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An Odd Couple Chp 6 (End)

nonanonymous Mar 4th, 2017 535 Never
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  1.     Central plaza was emptier than normal. Most of the tourists and regular citizenry were either gone or too hungover to attend a political press release. The only people around were journalists hungry for a story that didn’t involve the festival and a few civically minded citizens. Behind the podium was Aidan, flanked by Asta on the left, Elizabeth on the right, and Lieutenant Pendleton behind.
  2.  
  3.     “Citizens of Versyl, I thank you for the opportunity I have been given today.” Aidan started professionally. “First, I would like to offer my condolences to the Sinstran consul, who has unfortunately been taken ill lately, I suppose all that partying wasn’t such a good idea.” He waited as a few audience members gave courteous chuckles. “As such, I have been chosen to represent the consul and, by extension, the Sinstran Kingdom. With the formalities out of the way, I’d like to get to the heart of the matter. Recently, there has been an outbreak of crimes in this fair city, beyond the usual deliquency that the festival inevitably brings. We believe that this string of kidnappings and murders have been the result of an organized and highly dangerous criminal organization known as the Sanguine Cabal.”
  4.  
  5.     Members of the crowd erupted into a torrent of questions. Aidan held a hand up to silence them. “The cabal is heavily involved in illegal blood magic, and many of their victims often die as a result of their need for blood.”
  6.  
  7.     “He’s quite the natural at this.” Elizabeth whispered as she remained perfectly still.
  8.  
  9.     “Yeah. When we were at the mayor’s place, he said he trained in a theater troupe here, that’s probably where he gets it.” Asta answered with the same lack of motion.
  10.  
  11.     “Is he now? The irresponsible artist was trained by our finest, and maddest, mages?” Elizabeth asked as Aidan briefed the audience on the Sanguine Cabal. The question sounded rhetorical in nature. “I wonder how many of his mannerisms are merely an act.”
  12.  
  13.     “Probably not much, if Miltia is a reliable source. And when it comes to matters regarding him, I think she is.”
  14.  
  15.     “We of Sinstra know very well how dangerous the cabal is.” Aidan continued. “They threaten not only this city, not only this country, but the very continent itself. Versyl is a major trade city, and that fact alone means that the cabal, with proper time to establish maritime connections, can strike at and infiltrate any city along the east coast. And that is why our queen has graciously given this city and by extension Cognos aid in this crisis. It is not much, but we of Sinstra hope that this paltry gesture will pay back at least some of our debt for Cognos’ aid in our time of need.”
  16.  
  17.     As he finished, five suit-clad men and women marched up from stage right and stood at attention. They were wearing a similar attire to Aidan, and had no blemishes on their uniform. Across from them an incredibly varied band of men and women with a mishmash of weaponry, armor, and attire casually walked up to the stage. They looked like they belonged in the forest rather than the city, with flannel jackets and rifles and armor plating alongside unkempt hair and dirty faces. “We have assigned some of our finest in the Intelligence Division and the Rangers to work with the local government and the Sotland Provincial Guard to ensure that this menace is eradicated.”
  18.  
  19.     As the crowd gave a polite applause as Pendleton stepped up to the podium and shook Aidan’s hand, the two of them freezing as the press took pictures. The Ranger and agent closest to the podium, however, were glaring at each other out of the corner of their eyes. “I wonder how much help this motley band will even be.” The elf mused.
  20.  
  21.     “I suppose that so long as they stay away from each other, we won’t have too many problems.” Asta replied with a hint of worry in her voice.
  22.  
  23.     “We will now open the floor to questions. Please form an orderly single file line.” Aidan commanded as the first questioner walked up to a mike just in front of his podium.
  24.  
  25.     “Mister Thalia, Versyl Chronicles here.” A succubus began. “The Sanguine Cabal is rather infamous for its misuse of magic here in Cognos. As such, is the Internal Affairs Taskforce involved in any way?”
  26.  
  27.     “Of course, the IAT has been working with the local police department, government, and even the various consulates and embassies ever since they discovered traces of the cabal in the city. In fact, recent intelligence from the IAT is the reason Sinstran forces have been sent. They believe the cabal is planning a major operation, and as such we cannot rest while our neighbors in the north are in peril.”
  28.  
  29.     “Sure hope their intel is right, otherwise we all look like idiots.” Pendleton muttered as he went back to his post.
  30.  
  31.     “I’m sure it is.” Asta whispered confidently. She was still facing forwards, so she couldn’t see Pendleton’s confusion.
  32.  
  33.     “Hi, this is a bit off topic, and I don’t know how much you would know…” An elderly man muttered shyly. “But, um, has the police made any progress on the murder of Noah Mason? He was a government official here, killed when the festival started.
  34.  
  35.     Aidan gulped as he turned around, only to see that Pendleton was just as nervous as he was. Despite this, the lieutenant nodded and mouthed, “Tell them.” Aidan took a deep breath and calmly and slowly said, “From what I’ve been told, yes. The police have identified a few potential suspects and will continue investigating the murder to the best of their abilities. As a personal comment, I would say to not worry. Justice may be late at times, but she always delivers. The perpetrators will be caught, I promise you that.”
  36.  
  37. ----------
  38.  
  39.     Miltia strolled through the harbor district, the sound of boat horns, cranes, and trucks filling her ears. She walked down an alleyway behind a pawnshop, past countless bums sleeping against the graffiti-covered walls. As she reached the coastline, she walked onto a dilapidated pier that smelled like rotting trash. She boarded a small yacht that had several metal plates riveted on top of the chassis and met a man in weathered combat fatigues that bore the grey and blue streaks of the Dominion Navy. He wore gloves, a balaclava, and sunglasses, hiding all of his features. A was bizarre woman behind him. Her joints had visible metal seams, her grey skin seemed more like plastic than flesh, and her hair was unnaturally shiny, neat, and white. Her right arm seemed human, but her left arm from the elbow down was replaced with some sort of cannon. She showed no expression as the wyvern boarded the ship.
  40.  
  41.     “Hey Penser. Long time, no see. How has the commissariat not executed you for smuggling yet? Or desertion?” Miltia jokingly asked as she stared at the woman. “Who’s your assistant? Some sort of new Dominion automaton? Seems more advanced than most models.”
