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  1. [spoiler=Sanctuary Has Fallen] She could see it, the massive broken globe that had been lost ages ago. It was the largest emblem piece in existence, the core. It was active, now, giving off a strong golden light that invited her. It floated amidst swirling shadows, blissfully unaware of the all out battle playing out just beneath it. Aisha tried to reach out to it, to touch it, to gain influence over it, but she was just too far away, and her magic couldn't pierce the veil of darkness protecting it. She knew then, that Obelisk was taunting her with his own prize. He knew that she wanted an emblem piece, and badly. Why wouldn't he taunt her now that he had her trapped within this black prison. <"Do you know how many pieces remain, Aisha?"> came Obelisk's voice, <"someone out there must know the answer to that question."> <"I hope you never live to learn the answer to that question, wretch,"> Aisha snapped at the disembodied voice as she kept her eyes open, anticipating another attack. <"First my parents and my siblings ... now my servants and my people ... I despise you with every fiber of my being."> <"Hatred is for the powerless,"> was Obelisk's amused reply. <"Let me lend you helping hand~"> Aisha eventually opened her eyes, unsure of how much time had passed. <"Where is he?"> she asked, disoriented, tired, and confused. Shadows were moving across the ground in unnatural patches as a dying storm pelted the area with sand and loose debris. All around her, the once magnificent buildings of Sanctuary were in ruins. Not one building in view stood higher than two stories. Anything beyond the tragic sight was obscured by the storm and too difficult to make out with her wary eyes. <"Where ...?"> she asked, looking all around her. It wasn't until she looked up that she found who she was looking for. <"There! Found another one,"> came a voice from the edges of her vision. The voice likely belonged to a middleaged man, one on the warpath from the sound of it. She could see several figures approaching her, following the road to reach her. The storm had covered every inch of the once paved road, and now it was simply a patch of land between ruined buildings. It was like the dream of the rebels had finally come true, and Sanctuary was gone. <"It's her,"> the angry man called out, picking up his pace. <"There you are!"> All she could do as he approached was try to pick herself up off of the ground, but he stopped her with a swift kick to the forehead that sent her sprawling onto her back. He grabbed her by her endless locks and pulled her up onto her knees. <"It is so nice to finally meet you in person, Aisha. My father, grandfather, great grand father ... all of them have been waiting for this."> Aisha felt a trickle of blood run partway down her face, branching around her nose and all the way to her jawline. Today was the first time she'd bled since the rebellion, and the wound wasn't going to heal nearly as quickly as it had back then. <"Come on! We need to bring her to the commander."> <"WHOA!!!"> one of the men let out a scream and fell onto his rear. It didn't take long to realize what had scared him. Aisha and the others followed his gaze up into the sky where the mass of darkness she had seen early took form. A giant, draconic face was smiling down on them. No living dragon could have possibly possessed a face so massive. <"What is that thing?! Is that who's controlling all of this dark magic?!"> <"I am the one that delivers you this queen, loyal followers of the Horsemen,"> the dragon head answered, his smile widening with satisfaction. <"He is ... Obelisk,"> Aisha just barely managed to explain, <"he is the god the fallen ones worship. He is the one ... that ... did all of this."> <"I am,"> Obelisk nodded smoothly. <"Downtrodden of Rex-Avaz, it is not your cooperation, nor your gratitude that I want in return for this victory I've delivered to you."> <"What, then? What do you wish of us?"> the man holding Aisha by the hair asked. The dragon's tiny red eyes narrowed and the smile quickly faded. <"Fulfill your obligation to your ancestors, and put an end to this government. Free your people and exact your vengeance, just as you always planned. I simply ask that you follow through. If you fail to confront the Sancturans, then you will be hounded day and night. To end the cycle of death and retaliation and free Rex-Avaz, every last Sancturan must be killed."> <"We understand,"> the men nodded, first at each other, and then up to Obelisk, <"that was what our leaders said would be necessary, not only to free us from this fighting and start a new government, but to ensure we do not switch places with the Sanctuarns. We will wipe them all out. You have our word, Obelisk."> <"Then I have chosen wisely in aiding you,"> Obelisk smiled faintly. [spoiler=The Tide Turns] Far in the distance, a ruined city could be seen, even with the massive sandstorm overhead. The city was split in two by a chasm that ran the length of the city and separated entire blocks by hundreds of feet. Several fissures branched out from the main opening in the earth. One of them had cut off a third of the palace and left much of it in ruins. There was little activity to be seen from this distance, but even many miles away, it was obvious that a battle between gods had taken place here. Shadows raced across the walls, in and out of natural shadows, and a pitch black, wispy cloud hung above the palace grounds. <"Sanctuary has fallen."> A tall man atop a horse and covered from head to foot in tattered cloth observed the destruction from afar. His face was hidden beneath a mask with a stone-like face, with green accents. There were many others with him, all of them on horseback, all of them wearing heavy robes, some tattered like his own, and others newer and better maintained. Some of them had masks that made them look like stone faced oddities or humanoid animals The green masked man turned halfway in the saddle to face the men behind him. <"So ... who among you is ready to face the cretin that stole this victory from us?"> <"Grandmaster,"> an unmasked man to his right began, frowning as he looked down to his horse, <"they won't cooperate with us, not around that sort of magic. We will go with you, but we must go on foot."> The grandmaster glanced down at his white horse and cocked his head slightly to get a better look at the mare's face. She seemed nervous but brave enough, especially given the circumstances. <"On foot, then."> He began to dismount, nearly all of them had begun the act in unison. <"Don't forget the essentials,"> he reminded them. They set out for the ruins of Sanctuary. It took them hours to reach the outer walls, but not a one of them was too tired to keep going. The walls were useless, now, with breaches all over the place. The group of robed figures only had to pick the most convenient of the gaping holes to pass through, and then they were in the city. It was then that they realized the city was still filled to bursting, both with people, and with abominations. Creatures, made seemingly out of metal and dark magic, were cutting down almost anyone they came across. They left some of the armed men on horses alone, but ruthlessly cut down any women and children, or defending sancturans they found. <"Despicable,"> the unmasked man said, gritting his teeth at the sight of so many ravaged bodies. <"It seems like quite a few of them escaped the city, already,"> the grandmaster noted evenly, <"but not nearly enough."> One of the horsemen was tempted to charge at them, but he quickly realized that he wouldn't be getting any help from his murderous allies. Rather than simply let them pass, he rode off ahead of them to warn his human compatriots. He never gathered enough willing allies, however, and he eventually realized that these robed figures marching toward the royal palace were the most powerful assassins of the Tide organization. The green masked man was their notorious leader, Osiris. The Horsemen and the Tide weren't official allies, and their common enemies, the sancturans and their immortal queen, made it easy to push their political leanings to the side. Now that Sanctuary was no more, however, new problems could arise between the two groups, eventually ... and this said nothing of the other smaller rebel factions opposing the sancturans. The Tide elite saw the draconic face smiling down on the carnage, but they weren't deterred. Eventually, they reached a gathering crowd of warriors. Roughly a third of them were mounted and patrolling the perimeter. The entire group made way for them, having been informed ahead of time by the scouts. <"Proud and mighty warriors of the Tide,"> came a friendly voice from the inside of the circle as it opened up, <"I, Husam, welcome you to this glorious battlefield."