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An Odd Couple Chp 3

nonanonymous Nov 4th, 2016 (edited) 482 Never
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  1.     “So there we were, suspect in tow and ready to haul her off to jail.” Asta lied. She was sitting at a circular oak table in the police station’s break room, flanked by Aidan, Pendleton, and Morrel. It was midnight, a little past shift change. Thus, most of the night cops were leaving to do their rounds while the evening cops had already gone home or to the festivities. “When suddenly, we were stopped by a guy wearing a mask. You know the type, those stereotypical drama masks and all. Guy flashes his badge at us, says he’s Internal Affairs, and takes our suspect with him. Says she’s tied to the Sanguine Cabal, you know those guys? Said IAT will keep in touch with us.”
  2.  
  3.     “Fuck, this goes all the way to the capital?” Pendleton grumbled. He took a swig from his white coffee mug filled with the wine Aidan stole. “If they’re sending in the big shots and the cabal’s involved, then holy hell. What have we gotten ourselves into this time?”
  4.  
  5.     “As much as I would love to ameliorate the situation,” Aidan apologetically said, “I fear I have heard rumors amongst the diplomats that my nation’s Intelligence Division has also mobilized an agent against our perpetrators.”
  6.  
  7.     “You’ve got to be kidding. Does anyone else feel like an incredibly small fish in an incredibly big ocean?” Morrel said flatly as she looked at everyone else.
  8.  
  9.     “Well, I hate to be the bearer of even more bad news, but well…yeah.” Miltia said as she walked in the door. When her bandaged form was in full view, Asta and Morrel looked surprised and worried, Aidan merely raised his eyebrow, and Pendleton seemed unfazed.
  10.  
  11.     “Have you gotten yourself into yet another avoidable scuffle, dear Miltia?” Aidan scolded.
  12.  
  13.     Miltia shrugged. “I couldn’t punch the mage fast enough, so he managed to cast a spell. Won’t happen again.”
  14.  
  15.     “Really, you touch my heart with your concern for my concerns. I, of course, jest. After all, I distinctly recall you saying the exact same thing the last, I don’t know, ten times.”
  16.  
  17.     “Yeah yeah, whatever. Hate you too, dear.” Miltia flippantly replied as she sat down opposite of Asta. “So, the warehouse we busted earlier today, it got infiltrated by some cabal plant, think she was the receptionist at the Sinstran Consulate. Probably trying to assess their operations or something. She was killed though, stabbed through the heart on site. Guard there didn’t hear much and the guy was too panicked to give any description of the killer beyond, and I quote verbatim, ‘giant angry demonic jack-o-lantern.’  Honestly, the only useful thing I got out of him was that the plant mentioned Jester.”
  18.  
  19.     Aidan dropped his lackadaisical grin and Officer Morrel’s eyes widened. “Jester?” Aidan asked gravely. “Are you sure?” Miltia gravely nodded.
  20.  
  21.     “Great.” Morrel said in a resigned voice before she downed an entire mug’s worth of alcohol. “Internal Affairs, Sinstran Intelligence, and Jester against the Sanguine Cabal. And there are us cops. Here I thought we couldn’t be any more insignificant than we already were.”
  22.  
  23.     Pendleton looked at Asta, who seemed just as confused as he was, although she was trying to hide her expression by drinking from her mug. When he looked at Miltia she met his gaze and clarified, “Jester is an unofficial division of the Rangers, usually tasked with assassination and subterfuge. An appropriate analogy would be that if normal Rangers such as myself are government-backed adventurers, then Jesters are government-backed hitmen.”
  24.  
  25.     “Do not expect any of that insight from officers, officia-. Pardon me. Officials, officer. That satyr’s wine must be working its way through my bloodstream now. As a diplomat, it is technically my responsibility to deny the very existence of any unit known as Jester. With that said, their nature is an open secret to those willing to pry.” Aidan said.
  26.  
  27.     “No sense having a deterrent if people don’t know about it.” Morrel added. “Jesters are surprisingly skilled infiltrators too, we all probably know one or two but don’t realize it. Although I suppose that can be said about every agent from the three organizations supposedly ‘helping’ us. Moving on, something doesn’t add up about you guys. I heard from Ashworth that you guys were investigating the murder of that administrator, Mason. You know more than both I and Pendleton do, so fill us in. How does he fit into all this?”
  28.  
  29.     Asta, Miltia, and Aidan looked at each other before nodding simultaneously. Asta cleared her throat before saying, “The Internal Affairs contact, he said to us that apparently Noah Mason was a trafficker for the cabal, much like the suspect we caught.”
  30.  
  31.     The two veterans seemed unimpressed. Morrel looked mildly surprised before returning to her usual poker face. Pendleton just shrugged as he took another swig of his wine. “Eh, not the weirdest thing to come out of this city. Hell, half the time we’re apprehending criminals in the seedy underbelly and the other half we’re apprehending criminals in our own damned government. Side effects of being a major trade and immigration center I suppose.”
  32.  