  42.  
  43.     “Not quite.” The man she called Penser replied in a laid back manner. “She’s a little something my old friends in the military excavated from some ruins. Think of her as a predecessor from which newer automata will be descended from, once they hit the market.”
  44.  
  45.     “Does she have a name?”
  46.  
  47.     “Calls herself Veefor, apparently.”
  48.  
  49.     “I’m pretty sure that’s the letter V and the number four.”
  50.  
  51.     Penser shrugged. “Maybe, maybe not. She responds all the same, isn’t that right, Veefor?”
  52.  
  53.     “Yes, commander.” V4 replied emotionlessly.
  54.  
  55.     “Yeah, she also always calls me that. So, what can I do for you?”
  56.  
  57.     “I’m going mage hunting soon, I need some anti-magic gear, fast.”
  58.  
  59.     “Uhuh? When you say mages, what kind are we talking about?” Penser asked as he clasped his hands together.
  60.  
  61.     “Dangerous ones. Sanguine Cabal ring any bells?”
  62.  
  63.     Penser sat up and coughed. “Whew. Don’t give me a shock like that. Because I think you just said that one of my best customers is going to march to her death.”
  64.  
  65.     “That’s exactly what I said. That’s why I need the best equipment you’ve got.”
  66.  
  67.     The man sighed as he scratched his head. “Let me think for a moment, I’m sure I’ve smuggled something useful. Veefor, bring out weapon crates three through five for me.”
  68.  
  69.     “Understood, commander.” V4 answered as she walked to the back of the yacht, her footsteps making a clanking sound as she moved. When she came back, she was effortlessly carrying a stack of crates before laying them out in a line.
  70.  
  71.     “Alright, Ranger. This,” Penser explained as he opened a crate full of grenades, “is the Dominion’s new Anti Magic Pulsed Electricity Remote Explosive, or-“
  72.  
  73.     “AMPERE, I get it.” Miltia answered humorlessly. “Seems smaller than the proximity explosive you gave me earlier at least. Used that in a warehouse sting, pretty effective.”
  74.  
  75.     “The grunts just call it the AMP. Anyhow, it’s a bit more limited than that proxy mine, but it should have an effective blast range of about two cubic feet. The blast should overload most magic and mana reactions, unless we’re talking about a metric shit ton of magic, like advanced blood magic. Those can usually take the jolt and still function. Which brings me to my next device.” Penser said as he rummaged through the next crate and pulled out a pronged device that looked like a pistol.
  76.  
  77.     “Looks like a taser.” Miltia commented. “I remember that trade deal a Dominion corporation made about a year ago. Gave our cops a lot of them in exchange for some mana engines. I guess the fossil fuel situation down there isn’t too good?”
  78.  
  79.     “Yeah, the Atic Gulf and the Sotoci Sea are getting harder and harder to drill into nowadays. No leviathans, thankfully, but that’s not the problem. We’ve uncovered something even worse, something the leviathans are afraid of. Of course, the people we send down into those depths always end up insane, so we don’t know what we’re dealing with. But that’s our problem. Moving on, this baby’s not really that different of a design, all things considered.” Penser said as he fiddled with the device. There were multiple wires and parts that looked like they were either glued or welded onto the exterior. “The only thing I did was slap on a few new capacitors and beef up the power supply a bit. Mind you, this is a bit of a one use item, the current is actually so strong it melts the circuitry.”
  80.  
  81.     “If it’s that strong, it should overload even the most powerful mages then. I’ll take a couple of them, as a last resort.”
  82.  
  83. ----------
  84.  
  85.     “Aaahh, time to enjoy the fruits of my labors.” Aidan said as he downed a shot of liquor. With the early hour and everyone suffering from post-festivity fatigue, the bar was dead. The building had the sterile aroma of cleaning supplies rather than the usual mixture of sweat and alcohol. Even the bartender was leaning back in his chair and napping. “I don’t know who was more scathing, the media or the activists. At least we managed to avoid creating any major controversies.”
  86.  
  87.     “I think it’s a bit early to be drinking,” Asta griped as she sipped at her water, “We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. And that reminds me, I’ve got to pick up some stuff later today. Gotta give my armor a good look over too.”
  88.  
  89.     “Heh, and I’ve got to babysit those ten jokers you sent over.” Pendleton complained as he smiled at Aidan. “I don’t suppose Miltia can help us in this regard, try and smooth things over?”
  90.  
  91.     Aidan shook his head. “Miltia is more of a solo act. As for my Intelligence Division cohorts, I’m afraid my role as a diplomat is far too important, so I’ve been given orders to not be seen or associated with them.”
  92.  
  93.     “Well, that’s a damn shame and-wait a minute? You’re Sinstran Intelligence?” Pendleton gawked as Asta sighed.
  94.  
  95.     “I think you’ve already defied that order, Aidan. Oh, and yeah. I guess we forgot to tell you guys about that.”
  96.  
  97.     “Hah, well I managed to put two and two together eventually.” Elizabeth chuckled. “With his talents, I’d be surprised if he wasn’t working for some government agency. And let me guess, Miltia is our elusive Jester?”
  98.  
  99.     “Yep, the two of us actually talked it over yesterday.” Asta replied as Pendleton shook his head and walked off. “Wonder what she’s doing now.”
  100.  
  101.     “Oh, she mentioned wanting to meet one of her contacts this morning before she just flew off into the sky. I’m sure she’ll be fine.” Aidan replied as he refilled his shot glass.
  102.  
  103.     “A contact, huh? Should we know anything about this contact?” Asta asked warily.
  104.  
  105.     “Nothing to be too concerned over. Probably just a petty smuggler all things considered. She has done some extensive networking in the less-than-legal markets, but she does have her limits. She at the very least refuses to deal with dealers of the flesh, so to speak. And narcotics. Probably just some Dominion quartermaster-turned-smuggler. She has acquired an affinity for their anti-magic devices over the years. Probably to compensate for her own lack of talent.”
  106.  
  107.     “Well, I suppose I’ll let it slide this one time. She’s pretty much getting away with murder anyways.” Asta grumbled to herself, only for Elizabeth to steal her glass of water and splash the valkyrie’s face, causing the valkyrie to stammer in disbelief as the elf giggled.
  108.  