> The man speaking, a tall, heavily muscled man in modest armor, stepped forward with open arms to greet the Tide assassins. He stopped just in front of Osiris and reached out to shake hands with him. Osiris glanced down at the offered hand, and then reached out with his own. <"Osiris, grandmaster of the Tide organization. You all seem to be in a fine mood,"> he greeted casually, <"despite all of this destruction,"> he turned his head to scan the environment for a moment. <"Today is the day, friends,"> Husam's smile widened, <"Behold,"> he stepped out of Osiris' way to show him the captured woman at the center of the group. She was being held by three men. It would have only taken one in her condition, Osiris noted irritably to himself. <"Queen Aisha. Mere men could not have done this to her,"> Osiris pointed out with an edge to his tone, glancing up at the dragon in the sky. <"That's right,"> Husam said, gesturing up at Obelisk, <"Obelisk has favored us and moved against Aisha on our behalf."> <"After hundreds of generations of dissent and warfare, I highly doubt this turn of events has anything to do with us,"> Osiris bit out. It put Husam on guard, though he hid this behind a polite but concerned expression. <"I would thank you, Obelisk,"> Osiris continued, locking eyes with the shadow dragon, <"but I find your brand of aid utterly contemptible. You care nothing for this land or its people. Do not think that all of us have forgotten the legends ... how you destroyed the ancient rulers of this land and set us all on a path to ruin. Aisha's corruption stems entirely from your influence. She rules from pain and not love, and that is your doing."> The warriors of the Horsemen were stunned into silence. Did Osiris have any idea who he was talking to? He was berating a god of all people, and not a benevolent one. Husam put a bit of distance between himself and Osiris, hoping not to be caught up in Obelisk's most assuredly deadly rebuttal. <"Tell me, Obelisk,"> Osiris continued, <"what are your plans for this queen? What do you expect us to do with her?"> he gestured at the bleeding queen and her handlers. <"I expect you to execute judgment,"> Obelisk nodded for emphasis, <"not now, rather at a time and place that befits the death of a failed monarch."> <"Port Temptress, then,"> Osiris concluded. <"That will do,"> Obelisk agreed. <"Very well, however ..."> Osiris made a gesture, and the men behind him began readying their weapons, most of which were hidden beneath their robes, <"we will continue to do things as we always have, on our own terms. Your involvement is not only unnecessary but counterproductive. You will undermine everything we fight for by your presence alone. I ask ... no, I demand that you remove yourself and leave this situation to us."> <"Demands?"> the dragon chuckled, <"how amusing."> <"Are you out of your mi-"> Osiris silenced Husam with an upraised hand. Then, he looked dead at the man. <"My people and I will be holding onto Aisha for the time being. We will bring her to Port Temptress for her final judgment once we have what we need from her. That is not negotiable."> He looked back up to Obelisk. <"If you refuse to stay out of Rexian affairs, the time will come when the Tide turns on you, as well."> <"Threats, as well?"> the dragon's smile widened, <"I shouldn't be surprised; you are the grandmaster of the Tide. Death is not something a man in your shoes fears. Death is your ally. It swallows up your enemies and will grant you peace when the trials of life finally overwhelm you. You understand, don't you? Excellent."> <"N-no ... NO!!! That is out of the question,"> Husam fumed, <"absolutely impossible! We were here, we fought through the streets to reach her as Obelisk battled Aisha! We captured her once she was defeated! We hold her even now! What claim to her do you have, Osiris?!"> <"My presence here is my claim,"> Osiris fired back dismissively. <"I did not come here to do battle with potential allies, but this is not negotiable. If you refuse me a second time, I will personally kill each and every last one you. Don't think your new friend up there will step in to save you. Saving lives and liberating our people is not his reason for helping us. Don't make the mistake of believing you can hide behind him. Turn her over to us or die."> <"But why?!"> the Husam pleaded, <"why would you swoop in and simply take her from us?! We have been waiting so many generations to see her brought to justice ... and you plan to whisk her away to one of your hideouts?! Why?! To what end?!"> <"There are things we need from her. Information. We will bring her to Port Temptress after that. She must be protected from the overzealous in the meantime,"> Osiris explained. <"My people are disciplined enough to give their lives for her on my command, or to likewise cut her down on my command, which is why they are the only ones I trust to handle this."> Osiris stepped into the circle, and the three men holding Aisha began to loosen their grip, the prospect of fighting this fearless assassin and his group becoming more real in their minds with each passing second. Aisha looked up to her new executor, curious, and somewhat angry at the same time. <"You won't elude judgment, Aisha, but you will be spared the company of this dragon and these uncivilized revolutionaries. That is all that I can offer you."> <"That you would offer me anything at all is curious,"> Aisha said, trying to read the man. It was impossible with that mask on. His voice was familiar somehow, but his intonation was completely indifferent. He could have been speaking to a passing stranger with that tone of voice, and not his greatest enemy. <"What will you do?"> Obelisk spoke, his eyes on the bewildered warriors, <"will you allow this?"> They seemed confused by the question. <"Will you allow this?"> Obelisk asked again. <"But Obelisk,"> the man pleaded, <"fighting our own is ... that was not why we came here."> He looked to Osiris. <"Please, don't force our hand like this."> <"Husam, if you and your compatriots are not willing to face us and die to keep Aisha in your custody, then you don't have the conviction to see her to Port Temptress. Leave her to us. We will ensure that she reaches the people, and they will decide her fate. That is the way it should be."> He glanced back up at Obelisk. <"And you will stay out of this. We are not here for your amusement. Take your sadistic games elsewhere, dragon."> There was a long silence as the everyone waited for Obelisk's reply. Most were expecting an unholy explosion of wrath that would liquefy Osiris where he stood. Others were expecting a horde of those metallic monsters to rush in and overwhelm him and the rest of the Tide assassins. What they got instead was entirely unexpected. <"I will return to witness her final hours. I'm curious to see whether or not you can achieve anything on your own terms after so long, assassin. You could not even reach this point without my intervention. I foresee great failure and death on a scale you cannot comprehend. I look forward to seeing your results just the same ..."> And as if they were late for an appointment in the void, the shadows all over the city began to vanish. The metal clad specters began to leap into dark orbs that carried them off into the unknown, and Obelisk's massive head began to dissolve into the black cloud hovering above the city. Within a minute, the only evidence that the shadow dragon had ever been there at all was the destruction all around them. Osiris exhaled. <"Take her,"> he ordered sharply, and several of his men, including one with a healing staff, moved in on Aisha. Her previous captors reluctantly let her go. <"Now, then,"> Osiris turned to Husam, <"I know your leaders won't like this, but what we're doing will be better for Rexia than anything Obelisk has planned. You had best let the remaining sancturans escape. Hunting them down to the last man woman and child will hurt the situation more than you know. Justice will have to be meted out, eventually."> Husam shook his head in disgust. <"He only speaks the truth, Osiris. Our masters know what must be done, as well. What will you do instead of destroying the sancturans? Apologize to them for all of the killing and hope they fall in line? No that's simply impossible. They all have to die. Even Obelisk understands this, and he is an outsider."> <"He is no outsider,"> Osiris said menacingly, <"now, will you stop this senseless extermination, or will you play into Obelisk's hands and suffer mightily for it in the end?"> <"More threats, Osiris?"> Husam stepped back, placing a hand on his sword's hilt. Others began preparing for battle, as well. <"We are finally at a point in this war where peace talks can begin,"> Osiris explained, <"anyone who would jeopardize that for petty revenge is going to die. That includes you, Husam. Leave the sancturans alone. Show them what we're after is peace and a righteous government, not mindless bloodshed. If you won't show them mercy, then you're going to die. The new order will not tolerate your kind."> Husam was stunned, but eventually, a sense of amusement settled in. <"You,"> he chuckled as he pointed at Osiris, keeping another hand on his sword, <"you plan to be the new king, don't you? Those are great ambitions for an assassin, Osiris."> <"... I am the king,"> Orisis said matter of factly. Husam was silent again. He caught Aisha's gaze as his men carried her past him and out of the circle. <"Make your choice, warriors of the Horsemen. Mercy ... or death."