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Tension on the Strait The first day of their voyage was nothing like what Shadrak had imagined it would be. Having elected to spend some time at the helm, chatting with Lexi, he’d gained a front row seat to the unfolding spectacle. Behind the Darklighter Idolus and the Emi Maru, were Ursian scout vessels. In front of them, were large retreating imperial warships, scattered over several miles in the south. Dragons guarded the imperial fleet’s rear from above and below the strait. Pegasus and wyvern knights were always attempting to gather information on the two ships that escaped the battle, but none ventured close enough to be attacked, and rarely did they attempt to seek out a meeting. In general, no ship or beast ever came close enough to act without risking reprisal. The druid was still worried about the water dragons in particular, as they lacked the kinds of defensive tools the Ursians had at their disposal. Lexi had assured the druid on several occasions that she could get her ship through a water dragon attack just fine, but eventually had to admit that she couldn’t do the same for the Emi Maru. That didn’t stop her from insisting that he needn’t worry. At the very least, neither the Ursians nor the Neviskotians knew the extent of their abilities. Doubtless the latter didn’t want to lose anymore ships so unexpectedly. How long could they count on that extreme caution, though? A bit longer than even Lexi herself had been expecting …. Team Mikoyan The newly appointed Admiral Roman had taken the first day to simply keep the fleet’s retreat calm and orderly while he tried to tackle the mountains of reports from the previous day’s battle. Eventually, by early evening, Lev had been brought into the admiral’s quarters for his orders. The fact that he was getting special orders in particular was telling … <“Commander Mikoyan,”> Admiral Roman greeted Lev, <“I hope I can trust you with this …”> Trying to look faithful and optimistic, Lev came to attention with a smile. <“What can I do for you, Admiral?”> <“We need that nomad, the mage you saw aboard the Basilisk. You’re one of the few officers I know that can turn an ‘unavoidable’ battle into a negotiation. That’s what I need for the upcoming operation.”> <”You want me to make contact, sir?”> Roman hesitated for a moment, his eyes shifting back and forth as he mulled over the finer details of his plan. <”Yes … but not yet. I’ve been thinking long and hard about this … and as far as I can see, our best approach is to wait until he’s on land. Dealing with the Kigenese could be troublesome, but I don’t like our chances at sea, not with the Basilisk waiting to come and aid them.”> <”How do you know they’re going to Kigen?”> Lev asked. <”It’s only a hunch,”> Roman admitted, <”As the strongest neutral party in this nightmare, they would be a strong buffer for that mage, regardless of their ultimate destination.”> So the Admiral considered the Kigen locals less of a threat than their stolen battleship, did he? Lev supposed as long as it was only Lev’s squad at risk, as opposed to a quarter of the fleet, that was almost certainly true. Of course, if this wasn’t handled delicately, Lev and his men wouldn’t be the only ones at risk; diplomatic relations between these two great empires could be damaged if a battle with this strange nomad caused too much damage. The key, Lev decided, would be to make sure it didn’t come to a battle. <”Your objective,”> Roman continued, <”will be to convince this mage to work with us. Find out what his objectives are. Make whatever offer seems reasonable, get him on our side. If that turns out to be impossible … you’ll just have to capture him.”> <”So I take it that,”> Lev put a hand on his hip and the other on his chin, thoughtfully, <”it’s mission failure if he dies. But wait …”> Lev paused, glancing off toward the corner of the room. <”Admiral, what if he’s not a mage? What if he’s using an artifact?”> <”Some kind of weapon? An undamaged relic from the rebellion?”> Roman asked, wincing. <”Yeah,”> Lev nodded, eyeing Roman with a bit of confidence. <”No mage ever pulled a stunt like that. Not on their own. This almost makes sense if some relic from that era is involved.”> <”If that’s the case, then we may only need him alive if there’s some trick to using this artifact. Once we have the power, be it some new technique or simply a working artifact, we don’t need him anymore.”> Lev frowned at Roman’s response, though he didn’t disagree with the man. <”I’d prefer to recruit him if possible. Even if it turns out to be a dead end, I’d rather go into this with that approach. My team could tip him off in any number of ways if they’ve got murder on the mind.”> Roman nodded. <”That’s fine. I chose you for this, so it’s in your hands. Do whatever you have to do and get us that power … and if at all possible, get us our ship back.”> Lev smiled. <”That’s the plan.”> <”Before you go,”> Roman stood up from his chair, <”you’ll need to assemble your team.”> Lev cocked an eyebrow. <”I have a team, Admiral … not a big one, but we’ve got enough funds set aside for mercenary hires if we need help.”> Roman nodded throughout Lev’s explanation, and then took over. <”There is no ongoing operation more important than this one, Mikoyan. Not a single one. That mage stole our most powerful weapon in the heat of battle and turned her guns back on us. Don’t think the Ursians are going to ignore an opportunity like this.”> Lev’s eyes widened in understanding. <”I nearly forgot about them.”> Edith was the only credible threat there, in Lev’s view, and she was gone, now. Still, Roman’s concerns were valid, and worth some extra precautions. <”You don’t want to expand my team because of the mage; I’m planning to negotiate, after all. You want to make sure we can fight off the Ursians when they try the same thing.”> Roman nodded again. <”Exactly.”> <”You’re giving me a battalion, aren’t you?”> Roman glanced off to the side, not certain of his answer. <”I don’t want to over encumber you. I have some strong recommendations, but the choice of who to bring, and the exact number, will be yours.”> Lev nodded gravely. There was a lot coming down onto his shoulders. He could feel the weight building with each passing moment. <”So, what are your recommendations, Admiral?”> <”Your team needs at least one dragon,”> Roman said; he’d been waiting for that question, clearly, <”but two would be preferable. You’ll also need people with experience operating in foreign lands.”> <”So it won’t just be a naval team,”> Lev noted, <”It’s a joint operation with the army, now.”> <”This is the most important ongoing operation, Mikoyan,”> the Admiral said, again, <”Remember that. The choices are up to you, but as I said, those that can operate in foreign lands effectively are preferable, as well as a minimum of one dragon.”> Lev squinted. <”You’ve got someone specific in mind, don’t you?”> he smirked. <”A group from the army’s special forces, no doubt.”> <”Yes … if you can handle them, one of the army’s special forces units just linked up with us this morning.”> Roman eyed Lev cautiously, trying to give the man his space while still influencing the team’s roster, <”I strongly recommend that you take them with you. Anyone else in the fleet you feel you’ll need will also be available.”> Lev nodded his understanding. <”Sure, I’ll take them with, but I’d like to take some time to get to know them before we land.”> <”Right, right,”> Roman crossed his arms in anticipation. <”Well then, you should head over to the carrier, Anya. Kozel and his team are holding up there.”> Lev’s face went pale at the name. <”Kozel … you mean Virgil Kozel?”