Avalon:Volume 0 Full

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Prologue

It was supposed to be a family gathering. Maybe one of a wealthy, high-class family, seething with competition hidden behind every exchange of words. But even with the adults boasting to one another about their newest business acquisitions or their kids' latest accomplishments or even their most recent vacations, the loud yet joyous chatter of young children playing around in the gardens should have at least preserved the innocence of their flowery paradise.

Yet try as she might, Viviane could not hear the mirthful cries of her own daughter. The children had already run off into the English gardens, but she walked unerringly towards those of oriental design in the far back. Her steps hurried down a pebbled path. Her hands brushed aside branches of willow. She found the seven year-old child exactly where she expected -- huddling in the gap between two large scholar stones.

The child looked up at her mother and sobbed once more, her large eyes and red cheeks stained with tears. The right shoulder of her white dress was torn, exposing a flaring bruise on her delicate skin.

Viviane knelt down, arms grazing the sharp rocks as she wrapped them around the shivering girl and embraced her tightly.

"It's all right... it's all right," she whispered reassurance into the child's ears, "you don't need to listen to their nonsense."

"They wouldn't stop... calling you... b-bad names..." the young girl sobbed as she tried to explain, fresh tears rolling down her cheeks and onto Viviane's bared shoulders, "they kept saying that I should stop... faking Cinderella when I'm just the worthless daughter of a... a... streetwalker... they even called you the W-word!"

Viviane winced, not from the insult itself but the malice that drove parents to teach such young children a term so foul. Hugging her daughter's tiny frame even more tightly, Viviane continued to whisper words of comfort into the girl's ears while silently berating herself.

She should have known this was going to happen. The family would never accept her homeless background or her unnatural appearance. It didn't matter how skilled she was at financing or how many decades she spent building the foundation to her husband's success. Sure, he was the eccentric yet prodigious son of the family, and no one was about to curse his beloved wife within earshot. But away from watchful eyes, the rest of the family would never regard her presence as anything better than the darkest of stains.

Viviane knew she would do anything to protect this child from them. Yet she also knew that she couldn't shield and shelter this child from harm always and forever... The world simply wasn't like those fairy tales that her daughter adored so much, and fate would demand even more from this young child.

Leaning back slowly and pushing her daughter's shoulders straight with her hands, Viviane looked into the girl's teary red and blue eyes with a loving yet resolute gaze and a soft but firm smile.

"Remember Kannon -- It matters not what others say. It matters only what you believe. The moment you let another's degradation or doubt reach you, is the moment you mark your own failure."

Viviane spoke with mixed emotions under the swaying willow branches. Her eyes softened under the sun's rays yet hardened with every passing shadow.

"Believe in yourself, trust your feelings."

Her right hand slid down from the girl's shoulders, under her fluffy blossom-pink hair that swayed gently in the breeze, and over to cover her chest.

"You're a very special, gifted girl, Kannon. Your heart alone holds the key to your life, your universe... As long as your heart is set, you can accomplish anything."

As the daughter nodded softly, hesitantly, Viviane reached around and pulled her into a tight hug once again while she gently stroked her hair.

"You're not just our beautiful and charming princess; you're the gift of life who brought light into our lives, our hopes, our dreams..."

She closed her eyes. Her lips formed a bittersweet smile as she thought of the true meaning that lay behind her words, the burden that awaited this child.

"...And one day, when your heart is pulled and you find your prince, you'll become so much more than any princess. You'll become his indispensable partner; the protector of his ideals..."

"...The guardian of his dreams."




Chapter 1 - The Lost Gate of Avalon

"I met that odd third-year girl the other day..."

"The one with pink hair and weird eyes?"

"Eck. Why would anyone coming here dye their hair like... like some street tramp!"

"Just whoring attention. She's even got the boys wondering if that's her natural hair color. Apparently all her official info has it too, and same as her mother's--"

"The Reginberaht family? They're like one of the top ten top families in business!"

"They're pretty private about things though -- hardly ever hear about them -- but word has it that their eccentric current head married some faerie."

"Well I guess you can call her pretty in an otherworldly way, almost like some collectible trophy. But have you talked to her? She's sooo slow, literally, and dull in every sense of the word."

"She has to be good at something though. This isn't an easy university to enter, and even then washout from the first two years is over half!"

"Probably just family connections; must be nice to have the parents arrange her dreams for her."

"Well do they have any choice? With such a useless heir, her parents must have sent her here husband-hunting!"

Most people wouldn't be able to hear the malicious words tinged by jealousy. The four girls who voiced them in hushed whispers sat in an isolated corner on the far side. The study hall was massive enough to fit two basketball courts, and only those who chose to turn up the audio through their sensory implants -- a recipe for maximizing distractions -- would be able to hear.

But Kannon Reginberaht's keen senses were far from average. She could hear every syllable with just enough clarity, even though she did her best to pretend she couldn't. Years of honed experience made her excellent at ignoring unwanted commentary... except they hit one too many hated keywords and drew her attention.

Kannon wasn't a social person by any measure, especially without preparation. Her mind relied upon visual thinking with a build-up approach, which forced her to consider as much detail as possible before advancing to deliberations. It excelled at tackling large-scale tasks where she could take 'setup time' to absorb the complete picture, leading to a highly productive session. The downside was a long gear-switching time for simple activities which did not limit themselves to one topic, like daily conversations. It resulted in a noticeable delay to her response time measurable in seconds, making ninety-some percent of the people Kannon met quickly form the impression that she was slow, and therefore no mental giant.

Challenging yet pointless encounter...

The circumstances made action difficult for her. Impromptu social confrontations were steep fights, especially against multiple opponents whom she knew next to nothing about. But those girls had a perfect vantage point over the hall's entrance; if Kannon just walked out, she would seem like a pushover and only embolden them in the future. After self-deliberation, she concluded that the best option was inaction: to feign ignorance and absence by staying behind the privacy screen of her single-person study desk.

Still...

Pot calling kettle black. Who's really the useless husbanding-hunting tramp here? Go study already.

Unwilling to start a confrontation that wasn't on her terms, Kannon could only retort silently to words spoken a minute ago. Her thoughts were delayed by earlier deliberations, leading to even more holdup in her mental pipeline. It was a common occurance for her in social situations.

To be fair, access to elite families ranked as high on her charts as anyone else. In the business world, connections were just as important, if not even more so, than competence. Cinderella tales of marriage between commoners and nobles may be better known, but upper class scions had more incentive, and more pressure, to seek partners among themselves. After all, marriage between two corporate heirs yielded obvious financial and political gains.

Yet although status may bring her invites from collegiate secret societies, it was not enough for any self-respecting daughter. Kannon dreamed of a perfect romance like most girls her age, but she also kept the wise words of her mother to heart: On the upper levels of society, people married for partnership. History has proven that most ambitious individuals of greatness were rarely satisfied for long. A successful life-long relationship laid in the reliance between two strong individuals in assisting each others' dreams, not temporary factors like status, interests, or even youthful passion born of hormone-driven emotions. Therefore, "a true princess commands the respect of her prince through personal ability, loved regardless of how many mistresses he may or may not have."

But through her twenty years of life, Kannon never had a boyfriend. She had received plenty of offers, but she simply had more pride than to date someone who only wanted a rare trophy or connections to her family. Highly sensitive to other people's intentions, she knew perfectly well that the number of men who have genuinely interacted with her could be counted on with her fingers.

Whatever...

She mouthed as she repeated one of her mottos:

Ideals about princes can wait, achievements in life comes first.

With a silent sigh, Kannon refocused her attention, only to close the Augmented-Reality (AR) windows -- computer graphics superimposed into her perception of the real world through her implants -- that displayed her study material.

Since I can't concentration enough to study, let's utilize this time for something I can concentrate on.

Kannon opened her schedule to organize her plans for the days coming up. The summer research trip with her astrophysics professor had taken far longer than expected since their survey craft broke down. By the time she returned, it was already close to the first round of exams. After that was... a whole week crossed out for her cousin's wedding, prompting a round trip back to that 'main family home' she hated so much.

Dear life: please give me a break already.


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


Red lights swept through the hallways as alarms continued wailing throughout the ship.

"CORE STABILITY DROPPING. ALL PERSONNEL PLEASE EVACUATE IMMEDIATELY..."

The main corridor stretched on for hundreds of meters and was wide enough to accommodate aircars. Floating debris scattered through its expanse -- decorations and abandoned belongings left drifting in weightlessness due to the loss of the ship's gravity control. It had the feel of an abandoned space station, except for the presence of one girl.

She was around one-sixty (5'3") and looked just over fifteen, despite being of college age. Her thin, petite body was as delicate and frail as a flower, one still in the process of maturity with few curves to speak of. The bedroom clothes she wore didn't help with that impression, although their floral patterns in cherry blossom color matched the blossom-pink shade of her straight, waist-lengthed hair. Her otherworldly appearance was accentuated by her lapis-blue right eye; her left eye stayed closed, and would have given her a still-half-asleep look if it weren't for the alertness of the other. With fair skin the tone of porcelain, her quarter Asian blood also revealed itself through her small nose and lips. This only accentuated her innocent features which ideally defined a maiden of Western culture just prior to blooming, delicate and pretty as a doll with a lingering childness to match.

Her situation was anything but that, as she continued to pull and push herself using the handrails, creating the momentum to propel herself down the hallway.

I am not going to die here!

Kannon mentally shouted at herself once more, pushing all creeping thoughts of doom back into a corner of her mind. She focused on the translucent digital AR display window floating ahead of her, where a blinking green dot marked her position on a partial map of the ship.

It was supposed to be just a normal trip back to college from the wedding. Yet despite the ten year old peace treaty between the Empyrean Empire and its foes, despite the entire route being deep within friendly territories, the passenger ship TT-671 nevertheless fell under attack from a hostile flotilla while traveling across hyperspace.

Five hundred years have passed since the squid-like Empyreans conquered mankind, steamrolling over the Terran Sector almost immediately after first contact. But ever since initial resistance was squashed, human civilization had entered a lasting era of peace unseen throughout history. Wars continued within the galaxy as the Empyreans expanded their dominance, but mankind would spend these centuries enjoying their peaceful autonomy deep inside the Empire's defenses.

The last human ship lost to stellar aggression had been over a century ago, yet that was of little console right now. The passenger ship had transitioned from hyperspace back to normal space. The attackers had not found it worthwhile to give chase. But the damage had already been done. A penetrating hit had damaged the fusion core's containment nodes, which kept the thermonuclear power plant under control. Without their security, the core that powered the ship was a nuclear bomb ticking down to detonation.

It was even worse luck that the attack happened while Kannon was taking a nap, sleep deprived from working 'overnight' to finish a report. By the time she made her way towards the nearest escape pods, every one of them on her side of the ship was already gone. It was then, when she searched for the next cluster of pods, that the map alerted her to the presence of an odd craft.

After leaving the main corridor and making several turns, Kannon found herself looking through a transparent window at the service craft hanger bay. Placed inside was an old TSV-9 series survey craft, the same ship series that she spent half the summer working with.

"CORE FAILURE IMMINENT, ALL PERSONNEL PLEASE EVAC..."

If this doesn't work... She swiftly cut it off. I don't have time to waste on useless thoughts right now!

Kannon brought herself to a stop beside the entrance and pulled down the emergency unlock switch. The double sliding doors that also served as the inner airlock promptly opened by retracting into the walls. She noticed that the TSV-9's cockpit hatch was already open. Its engines were hot and on standby, presumably activated by the ship when the evacuation order was given.

With a single thought, Kannon closed the map display window floating ahead of her, then kicked off straight towards the TSV-9 craft's hatch. The trajectory was straight and simple in the weightless environment. She flew into its cockpit within seconds and grabbed onto the pilot seat's headrest, just in time to brace herself as the ship shook violently while an explosion resounded through the hull.

Open link with TSV-9!

Her command came as a mental shout. It was an order to her neural-interfacing implant -- a chip on her upper spinal cord that allowed her brain to directly link with digital networks -- to establish a wireless link with the craft's control interface. Within moments, her sensory implants projected a translucent-green 'SUCCESS' window into the feedback from her eyes. It was replaced a second later as the navigation menu and sensors display opened themselves before her eyes in blossom-pink windows.

Emergency launch!

Another window popped up as the computer sought a more secure confirmation for the pre-programmed command. Kannon focused her sight on the 'Start' button until it became highlighted and then nodded. The sound of a hatch sealing accompanied the confirmation window as the survey craft went through its automatic launch procedure. The craft's own artificial gravity then kicked in, pulling her down to the pilot's seat with its gentle 0.5G. Both a physical seat belt and gravitic shock dampeners soon joined it in pinning her against the cushioned seat.

Feeling the floor rumble beneath her, Kannon looked out through the cockpit window and noticed that the hanger was already depressurized. The gates were opening to the vacuum of space as the TSV-9 craft turned to face it. Then, just as they finished, the entire passenger ship shook, and again.

Something must have set off a chain reaction.

The TSV-9 sped out from the hanger as Kannon sat wondering how many seconds the passenger ship still had left. Time slowed to a crawl as she opened a window to display the rear camera view while counting each second that passed before the ship's fusion core inevitably blew. Then, thirteen seconds after leaving the passenger ship TT-671, the entire vessel exploded into a ball of expanding plasma as its fusion reactors went critical. The blast wave rocked the survey craft, for even its energy shielding wasn't able to block the incandescent fury at this short a range. The information panel flashed red as it reported damage to sensors and hull. But although the plasma wave overloaded the shields, hull integrity managed to hold.

I'm safe, for the moment.

Kannon breathed out a deep sigh of relief. Her tense body finally began to relax as she leaned back into the seat.

Then another alert window popped up.

Having left the vicinity of any nearby ships, the TSV-9 has finished its emergency launch procedure. It was now cutting its acceleration, leaving the craft to continue its drift across open space.

...

Now what?

Kannon stared at the yellow blinking dots on the sensors display, each representing the active distress beacon of an escape pod. The passenger ship made an emergency hyperspace exit in middle of nowhere. Most of the pods launched had a seventy-two hour life support span. But unless another vessel noticed their beacons and picked them up, the lives of those survivors would soon be forfeit. However, this travel route had so little traffic this time of year that only one passenger flight was available every week.

Since the flight had been thirty-hours short of the destination when they could expect a check-in, the odds of being rescued in time... weren't very good. Unfortunately, the survey craft she commandeered didn't have a docking bay and certainly couldn't retrieve pods.

No, there is still one thing I could do for them.

The TSV-9 was a rare hyper-capable corvette-class spacecraft. It was originally designed to survey nearby star systems and probe wormholes without requiring the expensive costs of deploying full-sized survey cruisers. With it, Kannon realized she could find a nearby starport or colony and call for help.

Opening the navigation window once again, she called up the star charts and zoomed in on the local region. Her eyes were immediately drawn to the diamond symbol of either a nearby starport or starbase on the map. It was small, with the odd name Hadrian. But it was also the only settlement within the craft's maximum one-way range of twelve light years.

Kannon toggled the panel to display the station data. But instead of showing what support facilities the starport offered, the symbol simply vanished.

Is there a software malfunction? Or am I seeing things? Why is there a starport out there in the middle of nowhere anyways? There isn't even a star system for light years around it...

Kannon switched to the station database and searched for a starport within this region, or a starport named Hadrian; both searches came up blank. She tried it again twice, thrice, even expanding the range and looking through every station beginning with H in this sector, but still nothing. Frustrated and out of ideas, she kept trying the same thing for minutes, but couldn't even verify the station's existence.

It has to be a software glitch. Probably because this TSV-9 is merely a merely a retired model used as a maintenance craft by the ship, so they didn't bother taking care of the navigation computers... just my luck.

But regardless of whether Hadrian existed, this was her only option of getting help on time. Even if it came up blank, the TSV-9 would still have enough endurance to return to a nearby space lane, where the odds of being discovered were just as good as they would be right here.

Kannon double-tapped the exact location where she saw Hadrian's diamond symbol. It wasn't accurate; but even with damaged sensors, the craft should still be able to notice a space station within that small an area. She confirmed the destination and laid back on the pilot's seat. A sharp burst of rapid acceleration followed as the craft launched into hyperspace.

Her thoughts soon began to drift off as she sat in the pilot's seat without anything to occupy her mind. Now that the adrenaline was wearing off, her fatigue was also returning. After all, she only caught two hours of sleep before the emergency alarm woke her up.

With a mental command, the seat slowly laid back into a full recline. Kannon curled up on it, her long hair scattering around her as she twisted and turned to find a comfortable position. The cabin temperature was chilly for someone wearing only a camisole, shorts, and kneesocks, but Kannon didn't care. All the anxiety over the last half hour left her completely exhausted.

The haziness of sleep soon overtook her, but not before she felt the warmth of a tear streaking down her cheeks.


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


*Beebeebeep*, *beebeebeep*...

The light yet sharp alert sounds forced a return to consciousness, again. The last twenty-four hours had been a cycle of sleeping and waking up. With each nap she sought solace in her dreams; with each awakening she hoped to end this nightmare. Neither wish came true.

Scrubbing her eyes to clear her mental fog, Kannon soon filtered out her mental scrapbook of recent events from the haze.

Shipwrecked, piloting a lifeboat through its meager fuel, and looking for a remote island with a rescue ship... right.

She brushed her long hair behind her ears and slapped her cheeks with both palms for a quick wakeup call.

The alarm notified Kannon of the TSV-9's departure from hyperspace. However, one look over to the display window, currently set to the sensors feed, was enough to sink her heart back into the abyss. There was nothing there. Except for the translucent azure glow of space, the blossom-pink window frame, and the bright-blue grid lines, the local map was completely empty.

Kannon knew it might come to this.

This is my one chance of getting help on time and what do I find? Nothing!

Information filled her mind instantly as every related folder of data spread over it. Her thoughts reviewed every correlated file and reassessed every menu, looking for an alternative solution of some kind. Yet no matter what, she just couldn't think of anything else to try, even after going through everything a second time, a third...

Have I hit my limit?

Initiative and courage, the willingness to take action, was only as good as one's ability and the availability of information to back it up. Kannon still remembered the first time she finished reading a young adult fiction, her father immediately rectified her views: "willpower alone opens nothing", as even animals displayed far more courage and guts than man will ever know. Man had neither physique nor numbers nor fearlessness, yet humankind once grew to dominance through preparation, knowledge, ingenuity, and organization. In his exact words, "one must grasp true understanding before determination created results."

But limited data was all I had; an informed guess the best I could...

She plunged back down onto the seat and curled up once again with her long hair spread in a mess all around. Her mind had no choice but to face her own inexperience...

Suddenly, the spacecraft began to pitch and shake. It felt like a shuttle meeting turbulence; except this was deep space, and there were no atmospheric streams.

What's going on?

Kannon jolted back up in her chair and looked out the front window. The whole area of space before her was distorting. Some purple nebulous vortex of lightning storms suddenly conjured itself into existence before her eyes and was now multiplying in size. Her amateur experience in spacecraft piloting had left it drifting forward at stellar speeds. Now it was too late to escape the 'storm' even if she decelerated and turned.

The survey craft soon pitched forward, rolled halfway onto its side, and hurled into the vortex at increasing speed. It was actually the view that changed, as the TSV-9's internal gravity and inertial compensators completely negated the physical effects. But Kannon knew enough basics to recognize the signs...

The craft had lost control and was now being sucked in by this 'storm'.

The shaking grew increasingly violent. The hull groaned audibly. The chaotic clashing of gravitic stress waves overcame the cockpit compensator's ability and lashed out within. It was threatening to rip the ship apart. But even before that, it was threatening to rip Kannon apart. She could feel her bones being twisted, bent, stretched, and crushed all at once. She could feel her head being pounded flat, her lungs being deflated, her stomach being crumbled. She couldn't think, she couldn't breathe, she could barely see through tears of pain.

It's going to kill me!

For the first time in the last twenty-four hours, terror had completely overridden Kannon's senses, blocking out all trains of thought... she simply didn't have a clue of what to do except to sit there helplessly.

Then, as quickly as it came, it was gone. Only a lingering pain remained as the craft shot out of the nebulous cloud.

And it reappeared...

A starport sat in the middle of the sensors display. It was directly ahead. Further away, there were the planets, asteroids, and the twin suns of what appeared to be an astrometric binary star system -- twin stars with their orbits looped like a figure-eight.

Before Kannon could even sort out just what was going on, the craft briefly shook again. A warning message popped up on display that a gravity beam had locked onto the vessel. The starport was towing her in.

That's... unusual, even with my distress beacon active, they should at least attempt communications first.

As the starport came into sight range, a flicker of light appeared in the viewing screen between the orange and amber stars of the nearby system. It quickly grew in size, becoming a recognizable man-made structure in mere seconds.

Its design was unlike any space station Kannon ever visited, and looked more like the starports of the old Terran Republic. The station had a thick central shaft with two massive conic structures slowly rotating around it, with each apex pointed outwards and connecting to two smaller disk-like structures near the ends of the main shaft. As the steel behemoth loomed closer, she noticed that the starport wasn't painted a light color like all civilian space stations, but in dark gray and navy like an old terran military starbase. Instead of large windows, its surface was covered in thick diamondsteel armor and bristling with clusters of point-defense lasers.

Kannon had little doubt that this starbase was of Terran design. But the only military-grade space armament the Empyrean Empire allowed mankind to build over the last four centuries was the recently commissioned Alpha Centauri System Defense Force, a political achievement celebrated by every news channel in Terran space for weeks. Yet even then, it was mostly just a few guard outposts and patrol cruisers. It didn't take a military expert to recognize the sheer scale of this starbase as a frontier fortress built to defend against an interstellar invasion.

Just what have I drifted into? Is this a rebel system of sorts? But the last Terran resistance group of this scale should have fallen apart centuries ago!

A window of light lit up near the base of the 'upper' conic superstructure -- a docking bay opened its gates, leaving the gravity beam to do its job in dragging the survey craft inside. As the TSV-9 entered its final approach, Kannon noticed the large, white, and most surprisingly, Latin and English words painted on the sloped armor of the starbase:

PRAESIDIUM I - HADRIAN

"No... way..."

Kannon's first instinct was to deny this as outright impossibility. The sheer existence of such a heavily-armed Terran starbase would break the entire Treaty of Alpha Centauri.

But then... just what am I seeing?

At the very least, this was no way this could have been on the official database. But that didn't explain how she saw it on this craft's navigation display on the other side of the wormhole where transponder signals didn't reach. Was it a fluke? Or was this craft, and this navigation computer, loaded with something special that should not be seen?

Maybe there's another reason why a passenger ship would have a survey corvette instead of a repair corvette for maintenance...

As Kannon debated with herself, the TSV-9 passed the docking gates, went through a translucent force field, and entered a massive hanger. An assortment of other ships were also parked inside, but she didn't recognize any of them. The survey craft glided towards the nearest empty platform and landed smoothly as the docking bay's internal gravity beams laid it on the ground.

The instant landing completed, two rows of Terran soldiers rushed out from behind cover, their hands grasping swords instead of guns despite the age of space-faring, gravity-manipulating technology. A tiny voice within Kannon's mind wondered why... only to be completely drowned out by frantic shouts from the rest of her head:

They're coming to kill me!

She had no clue what else they would want, or what she could do, only that she definitely wasn't wanted! This was a top secret base of a military she didn't recognize from a hidden Terran faction she didn't even know existed!

Should I surrender? Will they even accept that? What else could I possibly--

Then, without any noise or sound, light suddenly poured in from behind her as the cockpit hatch simply vanished. A surge of electricity followed, knocking Kannon out cold before her head could even turn.


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


Captain Marius of the Avalonian Republic 2nd District Grenadiers watched as Corporal Pavils placed the unconscious girl onto a levitating stretcher.

Her frame was too thin. Her looks were too young. Her arms looked frail enough to be snapped with one hand. Her clothes were no better than sleepwear. No matter how he looked at it...

"What're the Empyreans thinking, sending a girl like this on a wormhole expedition?" Chief Warrant Officer Cezary asked, his disbelieving words reflecting Marius' own thoughts perfectly. "I mean comeon, which part of her looks even remotely military? Even civilian space-faring agencies have uniforms! She's more casual than my teenage daughter!"

"Maybe they think humans don't deserve uniforms?" Pavils chuckled as he cuffed her wrists to the stretcher.

"Not what the reports say," Marius countered as he turned towards their tech expert, whose eyes were continuously sweeping back and forth across the Heads-Up Display light screen being projected by the linker helmet he was using to hack the craft from. "Cezary? Anything?"

"Impatient, aren't we? I'm barely past the interface here -- it's very... different, but no real security to speak of. This is definitely a survey ship alright. Data core's damaged though; need some coaxing to get any kind of a log here. But I can tell you one thing: this ain't a high priority mission if they'd send a ship this old."

"I could've told you that the moment we disintegrated the door." Sarcastic mockery from a superior officer aside, Marius' tone was nothing but cheerful, and it wasn't just because of his close bonds with the men. "The commander was half-expecting an entire assault fleet to follow when this little bugger came through. I'm perfectly content with the Empire not actually knowing what's on this side of the wormhole, thank you."

Marius then nodded towards Pavils, who had finished strapping the girl onto the stretcher and was awaiting permission. He then passed the orders with biting sarcasm:

"Take her to Captain Steinberg's black-hooded inquisitors please. I'm sure their whips and branding irons are eagerly awaiting."

"Can't say I feel happy sending anyone to those guys, let alone girls her age."

"You're not supposed to," shrugged the Captain, "but I'm sure it'll get better soon. The higher ups will have other plans for her."

"Affirmed."

Just not your higher ups, the Captain thought.



Chapter 2 - The Knight in Blood-Stained Armor

It hurts.

The alarms were shrieking yet again; except this time, instead of having woken up in a heated room and frantically realizing that the ship was being abandoned, Kannon found herself helplessly laying on a cot inside a cold, dark cell with her left wrist chained to the floor.

She felt like her entire body was burning. The searing pain combined with a lingering sore numbness to block out just about every other sensation. Her back stung in dozens of places as if hot daggers have recently been pulled out. Angry red inflammations also marked the same spots, where powerful electrical discharges left tissues burnt and damaged. Even her muscles continued the occassional jerk or spasm for no apparent reason at all, nor with any control on her part.

Her clothes were virtually shredded, ripped in numerous places and leaving few pieces of tattered fabric that did little to cover her body. Yet she could still hardly feel the thin sheets of the cold cot she laid on.

Perhaps worst of all was the damage to her mind. It hadn't shut down, mostly because Kannon's instinct didn't even understand of concept of how to stop thinking while she was conscious. But her current mental state was like a shattered landscape clouded by impenetrable fog. Her recognition couldn't focus on even a single coherent thought, and her recent memories floated about in bleeding, broken wrecks. Images of past and present blurred together in her mind with barely any recognition. The question 'what's happening' hardly passed through her brain before it was discarded without care. The only emotions that even managed to latch onto a corner were feelings of dread and self-pity, residues of frustration and annoyance.

For several days the so-called 'Justiciars' interrogated Kannon, yet failed to listen to a single word. They simply refused to believe her explanation of being a mere college student caught up in a bizarre situation. Instead, they opted to continue laying on everything from electric shocks to hallucinogens to mind-probing incursions in an attempt to find more about nonexistent 'Empyrean invasion plans'.

To them, the girl who came through the wormhole wasn't merely an enemy. She wasn't even human, at least not by the local standards.

To Kannon, her last coherent thought that managed to form a full sentence was I don't even care anymore.

Two thumps from further up the brig corridor disrupted the alarm's rhythm. They drew the attention of Kannon's instinct, which had been elevated to full control for the first time in years as her mind sought to protect its other cognitive functions. Her eyes turned towards the steel bars just in time to see a person's silhouette rush by. Seconds later, two more blurry outlines moved into the sight, illuminated by the hallway's dim emergency lighting as they examined her cell.

All three of them were wearing pitch-black form-fitting uniforms that seemed to meld into the shadows, except for the white lines marking the collars or running down the sides. They each carried a variety of equipment, including pistol pouches, ammo clips, grenades, and electronic tools. On their backs were non-reflective metallic backpacks with four rods extending from it in an X-shaped pattern. The two in the front and center also had detachable armored plating protecting their shoulders and upper arms, their gloved hands firmly grasping pole-mounted shortswords -- Scandinavian swordstaves. Meanwhile, the third covering their back with twin daggers was obviously a woman, highlighted by her smaller build and elegant curves, as well as the sleeveless and skirted uniform with long arm-gloves and leggings.

The man in the front moved past Kannon's cell without stopping before the second person gestured for him to return. All three of them soon took a step back away from the bars. The first man then held out his palm towards the cell, fingers extended and spread.

"Opto Scidi Sedicim," he said in a monotonic voice. Three glowing rings of burgundy-red light, each with intricately patterned bands, appeared from thin air and began to revolve. Two spun around his forearm and the largest third in front of his palm, where an orb of light expanded like an inflating balloon in the center of the ring.

"Evellete Confringo."

The orb burst, releasing sixteen rays of red light which struck different sections of the cell's steel bars. Portions of it vanished instantly as the light made contact. A second later, eight steel bars clanged as they fell to the ground, leaving a gap wide enough for almost two people to fit through.

No, no! Not again!

Uncertainty and fear seized Kannon's instincts at once. Her head shook involuntarily; her pupils dilated with obvious fright; her body trembling as it automatically backed away from entrance.

The second man moved swiftly through the gap and towards Kannon until he slowly knelt down besides the cot. Meanwhile, the other two watched the hallway.

Even with only one side of his face illuminated by dim lighting, it was obvious that he was young, no older than twenty, just over one-eight-three (6'0") tall but of average build. His features were a perfect mix between Caucasian and Orient ancestries, forming a photogenic image handsome enough to be considered beautiful. With a thin chin, nose with a slight feminine curve, and a dashing ponytail sported behind pitch black hair, Kannon almost thought he was a tall and handsome woman. Yet his most striking attribute that effortlessly pulled in her attention were his deep-violet eyes, which seemed to radiate friendly concern despite his cold, stern expression.

What... who...?

Curiosity sought to pull Kannon's logic back to the surface. Her cracked lips shifted open, yet could not find any thoughts coherent enough to voice. Before her mind could piece together multiple words, the man pressed his long index finger to his lips and gestured for silence. He slowly reached out with both hands and gently took her right hand before her reluctant self could pull away. With a sleight of the fingers, he pulled out a palm-hidden chrome ring and slipped it over her ring finger.

"Can you hear me?" a soft yet firm voice resounded inside Kannon's head, "I'm Captain Arkadi Kernow of the Avalonian Republic 1st Military District. We've come to rescue you, milady."

How...?

Kannon's eyes widened in surprise, and it wasn't just because of the voice. The original words were spoken in a mixture of English, some unusual form of German, plus another language she didn't even recognize. Yet somehow she could clearly understand its English meaning.

"That's a Communication Ring. It's attuned to those worn by myself and the team. Just focus your thoughts and you can communicate telepathically with us through it. Ours will automatically translate what you say."

"Captain, grenadier units incoming," an anxious voice remarked over the channel, "we really should get going asap."

"Copy," Arkadi responded before his eyes focused on Kannon once more, his left hand still supporting her right hand while his right invited with an open palm. "Come with us. We don't have time right now, but I promise I'll explain everything later."

Kannon nodded sluggishly as her re-emerging mind struggled to grasp his words. She still didn't have a clue of what was going on, only the vague impression that maybe, just maybe, she could trust this man.

Her left hand, still chained to the floor, sought out his open palm -- the last lifeline from this hellish nightmare.

Grasping both of her hands, Arkadi pulled Kannon upright into a sitting position. Then he pulled out a white jacket and wrapped it around her barren shoulders.

She felt like a lifetime had passed since such gentle warmth touched her...

Next, he retrieved out a vial of clear blue liquid and brought it to her mouth.

"Drink this, it will help you recover."

Kannon hesitated for a brief second before pulling her cracked lips open, allowing him to slowly poured with care. Although she couldn't taste anything in particular, it left a soothing sensation in her throat as the cool liquid flowed down.

"Is your eye alright?"

She nodded absentmindedly. Her vision was blurry and her left eye was shut, but neither conditions were the result of physical damage or pain.

As he put the vial away, Arkadi looked at the thick, deep-purple shackle and chain connected to her left wrist and frowned.

"Haidar," his deep, commanding voice called over the channel, "come inside, we have a problem."

The man outside then walked in through the gap. He was a broad-shouldered and well-built Caucasian at the same height as Arkadi. He had a rather round head, two sienna-brown eyes filled with energy, and a prominent nose that accentuated his Slavic ancestry. His hair was already prematurely balding despite soft features still putting him in the twenties, including a set of youthful freckles.

"Wooooah, they're being super serious," he commented with exaggerated surprise. "That's starsteel alright. My disintegration ain't gonna work on that! Would take some time to cut through that thickness the old-fashioned way."

"We don't have time," responded Arkadi as his eyes trailed the chain until it disappeared into the steel floor. "Disintegrate the floor until we find the other end. This metal is too rare to be used in huge quantities."

"I'm surprised it's even this long; given how costly this stuff is nowadays."

"This fortress does date back to before the wars..." another unfamiliar voice injected.

Haidar then stepped back and pointed his right palm towards the floor where the chain disappeared into. "Burst Hemisphere Down," he began as three rings and an orb of burgundy-red light appeared once again. But this time, a rotating circular light array filled with geometric patterns and runes also conjured itself on the floor beneath his feet. Meanwhile, steam erupted from the rear of the swordstaff shaft he held, releasing several small metallic cylinders that clanged as they bounced on the floor.

"Void Disintegration!"

The orb burst to release a thick beam of light. It struck the ground where a four-foot radius hemisphere of the metal floor vanished instantly. This opened a hole to the machinery compartment underneath and left behind only the chain attached to a long, spiked starsteel cylinder still partially buried in the ground. One side of the cot fell into the depression along with both Kannon and Arkadi, but he quickly put his right hand around her shoulders to steady her.

"Select Split Four," Haidar spoke the magical words yet again and shot out four more rays, focusing them around the cylinder. More of the floor vanished, dropping the chain's weight down into the compartment below. Arkadi pulled it up with a single yank and caught it before passing it to Kannon. The weight was hollow, less than fifteen centimeters long, and probably weighed around two kilos; but in Kannon's weakened arms, it felt like a ton.

"Hold on tight milady, you're in no state to walk out of here," said Arkadi. He reassured her once again with his eyes before putting his left hand under her legs and lifting her off the bed.

Kannon's mental fog cleared up by another step as heat worked its way into her cheeks. Years have passed since even her father cradled her in between his arms like now, let alone someone she just met.

"Let's go. Kaplan, detour to hanger bay sixteen on the way back," Arkadi ordered as he squeezed through the gap in the cell bars, taking care not to bump her into them.

Haidar had already hurried back up the corridor and towards two others -- a swordsman with a translucent body and a rifleman guarding the corner.

"Edmund, go with Haidar at the front. Covering fire, but kill anyone who tries to get away after seeing us."

"Affirmed!"

With a tight hold on Kannon, Arkadi hurried down the brig hallway, while the only girl on his team covering their backs from behind. Sounds of metal cutting into armor and several screams could be heard from ahead. But by the time they turned the corner, it was already over. Haidar soon released eight more rays which disintegrated the dead soldiers' bodies before the team rushed on through the station's many corridors.

Each time they approached a gate, its red status light would flip to green and open up right in front of them, before closing and going back to red status after they passed. Even Kannon's still-limited logic recognized that someone was aiding from behind the scenes.

This continued for several minutes before an unfamiliar male voice, younger and softer than the earlier acknowledgements from the men here, passed through the channel:

"Marine squad inbound."

Haidar and the rifleman Edmund immediately slammed themselves against the walls, taking cover behind two nearby bulwarks. Meanwhile the translucent leading swordsman, Kaplan, continued to charge forward.

"Burst Radial," Haidar voiced as he aimed his swordstaff towards the intersection up ahead. Another orb of light expanded at the tip while a circular light array spun around his feet. A cloud of steam erupted from the back of his swordstaff as a tube extended out and ejected three smoking-hot cartridges in quick succession.

Seconds later, eight soldiers wearing bulky powered armor, slate-gray in color and twice the size of normal men, turned around the corner.

"Plasma Blast Union Lightning Flare!" Haidar yelled before firing the orb at the marines. It crashed into one of their armored suits -- more precisely, into an energy shield right before touching the suit -- and burst, sending out a surging wave of electricity while immolating all of them in bluish plasma flames.

Yet as the burning air began to disperse, none of the suits appeared damaged. Instead, the two in the front had crouched down to take aim against Edmund with battle rifles the size of small cannons.

But not a single one of them seemed to notice the other threat...

"I-diots," Haidar cheerfully called out loud as Kaplan charged straight into their formation.

With a single stab, the longsword in Kaplan's hand pierced into the helmet of one powered armor suit and cleaved its way back out. Blood sprayed from the hole as its occupant collapsed dead onto the ground. Kaplan then spun around in a circle and dealt the same fate to the second crouching marine before leaping into the remaining six. Chaos ensued as the marines opened fire with what seemed to be electrolaser rifles, aiming wildly as if none of them could see their foe. Some of the energy beams would have actually struck Kaplan, except that they were deflected at the last moment when a sphere of dark-blue light surrounding him flared into visibility.

It was all over in under a minute. The rest of the group caught up as Haidar chanted his usual words to disintegrate the remains.

A brief wave of nausea worked its way up Kannon's throat as she glanced over the bloody hallway. It dispersed quickly, but not before sweeping aside more mental fog from her clouded thoughts.

"It just doesn't match without a real caster~" commented Haidar with obvious pride and joy.

"Invisibility has its benefits when the other side's sensors are blinded," Kaplan said proudly as he sped down the corridor. "And some believe illusionist spellswords to be obsolete -- fools."

Casters? Spellswords?

Kannon's mind slowly grew more focused as the soothing warmth from Arkadi's arms and chest spread over her. But thinking about what was happening only confused her in a different way. She realized that her rescuers were achieving supernatural results from those words they spoke, conjuring rays and drawing circles in the process as if casting spells. But, for it to actually be magic?

They said... a wormhole, not gateway to a fantasy game! And... if Kaplan is invisible... why is he translucent?

Questions pooled within Kannon's mind, fueled by the gradual return of her awareness and curiosity. But her head still ached, and it was too tiring to think with any form of deductive logic. Furthermore, she was still hanged up over an old comment:

He promised to explain later... there's no need to speculate now... and everything be much better if it really turns out a video game.

Like many others her age, Kannon had her escapist pastimes. One of these was an interest in reading plot synopsis or game guides. Without the time to properly invest in fantasy novels and games, she took the short route and filled in the details with imagination and dreams. It wouldn't be the first time she pictured herself in alternate realm. But this time... was just too long, too realistic, too painful. If it was truly a nightmare, she should have woken up long ago.

"Kaplan! Stop! Turn--right here," the guiding voice from earlier requested. "There's a marine platoon assembling ahead of you. I'll open up a detour."

"Affirmed," Kaplan replied as the entire team followed his turn. "Although we'd probably be fine lest they have auxilia support, or actual knights."

"Pride comes before--"

"Korey," Arkadi cut in, "what's the status of our diversions?"

"Ohhh--notsogood. They've already controlled the damage dealt by those explosions and defeated two of the five spellhacks we assaulted their system with. Communications are mostly restored, and I doubt you have more than ten minutes before surveillance comes back up."

"In which case we're hosed even if we can get out," responded Kaplan's bitter voice.

"It won't take that long," Arkadi declared in a confident tone. "There's the doors to bay sixteen right there. Enemy status inside?"

"One sec..." Korey replied. "Twenty marines, eight auxilia, and... oh boy, three judges."

"Hold the gate," Arkadi ordered. "Kaplan, Veil!"

"They'll notice the illusions as soon as we get close!" Kaplan countered as his figure solidified from his translucent form. But he stopped anyways and brought his right arm to chest height, palm facing upwards. "Select Weave," he stated as the same orb and rings of light formed in his palm and around his arms, except these were dark-blue in color. "Mirage Veil!

The orb burst and the air shimmered for a brief second. Then a faint purple glow surrounded everyone on the team as the translucent illusions of soldiers wearing slate-grey uniforms covered over their normal appearances.

Kannon had the feeling that she shouldn't be seeing those illusions as merely translucent...

"We only need a second, and to keep them from recognizing our actual faces," Arkadi explained. He then turned his gaze towards Kannon, his eyes softening as he spoke: "can you stand, milady?"

Her cheeks blushed to his choice of words. She nodded twice in response, still slow but without hesitation.

Kannon's entire body was still aching, numb, and didn't want to move a single muscle. She was recovering much faster than expected, most likely thanks to Arkadi's medicine; although the burning pain was only replaced with a feverish feeling that made every limb feel disconnected and distant. But with most of her senses back, Kannon realized she was being far too helpless right now. In any other circumstance, she would probably be getting irritated at herself for being so entirely dependent on another.

He might be the knight in shining armor, but even being the damsel in distress had its limits.

Arkadi gently put Kannon back down onto her feet, leaning her against the nearby wall for balance. Her legs felt like jelly as her weight pressed down against them. She immediately dropped the weighted chain onto the floor with a clang and braced her arms against the wall, doing her best to remain steady.

"I'll be back in just a minute, I promise. We just need to go grab your ship." Arkadi said as he slowly pulled away the strong arms that supported her. He then drew a pointed rod from his belt before expanding it to a swordstaff. "Edmund, take care of her and watch our backs from here. Lysette, with me!"

"Yes sir!"

"Got it~!" Lysette's enthusiastic response had the soprano of a high school cheerleader that felt sorely out of place.

"Team, this is a smash and grab. Sling-bundle your plasma grenades together and wire all your smoke grenades; we'll hurl and pull on my mark. Kaplan and Lysette, hold the Judges at bay, use your flight packs and scatter them if you can. Edmund, snipe the targets as I mark them; use your starsteel rounds -- I know there's only five left, but nothing less than antimagic ammunition will pierce a knight's vector shield at range. Haidar, head straight for the ship; shrink and seize. I'll cover you. We retreat as soon as you take it."

Shrink my ship? Something that size!? Okay, that's definitely a physical impossibility now.

"Affirmed," everyone acknowledged and began preparing their equipment. Each of them lined up one set of grenades behind the belt and tied a single cord to all of their pins. Another set of grenades were tied into a bundle, attached loosely to under their metallic 'flight packs', with a long cord pulled to the front and kept in their hands.

"Select Arms..."

"Buff up! Nothing visually obvious!" Captain Arkadi ordered again.

Kaplan already began casting yet another spell. Within seconds the rest of them joined him as they each channeled multiple spells into either their weapons or themselves. The strange mechanisms on the back of their swordstaves and sword hilts ejected another dozen cartridges alongside the castings, and the metallic ammo shells now lay discarded on the floor.

After double checking everything, four of them moved into position in front of the gates and lowered their weapons to a more relaxed carrying posture.

"Korey, open the gate."

"Godspeed!" came Korey's blessings as the small gate into the hanger bay pulled up and disappeared into the ceiling. Arkadi, Kaplan, Haidar, and Lysette then left Kannon's sight as they walked into the bay.

Half a minute passed before the muffled sound of distant speech reached Kannon's ears. Then, another half minute later, Arkadi shouted "Now!" over the channel. Within a second, dozens of explosions going off almost simultaneously resounded from within the bay. The anxious but peaceful atmosphere was instantaneously bloodied by the sounds of gunshots, energy blasts, and screams of the dying.

Edmund shifted from his hidden position and brought the high-caliber projectile sniper rifle to his shoulders. He lined up the scope with his eye and took aim into the hanger.

"Judges coming through!"

"Lure him to your right Lyse and then converge on center!"

"--This bastard..."

"Mark!"

Edmund pulled the trigger a split second after Arkadi's order, then cursed over the channel; but Arkadi's confirmation spoke otherwise:

"Graze-no... crippled. Must have shattered ribs."

"Cut the left armor! I'll rip out their guts--!!!"

Is that Lysette I just heard? Kannon puzzled at female voice filled with murderous glee.