  109. ----------
  110.  
  111.     “That’s a lot of stuff you want, Milty.”
  112.  
  113.     “Can’t be too careful. Give me one of those Tesla fields you equip on your men.”
  114.    
  115.     “That would knock you out the moment you turned it on. You’re still a monster. You’d burn up all your demonic mana within seconds if you had to wear that thing. Besides, I don’t have one anyways. But I might have something else that could interest you, though. Veefor, be a dear and retrieve the Jupiter Cannon for me.” The smuggler leaned back in his cheap plastic folding chair. “While she’s doing that, how about a story? Tell me, Miltia, how familiar are you with electricity and its relation to magic?”
  116.  
  117.     “You should have asked my boyfriend, he likes myths more than I do. But I know the basics at least. You of course have the four natural elements: earth, wind, water, fire. Even ancient alchemists knew that. The big question was how electricity fit into the grand scheme of things.” The wyvern leaned against the railing of the ship. She took a deep breath, only to be reminded of where she was by the smell of rotting trash, causing her to gag slightly. “Since most people experienced it as lightning, they began to associate it with the gods. Some classified it as a fifth natural element, void or heaven or aether. The angels arrived in this world flinging bolts of light which many assumed was lightning. Then the assumption changed, electricity was then assumed to be tied to holy or angelic energy. Then the demons of antiquity made short work of that theory. They used their demonic magic to make similar bolts as a mockery of the angels.”
  118.  
  119.     “And then, as it turns out, everyone was wrong. The magical energy electricity was tied to most was spirit energy. The so-called ‘spark of life.’ That’s why it’s so powerful, that’s why it can overload other magics. Something which pre-Apocalyptic humanity exploited to no end.” Penser chuckled as he crossed his left leg over his right. “We actually have an old monastery in the Dominion. The monks there can somehow use magic by channeling spirit energy directly from their souls and not die as a result. Far more elegant than blood magic, that’s for sure. The Homines Primi party want them gone so they can fulfill their bizarre magic-free utopia, but hey, when your opponent can call down lightning storms by glaring in your general direction, you don’t mess with them. Oh, and those monks have such massive reserves of mana that any anti-magic weaponry we come up with can’t even scratch them, although I suppose the same can be said for the Seraph-Emperor out west.”
  120.  
  121.     “The Jupiter Cannon has been retrieved, commander.” V4 replied as she carried a single-barreled gun, although looked more like an artillery piece than any firearm Miltia had seen. Coils of silver wire were wrapped around the barrel and there was a glowing white orb where the receiver should have been. To a certain extent, it reminded her of a wheellock firearm, although with a more modern aesthetic.
  122.  
  123.     “Ah, good work. We’re not allowed to actually make lethal anti-magic equipment as per the Nonaggression Treaty with the Empire. Can’t murder a bunch of spirits and elementals and disrupt the ecological stability of things and all. Or angels I suppose. Regardless, that ban only applies to equipment already on the market. Since this baby is still in development, we can afford to overshoot our calculations a bit. After all, it’s just an honest mistake, we didn’t know it would that powerful.”
  124.  
  125.     “Right.” Miltia flatly replied as she looked at the peculiar firearm. For whatever reason, the wires and the barrel had runes engraved all over them. “What is this? Some sort of coilgun? I thought those things were just toys engineers built for fun.”
  126.  
  127.     Penser laughed as he rapped on V4’s torso. “You see, when we unearthed these babies, we had a minor tech boom. Their cores and wiring are centuries beyond what we’ve developed. Can’t replicate them outright, we lack the materials and refinement process they use. But we can make some pretty good imitations with what we have. Enough to not make coilguns that are actually combat serviceable. Oh, and a bit of help from those monks I talked about earlier. That means that, sadly, every one of these babies needs to be handcrafted, since we can’t inscribe the runes or make that power supply ourselves. The monks are being rather coy about their techniques.”
  128.  
  129.     “Magitech, huh? Never thought I’d see the Dominion resort to that. But, I don’t think I can remotely afford to use this thing if it’s so rare.”
  130.  
  131.     “Times are changing, wyvern. The human supremacists are starting to lose power. People aren’t afraid anymore. We have our anti-magic tech and you Sinstrans are pretty decent folks all things considered. At the very least most of you don’t try to rape or subjugate us, unlike the Imperials. If we ally with Cognos and Sinstra and spread our tech and your magic up and down the east coast, there’s no need to fear the Empire anymore. Of course, we have to oust the Homines Primi first. Maybe I’ll get my pardon after everything’s over. But enough politics, I got this directly from some good friends at Selachi Armaments, and they told me to give it to someone who might need to use it. It has built-in measuring systems, so don’t worry about keeping track of any data. All you need to do is use it and give it back to me intact, that’s it.”
  132.  
  133.     “Oh, so weapons testing then. Alright, I’ll try and use it. You can modify how much it jolts people right? We do need to capture some of the mages alive. Not uninjured mind you, but I get the feeling this thing might fry them to ash.”
  134.  
  135.     Penser sighed. “I’m probably not the best instructor for this, but I suppose we can give it a test run now if you really need to. Oh, and if you have money left over, I suppose I can lend Veefor as your personal pack mule. Don’t even think about asking her to fight for you though, she’s a bit crazy when it comes to fighting. A bug in her programming they said.”
  136.  
  137. ----------
  138.  
  139.     A punch sent Asta crumpling to the pavement, clutching her stomach in pain. As a man held a brick over his head, his coup de grace was interrupted by an arrow made out of illusory fire. As he began swatting away at the illusion, Elizabeth unloaded a volley of mana bolts into his head, causing him to collapse, coins falling out of his pockets and rolling out onto the street.
  140.  
  141.     “Move along, the criminal has been apprehended. There’s nothing left to see here.” The elf commanded to the gathering crowd of onlookers. She handcuffed the perpetrator, but not before she sedated him with a syringe.
  142.  
  143.     “A human should not be that strong.” Asta said in between coughs. “You think it’s blood augmentation?”
  144.  
  145.     “I didn’t sense any, I think it’s something a bit simpler.” Elizabeth said as she offered a hand to the valkyrie and pulled her up. “It’s basic charm magic, enthrallment. Odds are, when this guy wakes up, he won’t remember anything. And his strength isn’t supernatural by any means, they just got rid of his subconscious limits via hypnosis. Anyways, are you sure you’re alright?”