> Roman nodded guiltily. <”That’s one hell of a recommendation,”> Lev winced, not hiding his unease. “If I’m going to be working with him on this, we’re going to need all the time we can get before landing.”> <”You’ll get it done, Mikoyan.”> The Edith Detachment “My own detachment …” Edith left Admiral Gram’s quarters after a brief meeting with him and some of the other captains and officers of the fleet, the news and her assignment still fresh in her mind. The Ursians were tracking both the Neviskotians and the mysterious group that had attacked during the battle. They were tracking them both very closely, watching for any significant changes in mood or stance as all three groups headed south. It would be some time before Edith could act, and until then, she had to familiarize herself with a new pegasus, and try to assemble a large enough group to pursue the nomad and his allies without succumbing to imperial attack. Attempting anything at the moment was out of the question. If it turned into a battle, a single ship swarming with distracted pegasus knights, would be an irresistible prospect for the dragons. For some reason, Gram and the others seemed to think the mysterious mage a potential ally against the Neviskotian Empire. Edith didn’t understand how or why they came to that conclusion so near unanimously. If that man wanted to aid Ursium, the fleet’s overtures up to this point wouldn’t have failed. More likely than not, as Edith had pointed out multiple times during the meeting, it was simply more expedient to attack the imperials. If they planned to go south, the imperials were essentially blocking the way for them. Keeping that in mind, it was only natural to fire on them. The fact that they hadn’t taken down a single imperial vessel with their barrage was even more evidence that their intentions were simply to escape the area, not aid Ursium. Edith’s superiors were far too optimistic ... The frustrating optimism of her peers aside, Edith had plenty more to consider, and to be grateful for. While she hadn’t been the most responsible of knights during the previous evening’s battle, she’d broken every record the navy cared about as far as their pegasus knights were concerned. Boasting the highest personal kill count of any pegasus knight in the Ursian military by battle’s end, and having personally taken down the captain of the Basilisk, Edith had earned herself a two rank promotion. Now she held the rank of Commander. What made the situation even better was that no one seemed interested in having her return Yggdrasil into storage. Her mission would be much easier to complete with Ursium’s strongest portable weapon in her possession. At least that was how things seemed for the moment. It was still worrying, Yggdrasil, and what the red eyed giant had told her, but Edith couldn’t let it affect her during the mission. Edith's Detachment was now being formed, and it was up to its commanding officer to assemble a team of the navy’s finest to track and pursue the nomad and his cohorts, as well as wipe out the imperials that were undoubtedly planning the same. She would just have to train herself harder, hone her instincts, learn to command more effectively, and crush the enemy, whenever and wherever they showed themselves. ((3/16))
All relevant information on the RP can be found on RotE's google site, and for those currently participating in the RP, on Roll20. Getting Started ACTING GMs Phoenix -Cynthia- CURRENT NEWCOMER POOL: 1000 SIGNUPS Below is the signup template newcomers should reference when setting up their character for approval. Originally, stat spreads and items would be included here, however, now that Roll20 is required to participate in battles, these aren't needed for initial signup. Instead, newcomers will finalize their stats once they join the campaign itself. Intended stats and equipment can still be posted along with the rest of the signup, but they're no longer required for approval. This signup format also applies to NPCs. Name: (Full name or alias can go here.) Nickname: (Optional.) Sex: Age: Class: Occupation: (Optional.) Appearance: (Guidelines: eye color, eye size, hair color, hair length/style, skin tone, build; generally what said character wears. Reference pics are also acceptable.) Nature/Disposition: (Optional.) Hometown: (Optional: Check the map and read up on the nations before picking a hometown. If you'd like a name for a marked location or would like to add a new one, consult Phoenix.) Connections: (Optional: list of people this person knows and their relations with them. These can be expounded on in Backstory if desired.) Backstory: (Its important that the backstory doesn't conflict with any established canon and is reasonable. It's good to ask for help or information if you need either.) (All optional: But we love mounts) Mount Name: Mount Nickname: Mount Sex: Mount Species: Mount Age: Mound Appearance: Mount Personality: Mount Relations: Mount Backstory: Q&A Q: Why have everything on a google site? A: There's a character limit for every SF post and I'd prefer to have just about everything in one easily navigable area. Hence, google site. Enjoy. Q: Is Roll20 required to join the RP? A: Not strictly, but your character (PC or NPC) cannot participate in stat battles outside Roll20. Q: Can I make a custom player or non player character class? A: No. Q: Why do we have to start with a specific set of stats? A: It was that or hard stat caps. This allows for better customization overall while only being a minor nuisance. It was only ever going to be an issue for early joiners since anyone joining after Chapter One would almost certainly be starting at a higher level and therefore have extra stats to distribute. Q: Can I suggest some new items? A: Suggestions for items are welcome, but there is no guarantee that they will be implemented, and even if they are, they will almost definitely not be added in their original form. Also keep in mind there is a huge selection of items already and they cover most aspects of the setting and combat mechanics as it is. Again, suggestions are welcome, but the complete item list ought to be completely examined before new ideas are brought up. As a final note, for balancing reasons, suggestions for new AS and SPD boosting items are very unlikely to be implemented. Q: Can I sign up a non-human character? A: Dark Avians are the only available non-human race currently for PCs, but others may be accepted as exceptions if we feel the person making the signup is cooperative enough and very familiar with the lore. As a general rule even among exceptions, dragons aren't allowed as PCs (too large). Q: Can I make a non-human npc character? A: Yep, but you'll be expected to be on top of any relevant lore. Read the avian, fallen, and (coming eventually) dragon articles when you've got the time. If you haven't read them, the character won't be approved on principle. Q: Can I start with a ___(item/weapon)? A: Only if you can afford it. It'd also be a good idea to make sure your character can wield it if that's the goal. Q: How do items get unlocked? A: Team leaders unlock items in towns, cities, and major ports the groups visit. Typically each notable stop will see at least a couple of new items unlocked. Items can also be unlocked by beating Challenges. Q: How are battle averages calculated? A: Point averages are calculated individually, like so: With 5 characters being counted ... Jade: 27 Jeb: 32 Jill: 36 John: 42 Julius: 45 The battle average would then be 36.4 = 36 Point averages round up to the nearest whole number from 5 and down from 4.
[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 ..."