"The smok-GEH!"

"Kaplan!"

Arkadi called out in concern while Lysette clarified the situation:

"The axuilia are wind-blasting our smokescreen."

"I'm... alright."

"Fall back, I'll cover you!"

"Mark!"

Edmund fired again, just before everyone's attention shifted. The call they were all waiting for finally came through.

"Done!" declared Haidar. "Let's get the hell outta here!"

"Lock and disable the gate as soon as we're through Korey!"

"Affirmed!"

Electrolaser beams smashed into the side of the hangar Kannon could see as the marines fired after Arkadi's retreating team.

Edmund then took off his smoke grenades and hurled them into the hanger in rapid succession. Lysette soon rushed through the gate holding the wounded Kaplan by the shoulders, with blood flowing down his right thigh from a cut that went a third of the way through. Haidar followed, holding what appeared to be a tiny, backpack-sized model of the TSV-9 survey craft under his right arm. Edmund then hurled his other bundle of grenades into the hanger just as Arkadi came through.

"SHUT THE GATE!"

The gates closed within a split second, but not before a double-bladed sword came flying out of the hanger, spinning like a boomerang around the center grip. Edmund's chestnut-red defensive shield flared as one blade crashed into it. But instead of stopping the attack cold, the shield only negated its forward momentum and slowed its centrifugal speed. The spinning heavy blade still had enough power to cut cleanly through Edmund from between the thighs and the pelvis.

"AHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!"

An ear-splitting scream erupted from Edmund as his torso collapsed to the ground, spraying blood in every direction.

The double-bladed sword actually spun faster as it fell. It sliced through Edmund's severed legs several more times until Arkadi's armored boot stepped flatly onto it and stopped it cold. Captain Arkadi then grasped his swordstaff with both hands before shoving it through Edmund's shield -- which flared again to slow the attack but failed to stop it -- and straight into his heart.

Time slowed to a crawl as Edmund's body thrashed once, twice more before it came to a completely still.

"Haidar, disintegrate him." Arkadi ordered with a frozen yet imperative tone as he pulled his swordstaff back out. His face was cold, blood-stained, and bereft of any emotion. His uniform was covered in the blood of enemies and allies alike. Even his steely gaze revealed not a sliver of hesitation, regret, or sorrow. It was as if what he just did was a perfectly normal and expected course of action. In fact, the speed and precision in which he carried it out made it seem almost... reflexive.

It wasn't that his knightly demeanor to Kannon felt any less than genuine up until now. But at that moment, Kannon felt like she glimpsed a piece of his true character.

"But--" Haidar muttered out loud, his eyes still widened in shock. "--But, but we could've saved him! Just stasis long enough for a regen--"

"No, we couldn't have," Arkadi cut in, his voice cold enough to freeze the air. "I'm sorry Haidar, but we can't allow the 2nd district to get his body for even a minute. Disintegrate him, now. You have your orders," he repeated with a tone of finality as he turned to stare at Haidar.

Haidar slowly pointed his left palm towards Edmund's body, his narrowing eyes focused itself on Arkadi for a split second before looking down to carry out his orders. But during that one moment, there was a profound sense of disgust within his gaze.

Unsure of what to think, Kannon looked upon the other two. Kaplan's expression was inscrutable other than his pain from the wound, while Lysette... looked as if her eyes were almost gleaming with worship and awe.

"Lysette, take front and let Haidar help Kaplan. We only have a few more minutes left!" Arkadi continued as he bent over to pick up the three high-caliber starsteel rounds -- the only traces that remained of Edmund -- and pocketed it.

After shrinking his swordstaff and placing it back onto his belt, he turned towards Kannon with a pair of warm reassuring eyes. He then placed the chain's weight that he easily pulled off the floor back into her hands.

"I'm deeply sorry for the shock brought by our unsightly actions, milady," he bowed as an apologetic and surprisingly sincere smile spread across his face. "But we must be going."

The complete switch in attitude made Kannon flinch back, only to realize she was pinned against the wall. Before she could even tell him otherwise, his hands slid behind her back and under her thighs. Then he easily tilted her back into the embrace of his arms and lifted her back up.

Blood from his uniform stained the white jacket that he gave her mere minutes ago...

This man...

There was no doubt that Arkadi just took the life of a comrade without a moment's hesitation. He then switched his mood twice more within the span of seconds and now looked as if nothing out of the ordinary had ever happened. Kannon could only wonder if he was so good at acting that even her proud intuition couldn't tell, or if he simply lacked a human's sense of conscience and flow of emotion.

A chill went through her spine as she thought about a fact that he didn't know yet -- that she was just a student.

If he can kill a comrade who became a hindrance so easily, then what will he do with me?


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


Several minutes later, after encountering only one enemy group -- four sword-bearing grenadiers that Lysette cut through like a bladed tornado -- the team arrived safely in hanger bay nineteen.

As they passed through the gate, Kannon's eyes were immediately drawn to the sleek starship parked within the hanger. It was nearly two hundred meters long -- the length of nearly two association football fields -- with a beam and width span of around thirty meters. Its body was entirely black and non-reflective, as though a hollow tear in space where light could not escape.

The team ran straight towards the ship's boarding ramps, which finished lowering just in time. According to Korey, any hostiles within this hanger were already 'cleared out' by the ship's point-defense lasers. Sure enough, dozens of armored bodies littered the approaches to the ship, filling the air with the smell of burnt human flesh.

"Close the ramp! Activate ion thrusters! Torch the hanger!" Arkadi shouted over the channel the instant all of them stepped onto the ship. "Maximum acceleration away from Hadrian! Open the range before they regain control of their gravity beam!"

"Affirmed!"

They rushed through the empty hallways until arriving at the bridge. Only two people sat below the massive holographic display that showed the gigantic star fortress as the ship left it. Lysette and Haidar helped Kaplan -- his thigh no longer bleeding after being wrapped in merely a single layer of bandages -- into an operator's chair before sitting down themselves. Meanwhile Arkadi brought Kannon over to one of the two extra seats at the back wall of the bridge and put her down onto it.

"Pardon my lateness for the formal greeting," Arkadi said out loud as he took two steps back, put his gloved right hand over his chest, and bowed deeply.

His posture was perfect. So would be the rest of his image -- were it not for the blood-stained uniform.

"But please, allow me to--" Arkadi continued as he stood back up with a charming smile, "--welcome you aboard the Strike Destroyer Somerset of the Avalonian Republic 1st Military District Black Hand Special Ops, Lady Kannon Reginbrandt."

He snapped his fingers, and a faint but audible click followed from further up the bridge.

Several seconds passed in silence when nothing happened, then...

An explosion erupted outwards from the armored surface of Praesidium Hadrian on the display, followed by another a second later, then another. The star fortress was blowing up from the inside. It took little more than half a minute before the entire station blew apart in an expanding nova of incandescent fury as the main power core went critical.

Kannon's hands were covering her gaping mouth before she knew it.

There must have been thousands inside a station that size. Even if they were from a different faction, they were still from the same nation, the same stellar navy. To destroy an entire base just to cover his escape...

"I look forward to working together with the prodigious Empyrean agent who managed to successfully destroy our first line of defense against the Empire."

Arkadi's announcement left Kannon reeling in shock.

Empyrean agent? By that, does he seriously mean -- me?

The implications behind his statement were stunning. It blew away what remained of her mind fog and grogginess in an instant.

"You've got to be kidding me..."

Out of the pot and into the fire. Rather than being saved, I just got recruited by the mission team from hell.




Chapter 3 - Daggers Under The Round Table

"So, you're a student from the University of Titania? Who just happened to stumble into the wormhole due to a military incident?"

Although Captain Arkadi's expression was still serious, there was an incredulous edge to his voice. Sitting from across the round table in the center of the crew common room, he held a massive cup of steaming coffee in between his hands and brought it to his mouth after each question.

Kannon couldn't help but feel exasperated, especially after working up her courage to go through it all, again. The Justiciars also refused to believe her, and their unnecessary torture still lingered fresh on her mind.

"...No, I'm obviously a saboteur zealot recruited freshly from the idealistic youths of college and sent by the Empyrean Star Forces to destroy your civil sovereignty."

"Well, fair enough," he smirked with amusement. "Grenadier Captain Marius, who first captured you, was one of our operatives in the fortress. As soon as we received his report, we realized that there was no way this could have been anything more than a poorly funded and reckless civilian operation. Otherwise, whatever problems we may have with the 2nd District, it would be downright foolish on our part to destroy even a star fortress as obsolete as the Hadrian on the dawn of a likely incursion."

He leaned forward and nodded apologetically, "I'm sorry for sounding like I doubted you, milady. I just found that second part a little too -- convenient."

Well, at least we agree on that one, Kannon almost voiced out loud.

"Then why did you have to destroy it? Weren't you from the same side?"

"Ooooohh no, not even..." interjected assistant and acting tactical officer (ATO) Haidar from his seat. He looked a lot younger when his baldness was fully covered by a fishing hat, although the meshed taupe-gray cotton cloth really didn't match with the stiff design of his black uniform.

Guess the designated mage of the party needs some eccentricities in his wardrobe.

From a young age, Kannon learned how to recognize and classify the roles of others at a glance -- a skill essential for those in leading positions. But this habit also took an unexpected turn for her, as she often compared roles of real people to archetypes found in her fantasy literature and games.

"On the surface, the Avalonian Republic may be a single stellar entity governed by a tricameral legislature," Arkadi began explaining in detail. "But the three houses and all its bureaucracy never gets anything done by themselves. Instead, it is the three Marshals of the three military districts that hold the real power -- both the political connections and monetary clout to push through the bills they want passed."

"The system was set up this way by the three Marshals and their supporters who toppled the Dominion's tyranny one hundred and seven Terra-years ago. They were originally rivals to the same throne of authority, but emerged from the revolution with similar power blocs. To maintain their power bases rather than continue an unpredictable war that everyone was tired of, they cut the Republic up into three separate military districts, each with an independent command structure."

"Except--" began Haidar, but Arkadi cut him back off as though he said nothing:

"But the distrust from the start soon developed into antagonism with an almost cold-war mentality. There are legal and civil administrative deterrents to prevent open war from breaking out between the districts, but assassination, sabotage, proxy terrorism -- those are common. Given our history of blaming one another for everything, the political backlash is minimum as long as one keeps proof out of the enemy's hands. Although, what we just accomplished is probably a bit... unprecedented."

Kannon realized soon after boarding the ship that Arkadi and his group were what history would call a 'Black Operation' team -- agents of the government who carried out missions so illegal that even their superiors couldn't admit to their existence. However, this group seemed to be hiding their true roles under the guise of an esoteric military branch.

Arkadi shrugged with a forced smile, "You could basically say that we're actually three warring states, each with our own warlord; but somehow we managed to play happy family together under one dynasty."

Altogether considered, not that different from dozens of eras in history, concluded Kannon. The only unusual trait is that they somehow managed to sustain peace for so long. But more amazing is the fact...

"I'm surprised you're telling me this from such a neutral perspective. No dramatic propaganda to convince me that you're the righteous cause in need of help against tyrants or barbarians or anything."

Arkadi chuckled before his deep-violet pupils gazed directly into Kannon's eye. "It would be folly to try to fool such an intelligent and beautiful lady as yourself, miss."

"I must advise our heroic captain that flattery is only marginally more effective than manipulation."

Flowery words weren't new to Kannon. Beautiful was always among the first words those seeking to take advantage of her would shower her with. But thanks to her mentality, few individuals ever seriously considered her intelligent; even her mentors usually settled on 'hardworking' and 'creative'. Without catching even a trace of insincerity in the Captain's words, Kannon unexpectedly felt her cheeks warming up by a few degrees.

What's wrong with me, getting flustered this easily? Now isn't the time to get sidetracked when I've been mentally preparing myself for this for hours! Besides, this man is definitely not the princely character he presents himself as!

With a brief image, Kannon reminded herself of Arkadi's bloody sight when he killed his own comrade without mercy.

"I prefer the phrase sincere compliments." Arkadi flashed a perfect smile that would have made anyone envious, be it star actors or charming villains. "Of course, I am interested in knowing what you can help us with. Since you're a university student -- what did you major in?"

"Astrophysics and business management."

Kannon swore all three other people in the room just synchronized the raising of their eyebrows, down to the exact millisecond of the start and finish.

"Odd combination," navigator Lysette remarked from her seat at the edge of a nearby desk. Her shapely legs swung back and forth underneath and her eyes focused on the empty air in front of her chest, where she kept an AR window open.

She was around twenty years old -- the same as Kannon -- but already a good ten centimeters taller (4") at one-seventy-three (5'8"). She had short, straight black hair partially tied back with a large red ribbon and a bob cut neatly just above the shoulders. Her burgundy-red eyes occasionally sparkled with either longing or fascination at what she was reading. Her beautiful face cast an atmosphere of serenity that didn't match at all with the bloodthirsty words she yelled during battle, and her smile ranged from Mona Lisa to eerie and bloodchilling. Even her lithe arms and the creamy-white skin accentuated by her pitch-black uniform were impossibilities for military commandos of non-magical origin.

Kannon wasn't fooled by her piloting position for a second. Between her angelic countenance and the demonic temperament that laid underneath, not to mention her choice of daggers for armament...

Definitely assassin; maybe femme fatale... any commando team could use one of those.

"The biggest industry my family's enterprise has been developing into is defense contracting. I needed to at least understand the fundamental technologies involved when dealing with the Empyrean Star Forces."

"Wooooah, a real corporate scion!" Haidar commented as he examined Kannon, his eyes shifting up and down her body. It sent a faint shiver down the back of her neck and made her skin crawl.

"They'd let humans get involved with their most advanced military hardware?" Arkadi's curiosity peaked with his surprise.

"We're the first, and only because recent political shifts opened opportunities... I also wouldn't quite call it the most advanced."

"No need to sell yourself short, princess," Arkadi continued with an encouraging smile. "You probably already know way more than we do anyhow. What can you tell us about that survey ship's propulsion?"

"It runs a GXE-LC330 gravitic induction engine with hyperspace tunnel drive--"

"And we're still stuck on ion drives!" Haidar chimed in again.

Wait-- Kannon's mind braked hard as the latest comment made absolutely no sense.

"But... reactionless engines were already in development five centuries ago before your ancestors first came to this system after escaping the Empyrean conquest."

"We've... lost a great deal of technology during landfall," Arkadi scowled at the scientific tragedy. "The Nine Archmagi Families that mutinied and overtook the expedition from the authorities didn't want non-magical military-applicable technology to proliferate. They sealed much of it away in secret research laboratories hidden in the depth of space. After the revolution, we lost all information on many of those locations. It's been over a century since we overthrew the magi of the Dominion, and we still haven't recovered the original Fleet Carrier Caliburn that brought us to these worlds..."

Kannon soon recognized the implications: the people of this world were centuries behind on even civilian technologies, let alone military.

There may still be a way to make myself useful after all! It's a little more real than I would like, but I did score the 'Guardian of Knowledge' role this time.

"...Since then, most of our research had gone into ether-tech -- magical technology -- development, so some of our pure-tech that wasn't as compatible had fallen quite behind. The drives are one example: the starwarp ether-tech drive that we use for FTL travel is far superior to any theory of hyperspace physics that we know. But so far, high-powered magical gravity manipulation has proven far too ether-intensive for them to develop the next generation of subspace drives. So we've simply built larger ion engines and more efficient fusion reactors to feed them," he shrugged. "You could imagine how excited some of the engineers were when they saw the reactionless drives on your craft..."

Kannon couldn't help but appreciate the fact that when Arkadi said 'work together', he meant it. Outside of confidential data, he and his shipmates were completely forthcoming about information, often filling her in on the details before she even needed to ask. In the past few hours, she learned far more about this world than the days she spent aboard star fortress Hadrian.

But -- what are the chances they will let me go back to my world after everything?

...I should try not to think about that for now... warned a little voice from the back of her head.

That's right, focus on the present!

"...You'll probably come to the opinion that our technology base is quite disproportional and unbalanced," continued Arkadi. "Some of our fields, particularly in life sciences and transit networks, have made incredible advances over the years. Others, like in subspace drives, we've barely caught up to even pre-landfall levels. It wouldn't be an understatement to say that our society became so dependent on magic and ether-tech over the past few centuries that we often find ourselves clueless when magic is not a viable answer -- which, I must apologize again, for our current lack of solutions in cutting off that chain without hurting you."

"...There's no need to apologize; it wasn't your fault to start with," Kannon replied with a meek smile.

The ten foot long, five kilo heavy starsteel chain and weight was still attached to the shackle locked onto Kannon's left wrist. Arkadi explained earlier that starsteel was a composite made using special meteorite ore that survived re-entry into Avalon's dense magical atmosphere. It was similar to the diamondsteel used to armor starships, with a mostly carbon-bonded crystal-lattice structure similar to diamond. However, it was also virtually impervious to any direct-effect magic short of Grand Sorceries. As a result, it was nearly impossible to cut or break without extremely powerful reactions, which would easily vaporize her arm before it could destroy the shackle itself.

In the meantime, they gave Kannon three straps to minimize the chain's hindrance. Wrapped around her upper left arm, left thigh, and attached to the belt, two of the straps held the chain up with hooks before letting it trail back down -- leaving her arm unimpeded -- while the third buckled the end-weight to her thigh.

Kannon also wore a set of 'uniform' in the same design as Lysette's, made with her help using the ship's nanite synthesizer. It included a white, sleeveless blouse, worn underneath the black, form-fitting sleeveless vest stiff white lines. A short, deep-red tie wrapped loosely under her square collars, and long gloves hugged her arms up to the bared shoulders. Under the utility belt were pleated black miniskirt and its attached petticoat layer. A set of black running shorts underneath, plus black over-the-knee socks and calf-high steel-toed boots completed the ensemble.

Nothing about the outfit met the common conceptions of military standards, which spoke volumes about the Avalonian Republic's philosophy in uniform design. Lysette commented that 'since the uniforms weren't there for any practical defensive or camouflage value, why not make them look good?' She then showed Kannon it was just one of several options available in the armed forces. The only difference between the organizations was the color scheme used.

"...But where did you learn to pilot a spacecraft?" Arkadi continued his questions after another coffee break.

Kannon shook her wandering thoughts back in order. The entire session was basically a dreaded interview, except instead of some internship role under one of her father's directors, her life was at stake here. With the decision-maker none other than the leader across the table, Kannon knew that she would either join the team or vanish into the background as the story pressed on... and 'vanish' was a dangerous term when it came to special operatives.

"I didn't. I simply called up a few pre-programmed command protocols. I had some experience using them and navigating from assisting my professor's research expedition last--"

"Captain Arkadi, please come to the bridge," executive officer (XO) Kaplan's voice interrupted over the telepathic channel.

Kannon still wore the Communication Ring. The crew did speak mostly English, as that was the official language of the Terran sector, even five centuries ago when their ancestors first left. But terms from other languages were common, with some members of the team using them more frequently than others. This meant it wasn't merely a problem of the English language adopting more words since colonization, but the widespread use of secondary languages. All of this forced Kannon to continue relying on the ring's abilities and hope it wasn't broadcasting any thoughts other than those she willed into it.

To be on the safe side, she decided hours ago that it was best not to lie while wearing the ring -- not that she was any good at lying to begin with.

"What is it?" Arkadi asked as he strode out of the crew common room at a swift pace, followed by the rest of them.

"We're detecting faint sensor ghosts up ahead, closing in at 4500KPS. Based on the formation, they're most likely a sensor web of stealthed recon drones. I doubt we've even seen the tip of the iceberg here -- sir, they really don't want us to slip away this time."

"Full power to stealth fields... looks like I pissed them off a little."

"Maximum ether investment to stealth fields," Korey's voice repeated.

"Just a bit, sir," Kaplan's sarcasm was impossible to tell from his flat tone of his speech. "Scattered ships from Task Force Seven of the Home Defense Fleet is following. Nearest battlecarrier 550,000 kilometers behind detected screen section, 72 degrees to port."

"Think they've noticed us yet?"

"Unlikely. The Arcani-class is built for stealth. Our sensors are twice as effective as that of those drones... And their ships' vectors do not indicate any awareness of our presence."

"But at this range, they'll probably pick up enough emissions leak through our stealth fields if we activate engines, even on minimum... What are our chances of passing them undetected?"

"None. We can't get past them without entering their Aurasense detectors' range in five minutes' time; that'll pierce through anything short of Sanctum wards."

Arkadi sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose just before he stepped through the bridge doors. For a split second, Kannon watched his countenance reveal the exhaustion that he was hiding. Haidar had mentioned to her that the past hour was supposed to be Arkadi's first break after the mission, yet he had chosen to spend most of it gathering information and answering her questions.

"Launch REDEINs one through four on minimum power. Drift away from the ship for 120 seconds before engaging drives. Haidar and Lysette, take the controls! We have to destroy the nearest drones before they get in range to pinpoint our vector."

Kaplan vacated the Captain's seat for Arkadi just as Kannon stepped onto the bridge. The XO was in his early twenties, built on the thin side with an average stature and about one-eighty centimeters (5'11") in height. His well-groomed black hair leaned towards the right, long enough to cover his ear and reach the base of his neck. His skin was paler than the usual Caucasian, and he had a small Asian nose and a pair of soft yet serious dark-blue eyes that gave him a surprisingly innocent expression when they weren't focused with determination.

Serious young knight, check.

Being Arkadi's deputy gave him extra points in Kannon's book. Although she wouldn't count on the idealistic and naive attributes though, given the nature of the party...

Marius was joined by Haidar and Lysette at the tactical readout. As newest 'member' of the team, recently switched over from his last job title of 'Infiltrator' assigned to the Hadrian, Marius was also the oldest-looking and somewhere in his mid-thirties. Broad-shouldered and over one-eighty-five (6'3"), Marius was built like a drill sergeant. Combined with his ashen-gray hair, thin grayish-black eyes, and a stiff mouth that seemed unlikely to bend a smile, it gave him a formidable appearance with a natural hard-to-please look.

Gruff old veteran, check.

Kannon wondered whether he was cynical or kind-hearted deep underneath -- probably not the latter if he was working here...

Okay, now I'm just jumping to unfair conclusions.

Engineering officer Korey, the last member of the ship's current crew, sat at the engineering terminal twirling his hair between his lithe fingers. He had an average build at one-seventy-five (5'9") in height, but with a distinctively feminine appearance with his large emerald-green eyes, thin arms, and long brown hair that went halfway down his back and draped forward over the shoulders. Both his delicate skin and hair seemed well cared for, and he always showed a gentle and attentive smile. His speech also used more words from the Altaic languages -- of the Japanese, Mongolian, Turkic, and Siberian regions -- than English, making it impossible to understand him without relying on the Communication Ring.

Gender-ambiguous character, check.

Kannon has never seen that role as the 'tech geek', although it had to happen somewhere. Thousands of years in both literature and reality did not leave any room for originality. Stereotyping existed because it tended to happen, but that only applied as long as one did not try to fit into square archetype holes too closely.

Must be willing to round it out a bit, or sometimes a lot... like, what role would the Captain be?

...Sparkly and princely on the outside, dark and wicked on the inside, naturally found inhabiting the shadows...

He must be a vampire.

She sat down at one of the extra seats in the back, legs already tired from the short hustle to the bridge. Then she called up the Somerset's system information panel with a thought.

Korey had reinstalled the main accessor chip on Kannon's neutral-interfacing implant at the back of her neck. The overall system architecture had enough similarities remaining from five centuries ago that he was able to link the two modes together with relatively few difficulties. Now, while Arkadi continued to issue orders across the bridge, Kannon began searching the database for the terms that she couldn't understand. She knew she had zero military experience and no understanding of this world, but...

Every being adapts to survive. A new world is no different from a new market. I'll learn and prove my value, just watch.

"...We can't get a lock on their drones' location at this range without using active sensors," Kaplan pointed out while both Haidar and Lysette leaned back on their chairs with closed eyes. The extended neck guards from below their headrests indicated that their consciousness had formed a physical deep-link with the ship through their neutral implants.

[ REDEIN - REmote Drone Escort INterceptors are the primary atmospheric and space fighter craft of the Avalonian Republic. They use telephased FTL communications to maintain link with their control terminals aboard starships and bases. The Arcani-class Strike Destroyer carries a maximum of eight REDEINs with two telephased control terminals... ]

"Isolate their prospective locations and hit as much of what remains as possible."

Given the ranges involved in starship sensors, that was a risky proposition at best; but Kannon heard neither fear nor anxiety in Arkadi's voice. His eyes remained as composed and focused as ever, scanning through row after row of sensor data as he adjusted the computer's frame of analysis.

"Match the triangulated returns from the combined sensors feed with the electromagnetic emissions map and regional distortions from stellar radiation. I'll do the former. Kaplan, help me with the latter."

His request was more or less a formality. The executive officer started even before Captain Arkadi finished his order.

"REDEINs away," reported Marius. The fact that he, an infantry captain, was filling in the role of a tactical assistant revealed just how understaffed this ship was.

"Kannon, you've dealt with navigation data before right? Give me a hand -- combine my results with Kaplan's and run a trajectory match on them at 95% confidence, then send what remains to Haidar and Lysette."

"Yes!" Kannon replied reflexively in surprise. Even with the staff shortage, she didn't expect him to ask for help from an amateur like her!

Focus!

Pushing away all unnecessary thoughts, Kannon immediately opened several windows to display the coordinates the computer was sending her: four sets of minuscule stellar regions, each less than 0.002% of a light-second in diameter, but nevertheless over 100 cubic kilometers of space each. A conjunction operation cuts down each region by nearly another magnitude. Repeating the process for older data gave her the 'rough trajectory' for the paths of the nearest four recon drones over the past minute.

Since Kannon didn't know what the drones' thrust vectors may be, a trajectory calculation would be useless unless she could assume zero acceleration. It was likely that the drones wouldn't be able to use their maneuvering thrusters while maintaining stealth at such low ranges. That meant any shift to their initial velocity should match the stellar pull in this area, mostly the gravity wells of this system's stars and planets.

Accessing the ship's navigation data, Kannon quickly assembled an algorithm that would process and trim down the drones' prospective locations. The final result was four mobile regions of space based on the estimated velocity of the targets. At nearly five cubic kilometers each, they were far too much volume for just a few fighter weapons to sweep through in any reasonable time.

But with the clock ticking by, Kannon sent the data stream off without further delay. She closed her eyes to pray to whatever gods they believed in out here for their success.

The odds are horrible, I know; but it's still better than nothing.

"Opening fire!" Haidar's voice came through the bridge speakers.

As Kannon opened her eyes and looked at the AR windows before her, a red star marked one exact position within each of the four regions that the computer was tracking through the ongoing sensor feed data and algorithm calculations. Each of the drones was even labeled with a four digit ID code and numerical coordinates.

What's going on here?

"Focus all fire on region three!"

Kannon barely even registered Arkadi's order as her mind grappled with the implications of what she was seeing... It was exactly like what happened when she saw the Hadrian on the survey craft's star map, which should have no knowledge of its existence!

"Third pass, no response!"

"Stupid junk metal needs to learn how to just die!"

What should I do? Am I just seeing things due to fatigue again? There's only a minute left! We don't have time to deal with false data!

"Two Comitatensis-class battlecarriers advancing towards us. They're launching!"

But it was 'right' the last time wasn't it?

It may not had been what she expected, but both the coordinates and the Hadrian name proved themselves correct.

"Got it!"

"Switch target to region two!"

Kannon took a deep breath and raised her fingers.

Better to trust this weird intuition while we still have the chance, right?

She read the three remaining red stars' coordinates, one at a time and each for several seconds, while passing it straight through the neural-link to the computer. Then she ordered it to send out the updated tracking data...

"Take that!" Lysette shouted over the audio.

"Drone destroyed!" Marius reported again, hope rising within his solemn voice.

"Switch to region four. Tear it open!"

"Swinging about... firing..."

"Drone Destroyed!" Even Marius' report was halfway between ecstatic and incredulous now.

Three shots. Haidar's REDEIN destroyed the the elusive target with just three pulse laser bolts. Lysette just two against the one before.

Incredible! The data must have been spot on!

"Region one!"

"Drone Destroyed!"

I can't believe it worked! And so perfectly!

"We'll clear the net in twenty-three seconds," Kaplan said with just as much disbelief. "Recon drones powering up -- they're attempting to fill the gap!"

"Destroy them! Don't let any of them get close!"

Haidar and Lysette's names separated on the display, each controlling the leading craft of one REDEIN pair. They easily picked off the approaching recon drones before any of them could get into range. The other side was clearly panicking as their sweep operation met its catch-twenty-two: with a gap torn by interceptors already within the drone formation, the enemy will slip through if the gap wasn't closed; but to close the gap, the drones must fire up their engines, painting bullseye markers on themselves for the enemy REDEINs.

More drones from the sensor net activated their engines and tried to close the net around the Somerset; but Haidar and Lysette were cutting through the cords and tearing the hole further apart with even greater speed. It would take over another minute before the hostile REDEIN force, even with their 900Gs of acceleration, could reach the area to clear the way for their drones. By that time it would be too late.

"Any sensor ghosts remaining?" Arkadi asked as the enemy finally realized the futility of activating more drones.

"Five, nearest at 470,000 kilometers to starboard."

"That should give us enough distance, especially with all the weapons fire. Drop both decoys on drift! Followed by minimum thruster burn at 50Gs towards B-11 for 10 seconds," the Captain ordered. "Let's change our vector before they try to match our trajectory using the gap we blew apart."

"Affirmed. Decoys dropping," Kaplan confirmed.

"Affirmed. Minimum thruster burn to B-11 for ten seconds," Korey repeated before he began the countdown. "Nine... eight..."

"Twenty-second! Three actives remaining," Haidar's voice came over the audio as he continued to eliminate the last of the active drones.

"Five... four..."

"What's to be excited over mere target practice!?" Lysette mocked with malice. "Wait till we can tear up something real!"

"One... zero... engines shutting down. Course change completed."

"No course shifts detected from the enemy ships or REDEINs," Kaplan reported.

"Activate decoys at five percent. Mimic the emissions leak of a destroyer running under stealth. Set thrust vectors to one-thirty-five degrees of our heading and sixty degrees to each other. Arm proximity self-destruct sequence."

"Affirmed," responded Kaplan before repeating Arkadi's orders while he focused on inputting the decoy drones' parameters into the computer.

Talk about quick thinking... wish I could come up with layered ideas that fast.

Kannon was impressed. With the ship powered down after a brief course change, it would be difficult to track them down based on the section of the search net they broke through. That task just grew expontentially worse with two decoys mimicking the stealthed destroyer, each heading off on a course possible from the original breakthrough point. Even if the enemy attempted to trace them, they're far more likely to chase a sensor ghost for hours instead of finding the real ship.

"Looks like that's a wrap," Arkadi declared with unwavering confidence. "Sorry to burst your bubble Lysette, but crash your REDEINs with Haidar's at opposed velocities with self-destruct armed. I want not a scrap remaining."

"Yessir~!" The innocent and cheerful tone of Lysette's response felt like a whole different person's compared to her sharp, twisted voice from merely moments ago.

Seconds later, all four REDEINs blinked and vanished from the area display at once. Both Haidar and Lysette then rose back up from their chairs after disconnecting the physical uplink between their implants and the control system.

Meanwhile, the green circle marked Somerset that represented their ship was cutting a sharp vector out of the area. The trajectory was almost perpendicular to the hostile red cruisers' and REDEINs' inbound course. The enemy was activating more drones from stealth now that the interceptors have been destroyed, but it was already too late. The bridge remained tense for another few minutes as everyone watched the sensors carefully. But as the distance between the Somerset and the red-highlighted ships opened further and further, everyone began to relax back into their chairs.

"Good work, everyone!" Arkadi stood up and congratulated the crew with a brilliant smile before turning towards Kannon. "Especially you, princess. I knew we could rely on your help."

Every pair of eyes in the room turned towards Kannon. Kaplan looked indifferent but nodded once in begrudging acknowledgement. Marius cracked an amused and almost-unnatural smirk before crushing it under a steep frown. Korey smiled encouragingly as usual, while Haidar and Lysette were just surprised. It was a mixed reception at best, yet Kannon hardly even noticed. At the center of attention, Kannon's expression was virtually glowing. But rather than her usual embarrassment from the sudden, unexpected attention, it was from the sheer exhilaration of receiving the praise and acceptance after passing the first test with flying marks.

I totally did it~!

With her eyes sparkling in joy, Kannon found herself dazed by a brief moment of complete euphoria. In the game of life, recognition of success was her drug. Nothing could send her to greater heights than the rows of check marks on exams, the acceptance letters of institutes, the approving words of professors, the ravishing performance evaluations of supervisors, and most of all, the pats on the head from her own parents. It took several moments before her senses returned. Her excitement almost yelled out loud as she hurrily bowed her head:

"I-I'm honored to be of help!"

"We'll be counting on you," nodded Arkadi. He then closed his eyes for a brief second, exposing his fatigue, before suppressing it once again as he continued.

"Unless they luck out enough to hit the proverbial jackpot, I'd say that we're safe from detection now. We'll hold this vector for twenty more minutes before changing course with another timeboxed minimum burn. Kaplan, how are sensors and plotting?"

Before Kannon even had time to think about what Arkadi implied, Kaplan began yet another long-winded explanation that required all of her attention just to comprehend...

Kaplan turned back to his terminal for a second before responding "not good". He then switched the main display to show a holographic three-dimensional projection of the entire star system. The two class-K orange-red dwarve stars Logres A and Logres B of the astrometric binary star system were both near the apogee of their highly elliptic orbits around the barycenter -- the area where the figure-eight shaped twin star orbits cross over one another -- with a distance of 97 astronomical units (AU) between them. Along with the Avalon Wormhole, the three almost formed a right triangle, with Logres A 92AUs away from the wormhole and Logres B 34AUs away. The A-primary was orbited by six planets, with the second planet Avalon and third planet Caerleon forming a binary planet system on the ecliptic plane. Both of them were highlighted for their colonized status. Four other planets surrounded the B-primary, with its first planet Broceliande similarly highlighted.

"Most of the 1st District Battle Fleet is now gathered on the far side of the wormhole, with 2nd District's Home Defense Fleet in between us and them." Kaplan explained as he highlighted various sectors on the map where entire fleet formations were displayed. "Due to our launch direction from star fortress Hadrian, we've had no choice but to proceed towards the far side of the Logres B system to avoid the sensors of the 2nd District fleet. But since we didn't have time to resupply after our last trip or aboard the Hadrian, the last REDEIN launch had pushed our strained fuel reserves to critical."

"Given the situation, our arcane core won't be able to spare much ether outside maintaining the stealth field. Worse yet, there isn't a single 1st District capital ship left within the Logres B system to receive us. It would also be difficult for Marshal Comorus Kernow to find an appropriate excuse to dispatch another ship here right now."

"So... we're all going behind enemy lines? Again?" Haidar asked with obvious distaste.

"Yes. At this point, we have no choice but to rely on Logres B's gravity well to help pull us in, make for Broceliande's orbit, and then find another way back to Avalon."

[ Broceliande - The 1st planet of the Logres B system. Broceliande is a forest planet dominated by gigantic ironwood trees with an atmosphere harmful to unenhanced humans due to its concentration of airborne heavy metals. Although the 2nd planet to be settled by the Avalonian Dominion, it is today the most populous planet and under the care of the 2nd Military District... ]

"So be it then," Arkadi declared without a shred of the worry that clouded the other crew members' faces. "We've all been to Broceliande on mission before, and I've been there dozens of times. The Black Hand has more than enough contacts and agents on the planet to help out, and this mission is alpha-priority." He told everyone with confidence before curling his lips into a smirk of eager anticipation. "I'll take care of the arrangements. We'll be back on Avalon before you know it. In the meantime, unless special circumstances arise, I want everyone to get as much rest as possible before we arrive in planetary orbit."

"Affirmed!" replied the team before they each sat back down at their terminals.

Lysette and Haidar were still on their off-duty time slot. They took only enough time to examine the sensors before standing back up from their seats. On the other hand, Arkadi went straight back to work after sitting down with slower and more careful motion than usual.

With a frown towards the Captain, Kannon slowly stood up as she pondered over his behavior. As a heir to the family enterprise, she spent much of her life learning to read others. The fact her slow thought process couldn't keep up with everyday speech only emphasized this, forcing her to always try to prepare for conversations ahead of time. But try as she might, she just couldn't quite figure Arkadi out.

On one hand, he was a villain. There was no doubt about that.

On the other hand, he seemed like a honest and truthful person. He didn't try to hide anything except his own weaknesses. He may seem exaggerated or impossibly confident at times, but Kannon couldn't fault him for a single time in being insincere or deceitful in the words and emotions he expressed.

Yet... if his expressions were genuine, how could his words be so kind and gentle one moment, yet turn so callous and ruthless the next? How could he kill a comrade he clearly trusted with unhesitating ease, yet push himself to the limits for the sake of those who remain? How could he wipe out thousands without even blinking an eye, yet provide her, a mere civilian from a hostile star nation, with more care than her role warranted, even trusting her enough to watch his back at the most critical moment?

It was like he switched between the kindness of a chivalrous leader and the brutality of a merciless killing machine with complete freedom, without the slightest reserve or moral restraint to hold him back. That simply wasn't natural for human psychology. But unless this man was a liar of such finesse that it fooled her completely...

Not likely.

Interpreting others was one of Kannon's natural talents that she took great pride in, but...

Arkadi turned his head around in surprise as Kannon, after walking over absentmindedly, laid her right hand upon his shoulder.

"You should take a rest as well, Captain," her thoughts voiced themselves. "You're utterly exhausted."

Time stood still as both Kaplan and Korey stopped what they were doing to stare upon the other two. Even Arkadi was staring back with a sign of mild surprise in his fatigued eyes. Meanwhile, Kannon found herself frozen, unsure of how to continue without a response, only to gaze back with adamant eyes. For a long minute, the bridge was completely silent except for the clicks coming from Marius' terminal.

Then, it was Kaplan who broke the peace. He was serious and formal like usual; yet both gratitude and concern also worked its way in as he gave the Captain a knowing look:

"She's right Captain. You haven't slept for forty hours even before the operation. It'll take, at the very least, fifty-six hours more before we arrive in Broceliande orbit. That should provide enough time for you to prepare -- after you take a proper break."

Arkadi turned to look at Kaplan like this was the last thing he expected. But Kaplan's face held firm, his lips tight and his eyes unwavering.

"Very well, you win, you win," Arkadi replied, lifting his arms off the terminal as if admitting his defeat. "Kaplan, you have the bridge."

"Affirmed, I have the bridge."

Arkadi's eyes began to droop as he slowly stood up from the captain's chair. He patted Kannon's head twice with his large hand as he began to walk towards the doors.

"Thanks, princess. You should get some rest as well."


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


Three hours and thirty-seven minutes later, Arkadi stepped back onto the bridge. It was the longest he had slept in months. Combined with the restoration magic from his ether-tech sleep module, it was far more than the two hours normally required to fully revitalize him.

"Morning, ladies and gentlemen. How's the day treating?" He greeted Lysette and Korey, who were the current ones on watch.

"Silent and undetected~" Lysette playfully responded as she flashed an innocent smile towards Arkadi. "We're en-route towards the mystical forests of Broceliande~ ETA fifty-three hours."

"Our guest is sleeping peacefully right now," Korey followed with his usual cheerfulness. "I doubt they have the same longevity treatments on the other side for the restoration magic to link with, so it may take some time."

"Keep up the good work," responded the Captain as he sat down on his chair. He activated the terminal and called for half a dozen windows to open up around him, each filled with information regarding the Somerset and the surrounding space.

He needed to go back to figuring out what to do once they reached orbit. But first, there was something that has been bothering him...

He had thought that Lysette and Haidar simply got lucky in the last encounter. It hadn't occurred to him to check the data until he woke up minutes ago and mentally reviewed all of the events in the last two days. It was a habit he had originally adopted to help refine his once-poor short-term memories, but he also found it to be an excellent way of reflecting upon recent events under different circumstances.

Now, accessing the REDEIN's targeting logs, he realized it wasn't just luck. Somehow they managed to narrow each of the drones' locations down to almost an exact point in space.

He examined the algorithm that Kannon created and the data stream it provided back during the skirmish. The calculations definitely resulted in an approximate area where the computer deduced its target to be within. But forty-three seconds after the REDEINs began firing, Kannon somehow mentally figured out, and began inputting, the precise locations of the drones over a five second interval each. The trajectory plotted by the computer using these coordinates proved to be exactly right.

Arkadi leaned back and closed his eyes in thought.

Even if she didn't come from the other side, even if she was from one of the original archmagi lineages, there was no way she could have activated a divination magic powerful enough to pinpoint the exact positions of three different targets with neither a spell focus nor a trace object, within the span of mere seconds and without any of them on the bridge noticing the aura expansion of a spell that should have been at least class seven. But if that wasn't the answer, then...

Just what did she do?




Chapter 4 - Colored Shades of Gray

"See, the Communication Ring is military -- well some organizations and individuals use it too. But the point is, it's a formal translator. You can't customize it for accents, styles, mannerisms, or anything like that! Basically, it's lossy translation!"

Kannon was already regretting her decision in asking Korey to explain the more esoteric pieces of equipment. The problem was that he was too enthusiastic. He ranted with such apparent excitement while chopping up onions it seemed like he was crying tears of joy from just the opportunity to talk.

"How so?" She asked while lifting the top of the tabletop electric grill. The salmon sizzling upon it was almost a golden-brown color, and the exquisite smell of miso marinate combined with fish oils was already beyond mouthwatering. She decided to give it another minute and closed the top again.

"You see, the ring uses telepathy divination to communicate, transferring both the words they picked and the brain signals used to select them. It sends the words directly to your head, but automatically translates the phrases and grammar that you don't understand by tickling your speech centers with the original brain signals. Basically it grabs the very words you would have used to describe the same thoughts, and then send it off to all your cognitive functions."

"But... that sounds like perfect translation." Kannon was totally impressed and confused at the same time. The technology was a clear cut beyond even the Empyrean Universal Translators.

"Nonononono, youseeyousee, it's what words you would use, not what words they did use. The Communication Ring doesn't transmit the emotions behind the choices. Otherwise everyone might as well be reading each others' minds rather than just the words we focus upon the ring -- baaaaaddd idea, as our psychology does require privacy."

"The thing is, we all speak a bit differently. Depending on culture, that difference could be quite a gap. The Communication Ring's translation will bring the thoughts across. But the way they said it, the tone they said it in -- all of those won't translate so easily. Hence, it's lossy translation!"

"Take Japanese for example," continued Korey as he finished chopping the onions, put them into a bowl, and began cutting the potatoes into thin shreds. "There are many levels of speech, not just accents and regional styles but multiple versions of the standard dialect used for different levels of respectfulness and familiarity. Honorifics, descriptions, and even the sentence structure changes. Someone knowledgeable about the language can tell what impression the other side wishes to make and what distance they want to keep the conversation at just from their speech. But since the official language English lacks the same... features, most of that is simply lost in translation."

"But... isn't that expected from any translation?" Kannon said while turning off the grill and taking out several plates.

"Not quite -- you see, a good human translator can take the details that would otherwise be lost in translation into account. They can adjust the words based on circumstances to make up for it, somewhat. Pick exaggerated adjectives and adverbs and whatnot. Automatic translation usually won't do that because it's not the scale of description they had originally used. After all, other than logic, our words are manipulated on a subconscious level based on emotions before they come out."

"...I don't see how the an implant translation component could solve this though."

"Oy! How long are you going to keep rambling on you culture nut!" Haidar complained from the corner with clear annoyance. But Korey simply kept talking like he didn't hear anything.

"It doesn't, not by itself. Our things might be magical but not that magical! The implant component simply offers more potential. Instead of tickling your brain, it relies on its own database and combine it with magical divination deduction -- if that makes any sense. You see, it's basically a magicked-up version of old auto-translators, but provides a breakdown of matches to the phrases and structures you focus on. Unlike the translation ring which basically does all your work for you, the implant allows you to build up your own experience with the language. Most importantly, it'll adapt to the way you choose to view the styles and mannerisms rather than just dump out the formal meaning behind them."

