Seas Beyond Infinity

/ By Finnigan [+Watch]

Replies: 104 / 5 years 211 days 10 hours 52 minutes 17 seconds

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[size16 #Camellia#]

Machiko was the first to wake up the following morning. Guests Oe and Harvey retreated to their respective inns after the night of endless banter and relaxation. Machiko escorted Anchovi the short distance to their room, and the rag tag group decided that she was better watched in close proximity. At least, everyone except for the young boy, Rhys. He placed more trust in that girl than the rest of Anchovi combined. The indescribable feeling that might have been called love caught him in a tizzy, but as for the ninja, it was all still a mystery.

Silently, she stood over his body. Machiko admired the golden hair and sincere face at rosy dawn. She withdrew her breath from such a sight and tiptoed out of the Midori Inn without catching an eye or ear. Draped in an olive drab, her lithe steps whisked her right out of Towa’s downtown and towards the edge of the enchanted green forest. It was the seedier area of the town where all the warehouses resided. Towa’s rustic aesthetic masked the industrial cold vibe. Low hanging roofs and metal shacks, all obscured by wooden buildings and the deep green foliage.

The clouds slowly brought in a slight drizzle just as she stood in front of warehouse twelve. Machiko closed her eyes for a minute for a brief moment in time before knocking on the cold rippled tin door. She felt blue, down and out. A kid should never feel this way; the stress had its hold on Machiko. If she closed her eyes longer maybe she could skip this day. Maybe she could turn back now and hope that [i she] would forget this clandestine meeting. Of course, none of that would happen. The tin shack door opened to a dry and dimly lit place, and Hae Suun was leaning on a cold steel blue box.

Minimizing the sound of her giant gulp, Machiko entered the warehouse and approached the only functioning furniture. She sat in an old wooden chair and placed her hands on the table. Her sisters in dark navy costume surrounded the table. There was no exchange of words, just action and precaution. Feet reverberated against the concrete flooring. To outsiders, these women had no recognizable names or faces. They operated in the shadows and in high places like the soaring falcons. They reached lands far and wide and across all parts of the known Blue, yet they were unnamable. To the emperor and the most trusted citizens of Tsukimoto, they were the Camellia which bloomed eternally.

A high ranking captain, Hae Suun, placed her feet before the table and its most current resident. She was cold like the first month of the new year. Her face did not stir nor did her body produce any heat. Machiko dared not to think of her as dead or undead, for she feared that the captain could read such folly thoughts. From time to time, the rumors between junior officers crafted such a perceptive being out of Hae Suun’s image. Rumors became myth, and the myth was that Hae Suun could mind read and even predict the near future. Some would say she was a not a ninja of Tsukimoto, but a full blown witch.

Ninja, witch, goddess, whoever or whatever she was; Hae Suun intimidated her subordinates with mere presence alone.

“Junior officer Machiko of Soga. Did you enjoy your short vacation?”

“Yes, captain.” She was conditioned to not to retort in a snappy manner. Machiko knew how sharp and decisive the captain was, and any sass to the captain was quickly matched with severe punishment.

“Good, because I don’t care.”

Such lifelessness. Hae Suun strayed away from the Order’s teachings. She found them to be too...motherlike, a quality foreign to Hae Suun. She neglected the girls’ emotional standing as long as they were able to function as a complete team and achieve their main objectives. The coddling she witnessed other captains do irritated her skin. She had hoped more of her younger sisters would one day rebel against her and put her into the loamy earth just to put the weak ones in the very same place. The meticulously ruthless and beautiful Hae Suun had a death wish unfulfilled.

“You were more aware that I would be making a personal visit, and sure enough you showed up on time to this little get together. So, Machiko, my little canary, you must know why I’m a little agitated.”

“Yes, captain.”

“And if you do know why I’m agitated, then why aren’t you doing everything in your little beating heart to fix it? You know it pains me.”

The venom was dripping from her fangs. A demon in human flesh. Ruthless in her desires, the captain was going to get ugly real quick, real soon. The members of the Order of Camellia were expendable in her inured eyes. A plain old sadist, bully, and murderer all rolled up into one, Hae Suun took pleasure and very little pain in executing the stragglers of the organization, but she couldn’t just do that at this moment. Machiko had something that the mean streaked captain lacked.

The captain thus spoke, “Turn him over.”

“I cannot.” Machiko spoke softly yet confidently. Her hands remained flat on the table for safety insurance. She had been in her sisters’ positions where she would watch an interrogation go awry. Very few of these hearings ended up bloody. Machiko had seen some cases where girls slightly older than her left the room without a hand or two. That would never happen to her; she was going to make it out of this room intact and breathing.

“The Order is not too keen on negativity. The captains are supposed to enforce a sense of yes within all their sisters. Machiko, you’ve heard the saying, ‘if there isn’t a way, pave one.’ We’re creatures of innovation. You can, little canary. You know where he is, and you’re more than welcome to share this information with your sisters. Say, if you’re not up to the task, disclose the information and we will be glad to pick up your slack.”

A slacker Machiko was not. The malicious captain plucked at the heartstrings of exasperated girls and young women. What they avoided was additional tasks to their tireless list of chores. Depraved of sleep and alone time, these girls wore dark circles underneath their eyes and went days without eating. Hae Suun’s girls were just as tempered and cannibalist as their leader. Machiko envisioned it now. In the brink of night they’d drag her out into the rice fields and off her there. With what life left, the last thing she would bear witness was them setting fire to her corpse.

“Machiko, don’t be an idiot. He wouldn’t do the same for you. He’s a flight risk, a danger to this country and the entire Blue. His freedom puts us in the face of danger. We are held responsible if type A felons leave our country alive. Are you willing to put your sisters in peril?”

“No, captain.”

The lightbulb above her head swiveled. Machiko understood that she was not going to leave this warehouse without consequence. She could easily give up the information to her superior, but that did not guarantee her safety. A myriad of options concerning death and maimings flooded her already fugacious mind. On the other hand, keeping quiet led to torture. The girl had no knowledge of what that entailed, or what exactly was included in the package, and feared that she was not properly trained to combat it. What would any spy of the Order do? Keep her mouth shut, probably.

“You’re bound to the Order whether or not you realize it. We are employees of the Emperor Akio and the royal family. We have been entrusted to protect his lineage as well as the wellbeing of this country. We took a vow or did you forget that? The only way that’ll change is if you wilt into winter.”

“I’m not a little girl anymore, captain,” she snapped. The captain had gotten to her. “No need to patronize me with childish euphemisms.”

“Don’t challenge authority if you’re not ready to accept the consequences.” Hae Suun’s cold aura stunned the girls in the room before she continued. “I’ll get that information out of you right before I knock your life into the next.”

[b Clank! Clank!]

[i ‘Who could that be?’]

Someone’s hardy fist pounded on the door. Hae Suun instructed one of the girls to open the door only to feel a fiery slug across the face. The tremendous force knocked back and onto the cold hard floor. Lo and behold, the broad shouldered Jackie Simms came to Machiko’s rescue. The cheeky pilot smirked the party.

“Actively working with terrorists is treason.”

Machiko exclaimed, “I don’t know why she’s here!”

“Punishable by death.”

Hae Suun brandished her blade and went for a helm-splitting strike, but the stray petal was quick enough to flip the table over and jump out of her chair. The kunoichi slowly closed in on Machiko until she was able to hop back into the drizzle with her soppy and unrealistic ally.

“Why?” the girl asked.

“Because if anyone is gonna make you pay, it’s gonna be me.” Jackie pushed Machiko towards the back as the squadron filed outside of the warehouse. “I don’t know what the fudge you’re doing, li’l girl, but if you put Rhys-e-sweet or any of us in trouble, we’re gonna get ya.”

“Please, let me take care of this, mam.”

Machiko tried to face down her captain, but the ruffian kept her from making any hasty decisions. It was the boiling Jackie Simms who engaged in the staredown with the arctic captain.

“Gotta be honest with you, captain. The moment we first locked eyes on that fateful day was when I decided I wanted to fight you.” Jackie went ahead to loosen her neck and pop her knuckles. She assumed her fighting stance and winked at the slender and rather enticing woman from Tsukimoto. Jackie never planned on playing by the country’s rules.

Hae Suun, wrapped in long black trenchcoat and wielding her katana in one hand, rambled rather callously, “Alcoholic. Pugnacious. Illiterate. Fat. Retarded. Jackie ‘Sevenstars’ Simms, named after Tingshan seven pointed martial arts. Undefeated in the ring, champion beneath the sheets. A ruffian whore-beast known by no other name.”

“Baby, baby. Laying it on thicker than my own hide. Ouch.” Jackie smirked. She was more than ready to throwdown.

“Captain, what should we do?” One of the girls asked.

“Capture Machiko of Soga alive. Break her legs if you have to.” The captain held up her blade. “Leave her to me.”

“This is gonna be easier than I thought, but for you, little girl, I hope you’re ready to take them all on.”

The girls fanned out, but they were the least of Machiko’s worries.

“How did you find me? I made sure that I wasn’t followed.”

“You’re not the only one who’s good at slinking around.”

The kunoichi attacked, but not without interference from Jackie. The bulging forearms jutted out and snatched not one but two of the swiftest girls by the neck. With one girl, Jackie smashed her into the wet earth and held her by the boot while the other one was seemingly tossed back into a tin wall. Taking the opportunity to gain some ground, Machiko jumped onto the roofs of the warehouses and moved away from the main event. The Order, with the exception of Hae Suun, followed closely.

Like fire and water, the wind and sea, the two women clashed in presence alone. Men from all around the Blue feared a woman so strong yet agile like Jackie, while the secret order bowed down to a tough as diamonds Hae Suun. They were alone for their bout of intimacy, just like they wanted. Only the rain could maintain the fits of fiery rage of the two giant infernos. The pugnacious pilot found the high she desperately craved, the one she needed to function.

They circled until they both jumped into the vicious tango. Jackie threw punch after punch at Hae Suun, but the captain of Camellia either slipped out of reach or shrugged each piece of the pummel like brushing off the light dusting of a winter’s storm. She took a blow to the chest that sent her heels digging into the mushy earth, but like brazen statues she stood valiantly. Not a muscle in her face twitched or turn, nor did her stomach cry out and churn; Hae Suun was no average assassin. Her beauty and endurance was something supernatural and beyond what Jackie had seen of the Blue.

The katana, held by the stalwart woman of Tsukimoto, glistened in the grey drizzle and never left its master’s hands. The grasp around its tight hilt swung for the oafish foreigner yet cleaved nothing but the humid air. The reports severely sold short Jackie’s agility. The sword was quick, but she was quicker. The recklessly brave Jackie wedged the slick blade between her rough palms and grimaced at her foe’s change in face. With one great heave, one of two muddy boots ejected the swordwielder from the sword and into the mud. Sitting with mud clumped in her silky hair and coat, Hae Suun turned away from Jackie in disgust and huffed.

“How?”

It was over so quick; the moment baffled Hae Suun.

“I never underestimated you.”

Walking away from the unsatisfying bout, Jackie could not but wish that the opponent was a little more hot headed and attack from behind. She had hope that the attack on the captain’s ego would spark a real fight.

“Machiko is coming with us, and if you or any of your girls stand in the way--Hel, even the emperor himself--I’ll mow you all down. The next time we clash, I expect you not to hold back or get too cocky.”

Ignoring Jackie’s word, Hae Suun remarked, “You won’t make it out of this town alive.”

Tsukimoto could mobilize its entire military staff, but not even then would it be enough to stop Anchovi. Jackie Simms, all drenched at this point, kept to her words and would in fact punch her way back to the Fighter if need be. Jackie Simms wanted the very same thing the captain wanted from Machiko, and perhaps in a different universe both women would enjoy each other’s company and the preferred methods of interrogation employed.
  HEAD ES DOODLE PETSUCHOS / Finnigan / 4y 249d 23h 11m 45s
[size16 #Magical Girl Hot Springs#]

“Oh, it’s you! Oe!” Rhys exclaimed with such joy that he clasped his hands around the flowing Oe. He could feel the heat escaping her body and smell unfamiliar wintergreen.

She smiled at the young boy and nodded. Firmly grasping his shoulders, she swung her tightly wound braids back and questioned the golden haired boy. “If you’re here, then does that mean…”

He vigorously nodded and exclaimed, “Yes! Eudoxia is here too.”

“You’ve protected her like I asked.”

Oe smiled, but Rhys could not accept the declaration. Eudoxia had pulled her weight the entire time and proved time and time again that she was a tour de force. Rhys was only there to play cheerleader and tend to the chickens.

“I’m afraid I cannot see her now, for there is danger that lurks in the shadows of Tsukimoto.” Knowing that Machiko and the rest of Towa was in her presence, Oe told Rhys, “It might be as well that you and princess Eudoxia have been dragged into it as well.”

What peril loomed for them? Perturbed by the idea that an unforeseeable force lingered, Rhys held his breath. Surely Tsukimoto was aware of all its dangers or perhaps the dangers didn’t reside within the government. He did not know what to ask of Oe but he requested that she seek out Eudoxia and tell her as well. During an exchange of words between both foreigners, Machiko kept quiet and observed every detail of this mystery lady. What was her role in all of this and what was her relationship to Rhys and Anchovi?

The lone wanderer whispered into Rhys’ ear, “Eudoxia and the Magical Girl, eight on the dot.”

[i ‘Eudoxia and the Magical, eight on the dot. Hm.’]

Rhys had not a clue, but maybe the frizzy haired companion could decipher the message. Back at the Midori Inn, Anchovi regrouped and then the topic of hot springs sprung forth.

“You’re a genius, Rhys!” the extravagant young lady proclaimed as she squeezed him dearly. “This is the kind of relaxation we need. During our first couple of stops in this country, all the young men begged for me to go to the hot springs. Yours truly did not want to take any risks by herself just in case something goes awry, but if all of us are going, we’ll have fun. I don’t want to hear it Frank, don’t give me that look.”

“What the actual flip is a hot spring? And do we have to go to the one called Magical Girl Hot Springs?” Frank scratched his armpit and grunted.

“Natural water heated up by the Blue's core. It’s in our culture to enjoy bathing and socializing at these spas. It’s meant to relax you,” Machiko inserted.

“It sounds perverted.”

Just recently waking up from a long nap, Tony yawned and shuddered. “Sharing water with others?”

The girls assured Frank and Tony that none of them would get any funny ideas and that they wouldn’t catch any cooties. Jackie also pointed out that as of lately the two of them were awfully agreeing with each other. Her statement, while true, pestered the likes of them, and they both gave into the evening’s agenda. Neither wanted to be the sour milk of the party.

After the dinner which consisted of soup and noodles to Tony’s dismay, Anchovi geared up for their latest mission: travel down the street a few doors and infiltrate the notorious Magical Girl Hot Springs. Six awkward figures followed the confidence of a seventh figure. Electricity ran through the gaudy sign’s light bulbs. Very few buildings in Towa had electricity, but the skeptical mechanic of Anchovi wondered where all the funds to Towa went. If the emperor was spending so much money on this town, then why wasn’t every house and store lit up with light bulbs?

By the time he came up with five different and totally plausible conjectures, Anchovi stepped through the doors of the Magical Girl and Tony knew. He now knew where all the money went. Girls in tight get ups flooded the room. Decorated in bright pinks, purples, blues, and yellows, these girls matched their outfits loudness with high squeals and startling gesticulations. The skimpy skirts and high socks, white satin gloves and exposed cleavage. It was too much. Frank knew that the emperor was a little daft, but he had no idea that he was this depraved. Frank had to shield his and Rhys’ eyes from the big breasted women with the enormous posteriors. There was no way that the women in such gaudy outfits hailed from Tsukimoto.

The seven patrons quickly exited the changing stalls as soon as they entered. Down to underwear and swimsuits, headed towards the entrance to the hot springs. None of the guys wanted to deal with high pitched terrors that they hurriedly scuttled towards the back of the facility. The girls split into one group, yet Frank unnoticeably followed until Eudoxia halted him.

“Uh, didn’t you read the sign?” She pointed to the sign. It was written in the language of Tsukimoto, so Frank had no idea what she was talking about. Eudoxia then pointed in the opposite direction and asserted, “You enter through there.”

Eudoxia, Jackie, and Machiko all entered through the female side and left the boys and Duster to go the other way. There was one problem though and Rhys scratched his head. The Lucavi stood in the middle and read both signs.

“What’s wrong?” Rhys asked.

“Nothing. Go on without me, it’ll be a while.”

The males left the confused alien and walked through the maze of corridors until they reached their destination. They swore that they were inside the entire time, but before they realized, the roof and walls opened up into an outdoor space. Surrounding the foggy pool were dark green plants and flowers giving off pleasant scents. Bamboo grew in each corner and flat smooth stones outlined the water.

“I feel naked,” Rhys threw out there.

“Me too, bud, me too.”

It was a decent sized area and more than what any of them had imagined. Rhys was granted swimming trunk, but the older men were given the less modest option. Frank’s pale body illuminated the brightest in tepid water; his bones jutted from his skin. His darker counterpart had muscles to fill in the frame. Tony wasn’t well aware of his physique until now and wondered where he had the time to maintain such a thing. He was easily the most well-built man out of a couple dozen men.

“Oh fuck, let’s get out of here!” Tony muttered to Frank.

Ignoring the quiet bantering of the other patrons, he had managed to make eye contact with the one relaxing in the back: the Lansit. The stout man with the solid belly muted the room with a flick of his. The eerie silence allowed the water to ripple louder. The austerity of his magic compelled Tony and Frank to approach cautiously.

“Ah, when will you be reconvening with the rest of the crew? Uh...what was your name again?” The hairy bellied Harvey had no shame and all the audacity one would expect from the Lansit family. The magician tucked away the pen in his hat and took a huff of his cigar.

Waving a thick cloud of cigar smoke from his face, Frank backed Tony up assertively. “He rolls with a different crew, pal. Our crew.”

A minute too late, Tony realized how naked the magician was.

“Also, do you have the decency to cover yourself up? No one wants to see that.”

“When in Towa, do as the Towans do.” Harvey enjoyed himself too much to care what his former engineer thought. As long as he was making money, it didn’t matter what any of his employees had to say. Rumor had it that not even his father Dulon had the moral authority to relinquish his debauchery.“The Magnuze is in terrible condition since you left. There’s holes in my pride. Holes!”

“Well, you can blame the people who put those holes in the Magnuze. You know, the Templar.”

Harvey cringed at the mere thought of Templar storming the hot springs while he was naked. “Shhhh, they might hear us, you idiot.”

“Sorry, but I’ve made my mistake of joining the Anchovi.” At this point, Tony who had sweated too much about the Magnuze, Harvey, and the misadventures of Anchovi told himself that he did not have to pay mind to such a snob nor any snob or slob. He simply waded away from the malicious magician.

“As you should be. You are dead to me,” Harvey sneered. “Dead.”

“Good. Now stop talkin’ to the corpse.”

“Hmph.”

Just as Anchovi got out of the water, the lonely man cried out, “Wait, where are you going?”

“Somewhere other than here.”

“I thought we were friends!” he wailed.

Tony turned to Frank and, with a sheepish smile grin, remarked, “I can’t believe we’ve worked with that guy.”

Frank shook his head and chuckled, “Unfortunately, we will never get our time back.”

On the other side of the tall bamboo wall, the women had just entered the water after minutes of discussion on food. Eudoxia had claimed that Dalmenian food tasted better than the blandness that was Varsyl, but Jackie insisted that Francolian and food from Tsukimoto could not be matched in the amount of sheer pleasure it brought her. Machiko was living through their words and wanted to leave Tsukimoto to enjoy the same joys as them. She wanted to discuss things like food with the older ladies, but she only knew the best of Tsukimoto. Sure, she could compare regions, but the glutton Jackie only would understand half of the food items and drinks listed.

She would never fit in with Anchovi if she stayed in Tsukimoto forever. Machiko wanted to mingle with royalty like Eudoxia and emancipate servants like Jackie. She knew everything about the Fighter, yet she never set foot in such a marvel. She had to escape with what she knew already about Anchovi, yet the girl who was barely in her teens was bound to her sisters. Machiko, in all honesty, lacked the certain fortitude and discipline many other girls her age already possessed. The single most important factor that separated her from the rest was that she was afraid to die.

Eudoxia, with a washcloth pressed up to her nude chest, dipped into the water and discerned the lone woman bathing at one end of the glowing pool. The sepia skinned guest had her back turned to the women of Anchovi. Her posterior curved in both width and depth and was built around a sturdy lower torso. It was by the time Eudoxia got to the strong back and toned arms that she knew exactly who this majestic lady was. Her beautifully braided black hair was put up; the strong neck glistened with beads of water trickling down.

In a soft and polite voice seldomly used, Eudoxia announced her presence with, “Maestra, you’re bewitching.”

Oe had to tame her smile before turning around to greet the frizzy haired damsel. She always made an effort to hide her teeth despite her country of origin’s customs. “Princess Eudoxia, it’s been some time.”

Eudoxia fell forward and embraced her former teacher with a mammoth force, physically and emotionally.

“Will mine ever grow to be those big?” Machiko asked Jackie about her breasts while observing Eudoxia and Oe’s.

“Who needs boobs? If I had a bigger pair, they’d chafe more than they do now.” Jackie chuckled. She reminisced on her childhood insecurities and reassured Machiko that she wasn’t missing out. “Count your blessings. At least you don’t need any use for duct tape. They get in the way of punching. Well, at least mine do.”

The two couples bantered for the longest time before a fifth woman decided to make her debut. This tall woman though was a spectacle to the eye that even the most serious of them all, Oe, dropped in the middle of the sentence to glance. The stranger managed to avoid making eye contact with any of the four women and stood for a solid moment at the edge of the steaming spa. Fully naked, the tanned, big butt and breasted giselle dropped into the water like a sinking stone, yet somehow the loose curls of black managed to avoid getting wet. A perfect mannequin or maybe a rambunctiously hormonal teenager’s wet dream stirred in their midst. Her silence was oddly hair-raising.

“Excuse me.” The void of emotion cleared way for the laconic diva.

Jackie gasped, “Duster?!”

The Lucavi was trying his--in this case, her--best to maintain the image. Duster waded through what he thought was lukewarm water and crossed over to another room. Wondering where Duster had went, the girls followed his lead. They demanded answers to the many questions they possessed. Who exactly was she and where did her image come from? No one in Towa looked like her. Duster’s image was far too tall for the natives of any of the nations Anchovi visited. Did the rabbit-man compose this from a hodge-podge of women? Were any of the parts he used any of the women present?

The women reached another pool of simmering water; this time the pool was one perfect circle. Duster jumped into this pool without saying anything and right before the men of Anchovi came stumbling in. Frank, who was talking to Tony and Rhys and had his back towards the women, bumped into Eudoxia who was strangely fixated on fem-Duster’s plump breasts.

By accident, her boob grazed his elbow, but it was Eudoxia who cried out, “Pervert!”

Without warning, she socked the bony man in the chest and knocked him straight into the pool.

“Yeouch!” Frank shouted, “This is the communal area!”

“Oh. Sorry.”

Anchovi laughed off Frank’s pain and were too preoccupied to notice that Harvey had slinked his way into the center pool. He was an active charmer and maybe he was suave enough to entice women without magic, but he wasn’t that appealing to Lucavi dressed up as a woman.

“M’lady, may I ask where you are staying this evening? Perhaps I can offer you some company.”

Duster said nothing.

“The silent type, eh? Love it.”

This would go on for the duration of Duster’s stay, and the conceited magician would never realize that there were other people in the room lively laughing at his well-deserved setback.

Jackie swam up to Tony who was observing from the opposite end of Duster. She looked at the struggling alien and then back at tall, dark, and handsome. There was something about the breasts that hypnotized everyone that night.

“Don’t even bother?” she smirked.

“What?” Tony turned his attention to Jackie who was scrubbing her shoulders with the wet washcloth.

“I saw you staring at her...erm, well. Yeah.”

“I wasn’t staring though. Do you know her?” Tony wasn’t actively interested in the bimbo. He came up with this story that she was another foreigner making a living as a traveling jezebel. The number of men she had slept with probably was probably tenfold of how many women Tony ever interacted with. He figured at this rate, the jezebel slept with a thousand men or so.