> The silence seemed to last for an eternity, but eventually, Husam looked back to his allies, and then to Osiris. Again, he looked back to his allies, and then to Osiris. Husam drew his sword. Aisha opened her eyes, unsure of how long it had been since the slaughter had ended. Osiris had been true to his word, though those words were somewhat misleading. He had killed Husam and each of the Horsemen present with his own hands, however, this only happened after the rest of his men had disarmed them. He didn't personally take down every man, instead he executed them all one after another as they were bested in combat. The rest of the Horsemen hunting down civilians in the city had been taken care of by his men, and that was where the slaughter truly began. There were no clean deaths after Osiris had finished with his executions, only a bloody melee. "Did their hatred truly run that deep?"> She asked. She was lying on a makeshift stretcher, being carried out of the city by the Tide assassins. Beside her, Osiris was keeping pace with his men, and behind his men, several hundred refugees were trailing behind them. They were the only known survivors to be found in Sanctuary. <"I can assure you that ours does not,"> Osiris replied. <"What good is all our power without the wisdom to know when and how best to wield it? I regret that our peers never learned that lesson."> <"Osiris ..."> Aisha pulled herself up, slightly, <"You said that you were the King. Do you plan to take my place? How will you rule this country? You are a great leader among assassins but that will not make you a great king."> <"I have no intention of replacing you ... ... and ... you don't recognize me, do you?"> It was obvious he was smiling beneath the mask. <"I haven't been gone that long ..."> Aisha nearly fell off of the stretcher as she pulled herself up to face him, <"I know a man that sounds like you, but he couldn't possibly be the leader of the Tide."> <"Of course he could,"> Osiris glanced back at her for a moment. <"I was just a servant in the beginning, but you grew to trust me implicitly. However, one day, I realized the folly in this system of yours ... and knowing I would never be able to convince you of this, I tried another, more direct approach. This isn't the same country I left, and you are not the same woman I left. It's sometimes difficult to tell whether I'm living this life forward or backward, but otherwise it's been good to me. By some miracle, I made it here in time to keep Obelisk from having you killed."> He turned to face her and slowly, he began to remove his mask. <"If you have any doubts about who I am, Lady Aisha ..."> Aisha was speechless at first, but when she found her words, again, she could hardly believe what she herself said. <"... Is it truly you? ... Amon ..."> [spoiler=The Imperial Reception] The palace had received an emergency message from Sarunobu's forces. The fallen empire had found one of their legendary heroes and brainwashed them. Now, a royal escort was using the dragon as a shield and ram to breach the capital and confront the emperor ... or worse. Despite how much he and everyone around him hated the idea of attacking one of their nation's greatest icons, it was probably the only way to break the spell holding him, and defeat the royal escort. Statues and motifs of the four dragons could be found all over the palace grounds, and here they were, about to do battle with one, Jirou, the Thunder Dragon. The emperor had ordered the capital garrison to prepare for battle, against his personal feelings, and now the royal palace was ablaze with activity. <"Lord Shiba!"> Ryuudou called out as he made his way down the palace courtyard's central path. He was dressed for battle like everyone else, but it wasn't his job to fight Jirou, it was his job to protect the prince. The prince and heir to the throne, Shiba Yamato, was wearing similar armor, but was lacking Ryuudou's long black cape and was far more ornate in general. Also unlike his bodyguard, who had only a single sword, collapsed and sheathed on his lower back, the prince had two swords held on either side of his belt, with sheaths as posh as the rest of his outfit. He was heading straight toward the palace guards amassed at the main gate. <"Lord Shiba, there is absolutely no reason for you to be outside, right now."> <"There is absolutely a reason, Ryuudou,"> Shiba sighed, glancing back as Ryuudou began to catch up. <"If my father won't confront Jirou, then I will. Someone with the highest authority must be here so this battle can be called off without an internal squabble muddying up the process. If not my father, then me."> <"Lord Shiba,"> Ryuudou came up on the prince's right flank, <"I'm not certain I can protect you in this situation."> Shiba smirked faintly and placed a hand on Ryuudou's shoulder. <"Then let's hope a royal's training is sufficient. I don't plan on risking my life needlessly."> <"Yet here you are,"> Ryuudou gave the prince a chastising look. <"I don't plan on risking all of their lives needlessly, either,"> Shiba said pointedly. Suddenly a war horn sounded, then another. <"He's been spotted,"> Shiba winced. <"This is it."> With almost no warning, several figures flew high over head toward the city. Several more followed suit, all of them, men on special gliders, all of them propelling themselves with wind magic. As Shiba and Ryuudou looked around, they saw numerous other gliders taking off from the expansive palace grounds. There couldn't be less than fifty of them in total. On the ground, portable guns were being rolled out by squads of men intent on involving themselves in the fight. Scouts and mages could be seen on the rooftops of nearly all of the buildings on the palace grounds, ready to contribute their skills to the imminent confrontation. The war horns continued to bellow as Shiba and Ryuudou reached the detachment of palace guards waiting by the front gate. They cleared a path right through the center of their formation for the two men to pass through and then stood at attention. <"This is ridiculous,"> Shiba told Ryuudou as quietly as he could, <"Jirou's power either eclipses ours, or this is more force than we could ever possibly need."> <"With all due respect, Lord Shiba,"> Ryuudou scowled, <"which would you prefer?"> <"I ... will let you know when he shows himself,"> Shiba said absently, staring up at the sky as they reached the main gate. <"There,"> Shiba's face lit up with excitement as he spotted something in the clouds. He detested the idea of this becoming a battle, but he was about to see one of the legendary dragons in the flesh for the first time. Most of the emperors of the past had never laid eyes on one of them. Even his father hadn't. He would be the first royal in ages to take in the brilliance of this celestial being. Brainwashed or not, it was an opportunity he wouldn't trade for anything. <"I see it,"> Ryuudou nodded, excitement pouring out of him, as well. <"There! That light,"> he pointed one cloud in particular. A golden arc raced across the bottom of the cloud, and then another smaller one, and then finally toward the cloud's outer edge, Jirou appeared, flying at breakneck speed. He was making a beeline for the palace. <"He's heading this way!"> Shiba winced as he heard the portable guns and their crews working on them. They weren't going to hold back, he knew. Looking at back toward the palace itself, he saw the flock breaker gun ports opening up. Long naval guns were being moved into position, sticking out from the ports just like those on a galleon, only much, much larger. They were not going to hold back. <"They're going to damage the city pulling out weapons like that."> <"They'll make each shot count,"> Ryuudou soothed. The reassurance just wasn't there, and Ryuudou cursed himself for it. He was beginning to lean sharply toward Prince Shiba's side. If this turned into a battle and dragged on for too long, the damage to the city from all the cannon fire would be tremendous. They were initially installed as a last ditch defense for the palace, for situations where the state of Kayoyama itself was no longer relevant. Whether it was fear, anger, or both that prompted their use now, the decision to do so felt wrong. <"Once he's close enough ..."> Ryuudou trailed off, <"... that's when they'll open fire. Once he's too close to evade. There shouldn't be too much collateral damage."> He was doing a fine enough job of convincing himself, but not the prince. <"The mages will have the first shot at him. Hopefully they will be enough to get rid of whichever demon is controlling Jirou."> There was a flash of light, as if lightning had struck nearby, but it was coming from Jirou. <"Spyglasses,"> Shiba ordered the soldiers behind him, <"Now!"> The battle had begun, but they were too far away to see how the mages were faring. All Shiba could tell from where he and stood was that Jirou was evading attacks of some kind. It was most likely wind magic. He accepted the spyglass from one of the soldiers just ahead of Ryuudou and took a closer look at the battle. His excitement was quickly replaced by intrigue. <"Ah ... he's not evading the attacks himself, he's protecting his passengers. Ryuudou, do you see them?"