Kannon finished moving the grilled salmon onto the special serving dishes with built-in miniature gravity field generators. Then she added a scoop of lemon-seasoned onion rice and some orange-glazed carrots to each plate.

"Well... the food is done, so let's eat first." She finally gained a polite opportunity to stop Korey while bringing the first two plates to the common room table. Although interesting at first, Korey's enthusiasm on the topic had long exceeded the technicality a linguistics amateur like Kannon could take in one sitting, or standing.

Well, at least the conversation put him into a happy mood; or was it the cooking?

"Now This. Looks. Delicious!" Haidar declared in joy as he sat down, his hands rubbing anxiously. "It's been forever since we've had some variety around here!"

"...Your kitchen stock isn't that bad. At least you recognize more food groups than beer, caffeine, and instant meals."

"Of course, the nostalgic college diet," Arkadi sported a wide grin from the corner as his fingers danced across the air surrounding him, presumably closing the windows opened with his neural-interface. "Sadly, the only extra food group we receive is curry."

Kannon finally realized that he hadn't spoken or moved at all for the past few hours, not since he started working in that corner. His concentration easily rivaled that of her own.

"...Spicy tastes bring a spicy life, I guess?"

"Well, Korey loooooooves curry. Indian, Thai, Japanese, Malaysian, you name it~" Lysette explained as she helped bring over another plate, setting it courteously between the utensils in front of the Captain just as he walked over to pull out a chair.

Between cooking and chatting with Korey, Kannon hadn't even noticed that Lysette had stopped reading at some point to set the table. She had even given each of the napkins a classic fan fold.

"He's very good at it too~ What was that nickname his friends called him by?"

"Don't say it!" Korey shouted with a flustered voice. But Lysette wasn't backing off as she tilted her head, clapped her hands together in a cute gesture, and called out with her sweetest voice yet:

"Kary-han!"

"It's curry bread!" he fixed her pronunciation before realizing what he did. "And don't call me that either!"

I think he actually said karepan, prior to the auto-translator kicking in.

"Awww~ but Korey I thought you liked cute aliases," Haidar joined in, "I mean those online names of yours and all--"

"Just not that one!"

His entire face was beet red as he spun on his heels and turned his back to the room while everyone grinned from ear to ear. Even Kannon joined them as she watched fondly. It was just like those video game skits -- they were but another a group of adventurous 'friends' having a good time teasing each other.

Really can't tell that these people were black ops at all right now.

It proved that no matter how gritty the job was or how experienced the members were, people were still people. The fact they were elite, militarily-trained terrorists didn't change things one bit. These casual, slice-of-life moments were just as important to them as everybody else.

"Either way, I'm fine with Korey's curry." Haidar continued with his fork already in hand and a smirk still spread across his lips. "But every meal, every day, every week, every month is just too much, even with a dozen different kinds."

"Hey, I cook other dishes too!"

"And they were indeed a most exquisite cultural experience, but perhaps a bit too exotic for most of us," replied Arkadi before changing the subject. "This really is brilliant handiwork, princess. The main course looks particularly delightful. What do you call this?"

"Miso-marinated grilled salmon," Kannon answered proudly. This was one of the simplest of her specialty dishes after all. "I had to synthesize a few spices so the taste may prove slightly dull. But since there was a decent stock of salmon I figured we would try this first. We were also preparing beef goulash stew for dinner."

"The first ingredient of deliciousness is always a girl's touch, just as--" Haidar suddenly cut off when Lysette hit him in the back of the head, hard enough to almost knock his face into the plate before him. Lysette then walked back towards the kitchen looking as peaceful and innocent as ever. Haidar, on the other hand, was flushed with anger for a split second, but said nothing of it.

Between a jester and a lady, however questionable, the victor had been decided even before it started. That was especially true when Lysette had the temperance of barbed steel -- polished and tough, but wouldn't hesitate for a second to bloody an offender.

"...But, Korey's an excellent cook." Kannon could tell by the adroit way he sliced through the ingredients. That clean and precise knifework wasn't something one could develop from just making a few meals.

"He already counts as a girl!" responded Haidar without the slightest hesitation.

Korey however, said nothing. He looked as though he was already used to it.

"...Do men usually not cook within the Republic?" Kannon asked with curiosity. It was always her father who cooked at home, and both genders of her acquaintances in college were equally disinterested.

Honestly, the concept of 'cooking was for women' is even more obsolete than silicon transistors.

"Oh no, that's not the case at all," Korey replied as he finished putting away the ingredients. "Although it is rather skewed... Gender stereotyping within the Republic had reverted back several millennia after landfall. You think the reconstitution of magical culture and northern paganism would push it the other way, especially since women, on average, have stronger magical potential. The downside is that their hormone imbalance periods also make their magic more unstable. Furthermore, the low population made governments encourage women to have as many children as possible and then stay home to raise them. In fact--"

Kannon realized too late that she stepped on another one of this ship engineering techie's unusually passionate interests in cultural studies.

"Why didn't you just show Kannon how to use the nanite multitool?" Lysette cut him off as she glanced over all the ingredient containers while picking up the last dish. "It'd be a lot faster than cutting it all by hand."

"Where's the fun in that?" Korey pouted for a brief moment before returning to his cheerful self, his eyes reflecting Kannon's agreeing smile.

"Where's Kaplan and Marius?" She asked. Other than those two, everyone was all ready to start. Haidar was already eating with a blissful expression.

"Marius is sleeping, and Kaplan's still on watch at the bridge. I called him to come down, since we can monitor the sensors just fine from here anyways. But you can guess how he responded." Arkadi shrugged.

The young serious knight with the armor of rules, firmly keeping everyone's head on the ground at all times, best paired with extravagant commanders... yep, I know the type.

"I'll bring his meal over then. It wouldn't be as good once it cools. You all go ahead and enjoy~"

Kannon picked up both of the extra plates on the table, carried one of them back to the kitchen, then went out into the hallway with the other on a small rectangular tray. The corridor was dimly lit with only two rows of emergency lighting on the floor to conserve the ship's power. There was also no artificial gravity; walking relied on the personal gravity field generator built into her boots. She went along carefully, making sure she didn't spill any of the food that she could barely see. Even then, she was at the bridge within two minutes.

The ship may be nearly two-hundred meters long, but the massive engines and power cores took up about sixty-percent of its volume. The rest was split between weapons and other systems; the space that remained for living-quarters was quite compact.

The bridge doors slid open with a single thought as Kannon focused on it.

"I should have known that you'd come," Kaplan spoke without even turning around from the captain's chair.

"...Why do you say that?"

"You're the type that can't leave people alone, aren't you?"

"...Lies! I just thought roleplaying a maid would look cute. I'll have you know that I'm very aloof normally, especially to stuck-up swordsmen."

Okay... that's bit unreasonable, but it's his fault for raising such a pretentious question. Besides, I'm not lying either.

Kannon was wearing one of Korey's flowery aprons and did hope to make a good impression on her new comrades by revolutionizing their diet. Her father once taught her that the easiest way to bond with any team was over the dining table, and the most straightforward way to personally impress someone was to make them a scrumptious home-cooked meal. He even made a point of this by hosting his weekly associate dinners at home once a month, particularly as a way to warm up to new subordinates or show immediate recognition for high performers.

Well... not like making acquaintances is a character skill of mine, which means taking the extra step to work on it.

"But your team did rescue me. The least I could do is give you all a warm, home-cooked meal."

Kannon moved up beside Kaplan and put the plate of food down at the open space to the side of his terminal and keyboard screens. With the availability of augmented reality (AR) interfacing, this sort of redundancy in controls could only be found on a military vessel.

"We didn't expend three members of our team to rescue you to become our ship's stewardess," Kaplan shot back harshly.

Kannon's annoyance towards Kaplan's attitude died almost instantly. It was reasonable for him to be upset, after watching three comrades fall in exchange for a stranger that's not even from his star nation. There seemed to be something else as well, but...

"I'm sorry," she said solemnly. "I knew about Edmund, but I didn't know there were also others... What were their names?"

Remembering the dead is the least I could do.

"Alicia Watkins and Kyrie Melges, REDEIN ops." Kaplan answered. His voice was cold but lined with a tinge of suppressed sadness. His eyes were still glued to the display in front of him.

No wonder why they seemed so short-handed during the last encounter.

"They knew what they signed up for... I just hope you are worth their lives."

Kannon felt the implications of Kaplan's words weigh down upon her. Regardless of circumstances and intentions, the lives of three people were lost for her sake. It was now her duty to take responsibility and make their sacrifices meaningful.

"I... I understand. I'll do my best to cooperate."

What else can I say?

Kaplan closed his eyes and sighed audibly. He then reopened them to examine the lunch while his hand picked up the fork on the plate.

"I don't mean to sound ungrateful -- but you know perfectly well how you can really help us."

"Yes..."

He doesn't have to remind me...

"...Don't worry. It's already in the works."

Kannon knew that they didn't rescue her out of pure goodwill. She knew that she was merely a source of knowledge to them: one who fell from the stars with an advanced prototype that could bring centuries of advances to their technology, as well as social information on the main branch of humanity that they left behind. They only broke her out so she could cooperate with them instead of their rivals in the 2nd District.

Kaplan picked up the knife, cut off a piece of the salmon, and delivered it to his mouth. He took his time tasting it before swallowing and commenting: "that being said, this is quite delicious."

"Thank you." Kannon finally brought a smile to her lips since stepping onto the bridge.

As Kaplan resumed eating silently, Kannon bowed lightly with the tray still in hand and took her cue to leave. Yet just before she reached the bridge doors, Kaplan called her attention back again:

"Miss Reginbrandt."

"Yes?"

Turning her head around, Kannon saw only the back of his head. Despite being the only other person on this bridge, Kaplan hasn't looked at her once this entire time.

"Please don't hesitate to talk to any of us if you need something," he said as his arms silently cut up another piece of salmon. "As long as you're our precious partner, we will do our best to make you feel at home."

Arkadi told her the same thing earlier, although without the 'as long as' part.

Kannon couldn't help but wonder what would happen to her once the partnership came to pass with the conclusion of the mission, once she told them all that she know. She couldn't even be sure they would spare her to fade away as some insignificant NPC in this fantasy realm.

"Thank you," she said with as appreciative of a voice as she could muster, before bowing again and leaving the bridge.

It always seems so easy from the protagonist side. I never realized before just how difficult it is actually to join the party when playing support -- if that really is my goal.


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


Thirty-six hours had already passed since that last encounter with 2nd District units. The crew had relaxed since then as they travelled deeper and deeper into the Logres B system, where not a single ship seemed to have even an inkling of their presence. But now that the Somerset was less than twenty-four hours away from reaching Broceliande orbit, the crew had began accelerating their preparations for entering hostile territory.

Among the preparatory items were two hours by Korey to add another major software update to Kannon's neural-interface controls, melding the two systems together with an even deeper link. He told her that he might be able to create a hybrid system to reinstall over both of them. But he would rather not play with that until they arrived in safer lands, just in case something went wrong.

Kannon was thankful. Since the chip connected to her spinal cord, 'something wrong' could easily translate to 'vegetable for life'.

Korey also ran another medical check on her and spent some particular time fussing about her eyes. There was nothing wrong with them, except that Kannon had a habit of not properly using them...

"Odd to see you here, princess."

Kannon almost jumped as the voice resounded from the dark corner behind her in a room lit only by a single display screen and several glowing crystals. Recognizing Arkadi's tone, she spun her heels around to see him walking out from the shadows, with a pistol in hand no less.

"Captain!"

Her pulse skyrocketed and her eyes grew as large as saucers... for a brief second. She soon noticed that Arkadi was grasping the gun by the barrel, pointed down and to the side, instead of by the handle and pointed at her. But calming down required far more patience than a simple, instantaneous shot of adrenaline.

"Gosh, that scared me -- what are you, a vampire?" Kannon voiced her thoughts before chiding herself.

Did I just say that out loud? I wonder if fatigue mixed with fear gave people death wishes.

"Only if I could bind your beautiful soul to mine for eternity."

Kannon found it surreal how the Captain could make even such ridiculous words sound sincere. But with less than half his black-clothed figure illuminated by the ambient glow, Arkadi seemed more like one than ever.

"Zero points. Cut the soul part next time. It's downright creepy when you say it like that."

She wasn't kidding. The gun even gave his line a bonus. She had to concentrate just to keep her eyes off the thing.

He shrugged as though this was completely normal.

"Sadly, not all attempts to appreciate beauty succeed, yet it cannot stop an admirer from trying. But to answer your thoughts, the core room helps me relax," he replied with a soft, somewhat nostalgic smile. "You may not see it since it's so dark in here, but there's a folding chair in the corner."

...A coffin would fit this atmosphere better, or is that too archaic?

"Ah... I'm sorry for disturbing you. I thought this was the reactor core room."

In-between cramming knowledge into her head from the ship's database, Kannon mostly took breaks through cooking and exploration.

Still, there aren't any bears to hunt that would warrant a gun.

As Arkadi put his pistol back into its holster, Kannon noticed the glint of something attached to the bottom of the handle: a silver rectangular locket. It was an odd accessory to keep on a firearm. But maybe it was also the real reason he had it in hand -- reminiscing the memories it held.

"No such thing as disturbance, princess." He said gently as he walked into the light. "In fact I'm enchanted by your presence. It is always an honor to accompany a lovely maiden in her noble quest for intellect and wisdom."

In just a few lines of dialogue, the atmosphere around Kannon took a completely one-eighty flip from strangely menacing to... bubbly pink.

Does 'building the atmosphere' mean anything to this guy?

Even worse, Kannon didn't know what was more embarrassing -- the courtly words Arkadi suddenly chose in such private circumstances, or the fact she was actually fazed by their abruptness, moving in just as her nerves were trying to settle down.

"...I guess I'm supposed to be blushing demurely here."

--Which is exactly what my cheeks are doing, the traitors!

His eyes twinkled as his smile stretched even wider, revealing the perfectly white teeth underneath that dazzled even in this dimly lit room.

"Really is quite charming, princess. Even the muses would be jealous at such a sight."

At least he doesn't actually sparkle, thank god for small favors.

But the smile was so bright she couldn't help avert her eyes, or so Kannon told herself.

"I-I have a name, you know. So you don't need to call me that."

"I humbly apologize, milady Kannon. I did not realize it was bothering you," He apologized with a courteous bow; his tone was genuinely worried but also betrayed a dash of playful curiosity.

"Nono! I'm flattered, really! ...It's just beyond awkward and excessive... and kind of embarrassing..."

Kannon doubted most normal girls her age could truly dislike being addressed 'princess' in an endearing manner. In fact, she considered it a compliment. Be it through fairy tales or mythological legends, the charm, grace, presence, and dignity of noble princesses continued to touch the hearts and dreams of every young lady at one point or another.

But... it's impossible for me to get used to such a lofty honorific.

Even as the heiress of a corporate magnate, no one had ever addressed Kannon as such. The few aides that mother had been forced to hire due to her busy schedule had, at most, gone to the extent of 'young miss'. Most of the time they had simply addressed her by name.

Even more importantly, I simply don't want to be seen through such a title.

After all, how many princesses actually undertook missions or came alongside the team? They were almost always in the background, serving as distant motivations and glorified prizes rather than directly partaking in any action that would aid the protagonist and serve the story.

"Besides, it's inappropriate for a guardian scholar to be addressed as such!" Kannon announced proudly as she laid her fingers down upon her best, albeit still miserable, attempt at puffing up her chest.

Arkadi smiled again and nodded in understanding.

"How does Miss Guardian wish to be referred by then?"

"Just Kannon is fine." She declared as her gaze met his earnest deep-violet eyes once again.

"Your wish is my command, Bodhisattva Kannon, O' Guardian of Humanity." Arkadi bowed again with his hands adding the full flair. He chuckled as he stood back up and noticed Kannon's awestruck expression, raised eyebrow and gaping mouth included.

"I'm joking, I'm joking... But honestly, Kannon really is a beautiful name. The goddess of compassion and mercy, bringer of liberation and salvation... I'm sure it fits you wonderfully."

"...And you sir, have a rank A talent for exaggeration." Kannon crossed her arms as she tried her best to suppress her coloring cheeks. Unwilling to let him ruffle her composure in one way or another every single time, Kannon shot back with the first thing that came to her mind:

"You know, you'd be more charming if you just played more honestly with your words."

I really don't think that came out right...

Feigned shock instantly spread across Arkadi's face.

"Your words wound me deeply! Never have I not expressed my most sincere beliefs!" His smile soon returned as swiftly as it left, with the slight twist of a smirk to look even more dashing. "I simply like to think that I have a far more... artistic, perception of others than my contemporaries."

Kannon couldn't help but grin back at his words. A feral grin only found between rivals in wordplay, of course.

I'm still inexperienced, but one day I will rise to his level and overcome this late game boss of verbal banter!

Kannon realized she claimed something she had no confidence in. Her spontaneous social skills were, unfortunately, on the side of lacking. But at the moment, that didn't seem to matter the slightest.

But... artistic, huh?

She agreed that Captain Arkadi has never lied, or even spoke with anything but candid sincerity, regardless of how ridiculous the words may seem. If that wasn't impressive enough for her, his knowledge of naming etymology certainly was.

...Liberation and salvation -- what an ironic name, when I couldn't even save myself from the bindings of my own past...

The unwanted voice was immediately crushed back down to the darkest corners of Kannon's mind, the false shadows from which it came from.

"What's your name mean?" She rushed to shift the focus.

"Arkadi? It comes of the Greek name Arkadios, meaning 'of Arcadia'. It's a region of Ancient Greece from Old Earth. But far more importantly, it's an euphemism for the lands of Utopia." An edge of bitterness revealed itself in Arkadi's smile as he continued: "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."

I must have a curse for asking the wrong questions.

Kannon's mind went blank for a moment as she chided herself...

But rather than sadness or regret, Arkadi's eyes hardened with determination. His expression resolved with acceptance, betraying only a hint of nostalgia used to steel his beliefs, while the faint shadow of hatred simmered below the surface.

He had already accepted his fate of walking this sinful path.

"I'm sorry," Arkadi said as his smile turned apologetic. "It's been a long time since I've thought about that, and I seem to have brought up something unpleasant."

Kannon shook her head and responded with a warm smile of understanding. "No, not at all... and I'm sure they wanted you to reach towards that seemingly unattainable dream in your own way."

For a brief second Arkadi looked taken back. Kannon wondered if she had said too much. But then his eyes softened, his grin widened, and he raised his right hand to gently pat her head.

"You really do remind me a bit of my oldest friend."

The joy she felt from the approval of his voice was short-lived. Even his composure couldn't fully contain the longing streaming out from behind those words.

A lost confidante, or even a severed soulmate... It was impossible for Kannon to guess the details, and she knew it was inappropriate to simply ask. But it was also clear that Arkadi held this person dearly -- a best friend who had the faith to believe in the Utopian dream; a romantic soul whose memories he would not discard.

Maybe Arkadi isn't such a dark person after all.

The hint of movement drew her attention to his left hand. His fingers gently touched the silver locket that dangled from the pistol handle.

Seconds dragged on in silence as neither of them could bring ourselves to say anything. Kannon looked up with her softest gaze, seeking to offer some comforting appreciation without unnecessary sympathy. She immediately realized that she was being conceited, believing far too early that she could attempt to reduce this distance that he purposefully kept others at. Breaking contact quickly, she called up another AR window and requested an outgoing file transfer:

"Since you're here already, I can just hand you this... I've been going through data on the general culture and technological base of Avalon. So I compiled this -- a comparison outline of the major similarities and differences between the society and technology here in Avalon versus that of the Terran sector. I think it will help your analysts pinpoint where they would want additional information from."

...And as long as they need more data, I can be sure of my safety.

Arkadi tapped the air with his fingers, and Kannon's AR window confirmed a successful file transfer. Scrolling down his display, Arkadi looked mildly impressed as he nodded towards the document in approval.

"Excellent! Our strategic planning analysts will love this! I'll forward it to them on the next dispatch."

Kannon's eyes sparkled as half her mind went into euphoria mode again, only to be dragged back as the Captain's focus returned to her.

"Well, since you're looking for the reactor core, allow me to escort you to the engine room."

"Oh... right... but then, what's this room for?"

"This place houses the arcane core... which is really just a fancy name for an ether extraction apparatus and a few Arvitor crystals."

Seeing her confusion, Arkadi pointed towards the three glowing crystals above and behind the chest-high display screen. "Look over there."

Kannon walked over to the side of the raised display and examined the device. Most of it was encapsulated by a massive black pipe that stretched from floor to ceiling but was no more than arm's length wide. It stood in the rear center of the room like a towering pillar, with three sets of tubes protruding out of the main structure, then going back in after turning around through a gradual U-bend. Three crystal rods were also inserted into the cylinder at a forty-five degree angle from below the tubes.

In the middle of each U-bend was a spherical, transparent glass bubble. A brightly glowing gem seemed to float within at precisely its center while clear water flowed around it. Each of the gems radiated a different color: aqua-blue from the left, peridot-green from the middle, and scarlet-red from the right. There was also something inside the gems...

As Kannon squinted her eyes against the light and peeked into the transparent gemstones, she saw something that my mind could barely believe.

Within the center of each crystal was a tiny person, who looked exactly like a human in their mid-teens, except only 1/25th in size. The left and right gems both encapsulated females, while the one in the center was male. Each of them also had the same hair color as their gems' glow, although two of their hues were a shade different from the radiance of their gem. They were all as naked as the day they were born, each of them curled up in a huddling posture.

"Are they really... humans?" Kannon pondered aloud even as she dreaded the answer.

"They were humans, you could say," Arkadi replied. "Right now, it's bit hard to define... I'm not completely sure if they even count as living, although they are conscious."

As if on cue, the tiny girl with the peridot-green hair opened her emerald-green eyes and stared blankly at Kannon. One look at those eyes sent chills down her spine -- they were completely blank, without a trace of emotion or thought behind them.

She staggered half a step back and looked at Arkadi's serious face. He was gazing upon the crystals with a mixed expression, one that laid somewhere between pity, disgust, and apathy.

"What do you mean?"

"We call them Arvitors, short for 'Arcane Servitors'. They used to be normal-sized, humans exactly as we are, just... modified."

"Modified?"

Does he mean genetically? Is that why they have such unusual hair colors?

Kannon's mind swiftly crushed any thoughts of comparison to her own hair. But even she could not stop the shiver going down her spine or the queasiness in her stomache.

"During the height of the Avalonian Dominion, the Great Magi Families learned how to modify a human not only genetically but also magically. It significantly improved the accuracy of engineering physical and mental attributes, and also enabled the ability to change one's magical traits. For instance, it could enhance your nerves' ability to conduct magic to your soul for processing, or your senses to perceive the flow of mana, or the range of your magical affinities. The full extent of the possibilities were never disclosed. Some rumors claim you could even grant powerful mythological abilities of legends or embed a Geas directly into the DNA to compel the loyalty of an entire bloodline."

"But regardless of what it could do, the Great Magi Families fell with the Dominion one-hundred-seven years ago after the people could tolerate their increasingly magically prejudiced legal code no longer. An revolution was started by several warlords and well, you know the rest about that part."

"...Every society grows biased towards its founders," Kannon nodded as she thought back through history, "religious believers, royals, cultural imperialists, democrats, they're all the same."

"Indeed. But what our history books doesn't go into detail is that the revolutionaries were almost wiped out at the beginning of the war. Not surprisingly, the Dominion's best weapon systems were all ether-tech; they required powerful mages to operate at full potential. While the rebels did have many supporters from magical bloodlines, they had very few 1st class mages -- the ones who had both the status and wealth to magically enhance their offspring."

"Then, all that changed when Doctor Leslie Manhattan managed to create the Soul Binding spellword. When used in conjunction with the ancient Crystal Prison spellword, it resulted in the crystals you see there. The powerful compound spell could imprison a mage inside a crystal, then allow anyone wielding it to utilize the mage's soul to process mana into ether. Basically, it packages a human being into a living ether refinery."

Forget the bad feeling. This is outright horrifying. I don't remember any mentions on the ship's database about it!

"T-that's barbaric!... I mean, Isn't that slavery?"

Arkadi shrugged. Although his expression was still mostly apathetic, it was getting grimmer by the moment.

"Yes. But when you're losing a racial war, that ceases to matter. The warlords who refused were soon destroyed, and those who remained quickly adopted this and began to kidnap and capture magically-enhanced humans wherever they can. I can't remember when the term Arvitor first came to use. But either way, using the enemy to defeat the enemy is standard military logic. By the time the war was over after five bloody years, the leadership was already used to viewing the Arvitors as mere tools rather than people. Pity from everyone else came limited after generations of magical prejudice where the class one mages more or less regarded non-magical people as sub-human, plus the war-time propaganda which completely dehumanized the Arvitors as unfeeling, inhumane machines."

"Still, the nail in the coffin only went in when they realized that the only way to grant the lesser social classes what they promised -- equal public benefits and everything -- was if they continue to use Arvitor Crystals. After all, only souls can refine mana to ether, and our society was simply far too reliant on ether-tech equipment. Since crystallizing only part of the Arvitors' population was just inviting unrest from those powerful mages, the three Marshals and their supporters simply went all the way. They outlawed the Arvitors' genetic alternation procedures, denied the entire subrace of their fundamental rights, and crystallized every one they could find during the Arvitor Hunts."

"...And the people are just, just fine with this?"

"No. Not everyone. In fact, Leslie Manhattan was so horrified by the law that she killed herself. Even today there are minor political parties and civil groups who wish to bring freedom to the Arvitors, not to mention terrorist groups. But their support base is too limited -- you'll be surprised how many people will turn a blind eye towards so-called morals when their quality of life comes into the question."

"But... slavery has been outlawed in human civilization since the 20th century!" Kannon could feel her astonishment over what she heard turn into something that was borderline anger.

Arkadi sighed before turning towards her with hardened eyes.

"Kannon, I understand how you feel. But I'm just telling you how it is right now. After all, social morality is subjective to eras of civilization. Belief of slavery by the earliest Republics of humanity didn't make their citizens evil by default -- in fact, the Romans considered it a necessity of 'civilized society'. I'm not condoning it as 'right' either. It's especially hard to think that way when I'm a quarter Arvitor blood myself, hence my eyes aren't a natural color and the same hue as my aura. But social views aren't something that most individuals could change."

Kannon's eyes quickly averted his gaze and looked down in shame. His statement embarrassed her far more than even his most embellished words. She realized that not only did she just try to take out her shock and frustration on him, but she was passing judgment on the society, the culture, and the world he grew up in when she was just an outsider who barely knew anything. Even if she was right, criticizing their way of life when she had so narrow a perspective was nothing short of hypocrisy.

"I-I'm really sorry."

"Don't worry about it," Arkadi replied while patting her shoulder with one hand. "In fact, I'd be surprised if you weren't shocked. Some of our world's ways have gotten a little... questionable, over the years, and this is one of them."

'Questionable' doesn't begin to describe the magnitude here... But I really should hold back my opinions until I see the full picture.

"I did forget to tell you that, technically, the crystallization doesn't mistreat them either, or so the argument goes. They're conscious, but their bodies are in an effective state of stasis while inside the crystal. They don't eat or drink, but neither do they age. Using a crystal also doesn't hurt the person inside. Basically, it's like they're trapped in a dream."

"...An eternal dream... trapped inside a translucent diamond and unable to do anything..." Kannon's thoughts came out in a trance-like whisper as her gaze shifted back to the crystals.

The girl that was conscious already went back to sleep.

"Sounds nightmarish, doesn't it?" Arkadi finished up for her in a nonchalant voice.

But... that doesn't quite add up...

"Even... even if the crystals are everlasting, how do they keep up with society's growth? Or military expansion?"

Arkadi grinned lopsidedly. "Now you see the real question! The answer is -- I don't know!"

Kannon wondered if his playful tone was a claim that he really didn't care much about this whole business, or if he was simply trying to keep the conversation from falling into darkness again.

"All I know is that we haven't had a shortage yet, which is suspicious in itself. There's speculation out there that someone is raising more Arvitors for crystallization, but no proof of such has ever surfaced." Arkadi shrugged again as he finished with an expression of finality.

Kannon's eyes narrowed as she realized that something wasn't right. Arkadi wasn't lying, but neither was he telling the truth for once. Her intuition felt that he had a very good idea, even if there wasn't any proof, on what laid beyond the shroud of secrecy.

It seemed Arkadi already learned to accept the existence of the Arvitors crystals. The grim shadow behind his voice recognized that there was a moral issue, but his surface indifference reflected the same view shared by most of Avalonian society -- this was just the way things were. The crystals were a necessity of this age, and few individuals were in the position to do anything about it.

Shifting his gaze, Arkadi looked straight into Kannon's eyes and spoke of his views as though reading her thoughts:

"I don't presume to judge society for what modernity embraces. In fact, I'm not really in the position to judge anybody. But everyone averts their eyes to one fact or another. Since it is not merely wrong, but outright impossible, to always impose one's values upon society."

"They say that turning a blind eye is negligence and cowardice. But it's also a nature of all living beings, a necessary instinct for survival. We all do it, in one form or another. The more intertwined we are with the problem, the more likely we are to ignore it. A selective application of morality in examining society isn't justice, but hypocrisy. In the end, it is self-interest that should truly stand as the foremost reason for revolutionizing change. One must stand up not for the righteousness of our ideals, but for the sake of our beliefs and ourselves."

His voice was harsh, but it wasn't accusatory. It felt like he merely wanted to state an opinion, one with completely seriousness and honesty but not a trace of expectations.

"If anyone is to liberate the Arvitors, it will be the Arvitors themselves who strike the deal. That... is my opinion on the matter, anyhow," Arkadi concluded with a shrug and returned to his smile.

Pragmatism at its absolute... just what kind of past did Arkadi live to develop such a view at that age?

"Speak of turning a blind eye, prin... Kannon," he grinned apologetically. "Why do you always keep your left eye closed? I thought it was an injury at first, but that doesn't seem to be the case. It is a shame that the world is only allowed to enjoy half of their brilliance and beauty."

I swear he's always saying lines that will purposely embarrass people!

Kannon thought back, taking the opportunity to avert his sight and distract herself. It wasn't the first time Arkadi asked about her eye; half the crew voiced their concern at some point, and Korey even examined it. But... try as she might, she couldn't remember when or why she started doing that anymore.

"I'm not sure... but at some point it became norm for me to keep only one eye open. Maybe I had an injury or something and got into the habit of it before I recovered."

"Then -- may I have the blessing to gaze upon both of your pristine gems? Lady Kannon?" Arkadi bowed his head with his hand over the chest.

Words and mannerisms alone, Kannon thought that Captain Arkadi should have been born during the golden age of knights and chivalry over a millennium ago.

"...Since you asked so courteously, it would be rude to deny a gentleman so small a favor."

Two can play at this game. Even if I'm not up to par, it would at least make his lines less embarrassing by comparison.

Kannon kept her eyes straight as she willed her left eyelid to lift. It felt strange that something which came so normally for others would require concentration from her.

Well, I guess it isn't the only one.

Surprise, but a pleasant surprise, filled Arkadi's eyes as he looked into the depth of her own.

"You're... heterochromic?"

"I know it looks weird..."

"No, it's gorgeous," he spoke in sincere admiration. "The clarity and depth of your lapis lazuli right, the purity and wisdom of your amethyst purple left, each holding a mysterious light and matching perfectly with your long cherry blossom hair."

Kannon's cheeks were positively radiating now.

Nobody except her own parents had ever spoken so fondly of her unusual combination of hair and eye colors with such honesty. In fact, she had such a problem with it that she had even tried dying her hair and wearing colored contacts as early as elementary school, but her mother would hear none of it. She would always tell Kannon to take pride in it, but the results were anything but that.

"Tha-that's just too much. There's no way..." Her voice trailed off into a dry whisper.

It had always been so much easier to simply classify that part of herself as an anomaly within normality. After all...

I'm definitely just a normal person -- weirdly so and with special circumstances, but normal. The alternative is simply unthinkable.

As Kannon felt two firm hands on her shoulders, she lifted her gaze back up and saw his deep-violet eyes staring straight into hers from no more than a hand's length away. He was leaning forward and still smiling gently, but his eyes were also determined and completely serious.

"You really shouldn't ever consider yourself weird," he stated firmly as if reciting God's very commandments. "No matter what others think, no matter what others say -- you should have the faith to believe in and accept yourself and the path you have chosen."

"It matters not what others say... believe in yourself."

Her mother's words echoed through her head as Kannon tried to bring words to her lips.

"But... I do..."

Her reply trailed off into uncertainty almost as soon as it began...

Why can't I answer such a simple question firmly?

Believing in herself -- that was exactly how Kannon thought she lived her life: always doing what she could, to the best that she could. Every problem, every obstacle, she had always relied on herself, relied on her faith in her will and her abilities. It formed the very cornerstone of her being. It was the reason she could adapt and make herself useful in any situation, even in a world as strange and hostile as this one.

"Stand up for the sake of our beliefs and ourselves..."

In the world where a person's individual value was judged by his or her abilities, Kannon has spent her entire adolescence improving herself and refining her skills -- so that her abilities could stand and speak for themselves; so that she could honor her parent's expectations and prove herself to be a helpful and worthwhile person, an invaluable partner.

She wasn't born with a great deal of confidence, nor did she have the natural charisma and leadership expected from a corporate scion. But she could rely on her knowledge and her persistence, her willingness to learn and adapt.

Isn't that enough? Then... why can't I say it?

"Sorry, it seems like I overstepped my limits," Arkadi apologized as he pulled back. "But really, I think they're magnificent. You should open your eyes, both of them, more often."

Kannon nodded silently, unsure of what to say. In a corner of her mind, she knew her eyes would return to how they were as soon as she stopped thinking about it. But that was fine as well...

The world doesn't need that part of me.

I don't need that part of me.

"Now, as I've sidetracked you long enough with these philosophical discussions," Arkadi's smile widened as he courteously knelt down on one knee, folded his left hand behind his back while offering his right hand. "Allow me to give you a much belated proper tour of this ship, Lady Kannon."

He's doing it again.

It astounded Kannon just how quickly Arkadi could switch gears. He had sent her into deep thought before leaping away from worries with naught but a second's notice. It was as if he never had to spend even one extra second rethinking his words or re-examining his beliefs.

Is it his preparedness and understanding of his own values? Or is it his confidence and assurance of his own decisions?

She wasn't certain. But she knew one thing:

It's a quality I don't have enough of myself.

Kannon decided to push her other concerns aside as she followed his pace and bent her knees with a well-practiced curtsy.

"The pleasure is all mine, sir."




Chapter 5 - Calm Before The Storm

"You know, this would've been a lot easier if you just tell us." The young man who once introduced himself as a Knight-Justiciar asked. The sight of his expression was blurred by tears, but his tone revealed obvious boredom -- frustration that his time was being wasted over such distasteful endeavors.

"I d-don't know! I seriously really really don't know! I really wish I knew so I could tell you but I don't! I swear I really, really swear! I'm just a college student on my way to, on my way back to school--"

A sigh came from his hazy figure as he stepped forward once again, his fingers twirling a metal rod before grasping it firmly...

"--O please don't please pleaseplease don-AAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!"

She felt as though her entire chest spontaneously combusted. The surging electricity that poured through the contact point just below the breasts lit every nerve in the front torso on fire. The pain was beyond intense. The agony was worse than intolerable. Yet the torment still sought to outdo itself by reaching beyond the physical, denying her even the sanctuary of her own mind. Broken images flew through her mind's eye, like watching falling paper from a torn scrapbook as some foreign entity ripped through her consciousness, tearing through page upon page of memories without care.

The rod soon broke contact. The pain dimmed but didn't stop as seizures continued to wrack her body...

"Look girl, just as I've told you over and over -- I'm not stupid. I'm certainly not stupid enough to believe in that impossible tale you claim to be truth. So how about you tell me the facts already, and I don't have to hear your retarded screaming!?"

Wheezing from the breathlessness of pain, sobbing from the hopelessness of depair...

Then, the door on the far side of the room turned, and a larger figure stepped into the room. His silhouette was bleary in her eyes like everything else, but the swagger in his walk was unmistakable.

Overwhelming fear froze her every thought at once as his voice rang about the room:

"Hey... still at it?"

"You say it like I want to be here doing this junk," the knight quipped back.

"Shouldn't you be happy to see me then?"

"Not at all, you sicko. But she's freaking hopeless, so you can take her; enjoy your perversion!" The young knight remarked in disgust as he walked straight towards the door, haphazardly tossing his rod onto a nearby counter as he went.

As the door slammed behind his exit, the larger guy reached towards the table and picked up something that seemed like a flexible twig -- a long riding crop, armed with functions even more insidious than the rod.

His voice was dripping with sadistic, almost-gleeful anticipation:

"Now... shall we begin again?"

The hand raised the crop up high before the arm came slashing down, striking the left ribs underneath the forcibly raised arms and...

-----

Kannon bolted awake from the cylindrical sleep module, almost smashing her head into the glass cover before it could fully retract. Her face, her hands, her entire body was covered with sweat despite the perfectly regulated environment within the device.

It's just a memory. It's over. It's in the past... Don't look at yourself. Don't examine. Just let time heal everything...

She repeated the same words to herself, over and over, again and again, while her mind regained strength and shoved all these unnecessary thoughts and feelings aside, gradually... but surely.

...I must have slept too much. Time to get back to work.


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


"So that makes the fusion cores, the gravitic inductors--"

"Induction drives!"

"Right right. Then the hyperspace tunneler, and the inertial compensators... What else they still want info on?"

Korey tilted his head back and brushed his long silky hair aside as he answered Haidar:

"The sensor suite, all of them: gravitic, electromagnetic, radioactive, biological..."

"Ehhh! How long is that going to take!"

"Aren't most of them just located in the nose section, Kannon?"

"Kannon is currently unavailable, please leave a message." Kannon responded absentmindedly as she finished adding another reference label to the detailed, three-dimensional scan of the hyperspace tunneler drive before looking back up from the AR window.

"...Sorry, wasn't paying attention. You seek aid from the guardian of knowledge?"

Haidar blinked, several times.

"You don't have a multiple personality disorder or anything do you?"

"Only if you have a borderline personality disorder," she casually bounced it back.

"I clearly don't have a psych problem, whatever that is."

"And I'm clearly a normal person." Kannon replied in all seriousness.

Haidar was about to retort before Korey cut him off, again.

"Well, normality aside, Haidar has finished his scan of the inertial compensators. The last on the list is the sensors suite. Can you give us a rundown of where they are?"

"Uh... give me a minute -- most of them are in the nose, but let me check the manual's diagrams and overlay them for you."

"Thank you~"

Kannon opened yet another window to conjure up a clean three-dimensional structural scan model of the ship. Then she turned over to the AR window that had the TSV-9's operation and maintenance manual open and dragged it over to the hologram with her right index finger. After bookmarking her current spot, she jumped over to the sensors section to sync the manual's labelled section diagrams with the scan model.

Because of the risk that this mission might fail, Haidar had made a full scan of the TSV-9 survey craft that brought Kannon across the wormhole as soon as they escaped the Hadrian. But the engineers and ethaneers (ether engineers) from the 1st District headquarters who were reverse-engineering it based on the data had claimed that the scan resolutions of the critical components weren't detailed enough.

Hence, the three of them spent the last two hours working in the Somerset's common room: Haidar casted the spells, Korey guided the details since he was actually a starship engineer -- technically an advanced ethaneer -- and Kannon simply gave them a pointer every now and then. She also busied herself trying to answer some of the questions those same engineers sent her, many of which were simply too far out of her league.

"Too bad we couldn't just teleport this thing to them," commented Haidar as he sat down on the nearest couch. "A single casting would suffice at this mass. Those techies can then unshrink it over there and play around with it themselves!"

"Teleport?" Kannon absentmindedly asked as she focused on her task.

"Yeah! You know. Poof! From this end. Bam! On the other end. Instantaneous spatial jump. Done!"

"Convenient."

"But it's too far!"

Wait a second--

She looked up as the word finally registered.

If they have teleportation magic...

"What's the range limit?"

"For me? about seventeen hundred kilometers," Haidar proudly raised his chest.

That's definitely too short for interplanetary travel. But...

"Then why didn't we just jump onto the Somerset directly back aboard the Hadrian?"

"You wanna get scrambled? Everyone knows that military facilities have Astral Jamming wards, assuming it's not too large to simply slap on a Lockdown ward."

"Most bases also have perimeter and compartmentalized Barrier wards that will bounce teleportation spells," Korey answered in a far gentler voice from the kitchen. "Companies and personal homes usually have one or the other as well. You see, magic has gifted us with much in this society, but it also meant that we must ward against magical crimes."

"...Wouldn't all those wards make teleportation spells dangerous to use?"

"That's why there are laws and certifications regarding teleportation. Most public locations have homing markers to help teleportation spells targeting the area lock on and synchronize. It's also usually advisable to check a beacon's status over the public network first, or scry it if it's a private beacon."

A shrill whirling noise came from the kitchen as Korey finished his explanation and started up a blender.

"The spell itself also has a few built-in safeguards to avoid collisions," Haidar added. "Accidents do still happen, but only because someone screwed up. Don't worry! I'm an expert! I'll give you the smoothest first-time teleportation experience you'll ever have!"

"Like that time when we ended up in a trash depository?" Korey teasingly called over the blender's noise.

"That only happened once! And I only read the marker code one off! Anyone could have made that mistake!"

And wasn't there only one first time? Kannon thought back, late as usual.

"What about the time when we landed in a pond?"

"That was caused by the wrong coordinates!"

"Or when you landed in the Captain's lap?"

"That never happened! Don't mix me into your homoerotic fantasies!"

"And when you fell on top of Lysette in a convenient groping position?"

"That was before I found out what a bitc-- I mean..."

"Well then you sorry excuse for a living bag of stinking meat..." Lysette's voice resounded from just outside the doors that opened a split second ago. "I hope you have your epitaph written already."

The vicious mockery sounded perfectly like Lysette; yet somehow Kannon knew it wasn't really her...

Haidar instantly spun around and stared at the doorway in shock and fear. But instead of Lysette, it was Kaplan who walked in, trying hopelessly to hide his grin behind a serious face.

"Damnit XO, knock it off with your Ventriloquism spells!"

"XO that was perfect timing!" Korey followed loudly with gleeful enthusiasm, easily lifting the irritation left in the air by Haidar's tone. "But you spoiled it too fast! You should have followed it up with an illusion in that situation!"

"I don't have time to play silly jokes for that long," Kaplan remarked as he grabbed three bottles of cappuccino from the fridge and turned to leave the room. But his stern words weren't fooling anyone when traces of a smile still lingered in his expression.

"Awww comeon~! You're an illusionist! With that kind of talent you have to learn how to pull quality practical jokes!"

"Hey don't use me to teach him how!" Haidar retorted loudly. But rather than being angry like he sounded, a faint grin also worked itself onto his face.

Kannon couldn't help but giggle as Kaplan left the common room without a word, waving his right hand backwards as if wishing the two good luck.

"Don't encourage him!" Haidar shouted as he turned towards her.

"But~ the sweet bickering of a married couple is quite romantic too~"

"Aren't we just perfect together?" Korey grinned with a cute gesture, tilting his head to one side and clapping his hands diagonally beside his cheeks.

"Oy! Stop it already!"

"But he's so cold during the day~ yet last night in bed he--"

"OY! Don't say completely misleading and disgusting things with such a straight face!" Haidar shouted as he leaped from his seat. His annoyed face was so red that all Korey and Kannon had to do was stare at him and then smirk at each other before bursting into laughter.

"Okay okay we're not married... yet--"

"Knock it off already!"

"--But we did go through training together," Korey proudly explained as he walked towards Kannon from the kitchen. His hands carried two large glass cups, each filled with some white, creamy drink and decorated with chopped pineapples and a cherry on top.

