Seas Beyond Infinity

/ By Finnigan [+Watch]

Replies: 100 / 4 years 234 days 7 hours 28 minutes 3 seconds

[i Youth awakens at dawn]
[i a strange array this cast]
[i it's been ten-thousand years ago]
[i since we've seen the last]
[i sail the seas beyond infinity]

[i A golden child awakens
following the path in sight
a Huntress stalks the world
seeks an earth of blight
twilight befalls the seventh hour]

[i Gaze upon Varsylian shores
the Anchovi and Fighter in need
taking up civil unrest
emancipate and be freed
the empire winds in the summer day]

[i Transform into beautiful shape
a princess cloaks herself in grey
the Anchovi struggle for steady foot
until she joins the fray
chime the etude of the unrequited]

This is a thinly veiled off-shoot of [http://rp.eliteskills.com/r.php?r=22610 Noir Fabula]. May or may not be canon, but who knows what will happen in ten thousand years.

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Roleplay Responses

[size16 |SBI10:08 Takoyaki Two-Step|]

[i Machiko,

You have always been my greatest accomplishment. Most fathers wished they could boast about their daughters as much as I do about you, my pride and joy.

My heart tells me that you will do what’s right in whatever situation you might find yourself in. Pursue your dreams and never forget that your mother and father love you and support your endeavors. We had only hoped that your brother could have ended up like you as well.

You remember that week I took you and Hayao out for camping? You had just completed your basic training after four months. Hayao saved up a vast amount of money during the summer so we could travel across the Blue over to the Dragon Isles. It was the first time any of us had stepped foot off the mainland.

I had not seen you in months and your brother was a hard charger back then. Your mother was still working at the time in the Electric City on a very important case, so the house was vacant. I wanted us to stay home and enjoy the fall, but it was because of selfish reasons. Truthfully, I was terrified.

So many things could have happened during that trip: missing the ferry across the Blue, sinking in the middle of the Blue, getting robbed in a foreign place, murder, being attacked by the wildlife, sickness. I knew how much Hayao despised staying home to work and I knew how much the Order put its members through so much stress; I didn’t think you two would tolerate each other for long.

You two managed to surprise me. It was the first time, in such a long time, that I was happy. We spent nights around the campfire telling stories both familiar and new. You two were made sure that everything was comfortable for me.

Sometimes I wonder what it means to be a father and if I’m doing this job the right way. Anyways, I’ll be waiting for you to return home one day so we can sing our favorite songs.

Love will save the day,

Dad of Soga]

Within a blink, Machiko was within reach of killing before her blade spun into the air and across the marble stage. A man with two magnificent swords, one in each hand, deflected her attack. He was Tsukimotoan in looks but another devout follower of the mad monk in nature. She pulled back as the pair of Tsukimotoan men defiantly stood against her. Calm and collected, Hayao guffawed at his sister’s attempt on his life as if he anticipated her going for a killing blow.

The ground below Machiko cracked in half. A brimming light radiated beneath her as the marble patio split into two. Machiko traced the crack back to a hammer which was held by a woman from Bating. Her callous stare contrasted against her Tsukimotoan counterparts as if she despised the way they carried themselves.

Hayao of Soga and the famed swordsman Goji Amaro, mere thugs of Mahoraga Genji, were there at the monk’s defeat. She remembered their last fight years ago. Both of them in better condition. The third, Gua Fa Jing, was the ringleader on South Island. The weaponized ship, the Roz Suprema, was under her care; Machiko saw her in the brig with the other two and a dozen more monks.

However, the three were joined by a fourth member. She was taller than Machiko and slender, another Tsukimotoan. She smiled like a fox and slinked around seductively. What really surprised the ninja was her garb. She was a member of the Order of Tsubaki. A fellow kunoichi stood by Hayao’s side and smirked at the ghost girl.

“So this is Machiko of Soga.” Then she looked at Hayao. “She doesn’t look a thing like you, darling.”

Apparently, she was not a very good member of the Order. She took on a lover; her hands wrapped around Hayao’s body and kissed him on the cheek. Usually, the Order followed up and eliminated defunct sisters. Maybe Hae Suun had gotten weaker all these years.

“Four against one, don’t you think that’s unfair?” Granted, Machiko leveled a room full of monks.

Still.

The woman in the red robe and white headband swung her hammer to her side and chided, “It’s all about survival and nothing to do with fairness. The Palm is unconcerned with what you think is fair.”

She was the eldest of Machiko’s four opponents and by far the wisest and strongest. Machiko did not have a clue as to how long they were out of their cells and who broke them out, but she had a good haunch that they did not plan on returning anytime soon.

“Survival doesn’t require the death of a million lives. These people haven’t done anything to you!” Machiko armed herself with another tanto. She would be damned to see the people of Densch fall at the hands of the Palm. “You all didn’t come here to debate philosophies with the Lansit. Or me. We’re way past the talking phase.”

She took a step forward and so did swift Goji Amaro. His hair was pulled back into a single ponytail that reached the floor of the patio. For a man who might have assisted Hayao in the assassination attempts of the late Emperor Akio and besmirched Tsukimoto, he wore traditional hakama pants that followed behind each step.

“Quite the contraire, Machiko.”

“The Lansit are far too dangerous to be left unchecked.”

Machiko felt Gua Fa Jing’s skin-piercing glare. Every second wasted on words was another second of planning for the away team.

“He broke faith with Lord Mahoraga Genji. After aiding renegades and blindly following barbaric tradition, the treacherous Harvey Prakash Lansit has to die.”

“And now the master has sent his pets to get revenge, to get even,” the lone wolf smirked. The pack slowly drifted apart and encircled her.

“We believe in a cosmic balance, and while we would love to get even and level the entire city of Densch down to the valley below, our mission is to end suffering throughout the Blue, once and for all.”

Gua Fa Jing spouted the same kind of drivel that her master droned on about back then. Machiko thought that they were at least consistent with their message and haven’t lost sight of their delusion. If they started making sense, then their ass-kicking would have been a little less justified.

“With magitech? I know what was being built on that island, Hayao. You don’t plan on saving anyone with a weapon that can level out continents.”

“The Year Zero Resolution,” said Goji who had now moved directly behind Machiko. “We’re here to end suffering throughout the Blue.”

“The plan to end all sufferings,” Hayao’s arm candy taunted as she pulled out her blade.

“Nami,” Hayao warned, “don’t.”

“Machiko of Soga,” Gua Fa Jing chimed in. “Why must you fight for the wrong side? Your secret organization pretends that you no longer exist and you defend murderers, thieves, and the ill. You have plenty of potential, potential that should not be squandered on low lives. Shed your misplaced motives and take a seat amongst the Palm of Heaven.”

Her words were sincere but the Tsukimotoan majority agreed that Machiko would never be accepted into the Palm. Hayao loathed his sister and her accomplishments. Fa Jing’s invitation threatened his own presence within the organization. By extension, Nami felt compelled to protect her lover. Goji refused to work alongside his victors. Anchovi’s triumph over Mahoraga and his crew brought shame to the movement. [i Only the strong survive.]

The Palm mobilized. Right before Machiko’s eyes, her brother transformed into a swift swallow. The ruddy cheek bird soared above her while Nagi and Goji came from opposite sides. Machiko showered ground before her with caltrops and fended off a bloodthirsty Goji. Her tanto fended off Maneater, the katana which drained life force. Immediately, Machiko fell to one knee and struggled against the might behind Maneater. Mana Masher, the other half of the lethal pair, came swinging down, but Machiko’s quick thinking halted Goji’s blow. With a palm on the marble, Machiko summoned a giant pillar that disrupted the flow of battle.

Machiko clocked Goji in the jaw and scurried out of the middle. Nami ran around the caltrops and leaped for a turn. Her blade sung through the brisk morning air and Hayao’s blade joined from above. They had nearly gotten their target if Machiko wasn’t so quick to roll out of their reach. She slid across the smooth surface and launched the explosive knives from her sleeve.

Nami was no amateur to these childish tactics. She swooped below the explosions and locked steel and eyes with her lover’s sister. The remarkable kunoichi Nami refused to believe that this child was responsible for Hayao’s incarceration. She took it upon herself to avenge his pride. Machiko had to die.

Though she was a smaller frame, Machiko stood even in the clash with Nami.

“Are you going to be the one to get me?”

“I like that you’re thinking ahead, sister,” Nami let out a nervous chuckle. “I like a little challenge, so why don’t you, uhh, I don’t know, struggle a bit.”

The viper inhaled deeply and the last thing Machiko saw was an emerald glint amidst Nami’s black eyes. Nami exhaled a thick purple cloud that ravished Machiko’s eyes as if her face was being dragged through gravel. The Palm loosely crowded around the writhing lone wolf who scanned the floor with stung fingers. Her eyes gushed with tears, snot ran onto her lips, and peppery poison silenced the throat.

“Don’t you think you overdid it?” Goji asked the poisonous Nami. “She’s dying before we’ve even sunk our blades into her.”

“Don’t worry, she won’t die until we say she does.”

“There is no honor amongst you heathen Tsukimotoan,” the thick hide Bating woman gruffly stated. The lot of them secretly agitated her throughout the entire mission. She felt Machiko deserved none of this misery. “This was not part of the plan.”

“Sorry, ma, but we weren’t sent here to recruit. Especially Lansit sympathizers.” Hayao pointed his chokuto in Machiko’s direction. They all could stick and slice her but he reserved the right to decapitate her for himself.

He pressed up against Nami and went in for the kiss, but she pulled back and shook her head. “I don’t want you ending up looking like her.”

Fa Jing rolled her eyes. “Anyways.”

“Let’s get this over with. We still need to track down the Lansit.”

“Best plan all day.”

Fa Jing led the pack to Machiko who struggled to her feet in a slowly dissipating cloud. As they went in for the final blow, a ring of fire surrounded Machiko. Bright red star flares shot up in the sky and a concussive explosion knocked the attackers across the grounds. Their bodies tumbled and rolled across the crumbling foundation and had set Machiko up for the next bout.

The smoke had cleared and the big guns came out. Machiko stood behind a turret, and though she did not have a hundred percent vision, she let loose a volley of bullet rounds. Hot bullets whizzed through the air and looked for anything and everything to destroy. They pulverized slabs of marble into a bright dust that choked out Hayao’s assassination squad.

All bets were off with the boss lady. Fa Jing struck her hammer against the ground and the earth quaked with fear. Her hammer illuminated the floor and sunk the turret. Angered not only with Machiko but with the rest of her rash crew, she shrugged off the bullet wounds that grazed her shoulder and sank into her thigh and swung her hammer at the petite kunoichi. Machiko had drawn out a whip and ensnared Fa Jing’s weapon and forearm. The tail of the whip snapped off with one snag that ignited Fa Jing in an explosion.

Goji wasted no time to jump into the fray as speared through the smoke and swiped at Machiko. The twin katana sliced against her tired body and a third and fourth blade followed suit. Nami almost landed the final blow if Machiko didn’t move just in time. The constant barrage wore her down quicker than anyone expected. Hayao ran his knee into her chest and sent her to the ground rolling. He continued his assault and punched her in the face as she skidded across the deck.

Machiko had not endured this kind of abuse since her basic training. At this moment she recollected on the hourly beatings she and her fellow classmates lived through. Her eye swelled shut, yet she saw her brother and his allies coming. Light-footed Goji swung down but she dodged once more. Her eye teared up but with the use of her ears and reflexes, Machiko anticipated his next attack. He went for an attack head-on, but she spun around him on her heels and snagged him by an arm. Machiko flung the man into the ground.

Hayao and Nami were on her tail but she withdrew another invention of the Lansit: wrist pistols. She fired away at the two and rolled next to Goji’s katana. They dropped to the floor. She was quick enough to snatch one from his reach. Swords interlocked, but the deciding factor of the clash was Machiko firing off rounds next to Goji’s face. As his ears rung and he fell back in disarray, she arced the blade upwards and severed an arm. Blood splattered her face and the renowned swordsman yelled in his native tongue.

Stilettos soared through the air but Machiko’s dexterity matched with throwing knives of her own. Catching Machiko off guard, Hayao’s plunging sword scraped across her face leaving a line of blood spilling down her cheek. Immediately without a thought, she dropped the katana. The swallow sunk his sharp talons into his sister; the kicking and punching stopped only when Machiko took flight herself.

Jumping into the air, she boosted herself up with a tactical summon of a stump. She launched herself higher than her brother and his consort and with what little strength she unleashed the might of her reserves. Every stiletto and knife—whether it was made in Tsukimoto or by the laborers of Sudra—rained upon her foes like a summer typhoon. Nami ran up to Hayao and summoned a giant shield that protected the two of them from the torrential downpour.

Some of the knives exploded on impact and weighed down on the shield, but the devout kunoichi refused to have her lord and lover die to the likes of a broken little girl. Machiko landed on solid ground with such grace but continued her attack with one of her favorite weapons: the meteor hammer.

The hammer glided in the air and twirled around Machiko’s frame matching her fierce gracefulness. The fire and smoke from the explosions in tandem with Machiko’s open assault pinned her opponents to the same spot. They swore that it could not be just Machiko causing all of this. The knives detonated at random intervals; some had set off as soon as they struck the deck, others exploded minutes later amongst the ordinary edges.

However, Hayao was familiar with Machiko’s meteor hammer. He waited for the exact moment when the spikes sank into the floor and without even giving Nami a warning, he flew away. As the free spikes fired in every direction, Machiko anticipated that her brother would not fall for the same trick. A flurry of darts clipped the fleeing swallow and forced Hayao back into his human form.

Jumping at the opportunity to end it all, Machiko’s tanto descended for the kill. The short blade sank into flesh but not into who she expected.

“Gotcha—dammit!”

The tanto fell into Nami’s stomach deeper. She welcomed this ending and pulled in Machiko. She dove in at the last second and taken her last breath. Machiko, mortified, tried to pull away but she was simply stunned by the act. Nami stepped forward and away from Hayao.

“Lord Hayao,” she muttered between spurts of blood.

Nami looked back at the weary bearded vagrant and nodded. That woman never showed anything less of fearlessness and the coward admired her for the dauntless act. Hayao acknowledged her back.

“Never forget me.”

Without Machiko realizing what was happening, her hand became cuffed with the rest of fading Nami. The iron shackles bound them from this world to the next as Nami became engulfed in white light.

“Oh Hel, no.”

[b BOOM.]

Hayao fell to his knees in mental and physical weakness. As the smoke and fire cleared from where the two women last stood, only streaks of blood and loose body parts remained. He immediately fell ill once he recognized a pair of charred hands linked to one another.

Fuck Harvey Lansit he thought to himself, Machiko of Soga was no more. For the longest time, she was just a small insignificant girl disowned by her the Order, but now she was finally removed from this lifetime. He would be compared no longer to his kid sister. Though he mourned for Nami, who he never admitted that she was a stepping stool in the grand scheme of things, he reveled in the loss of his sister.

Well, that’s what he believed. Goji Amaro was missing an arm and the mighty Gua Fa Jing suffered nasty crippling burns. Their mission was to assassinate the entire Lansit clan. They were easy pickings for anyone now, especially for the Merchant of Death.

“I gotta hand it to ya, this makes things interesting.”

That sugary voice. [i Impossible!] Machiko unveiled herself to her brother. She dropped the hi-tech tool that simultaneously lopped off her left arm and cauterized her wound before him and happily winced in Hayao’s presence. His skin turned pale at once.

“You’re never gonna let me have my peace, aren’t you? Ever since you were born, I’ve been second favorite to Soga, to Tsukimoto, and to mom and dad.”

“And that’s why you joined that crazy cult? Because I was drafted into some crazy cult first and you did have that ‘privilege’? Sorry, you had a fantastically normal childhood with friends and a regular school. You were never expected to do a fraction of the things I did and at a young age at that. I was ripped from my family to serve my country and look at what I have gotten in return. You are a brat, Hayao. Grow up, man child.”

“You’re a filthy lapdog to tyrants who will gladly turn you in once they’ve squeezed out every use outta you. Weak men like Harvey and Dulon must be put down so this endless cycle of violence can be done.”

Machiko grew tired of his nonsensical babble. She brandished her sickle and slowly closed the gap. Mortified at her tireless zeal, Hayao limped away. Fa Jing injected herself between the Soga siblings. As much as she wanted to smash in Machiko’s petite skull into pieces; her desire for revenge had to be put to a halt for now.

“Hayao,” she grunted, “let’s go.”

With one hefty swing of her hammer, Fa Jing created distance between her side and Machiko’s. Machiko and Hayao locked eyes for a brief moment before he transformed and fled Densch. They knew at that moment that this wouldn’t be the last time. Fate bound the siblings of Soga and they were destined to traverse the Blue again and settle their vendetta another time.

Fa Jing carried bloody Goji but not much longer. A man in a sinister red long coat and a fountain pen in hand blocked their path.

Harvey Lansit, in such terribly late fashion, guffawed at his unwelcome visitors, “Oho! Let me give you a boost, filthy Tingshan!”

With a simple flick of his wrist, he sent Fa Jing packing high into the sky. There was nothing she could do or nothing she could cling onto. Her hammer and Goji fell into the grass as she reached the highest point of the flight. Suspended for a split second, she looked back at the Lansit Estate one last time before she started her descent to the valley below.
  HEAD ES DOODLE PETSUCHOS / Finnigan / 10d 17h 9m 45s
[size16 |SBI10:07 Full Metal Ninja|]

[i Papa,

Just in case I don’t write another letter for the longest time, I want you to know that you’ve never let me down. Despite what flaws you believe you have, you’ve been the best dad that anyone could ask for. Mom will return, I promise you. Remember what you taught Hayao and me when we were kids?

“Love will save the day.”

You’d sing it so often to us that I believed it.

I still do.

Machiko of Soga]

The halls were filled with laughter the last couple of weeks as Rozlibet threw her head back in her florid parlor. The blood rushed and hilarity ensued as she nearly fell backwards in her armchair. She had made it clear from the beginning that she believed that nostalgia was a disease, but she had not cared to see a doctor to cure the malady. She spoke of the woman she was decades ago when she was just a princess of a lower caste. Machiko reveled in the livelihood. It only took a Lansit to let loose after five years of residency.

Though the platforms of Densch oversaw the soft valley below and the rugged snow capped mountain tops surrounding on all sides, the sun had set beyond the horizon for the brisk evening. Soon the family would gather in the hall and enjoy another wondrous meal prepared by the chefs and the handmaidens would bathe them in sweet rosewater and lavender milled soaps.

“Oh, we were rambunctious as girls. We’d wear trousers and put our hair up in order to get into the clubs. We spent the entire night before sewing cassava sacks into these itchy abominations. We ended up wooing a few wretches with our penciled in mustaches and the few lessons in sultry whore-led belly dancing.”

Rozlibet tried catching her breath between the bursts of chuckles but she enjoyed such a refreshing face. Machiko was not obligated to entertain the lady of the house, but the energy was well needed. The talks of war and politics between the Densch princes often lost the ninja in the first few minutes. Harvey swore to go on the offensive with a plan that would expend the most money and resources in exchange for the smallest yield. Even Lord Dulon thought it was rather an irrational plan and quite destructive to Sudranese countryside.

Harvey cared not.

Seville watched her mother and the foreigner from the parlor’s entrance with a face of distrust. Now this stranger was charming the hearts of her own parents! What a weasel she must have thought. She grumbled into her winding black locks and sneered with her arms folded. She’d gone unnoticed the past week as her own mother and the slinking Machiko chummed up about their adventures.

The night went on for another thirty minutes before all the boisterous laughter came to an immediate halt. One section of the monstrous windows shattered.

[i Ka-chink.] A grey sphere rolled across the rich wooden floors.

“Get down!”

Machiko tackled an unexpected Rozlibet to the floor as a roaring explosion took out the entire wall of glass and wood. Using her own body to shield the Lansit matron, Machiko felt the heat creeping along her thighs and back. The explosion launched Seville across the hallway and into a wall where she slumped into the depression.

Machiko lifted Rozlibet who seemed perfectly fine and looked out the window to see two floating lights peeping into the mansion. Without any sign, bullets whizzed into parlor and ripped into the furniture. Splinters and stuffing littered the air as poor Rozlibet and Machiko ran for the hallways. Seville struggled to her feet but not before taking a bullet to her hip. She cried out loud but not for long as her mother aided her away from the fire.

Machiko ushered them further into the hall and down the stairs for the atrium. The wound was superficial, but Seville screamed in disbelief. Yes, at that moment, she realized that she too was mortal and like the rest of Densch. She wanted to stop running and freak out in the open space but her mother assured that she had to keep moving. The bullets continued to rip through that section of the house but the noise crept closer and closer.

“Get her to the safe,” Machiko ordered. “And don’t open it for anyone. I’ll find them.”

Dulon and Harvey were not the kind of men who died easily. Dulon’s voice alone leveled tin-roofed shanties. Of course, the robustly wealthy figure would never be caught in the vicinity of such rustic sight. If his son was just a fraction of his might, he would do just fine in his ripe age. Harvey waited for this moment to come. The Palm wanted him so badly; here was their moment.

Rozlibet, who seemed to be in the most control of her emotions and quite strong and swift for her age, nodded and quietly thanked Machiko for what she was about to do. She led a fumigating Seville down the stairs and disappeared into the depths of the palace. Machiko had no doubt that the bold matriarch in lace would find the panic room.

Before Machiko set off her rampage through the halls of Lansit, the front doors jumped out of their hinges with one loud bang and a thick billow of smoke. The facade shook and the windows rattled violently. The two long black doors stood vertically for a brief moment before they came crashing down. Precious white marble cracked and crumbled beneath the immense weight, and once the smoke settled, the guests stepped through the boundary.

[i ‘It’s go time.’]

Poor after poof, throwing knives appeared from Machiko’s sleeves one moment and rained vehemently and indiscriminately into the crowd. The members of the Palm whose faces were all foreign to Sudra and Tsukimoto alike advanced through the rain. The knives dug into skin, but the it was the chain of explosions that followed that stopped. Torn limbs flew into the air as he bombs ate holes into the home invaders. No sword nor shield deflected the storm of Lansit-made explosives.

Her first initial use of the sharp edged bombs caught her surprised one early morning. They shared the same weight as normal throwing knives, so throwing them and sticking them into targets felt no different, but the explosive ending left her in awe and horror. The straw target was left in disarray and burning. Harvey has ensured her that this was the way of war and that Machiko was weaker in her medieval tool and thought.

What she had done still left her in horror. The incendiary grenades continued to flay flesh and dying groans filled the vast corners of the once adorned atrium.

[i ‘It’s you or them. I chose them.’]

Of course, all of her training from a young age prepared her for war games. She wished that she was visually imposing and that the Palm surrendered before battle. Alas, those kinds of thoughts were best left with normal teenage girls.

She waited at the front for any stragglers. Hopeless breaths of the opposing force subsided with dying flames. A light layer of dust from the outside settled across all surfaces. Was this it? Surely the Palm of Heaven had worthier foes than this. Silence was the only weapon that was killing Machiko at dusk.

She peered outside the front door entrance and no one approach the perimeter, but the sun was setting and the initial explosion knocked out the porch lights. A sense of emptiness wrapped its arms around the young woman. She was a flicker in the midst of starkness. Machiko wondered where the Lansit sentinels were. How long have they been dead, if such a fate befell them.

The atrium’s groans fell into complete silence. Her stunt may have scared the outsiders from entering through the front door, but commotion roused itself on a different floor. Machiko broke for the next story. As she reached the top of the stairs, she saw servants fending off the strangers in vibrant vermillion cloaks. The Palm stuck their daggers into the sides of the maids who wailed. Machiko turned to another hallway and saw groups of monks killing the people who tended to the Lansit and even the adopted Tsukimotoan. She turned again for third look and saw it was happening in a different wing of the estate.

The flickering flame erupted into a wildfire.

Machiko flew into one wing of the mansion and summoned a giant glaive that cleaved into three assailants. She claimed three clean bisections from the waist up, all with one strike. The invaders who managed to escape the surprise attack scrambled down the hall. Killing became too easy with Harvey’s merchandise.

Without hesitation, a furious assassin called forth two cannons. One aimed at the fleeing monks and another had its sight pointed in the opposition direction. Machiko, not fond of the cannons’ design, had only used this weapon once and in that instance knew the might of the Lansit brand. Intended for a single use, she yanked both cords and unleashed two fireballs that consumed entire hallways. The blasts shattered windows, incinerated the elaborate murals off the walls, and caught fire everyone within its devastating reach.

The famed vermillion cloaks transformed into charred tattered browns. Burnt skin and bone slowly withered away into ash. Even the cannons themselves were destroyed in the process; the faux-Nubai magitech crumbled around the last living soul.

The quaking and roaring explosions caught the attention of the rest of the estate. For many of them, they knew that they were on borrowed time. Emerging from the flames, Machiko flashed into the third hallway and effortlessly cut down through her foe. Wherever she threw her blade, she quickly followed. No matter how many times the Palm cut into her, the flicker appeared unharmed and just as vengeful.

She fought the invasion all night. With and without help, she cleared the halls of Mahoraga’s hoard of fanatics. The Palm of Heaven had always eyed the sisters of the Order; Machiko of Soga happened to be the black horse. Small groups of survivors rose up in battle because she inspired them to band and take hold of the Lansit Estate. They fought as hard as they could just as she took up arms to clear out rooms of invading zealots.

