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NuclearCommando

LOTE: Wartime Festivals?

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I stayed at the stern of the boat looking over the water, letting Olivia's stinging words sit in. She wouldn't have to make good on her threat at least... there was no way in hell I'd ever be doing this again. And I'd definitely warn Amber about this so it never comes to it. Why my entire reason for staying hidden may not have been entirely sound... she lived with a guy who does what I'm doing for a living... I wish she'd considered the fact I'd probably be a laughing stock if anybody else found out. I...

"H-Hey..."

Eve's voice caught me off guard, though I had a sneaking suspicion she was somewhere nearby. "Oh, hi Eve. Were you waiting for me to be alone?"
"Umm... yeah... I wanted to talk to you."
"Talk to me? What about? Something on your mind?"
"Oh... no. Umm... actually... I just wanted to talk about anything... really."
"Anything? Well, then I'll let you pick the topic then."
"Me? Well... I umm... I wanted to know a little bit more about you... and... I never got to tell you you did a great job dealing with the assassin... which... I hope that makes up for being stuck like this for now."
I cracked a small smile. "Yeah... that does somewhat make up for this, hearing it from someone else." I glanced towards where Olivia had left and then back at Eve. "At least someone acknowledges it."
"Oh... she hasn't?"
"Not that I'm aware of. But... I found the whole thing odd, if you must know Eve."
"Odd? How so?"
"I've never used anything more than a dagger and my rifle for melee encounters before... yet I wielded that sword like I was training with it all my life."
I saw Eve's eyes open slightly. "That's... that's really strange... maybe you're... what is it... a born natural?"
"That could be it... or I could just be lucky..."
"Or you're the one..." It was quiet, but I definitely heard Eve say something... and it didn't sound like her normal timid voice.
"Did you just say something Eve?"
This provoked a gasp from her as her face turned a light shade of red and she covered her mouth. "No! Nothing! I was... just thinking to myself... I must've mumbled out loud..."
I quizzically raised my eyebrow, and then shrugged. It wasn't my place to pry. "Lost in thought huh? I don't really think it's worth that much thought. An odd phenomenon more than anything." I looked back over the water and then returned my gaze to Eve. "Speaking of swords... that one that lit up when I grabbed it... did you really mean it when you said I could have it after this all blows over?"
Eve quickly regained her composure and nodded. "Yes... I did mean it..."
"Are you sure? It seems like it's a really rare and special sword... why else would you have something like that?"
"I'm... I'm sure... Mason... I want you to have it... it... I think it would... suit you really well... and help you blend in a little more."
I wasn't going to argue or turn down a gift. I didn't want to ruin my relationship with one of my allies, so I just shrugged. "If you say so."
 


"Whatever happens Orsola... I think we're all prepared to try and prevent this bad future from happening, no matter the cost."
Even if we have to go behind everyone's backs to do so. Amber thought to herself.
"Orsola, you said Mason was different in the future." Amber hesitated before she continued. She knew she was venturing into territory she'd best not explore, but it didn't hurt to be wary. "I shouldn't probe into his life like this... but I want to know: how different was he? What was he like?" Amber found it hard to believe that Mason would be any different than what he was now... but then... if he could be different... "And what about me?"

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“There’s nothing I want, Madon. I was just observing your lot. We are siblings-in-arms now, aren’t we?” She touched Madon’s shoulder as she passed by, squeezing a tight smile. “Always business with you.”

Madon seemed to keep a little of his guard, however much they were meant to be comfortable with one another. Once her presence was noted by the rest, backs straightened up, chatter grew more strained. Of course. The new spook comes round the block, nobody wants to be the one to screw the pooch by mistake. Madon had his own thoughts to deal with, as Olivia had hers, each concerning the other. And however much weight the Princess carried in Glia, she was the foreign agent here. She tried a disarming smile.

“Though you’re right, this is business of a sort. I’d like to get to know my allies, and I’d like them to know me. You’re the people I’ll be trusting my life to. I’d hope you’d do the same.” She tilted her head towards Madon. “I’d just come from speaking with one of your small questions, Crystal. Pleasant enough woman, though a bit...optimistic.”

Owend stood straight to attention as she passed by, clicking her boots. A sharp-featured young woman, darling beloved of sister Severa, two-time deserter. Blinkstrike strapped across her back, tip glinting like a beacon. There were two other platoons of pegasus knights on the two other barges down from Glia, but the platoon on this one, led by this girl, was special in all ways right and wrong. Despite everything, she had the peace of mind to stay cool.

Olivia looked her up and down. “At ease, Lieutenant.”

Tolok eyed her too, standing beside the pegasus knight. Now this was a new face, one who’d Severa spirited away for some reason or another. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”

“A stray cat that Owend picked up,” Madon offered, a ghost of a smile on his lips.

Owend stared straight ahead, downright professional. Tolok might’ve startled – the knight, it turned out, did have a face for cards, whatever emotional tides she had showed under Severa. Unlike with the Princess of Grey, however, she had cause to use it here. “A conscript, Princess Madam. We picked him up in the Valley.” After a moment of hesitation, she added, “One of many.”

“That treacherous den of turban-wearing rats?” She touched a hand to her lips. “Pardon me. I’m rather outspoken when it comes to those wise-asses who squirrel themselves away in the Valley. Your name?”

“Tolok,” he said, seemingly bemused.

“Tolok. Certainly. Well, stray-cat Tolok, do care to be gentle with the Lieutenant. Despite her exterior, she’s quite delicate, and I happen to know a Princess who’d have your head for scratching up her favorite toy.”

She came to the vista on the other side of the railing. More of the same, more interminable fields of grain and patchwork forests. The fertile bounty of Erasmia, by the presence of which Glia once exerted immense economic force across the nation. Nowadays, with advances in agricultural science and, in Zenith’s case, indefagitable excursions into the thicket jungle of the Coppice, the other nations had developed a degree of self reliance. But Glia was still the breadbasket – Glia, and its former lands now called Dodon and Isore.

A shadow of a seagull fled overhead. Olivia motioned Wymp give her the crossbow, a beckoning that he nearly refused at first, before Madon nodded imperceptibly.