"Haidar was the best in the class! ...But only at magic," he chuckled before stopping next to her and handing her one of the drinks. "Here, try some of this."

"Thank you. What is it?" She asked as she took the cold glass. Much of the drink was simply crushed ice mixed with some kind of milk; a large straw has already been inserted.

"Pina Colada, Aaruvian style. Try it. I think you'll like it~"

Kannon took the straw and began sipping from it. She had coconut milk before, and there was definitely something strange in this drink compared to the usual coconut drinks. But it was also cold, refreshing, just sweet enough, and simply delicious. Her mind relaxed as the headaches brought by those engineering questions began to ease away.

"Good, isn't it?"

"Most scrumptious~!" Kannon responded with her father's favorite reply. "Thank you very much!"

"You're most welcome~" Korey replied as he extended the other cup to Haidar, who accepted it with a nod of appreciation before happily declaring:

"Of course it's good! It's Korey's iced curry--"

"It's not curry!"

"Sure it is. It's got tons of coconuts in it!"

Sighing audibly, Korey grabbed his own drink from the kitchen before returning to change the topic.

"Well... as I was saying, Haidar here was a real prodigy at magic. But he was... somewhat inadequate at everything else except physical training. On the other hand, my magic potential wasn't too high--"

"By that you mean they sucked! So did your athletic scores!"

"--Just barely made the cutoff for auxilia. But I was pretty good with both the applied sciences and the social courses. You see, together we simply made the perfect combination!"

Kannon nodded and turned towards Haidar:

"...Is that why you seem to be the team's main caster? Disintegration, teleportation, fire support--"

"--Scrying, warding, dispelling... etcera etcera," Haidar continued the list. "Other than illusion, which Kaplan is better at, and enchantment, which the Captain specializes in, I pretty much take care of all our other needs. I was an ex-Knight after all."

"...Ex-Knight? Early retirement?"

"Ha I wish!"

"He was originally in the Citadel Knights' program," Korey explained as he leaned against the wall besides Haidar's sofa. "But he couldn't quite get along with their rules--"

"--And their pompous attitudes," Haidar cut in defiantly.

"--So they dropped him back down to the auxilia program."

"...Aren't those just classes for generalist magic support?" Kannon asked in-between sipping on the drink, trying to remember the brief description from the ship's database. For some reason, she was starting to feel drowsy. Her head was becoming heavier and her face was also heating up.

"Not quite," replied Korey. "The auxilia program is the Republic's generalist magic education program. Those in the military who graduated from it are typically seen as support mages compared to the magical prowess of the Knights. But most mages in the Republic were once trained as auxilia. Many of us still have our own schools of specialization."

"Oy Korey, I think we ought to start at the beginning." Haidar interjected before climbing onto the back of the sofa he sat on and launching into his own explanation: "Basically, the military trains four types of personnel in terms of magic grades." He raised his right hand, thumb hidden behind the palm as he counted off each finger:

"First, you've got the marines, operators, engineers, etcera etcera. They account for over half of the populace and have virtually no magical affinity -- magic conductive nerves and all that. They can only use everyday ether-tech items with the help of commercial ether crystals, but that doesn't extend to the magic-gobbling military stuff. That's why marines have to rely on heavy powered armor and bulky equipment to make up for it."

"Then, there's the grenadiers, pilots, ethaneers, and so forth," Korey followed up as Haidar pressed down a second finger. "They're thirty-one percent of the population and just barely attuned to magic, usually blessed by one to nine magically conductive nerve circuits that links up to their soul, capable of processing some mana to ether. They don't usually have the affinity for serious spellcasting, but enough to operate our basic common equipment like the Comm Rings and Vector Shields. Like us, they also learn to charge personal ether crystals for backup power."

So... since my Communication Ring, my utility belt, the personal gravity field generator in my boots, and others are all still working, I must have at least some magical ability, considered Kannon.

"Third, you've got the auxilia, devicers, and their hybrid: dragoons -- pretty much our entire team." Haidar said after taking back the proverbial baton. "We represent around fifteen percent, basically the average mages with double-digits in conductive nerves, and can actually cast decent spells, usually in a wide variety of supportive roles. We also receive training on a lot of things, but..."

"Jack of all trades, master of none," Korey stated with one finger raised. "Although not always -- there are some who specialize in one thing and barely dabble in the rest."

"Lastly--"

"Lastly, there are the knights," Korey took over from Haidar with a sympathetic nod. "They are people both interested and gifted in magic, with at least a hundred nerve conduits and available to no more than one percent of the populace. They're taught the Republic's most advanced magic -- spells powerful enough to pose a significant danger to public security. Furthermore, many of them also have partial Arvitor blood. That's why the selection process is quite strict, and requires not merely the demonstration of performance but also state loyalty and lawful dedication. After graduation, they basically enroll into one of the three Knightly Orders depending on their district -- the Citadels, the Justiciars, and the Cross -- and are tracked by them for life. Haidar had spent nearly a year on the Citadel program before he was dropped to auxilia. It's really no surprise that he's by far our best spellcaster, not to mention one of the best within our entire organization."

"Still I say -- good riddance! What dedication!? More like as long as they play by their own laws!" Haidar spat out in disgust.

Kannon felt herself shivering as memories of the torturous time aboard star fortress Hadrian pierced the strange fog that has been collecting in her mind. Haidar was totally right. It was like those Justiciars didn't even care about what methods they used as long as they received what they wanted. Yet in a way, the sheer amount of venom in Haidar's voice as he spoke of the knights was surprising. She couldn't help but wonder how a person with such personal values of morality ended up joining a black ops unit.

What about Korey?

Unless he had another side to himself just like the Captain and Lysette did, Kannon found it simply odd to see such a gentle person in the military, let alone special ops.

"Well the Orders do have their own ways of doing things," Korey shrugged with a disapproving expression. "The 2nd District's Judges especially have a tradition of... putting themselves above the law."

Before Haidar could retort with his opened mouth, the doors to the common room flew open as Captain Arkadi walked in.

"Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. How are you three doing?"

"We've only got the sensor suite left sir," Korey answered.

"I do hope your implants' detoxifiers are on, if you're going to drink alcohol during work," Arkadi smirked as he eyed the glasses Haidar and Korey carried before settling on Kannon and frowning.

"Of course~"

"What about Kannon?" He asked, concerned.

"I'm fine~!" Kannon called out mirthfully, a little louder than expected, as she placed her empty cup down on the table beside her. She could feel her face burning up as she locked sight with Arkadi, but he broke it after only a few seconds.

"Korey? How much alcohol was in that?"

"Two shots of Aaruvian white rum."

"Two!?"

"It was a large cup," Korey shrugged. "I figured that was minimum, light enough even for her size."

"For a Fraternity graduate such as yourself, of course, even if you didn't have the detoxifier. But we don't even know if she's ever had alcohol, let alone drinking on an empty stomach right before dinner!?" Arkadi continued with a stern look. "Take a close look at how red her face is."

Korey then stepped into the center of Kannon's view and stared at her curiously, as though gazing upon some kind of odd creature...

...Don't look at me liked that...

"Whoa--! She must have caught all of the Orient's alcohol genes!"

Albeit his teasing words, Korey's eyes grew worried in an instant. The fear and aversion that rose inside Kannon seconds ago melted away instantly. But somehow, even though her mind was returning to a state of tranquility, her burning cheeks seemed to only grow even hotter. In fact, she felt like she was floating atop a layer of clouds right now -- her legs hanging in the chilly air and her body swaying in the wind, which made her feel a little sick.

Kannon curled up in her chair and laid her head down on the armrest to get a little more support.

Arkadi then walked over and knelt down in front of her chair. His concerned eyes gazed deeply into her own. It reminded her of when they first met in that dark cell aboard the Hadrian.

"Hey Kannon, are you feeling alright?" He asked as he took off his right glove and put his palm onto her forehead. Its touch felt refreshingly cool against her overheated face.

"I'm fine~" Kannon replied with barely a whisper. It felt weird to be drifting above the clouds, but she rarely felt so in peace with herself.

Arkadi's deep-violet eyes only grew more worried.

It couldn't have been any more different from the first time they met face to face. They were in a bright and open room, watched over by those they knew. There wasn't the slightest pain across her body, nor a trace of fear and anxiety in her mind. She wanted to assure him of that, assure those worried eyes that she was fine now, thanks to his help; that she was saved by his help. She hoped to convince him to let her repay him, to allow her to return the favor by supporting him in what ways she could...

Kannon reached up with both of her arms and gently grasped his large hand before pulling his palm down to her chest and hugging it tightly.

"Thank you... for saving my life..."

Her voice was no more than a whisper as she smiled and closed her eyes, hardly even registering the surprised expressions on both Arkadi and Korey's faces. Her senses focused on how warm his palm felt in her cold fingers.

"I'm alright now... so please... let me help."

"I guess she's the type that curls up into a ball when drunk enough?" Haidar's curious voice came from the far left. But although Kannon continued to hear them, her mind was slowing down and barely recognizing their words.

"Her hands are really cold," a hint of distress worked itself into Arkadi's troubled voice. "They're also trembling..."

"You don't think...?" Even Korey was worried now.

"You can't be serious -- she's that much of a lightweight?"

"In any case I don't think she's reacting very well," Arkadi continued, "and with Alicia gone we're currently short a healer."

"Do we still have any Toxin Neutralizers?" Haidar asked.

"I've got a vial here. Would that work though?" Arkadi wondered aloud. "The Neutralize Toxin spell was designed to counteract deadly fast-acting poisons that may overcome the detoxifier."

"It won't flush the alcohol from her system, but it should lower the blood alcohol concentration from being harmful," Korey replied.

"Kannon--"

At the call of her name, the pink-haired girl half-opened her eye and found herself gazing back into a pair of deep-violet eyes once again. His hand also neared her mouth, carefully holding a vial of spring-green liquid.

"Open your mouth, you need to drink this."

Kannon pulled her lips open. They were even drier than she expected. She felt another hand delicately raise and support her head as he poured the vial in, sending the cool and soothing stream of fluid down her throat.

Gently pulling his palm from her grasp, Arkadi placed his hands under her legs and behind her back before lifting her up to his chest. Warmth enveloped her body as she closed her eyes once again and snuggled in a little closer.

To Kannon, the entire sequence brought back recent memories; yet it was completely different from last time. Instead of seeking to relieve her fears and carrying her to safety, it felt like there was something more accepting this time; something that sought to bridge the distance...

"Oy Korey, your nose is bleeding!"

"Uwaaa -- but she's so adorable!"

"I'm going to put her in bed and make sure she's alright." Arkadi's reassuring voice sounded from just above her.

"Get chance?" Haidar taunted with a shade of mockery.

"Don't confuse me with yourself."

Through her closed eyelids, Kannon felt the surroundings dim as they left the common room for the hallway outside. His arms held her steady as he cradled her down the ship towards the room she slept in.

It was hard to believe that she wasn't already in heaven, comforted by the warm embrace and rocking gently from his steps while her light body drifted across the sea of clouds. It did feel a little weird. But for once, for the first time in months, maybe even years, Kannon relaxed in the haze that surrounded her thoughts without a single worry.

It felt just like home... The short times when home was actually home because they were there.

She wished it could last forever... or at least a little longer; a day, an hour, even a minute, but always a little longer...

Before Kannon realized it, she was being laid down onto a bed. She shivered involuntarily as the coldness spread across her skin after she left the warmth of his chest. Her arms instinctively reached out towards him again, hoping that he wouldn't leave just yet.

...It had been too short, after such a long wait...

No--

This wasn't like last time, or the time before, or every time before that...

I'm not just a kid anymore.

Kannon worked hard all her life to reach this point... She could now help out with their business, the family business. She wanted to make them proud and stay with them. She wanted to be praised by their affectionate eyes and words as she proved herself to them -- that unlike what everyone else claimed, she was indeed worth the world, the hopes they bestowed upon her.

"Don't... leave me behind... I'll do... anything I can, so, please... bring me along."

He grasped her thin fingers with his warm hand, while some thick comforter was pulled up over her chest.

"Don't worry. I'll be right here." He replied in a soft, gentle voice. "So be a good girl and sleep for now. You're already coming with us, and we can talk again when you wake up."

She nodded slowly.

"I may be inexperienced but... I'll be in your care..."

The last thing Kannon remembered was when he brought his other palm in and wrapped both of his hands in a warm embrace around her cold fingers...


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


Kannon filled up the glass with water and downed it all in seconds. But her lips still felt as thirsty as before.

She had slept for six-and-a-half hours according to the sleep module, which was already longer than the usual four hours for her, and closer to the seven to eight recommended hours. Another fifteen minutes had passed since she woke up, but she still couldn't get the fog out of her head, nor could she bring herself to stop swaying.

There was also the thirst, the nausea, the faint headache. But not a single one of them compared to the memories of what she did last night.

Could have at least given me the courtesy of not remembering everything, even what I was too oblivious, stupid, and delusional to realize at the time!

Just what kind of embarrassing character skit was that!? Mine, of all people!

Kannon violently shook her head, wishing those memories would be thrown out. She couldn't believe she had brought his hands to her breasts like that, or cuddled into him like that. She certainly wasn't brought up to flirt so openly like that.

Nonono, it's all wrong! We aren't anything like that! What will he think of me now? How am I going to face him now?

Sure sure, making a move on the protagonist is normal. But this is more like those stories of accidentally flirting with the boss because one is too drunk and too stupid to realize it!

Kannon looked into the mirror to the side of the kitchen counter. Her entire face was still beet red, but she wasn't sure if it was the lingering effects of alcohol or simply her own embarrassment. Thankfully, at least the common room was deserted right now, since it was effectively the dead of night with the crew mostly either on watch or sleeping.

But, as her voice of reason continued to tell her: there was no use dodging it.

What's done was done. I must accept and fix what I did.

Kannon forced her mind back onto the subject. She felt her blush spreading as memories of last night replayed once again. She knew she must address this as soon as possible, to fix any misunderstandings as soon as she could. But right now, it was also the last thing she wanted to face.

Leaning over the wash basin, Kannon turned on the water and its containment dome. She then sank her face into it for the weightless, drifting bubbles of water to splash. At least it helped to cool her head down.

Okay, I just need a good opportunity sometime soon to apologize to Arkadi and thank him for being such a gentleman...

If her memory served, the Captain should be on watch with Kaplan right about now. They had specifically scheduled it during lunch yesterday to discuss plans for once the ship reaches Brocéliande. Kaplan wasn't quite as silent as Marius, but he usually kept out of other people's affairs. Then she could just bring Arkadi into the hallway for a few minutes to talk...

This might be the best chance I can get!

Kannon slapped both of her cheeks with water-cooled palms and stood back up. Reaching out for a clean towel nearby, she dried her face in front of the mirror before smoothing out her hair. With steeled nerves, she walked straight out into the hall and towards the bridge.

It's now or never.

The walk felt way too short.

Before she realized it, she was already standing in front of the bridge doors. She closed her eyes and took in three deep breaths to calm her anxieties. Unsatisfied, she held still for several more moments before focusing on the gateway and opening it with a thought. The brightness of the bridge flooded her vision within an instant, but...

It wasn't what she expected. It wasn't even whom she expected.

Arkadi was sitting in the Captain's chair as usual, but atop his lap was none other than Lysette. Their arms interwined around each other. Their bodies pressed again each other. Their faces, which now turned to look upon her, were no more than a breath away from one another.

Kannon had a sheltered life in relationships, but even she could immediately realize what they had been doing given Lysette's flustered cheeks, messy hair, and opened collar.

"S-sorry for the intrusion."

Since she awoke, Kannon had thought of dozens of things to say, and dozens of ways to respond to what Arkadi might ask. But not a single one of the scenarios that came to mind had predicted this situation. The fact she had zero experience handling such circumstances made her feel even more awkward.

Arkadi's grin persisted even after he looked towards Kannon. His voice was as kind as ever, but it only made her feel worse.

"Good morning, Kannon. Are you feeling better? Do you need help with anything?"

"No! Nothing really -- I'm much better now, and I'm alright as well! I just thought that I should thank you for last night! I really wasn't being myself!"

A torrent of words that she had been repeating to herself over and over rushed out of her mouth at once.

"Don't worry about it! It was the least I could do for a lady."

Arkadi's proud response only made the atmosphere more awkward for Kannon. His hands continued to hold Lysette close, with her well-endowed chest pressing into his. Neither of them showed any embarrassment from public affection or any intentions of opening that distance.

He doesn't even care... of course not, it's me who intruded upon their private time.

Lysette smirked from the corner of her mouth as her triumphant eyes gazed upon Kannon's, who swiftly looked away to break the uncomfortable contact.

Stop making this some stupid love triangle drama scene! The Captain and I have a perfectly professional relationship!

"Well... thanks again! And sorry to bother you two!" Kannon bowed deeply and replied with the most cheerful voice she could muster as her thoughts brought the bridge doors to a close.

The instant they shut, her body spun around and ran back towards the familiarity of the common room. Only her footsteps and the rattling chain on her arm broke the silence of the hallway. But within her mind, it was anything but quiet as rushing rivers of thought continued to pour through:

It doesn't matter to me who Arkadi is going out with. His personal life isn't any of my business when I'm merely a collaborator and the charge of his current mission. I know that. I know all that. Then...

Why do I feel so disappointed?


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


"Captain."

"Time to change already? Right. Kaplan, you have the bridge," Arkadi said as he closed the windows around him and pushed himself back up from the captain's chair.

"Affirmed, I have the bridge," Kaplan returned the formality as he stepped up, ready to take the emptying seat once Arkadi finished his prolonged stretching.

Though, there was one thing he needed to talk to Arkadi about. But with Marius also here...

As Arkadi slowly retracted his arms, Kaplan brought his right hand up and fist-bumped the Captain's, knocking their communication rings against each other with a metallic chime. In that one split second, a temporary one-to-one link was synchronized. Kaplan then focused his thoughts to speak over it.

"I presume that you did it again?"

"Isn't that what you wanted?" Arkadi replied as he stepped aside.

"I did agree to our schedule swap after all," Kaplan said coldly while he summoned a window to display the camera that watched the bridge passageway. "It's true that you were being far too friendly towards her, even by your standards. She would be of no more concern to us once this mission completes, and surely disposed of once the Marshal learns what he needs from her. There is no meaning to grow attached to such a temporary relationship."

"What's wrong with making the best of relationships while they last?" Arkadi countered as he laid his hand on Kaplan's shoulder, one finger at a time. "You should try simply enjoying the moment sometimes. Life is far more delightful when you aren't worrying over lies, my dear accomplice."

Kaplan sneered for a brief second. It were moments like these when he couldn't decide between being impressed by Arkadi's sheer force of will, or being disturbed by the cold-blooded way this man viewed others. After all, there was only one way to openly connect oneself with others yet avoid becoming attached.

"I see my status has fallen from ally."

"Well, our short-term priorities have grown slightly apart," Arkadi replied with a wide yet thin smile that could only be classified as dangerous. "Still -- it's a shame that I had to do something so crude to make sure she doesn't receive the wrong impression and become too sticky. I really do like her..."

"You merely convinced yourself to like whomever that's in front of you.

"...She's cute, innocent, hardworking, adaptive..."

"Best summed up by naive, unusually so for a corporate scion."

"Mmmh... I'm not so sure about that," Arkadi countered with a puzzled expression. "I may be rushing to conclusions, but I think she has a serious case of being in denial. It's like she's trying to stay blind from half the world, and probably doesn't even realize it."

"So she's immature on top of being naive."

The Captain then shrugged:

"All the better. The purity of untarnished whiteness. Doesn't that simply make you want to dye her in your own colors? Open her eyes -- figuratively and literally in this case -- in your own manner of preference?"

"What are you, a pedophile trying to write your own Tale of Genji?"

Arkadi gave Kaplan a stern gaze.

"First, that's unfair to her; even if not fully mature, her common sense in situational analysis and circumstantial introspection is better than most adults -- that kind of mentality is far harder to train than mere skill or experience. Second, half my blood and culture is East Asian -- not everyone in the world focuses as much on mature sensuality as you Westerners when it comes to women. But honestly, I really should consider make a subordinate out of her. She wouldn't be a security risk anymore if she simply became one of us, and that little play should set a basic foundation for the rules of our relationship. With her innocence, love enchantment atop existing charms will easily bind her... I think I know just the one to use when the time comes."

Kaplan wasn't reminded of it often, but part of him never forgot that Arkadi was an enchanter. The Captain's favorite magic were combinations of beguiling charms and emotive manipulators, called forth with neither audible incantation nor ether flare and delivered solely through directed speech. The power of such spells were almost negligible. But only the most vigilant detectors could notice its activation, and its residue aura could drop below traceable margins within moments. Repetitively used during sweet, social encounters that left fun, loving memories, it reinforced the skills through which Arkadi, well... enchanted women.

Unsurprisingly, a few of Arkadi's more potent spells were listed under the category of 'magic to directly induce love' and therefore legally considered a form of rape. But the disgust Kaplan once felt had ceased long ago. Instead, he thought Arkadi more of a hypocrite on the matter -- since Arkadi was particularly vocal against physical rape, to the point he once shot an ally over it. But to be fair, even Arkadi wasn't fond of the illegal spells, and his other enchantments weren't that much different from other enjoyment enhancers that appealed to emotions, like romantic music or scented candles.

"She won't be as convenient as Lysette," Kaplan noted.

"Of course not. No one wants her to become an assassin prodigy with such an... unique sense of interaction."

Kaplan almost snorted from his thoughts at the mildly-put statement. For him, any phrase less descriptive than 'sociopath with a freakish fetish' simply fell way too short for that girl. Her mentality was forever scarred beyond counsel by her unspeakable past, and Arkadi recruiting her for his plans hasn't done one ounce of good.

"Nevertheless, I'm sure you've noticed how her aura has changed over the past few days," Arkadi continued, astonishment quickly working its way into his voice. "I thought we were just lucky when the Communication Ring kept working even after its precharged ether should have ran out. But not only did her ether production manage to keep up with the equipment we kept giving her, subconsciously and without training at that; her magic aura has risen to nearly on par with undergrad auxilia after merely a few days!"

"I figured that was behind your sudden interest in the Arvitors' history. But surely you can't be suggesting--" Kaplan's words suddenly dropped off as he remembered a minor detail that history often pretended to ignore -- that some Arvitors did manage to flee back through the wormhole after the Arvitor Hunts began. The odds were hugely against it, but it was possible...

"We'll know in due time, Kaplan," Arkadi mentally chuckled before dropping back to a solemn tone. "In the meantime, once Haidar comes up for his shift, I want you two to deal with Marius, right here on the bridge where he will least suspect it."

"You don't think he's trustworthy enough to accompany us back to Avalon?"

"No. I'm certain his persistent avoidance of us proves that he hasn't forgiven me yet for killing every person he served with aboard the Hadrian. Infiltrator he might be, but he's certainly not one for our business. Given the importance of our mission details, our only other choice is to shut him up for good."

"Affirmed," responded Kaplan as Arkadi walked casually out the bridge doors.

Turning back to his console and looking at the clock, Kaplan realized there was only eight hours remaining before they entered Brocéliande's orbital perimeter, and less than an hour before more blood must stain his hands for the sake of the revolution.

It's too bad though, he thought. I'd have enjoyed being in the same revolution as you, Captain.




Chapter 6 - The Black Prince, The Red Knight

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

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

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

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

"Turning ship," Lysette confirmed.

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

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

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

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

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

"Fusion core shutdown completed," Korey noted.

"Disengage stealth field."

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

"Affirmed. Welcome to Broceliande orbit, Somerset."

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

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

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

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

Captain Arkadi swept his confident gaze across the bridge as he reassured the team with the next set of orders:

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

"Affirmed!"

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

Kannon instinctively narrowed her gaze to the side of Arkadi's eyes. She could tell that for the first time since they met, he just told a blatant lie. Marius was neither sleeping nor staying behind, and he certainly wasn't on the bridge...

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

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

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

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

Professional relationships have boundaries that must be kept. I'm not attracting Lysette's contempt over a mistake that serves no purpose.

"Sorry," Arkadi said, covering up his surprise with an apologetic smile after only a split second.

Kannon forced a smile and simply shook her head in reply.

The Captain pressed the emerald pendant gently into her hands before he reached back into his pouch. It was one of several attached to the magical utility belt that more or less functioned like hammerspace pockets by accessing a fourth spatial dimension. He then pulled out a cylindrical-looking device with a steel-framed crystal rod inserted through its center. It was an exact copy of the component each of them wore behind the belt.

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

Kannon thought back to the spherical shield flares she had seen so many times and realized that this was the source. It was magical technology, ether-tech, that rely on manipulating the fundamentals of Euclidean Mathematics and Newtonian Physics.

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

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

Since the shield didn't negate force and acceleration, a sharp edge that pushed through the outer barrier could speed up again, Kannon mentally wrapped up Captain Arkadi's explanation.

"What about missiles and the likes?"

Kannon wasn't sure if they used missiles as personnel weapons. But insofar as her knowledge of the military went, everyone used missiles for starship battles at long ranges -- it couldn't be hard to adapt a miniaturized version.

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

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

Kannon nodded with hesitance, trying to grasp all the technical implications. Arkadi then put both of his hands on her shoulders and assured her with his confident tone:

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

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

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

He was dead.

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

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


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


"Clear!"

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

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

"Welcome to Brest, Commandant Arkadi Kernow."

A deep and imposing voice called out from the darkness before its owner stepped into the chamber's lights. He was a massive man at over two meters (6'7") in height, with his uniform sleeves rolled up to openly display a pair of thick muscular arms that could snap a horse in half. His proportions extended to every feature, including a thick uni-brow, wide black eyes as hard as obsidian, and a large nose tracing back to the Balkan Slavic cultures. His flatly trimmed vermilion-red hair and beard formed a mane around his squarish face that made him seem even more formidable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The four guards following them stayed behind in the hallway as the gate closed after their passage.

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

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

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

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

It wasn't just a line of flattering words; it never seemed to be for Arkadi. Even from an angle, Kannon could see genuine recognition and trust in his eyes, and that made all the difference.

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

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

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


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


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

"Go ahead," she answered cheerfully, but her eyes continue to scan the AR window that laid open before her.

To Kannon, it seemed like she was always reading during her spare time unless the Captain was around. At least, whatever it was, it always put her into a good mood.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lysette shrugged.

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

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

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

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

Is it desperation? Or is it ambition that shaped him into the courteous yet callous leader he is now?

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

Kannon wondered if Lysette was stating her view as a professional or simply a preemptive challenge as a lover out of misunderstanding.

"...I only intend to keep a necessary relationship... But what about yourself?"

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

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

The ferocity behind her outburst struck Kannon speechless, who hadn't heard her yell like that except during the height of combat.

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

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

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

...'Worthless' is just about the anti-thesis of my life, so I doubt I even want to understand. This girl... is definitely missing a few screws.

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

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

Kannon suddenly found herself unable to deny Lysette's accusations. She may not have said much yet, but naive, superficial words were indeed all that she had, all she could give.

But... that was my limit, and the past never need dwelling upon, especially not my own.

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

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

It was one way of looking at it, but Kannon thought the truth was much simpler than that.

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

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

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


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


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

Passing the security checkpoint went as smoothly as one could ask for. In fact, the two guards had a 'scan output' data stream already prepared. They fed this to the computer to override the actual scan response the moment Arkadi's team began passing their equipment through the detectors, including a shrunken TSV-9 craft packed inside nothing more than a large luggage case.

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

Arkadi and his group saluted back in return --- right thumb, index, and middle fingers held straight while bending the other two, then pressing it, tilted upwards, to just above one's left eyebrow. Even Kannon's was perfect after repeated practice last night.

"Well then, let's be going," Arkadi beckoned in a far less authoritative tone than usual. His uniform was decorated by only the single star and double stripes of a junior-grade Lieutenant rather than the star plus four stripes of a full navy Captain. But it looked the same in just about every other way, except slate-gray in color instead of pitch black.

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

In fact, every other member of the team had undergone a similar makeover, relying on no more than hair makeovers and common accessories. Kannon's own long blossom-pink hair had been dyed a deep chestnut shade and tied back into twin pigtails. They used chemical dyes instead of a simple magical spell, explaining to Kannon that illusion and alchemy detectors were among the most common components in any security installation. After all, the best way to beat security was not fancy complexity, but easily-overlooked simplicity.

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

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

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

The team abruptly halted and turned about in the wide corridors, which weren't congested yet but packed enough to limit sight with rows of heads. Ten meters behind them, Captain Arkadi had halted in the middle of the walkway. His eyes were gazing towards the south, where a steady stream of people departed from a gateway room.

"What is it?" Haidar's curiosity peaked over the telepathy channel.

Arkadi stood dazed for another second before he shook his head and walked back towards the group. A shade of surprise remained in his voice as he replied:

"I thought I saw someone I knew."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chaos erupted in an instant.

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

"Damnit terrorists! Why now?"

Haidar cursed out loud as the team bolted towards the nearby low wall that separated the walkway from the food court. It wasn't much cover to speak of, but at least it took them out of the way. The plants growing there would also provide some concealment. As the team members crouched down, they began extracting their combat equipment from the 'extradimensional pouches' on their utility belts that were far too small to hold the items in question.

"Burst Hemisphere Up, Sanctum Union Spectrum Veil Expanded!" Kaplan chanted as Kannon watched their figures fade to semi-transparency, invisible to the eyes of everyone else.

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

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

Her presence took Kannon's breath away in an instant.

She was short at barely one-sixty (5'3"), around the same height as Kannon, with a similar thin, petite build. Her short cropped hair was a pristine apple-red, while a pair of brilliant heterochromic eyes, peridot-green left and blossom-pink right, lit up a charming late-teen appearance full of focus and energy. She wore an odd-looking uniform: a black Japanese yukata of sorts with lavender and pink trim, but with a short pleated skirt instead of the usual. A gap cut diagonally down each shoulder, connected by cords, separated the robe's main body from the short, loose sleeves, exposing the sheer white underlayer otherwise revealed only at the edges. Tight archery gloves hugged her forearms, while black over-the-knee socks ran down to her black calf-high boots.

In that moment Kannon realized, even though she wasn't sure how or what it meant, that this girl was exactly the same as her. However, the newcomer's powerful presence could not be any more different from her own.

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

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

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

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

The Moonlit Eclipse -- based on the information from the Somerset, they were an Arvitor terrorist organization and one of the three major terror groups. They focused on surgical strikes against secret government facilities or to raid arvitor crystals from military installations, which unfortunately, didn't explain their assault on this public civilian complex.

"Get out of here on my signal!" Arkadi's firm order passed through the Communication Rings. It was the first time Kannon heard his normally composed voice distressed by such alarm and worry.

Is this girl really such a dangerous opponent?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shirayuki reached down with her left hand, strengthing the grasp on the hilt as she twisted the sword edge towards Arkadi.

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




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.



Chapter 8 - Bridging Time, Connecting 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 serious little boy around ten years of age, with black hair and deep-violet eyes filled with curiosity.

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 several 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 to meet the childrens' expectations. Nor did they return the next day, or the next. On the fifth day, the kids huddled together in a dark bedroom and wept until they fell asleep from exhaustion. They skipped school to stay 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, uniformed 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 a ghetto filled with troubled if not criminally inclined youngsters.

But even though they moved, the boy would skip school after noon, returning to the old district he once 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 behind 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 and 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 the apparel. 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 the use of handguns, his aim was far from perfect. The nearest officer burst with blood as a bullet buried into his right shoulder and exploded. The guard behind the admiral suffered a worse fate as three bullets pierced 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 moved swiftly 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 an 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 up 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 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 needler-pistol and touched the boy's forehead with its cold muzzle.

"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--"


-----


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

Just what on earth was that?

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

The strangest part was that she wasn't even in her own dream.

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

Could it be another one of those hallucinations?

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

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

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

Kannon 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' murderer". But he also stated that they last saw each other eighteen years ago, and Kannon 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 she was seeing things or not, Kannon thought back to the 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 she tried to offer him last night. Virtues spoken from idealism when she 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 valued their old friendship, Kannon found it presumable 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...

There was 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.


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


Her headache was impossible to ignore.

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

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

She stood up from the well-cushioned armchair and left the guest room she 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, Kannon figured it was best for her to stay out of the way and spend her time studying. She would require all her efforts to even manage a basic grasp of the five thousand spell-words within a week's time like she told Captain Arkadi...

Captain... rather not think about him right now.

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

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

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

Kannon finished up the short ether focusing session that left her sweating. She took a box of stir-fried chicken and put it inside the microwave for heating. Her thoughts then returned to the study material, trying to keep anything unnecessary from entering her 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), just the caster (Personal), and etcetera. 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), etcetera. 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 her 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 could also 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, such as 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 her food. Kannon 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."

Her arm froze instantly as Kannon heard Arkadi's voice. It was as friendly as usual, yet fear flooded back into her emotions as the final moments of their meeting last night replayed itself in her mind: not just the feeling of a cold gun barrel pressed into her forehead, but the far deadlier expressions that Arkadi revealed when his mask finally cracked, or the machine-like resolution and mercilessness that truly defined whom he was.

She had realized it before, in one form or another. But knowing and experiencing were worlds apart.

She couldn't turn around. She had no idea how she should turn about to face him.

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

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

Kannon swallowed and pressed with every fiber of logic her mind could summon to calm herself down.

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

As Arkadi slowly pulled her right hand over and clasped it between his palms, Kannon gradually turned to face him. A bittersweet smile 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 only trying to help me."

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

Kannon doubted it was his intention to, yet she couldn't help but feel guilt grow inside her as she thought back to her 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 them as Arkadi finished, and Kannon's mind clogged up once again.

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

Kannon didn't doubt his sincerity for a second, nor was she 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 the Captain revealed during those moments when his composure slipped that worried her, that frightened her 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 her hand to leave. After all, he only came to give an apology, a genuine one without any attached expectations.

But Kannon knew if she didn't say something now, then it would only leave more awkwardness between them, which she certainly didn't wish for. Nor, for that matter, would any employer want with a potential employee like herself.

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

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

"Anything within my professional limitations and personal standards." Arkadi didn't even try to hide that as he turned back to face her. 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 her 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." Her reply came out far more naturally than Kannon expected, and his worried expression lightened up before her eyes. "I accept your apology too, and... I-I'm sorry for saying some pretty unnecessary stuff myself," she finished with an apologetic 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."

Kannon nodded, unsure of what else to say. Then...

Her stomach growled audibly in protest once again.

The Captain's lips widened into a huge grin, and she 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 her emotions as Kannon gazed back into his deep-violet eyes. She wasn't sure if she could put it aside anytime soon. But for now, she certainly did appreciate his efforts and accepted the 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 for Korey to 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 Kannon, there were also twenty other officers of the Black Hand seated around the long table.

Kannon was quite surprised when Arkadi invited her to the meeting. After all, she 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 was serious about his offer to prepare her as a potential member for his team. She also figured that supporting this mission might be yet another test -- even if she had no clue what she could do to help.

"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 to 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."

Kannon called up a window with a thought as unknown terms began to pop up in the briefing. This was one of those times when she truly appreciated the fact that only she could see AR windows brought up by her neural-interface, at least until she chose 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 grants 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 Knights' 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 Assault Legion, 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 perfectly 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 Kannon's 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 there. In hindsight, Kannon should have expected something like this. But the fact they were planning the slaughter of thousands if not even more people, depending on the yields of those bombs, was just too overwhelming and unthinkable.

"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?"

Kannon could hardly 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," Kannon heard her voice join that of four others. But she was at a complete loss on what to do now...

She wanted to help Arkadi. In any other circumstance, she 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.

Should I really be accomplice to such cold-blooded mass murder?

Furthermore, even though she knew better than to raise the topic again, Kannon still wasn't convinced that this would truly help the Captain. 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. They also include data to redirect 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 Kannon had:

Just what is Arkadi trying to achieve?




Chapter 9 - Into the Fire

"Are you alright, Kannon?"

Korey and her had been sitting alone in the back compartment of the parked utility aircar for several hours, monitoring the Ambassador Towers security system that he had tapped into.

To anyone on the outside, this was merely the vehicle of some ether-tech handyman, who probably came to fix household appliances for one of the dozens of apartment buildings nearby -- normal high-rises, as unlike Brest, the city of Rennes was built in a clearing. But on the inside, it was a miniaturized operation center, bristling with readouts from hidden sensors. Although at the moment, virtually everything was deactivated as they had already confirmed Marshal Sidika's return and was waiting for the start of the mission in less than half hour's time.

"Yeah... I'm okay... Thanks... But why do you ask?"

"You've been rather out of it recently, and... I did see you run out of the Captain's room in distress two nights ago." As her eyes widened in surprise, he hastily added: "I didn't mean to peek into anything private! I was watching over the hallway's surveillance footage when it happened."

Kannon tried her best to return a reassuring smile.

"Captain Arkadi just wanted me to give me some doctrinal and magic data to help out with the missions."

Well, I'm not lying...

Korey didn't look convinced, but he decided to accept it anyways:

"Yeah, I see how that could be rather distressing, given what we do--"

No... that's not it...

Kannon shook her head and tried to cut in, but she couldn't bring out the words to clarify herself. After all, he was right. She was quite bothered by it, even if it wasn't the real problem that night.

"--But you see, that's part of the world we live in. There are a lot of gray boundaries here, and sometimes we don't have a choice but to play dirty to achieve our goals."

His tone carried the same bitterness as when Captain Arkadi spoke of the past.

"I know you've only been here for a few days, but you've also been reading an incredible amount about our world. So tell me Kannon, what do you think of the Avalonian Republic thus far?"

Kannon found it hard to judge a country just by its description in an encyclopedia. Although the first thing that came to her mind wasn't the Republic's population or wealth, but the destruction of star fortress Hadrian brought by cold war special operations, the sight of a child-turned-terrorist assassinating a high official, the massive slum districts that surrounded beautiful cities where people plugged into virtual reality to escape poverty-stricken lives, and the empty eyes of the Arvitor held in the crystal aboard the Somerset.

"It's... fractured, really messed up, with a lot of unrest..."

"Unrest doesn't begin to describe it," Korey responded after an almost painful chuckle, his tone growing not only darker but more inflamed by the second. "You see, nearly ninety percent of the Republic's wealth is held by less than ten percent of its people. Almost a fifth of the overall population are persistently unemployed, while another quarter are simply unable to climb out of poverty. The politicians are always stuck in a legislation deadlock unless the Marshals wish to push through a law even more beneficial to the so-called military aristocracy; whom, despite their competence, has corrupted the system so thoroughly that even the worst of them could make themselves invisible to the law with the right influence -- Lysette is a living example of that."

"...Eh?"

Despite sharing a room, Kannon has barely talked to Lysette since three days ago. But even though Lysette's perceptions were somewhat twisted, she didn't seem like a rotten aristocrat in any way.

"Nonono, I don't mean she's corrupt -- I meant that she's a victim of the corruption," Korey rushed to correct Kannon. "Lysette has the most simple and pure reason for being with us, since her childhood memories were too fragmented by brainwashing to recover, and the only life she knew before Arkadi and Kaplan saved her in a raid was that of a slave."

Kannon sucked in a deep breath as he finished. But the shock only compounded her bewilderment, as it didn't take an industrial expert to realize that slavery was beyond obsolete compared to the efficiency and automation of modern technology.

"...Is she an Arvitor then?"

"Eh... no... much worse."

The anger and disgust in Korey's voice was overwhelming, yet his face grew flushed as his tone suddenly plummeted under the influx of embarrassed hesitation. He fumbled to pick the right words to continue with:

"I--uhhh, really shouldn't say any more. I mean, it's her past that I'm delving into without permission already, and... you're still too young to hear about these kind of dirty details."

His emotive drop from anger to shame felt even more awkward to Kannon than his sudden bailout...

"...Please, Korey. I'm never going to understand if people shelter me from truths."

Korey frowned and pursed his lips, uncertainty spreading through his face as though waging an inner argument against himself. Moments later, he gave an obvious sigh, and began in a voice that continued to escalate in fury and disgust, condemning it as one of the greatest sins of humanity.

"Lysette was a pleasure, or better termed, sex slave--"

Oh my god.

Kannon instantly regretted asking. Those few words sent horrifying chills up her spine and into her thoughts.

"--She had been sold or kidnapped as a young teen and basically raised to become a sex toy. Captain Arkadi found her when they raided some bigwig politician's manor, and he's seen far more and far worse over the years."

Kannon knew that history books often spoke of slavery and human trafficking. But as a girl, especially one brought up in a rather socially conservative family, this was easily the worst nightmare. She doubted she could even begin to imagine what Lysette went through.

No wonder she's... unusual. Who wouldn't be after going through that?

"Seriously, this society is a mess, and no better than the Avalonian Dominion during its worst. The only reason why it hasn't collapsed yet is because modern ether-tech have at least rid the world of starvation and disease so that even minimum welfare can provide for a living. Most of the lower classes simply waste their increased lifespans playing around in virtual reality."

Kannon blinked, "...Increased lifespans?"

"How old do you think I am?"

"Uh... eighteen?"

"Thirty-two, actually," Korey bared a reluctant smile. "I'm four years older than Captain Arkadi, even if I look younger than him. The XO is the oldest member of our team, just two months shy of sixty-five; but appearances alone, you'd probably think he's still in his late twenties!"

Captain Arkadi is twenty-eight? Then, that dream matches Kayeten's words after all.

"The Longevity genetic treatments we received before birth boosts our maximum age to almost two hundred years, and over a third of it is spent with the youth of the pre-Longevity age twenty to early thirties. But even with that much life to enjoy, crime and terrorism is still rampant within the Republic... You can imagine why."

Kannon nodded slowly.

The Arvitors were one of the reasons. But given high unemployment and poverty with no hope in sight, then even with decent minimum standards of living, there would still be enough dispossessed people to filter out a decent number willing to go to extremism. It may not be enough to overturn the system, but was certainly enough to be a pain.

"The same can be said for us black ops, you see." Korey's eyes seemed painful, almost haunted as his gaze returned to the monitoring screen. "Yes, we kill for a living, and we risk bringing a premature end to our long lives with this dangerous career. But... it's also one of the only opportunities available to some of us. It's certainly the only one capable of earning nearly as much, whether it's money to provide for our families, or the influence and power to do what we dreamed of."

"I'm not trying to make excuses for our sins, and I certainly can't speak for all of us. It's just that I want you to understand: many of us are doing this because it's the only way we know how to live as living people rather than just mindless cogs drifting from day to day, because there is no other way for us to seek our dreams."

Kannon found herself unable to disagree. Even she knew that life without a goal wasn't much of a life, especially if it involved two hundred years spent doing more or less nothing.

"Uhh... what's your goal, if I may ask?"

"Mine? Well, I guess it's to provide for the orphanage that raised me."

She found herself completely taken back by Korey's answer.

"I know it's a contradiction... Must be some kind of a cruel joke, helping orphans while I'm out here ruining entire families. But you know, if I hadn't been picked by the Marshal for special ops training, the only thing that would have awaited people like me was a life in the slums. Mediocrity and powerlessness is the worst frustration one could feel, and I've cursed my birth far more than I could count for not being born elite, with the opportunity to do something about it all. Instead I watched every one of the brothers and sisters I grew up with ended up in the same miserable place, all because they had neither the education nor the connections to climb elsewhere in life. I was tired of watching the people I knew and loved get forced into what can barely be called a life."

"So you decided to support them with your connections in the military."

Korey nodded.

"In the Republic, a technical military background is the best foundation for life. Apart from reliable training and experience, military service is also the easiest way to become a citizen and receive all the privileges and benefits, rather than staying as merely a resident civilian. So even though the academy is supposed to be free, becoming a soldier really requires money and influence -- which I had as a Lieutenant-Commander from the Office of Naval Oversight."

"My goal is to finish my service term. Complete twenty-five years of it and earn my citizenship, as opposed to mere civilian residency as someone born within the district. Only then will I have the privilege to open my own company -- a software firm that I can establish using the connections I forged here, where I could hire and train all those future-less kids I watched grow up. Even if I fail, maybe one of my friends who I managed to enroll into the academy may finish that dream for me."