  146.  
  147.     Asta winced. “Just knocked the wind out of me, that’s all. Still, robbing a convenience store is chump change. A petty crime befitting petty criminals, not the cabal. And we heard the guy shout out their name ourselves. Hmm. They must want this guy to be found.”
  148.  
  149.     The elf nodded as she hauled the man to the police car nearby. “I think so too. But then the next question is what are they trying to hide?”
  150.  
  151.     “That depends on what the government or the lieutenant find out. And- hold on, the radio.”
  152.  
  153.     “This is Lieutenant Pendleton, issuing an all-points bulletin to a trio of robbers assumed to have cabal ties. Be on the lookout for a werewolf approximately 5’5” with beige fur, a bald man approximately 5’8” with tan skin, and a cloaked person approximate 5’3” with green clothing. Suspects stole large amounts of kheprite from a local hardware store and escaped in a red truck, license unknown. Suspects were last seen near the Straison Commercial District.”
  154.  
  155.     “That’s about five minutes away, should we pursue?” Asta asked as she got into the driver’s seat.
  156.  
  157.     “Might as well give it a look, we’ve got some time to kill before the prison van stops at our checkpoint anyways.”
  158.  
  159.     The lights flickered on and the siren droned on alongside the engine. The two officers raced down the streets as they searched for the perpetrators.
  160.  
  161. ----------
  162.  
  163.     “I don’t mind having you along, Richards, I know you can hold your own.” A SWAT captain said as he stared at a lamia through his faceplate, the afternoon sun glinting off of the glass visor. “But I’m not sure we should take a beat cop with us on this mission, even if she is good with a rifle.”
  164.  
  165.     “You couldn’t stop her if you tried, she’s headstrong like that.” Richards shrugged and chuckled. “She’d make a better soldier than a cop, but then again, so do I.”
  166.  
  167.     “Trust me, I won’t slow you down. Not when this is the last chance I have to get even with these fuckers.” Officer Perault hissed as she put a new magazine into her rifle. “The concussion’s gone, no matter what my doctor says.”
  168.  
  169.     “Oh? Someone even more reckless than me?” a playful voice asked as an antgirl sauntered out of the SWAT team’s armored car, casually carrying a shotgun in one hand. As she walked up to the group, she winked at the captain with her solid black eyes, causing him to sigh.
  170.  
  171.     “There is no one on the planet more reckless than you.” He retorted, unamused.
  172.  
  173.     “Hey, don’t discriminate.” She playfully whined as her antennae drooped. “I’m a soldier ant, it’s in my blood to be bold and aggressive. And as for you, my dear, why don’t we have a little competition to spice things up. Your rifle versus my shotgun, let’s see which one does the most damage, what do you say?”
  174.  
  175.     “Well, I’d decline under normal circumstances. But considering that I wasn’t intending to be merciful to them to begin with…” Perault smirked. “You’re on. This is one of their hideouts, so let’s take them out here and now. If you’re up to the challenge.”
  176.  
  177.     The ant scoffed. “Oh please, I’m more worried about you. I’m a Formi, and our empire wasn’t built off niceties. I operated out west, and they have some nasty beasts out there. Nothing a little buckshot can’t fix though.”
  178.  
  179.     “I suppose both of you are volunteering to take point then?” Richards interrupted, to which the two monstergirls nodded. “Terrific, we’ll back you up whenever you’re ready. I get the feeling you won’t need us, but it doesn’t hurt to be careful.”
  180.  
  181. ----------
  182.  
  183.     A dart flew through the air and embedded itself in the neck of a man, who then frantically scrambled down a road leading out of the city. He stumbled and fell face first onto a road sign denoting the city limits. A small kobold cradling a rifle longer than she was tall walked up and dug through his pockets, pulling out a crumpled letter. She held it up to her nose, closed her eyes, and inhaled deeply. She scrunched up her face as Miltia landed next to her.
  184.  
  185.     “I don’t smell that bad, do I?” the wyvern asked.
  186.  
  187.     “You reek of cordite.” The kobold whined as she held the letter closer to her nose.
  188.  
  189.     “Some girls like perfume. I like gunpowder.”
  190.  
  191.     “Maybe you shouldn’t be unique in that way.” The kobold quipped as she knelt close to the ground.
  192.  
  193.     “Picked up something interesting?”
  194.  
  195.     The kobold nodded. “I thought I smelled something familiar on him. A type of alchemical compound popular amongst necromancers, an anti-necrotic used to preserve living tissue outside the body. If you use the stuff it stays on you for a while. And no amount of perfume or cologne can mask it. If you’ve got the nose of a bloodhound, of course.”
  196.  
  197.     “And you think the mages are using it to preserve their blood supply.”
  198.  
  199.     “I don’t think, I know. I’ve dealt with rogue vampires before, they used the same stuff. Unless we dealing with organ traffickers, the only other people are, well…”
  200.  
  201.     “I get it.” Miltia reached out and rubbed behind the kobolds ears. “Good girl.”
  202.  
  203.     The kobold sighed happily as she melted into the wyvern, before her eyes shot open and she ducked under and away from the Miltia’s claws. “H-hey! I’m older than you, don’t treat me like a dog!” She stammered as her face turned red.
  204.  
  205.     “I was just praising you.” Miltia said with feigned innocence. “Besides, you’re the one that can track them down, not me. I’ll be following from above the treetops.”
  206.  
  207.     Before her compatriot could get another word in, Miltia leapt into the air and flew off, chuckling quietly to herself. The past few days had been amusing for her, and getting a charge out of people is always fun. And perhaps spending time with Aidan wasn’t all that bad. A stray thought threw her out of her happy daze, as her mind jumped to again to her stepfather.
  208.  
  209.     She had run countless hypotheticals, plausible and impossible, each night before she went to sleep. What kind of information was available? What was Ignatio even doing with the cabal? Helping them? Hunting them down? For what purpose? He cared for nothing more than his own research. While she maintained her usual dour expression, there was a darker atmosphere around her as she racked her own imagination for what could happen. Upon noticing the kobold running through the woods, she growled and shook her head. This was not the time to get lost in thought, she wouldn’t have a chance to find out if she didn’t do her job.