She noted all this, and more. A microcosm prediction of what her treatment may be.

Sighing, she received Arbalest with a nod. That thing sang in her hands, it did. Wood hard as steel, old runes inscribed on the surface and deep within, where wood-scribe could not touch. Things of power were so often beauty inherent. Beautiful because they are powerful, and not so much the other way.

She put the stock to her shoulder, aimed down the sight, and two whizzing shadows collided with a squawk a little ways out on the water, ending with a plunk.

“Such a fine thing.” She admired the weapon for a little while longer, then shrugged. “Yours, good Father.”

She tossed the thing to Wymp.

“Seagulls, I’ve never heard anything of. But I have heard that albatrosses are embodiments of sanctity, of the will of the gods, and to shoot one is to curse an entire voyage to damnation. I’ve never seen one outside pictures in books, but I don’t know if I could tell the difference between a seagull and an albatross.”

She gave Wymp a smile.

“Still, there must be some great sin in approximating the messengers of the gods. Or so I’d think, anyway.”

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"Siblings in arms... right."

Madon was still guarded around Olivia, if only a little. Even considering their past bond, and the one renewed by present circumstances... that scorpion woman, that assassin, had named her as her employer, and she had not denied such a thing when confronted. Whatever the circumstances, whatever, the rationale, it had been an attempt on his life, ordered by her hand, in the end. The others were guarded insofar as they showed deference to her. None of them wanted to inadvertently insult her and subsequently have that reflect onto him. Yet...

Perhaps they were being too cautious. If Olivia was genuine in her intentions, she might be irritated by their guardedness and such, however slightly. Madon resolved to address the matter at some point, when they had all spent more time with each other and gotten used to her presence. Then, perhaps, they could truly be siblings in arms, with genuine trust in each other. But for now, the wounds were still too fresh, the arrangement still too new and strange for all of them. The time was not yet right to mend that small, imperceptible gap between them.

So he watched the proceedings with his usual stoic, reserved expression, breaking it only slightly to nod assent to Wymp in handing over Arbalest. He had hesitated for a moment, admittedly. The thought that she could have turned then and there and simply shot him. Chaos in the ranks, she might even have come out unscathed after all was said and done. But to what end would she do so? No, if there was even but a grain of truth in what she had said, she would never do such a thing without thorough consideration. And so he nodded, and all was well, a seagull shot out of the sky.

Had that been a seagull? Admittedly, Madon couldn't tell the difference between a seagull and an albatross either. He just had to assume it was the former. So after Olivia spoke to Wymp and silence faded, Madon finally began to speak again.

"Is imitation not the sincerest form of flattery, though? Or is the application of that more limited than the phrase implies? Anyways... Crystal being optimistic is a bit surprising to me, being supposedly related to Amber, whom I find to be rather cynical. Then again, siblings do tend to diverge in such ways, from what I've seen. And I must wonder, Olivia... what impact would there be on your strong opinions of The Valley and The Wizards if I told you that my grandfather, on my father's side, was among them? The former Exarch Dawnwulf?"


"You must understand, Amber, that I need to be careful of what I say, especially in regards to such matters. Time is like the surface of a still pond, and too much of a disturbance will send many strong ripples across it. That being said..."

Orsola was obviously deep in thought for a few moments.

"... I can tell you this much, at least. Granted, the majority of this is secondhand, what I was told by Owend and the others whom lived with me in the fortress cities of Isore, the only cities to survive the calamity. So, Mason... I suppose he was the same as he is now, in some ways. As were you. But sometime between now and my time, he became willing to undertake a deplorable deed. A leader of men... a person with good intentions. The keystone of an effort to defeat Byrn and restore peace to Erasmia. This persob, unfortunately, become lost to wrath, to the desire for revenge. Willing to trample over anyone who stood in their way. Mason stood against them. As did you. But they were not given a swift, merciful death. Oh no, from Owend's eyewitness account and the written testimony of the Ebon Knight... the two of you gave this person a drawn-out, torturous death. I suppose that you in particular, Amber, had reason to draw out their fall, though the details are... best not stated, here. But regardless, with their demise, the future's course was sealed. How the two of you made it through the calamity, I know not. All I know was when I came of age to venture out into the wastes Erasmia had become, I did encounter the two of you eventually."

She paused for a moment, shaking her head.

"It wasn't cordial. I will divulge that much, at least. As for why, well, it doesn't matter too much to the present. Raids on the farms of the fortress cities and such, in which you two took part. It's simply the reason for my initial reaction to the two of you, which I do apologize for. Because again... though it's still possible that you become the same as I knew you then, it is equally as possible that you will not. And if I antagonize you, surely I would just be more or less ensuring the former?"

Edited by EpicRome23

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Tolok's breathing eventually went back to normal after spitting flames out of his lungs. It was seemingly as if he was a dragon in disguise, but it certainly was, taking the gauntlets in consideration, some kind of unlocking of his powers, tapping right into his blood bound flames, the essence of life holding the weight of his magic, his signature in the battlefield.  

Luckily, it seemed like nobody had noticed his out of ordinary action and sighed, silently in relief. The last thing he'd want from this Princess is to use him as a fire for cooking a wild animal, a boar or so. He is too young for this and it would feel like wasting his power for the sake of selfishness. Fortunately, this did not happen. And fortunately, again, his uncommon dislike for nobility (except for Madon, who's loyal to him even though his dry humour almost caused him a defenestration) did not rise... Not this time.

But, as it seemed like he could be relieved, her "Siblings in arms" remark was quite enough to make him rethink the defenestration coming from The Exarch. Who knows when it could go handy, in case everything goes south. What else is there? Two commanders, one squad? Hell yeah, he thinks, this WILL go south. But then, confusion kicked in, once he eyed her, trying to find out what kind of person she really is, but was quickly startled by her quick reaction to his eyeing, Madon offering to help him out of the awkward situation.

Although Madon's words were an attempt at getting him out and making him seem like a... Decent person, he quickly replied by saying his name out loud for her, along with the "stray cat". He was not so fond for this comparison, since his past is a train wreck which became worse after his parents' mysterious deaths. This was one of his goals in his life, discovering what happened to them and sending justice, filled in with unholy rage. But was he even remotely close to this goal that he had made in his mind? Of course not, but the gloves seemed like a slight hint for... something. 

