“The Vincenti Family is operating here, here, and here.” Richards said as he pointed to various streets on a crumpled paper map. “They’re bringing in the big guns for the festival. Warehouses full of top quality narcotics, Ruin Dust, Purified Alraune Nectar, the works. They’ve started stepping up protection rackets in the commercial streets here. Warehouses are heavily guarded. Informants say they’re openly carrying arms in the slums and ghettos.”
“Disgraceful.” Pendleton spat out as he ran a hand through his grey hair. He was standing on the opposite end of the table from Richards in a small room they had commandeered in the quieter part of the station. A dim lamp over their heads served as the only source of illumination. “Alright, better clean up the streets then. We’ve heard nothing from the beat cops nearby, so let’s send out three squads to take care of the racketeers. If they need help, I want officers on standby in the nearby neighborhoods. The music event in that area is gonna finish soon, so let’s pull some officers from that. Try cars 53, maybe 25, and 39. The drug dealers we’ll handle later, once that protest gets taken care of.”
“Right.” Richards wrote the numbers on a sticky note and put it near a cluster of toy cars. A wooden box radio on the side of the table turned on with a burst of static.
“Lieutenant Pendleton, this is car 22. We’ve just stopped a band of junkies, but we’ve taken heavy casualties. My partner was heavily burned and car 23 got ignited by a fireball; those officers suffered critical injuries. Car 34 moved to backup, but one of the officers got winged by some falling debris.”
“Understood 22. After medics have extracted the injured, merge with 34 and continue patrols.” Pendleton replied calmly as he pulled cars labelled 23 and 34 off the map. He surveyed the map as a whole, trying to find deficiencies and blind spots in the paths he established. “You know, Dave, this really takes me back.” A wry grin creeped onto his wizened face. “Or perhaps I should call you Corporal Richardson.”
“Should I start calling you Major Pendel?” Richards jokingly replied. “Sure wish we had more armor though. Hell, more vehicles in general would be nice. Where’s Rourke when you need him? Hm. Hanlon would enjoy this.”
“Yeah well she and her marines loved being up close and personal like the crude savages that they were. I prefer the comfort and mobility of an armored car or an APC. And I’d both like and hate to see what Rourke would do in this mess. Remember that time he tried to mount a ship battery to one of the howitzers?”
“It did work. Once. Then he destroyed one of our three mobile artillery platforms. And made the crew deaf for about a week.”
“Miltia here. Is this getting to you, Pendleton?” The radio interrupted the two with another loud burst of static. Her voice was constantly cutting out and alternated between being too loud and too quiet.
“You’re breaking up a bit kid, but I think it should be fine.” Pendleton answered as he started fiddling with the knobs.
“We just found a cabal hideout outside the city. Past the old road near Honeyhive Park. It’s an abandoned dairy I think. Could be their HQ. Seems heavily guarded. Aidan and I counted about 20 mages and 30 hired goons. Don’t seem to have any uniforms. Might be Imperial mercenaries of some sort. Laid back but they’re sporting high quality gear. Probably hardened veterans.”
“Understood, standby. We’ll see if we can give you some backup.” The radio faded away as the two cops looked back at their map and found the location. “Dave, do me a favor. Go out and get on the line with the Provincial Guard. We’ve seen what these bastards are capable of, so I don’t want to take any chances. Explain that we found a major organized criminal stronghold and see if we can wrestle some reserves from them. If they resist, namedrop the cabal or something. Armored cars are good, but see if you can sweet-talk them into giving us a tank or two.”
Richards saluted and walked out the door, his dark blue officer’s shirt and pants giving him the appearance of a military official. Pendleton fiddled with a knob on the radio again to converse with different squads. After he gave Asta and Elizabeth the coordinates, he contemplated sending a SWAT team, but ultimately chose to hold off. The four investigators were probably just as competent, if not more so anyways. Besides, SWAT teams were probably needed elsewhere, such as busting those drug dealers.
A short while later, Richards opened the door with the largest grin possible. “Sir, I’ve got good news. PG’s had it easy up north lately so they’re sending over a mechanized group and a tank from the local armory. Soldiers are a bit green but they’ve had experience beast hunting so they shouldn’t shit themselves the moment combat starts. They’re expected to arrive at the designated location within half an hour. I’ve also managed to convince one of the SWAT teams to give us their armored car if you want to leave.”
“You know me too well, Dave. Ashworth can probably handle this shitstorm perfectly fine.” Pendleton replied with an equally large grin. “Come on, I’ve got to get back at those bastards for what they did yesterday. And this time we’re gonna end up on top!”
“What is that?” Asta was dumbfounded as she stared at a column of armored cars filed down the old road. The six police officers next to her were equally baffled. Their cruisers had been parked near the tree line off the road, just like Pendleton ordered. The forest camouflaged armored cars had radial guns mounted atop their roofs and a hatch at the rear. Atop their roofs was a variety of men and women in brown greatcoats and skull-like gasmasks, mana rifles in hand or strapped to their backs.