[spoiler=Meeting in the Clouds]Antares squinted as he stared down the large double door in front of him. He sensed several strong sources of power nearby. One was familiar ... the other two were not. It took a moment for the realization to hit him, and then he casually, but also gently, opened the doors into the royal dining room. It wasn't particularly large for a 'royal' dining room, but the avians were excessively moderate, and even something this size could be considered by some to be a bit much, if only because the emperor and empress rarely had enough company to fill all those chairs. Normally they would attend gatherings away from the estate. Noah sheepishly followed after Antares as he stepped into the dining hall, wondering if she and Liam should really be here right now. He'd asked them to return to the estate with him, but they were still geared for battle and everything. She thought the emperor's pace had quickened, since she suddenly found the gap between them growing larger by the second, but she soon realized that she'd unwittingly slowed her pace as they entered the dining hall. She was glad she did when she saw two unfamiliar people seated with the empress at the largest table. Antares held out his arms to receive his wife the second she rose up from her seat. She gracefully closed the distance between them and embraced him. <"I know you're none too happy with my handling of those trespassers,"> he said with a weak smile. <"Some or your battles are worrisome, but I trust you, and I trust our warriors,"> Bethel replied, matching his smile. <"I suppose you're curious about Lilith and Griffin. They're here to try and recruit Isolde to their cause."> <"So that's who they are,"> replied an intrigued Antares. <Sovereign Isolde, Lilith, the strongest of all the ancient rebels, and Griffin, the Sky King,> Noah went over the list names in her head, <This seems far too important for either of us to be here for.> <"Have a seat, you two,"> Antares told Liam and Noah, sounding like an overly casual officer whose orders were indistinguishable from even his most humble requests. <"So, how is this meeting going? Is Isolde interested in helping them at all?"> he quietly asked his wife. <"I'm not sure,"> Bethel shrugged, <"Griffin keeps changing the subject. He must be nearing the end of his alotted time, again."> <"A pity, that. Well, did you at least make any recommendations?"> <"I ... teasingly recommended his traveling companion, Lilith, and he immediately insulted her,"> Bethel grimaced. <"She may seem extremely tough on the outside, but some of the things he says about her ... I sincerely hope he learns that her tolerance for verbal abuse is no excuse to say such things."> <"What did he say about her?"> Antares winced. Bethel frowned deeply as she recalled the episode. <"Well, why not Lilith, here? You two have been traveling together for quite awhile now and you've fought together numerous times in the past."> <"Pff, not a chance. Even if she wasn't useless for bearing a child for me, she's not my type of woman. Hardly a woman at all, really. More like an old sword desperately looking for something to cut,"> Griffin glared at Lilith. She simply rolled her eyes back at him. <"I ... I see,"> Antares hesitated. <"Hmm ..."> Sooner or later, someone was going to have to figure out what was going on between those two, because this wasn't a love/hate relationship, it was more like a strictly hate relationship, held together by the assured destruction of the world they knew at the return of Wrath. <"Well, then, let's get back to the table and see this through."> Meanwhile, at the table, Noah had taken her seat, and was quietly studying Lilith and Griffin, alternating between them every couple of seconds. When Griffin caught her looking at him, she switched back to Lilith. She waited a good three seconds before checking to see if he was still looking at her, and another three seconds after that. Every time she checked, his eyes were there to meet hers. Humans weren't scary, they were all too easy to defeat in combat and given enough time would die several generations before an avian would even begin to age, but an avian vasilus, slightly over six and a half feet tall, covered in muscles, with unparalleled control over the wind, the eyes of a beast, hundreds of years of combat experience, and no loyalty to the Goddess or the royal family, staring at her like she'd just wronged him, now that was scary to her. <"Sorry,"> she murmured, <"I didn't mean to stare at you."> <"Well ... I did,"> Griffin replied, smirking slightly. After that, he went back to staring at Isolde, and his smirk vanished the moment he did. <"I seriously hope you and Beth aren't the only women around here who don't retreat into their shells whenever I look at them."> [spoiler='Maddening Mercites]It took a bit longer for Norbert to reach the cathedral than it had before simply because of the rain. Also due to the rain, both rider and pegasus were once more soaked through by the time they reached the building. Norbert had ridden Rizen straight there at as high a speed as the distance would allow them without exhausting the equine and he didn't bother slowing down when they reached the steps. Rather, Rizen jumped those and continued her charge right through the doors and into the main Hall of Mercy its self. It wasn't as crowded as it had been eariler, but several people still had to hurry out of Rizen's path. Norbert didn't pull Rizen to a halt until she was a fair way into the large room, but he didn't wait that long to deliver the message he'd gone to deliver. "Order of Mercy, listen up!" Norbert fumed to everyone around. Rizen's stop skidded a little, it was so sudden, and she had to fan her wings some to help keep from slipping. Face pulled into a snarl in his anger, Norbert roared from the saddle, "Joanna, the Winged Cleric, was arrested by the Wrathites under false charges!" A lone wrathite who just happened to be present when Norbert made his astonishing entrance flinched at the message the angry rider brought with him. Fortunately for him, he was close enough to one of the hallway exits to slip away unnoticed. "Pardon?" said one of the priests in response to the revelation. Another stepped around him swiftly, clearly having understood the message loud and clear. "What charges? What are they accusing her of?" he asked. "I wasn't told what the charges were, specifically," Norbert replied, realized he probably should've asked Valter or his friend about it a little more before heading for the cathedral. This didn't take away from his intensity at all, though, and as he spoke, his voice began to rise again. "But the one who told me about it was Valter, her guard. There was another man with Valter who was there when she was arrested, and he told me that he and Valter couldn't show up here at the Cathedral to tell you all or they'd be arrested, too! I do know that the Wrathites took something that belonged to Joanna when they arrested, her, though. I don't know much about it, but I do know that it was something important!" A few within the crowd began to calm down, partly because the information was secondhand at best, and partly because the sudden rush of a pegasus rider practically flying into the main hall had past. "Are you sure of what you heard?" asked the first priest. "Let's just see what the wrathites have to say about this," the other recommended. He quickly received some approving nods from some desperate looking acolytes. Before that idea could really take the diplomatic form it was meant to, some of the commoners that were seated stood up in a fit. "We should-" "This is ridiculous," one of the commoners