Kannon leaned over and hugged Korey from the side as he continued to stare blankly at the screen.

She may not agree with their methods, but she couldn't blame them for trying to make a living in a hard life. Sure, it was easy to claim that what they did was wrong from the perspective of those with choices and opportunities. But when an honest living just wasn't a viable option in their 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness', then what?

"Thanks," Korey smiled sheepishly as he patted her arms twice after his surprise passed.

He was slightly awkward and didn't seem quite comfortable, so Kannon pulled herself back and left only her hands on his shoulders as a sign of support. She wanted to show him her understanding, but she also knew that the last thing determined individuals like Korey needed was for sympathy to extend into pity.

"Still, I don't agree with the Captain in dragging you into this. I certainly won't say a thing if you decide not to help out," he continued without looking at her. "But even though I don't really know what the Captain's goals are, I want to give you a glimpse of our overall picture before you judge his, our actions." He chuckled bitterly: "I guess I'm still inexperienced if I wished that you wouldn't simply classify us as 'evil people' just because of a few days of getting to know each other."

"...It's part of our human nature to wish to be understood, isn't it?" Kannon smiled gently. "I think it's a good thing to realize how human we still are after everything."

She firmly believed that comprehension was the foundation of solving problems not only between individuals, but within society as a whole. Therefore, it was important for one's intentions to reach out to others, to understand them and let oneself be understood by them.

Seconds passed in comfortable silence as neither of them said anything.

"Kannon, you should sit back down. The teams are moving in; we're coming up to T-minus thirty seconds."

The rising tension in Korey's voice was enough to inform her that the mission was starting. Kannon hurried back to her seat and activated the inertial dampeners before putting on her seat belt. They were parked half a mile away from Ambassador Towers and behind a large apartment building which, according to the city's data, should be able to withstand the shockwave. But Korey fired up the aircar's engines nevertheless, just in case they had to run away from a collapsing building.

The countdown timer had already began as Kannon brought up the sensors display. The transponders of the team's vehicles were automatically highlighted in green: four illusioned Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFVs) moving in from three different directions, plus the disguised aircar that they sat in. The target structure and the apartment at point A-11 were marked red, while everything else was a shade of transparent gray.

She called upon yet another window to access the hotel security system. As she brought her right hand up to manipulate it, her eyes focused themselves on the communication ring once again.

Should I help coordinate like Arkadi asked?

Kannon was glad that Korey told her about his motivations. Even though the others may have very different reasons, it still felt like she received another piece of the puzzle, took another step closer to the rest of the team. But... could she really fathom their situation when she had never been in their shoes?

She knew her life hasn't been the smoothest, but it was paradise compared to the hell that they went through. It would be easy for her to say that this was wrong, having never felt true desperation, having always had an alternative.

Do I still? Even in this world?

"Unless I put myself on the line, I have no means to survive."

Within her mind echoed her very own words, spoken to Lysette just three nights ago. Yet at this moment, Kannon realized that she was already trying to back out of it, trying to keep her own hands clean while judging Arkadi like some hypocrite.

The ground shook precisely as the timer struck zero, and a thundering explosion tore through the silent night. An expanding nova filled the center of the sensors screen as the heat wave and electromagnetic pulse released by the thermonuclear detonation engulfed the entire hotel block. The lower floors of Ambassador Towers burst outwards, sending debris as big as aircars in every direction, most of which crashed straight into the structures of nearby buildings.

Yet even with all the devastation, it seemed for a second that the diamondsteel structural frame of the hotel might actually hold. Then it buckled in and began to collapse, smashing floor after floor down onto the surface wreckage under its own weight. Two adjacent buildings in the block also fell sideways onto it after losing too many support columns to the blast and the debris.

At the exact same moment, flames erupted from the northwest side of the apartment complex marked A-11 after Cyril's IFV launched four missiles into it at almost point blank range. The vehicle didn't even bother to slow down to check as it swerved past the building and continued on towards the hotel.

"All teams engage!" Arkadi's imperative order came over the channel, breaking the silence that had been kept just in case someone was monitoring for the presence of telepathic transmissions in the area.

"Releasing surveillance drones," Korey declared as six red dots sped away from our vehicle on the sensors.

It's starting.

Kannon took a deep breath and cleared her thoughts.

I won't forsake my own words.

Her decision was made; more precisely, the Kannon from three nights ago had made it for her.

She tapped into one of the drones' camera just in time to watch three waves of missiles, flushed from the Principes Infantry Fighting Vehicle's (IFV) external racks, hurled themselves towards the top two floors of the crumbling hotel. Yet even as the structure fell, eight automated laser point-defense turrets deployed atop the roof did their job and nailed all but four of the warheads. The remainder were stopped short of the hotel as they struck the Barrier wards and detonated.

The lasers then turned their attention towards the IFVs, but the armored vehicles' outer defensive layer of electromagnetic shielding deflected the stilettos of light with little effort. Four electrolaser turrets also unfolded from the packaging that concealed their true nature and added their firepower to the mix. The shield strengths of friendly vehicles dwindled on the readout, but not quickly enough to matter considering the short lives those turrets had remaining.

The IFVs lowered their turbofan wings to below the main chassis and unraveled their massive side hatches, bending forward from both flanks to serve as an armored stand for the Black Hand commandos inside. Two of them stood behind each hatch as they brought up their electrolaser battle rifles -- so massive that only the servo-muscles of powered armor may wield them -- and retaliated with streams of crackling blue energy. Each vehicle then joined in with its own electrolaser turret, pouring more fire into the mix.

"Lay it on! Collapse that Barrier!"

Any advanced defensive shield technology required immense energy reserves to operate, and most magical wards were no different. The Barrier ward was a versatile defense capable of anchoring and maintaining other protective spells. It offered varying effects from simple fire warding or teleportation bouncing to all-encompassing defensive measures similar to the Vector Negation Shields. But regardless of its effects, the Barrier ward can always be collapsed through sheer brute force by pounding it until it drains its ether supply, or...

A torrent of white light erupted from the left hatch of Arkadi's IFV, where Haidar held his 'cannonstaff' barrel that dwarfed even the electrolaser battle rifles. Already strained by the energy fire pouring in from all sides, the building's translucent purple Barrier collapsed on one section as the beam slammed straight into it. The remaining ether of the ward flared and spread outwards, triggering a cascading light show that soon shredded the rest of the Barrier.

"Now that's a Disjunction!" Another member of the strike team cheered over the channel.

It took a moment before comprehension dawned on Kannon. The combination had been a Catalyst Disjunction effect -- the most powerful antimagic spellword for stripping away magic by converting all ether in the area back into unrefined mana and dispersing it, merged with the boost word to spark a chain reaction.

I should have thought of that. Still way too new at this...

Deprived of their protective screen, the point-defense turrets on the roof exploded one after another as electrolaser beams lashed into them. More beams of laser-induced plasma gouged into the building itself, tearing through diamondweave glass windows and into the rooms inside.

"Enemies on the northeast balcony!" Korey noted as he marked the three individuals who had emerged from the top floor of the building, just before they disappeared into the expanding cloud of dust that was blown up by the collapse of the lower levels.

After all the concentrated electrolaser fire, thermal and electromagnetic sensors were far from reliable in pinpointing the enemy. But the EM emission strength from the balcony Korey marked swiftly doubled, then tripled, as the top floor smashed into the debris below. The targets must be wearing powered armor like the two other figures, labelled Bernard and Hualing by the sensors. The two of them just barely emerged in time and now soared into the air using their armor's built-in rocket boosters.

"We're going in!"

"On your wing," Arkadi's voice replied.

"Jay, Ersilia," Kannon called the two other squad leaders whose IFVs were swinging around the hotel's wreckage. "Bernard and Hualing are boosting in for intercept; decel and pick them up."

The two IFVs swerved by and allowed the two men to land aboard, while Cyrille and Arkadi's vehicles charged straight in with all weapons blazing. They strafed the target's location before pulling away from the dust cloud, only to circle around and repeat the process.

But as Cyrille's IFV slowed to make a sharp turnaround, eight hypersonic shells shot out of the dust cloud and zeroed in after it. The IFV's two point-defense laser batteries went into full auto and managed to detonate three of them in their split-second flight time, while four more missed after the vector shield killed their approach velocity. However, the last one managed to score a direct hit on one of the turbofans after passing through the vector shield. A secondary explosion tore the entire wing apart, and the six members aboard quickly ejected from the vehicle. They boosted into the air and towards the Ambassador Towers' remains using their powered armor, while the uncontrolled IFV rammed straight into a nearby building and set it ablaze.

"Those bastards!"

"Blast their left flank, screen--"

"--Regroup! Angela, Joshua, with me!"

Even though each squad was linked in a telepathic subnet, the amount of communications over the main channel exploded as the first IFV went down and its crew attempted to coordinate with whomever nearby. It was impossible for Kannon to sort out that many people talking at once, so she focused on paying attention to only the command channel while filtering out the rest:

"Squad Cyrille, Wind Blast the dust cover as you approach!"

"Affirmed!"

The two other IFVs then joined in the attack runs, firing beam after beam as well as emptying two payloads of bombs into the dust cloud. The enemy's electrolasers began to reply in kind as their EM signatures found solid footing atop what remained of the hotel.

Six members of Cyrille's squad charged down upon them from the skies, with torrents of air blowing away the ashes before them. Then, a faint golden glow emerged as the foes revealed themselves.

"DECEL!"

Four members of the squad managed to slow themselves down in time with their boosters; but the remaining two charged straight into the enemy formation and were instantly cut apart by two radiant blades before their bodies disintegrated into dust.

A third sword, also emitting a golden brilliance, revealed itself along with three 'shields' that were literally illuminated golden crosses. Each of those shields was strapped to the raised arm of knight in white traditional plate armor, serving as the center focus to a projected field of bright golden-yellow light. Each projection was eight feet across and shaped like a massive kite shield that covered over their heads.

They were the Knights of the Cross and their famed mobile defensive ward: Divine Bulwark, a specialized sorcery -- although faith magic called them 'miracles', courtesy of Old Terra's Catholic Church -- that no ordinary power or magic could break as long as the focus remained intact. Behind their cover knelt ten even larger silhouettes. Each of them was a trooper fully equipped in powered armor, with weapons in hand and some arm-strapped buckler-like device raised above their own heads.

"That's...!"

"Tortoise Schiltrom..." Korey named their formation as though it were one of the most troublesome things in the world.

The defenders were formed up in a tightly packed circle, with the three Cross Knights constituting the vertices of an equilateral triangle inside it. Their cross 'shields' were raised above their heads at an angle, and the massive golden-yellow light shields established the core of their defensive array. Force fields of various colors, similar to flaring vector shields but of a slightly-curved surface providing unidirectional defense instead of omnidirectional spheres, interlocked underneath. Altogether they formed a semi-hemispherical protective shell that easily blocked or deflected the electrolaser beams still pouring in from above.

"...They're using vector barrier guards to back up the Bulwarks!"

In a gap between incoming attacks, two force fields tilted outwards, and the troopers beneath stood up to fire retaliatory bursts before kneeling back down and shifting the shields back into position. The perfectly timed coordination spoke volumes for the superb training of these men.

"KADI!" Kayeten's amplified voice cried out from a suit of white powered armor in the center of the other slate-gray ones, "I KNOW YOU'RE OUT THERE! AT LEAST HAVE THE DECENCY TO COME OUT AND FACE ME!"

Something's not right...

Kannon had a bad feeling: their defense was organized too quickly, their challenge was too firm...

"Were they expecting us?"

She heard her own hesitant voice, still unsure in making such a discouraging comment. Yet she knew Arkadi had to consider it. This might still be an opportunity, but it was also an operation against increasingly harsh objectives with narrower constraints. It required all or nothing, and the risks were...

"He's bluffing on a guess," Arkadi responded, his composure seemingly unfazed by the challenge, although Kannon could sense a trickle of doubt forcing its way in. "Regardless, we're invested, and breaking off will only inform him for certain to prepare against a second strike!"

The Captain was betting everything.

"Our ranged fire won't break through that formation in time. Jay! Ersilia! Crash your IFVs into them! Break their formation and prepare for close combat! Kill them one by one and we shall have Sidika's head!"

The intuition Kannon trusted even more than her rationale warned that he was throwing good money after the bad.

No... they aren't just capital assets. They are human lives.

But this was an alpha-priority mission, and therefore the Captain had no other choice.

...And right now, neither do I.

Kannon wondered how long someone could live a life this way before they succumbed to the enticing frame of mind that saw people merely as disposable resources, gambled away in hopes of chance returns.




Chapter 10 - Reason To Be

The streets lay emptier than usual.

Though it was nighttime, the orange glow of the distant other sun in the Logres binary star system lit the clear night skies. It was a dim, shadowy hue; yet combined with the reflected light from a ring of icy asteroids orbiting Broceliande, it allowed the eyes to see even in the depth of night. Not that a metropolis ever went dark with all the brightness pouring off its skyscrapers, building complexes, roaming vehicles, and projection displays.

Even though it was two after midnight, this was still central Rennes, the Capital City of the 2nd District and Broceliande's largest metropolis. Returning late night workers and executives would normally dot the streets and its airways with vehicles.

But the moment news of a terrorist attack broke over the open channels, everyone had ducked back inside. Modern construction could withstand phenomenal amounts of damage, and only those panicked beyond reason would leave for the open roads rather than head down to the basement shelters built into every high-occupancy structure in the Republic.

Yet one individual hurried through the open streets. Instead of running away from the attack, she sped towards it. Not that anyone noticed her presence, thanks to the situation and some stealth magic.

Shirayuki had realized who the culprit was within seconds after the news exploded over the social networking media.

Kayeten Hans-Rudel may have a reputation for being charismatic, but it would never extend to diplomacy; his personal aversion to politicians forbade it. Meeting him in the Brest Gateport meant only one thing -- that a 3rd District emissary of the highest ranking required the Lancet Centurion to serve as bodyguard in person. Destruction of the Ambassador Towers, where the dignitaries were likely residing, would spark tensions between the 2nd and the 3rd Districts that neither would want. Combine all this with the Black Prince's presence here on Broceliande, and only one answer remained feasible to Shirayuki's trusted intuition:

The Black Prince was provoking a diplomatic fallout.

It wasn't really her business to interfere, but she had teleported into the city and made haste towards Ambassador Towers within the minute. She reasoned to her comrades that despite occasional conflicts like that of two days prior, the 3rd District was the ally of an ally, and therefore a friendly side that should be kept from falling into chaos.

Excuses excuses.

Shirayuki never did manage to lie to herself.

She knew that her real reason for coming was to take this chance, any chance, to settle her score with the unforgivable Black Prince. It was another reason why she came alone -- if things went awry, then at least she could rely on the magic of Aura Dominion to make her escape...

The redhead suddenly froze as she sensed a nearby aura. With it came the familiar, nostalgic feeling that she had felt in the gateport, one she hadn't truly understood until just before Kayeten's interference.

Aura Dominion Shirayuki could recognize any magical individual by their aura from up to a hundred meters away. Unlike appearances, heat, and other signatures, magical auras were remarkably difficult to disguise, and only a static area Sanctum ward could hide it. Only once in her life had Shirayuki met someone personally and failed to identify them on their next meeting.

What's the Eternal Chronicle doing here? Why--

Dozens of questions flooded through her mind as recognition struck, before she realized that none of them mattered at the moment. This was an opportunity gifted by the grace of the spirits, and she would be a fool not to seize it...


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


"Squad Cyrille, prepare Fog Bank. Do anything you can to impeded their vision and movement."

Kannon heard her own voice resound over the channel. She didn't know many spells for that order yet, but she would bet there were more than a few options out there. It was the logical action for those already near the target to take in support of the attack.

A corner of her mind couldn't help but wonder if this really was the answer, but she crushed the thought mercilessly. She would follow through her decisions or not at all; there would be no acceptance for half-hearted attempts in the middle of it.

"No shadow effects, the Bulwark's light will suppress that!" Arkadi followed up.

"Affirmed!"

Two IFVs maneuvered into flanking positions, readying themselves for the pincer attack while their weapons belched continuous fire into the enemies' ranks. Nearly two-third of the beams were being blocked by the Bulwark wards, although here and there a beam would reach through the gaps and wear down the opposition's vector barriers. Their weapons responded in kind, but their fire was far less accurate against the evading IFVs above them. Even the computer-assisted targeting of those powered armor weren't helping thanks to the IFVs' electronic warfare suites.

Two of the vector barriers shattered as electrolaser beams burnt through the last of its ether, only to crash into overlapping electromagnetic shields underneath. There was no doubt that given the overwhelming tactical advantage, Arkadi's three remaining vehicles would break through the enemy defense given enough time. Unfortunately, time wasn't an available commodity. Every minute that passed brought the 2nd District's security forces closer.

We need to pin them down somehow...

Kannon stared at the pile of rubble before an idea responded to her thoughts:

"Haidar, Animate Entangle; shut down their movement!"

"You got it. Burst Radial Multiply Twenty-Four, Animate Reshape Entangle!" Haidar took her recommendation with enthusiasm, appending it with an effect word that she had yet to learn. Magic arrays projected and spun themselves beneath his feet and around his weapon's rotating tri-'barrel'. His cannonstaff spoke seconds later, shooting out a pillar of burgundy-red light that split into two dozen beams just after leaving the barrel before raining down upon the enemies below.

The vector barriers batted several of them aside, but the rest struck ground just outside their circular formation and worked its magic on the wreckage below. Pipes and rebars from the collapsed building reached upwards like vines through the cracks, seeking to wrap themselves around anything that moved even the slightest.

"Now! Charge in!"

Fog and smoke suddenly engulfed the entire enemy formation, just as two IFVs accelerated into a dive straight into them. Between the visibility impairment and the continued energy fire from the electrolasers, both their sight and their sensors were completely blinded and unaware of the incoming attack. Yet seconds later, just after the two strike teams ejected from their vehicles, eight enemies leaped out of the area at once. They scattered across the area with their boosters while two more lagged a second behind them.

Kayeten must have realized it...

The only reason the attackers would obscure the battleground for, which would only make both sides' fire less accurate and drag the engagement even longer, was to screen the approach of an all-out attack. But three of his troopers still failed to punch out in time, possibly due to entanglement.

Kannon felt a momentary surge of pride before she realized how disgusting it was: joy of success received from the deaths of others.

The ground shook once again as two IFVs simultaneously crashed into the remains of Ambassador Towers at half the speed of sound, rocking the entire area like a millennial earthquake as the powerful shockwave blew outwards from the blinding explosion. Yet the fresh cloud of dust kicked up went mostly ignored as the Black Hand commandos wasted no time before charging down upon their dazed foes, spraying them with electrolaser fire while pulling out massive claymores and swordstaves with heated chainsaw edges.

"Select Arms Emanate, Resistance Field!" The echoed chants of this wordspell, the bread and butter of any spellsword, filled the communication channel as each attacker blessed their blades with the ability to ignore vector shields just long enough to break through. "For our glory as the 1st!!!"

One of the Cross Knights launched himself off the ground to meet the attackers, and Ersilia's squad took no chances against the martial renown of the knights. All six squad members boosted towards him, seeking a convergent strike from multiple directions. The knight extended the length of his golden blade to cut down one before his opponent could even reach him, then blocked off two more with his shield and dodged a fourth. But there were simply too many attackers, and the last two chainblades pierced through his right shoulder and cleaved into his waist. The heated chains tore out his innards within a second, raining blood and gore down upon the ground below.

Kannon felt like she was going to throw up...

A wave of intense nausea had just risen up her throat when the knight's body flashed and detonated. Golden flames poured out into a thick column of holy fire that formed a gigantic upright crucifix, washing over both electromagnetic and vector shields as though they weren't even there. The magic immolated metal, electronics, and flesh alike as it burnt through entire suits of powered armor like plasma through paper.

In an instant, an entire squad of six living beings turned into nothing more than falling embers. Kannon's nausea laid forgotten as shock gripped control of her senses... Moments passed before she managed to shove everything aside and regain control of her dazed mind.

She returned her focus to the sensors. The count was now down to nine, not including Arkadi's team still in the IFV, versus seven. Apart from the loss of Ersilia's entire squad, two more fell under the enemies' blades, while a third was picked off by a single bullet from Kayeten's long rifle -- a starmetal slug that triggered neither EM nor vector shields and landed a perfect bullseye on the helmet of its victim.

Yet despite the altitude advantage and the coordinated attack, the Black Hand commandos managed to kill 'only' two other elites of the 3rd District. It proved once again that undercover operatives, even combat specialists, were poorly matched against battle-hardened army elites on the open field.

"Take them out! And leave the white powered armor to me!" Arkadi's declaration was icy enough to freeze the air itself.

The fighting quickly dissolved into a chaotic melee; yet the last remaining IFV continued to hover above the battlefield, where Haidar and its pilot Lysette rained shots down upon targets of opportunity. The Captain however, boosted off the vehicle before hurling himself straight at the enemy commander. Meanwhile Kaplan took off after one of the knights, his image multiplying as he charged in.

Kayeten intercepted Arkadi with another shot of his rifle. But even though the starmetal shell didn't bounce off the shield, it had been deflected enough to completely miss him.

Captain Arkadi's trump card, the Aegis Shield, was active once again.

Be it surprise or unpreparedness, Kayeten hesitated for a split second before he evaded, allowing Arkadi's massive swordstaff to score a 'glancing' hit as it sliced off the upper half of Kayeten's left pauldron. Although the heated blade only singed Kayeten's shoulder as it brushed by, it had destroyed the foundations to the left arm's servo-muscles on his armored suit, effectively crippling the entire limb.

Arkadi backed off, and for a moment the two simply stood off against one another even as precious seconds ticked by.

They're both delaying...

Kannon found it very unlike the Captain, not when there was a job to be done. Perhaps he simply hoped to occupy the opposition's best while his men finished the task...

Or... perhaps he just can't bring himself to...

She took the nearest surveillance drone in to observe their fight. Now that the main battle devolved into a chaotic melee, she doubted she could help much. But her feelings were set on watching his back and helping Arkadi return from this most undesirable confrontation in one piece.


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


Contrary to mission objectives, Kaplan's first set of spells were all defensive. The enemy's qualitative superiority was evident. The Black Hand was losing men too quickly for too little. His Mirror Images weren't realistic enough to fool the full scanning spectrum of active sensors, but some diversion was better than none.

The Captain has pulled the famed Lancet Centurion into a duel, freeing up everyone else on the strike force to take down their real objective: Marshal Sidika, protected by one of the four powered armors and shielded by two Cross Knights.

"Jay, take out those armors one by one with your squad; concentrate attacks," Kaplan ordered, his voice calm but unable to project the confidence that Arkadi so easily managed. "Haidar, cover fire for Jay, shower them with incendiary or plasma. Rest, keep the others occupied."

"Affirmed!"

"Boys, helix spiral on my mark!"

Five members of Jay's squad arced in from three directions on the target he highlighted, their armored foe fighting behind a knight's shield and aided by another suit. Twenty-four rays of incandescent fury rained down upon them, disrupting sensors and forcing shields to flare with the evoked plasma bombardment. The defenders' coordination faltered for precious seconds as three swordstaves and two claymores rushed in to meet two swordstaves and a knight's saber in golden smite mode. Heated chains met metal with thunderous flashes that discharged a deluge of sparks.

But instead of trading lives with all-out attacks, Jay's squad scored only three hits with no kills in return for one injury and two images. His men were well-trained; they charged into danger without hesitance, but they split their focus between attack and defense; memories of Squad Ersilia's instantaneous immolation were still fresh on their minds.

It was an issue of morale that would slow or even cost them this battle.

Then, nine of the illusory soldiers Kaplan forged suddenly changed signatures and switched sides.

"Spell seizure... Metamage!"

"Target: alpha three! Take him down!"

...And the battle just grew even longer.


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


"So this is your response, Kadi?" A bitter voice emerged from the speakers built into Kayeten's armor as he retracted the black visor under his helmet's transparent diamondweave-glass, revealing a pair of infuriated green eyes that burnt with emerald flames. "Your parents' memory, your sister, your upbringing, and now your sworn brother. Is there any you would not cast aside? Are we all that meaningless to you?"

"On the contrary, Kayeten," responded Arkadi as he lifted his own visor, his steely face completely devoid of emotions. "It is because of my family and upbringing that I am doing this. Besides, does my dearest friend who voluntarily became a dog of the 3rd District really have any right to judge my choices!?" He finished by charging forth once again with his blade raised high.

Kayeten deflected the blow by sacrificing his rifle and pulled out his own, albeit smaller chainblade with one fluid motion.

"Don't confuse me or Sidika with your master and yourself, Kernow!" his voice filled Arkadi's adoptive surname with contempt as he parried strike after strike, using the agility of his chainblade shortsword to skillfully redirect the power behind Arkadi's two-handed attacks. Kayeten then followed it up with two quick counterattacks, but his thrusts glanced off Arkadi's shield without even touching armor.

It was clear whose martial prowess triumphed over the other, and Arkadi's only saving grace was his Aegis Shield. Kannon struggled to come up with some spell that would assist the Captain, but none came. The two of them were simply too close, too engaged, and not breaking off enough to launch a spell salvo like Haidar's covering fire without striking them both. It would be meaningless for vector shields to flare equally for both sides, while their powered armor made most environmental hazards useless.

"I've not done a thing I'd be ashamed to tell my parents in the afterlife," continued Kayeten, finally stopping as both sides regained their stances. "But you? The Black Prince? Was bombing convention centers and nerve-gassing political rallies not enough? Thousands of innocents died by your hands alone!"

"And millions will follow, so long as the end served its means."

Arkadi's thin grin was every bit as frightening as his words. The man was absolutely serious. No atrocity was above what he prepared himself for.

Even Kayeten was speechless as his eyes widened in shock.

"I will do whatever it takes, Kayeten. I will take the seat of the 1st Marshal, and I shall purge this rotten system from the world."

"Are you serious?"

Kayeten's eyes were shaking, as if his very soul doubted the sanity of his once closest friend. Yet his instinctive reflexes parried off yet another onslaught from Arkadi's blade.

The Captain was coordinating his blade with his words, launching every assault the moment he finished each disturbing declaration. It was possible that he was provoking Kayeten... Except unlike his words to Shirayuki at the gateport, Kannon did not doubt his seriousness for a second.

The battle continued to rage behind them as the sound of diamondsteel clashing and soldiers screaming drowned out everything else. Arkadi's men were taking heavy casualties against the better-trained 3rd District elites, but they still outnumbered their foes.

"Our parents' death doesn't even compare with what I've seen, Kayeten... This abominable system that treats its lower classes no better than Arvitors, its people no more than tools and numbers--"

Kannon knew he spoke of Lysette and others alike... But a sinking feeling told her that was just one of many problems. One instance was the supply of Arvitor Crystals -- were they making more, perhaps out of other magically affluent humans due to the demand?

"--And that's just the tip of the iceberg. With even the supervisory bodies under the their control, the military aristocracy and the legislaturist families can indulge in even their most sinful desires, without any regard for society."

A red dot soaring in from behind Arkadi on the sensors seized Kannon's attention. The 3rd District powered armor rocketed towards him, its massive chainblade readied for an overhand swing. However... the sensors marking was faded, and a spin of the camera confirmed the translucent attacker.

"Captain that's--!"

Arkadi had already reacted by the time Kannon's delayed reaction kicked in. His blade carved around in a wide arc, with boosters on his swordstaff blade igniting for an extra push as it smashed into the attacker... and cut cleanly through without the slightest resistance.

It was an illusion; one that emanated enough thermal, electromagnetic, and other signatures to fool unfocused sensors.

Not forfeiting the opportunity, Kayeten thrusted his sword towards Arkadi's back. But even though he slowed the attack down prior to striking the shield, his blade was still pushed back out, albeit only barely. It seemed that despite Arkadi's goading, Kayeten had discovered a way that may just break through Arkadi's defenses.

Captain Arkadi then swung back around, forcing Kayeten to rush two steps back.

"So what? Would you destroy the world to rebuild it in your own vision?" Kayeten mocked, seeking precious few seconds to reorient his balance and regain his stance.

"Destroy? Of course not. Pressing reset merely covers up the rot. Humanity will merely repeat it years later. Society must be taught a lesson, one carved in blood so they may never forget."

A sinister yet melancholic smirk twitched across Arkadi's expression as he continued:

"Have you heard of a man on Old Terra named Adolf Hitler, Kayeten? An elected dictator, aggressor of the Second World War, but most importantly, a genocidal killer of Judaism. Before he came to power, fascism and antisemitism -- totalitarian dictatorship and violent racism, had been popular. But so atrocious were his actions that the terrifying result of absolute authoritarianism and racial hatred be engraved in the minds of men for centuries to come. After his crimes, no act of massed racial or religious murder was ever tolerated by the international community again, nor would the widespread political indifference that allowed him power ever be reborn in old Europe."

"That's why I will take the Marshal of the 1st. I will seize the throne of the demon king and bring holocaust upon this irreparable system! I will use every medium of power to prove just how intolerable this structure is! Only then would humanity finally wake up and realize what kind of cancer their still electoral society have allowed to fester amongst them for over a century! I will give them a thousand years of notoriety, to ensure responsibility by fear, to force the return of true representatives that shall stand for the masses, as our parents once did!"

Kannon knew that Arkadi was completely serious. Those violet eyes that burnt with icy flames weren't something that could be faked. His cynicism and loathing towards the current world order was real in every sense.

Korey had been right. Just as he did, Captain Arkadi also took upon this sinful role for a greater purpose. But whether his intentions were heinously outrageous or pessimistically realistic was beyond her judgment. She knew through history that governments sometimes dug itself into a pit that they could not recover from without a true revolution. It had happened to the Monarchies before the Spring of Nations; it had happened to the 'Democracies' turned Corporate Republics prior to the Third Great War. Maybe the Stratocracy that seized Avalon's true power could only be overturned in the same fashion.

Yet even as the shock wound down, Arkadi's words brought another idea to her mind:

"Korey, can napalm stick to vector shields?"

"Sort of, like mud dripping off glass; maybe ionized helps."

"Are you completely retarded!?!" Kayeten retorted, any remaining composure tossed aside as simmering fury enshrouded his expression. "...No matter what your reasons, it does not give you the right to play god, to deny the world, to deny the faith of all others and turn the existing reality upside down. No matter what ultimate justice you seek, there are billions of better ways. Pick one, any! Why do you think I'm--"

"Shall I remind you that the Marshals are the heads! The ones who have guided the world into its current decay! The purge must begin with those self-serving bastards, every one of them!"

"Do you seriously believe that I, or your sister, would follow someone like that?"

Arkadi froze for a moment as the declaration unnerved him.

"Haidar, Hellfire Creation Adhesion, rain it onto the Captain's duel!"

"Wouldn't that--?

"Trust me!" Kannon cut his tired objection off.

A bitter smile returned to Arkadi's pitying expression as he pressed onward:

"People change, Kayeten. History has proven it over and over. Even if the officer who adopted you over a decade ago was a promising individual, there was no way she would have been named successor had she not supported the current system! Funds channeled from system revenues by the billions, clans vanished over one outspoken member -- her deeds of governance did not change the slightest from her predecessors!"

If Arkadi's words were news to Kayeten, not an ounce of surprise worked into the latter's expression. At the same time, it was obvious to Kannon that Arkadi wasn't going to heed Kayeten's words no matter how he explained. The Captain was so entrenched in his beliefs, backed by his own information, that he simply refused to accept even the faith and judgment of his once best friend.

"So your unending delusion sees only what excuses you wish for now!?"

Kayeten's flaring anger finally pushed him to making another counterattack. Except this time, instead of swinging his sword in, he allowed Arkadi to close the distance for another strike before piercing the Aegis Shield at minimum speed and pressing in at full strength. The chainblade was pushed back a bit, but its reflected low velocity was not enough to send it back out of the shield altogether before he pressed it in and cut into Arkadi's powered armor from the right ribcage.

Although unlikely to have penetrated enough to inflict significant damage, Kayeten had proven that Arkadi's shield was not infallible.

"Burst Radial Multiply Twenty-Four, Hellfire Creation Adhesion!"

The storm of rays that erupted from Haidar's cannonstaff shot above the commanders' duel, where they converted to a pool of Greek Fire that poured down, bouncing off Arkadi's reflective Aegis Shield but smothering Kayeten's Vector Negation Shield as though it was a glass orb. With the delay after Kayeten's attack, this left him exposed within reach for one second too long. His leap back came too late as Arkadi's chainblade sliced straight into the power packs and boosters behind him, crippling the mobility of his armored suit.

His suit was grounded, and Kannon saw another opportunity: Kayeten's advantage over Arkadi laid in his reflex and precision; but without maneuverability, he could easily be bogged down on the rough terrain they fought on...

"Haidar, Animate Transmogrify Accel, ceramicrete to magma, scatter around Kayeten."

"Burst Radial Multiply Twenty-Four, Animate Transmogrify Accel," Haidar skipped straight to chanting with his labored voice, fatigued under the strain of continuous high-powered spellcasting. Two dozen beams unraveled from one and rained down upon Kayeten and Arkadi's position as a single salvo, some deflecting off shields before meeting the ground. They transformed the rubble into shallow pools of magma that reached upwards like molten zombie hands instead of seeping down.

Kayeten staggered back several steps through an animated lava patch, trying to maintain balance while electricity crackled and surged from the back of his powered armor. The magma was nowhere hot enough to breach armor designed to defend against direct laser and superheated plasma hits. But the shallow patches quickly solidified around any intrusion, miring his movement like glue and binding on more debris.

"Haidar on your six!"

Korey's frantic shout pulled Kannon's focus across the battlefield, just in time to see a bolt of lightning from the ground strike the shields of Haidar and Lysette's IFV. But instead of being deflected, it curved its way around the flaring shield bubble to behind Haidar's turning back, where the crackling electricity reformed into a physical entity -- a dame of the Cross Knights. A golden blade expanded to thrice its normal length before chopping down, cutting through Haidar's shields and armor alike, slicing him apart for a second before his entire armored body disintegrated into dust.

"HAIDAR!!!"

Korey's desperate scream over both the airways and the telepathic channel struck Kannon like a sledgehammer, forcing in the inescapable reality.

Haidar just... died, like that?

One second he was still there, in a perfectly defensible position; the next moment his remnants were scattering in the night winds.

Kannon had seen Edmund killed before her very eyes back on the Hadrian. She had witnessed Ersilia's entire squad destroyed within the blink of an eye. Every instance of death had elicited its own moment of shock, cringing, and urging to scream. But this time it was on a whole different level...

Even if they had known each other for only a few days, Haidar had been a comrade, a teammate, one whom she had worked and lived and ate and laughed together with.

It was all so sudden, all too sudden.

A part of her had finally understood: this... was the true battlefield, the arena that Arkadi and his men lived in. It was a war zone where anyone could die at any moment, where a split-second spelled the difference between accomplishment and slaughter.

...And if I don't snap out of it, I'll be next!

Kannon took a deep breath and pulled together all her available mental strength to bulldoze her shock and grievances into an isolated corner. It was only delaying the inevitable, but she had to concentrate right now.

The Captain still needs me to keep an eye on the field, on their backs.

The IFV that Haidar once stood on plummeted towards a nearby apartment building as smoke trailed behind it. The Cross Knight that reaped his death also severed one armored hatch and one turbofan wing, crippling the vehicle. Thankfully, Lysette had ejected safely, and her flurry of desperate attacks with her twin chainblade shortswords had managed to score a glancing hit on the knight's right arm, disarming the target's sword.

Other than Haidar's killer and Kayeten, only two others of the 3rd District still stood: another Cross Knight, whose entire right arm was missing but managed to protect himself with his Bulwark shield in full projection size, stood back to back with an elite auxilia in a suit of powered armor that bore the damage of at least three hits.

But even counting Arkadi, Lysette, and Kaplan's suit which was missing a right forearm, only six of the Black Hand remained.

Worst of all, proximity sensors on Kannon's readout alerted of incoming hostiles, and she patched the info through:

"2nd District forces closing. First wave, four Peltast recons, ETA 50sec. Second wave, five Principes IFVs, six Langskip AT/AAS, three Signifier command, ETA 120sec."

There's no time left...

No, possibly worse.

Kannon assumed Kayeten had drawn Arkadi into an one-on-one duel to help protect Marshal Sidika. His lack of reaction so far meant that she was most likely still alive. But there was only one unknown suit of powered armor left standing and... other than the crippled knight, they weren't even attempting to protect it. Unless Sidika was playing some suicidal bluff, there was no way that she was within that last armor.

It was possible she disguised herself as one of the knights, but nothing in her record mentioned learning the faith magic of the Cross Order. Nor was she known for any prowess in swordsmanship which all the survivors have displayed in abundance. This meant that Marshal Sidika could be still amongst the debris with some means of surviving both the hotel's collapse and the IFVs' crash. But far more likely, given Kayeten's preparedness, that she somehow anticipated this and wasn't inside the hotel at the start of the mission to begin with!

"Captain, we have to pull out! The 3rd Marshal isn't here! None of those remaining should be Sidika!"

Arkadi didn't respond at all, and for a second Kannon wondered if he even heard her. A wave of red sensor blips emerged from the Peltast recon vehicles, and the miniature laser point-defense turret on his left shoulder went into full-auto. Only then did Arkadi's bitterly forced orders finally pass over the channel:

"All units, withdraw! Teleport out now!"

Activating his boosters, Arkadi leaped away from Kayeten's crippled suit, ignoring his final shouts.

Kannon withdrew her attention from the sensors and camera feeds. She unbuckled her seatbelt and looked over to Korey, whose eyes were still shaking.

"Korey, we should depart as well."

He slowly turned towards her with a dazed expression before shaking it off.

"R-right... we do... s-setting vehicle for self-destruct. Countdown sixty seconds. Confirm."

Even though his longtime friend had just been killed before his eyes, Korey's training quickly kicked him back into gear once he snapped out of his daze. He unbuckled himself and stood up from the seat, then moved over to the door of their warded utility aircar and grasped the handle before turning back towards Kannon. Tears glazed his emerald-green eyes as he forced a lonely smile and extended his other hand towards her.

"Let's get going."

As Kannon shut down her implant's connection with the vehicle and took his hand, Korey opened the door and pulled her outside. But the instant her feet hit the hard pavement, his body froze stiff in front of her and his left shoulder sprayed blood into the air. A split second passed before he disintegrated into dust within the mist of blood just as something hard smashed straight into her lungs, knocking the air out of her.

The last thing Kannon recognized before blacking out was a head of apple-red hair.




Chapter 11 - Legacy of a Utopian Dream

Kannon groaned as her eyes opened to yet another dark, unfamiliar room. But before she could focus her blurry vision, the irritation in her throat sent her into a coughing fit.

...And the lights flicked on in response.

She blinked the tears out of her eyes and regained her sense of the surroundings. She was in a soft, twin-sized bed in the middle of a plain bedroom -- small and squarish with a simple closed wooden door. It had no windows, and only two pieces of utilitarian furniture: a long folding table and a clothing rack like the kind found in department stores, with her black uniform hanging neatly from it.

It took several seconds of blank staring before realization sent panic through her mind.

Looking down, Kannon discovered that someone had changed her into a white blouse with pink ribbons that could be adequately described by one word: frilly. Her long hair which scattered around her had also returned to its natural blossom-pink color. Even the chrome Communication Ring had been replaced by a platinum white ring with floral pink patterns engraved -- probably serving the same function as before but with a different network.

The starsteel chain, however, was still connected to her left wrist. Her eyes traced it to the left side of her pillow, where the other end was wrapped around one of the headboard's fading brass bars and secured in place with a padlock.

Well, at least this is no interrogation room... yet.

A sigh left her lips as some semblance of relief came to her; but with it also flowed... disgust, nausea, loss, and sorrow. Memories of the battle that took place before being knocked out flooded back to Kannon.

The taste of bile filled her mouth as the gruesome deaths of Haidar and Korey replay themselves within her mind. She bent over the bed's left side and covered her mouth with both hands, desperately trying to force the content of her stomach back down even as her eyes watered and dripped tears onto the bare floor below.

Anxiety overtook Kannon for a moment as her face paled. But after several minutes of determined struggling, she managed to push it back down, leaving the most disgusting taste in her mouth. It was the last emotion that she wanted to match their memories with, and it only made her feel worse.

She knew that Korey and Haidar were soldiers, that they were special ops. She knew that she only met them a few days ago, and only out of a desire to make use of her knowledge. But they were also two of the people she had bonded with, whom she had shared smiles and laughter and worries and danger with since her arrival in this foreign world.

Perhaps even more importantly, she had become their comrade, their teammate. She had accepted Arkadi's offer, a responsibility to coordinate, to watch their backs, and now... a guilt.

I'm sorry.

Kannon could only plead to her conscience as more tears trickled out from her eyes.

Two pairs of soft but clear footsteps resounded from the hallway beyond the thin door, and Kannon hurriedly wiped her face with the fluffy comforter that still covered her lower half. Her instincts seized the opportunity as the perfect reason to push unwanted thoughts away.

One set of footsteps stopped some distance away. But with a turn of the old-fashioned doorknob, the other walked gracefully in. A soft gasp escaped her mouth as Kannon laid her eyes upon the bright apple-red hair that registered in her final memory before fading out last night.

Before Kannon was a petite girl of around seventeen, but probably twenty-ish given the Longevity treatments. Although the immaculate features of her almond-shaped face hadn't fully matured into the realm of true beauty, they were certainly pretty enough. Small feminine nose, silky white skin, cute mouth with a hint of cherry lipstick, and two large vibrant heterochromic eyes, peridot-green left and blossom-pink right, all of which framed by her pristine red hair, forming a presence that pulled Kannon's eyes in like no other.

Yet it wasn't just her appearance that took Kannon's breath away. It was more than that -- an instinctive answer which came from deep within, a realization even more obvious than the last time Kannon saw her:

They were the same kind of people. They were alike.

It was a decree Kannon could not ignore, even though she had absolutely no clue just what they shared in common. But none of that changed the one fact she did know:

The redhead's name was Shirayuki Kaguya, the Crimson Spectre who brought Korey's death.


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


Kannon tied the pink ribbons on the shoulders of her blouse, two on each side, together as she stepped out of the bathroom.

"Fresh, clean, and so much better~!"

Shirayuki beamed cheerfully as she sat up on the bed's edge. Her hand waved across the air, presumably to close her AR windows. Her legs, clad in pure white stockings under a mint-green hakama skirt, straightened out from their folded posture and reached towards two strappy sandals on the floor. Pure white robes also covered her upper body, in similar design but stark contrasting colors to the black outfit she wore at the gateport.

After Shirayuki's entrance nearly an hour ago, Kannon had barely gotten a word in before the redhead released her from the bed and rushed her into the bathroom just outside with a smiling but imperative order to 'thoroughly cleanse' herself.

Kannon knew she had no choice. Captured scenarios didn't offer many options. So if the antagonist before her demanded freshness for dungeon interrogation while she had no plan of action, it would be foolish to deny, however much enmity there might be between them. Except... Kannon felt none of that coming from Shirayuki, which had left her thoroughly confused instead.

Shirayuki stood up and invited Kannon to sit down in her place.

"You'll have to forgive me for being too bludgeoning last night, but circumstances didn't warrant a lengthy exposition."

Kannon's hands slowed in the middle of uncoiling the starsteel chain from her left arm, where she had wrapped it around for convenience but was hardly a comfortable solution. Her eyes blinked as she stared at the other girl in continued bewilderment...

I'm supposed to be her enemy! What's with the friendly gestures? Or the amiable, almost playful tone?

"Oh, that's right... I haven't properly introduced myself yet, although we've already met at the Brest Gateport," Shirayuki folded her hands over her lap and bowed before continuing the self-introduction with her rapid-fire speech in Japanese. "I'm Shirayuki Kaguya ~ Miko-Hime of the Eclipse, Arvitor of the 6th, also known as Aura Dominion by my friends and Crimson Spectre by my foes."