  33.     “At this point, I’m used to being undermanned and underequipped against vastly superior foes.” Morrel quipped. “Remind me to tell you guys of the time we busted a mafia stronghold with nothing more than ten cops and about four cops’ worth of ammo between us.”
  34.  
  35.     “I just had a disturbing line of thought.” Miltia interrupted. “If Mason’s killer is the same as the plant’s, then could the person we’re looking for be a Jester? If so, what’re our plans moving forward?”
  36.  
  37.     “It’s a tad too early for speculation, dear. Even then, do you truly wish to contend with a Jester? I’ll flee for my life if that is our course of action.” Aidan replied with a serious tone. “I’ll tell you more about my and Asta’s adventures later, but know at the very least that we have a trafficking sting tomorrow, courtesy of our lead.”
  38.  
  39.     “You should’ve seen him, Miltia.” Asta said. “He’s frighteningly observant. When he was leaning on the apartment balcony, he turned around the second our suspect snuck behind him.”
  40.  
  41.     “Really?” Miltia asked. “If he was on a balcony, are you sure he wasn’t just terrified out of his mind when he looked down? He can usually stomach heights for about a minute before his fear response kicks in and he bolts away.”
  42.  
  43.     Aidan laughed nervously as he slapped Miltia’s shoulder. “Come now, love. I’m not a child anymore, I’m sure I’m able to silence that primal fear of mine.”
  44.  
  45.     “Ha, seems like you folks have a fun time ahead of you. Wish I could join, but chief and the LT have other plans for this fossil.” Pendleton said as he pointed a thumb to himself. He cracked a tired smile. “Since two officers are out of commission and since the rest of the department seems incapable of tying their own shoelaces, Richards and I have been assigned to help oversee general city security. Oh, and Carson’s going back on the beat too, so don’t expect any help from him. We’ve got your radios frequencies though, so if my boys see anything, you’ll be the first to know.”
  46.  
  47.     “And what are you doing, Morrel?” Asta asked as she looked skeptically at the brown haired elf, who for once flashed a confident smile. Her green eyes were filled with quiet glee.
  48.  
  49.     “I’m going to be joining you. I’m not letting you youngsters have all the fun. And don’t look at me like that, Asta. I might look like I’m twenty, but I’m sure I have at least a good thirty years on you. Anyhow, I suppose Officer Morrel is a tad too formal if we’re going to be working together. Just call me Elizabeth, that’ll make things easier.”
  50.  
  51.     “And what does this far-lived forest dweller offer to us?”
  52.  
  53.     “In a past life, I was an Imperial knight. Back then, I was Knight Sergeant Elizabeth, First Squad, Second Company, Fifth Chapter of the Order of the Shroud. After what happened in the warehouse today, I think you guys are going to need every bit of firepower you can get. The whole Sanguine Cabal business I just learned about only reinforces that decision. Trust me, when I use my real gear, I know how to handle mages. Been a while since I could go all out, so I might be a bit rusty. But don’t worry, shouldn’t take me too long to get back in top form.”
  54.  
  55.     “’Healing or death,’ huh?” Miltia echoed the Shroud Knights’ motto. “Good, we can use you, might give the cabal a bit of a scare.” She yawned. “Huh, it’s getting late and the booze isn’t helping much. How about we call it a day and meet back up tomorrow? Aidan, where do you live? I need somewhere to crash.”
  56.  
  57.     “And here I thought you couldn’t stand my mere presence.” He said teasingly. Unlike his behavior at the club, Aidan was legitimately drunk now. He was teetering back and forth in his seat.
  58.  
  59.     “I don’t want to pay for a room. Also, you are way too drunk, but at the same time I think I’m too tired to fly you all the way there. Can one of you give us a lift, preferably in a larger vehicle?”
  60.  
  61.     Asta shook her head and sighed. “I’ll do it, so long as you help me move all your gear. I’m not that drunk yet, so tell me the address and you guys should get there relatively safely.”
  62.  
  63. ----------
  64.  
  65.     After saying their goodbyes and packing everything into an undercover van, Asta began to drive to the apartment Aidan was staying in. The ride was eventful, as Asta had to focus on driving in spite of her drunken haze, although the erratic behavior of other drivers through the more festive parts of the city hinted that she wasn’t the only drunk driver on the streets. She strained her eyes as lights adorned on walls and columns blurred past her. The muffled sounds of music became oscillated in volume as she passed by each street. Aidan slurred out the events of his day to Miltia, who was leaning against the passenger window in the back seat and looked ready to pass out.
  66.  
  67.     When the trio arrived at a humble five-story brick-and-mortar building, Aidan and Miltia got out and retrieved their equipment. After greeting the half-asleep receptionist, the two of them staggered into the elevator, arms over each other’s shoulder. They were both desperate to collapse onto a bed, one due to inebriation and the other due to exhaustion. Aidan fiddled with his key for a few moments, missing the hole numerous times before finally unlocking his door.
  68.  