The sweep lasted throughout the night. From floor to floor, wing to wing, the employees of the wealthiest and most influential house in all of Densch clashed blades with a united front hailing from vastly different parts of the Blue.

Exhausted from the lack of rest and food, Machiko perched on top of the ornate mansion. She slumped against the east tower’s walls and patiently waited for the sunrise. The blood from her shallow scrapes dried up into black clots in the wake of the pastel morning. The crisp air filled the lungs of the victors; it invigorated the masses to keep watchful of their ground.

Machiko took this silence as a moment to rest. The smallest breeze ran through the holes in her outfit and the odd comforting warmth of battle faded. Her eyes shuttered. Her arms and torso melted into the stone tower. Everything felt so peaceful for the first time in months.

Instinct snapped her out of the spell. She scooted up and off the castle walls as first rays of light caressed the range out east. The gleaming lining not only caught her dreary eyes but illuminated an airship just beyond the hedge garden and at the edge of the estate’s platform. Somewhere deep down in her gut, some raw feeling told her that it was the same ship from last night.

That same instinct told Machiko of Soga that this pilot was well aware of who she was because the gun barrels lit into the castle’s tower. The bullets demolished the tower into flying rubble which nearly knocked off Machiko’s head several times. The clamor of the rock smashing into rock and zinging of bullets rang in her ears. Tears welled up as dust suffocated her eyes.

She moved. She moved fast. She had to.

Machiko ran the length of the castle walls as the bullets chased her until the sun rose above the stiff white peaks. Breathing stung her lungs. Sweat drenched the dingy fabric that clung to wiry muscles. The thrill of the moment propelled her off the castle’s ledge and Machiko soared for the aircraft. What little maids and butlers left testified that the girl from Tsukimoto leaped thirty feet into the air.

The wild gambit paid off as she sunk her blade through the cockpit’s ovular windshield and into the lap of her would-be murderer. The ambitious screams of pain and the gushing of blood filled the cockpit. With the might of her fist, Machiko popped the top off and unloaded a couple of shotgun rounds into the console. Electrical arcs and fire consumed the cockpit before Machiko ran her sword from nose to tail. The stench of electrical fire and fuel and the bone rattling screeching of metal tearing through metal permeated the air.

Machiko launched herself from the tail end of the aircraft just as the pilot lost all control. Landing safely onto the white marble patio deck, Machiko shielded her face from the bright explosion.

She had predicted the invasion had ended, but the missile that lodged itself into the deck next to her begged to differ. Her eyes grew in size as well as the depth of her gasp. Before the projectile could take half her face off, a shield appeared a hair before the explosion and barely absorbed the shock and heat before knocking her up and on her feet.

She stood in amazement and slight enfeeblement; Hayao’s precocious glint beamed across the marble palace grounds. Fate brought the likes of the siblings of Soga here of all places. Neither Machiko nor Hayao expected this moment to happen.

Hayao tossed his head back coolly. His hair got shaggier from the last time she saw him yet his beard was impeccably groomed. [i Priorities.]

“I didn’t believe it at first when I heard these streets chant your name, but here I am staring down the legend. You’ve outlived your demise twice now.”

Machiko had lost the battle before she started. She thought of all the ways he could die, but she could not bring herself to raise a finger against him. After all, it was her duties as the princess to protect her people. That parade happened some time ago. How long had he been watching the estate? Why did his presence slip through the cracks? Her nails dug into her palm and the urge to grit her teeth was present. Hayao reveled in this.

“What luck. You’ve managed to be in town long enough without me knowing. What kind of awful sister am I to let such a rogue like Hayao of Soga to roam these streets without a proper welcome?”

“Oh, a welcome is not needed here. I am merely stopping by to tie up some loose ends. However, I believe that our family is extremely lucky, Machiko. We have a full fledged princess in the family. The sister princess! The way these people have been talking about you, it sounds like you can do no harm.” He had gotten livelier since his incarceration. Hayao guffawed, “They’re dead wrong. Stop protecting the unjust rulers of Sudra. A talentless hack like Lansit and his clan only bring harm to humankind. His weak followers are pawns. You’re no pawn, are you, Machiko?”

“Don’t taunt me.” Machiko brandished a short blade from smooth puff of smoke. “Luck is bound to run out, Hayao.”

“So it seems for you.”

“I never needed luck to beat you. All I needed was skill.”
  HEAD ES DOODLE PETSUCHOS / Finnigan / 16d 15h 49m 1s
[size16 |SBI10:06 I Spy|]

[i Dearest Machiko,

Your letters are always a topic of discussion with the other fathers in the village. Many of their sons are looking at colleges and my daughter is out exploring the many cultures of Sudra. Alas, they don’t see the joy and pride I have in you. They don’t understand—I honestly don’t see the appeal either some days—traveling away from home.

Tsukimoto has never stopped being so kind to its people. We don’t need to travel far to visit enchanting towns with waterfalls, mountainside, or the country. If we really wanted to, there’s always the cities but I’ve heard that city slickers are real sneaky con artists. How much more is there to the Blue if we have the capital?

Your arsenal has grown quite a bit. You sure you need a hundred of these darts in each spot? I can put them in the back storage if you need more space. I guess there is more artistic talent outside of Tsukimoto. I’ve never seen so many points to a sword, Machiko. These aren’t your mother’s everyday tools.

Speaking of your mother, the truth might be too painful to disclose to you at this moment. If you recall, maybe it was something I did wrong in life that’s now rearing it’s ugly head. I might have done something that drove your mother off to far off lands. Please forgive me in my time of weakness and I hope that one day I would be able to tell you the truth in full.

Dad of Soga]

Her initial acts of espionage started from the red velvet curtains that lined winding throne hall, but Machiko found her subject quite the lull. Dulon Lansit fumed on his golden throne for six hours a day. He picked his nose, mumbled amidst his snowy beard to no one, and stamped his feet as if he was waiting for bad news.

His guards were just as bored as he was. They tried to stand a proper watch but the heavy armor and draping capes slumped spine and shoulder. So colorful yet none too prepared to protect their reigning prince, Machiko rated their threat level a measly two out of ten.

In fact, the throne room might as well double up as a funeral chamber. The Palm could bust through the stained windows and execute old man Lansit without a worry.

After a while, the ninja stopped slinking behind the curtains because apparently Dulon made no fuss when she tripped into the throne room and skidded across the floor. From there on, she casually chatted up the guards and investigated further into their love lives and aspirations.

One day though, Dulon Lansit caught young Machiko off guard. They would acknowledge each other very briefly before he unhappily went back to brooding, but Machiko had caught him reading at the throne. A new development she thought. How profound. She recorded her observations, but had not left without her eyes catching which novel he was thoroughly invested in.

Perhaps she spoke out of order because the lackluster guards gasped and stood erect, but beautiful Machiko leaned on her stardom to get away with almost everything in Densch.

“The story really picks up in the second act, but you have to wait for the third sequel if you want to see everything fall into place. Richelieu Dyreharte’s one of my favorite authors of Varsylian canon for the sole fact that he plans out his novels with particular detail.”

She missed the days where she would exchange novels and story ideas with Tony who seemed like a distant friend at this point. Romance was his genre of choice as was hers.

Lord Dulon paused in his leisure time to look up from his spectacles at Machiko. It was a rather long and uncomfortable stare, but she was used to crowds and superiors glaring disappointingly at her.

“I wouldn’t have pegged a Tsukimotoan as a fan,” he commented before he licked his finger and flipped to the next page. He seemed uninterested in Machiko’s critique.

The two guards flanking Dulon looked at each other in such disarray. What had just happened? Was this a test? They would stick a spear or two if their master so much willed it but he made no such order. The short stint of civility shattered his godly air.

“Being honest: me either. The Sisters made it a point to embarrass me. No one reads war and romance novels anymore. The manuals they provide us at the schoolhouse are dry and leave no room for imagination. I didn’t do much reading until I got out of the academy.”

Machiko pushed the conversation further along. She knew exactly what she was doing, but Dulon didn’t seem to mind her presence. In fact, this was the first in forever that he was not screaming down the hall.

“Tragedy. Among other reasons, that’s why your cult is such a droll.” He continued focusing on his novel while maintaining conversation with an eased Machiko.

She managed to squeeze in a nervous chuckle. “I’m starting to think the same.”

She stood in the midst of Lord Dulon Lansit, the tycoon of the largest weapons dealing monopoly and they were talking about books written centuries ago. The surprises did not stop there. Machiko and the two guards caught a glimpse of the old man smiling! Beneath his austere facial hair and between plush lips were two rows of gleaming white teeth.

Dulon looked up and out of his furry white brows. “You amuse me.”

“Thank you?”

She scratched the back of her head. Surely this was a tactic employed by the cunning Lansit family. She once believed Seville’s honied yet malicious prank and ended up in the antlion pit. It was a tough dinner topic once Harvey found out that his pet was missing its pincers entirely. It was safe to say that Harvey vowed vengeance; on whom was another question for another meal.

“Go on now,” he mumbled, “apparently I have to catch up to the expert on Dyreharte.”

Her future moments concerning Dulon were brief and painless. He’d only raise his voice and summon her to the throne if he had not a clue what the author was trying to convey with cherry blossoms and young women or that the Francol remained top in the fashion industry for thousands of years still. She laughed in those moments but treaded carefully around the wintry lord’s humor.

Machiko found the domina of the house in multiple locations throughout the day; it was hard to miss her because a train of her handmaidens tended to every whim. Wives of the other princes of Densch frolicked through the halls and toiled in talks of wifely affairs and pool boys. How exciting, Machiko imagined.

There was one day though where the airy Rozlibet with the infinite kinks and silk curls sat in one of the five personal palace parlors by herself. None of the attendants in fleshy peach lacing bothered her this specific day, a day that was marked with embroidery. A woman of such stature should never work that hard. Her sullen eyes pierced the wall wide windows between bouts with the thick needle. Her dedication to neither hobby had caught the attention of the ninja.

A maid with fine china on a gleaming silver platter cut in front of Machiko and scuttled out of the room as she did in. She warned the petite Tsukimotoan to stay out but she was no concern of Machiko. She’s freely roamed the castle and did as she pleased. She was security. Or so she convinced herself.

Aside from her boss, Lady Rozlibet was the most approachable of the family. Machiko peeked her head into the parlor and flashed a genuine smile towards the matron. Rozlibet had shown no reaction which was quite uncommon. Instead, sighed and looked out the window some more. The needle rested on the outskirts of the embroidery work and remained there until Machiko would dismiss herself that day.

Usually Rozlibet was googly-eyed whenever Machiko entered the room, but today she was the most distant Lansit on the estate. Machiko walked into the parlor and took a seat adjacent to the lady. She poured from the kettle tea laced with a rather spicy aroma.

“Would you like milk?” Machiko asked.

“Oh, sweet Machiko,” she started so sweetly, “Have you seen the color of my skin? I wasn’t born a Varsylian barbarian. Surely these girls would know better than to offer me milk. Which one was she?”

“Oh, that was ole Mead.”

“I’ll be sure to berate her right after I hand her severance.”

She regained her regality and guffawed with her hand out for the teacup. She took a few sips before placing it on a black lacquer side table. People often mistaken her as a malevolent figure. Well, most of the benevolent sounding words were rather malicious in nature, and the most of the malevolent sounding words were rather benign in nature. She was a confusing figure who might have been confused herself.

“Say, you’re a rather quiet teenager who hasn’t shown interest in any of my guards.”

Rozlibet raised an eyebrow as she looked at the lithe framed Machiko. Admiration or jealousy, Machiko wouldn’t figure it out until the end of this conversation. Sitting stiff in the lavish pea green armchair, she carefully thought through her words and wondered if it was some nefarious trap or if it was pure curiosity.

“It’s rather unprofessional if I did, would you not think, mam?”

“Yes, but to not even bat an eye worries me. By any means you’re not repulsive, that you have nothing to worry about. Although, it’s been almost four years since you’ve come to us and you’re still a tad skinny though. Flat even. You must eat more, girl.”

“It’s a result of my training.”

Lady Rozlibet ordered her to stand up. Honing in on every surface of the well tanned Tsukimotoan in vibrant Sudranese fashion, Rozlibet asked her to slowly turn. She desired to see every couture, every possible shape of the young lady. Machiko intrigued her and she had been since the day she arrived.

“Hey, what’s the big deal?”

Machiko snapped her out of trance. Something about her rekindled a lilliputian and fuzzy flame in her stomach. Rozlibet, taken aback by her own actions, sat back into her chair and picked up her teacup in order to compose her rather erratic behavior. Still, lively Machiko captured her attention.

She mused, “Maybe I married for power, money, and security, but love has always been a fleeting idea for me. In my youth, about the same age you were when you first got here, all my relationships had been short, rather curt. Nothing felt as if it belonged past the shallows of my aching heart. Even in my aging golden years, the many people o choose to spend my time with is rather empty.

That’s not to say that I’ve never been in love with sweet Dulon. I have learned to embrace his fiery temper and maybe even use it against him as we age. I could tell you with such honestly that I married him out of fear, but not for I fear him, no, he’s harmless to the touch. He’s been harmless for decades now, even with his monstrous voice.

Maybe I deserved the sparse beatings in my younger years; I never seemed all that interested in his work and found comfort in the arms of my handmaidens more than him. Dulon and his hands have not scared me for some time now.

Maybe it’s the fear that I’d die poor and alone, that maybe my true desires would compromise my own wellbeing well into the endgame of my life. The type of skills I possess are not useful to survive in such a harsh world. My flesh is no longer supple for work if any kind and I fear my bones may break and never mend.

I would have loved to be you when I was young: free-spirited, loving, unafraid of the unknown. Oh the adventures I could have and the trouble to be had. I’d trade everything I had now in order to be in your shoes. Oh to be young, wild, and free.”

She averted her attention back out the window and pressed the palm of her hand into her sunken chest. The melancholia weighed on her broken heart.

“I’m sure you’ve slept with your ‘sisters’, am I wrong?” Rozlibet asked out of the blue.

Machiko took her seat and started to answer.

“Of course, it’s—oh no, not like that, mam.”

The first part had garnered the attention of Rozlibet just enough to pursue further.

“So you’ve never embraced another woman?”

“It’s a thought that hasn’t crossed my mind.”

“I see.” Agitated, perhaps with Machiko or her own self, she waved off Machiko before she could get too comfortable in her seat. “I won’t bother you more with my sick fancies. Begone.”

“Very well.”

Machiko made for the exit.

“Wait.”

Machiko turned.

“Yes?”

“Be sure you know what you want in life. Someone worth loving is worth fighting for out there. I can see it in your eyes.”

Machiko nodded.

“What was her name?” The young woman asked.

With a somber voice, Rozlibet cracked, “Zafina.”

“Zafina.” Machiko closed her eyes and tried to imagine what a Zafina looked like, what the Zafina looked like. “I like that name, Zafina. For Zafina.”

Machiko returned to her rove.

She’d wonder about her own parents and if they truly loved each other. Machiko’s mom was quiet yet strong and assertive. She’d set out to get what she wanted, how she wanted, when she wanted, but it never occurred to Machiko until her conversation with Rozlibet that maybe her mother married her father out of fear. Dad was talkative yet possessed a passive nature that catered to mom’s will. Were they truly happy?

Machiko wandered around some more with thousands of questions on hand and a million observances. Why did everyone in the Blue speak the same language yet have a variety of strange customs and cultures? Why did the girls of Densch have such bigger breasts than she did? Why did the Lansits decide on a such a unnecessarily gargantuan hedge garden when their own gardeners couldn’t safely navigate it?

Yes, one day Machiko stumbled through the hedge garden out back and found herself distant from the estate. She remembered that she needed to head into a meeting with Harvey within the hour but that was not going to happen. Plus, the meetings usually ended up with Harvey calculating profits. [i Boring.]

Instead, Machiko landed herself in one of the most elaborate gardens she’s ever lain eyes on. Out of the hedge maze and overseeing acres of perfectly maintained and mowed grass was a deck furniture sprawled far apart. Lattice walls covered in vine and waxy leaves set the perimeter. Over in one corner branches of trees formed a kilometer long tunnel to elsewhere. Potted plants rested on short wooden pillars and the deck was cut in specific places for multitudes of flower beds. In an adjacent corner a giant cypress provided ample shading.

She wandered around for the first time in this garden which seemed like more of a secret getaway the more she thought about it. Only the best of the navigating gardeners could experience this paradise away from the stresses of the main estate.

Machiko stopped on the bridge that overlooked a small stream covered in a sticky mist. A couple of cranes flew from under the bridge and into the mysteries of the land.

From the other end of the bridge, an unattended Lady Seville marched towards the likes of the foreigner with mad contempt.

“What are you doing here?” She irked.

Simply, she responded, with, “admiring the garden.”

“Yes, I designed this entire garden by myself twelve years ago. I decided the dimensions, the kind of wood used for the deck, the rate at which this stream flows, even down to how the branches entwine and which branches overtook the kthers. It took me an entire year to plan it all out. All by myself.”

That “all by myself” was delivered with such a sting that made Machiko believe that she was challenging her to a competition. Granted, Seville was a genius, but an awfully conceited one at that.

“It’s rather romantic.” Machiko chose to play it safe. Any conversation with Lady Seville ended up with her lashing out skin busting comments, but Machiko tried easing into them this time.

“Please, romance hasn’t grown in these gardens for seasons, girl. This is a clear reminder that no matter how hard and how much I work, dreams matter not for me. The Maker must have been a man for women not garner the respect we so much deserve.”

She overlooked the scene and took in the scent of musky greens. Seville leaned over the rail in such an unwomanly manner. Of course, Machiko was in the same position but no one in the house paid too much attention to the foreigners mannerisms. Seville’s personal butlers, handmaidens, and teachers vanished throughout the years because she would tire of them trying to direct and correct her stance. She fought against the policing.

“We were born to die. We were bred to take care of boys and cater to their whims no matter how unpleasant and unruly they were to us. Did you not serve an emperor at one point? And here you are serving another false king. It’s a man’s world, but it would be nothing without the woman behind. Mark my words.”

“You’ve done so much for your family, Lady Seville. You’re quite accomplished for a woman, even surpassed many men. Your father thinks highly of you and Harvey is more than thankful that you’ve been there for him.”

“You need not speak for my brother nor speak his name in my presence.”

“As you wish, Lady Seville.”

They stood in silence, both refusing to make eye contact with the other. It’s the process Seville envisioned this garden: silence. The foliage muffled noise and human language could not be heard in these parts. The crooning cranes, the trickling creek, and the talented crickets were her greatest comfort away from the halls of the mansion which rang of cantankerous men’s tirades.

Seville wanted to cry out her rage many times for the four decades that she’s lived through, but she refused to be like the other princesses of Sudra, simple, frail, and beautiful. She could move with such grace for that was an innate trait all Lansit-born were gifted, but she refused to be silenced and dominated.

She simmered and the steam built. Then, she exploded.

“How is it that you, of all of us that reside on this estate, are so free to prance around Densch as if you’re some traveling dancing harlot? What makes you any better than the rest of us that the common people chant your name? What have you done to warrant such treatment, hmm? How does a rogue squinty-eyed weasel get her own parade of balloons and dancing? How is it that the people don’t call out, ‘Princess Seville Lansit!’ with such zeal and excitement?”

Calmly removing her elbows from the rail, Machiko sighed and proudly retorted, “She focuses on the hearts of people she serves. Her name doesn’t crave respect but earns it. She is Machiko of Soga and she is no weasel.”

“You know what? You’re an annoying little shit. I hate you.” Seville reamed. “I hate you so much.”

Machiko had done nothing to this woman who fumed. Rather than fight her with her words, she returned for the hedge maze and allowed the garden to silence the irreparable pain.

It was a week later when news of Lady Seville’s sickness reached the rest of her family members. Rather than feel any sympathy for her, her family members felt relieved of the malady themselves. Machiko was the only one to show any remorse and sent her daffodils she handpicked from the florist.

After the delivery, the young lady entered the chart room only to catch Harvey and a couple of gentlemen at work.

“Please excuse me for the interruption.”

“Stay for our little meeting.”

“Of course.”

“Prince Rinas, Prince Emil, this is Machiko of Soga.”

Harvey introduced her with such zeal. For the most part, she had upheld her part of the bargain as protector and so had he with his vast network at her disposal. The web of allies and business partners picked up nothing in care of Anchovi. The merchant continued to run his business from home and remained occupied with logistics and manpower. Seldom did he interact with the hired hand.

“After four years of residency, we finally meet. I’ve heard stories.” A prince of Densch, Prince Rinas was younger, darker, skinnier, and overall more tolerable than Harvey. He acknowledged the lady in the orange dress and blushed.

“And all of them are true, Rinas.” A man older and jollier than Harvey stood from his seat and gave Machiko a wholesome squeeze. Prince Emil kissed the back of her hand. “Good afternoon, my friend.”

“Good afternoon, Prince Emil, Prince Rinas.”

“The Palm plans to strike.” Harvey shook his head. It’s been days now since the latest incident and he had been wanting to pull out his beard. “I’ve anticipated this moment for some time and had ordered the other princes to come right away once I heard the news of Prince Chudriyam’s betrayal.”

Prince Chudriyam was another prince who lived a few platforms over who was fervent in Harvey’s cause. Nonetheless, he was a foolish old man whose glamour caught the best of him. He left a couple weeks ago in his golden airship and publicly renounced the Palm of Heaven’s cause.

“This is certainly false news, Harvey. Prince Chudriyam died a few days ago when he visited Shiivani. They say that the Palm of Heaven was involved. There can be no treachery from him.” Prince Emil cried out.

Prince Rinas concurred.

“The Palm has made it to the capital? This is horrid news.”

“That bastard gave the likes of Mahoraga Genji top secret information in regards to Densch! The Palm can exploit any potential weakness in the air plans. Maybe even launch an aerial attack on the city. He had one job and he sold us out. I must ask for what because I’m sure it was not a public beheading. Yes, The government of Shiivani is covering up Chudriyam’s death in hopes of mitigating the Palm’s influence. They refuse to call it an act of terrorism.”

“The coordination between cities was paramount in keeping out invaders.” Prince Rinas shuffled through his papers in high hopes of finding a solution to the newest problem. “We’ll need to act fast, Prince Harvey. I suggest we maintain an iron defense.”

“We must inform the others at once.” Prince Emil looked for Harvey’s guidance but all he received was a troubled face. He sighed, “Unless that expression says otherwise.”

“There’s no point. If they didn’t think this meeting wasn’t about them, they’ll surely ignore the call to arms. Stupid ignorant cowards.”

“A problem with one prince is a problem with all princes of Densch,” stated Prince Rinas.

“I agree with Prince Rinas. We must band together and stand strong. The houses of Varsyl crumble at this very moment. Prince Chelon is dead, the queen reagent imprisoned, and no heir apparent in sight. We can only assume that the Palm is responsible for the degradation of these other governments.”

“Palm written all over it, my fellow princes.”

“Prince Emil, we must enact curfew.”

“I concur!” Emil pointed up a finger. “Double up on sentries!”

“Agreed!” exclaimed Rinas. “Our palaces will be impenetrable.”

“Kill every monk, every nun, every nut job associated with the Palm. Their bodies are not to soil these grounds for long. Round them up and burn them alive if it makes the sport more enjoyable.” Harvey, with such contempt and bile for the Palm, especially the likes of a vindictive Mahoraga, crafted the worst thoughts.

The three princes amped each other up. Machiko later on that night inventoried every single piece of equipment in her warehouse for the inevitable war ahead.

“This is it boys, this is war, this is what we’ve been fighting for!” they sang as she watched the flames of the furnace roll.
  HEAD ES DOODLE PETSUCHOS / Finnigan / 22d 22h 9s
[size16 |SBI10:05 Princess of Sudra|]

[i Papa,

If I could send you pictures of this place, you would enjoy it. I’ve already detailed in great length on how much I love city but a picture is worth a thousand words truly.

This is my home away from home, though Densch would be a million times better with you and mom. I can see it now: we’d live in a two story storefront. Of course the first floor would be a bakery because your cakes are second to none, Papa. Your bread would be a home run around here. Mom could find a job in security.

Say, it’s always you who writes me back, but I haven’t received a letter from mom in the two years we’ve exchanged correspondence. Why is that?

Anyways, the boys are beautiful dad. Curly black hair and golden wheat eyes. Plush lips and angular jaws. They’re all artists and brilliant inventors with a lot to prove. Intelligence is quite something, especially matched with good looks; that’s why mom married you, right? Hehe.

Machiko]

“What family does she come from?”

“Surely she’s not Lansit.”

“That’s Machiko. She comes from Soga.”

“Ain’t never heard of that place.”

“Wherever she comes from, she’s a princess.”

“Priceless. She is no princess. She owns no land.”

“Absurd. She’s the princess of the people.”

“She owns no people.”

“Exactly. She represents the people.”

“Absurd.”

“I heard she was the one who stopped the Jaal-Baresh Gang. Whipped them in minutes.”

“Straight up. That’s my girl, Machiko. Of course I supplied her with the freshest digs. She deserves only the best.”

“I heard she ran with a gang as well. People from the Outer Blue.”

“Outer Blue? She ran with the baddest bitches from the corners of the Blue. She doesn’t trifle around with Varsylian slime.”

“Machiko, she helped me with my groceries.”

“I gave her a dozen mandarins the other day. She’s famous, more so than an ordinary prince of Densch.”

“She’s the bastard child of Dulon Lansit.”

“No, I heard Harvey the baby-daddy.”