“Yeah. That’s Duster.”

“What?” he nearly coughed up a storm in response. Tony actively avoided short talk with her and averted his eyes elsewhere. He wasn’t looking for a reason to anger the brawler and have a hole punched through him.

“Doesn’t matter.” Jackie had noticed his strange behavior and called him out. “Hey, it’s rude to talk to someone and not face them.”

“Sorry.” He made an effort to connect eyes every few seconds, as awkward as it was. “Didn’t know if you were in one of those moods.”

“Moods?”

Perhaps talking to women wasn’t a strong point of his. Maybe he was going to get a hole punched through him.

“To talk.”

“I apologize if I’ve been on your nerves. Just figuring out things.” Jackie slowly drifted backwards into the water and allowed her thick body to sink into the warm waters. She knew that the Blue would never be this pleasant. Those waters weren’t as clear and inviting as the springs.

“You’re talking about him, right?”

“Yeah.” She looked up and away from Tony as she remembered the tickling of his handlebar mustache. She saw potential in their relationship, but there wasn’t anything she could do to save him. She feared getting too intimate with guys. The recent batch were mere stress relievers for her.

“It’s going to hurt.”

“I know,” she said with annoyance stuck in her ear. She didn’t need Tony to remind her. Jackie was supposed to be the tough one.

“For the longest time I had thought I lost my brother forever. My father died at the hands of slavers in a fashion that I will never know. Do wI want to know what happened to him though I know it will only make me angrier? Yeah. I was in your position, Jackie, and I gave into my rage.The rage took control and before I realized what happened, I was soaked in another man’s blood. I’m not a fighter like you, I’m just a mechanic, sometimes an engineer. My father was avenged yet there was a feeling of emptiness in me. That’s why Jeraia left as soon as he could and emancipate slaves all over the Varsylian continent. He couldn’t stand to be around his self-loathing brother and didn’t even ask if I wanted to join.” The true Tony leaked out of the stern shell and he followed Jackie’s motion and sank back into the water. “Even if you think I’m a stranger sharing the same living space as you, I want you to know that you’ll bounce back. You’re far stronger than me. I’m still figuring things out myself.”

In the corner farthest away from everyone else and just as she had admonished to Rhys, the wise warrior Oe spoke to Eudoxia with great severity of things to come.

“I have to get you out here. Your life as well as Rhys’ might be in danger if you stay in Tsukimoto any further.” Oe’s eyes scanned the room and looked at each of the seven bizarre characters remaining. She cared for her former student and wanted nothing but her to choose the destiny most fitting. She saw Eudoxia nothing less of a daughter. “I can’t speak for any of them, but there’s danger amongst this company.”

“You.” Frank hopped from the center of the pool and confidently pointed at Oe.“I think I know you.”

Eudoxia turned to Frank with puzzled look on her face. “You know the Maestra?”

“This man, we’ve met before.” Perhaps it was the scraggly beard that threw her off, but Oe recognized this him as he got closer.

“It must’ve been a dream because I can’t for the life of me remember where, but I know that I know that I know you. I’m Frank.”

“It is no dream. You’ve managed to make it out of the hands of Galhead, Frank. I’m Oe.”

Once she said Galhead, Frank went back in time and realized she was the woman enchanted in white cloth that lifted up his spirits in the worst of times. He was chained and dehydrated in the throngs of buyers, yet she stood there amongst the bidders and malefactors. He had thought maybe the Maker sent an angel to save him.

“Eudoxia, you’ve been traveling with a pack of survivalists this entire time.”

Eudoxia nodded, but it went unnoticed when Oe watched in disgust as Harvey bombarded poor Duster.

“And [i him]? Are you traveling with a merchant of death? That merchant of death.” Oe had a great distaste for the Harvey Lansit and his entire family. She had to break his trance over Eudoxia far too many times in training because the girl was foolish enough to fall for a lecher.

“No, Maestra. We happened to stumble upon him in a bar.”

“Be wary of him. And the girl from the Order. She is not to be trusted either.”

These words were important to Frank. He firmly stood by his goals to protect Rhys. Knowing that what this wise woman had to say, he joined the women on land.

“Rhys has taken a likin’ to her. You think she has ulterior motives?”

“Without a doubt, yes.” Eudoxia wasn’t the most vocal of Anchovi when it came to Machiko, but her distrust for the ninja fumed. She was convinced that Machiko, a wind up doll, was sent by the emperor, Momiji, Hae Suun, whoever to tear apart the Fighter and Anchovi.

“When the time comes, you might have to fight her, even kill.” Oe, looking to Frank and Eudoxia, further added on, “Would you do that, knowing that you might break his heart?”

“For him,” Frank watched Rhys joyfully laughed in tandem with the enemy. It pained him to think that maybe Rhys was better suited to live in Tsukimoto and under the regime’s furtive aim. At least he would have Machiko to keep company. Then again, he remembered what promise he made to a certain magicker on Nocht and visualized the young girl as a temptress-in-training whose ultimate goal was to tear the boy limb from limb. After one grave sigh, he promised with, “Yeah.”
  HEAD ES DOODLE PETSUCHOS / Finnigan / 4y 269d 1h 15m 28s
[size16 #Towa#]

Anchovi stood victoriously in the forest of the Koryu province with their favorite aide of the emperor. Today she wore a sharp navy uniform with matching dress slippers. She always had a knack of holding her clipboard close to her chest as if she was hiding secrets. Probably, but none of this concerned Frank.

“Hae Suun was impressed with your performance yesterday, Anchovi. She was seriously starting to doubt your abilities, but what does she know about anything beyond the conventional?”

No one knew if Momiji was trying to compliment them and joke at the expense of the mysterious lady in black or if she was patronizing Anchovi once more. She somehow professional concealed her emotions behind the black framed glasses.

“Don’t count us out.” Tony was the first to speak. Granted, he didn’t do much throughout the entire raid but complain and wrangle a few stragglers down. “Say, what are you going to do with a bunch of farmers now that they’re in your custody?”

[i ‘Good question.’]

“The Raptors will be taken to interrogation in the next couple of days. Their fates depend on how well they cooperate with the emperor and his wishes, but seeing how the emperor has a tendency to be lenient with his punishments, they’ll be shipped off the mainland for remediation.”

Momiji faced a wave of confusion. Tony, Frank, and Jackie wore puzzled looks, and Rhys’ stomach began to churn a fiery squall. Were they all beginning to regret taking up this job? The thought that maybe these farmers were justified in rebelling in their government ran through their minds and not a word was said between them.

“Remediation?”

Like the ninja decked in black, Momiji swiftly averted any further explanation. “Why don’t you stay in Towa for a few days. It’s down the road and since you’ve repaid your debts to Emperor Akio, I’m sure the villagers will take excellent care of you. It’s a village with a lot of historical value to it. Surely such a group of wanderers like you would be interested in that, especially after you’ve saved it.”

The emperor’s aide leaned to her left and caught a glimpse at the young girl Machiko. She seemed complacent with Anchovi, and for whatever reason, made Momiji break character and smile the smallest smile.

“Eh, it’s only in a matter of time when you find another use for us. We oughta make our way back to the Fighter now before you catch us with our pants down again and ask us to clean up your damned island,” Frank huffed. He was never content with taking up jobs that he didn’t personally accept.

Jackie spoke out, “Aw, c’mon Frankie, we need a little R and R.”

“Jackie friggin’ Simms, are you being frank with me?” He still harbored some resentment on Jackie’s behalf and it all spewed like vomit. “If I recall, a certain hooligan had to act out of line and punch a bunch of people in the face for this li’l stint. I like takin’ jobs, but I ain’t ‘bout takin’ jobs for free.”

Surely, Frank was restless. They spent the night in the temple after the raid. He missed his quarters, the semi squishable bed, the atmosphere. Instead, he struggled sleeping on bamboo mats and the cold hard floor without anything resembling a pillow.

“Freeloaders,” he mumbled.

“Frank, my feet are tired. I vote that we stay in town for a while.” Eudoxia’s feet were perfectly fine. Like the majority of Anchovi, she sought out adventure. That, and cute men.

“I agree with Euey.” Jackie needed to relax. While the men were waiting for the Raptors to make their escape, she had pummeled her way through crowds. She bandaged up her fists and torso. Apparently she went through the entire mission without noticing the dozen glancing spear cuts.

“Duster?”

Frank sought to seek wisdom from the Lucavi, but surely regretted afterwards.

“I’m a Lucavi, I cannot be swayed either way.”

Of course, Tony didn’t shy away from voicing his opinion. “C’mon, can we find a country that’s a little bit familiar to some of us. I’m tired of all this weird food.”

“That’s two against two.” Frank was hoping to get the majority vote and he looked towards his brother with gleaming wheat hair. “Rhys?”

It was probably in poor thought that Frank could ever convince Rhys to leave such a spectacular place. Perhaps he thought that he could guilt the boy into leaving. Of course, what Rhys wanted in his heart was stronger and so he spoke, “Uh…I think I want to stay.”

Eudoxia jumped for joy. “Yes!”

Momiji nodded. “Great, I’ll have rooms set up for you at the Midori Inn. You’ll have complimentary access to the adjacent bistro and spa. If you run into any problems, just send a message back to the capital. Good day.”

“Ain’t you forgetting someone?” Frank was quick to interrupt her quiet exit.

“Who?” The aide turned back and listened to her rude employee. She raised her brows to Frank and pulled her clipboard closer to her chest.

Frank pointed to the girl in the purple wardrobe. “Machiko. Shouldn’t she go back to her sisters now that we’ve completed the mission? I ain’t doin’ another job for free, and the last time I checked, I ain’t no babysitter.”

“That’s none of my concern, Mr. Dietz. Machiko’s superiors haven’t given her any further order.” She snidely added on, “As far as I can tell you, Machiko is allowed to do as she wishes. She’s [i your] problem now.”

“Problem?” Rhys muttered.

“...” Machiko stood there empty-faced and evoked no emotion or reaction to the cold callous words.

“Good day.”

Within mere seconds, Momiji vanished like a desert mirage. Her image evaporated into the air.

“If you don’t mind, I’d like to accompany you for a little bit longer.”

“Actin’ all polite, but in reality yer just spyin’ on us,” Frank huffed once more.

“Hae Suun doesn’t need me to do that.”

Tony looked around the area and shuddered. Eyes, someone’s eyes, were watching him at this very moment. The same pair of eyes that have been watching him since he joined this crew. “It’s safe to just assume that someone is watching us at all times.”

A few more hours passed and Anchovi reached their latest destination: Towa. From the lush and dense forest, the troupe immediately walked into vast open spaces. The road, suspended over steep drops of fresh green and streams, overlooked the surrounding mountains and the huts in the valley. The air reminded Rhys and Eudoxia of Sudra, especially the land below Densch. So fresh and brisk. The clouds hung low and girdled the sides of the wide stone path. As they traversed this road, the edifices made of wood and ornate craftsmanship popped up. Lit the roadside lanterns were, and at the gates of Towa, a string of red lanterns dangled above their heads.

The road dipped in altitude a bit as it touched group with what rolling bluff this ancient city was built upon. As if the town was expecting guests, the villagers dressed in dynamic kimonos. They chanted and sang in their language, one most unfamiliar with the foreigners, but Machiko assured that they were happy for their arrival. The women giggled amongst each other as they led Anchovi and Machiko to the Midori Inn. The liaison explained to Rhys that they’ve never seen such mixed company and the one with the fiery head and matching attitude was the most enticing.

Of course, Anchovi was not free of enemies. Behind cracked doors, men and women spied on the Tingshan, Jackie Simms. They feared of the jaundice she would spread, despite never setting foot or eyes on Bating. Others feared that they were the first wave infantry from Varsylgard and rumors had it that the curly haired princess could level cities with her mewing song. The kids muttered “kuromagi”, meaning black magician, throughout the streets when they saw Tony. They aspired to like him: strong, tall, powerful, wise. If there was one culture that pervade the Blue, it was the mythical Nubai Katarians.

Reaching the Midori Inn, Tony clutched the back of his head and sighed. He wasn’t up for exploring and would rather get some rest.

“You guys go on ahead, I’ll just stay around here and struggle.”

No one tried to persuade him otherwise. Frank thought he would have been a drag on the team’s morale if he continued. Tony was left behind with some of the welcoming villagers showing him around the cozy hotel. Not sure where to go, Frank and Jackie allowed Machiko the freedom to show off more of her country. The roads and cross streets were just as wide as the typical roads winding all throughout Tsukimoto. They had arrived at the right time too. The afternoon wasn’t bogged down by villagers running errands but rather them enjoying a pleasant nap break.

“Towa is renowned for its hospitality and a favorite of past emperors and empresses. In fact, this is the emperor’s third largest investment, just behind the capital and the electric city. He, his father, and his father’s father have made it a priority to maintain Towa’s luxurious countryside. These pagodas withstood times long before gods and goddesses and the thousands of years of war and famine. Truly, Towa is a testament of humanity, and we owe it not to goddesses but mothers.”

“Goddesses pale in comparison to the Maker. Mothers pray to the Maker.” With what little faith Guten Nocht and some of the Blue shared in common, Jackie retorted in defense of her religion. Though she was not an avid follower of the Maker like the older members of Anchovi, she felt an obligation to protect its sanctity.

Machiko fought back with, “Aren’t all mothers makers?”

Then, the conversation dropped immediately once they hit a local bar. Defeated, Jackie hid behind a cup of alcohol with Frank sitting at her side. They filled their stomach up with filling beer that had a hint of peach. Fruity yet drinkable. She was not going to complain about free beverages. Besides fighting, eating and drinking was her second thing she could do best. Machiko led Rhys and Duster out of the bar to explore more of the city.

While her crew mates were enjoying the cold revelries, Eudoxia could not help herself but stare down the stranger at the opposite end of the dimly lit bar. From the side, he was a remarkably stout fellow with a full beard and a sharp nose. She didn’t want to make any advances in such a dark room just in case he turned out to be repulsive. He was unlike the rest of the villagers. He wore a heavy black coat and a skullcap that hardly covered the top of his head. Maybe, just maybe, Eudoxia thought to herself that if she eyeballed him hard enough then he would look back in her direction. Surely enough, that was the case, and surely enough she was dead wrong to do so.

Both her and the man exclaimed in such surprise. “What are you doing here?!”

The man jumped out of his seat and Eudoxia laid a hand on the hilt of her sword. Frank and Jackie turned to figure out what the commotion was, and soon realized that they would have done the same. The man, skin dark and aromatic like cinnamon, turned out to be an former fling of the chided Eudoxia.

“I asked you first,” the pen wielding magician quipped.

“Well, I asked you second!” roared Eudoxia.

“Well princess--” Harvey P. Lansit was stopped before he could finish his sentence.

Eudoxia’s chuckles drowned the magician out and she interjected, “Not a princess anymore. Just letting you know after I swore off marrying that tyrant.”

He wagged his finger at her and profusely prattled on, “Well that tyrant still thinks I’m the man to blame for your decision as if I was the one to fall in love with you. If I didn’t leave the surrounding area, I would have been a goner for sure, but the palace had bigger, more fiery problems to deal with. If only, if only the queen would have burnt down in that glorious inferno would I be free of such nuisances. I haven’t been back to Densch in quite some time because of that old hag and her beloved ‘son’.. How is a man supposed to do business when he can’t stomp in his own playground? Well, I can answer that. Plenty of buyers in this Uchi-soto League. Whatever that means. Alas, the Lansit lives on.”

With one single twitch of her twisted face, she said, “Unfortunately.”

Harvey approached the princess but quickly sidestepped her when he saw two more familiar faces. Familiar faces that didn’t despise his guts, or so he thought.

“Patty and...Patty’s friend! It’s great to see great companions!”

“We’re not friends.” Jackie said with a tinge of disgust.

“Frank and Jackie, bud,” Frank added on.

“Right…” Feeling the unloved awkwardness between acquaintances, if anyone in this party could rightfully say that, he insincerely patted them on the shoulders.“Well, I’m glad to see your ugly mugs! We have much to catch up on.”

Alas, there was little Anchovi could do to evade such a pesky magician. Meanwhile, the other half of Anchovi was facing problems of their own.

“Rabbit man, he’s going to be okay?” Machiko asked.

She showed concerned for the the Lucavi who was just wallowing in the middle of the street. Carts and villagers gathered around Duster who was melting into the floor and spindling fibers around his body. The crowd was both mortified at his appearance and perplexed at such a creature-man. Forming a circle, they watched without interruption like outsiders witnessing a horrendous cart crash.

“Duster? Yeah, he’s just napping.” Rhys didn’t think much of Duster’s condition as of lately because it was commonplace for the Lucavi to find a spot and rest.

The young couple didn’t stroll far from the dramatic scene. Eager Machiko wanted to bring her friend to a food stand, and so she ordered in the native language from a nearby vendor. She wanted to know everything about Rhys and his travels. She fell in love with the idea of living through his stories. Sheltered she was, but she never breathed without a sense of curiosity.

Before she could squeeze a word in, the sincere and polite boy expressed. “Hey, I know that everyone else doesn’t trust you, but I wanted to thank you. Without your help, I don’t know if we would have made it through the forest and all that. Everyone’s been grumpy lately that it’s nice to have someone pleasant to be around.”

“Oh! Of course.” She shrunk into her clothing to hide her burning face. She murmured, “Thank you, Rhys.”

The awkward pair didn’t exchange words until the vendor boisterously rang his bell behind Machiko and told her that the order was ready. The man with big biceps handed her two sticks of charred meat.

“Here, try this.”

Rhys took one of the sticks and nodded before taking a nibble.

“Yum! What is it?”

“Barbecued eel. Towa is known for its specialty in it. Everyone goes to the one on the other side of the town, but this is the hidden gem. Probably my favorite snack of all time.” She was proud of herself sharing one of her most prized food shacks with someone she genuinely enjoyed.

“You know, this might be my favorite too.”

Astounded, her heart sank and her stomach fluttered. This indescribable feeling overtook her, but she maintained her urge to squee. That is, of course, until a looming shadow overtook them.

“Hello. It’s been some time.”
  HEAD ES DOODLE PETSUCHOS / Finnigan / 4y 269d 9h 57m 50s
[size16 #Flock n’ Flight#]

“I don’t trust her.” Tony casually confided with Frank and Jackie. “She’s too quiet.”

She appeared out of nowhere and now Anchovi was somehow okay with their latest guest. Rhys especially took an interest in the spy from Tsukimoto.

“Yeah, she kinda creeps me out too, but she ain’t hurtin’ anyone yet.”

“Yet.” Jackie had to reiterate. The men of Tsukimoto were loud and extravagant, but the women ran the show from the shadows. Machiko was just a fledgling to the real band of hawks. Perhaps getting caught was her plan all along, but even Jackie wouldn’t act too hasty against her.

“She knows where she’s going. Maybe we won’t get killed that easily with her instruction.”

Tony tried to play the entire thought off coolly, but then he forgot who Anchovi was.

Eudoxia was quick to follow up his thought with a sharp tongue. “We’re hardly killable in the first place.”

Rhys and the mysterious Machiko exchanged very few words on their journey. He was more interested in his surroundings and maintaining caution. She would occasionally glance in his space and swoon over the glowing blond hair. She dreamed of one day making it to the Electric City to see all the vivid images and people. The music, art, and technology that her sisters spoke of teetered with her mind. The manga she inundated herself with came from the Electric City.

Machiko took the crew off the path they were strictly instructed to follow in exchange for a more intimate encounter with nature. Stepping from the stone and onto the soft earth, she waved for Anchovi to follow, yet the older members were initially hesitant. Of course the adventuring scientist in Rhys and the carefree Eudoxia took lead. Rhys embraced the gleaming rays and his elements. Duster shrugged at the rest and joined. Then, Jackie followed not because she trusted the ninja, but because she had to protect her younger brother. It then boiled down to the stubborn pair of Frank and Tony. Looking at each other, they soon realized that neither wanted to be the last in line.

Frank hated the forest, especially on the days where they actively hunted down a nest of gooseberry constrictors. Tony cared very little outside of the Fighter. The winding hills and forests of Tsukimoto made him feel even more insignificant than before. Without knowing any of this, Machiko led Anchovi down a different path. She had asked them to lay low and move with precision in case the sentries were guarding the area. She nimbly navigated through the forest without turning over a leaf until she stumbled upon a concrete building. Its tower, only ten feet in height, foresaw an opening in the road.

“This is the Kikai outpost.”

Machiko ducked in case of any patrolmen or locals. This was Anchovi’s rendezvous point with Hae Suun.

“Wait here.”

In a flash, Machiko swiftly shot across the open space and sprinted up the tower without a worry or problem. From the other side of the open space, members of Anchovi saw her disappear. Their quiet voices chittered and their minds wondered about her whereabouts. Rhys and Duster focused on every little sound, yet they picked up no signs of struggle. Finally, the spy scaled down the wall as if it was just one giant step and returned to the troupe.

“It’s clear. My sisters have been here,” she nodded confidently to her audience.

“Sisters?”

Before Machiko could reply, the watch on her left arm beeped three times before she clicked a button on the side. Holding it to her mouth, she spoke into it.

“This is the Blue General reporting. We’ve made contact with point Ay and awaiting further orders, over.”


Muffled, the watch responded.

[b [size8 “The fire brigade should move to the next designated point marked Bee by 1300. Sisters Black and Bleak will cover points Shi and Dee. Fire brigade number one priority is to expel forces from point Bee at 1430. We need all suspects alive and in suitable condition for extraction, over and out.”]]

“Affirmative.”

Tony, suspicious of Machiko, spoke out. “So what does that make us?”

“Fire brigade. The Silke Commander is allowing Anchovi to set the course of actions in order to capture the band of Raptors.”

“Ah, so herdin’ is the deal. Gotcha.”

Of course, Frank had the most experience with ranching, and the women of Anchovi didn’t mind it either. The “fire brigade” moved out into the open space where Machiko pulled out an extensive blueprint of the facility they were infiltrating. Every room, door, and beam was accounted for in the plans with suggested routes and points easily located.

“How’d ya get these prints?” The mechanic was thoroughly surprised at the cleanliness and preciseness of the map. Not many of his contemporaries in the engineering field had a knack for clean lines and proportion.

“My sisters are skilled in espionage and been tracking down the Raptors for months now. These are the plans as of last March.” Machiko nodded pointed around the perimeter of the facility on the map. “These are the best points of entry.”

Anchovi had settled for the game plan. The attack on the shrine of Raptors would take no longer than a few hours if Anchovi was smart and quick. The women of the group in tandem with Machiko would play as the aggressor and the men would round up fleeing bodies. According to the plan on paper, these sisters Black and Bleak would form the other two points of extraction, so it was really up to the inner group to drive the rebels out.

Machiko, Jackie, and Eudoxia went ahead of the group to surround the immediate area of the shrine. Meanwhile, Frank led the rest to their designated point and set up camp. The rusty headed Frank set down his duffle bag and dug through shells and a multitude of firearms for one of the few rifles he packed on the ship. He figured he was a mediocre shot; the last time any rifle was shot by him was back on Nocht. His mind trailed off a little bit and he remembered how he was a better as a spotter for [i her.] Frank took up the rifle and loaded a few shells into its clinky chamber.

[i ‘You got this.’]

Tony quickly broke the moment of silence and empty air with his typical questioning. Of course, it was justifiable; what place did a ship mechanic have on the field? Tony looked down to Rhys and wondered what his role in all of this was.

“So what the Hel are we supposed to do?”

“Shaddup.” Frank fixed his sights on the rifle and aimed its barrel through the woods and towards the shrine still far away. His hands nervously shook. “If they come this way, ya better use them muscles of yours to wrangle ‘em up. N’ for the love of the Maker, keep ‘em off of me. You too Rhys.”

Frank ordered his men to move in closer to the shrine until that had sights on all the rebels. The Lucavi who was quiet up until this point and the mechanic fanned to other trees and camped while Rhys remained at Frank’s side. The shrine was only a small part of the entire facility. On the other side, quaint temple resided. It’s halls were open to nature and the living quarters huddled behind the centerpiece. It was a perfect place in the countryside to gather the like minded. The main road avoided the once thought abandoned temple, and perhaps the fed up country men and women just recently rediscovered it.