His focus came back once he looked back at Olivia, who tasked him with taking care of Owend. Now, This would not have been so bad if the Princess wouldn't nickname him "Stray-Cat" in such a manner, as if he is nothing but a wind, a breeze you would feel for just a moment in your life and it's gone. You know it's invisible, but you can feel it. He nodded though, he wouldn't want to destroy the party from the inside since this was the last thing he would do, but oh boy, he had mixed feelings about Olivia. Once she turned to the other side of the railing, he shot a glare, a flame flickering in his eyes before extinguishing. He sighed, again, silently and turned back to his side of the railing, playing around with the gauntlets, making a few balls of fire which he would throws from one hand to another and catching them, at first loosened up, but becoming more and more focused on it, until he threw it in the sea as if it was a rock. May God have mercy on him, this festival shall give him enough food to be happy for a week and he will forget about this bitter taste in his mouth due to the presence.

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Amber put her hand to her chin to ponder what Orsola just told her. So Mason and I usher forth a cruel death and then survive the apocalypse... we killed Madon? Who else would she be referring to? Something seemed off about the whole thing. If what Orsola said is true and he was stopped because of how he fell... but why would I have reason to draw it out when killing him? Two and two were then put together. Wait, something is off... we worked together to stop Madon... yet Orsola said that whatever toxin was used against me, Mason had. She has to be lying about something... or everything."

Amber cleared her throat. "Well... I guess, apology accepted? For what we did yet did not do? But you are right, if you were to try to antagonize us, retaliation would eventually happen. Everyone has their limits after all. But throwing that aside... the knowledge that Madon will eventually lose himself is a foreboding thought... one I'll keep in mind as things go forward. That knowledge alone might allow the changing of the future." A quick pause before she continued. "If, we were as bad as you said... thank you for overcoming that for our sake, and coming forth with this information."

It was all completely cordial. Orsola's words left doubts in Amber's mind. For all Amber knew, she couldn't trust a thing that came out of Orsola's mouth, especially if Orsola was twisting things to fit her own agenda.

 

Edited by NuclearCommando

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“My grandfather is among them,” Madon said. “The former Exarch Dawnwulf.”

“Is he now,” Olivia said, seemingly taken aback. “Why, you should have told me earlier!” And she laughed, bell-sweet. “A den of turban-wearing rats and your grandfather, then.”

Madon didn’t see what was so funny about it, but he cracked a smile for her because he knew what it was: beneath all of this inconsequential small talk, something fomented in Olivia’s mind. Women – always scheming, and never giving voice to the thoughts behind the façade, and Olivia the worst of them. It was when she indulged in mindless pleasantries that she was thinking most viciously.

Of course, his own expression was as readable as a smooth pebble when he thought this, but that was neither here nor there. Just a force of habit, after all.

Olivia finished commiserating with Wymp over the horrors of false prophets and interrogating Owend about her misadventures. The latter kept her cool even as talk danced deftly in the shadow of such topics as desertion and the consequences thereof. At last, Olivia made her goodbyes, and sent one long, beckoning look to Madon in-between the shaking of hands.

He cleared his throat. “Olivia, I’ve been meaning to ask.” His tone was measured, the question pre-formulated. “What exactly is the cargo that this ship carries towards the front?”

“You haven’t seen, then? Come, then. It’s mostly weapons, but if you mean to lead this brigade then you ought to have stock of things.”

The two wandered off, leaving the rest alone.

“The first weeks after Severa came, the old Princesses grilled her about Byrn’s forces until she was just about ready to choke all three of them,” Olivia said off-handedly as they crossed the vast deck of the freighter. “I don’t know how much you’ve acquainted with the Hunting Party, but wyverns are a newer development. Last fifty years or so. We’ve been forging wyvern-slayers for quite a while now, as a result. That boy of yours, Tolok? Anselm told me that his father, Master Sur, was actually one of the architects of the design before he died.” While one princess had made deals and another terrified her subordinates, Anslem had been doing her due diligence. Such a diligence turned up all too many questions, and a few more interesting connections besides.

Olivia frowned, remembering Anselm’s brief. “Oh. His parents are dead, aren’t they? Perhaps ‘stray cat’ wasn’t the most tactful nickname, Madon.”

When they came to the hatch to the underdecks, Madon opened it for her. Olivia went through without so much as a word, and the Exarch closed it behind them as they went into the darkness. Outside the eye of the public, the two didn’t need courtesy amongst each other, nor entertain pretensions of chivalry. When they were alone things were peppered by an entirely different sort of tension that lay between the Princess and the rest.

An orb of light popped into existence, hovering close to Olivia’s face. A second crackle, and one flickered into existence beside Madon’s. They continued walking, separated by a scant few centimeters. The hallway swayed ever so slightly, creaked and groaned and distantly water sloshed in the bilges. Yet the construction here was fine, and the still air smelled of dry oak and cypress. Soft smells, cushioning their heads as pillows.

She swung open another door, and vanished inside with the Exarch following.

“Oh,” Madon said. “You weren’t joking.”

The hold, running nearly the whole length of the ship, was stacked high with boxes. Olivia opened one carelessly, revealing crystalline lance-points that glittered in the orb-light, lined dozens to a box, with screws loose at their base. Hafts of dogwood twice as tall as a man were bound together and stacked alongside, leaning against the walls of the chamber.

She picked up a ledger off a box. “It will be good for you to implement those legendary Isorian logistics I keep hearing of. Boots on the ground aren’t Glia’s strong suit, since we have that whole flying bit. But that won’t do during wartime.”

The Exarch took the folder and tucked it beneath his arm. He leveled a stare at her. “Really, Olivia. What did you want to talk about?”

“Now that we’re alone, you’re quite forward, aren’t you?” Olivia dropped the coy act as quickly as she picked it up. “Your grandfather, a Wizard? Obviously, I’m surprised. I don’t think we’ve heard anything like that, else we – “

She hesitated. Madon raised an eyebrow.