> <"My eyes aren't nearly that good, milord,"> Ryuudou said, squinting as he tried to take in the detail. He didn't see any passengers, and could just barely make out Jirou's face. Even with this view, the gliders looked like flies to him. How the prince could spot passengers on Jirou's massive slithering form was beyond him. <"His crown, Ryuudou,"> Shiba clued the bodyguard in with a smirk, <"see that faint circle there? It's a barrier, I'm certain. I can just barely make out some passengers underneath it. Between those horns would be the safest place to ride him, I suppose. An electric shield normally wouldn't be effective against wind magic, but Jirou is clearly no ordinary wielder of thunder magic."> <"If they can't break through that shield and destroy those demons before he reaches the palace,"> Ryuudou glanced at Shiba, <"the cannoneers will have to deal with this."> <"I'm aware,"> Shiba scowled. The mages hadn't managed a thing so far, and one of the gliders had caught fire when a bolt of thunder magic struck its wing and set it ablaze. The mage on the glider quickly choked out the fire, but still felt it prudent to withdraw. His exit was marked by a trail of black smoke. <"If he truly is brainwashed, then they picked an excellent target, and an absolutely flawless time to strike. This aerial battle is going nowhere."> <"Indeed,"> Ryuudou sighed. <"Thanks for playing spotter for me,"> Jirou called up to his passengers, <"No one's dead yet and this is actually kind of fun~"> <"I'm glad to know someone's enjoying this little exercise,"> Freyya forced a smile. She wanted to get a better look at the capital and its beautiful architecture, but Jirou's movements made it difficult to appreciate the brief glimpses she did get. The human city was so alien to what she had known all her life and she hoped she would get to see more of it before leaving the capital, and preferably not during a battle. <"Dragon,"> one of Freyya's bodyguards called out, <"A coordinated spell, directly behind us!"> <"Felt it,"> Jirou called back as he curled his body and wrapped around the massive wind attack, letting it pass harmlessly on by. <"Well we can't mess around up here forever. Let's land in that courtyard down there."> <"You're flying,"> Freyya teased. To Nori, who was sitting just beside her, she said, <"Hold onto me so you don't get too shaken up."> The boy nodded and took her right arm. She placed her wing over him and took hold of one of Jirou's horns with her free arm. She glanced back to see her bodyguards were braced and ready for the bumpy ride. <"We're ready. Show these humans how to fly,"> she smiled. She had fully braced herself and Nori just in time for Jirou's sudden dive. He had timed it so that the next attack, the one that had been aimed squarely at his head, missed by an almost embarrassing margin. By the time the attacks reached their target, Jirou simply wasn't there anymore. The mages had no choice but to follow Jirou into his straight nosedive toward the city. Freyya finally got the view she had been hoping for and couldn't help but smile as they all dove toward the earth. <"Beautiful ..."> She knew they couldn't keep on at this speed for much longer, and carefully prepared Nori for the next maneuver, which came nearly as soon as she'd pulled him in. The gliders pulled up well ahead of Jirou, not willing to risk clipping the buildings or crashing into the ground. Jirou inverted himself just before he pulled up, which had him flying away from the palace, and leaving the gliders unable to recover quickly enough to close the distance for the time being. Now, just above street level, Jirou raced between numerous buildings at top speed, not so much as scraping the buildings. The townsfolk were stunned by the sight. Many of them were cheering at the spectacle, unaware of the demons and human child riding on Jirou's head. <"At least someone's happy to see me. I think they must have gotten a different memo from the army. What do you think?"> <"Oh, most definitely,"> Freyya chuckled. <"They're back!"> Freyya looked over her shoulder when her bodyguard called out, and sure enough, the gliders were closing in on them from both flanks. <"Well they're not lacking for speed,"> Freyya noted with a wince. <"You may want to try outmaneuvering them again before we head back to the palace, Jirou."> <"Be ready then,"> the dragon warned, <"this isn't going to be comfortable for the boy by any stretch."> Freyya fully secured Nori, this time by holding him with both of her arms, wrapping her tail around Jirou's horn, and letting two of her bodyguards help hold her in place. <"Hang on,"> was his final warning before making a painfully precise turn that would have ripped away even the strongest man's grip and sent him flying a hundred meters or more. The gliders followed, but they couldn't even attempt such a tight turn, not at those speeds, even with the aid of wind magic. They fell far behind as Jirou made another turn that got him back on track toward Kayoyama Palace. <"You all alright, up there?"> Jirou winced, hoping he hadn't overdone it. <"Nori wants off now, naturally, but we're fine,"> Freyya called down to him. Her eyes locked on the palace grounds, which were directly ahead and above them, now. <"I see artillery ..."> <"Really?"> <"That looks like artillery, yes,"> Freyya confirmed, while at the same time trying to comfort Nori. Ryuudou nearly crushed the spyglass in his hand. <"Are they using the buildings for cover?!"> <"Smart move,"> Shiba said, both impressed and relieved. <"Now they won't be able to fire until he gets here."> Shiba winced as his hand was grabbed. <"Ryuudou, what is it?"> <"They're headed this way. I need to get you inside of the palace!"> <"I'm the future ruler of this nation,"> Shiba snapped, <"I'd rather die right here and right now than turn my back on my people! And for them to actually see it happen, too! Not a chance! They need to know that I stand for them and with them, Ryuudou. I'm not going anywhere."> Ryuudou looked like he was about to dislodge a blade from his stomach, bracing for the inevitable spike of pain that would result. He let the prince go and exhaled through clinched teeth. <"Then let us hope that only the demons will die, today."> <"I'm surprised they haven't killed any of our mages,"> Shiba said, looking back toward the oncoming dragon with renewed interest. <"You don't think we're being mislead about the situation, do you?"> <"Well ..."> Ryuudou took in the scene for a moment, <"inaccurate reports are inevitable. I admit, it is strange that a possessed dragon would go out of his way not to cause any damage to the city or cause any loss of life."> <"Possessed ..."> Shiba put a hand on his chin, contemplating the word. <"That is the only valid explanation, isn't it? Why else would Jirou assist demons? Despite being under their control, he's leaving the city alone and coming straight here, with at least one demon passenger somewhere on his body. That doesn't add up."> <"It does if the palace itself, or the royal family is the target,"> Ryuudou said irritably. <"It's time to find out one way or another, I think,"> Shiba decided. [spoiler=The Long Way Home] The plan had gone off without any major problems. The pegasus riders had put a great deal of distance between themselves and the fortress, and had even recovered the last two missing equines. There was no telling if things would have gone quite as well if they had flown over the trees and searched for a clearing to disappear into, rather than staying low and using the trees for cover the whole way, but it would definitely have been the riskier of the two choices. They were still moving, in spite of the suggestion from Norbert that they stop briefly and take stock. The leader rider wanted to put as much distance from the fortress as possible before even risking any kind of break, and so they were still moving, the pegasi carefully feeling out the uneven ground as they moved. It was slowing them down more than they expected, but they could still reach Ursaea in good time. The real concern now was stray bandits. There couldn't possibly be very many of them, but even one could kill someone if they were caught off guard. Cameron had spent most of the trip so far making sure Norbert didn't hurt himself, which had her the most worried when they past the mines. He had a hunch that his pegasus, Rizen, was nearby, and wanted to find her. She couldn't say no to that, but fortunately, the pegasus was there, and she came to him when he whistled for her. Once he was mounted up and given another vulnerary for his back, they continued on. Darcey, his new passenger, decided to help apply it, as well as the bandages Norbert had in Rizen's saddlebags. Eventually, the last pegasus was spotted. This pegasus had been heading west, toward home, and stopped to rest in one of the small clearings. Her rider raced to meet her and mounted up in a heartbeat. It was more and more good news all the time, Cameron realized. It made her worry