The Raptors were often mistaken for the old legends of tengu. Despite their yearning to break away from old Tsukimoto tradition, these birds of prey ironically picked a demon of old. The tengu might have not been their inspiration, but perhaps another figure from the past lit their inner-fires. Claws. At least, on their right arms they wore the menacing lustrous gauntlets. Their leader, the one in the black cowl obscuring the upper part of his face, preached. What it was about, Frank wouldn’t have the slightest clue.

“The Palm,” Rhys murmured

“Shhhh.”

Frank muted every living thing and being around him. What would be his first shot? His eyes focused on the packed group. His finger hovered by the trigger and desperately waited for the call. His breath rhythmically bobbled with the rifle’s long and steely snout. He hated the forest. His bullets couldn’t roam the space as freely as he desired. This job required a little bit more work on his end with a smidgen of precision. Oh well. Frank had to adapt to this strange and oddball Blue. Everything was going against him: the broad trunks, the leaves, his allies, even his own breath.

In one blink, the attack commenced in a heavy veil of smoke and he was taken aback. The hollering and screaming of the grown men and women brought discord to the fine tunings of the vibrating cicadas. The birds with their sharp talons scrambled in every direction, often bumping to each other and the likes of the battle famished women of Anchovi. Eudoxia’s bombs sparked in midair and knocked crowds unconscious. Jackie ducked and stepped away from the hoards of naginatas thrusted in her direction. she reeled them by the pole and delivered breath-taking thrusts of her own to the solar plexuses.

Amongst the discord, some of the Raptors deserted their own brethren for the forest, and only realized it far too late that there was a sharpshooter taking pot shots. Shoulders and hips were Frank’s preferred spots of contact. With each bullet whizzing through the green forest, a cartridge gleamed in the air before sinking into the comfy earth. The bodies tumbled forward and remained on the ground as sharp shrills escaped.

“Gotcha!”

Though he was effective, Frank’s corridor of sight couldn’t nab all the fleeing fowls. Duster funneled the rebels on one side by raising a high wall of silver. The lengthy construct being built before their eyes frightened the raptors and pushed them into Frank and Tony’s direction, but at cost. Managing to extend the wall in both directions, the Lucavi collapsed to his knees and momentarily lost his form. Generally giving off a sense of fluffiness to his coat, Duster’s body began to soften into goo.

Rhys witnessed Duster’s fall and immediately rushed to his side without thinking too much of his own safety. He screamed out to him, “You okay?”

The boy dropped to his knees to observe the Lucavi’s poor state. The skin bubbled up like molten lava and drooped into a puddle. He didn’t know what to do or if he could do anything to help out Duster, and so Rhys teared up a bit. While he was prematurely mourning the friend’s demise, Duster’s liquefying slowed to a stop and the oozing coagulated. If Duster had brows, he would have scrunched them up in response to Rhys’ tears.

“I shall be fine. Thank you for your sincere input.”

Meanwhile, Jackie and Eudoxia continued their onslaught against the Raptors around the weary shrine. Without an introduction, the two women were joined by another couple. They dressed like the rebels, but fought alongside the foreigners. Somehow Jackie knew that these were “sisters” to Machiko. From their wrists they shot darts at incoming attackers thus drugging them into a lethargic state. They were trained and ready for this day all along. All the emperor really needed was a rambunctious group of foreigners to cause havoc. Eudoxia admired their tools and even pondered on the idea of thieving one for later use.

Eudoxia and her bombs and blade remained at spies side to continue the fight outside and Jackie tapered off into the dim temple for further investigation. The plan called for Machiko to enter the temple for extraction of additional information, but Jackie’s curiosity and lack of trust brought her to linger the hallways and rooms as well. Not a body stirred within the temple and with reason too. Weapons and food was nowhere to be seen and the barracks only carried sleeping mats. There was no character within the temple: no hanging art, no statues, nothing resembling a temple. It was almost haunting to Jackie.

Jackie searched for clues inscribed on the walls, but then she heard a round of rapid thudding happening from above. She paced from one wing to the other until she found a hidden flight of stairs leading to the second story. Jackie followed a shallow corridor to the only door on the second floor, but she refrained from sliding open. Instead, she took a step back, followed the shadows, and listened for once.

[i “You need to come back to the village.”]

With what little words the ninja said, Jackie figured the lithe voice belonged to Machiko.

[i “An execution awaits me there, that I know without a doubt. Camellia is ruthless and will not give the Raptors a second chance at living. If you think for one moment that I’m misleading you, then you’ve already let them win. If you know what’s best for you, you’ll turn the other way and pretend you never saw me. Runaway as fast as you can while you still have a lick of sense.”]

She was speaking with a young man not more than a few years her senior.

[i “I beg of you, please turn yourself in. The emperor will jail you for some time, but at least you’d be able to return home safely. I’ll argue for you, you know that, maybe even get you a lighter sentence.”]

[i “I’m not coming home. I’ve found a greater purpose in others, and Tsukimoto is falling underneath its bureaucracy and the corrupt leaders abuse its people. The home that both you and I know is and never will be the same. The Order of Tsubaki is nothing more than the emperor’s lackies whose main interest is to keep this country stagnant with its imprudent traditions. Camellia walks through the valley of darkness blindly without knowing that there’s more outside the daft emperor’s reach. Petals may scatter across all lands, but they will never know more than what their eyes can see and what their ears can hear. Come, follow in my steps and we shall soar far from here. [b He] would see great promise in you.”]

[i “You’ve got it all wrong. I will proudly serve my nation with honor and I am committed to excellence. Such treason you speak of shall not besmirch my character.”]

[i “For once, maybe you should do something for yourself. Pledging undying loyalty to a man who doesn’t even care about you is nothing short of foolish. You’re just one of many toy soldiers to a man child, and once you break, you’ll be of no use to him. You’re replaceable. I know of someone who will cherish your gifts, Machiko. Now please, put down the kama.”]

Jackie distinctively heard the kusarigama’s clinking chain.

[i “Put up your sword and fight.”]

[i “No. I have something better in mind.”]

Just before Jackie decided to open up the sliding door, a sudden eruption of fiery energy consumed the second floor. The explosion consumed the wall panels and knocked the grown woman onto her back. Dazed and muted from everything, the bruised Jackie Simms struggled to her feet and woozily made her way into the destroyed room. The long wall of rice paper walls were nearly non-existent. Only the charred remains separated the corridor from the room. As the smoke cleared out and dispersed through the gaping wall, she saw an unconscious Machiko lying on the floor. Looking beyond the small girl, Jackie saw a barn swallow perched on an opposite window sill. The gold chested bird taunted her with nefarious lyric.
  HEAD ES DOODLE PETSUCHOS / Finnigan / 4y 284d 21h 40m 51s
[size16 #Machiko of Soga#]

Anchovi decided to go along with the emperor’s orders despite the initial distrust of the so called rabbit emperor and his loyal subordinates. The long winding roads leading to the Koryu countryside sent the travelers on foot through another forest. The broad stone path, remarkable in its endurance and undying magnitude jutted through the heart of the forest and climbed the ever gradual incline. The lush leaves of the gargantuan trees rustled in tandem with the song of the cicadas. There were worlds to explore, yet the acute woman with the freezing aura admonished Anchovi to stay on the path.

“I don’t understand why they had to send all of us out here. I’m just a mechanic. Hmph, I should have just stayed back with the ship. Needed a good repair after all the add-ons. Diagnostics, future insights, hmmm...” Tony complained as per usual. He was starting to catch the drift that no one wanted him to be around either.

[i ‘Man, he is such a sad sloth!’]

“Quit your whining. I’m supposed to be the princess.” Eudoxia rolled her eyes, but then became more in tuned with her environment. “There’s nature to enjoy. Don’t like nature, well too bad. The next vending machine isn’t for another thousand steps.”

The sunlight made several peeps through the thick canopy, but the robust leaves caught the simmering rays and covered the trail in a pleasant shade. Flickering off in the distance, birds soared for the sun. How could anyone not enjoy a pleasant afternoon? Well, except for Tony. He couldn’t appreciate anything that didn’t speak to him in ticks or beeps.

“These vending machines are most peculiar. The variety of items is most assuredly questionable.”

Humans were already a bizarre and complex specimen to observe in the first place, but Duster noticed more quirks of Tsukimoto customs than that of Guten Nocht and Varsyl. To complement the stone roads and homely forests, the power lines zipped across the lands. They littered the capital as well as the towns in Ube and Hadou. Every tenth post or so had a line of vending machines eagerly waiting for use. Many of them carried small snacks, drinks, and toiletries while others actively frightened the Lucavi. Some carried fresh underwear while a few of the rare ones dispensed erotic bedside stories for the geriatric.

“Yeah, these ‘sodas’ suck. Too fizzy and red bean flavor is atrocious. These people are so weird for red beans.” Eudoxia tried to stomach through a can of green tea, but she submitted to its strong flavor and handed the can off to Rhys. “They drink tea without sugar. It’s so bland.”

“I can see why Varsyl doesn’t deal with these people. Their tastebuds are untamed. Noodles everywhere and every time we’ve eaten out, it’s been something different in the soup. Beef one day and then pork. Not that I’m complaining, but a man can only have soup so many times in a row. It doesn’t matter how well one dresses the soup, it’s still a lot of liquid for me.” In order to survive the journey to Koryu, Tony had to stock up on noodle cups. He found eating them dry and without water was his favorite meal so far. “And how come Varsylgard has none of the hundreds of vegetables they have? If they had this vegetation, I’m betting the food would blow out all this soup. It’s almost absurd how much soup Tsukimoto has.”

“Ugh, and the damn red beans are everywhere my eyes land. It’s like they shove it in everything.” The few days that Anchovi stayed in Hadou were the absolute worst for Eudoxia. Every vendor was obsessed with red bean paste. All the desserts had the ingredient. At first the so called cultured Eudoxia was okay with red bean, but then she realized how gritty and unfruitful it was with every bite.

“Red bean tastes good in the desserts though...” Rhys quietly muttered.

“Ugh.” Tony looked over his shoulders for a while and espied. Frank and a reserved Jackie lagged behind. “What’s their problem?”

“Best if we keep out of it. She’s not in the best of moods.” Ever since Anchovi left the palace, Eudoxia and Jackie’s friendship dwindled. They lighthearted chats and constant taunting of Frank vanished over the span of minutes. Eudoxia frowned at the thought. She had not a clue on how to console her friend, and instead focused on her swordsmanship.

“When is she?” On the flipside, Tony avoided any contact with Jackie unless he needed something. His neck twitched any time they made a quick exchange of idle stares and soulless words.

Frank had been by her side for the last couple of hours after Jackie’s brief and brutal exchange with a local farmer and his horse. Luckily, the chicken rancher sharpened his tongue to diffuse the situation before Jackie knocked the farmer out. “I need to know what yer problem is or else I can’t help ya.”

Months. The months leading up to this moment have been brutal. She just shut down on Frank despite all his half-assed attempts. Frank would try to isolate Jackie from the others, but she had a knack of evading the hot seat. The ruddy nosed outlaw desperately wanted to return the same kindness she displayed for him. Why did Hollis’ death hurt her so much? Did he really leave such an impact on her to warrant such a reaction?

“I don’t have a problem.” Her usual low voice retreated into her chest. The vivacious flame stayed behind in that palace and was smoldered by the queen regent and the magician. She fell in love a thousand times before and after Hollis’ time, yet he was the one that left such a print on her. As much as she wanted to move on, Hollis visited Jackie in her dreams. His shade cried three times for her on each visit. The first cry was a confession of love. The second cry was one of emptying one’s heart. The last cry was ire.

“Yeah, says the chip on yer damn shoulder.” Frank shrugged his shoulders and wiped away the beads of sweat from his rosy forehead and glossy cheeks.“Ya know you don’t gotta prove nothin’. Yer tough, I git it. We all git it, n’ you know this. There’s nothin’ to prove, you got nothin’ to lose now Jackie.”

“My self worth.” Jackie clenched her bloodied and scabbed fists. She ran into the nights punching down trees and anyone foolish enough to face her in the square. “Fighting is what I do. Fighting is the only thing I can do well these days, Frankie. Fighting keeps me fit, fighting is one of the few things that keeps me grounded in these endlessly tiring days.”

He tried scolding her for a bit, but it came out like a jumbled ball of wiring. “Well, the Fighter is up in the air most of the time, so I reckon that yer li’l escapades are keepin’ ya grounded, but you’re gonna git grounded if ya don’t fix up the act. Now, ya ain’t soundin’ like the friendly Jackie this guy knows. Even in the darkest times, you were still the candle flickerin’ for the rest of us. Always had a smile on yer face and seldom did it wear.”

“Spoken like true poetry, Frank. You learn that from a roadside philosopher?” She added onto the vinegar, “Or did you come up with that all by yourself with all the spare time you have?”

Frank had nothing on his mind to retort with. Keeping his lips from moving, Franked turned away from her to face the other side of the road.

[i ‘The daggers have been thrown!’]

Rhys stopped. His family fell apart as if vultures were picking at rotting carrion. He zoned out temporarily and honed in on one of the few spots the sun was able to land its radiance. He could fall asleep in the warm sun and listen to the ringing of the cicadas if it meant he could escape the tension. Alas, Rhys snapped out of his daydream and focused on another patch of earth that somehow ensnared his dulling glaze. The grass compressed at the lightest touch, yet it was the brushing past the tree bark and snappings of twigs that alerted Rhys.

Duster swiveled his head in the same direction. “I am also sensing that something is out there.”

Rhys’ eyes scanned the area thoroughly and ears pinpointed a location. Squinting his eyes, Rhys stated, “It’s not an animal either.”

Taken by surprise at Rhys’ keen-edged senses, Duster shot a thin shard into the forest to drive the force out. At first, it had seemed as if nothing reacted, but then the figure enshrouded in the forest tried to reposition herself.

[i ‘Oh no, oh no, they’ve spotted me!’]

The Lucavi relied Rhys’ tracking ability and shot more darts into the forest until he successfully drove out their stalker. Luckily for her, Duster’s accuracy withered away with his potency. In one incredible leap, a young girl around the same physical age as Rhys popped out and slid into position. She pulled down her moss green shawl from her maroon tinged head and revealed a face as sweet and round as plums. In fact, underneath the shawl she wore vibrant yet charmingly deep shade of purple.

Frank placed a hand on his revolver and questioned the new face. “You ain’t one of them Raptors, are ya?”

“A spy of the emperor, no less. They sent a girl to do a woman’s job much less trust a bunch of ‘baka-gaijin’ to stay on task. Do tell, how many eyes watch us now?” There were a few words and phrases Jackie picked up on the farms, namely insults for all the foreigners that passed through town. No civilian had the audacity of stalking Anchovi; the village men were spineless fieldworkers that turned away from trouble.

The young voice peeped out, “Just one set, mam.”

“You ain’t one to speak up unless spoken to, eh.” Frank pulled in his younger friend closer and gave Rhys a good squeeze. Playing around, he quipped, “She’s a shy one, be good for our shy Rhys.”

“What?” Rhys was dumbfounded and confused.

Frank continued to tease the flustered girl. “Aw look, she’s blushin’ now.”

“I...I’m not blushing!” She hid her face from Frank. The spy’s older contemporaries always teased her when a young boys were the subject. Her face burned with embarrassment yet she kept on looking back at Rhys.

“I’m truly insulted by this. I bet those tight-wads sent this girl as a joke.” Jackie was hoping that it would be Hae Suun. Since her last appearance, the bloodied knuckle ruffian desired to test her might against the government official. This small child though was an insult to Jackie. Agitated by such a taunt from the emperor and his lackies, she snorted, “Scram.”

“Mam, I will accompany Anchovi.”

She was polite for a girl from this patronizing country, but it was more than likely the frustration Jackie was feeling from the the rural dwellers that caused such animosity.

“The only people you’re gonna be accompany are my fists.”

Rhys spoke up in defiance. “Jackie, she didn’t do anything.”

“Not yet.”

Ignoring the mouse-like pleas, Jackie approached the small lady with fists up and ready to bounce. The stranger in green and purple willingly approached her challenger. The mysterious girl was a few inches shorter than the short and stout brawler and her intensity never reached Jackie’s levels, but Anchovi had a gut feeling that this small skirmish was not going to end so abruptly.

Jackie of Anchovi took the first swipe at the lithe child but missed. Somehow the small framed girl was able to outrun the aggressive and dodge all punches. Frank noticed that his pilot’s stance was off by a bit and her movements weren’t as swift as usual. With tremendous clout, each of the punches that came from Jackie Simms heated the air, yet none of them managed to land a solid hit on the slippery challenger. Frank found it a rare occurrence that someone was able to brush off and escape such swings.

Sweat perspired and the rhythmic shuffling of feet drowned out their surroundings. The breath gained weight and fought off the humidity with each exhale, yet Jackie was not making any advancements against child. The longer the bout and endless footwork prolonged, the more shame plagued her mind. This was her schtick, her gig, her gain, yet somehow some prepubescent girl bested her as if it was doubledutch. Punch after punch, Jackie missed by a blink and it got worse. Previously boasting how she could fight for days on end, a surge of failure and rage consumed her while her opponent remained level-headed.

[i ‘In and out. I’m doing pretty good if I don’t say so myself.’]

The girl tossed her shawl into the air to increase her mobility, but it truly served as a very brief distraction. Jackie’s brown eyes looked up instead of down, and before she could properly react, she fell to her face. A chain wrapped itself around Jackie’s ankles. Lo and behold, the small girl held onto the chain the sickle attached to one end.

“I have no intentions on harming you, any of you really. Please, I’m only here to help you out.” Seemingly sincere, she placed the kama down and backed away from Jackie.

She can’t lose. She would not allow herself to lose nor would she ever admit that she lost to a snake. Jackie loosened herself from the chain and popped back up to calm her rage with victory. Picking up the sickle in one hand, Jackie raised it over her head and tossed it perfectly back into her opponent’s. Machiko shook her head and braced herself for a decisive counter strike.

“This is madness.” Rhys dashed between Jackie’s fist and shielded the spy with his body sprawled out. The rest of Anchovi allowed Jackie to become such an unstoppable tyrant and perhaps he was partially responsible for her wellbeing too, but Rhys knew she had to be stopped someway, somehow. Using what voice he had, the courageous boy commanded with gusto, “Stop!”

[i ‘Oh! He has beautiful eyes.’]

She wasn’t going to punch through him, not Rhys. Frank, no. Maybe Duster and Tony, depending on what day it was, but not Rhys. She withdrew her stone fists and set them aside at her pants’ seams. She easily tore through walls and hoards, but not the saccharine Rhys-e-sweets.

“Rhys, get out of my way! We don’t know what she’s up to!” Jackie turned back to Frank for assistance. “Get Rhys.”

“Nah.” Frank merely waved her off and allowed the boy to make his own decision. He proudly stood there with the rest of the crew, smirked some, and maybe teared up a little because that young boy did what the rest of them failed at.

“You’re right, Jackie. We don’t know what she’s up to, but beating her up isn’t going to get the answers we need. She hasn’t even given her name yet.”

He faced Jackie without flinching or shrinking. Like the rest of them, he wanted the old Jackie back or at least some fragment of what she used to be. She still mourned the loss of Hollis and kept it all bottled up. Rhys wanted to tear any walls she built up, but never found a way to approach her until he had to defend a potential enemy.

“Machiko. Machiko of Soga,” she smiled. The girl was close enough to Rhys that she could smell the red bean paste off his jacket. She might have fallen in love, but it was too early to tell.
  HEAD ES DOODLE PETSUCHOS / Finnigan / 4y 298d 19h 14m 30s
[size16 #The Emperor’s Assignment#]

“The Beast of Bating.” One of the lanky farmers threw out there. Wearing nothing but a tank top a few sizes too big and blue shorts, the middle aged man leaned on his gardening hoe and smirked. Unbeknownst to him and the rest of his posse, Frank and Rhys stood alongside and watched the powerhouse at work.

A second guy nearly chuckled out of his sandals. “She can outdrink Bozu.”

The farmer was not too far off from the truth. Jackie Simms often came home drunk and reeked of sour rice wine. She would stumble through the hull of the Fighter and sing new songs that she learned at the bars. There were nights where Tony caught her vehemently shouting at a wooden post and had to restrain her physically. Frank attempted to solve the problem, but she was out throughout the day, afternoon, and night. She worked the fields and carried bags of grain in the sinister Tsukimoto sun. While the summer cicadas chirped throughout the forest and the clear stream trickled through the town, the calloused hand laborer easily worked harder than any six men in town.

A third guy nudged the second guy in the shoulder. “And fuck longer than Kanegawa.”

Some nights Jackie never showed back up at the Fighter. In fact, Rhys had noted that her longest streak away from the Fighter was four days, a trend she often met. Rumors circulated within the town and the next one over about the sexual prowess of the “woman from Bating.” Dubbed “exotic arts”, supposedly only a few men were able to match her in fiery passion. Frank cringed at the rumors and sang really loudly to drown out the rumors.

“Sloppy stance for a Tingshan.” A fourth man whose belly outshone the dirt stains on his tank top eyed a resting Jackie. He was the oldest out of the four farmers and possibly the most informative. He spat into the ground and shook his head in disappointment. “Unrefined style.”

Frank rolled his eyes and remarked to the herd of lazy men, “I heard she ain’t even from that place.”

Rhys further added on, “Yeah, she’s one of those moonmen. You know, from the skies looking for a place to settle down. I don’t know, that’s what I’ve heard.”

The six boys of all shapes and sizes stood in place while taking sips from their insulated water bottles. The refreshing and crisp taste of the stream’s water rejuvenated the slacks for further engagement.

The portly fellow with the round belly sneered after a long glug. “Good joke. Tingshans aren’t smart to cultivate the floating continent. They still sail the Blue with these wooden merchant ships and inferior fighting style. Plus, their rivers stain their skin with jaundice. Sick. What makes you think they have apt airships and can pilot them?”

The animosity of these men against these so called Tingshans was unheard of to Anchovi. At least, it was the first they’ve ever heard such comments in the four months they’ve been in quaint Tsukimoto. For a country with an infinity of fusing technology with nature, its farmers were cruel to the mighty and industrious Jackie Simms. Rhys suggested that maybe they were intimidated or perhaps it was the late summer’s heat pounding on their heads. Today, they were out in the fields of Atsui, and perhaps tomorrow in the bustling city of Ohamaguri.

“Ah, but she’s from Nocht. The best pilot of both worlds too. Jackie Simms of Last.”

The four offenders finally turned their heads to see who made such a ludicrous statement. Realizing that they’ve been talking to the “Tianshan” sympathizer, they deigned before they left the ruddy faced Frank and the overdressed Rhys.

“Git no damn respect from these slackers. Hmph.”

Frank headed out to the fields until he decided to check in with Rhys. The quiet boy often disappeared into the wilderness without a voice and unconsciously grew distant from his older brother. Sunburnt Frank slightly frowned.

“Hey kid, what are ya up to for the rest of the day?”

Rhys snapped on his goggles and pulled up his giant windbreakers’ hood. Learning everything around him, the boy got giddy with each passing day, but his passion resided in collecting. Rhys armed himself with a giant butterfly net and smiled back at the worrisome brother.

“I’m gonna explore the nearby forests for beetles. You hear that noise? That’s the cicadas. We came the right year to hear them.” Rhys observed the vast sea of green surrounding the rural town of Atsui. He felt at peace out here, yet there was a shade somewhere out there haunting him. “You ever feel like we’re being watched?”

“Always, bud.” Frank wished he could have done more for Rhys’ innocence, but perhaps being watched wasn’t the worst thing in Tsukimoto. They haven’t ran into trouble yet which was quite the surprise. The moment Anchovi stepped into the customs office, Frank knew that eyes were watching him at every instant. He accepted his fate and the sacrifice they all made.