  69.     His room was a small suite, with a stark white mini-kitchen in one corner and a bathroom in another. Manuscripts, books, and sheets of music were strewn atop various wardrobes and cabinets here and there alongside empty bottles. His desk was irresponsibly covered in files labelled top secret, but Miltia was too tired to scold him. They were both making their way to the bed when their stomachs suddenly rumbled in unison.
  70.  
  71.     “Oh right, I haven’t eaten anything since breakfast.” Miltia mumbled before she yawned again.
  72.  
  73.     “Me too. Here’s an idea. I’ll just magic some sustenance. Make some sandwiches or something. Go take a shower, think the bathroom’s too small for the two of us. Sadly.” Aidan slurred out as he made his way to his refrigerator. He took some meat and bread out of plastic bags along with a knife and went to work, being extra careful to not cut off his own fingers in his drunkenness. Over time, he took out some vegetables and seasonings, leaving a mess on the countertop.
  74.  
  75.     “Sure, just don’t burn the building down.” Miltia said as she removed her flak vest and olive green undershirt. Her figure was trim and straight like an arrow, and despite her strength she only had a small amount of apparent muscle, a six-pack barely visible below her flat chest. Unlike her tanned face, her torso was pale as the moon, contrasting her burgundy scales. Her human flesh, much like the rest of her body, was scarred with a crisscross of faded slash marks and puncture wounds, a testament to the many fights she had survived and the dangers she had faced. She could have prevented the formation of many of her scars had she sought a healer, but then again, healers were often in short supply in the wilderness. When she entered the bathroom, she removed her bandages, satisfied that some of her scales were already starting to grow back. As the warm water of the shower rained down on her, she closed her eyes and almost fell asleep right there and then.
  76.  
  77.     After she and Aidan finished showering, they were eating silently, Miltia on the bed and Aidan at his desk. Both of them were too hungry and too tired to muster much small talk. “Miltia,” Aidan began sedately, “this might be just a suspicion, but you seem more intense than usual.”
  78.  
  79.     “Wha?” Miltia replied before lazily biting her sandwich.
  80.  
  81.     “Usually you treat everything with a sense of professional detachment. And, given your occupation, I can understand why. But here and now, you carry a far more personal drive. Let me guess, it’s him, isn’t it?”
  82.  
  83.     Miltia sighed. If she had more energy, she would be yelling. If she had more energy, she would at least be angry. But as it stood, she could barely glare at Aidan. All her energy was devoted to merely talking. “Yeah. Found his name in the letters we recovered. I actually asked to be assigned to this.”
  84.  
  85.     “Ah yes, the motherfucker was your rather apt appellation of him.” Aidan said softly. The combined effects of fatigue and alcohol were making both of them far more civilized than they normally were about this discussion. “So do you know how he’s involved?”
  86.  
  87.     “No, but this is the closest I’ve gotten to him in a while.”
  88.  
  89.     “And your plans for the inevitable encounter, what are they?”
  90.  
  91.     “Drag him back to Mom’s grave. Ask him why he left. The usual stuff. Then, if his answers aren’t satisfactory, well,” she held up her talons, “then I’m going to break his heart like he broke Mom’s.”
  92.  
  93.     “We’ve done this song and dance ad nauseam, and here’s yet another rendition. You assume you can catch a legend. How? And what of your sister, what would she think about this?”
  94.  
  95.     “I assume even the great Ignatio would pause if his stepdaughter walked up to him and started shouting at him. And Aria, she doesn’t even know the prick. He left before she was born. She doesn’t care.”
  96.  
  97.     “Still speaking for people you don’t even understand. Typical. And after this twisted endeavor of yours ends, what of you?” Aidan was resting his head against his desk now, displacing the government secrets he had been entrusted with.
  98.  
  99. Miltia looked sideways. “Don’t know. Keep serving I guess. ‘s the only thing I’m good at.”
  100.  
  101.     “For what purpose?” Miltia remained silent. Aidan sighed as he mustered the last of his energy. “I’m a patriot, Miltia. Not matter how much time I’ve spent into Cognos, I love Sinstra with all my heart. The rust red mountains in the west, the verdant forests of our heartland, the way the skies turn purple and orange during a sunset. The railroads and highways standing against the vegetation. The campsites and villages sprawling around the giant tree settlements. Our queen, even the retirement home that is our parliament. Our ideals, the diverse assortment of cultures and peoples that have made our country what it is. I love every part of it, that’s why I choose to go away. To keep it safe from those that would take those things away from us. From those that can’t stand the notion of our independence. So I ask this of you, why keep serving? What loyalty keeps you tied to this nation? What principles keep you alive? Keep you motivated to take action?”
  102.  
  103. There was a minute of silence as the two just stared at each other. “I don’t know.” Miltia emotionlessly declared.
  104.  
  105.     “Figures. You may call me foolish, but you’re the fool, dear. Hmm. This conversation has dragged on longer than usual, probably because we can’t resort to fisticuffs. Well, let’s go to sleep, it’d be insulting to Asta and Elizabeth if we were dead tomorrow.” Neither of them said a word as they threw the remainders of their sandwiches into a trashcan and collapsed onto Aidan’s bed. When their heads reached the pillows they both fell asleep immediately, too tired to even dream.