Olivia folded her hands behind her, looking still straight head down the length of the ship. “Have you spoken with him recently?”


And, with that, the pair left, one a man, one a woman, both entirely the opposite of unassuming as they drifted away to talk of things like empire. Owend watched them leave, then cricked her neck. In both their services she fought, but neither she truly began to understand, though if she had to choose, the Exarch would serve as the more personable of the two. At least ideals like revenge had roots in the ordinary person’s cognition. The Princess…frightening. What she wanted for her nation was borne of love, but the ways in which she thought and acted indicated that the love she had was not the love that ordinary men and women knew to express.

But she did love. Of that, Owend was certain.

“You think we’ll be there by nightfall?” Owend said. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been. It’s a breathtaking place. Perhaps we can go dine at the Pearl of the Keys, if that’s still around.”

She remained with Tolok at the prow of the ship as the city of Onstade drew closer and closer. The man seemed preoccupied, playing with the gauntlets that they had fetched while in Glia. They were beautifully forged, ornate – it reminded her nearly of the spun-silver make of the Grey Elites’ specialist lances that she’d only ever seen in palace functions. And the white-gold sun on the back seemed awful familiar. The Sur father had been a blacksmith in the city itself, of such renown that even Anselm had heard of him. Undoubtedly, his emblem was on a few of the finer pieces floating around.

Tolok was brute with them, though, throwing them one hand to another with some immense force. A man frustrated in some ways. Displeased? He had been in a way, dwelling on thoughts, since Olivia had left.

He pegged his ball of flame into the sea, where it vanished in a puff of steam.

The pegasus knight sighed. “Are you worried about something? You’ve been rather quiet for a little while. Did something the princess say bother you? She can be quite…eccentric at times.”

 

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"Not the most tactful nickname, I agree, but the most fitting I could think of at the moment. I suppose I will have to be more careful with that in the future."

---

Conversation continued. Fairly inane things, of minor interest at best to a hypothetical eavesdropper. But it was in the underdecks of the ship, away from prying eyes and ears, that the real questions arose. Madon's expression hardly shifted, though his eyebrow moved as Olivia asked about his grandfather. A detail that avoided even the vaunted spy network of Glia? Was that a testament to the skill of the Wizards in keeping them away, or an arrogance in Glia that the spies had no need to watch the group of doddering old men and their desert oasis? 

Whatever the case, the Exarch would answer the spoken questions before him, and perhaps some unspoken as well. 

"You would ask me if I've spoken to a man presumed assassinated, one who left no trace whatsoever of potentially surviving? Well, aside from the fact that his assassin was apparently killed in the attempt. The answer, Olivia... is yes. I spoke to him recently while I was in The Valley. The first time I've seen him since my younger years. The only other member of my family still alive, excepting Orsola who I must still hold a handful of doubt over. What we spoke of... I think he, and the Wizards as a whole, believe that there's something greater at stake in Erasmia than this war with Byrn. Though they gave me aid in several ways; men, an airship, that golem... I have the feeling that there was definitely something they were not letting me in on. They gave me access to their archives, leads to the locations of those legendary dragonslaying weapons, and those shards. However, volumes were surreptitiously missing, or refused to move at the touch of myself or Wymp... I believe I've already told you what I believe this 'greater threat' to be, based on the portents of Lily and Orsola's tale of her dark future?"


"... I never said it was Madon. There is a great deal that you presume, much of it wrong."

There was a chilly veneer to Orsola's expression. 

"But take note of this: were it Madon that lost himself to wrath, it was in a timeline where Wymp was wracked by poison, too busy trying to survive on the verge of death to give guidance of any sort to the Exarch. One where Olivia did not accompany him out of Glia. One where I was not present whatsoever. I don't suppose you've ever heard of the butterfly effect, Amber? A small, seemingly insignificant change bringing drastic changes to the future. My actions in this time have introduced several variables, ones that by the grace of God above will hopefully bring a future of peace to Erasmia."

She turned away from Amber now, and started to make her way back into the inner portions of the ship. She stopped mid-step and looked over her shoulder. 

"The people of my time staked everything on sending me back here. Whatever happens, they offered up literally everything they could, up to and including their very existences. All in the name of averting the dark tragedies that befell our past and may befall your future. Though I extend an olive branch based on the fact that I cannot judge you for the actions the versions of you in my time undertook... I can tell you that if you, or Mason for that matter, become hindrances to my duty... then I will stop at no lengths in order to remove you from my path."

And with that, she disappeared deeper into the ship. 

Edited by EpicRome23

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Tolok was watching the steam rise behind them, as a spirit raising in the Heaven, where God would judge them for their sins. He was standing at the prow, thinking about everything. He was deep lost in those thoughts about what else would come, as he was for several days after the talk with Severa, where Owend and him fought to regain the green haired girl's honor in Glia. Should one still talk about the future, when no one knows about it? He heard it brings bad luck but... He misses them. He misses a future without them and he'd fear that this future they will settle in will seem normal, after he would, seemingly move on, a more mature Tolok. He was ocuppied with all this, playing with the gauntlets and being fidgety for quite a while, trying to regain sense in the world around them. A bird flew by, which woke him up from this slumber of thoughts and looked at Owend, who seemed worried. Perhaps because he was so deep in thoughts the anger showed up? Was this another thing to care of? No, it wasn't. Luckily, it helped him regain his control.

He took a few seconds to see reality as it is. "Food, you say?" He smiled slightly in surprise, as if she had some sort of ancient technique named telepathy. But perhaps, his stomach growl gave this away. "I think we'll be there by nightfall, or even faster, who knows? I'd watch the dusk on the river, I haven't really experienced that sight on water for so long. And... Pearl of the Keys? I've never heard of that place, but it sounds exquisite."