The man who slung his revolver no longer retired from the fields early. He abhorred the manual labor, and no matter how long and how hard he worked, Frank never saw much benefit outside of money from it. Still gaunt, even somewhat emaciated, Frank made the most of his time cooking for the crew. He had the most free time and he actually enjoyed it. It seemed as if nothing was relaxing to him except for being in the kitchen. Well, Frank got accustomed to building his own grill from the loose materials he scavenge throughout the long days. Learning how to grill better from makeshift roadside stands, Frank strived to perfect the art.

Setting up the grill towards the back of the Fighter, Frank happily sighed at the sight of the sun setting. He lived for the warm evenings and the tranquil nights. Walking back into the ship, he passed the broad oak table that was gifted to the crew for their valor against bandits. Initially clueless to such generosity, Frank had stared the table down for days until he finally accepted the reward. Those random tasks appeased him. It was the other odd-end jobs that brought chills to his spine.

Jackie rolled into the cargo hold with haste. She approached without her usual comfort and airy spirit.

“I got another job, but it’s back in the Ube prefecture. It’s more sssssn--”

Unable to fathom the thought, Frank stopped her immediately. She had the audacity to even bring it up. “No. Nope. Nahhhhh. No more serpent slayin’. Fuck the idea of it. I ain’t bein’ dragged back in them forests no more. I’m still limpin’ a bit from last week.”

Roughly translated as gooseberry constrictors, these serpentine pests plagued the forests. They dragged small children and livestock from the edges and they were twice as big as Jackie’s thighs. The Maker allowed Frank to keep his life through means of a swift slaughter of Jackie’s machete.

“What’s for dinner?”

“Eh, snake.” The pest management job came with perks. Free food.

The door past the chicken stable opened and Tony strolled through with an urgent face. Rudely interrupting the famished Jackie from her staredown with snake meat, the mechanic snapped his fingers.

“We’re gonna need another fifty thousand for the parts I need.”

Holding up some crazy mechanical cylinder to her face, he cleared his throat. The only time Tony came out of the engine room was to eat and sleep. He rarely made appearances for the sole fact that he refused to deal with drunk Jackie.

“Wow, not even a ‘hi, how was your day, Jackie?’ You Varsylians know how to be spark a conversation.” Jackie shot flames back at the mechanic. Attraction was ephemeral. She saw nothing of interest in Tony like she used to, and instead she clashed often with his boreal demeanor. “I’m glad that your day is going so well.”

Frank glossed over the situation and ran some snake meat to the blazing grill. Maybe it would all blow over by dinner, or so he hoped.

“I shouldn’t even bother. The one person I get along with is the alien.”

Somehow, Tony’s comment was enough of a cue to reveal the furtive Lucavi. Like Frank, Duster did not do much outside of the ship except rummage through everyone’s possessions and learn more of those Maker awful jokes. Everyone on the ship was convinced that this was Duster’s way of awkwardly making conversation. Did he really understand anything out of that book?

“Tony, would you like to hear another joke?”

“No, not now Duster.” Tony sighed as he sat down at the dinner table. With the greatest displeasure in his eyes and voice, he boldly opined, “Not now…not ever.”

Of course, that never stopped Duster from trying another day. Eudoxia and Rhys simultaneously arrived back home. The barbecued snake drew them in from afar. One of them came back home with a satchel of occupied bottles and a muddy windbreaker. Rhys removed his dirty goggles and grinned a deep grin. He had hit the jackpot of all jackpots. Similarly, Eudoxia scored big on her latest adventure. On each arm, she carried bags of goods with vibrant tissue paper popping out.

“These people of the Hadou prefecture know how to dress. I almost got courted today by a prince, but I turned him down.”

At least someone else was enjoying themselves. She had renounced her title as princess of both Varsylgard and Dalme, yet she still acted like a princess. The habits of old clung to her like mud to hair. She fell in love with the various Tsukimoto cultures. How had Varsyl been so dull and lifeless, and how did she manage to survive it. She loved the exotic men and the way they spoke to her. It was like falling in love with Desnch again, except there wasn’t any prince to captivate her heart truly. Though she had rebuked the Lansit after their last encounter, she still harbored her old lusting for him.

“Swell.” Frank held tonight’s dinner on a platter and nodded to the kids. “Welp, you know the rules: no fashion, no boys, no bugs, no dirt at this table. Git ready for supper.”

Anchovi settled into the night with a delicious meal where no one made a peep. The clattering of silverware on the ceramic dishes and the dying voices of the cicadas filled the lukewarm air. The dining table stood below the cargo bay’s dangling lights with everyone focusing on what was before them. The concentration was only broken by a stern voice.

“Mr. Dietz, Ms. Simms.”

The sharp aide from months ago, Momiji. Instead of the guards, she was accompanied by two distinct figures. A man youthful in looks and dressed in captivating saffron robes stood to the side of the aide. His broad eyebrows raised at the first sight of Duster the Lucavi. Immediately perplexed, he zoned out. The third visitor wore an aura of winter and a black trenchcoat. Her hair fell past her shoulders and the lips wore a striking shade of red.

“Ms. aide and uh, eh? I ain’t too sure who these fellers are.” Frank squinted.

“Mr. Dietz, have respect for Emperor Akio.” Momiji commanded. She presented the emperor who was still transfixed on the white rabbit demon. She then brought attention to the equally mysterious lady. “Accompanying us today is Hae Suun.”

Trailing off, the emperor went on to say, “I wanted to see this renowned Anchovi for myself. I’ve got to say, it’s a remarkable ship. Such craftsmanship isn’t seen these days.”

Tony smirked. Finally, someone acknowledged his accomplishments, but he couldn’t keep his mouth closed long enough. “We’re actually Anchovi. The ship is the Fighter. We and the Fighter are Anchovi.”

“That makes no sense but whatever. We’re not here to discuss the semantics.” The emperor actually paid no attention to the ship and its detail. He was being nice. How can something with a rabbit’s face have no rabbit ears?

“And what do we owe the honorable emperor today?” Jackie smirked and rested her dirty boots on the table. Frank grunted in disgust.

“Please, Ms. Simms, if you are going to question the emperor, ask all questions to me first.”

“Fine, [i Ms.] Momiji. What can I help you with?”

“Legal matters. Actually, they pertain to you, Ms. Simms.” Pulling out a few papers from a one of the several files she carried, Momiji soundly recited, “While in your probation period, Ms. Jackie Simms of Anchovi has made quite a spectacle of herself in some of the underground fighting rings. This kind of behavior inhibits the standards that Tsukimoto holds for its people. This kind of behavior is perverted, thus corrective action must be taken.”

“Heh, she got perverted right,” Frank muttered to himself. Unfortunately, Jackie was close enough to hear him and punch him in the arm. Rubbing away the sting, he questioned his pilot. “Jackie, what she talkin’ ‘bout? I know you ain’t sneakin’ off n’ causin’ trouble now.”

“...”

The silence said it all. No one at the table knew how to take this. Certainly, Frank was not going to stand for it either, but he had to rightfully defend his partner.

“You can’t be makin’ these accusations without solid proof.”

Momiji nodded, “Hae Suun.”

“Mr. Dietz, has this been a recurring problem for Ms. Jackie Simms?” Whereas there was a little bit of honey in Momiji’s voice, the pale woman in black spoke assertively.

“Not that I know of, but now that you’ve brought it to my attention, maybe it’s something that I need to look further into.”

Frank glared at Jackie. He knew somehow their travels in Tsukimoto would end sooner rather than later. It was a never ending cycle for the crew. They settle down, they find happiness, something awful happens, they leave, repeat.

“Our intel says that she’s been quite the trouble in the last three countries you’ve visited: Varsyl, Francol, Brun. She has quite the knack of making money off of bloodsport. Some say she’s the best.”

Jackie met Hae Suun’s eyes in the middle. The fearless brawler desired to challenge this frigid pain to a fight, but that’s probably what they wanted. Retaliation.

“Huh, ya don’t say.”

“Under the law of the land, you’re aware that you are subjected to exile and possibly execution. The former involves Anchovi and the Fighter, the latter only involves all parties involved. Namely, Jackie Simms.”

Momiji and Hae Suun walked up the ramp to meet up at the table. The shrewd aide placed down a stack of papers detailing all the inhospitable acts Jackie had committed. The rest of the crew could not believe how thick the stack was. Surely this was all a joke.

“What about them fightin’ rings? If ya knew ‘bout them, why ain’t you outsin’ them?” Frank yelled. He wasn’t going to lose his friend that easily.

“Mr. Dietz, lower your voice. I’m right here.” Momiji matter-of-factly stated, “What we do with our citizens and how we punish them are our business and none so much a foreigners.”

“Bullshit.”

Did Jackie do all these things or were these people that distrustful of the “Tingshans”?

“However.”

Frank growled, “Whatever with your however.”

“Emperor Akio has decided to expunge this from your record as a favor. Emperor.”

“Oh, uh, yes.” Finally snapping out of his trance, the Rabbit Emperor turned his attention to the fuming Jackie and Frank. His genial smile melted into a grave expression. “The reason why I have personally paid a visit to Anchovi is to give you your next mission.”

“Mission?” Jackie questioned. She cracked her knuckles and smirked.

“We’re lapdogs of the state now,” groaned Tony.

“I assure you, brave warriors, that this is nothing out of your league.” The emperor nodded and his brightening smile returned. How anyone can remain that composed in all that fabric was beyond Anchovi’s comprehension. “In fact, you’ll play a supplementary role for our officers. The captain of intel, Hae Suun, appreciates your involvement.”

“Wait, wait, wait. You were just threatenin’ us with expulsion and death and now we’re all buddy-buddy? I’m not takin’ too kindly with this sudden development.” Confused, Frank gritted his teeth at the emperor.

“Mr. Dietz, please--”

“Missy, don’t make me repeat myself. I ain’t none too happy right now, ‘specially durin’ dinner time.”

“Anchovi has been riding on the good faith of the people of Tsukimoto and its prefectures. We’ve decided to allow you into our country for the sole fact that you may be of some use to the emperor and his people. You would have been turned away sooner if it wasn’t for the kindness of Emperor Akio.”

[i ‘An extortionist more like it.’] There were very few things in this world that were made of gold and very many things gilded. Cowards, all of Tsukimoto. They took advantage of wanderers in order to keep their lands clean. Frank wondered what would happen to them if they completed their “mission”. Would they have the likes of the frigid ice princess wipe Anchovi clean?

Jackie abruptly said, “We’ll take the job.”

“When did you get to decide that?” Frank threw his hands in the air and walked away from the table. He could not believe what was happening. These women with their papers somehow cajoled Jackie, troubled Jackie, into this absurd request. All of a sudden, killing snakes seemed like a sound task.

“When I became co-founder of Anchovi, Frank.”

“Look, we ain’t done talkin’.” Frank shook his head. He looked at the rest of Anchovi. Worried looks, some of them confused as well.

“What’s the job entail?” Jackie asked.

“We need you to quash a threatening rebellion to the capital.” Momiji set another stack of papers on the dining table. “Here’s what you need to know.”

Hae Suun coldly stared at Jackie. She was only a smidge taller than the brawler but she lacked Jackie’s girth. “This should be up your alleyway, Anchovi. My intel tells me you’re professionals at tearing apart organizations.”

“Ugh…” Frank needed to add an addendum to his dining table rules: no work. He considered asking Eudoxia to start making suggestions on where next.
  HEAD ES DOODLE PETSUCHOS / Finnigan / 4y 305d 20h 55m 49s
[size20 #ARC 6: Nightshade#]
[size16 #Simmering in Tsukimoto#]

The gleaming falcon and the pride and joy of Anchovi valiantly soared through the sky without equal. The sky and the Blue below saw nothing truer than the Fighter making its routine rounds. Not a ship by air or sea stirred. The sun cast its rays and the Blue’s waves gently rolled in tranquility. It was calming on the outside, but the inside said otherwise.

“Hehehe...look at this, Frank…[i the Snipe]! What the heck is a snipe?” the gaunt gunslinger cackled. He fell back into his chair and shared the latest bounty to come out of the Varsylian league. The illustrator certainly nailed the weariness in his eyes and his sharp nose. Otherwise, Frank roared and shoved the piece of parchment into Rhys’ face.

The young boy quietly replied, “It’s a bird...I think.”

“Or maybe they’re calling you a fool.” Tony rolled through the kitchen in his greasy jumpsuit and rolled his eyes at Frank’s absurd and uncontrollable fit. Rummaging through the the cabinets for a decently clean mug, he realized that there was not enough coffee made. Giving up easily, he turned to the main table and joined the rest of Anchovi.

Jackie’s poster had her scratching her head for the longest time. Her depiction looked the least like her. In fact, the illustrator took artistic liberties to a new level. Her eyes were rounder, nose as thin as the brows, sliver lips, and an emaciated face. The feminized version appalled her, but most things repulsed her as of late.

“Jackie Sevenstars. They got the first name right, but [i ‘Sevenstars’]?” The air around Jackie felt frigid. The rest of Anchovi sensed the pain she harbored inside, yet she rarely spoke about it. She still dreamt of Hollis though.

Frank laughed, “I want to know where they’re gettin’ these names from.”

Scouring through the loose posters, the mechanic of the Fighter found his.

[i WANTED: Antonine Maxwell]
[I Conspirator and at large pirate]
[i REWARD: 2.500 sterces]

“Ugh, they even have one for me.”

Tony was rather disappointed in his bounty flyer. He did not get a fancy name like the rest of them. Of course, he spent most of his time constantly repairing and maintaining the Fighter. Since his inclusion with Anchovi, the youthful yet stern mechanic continued to build on such a great airship. The likes of Rhys and Duster witnessed his fits of grumbling and frustration as he strived to understand the Fighter’s mechanics more. Without the help of the Illumina and the Lucavi, Tony would have thrown himself out of the back.

In fact, most of his innovations included in the ship started with Duster’s physiology. Day in and day out, Tony Maxwell examined Lucavi steel and its properties. Light, durable, flexible. The Fighter received a ultrathin sheets of the Lucavi steel to the outside and was somehow cutting through the air sharper and faster. It ultimately reduced the amount fuel required for traveling and attracted a significant amount of magic found in the open air.

“I don’t know about you guys, but I’m loving this.” Entering the room in such a vivid fashion, the former princess of Varsylgard whirled around in blue dress and yellow headscarf. She graced the air with a free hand while she held her sword in the other. Picking up her latest poster, a grin from one side of her face to the other formed. “[i ‘Princess of Pirates.’] Maybe Varsyl will get the idea and stop messing with us. We’re notorious.”

After their departure from the Varsylian capital, Eudoxia continued to train under the sword, despite not having a Maestra to teach her. The form was left to be desired, yet playing fair was never her strongest suit. The countless bouts between Eudoxia and Duster always ended up in a fiery explosion, one which caused the Lucavi to swear off dueling for a few weeks. To say the least, the Lucavi was not impressed at all by dirty tricks.

Like Tony, Duster kept out of the limelight and stayed on the ship. His trips to the outside world diminished in correlation to his ever growing weakened state. For once, Frank and Duster agreed on trying to keep Anchovi’s members alive and out of the infirmary, because for the first time Duster doubted his healing capabilities. Wounds were getting harder to patch up, and Duster’s psychic link died several times in some very crucial moments. The parasitic thought of being useless plagued his mind.

“Rhys, neither of us have a flyer.” The Lucavi stated.

The authorities constantly glossed over the fact that Rhys Illumina existed. Up until recently, Francolian law enforcement believed that Rhys was the name of an unseen mutt. When the boy wasn’t practicing his reading and writing, he often joined the likes of Frank, Jackie, and Eudoxia. Of course, the blooming mind wandered off in high hopes of seeing something new and fascinating. The heists and bounties did not interest him as much as the local flora and fauna did. With each stop, Rhys Illumina added to his bedroom’s collection. The yellow canaries hung out in a cage above his bed and the containers with exotic flowers decorated the tops of his desk.

“Man, we ought to turn ourselves in. This bounty on me is fat!” Frank joked.

“Except for the part where the sterce isn’t worth a bucket of crap.” Tony pointed out. He learned well from Duster when it came to bringing down the cheerful Frank. “The Varsylian empire is seeing the worst drop in decades. With the exception of the princess, we’re pretty much worth a few fancy meals. We’re not seen more than just a few dickass bounty hunters with an affinity for sticking our sticky hands into a few pockets.”

“Okay, okay, I keep on sayin’ no more of this funny business, but somehow somethin’ keeps draggin’ us back to it.” Frank acknowledged that Tony was right...again. In recent developments, Frank organized fewer heists and more miscellaneous tasks. “We have plenty of money, thanks to our li’l princess.”

“It could be the thrill. The thrill is addicting.”

The self-proclaimed leader of the Anchovi suggested most of their heists whereas Frank steered towards collecting bounties, but Frank soloed a few burglaries for the rare shells for his spellgun. Eudoxia and Jackie spent more time together sneaking through dark hallways and pocketing rare finds.

“Thrills lead to kills. I ain’t dyin’ no time, no soon.”

The group eventually split off from the kitchen in order to do their afternoon duties. Duster lurked in the shadows, Tony shut himself in the engine room, and Rhys tended to robust chickens. Jackie slept at the wheel of the Fighter while Eudoxia and Frank both loafed around. Their latest adventure: getting outside of Varsylgard’s reach. Not only did Anchovi pester the affluent in Varsyl, but the likes of Francol and Brun were tampered. The Varsylian air force, led by Gallien and under the orders of the furious Prince Chelon, pursued the evasive Fighter.

Eudoxia had to leave her ex-fiance’s grasps and she knew of one place for certain that would grant her the wish. Tsukimoto detested the foreign leagues and its savage people. It also gave her a reason to travel to new places. This time, it was not Frank who questioned Eudoxia, but it was Jackie Simms who was really half-awake at the time.

“You positive that we’re allowed in this part of the Blue? We’ve been prancing around Varsylgard for months and now you’re saying you want to try [i here]?”

“Varsyl and its people don’t want anything to do with the Uchi-soto league. Their ideas, their philosophies, the way that they dress are all different. Where Varsyl rules its surrounding Blue, Tsukimoto and Damphruk reign these parts. I’ve never seen a man from Tsukimoto before, but I’ve dabbled in a few cryptic books about these people. I hear that they’re quite exotic.”

“Hm. Okay.” Then Jackie fell back asleep.

The Blue stretched further than it had millennia ago. With each passing year, the Blue seemed to expand and the continents drifted further apart. What would be two to three days from Varsyl to Francol dramatic changed to a week and a half. Tsukimoto used to be a week out, but now it was several weeks by air. Anchovi did not mind that they were stuck with each other. Quite the contrary, ideas and thoughts bounced off of each other. The so-called rejects rather enjoyed the exile from the masses. It was cathartic in a way to escape the normal and busy lives.

The Fighter contended with no one for the remainder of the trip. It soared through the day and night until the static came in the next morning. Unlike the other times, the reception was clear after a while.

[b Kzzzrt.]

[b “Attention, you are now entering the Uchi-soto league’s Blue. You are required to reduce your speed and follow further instructions as per the Tsukimoto-Ise International Airport. Instructions will show on your radar. To ensure the safety of all parties, you are to disengage all weaponry and come to a complete stop once you’ve done taxiing. Over and out.”]

“Already there, huh.”

“The Fighter isn’t your average ship, Frankie.”

Eudoxia pulled herself out of the swiveling chair and pressed her face against the windshield. A sea of forest green surrounded by the Blue. The trees rolled across the island like the soothing wave until it hit a range of ashy mountains. She pointed out where most of the cities were by the peaks of their highest towers.

“Whoa, I’ve never seen so many trees clumped up together.”

The Fighter’s descent into the lush green paradise surprised the pilot. The directions appeared to lead her into a thick rainforest, but the ship dipped into the canopy without branch or leaf touching the shining wings. Magnificent trunks of the spectacularly gargantuan trees towered over the Fighter and merely trivialized the size of mere humans. The architects of Tsukimoto were brilliant masterminds who married the might of nature with the sophistication of modernized engineering. The runway, Frank noted, was smoother than the ridge of his nose.

Anchovi took their first few steps onto Tsukimoto soil. The airport was empty at the time, and only bolstered half a dozen airships. Flanking the sides of the airstrip, rows of ornate lights boldly repelled the ever looming ominous darkness that hid amongst the trees. It was unlike anything they’ve seen before, yet they had a strong feeling that they were being watched from beyond.

Rhys wanted to wander around and Eudoxia was not too far behind, but a woman and a few armed men approached. Her eyes were just as sharp as her tongue. Everything about her was sharp. The sharp updo. Her sharp feline-esque lashes. Sharp olive green military uniform with white gloves. Pulling it all together, she pushed up the oval glasses higher on the ridge of her sharp nose. Her company of a few good men slung their rifles over their shoulders and dressed just as well as she did.

“Welcome to Tsukimoto. I am Momiji, the aide to the Rabbit Emperor and today’s correspondant.”

“Rabbit Emperor?” Frank was not sure how to approach the lady. She kept her distance and spoke thumbtacks to Anchovi. Surely she was joking about a rabbit being the ruler of this land.

“Emperor Akio is very fond of stories. That’s as much as I will say,” she sternly stated. Turning her back to Anchovi, she directed them down the airstrip. “Follow.”

Jackie asked, “Where are you taking us?”


“Processing. Foreigners aren’t allowed to wander the islands without proper documentation. You will be allotted six temporary working visas in addition to partial citizenship. Within the first sixty to ninety days, you will be monitored closely. During this probation period, there is a zero tolerance policy which will lead to your immediate deportation or execution. You are to uphold the national law as well as the local laws of the various regions. This includes the Ryujin Keys and the Edai Republic.”

One of the soldiers fell behind the group and slinked closely. The aide was fearless enough to walk ahead of the strangers. Momiji must have had some sort of military background which perked Jackie up a tad. Suddenly stopping, Momiji turned once more to Anchovi and scanned them all from head to toe.

“We usually do not take anyone outside of our league of the Blue. We have such strict standards that bars most people of the Varsylian, Dalmenian, and Bating empires. Your case is peculiar though. A former princess both of Dalmenian and Varsylian nature, revolutionaries, people from Guten Nocht, and a strange rabbitman.”

“I am not a rabbit. I have more dignity than that.” Duster twitched his nose and slightly averted his face from the front.

“Yeah, we’re a wild bunch.” Frank boasted his crew. It had been a long time since he felt optimistic about anything. Everyone brought something new to the table, and he would die for any of them. It only took him a while after the exile to realize how much he needed others.

Her face bugged the foreigners. It was devoid of any emotion and the tone of her voice fell flat. “By the looks of your file.”

“Wait, we have a file? How do you have a file on us when we just arrived today?”

Tony stepped forward and demanded answers, but the men pulled their rifles off their shoulders and aimed their barrels right for his chest. Tony’s tall and lanky figure loomed over the shorter men, yet they were ready to plant a bullet in the intruding figure. Luckily, Momiji asked for her men to put down their guns and to allow her to take command of the situation. They were all fascinating individuals, and she could see the potential in them.

“Ah. The Camellia spreads its petals to the wind. Anchovi of six, you’ve made yourself quite the celebrity across the Blue, and not necessarily in a bad light. On behalf of the emperor, we value your work.”

Her cryptic words fell on deaf ears, so she ignored their confused looks and brought them to a ivy covered building. Frank noted the scribbles on the wooden planks and commented the oddity that was Tsukimoto. The moisture weighed down the air and the dense foliage repelled the screeching sunlight. Large hairy moths bumped into the white lights outside of the building. Frank was already too suspicious of his surroundings.

“Alright, I’ll leave it to the emperor’s good men to get you through. If you have any problems, I’ll be in the Ise province for a few more days. You may find me at the courthouse. Otherwise, travel across Ise, then through the Yamato checkpoint, then Ube and Hadou, and then you’ll make it to the capital. Of course, if any of this sounds like it bores you and you’re not up for the journey, you can always take your airship, but I wouldn’t want you to miss the wonders of Tsukimoto.”