“She’s from Tsukimoto. Their women open their legs for business. She’s just a transaction.”

“I heard the reason why she’s out and about is because she got man bits.”

“I heard she could summon snakes. Or was it toads? Slugs! It had to be slugs.”

“She’s a freak.”

“She’s slept with all the princes.”

“And a princess!”

“Actually, it was two princesses,” Machiko who was disguised with a bristly mustache corrected the bystander.

“Whoa.”

The ninja in the itchy brown burlap coat walked away without a worry that the entire city built on platforms and stalks bantered so much. Within her two years of residency, she refused to think that she made such an impact on the streets of downtown Densch. Some of the rumors were true a hundred percent, most brought a wide grin to her fair face. She could be anyone she wanted to be; she could be a very different person tomorrow than what she was today.

Machiko claimed the ruse was espionage and character building. Other days she wanted to see how much she could get away with all the lies. She lied on many accounts that she was the daughter of three goddesses who ruled the Blue and created such a storm that caused the city of Guten Nocht to fly so high into the sky. The “wise” vendors prayed for mercy from the three goddesses who were supposedly very good at sexual acts. Maybe the daughter incarnate would bless them with enlarged bits so that they might please their wives and wenches at last.

On her off time, she blended in well with the shades of brown, red, and yellow faces of downtown Densch. The warmth of such hot pinks, radioactive yellows, neon reds, and subdued burnt oranges and lustrous blacks adorned the so called “Princess of Sudra”, a title bestowed this year to Machiko of Soga. The vendors prided their city to match their zeal as much as they cherished local heroes.

Equipped with two more inches in height, a slimmer frame, and an enchanting smile, Machiko who strolled down the three mile driveway of the Lansit estate every morning, was quick to integrate with the common folk of Densch. The stifling mansion with the boisterous personalities squeezed out the Tsukimotoan mouse and into the hustle and bustle of artisans, chefs, idealists, and inventors. The crowd swallowed her up in an instant, but she floated on.

The stream of citizens led her to One of her first few friends in Densch. Her name was Lazli, an urban fashion designer with a penchant of poking a few too many holes in her live models. Hundreds of pins later and maybe a few bandages later to sop up the blood, Machiko dressed in a native Sudranese pattern skirt with a flowing pink top.
Lazli ended up being the reason why Machiko took a liking to the “girly” color. Cloth draped from her shoulders and trailed behind her gait wherever she went.

The thirty-something year old Lazli took Machiko up as her muse because of her stark difference from the bohemian types who wandered in every once in a while into her shop. She quietly murmured, “yes” which then turned to her stating, “yes” which in turn had her exclaiming over and over, “yes!” when Machiko was pushed into the tailor’s shop.

Once Machiko started wearing Lazli, so did upbeat young women who were so mesmerized by the Tsukimotoan’s exotic affairs and robust stride. She was shorter than the Densch model types who outmatched the young girl in years of allure, but she wore dresses and the latest wear with such striking confidence.

The streets were her runway and most of her iconic poses came in the form of fighting petty crimes. The first iconic photo had Machiko jump kick a thief square in the jaw. Nuja, a budding photographer at the mere age of twelve and living with his parents and eight other siblings in a two bedroom apartment, captured the shot and turned into an overnight celebrity.

The law enforcement, who was bought out and strapped by the Lansits from boot up, awarded her with a small cash reward for actively sweeping away the riff-raff who mugged lofty women whereas Harvey scolded her for acting like a carnival dwelling clown. He tried to minimize her involvement with the mainstream crowd but she craved socializing with strangers. After all, all her best friends started out as strangers.

[i ‘Gainfully employed,’] she thought. Crimefighting paid the nonexistent bills and it kept her away from the nasty webbing of Lansit affairs. Harvey scoffed and let her be for the most part.

Earlier in the year, Harvey spoke of a new age war and Machiko overheard from around the corner.

Supposedly the Lansit company ships embarked mercenaries who were ordered to shoot on site any sympathizer to the Palm’s mission. The rest of Sudra united with Densch princes’ call for militarization and a draft was enacted overnight. Sons of senators and ministers became generals and admirals within hours and without any prior training. Boys as young as fifteen were ordered to the city centers across the nation to sign their way into manhood, fighting for the sole cause of saving one man’s life from fatal error.

Densch had set up a military base on a less occupied platform for a squadron of four hundred soldiers and airmen. Of course, the ships and smaller aircraft were bought at the expense of the Sudranese government’s budget. The citizens of Sudra saw the highest tax hike ever recorded in three hundred years.

The people were in an uproar. Suddenly families were forced into dual-income households and for many second jobs. Rent skyrocketed and kids like Nuja hit the streets to hustle. Crime increased throughout Densch and the syndicates grew in rank and number. What was once comfortable living felt stifling.

Machiko justified all the costume changes as a way to trick up potential Palm members. In the first two years she yielded zero results. The ninja concluded a couple of explanations.

The first explanation was that the people of Densch never came into contact with Mahoraga’s followers, that Mahoraga’s ideals never reached these heights. Of course, with the exception of Harvey Lansit who’s fame, fortune, and firepower attracted all sorts of problems.

The second explanation was that no one was fooled by the crafty ninja’s less-than-crafty costumes, and perhaps her silly ruse made her all the more lovable to the masses. She pondered on the thought that maybe she brought shame to her sisters or perhaps her sisters’ trainings were rather inadequate. Alas, she believed that what she lacked in true espionage, she made up with charm tenfold.

Machiko failed to realize that her charm came from her side job. Meaning to capture the likes of the quiet Palm, she effortlessly and more often than not painlessly turned in over three hundred individuals for theft, assault, drug running, and arms smuggling.

Martial arts trainings were going to be held, but the law enforcement refused to be embarrassed by one girl and have her teach potential syndicate members how to stave off police. The police could not help but admire how dedicated she was to busting crime. That, and all they had to do was fill out paperwork and nab the credit. The Densch princes continued to pay their standing salaries.

The peaceful streets of the biggest platform of Densch filled her heart with warmth. Machiko closed her eyes so the overwhelming feeling of being at home would not trickle down her cheeks as tears. She let the breeze pass between her delicate fingers as the laughter of children ran past. She took in everything that this place offer and maybe today was a sign that she ought to make Densch her permanent residence. After all, her attempts of finding Anchovi proved nonexistent.

Opening her eyes, she was instantaneously transported to a new scape. She faced a bricolage of faces surrounded in flowing color and shape. Balloons flew in the sky carelessly for miles. Dancers in wavy hot pink crinoline twirled into fuchsia cyclones. A line of six men donned the dragon costume with the huge eyes and moving mouth. The hundreds of tassels that adorned the costume moved seamlessly and the men clamored amongst the marching band comprised of drums, brass, and woodwinds.

Children flocked to the parade in such awe. Acrobats and festive goers stormed the streets. Confetti rained upon the scene in pinks, oranges, and yellows. Where had this all come from? Where was it going?

“The Princess of Sudra!”

Amongst the crowd was Lazli and a couple of police officers who immediately escorted the dumbfounded Machiko towards the middle of the vibrant collage of chaos. She feebly sat on top of a moving float that oversaw the long line of the parade that stretched for blocks. Flanking her were stormy blue tigers and purple elephants crafted from paper maché and the brilliant paints by local artists.

Behind the floats were the marching band, flying balloon acrobats, more floats with a slew of paper animals. The bright-eyed citizens of the lively city built on cold platforms integrated into the celebration and held their hands out for their princess. Machiko’s grin spread across cheek to cheek and returned their offerings with high fives.

“This, this right here is for you!” Lazli tried to scream over the commotion. “This is how we show our love and appreciation.”

“I haven’t done anything.”

“Besides be an inspiration to the people, Machiko. You’re the princess we need! And plus, we need a celebration to bust out all these animals! What a better way than to appreciate our local hero.”

Machiko had nothing to say. She wanted to utter a thank you but the magnitude of Densch’s hospitality enveloped her into an emotional hurricane. The Order never conditioned her to be emotionless during parades. She had never seen something like this before nor have her sisters ever described an instance similar.

She loved every moment of the parade, but the celebration did not stop after the two hours on the street. The parade led to the largest park in the city where hundreds of people were cooking a feast in anticipation of Machiko and the movers. Barbecue of various livestock, curry of different colors and spiciness, fruit juices, crisp fries, saucy cobs of corn, plates of leafy green vegetables seeped in tangy sauce, and mountains of rice lined the vendors. Of course, the princess was not expected to pay for any of it.

Evening turned to night but much dancing had to be done. The teenage boys serenaded Machiko and many of the maidens of the city with cheek blushing songs and spry dancing. She cried tears of joy and laughed as she clung to Lazli and the other girls. The girls had their turn to dance, so Machiko danced all night until the next day when she sorely limped to the front doors of the Lansit estate.

It was Harvey who answered the door. He was none too pleased with the disheveled ninja. Her hair was in her mouth and wet clumps stuck to the petite chest and back.

“You’re a mess,” Harvey snidely commented.

She trudged along to her room, but before she struggled up the stairs, Machiko turned around and remarked, “a beautiful mess.”
  HEAD ES DOODLE PETSUCHOS / Finnigan / 187d 12h 51m 14s
[size16 |SBI10:04 Family Matters|]

[i Dearest Machiko,

We’d fear the day you’d become a woman. Well, I should make a correction: I fear the day that you’d become a woman. I have no doubt that you’ll become a woman similar to your mother, but I fear that you might be too similar like your mother. What I mean to say is that men are fragile creatures, contrary to the rest of the Blue’s beliefs. They have feelings just as much as you do. I must emphasize that you must be considerate of the feelings of others, yet remain to your way. I don’t want to lose my sincere and amazingly funny daughter, but that doesn’t mean you have to destroy every heart you come across.

Have you ever wondered why the Blue is called that? Why the sea and sky is never differentiated? I suppose it’s because it runs in all directions indefinitely. Beyond Tsukimoto there are stranger soils. Beyond where you are I’m sure are continents you haven’t stepped foot on. No one knows where the corners of the Blue meet. That’s of course if they do. And is there anything at the ends of the Blue? My mind wanders from time to time.

In relevant news, I switched out some of your torn uniforms for newer sets. The Order has moved to a more traditional black, but I figured that you might want to distance yourself from your sisters a tad bit. With that said, I ordered from the city catalogue a few weeks ago a new red tactical vest. You’re sure to impress all your colleagues now, wherever you are, wherever you go.

Machiko, your mother doesn’t do much thinking these days, so find it rather difficult to have worthwhile conversations outside the other fathers. What I mean to say is that they don’t really have older children who are at that age of exploration and a sense of the world. Their wives have either left them or never joined the Order. Well, maybe join isn’t the right word either but rather selected. Sometimes it’s hard to relate to your mother and well despite you being my daughter, I may get lost with you as well.

What I mean to say without fumbling too much over my own words is that I cannot help but wonder lately: did I fail Hayao? Maybe he’s not really my son but that of a wily mountain man. It’s silly, I know, but what man doesn’t have some sort of connection to his son.

Am I soft? Is it a crime that I never persuaded Hayao to become a diplomat and skilled in the arts a husband should know? Maybe he believes he was born the wrong sex and yearned for his mothers’ path.

Has he strayed too far from redemption, Machiko? Can he be saved from philosophizing monks? I ask too many questions and probably hope that you have as many answers as well in your next letter.

Please, Machiko, never not be you.

Dad of Soga]

That was the first letter that Machiko ever crumpled in her small fist.

It had been three months since her arrival at the Lansit estate and in those three months she had steered clear of the Lansit clan. She did not actively avoid them nor did they refuse to associate with the enemy, but rather they had completely different schedules. Dulon and Rozlibet traveled to the few prestigious ports of the Varsylian continent and the small country of Francol for business and leisure respectively.

The patriarch was so concerned with the business that he himself took a few ships to maintain normal transactions. Behind his wintry beard was a raging sandstorm ready to uproot his son’s delinquencies and unplanned absence. His winter white brows were perpetually in a state of frustration as Machiko observed his royal entrance.

“Call my son to the throne room at once!”

The voice boom and shook the stained glass windows. His vanguard in rich red capes and gold plated breastplates struggled to keep up with his quick step. Machiko smirked.

The matriarch followed minutes behind with her court of flowery ladies in waiting carrying her frill dress from behind. Rozlibet Lansit stuck her long nose up so high that it could touch the tips of the crystal chandeliers. The servants warned
Machiko of Soga that the mistress of the estate was harsh in tongue but far off better than her daughter.

Harvey Lansit shuffled behind his mother’s entourage and tried to pass over, but the ladies in waiting turned their heads and hissed as they fanned and tended to their mistress. He knew he’d get the brunt of his father’s anger and signaled for Machiko to follow him into the grandiose throne hall.

One of these days, this estate would be his entirely and the throne room would be flanked with golden fountain-spitting merlions. The throne would be guarded by victorious winged angels and their spears of justice. That was the plan, but despite all the signs pointing to his ascension, he felt the biggest obstacle was no one other than she who stood to the right of their father, Seville Lansit.

Her winding locks bounced past her shoulder blades and graced her earthy green gown. Stiff competition and in many respects outright better than her brother, Seville resented him. She sneered at his presence. If she had been born a man, the estate would have clearly went to her. She possessed Dulon’s shrewd business practices and her mother’s exquisite taste and eye and honed her natural talent for oratory to win battles Harvey previously lost.

Harvey and Machiko stood at the end of the hall while Rozlibet gracefully swooned and took part of her drawn out ritual of sitting on her throne. She twirled before the throne not once or twice, but four times. She refused to be odd in any sense. Her servants folded their feathered fans and shuffled past the pillars and out of sight. As she sat down, Rozlibet held her right hand out for her husband to grace it with a peck.

Disgusted with the old ways, Harvey casually approached the throne with his tiny bodyguard trailing. He had no time to waste with such formal entrances nor did he wait on such a miserable old man. Despite his feelings, he respected his parents and appreciated their vitality. Dulon was the his greatest mentor in arms dealing and took pride in passing down Lansit secrets. Rozlibet spoiled him to death well into his twenties and refined his taste in both commodity and women.

That day flipped the entire script though.

“I should have you beaten like a dog!”

“Honestly, you worried us, my son.”

“I get a report from that fleet out there in the Uchi Soto League about some cult that you were dealing with. You’re aware of our partnership with the Damphrukians, yes, you bumbling fuck?!” Dulon roared and rampaged. “Answer me, Harvey, what kind of son undos his father’s legacy?”

“I’m sorry,” Harvey squeezed in.

The stormy beard ravaged the halls.

“You’re sorry looking, you bum! Clean yourself up.”

“I’ve been working hard.”

“Hardly working on your appearances. Don’t disgrace the Lansit name with that unruly beard! You’ve had time to fix your appearance since you’ve been out.” Dulon called forth a servant to fan his burning face. His skin glistened with sweat in the brisk hall. Dulon’s heart raced. “Seville, tell him where he went wrong.”

Harvey braced himself. Whenever his ailing father could no longer quake, he allowed the venomous Seville to lash out the morning star tongue.

“Never leave a trail,” she plainly put it. Seville never complained about standing in the throne room as long as she was at her father’s right hand. “I haven’t heard so much as a simple thank you either, brother.”

“Thank you?” He stood before the rest of clan clueless.

“If it wasn’t for father, you would have rotted away with the monks and trollops in that pit they call Damphruk. The Lansit have been merchants of such renowned notoriety for thousands of years, Harvey, and the Fleet had you where they wanted. They could have been responsible for ending a line in the Lansit clan which you failed to maintain.”

“I’ll be damned if Saardtha claims this throne! The impotent pansy of a cousin will be the end of the Lansit.”

“Tis a shame I have no grandsons or granddaughters,” Rozlibet added. No one paid attention to her distress besides her servants. “I’ll die alone.”

“Father vouched for you.”

“And let me guess, you spoke on his behalf.”

“Precisely. Though I was quite quick to make it to the Gilded Lily once I heard the news. I made a bargain. I let them keep you for five more months for continued patronage. It was the biggest pull yet.”

“You are garbage.”

“And if she is garbage, then you are the roach that lives off of her.”

Harvey sucked his teeth. His father not only dug the dagger into his chest but twisted it slowly. He shrunk into his couture jacket and wondered how much less this would all hurt if he got blown up on the Fa Mulandi with the rest of the vagrants.

“Pray tell, what is she doing here?”

“I am Machiko of So—“

“I did not ask who you were nor did I address you, moon whore!” Dulon roared and he rampaged on the golden throne. His anger reflected in the studded jewels and good natured Rozlibet sword the frame melted ever so slightly. “Control this mutt or else I’ll have your sister kill it in the back garden.”

“Which one?” Rozlibet asked the heavens. She prayed to Maker it was one more distant than the hedge garden and closer to the servant quarter’s. Despite her husband’s boiling demeanor, she loved him and he could not bring himself to yell at her unnecessary and sometimes hilarious asides.

“She is what’s going to keep us alive, father.”

“Has the girl even started womanhood?” Seville asked with high contempt. “I see that my brother hasn’t changed his entourage of lusty maidens.”

“And you’re in your thirties and still unmarried. How’s that going for you?”

Machiko snorted in attempts to hold a laugh that snuck up on her.

“Harvey Prakash Lansit! You cannot speak to me like that.”

“I just did.”

“And you are a man who cannot find a wife worthy of our parents so you hang with prepubescent girls. You’re undoing the fabric of this clan with your unruly bachelor life!”

“How mad are you? Big mad or small mad?”

“To Hel with you.”

“And also with you.”

“Enough!” Dulon growled, “you still have not answered my question, Harvey. What is she doing here?”

“Machiko of Soga is going to keep us alive. She bears no allegiance to Tsukimoto, father. They believe that she’s been dead for quite some time and now I have her under contract. She is the most valuable weapon we have, a master of time-space magic.”

“And who can threaten such an empire as mine?”

“Vengeful men who will stop at nothing to see me lose everything I have, including my own elderly parents. The Palm of Heaven will eliminate all those they deem a threat.” Harvey looked over his shoulder at Machiko and pointed, “With her though, we stand a chance.”

The female servants snickered into their frilly sleeves and disregarded the indecently dressed lolita. Fish-net stockings? How atrocious.

“We have always side with a winner, Harvey. Suede them to us.”

“They cannot be bought out. I’ve made quite an enemy with this one.” Harvey shook his head.

Seville strutted over to her brother and circled around him. She felt disgusted that her wellbeing resided with an incompetent loon.

“Yet again Harvey proves that he’s unfit to run this dynasty, father. Why do we allow him to lead from the front?”

“No one will take you serious, Seville. To a mere man, a woman knows nothing about explosives and arms. You should have been married off to a rightful successor when I decided to retire. At least you would have produced good businessmen.”

She refused her father’s guidance, though she did not deny it in his presence. O, some cruel Maker cursed her the wrong sex in the wrong place. She imagined how successful she could be if she came from Tsukimoto with their petite women who packed such a decisive blow with fist and wit.

She envied Harvey’s pet rat with the straight silk black hair. Machiko did not particularly envy anything of her though. She was tall, voluptuous, and curt, but Machiko refused to overlook her venomous attitude. The maids shirked away from Seville Lansit whenever their self-esteem was threatened.

Maybe her brother did her wrong and maybe she was born in the wrong lifetime, but no one should breathe such sopping wet misery Machiko thought. She also believed that the Lansit fortune caused them four to be so discomforted in their lofty mansion. The perfume clogged their senses, she concluded.

“Alas, dear sister Seville, ‘tis father who speaks it, not I,” the mad man chided.

That unforgiving smile of the despicable homely bearded man made Seville’s stomach wretch. She had lost once again but never by the direct means of her brother. Never by Harvey Prakash Lansit. Not now, not ever. She waited for his day, she waited for his low point, but she never wore a nefarious face. She learned well from her mother that looks are everything in business. It was better to be thought of a mad woman and remain silent than to act out and remove all doubt.

“Quiet, quiet!” Dulon hushed his children and grasped the armrests of his throne. “Then like all former enemies of Lansit, they shall be crushed totally.”

“Totally,” Rozlibet echoed.

“There’s a boil order on this Palm of Heaven. I’ll have messengers relay the message to Damphruk officials, Varsylians as well. The fellow princes of Densch will pool together forces and hunt any cretin that lays foot on these platforms.”

Dulon looked past his son and observed the Tsukimotoan. His hatred for the Order conflicted with his interests with what Machiko has to offer, but perhaps this time the circumstances allowed him to put aside his fiery hatred.

“She may stay, provided that she remains gainfully employed.” Grumpy grey haired Dulon slouched into his seat and rubbed his chin for a few thoughts before dismissing his son. “And Harvey.”

“Yes?” Harvey turned around before walking too far and gave his father the attention he commanded.

“If she so much inches out of line, I will put a bullet between her squinty eyes and one in each of your kneecaps. Her kind needs to be under watch constantly because the Lansit name will remain intact.”

“Naturally, father.”

Harvey bowed and excused himself. Machiko had not made one word until they reached the closest garden.

“So does that mean your bodyguard gets her own bodyguards?” She pointed out to the broad shouldered men wearing new leather cuirasses with sabers at their side. They had trailed behind since Harvey’s exit from throne room but had sneakily kept their distance from the prince.

Harvey smiled, “My father has taken a liking to you, girl.”

“This girl has a name, and it is Machiko of Soga,” she retorted with teenage spunk. “Everyone in the family gets their own entourage, right? Does this mean I’m your sister?”

“Sister? Hah, you wish you were my level,” he patted her on the top of her head. She wondered in the condescending nature ran in the family. “You’re too soft to be a Lansit. Not nearly famous as is either.”

Within the span of a few years, Machiko outshone her older “siblings” without losing her soft side and that the masses praised their new “princess.”
  HEAD ES DOODLE PETSUCHOS / Finnigan / 189d 12h 11m 35s
[size16 |SBI10:03 Deadly Alliance|]

[i Papa,

The cake was delicious! It made me miss home even more and how you would cook all the time for mom and me. I’m hoping for a nice bowl of chicken and rice soup in the near future. I can already smell the aroma. Yum!

Since my first letter, I’ve made a friend. She’s kinda a big deal, famous even. She likes to keep it low key though. She’s kinda like mom in the sense that she thinks I’m a lousy singer. She’s especially like mom when she thrashes. The fits are bith unbearable and uncannily alike. Maybe if we’re lucky, she’ll come visit one day, well without the thrashing of course. I wouldn’t want her to trample the camellias in your garden.

What’s it like back at home? Has Hae Sun been snooping around again? For all the talk she is, I’ve never seen her do much besides snoop. I bet mom would win in a fight against her. Heck, my friend would give her a run for her money.

As for me, I don’t know when I’ll leave this strange island. There’s not much to do but learn, train, go fishing, and read manga. I could do that all at home, y’know.

My friend has gifted us a treasure in spot 23. She says that the scales are priceless, but I’m sure their worth a few pennies. She’s a worldly traveler like me, Papa. She’s been to the sky and back and has even made it into a few museums. If I ever make it back to Soga, I promise to take you and mom to Francol where some of her memorabilia resides in a Bluewide museum. Foreigners are so silly. Why would you collect garbage that isn’t yours and put it behind glass cases?

Machiko]

The spry ninja tucked the letter in her sleeve which was sure to end up back in Tsukimoto. A few days had passed since she had heard from her father but she was not worried. Machiko spent her time fixing up her shack with the newly limbed Nagini who seemed more like a hinderance than anything else.

She grabbed branches with her mouth instead of the gangly noodles that she called her arms which dangled from her shoulders like flashy jewelry. The mere sight of this wise creature in human flesh latching to the fibrous palm with her teeth distracted Machiko from progress. The ghost girl shrieked into an uncontrollable laughter. She rested her palms on her knees while she let tears from her face wet the sands.

Nagini found none of this amusing and cursed her limbs. Perhaps this was part of her punishment for immortality. May the Maker have mercy on her.

Today though, she knew that her protege would leave. Perhaps it favorable winds that whispered in her ear or maybe it was the sea foam from the crashing waves that spelt it out, but Nagini had to let her go today. She winced at the early morning sun.

“Well, young one, this is my cue to go.”

Those were her last words to Machiko before she limped towards the beach. Would it be another thousand years before she would show her face again? Maybe meeting Machiko gave her the hope that she needed to end her journey at last. Nagini closed her eyes and imagined her promised happily ever after: hand in hand with her beloved with the radiant crown.

With such love on the serpentine goddess’s mind, she erupted into an obelisk of white light which surged the skies and held the Blue at bay.

Machiko gasped.

“She’s so dramatic.”

Five minutes elapsed before the blinding light came to an abrupt end. One minute Nagini stood barefoot on the sand, the next an empty crater filled with sea water. The whistling winds died. The birds nestled back into the jungle’s lush canopy. Then silence.

“Not even a proper goodbye. What rotten luck,” she solemnly sang to no one.

Machiko kicked the sand beneath her heel and pouted. She was not used to this lone wolf kind of situation. Machiko always relied on her sisters and as of recently Anchovi. Was she fated to live a life on her lonesome? The paper thin thought of dying by herself entwined her legs, constricted her stomach, tickled her arms, and strangled poor Machiko at the throat.

She mostly imagined her death as a happier moment in life. Unable to crack even the smallest smile, Machiko envisioned sisters not yet born to the Camellia surrounding her. Wherever she was, whether it was an undisclosed Tsukimotoan battlefield or at her bedside, these unnamed girls tended to Machiko’s fictional last moments.

The general idea of dying never terrified Machiko of Soga. Dying alone did.

