protest once again.

Arkadi's lips widened into a huge grin, and I chuckled back in embarrassment.

(Still, I have to thank the timely icebreaker, I guess...)

"Well... I haven't had much to eat all day either. If you don't mind, could I join you for a quick meal, Kannon?"

The fear of last night, of his darker self, still lingered on the edge of my emotions as I gazed back into his eyes. I wasn't sure if I could put it aside anytime soon. But for now, I certainly did appreciate his efforts and accepted this new-found relief with thanks.

"Of course, but only if you answer a few questions I'd like to ask about those documents..."

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

"...And with that, Lieutenant-Commander Korey will present the operation plan we came up with."

With the introduction finished, Arkadi stepped aside to let Korey come stand in the front of the large meeting room built right above the operations room. Other than the presence of Arkadi's team of five and myself, there were also twenty other officers of the Black Hand seated around the long table.

I was quite surprised when Arkadi invited me to this meeting. After all, I was neither a member of the Black Hand nor a soldier of military experience; two days spent studying spells was hardly even the experience expected of amateurs. But Arkadi seemed serious about his offer to prepare me as a potential member for his team. I guess helping to support this mission would be yet another test -- even if I had no clue what I should do.

"Based on information provided by Node Eighteen, the target, Marshal Sidika Krivoshein, is staying in the embassy suites of the fifty-five floor Ambassador Towers hotel in central Rennes. Her suites stretch across the entirety of the 54th floor, while her guards also occupy both the 53rd and 55th floors. Security is tight, and even the hotel workers have limited access on the upper two floors. Yet despite all that, the Marshal and most of her guards are traveling incognito as a corporate negotiation team. Only the guards stationed on the 55th floor penthouse suite are posing as 3rd District emissaries, here to work out details for the 3rd Marshal's 'impending trip' to the military conference."

The three-dimensional hotel blueprint projected onto the table switched to a sphere of twenty individuals' profiles as Korey continued the mission briefing in his most formal tone.

"Marshal Sidika brought only a total of nineteen guards: there are six Cross Knights stationed on the 53rd floor, led by Knight-Procurator Linnaea Tesarik; six elite auxilia on the 54th floor, acting as guards for the delegation above; and seven elite auxilia on the 55th floor, including the Lancet Centurion Kayeten Hans-Rudel and his Aquilifer Ke-Yan Chen. We've also confirmed that camouflaged automated defenses have been deployed on the roof of the building, while the 'official delegation' has given them ample reason to erect additional Barrier wards over both of the top two floors."

I called up a window with a thought as unknown terms, only the first of many that I expected, began to pop up in the briefing. This was one of those times when I truly appreciated the fact that only I could see windows brought up by my interface, at least until I choose to link with another.

[ Centurion - The most prestigious title awarded to field commanders within Avalonian forces. Based on the Roman Legionary equivalent of 'Captain', the Centurions are combat aces who continued to lead from the front despite being elevated to command ranks of Colonel and above. Each Centurion is knighted with a unique title and given a Aquilifer (Ace) and an Optio (XO) in addition to his normal command staff... ]

"As you know, the Cross Knights are faith-magic users and armored swordmasters who excel in charges and defensive combat. They use cross shields as a focus to mobilize their trademark Bulwark wards, which provide them with virtual invulnerability against frontal attacks. Their lightning magic also provides mobility, range, and makes them exceptionally dangerous to unprotected electronics. They should only be engaged from multiple, flanking directions; do not let your guard down at any time presuming that distance may protect you from their melee."

"Linnaea, one of the youngest knights in history to reach the rank of Procurator, is also an antimagic specialist. Take extreme caution when engaging her. Atop the Cross Knight's armor-nullifying smiting blades, even your vector shields will be little more than paper before her sword."

The girl with long flowing hazelnut hair couldn't have been a year over twenty, yet her rose-colored eyes managed to project a stern and unyielding demeanor despite their soft hue. Her plate armor also screamed archaic in this day and age.

"The auxilia troopers Sidika brought are all from Kayeten's elite 36th Brigade, likely hand-picked by the Lancet Centurion. Although Kayeten may have earned his fame as a METAAC ace pilot, I should remind everyone of the METAAC mech's unified humanoid control qualities -- the fast reflexes and high shooting accuracy he is known for as a pilot will apply to personal combat as well."