The gauntlets' gold-white sun shone for a bit in a bright yellow, which Tolok looked at with confusion. He wanted to touch the glowing mark, as if it was calling him, the temptation growing larger and larger with every blink passing, but the glow faded. He looked back at Owend and sighed. "I dislike that <<Stray-Cat>> nickname. It feels like someone would put salt on the wound and enjoy the sight. But it's not just that. I fear... I fear a dark future where I would miss them. I think you know who I mean, right?" He turned back against the fence at the prow and rested on it, crossing his arms and biting his upper lip. "I've been exploring for seven, eight long years to at least find out a clue about my parents. I feel like the more I explore and try to find out something, at least a ray of hope in the dark, I drag and weaken myself. I thought it would be brighter to have these gloves but... I feel like it's worse, for some reason."
"...I miss them. I couldn't tell them a proper goodbye." A tear shed from one of his eyes, "Let's hope this adventure will help not just me, but everyone with their inner demons." He shrugged.

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There it was again, Madon would notice – the way she had it cold, all of a sudden, as he explained his circumstances. Her face was almost unrecognizable – eyes, nose, mouth like a sculpture, while the mind was elsewhere hurtling through possible futures. But he waited. Eventually she would speak.

And she would – though Madon would hear very little of what truly went through her mind. The Wizards had long made their position clear by the lengths they had gone to in order to avoid communication with Glia. They reclined on thrones of unused, frightening magicks, content to have, and not wield. Save for when the Tower made demands – then they simply expelled the diplomats and had their actions speak on their behalf. So it had gone, for decades, according to the records taken by the previous Princesses. The Wizards were of incalculable age and in possession of incalculable power. Glia had long been accused of wielding undue influence and meddling in the affairs of Erasmia, a reputation not unearned by the nation’s actions in the centuries prior, but the Wizards had that very same ability should they ever demonstrate an inclination toward it. And that ability, that control, sourced not from intelligence and gentle prodding of fellow governments, but of demands substantiated only by sheer tyrannical power.

The question was beyond whether or not Olivia trusted them personally. They had spurned olive branches offered by Glia and, in concert with the mass bulk of power they possessed, that made them an unfriendly unknown. In other words, an enemy.

There were a few things that one could do with an enemy, and co-exist peacefully unto eternity was none of those few. A promise of alliance extracted, or extermination.

But neither could be attained without envoys. Inaction had taken them far enough. Olivia turned to Madon, seemingly pleased.

“I suppose I should have realized that the Wizards had given you assistance. If I had known that you were on speaking terms with them…those crones have long shunned Glian envoys.” She shook her head. “Well, that will be in the past now. The next time you speak to them, please, bring me along. I have much I would like to ask them. The Wizards are a secretive lot, Madon, and whether or not they look towards that potential future of Orsola’s and your friend Lily’s, I couldn’t say. But I’ll be damned before I let our countries and citizens serve as sacrificial pawns in a needless preamble. If they so wish to save the world then they must help us break Byrn and Zenith. Only once the disastrous present has concluded, should we speak of possible futures. Do you understand me, Madon?”

In some ways, a mere question of affirmation, and in others, a demand of loyalty. If it came to the wire, would he sacrifice the lives of the present for promises of a nebulous future, peddled by untrusted prophets?

Olivia hoped with all her heart that Madon would not be taken in.


Owend and Tolok spoke of lighter things, but not by much. Tolok dwelt only shortly on the Princess, who turned out not to be the subject of his thoughts after all, only a catalyst. Once again, talk drifted to his parents. It was only natural; they had finally stumbled upon some clues, and now he was a man consumed.

“Seven…eight years,” he said. “And just one clue.” He clenched his gauntlet, formed another ball of fire and tossed it again. “I thought it would be brighter to have these gloves, but…”

“I read a lot of books when I’m high in the air,” Owend said. She seemed thoughtful. “My favorites are the ones about mysteries long unsolved. They always seem impossible – the women who write those are just brilliant, I can’t fathom it – but by the end, it’s all clear. And it always begins with just one mistake left at the scene of the crime. Just a single clue.” She rapped his gauntlet with her hand. “Of course, that’s all stories, but I think that you shouldn’t grow impatient now. We’ve just begun. Your parents have been waiting for eight years and now we’re headed to Dodon – back to your home, but with the clue that your father meant for you to find. Wouldn’t it be silly, don’t you think, for nothing to happen afterwards?”

She lifted her face to the sun. The breeze blew over them, gentle, and the sun continued its amble. Tolok would be correct – they’d land just before dusk. But that reckoning was a while yet. It was still noonday, and the day was too early to brood.

 “I believe that all things have reasons, Tolok. Forget all of that Fate bunk that Princess Severa believes in, that’s all to heavy for a free flier like me. But I do think that it’ll all turn out alright. That’s what you convinced her of, you know, and what you taught me! That everything I do now is for a reason, and that reason isn’t cowardice in the end. It’s about overcoming. I’m scared, too, of the future, but all the same I think that when the day comes I’ll be ready to face it.”

“I think you’ll find them eventually, and you’ll be able to put flowers on their graves. If the future has all possible worlds then we just have to choose by our thoughts, our actions, and our faith.” She punched him in the shoulder. “Shall we go get some drinks? I thought I saw the Princess finagling with some sweet-wine, and the sun’s made me plenty thirsty.”

Edited by saga juliet

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"I don't know when I'll see the Wizards again. We parted without any promises of when we cross paths once more. But... Olivia, you have my word that you will be accompanying me when next I meet with them."

Madon paused, carefully considering his next words. 

"Do you not know me, Olivia? I would not sacrifice what remains of my country, my people, for the prevention of a nebulous calamity. Especially when that loss could so easily be rendered pointless... No, as Exarch, I cannot in any good conscience devote attention away from the concerns of the present. The best course of action is to swiftly break the power of Byrn and Zenith, before we lose too much from attrition to stand against the supposed disaster that is to come. I still hold some doubt as to the claim of her origins, but, I trust Orsola to deal with the more fiddly matters in that regard, so to speak. My attention to this war will be undivided. On this, Olivia, you once again have my word."

With that affirmation stated, a light silence fell between the two of them. A smile crept onto Madon's expression as his thoughts turned away from the heavy matters they had just discussed.