What next?

With the sudden departure of the goddess Nagini, Machiko mustered the strength and effort to continue with the daily routine. Train, fish, lunch, walk the beach, gather, fish, dinner, sing badly, have dessert, ponder on the stars, ponder on the Order, ponder Anchovi, Rhys. [i ‘Wait, what?’]

[i ‘Wait, what.’]

[i ‘No, for real. What.’]

Her first bout of fishing along the beach was quickly interrupted when she spotted the blip in the seemingly infinite skies. Machiko cried out.

What seemed like millions of meters away was no more than five miles above her head. The skies were clear and the sun struck high noon. The blip moved towards the island and seemed to make its descent. Machiko cried out once more.

When it appeared that the airship was heading for her island, she caught glimpse of which airship it was exactly and cried thrice. Magnificently adorned with bronze ornaments and superfluous horns which spearheaded both poor aviankind and the industry of destruction, the rich navy blue zeppelin hovered above the beach.

[i ‘The Magnuze!’]

Immediately, she jutted into the jungle and blended in with the wild foliage to avoid being seen by potential foe. The sand whipped up subsided once the zeppelin landed and the troops stormed the beach once the ladders shot from the hangar bay and into the soft island sands.

Troops appeared to be a misnomer because sole Machiko arrogantly boasted to herself that she could take them on by herself. It was the truth. They rushed the beach but didn’t know how to hold their weapons. They were far better merchants than they were warriors and were better off selling their stainless steel to real fighters.

“Sir, the pillar of light came from this island.” One man reported the shack in the distance.

“Someone’s been here recently,” another chimed in.

The fifteen men split into three groups and continued their investigation. It was highly unlikely they were treasure hunting. No sane captain would have strayed far from course for a mere pitstop on such a desolate island. Nagini’s over the top performance must have brought the Magnuze and its crew here, with or without their lord pending. It was now her mission to find out.

She slinked across the the edge of the jungle while maintaining eyes on the novice search parties. Without too much effort, she sidewinded across the sands like her master and tip-toed up the brow. No sentry was posted at the top and no one made a peep from the outside.

An easy day for Machiko of Soga. [i Perfect.]

Until today, she had never understood why stepping foot on the gargantuan and magnificent flagship so claimed by the upturned Lansit noses and even some of her worldly contemporaries felt so strikingly powerful. The brass work went into detail; every panel and door knob had a story to tell. Terrible timing prevented her eyes from wandering too far. Business had to be attended to.

The Order spoke about an attack on the ship and it showed through the subtle repairs to the hull as Machiko stuck to the wall. More Sudranese modern features barely covered mended walls. The same wallpaper covered what seemed like miles but the crisp color of new stuck out from the old. Elaborate paintings covered vast portions of the passageway in order to cover the discoloration, but sharp eyes effortlessly noticed the differences.

As Machiko reaches the beginning of the hallway to the captain’s quarters without resistance, the mighty zeppelin hopped off the sands and hovered above land. Machiko clung to the walls and wobbled to the end. She waited alongside one of two marble busts flanking the gilded doors. No one traveled door the hall for thirty minutes while the Magnuze ascended to great heights.

She slowly opened the door by the brass knocker and moseyed her way into the gaudy chambers of Lansit. With such luck, the merchant sat at the dark stained desk with papers sprawled over and a pen in hand. Deeply focused in the paperwork, he had not noticed his guest.

Clearing her throat and adjusting her presence to a more robust posture, she announced, “I am Machiko of Soga.”

Harvey places the pen down and removed his soup can framed spectacles. He took a good luck at this intact adolescent and scratched his thick and unruly black beard. His eyes had grown weary and the bags beneath his eyes were darker than the rest of his terra cotta skin.

“Yes, yes. I know who you are, girl.” He plainly put it, “You should be dead.”

“But I am not.” She rearranged her posture to a more lively one.

“Clearly.” Harvey wanted to get back to his paperwork. He tapped his foot. “Have you spent the last half year on that island?”

“It’s been six months?”

Machiko tried counting the days, but she accidentally let the waves sneak up on her one afternoon and wash away her planner. She dared not ask her father for another, for she feared that her father would think she loved him less for losing such a childish planner he picked out. Machiko adored her father’s perfect gifts.

“Yes, six whole months since that flying skiff exploded. Has it been just you this entire time?”

“Yes. Well, except for the giant snake lady.”

“How frightening.” Harvey rolled his eyes so far back he might have been able to see the back of his skull. “So you’re to tell me that you were the only one stuck on that island? That none of that accursed crew is left alive? You made that loud distraction hours ago?”

“Yes, that is all correct.”

“Well let me just be the first to inform you, Matcha Tea Co. of Soba, I’ve been living through hell because of all of you.” His fist pounded the table and his voice roared. “Them brutish Damphrukians held me prisoner for months because of the stunt you pulled with the Palm of Heaven.”

“Weren’t you also a part of that?” She added.

“Silence!” Harvey jutted from his seat and stood defiantly. Adjusting his lustrous green velvet blazer, he returned to Lansit fashion. “I will not be corrected on my own ship, the greatest ship in the Blue, the Magnuze!”

Harvey commanded her to sit in an armchair in the corner. He had thought long and hard since his adventures in the Uchi-Soto league.

“Those bleach blond sweet potato brutes at first believed that it was I, Harvey P. Lansit, who was involved in your deaths. False, and I tell you this: that tinbucket and the crew were no threat to the company. I wouldn’t spend a single sterce in hiring assassins.” Staring at a Machiko with such contempt at this point, he leaned in closer to her face and firmly stated, “Believe, he’s alive. He’s alive and he’s going to want me dead.”

“Who?”

“Mahoraga Genji.” He snapped away and returned to his seat. Folding his hands together, he returned to a solemn state. “Someone who’s lived hundreds of years like him doesn’t die so easily.”

“Sucks to be you.”

“Exactly!”

Machiko thought that she could turn this into an advantage to her, but she needed an angle. Moving her a polite hand from her lap and onto her chin, she waited for him to relay his thoughts.

“I must return home to inform my father the reason for absence. Though I cannot face him empty handed.”

[i ‘I need a scapegoat.’]

“Let’s make a deal,” she said.

“Do tell, do tell. Merchants love to make deals.”

Clearly scared for his life, he was going to need services that weren’t going to be readily available.

“I’m sure you do. It’s in the nature of a Lansit to sell weapons of death.” She grinned, “The Order of the Camellia has trained me to become such weapon. You have a good portion of the Blue mapped out, connections in many countries.”

“Isn’t your unpleasant cult a network of spies?”

“You see, after the emperor’s death and my excommunication, that network is no longer accessible to me. I’m a ghost girl.”

“And? How is that any of my problem, girl?”

“I have a few friends that need to be found and you have enemies who would love to find you. As I recall, quite a few people infiltrated this tin can.”

She hit him where it hurt.

“The Magnuze? I don’t recall there ever being an infestation,” Harvey’s broad nose twitched. It never happened. It was just the Sisters spreading “fake news.”

“Perhaps you don’t recall Kal Seraf or for the matter, Anchovi. Two distinct groups on two different sides of the scales, with different numbers and stats attached to it. The Magnuze is an open house where even the smallest of girls can just mosey on in. How does that make you feel, Lansit?” She was a hornet looking to sting repeatedly at the same spot. Relentless, she twiddled a pen amongst her fingers and smirked.

“And you propose what exactly? A small girl cannot win against an army. You cannot beat Mahoraga.”

“You’ll need a bodyguard. Sudra doesn’t bolster a military power and hiring mercenaries outside the country could cost you the estate. You can’t buy loyalty these days, the Palm of Heaven is rich in influence. Your actions have branded you an outcast and may have brought harm to not only you but your family and friends.”

“A Lansit doesn’t have friends, just future enemies,” he claimed.

“Wise. And duly noted.”

“Mahoraga will see to it that you’re executed.”

“Yes, I guess this impending fate is supposed to frighten me,” he simply added, “We all must die.”

“That’s a wise statement coming from you.” She was not expecting such a realistic view from her counterpart. She went on a limb and turned to morbid matters. “However, the remainder of your life will be nothing but pain and misery. I doubt they’ll let a traitor and his family die off so easily. Think of all the things they could do to defile your parents. Your father would be a proud flesh ornament for the Magnuze.”

His ears perked and his glare deepened.

“Speak no ill of my father, devil!”

Holding back a laugh from the outraged merchant, she racked on, “And what of your mother?”

“Hold your tongue!”

“You have no one employed underneath you who could take me, let alone [i that] man. Go ahead and try pressing that button.”

Harvey clenched his teeth. Machiko had a good feeling that he’s call his staff to jettison her in midair. He moved his hands back where she could see them and offered his ears.

“I suppose that you’ll want my network to find your friends.”

“Bingo,” she snapped her fingers. “I require an up to date arsenal as well.”

“Hah! As if the Order of Peonies would ever allow such wanton destruction.” His insult stung her back. “Your covenant forbids business between Tsukimoto and the Lansit. My father despises your people and for good reason too: space-time magic. For generations, the Lansit clan tried to attain the ancient Order’s most valuable secrets that could ultimately ruin the enterprise. Imagine a Blue where airships aren’t needed anymore to transport tons of high end explosives. Just imagine a Blue where lethality comes in packs and not by the thousands. War would be waged in days and not years. Imagine that.”

A marriage between the Lansit clan and the governing officials of Tsukimoto never happened in their thousands of years of existing and they would continue the trend. Such power could wipe the face of the Blue, and here and now Machiko of Soga was asking for the union of the two sides.

“Which is why I have a better chance of keeping you alive if you think about it. If what you say is true, wouldn’t you take a chance where the benefits outweigh the risks?”

“Valid. How can I trust you though?”

“Gonna have to go out on a limb here and put your trust in others.”

“Hmmm, yes,” he thought to himself out loud, “a deadly alliance.”
  HEAD ES DOODLE PETSUCHOS / Finnigan / 223d 16h 16s
[size16 |SBI10:02 The Serpent’s Tutelage|]

[i Dearest Machiko,

News reached us months ago that you, along with our late emperor, had died at the hands of your brother and here you are writing to us. I was shocked to find your letter the other day. I nearly had a heart attack. I know it's you who’s writing these letters because your handwriting is precise without fault. Well, you’re the only one who would write in Varsylish. You sure have your mother’s dexterity. You should see her at the range, Machiko. No target within her sight goes untouched.

Hae Sun is cold. Very cold. Her uncouth tongue spoke harsh words against you the other day. Many things were said but I grieved over the news you were dead. She called you irrational and treasonous to the Order.

She's also cold in the sense that we had to move the conversation outside and into the sun. Flurries fell from the sky, I swear! I fear that she might be a reincarnation of some cold hearted goddess. It wouldn’t surprise me. Would it you?

Your mother worries that you might be overeating wherever you may be, but I know that's not the case. She’s doing fine by the way. She’s still retired and eating all the food around the house. I wish you were here to back me up; she needs a job.

Your warehouse remains stocked with all the dried up fruits and fried wasabi peas you enjoy, so enjoy. Now that I know that you’re alive, I won’t have to spend a dime on a funeral. Means that there will be more snacks. Check spot 49 from your inventory list.

Dad of Soga]

Machiko held the letter to her chest and kept the smile hidden. She admired her father’s good sense of humor and unwavering faithfulness to the family. Dad of Soga worked as a homemaker, a storekeeper, and village joker. His cakes attracted many customers around Tsukimoto and once a prince from Damphruk graced his kitchen. Long story short, dad wouldn’t have to work for three years if he didn’t want to. The Damphrukian prince was so amazed by the cake’s sweet glaze, fluffy base, and honied bottom that he was nearly adopted on the spot. Of course, the rest of the family fought against it. Literally.

Young Hayao and Machiko wondered where they got their looks and often teased their dad who was balding at a fruitful forty. The big headed father chuckled so much that his wrinkles settled in at thirty-five. His gut hung over his waistband at thirty when Hayao was born. Hayao could attribute his scratchy beard from him, but mom passed down her stunning features to her children.

It didn’t matter that he had buckteeth and was missing a few molars. His image ignited the furnace deep in the kunoichi’s chest. All the good moments fueled her to start her day.

“Snake woman!” she shouted towards the beach from her growing estate. The shoddy shelter eventually became a log house built on stilts with four walls and angled roof. Outside her door she had a bucket that collected rainwater for drinking.

The serpent poked her head from the warm sands and hissed, “I’ll devour you if you don’t put ressspect on my name. Bitch.”

It had been months now since the two had met. Nagini spent time with this silly girl for unknown reasons but it was more than likely that she herself was lonely in such an infinite world. Everyone that she had known or loved had died out millennia ago and perhaps she found comfort in what she deemed as her human reflection.

She aimed her snoot to the sun and basked beneath the hot sands. Nagini lazily awaited for her mentee to take one step onto the toasty playground.

“What game are we playing today?”

“You think this is mere child’s play?”

“Don’t be so serious, Granny Snake,” Machiko taunted in her native language, “life is too short.”

The goddess who roamed the Blue burrowed into the hot sands and out of Machiko’s sight and hearing. The Blue’s bright brine retreated from the shores and the gulls let their cries be heard midair. Growing fond of the noise of isolation, Machiko closed her eyes one more time in order to soak up the sun and be at peace with herself before another day of Hel.

The she-serpent sprang from Hel! The floor beneath Machiko’s feet erupted in a loud roar. Thunderous crackling of broken palm trees caught the agile ninja off guard. The wood shards danced in midair as she dove onto the sandy beach.

“My house!” she shouted in anger. “Not again!”

In the first week, a tropical storm ransacked her humble abode which discouraged her for days, but nevertheless, she persisted. Machiko got better at building, fishing, scavenging, avoiding the sunlight. Her training with the Order proved to be quite useful.

On the other hand, the serpent goddess gave her nothing but mishap. She would attack during construction hours, scare the fish from the shallows, eat the berries ripe for picking, smash shady palms to confetti. Nagini terrorized from sunrise to sunset with all intentions of watching the girl break.

Machiko didn’t.

In fact, today was not the only day where she blew the snake out of the sand. Today was her third day in a row where her bombs uplifted the enormous serpent from the beach and exposed the pale belly. Could she have gone for the killing blow? She had enough time to lop Nagini’s head off.

Machiko didn’t. She wouldn’t. She was a soft girl despite her disciplined upbringing. Everything up to this point in her life was a game of ninja. Tsukimoto continued its graceful aging for thousands of years undisturbed. Military forces weren’t needed for the country had no enemy but time. At least, that was the presumption before the emperor’s assassination.

Plus, Nagini acted as mentor and storyteller to the girl.

“Is that all you got?” Machiko taunted with a kunai in hand. “What’s a snake to a dragon?”

Nagini simply stared at her with her plate-sized eyes and flickered her tongue. If she could laugh in this form, she would have.

“The last person who asked that question didn’t live a long life.”

Within a blink, she coiled into a vicious sand twister that caught Machiko off guard. Her entire serpentine body vanished or transformed into the ripping tornado. Machiko shielded her face from the cutting sands, but her small frame could not have grounded herself properly in time. The beach tempest uprooted the girl and effortlessly flung her into the jungle.

“We’ve been at this for weeks straight, you should have picked up on all my patterns by now.”

It was now Nagini who taunted the ninja. She peeped her head from the warm sands as a disheveled Machiko dragged through the jungle. Palm and dirt stained her uniform. She appeared as a zombie with the large rips in her vest and bloodied gashes.

This was true. This was not the first time Nagini pulled out the good ole’ twister stunt. Machiko has survived it a couple of times with the aid of her warehouse full of tools. She had once summoned a giant pillar to hold on to while the sand blasted across the beachfront.

“Sorry, I’m just mesmerized your scales,” she jested. “Were you always this pretty?”

“Flattery will get you nowhere, Machiko. You’ll have to find another way to charm this snake.” Nagini rose from the sands and hissed. “And to answer your question, quite the contrary. I looked like you at one point.”

[i Lies.] Young girls never grew up to be such giant snakes. Well, unless you happened to be Nagini, young girls never grew up to be such giant snakes. Machiko refused to listen to such lies. Machiko refuted.

“I still think the jian is a trash sword.”

As if she was struck by lightning, Nagini stood erect in shock.

“Did I offend you?” Machiko teased. She fiddled with a kunai in hand and snickered. How could one child say such destructive things?

A sandstorm raged down and up the beach for hours on end. Edges by the dozens flew in the midst of a parched afternoon. Slender frames flailed and thrashed about in return. Machiko hurled lances, spears, and javelins of all shapes, sizes, and purposes into the snake goddess. Nagini flung the shell of the girl into tree trunks and buried her deep within the jungles growth.

The flora suffered from the showdown. Birds scattered in all directions and cried in such frustration at the rambunctious neighbors.

They fought well into the late afternoon and stopped into a calming purple evening. Nagini burrowed into the warm sands to watch Machiko gather the hundreds of weapons she left on the battlefield. Spitting into the jungle, Machiko wiped her face of blood and dirt. She panted yet smirked at all the exhilarating fun she had.

Machiko bathed before bedtime with a bucket she pulled from her warehouse back in Tsukimoto. She’d wash away the blood, sweat, and dirt and perfume herself in sweet plum before the night begun, but would not sleep until Nagini fulfilled her promise.

“Story time!”

Yes, Nagini owed the girl a fragment of her past as a result of losing a bet. It was in the second week of training where Machiko outthought the goddess. The girl was to retrieve the kunai held in the grand Nagini’s clutch. The object was held near the end of the serpentine deity’s tail. At first, the task seemed impossible: Nagini was infinitely stronger, faster, and longer.

Surely someone tens of thousands of years old knew every trick in the book, but each and every kunai thrown had a purpose. Bombs quickly exchanged places with the tools and set off a chain reaction of disorder. Sand covered the ninja in a shroud and concealed the flying javelins that skewered Nagini. Giant columns toppled over the coiling serpent who thrashed in pain.

Angered, wily Nagini lunged for Machiko only to get a mouthful of a tree stump. She summoned forth the stump to send herself high flying. With such precision, she pinned her adversary to the beach with another javelin to the tail. The girl, grinning, retrieved the kunai from Nagini. With such pride in her skill, Machiko held it to the sun and shouted in victory.

Granted, her victory cry didn’t last long. Nagini head butted the Machiko so hard that it launched her into the Blue. The tremendous blow knocked her out for the rest of the weekend.

“You’re quite the child,” Nagini tossed her head back. She was naturally impressed with the odd girl. Perhaps it was not that she saw herself in Machiko but someone that she had once loved. Perhaps a brother.

“My parents say I’m special.”

That she was. A [i very] special one whose life was out of the ordinary. Machiko sat on top of the ruins of her abode and watched the sun set in the hazy horizon. Every night felt like an accomplishment to her and this overwhelming force of love squeezed her heart. The tough teachings of Nagini consumed her life but she willingly allowed herself to become ritual sacrifice to the rules of combat. After all, Machiko lives another day, and no matter how awful her muscles and bones ached, she woke up the next day to do it all over again.

Nagini interrupted Machiko’s idleness.

“Tsubaki is still alive.”

Breaking concentration, Machiko looked at the giant snake head with face of slight disgust.

“Well yes, the Order of the Camellia is still around. Her teachings have been passed on through the generations. Tsubaki lives through all of us, Granny Snake.”

“This is no story nor a figure of speech, Machiko of Soga,” Nagini urged. “I meant it quite literally when I say Tsubaki Ono is in an inaccesssssible part of the Blue. I’ve scoured the warm watersss for thousands of years, yet she’s sssomehow embedded in the deepest part of the Blue. I fear that I will never reach her.”

Tsubaki was said to be a goddess or at least have goddess like attributes, but even Machiko knew that not even Tsubaki Ono could live forever. The remarkable woman saved hundreds, maybe even thousands, of lives of women in her lifetime and millions through her teachings, but she had to die at some point.

Machiko was not a strict adherer to all of the teachings but she felt rather sour about the blasphemy coming from Nagini’s forked tongue.

“Has this been a driving force for you, Granny Snake?” She prodded with a more serious taunt. “Does she threaten your existence?”

Were the last few months some elaborately cruel ploy for revenge? Machiko squeezed her nails into her palm and wondered if her teacher had targeted any of her fellow sisters.

[i ‘Why reveal this information now?’]

“If only.” Nagini shook some of the grainy blanket off and hissed, “In a very brief moment in my life, she was an unparalleled enemy only matched by her contemporaries. Her daughters, your progenitorsss, were truly loved by her and traveled the Big Blue to sssee me dead. I did the world a favor.”

Intentions seemed to form before Machiko’s ghostly eyes. Her mind raced. How was she going to kill the goddess?

“You murdered the mother of the Order?”

“When you become a mother, you’ll understand that killing becomes lessss of a ssselfish act than it is a ssselfless one. I’d rip through open skies and sail the dangerous waters, fight hordes of sssoldiers and defy wicked deities for my daughter, just as [i she] would have done for hers.”

Nagini coiled herself tightly to the surface as if she was going to strike, and Machiko did think she was going to strike. She had prepared to dump the entire warehouse of weaponry and explosives on top of this beast from Hel. Machiko held onto this fragment of her past to be truth: Tsubaki Ono was to be revered as nothing short of a holy priestess. Dying in her name was the noblest act a sister of the order could do.

Nagini compressed into a dense wiry mass of scaly flesh which peeled away into flakes of dead skin and what appeared to be rather large flower petals. Her scales of pinks, blues, and greens showered into a vast pile. On top of the small mound of treasure was a woman bathed in the glorious pale moonlight. Thousands of years ago, the people from above knew her as Erika Haruno, but only one person alive knew her as the cryptic serpentine goddess.

She stood in the nude and spoke to Machiko once more.

“It is not I, Nagini, who had killed the Tsubaki Ono. I am only responsible for picking off sssome of her grossly ssssadistic incarnations.”

“Wow,” she uttered. Machiko was speechless for the longest time and tried to make out Nagini’s human features. Finally, she added, “We look nothing alike.”

Tossing her hair back, Nagini retorted, “Psssh. I look better.”

“Now that you have hands, you wanna help me build my place?” Machiko half-heartedly joked. Perhaps if she was really a benevolent deity she’d help out and pull her weight around on this island.

Nagini looked out into the Blue’s creeping darkness in high hopes of finding an ending to the cruel story. The Blue, by whim of Tsubaki, answered the same call as Nagini. Did Machiko have a stronger bond to Tsubaki than superficial means? The goddess would not find answers unless the kunoichi departed from this island.

She turned Machiko who summoned forth spot 49 from her private stash. Wrapped in a red kerchief, a pineapple upside cake awaited the sobbing young lady. Pinching off a piece, she placed it into her mouth only to sob harder and louder. She could never return to Tsukimoto and hug her father. She could never tell him in person that she loved him.

The girl was too preoccupied in her feelings that she did not realize that Nagini sat next to her and annoyingly nudged her in the side. Machiko looked to her teacher.

“Can I have some?”

And so both sobbed that night.
  HEAD ES DOODLE PETSUCHOS / Finnigan / 240d 9h 12m 13s
[size24 [b |The Bodyguard|]]

[size16 |SBI:10:01 Pop Idle|]

[i Papa,

I can't exactly tell you where I am because well, I don't know where I am. For the first time in my life, I'm alone and without the supervision of a sister or the company of friends. Yes, I should’ve written you earlier about my friends. They’re really something, a real rag tag kind of kin that you only read in mangaka. Like some sort of seven samurai. The reason I haven’t though is because I haven’t had enough time to myself to write. I’m sorry.

But here I am, writing to you now. Let me tell you about my friends!

Well there’s Frank. He has a very strange accent, even some of the others find it bizarre he speaks that way. I know, I know. I’m in the presence of menfolk! Believe it or not, your daughter is a woman now! Well, at least I’d like to think. Don’t worry, he’s depressed over his girlfriend. We’ve all read his diary from time to time. Sorry, not sorry.

Then there’s Jackie. She easily fits in with the sisters from the Order. She’s stronger than Mae Lin, easily. Probably even better than Hae Sun in combat! I don’t think I’ve met anyone who’s moved like her before. Was Mom ever like this when she was part of the Order? Which raises more questions than answers. How did you get with her?

Duster is an enigma. I think he might be a yokai. He had a horn on his head. Don’t worry, he’s the crew’s doc. He stitched me up pretty good one time, I owe him my life. I think he’s a guy. I’ll get back to you on that.

Eudoxia is a dragon! Totally not fair. I want to be a dragon. She moves like a living fireball that can easily raze cities. She has nice curly black hair though. I can’t wait until I become as tall and beautiful as her. She had a nice wardrobe that I would kill to have, Papa. All the colors that you could imagine and more!

Tony is a mechanic. We like reading the same kinds of books though he’s afraid to admit it. He’s smart but has an attitude. Like a huge chip on his shoulder. I think it’s because he feels the weight of the Blue on his shoulders or however that expression goes.

And lastly, there’s Rhys. He’s unlike the boys back in Soga but I’m afraid I can’t say much else about him.

Well those are my friends.

Should I be scared or relieved that I've finally broken away from the Order? I wish I would have informed you sooner, but I've had a falling out with my sisters and I don't ever think I'll be able to return to Tsukimoto in this lifetime. But I'm okay with that. Well, it's more like I'm conflicted in the sense that I may never return to see you and mama again. Don't cry for me. Sing for me, fight for me, live for me.

I apologize. I’m not the dramatic child. That’s Hayao. The last time I saw him, he had a beard. Yuck. Can’t say that’s the worst thing he’s done thus far though, Papa.