“Your tax dollars at work.” Elizabeth replied as she laughed. “The city’s trade tariffs and income tax also pay for the Sotland Provincial Guard. And as you can see, they’re one of the best equipped outfits on the continent.”
“I’d say our royal guard has far better equipment. And most likely better training. A tad more garishly decorated, of course. Having access to the queen’s own coffers allows you to purchase anything under the sun and then some. Rumors say they even have their own personal factory in the capital.” Aidan commented as he surveyed the convoy moving in.
“The Savacion Skunkworks?” Miltia asked as she checked her Gerhild. The soldiers were hopping down and establishing a perimeter on the road. The officers were pulled away to help, much to their confusion. “Heard gossip about that place. Lots of weird stuff going on in there. Apparently, they’ve got Dominion, Imperial, even Cognos tech down there. Even managed to recover some artifacts from the local ruins from what I’ve heard.”
“There you guys are!” Pendleton interrupted the four of them as he emerged from the gunner’s hatch atop a blue armored car. “So what do you think? This enough to bust down their door?”
Elizabeth chuckled loudly as she sauntered over to Pendleton’s car. “It’s a bit excessive isn’t it? Are we trying to arrest them, or kill them?”
“Eh, a little of column A, a little of column B. They’ve proven that they’re way too dangerous to take lightly. So, we’re gonna beat the shit out of them to remind them who’s boss. And if we’re lucky, we can catch some of the leaders as they turn tail and run. Now can one of you show me what we’re up against before they see their impending doom?”
On a hill overlooking the old dairy, the four investigators, Pendleton, and Richards were hunched over a makeshift map Pendleton drew in the dirt. Near them, the Provincial Guard began spreading out into the woods, taking care to not be spotted. The brown of their clothing blended in very well with the dirt and trees. Within minutes, the forest surrounding the cabal stronghold became lined with rifles.
“Alright, here’s the plan.” Pendleton began. “Miltia, Aidan, Asta, Elizabeth, you four are gonna stay behind the tank while it advances as our vanguard. While the armored cars are getting into position and deploying, do whatever you can to back them up. Once we’ve secured the exterior, I want you to go around back and see if you can find, or if needs be, make an entrance. When we bust down those big barn doors, breach. Then find and secure the hostages. Remember, the armor can’t do shit until the area is clear of civies. After that, mop up. Got it?”
“Affirmative.” Miltia stated as she got up. She slotted a new magazine into her rifle.
“Suppose I can weave some spells here and there before creating a melee.” Aidan said as he twirled his knife around.
“Asta and I will do that too. Let’s get this party started.” Elizabeth said as she cracked her knuckles.
“Man, I hate this post.” A mercenary complained. He was wearing an angelsteel cuirass caked in mud, although that did little to hide its gleam. Conversely, in his hands was a simple demonic steel saber. “I should have never left that privateer crew.”
“So why did you? I hate babysitting and I get the feeling you do too.” his minotaur partner asked. She easily dwarfed him and hefted around a machinegun often found on vehicles as if it were a toy.
“I hate sharks more and I almost got eaten by one. Also, shouldn’t those eggheads be back by now?”
“Probably got caught up in something. From what I heard, the police finally grew a pair.”
“Shit, and this was supposed to be a milk run.” A low rumble interrupted his train of thought. “Do you hear that? It sounds a bit too loud to be the car they took. Do you think they had to get another one?”
Before the minotaur could answer, a fireball the size of a basketball exploded at their feet, propelling them a few yards back and causing them to roll across the grass for a few more.
“What the hell is going on?” A mage asked before a creeping wall of ice froze him solid from the neck down.
Taking advantage of the confusion, the armored cars swiftly careened to the sides of the tank and began unloading passengers and projectiles. The soldiers flooded out as they took cover behind fences, cars, walls, troughs, or whatever cover they could find. The air soon became saturated with an endless stream of magical bolts and the hissing of mana accelerators. Miltia stationed herself behind the tank’s main gun and took it upon herself to try and incapacitate the mages. One mage was erecting a barrier and shielding her comrades. A lead bullet in a sea of magical ones disrupted her concentration, shattering the barrier and forcing that group to withdraw momentarily. Another mage was trying to augment a group of mercenaries, holding a blood bag high above his hand. A split second later, the bag burst and his hand was turned to a bloody pulp as Miltia’s bullet hit its mark.
“A flair for the dramatic will get you killed.” Miltia scolded to no one in particular.