interrupted the priest, "The Winged Cleric isn't a bloody criminal, she's Mercy in the flesh! There's no reason for her to be arrested! Where are they keeping her?" "Now, just calm down," the first priest urged," we don't have all of the details ..." "Is that all you have to say?!" Norbert angrily and loudly demanded of the first priest, "You'd really let Joanna rot in some cage for something she didn't do?! Don't you know her at all?! This is Joanna we're talking about: the one who wouldn't just not hurt a fly, but would actually check to see if it was alright after accidentally bumping into it!" Again, he more directly spoke to the occupants of the room at large. "That guy" he indicated the second priest "doesn't have a bad idea, but what do you think the Wrathites will say if you ask them with doubt in your eyes?! These are Wrathites we're dealing with! If you have any appreciation for Joanna at all, how can you possibly stand for this?! They'll lie for what they think they're entitled to and you KNOW IT! Think of all that Joanna's done for YOU! And now that she's in trouble, you're all just going to LEAVE HER?! Is it because you're afraid of the Wrathites? Or do you really think Joanna's scum enough that she'd have to be locked up?!" "No! The Winged Cleric doesn't just help the injured, she helps the sick, too! Even pets! She healed our family cat when no one else would even look her over," came the voice of an outraged woman in the crowd. "What more can we do, boy?" the priest pleaded. "Surely there's no reason to lock the Winged Cleric away, but what do you expect us to do?" "We can demand that she be released right this instant," one of the commoners shouted from up near the alter. Too many people nodded to that suggestion for the first priest's liking. Where was Remiel when they needed him? Then again, perhaps even his counsel wouldn't be enough in this situation; he had to admit, Joanna being arrested wasn't just unusual, it was downright baffling, even for the wrathites. Perhaps a situation this volatile could use the Head of the order herself ... "Do you know for certain that they've arrested her?" one of the younger acolytes asked. "If they're willing to lie to us, we probably won't really get anywhere just yelling at them about the issue." "That is precisely why I don't think this course of action is-" "Apply enough pressure and sooner or later, they'll have to give in, as long as we all pressure them," came another interruption from deeper in the crowd, too perturbed to be a humble member of the church, the priest concluded with a sigh. There that goes again. Seriously, do I really look that young? Those thoughts didn't last very long -- just a flicker in the mind. Norbert was far too focused on the issue at hand, after all. To the younger-looking acolyte and steadily shifting his attention to the whole crowd again, Norbert replied, "Do you know Valter, Joanna's guardian? Do you think he'd lie about something like this?! If he could be here, he'd be the one telling you all about this, but the Wrathites are threatening to imprison him, too! If you don't believe me, go on and ask the Wrathites yourselves! Ask as high up in rank as you can! Just don't waste any time -- who knows what Joanna might be going through right now?! And who knows what else the Wrathites might try to pull?! Do they think they can just do whatever they want? Do they act like their opinions are the only ones that matter? You're the ones around them all the time -- you tell me!" "I don't know about the rest of you but I want answers," the woman who apparently owned a cat spoke up again. She seemed to be on her way toward the same exit the wrathite had stealthily left through only moments before. Unfortunately for one person in the main hall, the wrathite that had left wasn't the only one that had been there. The other, a young but hawkish looking woman in light gray robes, was glaring daggers at Norbert. She felt both insulted and trapped by his tirade and the moment someone noticed her, she would be on the receiving end of all of their aggression ... and she didn't even know what was going on until Norbert gave his secondhand version. "The wrathites have been acting ... aggressive, lately," the reluctant priest admitted with a guilt ridden nod, "but we should never respond to such things in kind. Such shortsightedness can only make matters worse. What if you 'pressure' them beyond what they can handle and they take out their frustrations on poor Joanna?" "We'll get her released before then," a commoner hissed, immediately following after the woman. "Wait a second," called out a tall, muscular man. "I recognize that sash you were hiding," he told the woman standing next to him. He'd grabbed her arm and held it up high for all to see, giving her no room to maneuver or break away from him. "Why don't we just have this one explain what's going on here?" "Let go of me," the wrathite woman yelled. "Whatever's going on here, I had nothing to do with it!" "People, please," the priest pleaded. "You can't just harass any wrathite you happen upon!" "Why not?! They probably cuffed Joanna and dragged her through the rain and mud into a wrathdamn jail cell," another man cursed. "If we don't do anything, Joanna stays in danger!" Norbert aggresively and loudly countered reluctant priest, "And what do you think will happen then?! The more time they have, the harder they'll make it for us to get her back where she belongs: here, helping people!" "That has nothing to do with me, now unhand me you brute," the woman demanded. The man quickly forced her to sit down. "Urgh ... you're the one who should be locked in a cage," she hissed at him. "Just stay put, lady. We don't need you jackals gathering into a pack and making this any harder than it already is," the man explained, somehow gently and firmly at the same time. "We'll get the truth out of them, and get Joanna released. The rest of you can count on it," another said before chasing after the woman down the hall. It wasn't long before some of the acolytes followed after him, whether to mediate, join in, or try to put a stop to the endeavor was anyone's guess. "Is she truly in danger? I doubt the charges are so serious that she would be in danger of execution," the priest noted. "Maybe it's enough for them to try and torture her," a man said, placing his hand on the priest's shoulder. "We like to pretend it doesn't happen to anyone but spies and the worst of the worst, but if guards want to get information or a confession out of someone, the first thing they're going to do is start wailing on them." Immediately after he said this, ten people got up and left, all but dashing for the hallway the others took. "She doesn't deserve to get beaten up no matter what they think she did, so we're going to make sure they know that we won't accept that. When she's free, if I find out they tortured her for a confession, I'm going to tear the Hall of Wrath to the ground with my bare hands. That'll show'em what real wrath is." "Oh dear ..." The talk of torture brought a dark look to Norbert's face as he recalled his own experience with Ursian interrogation. Even as he pulled his thoughts away from it, though, he shifted his leg some at the memory. "He's right," Norbert grimly informed the priest, "It's torture I'm worried about. Why else would they suddenly capture her? And yeah, they do that even on a hunch. I know because some idiot soldier broke my leg out of spite after I'd been detained for a crime I didn't do which was after--" The rider stopped himself, closed his eyes, took a deep breath and slowly let it out. Then, he opened his eyes again and noted aloud, "I'm not going