"...I'm Kannon Reginbrandt, Guardian of Otherworldly Knowledge," Kannon responded after bowing back reflexively. "I'm sorry but do we--"

"Yes, I know you," Shirayuki interjected, her eyes widened just a hair in surprise but quickly turned to that of amusement. "Or I should say that I don't know the real you quite yet but I do know your template--"

Kannon's confusion grew by the second as she moved to sit down on the bed...

"--Although I was quite puzzled why an Arvitor Scion was working for the Black Hand. The answer came obvious though ~ you're the girl that came through the wormhole and triggered all the recent commotion, aren't you?"

She found her gaze bouncing between Shirayuki's brilliant peridot left eye and the beautiful pink right eye, both of which felt like they could see right through her. It was a rude thing to do. She knew that from personal experience, but she still couldn't help it as surprise and disbelief spread through her thoughts.

How does she know? And what does she mean by Arvitor Scion?

Kannon knew it couldn't be herself -- she had only recently set foot in this world. It was outright impossible for her to have received genetic modification from their ether technology before she was even born.

"Nod for yes, shake for no~" Shirayuki teased with a playful smile.

Kannon began to nod...

"...I-I am from the other side... but I think you're mistaking me for someone; I'm just a normal college student."

"Mmmh~ I guess the records weren't kidding when they said your attributes don't normally process information very fast. But let me guess -- the Black Prince in shining armor rescued you from the demonic fortress Hadrian just before he blew it up so you didn't have a choice but to tag along?"

Shirayuki's words were embellished, but they weren't wrong.

Still... my attributes? Am I really stuck inside a game now? She's even spot on.

Bitter memories bubbled up in Kannon's mind, and the insults of school-kids who acquainted slowness with stupidity resurfaced for a brief moment... before she returned her focus to Shirayuki in haste and nodded again.

The other girl clapped her hands together in excitement, extruding an aura of innocence completely unnatural to her occupation.

"I knew it! The moment Ikram leaked to me that the intruder from across the wormhole was a short teenager girl with unusual hair and eyes, everything just came together and clicked~!"

Why does the hair matter? You didn't even see my real hair color at the gateport.

"Sorry, but... could you start from--"

"Right right, I forgot, you probably don't have much info about me or the other Arvitor Scions over there." Shirayuki began pacing around the bed in quick steps. "Le'see~ where to start..."

"Actually," Kannon raised her forearm and waved. "I do know whom the Arvitors are; but I'm rather lost on what you mean by Arvitor Scions."

Shirayuki promptly spun back around, her brows frowning as she gazed straight into Kannon's eye.

"The true Arcane Servitors, the original Arcane Servitors, the Scions of The Imperium Project -- ring a bell?"

Kannon shook her head.

"Nope, not a single one."

"You mean... did your parents never tell you whom you were?"

...They told me I'm the 'scion' to the Reginbrandt Group and the daughter of a dynastic family line in commerce and technology; but none of that had any meaning in this world.

Shirayuki sat down besides Kannon and continued as the younger girl's confusion was all the answer she needed:

"You're the Arvitor of the 2nd, Eternal Chronicle."

Kannon's mind went blank as she stared at the other girl... then stared some more...

Excuse me!?

Surprise ended up saying the words out loud for her.

"But, but that's impossible! I can't be an Arvitor! I'm not even from this side of the galaxy!"

"And you think that it's perfectly normal for humans to grow pink hair? Or that heterochromia of yours--?"

No.

Panic, dismay, dread, and denial... feelings Kannon hadn't felt together for a long time rushed into her at once.

No...

Voices of disdain and mockery followed behind -- memories of words said that Kannon had long since banished to the forgotten depth of her mind. The hurtful bullying of children as they copied malicious words from their parents; the evil whispers and dark glares from adults around the corner:

"...Weirdo!... Freak!... Go back to your fairy woods! We don't want your slutty kind here!..."

She's mistaken. She had to be!

Kannon didn't believe her hair color was abnormal, and neither was her eyes. Her mother once taught her that they were just rare traits, parts of her that made her a unique person. The fact that she had them didn't mean anything. It certainly didn't imply that she was amongst some branch of civilization from another side of the galaxy that the world didn't even consider human!

There's no way that's true!

Even discarding the absurdity of her being modified by their technology before her birth, Kannon knew for certain that she was still a normal human, normally born and raised!

That's impossible, definitely impossible!

"...That alien bitch can't even age like a real human being... Trying to make her daughter the family heir? She needs to learn her place..."

Kannon's pulse spiked. Her breath quickened. Her pupil dilated as her eye widened. A faint tremor began from the tips of her fingers and quickly spread up her arms. But...

Shirayuki did not heed a single one of these signs as she began to pace back and forth, searching her mind for more evidence to convince the refusing girl before her eyes.

"--What about strange visions and things that you shouldn't see? Your inherent ability should have awakened since your magic aura is active..."

Across the wormhole, during the skirmish in space, and even just two day ago... Kannon couldn't refute what she saw, not when the memories were still fresh. She had set them aside as dreams and hallucinations brought on by fatigue. She ignored them as mere coincidences that just happened to match the right details, conjured by a desperate subconsciousness or the awakening of some natural magical affinity.

Images of the Arcane Core aboard the Somerset drifted into her mind: Arvitors who were no longer human, who weren't even treated as human, mere parts in a magical reactor.

Her countenance grew deathly pale. Her breath shortened out as though water poured into her lungs...

Everything had happened too quickly in the past few days, events rushing by so fast that Kannon didn't even have time to seriously consider many of them. She had accepted those hallucinations because they had helped her, and because she really didn't have time to waste glossing over them. But regardless of that, Kannon knew she was just a normal girl born into a high class family -- with an above average magical affinity according to Arkadi -- there was nothing unusual other than that!

Voices called out from the darkest corners of her mind. Overwhelming fear washed over her senses in an instant. Kannon remembered that when the words ended, when those who cared proved to be out of earshot, that's when the vicious began their worst: ramming her at corners, kicking her under tables, tripping her near stairs, and on rare occasions -- outright beating her.

"...She's just like that worthless gold-digging whore of a mother who spawned her..."

Her head shook slowly as her eye quivered. Her shaking hands grasped her blouse and crumbled it over her chest...

"No, no, you're wrong. I'm a normal human being. T-they're just hallucinations, or natural div--"

Even though Kannon's breaths were beginning to fail, her reactions insisted on denying Shirayuki, on continuing to declare the impossibility of those words...

"Well, they are natural divination, in a sense of the term," Shirayuki answered as she finally stopped in one spot and turned towards Kannon with perplexed eyes. "They're natural to you because it's your inherent ability. After all, you're the most powerful diviner ever created by humankind--"

"N-no! I-I'm not!"

"--You're the Arvitor of the 2nd, the 2nd Scion of The Imperium Project..."

"T-that's impossible!"

Shirayuki's examining gaze took in a girl who trembled as uncontrollably as her voice, whose sweating hands covered her eyes, whose breathed through rapid, pulsing gasps that failed to pull in any air. The redhead's eyes suddenly widened in horrifying realization as they watched Kannon hyperventilate...

"That's... just not...!"

Without hesitation, Shirayuki crouched down to envelope Kannon into a warm, but not too tight embrace.

"Burst Aura Emanate, Tranquility!"

Magical light, the same apple-red color as Shirayuki's hair, washed over the room. Within an instant, Kannon could feel it sweeping aside her agitation and fear, calming her emotions and returning her thoughts to a steady state. Her mental focus redoubled its efforts with the help, crushing down upon unwanted thoughts with an iron fist.

"Breath, slowly."

Kannon's breaths gradually slowed, lungs inhaling deeply as Shirayuki's hand gently stroked her back...

There's no way I will accept something so absurd... No way...


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


Neither of them knew how many minutes, or dozens of minutes, passed before Kannon's breath smoothed out again.

"Feeling better?" Shirayuki asked with a still-worried voice as Kannon met her gaze, where a genuine mix of concern, surprise, and regret still shone.

The younger girl nodded slowly.

"Y-yes, I think. Thank you. B-but... just so you know... calming me down isn't going to make me accept your rushed presumptions."

"Right, right," Shirayuki sighed as she sat back down on the bed next to Kannon. "My apologies. You're right, I could be wrong. It's only a theory after all. I can't prove either result until we perform some serious DNA tests on you."

Liar.

Kannon could tell easily: Shirayuki held absolutely zero belief that she could possibly be wrong.

But she can't be right.

Kannon forced a faint smile back onto her face and nodded to accept the older girl's apology. She agreed with Shirayuki about one part -- they could deal with all that another day, and she felt sure that the results would prove the redhead wrong... almost certain.

"Do you still want to know about the Arvitor Scions then?"

Well... as long as we have that understanding, I still want to know what she's talking about.

Kannon knew that her emotions weren't completely under control yet. But there was a pressing sense of curiosity that she could not ignore, an inexplicable desire to find out more about Shirayuki and others alike.

"Yes, please."

After all, it was her who killed Korey...

Kannon instantly realized her miserable excuse failed to convince even herself.

...Me, revenge? Who am I kidding.

"I'll explain from the start then."

Shirayuki took a deep breath and closed her eyes for a second before launching into her monologue:

"It began as a part of The Imperium Project, which was a magical genetic engineering project started during the final years of the Avalonian Dominion. House Sylvestris, one of the Nine Archmagi Families, started it when they realized that the social problems plaguing the Dominion could not be solved without a major structural reform."

"The project's ambition sought to bring forth the ancient idealism of Philosopher Kings into reality as a counterbalance to the flaws of shortsightedness inherent to Representative government -- since bureacrats voted by popular election mostly cared for immediate results to boost popularity during their term years, ignoring social and infrastructural projects that pay slow dividends but are invaluable to long-term growth. Basically, the project was a vision to create what they hoped to be the 'perfect form of governance' by merging the visionary decisiveness of Enlightened Absolutism with the balanced moderation of Representative Republics, hoping to bring out the best of both."

Philosophy and politics were hardly Kannon's forte, but she knew the accepted belief that no methodology was anywhere near perfect on its own. Combining multiple models to round out the weaknesses was common practice.

But... merging democracy with dictatorship? How would such a contradiction work?

"In addition to House Sylvestris, the project was assisted by six other branches of the Nine Archmagi Families. After decades of work, they gave birth to the original seven Arcane Servitors, named so because they were supposed to be the ideal set of advisers to both select and support a truly enlightened monarch. Amongst them was my mother, the first Aura Dominion and Arvitor of the 6th."

Isn't mother's maiden name Viviane Sylvestris?

Kannon quickly pushed the thought aside -- they had already decided to tackle that at a later date.

"Then the term Arvitor--"

"It came from us. All the others were just magical-genetically modified humans, which the public shortened to Genies; although even from the start it was used derogatorily. Almost all human descendents in Avalon were genetically altered one way or another to survive the initial colonization effort. Why does it matter whether the modifications were magical or not?"

Shirayuki shrugged off her rising agitation before continuing on.

"But the revolutions brought an end to the Dominion before the project's scions even grew up. With the destruction of the Nine Archmagi Families and the rest of upper magical society, the entire project met a premature end. However, all seven Arvitors were said to have survived the war. Since our genetic modifications were designed for dynastic passage, our lineages will continue."

All genetic engineering passed down, but the gene pool diluted most of them within only a few generations. Kannon figured that either this one didn't, or simply not as quickly...

"In addition to having tremendous magical affinity, built-in longevity treatments, and purposely enhanced mental pathways, each of the Arvitor's magically conductive nerve circuitry was manipulated to form a special spell array. It provided an inherent magical ability equivalent to a Grand Sorcery -- leading to a powerful magical affinity -- that should, in some way, support the executive order of governance. The Eternal Chronicle, for example, is our strongest diviner."

Kannon almost rolled her eyes in disbelief.

"So... don't tell me, is Eternal supposed to have foresight or something?"

"Foresight?" the redhead raised an eyebrow. "How is that supposed to be useful? Congratulations, you finally broke the time barrier -- which is taboo, by the way -- and discovered one of countless possible futures forged from infinite permutations of choices in the upcoming decisions; your knowledge is now more likely to spark the wrong assumption and lead to a fatal mistake... No. What you... Eternal has is far more powerful given any well-applied intellect: it's called Perfect Hindsight."

Seeing Kannon's frown, Shirayuki gave a knowing smile:

"Yes, I know 'hindsight is twenty-twenty' and all that. But comeon, what's the most powerful, most valuable resource in the galaxy?"

"Information." Kannon didn't even blink before giving the answer any business-woman knew by heart.

"Precisely. Now consider if one can access any information in the known universe as long as it's in the past -- four microseconds old is past too -- as long as one can connect two of who, when, where, and has the capacity to observe and comprehend it."

Shirayuki paused to let her explanation sink in. Her amused smile grew steadily as Kannon's eyes widened like she just solved the riddle of life.

The availability of information is a fundamental restraint in every field of study; without that...

"Oh we still have limitations," Shirayuki added as though reading Kannon's thoughts. "Like I said, capacity to observe and understand: stars are always visible, but merely staring at it never taught anyone the secrets of fusion. There's also the fact Eternal's magic is fueled and limited by her ether supply, just like the rest of us. Eternal Chronicle's magic is just a more efficient means of acquiring information; it's not omniscience."

Kannon almost felt disappointed... almost. As tempting as omniscience was, she had no doubt that Shirayuki's last sentence could easily be exchanged for 'Eternal Chronicle is just a tool...' As a normal human being, there was no way she would want to inherit such a role.

"Information, communications, relations, direct operations, etcetera, each of us brings an important role to create an ideal leadership team. The path of kingship is lonely and isolated individuals are prone to err, but that's what we're here for. Aegis Paramount, Eternal Chronicle, Infinite Junction, Holy Judgment, Duality Order, Aura Dominion, and Spirit Nexus..." Shirayuki listed as she counted them off with her fingers, "that makes all seven of us."

Impressive sounding set of names, prophesied to become the merry band of adventurers that will save the world, no doubt.

"There is a legend among our people which claims that whoever unites the seven Arvitor Scions and gain their support will re-unify the Avalonian Republic." A smile stretched across her small mouth as her eyes sparkled. "What they don't know is how close to truth they actually are~"

"And you just accept it that easily?"

Shirayuki shrugged.

"For those with goals and dreams, having special abilities and carrying responsibilities is always better than not. We all seek to refine ourselves. In war, to uphold our beliefs. In peace, to live out our desires. Only those without true goals, true meaning in their lives, would seek mediocrity and normality."

Shirayuki spoke so casually, as though her words were natural, common sense that anyone would say without a doubt. Yet they also pierced Kannon's thoughts like needles.

I'm normal... right?

But normality did not necessarily equate mediocrity. Kannon worked throughout her life so her skills and achievements could stand above the crowd and speak for themselves; that was special in it's own way.

Then... can I take that extra step to accept some more?

"Mediocrity and powerlessness is the worst frustration one could feel, and I've cursed my birth far more than I could count for not being born elite, with the opportunity to do something about it all."

Kannon didn't think too much about Korey's words at that time. But now his voice replayed itself in her mind, bringing back ill feelings once more.

"...And let me guess -- you want me to join you?"

"Correct~"

I can't believe what I'm hearing...

Annoyance and something akin to anger flared within Kannon as she continued.

"Even though I'm not the Arvitor you're looking for?"

"There is a chance of that. But even if you weren't, we could still use your expertise from the old world."

The nerve of her to ask immediately after...

"...And what make you think I would join someone who just murdered my comrades one night prior?"

Shirayuki froze at the younger girl's challenge, caught completely off-guard. Then, her surprised eyes hardened as her firm voice responded:

"I have no regrets for ridding the world of terrorists who cared nothing for human lives."

Kannon knew she needed to calm down. That showing this level of hostility in her position was like asking to get killed. But her emotions didn't care for that a bit as they plowed on.

"Aren't you the same?"

Anger flashed in Shirayuki's eyes before she forced them close and sighed.

"In the eye of the beholder, I guess... But charades and pretensions aside, I don't believe you have much of a choice, milady."


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


Kannon took a slice of wood-fired strawberry jam 'pizza' and a bowl of winter melon soup from the counter. She gave thanks to the cook and promptly left the kitchen for her room.

It would be easier to just eat at the large, adjacent dining room, but she wasn't in the mood for further introductions today; nor did she wish to deal with the murmurs and stares of the other Ecliptic Mikos who also ate there.

Some data browsing taught her that the 'miko' were Shinto shrine maidens from old Japan -- priestesses of a pagan religion, to be more exact. Shirayuki's 'Miko-Hime' wasn't a historical title though; it meant something like 'shrine princess', but there really wasn't a mirror word in English. It was the reason why the Comm Ring didn't translate ranks half the time. Unless a direct translation was available, cramming exotic ranks into common ones was likely to cause confusion later in regards to identification and responsibilities.

In either case, Kannon didn't dislike the Ecliptic Mikos or their leader. She hardly had any rights to preach ethics when she was involved in a black operation herself merely hours ago. Besides, they were an organization who focused mostly on military targets while striving to free their own people, the Arvitors, from slavery... Anyone could sympathize with such a noble goal.

She understood that Korey was also a terrorist, and that Shirayuki was also a soldier. She had killed an enemy on the battlefield with all the swiftness of a professional. There was nothing personal about it.

But Korey was a comrade and a friend, and Kannon couldn't help but direct her contempt towards Shirayuki.

Yet despite Kannon's open hostility, Shirayuki still treated her kindly. The Miko-Hime even allowed her to freely roam the compound as long as she didn't try to escape. Shirayuki had guaranteed her safety while Kannon... thought her options through.

Options? I have any?

Kannon thought about how much of a farce her request was.

But even if she was to agree, Shirayuki's offer was based upon the certainty that Kannon was the 2nd Arvitor...

Since there's no way that's true, will her decision still hold once we confirm the facts?

Kannon couldn't but help wonder if Arkadi had assumed the exact same thing... Was that the real reason why the Captain continued to protect her, to entrust her with responsibilities, to hold faith in her future even after he realized that she was but a college student?

The answer felt obvious. She had merely been avoiding it.

For the Captain who didn't bat an eye when he killed his teammate, who didn't show the slightest misgiving for nuking an entire city block, who spoke of genocide without an ounce of hesitation...

Everyone in the world was just another disposable tool. Everyone... including himself.

Kannon saw how Captain Arkadi treated his subordinates with respect and took it upon himself to minimize the risks. But in retrospect, even that was more like 'treasuring capital assets' than bonding with comrades. He took care of them the same way one would maintain critical equipment. But when the situation called upon it, decisions would always fall back on one simple rule -- equipment, no matter how valuable, could be discarded and replenished later. In the end, even the members of his own, personally-lead team were no more than sets of numbers, attributes, and skills.

...And those under his command knew it as well, if Haidar's disgusted glare aboard the Hadrian was any indication.

Yet, Kannon couldn't blame Arkadi. How could he be expected to form human bonds, to seek camaraderie when he saw even himself as just another sacrifice in the overall plan?

It was likely that Arkadi had cast aside his humanity ever since that fateful day eighteen years ago -- the day when he walked into a restaurant intending to take revenge for his parents, but walked out as a pawn of their murderer. He had discarded his pride, his conscience, his past... He had betrayed his very self, all for an opportunity to a plan that would evolve into his own form of ultimate justice.

But...

Even if it was pessimistically realistic, even if the end really did justify the means, could ethical considerations of consequentialism and utilitarianism even hold up when applied to atrocities as heinous as genocide?

Kannon couldn't answer that. It was not her place to debate upon ethics through the lives of others.

But what she did know, was that his plans had a disastrous flaw, one that any student of management and strategy could point out:

Arkadi seeks to rectify the world through villainy, through fear.

Fear sustains nothing... least of all growth and improvement.

Kannon considered fear as only a temporary suppressant and deterrent at best. But the long run, fear, like all other negativity, could only undermine progress, reverse gains, and ultimately rip apart any organization, be it a team, a company, or a nation. It was basic managerial knowledge to utilize positive reinforcement to achieve lasting improvement, as reliance on negatives like punishment will only sow distrust and discord.

"Lead by example, not by force" -- the words of Sun Tzu, restated countless times over the centuries by generals, statesmen, and philosophers alike, highlighted the very foundation of guidance and leadership.

Society, like all others, could not be forced to take the right path. It could only be shown, and Kannon shuddered to imagine how a society rebuilt through fear and anguish would turn out.

Captain Arkadi is digging himself deeper into a hole that none could climb out from...

Having returned to her room before she even realized it, Kannon laid her dinner tray onto the table and rushed back out.

She didn't understand why, but her worries over Arkadi kept popping back into her mind. Maybe it was because she still had a debt to repay; because regardless of his motivations, he did save her life from hell. Yet there was still one thing she could do for him.

"This is your only chance to correct your mistake. Failure will not be tolerated."

The words of Marshal Comorus were no mere threat, but a decree that threatened to close Arkadi's path.

A shiver went up her spine as Kannon relived how blatantly, how stupidly she approached him later that same night.

The world is no fairy tale. Empathic words alone mean nothing. Belief must be applied alongside action and force -- me forcing him to choose an alternative...

Kannon didn't understand how, but she felt like her instincts knew which direction she could find Shirayuki in. She decided it was time to give the Miko-Hime a reply, or rather, a proposal of her own.

She dashed up a flight of stairs, down a long corridor, and past several Ecliptics who stopped in surprise. Her instincts led her to a gate at the end of the hallway. She then commanded it to open through her implants, despite the presence of a blast door that signified the importance of the room beyond.

To Kannon's surprise, the gate actually opened. A large, traditional Japanese-style room laid beyond, complete with tatami mats and shoji-decorated walls. In the center of the room, the three leaders of the Eclipse sat on their heels in formal seiza posture: Shirayuki plus two of her lieutenants -- a late-teens young lady with short spring-green hair whose sharp, grass-green glare instantly turned to focused on Kannon; the other in her twenties, with cream-white hair that descended down her back to reach the floor and a gracious smile under her closed eyes. All three of them also wore what passed as the organization's casual uniform, which looked exactly like the traditional uniforms of the Shinto shrine maidens except in varying skirt colors.

Kannon found herself short of breath as she came to a stop. Her mind rushed itself to finish preparing the words she would so desperately need in another few seconds...

Shirayuki herself hadn't even bothered to open her eyes as she calmly finished her drink. Her gaze then focused itself upon the teacup as she lowered it back onto the floor before shifting towards Kannon with an encouraging smile.

"I take it you've reached a decision."

Kannon steeled her best negotiation face and nodded.

"I'm not sure how much help I can be, but I'll accept your offer -- except I do have one condition."

Shirayuki nodded, beckoning Kannon to continue.

"I request your aid to save Arkadi Kernow... no, Arkadi Simarshall, now Commandant of the 1st District Black Hand special ops."

Surprise spread across the trio as eyes widened and eyebrows raised, but none of them voiced a single unnecessary word.

"May I ask just how you plan to achieve this?"

Kannon took one more deep breath before presenting her proposal to Shirayuki:

"Provide assistance to Kayeten Hans-Rudel of the 3rd District. Crush Arkadi's next operation and capture him."




Chapter 12 - The Undeclared Triumvirate

The dimly-lit room erupted from a tiny hole to fill Kannon's vision. The hum of mechanical rotors resounded from the shadowy corners of the ceiling as thin rays of targeting lasers homed in upon the newcomers from heavily armed auto-turrets.

Teleportation is bad enough. But to find myself on the wrong end of a barrel half the times I teleport is even worse...

"Stand down!" A crisp voice called out from behind them.

Kannon spun around and met eye-to-eye with a young lady no older than twenty in appearance -- just under thirty in actuality -- standing before the passage to an equally dim hallway. She was around one-seventy-six (5'9") in height and average of build, clad in white archaic plate armor with a golden cross pattee engraved across the chest. A white tunic laid under her armor, billowing out below her cuirass like a skirt and reaching down towards her greaves-protected knees. Framed by hazelnut hair that was pinned back on one side and cascaded elegantly down her shoulders, her facial features were soft and cute with a touch of lingering childishness. Yet her wary rose-colored eyes examined the new arrivals like a hawk before turning towards Shirayuki, still stern but softening considerably to match as she gave a perfect salute.

"Miko-Hime Shirayuki, Jiguang Shitai, welcome to Chateau de Falaise. May I see your identi-EEEK!"

Her face flushed crimson as her entire body jolted.

"Still want the ID Linnaea? Or can we skip the formalities?"

Linnaea glared daggers at Shirayuki, who smiled back innocently, whimsical light dancing in her eyes.

"I told you to stop harassing people through their auras!"

"Not people, just you~" Shirayuki said like it's the most natural thing in the world.

"W-what is that suppose to make me!"

"A cute sensitive soul who's fun to tease~"

"I am not here for your enjoyment!"

"Relax, I'm just helping you loosen up a bit. You were making me feel like some political emissary."

Linnaea's lips quivered several more times before she sighed in resignation. As Shirayuki stepped up and patted her on the spaulders, a smile finally tugged at the edges of her mouth. It was awkward, yet it still fit her far more naturally than her strict look.

"I was under the impression that diplomacy was exactly what you came here to do."

Shirayuki tilted her head and shrugged.

"Let's hope it doesn't come to that ~ and thanks for setting this up on short notice under such circumstances; knew I could count on you~"

"T-thank you, but I am just doing my job."

Linnaea's response was stiff, but even its formality couldn't hide her bashfulness as her cheeks deepened and her eyes averted away, albeit just barely.

Shirayuki's knowing grin spoke louder than words: this was exactly the response she sought.

Knight of noble upbringing, meet the party tease... Kannon thought. Oh wait you're already close friends, boring.

"Oh, and you can just call her Aurora," Shirayuki casually introduced, "it's far more comfortable than your German-ese anyway~"

Kannon found Linnaea's attempt at Chinese to be fairly decent, despite her obvious German accent. But the knight nevertheless nodded apologetically to Aurora.

Abbess (direct translation of Shitai) Han Rong was the leader of the Mahayana Buddhist nuns within the Eclipse, which made up roughly half of their personnel. Because most Chinese names were notoriously difficult to pronounce for people who grew up on English as the primary language, many simply called her Aurora. It was a literal translation of her courtesy name Jiguang, which was like a middle name that often substituted one's given name upon reaching adulthood.

Kannon thought the nickname was appropriate too. Aurora's cream-white hair flowed past her thin waist, which only added to her white robes, wispy figure, and pale, beautiful complexion -- she would almost look like a snow spirit had not for the red hakama skirt. Aurora was also the tallest there at one-seventy-eight (5'10"). Her expression always had a serene and pleasant smile on, but she never opened her eyes and rarely spoke unless asked.

It was interesting how her mainstream Buddhists and Shirayuki's Shinto-Buddhists could coexist so easily within a single pseudo-religious organization -- a sign of tolerance not usually found within Western faiths. Although when Kannon asked why the nuns adopted the Japanese shrine maiden attire, Aurora simply responded that "shaving one's head is too unfashionable for recruitment" -- which Kannon agreed wholeheartedly with.

"...And forgive me, but whom would you be?" Linnaea's examining eyes pulled Kannon back to the present.

Shirayuki had asked Kannon to wear her old uniform instead of the Eclipse's robes. Although the redhead insisted, almost obsessively, on magically dyeing the blouse and skirt from white lines on black to black on white.

"Kannon Reginbrandt," Shirayuki interjected before the actual person could respond. "Bit complicated, but you can take my word that she has important information for Sidika."

Linnaea wasn't quite satisfied, but she nodded in acceptance anyways.

"In that case, please follow me."

She turned around and headed into the windowless hall with damp, chipped walls, passing by two other auxilia and another Knight of the Cross just outside. As she went, Kannon's eyes were drawn to the eyecatching apparatus on her back. It was a golden cross, the size of a large kite shield, with black trimmed edges and a black eagle crest in the center. The way she wore it was tilted, with a saber handle lodged into the top of the cross, which protruded out from above her right shoulder for easy reach. Two lines of runic writing were engraved in different languages just above the eagle crest.

Helfen, Wehren, Heilen.

"Help, Defend, Heal," Shirayuki translated as Kannon's focused curiosity deciphered the Fraktur script over the channel. "German motto of the Teutonic Knights of Old Terra."

"What about Etiamsi omnes, ego non?"

"Latin for 'even if all others, I will not' -- the need for independent moral judgment. You can tell the Order of the Golden Cross takes great pride in their history, which can be traced wayyyy-way back to the Medieval Ages of Old Terra, supposedly having joined the crusading Teutonic Order to avoid prosecution."

"In Avalonian history they're known for the so-called 'Bureaucratic Inquisition'. Meant well, but was too weak and broke their coffers for a while instead. They defected in whole during the revolution and mostly avoided the purges afterward. The Cross Order was formally recognized as the third knightly order after their alliance with Sidika's 3rd District during her crackdown and administrative reform, saving her from not only assassinations but also foiling a coup. Yet after all that they're still the weakest of the main knightly orders."

Kannon hadn't cast aside her contempt for Shirayuki over Korey's death. However, an odd sense of gratitude was quickly gaining ground within her. It was hard not to when Shirayuki has been tremendously helpful and friendly despite Kannon's attitudes, and it only made her feel guilty towards both sides. On one hand Kannon knew she was being unfair and that Shirayuki deserved better; yet at the same time she felt as though she was betraying Korey's memories.

"You could say that Marshal Sidika is a reformer by nature, proven by past deeds in reducing the wealth gap of the 3rd District. However, she's very autocratic and somewhat of a tyrant at that, so it's hard to say what she wants out of everything. The Cross Order has a tradition of taking ethics very seriously, so I consider their support for her a vote of confidence. But you never know in politics," Shirayuki shrugged.

"Wouldn't that kind of historical consistency give the order a decent reputation?" Kannon found it closer to the other way around based on her reading, even if they were 1st District documents.

"Text history is easily changed and most people won't care enough to dig far. The Seventh Cross didn't help either, even if they pretended it was a rogue branch."

"...Pretended?"

"Horseradish for public deniability. They're sanctioned. We're walking right behind one~"

"You mean she's a terrorist?" Kannon blurted out, mentally -- and thankfully.

"Isn't that great? She's exactly the same as you, not to mention the rest of us, right?" Aurora's voice was as friendly as ever, but the overwhelming pressure behind it effortlessly sent a shiver up Kannon's back.

"I'm sorry Ma'am... I'll be more considerate."

Even though Kannon couldn't see Shirayuki's face since the redhead walked in front of her and Aurora, she could sense Shirayuki chuckling silently before continuing on:

"Few know with all the record cover-ups, but Linnaea Tesarik is both a Seventh Cross ops leader and the daughter of Cross Knights Grand Master Atanas Guderian. With that kind of connection, you can be sure of where the leadership stands~"

Kannon raised her eyebrows at the sensitive information:

"Are you allies?"

"Not quite, but yes. Though this was from that one time when I got Parzival drunk~" Shirayuki's humored voice was oddly filled with pride. "Ah, that would be Holy Judgment Parzival Staufen, the Seventh Cross Komtur and--"

"I apologize in advance for the accommodations in which the Marshal shall receive you in."

Linnaea's firm voice interrupted the chat over the communication ring as they passed yet another set of retracting blast doors and into a corridor of exposed gray ceramicrete. The descent continued into what was obviously the fortified bunker of an old military base.

"Chateau de Falaise had lay abandoned since the Revolutionary War and was only reactivated months ago. The new command bunker we are in has yet to finish, but it is also the only secure and sufficiently private complex the 2nd District would lend us. We created some furnishings by nano-fabrication, but the Marshal forbid any further decoration given the, ardor, in which Colonel Hans-Rudel took upon the task."

"That's fine~ It'll be just like camping out... underground."

Shirayuki replied just before a final set of reinforced gates began to open, revealing a strangely contrasting room. Its exposed ceramicrete walls and floors were bared like an unfurnished basement, but a richly decorated rug filled most of the room. The round table and chairs sitting on top, while simple in materials, were meticulously detailed. It was as though everything was made by a poor artist who lacked materials but invested creative aspiration in abundance.

Only one person sat at the table, and Kannon immediately recognized the soft black curls, copper-brown skin, and crimson-red eyes as the image of Marshal Sidika. Despite being well into her thirties, which meant she was probably over a hundred years of actual age, Sidika Krivoshein had a firm, well-endowed figure that would easily pass for a model was she somewhat taller. Her deep eyes, soft nose, and fair lips formed a perfect mixture between Northern European and Middle-Eastern traits. The large red garnet that decorated her elegant hair bun accentuated her grace and beauty, as though a dark red rose in full bloom. A devilish smile which seemed to perpetuate as her natural expression only made her more enticing.

Two auxilia guards and another knight, in gold-on-white tunic rather than armor, stood by the walls, flanking her from opposite corners of the hexagon room. Their postures quickly stiffened and their expressions turned unreadable upon the door's opening. The fifth and last person was leaning back against a chair before he swiveled around and smoothed out his black-trimmed-crimson uniform to perfection with a single passing tug.

Short, neatly-trimmed golden hair, emerald-green eyes brimming with energy, and a boyishly handsome face; Kayeten Hans-Rudel looked far better in person than on hologram. He had a one-eighty-six (6'3") tall and firm build of an old Terra Scandinavian that compromised between strength and grace. His dazzling smile felt unrestrained and infectious, despite being quickly summoned over the still fading light of worried concern in his eyes. Like Arkadi, he looked just under twenty years of age, and probably less than thirty in reality.

"Star-Marshal Sidika Krivoshein, Colonel Kayeten Hans-Rudel, may I introduce Miko-Hime Shirayuki Kaguya, Jiguang Shitai Han Rong, and Kannon Reginbrandt of the Moonlit Eclipse."

Linnaea did her best to pronounce the organization's formal Japanese name Nisshoku Getsumei, yet the ring decided to translate anyway. She then gave a knightly salute, right arm bent and hand held before her chest, before stepping aside.

Sidika was in motion the instant Linnaea finished. Her eyes focused upon the newcomers, assessing with intense interest as she made her way swiftly around the table:

"It's an honor to meet you in person, Princess Kaguya. I've heard--"

The crisp sound of impact came from the right-side chair just as Sidika neared it. Her eyes twitched, her cheek jerked, and her step staggered for the slightest second...

Kannon watched in astonishment as one of the three most powerful people on this side of the universe just walked into a chair.

Then Sidika's amused expression and impish smile returned, flawless. Even her soft soprano voice did not falter for a pause:

"--Much about you from the Cross Order."

"Definitely going with that idea~"

Shirayuki sent as she stepped up and shook Sidika's offered hand before the Marshal could step on her foot. She then gave Sidika a friendly pat on the shoulders...

Kannon's stomach began tying itself in knots.

"Shirayuki is fine, Sidika. The honor is all mine, and to you as well, Kayeten," Shirayuki turned towards him with an apologetic smile and nodded. "I take back what I said in the gateport four days ago; you're a dedicated man for opposing me given past circumstances."

The smile froze on Kayeten's face as his eyes widened at the implications.

Even Sidika raised her eyebrows, before her grin grew into a faint smirk.

"Your reputation certainly does precede you."

"Only the good ones~"

Kannon could almost hear a wink in the Miko-Hime's playful voice.

"Let me introduce you to my second-in-command Aurora, whom your intel dossiers phonically erred 'Frost Laser' from her Chinese name; albeit not incorrectly so, after she razed an entire base--"

The guards, already suspicious of the alien redhead before them, entered paranoia mode instantly.

"--And my tac witch Kannon, who was a cute prisoner I managed to capture from the Black Prince just the other day when he tried to kill you; had to make do with her uniform though, since I hadn't enough time to design an adorable new outfit--"

The ace colonel, despite his full recovery in expression, relapsed into stunned shock.

"--In any way, our wish today is but a simple one -- we offer you an edict of alliance."

The military dictator's mask of calm, honed by decades of political experience, fell to the floor and shattered.

And Kannon, who had never been informed of her promotion from prison-of-war until now, discovered for the first time how hard it was to fulfill the urge of crawling into a hole to die when half her upbringing had just been violated by a careless torrent of words.

Then, just to prove that the impossible was not over, Shirayuki continued on to break every rule of diplomatic contact known to humankind.


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


Kannon found it weird watching the supreme commander across the table pinch and stretch her own cheeks before asking in a still-bewildered-but-at-least-humored tone:

"So now that we know reality hasn't collapsed -- what are you here for again?"

"A-lli-ance," Shirayuki accentuated, fingers gesturing.

Shirayuki's relentless verbal ambush had battered down the barriers of formality with shocking alacrity. By now the three of them, including Kayeten, were almost joking with each other like old friends. There was obviously still some mutual understanding issues, but the growth of solidarity was astounding.

"So really -- who are you? And what have you done with the real Shirayuki?" the Marshal teased. Then in all seriousness, with a touch of exasperation: "I was told again and again, complained to and pestered even, that the Eclipse refused to forge pacts even with natural allies."

"Atanas?" Shirayuki's head tilted as she raised the Cross Knights' Grand Master's name. Sidika nodded, and the younger redhead shrugged back, covering her own vexation with nonchalance:

"I still won't sign with him. True allies don't need an alliance, no more than true friends need asking, or true lovers a marriage. They're already thinking of one another where it serves. Anything more on top is but a necessity for the insecure, a formality for appearances. Besides, his conservative half certainly doesn't need another rope for making demands upon me."

The contents flowed like tenants of wisdom, yet her simple, matter-of-fact speech made it only worse as her words pierced straight into Kannon's chest like needles. They called forth memories of vanity, of when Kannon sought and received recognition for her skills, of silence and depression during times without.

Kannon felt agreement, dissent, surprise, anguish, regret... all of it topped off by admiration followed closely by a growing sense of inferiority.

She declared herself like it was nothing, denying commonality without even worrying about others' thoughts of her beliefs.

Yet on the other side, Sidika smiled with relief, as though sanity was restored in completion once more. After all, there was no reason for Shirayuki to trust her, and therefore this alliance was necessary.

"Nevertheless, Shirayuki, not everyone is nigh-perfect like you. Consider it before universally applying your standards."

It was Aurora's first words since entering the room, blunt yet passed in tranquil serenity, with a hint of motherly pride, as the white lady continued to gently swirl the teacup in her lithe hands, eyes closed and undirected.

The younger redhead mulled it over, like an adolescent receiving wisdom from her elder. Then, she gave a strangely-tilted nod that simultaneously shrugged it off.

Kayeten chuckled as he smoothly put his teacup back down without the slightest sound:

"Still, there is a simple elegance in the unrestrained lifestyle. Quite charming for a beautiful woman as yourself, and certainly befitting of the flawless will blessed by your name, Lunar Princess Snow White."

"Awww your famous pick-up lines are so sweet~! But this is a bid for military fraternization, not proposal for political matrimony."

"I solemnly swear no such motivations were involved! I merely wished to admire a truth of nature."

Kayeten's brilliant white smile returned to its full charm as his emerald eyes twinkled with mischief.

"Besides, there's already a beautiful young lady in this room who had captured my heart's devotion."

For a brief second Kannon thought Kayeten looked at her, then realized his focus was further away, towards the knight Linnaea who still stood by the wall behind them. Kannon could almost feel the pressure building up behind her, held back from steaming fury by sheer determination as smug amusement danced in the Colonel's eyes.

Sidika surveyed the whole scene like a much-amused parent about to speak of 'the joys of youth' before she forced a return to the topic:

"Hostilities have been building up gradually over the past two decades. I believe open conflict will likely befall Avalon within another. It's certainly advantageous for me to support the enemy of my foes, but first I must ask: just how far are you willing to support us?"

"By the power of Aura Dominion, two-way open sharing of all non-cloistered intelligence, and strategic coordination with 3DHQ."

Sidika nodded in acceptance, "and your primary demands?"

"Revolutionary support and cessation of interdiction -- we won't jumpstart the first until you're ready, and I'm sure you can find plenty of excuses not to get in the way of our operations within the 3rd District."

"Reasonable, assuming the coordination of information," Sidika agreed. "Is that all though?"

"On the strategic level. I'm sure my subordinates would demand plenty more, justly so as well," Shirayuki sent back a knowing smile. "I don't intend to, but I don't think I need to highlight the obvious request, as untimely as it would be."

"Understood," Sidika replied as her poker face returned.

It took several moments before Kannon realized what Shirayuki spoke of: the 3rd District used Arvitor Crystals -- and therefore practiced Arvitor slavery -- just like the rest of the Avalonian Republic. It was the first old-school negotiations trick Shirayuki pulled: Sidika could either choose to deal with the Miko-Hime's easy, reasonable terms, or discuss with the Eclipse's less strategically-minded but more demanding lieutenants, who would harbor no qualms when considering the 3rd District as their enemy.

"And... we also need a specified opportunity~"

Shirayuki wink-nodded at Kannon, passing the proverbial baton.

"We wish to use the current situation to bait -- although he'll find here even without leaking info -- and to capture Arkadi Simarshall, the Black Prince and Commandant of the 1st District Black Hand."

Kayeten twitched like he just had a heart attack; his eyes now analyzed Kannon with increasing wariness and curious uncertainty. Meanwhile Sidika's eyebrows vanished into her bangs, gazing intently as though the young girl was some strange alien creature that was impossible to identify.

Long, long seconds dragged by in stunned silence...

Then, both of their eyes sprang wide a second time in surprised recognition.

"Hey! That's cheating, stop sync'ing your senses with Infinite Junction!" Shirayuki called them out with mocked outrage.

"Not cheating is not trying hard enough -- that, would be disrespectful," grinned Kayeten.

"And isn't it unfair for you to hold back something like this?" Sidika answered, as her eyes continuing their uncomfortable focus on Kannon. "How's the eye."

It was Kannon's turn for astonishment this time as she realized what they sought after: Infinite Junction was the title of the 3rd Arvitor of the project; between him (or her) and Holy Judgment, the 3rd District had support from two of seven Arvitors. Aura Dominion would make three...

Nausea rose within Kannon's stomach at the way they stared at her... like adventurers who just found an ancient artifact, key to the lost Atlantis.

"Do you want another laurel for the crown that badly?" She forced out in a dry whisper.

Not to mention they're also wrong. I'm not...

Kayeten lit up a sad, sympathetic smile. "Just surprised, mostly; but my apologies."

"Not a chance for me," Sidika spoke firmly, stern eyes still trained on Kannon. "The 'Republic' needs Quinctius Cincinnatus, not Julius Caesar. Three decades of reformation, if the system could even work, is all I'll consider. If the Arvitors' powers may lessen the blood shed by my soldiers and the toil upon our worlds through the transition period, then of course I desire it -- I'd be a fool not to. But I have no need for a laurel."

Three eyes held their connections between two individuals, and Kannon saw the look of an executive considering the value of a potential asset...

It was a look that Kannon knew well. There were many managers who looked upon an interviewee and saw only benefits and costs, skills and deficiencies, not... a possible comrade who they could share their endeavors with.

Don't look at me like that--

As Kannon had the self-respect of a human being, she wanted to at least be seen as a person. Yet to the people of Avalon, who gazed upon Arvitors as faeries found within crystals, batteries to power their starships and other wondrous construction...

It was a sickening feel.

How does Shirayuki stand it?

Her reflexive thought came out too strongly and went over the channel. It was answered by the person in question:

"Because my actions are known far and wide. Methods and choices that define me as a person speaks far more than mere classifications or appearances. Past, responsibility, and goals -- not just usefulness and skills -- that's what makes me normal to them."

Useful. Skillful.

But they were among recognition that Kannon sought the most. Were they wrong? Maybe it was like a Resume, a Curriculum Vitae: the more defined one's past responsibilities and future goals, the more irreplaceable one's value as a being within the company -- not just a passive asset, but an active driving force.

"We're only judged by our origins until we take control of our own lives with our own actions," Aurora added, with Shirayuki nodding in agreement.

Of course, but that's why I need to prove myself, to overcome the doubts of others.

"It matters not what others say, it matters only what you believe. The moment you let another's degradation or doubt reach you, is the moment you mark your own failure."