  106.  
  107. ----------
  108.  
  109.     “Can you two please get up sometime soon? We have a job to do.” Asta’s voice came through Miltia’s radio, which was lying near the bed next to an olive drab duffel bag. The two lovers groaned as they slowly opened their eyes, their limbs intertwined like a mess of rope. As they slowly worked their way out of the knot their bodies had created overnight, Miltia bent one arm down and scooped up the radio in her talons.
  110.  
  111.     “We’re up, stop complaining. Let us eat breakfast first.” She grumbled as she stood up and stretched her winged arms over her head. Neither of them thought much of their argument last night, they had other things to do.
  112.  
  113.     “About that, Elizabeth decided to make something for you two. And she brought some painkillers. So please just get down here.” Asta pleaded. Miltia began reapplying her bandages as Aidan changed into a pair of khakis, a buttoned-up shirt, and a light grey jacket with armored padding on the inside. When they were done changing, Aidan put on a leather satchel and Miltia put on her duffel bag. When they left the apartment Aidan squinted and rubbed his temples, clearly nursing a rather nasty hangover.
  114.  
  115.     “Seems our two lovebirds have woken up. Take these, we’ve got a busy day ahead of us.” Morrel said as the two Sinstrans entered the back of the van. She had given them a small plastic box with scrambled eggs, biscuits, and bacon. Atop the boxes were plastic utensils and a small bag containing painkillers. Aidan and Miltia said their thanks and immediately began to devour their breakfast, shoveling as much food into their mouths as possible.
  116.  
  117.     “Seraph take me, they’re like children. I hope they don’t leave a mess in this thing.” Asta quietly complained to Elizabeth as she drove them out of the parking lot. The elf chuckled as she lightly tossed two bottles of milk to the back seats.
  118.  
  119.     “You’re hardly older than them, Asta. If they’re children, then that doesn’t make you any better. And besides, I can look overlook this display of immaturity if only because they’ve let me practice my maternal duties again.”
  120.  
  121.     “Oh, is your family not here?” Asta asked. She looked back to see Aidan shove the pills down his mouth and chug the milk.
  122.  
  123.     “My husband is a national park caretaker back in the Empire and my children have long since grown up and started families of their own.” Elizabeth said proudly. “My time as an officer in this country is more a flight of fancy for my personal fulfillment.”
  124.  
  125.     “Exactly how old are you?”
  126.  
  127.     Elizabeth smirked. “Old enough to get the senior citizen discount. And that’s all that matters at my age.”
  128.  
  129.     “Right. Whatever you say.” Asta looked through her rearview mirror to see Miltia snatch a piece of bacon from Aidan’s box, only for Aidan to steal some of Miltia’s scrambled eggs. She groaned. “Anyways, you seem to be rather happy now. Happier than I’ve ever seen you. That’s for sure.”
  130.  
  131.     “Oh, perhaps. At the end of the day, the life of a police officer or a medic are hardly satisfying. I’m an adventurer at heart.” The elf laughed jovially. “I suppose there might have been a more selfish motive in helping you three. Even this car ride is making me nostalgic.”
  132.  
  133.     “Including the two idiots in the back?” Asta looked in her rearview mirror again to see Miltia holding the last biscuit on one side and pushing her talons against Aidan’s face on the other. Her face looked like she was ready to go to war. Aidan was desperately reaching for the biscuit, mere inches away as he fought to gain ground.
  134.  
  135.     “You’d be surprised. No adventuring party is complete without petty quarrels between comrades. You ought to find someone like that yourself, dear. Someone you can completely relax with. Someone that makes you feel like a kid again. Believe me, it does wonders for the mind.”
  136.  
  137. ----------
  138.  
  139.     The rest of the trip passed by uneventfully as Asta and Elizabeth continued their small talk and Aidan and Miltia continued to quarrel immaturely over their food, much to Asta’s annoyance and Elizabeth’s amusement. By late morning, the four of them had made it to the raunchier portion of the entertainment district and passed by the now dead Seared Wings club. Most of the partiers and tourists had either gone home or were now visiting the classier establishments near the historic parts of town. Only the occasional drifter or worker was milling about the deserted clubs and bars. Asta parked the van next to the sidewalk of a convenience store and the four investigators retrieved their bags and satchels from the trunk.
  140.  
  141.     “Criminal activity in the middle of the day. Are you sure this information is correct?” Miltia whispered.
  142.  
  143.     Asta nodded. “It’s not that unimaginable in this part of the city. During the day, this place is absolutely dead except for homeless people or travelers making a pit stop to another part of the city. The perfect place to make a brief exchange and go along your merry way. No one would notice anything out of the ordinary. Now follow me closely, you don’t want to get lost in these alleyways.” She went first into the crevice between the convenience store and some abandoned club for sale. Her head oscillated left and right as she scanned the dimly lit alleys. The newest architectural fad was large awnings or overhangs, blocking much of the sunlight in the alleyways. Miltia served as rearguard, stalking behind them and occasionally looking over her shoulder.