that they were overdue for some bad news. Perhaps Doran and the other guardsmen would never make it back alive. Darcey had other reasons for riding with Norbert. Apparently she had some questions for him. Cameron supposed it was his turn now that he'd asked her some things. It wasn't really a bother. She didn't mind telling him a little about herself or Joy, her pegasus. It helped pass the time as they made their way down the mountain, and kept her from dwelling too much on the potential sacrifices being made on their behalf. "We can't stay off the beaten path forever," the lead rider said, wincing as her pegasus smacked her hoof on a small boulder by accident. The equine's legs were getting scuffed by more than just inconveniently placed rocks, of course. Low hanging branches were also scratching at them all from time to time, and there was no shortage of tree roots to keep the pegasi constantly staring at the ground just ahead of them. "A few more miles and then we should try to head south a ways, just far enough to reach the road. From there, we can take off and get to Ursaea without running into anymore trouble. That's my hope, at least." "I've been meaning to ask you," Darcey said, staring at the side of Norbert's head, "Why did you name your pegasus Rizen? She kind of reminds me of a wild pegasus. I figured you'd come up with something like Trampler. You know, Bert the Crusher and Trampler the Pegasus, his powerful steed. There's this aura about her that makes me a little nervous." "You're probably just used to your own pegasus," Cameron chimed in pointedly with a weak smile. "I know I am." "... Abigail is so passive, a wolf could ride her without any problems," Darcey sighed. Just as he'd suspected, Rizen wasn't far from the edges of the minefield, and had come when he'd called her. The scenario, though vastly different from what they used to deal with some months ago, was still similar to when they would attack bandits on their own. There was a lot of sending the pegasus off and calling her in. There was also a lot of her coming and helping out on her own, but there had never been wyverns or mines preventing her from doing that in the past. He was going to just have Rizen run along with them, but the pegasus knights had decided that it'd be best for him to switch pegasi then and there, but only stop for that. He couldn't really disagree with their decision, since they were still fairly close to the bandit base, but he didn't like slowing them down, either. As such, he'd recommended the Ursaeans continue on without him and he'd just catch up later. He'd also asked for a vulnerary so he could treat his back, as the wound there had opened up again because of the hard riding. He could supply his own bandages. The pegasus knights -- and Darcey especially -- weren't hearing any of it, though, and soon, (amid some quarreling between brother and sister regarding who'd be bandaging Norbert up) they were on their way again. In addition, as a result, Norbert had had to use a length of his bandages to secure his torso armor, gloves, and his tunic to Rizen between himself and her neck so that Darcey could patch him up as they rode. He was still uncomfortable with the whole thing, but it did save time. They also picked up another pegasus, but the knight's transition from passenger to rider was so quick that they'd hardly had to slow down, let alone stop. With Darcey riding behind him, too, even after she was done with his back, there wasn't much room to redress his upper half. He'd been able to pull on his gloves again, but the rest would have to wait until they'd stopped again. Of course, the traverse wasn't all that quiet. While being a rather focused individual himself, he'd asked Cameron a few, relevant questions. Through these, he'd learned that her pegasus' name was Joy, who she'd been paired up with during her training as a pegasus knight. Evidently, the military favored mares. Cameron also had family in Ursaea -- specifically, her parents. And now that he had Darcey on as a passenger, it seemed it was now his turn to start talking about himself, though he'd already mentioned to Cameron, during their conversation, some basic details relating to her own answers. Specifically, that his sisters met their pegasi during training, too, and that, generally, they seemed to choose mares. While he didn't tell Cameron this, Father Nigel and whatever interns he had at the time generally handled the more academic lessons. However, it was the elder sisters of the orphanage who taught combat and pegasus handling. Sometimes, the teacher would even be a student who was visiting home, after having already left for a time. While Norbert, himself, was never included in the lessons involving weapons or pegasi, he had watched from afar, on occasion, especially when it came to the pegasi. He'd determined to claim one from the herd that lives so close to them for himself, whether his sisters permitted it or not. Observation and experience were his teachers, and it was only because of them that he learned how to ride a pegasus at all. The only feasible way to or from the orphanage was by air -- hence his determination. "I didn't train her like the rest of you did," Norbert answered Darcey. Though it was also strange, it was nice to get some time to connect to one of his sisters, and not in a way that landed him on the ground or in an arm bar or something. "She's still wild. I actually got her from the same herd as you got yours -- I wasn't the Crusher yet. Named her Rizen because...well, she's a flying horse and she seemed to like the name. There's not much to it -- I've never been really creative at naming things." The talk of a wolf riding a pegasus was also a strange mental image. Especially when the wolf was replaced by some wolflike version of Gabbie. She'd mentioned that "Wolfy" was one of her nicknames. That was probably why it'd come to mind. Norbert dismissed the thought immediately. "So she is wild?" Cameron's face lit up with surprise. She knew they were playing fast and loose with the term 'wild,' but considering the fact that Norbert was the only one who could safely ride or even approach her half the time meant she wasn't even close to domesticated. The scene back in the stables with the lone bandit made even more sense to her, now. "If they're from the same herd," Darcey mused aloud, "then maybe she knows Abigail. It's too late to find out, though ..." She sighed and hung her head, the thought of losing her pegasus now fresh in her mind, again. What a slip, that was. "Anyway," she quickly composed herself, "I thought you were going for something there, but if there's really nothing to it, then alright. I guess I'm not much different. I just thought 'Abigail' sounded better than some of the suggestions I was getting. It sounded more human and personal." Norbert nodded. He could understand that. Until you had a pegasus of your own and worked together for a while, you really didn't understand how much like a close friend he or she could be. For a long time, Rizen was his only friend, and was still by far his oldest and most constant. Figuring he should probably reply, Norbert answered Cameron with "Yeah. People keep telling me that I should tame her, but I couldn't do that to her. She just wouldn't be herself if I tried to take away her natural instincts. Besides, she's saved my life too many times to count on her own. I wouldn't be here if she'd waited around for instruction." Thinking about that, Norbert couldn't help but smile, a warm glow in his stomach. Rizen sure was something else. He felt a bit bad for Darcey, though. To her, he replied, "Fizza's pretty professional. I'm sure she'll make sure Abigail makes it back to you safely. She kind of reminds me of a wyvern rider I traveled with a while ago, and if she got a job, she got it done. I think they have that in common." That, and purple hair, actually. He did have another thought, but now probably wasn't the best time to bring up how he wondered how many of their sisters still had their pegasi from the orphanage. Cecelia still had Snowshard, but Erica had lost her pegasus, Patches, and now had a horse named Patches Two. He wasn't the only one in the sisterhood who wasn't so great at coming up with names, it seemed. "She seemed pretty cocky to me," Darcey noted quietly, still not sure what to make of the woman who had flown straight at the enemy with her her pegasus. It was a little strange, knowing that if Abigail was going to be killed in this diversion, it had probably already happened a while ago, possibly before they had even made it past the minefield. If Darcey's pegasus was dead, she likely wouldn't ever learn exactly when or how it happened. None of that would be a comfort anyhow. She would just hope that Fizza woman was as good as her word. "You know I sometimes wish Abi wasn't so easy going, but I guess if it helps in the end, and she survives, it'll be worth it. It's just most of the time, I'm worried about someone stealing her, or luring her away with treats. She was one of the first pegasi Carlos' men got working for them and I was so embarrassed when I found out about it. They said