As her mother's words resounded within, Kannon realized that maybe she was still wrong, still missing something. Maybe it was their doubt that she should have cast aside completely in the first place. To reach for herself, not prove for others.

Easier said than done.

"Yet three decades? Is that how long she wants us for? ...And who is Cincinnatus?"

"Thirty years is the Sovereign's minimum term of service per original Imperium Project specification. Cincinnatus is an Roman Senator from Old Earth; twice granted supreme power of dictatorship, he held it for not a day longer than necessary each, in stark contrast to Caesar who effectively overthrew the Republic to establish imperial power. Don't worry about them for now; take a deep breath first."

Shirayuki then switched to open voice:

"I can't give you the support I don't have, nor the understanding that we have yet to reach; that still needs time."

Sidika frowned oddly... and considered it... and mulled it over. Her focus kept on Kannon the entire time. Then, without hesitation:

"No."

"Mother--"

Sidika's crimson eyes cut off Kayeten's disapproving voice with a single glare, intense enough to scorch metal, let alone a rebellious subordinate.

Shirayuki looked from Kannon to Sidika with a worried scowl and sighed.

"Why?"

"Riddle me this first, what's your wish?"

"World optimization, of course," Shirayuki answered with all pride and no hesitation.

But Sidika's eyes were locked with Kannon's.

"I meant what's your wish?"

Kannon's thoughts froze instantly...

To help Arkadi back? To survive? To go back to my old world?

She doubted any of those would be a useful answer for Sidika.

What else--?

"Tell me, what do you think is the one most significant trait of an officer?" Sidika asked again.

...Leadership to organize others and earn respect? Rationality to discard misconceptions and appropriate judgments? Decisiveness to respond to and seize control of situations?

Kannon didn't know much about combat. But be it corporate management or field command, the roles of leadership had much in common. Picking a few was a classic interview question, but exactly which one? The specifications of the job would be of vital importance: charisma and responsiveness were essential in field commanders but far less valued in most staff roles; deduction was central to strategy but hardly the foremost for other roles--

"Give her a moment~ she's a little slow," Shirayuki cut in, tone almost in jest, before Sidika could interrupt again.

--Yet the question was not circumstantial. The trait must apply across the board. Reasoning and rationality were high on the list. But for those in the line of fire, control of the instinct and impulse still superseded. After all, the pinnacle of decision-making was still a selection between logic and desire. While rationality may discern the appropriate answers, it didn't always make the correct choice. Was there another that may yet elevate above self-control given a categorical difference in function or responsibility? From command to strategy to coordination to resourcing... Kannon couldn't think of another.

Well, Eastern philosophy did claim that mastering oneself was the first step to commanding others.

"Command over oneself," Kannon stated with her firmest tone. There was no room for doubt or hesitation in such circumstances.

"Not bad," Sidika smiled approvingly. "But there's still one overriding value."

Kannon thought it all over again... and could only draw a blank look.

"Without loyalty, even the greatest general or adviser cannot be trusted, their value not only questionable but dangerous. Without faith, even invincibility becomes doubted, diverting attention and leaking resources. Without ambition, even the most self-controlled man cannot meet their full potential, let alone exceed," Sidika declared as though citing commandments. "All of these qualities are important yet merely temporary; all of them determined by a greater factor -- motivation."

The first thought that came to Kannon's mind was the concept of Management by Objectives: a powerful methodology that relied on fitting a project into common goals of both the management and the employees. It was an essential part of transformational leadership in motivating individuals, but was often viewed as somewhat idealistic, as it emphasized more on people rather than context and progress. Kannon recognized its effectiveness for assessing people in a manner of complete abstraction, but to take this as her most valued consideration...

Maybe Sidika is a bit of a romanticist as well.

"Shirayuki expects a Binding Oath from me, yet such is not acceptable for mysterious allies that cannot be trusted longer than the shortest term. Whatever your current limitations, your intended role will undoubtedly be quite profound. So let me rephrase the original question," Sidika asked again with her piercing gaze that sought to reach Kannon's very soul:

"What is your motivation?"

Shirayuki had promised Kannon, last night, that she would offer the younger girl passage back, but only after Kannon helped them settle the immediate upheaval. The chance to capture Arkadi had also been placed on the table as a requirement during the current negotiations. Both of those were but temporary goals, unsuitable for the prolonged commitment that Sidika desired.

Then... to prove myself? To honor my parents' faith in me?

Kannon found them too abstract -- personal dispositions that drove behavior rather than motivations that influenced decision-making.

She thought deeper, further; but the clues that came up only bothered her more and more.

Do I even have a motivation? A life goal for myself?

It worried her that she couldn't answer that.

"...How about I offer you tactical coordination for the moment, and we forge this on temporary hold?"

Shirayuki's offer was begrudging. But her voice was concerned, and so were the eyes that glanced towards Kannon. In fact, there was a hint of fear in them, not of Kannon but of something that might happen to Kannon.

"You do realize, with our balance of power, that you're effectively giving up operational freedom?"

"You do realize I'm not actually a fresh sprout on this over-tilled field," the redhead quipped back at the Marshal's warning with one of her own.

Sidika's mouth tilted with hesitancy. But she nodded, barely:

"Very well. I'll accept your commitment for the moment's being--"

Kannon realized, several moments too slow, what Shirayuki had offered in exchange for her lacking.

"--But I do expect proper affirmation before we leave Broceliande."

She had proposed forfeiting the organizational independence of the Moonlit Eclipse, after decades of preserving it from even their staunchest allies. Within a war, coordination on a tactical level with a far larger military force that would automatically assume overall command meant the Eclipse could be assigned the unwanted, most dangerous missions -- and Shirayuki would have to carry them out.

Actions do indeed prove stronger than origin: she truly is a natural ally to me.


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


Even though it was meant to be just a 'temporary' agreement, drafting the alliance treaty still took Shirayuki and Marshal Sidika all day. Much of it was spent haggling over the finer details. It was yet another sign that they were allies of convenience rather than allies by nature -- taking care to show their dedication through utmost seriousness while minding every detail along the way.

Yet during this entire time, Sidika's question never left Kannon's thoughts.

But she still had no answer.

"Dinner is served~!" Kayeten called out in a singsong voice as he pushed in a restaurant-style serving trolley from the hallway. On it were elaborate bowls made of polished but simple steel containing... some sort of common beef stew. Add the fact that he had somehow changed into a butler's suit during his few minutes away and...

The contradiction between class and lack thereof was staggering.

"Pot-au-feu, with blanched cabbage in Alsace-Lorraine style," Kayeten presented softly as he served the food with all the grace of a professional butler. "I figure we'd enjoy some simplicity after all the complications."

"It would be simpler," Sidika began with a hint of exasperation, "if you stopped trying to get artistic with every tool. I swear next time we leave official accommodations for a trip I am packing everything."

"Did you make all this?" Shirayuki asked with pleasant surprise.

"The silverware? Yes." The Colonel-turned-Butler answered, obvious pride in his voice. "We have plenty of construction materials here but little household equipment, so some fabrication was in order. The food itself? As much as I'd like to claim credit, it was prepared with love by Linnaea and slow-cooked all day~"

"I just thought we would be too busy today to prepare meals properly, and I was right!" Linnaea commented from behind Kannon.

"Come on, turn off your armor and eat with us," Kayeten beckoned towards the female knight. Linnaea was the only one still on guard duty after Sidika dismissed the others once the initial negotiations were finished. The Marshal then nodded towards her in approval as well.

"Ah... very well, if you insist."

"Oh I do insist." Kayeten winked towards Linnaea, which made her aura of menace erupt in full force once again.

"Ah, don't mind us," Shirayuki grinned while giving her a thumbs-up. "Just turn him into a bloody smear if you wish~!"

Part of Kannon couldn't help but feel that was exactly what would have happened if not for the 'diplomatic' circumstances.

Linnaea's murderous aura had mostly subsided by the time she strode around to the spare seat where Kayeten left a bowl. As she pulled out the chair, her armor, shield, and sword transformed into a cascade of golden light. It was then all pulled up to her neck and sucked into a diamond pendant that hanged around her neck, leaving her wearing only her tunic.

"Wardrobe accessory," Shirayuki spoke over the channel as she eyed Kannon's amazed intrigue. "Good for switching in and out of armor, gear, and outfits, as in Kayeten's case. I'll give you one later -- thought you'd have one already. Kinda a must-have for any girl~"

Linnaea silently recited her religious prayers before picking up her utensils. Meanwhile everyone else had already began eating their long overdue meal.

"You know," Sidika said towards Shirayuki as she casually stirred her stew before picking up another spoonful. "I'm still surprised you didn't request for emancipation of the Arvitors."

"Being an idealist doesn't exactly make me lose touch with realism. You can't promise me that even if you wanted to."

"Well, I am a dictator though. Supreme word of law and all."

"Only as long as the military supports you," Shirayuki was clearly not impressed. "I have no clue how you Marshals sleep with that Sword of Damocles over you, but I do know that taking away the power source for all that fancy equipment they take for granted is a surefire way to lose control of it. Then you'll be surrounded by a lot more than just two companies of untrustworthy soldiers."

Sidika had spent considerable time discussing that earlier -- any 'operational opportunity' to capture Arkadi would be extremely risky due to the undependability of the perimeter security forces, and therefore worth far more in their bartering of conditions.

"I have an idea regarding that, the operation I mean," Kannon forced out the words with all the confidence she had before she missed the chance again. It was an idea she had after the end of their prior discussion, a somewhat crazy and amateur idea at that.

Everyone turned towards the youngest attendee with varying degrees of surprise. Shirayuki's worried and protective gaze in particular shifted between Kannon's eye and the spoonful of beef stew she still held in midair above the bowl.

"Eat first, and take your time--"

"Before that, I have a burning question for you, Kannon," Kayeten asked with an extremely serious expression incompatible with his outfit, while completely ignoring the glare that Shirayuki threw his way. "Why, do you want to save him?"

Kannon felt her face heat up for some unknown reason.

"Because... because I still owe him one..."

She wasn't sure that was everything, but it certainly wasn't a lie.

"Besides, isn't he your childhood friend? Don't you want to also?"

Unprepared shock went through Kayeten's eyes for a brief moment. Then he looked down; his expression grew pained.

"Tell me Kannon, if a sworn brother who had abandoned you for eighteen years killed a friend who had supported you since then, what would you think?"

Silence filled the room as all movement stopped.

"...And I thought I had a good plan. An entire team, lost for nothing but my own whims."

Kayeten's grim warning was clear enough. If Kannon's idea, or even the operation she requested failed, or even if it succeeded, there was no way she could dodge the responsibility for the deaths that would incur.

"I'm not going to claim that human lives are equal, that's for naive idealists. One cannot become a leader, and certainly not a commander, without learning how to prioritize certain lives over others," Kayeten's solemn voice continued. "Arkadi's rank makes him a high value target, with access to top-secret information worthy of a capture operation, even if our motivations may be more personal. However, the lives of every soldier we'll lose will be on your conscience nonetheless."

"Are you prepared to carry that -- the burden of command?"


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


Hours more passed since their dinner, but Kayeten was still bothered by a thought. The surge of annoyance and distaste had calmed, but it persisted with an ever-present pull on his conscience. Yet he also knew better than to continue raising his objections during negotiation when Sidika made her intolerance of it clear. The two of them may be casual in most circumstances, thanks to their adoptive family relationship; but the Marshal never hesitated to remind him just who was higher on the chain-of-command when push came to shove.

Still, minutes after their guests' departure -- with Linnaea showing the way -- was long enough to not be disruptive to lingering thoughts.

"Mother, was there really any need to provoke that confused and possibly-in-denial girl? The princess' offer, quite generous in my opinion, already meets our own needs and objectives."

"What, afraid of violating the ancient law of the brocean and harming your buddy's girlfriend?" Sidika chuckled, and Kayeten's eyes drooped in displeasure.

"Very inappropriate, mother. Although I do agree there's something odd about those two -- but I'm being serious here."

The Marshal's eyes grew distant and preoccupied; her faint smile betraying signs of uncertainty.

"Merely trying to rectify reality. Forcing a mirror on them is... usually the best way."

Few seconds of weakness was the limit of what Sidika allowed for herself. Her tone immediately shifted back to her usual, one of unshakable confidence, as though there was never any doubt:

"Not to mention, did you know that the Imperium Project specifically modified its heirs to be 'incomplete' human beings? One of the things they lack is a personal sense of ambition, so they don't declare themselves dictators for life. But that also means they lack a drive to excel, unless pushed by duty or circumstance. I'm giving her that push, one towards a path that will ultimately benefit our goals."

Kayeten wasn't sure how to take the first fact. It made perfectly good sense, and certainly beneficial to society. Yet... there was something inhumane about it, as though the Heirs were doomed to be manipulated for life. As for the second... well, he was already used to his mother's methods.

"Just, please, don't crack her."

"Well, if she's that fragile, then nothing of value was lost. But I think she'll manage. Her thinking is already impressive for someone without experience. Seriously, 'Eight Trigrams Formation'? It's so obsolete it's almost new."

Kayeten raised his left eyebrow with an intrigued yet doubtful face: "Is that why you gave mission command to a complete amateur?"

His retort only made Sidika's grin spread into an even wider smirk.

"Please, Kayeten, you have to learn to value amateurs. Tactics isn't chess. There are no clearly defined rules. But with pros... honestly, your original Ambassador Towers ambush was so textbook I sprouted fifteen oracular eyes during your presentation. And what of it? The Black Prince does one thing unexpected and you get yourself almost killed. Sir Alexander had to martyr himself to save your butt."

Sidika's harsh words shattered Kayeten's rising rebuttal with effortless ease before plowing on.

"The biggest problem with most professionals is that we're so used to the doctrine -- the rulebook and its dos and don'ts -- that we expect the enemy to play by them. Most of the time, they're professionals too, so they will. But amateurs aren't ingrained to that set of rules; they don't feel the urge to obey and consider them at every step. Sometimes that's a disastrous flaw because they don't have the basics to fall back on. But other times it makes them deadly creative -- a soldier may look for muzzles and tripwires, but a guerilla won't think twice about strapping a bomb to a stuck-out chair and killing you with its splinters."

"Of course, some tacticians think outside the box like it's second nature. They can toss the box aside even after they become professionals. But not everyone is a prodigy. That's why we have mentor-pupil pairs -- the mentor has the professionalism and trained judgment while the pupil offers an influx of fresh ideas. But that only works if the mentor doesn't sit on a doctrinal high horse. You only dictate like a know-it-all after triple-checking your flawlessness, like myself," Sidika finished with a presumptuous grin.

"You taught me that nothing was for certain on the battlefield."

"True, but I can make probability high enough that I don't mind gambling my life for someone's lasting trust. With you backing her up as a field battle expert, Shirayuki as the close-quarters specialist, and my presence to up the stakes on you three, I think we'll manage just fine."

Kayeten sighed and shook his head, fingers reaching up to massage his temples. He couldn't argue against Sidika's past results -- 'reformers' spent decades waxing moralistic poetry over how the 3rd District structure needed better supervision and accountability to fight the rampant corruption; Sidika achieved it in but a few years by consolidating power, getting her hands dirty, and dodging assassins in the process. Nevertheless, being used to her ways didn't imply liking them.

"You're always... wait, if you knew my plan was going to..."

"I didn't know anything," Sidika clarified, doubling its use as both a retort and a begrudging confession. "I simply said it was textbook, as well-planned as it was predictable, but still worth a try. Good commanders are worth thousands, millions. But generals don't rise to fame without trading resources for some hard lessons Kayeten, and I'm not going to hold you back out of fear. After all, it is the responsibility of leaders to develop more leaders -- that is the truest, highest form of leadership."

Kayeten's face was as hard as stone. He knew that Sidika was right, but that didn't make it any less painful to think about the troopers he lost -- casualties more than mere numbers, human beings he could name and image.

"You're an evil, evil person mother."

"Why thank you," came the reply with a gracious smile. "I've been worried over my indulgence in goodness as of late; do have a title and reputation to keep, you know~"


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


The clock was just short of midnight, and Linnaea resisted a yawn as she patrolled the only passageway into the warded underground bunker complex while listening to the heavy downpour outside. She has watched over security with utmost diligence for nearly eighteen hours by this point. But until Kayeten came to relieve her after his rest, she was in command of the guard detail and its entire shift of eight.

There were more sentries, hundreds more: two full heavy-infantry companies stationed around the base's outer perimeter. But they were all 2nd District troops; their dependability was questionable at best. Even if they were reliable, armored marines trained for frontal engagements were far from optimal in defense against black ops commandos.

Worse, if one of them managed to ascertain the presence of the Eclipse...

"Rawr~!"

Linnaea turned to glare at the source of the sprightly call; but Shirayuki continued to ascend the gentle-sloping tunnel without sound, amusement dancing across her eyes at the knight's annoyed, pouting cheeks -- more like a schoolgirl than a warrior.

"You shouldn't be here," the knight seethed, or at least tried to.

Despite countless attempts, Linnaea had never managed to successfully make an angry face that actually looked intimidating. Her aura might be menacing, but even the freshest recruit had always found something... cute, about her expression. She once heard a young squire say that her anger was frightening -- bonechilling thanks to her aura -- but only when she wasn't staring at them.

"If someone can notice me before I notice them, I'll eat this stupid weather."

"That is just impossible," Linnaea said as a matter-of-fact, eyes half-closed and arms crossed for a properly peeved look. Although she did agree that the chances of noticing Shirayuki without the Miko-Hime wanting them to notice was... quite infinitesimal.

"Precisely~! Can't eat the weather, can't see me~"

"I doubt the rules of inference works that way."

"Well, they should, seeing as it's true~"

Sometimes, more like most of the time, there was just no point arguing with Shirayuki. A sighing Linnaea decided to shift topics before exasperation would overcome her again:

"I must say I was quite surprised today. I never expected you would offer that."

"Well, me too," the shorter girl replied as she walked up to beside the knight. Exhaling deeply with obvious fatigue, she gently rested her head on Linnaea's armored left shoulder. Amusement tugged at her grin as she relaxed even as the other stiffened.

"W-w-what are you d-doing?"

"Resting... an entire day of haggling really isn't my kind of work." Although her tone was serious, Shirayuki smiled mischievously as she knew Linnaea would not deny her the favor, despite the girl's obvious discomforting embarrassment.

"W-why are you going so far for her sake?"

Shirayuki took another step. Her head spun a quarter-circle in its resting spot on Linnaea's shoulder. Her eyes turned to face the other from just a breath away.

"Jealous~?"

"D-don't be an idiot."

The red-haired princess giggled as the knight looked away, blushing.

"You know, sometimes I really wish I was a guy~"

For a dozen seconds Linnaea simply flushed crimson, too embarrassed to even respond with her instinctive denial. Yet with her left shoulder on lend she could hardly pull away.

"But, you already made the choice."

"Yes, yes I did, and I never regret my choices. There are simply too many perks to being the wiser and fairer of the genders~" Shirayuki lifted her head back up, but still holding Linnaea close with her gaze. "Though to answer, I'm supposed to be Eternal's champion within the Imperium Project; even her lady's maid if need be, so of course I would go that far..."

It was a reminder that however playful and casual Shirayuki might seemed, she also took her duties very seriously.

"...After all, she does carry the greatest burden among us."

Always carefree, always vivacious, caught in her own pace to the point of near tactlessness -- Shirayuki was always that way. Yet for the first time, Linnaea saw her eyes filled with worry.

"So... what did you think of her?"

"Well... why do you ask? It is hardly my role to judge," Linnaea asked, unsure but also curious.

"Because you're one of the few whose opinions Parzival trusts explicitly, completely -- totally expected, with that perceptiveness and honesty -- and it's certain that his opinion on all of this will be of critical importance."

Linnaea flushed several shades of pink the instant Holy Judgment's name came up. She wasn't so confident herself, but what Shirayuki just told her really amounted to the highest praise in her eyes.

"H-honestly, I am still not sure yet... She seems the honest and hardworking type, willing to listen and devote herself. But she fails to project leadership in her limited proactiveness and definitely lacks maturity. I wonder if she has somehow been holding herself back all this time."

"She had a bad case of denial when I told her about being an Arvitor, like panic-attack-bad."

Linnaea pondered over Shirayuki's pained voice for a moment.

"That helps to explain, although it is quite unfortunate, both for her and us. Her role as a selector really does not give her any room to ignore unpleasantries, not to mention her connection with the Black Prince is rather... worrisome. I understand she's pretty much genetically hardwired to be attracted to leadership qualities, but--"

Shirayuki's smile grew apprehensive as she pondered how Kannon might react to being the first of the three centerpieces to the Imperium Project, whenever she got around to telling. But her concern lingered for only a second. Faith in her comrades was something she had in abundance, and she was certainly in position to do something about it herself if necessary.

"--But really, I should be more surprised this all came from you. You positively vowed blood vengeance on the man."

The princess chuckled; her words true without even an ounce of resentment: "Well, the wishes of my cute lil'sis versus an unhealthy grudge? My priorities have never been more certain! Especially if I ever want her to call me big sis~"




Chapter 13 - Interlude - The Day of Reckoning

In times past, the people of each generation would always remember the day on which the greatest war in their lives began. In that one moment when fresh news shook the entire world, when memories would record a moment of their lives in perfect clarity -- what, where, and when. Years and decades later, as they reminisced their past, contemporaries would always return to the same questions and answers: What were you doing... when emissaries of Pope Urban II called upon the faithful to 'take the cross' and launch the Crusades? When Nazi Germany invaded Poland, triggering the Second World War and all of its horrors? When the Twin Towers of New York fell, forcing the conflict between sovereign states and paramilitary extremists onto the stage of global awareness? When Convoy 524 of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, en-route to beleaguered Iran, burned in the Persian Gulf under the fury of American missiles, sparking the near-apocalyptic Third World War?

For the last generation of the Avalonian Republic, a snapshot of their lives would forever burn itself into their memories the moment they saw the mushroom clouds in the emergency news broadcast, scorching red with fury against the pitch darkness. They were the telltale signs of multiple strategic nuclear warheads that ravaged Rennes, shining metropolis of the planet Brocéliande and capital of the Avalonian 2nd District.

Total calamity ensued.

Even the night skies could not keep their peace. Incandescent flares of power soon erupted over the low orbit of Brocéliande. Two flagships and their escorts, meeting in what was originally a strained but peaceful, almost routine diplomatic exchange, now engaged one another in a sudden duel to the death.

The visiting team was a mere five starships: the colossal 1st District Flagship, Fleet Carrier (CV) Excaliber, plus four Bucellarii-class Armored Cruisers (CAs).

The home team was the proud Republican Guard Flotilla, with a total of twenty capital ships: five Foederati-class Battlecruisers (BCs), ten Comitatensis-class Battlecarriers (CVBs), and four Bucellarii-class Armored Cruisers, led by the equally enormous 2nd District Flagship, Fleet Carrier Oriflamme.

There was originally a third team, for the balance of power within the Avalonian Republic was carefully orchestrated between three different Military Districts. But the 3rd District was running late due to an engineering failure -- later found to be sabotage; after news of the disaster spread, they never arrived at all.

With a four-to-one advantage in hulls, three-to-one advantage in tonnage, and equivalent technology on both sides, the result of any combat would be a foregone conclusion even without considering the planetary defenses. Nobody from the 1st District should be stupid or crazy enough to gamble against such odds.

Not that any fighting was expected. Decades of cold war between the three Military Districts of Avalon has allowed each faction's intelligence to thoroughly infiltrate the others' military rank and file. There were no orders and no unusual preparations. This was purely a diplomatic visit, beginning with a mutual display of power through a joint military parade with a live missile fire salute.

It was a yearly, almost ritualistic tradition passed down from the first victory parade one-hundred-seven Terra-years ago, after the successful overthrowing of the Avalonian Dominion. It heralded the beginning of an annual, week-long conference between top political and military brass from the three Districts of the Avalonian Republic -- although this was the first time in which special circumstances had advanced the conference date.

Even as late as five minutes prior, only three people knew exactly what to expect, their surnames one and same. But with a single confirmation through Marshal Comorus Kernow's neural-implants, a seemingly harmless codeword flooded its way through the entire fleet network, unraveling sealed orders hidden aboard the internal networks of every warship.

Speculation of system error escalated, then immediately pacified as Marshal Comorus stood up over the secured fleet broadcast channel and spoke only two words, his voice colder than the darkest depth of space:

"To war."

They went through a full simulated wargame of this under a similar, hypothetical scenario once -- two Terra-years ago. It had raised all kinds of alarms and tensions back then, which took weeks of diplomacy to resolve. Yet looking back now, that entire incident had been worth it ten times over.

But this was no wargame. Everyone knew the situational data was 100% real.

Some lingering doubts remained. But within seconds, the detectors aboard every ship rang out with news of thermonuclear detonations: not one, not two, but seven. Not merely over the 2nd District Capital, but originating from the depth of their heavily-fortified headquarters, shield generator complexes, and planetary defense centers.

Operation Crecy had taken more than ten years to prepare, an effort performed under deep cover by the 'Black Prince' Arkadi Kernow himself. Its agents, cloistered from each other and every other aspect of the plan, were a mix of willing infiltrators and unwilling collaborators. All of them worked within those high-security military installations, with not a single clue toward their true mission until deeply-implanted Geas pre-programming activated -- an ancient enchantment curse, kept modernized over many centuries for its potency in overcoming a host's will and assuming dominance.

Ward-breaker rods and teleportation beacons were soon deployed in key positions within those complexes, painting bullseye markers for a trusted three-man team to deliver the presents.

All the other faithful and double-agents thought they were working under another operational name, collecting intelligence for a third codeword only the most senior of them recognized. Both were pointless terms, yet more layers of deception, which fooled 2nd District intelligence into believing that it would take years still before the 1st District was truly ready to turn this cold war into a hot one.

But now, as the truth revealed itself, there was no time left for spies to send the information back up their networks. Even 1st District fleet officers didn't have time to regain their composure before their training and discipline kicked them into action.

Scores of unmanned REDEIN (REmote Drone Escort INterceptor) fighters launched in massive waves from both cruisers and carriers at intervals of seventeen seconds. They were unprepared for an offensive battle, but their hard-points were loaded with defensive weapons -- counter-missiles and point-defense laser modules -- per standing protocol as demanded by Avalonian military doctrine. Four initial waves catapulted every REDEIN kept on standby, two for every control terminal aboard their motherships, out into space. The intervals then dropped down to over a minute as launch bays' automated machinery began unpacking additional REDEINs from storage before arming, supplying, and hurling them out.

By the fourth wave, dozens of METAACs (MEchanized Tactical Adaptive Armament Chassis) also sortied with their pilots. They had been unprepared, but the absolute modular design of these mechs -- giant, humanoid machines with fingered hands -- made them extremely easy to arm and supply. Built as transformative dual-mode, multi-purpose tactical superiority weapons, METAACs carried a hefty price tag of half a star cruiser. Offered only to proven aces and configured based on their individual prowess, the METAAC mechs were few in numbers but highly valued by fleet command, for they were the only strike craft capable of bringing a full magical arsenal to the front lines.

Last but not least, drone escort frigates slid out of their docking stations and sped away from their motherships. These remote-controlled ships brought REDEIN service pads and point-defense laser batteries closer to the front. They served as fire support and resupply stations for the REDEINS while protecting their host ships as screening vessels and cannon fodder.

Fleet engagements normally began with long-range Anti-Capital Cruise Missile (ACCM) exchanges that sought to break past the REDEIN front lines. But both sides began this unexpected battle already within each others' energy weapon envelopes, and 1st District skippers wasted no time slamming in an initial salvo from their gamma-ray laser turrets even as their broadside missile launchers went into sprint-fire.

The 2nd District Republican Guard were proud elites, and proved their reputation as they went into battle-stations immediately. Panic failed to seize their senses despite total surprise and an incoming avalanche of destructive fire. Even aboard the leading battlecruiser Orleans, where multiple layers of shields failed almost instantaneously under concentrated fire, where lightspeed grasers gouged deep into its armor, shattering bulwarks and killing men, its crew still fought back valiantly. Counter-missiles raced out to meet the first incoming wave of shipkillers even as their own faltering batteries returned fire.

But under Avalonian naval doctrine, battlecruisers were glass-cannon raiders and skirmishers. Their role was to deploy into their X-shaped firing mode, flush out racks of Anti-Capital Cruise Missiles from rapid-fire launchers at long range, then withdraw behind the main wall-of-battle. Their thin armor and meager defenses were completely outmatched in any close-combat, especially against Armored Cruisers which were built for it.

The Orleans did not survive a second salvo. The blinding fury of its destruction was the first of many that night.

Yet the opening volleys hardly evened out the skewed force balance. Despite the overwhelming surprise, the Republic Guard soon recovered. Its own strike craft hurled into space like a swarm of angry locusts -- terrifying clouds of red blips on sensors, awesome not only in numbers but also their organization and discipline. Thousands of REDEIN fighters formed rows of assault wedges, soaring toward their foes like jagged saws. One-hundred-twenty METAAC mechs distributed themselves into the now-merged third and fourth waves, each squad leading a sawtooth by the edge. They included six fearsome names renowned throughout the new world as the ace killers of the 2nd District, half of the 'Twelve Peers'.

Vice-Admiral Geoffroi, Commanding-Officer (CO) of the Republican Guard, ordered his troops with insurmountable confidence that a victory was in the making. Surely, the 1st District had underestimated the integrity of his command, and overestimated the morale impact of their surprise attack and nuclear strike. The 1st did destroy 2nd District Headquarters and would have crippled fleet command -- if not for his presence.

Now, they would have their vengeance. With a little luck, Geoffroi would not only cripple the despicable 1st District by destroying their command ship, but also earn himself the seat of the 2nd Marshal -- as the current one was likely dead.

It would have been true, had the Black Prince not sprang a second surprise on them with his chain strategem.

Over a century of internal turmoil within the Avalonian Republic had spawned a number of paramilitary organizations, each deriving its power from a unique mastery of magic that gave them some degree of advantage over military and enforcement mages. Some of these organizations were officially sanctioned as knightly orders, serving as special arbiters of the law. Many more were proxies, paid by one District to terrorize the others while publicly claiming their righteously independent actions. A last few were true rebels who sought only to topple the corrupt, existing system.

One of these rebel groups, the Nisshoku Getsumei or Moonlit Eclipse, was known for their derived East-Asian magic that allowed a physical entity to cross over into the spiritual.

A daring raid by the Black Prince and his elite black ops team nearly a year ago had captured two dozens of these mages, soon enslaved by binding them within magic-extraction crystals. These crystals powered countless ether-tech equipment and weapon platforms, including the powerful Cataphract-class METAAC mech, designed from the ground-up with special magic-conductive circuitry that could channel spells through its entire body.

Two dozen of the sixty 1st District elite METAAC pilots knew they had recently received a special upgrade to their machines' crystal core. Although security surrounding it had been airtight; not even the specialists who did the installation had any clue what the new function was.

After all, there was a way to defeat this magic, but only if the enemy knew what to prepare for.

Now, as those METAAC mechs spearheaded the 1st District charge into masses of hostile markers that hopelessly outnumbered them, a command signal came down for an an obvious, almost obtrusively-placed trigger to reveal itself on the pilots' Augmented Reality control interfaces. Excaliber CO Commodore Marcus Kernow then gave them the order with bared teeth, a sadistic and predatory grin lighting up his eager face:

"Gentlemen, this offer comes once-in-a-lifetime: push, the button, and inscribe your names into history with the annihilation of our foes."

Six of the twenty-four were entitled 'Knights of the Round Table', the ace of aces, pride of the 1st District. Those glory-seekers needed no encouragement. The others soon followed, accepting any unknown protection they can get in this chaotic and utterly-insane engagement.

With a click from each METAAC control interface that linked directly to their neural-implants, twenty-four machines vanished from every sensor display their opponents had except one. But Aurasense magic sensors were inherently prone to overload, and their field of detection was oversaturated with targets this day.

The two opposing fronts opened fire upon one another and at the Anti-Capital Cruise Missiles (ACCMs) attempting to breach through to the capital ships. Explosions rolled across the entire frontline as two massed formations of fighters interpenetrated. Warheads detonated by the dozens as interceptors tore into their flanks, triggering bursts of gamma-ray lasers that ripped through anything it touched. REDEINs slaughtered each other by the hundreds, while survivors broke formation to engage one another in chaotic, tumbling dogfights in search of local space superiority.

Unlike most historical carrier strike craft, the REDEIN fighters' primary role was not to attack, but to serve as an outer interdiction screen against missiles as well as escorting friendly ACCMs. Their weaponry generally lacked the power to breach METAAC shields, for which they often resorted to kamikazes. After all, a downed pilot can just switch their control terminal's uplink to a new REDEIN in the next wave and rejoin the fray. Meanwhile the carriers would continuously launch REDEIN fighters throughout the battle to keep their front lines adequately 'supplied'.

Group-Captain Alexis Skye, pilot of the 1st District METAAC mech Gawain, was the first to realize that the maneuvers of his machine's auto-evasion protocols were completely pointless and only reducing his aim. Not only were the incoming energy fire not focusing on their mechs, those that should have struck shields went through them as if they didn't exist. The same could be said for his defensive-fire, which passed through missiles as though they were illusions.

Alexis had no idea why he could detect his foes but not vice versa, but he wasn't about to complain. The greater problem was that he seemed to be on a separate plane of existence from his foes and unable to affect one another.

With the left mech-arm already gripping a Firelance Close-Assault Warhead, he conjured a preloaded Black Blade spell with his mech's right hand and focused all attention on offense. A quick scan of his sensors found an enemy worthy of his attention, and he charged into the maelstrom on an uncertain bet. It paid off seconds later. His anti-capital Black Blade, a seventeen-meter-long gash of disintegrating void power, a magical tear upon the very fabric of the universe, completely ignored the dimensional difference between material and ethereal and cut its unfortunate, unaware foe -- the METAAC mech Roland -- in two.

It took but a second long before his teammates began copying him, charging through tides of oncoming foes while tearing apart targets of value on their way to their true goal, the flagship Oriflamme.

Seven officers within the Republican Guard actually realized what was happening in time. But even for those who knew what spells to use, casting any advanced spell without special preparation easily took a dozen seconds, seconds that they did not have.

Only one 2nd District METAAC pilot finished his Ethereal Sight spell, only to see the oncoming blade that ended his life.

Then, just over one minute after engaging their Spiritshift magic, twenty-four METAAC mechs began to reappear in reality in twos and threes, still within the horde of enemy strike craft that comprised their second unified wave. The pilots had not understood the lone warning and paid it no heed in the heat of battle. Nine of them exploded before they could break free of the hostile swarm, their powerful shields collapsing too quickly under the stupendous weight of hostile fire and REDEIN kamikazes as their auto-evasion protocols and point-defenses reestablished themselves.

But the damage had been done.

Over seventy 2nd District METAAC mechs destroyed. Five 'Peers' killed in action. Flight leaders thoroughly confused and demoralized by the wave of destruction that swept through their formation like an unseen scythe of death.

In a deep space battle, that may not mean as much, for it was the exchange of long-range missiles and warheads teleported by Starwarp 'Cannons' that determined the fight. But in a close-quarters ambush like this one, where METAAC mechs could easily breach multiple layers of defensive missile fire and reach point-blank range where their maneuverability and melee-tactics dominated with impunity, the battle had just taken a decisive turn.

The surviving fifteen of the 1st District vanguard dove past the defensive fire of the frigate screen, as well as the fifth wave of REDEIN launches before most pilots could take control. Now twelve remaining, the METAAC mechs headed straight into the Republican Guard's capital ships to ignite their Firelances. Close-Assault Warheads were seemingly-smaller versions of the Anti-Capital Cruise Missile that traded range for a much larger payload. But Firelances were actually magically shrunken, the spell then dismissed after launching. Like the ACCM, they carried both on-board shield penetrators and frontal shields to shrug off point-defense fire. Launched from close range, these 'lances' soared straight in, crashing into hostile hulls before their bomb-pumped gamma-ray laser warheads exploded, flooding their targets with both a thermonuclear blast and a hailstorm of destructive high-energy radiation.

Already damaged by grasers and proximity-hit ACCMs, six battlecarriers (CVBs) vanished as their hulls violently bloomed into balls of incandescent fury, indications of reactors gone critical. Three other CVBs and two armored cruisers were left as drifting wrecks, while the last remaining CVB was crippled beyond repair. Masses of REDEIN fighters, their remote-control pilots dying aboard their carriers, turned autonomous -- still capable of basic formations and tactics, but a far cry from the coordination and ability once displayed by their human controllers.

The rest of the battle went downhill from there. Within the hour, an overwhelming force was decisively defeated by their lack of informational intelligence as a single strikegroup penetrated their defenses and dealt the fatal blow.

It was like the surprise of Pearl Harbor combined with the tactical execution, intensity, and strategic impact of the Battle of France.

The 1st District had gotten off with comparatively light casualties: one armored cruiser (CA) destroyed as the skipper did her best to protect the flagship, two more CAs gutted. Not to mention REDEIN fighters lost in the triple digits and most of the screening frigates, but unmanned craft were disposable.

It would have been easily tolerable had METAAC mechs and marines not landed aboard the CV Oriflamme in an attempt to seize the mighty Fleet Carrier, which took years to build and each District had only one of. Unfortunately, the boarders failed to hack the central system fast enough. Vice-Admiral Geoffroi's dying words then took all of them with him to the grave as he scuttled the massive ship:

"The guard dies, it does not surrender."

A total of forty-two METAACs and their aces, including four Knight-of-Rounds, was a steep price to pay for the battle.

But it was still worth it.

The 1st Battle of Brocéliande Orbit both began and ended the first stage of the war.

Combined with the ground-side Operation Crecy which laid waste to 2nd District Headquarters, the loss of their flagship was devastating. 2nd District Command had not merely been crushed, it had been obliterated. No one left was more senior than individual squadron commanders, none of whom had both the charisma and the prestige to rally the fleet's remnants under unified command. Most of them surrendered; some of them fought to their dying breath; a final few of them pledged to continue the war as subordinates of the 3rd District.

The 2nd District and the Republic's most populous planet, Brocéliande, fell within a single day.

Yet what of the man who planned it all? The man who initially proposed the entire 'First Strike' plan, who infiltrated the 2nd District and installed the pieces required for ground operations to paralyze the planetary defenses, who mislead the enemy with layers of false operational codewords and objectives, and who delivered the method that would allow a single strike group to pierce the heart of the Republican Guard Flotilla in the orbital battle?

Arkadi Kernow was officially marked as killed-in-action; his life lost to a last-minute raid that was supposed to claim the life of the 3rd District Marshal as she visited Brocéliande for diplomatic talks. Only the officers aboard the CV Excaliber's bridge knew that Commodore Marcus Kernow had sent down a few nukes, courtesy of the Starwarp Cannon, straight into his adoptive brother's operational area.

No one knew if Marshal Comorus Kernow would have approved. He was a cold-blooded bastard himself, but he was also too busy coordinating forces in other areas, despite his presence aboard the Excaliber during the entire battle.

The 'Black Prince' would never be heard from again. To all but a very few, it was Marcus Kernow -- the real, biological son of the 1st District Marshal who would receive credit for this 'heroic' victory.

Which was... actually a surprisingly lucky turn for Arkadi.




Chapter 14 - Final Gambit

The fifth hologram panel turned green with readiness, further illuminating the three occupants in the main hold of the Signifier command tank.

"Commandant Aeryl reports battlegroup echo assembled and ready."

"About time," Commandant Arkadi Kernow replied dryly.

He knew he wasn't really being fair. Even though she was just barely on time, Aeryl Fortel was already working wonders in redeploying two dozen armored vehicles inside enemy territory without being detected. Emily, the new tactical officer replacement, was even more blameless; her role was barely more than a messenger.

He realized something was wrong. With himself, with this facade that governed not merely his character, but also his thoughts and personality. Yet the last few days had been too hectic; no time could be spared to fix the enchantments that administered his very being.

Something cracked in this personality six nights ago when he was ordered to kill, releasing legacies of a past he sealed long ago, a constant irritation that steadily grew worse.

Something reawakened to haunt him three nights ago when he attempted to kill, softening his hands in a situation that tolerated no idealism.

How else could Kayeten have survived that night, when his destruction had been handed to Arkadi on a silver platter? Twice?

Arkadi had hesitated to murder.

He could not afford such reluctance again.

He looked towards the time panel: four minutes to midnight. The strike teams of Operation Crecy should be almost finished in preparing the stage.

Everything was already in motion. For Arkadi, there was but one remaining task to perform -- an objective unplanned until merely six nights ago, yet no less important than the rest.

Victory would guarantee his credit and pave a quick ascension to power. Defeat would spell his certain death.

There was no room for second thoughts.

"Personal Emanate, Imperious Dominate."

Focus, relief, resolve, harmony, righteousness; all of it flooded through once again, sharpening his mind, steadying his emotions.

His composure had returned. Relaxed, detached, but also imperturbable, a flawless instrument of revenge once more -- revenge not against one, not against many, but against the fundamental flaws of humanity itself.

It wasn't a prolonged solution. The spell had power, but neither coverage nor endurance. Yet for the time, it was enough.

Arkadi tapped into all the telepathic communication networks set up for this operation:

"All units, check final preparations."

"Group alpha, mechanized ready," came Commander Kaplan's steady, almost emotionless tone.

"Group bravo, with you to hell and back sir!" Lt. Commander Reverie's charming reply was zealously excited, waiting to prove herself to a beloved.

"Charlie here, mages ready to 'port," confidence rang clearly from Director Gervais.

"Assault groups delta and echo ready," Commandant Aeryl's soft but firm soprano finished.

Three-hundred-ninety men and women in nine makeshift platoons, the Black Hand's entire available combat-trained force on Broceliande, split into five groups. The defense units still outnumbered them; but the difference was minor, and his troops were better.

By and large.

"Train for a thousand days, command for a single hour..." Arkadi began with the famous Chinese proverb in its original language, channeling absolute confidence through his every word. "Tonight, is the climatic moment of all our preparations. As I speak, dozens of independent strikegroups are seizing their objectives, their hands upon our greatest hour, theirs eyes upon a new age. It is now our turn! For tonight, we shall reforge the world as our own, our dreams materialized and our actions immortalized through history for eternity!"

A tidal wave of confident enthusiasm poured back:

"For our glory as the 1st!!!"

Then, as though timed by destiny itself, multiple flashes lit up the distant horizon, erupting from the direction of Broceliande's Capital Rennes in quick, repeated bursts. The telltale signs of rising mushroom clouds followed, glowing orange with burning air, visible even in the depth of the night. Given many kilometers of distance, no one had any doubts of their destructive force -- the chain detonation of multiple strategic nuclear devices.

More divine providence came almost immediately in the form of explosive fluorescence, illuminating the night skies from lower orbit. There, two flagship fleets locked onto one another, their firepower rolling out to push against the other with tidal fury.

"Now is the hour! Engage as planned!"


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


Those are strategic... 'real' nukes.

Kannon could hardly believe her eyes...

She didn't even know what to feel. Her eyes could only watch in disbelief, in horror...

To view the destruction of the Rennes metropolis on the main holo-display... It was impossible to describe the feeling. There simply wasn't a word in the spoke language strong enough for it.

There must be millions, no... tens of millions, living in a city of that size and scale.

Modern bunkers could shield against unparalleled devastation. But there was no warning, no time to get to those fortified basements the Avalonina Republic installed below every major urban structure. The residents of Rennes simply died in their sleep, or worse -- in terrifying realization after being startled awake.

Just how many lay dead or dying under those clouds of doom?

"Northwest under attack! 8th, 9th, 10th, and 2nd platoons engaged. Incoming enemies from nine and eleven o'clock, designating red-one and red-two: total of twenty IFVs, two command tanks, and four recons." Kayeten's voice, still shaken but quickly shifting to a professional cool, announced over the command channel.

Kannon turned towards the main battlefield display being projected over the round briefing room table as her thoughts pushed away everything else. A cold sense of gratitude to avoid such unpleasant thinking reached her for just a second before being shoved aside as well.