  144.  
  145.     As Asta looked around a corner, she stopped and raised her right hand. The others in turn also stopped, but not before lightly colliding into each other and causing their equipment to clank and jingle up and down the alleys as echoes. The valkyrie grimaced slightly before saying, “I see a slime and a tied up man. I don’t see anyone else, and there wasn’t anyone coming our way.”
  146.  
  147.     “A moment of planning then. How fortunate.” Elizabeth remarked. “We should discuss our course of action. Should we strike them before the cabal arrives or should we wait and tail them to their hideout? Personally, I don’t like the idea of leaving a civilian in danger.”
  148.  
  149.     “But we can’t keep cracking down on them. They know who we are, and they’ll start covering their tracks soon enough. I say we wait and see where this goes.” Miltia coldly replied.
  150.  
  151.     “Your pragmatism is disturbing, but technically not wrong.” Aidan replied as he pulled out a handgun and slotted a magazine in. “Still, my conscience prohibits me from leaving that fellow to suffer. If you wish to look on with apathy, I want no part of it.”
  152.  
  153.     “And so we’re at an impasse. Great.” Asta put her fist to her mouth. Her mind was debating with itself. She wanted to agree with Miltia, but that would put the group into a deadlock they didn’t have time for. After some internal deliberation, she proposed a compromise. “Alright, how about this, we wait for the deal to go off. Aidan and Miltia will go ahead and tail them. Elizabeth and I will stick around, take out that slime, then radio in and follow you guys. But, we jump the cabal members before they get to their hideout. Got it?”
  154.  
  155.     “Alright, suppose that’s the best we can do.” Miltia conceded as she tightened the straps on her backpack. “Hold on, I think I hear people coming.”
  156.  
  157.     The four of them peered around the corner of the alleyway to see four figures in grey hooded robes. It was too far to see their faces. The slime that was previously oozed over the captive man undulated upwards into something resembling an emerald and translucent human woman. From the gestures the five of them made, they seemed to be negotiating something. When one of the robed figures handed the slime a small rectangular bag, she hugged the terrified man, who was desperately shaking his head, and two of the mages grabbed his arms and dragged him away.
  158.  
  159.     “Alright, I think that’s our cue. Aidan, you said you were okay with flying last night, right?” Miltia asked.
  160.  
  161.     Aidan’s face became pale. “D-definitely dear. T-that childish fear will not inhibit me anymore. Why, if I get dropped, oh, I don’t know, I’ll only just break my neck. And my spine.” He began to nervously mumble the most disastrous scenarios possible to himself.
  162.  
  163.     “For fuck’s sake. Come here.” Miltia grumbled as she rolled her eyes. When Aidan stood in front of her, she extended her fingers and slammed the side of her hand down on Aidan’s head, silently knocking him out. She hopped up, locked her legs behind his chest and ascended with practiced efficiency.
  164.  
  165.     Elizabeth chuckled quietly. “I suppose that’s one way to circumvent his acrophobia. Didn’t seem like their first dance either. One of our guests is staying around, probably trying to warn that trafficker. Come now Asta, it’s time for war.” She said as she opened her own worn duffel bag. Alongside multicolored patchworks of fabric was a faded emblem of a downward sword flanked by three pairs of wings, the symbol of the Holy Occidial Empire. Asta stared at nothing in particular before quickly shaking her head and inscribing a rune onto the ground. When she was finished, an untarnished suit of full plate soundlessly materialized and stood on invisible strings. A claymore was levitating next to it.
  166.  
  167.     “Seems they’re teaching you new bloods some interesting tricks. Sure beats lugging around all this.” The elf joked as she put on a black coat of plates. Here and there were studs on the exterior that hinted at the presence of riveted armor inside. She retrieved a helmet from her cavernous bag and put it on. It was a dull and slightly rusted grey and was shaped much like the bow of a boat with only a small slit for vision. After making sure it was secure, she lifted her hood over it and picked up a plain cylindrical wooden staff. When she touched it, blue water mana began to fill the grooves etched into it. “Oddly enough, it reminds me more of what we equip our auxiliaries with, rather than anything knightly.”
  168.  
  169.     “Yeah, this model took inspiration from the Hero Corps instead of previous knighthood designs.” Asta said as she touched the breastplate. The suit melted and snaked its way up Asta’s arm until it covered her body in molten metal. When it cooled, she was completely encased and began testing the joints, which were strangely silent despite the armor’s appearance. On her head was a great helm decorated with feathered wings on each side, although the term “bucket head” was also appropriate. She picked up her claymore and tilted it in all directions to test the weight. Similar to Elizabeth, when she picked up her weapon, the engravings on the blade lit up white with holy energy. Dark grey spectral wings appeared behind her. “The holy cloth is also used as padding, so that’s one less thing to worry about. Glad to see all that demonic mana didn’t inhibit anything.”
  170.  