"... Now, I suppose I'll see to implementing those vaunted Isorian logistics, and you likely have better things to do than hang around me in the midst of such a rather dull task. If you're in the mood for suggestions, though, I don't suppose you have any interest in Isorian prototypes? Wymp was working on something before he got so focused on his crusade against seagulls. You could also talk to Orsola. Get a better idea of her tale and her motivations. I'd take it as a favor, and I wouldn't be surprised if there are things she'll open about to you that she'd be all too hesitant to share with me."

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Upon arrival in Onstade, the group were greeted by the legate, who guided them through the city into a nearby inn. Their path took them through streets in the final processes of being decorated for the upcoming festival. In the lobby of the inn, the legate addressed the group.
"As you have royalty among yourselves, this inn is yours and yours alone, you may divvy up your rooms as you see fit. As you could see on your way here, the festival is in it's final preparations and will be ready for tomorrow. You may use the rest of this day as you please, and to pick out a swimsuit for tomorrow if you don't already have one.

Crystal!Mason's blood ran cold. "Swimsuit?"

"Yes, swimsuit. It is the summer festival after all. Everyone is required to wear one.

Crystal!Mason gave a slight glare to Amber as Eve spoke up. "Umm... what if we don't... have one?"

"Lucky for you, we have already taken care of that issue. Each room has a wide variety of swimsuits to choose from, in all kinds of styles to suit your needs. Whatever you choose is yours to keep. If there are no other questions you are free to go about your business. Shops are still open if you wish to purchase our wares or have dinner at a restaurant."

Crystal!Mason quickly broke off from the group, muttering something about swimsuits, and was soon followed by Amber, disappearing into one of the rooms. Eve, meanwhile, watched them leave, but decided it was best to stay with the group for a bit.

 



Meanwhile, far outside the city limits...

"You're back." The man in black armor said to a woman who had just landed her six legged dragon mount. "What's the situation?"
"All of them arrived safe and sound, though he's still wearing that ridiculous outfit."
"He is? Interesting. Well, if he's still disguised then perhaps it'll buy him more time without suspicion."
The woman had climbed off the dragon and pat it's head, before sitting next to the man by the small campfire. "I don't know how well it'll hold up at the festival though."
"We'll have to watch and see. It's all up to him and how he acts."
"I know... I wish we could go to the festival too."
"Perhaps next time. You know we can't risk it."
She sighed. "I know, as much as I don't like it."
"Just be on standby in case anything happens."

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Madon showed little visible reaction to the legate's announcement. The expression on his face could be well-described as "mildly disinterested". Was he so inured to such seemingly odd things that he wasn't surprised by them? Had he attended this festival, or one of its ilk, before? Whatever the answer was, he said nothing but a few quiet words to Wymp as Crystal and Amber departed. Not long later, the Exarch and his retainer scanned the area around for listeners, before they began conversation that was actually audible.

"... Wymp. How probable do you think it would be for us to offload all of the cargo which needs to go here, and be on our way before tomorrow? I'm not intrinsically opposed to attending the festival, mind you, but to waste a day in frivolity when we could continue our advance to the frontlines... it only means more good men and women will be unnecessarily lost to the ravages of Byrn."

Wymp rubbed his chin thoughtfully, and scanned over the ledger in his hand for some long moments. Then, he shook his head mournfully.

"There's no way, unless you desire to drive the Isorians who followed us from The Valley like a slavemaster throughout the night. And even then... there's too much volume to shift over in such a time, and too few willing hands to move it even if we wanted to. Also, you may not be enamored with such a thing, but I'm sure some of our companions will greatly appreciate the break from the war, and the festivities. Besides, Madon..."

He paused and broke into a slight grin.

"When's the last time the rays of the sun have touched your skin, anyways?"

"... Shut up, Wymp."


Meanwhile, Orsola had slipped out of the inn after hearing the legate's announcement- unnoticed, as far as she had been able to. She walked up the streets of Onstade with obvious purpose, a particular destination in mind. The citizens of Onstade on the street putting the final touches up for the festival... some of them gave cheerful waves to her as she passed, a jubilant and expectant mood already having taken root in the city. Though still, most of them were focused on their work. Orsola returned a couple of these waves, but she was mostly too preoccupied with her thoughts to pay them much attention. She had never experienced a festival such as this before- the people of her time had had no time for such things, when so much of their daily lives were dedicated to ensure mere survival. So such happiness and the ability to relax, to celebrate... it was something almost entirely foreign to her. As well, a requirement to wear a swimsuit for the duration of the festival?

It was... an asinine requirement. Orsola couldn't see the logic behind it, other than the amusement of sick and twisted minds at the possible discomfort of those involved. Swimsuits weren't so foreign to her, to be fair, as normal clothes simply weren't suited for swimming- but there was a great element of practicality and function to those that she was familiar with, looks didn't matter when the creatures around were suspect and likely hostile, let alone the water itself requiring extra caution sometimes. Never much time to play in the water, though she hadn't been completely devoid of such days. But... no. She hadn't slipped off to try and run away from such things, though the idea had crossed her mind for a moment. Unless she decided to travel on her own again, she wouldn't have been leaving anyways unless her father would be able to deal with affairs in Onstade before the festival's onset.

She had a destination in mind, and she soon found that her path had taken her in sight of it. A tale told in her future, one she had sworn to herself that she would investigate when she had the chance. That rock formation a short distance to sea from the sands of Onstade's beach... she unfurled the paper clenched in her left hand, examining it and comparing the formation drawn there to the one she could see before here. Yes, they had to be one and the same. Now, the question was, simply, how did she get there? She smiled to herself as a humorous idea crossed her mind. She couldn't help but voice it out loud, to the empty air around here.

"Perhaps I could get my father's engineers to build a trebuchet upon this hill, use it to launch myself over. The landing and getting back would be the hard parts, but surely my magic can be used for a solution."

She turned her gaze down toward Arcane Piercer, that weapon which she held in her right hand- not nearly the same as her father's lance, but modified to be a staff, one that could serve as a conduit for magic instead of repelling it utterly. A symbol of authority, and of a promise to the people of a broken future. That which had happened before, she worked to make sure would not happen again.