Kayeten's golden-haired green-eyed pretty boy profile image, complete with a charming smile to show off his brilliantly white teeth, shrank back into the sphere of personnel bios. The holo-projector then replaced it with the hotel's structural map.

"We have not detected the presence of any 2nd District troops nearby except for the usual enhanced perimeter security given to common diplomatic visits. However, one of the nearby apartments was sold just a week ago, and its new owner doesn't seem to like coming out. It is possible that a 2nd District special ops squad is keeping watch there."

"With the target well-guarded and our goal to imitate the Amber Skies, our choices shrink to only one: we will demolish the entire hotel with tactical thermonuclear charges."

The sudden gasp that escaped my mouth drew the attention of everyone across the table. A few of them were a little wide-eyed, but they maintained their composure nevertheless, a tribute to the experience of everyone gathered here. To be honest, I did expect something like this. But the fact we were planning the slaughter of thousands if not even more people, depending on the yields of those bombs, was just too overwhelming.

"Bernard and Hualing," Korey continued without hesitation, pulling everyone's attention back to the front. "The two of you will check into the hotel for the night, each with a warded demolition charge hidden in your vehicle. Stay inside to avoid any suspicion and take off into the air only when the hotel begins collapsing. Join up with the assault squads before returning to attack the collapsing structure."

"Affirmed. But what if they search our car rather than just scanning it?"

I couldn't believe that both of them were more worried about the bombs than themselves, even with all these magical defensive technologies that might be able to resist the effects of a 'small' thermonuclear explosion.

"They haven't done that to anyone yet. That level of security would also be far more than warranted by the delegation they're posing as," Arkadi replied before nodding for Korey to continue:

"Ersilia, Jay, and Cyril, your squads will fly into the area in separate illusioned Principes IFVs from the east, northwest, and southwest. Given the open battlespace, everyone should engage in full powered armor with heavy combat equipment. Once the charges detonate, assault the collapsing structure and eliminate all targets you encounter attempting to flee the outer floors. Wait until the structure completely collapses before attacking the remains, then scan and eliminate all life signs. Cyril, your squad will also make a firing pass by the suspected apartment at A-11 before joining the main battle."

"Affirmed!" The other eighteen acknowledged almost unanimously.

"Haidar, your request for use of the Hasta Cannonstaff has been granted." Arkadi nodded towards him as he took the metaphorical baton back and seized everyone's attention. "You, Kaplan, and Lysette will be with me on the 4th vehicle and act as a response force for when we locate the priority targets. Lastly, Korey and Kannon will move into the area ahead of time and provide local coordination from within range of the telepathy network during the operation."

"Affirmed." I heard my voice join that of five others.


I was at a complete loss on what to do now.

I wanted to help Arkadi. In any other circumstance, I would be ecstatic to be given a role as crucial as mission coordination. But...

This was a mission aimed at nothing more than to obliterate everyone within vicinity. Did I really want to become an accomplice to such cold-blooded mass murder?

Furthermore, even though I knew better than to raise the topic again, I still wasn't convinced that this would truly help him. Even if the entire operation succeeds, it was only likely to bring Arkadi more pain and misery...

"The operation begins at 0200 tomorrow morning, after we confirm the return of Marshal Sidika." Arkadi continued as usual. "Node Eighteen has been assigned to simultaneously bomb and raid four other targets around the city to sow general confusion. However, as the target is staying in the most secure part of the capital, expect local units to respond swiftly and within minutes of time."

"Once 2nd District armor arrives at the scene, crash the IFVs into the rubble at reduced speeds and teleport out. Each of the four IFVs we've prepared have been magically cleaned to avoid being traced back to us through divination magic, and include data to direct the blame towards the Amber Skies should their databanks be scavenged after the crash. Lastly, to make sure our enemies never get their hands on a corpse that may be traced back to us, each of you will receive a disintegration crystal with a deadman contingency trigger."

"Further details on the operation are in the info packets. Now... any questions?"

Like two nights ago, like yesterday morning, a single thought grew to overshadow every other consideration I had:

Just what was Arkadi trying to achieve?

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