  171.     Elizabeth looked around the corner again and a determined grin crept onto her face beneath her helmet. “Nice to see our guests taking their time talking.” She said derisively as she faced Asta again. “You know, with all these new inventions: the machine gun, the tank, the mortar, and soon the airplane, one can easily forget the strength of old fashioned magical warriors. So how about it, valkyrie? Why don’t we remind these people why the world fears Imperial knights?”
  172.  
  173. ----------
  174.  
  175.     The hooded figure was rubbing their forehead while emitting a low but feminine growl. “Look, you watery tart, two of our other traffickers got taken out yesterday. All I’m saying is that you should be careful, lest you end up like them.”
  176.  
  177.     “Come on now,” the slime lazily said as she melted slightly, “don’t be so worried. Those two were always so serious. So active, so opportunistic. What they should have done was waited for a cute boy to come along, like I do. That guy, he was so eager to go out with me, he was practically begging. Selling him almost makes me feel bad. Or it would, but you know how it is, any guy who even thinks of propositioning is always a fraud. No way they would like me unless they wanted something from me.”
  178.  
  179.     “Your personal bitterness and vendettas aside, I still say you should be careful. These aren’t regular coppers we’re dealing with here, I think they’ve pulled in some extra talent.” Just as the robed girl said this, the pommel of a claymore was smashed into the side of her head, causing her to stagger away. When her hood fell off, a pair of fluffy brown dog ears stood up and drooped slightly. By the time she had recovered her composure, an angelsteel gauntlet slammed into her face, causing her to fly backwards into a dumpster. When she collided, a loud clang echoed up and down the alleyway. As she was about to get up, a boot slammed into her face, knocking her out cold. The slime began to surge upwards again. Elizabeth’s staff lit up and a column of icy blue frost shot out to the slime, causing her to solidify. Unable to reform her body, the slime helplessly looked at the two armored figures with fear.
  180.  
  181.     “Not bad for a little warm-up, don’t you think?” Elizabeth excitedly remarked as she put her hands on the slime and froze her even more.
  182.  
  183.     “Suppose not.” Asta stoically said as she rested her claymore on her right shoulder. “You go radio this in, I think mine’s stuck under this tin can.”
  184.  
  185.     “Right. Morrel here, listen up Pendleton. Half the raid went off without a hitch, got the trafficker and one of the cabal mages. No, Miltia and Aidan went off to tail the others to the hideout, we’re planning on going as soon as your guys pick these two up. The slime might be a bit of a problem, but I’m sure you have countermeasures for that. Behind the Seared Wings, trust me, you can’t miss us.”
  186.  
  187.     “So we’re standing by until these two get picked up?”
  188.  
  189.     “Yeah, we’ve got some time to kill. Give me a second.” The elf jammed a syringe into the slime, and her eyes slowly shut. “There we go, that should give us some privacy. You know, I haven’t exactly spent much time working with you.”
  190.  
  191.     “No, you haven’t.”
  192.  
  193.     “When you fight with your pistol, I don’t think anyone can guess your true prowess. Seraph’s sake, when you put on your armor, I still couldn’t guess which order you were from.”
  194.  
  195.     “What are getting at here?” the Valkyrie was boring holes into the elf with her eyes, although her helmet concealed her glare.
  196.  
  197.     Elizabeth continued unfazed. “But when you fought, I saw it. That brutal efficiency. No mercy, no wasted movement. Just raw, unembellished power.” She paused before leaning against a wall and looking at the sky. “It reminds me of someone I knew a long time ago. Are you familiar with the story of Sir Roland?”
  198.  
  199.     Asta looked away as she propped her claymore against a brick wall. “Founder of the Sunset Knights, went rabid as everyone of their ilk do, and then got put down. That’s all there is to it.”
  200.  
  201.     “A gross oversimplification, but yes. This holy cloth of ours, spun from angelic mana, it holds power. The power of the Seraph, of a god long since dead. Power to break the bonds of death, no matter how dire, so long as we have purpose. So long as we keep sight of that purpose. So long as we never despair. To an extent, of course. After all, no one cheats death forever. In exchange for immortality, we forsake our very lives, our very bodies. Soul and cloth become one, we can no longer taste, or smell. With no genitalia, sexual intercourse is obviously out of the picture. No joy, joy is unneeded. We become weapons without lives, dedicated solely to our purpose, our will which kept us on this world.”
  202.  
  203.     “And those that do despair lose sight and become frenzied beasts, attacking friend and foe alike. Roland was a textbook example.”
  204.  
  205.     “Yes, he was. After a rotten string of bad luck combined with his own delusions, he fell. No future. Ousted by his own order, people he saw as family. Devoid of the simple joys of life: a good meal, the smell of flowers in the spring, the love of another. In place of his idealism was omnicidal nihilism, the impulsive wish to lash out at the cruel world that tortured him so. The world that in his eyes took everything from him. ‘Even if the sun should set on us forever, the fires of our spite shall burn even brighter.’ That was what he chose as his new principle, his new purpose.”
  206.  
  207.     “And to no one’s surprise, he went frenzied within months. And got put down accordingly.”
  208.  