Machiko]

“If only I had the guts to tell you a fraction of the story.”

She folded up the letter and stuffed it into a crinkly envelope of her doing. Young, dumb, and alone, Machiko had fuddled with the envelope in the gritty wet sand before she had began to write. Hour seventy-three was just as lonesome as the first seventy-two yet she seemed to be going nowhere no time soon.

She placed a kiss on the envelope before she placed a seal on it. Inscribed in Tsukimotoan characters, she placed her palm over the letter. In a poof of smoke, it vanished far from the desolate island and back into the likes of her warehouse.

Now if only the same magic could send her through time and space, she’d be home with her parents enjoying a pleasant breakfast. She salivated at the thought of crunchy buttered toast and tangy orange juice. O what a world it would have been if Camellia never took her away.

“I am Machiko of Soga, sister sworn to the Order of the Camellia.”

Machiko kicked up some sand and wondered where she would go from here. For three days straight she remained on unmanned beachfront property with the most dumbfounded face. The sun bothered her none and thirst never overcame the stalwart warrior.

Thankfully she had a few changes of clothes hidden in her sleeves. Literally. When it stormed last night, a waterproof coat appeared from thin air. Machiko needed to snap out of this trance. She realized that she couldn’t be in this mild state of shock for much longer. The elements would claim her.

She owed Camellia though. Without the training, she would have been another useless gabbler. Machiko stood there and tried stripping herself of her allegiance.

“I am Machiko.”

She felt naked. Machiko shuddered in the stifling afternoon.

“I am Machiko of Soga.”

She sighed. That was slightly better. Then, the most rudimentary shanty popped into her head. Eyes scanned the jungle for the widest palms and many sturdy branches. The fundamentals of her training kicked in.

A hatchet popped into her hands and with such swift chops, the floor and skeleton to her shanty were lain in hours. The thick palm leaves sat on top of each other and allowed no light to penetrate the modest abode.

Machiko flexed in victory, but the imagery of the breakfast returned to mind. A square of salty butter slipping and and sliding across freshly toasted toast. The seemingly exhilarating task of breaking small crumbs into particles between her teeth. The puckering of her cheeks from the sour pulpy orange juice. She starved.

And she starved some more.

“I am Machiko of Soga and I’m alone.”

The thought of his blonde hair masquerading in the tall fields of buckwheat during the late afternoon caught her breathless. Such a feverish flash before her eyes brought her to sit down. The excitement ran through her heart; Machiko shouldn’t have said anything to her father because maybe it was too soon. Maybe she had made it all up. Maybe she had no friends. Maybe Rhys wasn’t thinking the same wherever he was. Maybe these were daydreams trying to say something to her. Maybe he’s dead. Maybe he’s stuck out there somewhere.

Machiko ran to the shores and held her arm up to the sky. Pointing her index up, she summoned a skiff from her warehouse. She was ready to sail the Blue on her lonesome in order to find Rhys, to find the rest of Anchovi, to find her family. A smile streaked across her face and an oar found its way into her fidgeting hands.

Then she looked out to the Blue. Nothing appeared on the horizon. Only the foolish men of Francol and the authoritative fleet surrounding the Gilded Lily sailed the heavy Blue with their impressive machines. She was just one girl on her lonesome with a wooden craft.

Streams rolled down her eyes and she broke. Tiny Machiko broke into a sob as she tossed her oar back to the sandy shore. Knees plunged into the wet sand and lukewarm ripples.

She spoke to the mysteries of the Blue, “I can’t get off this island with this boat. They really had me thinking that I could survive out here on my lonesome. They never prepared me for this.”

We’re any of them prepared for this outcome? What would Sister Hae Sun do in this instance? She could always send a red flag back to headquarters. She would be found in days. No one cared for Machiko of Soga. She had been dead for some time now. Her brother Hayao had killed her along with the emperor.

So the question now: who was this girl stranded on this island?

The ghost of Machiko returned to the shelter where she expelled a ball of fire into a pit of shredded bark and twigs. Empty minded and empty stomached, she gazed deep into the fire and found herself too upset to do any real scavenging for food. The elements caught up to her and weakened her for her surroundings to take advantage. Emotionally drained, she had rest her head on the rigid branch built surface and slept well into the night.

She woke at what time she described as midnight. The skies had cleared and the wind brought a chilly draft. Machiko cheated in this whole survivor ordeal. From the abyss of her sleeve, she poured fresh water directly into her mouth and popped open a bag of crisped snap peas, a favorite of hers.

The moon was especially glowing tonight. It seemed closer than normal, almost as if it was being vigilant of the ethereal Machiko of Soga. She had not planned to do anything mischievous. Instead she sang songs, many of which had come from childhood nursery rhymes her father taught her.

“Countless moons and childish cartoons...”

And that was the majority of what she remembered of that one. She could hum the tune of the songs, but even then it was rather unpleasant to be the surrounding wildlife. She unnerved a couple of bushes but Machiko was unbothered herself. She continued.

“The koi swim from east to west. My sister Hae Sun thinks she’s the best...”

She had fooled no one, not even the gleaming moon who had paid her any attention. That was definitely not a nursery rhyme taught to her. She giggled and kicked her feet up. Being a smidge careless, she buried part of the campfire with some sand.

“Pickled cabbage, purple cabbage, how do we deal with the spinster’s baggage?”

She continued with the nonsense, but the foliage next to her camp displayed great discomfort. Machiko, who was more into rhymes and being just obnoxious enough to keep her starry eyed self wake, howled.

“You are by far the worst singer I’ve heard.”

Immediately, Machiko quiet down and honed in on the rustling bush. Did it really just speak to her? Surely it was ill imagination playing tricks on her. The shrub shook some more before Machiko exclaimed.

“You can speak!”

Awe-spired, she jumped to her feet in such a fashion. Never mind that she was alone, Machiko had discovered an anomaly. Or so she thought.

“Are you really that ssurprised? Of all the things in the Blue that can catch you off guard...” The slinking voice aspirated.

“Yes, I’ve never met a talking bush!” Machiko jumped and fangirled.

“You’re pathetically helpless.”

From the bush, a long slender elegant body sidewinded across the sand. In the pale moonlight, its scales glimmered emerald greens, sapphire blues and pinks. Her eyes, wide yellow plates with round black pupils, commanded the attention of Machiko of Soga, former sister of the Order of Camellia. The round yet worn snout of the serpent rose to face the young girl.

Utterly amazed and unable to speak or formulate the words to describe this scene, Machiko mumbled not rhymes but prayers. She shuddered at no mere presence of a monster, but a goddess long lost to the Blue.

“Can you help me?” She pled but then she shrieked with such unbridled emotion that she might have wetted herself. “I’m currently stuck on this patch of land with no way off!”

All those years with the Order went out the window when it came to this moment.

The serpentine goddess fell back and coiled into a shimmering tower of jeweled scales. “Well, what do you expect me to do?”

“Carry me across the Blue!”

“Do I look like a train?”

Machiko wondered why a train of all modes of transportation?

“No, but then again trains don’t carry people across waters.”

Maybe she was destined to live out the rest of her life on this island. At least she had a new friend to take interest in. Machiko, bold and naive, was not sure what to make of the situation. Had the gods and goddesses demanded divine punishment? And if so, for what? Maybe her brother had lied to deities and sent the serpent to eat his younger sister. Hayao rejected religion and now followed ballistic monks.

Machiko looked across the sea for answers. If anyone was going to get her off this island, it was the jeweled snake.

“I beg to differ.” The snake casually conversed. Her tongue flickered and tasted a rather uncanny stench of the undead. This Machiko of Soga appeared to be a bigger character than what was led on.

“Where?”

“Francol,” she nodded. Machiko had carefully and organically motioned towards her snout, but the snake goddess pulled back towards the sea. She reminisced further. “Trains had cut across water from islands to the main country.”

Living for millennia, her acute accounts of trains impressed herself. In a time where she had hands, she had held the hands of her golden child on those very same Francolian seafaring trains.

“One of my sisters was deployed in that area. She didn’t think much of it.”

“When I was young, the furniture was sssso elaborate. They must be in a depression.”

“As am I, snake.” Machiko plopped back onto her branch flooring and sighed at the moon. “I long to be with my friends.”

Now the image of her golden child flashed in Machiko’s head. Why did she miss Rhys so much? Why did she want to cry here and then? Why couldn’t she have held onto him longer?

Machiko approached the edge of the island and longed for the Blue to carry her back out to her friends, to the Fighter, but it was the swift goddess who curbed her from being swallowed up by the sea foam.

“Did you save me?”

“Yesssss.”

“Why didn’t you save the others?” She wished now that the snake goddess had saved the others and not her. She would have died a second time if it meant that her friends were alive.

“You’re a daughter of Tsubaki,” she hissed, “a sworn enemy of mine.”

“That still doesn’t answer my question.” Machiko touched her wrists all shyly while maintaining strong eye contact with the goddess. Amazed that it had culminated to this moment, she grinned.

“Fate asssssigned the outcomes, I came to ssserve.”

“Then what does Fate have in store for me, a daughter of Tsubaki?”

Machiko palmed the wet sand before her and summoned a falling spiked column. The goddess turned tail and intercepted the column midair. Winding herself up the column, the gleaming snake perched on top as the column stood erect in the night light. Machiko wondered if the snake stuck her tongue out as a way to anticipate her moves.

The snake goddess childishly taunted the best she could.

“Unsheathe your blade at noon, and we’ll find out.”

She swam back into the Blue before the night was over and Machiko retreated to her shanty.

“Really? Can a girl catch a break?”
  HEAD ES DOODLE PETSUCHOS / Finnigan / 324d 8h 18m 7s
[size16 |SBI:09:10 Here I Go Again On My Own|]

The Pugilist soared through the sky day after day. From sunrise to sunset, she’d pilot her new ride across the Blue. They would occasionally make pit stops on isolated islands to rest, but Ahn Ten preached caution. After all, the draconian Dalmenian empire seized these lands centuries ago and its serpentine fleet traveled the same path.

They spent their off days camping in the wilderness. The Howlitzer’s terrain mode afforded the duo easy reconnaissance for accessible water sources through lush forest. Ingenuity and enthusiasm for adventure fed them through the dreamy nights. Wild berries, starchy red roots, aromatic green leaves, game fowl. What paradise they found on the far outer edges of Dalme.

It was almost too perfect.

Their laughter rolled into the nights, but after the second week it died into a stumbling nervous kind of chuckle. Sure, they got along with each other perfectly, but they were missing their most important parts. The friends always allowed themselves to open up, for it was a policy that Ahn Ten drafted.

One night, he expressed his wishes to see his mother and father again, worrying that they might be in grave danger since their initial separation years ago. Years. They had to know that his grandfather had passed at the hands of malignant men but that he followed through with their inevitable downfall. Revenge, as he put it, never felt nor appeared so good to him. To be a part of Antezario’s gruesome death invigorated his spirit.

Ahn Ten, who was partially consumed by the broad leafage of the healthy forest, added that he was at the same time furious with his parents. He had to hear their voices, their explanation as to why they left Bating without him. Knowing quite well the consequences of defecting from Bating, a young Ahn Ten would have confidently joined them in peril and in death. Ahn Ten liked to think he’d aid them in Bating’s demise. Revenge swallowed him whole.

Jackie understood his plight, for she had thought about Anchovi and where they might have been scattered. The distance between the Gilded Lily and the island of Galupsos was at least a week’s worth of travel in the Fighter. She hypothesized every night on how she survived the treacherous Blue, the same Blue that its inhabitants so feared. Magic. Somehow the magic either from Duster or the Blue itself brought her and her friends to foreign shores. Her heart pounded with excitement.

Then, there was also the fact that Tony was still alive in Varsylgard. Out of everyone on the Fa Mulandi, he was the least likely person to survive or so Jackie thought. Jackie envisioned his face from time to time because maybe he had the answers to the thousands of questions she had. Maybe Tony’s logic was what she sought out. She smirked beneath her blanket as she continually stoked the campfire.

Still, Jackie could bear no thought that involved leaving Ahn Ten behind, especially now that she owed him her life twice. She was still recovering from both the Hidrogg’s attacks and the Black Parade; she needed Ahn Ten more than ever to guard her. She felt compelled to stay by his side until he was ready to set out, but she clung to him as if he was an older, wiser, and much more combative Rhys Illumina. Ahn Ten was her brother.

She had been a slave to the fateful day for five years, and for the first time since then Jackie Simms lived for herself. One moment she was at the wheel with grave intent on breaking each and every bone the thieves had. No one was going to disrespect the pilot-mother of the Fighter. Her body acted as pressured cooker for all the pent up fury she gathered. Jackie carried that same explosiveness for years and wished to unleash it on the vagrants who set her down this path as a means to thank them.

They had set out the next morning to a waterfall nearby. It was indicative of them to unwind a little bit more in order to cool down their lust of carnage and revenge. Once they had arrived to their destination, Jackie and Ahn Ten admired with awe. The pristine water rushed down from one cliff to another pool below, and from that pool it dropped into a larger pool with golden fish swimming.

The Pugilist remained hidden a few miles back while the siblings set up camp for the next few months. Initially, they planned on staying for a couple of days, but what started off as a getaway turned into uncanny tutelage. By the third day at this camp, it was a fully recovered Jackie taking orders from her junior. If she was going to go her own way, she was going to need all the strength and skill to fight whatever stood in her way.

Determined, she forced Ahn Ten to fight back wall-destroying punches and tight coiling holds. He initially held back until he realized that fierce Jackie played no games. Not only did she get better with each day but he did as well. In fact, Ahn Ten managed to outpace the vicious fighter for five days straight. That’s when she realized that she had to change up her technique once more.

Between the sparring sessions, they munched on the local flora. Ahn Ten explained that a lot of the vegetation that grew around the waterfall appeared and grew awfully similar to the fruits and vegetables back in his city in Bating. Jackie took the longest time to enjoy the purple plantains. The color was least of her worries but the dry and starchy sweetness was far too much to swallow. He divulged that these plantains restored a person’s energy and quickly alleviated soreness in the muscles.

The chestnut fruits promoted good complexion and the curvy greens’ milk fortified bones even after adolescence. Jackie took the knowledge she gained to heart and decided that it would be beneficial to both of them to dry out some seeds for future farming. She dreamed that one day she would own a farm next to Frank’s restored chicken ranch in Last. He would be reunited with his passion and she would make the people of the village stronger with each meal.

[i Sudra.] That was their next destination. For some undisclosed reason, Ahn Ten had a dream that he would meet his parents there. More specially, he would meet his father on top of a snowy mountain cliff. After all, Jackie’s retelling of the wandering fighter seeking truth enveloped his vivid imagination. He desired to have the same experience as his confidant. Scale the sides of Sudra and seek peace.

They packed up camp one day for their destination. The skies were clear without sight or sound of the Winterborne or clouds. Could it be that Jackie was finding an end to this hectic journey? Her imagination matched up with the daydreaming Ahn Ten. The Pugilist’s red wings sliced through air thick and thin. Its exhaust ports expelled gleaming particles, a sign that the air was laden with magic. The Pugilist hummed a sweet song that Jackie tapped her foot to. This was her life now.

Traveling the Blue with the rest of Anchovi was her original vision. She had seen so many different places within this strange world’s domain with and without her friends. She wondered how Galupsos and the ruins of Dalme would have went if Frank and the crew were by her side. Perhaps she would revisit those stomping grounds once she rounded up her crew.

Dreams. She daydreamed of good times.

Then he shook his head. She had asked what did he really mean that he must go it alone. Ahn Ten then replied that this was something that he had to do and that the shores of Sudra would be their last moments together on this trip. The Blue’s volatile sea foam was frigid to touch, but nothing compared to his steel. Why the change of heart she thought. Jackie’s heart slumped, yet he reassured that it was nothing she had said or did.

Jackie and Ahn Ten stood on the shores of Sudra, the same shores of Sudra that she had previously visited with her friends years ago. She remembered how frightened Frank and Duster were of the crashing Blue. She reimagined the magic that gleamed in Rhys’ eyes. It amazed how much of a stranger Eudoxia was back then.

They had grown on each other, but young Ahn Ten believed it was time for him to fly the coop. He had to spread wing on his own, eventually. Their time together was fruitful, but he believed it was destiny to find the whereabouts of his parents. This goal littered his mind for days. It emboldened him with such passion that he felt that he would drag Jackie away from her own path of finding Anchovi.

Stay alive was the last thing Ahn Ten said to her. Emboldened by his adventures, he nodded. Jackie waved him up the steep stone stairs which were embedded in the sharp cliffs of Sudra shores. She promised him that they would reunite once more, one day perhaps under better circumstances. Ahn Ten spoke nothing in return. A stream trickled down her bubbly cheek as she watched her silent adopted brother ascend new heights.

Ahn Ten didn’t look back though. He had to leave his boyhood behind and attain his goals as a man on his own. His adopted older sister brought him this far on the journey, so he decided that the rest of it should be handled with his own feet and hands. He needed to find the strength in himself to find his parents and tell them the unspeakable misfortunes he’s gone through. Between losing his grandfather, the beatings by foreign men, and the lonely cold nights, the rage boiled beneath his skin. He might not find his parents here but the snowy mountains of Sudra felt like a place to meditate on these steaming topics. Ahn Ten was destined to find one of them soon.

She waited at the foot of the wet stairs until Ahn Ten vanished into the warm mist of the mountains. Such unsolved mystery resided between mountain cliffs. Who was this wanderer who searched for Truth? Who was Jackie to question her quest for Truth? She embraced the mysteries of this profound land. As she left with a smile, she questioned whether or not she should make a quick visit to the Lansit estate. After all, the Lansit estate was just a short flight away.

Nah.

Jackie was going to get the team back together. Anchovi wasn’t going to die out and it certainly didn’t. Whatever hit her five years ago hadn’t kill her, hadn’t phased her.

Her next stop: Varsyl. Jeraia said his brother was alive, and she desperately needed to witness him with her two eyes. As pathetic and broody as Tony was, him being alive was more proof that everyone else was as well. If he somehow made it back to Varsyl from the Gilded Lily, then the others must’ve made it to land safely. Yes, these years away from her crew had desensitized Jackie Simms from the actual wellbeing of the Fighter’s mechanic. His thin face would still be a sight to behold.

The Pugilist needed a mechanic, preferably someone who was more than proficient enough with dealing with hotheaded pilots and fierce brawlers. She was heading towards a war zone and the Pugilist was going to need routine maintenance. Tony fixed more than his fair share of broken capacitors, sluggish relay loops, and faulty actuators on the Fighter. Jackie reminded herself how crafty that diligent man was with his soft yet reliable hands.

Tony Maxwell stayed on her mind longer than what she anticipated. What was once a slight frown became a slight smile streaking across her face. Hope was behind the horizon and shrouded in a new challenge. Ruddy Pugilist cleaved blue skies without worry. Be Varsylian or Dalmenian, the She-Bear embraced the dangers surrounding her next adventures.
  HEAD ES DOODLE PETSUCHOS / Finnigan / 332d 5h 51m 51s
[size16 |SBI:09:09 Hidrogg|]

Sprinting through pine and needle at an alarming rate, Jackie and Ahn Ten stormed to the Howlitzer they had just left hours ago. There was no time for sweat to do its job: the snow fell down like a heavy velvet curtain that instantly melted against their palpitating skin. A frenzy of panting and frantic faces ran through these doomed woods as the Hidrogg trailed behind.

They had quickly been accustomed to the blood curdling screams and red markers splattered in the crystalline snow. It was the nefarious work of the Hidrogg, a monster so renowned on these isles that even the Dalmenians avoided confrontation. Confrontation with the Hidrogg usually spelt death.

Born blind with no eyes, the hulking creature stood eight feet tall with a keen sense of smell. Each of its six surprisingly stubby limbs came with talons that tore through skin and light armor alike like the tissue paper. It had a stub for a tail and in the right lighting the Hidrogg was a silky brown creature with slats on the side of its neck.

Gills. Unbeknownst to the foreigners, the seemingly barbaric locals harkened a legend that an angry sea goddess birthed the Hidrogg as an avenger. The ancestors of the current day Dalamenians dumped their dead at sea in high hopes of rebirth in the goddess’s part of the Blue, yet she was displeased with these mortal gifts.

The Hidrogg was born to consume carrion at first, but then it emerged from salty waters for live prey. It disobeyed the goddess, scaring her even in a quick altercation, and craved a more violent path. Lifeless limb could do it no harm. What it sought after its first kill on land was the carnal hunt. The taste of iron and meat not brined satiated the senses.

No, the Hidrogg did not hunt to survive. Such a creature manifested from hatred and magic lived to murder. It thrived in large crowds. To the Hidrogg, hunting down humans was its twisted version of hide-n-seek.

“I think we lost it.”

Catching his breath, Ahn Ten rested his hands on his knees and looked up at Jackie. Their close encounter with the monster left her with three claw marks on a bicep. Blood trickled down her arm, but she was fine for now. The shotgun blasts deterred the Hidrogg, but neither knew what it was fully capable of.

The Howlitzer was still quite a ways away. The two named it The Pugilist after a rather winded discussion. Jackie wanted to call it The Monk, but Ahn Ten brought up the point that there was nothing holy or reserved about its character. He insisted on naming it the Lancer, but the name reminded her too little of the her old ship, The Fighter. Out in the middle of nowhere, they quibbled. Ahn Yen used the vast lexicon he called a brain and rambled synonyms before one struck Jackie’s fancy: Pugilist. Thus, the aircraft was called the Pugilist.

In the midst of the mountainside and its bountiful nestling of evergreen, Jackie seized up and dropped. A bullet from afar grazed her shoulder and burrowed into damp black bark. She scurried onto her feet and dragged Ahn Ten deeper into the forest for protection.

A game most dangerous had begun. Dalmenian? Black Parade? Someone far left field? The mystery behind the shooter was the price to pay for such a dicy gambit. Now Jackie and Ahn Ten ran the risk of leading their hunters to the Pugilist.

Her mind scrambled to the corners of her skull. The rush kicked in and Jackie Simms swam through the thick blanket of snow and prickling branches until she reached a clearing, a worn path leading to the valley on one side and the mountain’s zenith on the other.

They painted for a spell but not for long. An old friend stared at Jackie from the mountainside. Raf’s dead expression and fur lined leather jacket sent out the message that he meant business. He slung a rifle on one shoulder and kept a quick hand on the grip of his side pistol.

“Red’s an awful choice.” His stone face would not budge nor twist. Raf spoke as if he uttered words out of his ears instead of his lips.

This wasn’t his ideal choice of vacation. Heck, it was no one’s ideal getaway.

“I think we look good in red,” Jackie jested.

Ahn Ten looked down to Jackie for a plan. She had no plan. Instead, she had a wide smirk smeared across her face as if she won. Jackie took one step but the draw and firing of Raf’s sidepiece prevented her from making a second.

“At your funeral, perhaps.”

Rustling from the woods, Antezario shot forth and landed on his hands and knees. In a dissimilar fashion akin to Raf’s, the spring green leotard wearing maniac slung several more rifles across his shoulder and held one in his hands. Frantic like the Hidrogg, he closed in with the barrel pointed at the She-Bear.

“Shine!” Antezario chanted until she dropped down in excruciating pain. He guffawed in her wormy squirms and ear piercing screams. “You petulant scummy bitch. You’ve cost me everything—the boy, my treasure, the Black Parade—and now you die.”

He would not let up and she was not sure how long she could stay conscious. Jackie pondered what fate resided before her: were they truly going to off her here or would they resume this torturous life? Her vision blacked out several times but Antezario teetered with the limits. The chants oscillated like the Blue’s lustrous waves during a typhoon. Antezario sang lowly and softly at some points but unleashed bursts of anger the next.

[i ‘Die. Die.’] The sounds and pain repeated over and over in loop throughout Jackie’s body. She was unsure whether or not she was still alive. Blood dripped from her nose and ears, the hair on her arms fell in droves. [i ‘Die. Die.’]

[b Shhhhwcht!]

The agony ceased its control over the crinkled body. In Jackie’s stead, the feathered loon dropped to a knee and screamed in disastrous horror. He held a freshly crafted amputation in hand and cursed. A hand flew behind the group, and along with it a lengthy streak of ruby red blood.

Ahn Ten stood triumphantly in place while Raf Gedemonde gasped. Before he could even put a rifle to his shoulder and stop the young man, Raf watched as one quick punch to the air severed a whole hand. This entire time the Black Parade had been underutilizing such potential.

Jackie, sore from the torture, scraped up what strength she had left and witnessed brave Ahn Ten’s heroic stance. Truthfully, he struck fear into Raf who desperately wanted to lift up arms and shoot him. Jackie reveled in the fear and anguish of her enemies, thus she broke in a growing smile.

“Boy, I should have chained you down in the brig and let the rats fester in your gaping wounds. I would have eventually found your parents and if I knew you were capable of this treachery, I would have made you watch as my men broke them in. Night after night after night. I should have—“

“Shut up.”

Sure enough, Ahn Ten remained in place as if a tearing bullet killed him in place. Those words, “shut up” came not from the teen from Bating but between the lips of Antezario’s right hand man. Well, former right hand man.

“What?” The lunatic with one arm cried out. He didn’t want to believe it, he didn’t want to hear it. What did Raf Gedemonde say? He questioned whether or not he was going into shock. The adrenaline would eventually wear off and the realization of him being any less than whole would surely send him to an early grave.