Quickly bowing down, Momiji disappeared further into the landing strip hidden in the gargantuan forest, and Anchovi began the long and arduous task of the surviving the department of customs. Frank hoped that this would be the hardest part of his inevitably short career in Tsukimoto.
  HEAD ES DOODLE PETSUCHOS / Finnigan / 4y 312d 21h 33m 46s
[size16 #Open Blue#]

With the world staving off the living flames of the vengeful magician, Anchovi met no opposition as they scurried across the marketplace. Taking all the back alleys and hiding behind the corners, each member made it their mission not to attract the inquisition. At one point, Jackie had turned around to watch the palace go up in flames. She was amazed at such raw power. The fiery maelstrom added to Varsyl’s naturally arid climate. The dried up shrubs and bushes that littered the palace’s cliff ignited. A twister crafted from wicked flame tore through stone and men.

By the evening, Anchovi had made their way back to Engergast farm, but the magician’s endless summer had not yet settled down. Anchovi’s feet sweated, even blistered. They could handle it. They wanted to get out of Varsyl as soon as possible. Frank was surprised that no one bothered Elbriz and his property after the whole fiasco with the inquisitors. Perhaps they were just too busy trying to calm down the masses or perhaps they were continuing their crusade against the darker skinned Mezze people.

Elbriz and his ranch hands began the long process of rebuilding. They, like Anchovi, dragged. The heat and the repetitive dragging of garbage and large planks of wood exhausted the worn soles. The governing body and its stretching hands did not need to lift a finger. The ranch hands moved like zombies. Expressionless, limp.

“Look, I’m sorry for all this.” Frank spoke out to Elbriz who remained sitting on his front porch. Last’s outlaw couldn’t get a read from the ranch’s owner.

“Go,” Elbriz nodded, “it’ll be awhile before the farm is up and at ‘em. We’ll bounce back. Now get that flying deathtrap out of here.”

He took it lighter than Frank had initially thought. Frank vowed to one day come back and help in any way possible. After all, Elbriz was one of the very few business partners and friends that resided near the capital. On the other hand, Eudoxia approached the young girl, Luzi, and glared. The princess didn’t hold any contempt against Luzi. In a way, Eudoxia’s hearty hug was a sign of gratitude towards Luzi’s episode. She would have never gain her senses without a little nudge.

Once the crew entered the ship, the bodies hit the floor. Never did it feel better to just give in and relax.
.
Tony lay on his back and echoed, “Well now, where do we go?”

Everyone was too busy fighting off the grogginess to respond. Even Duster stewed in silence.

“Let’s get out of this town,” Frank suggested. No one was going to argue otherwise.

“Where then?”

Tony felt as if he owed the people of Varsyl his life. In one moment of his life, he was fighting to free his brother and all the men and women a sinister corporation enslaved, yet in the next he and the rest of Anchovi were teetering on the idea of staying or going. The country was going to be torn by its citizens and the nefarious prince. The unsettling thought of war and death ran through Tony’s mind. By some miracle, Tony vanquished Galhead without droves of men and women suffering by the sword. Perhaps this was one battle he had to sit out.

Eudoxia sat up for a moment and remarked, “Anywhere that doesn’t fly the Varsylian flag. Heck, let’s lay low, there’s no need for us to get into trouble with these shoddy empires. We’re not winning any allies any time soon.”

The crew that rested in a circle all laughed. They had the worst of luck attracting support of any kind. Between committing acts of treason and abdication against the prince and the Varsylian empire, Anchovi wore one big target on their backs. Varsyl was jeopardized and who knew what the Dalmenian empire would do now that their only tie to the waning land was the princess.

Before they could really get up off the steel grate floor, the crew peacefully closed their eyes for just a smidge of rest. It was a few hours after, that Frank woke up. The only ones that were awake were him, Eudoxia, and apparently Jackie. How anyone really slept through the Fighter’s takeoff was a mystery, but lo and behold the Fighter soared through the skies.

Frank carried Rhys to his bedroom and tucked his younger brother into bed and then headed for the kitchen. Surprised to see the princess, Frank rummaged through the cabinets for coffee beans. He grew to dislike coffee, it only reminded him of his past. Frank sat down at the table and handed one mug to the smitten princess.

“I can’t believe yer denyin’ all that royal bullcrap. You sure yer up to it? Like if you run with us, you gotta [i run] with us. No half-assin’.”

“Frank, when have I ever shown a notion that I was half-assing?” It was true. Though Frank was initially never impressed by the princess, Eudoxia had pulled herself through all their wacky misadventures. She took a small sip and big breath before continuing.“I chose love over riches, but I couldn’t be farther from the truth if I tried. What I wanted this entire time was my freedom.”

She liberated herself from a marriage she put no heart into and a self-serving mother. Eudoxia abhorred the palace anyways. The murals on the walls were outdated and Varsylian culture died thousands of years ago. If it was not for Francolian fashion present in Varsylgard, she would have contemplated suicide years ago. Out here, on the Fighter, she could breathe when she wanted to and not be interrogated.

“I trust that you have the best interests in the group.”

“I do. I’ve found more family here than anywhere else in the Blue.”

Frank smiled at the renounced princess before heading off for the cockpit. Immediately, he could tell that there was something awry in Jackie. The air felt cool and a lingering draft prickled his leg hair.

“We had to hightail it out of there if we wanted out. Gallien and his vanguard aren’t going to be all that forgiving.”

Her focus was on the skies. It was the only thing that really cleared her mind.

“I don’t think he’s gonna be a problem. He’s gonna need to figure out how to stop this firestorm.”

“It rages.” She said, “He certainly matches the fortitude of--”

Jackie stopped herself from going on. Frank missed the sweet embrace of his long lost lover.

“Hm.”

Frank wanted to stay by her side just in case she wanted to speak. Instead, he sat in the co-pilot’s chair and stared out the window. The soft whirring of the air tuned with him. There was not much to look outside at except for the occasional wisp of cloud.

“You gonna be okay?”

“Sure.” Her voice was cold like icicles. Then the truth came out, “I wasn’t ready to lose another friend, Frankie.”

“You ain’t kiddin’ me, Jackie. It still pains me to think of all the good folk died before us. Makes you wonder if the Maker is cruelly queer. Takes all the smart ones while they’re young n’ hot while the dumb keep on kickin’.” He stopped to remember all the faces that saved him countless number of times. Each of them so familiar as if they were over last night for a hearty dinner. Frank tried his best not to ride on nostalgia, but today especially the memories came flooding in. “I’ve learned to accept it for what it is.”

Jackie remained in her silent stance. She thought about turning the Fighter around and crashing it at full speed right into the queen. She would have done the same thing Harvey did if she had the aptitude for magic, but she guessed that her fists would be just fine. Jackie would wait for Frank to leave before she slammed her balled up fists onto the console. The thought of losing Hollis troubled her that she had to hide the single tear that rolled down her fat cheek.

Frank finally got up within the next hour to check up on everyone else. He felt for her, understood the toils she was experiencing. Frank nodded and thought about all times Jackie was there for him. It was in her embraces that Frank felt like a child again. “If you need to talk ‘bout it, ya know where to find me.”

Before complacent Frank made his way out of the cockpit, Jackie stopped him with the sound of her voice.

“Thanks, Frankie.”

Not even into the next room, Frank met up with the mechanic and engineer on board, Tony. It was strange seeing the tall and lean fellow approaching the cockpit, but Frank did not want to make much of it.

“What are your plans?”

“Well, I can’t exactly go back to Densch without the prince. Somehow, amongst all this chaos, Harvey is gonna find his way back home. He’s always been resourceful like that. I can’t say that setting a palace on fire is in his regular coursework.Somehow the prince and the queen pushed his buttons beyond their limits. I would even say that he let himself get captured for the sole purpose of setting fire to the palace.”

“I don’t know what kind of man would let himself git captured like that.”

“The kind that strikes at all men’s egos.”

Tony knew that he was going to be unemployed soon, yet he was not going to stay in the Varsylian capital without participating in the inevitable downfall of the country. He actually despised his brother for continuing the efforts against slavery and inequality. The least that Jeraia could have done was spend what little moments together. Displaced from his original homeland of Varysl and presumably banished from the stalks of Densch, Tony felt homeless.

“Look, I ain’t one to be talkin’, but we need a real mechanic. Yeah, yeah, Jackie can do maintenance here and there, but yer ‘sposed to be one of the best ‘round these parts.”

Tony looked at Frank as if he had said something awful, but in reality he was shocked to hear a critical member of the crew to offer a job. He felt awkward around the people of Guten Nocht. With the exception of Rhys, the remaining three were bruisers.“You want someone like me on your ship? I failed my last job and I’ve been nothing but a burden to you all.”

“Look, yer signin’ up to be a mechanic. Killin’ ain’t a requirement.”

“Uhh...sure.”

“And one more thing.”

“Yes?” Tony furrowed his eyebrows and scratched his buzzed head.

“If you’re gonna go in there,” Frank pointed to the cockpit, “please be kind to that woman. Be patient with her if she doesn’t yield a response right away. N’ above all else, you mess with her and she ain’t clockin’ sense into ya, I will. Haha, I’m playin’.”

Punching Tony lightly in the arm, Frank came back to the dining room to see that Duster and Rhys had finally woken up. They had joined Eudoxia at the table, but more was going on.

“What trouble are y’all gettin’ yerself into?”

“Eudoxia is gonna teach me how to read and write!”

“Well, well, ain’t that somethin’.” Frank covered his smile until it faded and then stared at Eudoxia. “What’s the plan?”

“Jackie’s the captain-pilot, don’t ask me,” she cracked.

“No, I wanna know what yer up to.” He wanted her insight on things. Eudoxia and Tony were more than just new members to the troupe, but a gateway to understanding the Blue. Frank and Jackie would gladly follow the two of them wherever as long as it meant there was work and it wasn’t too dangerous. Though Frank simply forgot that they had a few coins too many for comfort.

“Frank Dietz, I made myself very clear.” Stamped to her feet and boldly stated, “Where Anchovi goes, I follow.”

“Yer a pain.”

Frank rolled his eyes and smirked. Playfully, Eudoxia shot back.

“And you’re a louse.”

“Heh.”

“Well, I need to speak with Jackie. We have a lot to cover.” Eudoxia brought her attention back to Rhys quickly and then softly spoke. “We’ll continue the lessons later on. Just focus on the alphabet first and then we’ll learn how to form wonders.”

Duster accompanied Eudoxia into the next room which left Frank with Rhys. The two of them hadn’t really interacted lately, yet something was really bugging the younger of the two. Finally finding the courage to speak up, Rhys muttered just loud enough to get Frank’s attention.

“Um, Frank.”

“Yeah?”

“It’s been awhile since we’ve been in the Blue, and well, I was just...um, nevermind.” Rhys was nervous of rejection, especially from the likes of Frank or anyone on the Fighter for that matter. They were smarter, faster, stronger than he was.

“Nah, mah sister Elle always said, ‘if you start shit, ya best finish it.’ Lemme hear what you gotta say.” Frank invested his time in a seat next to Rhys and scooted towards the table. Compared to the cockpit, the dining room felt like a hot skillet.

“I’ve been alive for a year now, and I still don’t have any idea who I am.”

Rhys gave Frank the saddest face his gentle face would contort into. It really surprised Frank to hear such words come from someone so young. Frank recalled that his first existential crisis happened a few years ago. Kids should not have to worry about adult themes. They should play in the dirt as long as they can.

“Ain’t Duster ever fill you in? Dusty knows lots, has a knack of being a wise guy when he wants to.”

“He thought it wasn’t in his place to divulge that kind of information to me. Says you and Jackie would be the ones to fully tell me who I am.”

Rhys lied. He had never confronted Duster about his existence, especially not as of lately. The Lucavi himself was ironing out a few kinks with his life. Though Jackie did not blame Duster for Hollis’ death, Duster withdrew himself from everyone else. Rhys sensed his fear of failure, thus allowed the white cloaked alien to live in solitude and reflection.

“I must admit that I haven’t been the best brother. Heck, here I am fuckin’ up at it for a second time.” Sometimes he could see a little bit of his sister Elle lit up in Rhys. “Anyways, I’ll let the doc know that he can tell you want you want, but I wanna give you a warnin’ though: whatever Dusty tells you, you ain’t gotta take for the absolute truth. You’ll always be Rhys Illumina. You be who ya wanna be, nothin’ n’ no one else’s word matters but yours. Now, lemme see what she’s teachin’ ya.”

Rummaging through a few books, there was one that Frank recognized. Pulling it out of the pile by the spine, Frank inspected the hardback and quickly flipped through the pages.

“Avant Tarde,” he began to chuckle. “Gustavio Luccino is timeless. Kinda like you. Here, I’ll read it to you...”
  HEAD ES DOODLE PETSUCHOS / Finnigan / 4y 340d 19h 18m 59s
[size16 #Farewell, My Queen#]

“You’re stuck. You have nowhere to go, princess,” the prince chuckled with Rhys’ dagger pressed to his throat. She had fought a good fight, but the victory had gone to Chelon.

“Hmph.” Eudoxia would somehow need to lead Anchovi through the labyrinth of hallways and rooms just to avoid some of the armed guards in the palace. She tried getting up, but her legs were feeble from the sudden fever.

“Eu, maybe you should rest a bit. You ain’t feelin’ right.” Frank scratched his head and followed the princess closely behind just in case she needed to fall back. He was hoping that she would have some sort of escape hatch conveniently hidden somewhere nearby.

“I’ve never felt better in my life.” She smirked at Chelon and stuck her tongue on. The prince tried the same, but the heat radiating off the dagger scared him.

Anchovi plotted their escape for seconds before another royal figure interjected. Coming from the entranceway Eudoxia used to get into the throne room, a woman in a royal crimson and white cloak scuttled in with several armed soldiers at her side. Finally, Helvetia, the exiled queen of Dalme and the dowager empress of Varsyl, came into play. She wore her peppered hair up, but it was her halo that retained her dying youth. Reflecting the rays of the sun, the halo made of gold alloy illuminated the room. Her eyes, the same sharp eyes as Eudoxia, pierced the prince and the princess alike.

Chelon cried out, “Queen Helvetia!”

The men lined up behind the queen who was silent the entire time. She expected her daughter to come running into her arms, but Eudoxia carried armfuls of resentment. The princess had not moved her mouth and insisted on returning the queen’s ice cold stare with one colder. She knew how it was going to play out. The witty Eudoxia held her tongue back, for she knew that Chelon would defend Helvetia and Helvetia would coddle Chelon. They were more in love with each other than she ever cared to imagine. Everything that the queen did for Eudoxia was for her future-son-in-law. The callous queen would have none of Eudoxia’s nonsense.

“You owe your mother some respect,” Chelon spoke up. Once the vanguard arrived, Rhys had finally backed away from the prince and towards the rest of Anchovi. Chelon sneered and moved closer his stepmother’s side.

“I don’t owe anything to anyone!” Eudoxia exclaimed. Everyone now relied on her to get out of this situation. Outmanned and outgunned, Eudoxia knew that her mother would be prepared for her “tantrum”.

Retaining the frigid mask, the queen somberly addressed the princess. The composure alienated the people from Guten Nocht and annoyed the princess. “You’ve returned to me, Eudoxia, but you aren’t pleased to see me.”

“I don’t belong here is what I’ve found out on my journeys outside these walls. You’d be surprise what’s happening outside this playpen.”

“No, no my sweet rose. You’re just a girl who’s mind has led her to awful places. You don’t know any better. I would know. I was your age before. Womanhood makes even the strongest of girls irrational. Womanhood plays with our imagination.” The condescending tone gave Anchovi the itches, even Duster. The ice began to melt away from Helvetia’s demeanor and she piled on the insults. “My sweet rose, you’re the most irrational girl I’ve ever met with an untameable drive to match. You’ve had me sick and worried for months on end. At first I thought were you sold into slavery. I had men searching for you in all directions. I’ve even sent people across the Blue to Francol! Then perhaps I thought the heart-snatching witch Lansit seized you for himself. Please, please, imagine: your poor mother in her room, sobbing her eyes out. I thought I was going to go blind.”

Eudoxia wished she would have gone blind. She thought that the queen losing her tongue and teeth was too barbaric of an idea to ponder about. Years of pent up frustration erupted from the heated princess. “Don’t act like you care about me!”

“Where did you go?” her mother cried.

“If you wanted to ask that question, you’ve would have been the first person to see me when your henchmen kidnapped me. Instead you have one of your loyal Varsylian handmaidens check up on me. What a bore!”

“Saved. You were saved, and thank the Maker too. Who knows what the Mezze would have done to you. They would have snatched you eventually and taken you as their whore bride. Look, a mother shouldn’t have to worry about her daughter dying before she does.”

Helvetia played the victim and she played it dramatically well. The men armed with rifles stirred a bit in their focused stance. Eudoxia could feel the thick layer of judgment placed on her. She was swimming in their rich mousse.

“Without a proper marriage between you and the prince, the Varsylian empire is vulnerable to Dalmenian invasion.” Helvetia moved towards the back of firing squad line and took a seat at the throne. Her sore feet pulsated in her slippers and could not allow both emotional and physical pain to take her any longer. “The past forever haunts me, my daughter. Does it not you? Do you not remember what the Dalmenian king did to us when you were just a young girl? Yet, that growing empire that ousted us sympathizes for its lost princess and perhaps that is why our new fatherland still floats. Without you, Varsylgard remains susceptible to the perils of our old home.”

“Perhaps this country needs a wakeup call.” Grim and at the same time oddly enchanting, Eudoxia bluntly told it how it was. Varsyl was considered one of the greatest nations in the known Blue, but had slowly dwindled in riches and influences after a while. Between the slavery and now the persecution of Mezze folk and witches, Eudoxia wanted no part in its cruelly twisted design.

“You should be fortunate that the late king and his son were gracious to us. You owe this country more than you know, and it is your duty to protect these people.”

“My fate doesn’t reside within these walls.”

“Then where will you go when you’ve lost all your will, your beauty, your opulence, and your family?” Helvetia maintained the first three of her list, but she was slowly losing any hope for grandchildren and a daughter.

“Wherever Anchovi goes, my heart will follow.”

Frank wiped away a tear and Duster might have smiled a small smile.

Unsure of who this Anchovi was, the queen beckoned, “Who?”

“Us!” Jackie shouted.

“Her family!” Rhys added on.

“How can you sympathize with these filthy yardworkers, Eudoxia?” She was under the assumption that these were all agents of Harvey Lansit and the Galhead, though they were all responsible for the slavers’ crushing downfall. She quickly glanced over all their faces and half of them were atrocious monsters. Soloing Jackie out, the queen, with the utmost disgust in both meat and bone, chided, “This one is squatty and fat.”

“You hold your tongue!” Hollis pulled forward to defend Jackie who was utterly taken by surprise.

“How dare a fusilier of the vanguard speak to his queen with such a vile manner! Gallien will have you indicted for your unwarranted, barbaric lash.” Angered, she signaled her men to advance on Anchovi.

“You are no queen to me, just a silhouette with heavy pretenses. Go fetch the captain, and I will say the same to him. I have chosen to renounce my faith in this empire in pursuits of other lands.” He turned to Jackie and smiled. He was going to fight for her and follow her to the ends of the Blue.

Chelon snarkily asserted to the princess and her cohorts, “You won’t make it to the front door.”

“Watch us.”

Frank whipped out his caster and pointed to the left side of the advancing firing squad. The men with rifles, instead of fulfilling their duties to the queen, jumped to take cover as a beam of fiery energy tore a hole through the throne room’s walls and stained glass. Stone crumbled and the glass shattered all into small bits of shrapnel. The queen and the prince balked and waited until the dust to see Eudoxia. Anchovi ran towards the new opening in hopes of escaping.

Eudoxia, unable to keep her sharp tongue from dulling, remarked to the prince, “And if you’re lucky, you might make it to your eighteenth.”

“Witches!” he cried out in return. Brandishing his sword and ready to kill them all himself, Chelon slowly stepped their way with a few soldiers armed with swords.

“Eudoxia! If you go out that window--” her mother began to sputter.

“You’ll do absolutely nothing.” With the biggest grin on her face, Eudoxia looked past her mother and took out her sword. Chelon would never place a hand on her ever again. She promised that she would not be locked up in her bedroom as long as she breathed.

“Kill all of them except the princess.” Chelon, determined to bring Eudoxia back from insanity, engaged her in another battle.

“Rhys,” Eudoxia quickly looked back at her friend, “you know what to do.”

Nodding, Rhys took out the second object Eudoxia had gifted him, the Dalmenian Skein. He looked around the empty throne room for an object solid enough to act as an anchor, but it was Duster who provided a dense slab of metal to tie it around. The Lucavi ball harpooned the silvery shard across the room and through the walls until it was secure enough to climb down. Rhys was the first to rappel down the giant drop which happened to be marketplace and then Tony.

Eudoxia, Frank, Jackie, Duster, and Hollis remained on the surface in order to clean up their mess. Duster created a couple of barricades around their exit which ultimately funneled the Varsylian forces into one point. Frank, who was down for a few caster shells and a bullet, threw some punches at the riflemen who dared to interrupt Eudoxia’s squabble with the prince, and Eudoxia did not take a lot of time to lob her ex-fiance across the floor. Satisfied, she was the third to leave the premises.

Jackie’s insatiable appetite for battle got the best of her. The men with swords kept on coming and without a care in the world, Jackie would knock them all down to the ground. Frank urged her to pull back so they could leave, but the Varsylians missed with their rifles, approached her with such confidence, and fueled her love for the battle. The sweat poured by the gallons, yet she made punching and kicking seem so effortless. In her mind, there was no contest, Jackie Simms thought she was the best in all of Varsylgard. No fist, sword, or gun had enough power behind it to stop her.

Of course, the queen thought otherwise. Sickened to see her men beaten by a Mezze and a woman, the high and mighty Helvetia broke her promise. She vowed to never take arms and fight against another; with the influence she had in life, she did not need to fight. The Dalmenians were fierce hunters themselves, even the women took up arms for the hunt. She as an adept tracker, and despite her appearances as a serene sovereign, she was not too shabby with a rifle.

Helvetia casually scuttled to one of the fallen soldiers and gracefully bent down to wrap her fingers along the trigger of a rifle. It was crafted by Francolians, as most Varsylian firearms were. The Varsylians were never the best smiths on this side of the Blue and relied on the Francolians’ craftsmanship. If she had to be honest with herself, the Dalmenians made better guns. Holding the butt of the rifle to her shoulder, she recalibrated the wiggling frontsight and aligned her eye with her target. The woman, the one called Jackie, reminded the foreign queen of the bristled chin boars from back home. Tusks as thick as a child’s forearm and hairs as prickly as stiff pine, the hunt was harking for her inner-huntress.

“Gotcha.”

Duster and Hollis raced against the shot. With one quick windup, Duster pitched a Lucavi ball that steadily morphed into a buzzsaw. Hollis caught Helvetia’s line of sight and rushed for Jackie. The brawler occupied herself with playful taunts to her fallen opponents andt she herself missed everything in that blink. The fusilier shouldered her down onto the marble floor and took the ripping bullet to the chest. A violent violet stained the soft blue of the uniform, and Hollis stood lifeless and with a smile for a moment before falling back. Duster’s buzzsaw was only then able to cleave the rifle into two.

“Hollis!” Jackie screamed. She grabbed him into her lap and she tried to stop the blood from gushing out. She peacefully sobbed, “Hollis, you idiot…”

Duster, who was suspended in shock and devoid of emotion, hollowly droned, “I wasn’t fast enough.”

Sputtering a bit of blood, Hollis last word were, “Your bed just got a smidge colder…”

“Duster!”

Jackie called for the medic, but it was too late. Not even Duster’s green glowing hands had the potency to bring back the dead. He tried to patch Hollis up, but the Lucavi medic only abated in the Blue. Helvetia backed away from the scene and allowed another swarm of soldiers to dispatch the intruders. The queen had lost her daughter, but in her sadistic mind, she did not leave empty-handed. [i A pain for a pain, as all mothers and lovers say.]

“Jackie, we hafta go.” Frank tugged on her arm with one hand while keeping his revolver pointed at whoever was foolish enough to approach.

She muttered, “I’ll kill her.”

Jackie had never expressed such a deep hatred for someone, at least never in front of Frank. Frightful of what might happen next, he desperately brought her around with a stern tone. Frank, who was usually the emotional one in all their misadventures, temporarily pulled her out of an empty state. He did not want to leave Hollis’ dead body behind either, but they were tight on opportunities. “We can’t afford that luxury right now. We’re outnumbered and if we die here, we ain’t ever gettin’ a slice o’ revenge.”