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For the Princess, the business was war as usual. In truth, Olivia’s temporary dismissal from the Tower had not taken her so far off what needed to be done to prelude the war, anyway. She wondered whether this had not been Severa’s plan after all, to seize the moment and plant Glia’s seed with the last soils of Isore. Then she chuckled to herself. No need to wonder. The Princess of Grey was good at many things, and her best act was pretending to be too chivalrous for schemes and trickery.

Olivia stopped the legate at the crest of the bridge, hands on the railings and leaning almost toppled over the roiling surface of the roughwater where the waters of the Hethon met the salt of the bay. For her part, the legate seemed untroubled by the whims of the Princess even as Olivia bowed her head with an apologetic smile.

“This may happen a lot,” she said. “I haven’t had occasion to venture from the capital in oh-so-long.”

“Naturally,” the legate replied.

The basilica from which the duo had just emerged resembled the Tower in miniature; flaring arches and a ten-story spire emerging from the soft silt soil of the delta, an architectural marvel. Situated upon its own small island a few stone bridges isolated from the city center, it remained an imposing reminder of Imperial authority at a distance from the otherwise self-governed city-state. While Madon and the rest wrestled with the realities of relaxation in a time when nobody was accustomed to such a thing, Olivia carried on with business. The legate had brought her to the governor, who’d been waiting, along with regular admirals, in the basilica – a place into which the governor would ordinary never venture. Outside the winged heartland of the plains, Glian authority took a distant perch above more grounded city governors. So it was for Onstade and all the cities of the coast: governed by governors with the legates only as source of authority, law, and decree.

But, what to say? It was no longer only Onstade. Time was nigh that the Empire started showing its keep.

The admirals, all captains from the cities of the coast, had been quick on the uptake. Blockades had been sent out to the Straits of Sagrabh, harrier fleets to hem in the ports of Flake and Lion. It was the Empire’s advantage at sea: the Black Fliers commanded fierce enough lightning that opposing navies had no choice but to scatter. Zenithean magi would have to be shipped up from the southlands and then survive the lightning on uncertain, roiling waters, dueling the Glian sorcerors in their own position of advantage. They could only hole up in their cities and stir up the waters more, that no invasion would come by sea; no ships coming in nor out of the killing waves. The Tower could ask for nothing more.

So it went. Then, to the plains of Dodon, where the war would be most bitter.

But not today.

The legate dismissed the charioteer who’d brought them from the inn to the basilica, taking up the reins herself. “If it’s Onstade your majesty wishes to see, then there’s nothing better than the boardwalk. I often take drives along the beach myself,” she added. “If only you’d stay beyond the festival, Princess – this city’s got a way with the spirit. It feels like no time passes at all, even if you’re never busy.”

“Sounds dangerous,” Olivia remarked.

The legate cracked the reins.

The chariot ambled along the sunset roads of the port city. Onstade occupied the islands of the delta and spilled out along the coast on either side. Bridges connected the disparate bits together, and docks wove out from beneath these bridges as spider-thread veins. They were headed towards the west, now, and the sunset lay upon the horizon, straddling the divide between earth and sea. Apartments gave way to warehouses, then to stretches of residential beach as they moved away from the trade-rich waters of the delta. In the distance, a pillar of stone rose out of the water.

“How’s the husband and children?” Olivia asked the legate, by way of making conversation.

“I’m unmarried.”

“Ah. Call it a bad joke.”

Talk was kept in passivity. The Princess spent most of it looking out to sea. Without a purpose, she didn’t have much to say, she found. With no goal in mind...what she’d told Mason was surely true to her. If she didn’t have an angle on something then she just got bored. Shouldn’t that be the natural state of things? If two people have nothing to say, then shouldn’t they say nothing at all?

The legate didn’t seem to mind. Thankfully.

Every so often, there’d be men and women erecting mysterious wooden structures on the beach. Children, too, dueling each other with pieces of driftwood. It made her nostalgic, even if she could never remember celebrating anything good.

“What’s the occasion?”

“Religious. Offerings to water gods and sea dragons.” The legate pointed out the spur of land that drew ever closer in front of them. “Legend goes that one of the great Princesses of old transformed herself into that pillar of rock in order to protect the port cities from the great serpents of the sea.”

“Strange.”

“Do you think so?”

“It’s not a story that I have ever heard.”

“Must just be a legend around this town, then.” The legate shrugged.

But something was working at the Princess. She muttered under her breath. “How is it that I’ve never heard of that?”

“What’s that, Princess?”

“Do you mind if I ask you your opinion on something, Legate?”

The woman hesitated.

“Not in any official capacity. I’m delving for honesty.”

“Alright then, Princess.”

“Were you born here?”

“I was.”

“And you got to be legate.”

The woman considered it. “Really, all I really wanted was visit the old city itself.”

“It’s a faraway place?”

The legate made an expression. “Well, you know it too. I can’t imagine the two days of sailing was much fun.”

“I mean, does it feel foreign?” Olivia scratched her cheek. “Guess I’ll skip straight to it. I’m thinking that I don’t know much of anything about Onstade. The city has its own mythology, this whole festival that we haven’t got. You eat fish, we eat bread. And truth be told, sometimes if you talk too fast I get a little bit lost in translation.” She smiled awkwardly. “Makes me wonder, if this city’s not so much like us...I mean, the governor does all the ruling. I’m grateful for your work, legate, but the truth is that you’re only here to collect taxes and be a yes-man in the Tower’s place. Glia doesn’t do much of anything else in Onstade.”

The legate got wise. Then she chuckled. “I do get a lot of foul looks when I’m out and about.”

“My apologies, Legate.”

“Not at all necessary, Princess. Price of the position. You were saying that you didn’t feel so welcome here?”

Olivia shook her head. “Not so. Maybe I’ve just been recently wondering what Glia’s here for. Should people not be ruled by people who are like them?”

The legate raised an eyebrow. “Weren’t you a Zenith girl at first?”

“And? I was raised in Glia after my fourteenth summer.”

“It’s not so hard to become a Glian, even if you were not born to it. You might’ve convinced yourself that you’re a Glian through and through – so you should know that in places like Onstade we’ve gone through that same convincing. If you’re a Glian then we are as well. No matter how different we are. Now, Princess, why don’t you tell a story about the mythology of Zenith? If you know any.”