“All tyrants meet their end. With great honor, I’m glad to say that you are the ruler of nothing. Your men, [i my] shipmates, are currently being slaughtered by Dalmenians. Let’s not forget that [i you] had us leave many of them behind in deserted ruins because you thought these two were more important than them. There is no more ‘where will we go?’ business, Antezario. You’ve burned two hundred ninety-nine bridges, mistreated your men, and mistaken them as dogs. It’s over now. Everything that you have built concludes with this moment. The question you must ask yourself now is, ‘how will it end?’”

“I, Antezario Vespuccin, am your master! You’re all nothing but conniving dogs, each and every one of you. You were all nothing before I met you. Washed up no-gooders who were drug addicts and alcoholics, whores, lowly men! I offered my ship as a sanatorium and is this the thanks I so deserve truly? Help me, Raf, I’m poor, I’m bleeding, I’m pitying your fates.” He jammed his stump in Raf’s direction and roughly went on, “I demand—“

Raf’s rifle went off before Antezario compelled the incessant droll. The bullet dug through the hollow man’s chest, through his dismal heart, and peacefully sank into the snow. Truly heartbroken, Antezario reached with both hands for Raf. Whether he was pleading for aid or cursing the nefarious act, no one present cared. A fitting end for a mad king’s era.

“Free, at last.” Ahn Ten’s sigh made a heavy thud into the gravel path.

“That gets rid of one of our problems,” Weak Jackie chuckled. Not even a finger could move from the debilitating torture. Even breathing proved to be mighty difficult for the brawler.

“Hmph.”

Ahn Ten scurried to Jackie and the first thing he noticed was the circlet’s grip. It squeezed her brain no more. Parting her unkempt black hair from the banding and ornate grooves of the circlet, Ahn Ten cautiously dethroned Jackie from the accursed queenship of agony so that she could rejoin the commonwealth.

Immediately, as if taking the circlet off actually helped some, Jackie rose to her feet like red herons waking to the morning sun. Her confidant and newly acclaimed role model stepped behind and watched as she slowly regained her strength on her own. Knowing quite well that the Dalmenians continued to scour the area from all the commotion and gunshots, Jackie stumbled away, yet she didn’t get far before Raf remarked.

“Fear, money, and power are excellent motivators, but we could have easily walked away from it all. Two hundred ninety-nine men and the only person who was under this cruel contraption makes a daring escape. I gotta say, Jackie Simms, you’re an inspiration. Kudos.”

“You’re welcome.” She turned around and smiled back at the cold man who put Antezario to sleep.

Unlike her compatriot’s warm demeanor, Ahn Ten was sharp tongued. “She’s not signing any autographs today, Raf.”

Raf shrugged. Pulling out a cigarette from the breast pocket of his winter coat, he signaled to them if they wanted to join. Ahn Ten declined. The rifleman never smoked, or if he did, then he did not make it a noticeable habit. Stony faced and quiet, he was not much of a talker in the first place. They left. At least, Jackie and Ahn Ten tried.

“Where do you think you two are going?” he asked between puffs of his cigarette.

He exhibited a cool demeanor, but the young man knew exactly where this was all leading up to.

“Ahn Ten, you’re free to go as you please. Take the Howlitzer, find your parents, just don’t get in the way. But Jackie, you stay. You and I have unfinished business.”

“Oh?” Jackie turned to momentarily face Raf. She tried to bounce off his cool. If she was honest with herself, Jackie felt threatened and not in the best position to throw fists.

“You made me your worst enemy the moment you stepped into our lives.”

She continued to jest, “What can I say, I leave an impr—“

Yet he was unwilling to hear. Smoothly transitioning from the calm smoker to the Blue’s deadliest sharpshooter on this island, Raf flicked his cigarette into the deep white snow, lifted his rifle with poise, and fired a round into Jackie’s meaty shoulder.

“Aah!”

Jackie fell right back down on the gravel and remained there. Ahn Ten positioned himself between the two and prepared himself to rip through this bastard. Raf’s barrel did not shirk nor hesitate to face its opponent.

“Don’t play coy with me. You’re well aware of what you’ve done. An eye for an eye, they say. I’d say a neck for a neck, but I’m not as strong as you or Eidos.” Raf broke down in mid thought. “He didn’t deserve such an ill fate.”

“He didn’t.” She thought back that fateful night when the two went at it in the ring. The ultraviolence that consumed her completely in the moment just to impress someone just as carnal as her. She tacked on, “That much I can agree with.”

“How much different are you from Antezario? Greed fueled both of you.”

Jackie feared not only for her life but that of Ahn Ten. He wasn’t going to let him murder her so easily. That fool. That silly, silly young valiant fool prepared to defend a cutthroat who prior to this event would have left him dead if she benefited from it. When did Jackie Simms become an awful person?

Still, she ran with it.

“It was only a matter of time before he bit the dust. Any of us really.”

Triggered, Raf ground his teeth and desperately wanted to blast her brains right there and then. [i ‘Dammit, kid!’]

“And [i you] get to decide who gets to live or die?”

“Yeah, I did.” Jackie professed what was on the heart at the time. She prayed to her Maker—something she seldom relied on during these times—that Ahn Ten used his wit and intelligence to step to the side or that the bullet would come out clean and kill her instantaneously. “I’m a really awful person, but you probably didn’t need much time to know that, Raf. I’ve killed plenty of people, and honestly, you’d be doing the Blue a huge favor by nixing me here and now. All my life I’ve grown up in the violence. Killing was just another normal activity to make it to the next day. I fought long and hard for thirty something years now; it was bound to catch up with me, bound to catch me when we least want it too. The lucky die in their sleep, the rest die by the hands of others. In this instance, it’s retribution. Nothing can excuse my actions and I’ve hurt you. Hurt you real good. Do me in, sheriff.”

“Goodbye, Jackie.”

A farewell was in order, but death hadn’t scooped either of the three away just yet. From the pines, the monster of Dalmenian origins, the Hidrogg, leapt forth and snatched downed Jackie by an arm. It dragged her thirty feet before tossing her aside and into brittle tree trunk. Her head spun; today wasn’t her chance to shine.

The hulking beast turned for Raf and Ahn Ten who were in turn frightened by the sheer savagery. Puffs of heat steamed off the shark-like terrestrial and its mouth remained agape and bloody. Who would it tackle first was what the humans thought. Raf budged up his rifle, signing his life away. The furious Hidrogg took shot after shot to the face, yet it never slowed down its leaps.

Amped from the adrenaline pumping through his body, Ahn Ten remained in place and watched as the Hidrogg tackled Raf to the ground. The rifle served as a temporary barrier between man and beast, but the extra pair of sharp limbs etched their way into Raf’s gut. Blood and grit sprayed the surrounding snow and rock; Raf’s grunts and pleas were drowned out by the monster’s panting.

The young man snapped out of a trance and motioned for Jackie, but the beast was perceptive of its prey. His fastest run was outpaced by only a few potent leaps. Ahn Ten had to fight. In the moment, the thought his parents drove him to retaliate. Sliding into a complete one-eighty, Ahn Ten jabbed the air as the Hidrogg was in mid-leap.

The intensity of the punch heated the surrounding air thus causing the render of air which cleaved through a thick limb. Ahn Ten ducked and rolled from the falling arm, and the Hidrogg crashed face first into the rocks. Oozing blue poured from its limb and seeped into the frozen earth. Daunting Ahn Ten faced its eyeless adversary with the intent to win.

It was his time to save the day. Not just for his friend, but for his family. He had to carry on his grandfather’s memory and eventually reunite with his mother and father whom he missed very dearly. Like Jackie and her family, they too sought better opportunity throughout the Blue.

The Hidrogg stood back up on the five remaining limbs, yet sniffed out the scenario. Ahn Ten bellowed our a live jolt of energy that admonished the wounded creature to advance no more.

So it obeyed. A low growl, followed by whimpering, escaped the ferocious mouth, and the next moment Ahn Ten was staring at its stub for a tail and a dying trail of deep blue blood.

Ahn Ten picked up Jackie who was now more dead weight than ever. It seemed that wherever she went everyone and everything was trying to kill her. How she made it into her thirties no one will ever know.

Jackie limped her way back to the Pugilist lighter than ever. The weight of agony swung with her gait; she carried that circlet through the snow as a reminder of troubling times. It was a lesson well deserved in hindsight. She wanted to cry tears of freedom and joy, but her body ached and the Dalmenians were still afoot in the area.

After a mile into the trek, she glanced over her shoulder and wondered.

“If the circumstances were different, I think we would’ve been best friends.”

She was talking about Raf Gedemonde, of course. Ahn Ten wasn’t going to entertain her whimsical ideas after these unfolding events.

“Shut up and keep on moving.”

[i ‘Ahn Ten, you don’t know how many times I’ve heard that phrase. It’s timeless.’]
  HEAD ES DOODLE PETSUCHOS / Finnigan / 1y 149d 13h 58m 4s
[size16 |SBI:09:08 The Winterborne Fleet|]

"That cannot be it." Antezario threw his hands into the air and cried out, "We did not come out here for a handful of Howlitzers."

Three perfectly good Howlitzers. Ones heavily detailed in a book Jackie used to page through when she was still on Guten Nocht. The pilots died hundreds of years ago when they arrived at the scene. The skeleton fragments were splayed across the ancient bunker and so brittle that even the slightest breath caused them to crumble.

One of the other excavation teams had found them a month ago, and it had been about a year since Jackie and Ahn Ten wandered into the laboratory. The men of the Black Parade returned to the mothership in order to reveal their finds to their king, but he was none too pleased.

Earthen cups and plates with zig-zags and concentric circles were offered up, but the mad captain shirked at the plain savagery art and smashed a few artifacts. Most of what was presented was garbage, thus he treated his crew like garbage. There was no payoff to be found and Antezario ran into bigger problems.

"It appears so."

Raf encircled the aircraft with twinkling admiration in the eyes. The expedition was well worth it, especially if he could pilot one of these fleeting beauties. One and two-manned aircrafts were diamonds. Only affluent families such as the Lansits could afford fighter planes. To Raf and Jackie though, they were an escape from cruel reality.

"Nononononono. We cannot leave. There's treasure here that needs to be found...preferably by us!"

With each night Jackie spent in near proximity of Antezario, Jackie wished his hair would fall out and he’d go mute. The latter wasn’t going to happen unless she ran a knife across his neck, but the former showed promising signs. He began thinning on top and the grays moved in on the sides. The hats started to stay on longer throughout the days. Though he never picked up a shovel nor brush, sweat beaded up on his face and anxiety nested in his shoulders.

"The intel was bad. The area is littered with booby traps and these Mogurel wildcats are too much of a concern. There's a reason why people aren't here, Antezario. The fleets of Dalme don't want anything to do with these ruins because they serve no use and plagued with violent mysteries. These ruins have been empty for millennia."

"No! You're scared, Raf." He would not have it, he would not have it one bit. Erupting into a shrill yelp, Antezario pointed with his long fingers. "Without Eidos cleaning out your plumbing, you're shitfilled."

Antezario’s once right hand man felt betrayed by the mad man’s insults. After everything they had been together and losing vital assets to the Black Parade, Raf Gedemonde could not hold back his tongue.

“I'm keeping the rest of us alive, you idiot.”

“No, you’re the idiot!” Antezario screamed.

“We've lost five people already from these beasts alone. Cats don't grow that big anywhere in the Blue. An entire crew suffered near debilitating poisoning from trap rooms. They’re tired. We’re tired!”

"We stay!"

"I can't deal with this. You'll have to find another enforcer because I cannot work with such a childish imbecile who would rather watch his own men die for a lost cause!”

Raf walked away while he still had his pride in hand. He thought that maybe his absence would change the king of clown’s mind.

Antezario wasn’t done with the fight though. He jeered and taunted to close the distance between the two. [i Eidos. Eidos. Eidos.]

"And that's fine! You're stale!"

Raf stormed off, ultimately leaving Antezario empty in victory. Rather speechless that this enforcer had left, not a single word had left his mouth. The crew stared at their frozen idol in hopes that their prayers for home would be answered, but eventually a spit’s worth of spite sputtered from Antezario’s lips. Eerie eyes had set on the crowd and the sinister chuckling sent all the worker bees back to work.

Ahn Ten and Jackie watched the scene from a distance and behind a few crates. The future seemed rather bright for the captives.

"This could be the beginning of the end for the Black Parade."

"Let's hope so, Ahn Ten because we now have three viable chances of escaping."

She was, of course, talking about the three Howlitzers that sat on the flight deck. The members of the Black Parade started refurbishing the prizes of such antiquity. Despite the ancient Varsylian’s loss against the floating continent, these aircrafts were regarded as thousand-man murder machines. Armed with crude magitech missiles, thousands of Howlitzers razed city blocks within the first few hours of invasion.

However, these Howlitzers had been demilitarized with the exception of their primary submachine guns. While one missile would have been enough to destroy the Black Parade for once and for all, the substandard magitech casings would be more than enough to rip through the hull.

The hyper-responsive wings retracted and legs touched ground for terrain maneuvering. It took a few good shots to bring a Howlitzer down, but the agile craft proved to be elusive to most planned shots. The best pilots could outmaneuver almost anything in the sky and the deadliest shot could eviscerate a target miles away.

Black. Red. Green. Which one of these would Jackie keep in the long run? These were clearly newer models that were produced thousands of years after the originals. Which country they were built in or gifted to was another question. It was very possible that these belonged to the Dalmenians, but that would have made the ships at least a thousand years old. What very little recorded history the Blue had detailed how current day Dalmenians only became a superpower within the last millennia. The robust nation emerged from a name forgotten long ago.

Ahn Ten had snooped around for months in Antezario’s hanging spaces in high hopes of finding a solution to the migraine inducing headband, yet no set instruction or concrete key was found. Quitting was no option for the young man from Bating.

Meanwhile, a conniving Jackie Simms scouted the area around the Howlitzers for weeks. She made note of every watch and their rotation, each guard’s strengths and weaknesses, and most importantly Antezario’s steady decline into madness.

She thought about assassinating him in his sleep, but that would have required her to mow through his armed bodyguards and a ship of nearly 300 men. Surely, Antezario would wake up during the coup and bring her to her knees. He would tweet his song and she would curl up into a ball of writhing pain.

Perhaps the headband would never come off during her lifetime. Was she forever cursed to wear such an embarrassing mark? Her captor, the nefarious Antezario Vespuccin, had bested her, yet living with such a disappointing defeat gravely wounded her ego. During her patrols, Jackie winced at the reoccurring thought of her failure.

Ahn Ten And Jackie’s presence alarmed some of their fellow crew mates. They looked at them, especially the She-Bear, with great contempt yet never made an approach to stop whatever she was plotting. Many also feared that she or maybe even their lord would murder them outright. Antezario had sent men to the unknown ruins of a feral kind. Death was written on the limestone; it was a matter of time before Dalmenians ruins would claim their bones.

Two weeks passed and a wave of impatience or perhaps irrationality crashed into Jackie. With no luck on finding a cure for the enchanted circlet, she turned to Ahn Ten one night.

“We leave.”

“Now?”

“Soon.”

“How soon?”

“Soon enough. Don’t pack too much, Ahn, we’re making a B-line out of here when the time is right.” Jackie scratched the peeling skin off her ruddy nose and confided in the young man whom she grew fond of. “We make P and S first thing tomorrow morning.”

He shrugged. “P? S?”

“Preps and sabotage.” Jackie gave him a thumbs up.

Ahn Ten scanned the three Howlitzers. Aside from the paint job, the three were nearly identical.

“Which one? I vote on not taking green.”

“You’re right. Green’s not our favorite color. Red?”

Jackie rather enjoyed the vibrancy of the red. The thought of the red Howlitzer harkened back to her Nocht days when she piloted for the local militia. She alone could defend the town of Last.

“We’re an easier target, Jackie. Everyone knows that red ships are the first to go down.”

Jackie’s heart slumped at Ahn Ten’s words.

“Black is sooo boring though.”

“Black is safe and always in style.”

She jested, “What do you know about style? We’ve worn the same muted garb for months now.”

“Fine.” He caved. Black or red, they’d be sticking out in the blue sky. “If you wanna go with red, I’m not stopping you.”

“I am the only one between us two who can pilot one of these.”

“The keys?”

“Just gotta turn the system on and allow the condenser to regulate the flow of magic.”

“Sounds complicated.”

“Not really. The engines are relatively quiet from what I’ve observed so a minute or two standby won’t put us into any real danger.”

“Well, you are the only one between us two who can pilot one of these. I’ll remove the blockers tonight.”

Jackie rubbed her chin and nodded. “Can you run distraction?”

“I’d prefer not to but I will.”

The Black Parade’s mad king could turn him into a bullet sponge in seconds. Ahn Ten teetered on his decision but concluded he was a dead man either way. He waited and anticipated for a moment like this, and it was the best shot he was going to have.

“Perfect, Ahn.”

He trusted her with his life more than he should have. Jackie felt a smidge guilty for even thinking about leaving Ahn Ten if a worst case scenario situation went down. She would have to look at the road ahead and simply take off. [i ‘Never look ‘em in the eyes. Never.’]

None of that was the case though. The heist went better than expected.

Could she get away with murder and escape? Absolutely. Jackie left a couple of bodies lying around after they got too confrontational. They wanted to know where she was going. [i ‘Their mistake.’] Snapping necks was too easy for her now. She had dissociated her feelings for individuals from her own well-being.

Did she nab a bag’s worth of firearms and ammunition? Signs pointed to yes. The weapons department was completely blindsided by her ferocity and her willingness to snatch a shotgun out of hands. Pointblank.

Did her young confidant Ahn Ten make it onto the red Howlitzer? With very little difficulty. Explosions had set off towards the bottom of the ship which alerted all of engineering and the surrounding personnel. Half dressed men of the Black Parade scrambled to investigate the ruckus, both outside the hull and within. The confusion gave them both enough time to make it to the red Howlitzer.

Ahn Ten ran for the revved up Howlitzer and danced across the deck. He lunged with hands wound into tight fists and knocked in some teeth. He threw an attacker into wooden crates and hopped into the crowded passenger seat. Guns, lots of them: shotguns, rifles, a couple of crudely made pistols, but they were still better than going out empty handed.

Jackie was slightly disgusted with how Antezariofied the interior was. She lauded him for the excellent red leather upholstery but the black and white trimmings were a tad much. Antezario was a wicked man; his fashion sense exuded madness.

The controls were still similar to the Howlitzers back on Nocht and even reminded her of her long lost love child: the Fighter. The Howlitzer’s legs sprung up into the air and the wings unfolded for the vertical take off. Within seconds, Jackie and Ahn Ten shot forth into the Blue.

The Black Parade revved up the mounted machine guns amongst all the commotion. Within minutes, the ship took off and pursued the Howlitzer streaking red. Antezario, out of blond rage and blatant disregard, left without a few dozen men whose fates were to never be discovered thereafter.

Freedom whipped her hair; Jackie tasted the fresh air between her two front teeth. Arms stretched out wide to encompass the world and voices cheered as the aircraft left the Black Parade’s sights. They zipped across the Blue for hours before they met their next big problem.

[b Kzzzzrt!]

“She-Bear, did you really think you’d get far with my treasure?” A hallowed voice crept through the console’s speakers.

“You couldn’t see the value in the Howlitzers. They’re better off in my possession, Antezario. The boy is mine.”

“You’re a fool, a no good stealing fool who bites the hand that feeds you.” The static roared in sync with his voice. “No one steals from the Black Parade. No one!”

The magical words flowed through the mesh wiring of the speakers and the circlet reminded Jackie that the curse had not yet been lifted. Excruciating tightenings of the headband wrung out what focus the pilot had, yet the She-Bear toughed through her trial just long enough to set a course. She blacked out for seconds at a time, but Ahn Ten’s rudimental understandings of the ship aided in the clunky landing. A few switches flipped and some levers pulled, the Howlitzer popped out its legs for a stumbling stop.

Having very little control of the steering from the back, Ahn Ten led the machine through a wintergreen forest. Branches of pine needle and cone swooped over their heads. The light dusting of snow sprayed across the windshield before Ahn Ten could seize the fumbling Howlitzer.

“Jackie! Wake up!”

He shook her to see if she was still alive. They were now alone in a different landscape. The snowy scape stole what breath he had. Still, unlike the bustling streets of his hometown in Bating. Off in the back of the woods, a couple of snow hares pranced up and under a fallen branch.

Jackie regained conscious after a few minutes. The chill air filled her lungs as she coughed. Witnessing the same scene reminded her of the mountains in Sudra. Perhaps the truth seeker whom Jackie idolized had left snow wherever she went.

“How long was I out?” She groggily asked.

“Out long enough to end up here.”

“We can’t go back up without coms. We’ve gone deeper into Dalmenian territory.”

Just the words that Jackie was looking for. Aside from their princess, she had no close interaction with a real Dalmenian. Maybe they weren’t as vicious as their queen Helvetia.

“Then there’s only one option left: we end the Black Parade here.”

Jackie was banking on having the Dalmenians finishing off the Black Parade for once and for all. Of course, that was if Antezario was that bloodthirsty to pursue and this land was indeed Dalmenian occupied.

Indeed these lands were occupied by Dalmenians. Jackie and Ahn Ten abandoned the ship temporarily to scout out the area for vantage points. With pistols strapped to her hips and a shotgun in hand, the roughneck prepared for an ultimate showdown in the ever changing landscape.

As they reached the side of a cliff, Ahn Ten noted the snowfall gradually picking up its pace. Off in the distance he heard the muffled claps of thunder, yet it was the sinister rays of lightning that spooked the two. The shining bolts arced from grim cloud to cloud.

They had arrived. No, not the Black Parade but an entity far worse. The steel stern of the Dalmenian ship pierced through the cloudy veil. Its spine rippled like the famed mystic dragons of Tsukimoto and hummed ever so slightly in the background. The oars waved in sync as the ship approached the earth for effortless landing.

“This is not good.”

Doors on each side of the spectacle opened and ramps unfolded, clinked, and clicked in rapid manner. They, those fearsome Dalmenians, smartly emerged from the hull of the ship with sharp axe and sword in hand. From the distance, they were giants who towered and championed any foolish foe to stand in their way. Parties of eights and nines fell out and expanded across the snowy island in search of invaders.

A sharp-eyes Dalmenian honed in on Jackie and Ahn Ten immediately. With his sword drawn out, he beckoned his company to seek and destroy. Caught and still no sight of the Black Parade or Antezario. The escapists ran from one trouble and into a bigger dilemma. Perhaps a dash of clarity woke Antezario from his vengeful nap and allowed him to steer clear of these cursed lands.

The pursuing Dalmenians charged the land. Option one: Jackie ran the risk of an early take off; Antezario would eventually run her to the ground. Option two: remain here in high hopes that her enemies may kill each other and most likely die in a place that doesn’t even know their names. The men in bear fur lined armor and clanging helmets closed the distance.

“Voluff dies Tingshan!"

"The fuck?”

[i Tingshan.] What a vile word to come out of a stranger’s mouth. Desire to turn around and punch a hole through the pursuers manifested. Ahn Ten clutched his fists, but he had to focus on keeping up with Jackie who was eerily light on snow. She skated across the surface like dragonflies gracefully dipping their legs into the pond unlike Ahn Ten whose feet sank like stones.

[b BRrrrrn!] One boisterous short horn blast sounded off in the valley behind the pair. Jackie paused to look back at the storming Dalmenians who in return stopped their chase. Magical creatures—Jackie was unsure if they were all human—stood as the chill powder whirled around them. Inconceivably, they turned away from her and Ahn Ten and vanished into the frigid element.

“Ist die Hidrogg!” One cried out.

“Hidrogg!” They repeated back.

“Hidrogg!”
  HEAD ES DOODLE PETSUCHOS / Finnigan / 1y 163d 17h 15m 1s
[size16 SBI:09:07 |Dark Design, pt.2|]

The fall was over in what felt like an instant. Jackie and Ahn Ten woke up minutes later on top of what felt like the gargantuan wildcat's coarse fur. Ahn Ten looked up and saw the shining crack of light from which they fell from with bewilderment. Surviving the fall astonished him, yet a wave of despair blanketed the young man. These black walls were too wide to finesse one's self up and the two of them had no climbing gear. Scaling back to the world of light was impossible.

"Where are we?" Ahn Ten brushed the dirt off his cloak and slid down the splattered beast. His shoes stepped into the massive Mogurel wildcat's blood and then onto the dusty clay earth.

"Somewhere." Jackie jumped off the corpse. Her head turned once to look back, then forward again, and then finally upwards. "I can't see anyone."

"Good."

Ahn Ten's fingers glided across limestone; its cool touch could be attributed to Dalmenian climate and the thousands and millions of years it took to form this remarkable chasm.

The only way out of here was to start traveling in one direction of the abyss. Ahn Ten led with his cloak hugging his body closely. It wasn't on the account that he was freezing but rather the chilly draft running through the hall. They walked for thirty minutes in silence until the boy wondered more about his companion.

"What's your family like?"

"My family? That's a good question to pass the time." She walked with her hands behind her head and whistled. What tune she was whistling was a mystery to even herself, but she found the aimless noises coming from her gap amusing. Her amicable companion wasn't bothered too much by it. "Honestly, I don't remember much of my mother or father. It's been some time since they've passed, but I've always thought of them in a good light. I wanted to be strong like my dad and I could never amount to my mother's beauty. She had the best hair and she always worn the most elaborate earrings. They were her most prized possession, and I remember she kept it in one of those tiny wardrobe looking boxes made specifically for jewelry. Her jade earrings were her favorite because it reminded her of some emperor from some story she was told as a young girl."