  209.     “So the story goes. I was the Shroud Knight tasked with hunting him down. It is our duty to grant people one last relief, whether that be to comfort a patient in their dying moments or to hunt down knights that have long since lost all hope and sanity. Before I killed him, we talked for a bit. It was strange, despite all the merciless slaughter and bloodshed during his final days, he held sadness and regret in his eyes. And I suppose that conversation alone makes me one of the few people that know who he truly was, but that’s a story for another day. The point is that I can see in you the same sadness I saw in him. Not only that, but I can see the same hatred he used to carry in battle, it’s in the way you fight.”
  210.  
  211.     Asta sighed dejectedly as she looked away again. “I had some hard times, decided to enlist, and got scouted from the regular military. That’s all there is to it.”
  212.  
  213.     “Relax, I won’t judge. I understand why the Order of the Setting Sun is what it is. The western frontier is hell on earth, even I know that. It makes the feudalism of the Empire seem civilized and progressive by comparison. And the higher castes have deemed fit to send more and more kids into that grinder in the vain hopes of taming it. I merely wish to ask you why you left. Very few Sunset Knights ever find hope again, so what made you?”
  214.  
  215.     Asta stayed silent for a minute before she spoke in a voice barely above a whisper. “It wasn’t hope, not even close. About seven years ago, we were scouting around the Toksha Plains, looking for demon raiders. We found them alright, an entire company’s worth of mercenaries, about 200 strong. There were fifty of us, the majority of whom were veterans, against 200 battle-hardened demons. Dullahans, hellhounds, salamanders, and who knows whatever else, they had it all. We fled, but with heavy casualties. Only five of us were still alive, and an additional twenty were reanimated by their holy cloth. My friends had given their life for the Empire, and that still wasn’t enough. And you know full well what happens to Sunset Knights.”
  216.  
  217.     “To give your life in battle and then your soul by an Executioner’s Spear, I’m sorry. I’m sure I was responsible for many of your predecessors’ deaths, or perhaps complete destruction are more fitting words than mere death.”
  218.  
  219.     “Don’t be, I have no grudge against the Shroud Knights, they protect the world from manmade beasts. I had lost a lot of things before I joined the Sunset Knights, but my faith in my country remained unshaken, at least until that battle. After that, I decided that the Empire can burn in hell.” Asta’s voice became louder and louder. “For the last two decades, we’ve waged war after war against our neighbors to the west and south in a bout of desperate imperialism. And for what, wounded pride? Ever since the Sinstrans won their revolution and kicked us off the east coast, ever since they became better than us. Ever since we realized the world had left us behind, our leaders have been trying to recapture some sense of superiority.”
  220.  
  221.     Asta was nearly shouting, her fists were tightly clenched. “So what do they do? They send their children and grandchildren out. They waste the country’s future tilting windmills! Fighting pointless battles they can’t even win anymore! That battle on the Toksha Plains taught me that. It’s not just on the frontlines either. There’s a schism over the newest Seraph threatening to tear the church and the country apart. Emigration is at an all-time high. Fewer and fewer people are voluntarily joining the military or government. Illiteracy and poverty rates are the highest on the continent. It’s simple. We are quite possibly the most backwards nation in existence.”
  222.  
  223. She took a deep breath. When she continued, her voice was quieter and shaking. “I loved the Empire once. But after everything that happened, I had to leave. Partially out of disgust, partially out of grief. At its current pace, I don’t think it’ll last more than two or three decades. And I don’t want to be around when it finally collapses. Even after I left, I never stopped calling myself an Imperial, and I don’t want to have to.”
  224.  
  225. Elizabeth laughed bitterly. “That’s quite funny, actually. I’m older than you, I’m supposed to be the bitter and jaded one here. You know, I left the Empire to try and save it. I stayed for some time in the Dominion of Man, then for some time in the Sintran Kingdom, and now I’m here. I’ve spent nearly two decades away from home, learning about the east coast countries, trying to figure out where we went wrong, and how we can fix it all. It’s sad to hear that nothing has changed. Haha, I suppose both our stories are hardly rare amongst emigrants.”
  226.  
  227. Asta also laughed bitterly in response. “I suppose not. You’re a much stronger person than me though, I don’t think I can ever find faith in my homeland again. Hold on, I think I heard a car nearby, must be the others.” Asta hoisted her claymore over her shoulder again and took off her helmet. She flashed a relieved but tired smile. “Oh, and thanks. I really needed that. Never really got the chance to vent for years. Well, I suppose we ought to focus on the investigation again. It’d be unfair to Aidan and Miltia if we just goofed off.”
  228.  
  229. ----------
  230.  
  231.     Just outside the city was a broken down gray car on the side of the road. Its windows were tinted, although the faint silhouette of a man was in the passenger seat. Outside were the three cabal mages casually looking at the front tires which had become completely deflated. Surrounding them was a sea of green leaves and a rainbow of flowers on the trees that seemed to stretch endlessly. The old dirt road had two trenches dug into it from when their car spun out of control, uprooting much of the overgrown vegetation.