“I don’t –“ But she did, and it came back to her and made her nostalgic for something she did remember, now. “Well, I suppose there was this one practice that I always thought was absolutely bizarre. So it’s said in Zenith that the blue nightingale and the silver nightingale are actually spirits of old lovers…”


 

Olivia tells the chariot to halt when she sees the girl on the beach.

She slips off her sandals and leaves them in the chariot. A small breeze curls around the two, the chiming of bells in the far distance. Her breathing changes, becomes measured and deliberate. Smell of magic. The hems of Olivia’s dress lift up just a little – enough to be explained away by the sudden breeze. When she takes a step, the crunch of sand is dampened into silence. That’s unmistakable.

The legate tells her that she’ll be awaiting her at the inn, and at the Princess’s nod, snaps off.

Only by the time she comes within thirty meters does Olivia wonder what she’s about to do, exactly.

Instinct moved her, and instinct compels her to make prey of the girl from the future. Just one touch will knock her cold. And then? A drowning will leave no trace. Or she simply vanishes into one of the many prisons of Glia, to be locked away until the conclusion of the war. Then all the girl’s misguided prophecies and desperate whims can be indulged, when there is not a goal at stake. The girl is just like the Wizards, save that Madon is enamored with the one that claimed his lineage while merely associated with the other.

That is dangerous, too; the hold that the girl had over Madon’s heart. The control is too easy, comes all too naturally. Who will not believe their own daughter, choose their own daughter and be blinded to the realities that lay before them?

Olivia is poised now to prune undesirable futures, as Orsola so often exhorts. A simple motion would do. A single killing touch.

Of course, then the girl said it. Musing to herself. “Perhaps I could get father to build a trebuchet, launch myself all the way there,” and she giggles, and that’s the end of it. Heart warmed, a long list of practicalities is struck down, defeated.

Olivia releases the held breath.

“Wandering a little far from the inn, don’t you think?” Olivia says, and Orsola snaps around, startled. The Princess held up a palm – calm. A disarming smile. “I was just enjoying the sunset. Maybe you had the same idea as me. Or maybe not.” Olivia looks up at the pillar emerging from the water a few hundred feet away.

“Have you heard the story with that thing?”

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"Wandering a little far from the inn, don't you think?"

At these words, Orsola snapped toward the source of the voice, startled. The head of the lance-like staff she held glowed in her hand for a moment as she turned- then dissipated as she recognized the Princess. Olivia, for her part, would have a clear view of the weapon in Orsola's hand. It was changed in some ways, yes, but she would certainly still recognize it as Arcane Piercer. That lance of the Exarchs... it could be nothing else. An elaborate replica? Not impossible, but to what end? Regardless of what Olivia may have thought, she continued speaking, talking of the sunset. Then, she asked about the pillar in the water. Orsola was silent for a short time before she responded, her expression hard to read- reminiscent of Madon's typical mien. 

"I have heard that story. Thought the sunset is certainly enjoyable, it's what I came to this spot to look at. ... Owend told me all about it, in my time. About it's formation, the dragon-slaying blade rumored to be within, the fierce winds around it that prevent one from simply flying on a pegasus, or even a wyvern."

She smiled lightly.

"How much truth lies in that old tale? I certainly couldn't tell you, Princess. I wasn't able to investigate in my time, for Onstade and this formation both had been lost to the ravages of the calamity. But when I was preparing to be sent back, I did make a promise to Owend, and the others in Isore in my time. This formation, along with other such tales, I would investigate each one of them if so given the opportunity. If there was any truth to them, then that which could be gained from these places could turn the tide of darkness and prevent the tragedy that plagued us all..."

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Tolok listened to Owend's speech, taking some time for himself to think, as well as digesting her words. He never had the luxury to read a book about mystery, even though he had the feel for solving things. He listened, more and more, as he was absorbed even more by her words. She was the one to bring him hope, now that he is at a low point, right? He would have thought that this is a payback for helping her in Glia, where Owend had to prove she had changed into better, her cowardice turned into willpower and following the greater good. They made it, however hurt they ended up, but it showed what kind of persons they really were. Not just this, but the nobility... The one he despised, when no one was there to help him solve this underlying problem. When his screams echoed through the silvery halls of the noble persons, with the light of their stained glass, a gift to God for his willingness and acceptance, protection and prosperity, nothing came back to him, but the grievous silence, which cut its way into his heart, poisoning it with hate. But now, he felt as if someone lifted a stone off his heart, revealing a lighter side. Nobility wasn't that bad, was it? She is a heir to the throne, after all. 

He gave her a heart warming smile, still thinking about what's left to do. If they can change the future, there's got to be a chance for him to stay alive, finish his quest and find the mystery behind his parents... Right? At that, he took a deep breath and closed his eyes, in his mind, speaking only to himself, as if he wanted to hear his words echo through his conscious, "We'll get through this. Wherever you are. I'll be fine."  He quickly woke up from his seconds-long meditation after she punched his shoulder. She might look weak, but she got one hell of a force in that knuckle, he chuckled. "Wine? I'm a fan of beer, but something sweet's all good! Wait. Isn't that stealing... Nah, screw this." Owend chuckled at that and they went inside, probably emptying a barrel worth of wine in three gulps.

----

The sun had finally set down and the party reached the inn, with Owend and Tolok's cheeks slightly red from the chugging they had. At first, it seemed like a normal, simple drinking sessions, but it turned out into a competition, such as back when Tolok downed a couple dozen of beers to get noticed by the Exarch. God, noticed by how much one drinks? If only his previous party knew...
"Well... Swimming?" He let out a long whistle, seemingly amused by this turn of events. "Well, I suppose... If it's a festival, there might be a feast, yes? After a long, swimming sessions with the chilly water relaxing every pore of your skin, the stomach will want to devour something, yes-" Owend nudged him with the shoulder, shaking her head slowly. Tolok stopped, but it looked to be the right time, because it was at the time Wymp mocked Madon for wearing that piece of armour, like a masculine Iron Maiden. He snorted and Owend brought them inside where the rooms were set, chuckling a bit. "And you think with your stomache, Tolok."

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