Despite the loss of their mage, the band of mercenaries still made a desperate charge. After weathering a volley of rifles and cannons with heavy casualties, they made their way to a fence occupied by a guard unit led by Elizabeth. At the elf’s command, the guardsmen dropped their rifles and took out demonic steel maces before backing away from the fence. The moment the mercenaries hopped over, the guardsmen exploded forwards and struck them with bestial furor. Many of the mercenaries were rendered unconscious immediately from the whaling of the guards, their fury amplifying the spirit energy and demonic mana flowing into the maces. A cyclops swung a warhammer into a guardsman’s side, breaking some of his ribs and sending him flowing into a trough. A will-o-the-wisp had caught one of the mercenaries in her cage while fighting another one, leeching more and more mana to use against her other assailants.
Elizabeth, despite her somber apparel, seemed like she was dancing rather than fighting. One sellsword tried to exploit her supposed overconfidence, causing her to instantaneously whip her staff upwards into his groin, denting his codpiece. He uttered a weak groan and crumpled to the ground. A werewolf tried to charge her before she flicked her staff along the ground, causing the lycanthrope to trip. The elf took out her pistol and fired a burst of mana bolts, stunning the prone assailant. A centaur ran over her and almost chopped her head off with a cavalry saber, adding another notch to her helmet instead. She braced herself for the next charge, growling to goad the centaur into charging again. When the centaur did, she stepped to the side with elven agility and held her staff out. The centaur was caught by the neck and fell to the ground.
On the right side of the courtyard, a blood mage placed both her palms on the ground. In front of her rose vaguely humanoid blobs made out of mud and forest debris. The conjured golems surged forward while she staggered into a shed, her face unhealthily pale. At Asta’s command, the guardsmen pulled out machetes. She let out a yell that was reciprocated by the guardsmen, and they all charged to meet their foes. Some took to hacking at the golems wildly and unceasingly, trying to cut off pieces faster than they could be regenerated. Others took to surgically cutting the golem in order to maximize damage.
A plume of flame shot out from a salamander’s hands, solidifying a golem into clay. She closed her hand, the fire engulfing her fist, and shattered the golem into pieces. Another golem was surging onto a guardsman, the mud sealing his gas mask’s filters and choking him. He tore off his mask in desperation, ripping it in two. In retaliation, he screamed and swung his machete left and right relentlessly, cleaving off globs of mud that sank into the ground. Although the golem was not sentient, it seemed to recoil in fear.
Holy magic surged into Asta’s claymore, causing it to glow like a miniature sun. She bisected two golems horizontally, turning their midsections into glass. Miltia dove from the sky and crashed through the roof of the mage’s shed. An instant later, the golems lost integrity and slumped to the ground. Suffering heavy losses, the remaining cabal members and mercenaries fled into the main barn like an unruly mob, their discipline long since gone. The combatants in the forest had their sights trained on them, but they were ordered to wait by Pendleton. From the muffled crashes and clamor inside, it sounded like they were barricading and waiting for the inevitable.
“You sons of bitches aren’t so tough now, are you?” Pendleton boasted from the top hatch. “Alright boys and girls, gather up the wounded and get ready for the main event. You four, go to the rear and wait on my signal. This thing’s gun is loaded with water Kheprite so a hydraulic cutter is ready to rip open that big door. Wait until we’ve engaged and occupied the enemy first, then get to work. Understood?”
The four of them nodded and moved towards the rear of the barn, being cautious around windows and cracks. The majority of the barn was made of sturdy and thick oak, but certain sections were hastily patched up with thin sheet metal. Miltia stood in front of the ramshackle repair and glanced at Elizabeth, who was holding a hand radio to her ear.
“Alright,” Pendleton’s voice came through the radio, “engaging hydraulic cutter.” There was a hiss from the front of the barn as conjured water burst from the armored car’s cannon and sliced through the hinges of the barn’s thick steel doors. The doors fell backwards and crushed some of the poor souls standing too close to the entrance alongside their makeshift barricades. Their friends were undeterred and instead chose to charge the armored cars. The resulting hail of fire incapacitated many of them as easily as a machinegun nest would.
The few that got through attempted to attack the armored cars. One mercenary thrusted a spear at the front left wheel of one car, popping it and causing the car to collide with another as it attempted to back up. An orc embedded her axe into another and pulled backwards, ripping off the armored plating and exposing the engine. A blood mage in the back threw a spear of demonic energy, the purple shaft overloading the engine and forcing the car’s occupants to bail out immediately. Within seconds, the failsafe activated, venting mana as a wave of ice that blanketed the area around the car and freezing some of the slower guardsman solid. The surviving occupants stumbled to their feet and begin backpedaling and firing.
On the other side of the barn, Elizabeth tapped Miltia’s shoulder. The wyvern sunk her talons into the bottom of the sheet metal and pulled up. The metal tore and crumpled under her draconic strength. While she was holding the sheet metal above her head, her three compatriots entered the barn and locked eyes with two mages, who were blinded by the sunlight. The elf and the valkyrie exploded forwards and engaged in a brief melee before knocking the mages out.