  232.  
  233.     If the mages had been paying attention, they would have noticed a glimmer in the distant forest, the glint of a rifle scope. Atop a small hill was Miltia lazily peering down her rifle. Instead of the worn wood of her Gerhild, she was holding the dull black plastic of a dart rifle. To her left was Aidan, face down in the dirt. He woke up with a groan and lifted his head to see a line of grey ants dragging an earthworm somewhere.
  234.  
  235.     “Is the ride over already? I had the weirdest dream. You were there, but your chest. It was swollen, like melons.”
  236.  
  237.     “Oh, you’re awake.” Miltia said as she moved her head to face Aidan. She kept her rifle in the same position. “If you’re gonna be like that, maybe I should’ve hit you harder.”
  238.  
  239.     “Please now, Miltia,” Aidan jokingly begged, “think of what would be lost if my intellect was removed from academia.”
  240.  
  241.     “And yet that intelligence has yet to figure out that removing a negative nets you a positive.” Miltia snarked emotionlessly. She handed Aidan a pair of binoculars and turned to look down her scope again. Aidan did the same with his binoculars and caught sight of the broken down car.
  242.  
  243.     “How did you manage that, love?”
  244.  
  245.     “Shot ‘em out.” Miltia replied nonchalantly. “Don’t know why they’re still here and not running, but I suppose that’s just the hubris of mages for you.”
  246.  
  247.     “Must be. You get so powerful that you start ignoring bug bites. Then eventually, one of the bites gives you malaria. Formal traditional training usually knocks that sense of invincibility out of you, but I highly doubt these folks ever got trained as such in the first place.”
  248.  
  249.     “Mmm. Suppose the rejects and dropouts had to go somewhere. I’m thinking, you sneak on ahead, give a signal, and when you’re ready...” Miltia began.
  250.  
  251.     “You’ll shoot one of them, I’ll take out another, preferably alive. And then…”
  252.  
  253.     “We’ll double-team the last one. Alright, so it’s agreed.”
  254.  
  255.     “Absolutely.” Aidan said as he drew out his knife and dropped down. He snuck his way towards the ruined car, although the sheer obliviousness of the mages caused him to be more casual about his movements. Miltia kept watch through her scope, darkly satisfied that pride and hubris were on the other side this time. Aidan hid behind a tree trunk and raised his hand before closing it. At the signal, the wyvern lined up one of the mages in her crosshairs and pulled the trigger. The dart went out with a moderately loud hiss.
  256.  
  257.     The pink-feathered syringe hit the farthest mage in the neck, tagging him like a bewildered animal, which was how he and his colleagues reacted. Their backs turned, Aidan swiftly ran to them and shanked another with his dagger. Just before impact, the engravings on the blade glowed purple with demonic mana. When the knife embedded into the side of the mage, the mage twitched momentarily before collapsing. Aidan backed up, flashed an arrogant smile, and extended his arms out to his sides. Enraged by his challenge, the darted mage stepped forwards before stumbling to the ground.
  258.  
  259.     “Ha! What kind of mage doesn’t keep some form of resistance on at all given times? Two-bit imitators, of course!” Aidan goaded.
  260.  
  261.     The last mage growled and charged forwards. She yelped as Miltia slammed into her shoulder-first. The two of them were dragged along the ground for a few yards, digging a third trench into the old dirt road. Miltia lifted and dropped the unconscious mages into a pile next to the car.
  262.  
  263.     “That’s three for three this time, good work Aidan.”
  264.  
  265.     “The pleasure was mine. Now, can you please free this hapless victim? While you do that, I will reconnoiter ahead, I do believe this road is a straight shot to their lair.” Aidan said as he jogged down the road, binoculars in hand.
  266.  
  267.     Miltia walked up to the car and punched a window open, the shards harmlessly bouncing off her bandaged scales. The man’s eyes widened in surprise and he began to back away.
  268.  
  269.     “Relax, we’re police. We’re here to help.” Miltia said calmly as she unlocked the door and opened it. After using her talons to cut the man’s bonds off, she picked up her radio and called Pendleton for backup.
  270.  
  271.     Meanwhile, Aidan was a little bit down the trail before he stopped and hid behind another tree. Using his binoculars, he scouted out what looked to be an abandoned dairy farm. The buildings were hastily restored, with the red and white paint peeling away and grey metal sheets haphazardly welded on like a patchwork quilt. Where there were once cows were now various people, primarily humans, bound and sedated in the old rotting hay. The main barn was guarded by what appeared to be hired henchmen with various firearms and armor. The drained and emaciated corpses of previous victims were propped up on poles like scarecrows and used as target practice by the guards and mages.
  272.  
  273.     Looking through the window of the top floor of the barn, Aidan saw a woman with pale skin and black hair, and what appeared to be her twin. After looking closer, he realized that the woman was Anastasia Cross, and the other was also Anastasia Cross. His brows furrowed as he continued looking at them, then he noticed that one of the “twins” was tied to a chair and gagged.
  274.  
  275.     “So this is your plan, then? Anne.”
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