The attackers hugged the ground as they flew in, with altitudes no higher than ten meters and stealth modules on full power. Their numbers indicated four platoons of infantry, and the entire assault force had avoided detection until just over a kilometer away, far within normal vehicular engagement ranges of this day and age.

But... only two vectors?

Commodore Marcus Kernow's squadron was arriving tonight, which meant that this was the last chance before Marshal Comorus Kernow's deadline. Since Captain Arkadi received most of the resources they had on planet, he should be launching an all-out assault from every side, a full investment with nothing held back. Then why was he attacking from only the northwest quadrant?

"It's a feint! Hold them back!" Kannon sent.

"Red-two broken through perimeter!"

The 2nd District infantry that held the outer defenses was clearly underperforming. That wasn't really surprising given the devastation and distracting chaos that now engulfed Broceliande, their home planet. But the formation Kannon picked shouldn't fully invest until the enemy was within it.

"...Engage from center only! Outer defense units hold your fire once they pass!" She reiterated her pre-battle orders.

Kannon glanced towards Sidika, who sat in the innermost chair of the central briefing room's round table, protected by a set of force field projectors. The Marshal's brows knit themselves in intense concentration as her delicate fingers moved gracefully across the air between the Augment-Reality (AR) windows visible only to her.

Probably in emergency mode over the insanity that's breaking loose across the planet...

Maybe they were lucky that Sidika didn't take command of this fight.

Kannon had shared her idea with Sidika during dinner yesterday. It was some ridiculous concept she cooked up based on an alternative Romance of the Three Kingdoms strategy game guide she once read. To her complete surprise, Marshal Sidika actually agreed to it, and was even crazy enough to ask her to assume command...

But if she wants to give me a live-fire interview exam, I'm going to do my best to ace it!

The defense force had nearly five-hundred troops; but over four-hundred of these were infantry from the 2nd District. Sidika felt that their response at Ambassador Towers had shown them to be unmotivated and therefore unreliable, without any care of the 3rd Marshal's fate as long as it looked like they tried. This left them with only thirty-two dependables: thirteen Auxilia under Kayeten -- after 2nd District 'graciously' allowed some reinforcements; six Cross Knights including Linnaea; and twelve Ecliptic Mikos plus Shirayuki -- her full available personnel strength on the planet.

Kannon had zero experience on how to 'command', but she knew how to 'lead' and 'manage'. In the end, battles were still fought by 'people' with 'objectives' and 'constraints'. It required task-oriented planning and people-oriented coordination, which was no different from any project or business.

For this battle, their greatest lacking was the dependability of personnel -- in other words, motivation and individual initiative. Therefore, the challenge was to force them to be 'productive', to contribute to the main battle by relieving pressure from the reliable 'core staff'. Translating that into military terms meant that since she couldn't depend on them to focus on the enemy, she must provoke the enemy to concentrate on them instead.

Therefore Kannon's plan was to deploy the infantry in an ancient 'Eight Trigrams Formations'. This required a token skirmishing line -- a circular one -- at the perimeter about one kilometer out from the command bunker, and eight platoons each guarding a strongpoint near the edge. The last two platoons were deployed in the center, with Kayeten's auxilia to keep them honest. Arkadi's main attack would easily brush aside the perimeter defense and push into the base, only to be caught in a crossfire from the eight strongpoints. This will force Arkadi to divert troops to pin down the outer defenses one by one, instead of simply punching through the 2nd District infantry lines and ignoring them afterwards.

This at least forced those 'allied' troops to... contribute a little more.

"Red-one broken through... red-two deploying troops, but they're staying at ranged. We'll hold at center--"

Kayeten's voice was still calm, but hurried now that his forces were engaged.

Avalonian military doctrine for assaulting fortified positions was to charge in grenadiers and auxilia spellswords, armed with swords and swordstaves. Since the first wave was keeping their range, Kannon evaluated that they probably weren't the assault troops.

"--New contacts: three and six o'clocks, designating red-three and red-four, nineteen APCs total with two command tanks and six recon jammers screening!"

Scutarii Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs) were built off the Principes IFV chassis. But instead of having two armored side hatches with platforms where marines could stand on and shoot from behind cover, APCs carried drones which they airdropped before the soldiers. The troopers would then direct these remote-controlled spider drones to spearhead an infantry attack.

...Which made these the assault troops.

"Execute Fortify. All Platoons ready Crossfire, execute on my mark. Kayeten swivel half the center against the southeast and keep them occupied."

As her orders went out, Kannon refocused on the main display: the perimeter's skirmishing screen, a roughly-circular line of small blue dots, were already pulling back to the eight outer strongpoints. Each strongpoint had five Self-Propelled Guns (SPG) dug-in and hidden under illusory spells, as well as ten heavy electrolaser repeaters deployed like machine-gun nests of old.

The Lanciarii SPG utilized the same hull chassis as the IFV and APC. By exchanging the troop compartment for a smaller, open-air rear seating, the SPG made room for a powerful heavy electromagnetic railgun turret -- the same model used by Avalonian Main Battle Tanks (MBT). Yet unlike true tanks which were massive enough to hold a miniaturized fission reactor, the SPG did not have the power output to simultaneously provide for both the engines and the main gun. This forced the SPG into a traditional line-combat role, which suited the heavy-infantry just fine.

Then, as the red symbols coming in from the south and east neared the half-kilometer distance, half of formation red-four from the south turned back, splitting towards two strongpoints...

He noticed. It's now or never.

"Fire!"


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


Four platoons of mixed auxilia troops made their way across the open airspace in twenty APCs. They were now within the base itself, having easily brushed aside the perimeter defenses.

Too easily...

It felt like a trap. Commandant Arkadi almost knew this was a trap, but he had to spring it anyways.

That did not mean walking blindly into it.

Several active sensor scans, focused on where the perimeter units were regrouping towards, easily revealed what the passive sensors missed: three concentrations of deployed weapons, stationed roughly every 1/8th of the circumference around the base.

One platoon from Commander Kaplan's alpha force peeled back to engage them. Additional orders went out, tasking Commandant Aeryl's delta group to detach units for sweeping the northern defense perimeter.

...Just before a web of criss-crossing fire smashed into each attack group from at least three sides.

Formations broke instantly as auto-evasion software kicked into high gear. Chaff grenades spat out in multiple directions, spreading ionized reflective fragments in the direction of incoming fire and seeking to deflect the iridescent beams of electrolasers. Laser point-defense clusters went into continuous rapid-fire, tracking incoming HEAT (High-Explosive Anti-Tank) missiles with tenacity. Meanwhile multiple layers of shields flared desperately to fight off the damage from hypersonic railgun slugs and other weapons fire. Only after every defensive system failed would it fall to the light vehicle armor to withstand what punishment it could.

Several vehicles fell, smoke trailing as their shattered hulls lost control and plunged into the ground. But most of them had not. Avalonian military technology favored the defense in ranged fire exchanges, and it took little time for airborne armor, flying at over 400kmph (250mph), to reach their target.

The first payloads were bombs; their explosions splashed off against shields and did little more than to provide covering fire and cause chaos.

Then fell the ward-breaking rods that activated their magic upon striking hard ground.

Far away from the battlefield, the squads of Group Charlie finally received their signal.

"Begin teleportation!"


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


Even small battles were messy, chaotic, and far too difficult for one person to grasp everything. The display was positively overloading itself as Kannon's eyes flickered between new flashes and markers and pop-ups and... everything, trying to grasp the information that poured in without stop.

...The teleportation wards protecting the command bunker glowed as they fell under attack from anti-magic sources at over a dozen points...

...Five APCs bombed two southern strongpoints before executing an 'assault drop'. Spider drones -- feared for their bladed legs and suicide charges -- followed by sword-bearing grenadiers, plowed straight into the defenders after falling from their vehicles...

...Two northwestern strongpoints were also being bombed and strafed by eight IFVs...

...Kayeten's center came under two assault drops from the south and east while hostile IFVs in the northwest continued to pin them under fire. His position was strongly held by twelve Langskip AT/AAS (Anti-Tank Anti-Air Systems) mobile missile launchers, two dozen automated electrolaser turrets, and six Signifier command tanks serving as fire-control; but it nevertheless began to buckle under the multi-front attack...

The bunker shook again, and Kannon pulled her attention back. Her recognition took in the entire battlefield display while Sidika's pre-battle advice repeated in her thoughts:

"Successful coordination lay in the chain-of-command. Focus on your tier of responsibility and trust your subordinates to handle the details."

"Incoming teleportation." Aurora's characteristically easygoing voice noted through the inner command network as she watched the red exclamation marks and the accompanying data on the main display. These originated from the Anticipate Teleportation ether-tech sensor, which held coverage over the entire bunker complex and detected incoming teleportation spells as they tried to lock on. Even against low-volume teleportation like a single person or explosive device, it offered up to twelve seconds of warning for the defenders to prepare. The current data indicated that even though the anti-teleportation wards weren't even fully offline yet, Arkadi's men were already preemptively casting.

Their coordination is as impressive as ever...

"Arm mines by room as they come," Kannon replied as anxiety built within her voice.

"Affirmed... more hostiles inbound in staggered waves."

Aurora was a 'Creationist': a master of conjuration-creation magic. The problem with magical creation was its inability to persist before dispersing back into mana; its duration dropped as the item's complexity and elemental rarity increased, down to less than a minute for most modern gadgets. However, a specialist who fortified their ether could fabricate even complicated equipment that would maintain for hours if not even longer. As Aurora's title suggested, Frost Laser's battlefield favorite were one-shot chemical laser devices, deployed en-mass like minefields to quickly overload shields with devastating bursts.

Yet because of these laser mines' reliance on numbers, as well as the nondiscriminatory devastation they unleashed, entire groups of them must be activated all at once. The staggered teleportation meant that the first wave into each room would trigger the all the devices inside. The poor souls would still be shredded, but their lives cleared the path for the follow-up units. Unfortunately, only the rare 'Wayfarer' mages had the capacity to teleport others without including themselves in the trip.

"Shirayuki, prepare to engage follow-up waves."

"Affirmed."

"We're losing hold of the center--!"

Kayeten was strained but held his composure. Sure enough, his blue dot in the collapsing central formation was engaged in melee against several red ones. His crippled command tank lay abandoned on the nearby ground, smoke billowing from its engine compartment. His forces -- two 2nd District platoons plus thirteen elite auxilia -- were forced to retreat to the northeast and southwest, squeezed out by the two fronts of hostile red that sandwiched them in and outnumbered them more than two-to-one.

"--I'm pulling out to regroup. Linnaea dear, it's up to you now!"

"Never counted on you."

At the same instant, five pairs of dots appeared on the main display in five different locations inside the base compound, then vanished within a blink as the rooms and hallways they stood in blurred with shotgun blasts of bluish-white light. Five more sections of four attackers each comprised the next wave. Their landing locations were dispersed among the second and third level corridors, below the briefing-room-turned-headquarters that Kannon stood in.

Meanwhile, one strongpoint in the south and another two in the northwest were withdrawing. Arkadi's troops were regrouping to attack another formation along the perimeter, wasting no time chasing fleeing units. The outer defenses were evidently collapsing. But the attackers had also taken losses, light in men but heavy in organization. Close combat was the most effective method of shattering morale; however, it forced its chaos on even the best trained units -- and it was the strength of organization, not manpower, which sustained offensive momentum.

Too much at once!

"...All outer units continue to hammer them from the back. Shirayuki, 2nd wave inbound. Linnaea, get ready!" Kannon sent out as she struggled to keep up with the pace of a modern battlefield. Leaving the details at the discretion of each team leader wasn't even a choice anymore... especially not if she still wanted to keep an eye on the big picture.

"Affirmed! Shieldwall Phalanx!"

The Cross Knights' Divine Bulwark made them invulnerable to frontal attacks, and five of them held the only hallway into the bunker. Their sabers extended to thrice their length, ending in golden tips leveled outwards like a row of spears. Squads of grenadiers soon entered the hallway, and their first charge shattered like water on rock as they learned the same lesson the Persians did at Thermopylae. The more knowledgeable veterans held back as they recognized the hopelessness of breaching the line of golden knights.

Arkadi's spellswords would have no choice but to rely on teleportation to assault the bunker, where Shirayuki's Ecliptic Mikos awaited them.

Within the command bunker, only the central briefing room had an extra layer of teleportation warding which still held. All the other rooms could now be invaded from the outside via magic. But in these underground hallways, the Ecliptics held a clear advantage: their unique Spiritshift magic allowed their bodies to step between physical and spiritual realms, able to spring ambushes anywhere by simply walking through solid walls of manmade construction.

"Strike by pairs!" Shirayuki directed her subordinates with deadly seriousness. "Time to fertilize the planet!"

"In the name of the moon, let's dance!"

With eight Ecliptics following her, Shirayuki and her team split into five groups -- four pairs of sorority sisters and herself -- to intercept the five inbound sections. Ample seconds of warning provided by Anticipate Teleportation was more than enough to lay appropriate ambushes. Half of the invaders found themselves spraying blood within seconds of entering the base, and the rest followed moments later as the sharpened blades of twirling maidens sliced into them.

A fresh wave of red exclamation marks flooded the display as a third wave of teleporters rode on the tailwinds of the second: five squads of eight congregated towards the third level, while a sixth squad aimed for the corridor just outside the briefing room headquarters -- a scouting group more distracting than threatening.

Why is Arkadi going lower? This base is old enough for him to know the floor schematic and realize where our HQ must be...

"Third wave, on the lowest level! Aurora, welcome those just outside," Kannon directed as she kept her confusion from her voice.

"Affirmed," Shirayuki replied as her Ecliptics shifted to meet the attackers, dropping down floors and dashing through walls as needed. Seconds later, the third wave teleported into as deadly a welcome as their predecessors', although their doubled manpower meant more survivors.

"...And I see nuclear futility," the Miko-Hime commented after tearing apart two more dots on the map.

Per Kannon's request prior to the battle, Shirayuki had cast Thermonuclear Suppression on herself. Boosted by her powers as Aura Dominion, the emanating aura magic covered the entire bunker complex, with enough strength to resist any but the most powerful Disjunction spells.

Except her opponents wouldn't even receive the time to cast such advanced spells.

Nine blue dots attacked thirty-plus reds, engulfing the bunker labyrinth in a chaotic melee. The girls of the Eclipse blinked in and out on the three-dimensional battlefield display. They tore into the invaders like guerrilla raiders, then vanished back into spirituality within seconds to avoid retaliation and reinforcements. It wasn't perfect, as Kannon watched the first of them fall from a lightning fast counterattack, followed closely by her distracted companion.

But if we have to suffer losses, then at least it's minimal and the ratios hugely in our favor...

Kannon realized that it sounded inhumane to describe lost lives in 'ratios' -- battlefield experience was making her thinking more and more unpleasant -- but it was also a fact.

Then there was Shirayuki, zigzagging through hostile markers even in the narrow hallways, tearing apart entire squads in seconds. Only once did she meet a tightly-formed squad of six, ranked swordstaves arrayed like the back of a porcupine. Shirayuki simply pretended to ignore them and moved into a nearby wall. The group didn't even have two full seconds to rest before she burst out from a wall behind them and proceeded to consecrate the hallway with their blood. The bodies of two fallen Ecliptics nearby left her without a trace of mercy.

Meanwhile, the fifth squad that teleported in outside the command room met the wrath of Aurora's mines. Their tight formation allowed two members on the inside to survive, only to be finished off by the two Ecliptics held in reserve. Yet even as they died, more were inbound...

Wait...

Kannon's browed furrowed as she watched a fourth wave began teleporting in. But time waited for no one. Several dozen blips vanished from the surface battle and reappeared inside the complex, just before Kayeten's reformed 'platoon' smashed into those remaining.

I've been tricked!

She silently berated herself for not thinking properly. Captain Arkadi might aim for a single goal, but he always tried to apply multiple approaches whenever possible, both to offer himself additional options and to confuse the enemy with distractions. It was no different this time, and the operation was a two-pronged offensive: the incoming teleportation had been moving steadily away from the command center in the central briefing room. If the inner defense force didn't follow, they would detonate a nuke on the lowest level -- a threat already countered by Shirayuki's Thermonuclear Suppression aura. But if the defense did follow, it would leave headquarters critically weakened for...

Several incursion squads landed right outside the briefing room gates. The two Eclipse Mikos did their best before being overwhelmed, cut down by sheer numbers as the girls couldn't retreat from the final defense line. The remainder found the gates locked, which delayed them for but a few seconds.

"Shirayuki HQ is--!"

Kannon didn't even finish before bundles of grenades hurled into the room from her left. A clean, circular hole replaced the blast doors where half a meter thick of diamondsteel was clearly disintegrated.

Only five defenders stood within the room: Marshal Sidika, who joked that her aim couldn't hit the broad side of a barn; Aurora, who was a slow-casting support mage and not a fighter; Midori, the green-haired lieutenant to Shirayuki who stood by quietly as Eclipse's Wayfarer (teleportation expert); Aksel, the Cross Knight reserve; and Kannon herself.

Sir Aksel's armored mass and golden Bulwark came in-between the four ladies and the attackers even as the room exploded around him. Blasts of energy and splintered furniture-wood forced Kannon's flaring shields to become an opaque cocoon of blossom-pink ether, effectively blinding her view for several seconds as superheated air trickled in and burnt its way to her lungs.

The pulsing sound of chemical lasers firing rang about the room. Aurora had deployed a full set of in a ring around the ceiling's edge as a last-ditch effort, all of which aimed to converge upon the entrance. Dying screams confirmed the death of the first three who entered the room as the laser volley overloaded their shields and turned their armor into burning beehives. Another four soon followed before Aurora ran out of mines.

By the time Kannon's Vector Negation Shield fell back to transparency, Aksel had already skewered one attacker. But he was now pinned under three other swordstaves as more circled around him. One of the enemies charged straight towards Kannon, who stood between the entrance and the force field generator protecting Marshal Sidika. His swordstaff was raised, his expression focused, and his deep-violet eyes harder than diamond.

Captain...

Kannon closed her eyes as her arms went up reflexively to protect herself while his blade slashed downwards...

One mistake and I'm already dead...

A pink bubble flared as Kannon's Vector Shield stopped Arkadi's swordstaff for an instant; but it sped up again with an explosive burst from the small thruster behind the blade guard. Searing pain erupted from her left forearm as sharpened diamondsteel cut deep to the bone and cracked through. Even more hellish agony burst from her left elbow as she could almost feel the joint snap and break. But the heavy blade cut into neither her face nor chest. It had stopped... No, it had been stopped by the starsteel chain wrapped tightly around her shattered left limb that was still propped up by her right arm.

The blade withdrew, and her legs collapsed under her; her body fell backwards...

The blade pulled back in his hands, ready to thrust, as his eyes filled with murderous intent and only a sliver of recognition...

Then, in the frame of a split second and through blurry eyes, Kannon watched Shirayuki's boot firmly implant itself into the left side of Arkadi's face. His Vector Negation Shield flared purple instead of the sapphire-blue of his Aegis Shield.

He flew back several meters as the crimson blur continued to tear through the room, twin blades flashing like a steel tempest.

Arkadi's personally-led final attack had used up the best of their assault forces' remaining manpower. With their commander down, their forces depleted, and their final wave about to be crushed under Shirayuki's swords...

We've won.

It was Kannon's surest thought in this entire battle. It was also her last, as her back and head collided hard with the ground while her vision dimmed out from the unbearable pain.


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


Momentum was power, and the first kick sent Arkadi flying. Several meters back, he collapsed onto the ground. Yet during that short timeframe, a bloody mist enshrouded the dusty atmosphere of the room as the crimson blur tore through half of Arkadi's remaining men within seconds.

Against Aura Dominion's power of aura magic manipulation, their vector shield emanations did not even exist. Only the Aegis Shield, magic on the level of a Grand Sorcery, could stop her assault. But Arkadi's Aegis Shield had exhausted its ether supply early during the battle, and it was not a type he could replenish.

The glimmering hope of victory turned into despair within an instant.

He couldn't withdraw. Failure was not an option. They would shoot him.

He couldn't surrender. Pride was not an issue. They would shoot him.

His life meant nothing, not by itself. But accomplishing goals required a life. Arkadi could not simply throw it away. Not when there was still a chance of success, however infinitesimal it may be.

The finishing line was already in sight. Marshal Sidika was just across the room, protected by a single force barrier generator. If he could just take out Shirayuki, nobody else would stand a chance of stopping his final assault.

He had an idea in mind. It wasn't a good one, but better plans were a luxury he did not have time for.

Arkadi pretended to lay unconscious for a second. Then, as the crimson blur sped towards him to reach his remaining troops, he finished declaring his spell -- most of it over telepathy with one last syllable verbalized to increase power. His entire body suddenly spun off the ground. His limbs jerked unnaturally, muscles tearing and bones cracking as his body underwent contortions not intended for a human being. His will ruptured two prepared pouches in his magical utility belt, hurling out glowing crystals that that trembled and detonated. Explosions engulfed the room as his hands held onto the swordstaff with an iron grip, thrusting it out even as he spun.

Telekinetic Whirlwind was meant to be an offensive spellword that either enhanced a thrown weapon or incapacitated an opponent. Arkadi used it to turn himself into a human buzz-saw instead. To provide cover, he triggered his last two defensive backups -- pockets fulls of crystal-cartridges with Contingent blast spells attached. Their undirected bursts of energy could only break through the weakest Vector Shields, but was more than capable of blinding every visual, electromagnetic, and magical sense, sowing chaos to conceal the true threat.

But desperation alone could not bridge the gap in ability, and luck was not with him this day. Shirayuki saw the human shredder for a split second before the air erupted with fire and lightning. She broke off her trajectory just before a bloody collision. Turning to his left, she cleaved through three more commandos before accelerating back towards him.

Every advantage was now in her hands. Arkadi's final defense made him a dangerous target, but it was still no match for her speed. Her blade would go in, rend flesh, and withdraw before his barely controlled swordstaff could scratch her. But...

She promised Kannon for a capture. A blunt knockout hit would be risky, harder.

...Not to mention he was the Black Prince, a man she would rather send to hell with her own hands.

Shirayuki finally realized: it was one thing to claim forgiveness towards someone not present; it was a whole different thing when the object of one's hatred was standing just ahead.

The hands that gripped her dual katana-sabers strengthened their hold. Within her mind's eye was the image of the Black Prince, gazing contemptuously as he razed the Moonlit Eclipse's Avalon outpost, his swordstaff stained red with the blood of her comrades, her sisters.

Kannon was no longer conscious. Shirayuki could claim that she had no choice...

But that was a lie.

She couldn't lie to Kannon. The fact Kannon's power was a built-in lie detector was besides the point. Shirayuki simply couldn't lie to her 'little sister' like that. Especially not when it was something Kannon clearly, truly wanted.

She felt a steel tip graze her arm, drawing blood like a searing hot dagger. But it was a light wound, and now she was inside his defense.

A simple flourish reversed the blades in her hands, and Shirayuki rammed both pommels into Arkadi with all her might. The force knocked him into the nearest wall, where he collapsed back onto the floor like a puppet without strings.




Chapter 15 - The Path of Resolution

"Isn't this too weird?" Kannon asked as she mentally switched the AR display panel from one channel to another and then another. "Entertainment shows or technical difficulties, all of them! Not a single detailed report!"

"In war, truth is the first casualty," Kayeten shrugged as he leaned back against the wall. "I forgot who said that; some Greek writer I think. The 1st District is likely still trying to figure which media station they could rely on to spin things their way. They could transmit broadcasts from Avalon, but they probably knocked out all of the main network's relays to disrupt communications. Either way, we do know what happened, both on ground and in orbit, and nobody will grasp the full extent of the damage or casualty counts until things start settling down -- at least on this planet."

Kannon had passed out for a few hours before they had revitalized her, and in that short window of time what little balance the new world retained had collapsed. The 2nd District fleet was in tatters, its command structure destroyed and its planet invaded. Nuclear strikes had been launched against ground-side targets that the initial detonations failed to destroy, including -- an attack on the battle at Château de Falaise.

Fortunately, Shirayuki's Thermonuclear Suppression aura was able to nullify the attack. That gave her lieutenant Midori enough time to teleport all the 3rd District, Seventh Cross, and Moonlit Eclipse members out to another safehouse on Brocéliande before 1st District ground troops could arrive. The 2nd District soldiers, being a liability, were ordered to disperse and seek refuge on their own.

Unfortunately, this old place lacked a teleportation beacon to guide 3rd District's few interplanetary teleportation experts. It was also magically warded to scramble targeting from those unfamiliar to the location. As such, everyone could only wait for Midori to recover from her magical exhaustion before she could take some of them to Kunlun, the main planet of the 3rd District.

"How's your arm, Princess?" Kayeten inquired with sincere worry.

The healers from the Moonlit Eclipse had mended Kannon's shattered arm, then applied bone and tissue regeneration spells even before she awoke. But they had her arm wrapped in special bandages and in a sling while her body's natural healing caught up with the spells' progress. It made her current injury look far worse than it felt.

"Numb. Stings a little, but otherwise fine. Thanks..."

Kannon's puzzled stare was transfixed on Kayeten, yet her voice was almost absentminded. His words had drawn her attention from her fruitless search for updates, but not because of the question itself. It was the way he said it, the tone, the expression, the concerned light from the eyes, everything... all exactly the same as Captain Arkadi.

In hindsight, this wasn't the first time Kayeten seemed like Arkadi. But it was the first time she wasn't preoccupied enough to fully recognized it.

Kannon faltered for a few seconds, unsure. But then, she had to ask.

He has a right to know...

"You, uh... sometimes you sound just like the way Arkadi talks."

Kayeten threw Kannon a bewildered yet intrigued, inviting look.

"Enjoys over-flattery, prefers praises using etymology, has a flair of dramatic seriousness, mostly professional on the job yet teasingly informal during downtime, all that."

The confusion within his disbelieving eyes only grew worse:

"Kadi!? seriously!?"

Kannon nodded, and Kayeten thought it over for a few seconds...

"Well, honestly... I feel like he's copying me--"

Air rushed out from his nose in a half-hearted snort as a faint, lopsided grin tugged at the edge of his lips.

"--Sheesh, I knew he was jealous of my social popularity back then but, really!? Still, I have some trouble thinking that frustratingly serious mule-headed stubborn jerk could..."

His half-nostalgic half-exasperated voice trailed off in an instant, looking alarmed and uncomfortable as he returned to the realm of unpleasant realities.

Unsure of what to say, Kannon returned her focus back to searching for information.

"Still... I'm kinda glad," Kayeten turned towards her again with an approving voice. "I'd been worried that you'd be one of those in denial of unpleasant facts like our casualty figures--"

Kannon cringed as her eye slowly turned back towards Kayeten. It was the first thing she asked for after waking up -- a list of every known death from the last battle so she could carve every name into memory. It was her duty. It was the least she could do.

"I... I probably, I know I still suffer it at times. But by and large, I'd pick information over nothing any day... Do I come off otherwise?"

A calculating grin crept up the corner of his mouth.

"Well, Shirayuki mentioned that you were Arkadi's Tactical; so mother wondered if you were Speer to Arkadi's Hitler persona."

"...Speer?"

Kayeten took a few seconds, concentrating on retrieving the words from his implants, before he began to recite in quote:

"My inclination to be relieved of having to think, particularly about unpleasant facts, helped to sway the balance. In this I did not differ from millions of others. After years of frustrated efforts I was wild to accomplish things. For the commission to do a great building, I would have sold my soul like Faust. Now I had found my Mephistopheles. He seemed no less engaging than Goethe's -- by Albert Speer, Hitler's architect and Minister of Armaments for the Third Reich."

The few lines of words struck Kannon like hammers, knocking the wind out of her lungs as she forgot to breathe for several seconds.

"Relieved... about unpleasant facts": all the time.

"Frustrated efforts", I can't deny.

"Commission" -- the ever-sought recognition.

"Sold my soul": perhaps if Shirayuki hadn't taken me, that was my inevitable path.

"There's... I wouldn't have..." mingled words and half-completed retorts filled Kannon's mind in an instant. Then: "I tried to persuade him out of it."

"I have no doubt." Kayeten's earnest reply contained not a hint of disbelief or mockery. "Although whether you would have succeeded was debatable. What would you have done if he kept pressing his ambition?"

The first answer that surfaced into her mind was kicked aside instantly.

"Relieved of having to think..."

Kannon dragged the thought back and re-examine it, not once, not twice, but five times around her cognitive circuits before she realized she could not dodge the truth.

I would have followed.

Survival needs aside, it was because her only motivation so far had been to prove herself to others, rather than deciding for herself.

"All right pretty-boy, save the rest for later," came Shirayuki's voice as she stepped through the door, her white shrine maiden outfit adorned once again with a challenging stare directed towards the Colonel.

Kayeten shrugged with a sparking white grin:

"Sorry; carried away. I have a habit of quoting the movers of history, hoping their experienced wisdom may wear off on me."

"I know for a fact you don't read much history; you're just trying to impress girls with the quotes Sidika teaches you," Shirayuki countered before her unimpressed expression turned grim. "Anyhow, there's something I need to tell both of you. I had to wait until now to wrap my own thoughts back together, which had to wait until the immediate coordination issues were dealt with, which had to... anyway, I was busy."

Shirayuki gave the slightest bow as a passing apology before gesturing towards Captain Arkadi, still unconscious in the bed at the room's center:

"Kayeten, remember how me and Aurora had to slap a row of Disjunction spells on this idiot because he had too many ongoing spell auras and we couldn't confirm none of them included a tracker?"

"Yeah?"

"Well, this stupid, retarded, half-witted, cabbage-minded, brain-deficient, imbecile... had over two dozen layers of spell auras covering his inner self. They were almost all enchantment-compulsion types--"

Both repugnance and hope grew in Kayeten's eyes as he spoke: "he was being controlled?"

"--And they were all his own magic. The aura signatures were exactly the same, even if the deepest layers carried far less residue taint from the soul."

Kannon was getting used to seeing Kayeten's shocked expression.

"His affinity is in enchantment, even back when he was a kid, but... that's...!"

"Pretty liberal use, that's for sure," Shirayuki finished for Kayeten with a knowing look.

"Maybe someone dominated him to dominate himself..."

"Stop kidding yourself; who in their right mind will go through that much trouble when direct control is far more potent?"

"Is it? Makes sense for the consciousness to struggle a lot more against foreign magic intrusion than against magic generated by one's own soul."

"Okay, okay, you may be right," Shirayuki admitted, annoyed yet not backing down. "But you know better that you're just looking for an excuse to convince yourself this isn't all his fault now. Well, it is!"

"And how can you be so sure?" Kayeten challenged as if his personal honor was on the line.

"...Because," Kannon wore a confused and uncertain look as Kayeten's sharpened glare followed Shirayuki's gaze towards the younger girl. "Because Marshal Kernow offered him a choice back in the day. He clearly only wanted those willing to follow him in exchange for personal goals, not merely those forced to... at least, for his successor candidates."

For a second Kayeten was about to retort, then defeat and loss overwhelmed his expression as he collapsed into a nearby chair, the last traces of hopeful light faded from his disillusioned eyes.

"I still don't get it..." Kannon muttered.

...Or perhaps I just don't want to acknowledge it.

"It means," Shirayuki explained in a more consoling tone but with equally blunt words, "that the entire personality you knew of Arkadi was a fake, woven by layers upon layers of enchantment magic that buried his ego and supernaturated his mind with charms, suggestions, compulsions, manipulations, etcetera etcetera, all wholly created by him to enforce his every thought towards accomplish his goals."

Time slowed down as Kannon replayed the moments aboard the Somerset: of the fatigued Captain taking everything upon himself, of his friendly interactions at dinner, of his encouraging words yet downtrodden world views in the crystals' light... Was everything a lie?

No, not everything.

"Stand up for the sake of our beliefs and ourselves..."

To be kind and gentle one moment, yet callous and cruel the next. To kill a trusted comrade without blinking, yet push himself to exhaustion for the sake of those who remain. The inconsistencies within Arkadi's personality were obvious, even if the means were not. It may have been a fake, but the one who decided how to shape that mask was still him.

It was also why Kannon always felt sincerity in him. Why he rarely 'lied'. Because his enchanted self, possibly even selves, truly believed in his ways and his cause.

"I will seize the throne of the demon king and bring holocaust upon this irreparable system! I will use every medium of power to prove just how intolerable this structure is! I will give them a thousand years of notoriety, to ensure responsibility by fear, to force the return of true representatives that shall stand for the masses, as our parents once did!"

These compulsion spells had been the ultimate declaration of Arkadi's conviction: to deny his very own self, to kill his very own being, all for the sake of his sense of righteousness, as twisted by hatred and the thirst for revenge as it was.

"In the end, the source of all his evil was just one big lie to himself, huh? Talk about the danger of escapism."

Kayeten spoke flatly, his voice composed again, almost unnervingly calm. Yet simmering, near boiling anger laid beneath the surface as his eyes swept over the Captain's unconscious body once more.

"Well... it sounds more like 'Confirmation Bias', I think?" Kannon turned towards a nodding Shirayuki. "Once someone firmly believes something, they start to acknowledge only the information they want to see."

"But normally, we still worry that we might be wrong -- humans fear because fear is precisely what keeps us from doing stupid things." Shirayuki followed with a head tilt towards Arkadi's unconscious form: "this is what happens when one thinks they're too good to be afraid, shedding all hesitation instead of simply learning to control them."

"Yeah, but to take history as foul as Evian and the Holocaust and uphold it as excuse and justification rather than tragedy?" Kayeten questioned, more to himself than anyone else. "Is there anything in that shell of a person that still resembled the justice we once spoke of?"

Neither Kannon or Shirayuki spoke. Neither of them could answer such a question.

"Well you already Disjunctioned him right?"

"Seven times. Completely. Every unnatural aura trace wiped out."

"Then let's be done with it," Kayeten continued in an executioner's tone as he turned his back on the room. "On this day Arkadi Kernow, the Black Prince, has died of his crimes."

With those parting words, the Colonel turned and strode straight out the door.


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


Sitting within a sterile-white room where she was the only conscious occupant, Kannon finally found the event that Kayeten referenced with only a single word:

[ The Evian Conference: Convened from July 8th to 13th, 1938 A.D., when representatives from thirty-two countries met in Evian-les-Bains, France, to discuss the issue of increasing numbers of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution. Hitler responded to news of the conference by essentially claiming that if the other nations agreed to take the Jews, he would help them leave. However, with both the United States and Britain, the major democratic powers of its time, refusing to take in any substantial number, the conference was a failure, leaving the Jews no escape and ultimately subjected to what was known as Hitler's Final Solution... ]

The greatest tragedy of the Industrial Age could have been prevented merely by saying 'yes'.

It wasn't that different from many of the problems in this world: No, one shouldn't view Arvitors as mere tools; they're also humans, also people. No, one shouldn't support representatives who failed to prove themselves against the pressures of tyranny...

No, I have my own will in this world.

Kannon leaned back in her chair and pondered over the quote found in the article:

"The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing -- Albert Einstein."

To act without her own purpose was little more than nothing.

Nothing brought decline, brought ruin.

To cease positive action was to falter into stagnation, decline, and ultimately destruction. Kannon knew this as the basics of any business -- life and society were no different.

But then... that's why the Captain chose his path...

He saw a world in stagnation and decline, a world where people were satisfied to do nothing. He wanted a historically-proven catalyst that will propel them to action, however horrible the process may be. He wanted a lasting effect on humanity, and choose the literal application of the ancient proverb a thousand years of fame, ten thousand years of infamy -- notoriety persisted even if renown could not.

There's no way I can consent to that...

But Kannon could agree with Arkadi about one thing:

"One must stand up not for the righteousness of our ideals, but for the sake of our beliefs and ourselves."

It was not about proving her opinions to others. It had never been. It was about earning a place for herself and her beliefs in the world, through her own hands -- a place where she could stride in confidence, freed from the fear of being scorned, of being oppressed.

It didn't matter if Captain Arkadi's pessimism might be more realistic.

It didn't matter if history might prove Marshal Sidika's wish for reformation as idealistic.

In her beliefs, the correct path was obvious.

Tragedy didn't have to repeat. The Holocaust wasn't the only way to change.

They still had the chance to say 'no' to evil, to right everything. If the process had to start anywhere, then it must be from the Arvitors, as well as the others being threatened and deprived by the existing system.

But I'm a normal person...

For the first time, Kannon realized that her fears weren't just denial and cowardice, but also hypocrisy. Were the Arvitors not normal people? Did Shirayuki and her companions not smile and laugh and dream and live like everyone else in human civilization?

Furthermore, just as Shirayuki said:

"Only those without true goals, true meaning in their lives, would seek mediocrity and normality."

Kannon finally understood: what she sought was never normality; what she sought was acceptance -- not merely the acceptance of others, but also from herself. It was the reason why her mother never allowed her to change her hair or eyes, and for once Kannon felt thankful for it.

But now, there was a goal for her own sake, and at the same time it was also a push for this world.

That goal, that motivation was obvious.

It was also shared by countless others: some like Sidika with the power to influence, others without but still trying.

A pang of guilt went through Kannon as Korey's words repeated themselves:

"Mediocrity and powerlessness is the worst frustration one could feel, and I've cursed my birth far more than I could count for not being born elite, with the opportunity to do something about it all"

Here she was, with the unique opportunity that thousands dreamed and craved of. There wasn't a shred of excuse for continued whining and complaining and denial.

Then... if maybe, just maybe, I really, truly, is the Eternal Chronicle, then...

Kannon felt her body shiver, her heartbeat increase. Years of unyielding belief that melded itself into the foundation of her being didn't just step aside in minutes. But... she still managed to take her first step.

"Your heart alone holds the key to your life, your universe... as long as your heart is set, you can accomplish anything."

Kannon nodded to her mother's resonating words. It was time to accomplish that anything.

I'll also be protecting Arkadi's dream, but in my own way...

After all, there was still faith in this world, belief that mankind will return to a better path. There was still light in the darkness, guiding everyone to an Avalon beyond the eclipse.

Kannon stood up from her chair, resolution shining within her single eye. It was time to talk to Marshal Sidika, to Miko-Hime Shirayuki, to confirm that she was not merely a participating ally, that they shared a common goal and dream.

If this world is my origin, then I'll help rebuild its Avalonian dream.

"Now that's the look I want to see."

Kannon found herself face-to-face with a satified Shirayuki the moment she stepped out. Her brows raised in wonder as Shirayuki announced over the command channel:

"She's got it Sidika; under four hours too -- looks like I win."

"Yeah yeah, you beat me at what I preach, give yourself a pat on the back. I'll hold to my end of the bargain of course; we can sign the re-draft tonight."

Kannon's confusion only grew worse for several moments, then:

"...How did you two know that I was going to come to some deciding moment of revelation?"

"Didn't I tell you? I know you. In fact, I know you even better now that I understand the real you and not just your template."

Shirayuki paused for just long enough to let Kannon digest her words. But she left no time for the focused younger girl to respond before moving on, as the gentle smile of an older sister spread across her expression:

"Sidika told me what she had Kayeten pass along, and I had faith that you'd arrive at the correct answer. You're an open-minded and introspective person by nature. Combined with the traits inherent to your lineage, there's no way you will stay off the right path."

Once upon a time, Kannon might have felt offended by those words. It tore at her unique sense of identity, as though her very being was predestined beyond her personal control. But then, human nature was full of unpleasant, predetermined traits that most individuals never managed to break free from. Only an immature fool would complain about starting from a higher ground.

"...And, what traits are those?"

"You didn't think our eyes and hair came purely by coincidence did you? House Sylvestris -- the founders of the Imperium Project -- was a bit obsessed over gemstones; although that's not surprising since their gem magic led to the development of crystal cartridges and crystal ether-rods. We Arvitors tend to have colors based on our souls' radiance, and no surprise, Sylvestris engineered our aura's brilliance based on gems."

"Your right eye carries the blue clarity of lapis lazuli, the gem of all-seeing truth, clear intuition, and royal integrity. Your unopened left eye will bring the purple wisdom of amethyst, the balancer of emotional maturity and purifier of spiritual taint."

"...What about the hair then?" Kannon asked with bashful intrigue, and the warm pride Shirayuki radiated blossomed into a glowing smile of maternal joy.

"Isn't it obvious? Rose Quartz -- the stone of universal love ~ the world may not always favor you, but in the end, you'll always love it back."




Epilogue

Arkadi didn't believe in god. But if there was an afterlife, he should have woken up in the flames of hell, not on a soft bed in heaven.

He managed to regain consciousness without falling to any impulsive actions like moving or springing his eyes open. That was kind of good news, as his last memory was being defeated in combat. It was unlikely that his side won the battle, so the probable explanation was that the enemy captured him instead of killing him... for whatever reason.

He deserved death. But that thought was nothing new... he realized this over a decade ago.

Yet for the last ten years, he also saw his path as a necessary evil. But now, at this very moment, he was no longer sure of himself. For the first time in ten years, he felt an overwhelming sense of guilt, as well as intense self-hatred and disgust.

His mind was no longer compelled by his magic. Dozens of layers of self-enchantments which once governed every ounce of his beliefs and convictions had been dispelled. He had to feel for himself once again. It was not a pleasant experience. His memories did not allow for any pleasantries, only the pain and suffering that he inflicted upon tens of thousands of lives. Every frightened, horrified, hateful, anguished, or despairing expression, every face he remembered before his hands dealt a bloody end to their lives.

This was what he wanted, ten years ago when he first began. He planned to drown himself in blood before casting all the world's sins into it. It had made perfect sense at the time.

Now, he was no longer sure. He still believed in the concept -- his research had been solid and his resolution had been firm. But the same goals were no longer clearly in sight whenever he closed his eyes. Thousands of mangled bodies and burning ruins clouded the way, dyeing his subconscious world a smoldering red. Hundreds of slimy, dead limbs wrapped around him, holding him back as the gates of hell bade their welcome from behind.

Planning and execution were entirely different, even more so when countless lives were at stake.

Arkadi opened his eyes by the slightest margin, taking a peek at the sterile white room his bed occupied.

There was only one person in the room: a girl he had saved just over a week ago. She had a petite, frail body and long blossom-pink hair cascading down her back. She sat in a folding chair by the door, leaning against the wall with her head nodding off to the side in shallow sleep. Her face was cute to the point of being nearly childish, which was exactly how most would describe her figure. She also wore the same uniform that his team once gave her, except with its colors flipped from white-trimmed-black to black-trimmed-white, with her left arm wrapped by regenerative bandages and held in a sling...

Memories flashed back to his mind, when his swordstaff cut deep into her arm but failed to severe it. Then, just as he readied himself for a second strike, opposing cavalry arrived to turn the tide.

Her lapis-blue right eye soon opened. Her small right hand went up to rub it like a child just waking from a nap. Her left eye never did open, as that was her... Kannon's habit.

Over the years, Arkadi had relationships with countless women, many of which weren't romantic in any way. But for some he used his charisma and magic as a medium of seducing women for what he wanted, whether it be information or personal support. It was inevitable that some of these women would see through him, even attempted to turn him away from his path of self-destruction.

None of them succeeded, until...

"Captain," the girl's wispy, still-drowsy voice called out. "I know you're awake."

At last, Arkadi fully opened his eyes. There was no point hiding it. In fact, he learned not long after meeting her that there was little point lying to this girl. Somehow, she could always tell.

"Kannon," his cold voice replied. "You've turned traitor."

"...And you're a war criminal," Kannon shrugged. "I guess we're even."

"Last I checked, I saved your life."

"...And I just saved yours," she firmly declared. "You... still owe me a favor though."

Arkadi raised his eyebrows at the implications of her words... at least the former. The latter was a known fact. He remembered offering it just a few days ago.

"What you just failed was an all-or-nothing mission, Captain. If you go back, they'll shoot you. So whether you like it or not, Arkadi Kernow is dead." Kannon stated as a matter-of-fact, as though the decade-younger girl was preaching him on life experiences. "Please, give your real self one more chance at life."