"It's probably the story of the Jade Emperor who could lift mountains and command rivers to flow upwards. My grandfather was too a fan of this story so much that he convinced me that if I ate my vegetables I would become the next Jade Emperor. Even as a kid I didn't believe that bullshit."

He grinned and mimicked Jackie's posture, even her reckless whistling. She had rolled her eyes at this gesture and

"Then how does Guten Nocht float in the sky?"

The childhood naivety carried well into her thirties, but she could not blame nor get angry at such tall tales. After all, anything in the realm of magic was very much a possibility. Jackie fell for an egregious monk centuries old and befriended a stone faced Lucavi.

"So that's how the story goes? The Jade Emperor is responsible for dusty rock up there? Now I know for sure that he's made up." Ahn Ten guffawed, "Nobody knows or seems to care about how Guten Nocht floats. What was once a great threat to countries like Bating and Varsylgard now resides in rubble. Trash really.”

Was this the same thought amongst all citizens of Bating? Jackie kept to herself in order to work with her heated up partner. After all, pride was what got her originally in this mess. Fighting against Ahn Ten’s harsh words meant time and energy well wasted when they very much needed a plan or a way out of the chasm.

She wasn’t able to shake it off on the account that the teenage boy with such a high opinion continued his tirade against the floating continent. Ahn Ten yammered on about how primitive Guten Nocht was and how nothing or no one of significant worth hailed from such a boring place despite never setting foot in the continent.

The rant came to a screeching halt when Jackie and Ahn Ten stumbled upon the chilly draft’s origins miles down the chasm. Sixty foot doors made of dulled ancient ore remained a smidge agape to let wanderers pass through. Poor Antezario envisioned such a grandiose treasure trove. Some terrifically terrified craftsman molded the faces of giants into this gargantuan passageway. Faces of anger and rage jutted from what appeared to be at one time lustrous silver.

Jackie heard the rocks Ahn Ten was gulping down. Neither of them spoke but instead inched towards the crack. The question of what monsters resides within was about to be answered. Valiant Jackie stepped forward and peeked into the vast darkness that stretched for miles on ahead. Fortunately, little guide lights provided some vision. Barely, sure, but the two souls had very little options left, so they traded one unforgiving place for another.

Jackie entered first with Ahn Ten who was on his toes following close behind. Despite the Lilliputian LEDs illuminating the sides of the path, neither could attain the scope of the the seemingly endless corridor. The frigid draft had not bothered them, and so the eerie blue glow lured them deeper into the dungeon. They could only see glimpses of the wiring and piping which infested the walls completely like a rash. This kind of technology was far beyond Jackie and Ahn Ten’s comprehension.

Blind as moles, they trusted that their wandering feet would lead them in the right direction, that wherever they end up will be free of monsters, both domestic and foreign. The blue lights grew stronger with time thusly bringing the two bodies into a well hidden compartment. They came face to face with a dozen rows of luminescent blue cylinders stretching from the front of the room to the back. The creeping whirling radiated off the machines and every once in a while the adjacent machines would click a few times.

They traveled down the rows of cylinders and inspected their contents. Bodies. Bodies of both humans and monsters resided in a stasis as if a curator was preserving them for later use. What mad man had inserted a myriad of tubes and hoses through these subjects?

"What in Hel is this?" Upset, Ahn Ten gazed in horror as he stopped in front of a cylinder.

"It's a laboratory of sorts.” Jackie shivered. She had only seen this once when she and Frank went to the city and found innocent Rhys suspended.

Ahn Ten moves to a slightly bigger tube which two bodies shared. The limbs and heads were completely separated from what appeared to be heavily mutilated female torsos fused together. Thin electrical wiring connected the satellite pieces to the bulk. The crude intertwining of organic and inorganic material mortified Ahn Ten so much that his stance shook. Surely they didn’t deserve such a fate like this, so he muttered a prayer to his chest.

"Are they alive?"

"I don't want to stick around long enough and find out. Let's go."

Jackie scooped away the boy and headed deeper into the dungeon. She looked past the pickled subjects, yet Ahn Ten was fixated on their demise. No, he wasn’t worried so much that he’d end up in their predicament but rather he feared for their family and friends. What would his parents think or do if he never returned to their arms? They would never know the fate of their sons, just like many of these humans and animals’ mothers, fathers, siblings, and lovers.

Down another corridor and around a few more corners, Jackie felt she was more lost than not, for she thought the same thoughts as Ahn Ten. She thought that it would be most ironic if she died while the rest of her crew had reconvened. She pondered whether or not they’d look for her like she did for them. Either way, she knew that they’d never travel in this direction. Especially Tony. He had his brother and loathed being on the Fighter. Still, Jackie would have joined his side if it weren’t for the mind-breaking headband.

They wandered in the darkness until they came across a dim outline of a crooked figure. Its body slumped heavily to one side. The forearms surpassed the knees and the knuckles grazed its waning ankles. The faint breathing cautioned Jackie and Ahn Ten.

“What is i—“

“Shhh...”

Jackie took a few steps forward. The figure contorted in such a bizarre manner that had her shuffling back into Ahn Ten who fell to the floor. The twisted figure wound down the dark corridor and pursued the invaders.

Jackie back peddled as her companion scurried to his feet. In the moment she forgot about Ahn Ten and let her instincts kick in.

"Bad day, bad day, bad day!"

The young man couldn’t believe his partner and instead of booking it like Jackie Simms, he faced his fears head on.

"Fuck this shit."

A skull shattering crunch halted Jackie. A body, somebody’s body fell onto the cold firm floor. She pivoted around on the heels of her feet and cowardly reached into the darkness for Ahn Ten’s form.

“H-hello?”

Stubby digits brushed against a surface rather unpleasantly gooey. She pulled away immediately but she didn’t retaliate with a fist. Instead, Ahn Ten came face to face with her in the low light. She glossed over the slime splattered over his face and hand. Rotting flesh.

"You can't be punching fucked up things in the face. It could be infected." Jackie crouched over the attacker. Ahn Ten had obliterated its face completely. At one point the attacker was human but had been altered in some unfathomable fashion. The skin appeared darker than hers in the lighting and was covered in pustules and rough scaly patches.

"If it wasn't infected before, it is now." Ahn Ten continued the journey down the corridor. There had to be a way out of here somewhere. “I didn’t punch it.”

“Hm?”

“Well, I did punch, but there’s a little bit more that goes into the technique. I, um, I don’t know how to say it plainly. I punch hard the air so hard that it hurts whatever’s in the way. An air render.”

“No way.”

“Yah way.”

“You’re telling me that you’re that great of a martial artist that you can do the impossible? What is it, magic?”

“Jackie Simms, I don’t know if you know this but magic doesn’t exist in Bating. The government forbids such craft from ever taking presence within our domain and is punishable by death. What I can do is an extension of my training and essence.”

“That’s a gift you got.”

“Anyone can attain this level of accomplishment. I’ll train you to be good as me.”

“Here I thought I was gonna carry the team.”

“You know nothing, Jackie Simms.”

The dim path eventually led to an atrium. The smooth and smartly lit hallways were traded for a more jagged walls and glowing geodes. Whoever’s palace this was possessed exquisite taste: the balcony, grandiose in design, overlooked several stories of glowing blue tubes; the crystal chandelier hovered below a stained glass ceiling.

Taking the encircling stairs down to the ground floor took forever. The walls were surrounded with more of the infected people. Tubes plunged into their veins and the likes of such an atrocity tore Ahn Ten. He wasn’t so sure what he was fighting in the dark, but now he saw the horrific in full light. Dozen of faces obscured by disease and large tumors, an over growth of teeth and wiry hair suspended in fluids, rancorous limbs splayed for much needed hugs.

"This can't be what Antezario is looking for. All this...it's wrong." Tears rolled down his cheek. “Nothing about this place is right, Jackie. What kind of sick person would do this?!"

Once they reached the bottom of the staircase, she answered, “A monster."

He was unsure what to call this spectacle. Was it a mausoleum or a museum? The specimens were in a suspended animation state and could not ask for aid. Ahn Ten would like to believe he’d do the right thing if he swung hard enough. Looking to do something about this, he took long breaths and closed his eyes. Between the inhales and exhales, he scanned the room until he saw a console tucked away in the back.

This had to be done. Gathering the last few steady breaths, a passion reveled through Ahn Ten’s body. His fist eviscerated the air. The air crackled as an acute crescent launched and crashed into the console. Arcs flashed and fired erupted from the machinery.

"Ahn! That's enough! We have to get out of here”

"We have to destroy it all, Jackie." He spoke with watery eyes and his forearm clutched in one hand. Ahn Ten could not see these poor creatures and fellow humans suffer under such malicious intent. "Burn this fucker to the ground so that no one has to suffer here."

He could not bear to look at the suffering faces, twisted and turned from their cell. They were no longer the missing daughter or son, mother or father, lover or enemy that their family and friends once knew. Ornaments, a sick biologist’s nefarious experiment, the mangling of flesh for cruel pleasure. Ahn Ten releases them from this devious world in high hopes that they would reunite in the afterlife.

He struck the room with fast fists and the room erupted into flames. Jackie dragged Ahn Ten away with a relentless grip to his garments. He struggled and even retaliated with tightly wound hands, but one swift punch to the solar plexus extinguished his inner flame.

She carried him over her shoulders and ran down an exiting tunnel to the monster’s atrium. The fire and destruction: how could one boy hold so much power in his rage? Truly terrified, she hauled him down the tunnel for a long mile before she saw the speck of light. The faint hope at the end of the tunnel felt like a vivid hallucination. Jackie walked for an eternity and nearly forgot she was carrying an unconscious boy over her shoulders.

The exit grew clearer. A series of plexiglass partitions separated them from the other world. Luckily, Jackie was able to walk through the small plexiglass doors which Jackie must have gone through at least a half dozen of them.

By the time they got out of the labyrinth, the sun was just settling behind the dusty horizon. Her stay in the dungeons felt like it spanned over a couple of days, but now she faced graver problems. The fire and explosions slowly consumed the caverns as she walked through the brisk canyon. The Mogurel cats or their gigantic distant cousins stalked the ruins. Surely they’d be out and about tonight.

Chattering teeth woke Ahn Ten up hours later and he soon too joined Jackie on foot. He spoke not a word to Jackie that entire night, not even after they found a small abandoned abode carved into the face of the canyon walls. She had tried to converse with him in the dark but he kept to himself and took the first watch of the night.

Surely he wasn’t as sadistic as the murderous She-Bear. Unlike her, Ahn Ten did the right thing in putting an end to their suffering. He hope that the mad mind behind the facility died horribly in the flames or died of asphyxiation. In the back of his mind, they deserved nothing less.

Jackie woke up later on that night and relieved Ahn of the watch until the they set out the next morning. They relied heavily on keeping close to each other because the light could easily attract the wildlife or worse, Antezario. Of course, there were other ways of attracting unwanted bosses. Just by simply strolling out in the open of the Dalmenian ruins, two hovercrafts shot around the corner and encircled.

"My dearest She-Bear! You're alive!" The hovercrafts settles and the ostentatious ringleader charmingly took a knee to a hovercraft’s side and smiled.

Was it too late for Jackie to hike back to the wrecked ruins and let the fire engulf her? This encounter was far too convenient for her taste. The Maker must have had it out for her. This was her fate, her likely demise for being the ravaging She-Bear.
  HEAD ES DOODLE PETSUCHOS / Finnigan / 1y 255d 42m 4s
[size16 |SBI:09:06 Dark Design, pt.1|]

Antezario hopped off his throne and skipped to and fro across his platform. Chipper for today, he put out a very crucial detail. "Keep a keen eye out for anything shiny. Shiny."

Raf Gedemonde sighed. He shook his head as Venomous Vespuccin interjected in the middle of his brief. Raf had to remind himself constantly that the pay was still great for all the minor annoyances this mad man had caused him.

"The canyon is deep and there's plenty of buildings that need to be excavated during our time in the northeastern region of Mogur, Dalme. We've divided up into six sections as of right now. Half of the Black Parade's crew will remain with the ship for maintenance and patrol of the immediate area but that's subject to change with an inevitable war. It'll act as headquarters for the time being. In five groups of thirty, we will start on the farthest reaches of the Mogur ruins and work towards the ship's domain. The furthest two will take two hovercrafts each and load two months worth of dry food onboard."

Raf felt trapped because he was ordered to protect Antezario, with the assistance of Jackie Simms no less. A prisoner of his own choice was what he murmured one day. He never thought about revenge against Jackie for killing his confidant, but rather longed for intellectual and stimulating conversation. The Black Parade seldom had intellectual and stimulating conversation; Antezario was quick to quash what intelligence dribbled out of his crew’s mouth.

"Zones 3, 4, and 5 will each take one hovercraft each and one month's worth of food. Each section will be responsible for arming themselves with proper weaponry and shall be provided with five flares. Given proper time, the Black Parade will either commence a fast-acting pickup or send out a general recall flare if an emergency should arise in the area. This is a covert mission, so don't be attracting the attention of any stray Winterborne."

"Any known dangers?" A concerning voice threw out.

"No known tribes, clans, or kingdom lives within a hundred mile radius. I'd advise not to mess with any wildlife if they should exist in such a forsaken place."

The Black Parade carried 301 unique individuals that all had some sort of expertise. Granted, most of them were mechanics and laborers but they were far from the mediocre work seen on any other ship. Zoologists and geographers who covered different parts of the Blue, a handful of doctors ranging from surgical to magical, mages from foreign waters, renowned fencers and famed hull technicians from Francol. This motley crew was to be feared because it achieved what many countries objected to: collaboration and the willingness to adhere to xenia. They saw past the country of origin their fellow brethren and focused on the task at hand.

Antezario Vespuccin came from the kingdom of Salcia. He said that thousands of years ago his country went by another name and had a vigilant winged goddess watch over them. The crew brainstormed what ailment had started the madman’s mental descent. Some swear they've heard him speak in demon's tongue and was possessed by a demon. Many said he was a disgraced prince who was exiled by the king for defiling his daughters.

His supposed departure led him to wander the seas and sleep a monstress, a melusine or maybe even a siren of the Blue. When the monster sang, her songs wound him to suck on his thumb for three months, spin in counterclockwise circles, and even kill those who looked at the monstress in such a surprising manner. Then, one day the siren lost her control over Antezario. As revenge, he sought out the very same circlet Jackie wore and forced her to become a sex slave until her untimely death.

On the other hand, Raf Gedemonde hailed from Peleutia, a kingdom adjacent to Salcia, but seldom did he speak on the subject. How he ran into Antezario was another sore subject for the two of them, despite Jackie's eagerness to know such mysterious origins. Not even the boisterous ringleader entertained that story.

Antezario, Raf, Jackie, and Ahn Ten rode in the same hovercraft through the Mogur canyon with few stories of their previous lives sprinkled in between the long periods of solitude. The sunset colored walls of the canyon stretched for miles and branched off into a myriad of corridors. The shade was brisk, but the rising sun warmed their backs as they sped through the desolate alleyways. The ancient musk filled nostrils yet strangely at the same time felt rather refreshing like reminiscing golden days.

"This thing is fast."

[i 'Not as fast as the Fighter though.'] She recalled the days of being behind the control of her mint truck and fiendishly insane jets. The rush and sense of adventure could not be satisfied by the hovercraft. Sick for adrenaline, Jackie knew that they weren't going to give her the controls to it and the thought pained her.

"It's the best money can buy. Suped up a real junker with all the gearheads I own." Sitting on a velvet throne which seemed to follow him whether he went, Antezario clacked heels together and guffawed, "Sudranese play too safe. Gotta go fast!"

"'Too fast, too gone.' You've ever heard of that saying? It's akin to 'play hard, die hard.'"

She felt rather honest with herself: if the hovercraft flipped over and left her paralyzed or possibly dead, she'd be okay as long as his raggedy face was left mangled across the earth. As low as her life was, she wished for serene death. At least in death she’d shed such aches named Antezario.

"She-Bear."

"Yeah?"

"There are no games that are hard for Antezario Vespuccin! Ahahahakahaha!"

Death couldn't come sooner.

It took the two hovercrafts two hours to successfully navigate the canyons to the designated excavation site. The vehicles resided underneath a crag in the canyon and the likes of the camp was established nearby. Just a quarter mile out of the way was a small stream that trickled from one hole in the canyon's side to another.

As Jackie and Ahn Ten pitched their tent, the two briefly conversed about their situation. Separately, they wondered if this was going to be the moment they escape, that the Mogur ruins would set them up for success. Running away where though? In order to make it out alive, they'd have to hijack one hovercraft and compromise the other.

By noon, Ahn Ten had enough of the sizzling rays of the sun and retreated to a shadier spot.

"What are we doing out here?" He asked.

"We're playing the role of a lackey to a complete idiot." Jackie finished up the fire pit and leaned on her shovel.

"We can take them out if we wanted to." The rambunctious young man blindsided Jackie for once. "Two against twenty-eight is doable, right? That's fourteen each."

Usually she would be down to brawl, but once she heard the odds coming from someone else's mouth, she realized how foolish she'd been all those years. Wiping the sweat from her brow with a red handkerchief, she shook her head, "They have the weapons, Ahn."

"We knock 'em out before they get the chance to make it to the lockbox." Ahn Ten flexed his muscles. It was really the first time that he had really opened up to Jackie and shown his youth.

Jackien genially smiled and then shook her head. "You speak if you're gonna do anything about them. Y'know, I used to think that I could carry the team on my lonesome, but I've gotten mighty wiser these past few years. Twenty-eight is a chore for me."

[i 'Did I really just say that? My biological clock is ticking!']

"Antezario can catch these hands." Sendign a few jabs into the air and raising his foot well above his head, Ahn Ten showed her what his late grandfather had shown him.

"Oh shit!" She exclaimed. The woman from Guten Nocht was not expecting the boy from Bating to be much of a fight.

Chuckling and remaining in that stance, he asked her, "Scared?"

"Surprised." Speechless really.

"I could teach ya, but I'd have to charge."

Ahn Ten lowered his foot and folded his hands. A little bit of his cockiness oozed out, but he remained cool for the most part.

"Yeah, yeah." Jackie half-joked, "Half my rations."

She adhered to her strict diet and wasn't going to be a lagging tail in this partnership. Rather, Ahn Ten, who had much more to live for, inspired her to be a better fighter, a sharper fighter.

"Deal."

Jackie nor Ahn Ten were part of the excavation party for the first couple of days. The boy established watches and plotted out boundaries to the camp when he wasn't tending to the flamboyant diva. Jackie hoisted tools out of the hovercraft and cleaned Antezario's dishes and latrine when requested. She was also expected to stand eight hours of watch after a twelve hour work day, but that wasn't going to happen. Ahn Ten would split the midwatch.

"Jackie, wake up."

The two were posted by the campfire with Jackie curled into a pudgy balled up blanket. The rest of the crew had retired into their tents. Ahn Ten shook her by the shoulder and Jackie slowly unraveled.

"Is it already time for watch?"

"No, but the crags have eyes."

He pointed to the cliffs, but Jackie was still waking up.

"Wha?"

"There's something out there staring at us."

"Probably a Mogurel wildcat." Raf quietly and coolly rolled out of his tent with a rifle in hand. "They're curious felines but shouldn't be a problem for us."

"Smart man." Jackie looked up to him and grinned with her giant gap swallowing what happiness he had.

"The smart live long enough to see tomorrow. The prepared can last a lifetime," he dryly worded. He scratched his scruff and spat dirt from his arid mouth. How romantic.

Jackie fanned her face cheekily. "And a philosopher? What can Raf Gedemonde not do?"

"Get rid of you soon enough, I suppose."

Ahn Ten spoke his thoughts and might have even brought a small glimmer of a smile out of Raf. Jackie shot a glare towards his direction yet Ahn Ten remained grinning.

"Kid's right." Raf shook his head. He joked, "The sooner we get rid of you, the better."

At least, Jackie thought he was joking. Ahn Ten believed him.

"Will you be the one to put me down? At least give grant me one last wish."

"I don't want anything to do with you."

He sat next to the fire and put his hands to the fire. These next couple of years were going to be Hel, especially in the winter months. Though the northeastern region of Dalme was the hottest, the winters were unforgiving and harsh. The storms would enclose families inside their cabins for months and the worst blizzards killed off the unprepared villages.

"Go to sleep."

"I'm cold though. Come here and cuddle."

Jackie blew kisses yet Raf seemingly dodged the cheek-seekers.

[size4 "Creator, please kill this bitch."]

A few months into the exhibition and the the spirits of the crew were waning. The Black Parade covered only one percent of the Mogur ruins, which was roughly around the equivalent of 32 square miles. Day and night, the crews searched through every nook and cranny they could scale. Remains of old clay houses hung from the bottom of cliffs which made the ascent rather difficult.

Raf exclaimed, "Quick! Take cover!"

There was no time for questions. Jackie and Ahn Ten dropped to the dusty earth and hid behind a rock face. Within seconds, the charcoal gray bow of a segmented Dalmenian ship traveled upwards. Dozens of its wings rowed across the skies. The stench of magitech and diesel displaced the canyon’s cool breezes. The reverberating roar shook bones. Even Antezario was impressed by the display of the massive outdated airship.

"What was that?" Jackie asked as the monstrous machine flew up and north.

"Dalmenian patrol ship."

"You said that these parts of Dalme were abandoned."

Antezario steadily clopped towards Raf in his heel loafers and clipped him across the face. The enforcer took it without retaliation and looked his master in the eyes.

"With the eventual invasion of Varsylgard, perhaps they thought it was wise to patrol otherwise empty areas in case of retaliation."

"Time foolishly wasted. They will not get in my way!"

Antezario yelled and hollered and screamed until the Dalmenian disappeared from sight. He jeered and taunted the invisible enemy until Ahn Ten garnered his attention.

Ahn pointed behind the idiot. "Hey, are those cats supposed to be that big?"

It was a Mogurel wildcat. It was classified by the typical four white tufts of fur sticking out of its face and the black ear tips. The beast was half the height of Jackie, typically. Not this specific cat though. Sporting a bluish hue instead of the rich sienna tone, this wildcat stood twice the size of Jackie.

"No." Dumbfounded Raf stated in an "oh shit" kind of matter. Fear settled in his eyes.

Jackie watched as the beast closed in. Perusing, the wildcat inspected its prey before dashing for slaughter.

"You've got to be kidding me."

Antezario distanced himself from the rest of the crew as they watched the starving feline. He could always replace the lot of them if need be, but he would prefer to have the circlet back if Jackie were to go. Raf was an okay shot, but he did make running the Black Parade easier. And little Ahn Ten? There were going to be dozen more adorable mascots out there.

"I wish I was."

Raf inched away and the monster quickened its pace. He figured if they played it smart, the crew could intimidate the feline or outsmart it. Raf had his rifle but a single bullet wouldn't fell the blue wildcat.

"Run!"

Antrzario panicked and triggered the beast into a full on sprint. With a head start, Antezario and Raf hightailed it across the land and made way back for the camp. Jackie and Ahn Ten trailed behind with the canyon's guardian rapidly closing the gap.

Raf flew past Antezario and reached the other side of a skinny path that bridged across the canyon walls. Quick to act, he pivoted around and dropped to a knee. His boss zoomed past and muttered to his lackey about leaving the others as cat food. He ignored Antezario and pressed the the butt of the rifle into his shoulder.

His breath caught up before he belted, "Duck!"

Raf took aim. The beast took its leap as Jackie and Ahn Ten tossed themselves to the floor.

[b BANG!]

The gargantuan feline flew over and fell face first into the bridge, but the fates of Jackie and her sidekick was sealed. The beast broke through the crumbling earthen bridge and fell into the ravine below, taking Jackie and Ahn Ten with it.
  HEAD ES DOODLE PETSUCHOS / Finnigan / 1y 269d 2h 38m 27s
[size16 |SBI:09:05 Beautiful, Dirty, Rich|]

"Look!" exclaimed the lead joker, "We must make pitstop before next expedition. Varsyl today, tomorrow Dalme."

A month of heavy repair and maintenance had gone by before Jackie really understood the true meaning of the Black Parade. Antezario Vespuccin typically enjoyed three square meals a day in his quarters while the crew slaved around to overhaul any major issues. Galupsos was long and far behind them, yet they remained in the general area of the crumbling Varsylian empire. Raf Gedemonde mentioned that the Black Parade wasn't far off from Sudra, a country Jackie Simms has dreamed of and been to.

Today was different though. Antezario had brought out a new suit not seen by the weary crew in high hopes of revitalizing spirits. Truly, he was an awful man. An awful man with impeccable taste, but nonetheless an awful man. Some outrageous tailor glued giant lime green pompoms to an putrid burnt orange two piece suit. To top off the travesty, his tie and hat matched each other: more speckled pheasant feathers. Rumor has it that Antezario was also an excellent marksman and loved to hunt.

The ringleader also had a knack for putting all his men to work. The days started at 5 o'clock in the morning and ended 8 o'clock at night. Cleaning, painting, lifting cargo from port to starboard and often starboard and port back, cleaning commodes several times over. The Venomous Vespuccin--as Ahn Ten had appropriately nicknamed--made the likes of the Merchant of Death look rather decent.