to go into detail. This is about your fellow Mercite. If you can't work to extend mercy to her, then what sort of religious leader are you? Look into this. Joanna deserves better than this! I don't care how you get whatever dumb answers you need -- get them so you can do something about it!" He then turned his attention to the man with the Wrathite woman and what was happening over there. He called over to the woman, "If you don't know anything, then help us get answers by talking to your fellow Wrathites! Don't you have a right to know what your leaders are doing?" "I trust that they're handling the situation," the woman replied bitterly while trying to wrestle free of the man pinning her down by her shoulders. "And if it comes to violence ...?" the priest asked Norbert, fearing that it may already be too late to prevent an outcome like that. Norbert's relatively calm glare flared up at the woman's reply. "You're a blind dog... I can't stand people like you." Then, to the priest he replied, "If it comes to violence, knowing you Mercites, it'll have been the Wrathites who instigated it. Abandon your own if you want," he raised his voice and let his fiery glare sweep over the crowd, turning Rizen in a circle so he could face them all as he roared, "BUT WE WON'T ABANDON THAT KIND, SELFLESS CLERIC TO TORTURE AT THE HANDS OF THE WRATHITES! WILL WE?!" "NO WAY!!!" "NOT IN THOUSAND YEARS!!!" "LET'S GO GET HER OUT OF THERE!!!" The crowd was on Norbert's side, the priest realized. He nearly toppled over in surprise when the pegasus reared mightily, wings beating as her rider raised his fist high into the air. "I never knew ... she was so cherished by those she touched ...." The wrathite woman looked away in disgust. Starting a riot over one cleric was bound to lead to more injuries than one person could possibly experience while being 'tortured' ... possibly even deaths. She wriggled one last time to try and get free and felt herself get pressed down again. Looking up to the muscular man shaking his head at her, she knew she would have to stay put and endure all of this. [spoiler=The Means]No matter how many times she explained it to them, Joanna couldn't get it through their heads that she wasn't an avian spy. Much as that might do them some good closer to home, she was simply an exiled dark avian. She also couldn't convince them that she wasn't planning something nefarious with the emblem piece she had brought with her to this country. Maybe they just didn't want to believe that, though. After all, without at least something connected to the emblem, they wouldn't be able to justify keeping her here. At least not for much longer. The spy accusations would fall through soon enough on their own, she figured. "Your emperor asked you to look after the artifact, and not to hand it over to those better equipped to protect it? Hogwash," a wrathite glared at her. "You obviously can't do anything to protect it, so that clearly isn't your purpose. You know what I think? I think you were sent here with that fragment to interfere with our work at a crucial moment. Even a fragment would allow you to do that without breaking your 'vow' of pacifism. That's why Langley is keeping you and the artifact apart." "That doesn't sound right ..." Joanna began a thoughtful reply, trying to convey her meaning as clearly as possible, "If I could use the emblem to interfere with your plans without hurting anyone, then surely I could protect it without hurting anyone ... and besides, I only just learned about what you're planning," Joanna concluded, leaning forward in the chair. As the man glared back down at her, she relented and looked away from him. "I don't agree with Desmond's idea of justice ... I don't agree with Lord Wrath's idea of justice either, I suppose. Even if violence is the only way to bring about a world without war, you still aren't willing to answer for all the lives you'll take. You'll claim that the end will justify all of those murders just like Desmond did, but you're just not willing to take responsibility for them. I don't even think you care what happens to them." "They'll be swallowed up by the Gate. As it should be," the man said dismissively. "We don't even know what the Gate is! How can you take a person's life so easily when you don't know what will happen to them?" she leaned toward him pleadingly. "Not everyone is righteous or 'worthy' of living in a peaceful world, but not everyone can be when the world is like this! Why do you only care about the exemplars?" "An exemplar devotes their life to the ideals of their god. Anything less is rebellion," another wrathite said pointedly. "If they choose something else, anything else, no one can help them ... and your goddess has allowed just as many to be consumed by the Gate as Lord Wrath; you have no right to complain to us about it." "Indeed," the man standing in front of Joanna said. "Not everyone is in a position to choose such a life for themselves. Not everyone is old enough to even understand that kind of choice," she said, tears welling up in her eyes. "Don't any of you have children? What if Lord Wrath decides to destroy them just because they aren't exemplars by the time he returns?" The man leaned away from her, startled by the prospect. He didn't know if what he was about to say was the truth, but he couldn't let a seed with such destructive potential take root with a mere utterance from their captive. "Lord Wrath may seem cruel to you mercy lunatics but not to us. He will end all wars and ensure that all who would eventually fall in line will survive." When Joanna's tears began to fall and she gave him a look of pity, he gritted his teeth. "How dare you even suggest Lord Wrath would destroy the children of his own followers?" "I'm beginning to think that Lord Wrath really is going to bring his exemplars into a world of 'peace' ... brought about through violence ... and exclude everyone else. The four orders always agreed that a life shouldn't be taken unnecessarily, and now the Order of Wrath is changing. It takes decades to become a true exemplar, which means none of us are even close ... so how much worse is it for the people you love who haven't even matured yet? If Lord Wrath isn't willing to prove his righteousness to the world before executing his judgment, then that isn't justice." Another utterance, another seed planted, and whether or not that was her intention, she was putting a lot of worrisome thoughts in their heads. "Just shut up," the man hissed. "Gag her. We're done for now." He knew it was abusive to gag their captive in a situation like this, but if she kept pressing them, it might lead to some serious problems down the line ... or soon, if one of the others lost their temper. Already he had questions for Desmond, questions that he desperately wished he could get rid of by willpower alone. He knew that the others probably had similar thoughts, now. It was a mistake interrogating this avian by ourselves ... a big mistake .... [spoiler=Discord]Throughout the Grand Cathedral, things were even more heated than in the room Joanna was being kept in. Any wrathite unfortunate enough to happen upon a mercinic was swiftly accosted. They were getting demands and admonition both, even mere acolytes, unaware of the situation. The cunning ploy by those back at the estate had worked beautifully, it seemed. The wrathites were having a hard time just moving about the building. When any of them gathered, opposition gathered in turn. Bickering and yelling filled nearly every hallway. That meant Io wasn't going to be able to get any sleep any time soon. With a sigh, she sat down on a bench in the Hall of Truth and watched