I 'trained her well' and they appreciated my hard work. I wanted to poison their food after that." "You might have gotten the chance," Cameron noted with a smile, "if you had played along and been more cooperative." "Maybe ... not worth it, though." There was that, and also the fact that she wasn't aware of a surefire way to poison the bandits without them immediately figuring out what was wrong, and who had done it to them. It was too big of a risk. "If I get Abi back I'm going to see if I can't teach her some attack commands. She knows how to run people over but she'll only get aggressive like that when I'm riding her." Norbert was hesitant to ask what, exactly, the two women were talking about, given what Fizza had told him when she said she'd found the prisoners. It was evidenced around him, too: all of the women were either wearing old dresses or robes. He grew up with literally hundreds of sisters, so he wasn't too uncomfortable around them. He was more unsure about the implications their attire carried with them. It was a topic he really didn't want to bring up. While he had his guesses, though, it was impossible to tell just what the bandits had done to these pegasus knights with just fringe information. But did he really want to know? Well, partially, but he would rather hear it from the bandits themselves. Then, if his guesses were right, bash in some faces. Disrespecting people like that -- especially when one was his friend and another was his sister -- was just despicable. "Shouldn't have made her so docile in the first place," Norbert commented regarding Darcey's training plans. He hesitated, but then asked, "What did they do to you, anyway?" Then, he braced himself for whatever answer came. "She's always been like this," Darcey grumbled, "training just made it way worse. I couldn't have known that would happen, though." When Norbert asked about their time with the bandits, her expression darkened. It was the kind of face an abusive husband would walk in on before being violently struck down. "Urgh, those irredeemable savages!" Cameron frowned. "It's ... not nearly as bad as you might think," she warned Norbert, "Carlos was trying to start his own city state ... or fortress state. I'm not sure what you'd call it. They needed pegasi for air power and women for ... well, you can imagine. None of us was raped, at least I didn't hear anything about that happening. I was kind of surprised. They're pretty condescending but they seemed to have standards, at least." "Some standards," Darcey bitterly noted, "but that doesn't mean they didn't make slaves out of us." It was a good thing Cameron had clarified the situation. If she hadn't, Norbert would've just demanded to know what happened more adamantly, after Darcey's vague contribution, assuming the worst. Though he was glad to hear no one had been forced upon that way, and presumably they hadn't been physically abused, he was still angry with what they haddone. The fact that they hadn't done the other two things only softened his contempt. Evidently, these bandits -- or, some hybrid of bandits and revolutionists that had made some agreement with Imperials? ... Turncoats -- had captured these women, taken away their freedom and their rights, and decided they were, at best, only compliments to themselves, rather than individuals of equal value and capability. It was an insult -- a long-lasting, and demeaning insult. In light of the bandits' goals, though, he briefly, in passing, wondered if, under different circumstances, he'd at least be in some agreement with them. He wasn't entirely pleased with how Ursium was being run, himself, but he certainly didn't like where Carlos was taking his tiny empire. "Those snail-brained, Imperial-friendly dogs! I'm glad no one was beat or raped, but I know over three-hundred reasons why they're a bunch of idiots! When you soldiers send in people to get rid of that scum, you should make it an all-woman raid! Truth knows there's enough women in the Ursian military who could knock them flat without breaking a sweat to put them down. Maybe that'll drive some sense into those morons," Norbert seethed. Then, he looked over to where he thought he heard his name. He was about to ask what she wanted, whichever of the pegasus knights it was, but then he realized that no one in that direction was looking at him. Maybe he'd become the topic of someone's conversation... It wouldn't be the first time, so he decided to ignore it and focus again on the one he was having with Cameron and his sister. That and the lack of road, though Rizen was perfectly capable of walking through the woods on her own. "They should put the Major Generals Belo and Alexikis in that group, too," Cameron smiled, "that would be the end of that problem." "I want to lead that raid," Darcey said, clinching her fists as she imagined winding back with one and knocking out some of Carlos' teeth. Unfortunately, she might never get that chance. "Hmm?" She noticed Norbert look at something. She followed his gaze to one of the other pegasus knights, and got a shrug from her. "What's up? Did you hear something, Bert?" Norbert, can you hear me? Now that was just uncanny. Norbert looked around, this time towards the woods around them. He could've sworn he heard someone... "Uh, yeah," he replied, distractedly. Then, he grimaced. "Those bandits didn't have any Avians with them did they? Or Fallen?" He was becoming increasingly wary. He knew that the Avians and Fallen could read minds, so it wasn't too much of a stretch to think that they could talk to you while they were inside your head. Were there more Fallen nearby? But whoever this was knew his name... Someone from Weyland's? Maybe this was some sort of mind magic. "Or...anyone with mind magic, or some other kind of weird magic that lest you talk to someone from a distance? ... You don't hear anyone talking to me, do you?" Maybe he was jumping to the wrong conclusions and he wasn't the only one who could hear this voice. It didn't sound hostile, but this sure wasn't normal. "Avians or fallen?" Cameron's head tilted at the question. "No featherfolk, no," Darcey winced, wondering what had gotten into Norbert all of a sudden. "There weren't any mages, either. At the end of the day, Carlos couldn't get his hands on any. Look, if you're hearing things, we should probably pick up the pace. Someone might be messing with us." "What's going on back there?" the lead rider asked, worried by the sudden shift in conversation. Norbert, it's Joanna. I want you to know that the others have made it back safely. Where are you? Where are you going? "We'll let you know when we know," Cameron assured her. The last thing she wanted to do was lean one way or the other too sharply. If she soothed the lead rider, only to find out that there was indeed a problem, it could get them killed. If anyone panicked, that could also worsen the situation, so she hoped the leader, as well as any other curious riders, would wait until they had some clue as to what was going on with Norbert. Well, if it wasn't Avians or the Fallen... Well, he couldn't guarantee that. Just that the Ursaeans didn't know of any contact between the bandits and whoever this was. Same went for any magically-inclined humans. He agreed with Darcey's assessment and suggested course of action. Apparently, they'd even attracted the attention of the lead pegasus knight. That was when the speaker made her identity known. Of course, that didn't lessen Norbert's surprise any. "Jo?! Wait-- Where are you?" He looked around again. No wonder that voice had sounded so familiar and docile. He didn't really have anywhere to fix his eyes, so he just looked straight ahead and imagined the orange-feathered woman. "You're...not here, are you? But how're you talking to me if you're back with the others?" Darcey was stunned into silence for a moment, then she started looking around for whatever it was Norbert had heard. She certainly hadn't heard anything. Cameron and the rest of the riders were silent at first, too, wondering who Norbert was talking to. The lead rider spoke up, first. "What's going on back there? Do we have company?" Picking up on the subtle, though possibly unintentional hint Norbert had given, Cameron called back, "No, not exactly." She returned to giving him concerned looks with Darcey and the others. I'm using the emblem. Her voice was coming in much more clearly now, and that made her apprehension at using the emblem much easier to pick up on. I'm sorry if this is causing trouble for you, I just wanted to make sure you were alright. If we find out where you are, maybe we can send someone to help you. "You're-- you can do that?" Norbert asked, only barely catching himself from dropping the e-word. It seemed like only he could hear Joanna. "Anyway, no, I'm just...confused. Anyway, I'm fine." Thinking about the offer for the others "helping," though, soured his mood as his curiosity gave way to his remembered bitterness. "And don't bother. I'll come to you when I'm done here. I'm on my way to Ursaea with the pegasus knights the others were supposed to help rescue." "Err-Bert?" Darcey began waving her hand in front