  210.  
  211. ----------
  212.  
  213.     The sun was beginning to set as the rest of city began its routine nightlife, seemingly lifeless after the excitement of the festival. Meanwhile, the harbor workers were slowly but nervously filing out by bus or car or sidewalk, leaving nothing but the occasional policemen searching for stragglers as the last vestiges of orange sunlight faded away. In a small cafe near the docks, a group of four sitting in a booth blended in fairly well amongst the rabble of officers and Internal Affairs agents that commandeered the place. The place had an uneasy silence as people checked their equipment one last time or reviewed their plans for the night.
  214.  
  215.     “Seems you three vixens had quite the excitement adventures today.” Aidan said as he downed a shot of beer. “I lament that I was unable to join you, but I was preoccupied with more political concerns. We’ve almost finished a draft of what to say once this is all over. With the IAT’s blessing, we will be revealing the hidden truth behind Mason, omitting dear Miltia’s involvement of course.”
  216.  
  217.     “All’s well that ends well I suppose.” Miltia said as she sloshed her glass over water around. She had made a game of it, seeing how high she could get the water to go without spilling out. “Also, you really shouldn’t be drinking before the biggest part of all this.”
  218.  
  219.     Aidan scoffed. “Please, a lightweight brew like this might as well be water to me. I’m more concerned with you three. You’re actions today might as well have been the equivalent of running a marathon right before a sprint. Are you sure you all are alright with doing yet another operation?”
  220.  
  221.     Asta lightly clutched her stomach and groaned quietly. “Got a few bruises, but we’ll need all hands on board for this. Got a lot of their minions, but the leaders are still at large. And that’s before we account for whatever mercs they still have left. We can’t afford to fuck this up, so I’ll at least hold out until the night is over.”
  222.  
  223.     “I do feel slightly bad for Pendleton and Richards, though.” Elizabeth said as she polished her helmet, which was sporting multiple new dents and scratches. “Those two boys usually jump at the chance to fight. The chief tries to discourage the lieutenant, but Harry is never one to listen to authority. Regardless, it seems they’re too busy coordinating everything from their little ‘command room’ at the station.”
  224.  
  225.     “It’s almost time.” Miltia said as she looked out the window at the rising moon. She rifled through her duffel bag as she pulled out the haul she gained in the morning. She placed some on the table before strapping them onto her rigging or into the various pouches she had on her person. As she did so, Elizabeth looked surprised.
  226.  
  227.     “This is Dominion technology, Miltia. How do you have this?”
  228.  
  229.     The wyvern shrugged and nonchalantly said, “I know people.”
  230.  
  231.     “Anyone I should know about?” Asta said warily as she squinted her eyes in suspicion.
  232.  
  233.     “Even if you did, you wouldn’t be able to catch him.” Miltia countered. “Time’s running short, we should move out and begin our rounds.”
  234.  
  235. ----------
  236.  
  237.     The wyvern was flying straight for a brick wall before she abruptly turned upwards, but not before letting go of the person in her talons. The weight of a body wasn’t enough to break down the wall, but the wyvern’s victim was well on her way to unconsciousness. A fireball collided with the wyvern’s back, but her scales absorbed the brunt of the heat. She turned around and threw her last AMP at a mage, the surge of electricity providing enough of a distraction for her to charge in and tackle him to the ground.
  238.  
  239.     “Shit. This place is like a warzone.” She cursed in between pants. “Are you sure the evacuation was thorough enough?”
  240.  
  241.     “Should be. The police made sure to drag out everyone within a mile of this district.” Elizabeth answered as she restrained the unconscious criminals. “Asta, any sign of the leaders? It will be far easier if we could take them out.”
  242.  
  243.     “None.” Asta said as she fiddle with her hand radio. “Even IAT’s shooting blanks. They’re probably trying to soften us up before they make their charge.”
  244.  
  245.     When she finished saying this, a wave of vertigo hit the four. Their hairs stood on end as the air around them became heavier. Disturbingly, everything was silent as the gunfire and fighting on distant streets stopped. The four of them looked around, using the dim streetlights to try and find some indicator of what just happened. “That was a lot of mana that just discharged.” Asta muttered. “Miltia! Up!”
  246.  
  247.     The wyvern nodded and the two winged monster leapt into the air and did a quick scan of the harbor. There were multiple fires near one of the docks, and the silhouettes of wrecked cars could be seen. The two landed back on the streets and urged their compatriots to rush to the scene of the crime.
  248.  
  249.     As they rushed towards the wreckage of an armored car, a woman stood up and pointed a shotgun at them before lowering her gun and sighing in relief. “Oh good, help. A giant ass group of mages just blitzed straight through us.”
  250.  
  251.     “Guess we found our culprits.” Elizabeth said as she walked around to the other side of the wreckage. Scattered around were various men and women in varying states of injury. Some were sitting down, slumped over or resting their heads on their knees. Others were heavily bandaged and lying prone on the ground. In a pile were partially melted weapons and armor; vast pieces were completely missing from the broken tools. Smoke was still billowing out of the pile and filling the air with an acrid smell that burnt the nostrils. “Anyone in need of medical attention?”
  252.  
  253.     The antgirl shook her head. “Trust me, it’s all worse than it looks. Richards took a rock to the head, but he should be fine. We’re sure as hell better than them.” She said as she pointed to the bodies of cabal mercenaries and henchmen. One very large corpse had a halberd embedded into it. “If you hurry, you can trap them at the loading docks, there’s nowhere to run there. Not while we have the harbor blockaded. I’m pretty sure the only hostiles left are in disarray now, especially after that little show they did. Hah. Must be time for the finale. Don’t worry about us, anyone wanders in here and tries to hurt us, I’ll shoot them myself.”
  254.  
  255.     “We’ll have to trust you.” Miltia said quickly as she took out her new rifle. “Do or die time. I’ll set up on top of a crane near the loading docks and led them to the piers. You guys follow on foot.”
  256.  
  257.     “I’d say fate be with you, but you were never one to rely on luck.” Aidan joked as he winked at Miltia. The wyvern only nodded in response before flying off. “We’d best sally forth, lest they swat her out of the sky.”
  258.  
  259. ----------
  260.  