lazily as a pair of wrathite acolytes were harassed by an old priest and another acolyte, the former from the order of Mercy and the latter from the Order of Nature. "I'm surprised the wrathites couldn't manage to keep this under wraps. Maybe they have a leak ...?" "You're right, we do have a leak," Prince Athrun hissed as he passed swiftly behind her and made his way toward an entryway. "Prince Shastak?" Io stood up and began following after the prince. If she couldn't sleep, she could at least sate her curiosity. "You seem extremely agitated ..." She almost regretted stating the obvious when she noticed the pale red-orange stain on his shirt. "Observant as always, Priestess," Athrun replied, barely restrained fury in his voice. "My guards have been beating back anyone that even glances at me. The second I ordered them to stop being so overprotective, I was struck with a tomato. I want answers." "... those aren't even in season," Io noted thoughtfully, "but wait, you couldn't avoid it? It seems to have hit you straight on ...." "I am far from at my best right now, Priestess. I haven't slept in over a day. Even if I was, I was under the impression I could talk some sense into these people. Now some poor woman is in a prison cell with a sprained arm because she wouldn't give me a chance to explain ... though, I suppose there was nothing for me to explain. I was on my way here to find out what's gotten into some of these people when I found out about the situation," Athrun explained, trying to remember where he was going as they entered the dark hallway. Io heard footsteps behind them and when she looked over her shoulder, she saw several royal guardsmen tailing them. She wasn't sure if they were giving the prince some much needed space despite the situation or if they had been ordered to trail that far behind. Either way ... "Prince Shastak," she met his gaze with an oddly serious look on her face. "I have a proposal." "W-what is it ...?" Athrun replied, some of the fire in his eyes dispersing. There was something about Io's expression that was intimidating him and he couldn't quite put his finger on it. "I would like to take a nap in the royal carriage," she firmly stated. Now he'd never figure out what was so intimidating about that look ... "Are you serious?" "Completely," she replied, gaze still firmly locked on him. "It will be quite a while before this place quiets down again, and you don't seem to have any intention of resting, so I humbly request to borrow your carriage for the next two hours." "I ... what--I ..." Athrun quickly stopped trying to talk for a moment; he couldn't say just one thing to that at first. "Priestess Io ..." Her expression, her gaze didn't change even a little, even as they rounded the corner and came into the Hall of Wrath. "Very well ... someone show her back to the carriage. She can use it until she's rested," he instructed the guardsmen. "Thank you," Io replied with a respectful bow. "By the way ..." she stopped halfway through her turn, "Head Wrathite Langley is in a precarious situation right now, as is the order in general. He's not going to heed your words just because you're a prince ... and your father, the King, he likely won't see the harm in having Joanna held in the same building she's been living in for just a little while ... long enough to confirm or disprove the wrathites' suspicions. Once you have your answers, please relent, for your sake." Athrun didn't say anything to that. He simply watched as Io and one of the royal guardsmen headed back the way they came, deep into the dark hallway. Relent? Even if I find that there's no reason to keep Joanna in wrathite custody? Has the situation become so serious already ...? [spoiler=Head Wrathite to Royal Wrathite]"Come in," Desmond listlessly replied after hearing a knock on his door. Despite the closely spaced series of visits, he'd be leaving soon, so he would have to keep this meeting as brief as possible. Athrun stepped through the door by himself and closed it behind him, leaving a disgruntled wrathite and his remaining guardsmen outside. "Why is Joanna being held in custody in this section of the building? Tell me what's going on." Desmond slowly looked up at the prince and as their eyes met, he said, "Do you want to know why they are keeping her here or why I am keeping her here?" Athrun raised an eyebrow at the question. "I want to know everything, Desmond. Tell me what's going on. Please?" "Joanna was in possession of an emblem piece, an emblem piece she brought with her all the way from Aquila. I didn't think the avians were actually involved in this at first, but clearly they are, and despite what she is, they wanted her to guard it ... or rather, guard the box containing it. I don't really care if she's a spy for them; it's immaterial at this point. She is, however, a potential emblem wielder, and if you don't know what that is yet, allow me to explain it to you." Athrun straightened up a little, realizing he wouldn't have to push any further to get his answers. "When the Fire Emblem was originally shattered, there wasn't any need to worry about its fragments being used in any meaningful way ... they were dormant, unresponsive ... dead, as Lord Wrath put it. Sometime between that moment in time and now, a single fragment came back to life, containing just a mere iota of the power of the complete whole, but with the ultimate potential of awakening all of the other fragments. That process is apparently well underway and now there are too many fragments responding to the wills of mere mortals. It's likely the root cause of all the recent chaos throughout the continent. Emblem wielders are people with enough exposure to an emblem fragment to control it. Given enough time, such individuals will become nearly unstoppable. In fact, barring an avatar of a god like myself or something similar, the only practical means of fighting one fully realized emblem wielder that I can come up with is utilizing yet another fully realized emblem wielder. It is the only way to ensure that the circumstances of a confrontation don't shift in their favor, otherwise, defeat may become a certainty." "Circumstances?" Athrun echoed curiously. "The emblem fragments use both subtle and blatant means of bringing about the desires of their wielders. As long as emblem wielders aren't in direct opposition to each other, circumstances will always be in their favor. This does not mean that they cannot fail, but it does mean that anything that can go wrong for their enemies probably will. The rest comes down to unwavering resolve. Joanna, as a potential emblem wielder, must be kept within our reach, and away from any fragments until this mess is cleaned up. Her desires could affect the outcome in any number of ways. We may already be facing such influence due to how quickly word of her arrest got out." "Would that be so awful? Joanna's desires coming to pass, I mean?" Athrun worded his response carefully, but kept a serious and suspicious expression. "Because I could not convince her that Lord Wrath's will is just, no matter the form it takes ... yes. The beliefs held by an emblem wielder are important, Prince. They are extremely powerful when coupled with an emblem fragment. If she used the emblem against us, the entire order could ultimately be destroyed long before Lord Wrath returns. I make no exaggerations when I say this. Emblem wielders must be separated from all existing fragments and neutralized by any means necessary. I will see to it." "So, I take it Joanna is getting relatively preferrable treatment, then." "There are emblem wielders I expect I'll have to kill ... eventually. Outlaws, mostly. So long