Stretching his abilities thin, exhausted Duster crafted a silky white barrier between them and the growing crowd while Frank and the mourning Jackie descended the stone castle walls. She thought about climbing back up the walls and pummeling them all until her heart’s desire, but Frank was in the way and the worst had begun. As soon as they reached the top of the castle walls, a figure in pinstripe appeared out of a thick green smog. It was the magician, Harvey Lansit, who started the next Varsylian calamity. As if he took all of Jackie’s rage and used it to fuel his magic, grandiose balls of flame encircled the entire palace.

With one flick of his wand, the infernal orbs smashed into the throne room from one side to the other and wicked Harvey ran the fireball several times through. No one could touch him from the top of the keep and everyone within the capital’s radius felt his wrath. Scattering his attacks like the winds, the magnificent feat of magic caught the entire area on fire. He spared no mercy on the rich and the poor, the Krem, the Mezze, the Kaf. Roofs collapsed from the flames. If the crowned was going to tarnish his name for the sake of killing unwanted groups, he was going to follow through.

“She ain’t gettin’ out of that one.”

“The queen was starting to warm up to us,” Duster humorlessly stated.

“Well, all I know is that we are never ever coming back.”

Eudoxia didn’t look back, she had no reason. Helvetia and the prince Chelon could be dead for all she knew and not a single tear would be shed for the likes of them. On the other hand, Jackie witnessed the burning of the palace. She was in awe of how enticing the gargantuan complex burned a radiant gold, but she reassured herself that the giant bonfire would put Hollis’ soul to rest.
  HEAD ES DOODLE PETSUCHOS / Finnigan / 4y 347d 20h 30m 26s
[size16 #Writ of Woman#]

Tossing the letter onto the seat of the throne, Eudoxia squinted at both men in front of her.

“Oh thank the Maker!”

If Harvey could throw his hands in the air, he would have done so joyfully. He thought maybe perhaps their confrontation would end in a double homicide. She would slide her sword into the prince, and Chelon would rightfully return the favor. The naive girl would free him and ask for his hand in marriage, but he would sneakily vanish into thin air as he did with all the ladies. Or so he thought.

“Shut up,” she snapped. “I’m not doing this for you, Harvey.”

His face melted in disappointment and shock. Unable to accept the truth, he insisted, “Huh? That’s hardly believable.”

“I’ve been doing some thinking with the twelve hours I’ve spent in my room thus far, and I’m telling you that I’m not spending another second in there. This sword,” Eudoxia held it by the sheath in front of her and nodded, “This sword right here was meant to slay the prince on behalf of the Lansit name, a name that I vowed to take. Now I realize that’s not the case anymore. This sword will buy me your honor as a Varsylian noble and man. I, Eudoxia of Dalme, fight for my emancipation. Accept this challenge or have your name be tarnished for the rest of your life.”

“What?”

Something must have driven the princess mad, because now both of her suitors were stupefied by her queer words. Harvey refused to believe that she fell out of love with him; he was a heartbreaker and not the other way around. What was she talking about emancipation? She was no slave. She had maids and servants at her whim that cooked, clean, and cared. All of Varsyl was hers if she wanted. The influence, the power, the money. Eudoxia had nothing to worry about. Prince Chelon, frustrated and confused as to what tirade Eudoxia was going on about, turned to his captive.

“Lansit, you’ve worn my bride-to-be. Corrupted her mind with impetuous winds.”

Harvey didn’t say anything but he tried to shrug. The wooden cross that leaned back a little stretched his limbs out like a giant X.

“Rhys, go untie Harvey.” She nodded to the nervous golden hair friend.

Eudoxia owed him and Duster for freeing her from her quarters. Though she initially wanted to rot away and die, it was Rhys who brought her back to her mission. The furnace in her chest glowed, but it was not the usual infatuation which had been fueling her heart that got her out of bed. The crew of the Fighter could have left another problem behind, but they willingly went through the trouble to retrieve the princess and fulfill her ambition. Anchovi ignited her heart.

“Don’t you dare take a step closer,” the prince commanded Rhys. His hair swayed as he revealed a glimmer of his sword and Rhys stepped back.

“He’s no threat. He has my full attention.” Eudoxia pulled out her sword and tossed the sheath aside. Slowly approaching the wooden cross and the prince, she smirked and place the tip of her sword a foot away from Chelon’s chest. “Come humor me, Chelon.”

Returning the princess’ challenge with a smile, the Varsylian prince stepped away from Harvey and the throne. Eudoxia lead her “dancing partner” to the middle of the room and he brandished sword. A woman had no place handling a sword nor on the battlefield, but the prince who held his honor above everything else thought to humor this notion. Surely, she was going to give a quick rundown of such shoddy skills and laughable sword handling.

Chelon admired the princess’ hardhead and her quirkiness with such womanly and worldly things such as fashion. She was just as ambitious as he was. She took broad strides wearing the flowing jet black dress and all he could imagine was Eudoxia wearing her wedding gown in a few months. He thought about inheriting his empire everytime he looked into her olive eyes.

Eudoxia was the first to strike. Chelon parried her attack with ease. His pearly teeth glinted. His Varsylian sword easily dwarfed the Sudranese metal handled by the princess. The recoil from the attack vibrated through the sword and into the princess’ hands. The brand gifted to her by the Lansits was still heavy on her wrists, and she had wished for more lessons with the furious Duster who was nowhere to be seen at the moment. Eudoxia held back her wince. She forbid herself from showing any weakness to the prince of Varsylgard. Chelon would only use her pain to coddle her even more.

Though they grew up with each other for years, Eudoxia never took an actual liking to Chelon much less her mother’s unconditional love for him too. She hated the way he cut his hair and found his paisley apparel to be the most atrocious thing sewn by woman. He was beautiful like most Varsylian men, but his face and etiquette put him on an entirely different level. Whereas soldiers fought with such brute force, Chelon moved with an elegant twist in his legs, almost too sophisticated for combat. In fact, the dowager queen Helvetia forbade him from picking up a sword years ago, but somehow the prince’s elegance and battle prowess convinced her.

Meanwhile, Eudoxia struck with quick predictable strikes. The sword bounced back and in each moment, the prince waltzed around the princess. He could have killed her if he wanted to, but he wanted to break the princess down and shame her. He had affection for her, but for the wrong reasons. Eudoxia porcelain face framed with the kinky black locks radiated and garnered the attention of men everywhere, yet Chelon looked past the aesthetics. She was his duty. In conquering the Dalmenian princess, he ruled all the Varsylian owned lands.

“Quite the quick study, but I can’t help but scoff at such rudimentary practices.” He chuckled into his hand and pulled back a bit to brush back his flowing brown hair. Checking up on Harvey, he saw that Rhys made no progress on the thick nooses bound to the magician’s limbs. “You hesitate before each strike, Eudoxia.”

Eudoxia’s upper lip twitched.

“Tell me princess, when did you last let your heart truly decide? The nefarious Lansit have truly gained control over you with farse riches and declarations. The Mezze are known for their demonic witchcraft. Open your eyes!” He pointed to Harvey and asserted, “This man is evil and looking to destroy what the Uol’wellian lineage has built! An act of terrorism is an act against me, the empire, and you. He’s selling weapons to heretics.”

“Uh, I haven’t confessed to that yet,” Harvey pointed out. Annoyed, he constantly insulted Rhys who was having no luck on undoing the giant knots. It was so hard to find good hands these days. The kid did not have a bright future, according to the mogul’s quick assessment.

Returning his attention to the princess who was having the hardest time looking him in the eyes, Chelon asked, “Have you’ve always felt this way about me?”

“In a lot of ways, we’re similar. Too similar. As much as I like myself, I couldn’t bear witness to your tyrannical rule. You’re a disaster waiting to happen and these people outside the walls of this golden palace will suffer your untimely wrath. The people you so much despise, the Mezze, aren’t as bad as you think, and this witch hunt is an outrageous excuse for mass murder.” She stood with a great blaze charging her heart and there was fire in her eyes. Sharp like daggers, her eyes pinned down the prince, yet it was her cold words that put a knife in Chelon. “ In all honesty, I’ve grown rather bored of you, and not because I prefer the magician. No, it’s a much recent development, something I found out the moment Rhys freed me. Why live for someone else’s dream? You can choose any other fool to be your queen, but my prince, I will not be that fool. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever.”

The words cut him open. Prince Chelon tried to persuade the princess to return to him.

“Your mother though. Her happiness and health is imperative.”

“It’s your kingdom, do whatever you want with her. Hel, marry her instead.”

It was true. The queen Helvetia went out of her way to keep a young Chelon happy. Perhaps it was her duty as the stepmother to protect him or maybe it was because she wanted to live out the rest of her miserable life in comfort, but Eudoxia believed that there was a tighter bond between the two. Chelon took her in as the mother he never had and Helvetia spoiled the son she had always wanted. The dowager empress played his closest confidant and acted as regent until he was ready to ascend to the throne.

Eudoxia’s acted as the bridge between the two. She would bear Chelon’s healthy children and continue both lineages. The mother and daughter never had a close bond, and perhaps if Eudoxia was a boy, Helvetia would act as regent to the Dalmenian throne All of the queen’s attention moved to the prince. She had only groomed Eudoxa to be a fitting wife and mother. The daughter resented her and learned to focus her attentions on other pursuits such as studying under the Maestra Oe.

“You ungrateful shrew!” Chelon broke out, “Speak sense and return to me peacefully.”

“Or else what, Chelon?” she taunted.

“Or I’ll drag you to the altar by your curls.” A sinister wave emanated. “We owe our parents an heir to the Uol’wellian dynasty.”

“I owe no one anything. What I’ve chosen is to be free. To sail the Blue as far as it stretches. With Anchovi.”

Of course, she would have to beat the prince in order to leave.

“Who?” Chelon asked.

“Us!” The throne room’s doors broke open with five bodies tumbling forth with a bang. The rest of Anchovi had been listening for some time without disturbing the battle and waited for the opportune moment to make an entrance. Frank and Jackie brushed themselves off and winked at their tough princess.

“Frank! Jackie!”

Standing behind the two were Hollis, Tony, and Duster who were all in support of the princess’ decision.

Sighing in relief, Harvey quipped, “Finally, the actual help arrived!”

“Nothing more than a band of rubbish thieves!” Chelon, greatly outnumbered by peasants and foreigners, stepped back with his sword drawn in front of him. Surely guards were running to protect him from the menace at hands.

“Eh, n’ yer dead where ya stand, punk!” Frank pointed his revolver in the prince’s direction. One bullet remaining and it had the the snotty prince’s name written all over it. He thought he’d make a good point of planting it right in the kneecap.

Eudoxia motioned him to put down his gun. She nodded and gave the prince a muted glare. “Frank, this is something I must do.”

The clanking of armor and the deep steps of boots approached the room from down the hallway.

“Well, ya oughtta make it quick. I ain’t plannin’ on stayin’ fer longer.”

Duster threw up a barrier and Hollis aimed his rifle down the hallway. Tony and Jackie braced the barrier and charged down the hallway thus knocking heavy soldiers onto their backs. Frank tapped his foot and nodded towards the princess. The final bout. Swords clashed one more time and the prince and the princess became entwined. Chelon’s heavier sword pressed down on the Eudoxia, but she was not ready to submit. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever.

Eudoxia broke off the intimate encounter and swiped at the Chelon’s graced head. He ducked and moved around with the reflexes of a mountain cat. Hair and cape alike flowed after him and only once was the princess able to knick a couple hairs. Witnessing a hair falling before him, a furious Chelon erupted and swung his sword with bold strikes. Sparks flung and each time Eudoxia put up an defense, the prince quickly cleaved it down effortlessly. The rage consumed him and before he realized what he had done, the tip of his blade stuck her torso

Immediately snapping out of the trance, Chelon pulled the sword away from her and fell to the marble flooring. He sobbed, “Eudoxia! I-I’m sorry.”

The stinging pain wore off a while, but Eudoxia could not help but wonder why she was still standing. The tip of his blade tore a hole into her lacy black dress, but there were no signs of blood or gore. Inspecting the hole closely, she placed a few fingers on her gut and felt a dry scales running across her body. Freaked out, she jumped in place.

“You’re a witch.” Stunned, Chelon muttered to himself for a bit on the floor.

In the background, Rhys rummaged around his pockets and pulled out Eudoxia’s heated dagger. Realizing she had given him the weapon for protection, Rhys singed the ropes until they were weakened and broke Harvey out of his bonds.

“I’ve haven’t seen that before.” Harvey had watched the entire thing between the prince and the princess unfold. Genuinely, he was curious about Eudoxia’s immunity to impalements, yet he had not the time to ponder about it in the Varsylian palace. Standing on his feet once more, Harvey nodded to Rhys and softly stated, “Boy, send my regards to the princess. She is forever in my debt. And I guess you, despite your shoddy attempts.”

Without access to his pen, the magician muttered a few unintelligible words into the air and in seconds he vanished within a dense cloud of green smoke before Rhys’ eyes.

Ripping away the train to the dress, Eudoxia waited for the prince to get back to his feet. Unable to understand the full extent of Eudoxia, he muttered, “he’s tainted you. You’ve learned dark arts from that pile of horse shit.”

“You’re finished.”

The swords rang, but this time Eudoxia found herself encircling the prince’s fancy footwork. For every step he made, she made three more. A gentle breeze worked with her and it was the prince who was hesitating on his moves. Chelon’s strikes were too slow for the agile Eudoxia and his petty attempts at reeling her in failed horribly. He finally went in for the grab, but the lithe princess glided past his arm and bodychecked him to the floor. All in an instant, prince Chelon of the Holy Varsylian Empire faced the end of her blade.

“You may have bested me in combat, Eudoxia of Dalme, but you won’t leave these palace walls.” He shouted, “None of you will!”

Eudoxia, standing triumphantly above Chelon, suddenly fell ill and started to fall backwards. Luckily, Frank slid underneath her for the save. Prince Chelon tried to get up, but Rhys jumped at the moment to keep him down and held the dagger to his throat.

“Ya okay?” Frank asked?

“I’m a little woozy. I should be fine.”

Frank furrowed his eyebrows. Eudoxia’s body was boiling hot and almost unfathomable to hold.
  HEAD ES DOODLE PETSUCHOS / Finnigan / 4y 348d 21h 11m 57s
[size16 #Prince Chelon#]

Harvey P. Lansit had all the time in the world in his waiting chamber to count the number of black tiles on the floor and to recollect the previous flings. In reality, the waiting chamber was actually the throne room. Harvey’s cross stood in the front and to the left of the gilded throne. The room had no attendants nor did it have much to be desired. The heavy curtains blocked the cooling breeze and afternoon sun from ever seeing the throne. He had all the time in the world to catch up on anything, but Harvey found it more important to count and recount the 432 black tiles and 53 love affairs.

Several servants would come visit to feed and lightly wash the pungent and diminished prisoner. He had to thank whoever for the excellent treatment. Harvey was allowed to keep his clothing except for the random papers stuffed in his pockets and the wand. Most of it was senseless garble The vanguard did very little roughing around with him and at most just jerked him around like a bag of potatoes. He complied with their commands and even tried to charm them with his dashing charisma. It almost worked. [i Almost.]

The magician had been shipped from one building to another until he somehow ended in the same palace as his number one fan and his number one adversary. Eudoxia had no idea where exactly they were keeping Harvey, but in her heart she knew that he was somewhere in the dungeon. The prince was far too busy delegating with his generals to visit. The magician did not care though. These people were possibly the worst examples of Varsyliankind. At this point of his life, Harvey embraced death as an old friend if it meant he could live a life in the afterworld without Chelon and Eudoxia.

Of course, he thought too soon when the throne room’s doors opened. Instead of his daily checkup by the wise old physician, it was a sole figure dressed in radiant gold. Prince Chelon stood roughly the same height as Harvey and carried the same face as the rest of the Varsylian men, yet he managed to be more attractive than the rest. Perhaps it was the affluence, but even a snob such as a Lansit had to admit that there was something compelling about the prince. Maybe it was the straight brown hair that gently grazed his shoulders and the blunt bangs that tickled his well-sculpted brow.

“You ought to bow down to royalty whence you see them. Oh wait.” It was a possibility, but his humor was not too bad for the upper crust. Prince Chelon leaned on his sheathed sword. His red and white broad striped caped rested on the palace floor and the shining armor clinked.

“I’ve rather grown tired of these curtains, Chelon. Pull them back so I can at least gaze upon the capital’s radiant glory.” Harvey rolled his eyes. He wished he had the freedom to scratch his eyebrow, but the prince was adamant about restraining his limbs as far away from the torso as possible. “At least humor me. This cross is quite an atrocious piece to your throne.”

Harvey’s opponent let out a haughty laugh. “I think it’s quite fitting for the future emperor of Varsylgard. It speaks volumes of my character.”

“Yeah, the ascension of a lunatic without a slightest clue on how to accent. You’ll usher in a new era. The people will call it the ‘Era of Barnyards’ because their so-called ruler has the simple mindset of a peasant farmer. An empire in which its palace halls are lain with hay and the ram defecate wherever they roam. Yes, I can see it now, these people who look so highly up to you will cheer your name, ‘Farmer Chelon, Farmer Chelon! Bless us with your goats’ milk!’ Barbarian king.” Harvey had his own sense of humor, but he needed to pass the painstakingly slow seconds and ignore the insatiable itch in his cloudy beard.

“I wouldn’t expect you to understand, Lansit. The Mezze people never had honor or a moral compass. You pray to a false Maker. One of foreign origins far from this part of the Blue that partake in sacrifice and magic. Filthy dark arts are unfit for my reign and the land in which I reign. The inquisitors have gone through a great deal of expelling believers and I’ve been able to publicly execute a handful of witches to boot.” Chelon goaded. “These people came to this country for a reason. Maybe not them exactly, but their kind did. Scavenger rats, looking for any opportunity that comes their way. Bottom feeding until they’re satisfied with their share. Nothing more than second hand citizens. That is why no Mezze shall ever rise to any throne in the Varsylian empire. Once I become king and marry Eudoxia--oh, and I will be marrying her.”

He gave a good looking to Harvey who was too pinned down to shrug his shoulders and brush him away.

“I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care for the millionth time!”

The prince stood neutral on the entire slave trade and allowed his future mother-in-law to handle that affair. He did though take advantage of Eudoxia’s mysterious disappearance as a way to start the latest witch hunt. Convincing the upper class and legions that witches, under the instruction of Harvey, kidnapped the princess, Chelon was able to initiate a movement killing Mezze colored people. Across the Blue, it was heavily taken as fact that people of not too fair and not too dark skin possessed some knowledge and ability of magic. Though it was widely known that people of Kaf origin had a better chance of being magickers than Mezze or Krem, the folk of Mezze origins grew in alarming numbers.

The prince despised the changes throughout Varsylgard in regards to these people he deemed as lowly. Without a proper king on the throne, the people felt as if laws and culture did not exist. Chelon was going to make it better again with a myriad of reforms and maintain the status quo. The Varsylians frowned upon magic and any use of it in public or in crime was punishable by the noose. In a few more months, the prince would be at the ripe age of 18. Eighteen, the age in which he could marry and inherit the crown legitimately. People will bow and respect him and the masses would tremble to their knees.

Prince Chelon motioned towards the curtains and pulled them back. The sun and the breeze gently flowed and graced the prince with their gifts. Still speaking the annoyed magician, he ambitiously stated, “I’m going to wipe the filth out of my domain.”

“Ha, you act as if I give a shit about plebeians.” Harvey tossed his head back and chuckled. It wasn’t for long though.

“Oh, and we will be taking back Densch as well as the rest of Sudra. Those people owe my ancestors the knowledge and fortitude, and it’s only right if I reclaim that land. That city wouldn’t be standing high in the sky without Varsylian technology.” The prince smirked at the irritated prisoner. “Yes, everyone has made mistakes and my family is no exception. The Uol’wellian dynasty has had some black sheep, heck towards the end of the first king’s reign, he felt ostracized from the entire family. Died believing the good he did was wrong. I’m going to atone for their sins.”

Harvey would rather be struck by lightning and die than witness the capture of Densch. Indeed, the Varsylian military had one of the best air forces in their known Blue, but Densch was hardly an easy target. The city would have to be toppled before it ever gets seized by foreigners. Dulon and Rozlibet had iron wills, and while they were not exactly war mongers, they had an idea on how battles could be won.

“Enough of the history lesson, you insufferable twat.”

“The Mezze people are so violent. Case in point: you.” The prince loved to taunt his stationary target. In some aspects, Eudoxia would have been the perfect wife for him. Closing into Harvey’s twiching face, he nastily smirked and jeered.

“If you detest me so much then, prince, then execute me now,” he never let himself get so worked up before, but that was before he was held captive and restrained. In those other situations, Harvey Lansit was able to bolster his words with fire.

“I would love to and so would my righteous people, but a great ruler I would not be.” Chelon turned away from Harvey and ascended to his throne. Taking a seat on top of the rich red velvet cushion, the malicious prince envisioned himself as rightful ruler. The continents under the capital’s jurisdiction would have to listen to each and every whim he could think. Continuing from the luxurious seat, he remarked, “I’ve never been one to rush hastily into things. People, places, things, events, the seasons: they all take time. Your death is inevitable, but killing you at this moment is far too soon. Your end must come into fruition, but first you’ll bear witness as we burn fellow witches and seize Densch from those tyrants. Once that happens, then your demise will mature and bloom.”

Envy ran through the prince’s veins. He hated everything about Harvey: the color of his skin, the dark circles underneath his eyes, the white hair, the way he dressed, his age, everything. What did Chelon lack that the washed up fool possessed? Eudoxia was rightfully his and betrothed to him from the dowager empress Helvetia. He planned on making the rest of Harvey’s endless days and nights miserable. Perhaps the rest of the Lansit family would burn before Harvey’s eyes. Yes, that would bring great pleasure to the wicked prince. Sadistic to the bone and ruthless, the teenager aspired to turn enemies into ashes.

“I know you’ve been working with that cult. The Templar. Traitors, the lot of them, filth in my eye that needs to be washed. You’re a perilous man and I must uphold the sanctity of my people and my land. Now that I’ve brought attention to this particular subject, tell me who is Fenshir”

Harvey perked up from his static hung slump. Somehow the brat managed to catch the merchant off guard. Harvey turned the other way, but Chelon was quick to remove himself from his throne and force his enemy to look him in the eyes. Furious eyes etched into the magician’s mind. Perhaps there was more than a wicked soul residing within the golden armor.

“If I may ask, how do you know that name? Do I have a shadow on board?”

“I will be asking the questions, Lansit. Don’t let my youthful appearance deceive you. I am wise beyond my years. And as future king, the goodness of the most pious and strong men have taught me what I need to rule.”

“Ooh, so you got yourself a servant creeping on my ship, so fascinating.”

Chelon walked away and tossed up a hand. He may not have Harvey speak anytime soon about Fenshir, but soon enough the magician is going to crack. He returned to the throne and thought of ways to break his prisoner. Then, he leaned forward from the high chair and smiled.

“I may have to keep you alive. You keep me on my feet.”

“I try.” Harvey dryly put it. “Prince Chelon, you’re quite the charming fellow. I’m sure you hear it often from your subjects, concubines, and playmates, but from one filthy Mezze to the reverent royalty I hope you last on the throne forever.”

Unable to keep a straight face, Chelon laughed, “Plea deals won’t work, Lansit. As I’ve previously mentioned, the Mezze have no moral compass. You’d throw your people into the fire if it meant saving your apathetic life. Not far from the truth at all.”

“The majority of those people down there aren’t even from Sudra. I hold no allegiance with them. I can point out the witches to you. I’m truly established in the capital whether or not you want to admit that.”

“Hmmm…” Not one moment was wasted on Harvey’s pitiful attempts. “No.”

In a sudden turn of events, two figures casually approached from the throne’s right. The leading figure carried a sword at her side and wore a face of determination. Her blond companion followed closely behind.

Catching her in his peripheral, Chelon jumped to his feet. “Eudoxia, what are you doing here?”