  261.     A bolt of lightning shot from the top of a crane down to the harbor, leaving a small crater at its point of impact. Electricity arced out from ground zero, shocking several of the mages and creating an overwhelming scent of ozone. The remaining blood mages scrambled to cover behind the crates or equipment, although those foolish enough to hide behind metal received a painful, but not debilitating, shock.
  262.  
  263.     “What in the world?!” A mage cried out in terror. “Do they have a god on their side?”
  264.  
  265.     “Don’t be foolish.” Another mage growled with forced bravado; her voice was still trembling slightly as she frantically scanned the night sky for their assailant. “The gods died long ago. This is just some fancy toy.”
  266.  
  267.     The same mage let out a cowardly yelp as another shot landed near them, accompanied half a second later by a loud thunderclap. Some of the mages nearby fell to the ground in spasms. As the survivors regained their composure and began to move again, an armored figure tackled one of them to the ground, the two bodies hit the pavement accompanied by a loud clattering of metal. As two mages readied spells to help their fallen comrade, a fireball exploded behind one’s back, pushing him to the ground, and a gust of wind lifted another several feet into the air before unceremoniously dropping him onto the corner of a crate.
  268.  
  269.     “Seraph’s sake! Did she buy an artillery piece?” Asta shouted in disbelief as she stood up. Miltia’s shots moved away from the trio, creeping steadily towards the water. If the shots were not as organized and timely, the lightning dancing through the sky might be mistaken for a storm.
  270.  
  271.     “We should keep moving under her cover fire, the mages seem to be shaken up. They’ll probably be hesitant about pulling their bigger tricks too if she can neutralize them. And judging by the sheer power of whatever monstrosity she has, I think she can.” Elizabeth shouted over the thunderclaps. “Aidan, what’s the situation with the reinforcements.”
  272.  
  273.     “Sinstrans and IAT agents have already arrived to this theater of war.” Aidan answered as he put in a new kheprite magazine into his pistol. “Their onus is to apprehend or attack any mages or stragglers not here. Our new role is to be the dagger that destroys the cabal’s high command. We should hurry.”
  274.  
  275.     The three of them nodded as they made their way to the end of the loading dock. They felt yet another wave of vertigo as a pillar of light flew through the sky and slammed into the crane Miltia was perched on. Even though they were far away, they could still hear the screech of twisting metal as the crane fell down and ignited the adjacent loading dock.
  276.  
  277.     “Shit!” Asta cursed. “Think she’s alright?”
  278.  
  279.     Aidan nodded. “She’s harder to kill than that. And we have our own problems to worry about. Without her cover, we’re at a huge disadvantage. I suggest we scatter and hide for the time being.”
  280.  
  281.     Aidan immediately ran as crimson ice shot out from the ground, immobilizing Asta before she shattered the growth on her leg and ran as well. Elizabeth conjured gusts of wind to deflect the various projectiles flying her way into the water before retreating herself.
  282.  
  283.     “What a pain in the ass. People always have to get in our way.” Anne snarled as she used a beam of light to cut a metal crate in half. “Don’t split up now, we’ve gone too far to be picked off. Stay with me and blast anything that moves. But don’t waste too much blood here, we still have to deal with those damned police boats in the harbor.”
  284.  
  285.     The small mob of ten clumped together, shoulder to shoulder, and began slowly walking forwards, slinging spells every now and again to upturn cover. When they saw shadows flitting about, they would unleash a volley of magic in the general direction, but they never once hit their mark.
  286.  
  287.     The valkyrie sprinted behind a forklift, narrowly dodging two boulders fired at her. The clatter of the boulders bouncing off the pavement masked her panting as she knelt down and caught her breath. “Can’t keep this up much longer, are you almost ready?” she whispered into her radio.
  288.  
  289.     “Can’t see them? They’ve been giving off a bit of a lightshow.” she quipped. “Alright, I’ve got an idea, just get ready to shoot.” Asta took a deep breath before jumping on top of the forklift, the metal clacking of her armor giving away her position. She saw the silhouettes of the mages turn to face her, just as she wanted. She closed her eyes as her wings unfurled from thin air. Concentrating, she filled them with angelic mana and a bright flash could be seen from behind her eyelids. When she opened her eyes, her surroundings were significantly darker, illuminated only by the distant fire from the nearby dock. As bad as it was for her, it was even worse for the mages that looked directly into the light, as many of them were rendered blind. They were stumbling around and desperately groping their surroundings.
  290.  
  291.     Another arc of lightning streaked across the sky accompanied shortly after by a roar like thunder. The white-blue arcs jumped towards five of the mages, depleting their mana as they fell to the ground in spasms. Using her wings as a shield, Asta leapt down and stomped on top of another mage before shifting her momentum and tackling Anne to the ground. Anne’s veins glowed red as she pushed Asta into the air, although the valkyrie simply used her wings to stabilize herself. Elizabeth and Aidan used the chaos to sneak behind two mages and knock them out as Miltia dive-bombed the last mage, leaving Anne the only one left standing.
  292.  
  293.     “Here to join the party dear?” Aidan asked.
  294.  
  295.     “Ran out of ammo.” Miltia replied as she casually tossed aside the mage she crashed into. “You should give up while you can, Anne, there’s no way you can possibly take all of us on.”
  296.  
  297.     “I never got anything by giving up, so don’t expect me to start now, wyvern. I suppose this is the part where you want me to rant about my motives.” Anne spat out.
  298.  
  299.     “Not particularly. I’m a soldier, I’m not paid to ponder moral quandaries.” Miltia stated plainly as she took out her mask and looked back at Anne, the green of her mask providing ample illumination. With her glamour magic gone, Anne looked like an aging woman with a crooked nose and ratty brown hair with streaks of grey. “Huh, so it turns out the bitch is a witch. Who would have figured?”
  300.  
  301.     “Yes. Yes. My lot in life is rather terrible. But my ambition will not be stopped by anything. Leave me to my research, and I’ll let you go. Those that get in my way die, simple as that.”
  302.  
  303.     “Oh? How stereotypical.” Elizabeth started, pointing her staff at Anne. The elf had noticed Miltia fiddling with various pouches on her person and decided to make a gamble for time. “And exactly what are you researching?”
  304.  