as she stays here, everything should be fine. I have no wish to see her harmed but we can't leave anything to chance." And there is my answer, Athrun noted. "I don't like this, Desmond, but you've made your point. You're not going to back down from this, are you?" "Absolutely not." Athrun raised his hand and pointed his finger firmly at the Head Wrathite, a mixture of bitterness and longing on his face. "She won't risk getting people hurt just to get out of here, so no matter what happens ... do not hurt that woman. You can at least promise that much." "Of course." "I'm going to go pay her a visit ... see to it that the others understand that, as well." "I wouldn't authorize the abuse of a prisoner. If anyone is going behind my back on this matter ... deal with them however you see fit, Prince Athrun. That's your right as the future ruler of this country." [spoiler=The Two Edged Sword]Athrun was already angry, due to the way his meeting with Desmond had gone, and due to being assaulted by an angry pedestrian over a matter he was, until just a little while ago, completely unaware of. Now that he was in the same room as Joanna, he felt the nearly overwhelming urge to floor someone. Joanna had been gagged until just a moment ago, one of the wrathites yanked it off at the last second as Athrun forced his way past the stalling guards outside and barged into the room. He could tell what had just happened due to pained look on her face and her disturbed locks, now dangling at an awkward angle over her dress' collar. Never mind that this was probably an interrogation that backfired at some point, this was just ridiculous behavior for these people. "Don't even try to explain yourselves," Athrun hissed. "Prince Athrun ..." "I'm going to abide by Desmond's decision for the time being but this 'interview' is over. Two guards outside is enough. The rest of you get out," Athrun nudged his head at the door. "Your highness, we only silenced her because-" "Lord Wrath doesn't need your protection, you imbecile," Athrun snapped at the pleading wrathite behind him. "Our god's principles will stand on their own or they'll crumble in the face of the truth. There isn't a damned thing any of us can do about that, so whatever she told you is unimportant. Have faith, real faith, or leave the order, you sniveling cowards." Some of the wrathites, including the one behind Athrun, bowed their heads slightly. "Yes, your highness." "Get. Out," Athrun ordered them one last time. They all funneled out of the room in short order, heads hung low. Athrun knelt down in front of Joanna and gently fixed her locks. "I'm sorry about all of this. Regardless of your intentions, there's no excuse for what they did." "There's no excuse for what Lord Wrath is going to do, either," Joanna bitterly noted. Athrun nearly shrugged. He was starting to see what might have led to them getting perturbed enough to resort to gagging her ... and yet, there was no excuse. "I'm not here to debate what's right and wrong with you, only to ensure that you're treated fairly ... a-and to beg a favor of you." "A favor?" "I'm worried that some people are going to start getting bad ideas ... like sneaking in here and 'rescuing' you. Mercy's people probably won't be so bold ... it would be an illegal move on their part, and they have nowhere to hide you, but word of your arrest has spread far and wide already, and I was even attacked because of it." "I'm sorry," Joanna frowned. Athrun let out a faint smile and shook his head at her. "Think nothing of it. What I want from you is to stay put. If someone breaks in here and offers to get you out of here, do not go with them. You shouldn't be in this situation, but it would be illegal for you to leave the cathedral right now, so don't go, alright? You'll be throwing away your innocence in this matter the moment you do, and even the regular guardsmen will be tasked to track you down. There won't be much I can do for you after that, Joanna. You'll likely be put into a real prison cell rather than this comfortable spare room, just to start." "I had no intention of trying to escape, Prince Athrun. I don't have anywhere to go, and I can't leave this place without the box Head Wrathite Desmond has." "Box?" Desmond had mentioned something like that. Athrun tried to recall his conversation with the man and immediately something stuck out to him, a small, slightly ornate box sitting at the front/center of his desk. If that was the anchor keeping Joanna here, then so be it. He nodded at her. "Right, now I remember. If it's your job to guard it, then guard it. It's not going anywhere, so neither will you, right?" "Right," Joanna nodded back. The box contained an emblem piece, likely an active one given how adamant Desmond was about keeping Joanna in the cathedral. For now, though, Athrun would have to hope the situation didn't get any worse. He couldn't abide ordinary people mucking up things, or the less disciplined wrathites. As for sleep ... well, tomorrow was another day, a day he could spend the majority of catching up on his sleep, he hoped. [spoiler=The Roster]In the end, Gabbie wasn't able to deal with Norbert. Neither was Anna. Weyland took care of the matter at the same time that he assigned people to the Weyland team, the unofficial 'Valcyn Team', and the also unofficial 'Sanctuary Team'. The Weyland team was to go straight into northern Ursium once they were fully gathered and try to track down the fallen before the siege gate was completed and stop them. If they failed, an Ursium invasion would commence, and only a long and nasty ground war could turn the tide back in Ursium's favor. Raquel's team was to chase down the remnants of the organization, during and after their mission in the city, and try to prevent the Neviskotian siege gate from being completed. Both missions were, in Weyland's opinion, necessary to prevent the the organization from seizing anymore power and technology in the chaos of a fallen incursion. If they failed, whatever the organization's ultimate goals were might be realized in the coming days, so someone had to deal with them both, and quickly. Amon's group was to head for Kigen, in order to try and prevent the third and final siege gate from being completed and used. They also had the additional goal of confronting Valdimarr if he appeared. If they failed, Kigen might actually fall this time, and if that happened, the fallen would gain an immense foothold on the mainland that humanity might never get back again. Weyland wasn't sure what was to become of the infant fallen/vasilus Raquel had brought with her back to the estate. She was useless from a tactical standpoint until she could fight, and who knew how long it took such an unusual being to grow? He supposed it could remain at the estate until they returned from their mission, but he didn't think adopting the infant and bringing her up in the company was a good idea until they knew what she was ultimately capable of. For now, one of the maids was looking after her. [spoiler=Shadrak s Mission']"Chie, you have to let me do this." Shadrak's face cringed at the recollection of his conversation with Chie. He couldn't figure out why she didn't approve of him going with Amon's group to hunt down Valdimarr ... though she probably realized that his reasons for going had nothing to do with Valdimarr, at least not as long as his emblem piece wasn't the only one around. He also knew that despite this being something he desperately wanted to do, he was being manipulated by Nyx to some end, an end he had to figure out before he actually achieved his goal. He didn't want to come just shy of accomplishing his ultimate goal only to have