of Norbert's face, hoping to bring him back. Oh this is terrible, I'm making you look possessed, aren't I? I'm so sorry. I'll check back with you later. Please be careful ... "Alright, what's the matter, people? Do we have a problem here or don't we?" the lead rider asked. She had turn her pegasus around and came to the middle of the group where Cameron, Norbert, and Darcey were, causing something of a brief stop for the group. Norbert lightly swatted Darcey's hand away in annoyance, sending her a little glare along with it. "No, it's fine, Jo. But alright; I'll just meet up with the rest of you later." It was about then that the lead pegasus knight stopped the whole trek and came around to talk with them, demanding if they had a problem or not. To her, still annoyed and waving it off, he replied, "No, everything's fine. I just found out that one of the mercenaries I've been traveling with recently can talk to people over long distances. I just wish I'd been told that earlier. Weird magic's been becoming more and more common lately, blasted stuff..." "You're joking," the lead rider said, her face completely blank. She'd never heard of any magic like that, not from anyone she would think to listen to, at least. "Are you sure you aren't just hearing things?" "A lot of weird things have been happening lately," Cameron noted, though she wasn't sure what she was getting at, herself. She wanted to believe Norbert, though. "Is it some kind of avian magic?" Darcey asked, figuring maybe that had something to do with it. Some of them could read minds, so perhaps there were avians out there that had used magic to take things a step further, though it made her wonder just how far away this mercenary actually was. Um, Norbert? You don't have to say anything, I was just asked to pass along a message to you. This feels awful to say after what happened, but I suppose she may have a point. Greta says she would be eternally grateful if you spoke to the commander at the barracks and asked him to give you a requisition form that she could use in Urquium. "I'm sure that's not it," Norbert replied to the lead pegasus knight. He was also glad for Cameron's support, and when Darcey spoke up, he nodded. "Well, Jo is an Avian. Maybe that has something to do with it." It wasn't an outright lie. The emblem powers he'd seen so far had nothing to do with talking into people's heads...except for Hypnos, actually. Maybe being an Avian didn't have anything to do with it after all. And that was when Joanna spoke up again, and again, outwardly, Norbert looked distracted. "Don't have to say anything?" If I say nothing now, I'll look like an idiot! Of course, she had more to say. Maybe she'd meant that he didn't have to respond to her about this. Anyway, when she relayed Greta's message, Norbert became visibly more disgruntled. Even now, that's all she can think about... "I guess I might as well," he grunted in reply, "But hey, Jo, is there any way you can make it so the others here can hear you? It's a bit annoying trying to explain your weird magic to them." He hoped she had enough sense to try to disguise her thought-voice or whatever when she tried this, too, if she did. It sure would make it easier to hide that they were the ones who whisked away the winged cleric. I ... suppose I could try, but is that such a good idea? "He's really not joking," the lead rider looked around uncomfortably at the other riders, trying to get a sense of how they felt about all of this. The others, save for Darcey, were pretty silent on the whole. "That's a pretty stupid thing to lie about," Darcey noted, "so I believe him, even though I've never even heard of magic like this before ..." "It's more believable than an invisible friend, at least," Cameron chimed in with a chuckle. Norbert offered a grateful smile and nod to Cameron and Darcey as well as he could from the way they were all positioned. Then, to Joanna, he sighed. "Well, if you're not comfortable with it, then no one's forcing you to. It's not helping my case, though. Can't you at least give some proof to the lady who's been calling the shots so we can put this to rest and get moving again? She seems kind of nervous about this." Then, to the listening pegasus knights, he briefly explained, "Turns out, Jo's kind of shy about this ability." I just hope she doesn't do or say anything that'll identify her for who she is or that she's using the emblem. He'd even been intentionally leaving her gender ambiguous. It helped that the nickname he'd gotten used to calling her by was gender neutral. Well ... alright, then. I'll try. "Imaginary friends tend to be shy," the lead rider said, her expression becoming more unamused all the time. "How about this? How about we keep moving and you try to keep these conversations of yours as quiet as possible? You obviously hit your head at some point back there, but we can't treat something like that out here." "You don't have to be so harsh," Cameron frowned. "What else could possibly be going-" the lead rider flinched, her eyes darting around at everything that even looked vaguely human. "W-who?" she winced in embarrassment after a brief pause. Cameron looked over at Norbert and Darcey, got a shrug from the latter, and then focused on the lead rider, who seemed to have gained an imaginary acquaintance of her own. "You hear the voice too now, don't you?" Darcey smirked. "Don't worry, we'll have you looked at when we get back, Martha." "S-shut up," she fired back defensively. "No, not you ... whoever or whatever you are." "This is priceless," Darcey whispered in Norbert's ear. Of course it was annoying when the lead knight made her comments about a head injury, but it was also understandable. Emblem stuff was always weird -- he'd just gotten used to weird things cropping up around it after having been around emblem wielders for so long. The woman's comments were dulled some by Norbert's gratitude towards Joanna for deciding she would try to help him out of this relatively minor mess. He felt even better about it when Cameron returned to his defense. She sure had a polite way of doing that. But, of course, what really made him feel better was when the woman interrupted herself and got that surprised look on her face. He couldn't help but grin at that. Joanna was doing her work. Although, after Darcey's comment, Norbert found himself chuckling a bit at the situation -- it was a great retort. And, evidently, this woman's name was Martha, and she was fumbling over herself at this point. Evidently, Joanna had said something in response, as Martha wound up replying to her. That garnered a laugh from the Crusher, and to Darcey's comment, he nodded in merry agreement. "Thanks, Jo," he responded, though he wasn't entirely sure if Joanna could hear him or not. "I think she believes me now. We should probably keep going to Ursaea now, though. I'll see you later." Martha sat there in the saddle for a moment, her face almost blank, but with a hint of curiosity to it, as if she was listening to someone in mild disbelief. "I ... okay." She met eyes with Norbert, looking embarrassed again. "She ... she said you're welcome ... and please be careful." "Jo seems like a nice person for a mercenary," Darcey noted, "kind of scary to think she can talk directly to you and anyone else like that, though. When the government finds a way to do that it's going to be a real authoritarian state ... so maybe we shouldn't tell anyone else about this." "Yeah, let's just ... keep this between us ... gods, I need a drink," Martha said, staring off at nothing, now. Norbert nodded in response to Martha as though he was giving the gesture to Joanna herself. It was a bit delayed, but Darcey was beginning to speak when he realized that Joanna had revealed that she was a woman. That was a little concerning, since, between the two of them, they'd let these pegasus knights know that there was an Avian "mercenary" named Jo around who had strange powers and who was traveling with a particular group of individuals being hunted by the Order of Wrath. Of course, they weren't aware of the last part yet, but it wouldn't take them long to find out, and once they did, it probably wouldn't take them long to piece these details together. Now wasn't the best time to be thinking about all that, though. It'd show on his face. Instead, he nodded in response to his sister's comment about Joanna's niceness. He was also relieved to hear the general consensus from at least Darcey and Martha to keep Jo's abilities quiet. Norbert did loose a little chuckle at Martha's closing statement. Then, he nodded in agreement. "Yeah. That's probably why Jo's so shy about that ability: doesn't want to scare anyone or be bothered by anyone who wants to use it for whatever their goals are." Redirecting his attention to Martha, Norbert asked, "So, should we get back to Ursaea, or would you rather waste the rest of the light? We're still in bandit territory, even if we did hit them pretty hard. And sitting in bandit territory at night's just stupid." "There's no way we're staying here any longer than necessary," Martha shook her head adamantly, "in fact, we're going to be flying