  305.     Anne chuckled. “An acquaintance of mine, you might know him. He’s rather famous. He was researching a rather esoteric subject. In exchange for information, he gave us knowledge on lichdom. Cheating the reaper. Giving up souls in exchange for extended life.”
  306.  
  307.     “Unsanctioned lichdom.” The elf clarified through gritted teeth. Her words were heavy with genuine disgust. “Your disregard for life truly knows no bounds. I’m surprised the Order of the Shroud hasn’t hunted you down yet.”
  308.  
  309.     “And what exactly was he researching?” Miltia asked as she stealthily pulled out her overcharged taser.
  310.  
  311.     “Some old pre-Apocalyptic cult centered around a volcano or something in the west. He kept mumbling about something big happening in three years’ time, something to do with the latent fire magic in the air. Not that simpletons like you woul-“
  312.  
  313.     Before Anne could finish, two prongs flew out of a chamber and sunk into her stomach before electricity coursed through her body. In Miltia’s hands was a taser spewing out black smoke. Her face bore stoic neutrality, but her eyes seemed satisfied. “Mission accomplished.” She said emotionlessly.
  314.  
  315.     “Oho, not one for theatrics, huh dear?” Aidan asked as he laughed. “Saves us the trouble of a climatic showdown at the least.”
  316.  
  317. ----------
  318.  
  319.     “With the crisis resolved, my husband and I, along with the city’s police department and the Internal Affairs Taskforce, will be releasing more details in the days to come.” The mayor’s wife’s voice came out through a radio sitting on the counter of a cafe. The same one that was commandeered last night. The establishment was busier than usual, filled to the brim with officers and other combatants. All were silent as they listened to the morning broadcast with relieved and exhausted smiles. “Damage to the harbor has, for the most part, been superficial. The city has lost two loading docks due to uncontrolled fires during the fight, but current estimates predict that they should be restored within a month.”
  320.  
  321.     “Glad that’s all over.” Asta said as she held an icepack to her bruised stomach. “Can’t believe I’m actually happy to be settling petty relationship disputes again.”
  322.  
  323.     Elizabeth grunted in agreement as she looked out the window, her pointed ears twitching in rhythm with the nearby birdsongs. “And what of your other profession?”
  324.  
  325.     “My other? Oh.” Asta sighed as the elf smiled innocently. “I’m a combat agent, so I’ll only get called in when shit has completely and utterly hit the fan. So, I guess I get a brief reprieve, for the moment. How’s the rest of the department holding up?”
  326.  
  327.     “I’m sure the rank-and-file are going to have it easy for a while. But everyone above lieutenant got pressganged by the city government to help break the news about everything to everyone. Much to Harry’s dismay, of course.”
  328.  
  329.     “Ha. Lieutenant Pendleton and politics mix like oil and fire. I’m surprised he hasn’t made up an excuse to get out of that mess yet.” Asta yawned as she covered her mouth.
  330.  
  331.     “Speaking of, where are those two jokers of ours? We haven’t seen hide nor hair of them since we got back to the station last night.”
  332.  
  333.     “Well, I know Aidan said he’d be helping coordinate the transports carrying the high ranking mages. As for Miltia, I have no idea.”
  334.  
  335. ----------
  336.  
  337.     “You have my thanks.” Aidan said politely as he exited a van covered in runes. He thought it was a bit overboard. The mages were effectively powerless, having been stripped of their supply of blood bags and having drained so much of their own blood the previous night that many were barely conscious at the best of times. And that was before Miltia’s Dominion equipment. Regardless, the state of the prisoners was no longer his problem, as the jurisdiction of Luminis belonged to other agents.
  338.  
  339. With his professional duties out of the way, he looked away from the van and towards his destination, a public library in Old Town Versyl. The library was sparsely populated aside from the occasional elderly person accompanied by toddlers or young children. The building itself was illuminated only by the sunlight coming through the skylight, although there were bundles of candles behind the receptionist’s desk, most likely for the evening hours.
  340.  
  341.     He gave the old receptionist a curt nod as he meandered through the place, skimming the steel signs hung above the shelves. As he reached a sign that read “Natural Magics,” he slowed down and searched his surroundings. After a brief moment, he spotted a head of lilac and a burgundy scaled body. As he stalked over, he smirked as he saw Miltia stay intently at a large worn tome as if it were about to walk away.
  342.  
  343.     “Did that book steal your breakfast dear?” he joked as he glanced over her shoulders.
  344.  
  345.     “I hate magic,” Miltia complained, “I don’t understand any of this.”
  346.  
  347.     Aidan chuckled as he pulled up another chair and scooted next to the wyvern. “Let me see. ‘Heiser’s Guide to Natural Magic Sites?’ You’re hoping to understand where your stepfather is going. And why.”
  348.  
  349.     “No shit.”
  350.  
  351.     “I’m hardly the best teacher, but what are you stuck on.”
  352.  
  353.     Miltia squirmed in her seat as she quietly groaned.
  354.  
  355.     “Oh, everything. Why are you studying ley lines? That’s a needlessly complex method of tracking.” Aidan shook his head as he looked through the glossary, his finger tracing the column of black ink. “Ah, here we go, western elemental sightings. If you follow the path of elementals and natural spirits, they’ll often lead you to ritual sites. Since Anne was kind enough to tell us that the ritual takes place near a volcano, we can narrow down our search to fire spirits in either mountain ranges or areas with seismic activity.”
  356.  
  357.     “Damn it. Why didn’t I think of that?” Miltia grumbled. “Hmm. The collection here is a bit outdated, so I don’t think they’ll have any maps of the western frontier. Ah well, I’ll make a note of it for later.”
  358.  
  359.     “Well, the only place that comes to mind is the southeastern tip of the Ekmund Mountains, but there’s no rush. You have three years to wait. I suggest you make good use of that time.” Aidan said gravely.
  360.  
  361.     “Being serious, that’s unusual.” Miltia’s expression softened into a slight frown. “What do you know about that place?”
  362.  
  363.     “Not much, the Empire hasn’t sent more than a few settlers and explorers, not since they lost an entire knighthood order stationed there. Even the Formi are hesitant to disturb that part of the mountains with their railroads and mining. The only hard fact I can provide is that that region in particularly is saturated with fire magic, although we already knew that. Aside from the inevitable fire spirits, speculations are abound about what lives there. Of course, the only information we have comes from legends and myths.”