it all snatched away by that woman at that final, crucial moment. He'd do whatever he had to to prevent everything from unraveling, but for now, he had to focus on his options, and the best option, now that he was no longer a part of Raquel's group, was to join Amon's. Going to the Sancturan about the matter was awkward and uncomfortable to say the least, if only due to their close encounter the previous evening, but he didn't think Amon would ask him in a million years for that very same reason, and so it had to be done. He was on his way to inform Mushirah about the successful arrangement right now and see if she would go with him or remain here until they returned. Admittedly, he had no idea when that would be or if it would ever happen, but he had a contingency plan in place for her already, so that even if something happened to him, she could still get her arm, eventually. Some of Weyland's people would just have to be generous enough to build it for her. Tia was a whole different matter though, and since she was probably going to go with Raquel's group, he wasn't sure exactly how to address her situation. On the bright side, fixing her problem might be as simple as sticking her with the emblem for a few days ... then again ... Nyx surely must have known she had potential access to one, so maybe it wouldn't work, or maybe she had something else in mind. As Shadrak drew closer to Mushirah's room, his thoughts began to drift back to what he was hoping to achieve this time around. All he could really tell about the situation right now is that he had a major hurdle to overcome. He tried to imagine the pain and agony Raquel endured while 'the Dragon Head' went about his devious work and wondered how was he going to survive what she barely had, and push well beyond that point. He had to figure this out, or he was going to wind up getting himself killed. The Operation Is About to Commence! The sun was beginning to set, and Amon had about as many people for this as he had time to get. Fizza was still missing, which was a crippling blow to their original group's capabilities, so the various newcomers were going a long way toward making this mission feasible. No pun intended. The supplies issue had been addressed as well, though Amon doubted they could stretch it too far with the number of people and mounts they had to feed. They still might need to make a stop or two before Kigen, that or have a few people try their hand at hunting while the rest foraged. For the moment, he was just waiting for the few stragglers and the wagon loading before they set out. Malik suggested going on ahead of the others since everyone knew the plan or could easily get filled in by someone else, but Amon decided against it, if only because if the situation changed, he didn't want others to have to find out the hard way. Speaking of finding things out the hard way, Amon sincerely hoped things down at the cathedral were hectic enough by now for them to do this without facing a whole battalion or some other quickly organized force. For now, the only ones that would be splitting off were Malik, if they didn't find the emblem with Joanna, and Haythem including anyone capable of assisting either with their respective jobs. Haythem had only just finished feeding Isis the last meal she'd get to eat while they were in the capital region, assuming the plan actually worked. He wasn't sure how to feel about his part in the plan: once Joanna and the emblem were secure, they were to fly south, far ahead of the group, and out of reach of anyone who might intercept them. They were to wait for the rest of the group to catch up once they were safely away from the cathedral and the city limits. It would be a stupid idea, trying to fly her away on an enormous wyvern easily tracked by pegasus knights, that is, if it wasn't dark out ... and getting darker by the minute. Isis was practically invisible against the night sky, so by the time they were on their way out, there would be no trace of them. Of course, that somewhat applied to Amon and the others as well, but Amon could at least tell which way to go to find them with the trinket Lady Aisha had given him, once they were far enough away from the city for his trinket not to respond more visibly to Raquel, who was also a source of emblem energy, than the piece Joanna apparently had. Malik and Glen were busy helping to load up the wagon they were using. It was a regular old wagon with a soft cover roof. Despite how inconvenient those were for groups their size, it was less conspiquous than a troop transport or other hardcover types. Its inconspiquous nature and relatively light weight were really all the vehicle had going for it in this day and age, but that was just what they needed right now. "That's everything. We're ready," Glen nodded to the others. Greta sighed at the news, having been reminded of her merchant situation. She wanted to purchase her own wagon at some point on the way to Kigen, but for now, she figured she could probably run her business out of this one once she had her own wares. This stuff was all just provisions. Perhaps, she admitted, she'd spent a little too much time getting together her disguises and not enough time--or any, rather--asking Weyland for some startup goods. She'd at least entertained the idea of asking Weyland for a little help in addition to her deal with Nadya, but changed her mind, deciding that if she sold supplies for Weyland, she'd end up as an official seller. She might get a lot of money, but she might never be able to truly strike out on her own if she relied on his company that much. So for now, she would trust that she could make good use of Nadya's funds to get the ball rolling and then keep earning from there. She'd worry about Kigen once they actually crossed the strait. <"Where's Shadrak?"> Malik asked, looking expectantly at Amon. Once he got a shrug in return, one the sancturan tried not to make but did on reflex, he knew Amon officially had a group too large to keep track of and would need some help down the road. Fortunately, he wouldn't have to help Amon just yet. Shadrak emerged from the main entrance with Mushirah in tow. <"Hmph, never mind, then. We should get going ... and I mean right now. We don't want to waste anymore time."> <"I know,"> Amon quickly replied. "Okay let's get going, everyone ..." They weren't even able to reach their lurking area before hearing word of Joanna's arrest on the streets. Amon secretly worried that Norbert had started some kind of full blown rebellion over at the cathedral; people this far away from the scene were actually screaming about it. What exactly was Joanna to these people, he wondered? Maybe a more subtle approach would have been better, or maybe this was exactly what they needed and it was merely a little more ... energetic than he'd imagined. The wagon came to an abrupt stop beside a tavern, a closed tavern with boarded up windows, bits of broken glass, and small blood stains that the rain hadn't quite managed to reach beneath the window sills and other, similar areas. Another grim reminder of last night's slaughter .... The driver immediately opened up the little book he'd brought with him and began reading in silence while Greta hopped out of the wagon to see what area they were in. She was pretty disappointed that the tavern was closed, but when she saw the minor damage to the buildling and the various blood splatters that hadn't completely washed away, she decided she'd best just get back into the wagon. No point in getting even more wet. Shadrak on the other hand spent this waiting period outside with his new cloak on, the hood shielding his head from the rain.