“Going up. Aidan, cover me.” Miltia said as she jumped through the roof and onto the second floor. Aidan took out his dagger and twirled it around as he sunk into the shadows. When she crashed through the floor, a mercenary was shoved off the balcony but not before he grabbed her ankle in desperation. As she started to fall, Aidan emerged from the shadow on the ground and hoisted her back up.
“Do be careful, dear.” Aidan said while breathing heavily. “We don’t have the luxury of errors now.”
“Right, sorry. The room at the end of the hall. That’s the one you saw, right?” The wyvern cracked her knuckles before embedding her talons into the flimsy wooden door. Aidan made an incomprehensible mishmash of words, alarmed that Miltia’s nonchalance could potentially endanger a hostage. She chose to rip the door and part of the wall off and throw it to the side instead, and Aidan sighed in relief. Inside was a woman barely out of girlhood roped to a wooden chair. She looked terrified when Miltia stepped in front of her but calmed down as the wyvern tore off her bonds.
“Anastasia Cross? Don’t worry. I’m working with the Versyl Police. You’re safe now, but be careful, the fighting’s still hot.”
“Can you carry the hostage to safety, dear?” Aidan asked as he began checking other rooms. “I think our comrades might require aid soon.”
Miltia nodded before grabbing the mayor’s daughter with her feet and flying through the roof, her own body shielding her passenger from debris. Anastasia shrieked like a banshee as she flew into the air and narrowly avoided a few stray shots of gunfire. The wyvern unceremoniously dropped her off near a makeshift triage up the road, much to the bewilderment of the guardsmen and officers there, before reversing course midflight.
“Thalia here,” Aidan’s voice came in over the radio, “upper level is clear of hostages.”
“Morrel here, five more hostages found on the lower levels. We’ve cordoned them off into a side room so the entrance should be clear. Can’t hold forever, Harry. We need that armor now.”
“Roger that, breach team.” Pendleton answered. “All armored cars and tank fire a volley at those barricades. Infantry, prepare to breach the front. Once the barricades are broken, armor will provide cover fire for the infantry.”
The tank crawled forwards and shot a ball of ice out of its main gun. The ice shattered a barricade and splintered outwards into small icicles that embedded itself into whatever it could. Around ground zero were several mages and mercenaries sprawled about, clutching shards of ice that hit their bodies. The remaining cabal forces broke momentarily, allowing the guardsmen to push forwards from the fences and troughs and cars they were ducking behind.
Some of them managed to enter the barn proper and the denizens of the barn began fleeing through any exit possible, sometimes making their own. As they were breaking towards the tree line, a torrent of mana bolts was unleashed upon them, knocking most of them down. Some became paralyzed in fear and indecision as the soldiers in the trees and the soldiers in the barn advanced towards them. Some threw up their arms and began begging for mercy. Some cracked under the pressure and began attacking wildly at friend and foe alike, frothing at the mouth. It was clear that the cabal forces had lost the will to fight. The battle was soon to be won.
“Alright, move those that aren’t critically injured out and give them some morphine or something, we have way too much of that anyways.” A greatcoat clad man said to two police officers. His gasmask was dangling around his neck next to his dog tags. “Those prisoners? I don’t think you people are interested in chump change like them, so we can take them to our stockades if you want. Besides, we have to figure out whether we can try them here or deport them elsewhere. Still can’t believe we didn’t capture a single member of their brass though.”
The four investigators, Richards, and Pendleton walked up to the man, whose expression remained as unchanging as stone. “Ah, Lieutenant Pendleton, I believe you owe us about five rounds of drinks now.”
“Yeah, yeah. I’ll pay up whenever they give me raise. If they ever give me a raise. By the way, if you’re bossing everyone around, where’s the captain?”
“She got hit during the fighting, enemy sniper. Stabilized but she’s content to stay in dreamland at the moment. So for all intents and purposes, I’m the acting captain now. Moving on, I assume you people would like to meet with the hostages before we take them under our care.”
Near the police cars were six hostages huddle in a circle, the soldiers keeping a slight distance away. Asta and Elizabeth began questioning the five they had rescued, writing down whatever they thought was important. Miltia was content to watch from afar but eventually decided to follow Pendleton and the guardsman and help coordinate the rest of the troops. Aidan on the other hand crouched down in front of Anastasia.
“Excuse me, miss,” He began gently, “This might not be the most appropriate time or place for this, but have we had an encounter prior to this?
“What?” she replied before shaking her head. “No. No we haven’t. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you before.”
“Are you certain? In my mind, I distinctly remember seeing someone like you in a bar just last night. Although that may just be the haze of alcohol dulling my senses.”
“It must be. I. I don’t drink, um. Yeah. I’ve also never been in a bar. Wait.” Her eyes widened in distress as she began hyperventilating. “That woman, the one that stole my face. Did she-“
“Worry not, miss,” Aidan put a hand on her shoulder, “there were no rumors about the mayor’s daughter working the bar, although her appearance was rather blatant. Her subterfuge has mercifully spared your reputation.” Anastasia sighed in response but still seemed shaken. Aidan smiled and waited for Anastasia to calm down. When her breathing returned to something resembling normal, he stood up and began tending to the wounded.