  364.  
  365.     Aidan looked over Miltia’s collection of books before picking out a leather-bound grimoire that depicted a sketch of a bird-like creature made of flames. “Some legends say that the volcano is a nest for bestial phoenixes, of a flock powerful enough to reject Lilith’s transformation and remain as they were. The same legends also said that once God and Lilith met for the final battle, the phoenixes took flight and scorched the western half of the continent of angel and demon alike. Only nature-aligned monsters and humans survived. The local tribes associate them with the wildfires on the plains, and revere them. Or perhaps fear them.”
  366.  
  367.     He then looked through the grimoire for a while before shaking his head. “No depiction, very well. Other legends say that the volcano formed as a disgraced goddess from a forgotten pantheon was cast out for rejecting God’s dominion over all heavenly beings. She bides her time, letting her hatred and resentment fester so that one day, she can harness her anger and cleanse the world of angels and anything holy.”
  368.  
  369.     “But those are all myths, aren’t they?” Miltia asked, unimpressed by Aidan’s storytelling.
  370.  
  371.     He scoffed. “You’re a wyvern, a being of scale and flesh and claws. That can fly. You’re just as much a myth as they are. The nature spirits have only been awake for the past century or so. Perhaps the reappearance of magic and monsters have stirred them up from their slumber. And I personally wager that the same can be said for the gods and beasts of old.”
  372.  
  373.     “Maybe I shouldn’t have given back that Jupiter Cannon.”
  374.  
  375.     “You’ll need more than a few toys to kill a goddess, dear. If you rush in, you’ll be ashes on the mountains. And I’m sure you would love to be alive when you finally have the climactic confrontation with Ignatio.”
  376.  
  377.     “If you’re trying to convince me to give it up, just shut up right now.” Miltia tersely spat out.
  378.  
  379.     “Hardly. You’re still a dragon, nothing I say could possibly make you back down.” Aidan gave a resigned shrug. “Just don’t throw your life away for something like this. I don’t think your parents would want their daughter to waste her life on something like this. And Aria and Matriarch Aerland definitely wouldn’t.” He smiled faintly. “And I certainly wouldn’t.”
  380.  
  381.     “I suppose. Still, this is the best clue I’ve gotten in a long time. He won’t get away again, and I’m not some scared rookie Ranger anymore.”
  382.  
  383.     “You have a one track mind don’t you.” Aidan said as he looked at the ground. His voice was filled with worry and hurt. For a time, Miltia stared at the ground too, unable to agree or disagree. He sighed as he looked directly at her. “It’s your birthday soon isn’t it? That makes it seven years now. By the time you two meet, it’ll be ten. An entire decade of your life dedicated to this one goal. You still don’t have any plans after you finish all this, do you?”
  384.  
  385.     The wyvern shook her head. “Everything that defines me now, my decision to become a Ranger, my work as a Jester, even my contacts with Dominion smugglers, they’ve all been for revenge. Ten long years, and I’ll finally make that motherfucker suffer like he should.” Her voice was slowly changing in to a growl. “I don’t care about what happens after. If anything happens after. So long as I get answers and send him on his way to hell, I can say I was satisfied with my life.”
  386.  
  387.     “That’s the kind of thinking I’m scared of.” He placed a hand on hers, tracing her talons with his fingers. “Miltia, Allow me to be selfish for once. Promise me this at least. After this twisted witch hunt of yours is done, if you can’t find a reason to live for yourself, then will you at least live for me?”
  388.  
  389.     “Of course I would. Why is that even a question?”
  390.  
  391.     “You’re more two-faced then you think. I have seen your softness the most. You’re mischievous, but also caring. The way you interact with Aria, Asta, your juniors, you instinctively fill the role of big sister for them. But when his name comes up, you’re a different person completely. That kindness is replaced with blind rage, and you stop caring about those close to you. Suddenly, nothing else matters to you.”
  392.  
  393.     “Don’t you dare suggest-“
  394.  
  395.     “I am. And you’re only lying to yourself if you think otherwise. I’m not saying you shouldn’t kill him, Fates know he’s left a trail of destruction a mile wide. But if you continue with that same short-sightedness as him, I’m scared that his corpse won’t be the only one at the end of all this. When you say, ‘of course,’ you don’t sound like you mean it. I’m scared that your anger will blind you, make you forget all the promises you’ve made. It’s happened before.” Aidan looked at her pleadingly as his voice cracked, enough to make her blush faintly. “Your parents were like a second family to me as well, I’ve been by your side since the very beginning. I wept when your father died of illness and your mother took her own life. I was by your side when we had to fight off the Imperial Reclamators. I was the one who stood by you when you took your first life. I was the one who encouraged you to become a Ranger. And I want to keep walking by your side, out of this years-long darkness. So please. I want you to honestly promise me that you’ll at least live for me.”
  396.  
  397.     The couple were silent for a while as they stared at each other. The wyvern’s face was slowly turning redder with each passing moment. Suddenly, spontaneously, Miltia busted out a smile and laughed, which caused Aidan to stare incredulously. It was different from her usual mischievous chuckles, it was more innocent and lighthearted. “Aidan, this isn’t a theater. Stop being so cheesy.”
  398.  
  399.     “W-well, I’m am an artist in all things.” Aidan said dramatically as he desperately tried to regain his stride.
  400.  
  401.     “Sure. Sure. Whatever you say.” Miltia dismissively said, although a smile remained plastered on her face. “But thanks, for sticking with me. I know I can be a bit hard sometimes.”
  402.  
  403.     “I mean, I had to take pity on the dangerous one, yes? No one would like a girl like you. You should be grateful.”
  404.  
  405.     “You? Take pity on me? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? No one would want someone as weak and peaceful as you.” Miltia’s face turned redder. “Joking aside though. You’re the strongest guy I met in that village. Like my dad. Like my little sister. It takes real strength to be so kind, so vulnerable, all the time and keep moving forward. Haha. Enough mushy stuff for now. I think we should put an end to this public display of affection.”
  406.  
  407.     “Oh? And just when we were about to seal the deal? Not even a kiss?”
  408.  
  409.     “Aidan, this is a library, and everyone’s looking at us.”
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