“Maker be my witness, I challenge Prince Chelon of the Holy Varsylian Empire to a duel.” From a black sleeve, Eudoxia pulled out a letter with the Varsylian insignia pressed pressed on it. With great conviction, her voice boomed, “Consider this to be the divorce before the marriage.”

Unsure whether to cheer or dread the princess, Harvey gulped.
  HEAD ES DOODLE PETSUCHOS / Finnigan / 4y 354d 20h 41m 43s
[size16 #Storming of the Palace#]

Anchovi carried on towards the palace gates just as they had fixed themselves up. Their brief excursion wearied them out, but headstrong Jackie and Frank were determined to free the princess and her doomed and utter unworthy crush. Tony hesitantly followed not out of his heart but because of duty. He was the only one to think of this daunting task as suicide. The four of them against the royal family’s soldiers? They were practically handing themselves over in exchange for death sentences.

The crew slinked around in the back alleyways and slyly blended into the crowds in order to evade the any inquisitors in the nearby area. Frank noted that he enjoyed avoiding confrontation better than Jackie’s smash and grab technique. The sun was rather mild today and the capital looked greener than Anchovi recollected, yet the merchants and the food vendors were pushier than ever. Jackie missed it all, Frank did despised the hustling of the mass, and Tony would never get caught in such a lowly place. Hollis? He did not have a real opinion of the marketplace either way; he was too busy trying to get his thoughts together.

Reaching the end of the market and hitting the tall stone wall of the royal Varsylian empire’s palace, Jackie scratched her chin and looked to the very top. She had been up this close before, but there was no way she was going to scale in one go and not expect an arrow to the back. The magnificent piece of architecture was built on a steep hill with walls built on the three steepest sides. The fourth side sloped out to the opposite of the city and towards the second main shipyard. The thieves looked at each other and then at Hollis.

“You wouldn’t happen to know any shortcuts into the palace, would you?” Jackie asked the sullen soldier facing down.

“Like hidden passageways?”

“Sewers will work too.”

“I’d prefer if we din’t go through sewers, Jackie.” Frank shuddered at the last time he and his compatriate ran through Last’s reeking sanitary system. Luckily to say, the sheriff never caught the two on one of their bigger heists.

“If I recall, there are several gates installed in the sewers so that no one can enter or escape the palace. It was after prince Uol’ve the fourteenth or seventeenth--I can’t remember how the legend goes--escapes one night to burn half of the city. That was centuries ago.” Hollis paced and tried to remember any other ways into the palace. With great discomfort, he stated, “The only way up there is through the front door. And I can tell you now, it won’t be a pleasant stroll.”

“It never is with you people,” Tony sighed.

They were pressed for time. With each second passing by, the chances of Harvey’s execution loomed near. If Jackie’s assumption was correct, Eudoxia had to be in some sort of trouble as well. Despite her royal upbringing, she was still part of Jackie’s family. Jackie pressed ahead of the boys with such urgency in her bones. With his rifle constantly slapping his back, Hollis chased after her sounding off warnings of the front gates. She was going to get herself killed if she did not stop and listen. He worried for Jackie, but he sometimes he felt he would always trail behind her audacity.

Frank would forever trail behind his better half; he hated to run. Jackie was the bruiser and he was the guy pointing the gun. He claimed he was the brains and she was the brawn. He could read well and talk his way out of a paper bag, but the good gentleman from Guten Nocht would not be able to compile a reasonable resume of accomplishments and skills. His jogging partner to the left, the one and only Antonine Maxwell, hated almost everything that surrounded Jackie and the rest of Anchovi. Running was no exception. Tony kept himself in good shape, but he attributed it to working on airships and lifting heavy things. He never ran with urgency on the Magnuze, especially on the day of its invasion.

The two men finally arrived on the scene two minutes too late. Jackie and Hollis were pinned behind a large stone obelisk at the base of the hill while arrows rained from the tops of the palace walls. The gilded doors opened and a few dozen men armed with swords and shields routed with tenacity. The majority swarmed for Jackie and Hollis while a few perceptive men branched off for Tony and Frank. The two ill-prepared fellows jumped in place, but it was Frank who retaliated without warning.

The revolver sounded off in his hands and tingled up his right arm. Six bullets in two seconds shredded through clothing and skin alike. Two of the rounds managed to tear through a couple people in one go. There the Varsylian sentries dropped in pain. None dead though. Frank felt merciful this time around. After all, these guys were just doing their job. Retreating around rocky edge of the hill, Frank reloaded and rejoined the unarmed Tony. Tony stared at the gunner who was scrounging through his pockets and looking for bullets. With a sense of shock illuminating his face, Frank tilted his eyes up worryingly.

“Din’t bring enough bullets.”

“You’ve got to be shitting me, Frank!” Tony tossed his hands in the air and huffed. He never understood why the Lansits sent an engineer to do a goon’s job. If they wanted their son back, they would have tried harder themselves. The rotten mood had carried from Sudra and up to this point. There were no times for smiles, only disappointment and pending death.

Frank counted the number of bullets he had left in his pockets after the quick reload. Thirteen. Nineteen bullets altogether. He could make it last. He smiled to himself, just very briefly, before he gave a grave scowl back to Tony. He hated the idling. It was almost as if he was compromising the entire rescue mission. Frank bluntly said, “Look bud, why don’t ya pick up a sword and start swingin’ yerself.”

“I,” There was something deeply troubling the engineer, something that had not been brought up since the last time the two of them saw each other. In such a submissive and lowly voice, Tony replied, “I can’t.”

“Seriously?”

“I can’t, okay!” he exclaimed. He held onto his elbows and sunk back into the rocks.

Frank grimaced and looked back at Jackie and Hollis. He was picking off the archers one after another and she was wiping the floor with the sentries’ bodies. She took up a sword and fought with each breath and sweat. She was going places. Then, Frank looked back at Tony who was sulking.

“I had lost control of everything that I knew about myself. I avoid mirrors because I can’t stand to see the reflection of a murderer. The steel, the blood, the plea. I hated it all, I hated that bastard who killed my father and I thought, that in that moment, that I would be finally set free of everything. I thought I did a good thing that day, that getting Galhead would make me a better person, make me gain everything that I knew and everyone I loved, but it didn’t. My father did not come back to me. In that moment that I killed, my first and last kill, I knew that I was just as bad as him. Flesh for flesh, blood for blood. You don’t know what it means to fear yourself.”

Tony shunned away Frank’s comforting hand on his shoulder. The aloof air about him turned him way from the rest of the world. He wanted to be invisible for once and escape the violent nature of the Blue. Back at Engergast farm, Tony had not shot a single bullet at the inquisitor’s brigade. He hated this reality. Tony evoked for freedom, yet he yearned for some control over his life. His insides emptily rattled and a wave of grey skies lethargy weighed him down.

“I ain’t askin’ ya to brutalize ‘em. Just give ‘em a good enough poke.” Frank turned back to the battle unable to calm his acquaintance’s soft mind.

“Duck!” Jackie screamed to Hollis as she swiped away arrow and armor.

Despite Hollis’ best efforts and thinning out the palace’s defense from above, the archers came in droves and made a constant push against Anchovi’s headstrong mistress. Their men would fall to her battle prowess, yet they would get back up and muster enough force to fight again. The fusilier was counting kills whereas the brawler simply knocked them down and hoped they would get back up. Hollis was driven out of his shell and admired her from behind. Her drive was unparalleled, especially compared to Varsylian women.

“Jackie,” The heart of Hollis rumbled a faster than normal. The archers had gone on another offensive with a downpour of arrows raining on their obelisk. In this moment, the mustached rifleman confessed, “I’ve been thinking about it and I was wondering that if we make it out of here alive, I would like to accompany you.”

“First you want us dead and now you want to follow me to the ends of the Blue?” The arrows stopped momentarily and she peeked from around the stone pillar. The archers spotted her and returned with another nasty arrowhead storm. She returned to his face with a smile, but then in her low voice snarkily retorted, “You got some real nerve, Hollilocks, some real balls to think that you can just mosey into my quarters and call it good. If I recall, you shot me! You know, you’re gonna have to make it past Frank and the princess. They won’t take too kindly to having a Varsylian lapdog around. They’ll hound me for eternity, won’t let their guard down until they’ve told me so.”

Hollis felt stupid. Of course she wouldn’t go for a guy like him. He’s hunted Anchovi time to time, even almost killed her in one skirmish. They could be more together, he thought. She was kinetic like electricity surging through hot air. A warm breath to moisten his. He felt something beyond the sexual tension. Jackie Simms freed him, yet she did not want to do anything with him. Or so he thought.

Jackie dropped her sword and grabbed him by the head. She pulled him in for a sloppy yet passionate kiss. “I don’t care though. I’ll carry that burden with me. They’ll get over it.”

She playfully pushed him away and looked around the corner for any incoming arrows. Jackie sprinted for the walls and scaled it with her bare hands. Throwing off her boots, her fingertips clutched the grooves in between the stones and the toes dug into the grit. She was known as the Lizard amongst her peers. She scaled buildings for fun as a kid and honed her skills for heists. Both Frank and Hollis kept a good eye out for her with barrels pointed towards the top. Excellent in control, Jackie climbed up the wall and over to the other side of the gate in a few minutes. She motioned for the rest to approach.

“When I got up there, the archers were all pinned to the floor and knocked out. The keeps were even sealed shut.” Jackie took out a silver shard that she recovered from one of the palace guards.

“Very strange,” Frank itched the tangling rust scruff on his face. “He’s gotta be here somewhere.”

The four of them ascended towards the palace and disarmed the janitors of their swords with ease. Jackie and Hollis stormed through the front tall ornate doors without looking behind, but Frank paused for a bit.

“...?”

Outside of the black iron doors with gilded trimming and ivory wood, the airship mechanic stood in premature defeat. The effort making his way all the way up to these doors from the front gate was pointless. Even if Anchovi saved Harvey and the princess, Tony was no worth to them. Frank angrily tapped his foot.

“I don’t know what I’m doing here. I’m not a fighter.”

“Look kid. I ain’t expectin’ you to be the best out here, but I do require you to try yer best when we need it.”

Jaded, Tony shrugged off Frank’s word. With each second passing, Harvey was facing an execution. As a result, the princess could blow up at any moment and act irrationally. As a result of that, Jackie risked her life for the princess and her ambition. Frank thought about leaving Tony for the others, but despite their differences, he saw something in the mechanic. Lost without a purpose in life, Frank had been in that position and if he was being honest with himself, he was still in that rut.

“You’ll rage like the Blue. A fire that cannot be ousted resides in your chest. We’re all casualties of strife, but what you can’t do is let that rage be pent up in ya. You’ll destroy ya’self if ya ain’t sayin’ nothin’ ‘bout it. I don’t blame ya at all for killin’ that guy. In fact, ain’t no one blamin’ ya.”

“An eye for an eye…” Tony muttered.

“Yeah, yeah, but an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. You can’t forgive a shitbag that’s dead, but you can start with yerself. Look, I ain’t no philosopher, but I know that you loved yer father as he loved ya. Live for today in his honor or whatever, I ain’t gonna tell ya how to live yer life, but ya gotta have a purpose. Don’t be the kid who sits n’ eats glue all day.” Frank looked to catch up with Jackie and Hollis, but remarked, “I won’t put a sword in yer hand and ask ya to kill. It’s not yer purpose.”

“I have a lot to learn about myself, Frank.”

Tony caught up with Frank and even surpassed him in the desperate search for the rest of the party. The wide hallways decorated with expensive vases on rustic pillars and priceless portraits spanned in every direction. He heard footsteps coming from behind. The maids and servants screamed in terror and locked themselves in the myriad of rooms that spanned throughout the hallways. The two of them eventually caught up to Jackie and Hollis only to be surrounded by three groups of the palace’s finest soldiers.

“Gulp.” Tony had wished that he had picked up a sword. Instead, he balled up his fists and asked, “What’s next?”

“Hollis, ya oughtta know where their keepin’ the princess.”

“Fact: I’ve never once had to escort the princess to her room.”

[i ‘Duster. I know you’re here somewhere. If you can lend us a hand, that’d be great.’] Four against a good thirty. The Lucavi’s magic would’ve made this easier for everyone, and even Jackie was feeling the pressure.

“You at least know how to git us to the throne room from here?”

Hollis nodded.

“That’s suicide!” Tony put his fists up and matched eyes with an opposing soldier. He was shorter than Tony, but wore armor and carried a sword. To prove Frank right, the stormy souled mechanic was going to take this particular guy down first.

“Better than just idlin’ ‘round like a herd of chickens.”

“It looks like we’re not going to escape this one without a few scrapes and bruises.”

“Oh, you’re very optimistic.”

“Not now, Tony. Despite good ole’ Jackie’s sense of humor, we ought to be fightin’ these bugged eyed bastards.”

The crowd slowly closed in. Frank pulled out his revolver and spun the chamber. Jackie cracked her knuckles and grinned.

“Well then. Hollis, Tony: welcome to Anchovi 101. In today’s lesson, we’re learning crowd control.”
  HEAD ES DOODLE PETSUCHOS / Finnigan / 4y 355d 21h 40m 3s
[size16 #The Fusilier#]

A tall man with dark skin, a squatty woman with medium complexion, and a gaunt outlaw with a ruddy aura hopped into a black carriage and headed for the city. The horses trotted along and the driver with the weary face worried about living the entire ride. Inside the carriage the individuals sat with dissatisfaction and hangering pains. The long night before kept them awake, meddled with their bones, and pried open their heavy eyelids. Tony had spreaded out on one side of the carriage while Frank scrunched in with the blocky Jackie.

Frank did not bode well with the silence. His shoulders were hunched to his ears and the top of his head scraped the low ceiling. He was thoroughly annoyed with everything at this point. He complained,“We would’ve won, but them tin cans scurried off before I plugged ‘em rightfully so.”

The other two were too quick to dismiss him. Even though everyone in the ranch house survived the night, it all seemed like a defeat. The inquisitor’s brigade was not able to get close enough with their torches and their guns fired inaccurately throughout the crisp night, but Elbriz’s homestead suffered the most injuries.

“You really think that Elbriz will be safe? An inquisitor will be back for him. Maybe not tomorrow, or the next day, but one day.” Tony, always the skeptic and often got on Frank’s nerves, posed this fear to the other two.

“And we’ll be ready, Tony.” Tony liked to play it cool, but Jackie, in her own right, was cooler. She was slicker than the rest, but she never flamboyantly showcased it to her contemporaries. Rubbing her forehead, she added on, “Right now we have bigger issues to solve like the whereabouts of half of our crew.”

This fact did indeed worry Frank and Jackie. They had let Rhys go out on his own before, but they died a little inside knowing that he might be in danger. Never had this gut churning feeling fall upon them. He was their younger brother who was just as bright--if not brighter--as them. He was a glimmer of light. Rhys was the Illumina.

“Elbriz’s young’un ain’t speakin’ sense. She’s sobbin’ harder than a wintered Mad Moon. All I could hear is that Rhys sped off like Hel.”

“You catch any of that?”

Jackied nodded which caused Tony to scratch his chin in annoyance. [i ‘Bound by duty, my ass. I did not sign up to be put in the same space as these imbeciles.’]

“I have a good feeling that we’ll find the princess in the palace.” Surely the inquisition did not kill Eudoxia but rather returned her to the prince. Jackie was almost certain of it.

“That leaves the mysterious Duster to worry about.”

Frank scoffed at Tony’s silly statement. “Ole Dusty can handle himself. The guy can make knives appear out of nowhere and he knows where to find the Fighter. It ain’t goin’ anywhere. Eu and Rhys are who we need to focus on.”

The horses trotted and carried the carriage until they came to a slowing halt. The sandals and slippers of merchants clipped along the street of desert stone, and the voices chattered in the distant background. No one inside the carriage said anything, but Tony peeked through the lavender colored satin curtains and tapped his foot anxiously. The carriage stood in place for a few more minutes before Frank fiercely banged carriage’s wall.

The voice, muffled by the walls of the carriage and outside world, replied, “Psst. This is as far as I can take you guys.”

“The market, really?” Frank scratched his scruff and squinted his eyes at the rest of the passengers. He actually hated having facial hair despite his current appearance, and he rightfully blamed it on current events. His face always itched and he would always scratch his prominent adam’s apple.

“Frank, stop hassling the guy.”

Jackie nudged him towards and out the door for the wilderness that was the Varsylian marketplace. The carriage driver nodded in their direction before returning back to Elbriz’s ranch in ruins. Neither boys really appreciated the culture behind the marketplace as much as Jackie, but they largely attributed that fact to her upbeat attitude and initial trust in others. It was early in the hot noon, and the three began their march towards the palace walls. They traversed amongst the busy crowd looking for options, alternatives, disguises, and makeshift weaponry. They concocted plans on the go and factored in Harvey’s inevitable execution and Eudoxia’s lifeless marriage.

Frank gestured a gun out of his hand and pointed it to the highest point of the royal Varsylian palace. Pretending to fire off a bullet, the squinty eyed Frank mouthed off to his companion, “Jackie, you’ve snooped ‘round the palace. Surely you got somethin’ for us.”

“Those walls are just too high for us to scale without any proper equipment, Frankie. There’s no way that they’re gonna let us in during the day. This ain’t your Last run-of-the-grocer heist. It has dimensions. Lots of them.” Of course, Jackie would have found a way to scale the walls by herself without a lot of equipment, but she honestly believed that Frank and Tony would slow her down.

“Pfft, I ain’t got time for big words like that.”

Tony rolled his eyes. Dulon and Rozlibet owed him. Big time. Instead of shooting down Frank for his incompetence, he ignored everything up until the last bit. The man with the funny accent motioned with his hands flying over the palace. Jackie jumped on the idea right away, but had seconds thoughts herself. If she was driving the ship, it would only leave Frank and Tony to rescue Harvey and Eudoxia. That would never happen or turn out a success.

“Flying above the palace is suicidal. The turrets will ground the Fighter before you even realize what happened,” Tony sharply scoffed.

Frank and Jackie both looked at each other in confusion as he pulled ahead of the group. His looks only brought him along so far before Jackie realized he killed her vibe. Frank had utter respect for his brother Jeraia, but Antonine Maxwell was a stick in the mud. It was already bad enough dealing with Jackie’s bubbliness, Duster’s dry sense of humor, and Eudoxia’s snootiness; Frank did not need Tony’s patronizing. In fact, Varsylgard had a tendency of housing some of the most condescending folk around. They were always tearing down poor Frank Dietz.

Tony continued to walk ahead of the group, yet did not notice the thinning of the crowd. He grumbled to himself about the founding members of Anchovi and cursed the Lansit family. Taking one step too many, the top of Tony’s broad shoulder met with a grazing bullet that sped past him and into a stone wall. Immediately dropping to the dusty earth, Tony groaned and squirmed for cover. Jackie shoved Frank behind a crate before realizing who it was. Lo and behold, Hollis Westlands all dressed in blue, yet he was not the same Hollis as she knew and loved in secrecy.

“The inquisition wants to put me under arrest, Jackie. They know!”

The fusilier pointed his rifle at her, but she did not budge one bit. His uniform, torn and dirtied from the long nights of interrogation and escape, sold her. It was bare and stripped of its merits.

Looking to calm the raging storm before her, Jackie spoke softly to him while occasionally keeping an eye out for Tony. “About what, babyboy? Put down the rifle!”

“About the...you know what! They wanna execute me for treason.”

Frank snatched her and dragged her behind the crate and Tony crawled to the other side of Frank. There the three of them looked at each other for plans.

Frank always knew that the relationship was doomed from the beginning. He pointed to her crotch and blatantly asked, “Can you keep that thing under control?”

She was not disgusted by her friend’s remark. Instead of being chastised by men and women alike, Jackie Simms embraced all of herself and retorted with a sly wink, “What can I say Frankie, this kitty cat drives the boys loco.”

“Mad with rabies, more like it.” Frank looked over the crate but quickly ducked as a bullet nearly tagged him. “Gotta shut ‘em down.”

“Hollis, what will killing us entail?” she shouted from behind the crate. The people of the marketplace had blocked themselves off from the heated scene. Merchants and bakers closed their hatched windows and pulled down the cloth screens. Without all the unneeded distractions, Jackie listened carefully for Hollis’ heavy breathing. She sensed fear in his fleeing mind; he wanted to escape somehow, someway.

“My innocence.”

“Ooh baby, he lost that a long time ago,” Jackie quipped to her boys.

Tony winced as Frank tended to his shoulder. A simple superficial knick to the shoulder, nothing too serious. He honestly believed that he would not be in this situation if Jackie would just learn how to control herself. Venting his frustration, he snarkily asked, “Do you lead all men to their death?”

“Only the ones foolish enough to fall in love.”

This time it was Frank who rolled his eyes at her corny line. He had enough of being pinned down by one mad gunner. Instead of allowing Jackie to lead the negotiations, Frank switched sides with her and pulled out his revolver. While Jackie could senselessly pound in a face with all her might and still be content with herself, Frank decided he was the best suited person for negotiations. Afterall, discussion was best had with a couple of bullets exchanged.

“We ain’t got time ya, ya raggedy ass quack.”

Frank jutted from the covers and took a quick pot shot at Hollis who was constantly on edge. They exchanged fire, but none of the bullets seemed to hit their targets. Hollis and Frank both took cover behind corners diagonally from each other. Their eyes would occasionally meet in the middle as if they were flirting a most dangerous game. Hollis, scratched and beat up, was not going to take any prisoners alive. On the other hand, his opponent was deciding whether or not he was worth a fatal shot. Both men, equal in dignity and skill, awaited the other to fault.

[b Bang.] The first bullet erupted from Frank’s revolver yet managed to miss Hollis who was aiming his rifle. In return, the fusilier with the bushy mustache and tall hat took a shot into the corner and ripped across Frank’s left thigh. Blinded by the crumbling stone and dust, Frank had not expected Hollis’ vengeful follow up. The rifle’s butt smashed into his face and knocked him back, but Frank stood his ground. Bleeding from his nose, Frank charged Hollis and the bayonet sticking from the end of his rifle and tackled the Varsylian into the ground. Frank gave it his all with a few good swings to the face thus evening the amount of blood spewed between the two.

Hollis tossed bony Frank off him, and the both of them fired more bullets as they retreated for opposite ends of the block. The scuffle ended with both of them breathing heavily and bloodied with no serious injuries involved. Towards the end, the two of them tossed their arms to the ground and grimaced toward each other.

“Seems we’re at a stalemate.” Frank huffed and placed his hands on his knees while he tried to catch his fleeting breath. Hollis was probably the second best shot in all of the Blue, only trailing behind Frank. At least, that’s what the ruddy faced man claimed.

Without a doubt, Hollis would not accept defeat, because to accept defeat was to accept his death. Reaching into his uniform’s chest pocket, Hollis pulled his tiny pistol by the handle and aimed it between Frank’s eyes. Unbeknownst to the fusilier, Frank was just as fast, if not faster, to pull out his second arm, the spellgun. Frank smirked and Hollis slightly whimpered.

“You won’t have enough time to pull the trigger and kill me with that sluggish antique piece.” Hollis hesitated on the trigger. A tear or two trickled from his eyes. [i ‘It’s not fair. It’s just not fair.’]

“Both of you stop!” Jackie took this moment to jump to her feet and take action. Closing in on Hollis, she kicked the gun from his grip and threatened him with her intimidatingly wide stature. She wished not to fight him, but if she had to subdue him forcefully, she would. Signaling Frank to stand down, she approach Hollis with a soft voice. “Not in public. They might jail us here and now if we’re not too careful and quick about what we do in the next couple of minutes..”

“What’s the point? We’re all dead men.” Varsyl’s inquisition always had a way of catching their targets. He feared that his days were numbered if he cooperated with them any longer. The lashings and the waterboarding, he could not stand another beating. He even considered taking his own life.

“Hasn’t stopped any of us here, Hollilocks.” Jackie nodded as she slowly approached him. Reeling him in by his skinny hands, she pulled him in for a hug. “Now I know that we don’t have the perfect past and we might have ruined everything for you.”

“Your career, your innocence, your life.”

Jackie glared back at Frank and squinted hard.