Alas, Fatty Patty--good Jackie's old nickname--had avoided the donkey work for the longest time. While the fingers of crew grinded into sore stumps from dishwashing and heaving around unnecessary line, she was ordered by the ship's doc to slim down and tone for the next mission. The initial check in consisted of the the doctor constantly prodding her shoulders for tumor growth, name calling, and half a dozen shots in each arm. To Jackie, the moment felt like another round in the ring.

She prepared herself for whatever came her way. Antezario put her on a better diet than meat and potatoes. Jackie had access to vegetables not seen in the Varsylian Blue. Blue carrots, fiery red onions, leeks that grew up to six feet tall, giant gooseberries, and pink apples that grew like grapes. Jackie had it all.

Of course, Jackie wasn't going to live up the good life forever. Like Ahn Ten's grandfather, she plotted day and night on her inevitable escape. If she wanted to make it off the Black Parade alive, she was going to have to change once more. Speed was a must with strength and endurance maintained. Jackie thought of Vespuccin as a fool; he practically gave her all the tools she needed to succeed.

"What the heck is out there in Dalme that worth our lives?"

A crowd of 299 souls plus Jackie gathered around Antezario to hear the latest news. Formal yet informal, the captain expected everyone to listen closely to his remarkable voice.

"Scared? Fear not. Wealth unimaginable is buried in mountains!"

Antezario's enforcer stepped up to the same same platform the leader was on and assured, "Antezario is not going to lead us astray. We will be outside of normal Dalmenian reach, especially with what news we got about the invasion. Intel believes that the four fleets will hit Varsylian shores in three months. They gives us enough time to be in and out of Varsylgard as well as out of the fleets projected path."

Raf Gedemonde, in many ways, resembled an earlier Jackie Simms: he was the glue that kept the crew together, especially with a far fetched character like Antezario at the helm.

"A heist of the finest is in order. Quogwert Fortoon, the biggest bank outside of the capital, will set us up for two year expedition. That's enough time and money for four expeditions for what we'll be getting our hands on."

Individuals amongst the crowd mumbled. What could possibly top vast wealth from easy pickings? Another stranger from the crowd spoke up.

"What's that?"

Antezario paced back and forth with his hands behind his back. He ponders on how he wanted to present the answer. Elaborate and drawn out? Loud and to the point? The options were endless for him which in turn frightened his crew. Unpredictable.

Antezario stood before his men and simply stated in the most straight laced voice he could muster, "Power."

The Black Parade exploded in applause. Everyone but Jackie and Ahn Ten cheered on their genius of a remarkable leader. More and more, Jackie struggled with loathing the feathered maven. Heists were "her shit" as she or Frank would have put it in Nocht terms.

As the crowd cleared out, Antezario and Raf approached. This was Jackie's chance to impress with her knowledge.

"Ah, welcome to the first of many briefs, She-Bear." A suave step in and Antezario gave burly Jackie the creeps. "Noticed that you aren't chained, no? I give you the privilege to walk amongst the free. After all, you will be part of the entourage."

"Entourage?" She played dumb.

"Yes. For the heist. You will do as you're told or die painfully you will."

"You'll have an integral part in this heist, Jackie. Usually it's a two man job, but you decided to nix your partner way too soon."

Raf wasn't going to let her down for her opponent's death. There was a vindictive tone that slipped out of his mouth.

"Oh, sorry." She drove the knife further into his ego. Jackie knew what she was doing and was distracting herself from winning over the Black Parade.

"Don't be."

Jackie taunted, "I'm guessing you two weren't close."

Antezario turned away from the two to hide his usual smirk. He basked in conflict, even with his enforcer being attacked.

"Guessing got you into this mess. If I was you, I'd play it safe from here on out."

Raf Gedemonde wasn't scrawny by any means. He was around the same height as the typical man, but his well kept hair and stoic face that kept Jackie entertained. Give it another month and she'd have him in the sack. Or so she thought.

"Raf was it? We're gonna be the new power couple to beat. With me around, we'll be unstoppable."

She wasn't getting paid anything for this heist, that she knew, so she was going to abuse her prowess to get what she wanted. Some people mistook Jackie as a whore, but she adopted the philosophy, "why spend mine when I can spend yours?"

Raf ignored the advancements for weeks to come, but Jackie was insistent on peppering in her sexuality amongst her thieving expertise. She'd constantly rearrange some parts of the heist's organization and revised the tactics in approaching the bank. Raf appreciated the wealth of knowledge, but could not fathom such a repulsive monster. Easily, she could pass as a man, yet it wasn't her masculine physique that scared him off. Jackie Simms was a fiend, a tormentor to his ears. She--like the rest of the hooligans--lacked vocal sophistication.

It mattered not during the heist though. Trimming down ten pounds and two inches off her waist in three weeks, Jackie felt lighter than ever. She made note that this was just a preliminary round. Jackie had the strength to launch herself into the air with ease, but she wasn't fast enough. Sticking a round off into a double tuck followed by five backhand springs and landing a half turn took her fifteen seconds when she wanted it done in ten. When Raf asked her when such an elaborate stunt would come in handy, she assured him that it would never become handy.

The day of the heist came sooner than anyone had expected. The Black Parade landed miles away from the bank and in a small patch of forest. Raf and a couple men dressed up in moderately fashionable suits left first, then Jackie and Ahn Ten, and finally Antezario and a few attendants. Ahn Ten who never agreed to be a part of this heist assumed the role as Jackie's younger brother. He thought she was too dark and wide in the face to be related to his pale lankiness.

The three sets of groups entered at different intervals, each armed with weaponry and the knowings of Quogwert Fortoon. The columns lined up from the facade to the tellers' bench. The bank was well lit in conjunction with the natural lighting. All white, simple yet traditional to the Varsylian taste.

"Ms. Jackie Simms."

A deep note snagged Jackie by the collar. She turned to see who had said her name and met with a tall black bearded man with dark skin. Who was this? She pondered.

"You, I've seen you before." She prayed that this was not another one night stand who's hung up on her. She sucked her teeth before it clicked. Relieved, she sputtered, "No--you're Tony's brother."

"Indeed I am. It's been a long time."

Indeed it had. She gawked at Jeraia Maxwell. He maintained his fortified build and dressed sharp for a simple bank transaction which was going to be interrupted by the inevitable blindside. Definitely the better looking Maxwell.

Coolly, Jeraia snapped Jackie out of her drooling daze with his sultry voicebox. "Before Tony left for the Easteroth Monastery, he mentioned you quite a bit."

"He's alive?" She quivered at the thought that maybe she wasn't the only one who was alive. Though less of man compared to his brother, Tony held a smidgen of Jackie's decaying heart.

"Very much so. If you manage to get out of your situation, you might be able to catch the last ferry to Francol. He'll be clear of the oncoming storm."

"Storm?"

"The Winterborne."

The Dalmenians were a growing threat each and everyday, yet Jackie huffed and puffed her chest out and feared no one. Eudoxia hailed from Dalme but she was not as imposing as much as she was a broody teenage girl. Jackie then reexamined the fact that Eudoxia could transform into a dragon and wondered if all Dalmenians had this terrifying ability.

"You need to leave now and head to your next destination," Jackie admonished, "It's not safe here."

Jeraia had kind eyes that had a way of turning women, especially in the case of Jackie Simms, into puddles. He had quite the agenda to fulfill. Gallant Jeraia continued to free slaves across the Varsylian continent and establish a free state for those who were wronged. Some say that the sizable kingdom of Buenzeldyne grew overnight because of welcoming arms, yet their leader, Lord Buenzeldyne denied any collusion with freedmen.

Jeraia nodded. "It's safe nowhere these days."

He casually strolled the other way and anxious Ahn Ten brought Jackie back to the plan. [i 'Tony in Francol.']

Anchovi was alive. If Tony, of all people, survived then everyone else had to be. She wanted the best outcome.

The reunion would have to wait though. Raf and his men armed themselves and blocked the doors. Antezario's attendants helped him onto the tellers' bench. Jackie and Ahn Ten moved in front of the ringleader.

The devil smirked and projected to his audience. "Ladies, gents: you've read the routine in how this all works. Cooperate and die you will not; disobey and prepare to get shot in the face."

People screamed but they complied in the face of firearms and dangerous magicians.
Swords and daggers held people in place. Raf nodded to his leader and Jackie.

"We don't want paintings or anything decor. Cold hard stones that bling are the motive and you all have the motivation to start moving. Or else," Antezario chortled. The adrenaline was pumping and he lived in the exhilarating time.

"Or else what?"

An audible fool hiding behind a marble column asked. He certainly wasn't speaking for the rest of the frightened hostages but the thieves made sure everyone heard the response.

[b Bang, bang, bang. Bang, bang, bang.]

"Move!"

Jackie threatened the clerks with nothing more than a robust fist. Shaking down each and everyone of them, she growled and yelled until they opened the two giant safes and all the deposit boxes. She and Ahn Ten swiftly moved into place and dumped the contents into giant duffle bags. Ahn Ten carried two and Jackie lugged six on her own. Hundreds of pounds strapped onto her shoulders yet she remained straight-backed.

"Let's go."

The brother-sister duo stormed for the doors where Jackie and Ahn Ten ditched their bags and bolted as fast as they could. The confused crew members of the Black Parade tried to control the panicking crowd as well as keeping a solid eye on the deserters.

Antezario and Raf reached the front entrance of the bank with rifles aimed for the two of them. Jackie glimpsed back and wrestled Ahn Ten into a meat shield. Surprised, he struggled but she easily overpowers him.

With Ahn Ten's in a deathly chokehold, she yelled, "I'll kill the boy!"

"Shiné, shiné!" The madman chanted.

Jackie's laugh boomed. "Ah-ha! Fuck you, you clown bastard!"

She had him beat. His incantation lost effect with distance and with her heavily distorted hearing. Jackie and Ahn Ten had tested various substances on the airship for suitable hearing protection. Smooth peanut jam worked wonders.

Raf Gedemonde was an unforeseen shot though. The bullet zipped fifty meters away and straight through Jackie's shoulder. Untouched, Ahn Ten collapsed to the ground with her, and before the two could scramble, they were staring down half a dozen rifle barrels.

"You're becoming a real nuisance, you know that?" Raf grunted.

"Frankie's a better shot," she muttered as she was arrested.

The Black Parade gathered its leader, the crew, its newly acquired treasure, and the two idiots who dared to escape its clutches. Right away, Jackie and Ahn Ten were thrown into their respective cells for the rest of the night and without dinner.

[i 'Damn.']

The boy fumigated and was frustrated with her stunt.

"You're still alive," Jackie assured. She pressed against the tension strumming in the cargo bay.

"Yeah, barely!" Ahn Ten was still frustrated with how she managed to blindside her own partner.

"You were safe the entire time."

"You know that whatever they're setting out to find seems to be more important than my parents' bounty. My usefulness is waning, Jackie!" He threw himself to the bars and screamed, "What the fuck was that?!"

Lights dangling from the ceiling lit their faces. Ahn Ten hated them so much and wished to be hidden in complete darkness. He thought of Jackie as another lackey to Venomous Vespuccin's hoard of snakes.

"Me testing the waters. I found out that they're not willing to let go of me or you yet."

He was not sure whether or not he ought to listen to such an overly optimistic idiot like Jackie Simms. As of right now,
she was a user. They were gonna place a bullet between his eyes the next time, that he was almost certain.

"Plus, I know he's alive."

Jackie laid back against the cot and bars and smiled. Ahn Ten hated how she kept a sense of cool about the situation.

"Who?"

"Tony, Toni, Toné."
  HEAD ES DOODLE PETSUCHOS / Finnigan / 1y 281d 2h 24m 12s
[size16 |SBI:09:04 Ahn Ten|]

Jackie stirred in the prison with the headpiece still latched onto her cranium. She yanked, scratched, and even punched herself. She tugged at the shining circlet and rammed it against the rusting bars, but alas, the cursed headwear did not budge one bit. The ringing lingered in the back of her brain, and Jackie was well aware of what kind of person Antezario Vespuccin was: vindictive, fearless, born and bred a psychopath.

[i 'How did I get myself into this situation?']

The question befuddled her, and she thought about how inhumane this all was. Jackie was human and had to be afforded basic inalienable rights, but she failed to understand that certain consequences followed bad decision making. She failed to acknowledge the murder of one Eidos Schwinn, despite him knowing well that the ring was an unforgiving place. She paced thoroughly in the spacious cage. With a thumb’s fingernail in the mouth, she plotted inevitable revenge, yet no amount of skill could outlive chance. In reality, Jackie thought of all the foolish ways she could die.

The Black Parade was a pristine ship that collected no dirt or dust nor was there an inch of rust. Its caretakers kept her in peak shape and maintained the gaudiness through the apparent love for stripes and whacky costumes. This troupe of clowns rode in style though this did not please Jackie one bit. The hairs on the back of her neck stood stiff.

The men of the ship licked their lips and voraciously insulted her, degrading her based on her thick hide and chunky curves. Jackie found herself rather shapeless compared to what she used to look like. She never had the need to feel sexy; men buzzed around like bees to flowers. She guessed that they were going to play with their food before ripping her limb from limb. After all, she believed these circus freaks were going to eat her.

[i 'Why did they have to be carnies?']

It had appeared that they locked her in the cargo bay with the rest of their supplies safely secured, neatly organized, and very well lit . She saw that the food was properly stowed in a water tight compartment in one corner with the water tank diagonally opposite. She was parked right behind dozens of landcrafts and amongst other cells locked in a bigger cage.

They allowed her enough space in her cell and the chains leading up to her comfy shackles were long enough for her to move about, so Jackie--bored of the ship already--worked out. Crunches, push ups, pull ups, and handstands. Stretches followed half a dozen sets before she realized she was being watched by a teenage boy in a far off corner.

He was tall and rather lanky but had muscle from what she could see. Eyes were small but not as small as the faint line of his eyebrows. His head was buzzed and his lips were full like his nose. This young man carried a tray in each hand as he approached the She-Bear's cage.

"Hey. Meal time," he stated in a rather droll voice. He slid the tray underneath the lower horizontal bar of the cage. After that, he turned to his cell and observed his rather pitiful tray.

"Inform the cooks I send my regards." Jackie stirred around her tray. The gray matter looked rather horrendously bland. Across the aisle she could hear the crisp crunching of vegetables. "What are you eating?"

He paused. The boy was instructed not to talk to her unless it was absolutely necessary. Of course, like all good teenagers, the youngster had a hard time of hearing the adults’ tone.

"Just rice and some pickled cabbage. Nothing special."

[i 'Yum.'] Jackie kinda forgot what vegetables tasted like. The fresh crispness of the bite enticed her ears.

"Sounds better than what I'm having." Underneath the gray matter was a scoop of rice. The meal didn't seem too bad until she took a bite of the rice and realized that it wasn't cooked all the way. Immediately skipping dinner, she called out to him and introduced herself. "The name is Jackie. Jackie Simms."

"..."

He paused. Was it worth his life to interact with such a villainous prisoner?

"What's wrong?"

Scanning the environment around him to make sure it was safe, he whispered across the giant cage's aisle, "They told me not to talk to you."

Jackie scratched her chin and then tapped on the circlet. "You got one of these on as well?"

"No."

"Lucky."

"Lucky Ahn Ten," he muttered to himself. "That's me."

"You don't sound so lucky." Apparently her hearing was on point because she could hear the boy whose name was Ahn Ten and his messages that quietly died in midair. “So Ahn Ten’s your name? I like it.”

"Hey I know that you're new to this party, but if you haven't noticed, we're apart of the Black Parade: a guild of poachers, bounty hunters, and treasure hunters all under one roof. If the price is good enough, we'll take the job no matter how dirty the details are. They'd sell their own grandmother on the market if she was worth the coin. Cutthroats with cutlasses. We're their property and they get to do what they want to do with us as long as it brings them fortune. Small talk isn’t gonna save either of us.”

Confused, Jackie pressed her face to the bar.

“They're not carnies?"

"Carnies? These guys might be a bunch of clowns and acrobats, but this is no circus. Antezario is strictly about business." Ahn Ten shook his head in disappointment. He thought to himself that the captain had inherited another brainless crook. "What do you know about the Black Parade besides what I had just told you?"

Jackie shrugged. "I've only been on the ship for half a day now, not much besides they have shit for cooks and a goon as their leader."

That smirk was forever seared in the back of her head like steak on the Fighter’s wings. No matter how she tried to scrub Antezario’s face from her mind, Jackie was reminded that he bested her.

"I'll let you in on what the guild members of the Black Parade can do. Five months ago the Ubizeni tribe in Zagara existed until a rival tribe hired the Black Parade to wipe the Ubizeni entirely out. They took up the bill and three months later the Ubizeni ceased to exist. It took us a month alone to stock up on supplies and get all the way to get to Zagara. That’s on the other side of our maps of the Blue. Our 300 versus their 10,000: they spared not even one child from the report I saw. 10,000 dead in two months."

Sighing, Ahn Ten slumped his elbows onto his knees. Only fifteen years of age and he was a witness of terrible genocide. He remembered the nights where the Black Parade dragged him along and he especially remembered the frightened faces of the slaughtered Ubizeni.

The Ubizeni was a peaceful and relatively new tribe that had been mostly comprised of farmers. With year after year of successful harvests, the wealthy Nujaku family—who had made their wealth on Zagaran lands—encroached on Ubizeni territory. Ubizeni officials sought to protect their lands from the pilferers through parliament in which enthralled the Nujaku. In response, blood had to be spilled.

Jackie wondered about this Ahn Ten. He was far too young, but even in the Blue could the most imaginable terrors exist. She poked her finger through her cell and at him.

“Did you partake in the killing?"

"I wish," Ahn Ten began. Jackie's heart skipped but then he continued with, "I would have tried killing as many of these fuckers before they did me in for good.”

Ahn Ten scratched his brow in slight disdain but took a few breaths to compose himself. He shuddered at the trembling memories of mothers shielding their young with their bodies as blades sank into their backs. The Black Parade danced in long pants, top hats, and elaborate coats as they cleaved their swords and fired off rifles into confused crowds. Who were these foreign men and what did the Ubizeni do to deserve such cruel punishment?

Speechless, Ahn Ten stood in the midst of the smoking fields. He watched the blood of human and cattle splatter across the tall grass. Mothers and fathers cried and fought as their children were set ablaze in large barbed wires pens. The unholy shrieks of the children heralded the catastrophic demise of the Ubizeni and ushered in the Nujaku rule.

“I’m just a coward,” he mumbled.

Silence. Ahn Ten pressed the pickled vegetables to his lips but did not eat. He witnessed a genocide in his very short life yet never had anyone listen to his feelings.

"So what's your story? You know, before any of this." Jackie pressed her fat cheeks against the bars and showcased the ugliest grin. She had to win Ahn Ten over; he was the only member of this atrocious troupe that minded her any attention.

"Long story short, mom and pop were conscious objectors who fled from Bating. The prime minister put a bounty out on them and I became collateral as a result.”

Ahn Ten returned to his food promptly. He squinted and turned away from Jackie.

"So there's a chance your parents are alive then."

Even in a slightly drunken stupor, Jackie had rare moments of optimism. Some of the old her simply refused to die with Anchovi.

"I would like to think so. Ship's admin knows how to lock up information and everyone else is decent at keeping their mouths shut." Ahn Ten had been on the ship for almost a year now and had been placed as the tottering messenger boy. It wasn't the best position, but at least he got to go to sleep without any lashes. This did not improve his attitude whatsoever though. "They could be dead."

"That's a possibility." Jackie got positive vibes from Ahn Ten. She thought that she could possibly finagle a breakout with him. "There's also a possibility of you leaving this ship alive."

Ahn Ten scratched his brow and shook his head. Fifteen years young and alone, the teenager had so much to look forward to in life like his first kiss and owning his own house. Not even an hour after knowing each other Jackie Simms, she was leading him down a path of absolute suicide.

"I can't risk my life for a stranger," he peacefully put it.

"Then perhaps we can risk our lives as friends." The audacity Jackie had. She joked that it leaked from the gap between her two front teeth.

"There's no such concept as friendship on the Black Parade." Ahn Ten shrugged and turned away from her direction. "Fuck, if family can't save me, then who can?"

He took half an hour to compose himself. The memories flooded his mind and down his cheeks, and he couldn't let this strange bulk of meat and a mouth catch him crying. Stalwart and fearless: that's what Ahn Ten strived to be. That's what his parents taught him to be.

Finally, Ahn Ten spoke up after Jackie had lain down for the night. She faced the young man across the aisle and listened closely.

"My grandfather was with me when Antezario captured us in Upper Bihon. We had gotten a message from my parents that we were going to meet at the Gilded Lily. Of course, these bounty hunters were already keeping a close eye on us hoping to catch mom and pop. Gramps knew that we couldn't lead them to my parents so we tried our best to lose them in the Uchi-soto league. Didn't work for us. These headhunters scoured across the Grand View in hopes of collecting the biggest bounty they've ever seen."

[i 'Grand View? That's a new one.'] Jackie believed that his parents did more than object to Bating's ruling. It pained her to watch him skirt around the glaring holes in his story.

"Wan Qien was my grandfather's name. He loved his daughter very much and always encourage her to go against Bating's grain. Mom was a blacksmith who made art out of dated relics; turned old jian into magic. Gramps made sure that my mother only married the best. Pop aspired to be a diplomat but was fated to serve the Bating's oligarchy as one of the country's leading bodyguards. Bating suffocates the common people in order for the affluent to live well and prosperous. Gramps sought potential in our family and initially caused my parents to flee from the country. Only when they reached Red Bird Station did they let me--their only son--know that they were leaving for good. I soon followed."

Tidbits of Bating were thrown around ever since she was a young girl. Jackie's parents always talked about how their ancestors uprooted from the home country and made the migration up to Guten Nocht with several dozen clans. Initially, her ancestors and their people settled in Astrid and prospered financially with textile making, food service, and farming.

The clans from Bating intermarried with each other and forbid marrying outsiders. Soon enough, distant cousins were marrying each other and the bloodline traits formed. The weak died fairly young, but age old tradition and fighting styles lived for millennia through the generations.

It was only until Jackie's great-great grandparents that her line moved to Last, where they started an orphanage attached to a fighting dojo. The dojo lasted for a couple generations until the Simms struck calamity and were forced to close down for good. Jackie herself was never fully immersed in the culture, but she took in what she could get. The entire armory was sold before Jackie was born: she never saw traditional armor nor a jian or dao.

The one thing she recalled was that there were four stations to the capital, each in a cardinal direction. Black Turtle, Green Dragon, Red Bird, White Tiger. Jackie wasn't connected to these places per se, but there was a flicker of wanderlust. One of these days she'd make it to Bating, but her guess when was not anytime soon.

"Gramps plotted for months to flee this ship, but the wrench monkeys always kept a vigilant eye on us. We knew of former slaves who tried to jump ship, but it didn't end well for them. They were quickly recollected and whipped for days. Eventually, they had crumpled under pressure and died. But my gramps, he came up with the idea to poison them all at the dinner table. Take them all down in one fell swoop."

"That's gutsy," Jackie perked up and propped her head into her palm. Now the story seemed to go somewhere.

"No, Antezario has guts. He caught my grandfather administer the poison into the stew. The feast was canceled but the two ate in that lunatic's private quarters. I kicked and I screamed and fought. My fists weren't enough to knock out all his guards. The two of them enjoyed the stew, my grandfather and Antezario. Well, Antezario did. Oh, and Raf with a gun to the back of gramp's head. Raf made sure that the entire pot was split between the two men, but only one of them made it out alive."

"How?"

"Rumor has it that Antezario Vespuccin is apparently immune to poisons. He's ingested hundreds of poisons over the years and built up his immunity." Ahn Ten, whose lanky arms wrapped around the bars, held back his tears and continued with the tragedy. "That night they shackled gramps to the walls and I witnessed my grandfather's body turn into maggot meal for two months before they allowed me to clean out his cell. For two months, I was locked up to witness his death. The poison was slow acting, and it melted him from the inside-out. He'd try talking away my tears but only vomit and white foam came out. It was a clear reminder that if I ever tried to flee that I would suffer a more painful fate than him."

He pulled away from the dry cell bars for a spell. The nightmares of the past tore him apart internally. Helpless Ahn Ten, locked behind bars, was forced to watch Wan Qien's body to collapse on itself. Every time the boy closed his eyes, his grandfather's cries for death echoed in the distance.

"I'm scared." His voice trembled.

Jackie jumped onto her feet to comfort Ahn Ten. She held out her hands for him, but the aisle kept them apart.

"You're allowed to be scared, but you don't have to go alone." She assured him. "I had someone very close to me be in a similar situation."

"And what happened to him?" Ahn Ten wanted to calm down, but the grotesque scene haunted his thoughts.

"Well, you see, that's a long story in itself." Jackie then lied, "He's safe traveling the Blue, probably learning new things wth all the friends he's made since we've split."

She hadn't the slightest clue as to what happened to Rhys Illumina or the rest of the Fighter's crew.

"I'm gonna reunite with them, and if you're smart, you'll tag along with me. We're survivors. Survivors need to stick with each other."

With false hope, Jackie lured Ahn Ten yet managed to leave out an important bit to Jackie's past: survivors needed to stick with each other until all further use has been exhausted. Jackie Simms belonged outside of the bars and back with her people. That is, of course, the people of the Black Parade, for she would go to great lengths to save her own hide at the risk of other bystanders.
  HEAD ES DOODLE PETSUCHOS / Finnigan / 1y 288d 14h 59m 56s
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