“Are you sure? Check again.” Asta said. Although her voice was level, she was glad that her helmet hid her face, as she was close to panicking.
“I’m sure.” Elizabeth gravely answered. “Out of all the captives we have, we could not find Anne or any other leaders the captives told us about. In other words, somehow their leaders managed to escape both us and the Provincial Guard.”
“There’s no way in hell they could have made a portal in the middle of a fight. Or found the necessary mana needed to open one anyways”
“We did find a heap of corpses in that one closet. They were relatively warm too, so I’d wager they used their ‘stock’ up doing that. With that much blood, we could power the city for a week. More than enough for a brief teleportation spell. It’s not like they could have taken the captives anyways. Use it or lose it, I suppose.” Elizabeth humorlessly joked.
“We’re operating under the assumption that they used a portal. We found no signs of that beyond the corpses. Do you think they had some obscuring technique? I remember hearing about those, pretty high-expertise spell, the actual knowledge behind it is hard to find too.” The elf nodded. The valkyrie sighed. “Every victory we achieve is always pyrrhic isn’t it? They’re always one step ahead.”
“Buck up, you’re bellyaching like an initiate.” Elizabeth said as she playfully punched Asta in the shoulder, resulting in a quiet clang as metal met metal. “According to the documents we salvaged, this place is the only major operation in the city’s vicinity. In other words, aside from a few safehouses within the city, I think we’ve got them on the run now. All we have to do is keep applying pressure and they’ll slip up eventually.”
“Perhaps,” Miltia interjected, “but rooting them out is going to be far more difficult now. They’ve scattered like cockroaches, so we’re going to need to change our paradigm soon.”
“Maybe we ought to step back for a moment and just let the winds of fate play out. I’d be a horrid host if I didn’t show you around the festival, dear. Oh, and that chastisement also applies to our two citizens over here as well.” Aidan suggested.
“It’s an idea.” Elizabeth said as she shrugged. “The PG‘s taking Miss Cross into their custody for the time being in case her doppelganger tries to kill her, so we at least have tabs on Anne. I suppose all we can do is wait for her to meet with her compatriots again and then deliver the killing blow.”
“Well I’ll be damned. It seems that aside from being literal monsters in combat, you lot are also capable of premonition.” Pendleton joked as he walked up to the group. “Just got off the line with the city’s top brass. Mayor, chief, even IAT whatsit. You four are to be reserved for when the survivors poke their heads out again. The rest of the time is yours. After effectively dismantling a highly competent criminal ring in the span of a day and a half, I’d say it’s well earned, even if we did just blunder our entire way through this. So take some time off. We’ll pound these bastards into the dust soon enough.”
“I think it’s obvious that you’ve become our trump cards in this little war of ours.” Richards commented.
“Come now, this operation would have ended in failure had you not showed up with a small army at their doorstep.” Aidan replied. “I’d wager that between the six of us, we have an entire deck’s worth of trump cards. And we’ve yet to play them all.”
Pendleton grinned. “If that’s true, than these bastards won’t stand a chance. If you guys want to leave now, I’m more than happy to give a lift back. This thing’s a loaner anyways, and I’m pretty sure the rightful owners are probably worried right now. And they’ll probably be very mad too, but that’s my problem. The PG don’t have enough vehicles so they’re occupying the dairy until they can carry all the suspects back to their base. And we sure as hell aren’t going to parade them through the city, that’s just going to cause a panic. So, if you’re interested, get in. The other LT’s gonna give me the scolding of a lifetime if I don’t hurry back.”
Between the six of them and two wounded policemen, the interior of the armored car was a tight squeeze, to the point where Miltia decided to just cling to the roof instead. Asta eventually joined her as well. A bump in the road caused her to embed her claymore into the roof, much to the horror of the officers in the back and the bemusement of Aidan and Elizabeth in the front.
Eight SWAT team members were crossing their arms and staring furiously at Pendleton, their faces a mixture of disgust and despair.
“Lieutenant Pendleton. Sergeant Richards.” A square-jawed man began. “When we loaned you our squad car for a ‘small sting operation,’ you promised to give it back with minimal damage. When you said that, I assumed that you would only scratch the paint job. So why is half the front plating gone!?”
“It’s not gone, we tied it to the back.” Richards answered plainly as he pointed behind him. While Pendleton was straining to maintain a straight face, Richards had an almost childlike honesty in his demeanor. “During the fighting, we were hit by a fireball followed swiftly by a torrent of water. That probably weakened the structure but not enough to sever it. It actually came off when we swerved off the road because of a deer herd. We hit a tree and it fell off.”
“Fucking Richards. And I just came up with a good cover story, too.” Pendleton quietly hissed to himself.