“Our relationship is abusive. We fight and make up constantly, but there has to be a point where enough is enough and we put our differences aside. You don’t have to love me for the person that I am, Hollis, I don’t expect you to, but right now all of our lives are dangerous. To go alone is dangerous and to pit one against the other is self-destructive. I care for you, as hard as that is to hear, and there’s nothing more I want to do than to see you tomorrow. Now please, can you help us?”

“How?”

“Get us into the palace.”

“Jackie…” the sullen man pulled away from her and gave her a worrisome look.

“Hollis, we have friends up there who are in danger. We’re Team Anchovi, and we don’t leave anyone behind.”

“They’ve killed my men,” he muttered. He recalled the entire nightmare in a flash. The blood and guts spattering the bright bricks and the bodies dropping like bundles of meat. Their faces were petrified before the bullets flew. His squadron was caught off guard by this so called act of treason. Hollis finally sputtered, “By firing squad.”

“Huh?”

“The inquisition is cleaning out anyone who’s anyway associated with Harvey Lansit. That is, I’m assuming that’s who you’re saving.” Hollis turned away from her gaze and continued, “They died because I brought them onto your ship, and I was seeing the captain who has connections with the Lansit family. Innocent men died because of my actions. I’m a fool!”

“You may live on with this heavy conviction, Hollis, but you owe more to yourself to live on. For them. Live on for them, but don’t turn the other way and let more innocent people die. As much as I detest of that Lansit, he needs to be freed before more people die.”

Jackie picked up Hollis’ gun and rifle and stuck them in each of his hands. Hollis wiped away the dirt and tears from his face and nodded. He would do it for his fallen brothers and blindly attached himself to Anchovi’s goals. Smiling enough to sting her cheeks, Jackie trusted him too much not to shoot them all in the back the moment the set off for the palace. The couple started for the palace while Frank and Tony lingered behind quizzically. Frank turned away in disgust as Jackie rubbed the fusilier’s back. She had the worst taste in men.

“I think you have competition, Frank,” Tony snickered.

Picking up his revolver, Frank turned back to Tony and stated, “Huh? Nah, Jackie ain’t no woman.”

“What?” Shocked, Tony nudged Frank in the shoulder and wanted more clarification. Was Jackie really a man?

“Nah, she’s just a really cool guy.”

Frank caught up to the other two while Tony slowly trudged in amazement. He thought about making a run for it and forgetting Harvey, but he would have to face the wrath of the vast empire and the iron fist Lansit family. The mechanic regretted not staying with the ship, but his fate ultimately rested in the hands of Anchovi.
  HEAD ES DOODLE PETSUCHOS / Finnigan / 4y 362d 20h 57m 26s
[size16 #Apprehension#]

The three young souls all stood in place and anticipated the inevitable battle. The seconds ticked. The minutes accrued. The hours dragged. The bright bulbs hanging over their heads buzzed in unison. The Fighter sat in the middle of the chicken pen, untouched, unscathed. The wait frightened Luzi and bored Eudoxia.The sun had set over the broad horizon and dusk had firmly settled into the land. The stars crowded the sky and pushed and shoved each other the best views. Frank’s chickens retreated to their barn for the night in order to start anew on the next day.

Rhys offered to show Luzi around the ship as she was clearly interested in the architecture of the Fighter. Eyes wandered up and down the walls. she was even surprised to see the couple of chickens Frank did not sell off to her father. She declined the offer and decided that the safest place right now was in the cargo bay. Surely this whole ordeal would blow over. Her father Elbriz would be able to talk himself out of this confusion and save the day. He was one of the dying few wise men outside the Varylian palace walls.

“Ever since they captured the Sudranese magician, the palace had issued an order to hunt down any other magicians and supporters. They said that this foreigner raped the princess and brought her back to tyrants across the Blue. Rhys, I’ve only heard stories of the Blue.”

“It’s...calming.” Rhys was still holding onto her hand, but had not realized how tight his grip was. Relaxing a bit, Rhys finally sat on the edge of the platform and thought about the vast ocean. “It’s rough, but it’s strangely refreshing, the sea foam and mist. I’ve never been in it.”

Luzi followed and sat right next to him. Her eyes fixed on his soft face and remarked, “Oh no, you’re not supposed to go into the Blue. The Maker forbids mortal men from making the plunge. Some say that the goddess that resides in Hel will drag you to her shared damnation.”

“It’s been almost a year now since we’ve been down here, and there are so many questions I have left unanswered. Giant sunken hands, fire raining from the skies, it’s all so strange to me.”

“Fire raining?” Luzi held her hand to her mouth in shock but the lengthy gasp turned into a winding yawn. “It’s been raining fire across the sky for the past couple of days here. You can see it better at night. The merchants down at the market say it’s the Sudranese magician that’s causing these giant shards of flaming metal to fall.”

“Rhys, your girlfriend is a dipshit,” Eudoxia exclaimed without turning her head back. Her eyes kept focus on the rear hatch. Between entertaining the younger kids and guarding, Eudoxia prepared herself for the worst. She felt as if she hopped out of her skin and felt the violent nature of Varsylgard. “Harvey Lansit didn’t seize me and he’s certainly not responsible for the metal falling from the skies.”

Luzi, concerned with the princess’ foul mouth, confided in her friend. “Are you sure she’s the real princess? She’s not really ladylike.”

Rhys returned her comments with a smile. He was not sure how to respond to her question, so he just smiled. He never questioned Eudoxia’s origins, and until now he never considered her to be nothing less than a really good thief. Being alive for nearly a year, Rhys was not sure how princesses and ladies should act. All he knew is that Eudoxia was Eudoxia, no more or no less.

“You sure you want to be so close?” he asked.

“I’m not moving.”

Still draped in her dark royal blue dress, haughty Eudoxia was ready for an encounter. With one hand on the sheath and the other palming the hilt of the blade, the pugnacious princess yearned to prove her battle prowess. She had practiced with Duster around the clock and insisted that they continued their training whenever they had the chance. She had gotten awfully familiar with everything about the sword the Lansits gave to her: its weight, the length, the material of the sheath, the amount of gold encrusted, the miniscule imperfections. She believed that it was an extension of her as all her equipment. Within the dress’ long sleeves, she carried the fiery dagger and Dalmenian Skein.

“They’ll die at the sword before they take me.”

The cold and callous words reverberated throughout the Fighter’s steel hulls, yet no one beckoned to answer. In silence they waited for it all to start. Luzi played with her curly locks of hair. Rhys and Eudoxia kept their attention of the back hatch. They were too far from Elbriz’s ranch house to hear anything significant. The wind had picked up and kicked up some dust, but there was no chaos. The lot of them were not allowed to leave the Fighter until someone from Anchovi or the Engergast establishment called. Frank was confident that someone would come for them in the end, but he did not dare to leave Eudoxia nor Rhys with an alternative plan.

Suddenly, Eudoxia tightly grasped the hilt of her sword and slowly pulled it out of its hilt. Though they did not hear anything or anyone, Luzi jumped out of her skin and Rhys brought up his head. Eudoxia brandished her shining blade and stood vigilantly against the invisible force that haunted her. The Fighter resisted the gust of wind. Whistling and whirring sounded off, but it was the loud pops at the end that finally caught Rhys and Luzi off guard.

The Fighter’s welcomed guest cried out in such a shrill voice, “The gunshots!”

Rhys stood up and helped the crying Luzi to her feet. Pushing her behind him, Rhys looked down at Eudoxia who was firmly rejecting the annoyances. Brave, she kept her stance. The youth with wheat blond hair looked through the rear doors small windows for any traces of an inquisitor or his men. The enemy was unknown, but the guns popping in the distance let him know that danger was nearby.

“Get away from the windows!” Eudoxia shouted.

Rhys led Luzi into the hallway leading to the dining room and left the princess behind. He insisted to himself that they were all safe, the Fighter was impenetrable and no sword or gun was going to piece through its tough hide. All the doors were tightly secured. At least, that’s what Frank told Rhys when they locked them inside. Luzi eventually collapsed to her knees and sobbed into her hands. No matter how many times the boy tried to reassure her safety, she outright denied it.

“Rhys, I’m scared. What if they break through? What if they kill us?”

[i ‘Well, we would be dead.’]

“Don’t think bad thoughts. No one has ever broken into the Fighter before.” He knelt to her level and embraced her. Jackie always hugged Frank when he was feeling down, but for some reason Rhys felt awkward, felt as if he was not doing it right. His hands felt clammy and the arms slightly hovered around her instead of a true embrace. “We’ll be fine.”

“But my father, why’s he not here? Rhys, where’s my father? I need my father, Rhys, where is he?”

The breathing intensified and Rhys’ sad attempt of comforting her only made it worse. She was trapped by him, by the small hallway, by the Fighter. Her skin caught on fire and no matter how hard she scratched at her forearm, the burning sensation never left. Her feet fluctuated between hot and cold flashes and the noises around her muted throughout her episodes. Luzi’s breathing pushed away Rhys and his uncertainty rose. As her hands shook, her peripheral vision darkened and her stomach unexpectedly twisted. Hyperventilating between her fits of screams, Luzi quickly lost everything in the moment.

Luzi finally broke away from Rhys and struggled down the hallway. The screams echoed as she limped for the dining room. Shocked and scared that he might have caused all of this, Rhys tailed her from a distance. Reaching the dining room, he witnessed her tirade fully unleash. She threw chairs from underneath the table in order to hide, but even then that was not enough protection from her. The snot and tears rolled down her face and beneath her shirt. She banged her fists on the table from below and cried for Elbriz. Rhys tried to calm her down, but she spoke unintelligible garble.

In the worst of turns, Rhys threw himself towards her and tried to stop her from her latest rampage: the side hatch. She turned at the heavy door, but the troubled youth begged for her to calm down. A few elbows were tossed his way with one smashing him in his perfect nose. The attack threw him back into the table where he sat in a daze. With few good tugs at the side hatch, the small girl opened the Fighter to the rest of the world. The fresh breeze caressed her face and calmed her anxious soul. Still frantic, she hesitantly took one step onto the wing.

Rhys called out to her. “Luzi, wait!”

She looked back with tears filling her eyes. She was unable to feel remorse for what she had done to Rhys. Her number one priority was getting back to the main house. The night’s dark shroud did not scare her nor did the popping of guns and rifles in the distance. One quick run back home and she would be back in her father’s arms. “I have to go back to my father, Rhys. He’s the only family I have left.”

“Stupid girl!” Eudoxia furiously shouted. Luzi’s cry for help did not go unnoticed. It was always the poor and uneducated that caused trouble. The unbridled emotions of peasant girls displeased the palace and quite frankly everyone in the empire. Eudoxia now understood why fathers threw their daughters at young suitors. “I demand that you get back in here!”

The frantic young soul did not hesitate to step out this time. Unable to comprehend Eudoxia’s fiery tongue and quite frankly not wanting to listen to her, Luzi took a leap out into the open world. The chilly night air brushed against her bare limbs and face. She looked down and saw it was quite a distance for her to jump, but she had to get back to her father. The glinting lights led her to the house. It was one short stretch to run and the lights were on. The flickers of fire lined up slowly approached her and she felt as if her only living family was calling to her. Her ears muted the clanking footsteps of armor and recoiling drawstring of the crossbows. As she closed her eyes and unexpectedly prepared herself for death, a wave of moonlit silver destroyed the flying fiery bolts before her face.

Eudoxia shoulder checked the young miss back into the airship but not without repercussion. The wild child lashed out in retaliation and forcefully shoved the princess back in return. Eudoxia stumbled back yet was unable to recover her footing in time. One foot slipped off, so the rest followed her on the way down. Everything but the sword lost in one action. A loud thud hit the dusty surface below and before anyone had an idea of who was down there, men on horses and on foot surrounded her. Luzi cried to herself and Rhys struggled to get back onto his feet. Wobbling to and fro, he stumbled out onto the wing where he peeked over the edge.

She looked peaceful with her eyes closed and sprawled out in the dress that went well with the night. Eudoxia had lain there without conviction or life. Rhys did not know what to make of the situation and worst of all, he felt helpless in all of it. The semi-circle of torches and lit crossbows surrounded her and conversed. They knew exactly who she was and what this whole ordeal entailed. Rhys was not able to get a good glimpse at any of their faces as they quickly scooped up Eudoxia’s unconscious body and made a retreat. One of the men obscured by the night shot a crossbow bolt into the sky that erupted into a gilded lily.

Rhys immediately took up her sword and returned inside to a soggy girl. She apologized repeatedly and hysterically, but the young man continued his way down to the storage area. Waking up the chickens, he held them by the reins and tucked Eudoxia’s sword behind his belt. He quietly looked at the rear hatch for a moment. She was supposed to stand here and nothing was supposed to happen to her. The Fighter was going to keep everyone safe. Without waiting for a body from either Anchovi or Engergast establishments, vindictiveness and Rhys opened the hatch and set out into the night. The feathery steeds bolted over the fence.

Rhys came to a screeching halt as the other chicken branched off and swung by the house. Trotting next to the house to retrieve the stray chicken, he noticed the bolts driven into the walls. There were helmets laying around, but there weren’t any bodies to go with them. He thought about sticking his head into the house, but he was pressed for time. Then, there was a dull voice who spoke to him in the midst of the mystery.

“She needs our help.”

Leaving everyone’s fate behind, Rhys and the voice which hopped onto the the second chicken glided across the land not necessarily to save Eudoxia from her captors, but to beat them to their destination.
  HEAD ES DOODLE PETSUCHOS / Finnigan / 5y 4d 20h 23m 54s
[size16 #Inquisitor’s Brigade#]

Fearless Anchovi reached the Varsylian shoreline when the pilot and the mechanic found the lack of ordinary quite bizarre. Jackie stuck her face into the radar and double checked.

“I’m not getting anything on radar.”

The crew had made it back to Varsyl without any opposition. This fact concerned Tony the most. He got out of seat and inspected the field of vision.

“No Macahedron? Pilum? Abracth? Something must be going in the capital.” Tony knew the names of the three biggest warships which resided in Varsyl. Of course, he knew the captains, lieutenant captains, and a handful of engineers. His job while working underneath the Lansit family was to know everything about the opposition as well as maintain the integrity of all Lansit airships.

With his arms crossed and looking at the two in the forefront, Frank noted, “Ain’t this a li’l worrisome.”

Jackie turned to her confidant. “Frankie, what’s the plan? You thinkin’ the shipyard?”

“Nah, I wanna see my damn chickens. Engergast Farm.”

Tony and Jackie both looked at each other and wondered what was going through his head. There was so much time before Harvey’s execution and Frank wanted to see his livestock? Tony mouthed a curse under his breath, but Eudoxia who was usually against Frank’s obnoxious train of thought chimed.

“The shipyards are going to be infested with soldiers. Capt. Gallien is going to make sure that all entryways and exits are safeguarded. I can guarantee you that they’ll be having routine check ups on the hour.”

“Still, it perplexes me as to why we haven’t been stopped. In what we have recorded, Varsyl has one of the best air support of the Blue.” Tony leaned back in his chair and rubbed his chin.

“You all didn’t exactly make it any easier for the palace once you ended the slave trade.” Duster remarked, “I imagine that most of the plantations suffered the biggest hits, especially without the emotional support of the palace.”

“Wow, so much has changed since I’ve been gone.” The young lady in the royal blue dress moved to the forefront to watch the Fighter’s descend into her fatherland. She was never too keen on the world outside of the palace walls unless it was Sudra. She had not cared for all the stories of the savage Mezze people rioting in the streets and corrupting the “better culture” of Varsylgard. “Thanks guys.”

“Says the girl who ran away from home to follow a man who don’t love her.” Frank chuckled.

“I still can’t believe we’re doing this. We should turn her over in exchange for Harvey.”

Tony glared at the dreadful princess with contempt. She returned the favor with a sour face and flashed him an explicit gesture. Essentially, the patriarch and matriarch of the Lansit household sent the two of them on the same mission, yet they could not get past each other’s differences. They both had a great distrust for each other and they’ve not be on the same ship for a couple of days. Tony avoided most confrontation with the princess because he believed that she was enbued with nothing but awful luck. Being right next to her would cause them all death, one way or another.

“It’s a brilliant idea, braniac,” she hissed. Eudoxia now fully turned to Tony and pointed her bony finger in his blank face. “except that the prince and my mother don’t negotiate with kidnappers. The minute that I’m back in Chelon’s hands is when the firing squad will make cheese out of you. You’re not going to make it out alive unless you do what you were told.”

Disgusted with the dark skinned man, Eudoxia stormed off to the back corner of the cockpit and fumed silently. Frank chuckled a little more to himself.

“Euey is right. We’re gonna have to play real smart and real hard with these people if we want to get out alive.” Jackie gave the crew a thumbs up. To her, saving Harvey Lansit was going to be another sporadic and hectic job. Did she enjoy it? Not necessarily, but she thrived in similar situations. Jackie would happily fight for the princess if it meant she could throw a few fists around. Afterall, the brawler owed a great debt to her and Rhys.

Duster droned on, “Save Harvey Lansit.”

“Fuck the prince up,” clapped Frank.

“Marriage.” Eudoxia swooned at the thought.

Tony turned around in his chair and looked at the rest of Anchovi. Did he forsake Dulon Lansit? Did that decrepit patrician send him to perish on familiar soil? Tony shook his head. “It’s not going to be that easy guys.”

“Nothing ever is with us, Tony-Tone.”

Frank had the hardest time directing Jackie to the Engergast farm, but luckily Anchovi stumbled onto its coordinates by mistake. Zooming past the ranch house and towards the middle of the fenced in area, the Fighter simmered its jets and calmly landed amongst the gargantuan chickens. Frank was the first one to run out of the back hatch with Rhys following behind. Behold, the aging Elbriz stood on his back porch with discerning eyes staring into the chicken pen.

“What is going through your mind, Frank? You can’t park here!” he shouted. He seemed in worse condition than before. Elbriz shook a wooden cane with one hand with Luzi squeezing the other. His ranchers readied their rifles for a clean shot, but the old man would not enact violence at such a dire time.

Frank placed a food on the first step and uttered, “We have a favor to ask you.”

Inspecting the bizarre band of characters, Elbriz squinted for a better look. The strange array of faces worried him, but nevertheless he offered his hospitality to Anchovi. “Get inside. We can talk about it in there.”

From the backdoor, Elbriz led his people and Anchovi through a few corridors and kitchen which triggered the princess greatly. The decorations were dusty and too kitschy for her rich taste. Animalistic idols carved from balsawood stood on tables. Eudoxia shrunk away from the craftsmanship and dared not to let anything touch her. Eudoxia scoffed at the soft pastel pink fabrics obscuring the windows.“These wooden floors with those curtains? Ew.”

Duster quietly responded, “Princess, this is not the time to insult a host’s questionable decor.”

“Princess, as in missing princess Eudoxia? Hm,” The old man rubbed his chin. “Please forgive the place. It has seen better days.”

Elbriz’s kind and young daughter led him to his rustic leather armchair where he pondered for a while. He offered them all seats in the morning den where they all patiently waited for Luzi to return with tall glasses of ice water. All Elbriz could think about is how strange the group was. Of course he knew Frank and Rhys, but then the troupe tailored off into obscurity. The dark-faced Tony Maxwell, someone who the old man had heard about by word of mouth, intrigued him. Elbriz felt as if he was in the presence of royalty beyond the princess. Curly hair Eudoxia surprised him the least; somehow the group would not be complete without a smidge of controversy. Then there was Jackie who seemed familiar yet at the same time her bulky frame pushed him back. It was the silver fellow in the white cloak that made Elbriz’s skin crawl. He was the weirdest.

“I cannot house you for long, Frank. I can assure you that an inquisitor will be traveling in this direction.” Elbriz broke the news to Anchovi.

“We’ve put him in peril,” Eudoxia dramatically stated. “He’ll die as an accessory to a crime he didn’t commit.”

“Inquisitor?” Jackie looked to the rest of her crew for answers.

“Knowin’ our luck, he’s some dickbag.” Frank rolled his eyes.

Elbriz shook his head. “The inquisitors will stop at nothing to get what they want.”

“What do they want?” The brawler asked.

“Everything.”

Eudoxia stood up and paced, but it was Frank and Jackie who sprung up with an idea in mind.

“Welp. Board the windows n’ block the front doors. Let’s get a gun in each hand and let’s set up perimeter.”

“What are you doing?” Elbriz did not move from his chair, he couldn’t at the moment. The slight tinge in his feet prevented him from being as proactive as his ranchers and Anchovi.

“Savin’ the farm, Elbriz. We knew that if we’re gonna make it up to the palace, then we’d be bound for a fight.”

“I assure you Frankie and I won’t let you down,” Jackie winked.

Anchovi and the ranch hands got to work in no time. Tony, Frank, and a few men fortified the insides with giant planks of wood nailed across the windows. The men shoved chifferobes and armoires toward the front of the house to block the main entrance and provide enough cover for the sharpest of the sharpshooters. Frank led a handful to the second floor and dispersed them in different rooms. He specifically ordered a few of the men to keep their sights on the Fighter. On the main floor, Tony Maxwell ensured every man with a rifle that was personally inspected by the meticulous mechanic. Though he owed nothing to these men, he figured that arming them well would benefit himself in the long run.

On the outside, Jackie and Duster laid out Lucavi metal for the angled palisade wall. Strong armed and stalwart, Jackie Simms plunged one end of a silvery spike into the ground and not a single man of the Engergast farm matched her might. It didn’t take Duster long before he stopped to catch his breath, if in fact that was what Lucavi did. Exhausted from the strenuous production of the metal, he slightly melted towards the ground. Never had he felt this way before; he could not believe that Lucavi grew exhausted. Every molecule, every atom, groaned. Duster was unable to lift a finger. After Jackie and the rest placed the remaining spikes up, she effortlessly lifted Duster up in one hand and carried him inside.

“You going to be okay?”

The hollow Lucavi slightly nodded. In truth, speaking or the thought of speaking made him wince here and there. The outside wall was incomplete, but it was enough to channel any opposition into a few choking points. Jackie entered from the backdoor and settled Duster into a chair in the kitchen. Surprised to see Elbriz in the same room, she nodded and rushed to the forefront where Frank and Tony resided.

“Everythin’ peachy?”

“Duster’s already feeling it. I think we overworked him.”

“Well shit. The doc is already down n’ we ain’t fightin’ yet.” Frank tossed a shotgun he brought from Guten Nocht into Jackie’s hands. “Other than that?”

“Walls are up and we’re ready to kick ass.” Jackie looked around the room and saw that a few people were missing. “Where’s Rhys? Luzi? Eudoxia?”

“The safest place is the ship. I figure that no one is going to budge the ship anytime soon.” Tony peeped between the boards nailed to the window. Safe. For now.

“Told them kids not to leave the Fighter under no circumstances. If anyone tries to bust through, I told ‘em to hide n’ hide good.”

Frank was so proud, yet Jackie had not mustered enough enthusiasm for his liking. Tony and Jackie remained on the first floor of the ranch house while Frank ran the second floor with gusto. Elbriz closed his eyes and prayed for the longest time. He prayed for his survival as well as his daughter Luzi, but most of all he prayed that the Inquisitor would never step foot in the house. In the fighter, Eudoxia stood in the cargo bay with her hand on the hilt of the Lansit brand. Rhys and Luzi stood at the top of the stairs overlooking Eudoxia. Fearing for their lives, the young children locked hands together.

From a distance, men on such high horses and elaborate armor came across the landing site of the Fighter. Staring onto the onset of Engergast farm, the head of the band, draped in a deep royal blue cloak, halted his men. Their numbers easily doubled the farm’s, and they were quite mobile against their stationary target. “For the crown” they chanted in low hums. Brandished with sword and shield, these men whose helmet obscured their faces, sat valiantly and most majestically on their horses. They waited for the sun to die down. The inquisitor was the only man who wore no shield nor bore no helmet. Throughout the capital’s metropolitan area, the inquisitors led their valiant bands to disrupt the malign bodies plotting against the prince. For the crown the cried out, for the crown.
  HEAD ES DOODLE PETSUCHOS / Finnigan / 5y 5d 19h 51m 51s
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