the rest of the way once we're back in neutral territory. If we're fast enough, we can be in Ursaea by nightfall." Slight wishful thinking at their ground pace, at least if they waited too long to get to the road. "I guess if we wait until we're back in the areas we know are under our control we at least won't have to worry about any ballistae," Cameron mused. "It's not like the whole mountain range is dangerous, just this area in particular ... well, for fliers, at least. The whole area is dangerous if you're grounded, obviously." Martha had moved her pegasus to take back up the position as the lead rider as Cameron spoke and Norbert nodded. Norbert followed suit along with the other riders until they were all more or less in the same positions they had been in before their journey's disruption. "That's true," Norbert replied to Cameron's last statement. He had enough experience grounded in bandit territories to know that with certainty. [spoiler=Stripped Bare] "There! That one, too," Kozel called out targets and Sonya blew them away with precise and deadly burst hits. Every ballista, cannon, and watchtower they came across was blown to splinters with frightening precision. Men would go flying from a once pristine engine of war as it exploded, and then Sonya's massive shadow would blanket the mess in darkness as she moved to the next target, gliding just meters above the rooftops. Sector by sector, Ursaea was being stripped of its anti-air weapons. The soldiers on the ground and defensive wall could do little more than loose arrows and shots into the air, hoping to cause enough damage to bring down the massive earth dragon, but it simply wasn't enough to breach her defenses. There was one saving grace, however. Sonya was tired, too tired to keep up such a strong offensive and defensive front simultaneously for much longer ... <"Commander, how much more damage must we cause?"> she pleaded, panting heavily. <"We're almost finished,"> Kozel assured her, <"We won't get another chance like this, so let's make it count. That will be the start of you making up for Carlos and his men."> <"Understood,"> she replied, and waited for the next target. <"There,"> Kozel scowled as he pointed out another doomed emplacement. It disappeared a second later. His enthusiasm had been slipping here and there, but now it was plain gone. Sonya's downtrodden mood was starting to affect him, now. Unfortunately, this wasn't the time or place for a heart to heart. <"Sonya,"> he called down to her from his place on her crown, <"Try smiling, would you? You haven't killed a single civilian and each target we hit will reduce the army's casualties later on."> She seemed to consider that for a moment, and managed a faint smile, one only someone with experience being around her could possibly have noticed. <"That's better,"> Kozel smirked. <"Now let's finish up here and get back. We've got several more operations to plan before the army focuses on the south."> Wary Travelers It was almost nightfall, but they were well out of Carlos' territory, now. The only question now was whether to keep toughing out the horrific terrain of the mountain wilderness or head south until they reached the break in the trees that marked the main road and take off from there. The pegasi seemed to be doing fine, even those that were involved in the battle, but some of the riders were running out of energy, and simple rations weren't cutting it for everyone. Hoping to alleviate the situation, if only slightly, and at the risk of missing her nightfall deadline, Martha decided to give the group a break. She hadn't decided for how long, but she wanted to make sure everyone was in good enough condition to fly once they were moving again, because sooner or later they would reach the road and be able to do so. At that point, it was a straight shot back to Ursaea. "I feel bad about this," Cameron sighed as she sat down in front of her pegasus, "Doran and the others could probably catch up to us if we don't go flying." "Yeah, but it'll take us way too long to get back that way," Darcey noted, "and besides, the sooner we get back, the sooner we can get some help from the commander. Who knows, maybe some more mercenaries will be willing to chip in, too. I say we stick to the plan." Cameron did agree with that assessment, but couldn't bring herself to say it, aloud. Something Is Wrong Save for Norbert and Fizza, the group had been reunited. Now, they were heading east, toward Urquium, but it wouldn't be quite so easy going forward. An hour and a half at the most; that was all they had left until sundown. Sometime after nightfall, the group would need to make camp somewhere along the road. It wasn't the ideal situation to be in, but they would have to keep moving through the night to reach the far side of the mountain, which would be necessary for them to hide the wagon on stable terrain and not damage it. There hadn't been a decision yet, and one of the key decision makers, Amon, was having problems of his own, problems a vulnerary or healing magic simply couldn't address. The sancturan group leader sat on the floor of the wagon, leaning up against a crate. He kept his hand over his chest, though he wasn't sure why. Whatever pain he was feeling wasn't real, but it still had him reaching to his chest to try and pry it off of him. In the beginning, he tried to explain that he simply felt terrible, failing to be more clear than that until he was offered a vulnerary, which did all of nothing. Joanna tried both healing his entire body, and cleansing it, fearing there might be some type of delayed poison taking effect, but that didn't work, either. Amon's eyes had been closed nearly the entire time, partly due to the surreal discomfort, and as a means of helping him envision and describe the feeling. "Failure ... loss?" some clarity finally came as he began to focus. His head slowly swayed from side to side as he tried to figure out the meaning behind his own words. "I feel like ... like I have to be somewhere else ... and the fact that I'm not is ... somehow making things worse." The wagon came to a stop, and Amon tried to sit up straighter. "Somewhere else?" Joanna asked, having been sitting right in front of him. Those inside the wagon could see what was happening with their own eyes, but those outside weren't going to get the best explanation, at least not from her. She wondered where 'somewhere else' might be, thinking maybe it had something to do with Fizza, who was likely still waist deep in trouble. "Where exactly?" Amon slowly opened his eyes, and Joanna gasped. "Failure ... I ... I feel like I failed ... but failed what?" Amon's eyes had gone from hazel to a vivid golden hue and his pupils seemed to have vanished entirely on first glance. All that seemed to be missing was the usual light that accompanied an active emblem reaction, but it wasn't there this time. "Amon," Joanna winced, "your eyes. They're like mine were when I was using the emblem. They've changed color." "Is the emblem telling me something? I didn't think it would do it like this ..."
  2. Nino is a balanced magical unit with excellent growths and much room for growing. She can support with a variety of decent units! Nino can even support Merlinus, a unit who won't take any space up, and who can take the blows for her/dodge while she takes enemies down! Nino comes on levels that are filled with enemies that she is able to finish off after being weakened. Especially on cog of destiny, where the promoted generals will go down with a finishing blow of elfire after weakening themselves on your units during the enemy phase. Whereas Pent comes with great bases, his growths aren't that great; and he can be outclassed by more difficult enemies later on in the game. Erk is dependable and a classic middle road approach, however he can be RNG screwed very easily because of it. In my opinion, Nino has a very high output after a couple of levels. Her low con being trivialized by her high base speed and 60% growth, as well as her decent base magic (In comparison to enemy resistance) and her 50% Magic growth. Besides Merlinus, Nino can support with Canas to get an excellent boost to her attack and general survivability (Defense and evasion), or Erk, who increases her chance of criticals in exchange for no attack bonus. With this, Nino will be able to stay on the rear line and take out enemies from behind the walls of a chokepoint such as Hector or Oswin. At the same time, ranged units will not often be able to get to her with more than one unit unless she kills the ranged attacker or another one comes with something such as siege tomes or long bows. In my opinion, I find that Nino is a decent unit that can be trained very well, and I don't think that she's too much of a liability when compared to the pegasus knights which are almost completely outclassed by the Wyvern knights; Nino can hold her own as a magic unit and as a unit in general. I feel she should be used more often than I've seen. What do you think? Edit: Debating is fine, saying that she just isn't your style is fine. Just please don't argue.
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