“That will be enough from the lot of you.” Ashworth said tiredly. The other lieutenant was dead tired, to the point where his eyes resembled that of a raccoon. “Lieutenant Pendleton’s actions are very unconventional and very reckless. To him, the only rule is survive. One might say that his mentality is more at home in an isolated ragtag band of soldiers rather than a well-supplied and disciplined police force.” Pendleton glared at him. “Objectively however, I cannot deny that his actions today have been more than worth the sacrifice. Similarly, I cannot deny that he is one of the department’s greatest assets against the more dangerous criminal elements. Regardless, it’s a good thing armor is replaceable, isn’t it?”
“Oh good, saved by the brownnoser.” Pendleton whispered to Richards, who smiled in response.
“I’m going to ignore that comment, Harold.” Ashworth sighed. “We’re starting a briefing with the rest of the police force. At least the ones that are here anyways, the rest I’ll fill in later. It’s about cabal search and suppression tactics. If you don’t mind, I’m dragging you two in there with me as advisors. After that, I’ll leave you to your own devices again.”
Ashworth dragged a grumbling Pendleton and a neutral Richards into a dark room lined with rows of chairs.
“Nice to see your technique hasn’t gotten sloppy, Aidan.” Miltia said as she blocked a punch. The gym floor was cleared out to make an impromptu sparring ring, the weights and machines had been haphazardly stacked near the walls.
“Practice makes perfect. I’ve fared quite well in the occasional bar fight, and against the occasional heckler.” Aidan backed up before ducking down and elbowing Miltia in the stomach.
“Bit excessive there. Ah well, at least you aren’t misusing it for anything too bad.” The wyvern used her natural strength to leap into the air and jumped off the ceiling. She stretched out her wings and glided towards him, her clawed foot ready to strike. Her partner narrowly avoided her, rolling haphazardly to the side.
He collected himself and concentrated mana into his fist. When he charged and drove it into her back, she jolted forwards and tumbled onto the ground. The wyvern quickly got back up and restored her posture. The two circled each other for a few seconds before she broke the standoff. As she charged forwards, Aidan stepped to the side and tripped her, but not before she hooked him with her talons and pulled him down with her. They scrambled upwards in opposite directions and again reassumed stances.
“Wow. You two are still going?” Elizabeth casually remarked as she entered the gym with a small basket of drinks in tow. “Impressive. I can see you are both very well trained, but I can’t even hazard a guess as to what that style is.”
“Makes sense,” Miltia answered bluntly, “it’s not really that well known, there aren’t that many practitioners to begin with, and it doesn’t really have an official name. It’s just something matriarch Aerland came up with.”
“Never heard of anything like that.” Asta commented as she tossed a water bottle to Miltia. “Is it something from Sinstra?”
“I’m almost certain it predates even our country.” Aidan answered as he took a swig of water. “Aerland refers of course to the matriarch of wyverns, their unofficial queen more or less. Although her only source of respect is derived from being the oldest wyvern alive more than anything else.”
“Doesn’t mean she’s a slouch though.” Miltia continued after she sat down. “She has decades of combat experience and I’m pretty sure she’s served in every major war on the continent. After my mother died, she took my sister and me in and raised us. The combat training was just part of my upbringing.”
“I see.” Asta looked concerned. “You have my sympathies. About your mother, I mean.”
Miltia held a hand up in protest. “Don’t worry about it. Our country had a bloody secession against the Empire twenty years ago and had to fight off a crusade of zealots a decade prior. Time marches ever onwards, and considering that about a quarter of my generation is missing either one or both parents, it’s hardly something worth crying over. It wasn’t so bad, the matriarch and her ilk were pretty nice and she had a good track record with adoption anyways. Sounds grim, but it’s just a fact of life.”
“And I of course became curious of my best friend’s escapades and approached the matriarch for training as well.” Aidan said jovially as he clasped his hands together with an audible smack. He face had an immense and forced grin on it. “Lacking the physiology of wyvern-kind, the matriarch was very hesitant at first. But my charm, talent, and persistence caused her to reconsider.”
“The matriarch didn’t want to train him at first, since first and foremost this a style created solely for wyverns.” Miltia continued, unfazed by Aidan’s interruption. “As you can imagine, without wings or talons or claws or even scales, he can’t do most of the advanced techniques. Hell, some of the basic techniques are useless to him. But he did have an aptitude for magic, so she decided to train him on that aspect instead. It actually worked out pretty well, since I was absolute garbage at the magic anyways.”
“Might and magic in accord. Two souls fighting as one. We were trained to fight alongside each other, romantic isn’t it?” Aidan said, causing Miltia to groan and roll her eyes.
“Seems our foreign guests have more than a few surprises left.” Elizabeth said as she took out a bottle of soda. “I can’t help but notice that the way you fight is far different than any dragon or reptilian I’ve ever seen. It seems more measured and flighty.”
Miltia shrugged. “It’s partially nature and partially nurture. Dragons are innately prideful beings with very strong desires to conquer and command. This naturally extends to every part of their life. Giving up and conceding weakness are grave sins to them. Retreat and surrender are unthinkable under any circumstances. From what the matriarch tells me, usual dragon styles focus on unrelenting power, on exploiting a weakness to create new weaknesses and exploiting those in turn.”
“Powerful when flawlessly executed,” Aidan immediately continued, “but ultimately dependent on momentum. The moment a dragon loses the upper hand, they stall and are easily blustered into a rage. This was what the matriarch and many early wyverns exploited to win.”
“Wyverns like me probably have more in common with birds of prey than other reptilian monsters. We prefer waiting for an opening, striking, then flying away into the safety of the clouds instead. If dragons are your quintessential chivalric knights, than we’d be your quintessential guerilla fighters. That’s probably why they kicked my ancestors out of Dragonspire. To them, we’re nothing more than lazy opportunistic scoundrels. Suits us just fine, we see dragons as bullheaded prideful brutes.”
“The lizards and salamanders still hold dragons in the highest respect, perhaps out of some imagined relationship or reverence. As such, they inevitably try to imitate the dragons’ styles, although they often lack the strength and will to do so. Although the dragons are more flattered than anything else.” Aidan chuckled as he pulled up a chair and sat down. “The contrast between your knightly styles is equally interesting. One is very minimalist, the other very artful elegant.”
“Makes sense.” Asta started as she stood up and held a wooden practice sword in front of her. She made a few test swings before performing simple jabs and slashes. “Sunset Knights don’t have much in the way of honor or tradition or etiquette. So we take whatever techniques we can from other styles and reduce them to the essentials and basics. Don’t expect any fancy esoteric skills from us, except that lance of course. We care about getting the job done.”
“Such a shame, you would be rather intimidating using your claymore and pistol together.” Elizabeth said jokingly.
“No. There’s no way I could swing and shoot accurately at the same time.”
“Of course not. You know, you’ve left the Sunset Knights behind, so you can actually have a sense of humor again, ok?” Elizabeth said, causing Asta to grumble as she resumed her drills. “As for me, Shrouds Knights are used to being nomadic self-sufficient chapters. I don’t know how the other chapters do things, but the one I joined up with was more focused on the healing aspect of our job rather than the hurting. The staff happened to be one of the better nonlethal weapons. Simple to make, maintain, and enchant. Lightweight to carry and unintimidating, so it’s great for bedside manner. I just wish our uniform looked less like plague doctors. There were a lot of people that found us somber and unsettling.”
“Man, you guys are all talking about martial arts, and the old soldier in me feels left out.” Pendleton said as he entered the gym with Richards following behind. He looked tired, but also relieved. “Hard to believe I’m the old fogey talking about the antiquated ways of war. Then again, most people couldn’t stand up to mages back then, and even fewer could match vehicles on foot.”
“Warfare sure has changed since our Confederate days, sir.” Richards smiled nostalgically.
“You two were part of the Confederacy?” Miltia asked as she stretched her wings above her head.
“Absolutely.” The elf answered. “I fought against them many times when I was a rookie knight. Hard to believe I’d be serving with them decades in the future. The times have certainly changed. For both of us.”
“Yeah.” Pendleton smiled sadly as he stared into the distance. “We served in the Confederacy of Occidia, before the supremacists in the east decided to rename it the Dominion of Man. Back then, we thought the Holy Occidial Empire was just a band of upstart fundamentalists and religious zealots looking for an excuse to ostracize demons and force everyone else to worship angelic monsters.”
“In our defense,” Elizabeth countered amicably, “the church the first Seraph formed would have never gotten as big as it did were it not for the supremacists’ policy towards monsterkind post-Resurgence. That’s not meant to be an indictment against the Confederacy as a whole of course, many of them were perfectly fine with monsters, both demonic and angelic. It’s just that the mere presence of a human supremacist faction in national politics stoked the persecution complex of many within our ranks. Although I’m not too fond of the new wave of hatred towards demonic monsters in the Empire myself.”
“We don’t really have a rebuttal to that, mostly because we actually hate the Homines Primi party as much as you do.” Richards answered bluntly. “The war would be over in weeks, the media and the generals said to us. Nothing can possibly stop our newly invented armored cars. No one except Pegasus-mounted knights with angelsteel lances. And angels with holy magic. And that’s before our infantry got butchered by the hero auxiliary legions. It was like a medieval faire gone wrong.”
“And high command, in their brilliance, decided that our best option would be to hold the line.” Pendleton said, scoffing. “Since we actually possessed common sense, we opted to misinterpret where the lines actually were and retreated eastward. Unfortunately for us, the Empire moved faster than we did, so most of the time we were trying to escape hostile territory. Along the way, the war started getting worse.”
“When the war turned sour and forces began retreating left and right, the Confederacy banked its entire defensive strategy on holding the east coast using the Aldegund Mountains and the Amac River as natural barriers.” Richards explained. “In the north, Confederate territory seceded and formed the Cognos Magocracy in protest to the increasing support for the nascent Homines Primi party. Cognos quickly declared neutrality, but took more than half of the Confederacy’s remaining military and industrial power with it.”
“In the south,” Pendleton began, “the Empire launched a simultaneous amphibious and airborne assault along the entire span of the river. Mind you, this was before anyone bothered to develop anti-air since the only thing we had to worry about back then were hot-air balloons. This invasion was where the Order of the Pegasus got its claim to fame. They practically skewered the Confederate defensive line, destroying artillery and machinegun emplacements relentlessly, paving a way for the biggest amphibious crossing in modern history. Poor bastards didn’t stand a chance. It demoralized our country and allowed the supremacists in the military to declare martial law without major opposition. After we heard news of that, we decided to just give up and desert to Cognos.”
“This sounds eerily familiar to something I learned in Ranger training.” Miltia said. She could barely hide her excitement and was on the edge of her seat. “Were you two part of the Fourth Battlegroup by any chance?”
“Were they part of the Fourth Battlegroup, she asks.” Elizabeth laughed. “I figured you would have figured it out by now, since they didn’t even bother hiding it. Then again, I suppose hiding in plain sight is the way to go. Pendleton and Richards. Change it a bit, and you get Pendel and Richardson. That ring any bells?”
“Oh dear, I do believe you’ve struck a chord in her. She rarely gets this enthused.” Aidan said as Miltia’s eyes were filled with childlike glee and admiration.
“Shut up, Aidan.” Miltia looked dead serious, much to Aidan’s amusement. “How could you not be excited when we’re in the presence of one of the most prominent figures in the history of mechanized warfare? I studied you back during training, sir. We focused a lot on your usage of improvised armored vehicles.”
“Well look at that, we’re old enough to become battlefield legends.” Richards remarked.
Pendleton laughed sheepishly and scratched the back of his neck. “Well, they say the hottest fire forges the strongest steel, and we had the half the Imperial army after our heads, so yeah. We kinda had to make do. We weren’t alone though, the historians love playing up the role of our vehicles; probably because the Imperials don’t want to admit that our infantry eventually became just as good as the Empire’s. We made a detour south and ended up meeting one hell of a marine platoon, led by a Sergeant Hanlon.”
“Crazy vixen that one was, young too.” Richards chuckled and shook his head. “We used to joke that she had hellhound in her lineage and honestly, I’m still convinced she does. She loved a good fight and was absolutely brutal with a tomahawk. I think you guys would have liked her. Her marines took to bayou and river fighting like fish to water, like they were part crocodile. It was thanks to them that we managed to run northwards before the Empire began its southern invasion.”
“Like something out of those western settler stories everyone loves now, I swear.” Pendleton joked. “Waves upon waves of armored cars and APCs and ragtag soldiers following and fording rivers northward.”
“Ah, so that’s who she was,” Elizabeth said, “I remembered a human girl charging our camps in the dead of night. Took down plenty knights in her time, I’ll tell you kids that much. Where’s she now? Sounds like she’d be fun to fight against.”
“That’s a hard question to answer.” Richards replied. “After we deserted and arrived in Cognos, she and her marines decided to dredge up an old cruiser and formed a privateer crew. She sends us letters every now and again. Last we heard, she was around the Atic Gulf to the south raiding Imperial and Dominion warships. She’s probably not as decrepit as the two of us but she’s getting up there too. Now Rourke on the other hand, that’s someone none of us have seen in forever.”
“He was one of our engineers, a damn good one. Insane and completely lacking in foresight and common sense, mind you.” Pendleton said. “We haven’t seen him since we got here decades ago, but we do hear rumors about a travelling tech savant every once in a while, so that’s probably him. Guy had a terrible attention span, so he just flitted around tinkering like a crazed gremlin. The stuff he made was decades ahead of its time, when they worked. Hell. The tank the PG used earlier today, the one with the sloped armor? Rumor has it that it was based off his designs.”
“Seems like quite the interesting intellectual. Now that was a pleasant stroll down memory lane.” Aidan said as he leaned back in his chair. “But I digress, were you two not entrusted with the security of this city?”
“Well we were,” Richards admitted while grinning slyly, “and I’m sure Pendleton’s counterpart would be rather miffed should we abandon our duties.”
“Well, I was about to go back but you know what? That brownnoser can take care of things for just one night.” Pendleton said as he sunk further into his chair. “It’s not like anyone’s gonna try anything after what we did this morning. So why don’t you kids, and Elizabeth, kick back and we’ll tell you more about how the Fourth Battlegroup hightailed it here whilst nearly shitting our pants?”
“Of course. Absolutely.” Miltia replied energetically. While she wasn’t smiling, she looked like she was on the verge of doing so.