catbox_fics: (megaman; servbot mail)
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Title: Shadow of the Dragon
Fandom: Vision of Escaflowne
Rating: T for Teen
Spoilers?: Spoilers through end of series, some movie elements may also be spoiled
Notes: post-series, minor retconning of events in the last two episodes (doesn't substantially change the ending, sorry kids)

X: Wheel of Fortune

Major Arcana. Change, evolution, success, good fortune, fate. Happiness, abundance. New conditions.

"Look, I'm going," Esther said, fists planted on hips, from her place blocking the door. Duv pinched the bridge of his nose, thankful that Esther at least had the sense to keep their argument quiet. It was too early to be screaming through the house, and legally adults or not, the plan of sneaking into the palace to search for medicine and supplies would undoubtedly meet censure from both of the Abernathys and the Strategos. Nevermind that Hazel was forced to rely on what was left of her herbal concoctions for medicines and half of the stores in the root cellar were either fouled or dissolved after the streets had finally overflowed and the root cellar had flooded. They'd been lucky it was only by a few inches.

"You know as well as I do that we can't be sure the streets outside the borough are safe, let alone in the dark. Let alone what might be left in the palace that's living," Duv said, trying to keep it reasonable.

"And I've had combat training too, even if it wasn't as much as you," Esther shot back. "Or are you going to be delusional and insist that because I'm a girl I can't hurt things as well as you can? Besides, you wouldn't have the first idea where to look for provisions or what we really can't do without."

Duv sighed long-sufferingly. Commander Albatou had been loudly insistent that if Esther was going to spend time hanging around her brothers, she had to learn how to fight too. Even if her duties as a maid called her away from sword drills as often as not, and that the higher-ups would never have allowed her to join the Dragonslayers. Add that fact that Esther's a pain in the ass to budge when she gets like this, and I won't be able to get her to see reason until at least noon at this rate.

"Fine. Wait here. I have to get something," Duv ground out, turning on his heel and slipping back upstairs. He had to be careful to keep from knocking his armor's heavy shoulder guards into anything-- both Arian and Folken were light sleepers. Luck was with him, though, and soon enough he was digging through the hastily-packed trunk he'd brought with him when they'd fled the palace. He found what he was looking for in the bottom, still wrapped in the Zaibach standard it had been shipped home in.

Sorry, Miguel. Esther's being an idiot, but I'd rather she had your sword than a kitchen knife.

The standard went back in the trunk, and after a few moments checking the blade for nicks in the faint glow of the spare energist he'd packed, Duv crept back downstairs with the sword, the matching belt wrapped tightly around the scabbard so the buckle wouldn't jingle and give him away. He could see Esther start when she finally saw what he was bringing her.

"That's Miguel's--"

"I know. As you pointed out, you do know how to use it. And I don't want you out with me unarmed, all right?" Duv said, a little gruff as he thrust the sword at Esther. After a moment's hesitation, she got the belt sorted and buckled around her waist, a little odd paired with the long skirt of her dress. It took a little longer to get rain cloaks sorted out and shrugged on, but soon enough they had slipped out the door and into the rainy streets.

Without the mundane blue glow of the streetlights, even the familiar borough had an air of menace. Duv didn't dare bring anything for light, both because one of their few oil lamps would be missed and because it would give away their position to any unfriendly watchers. There weren't any soldiers left in the city from what Duv had been able to tell-- when General Adelphos had stormed through a week after the Emperor's death he had offered everyone enlisted an ultimatum. Join him in rebuilding the army and seeking vengeance against the Western Alliance or leave in disgrace to be cut down as deserters at the Copper Army's leisure. That had been the last day Duv had spent at the palace. He hadn't been eager to see if there were exceptions to be made for underage would-be Dragonslayers and their tomboy twins.

"Do you think anything's left?" Esther finally said, her arm brushing Duv's as they slowly made their way along the sidewalk. Without the streetcars running, they would have to take the long way around.

"Copper Army couldn't have taken all of it. And I doubt anyone had the guts to go into the Sorcerers' Wing," Duv said, "I don't know if we'll find much useful, but it beats sitting around and waiting for these guests that Kade says will show up."

"There ought to at least be medicine," Esther said, "Hazel would probably know what to do with it if we can't figure it out."

"Hopefully. I just hope there aren't any experiments running loose. After what we saw in the throne room, I think those rumors might have been more than rumors," Duv said. "You'll have to stick close to me."

"Fine by me," Esther said, "It just goes double for you."

The sky was lightening to its usual watery gray by the time the palace loomed into sight. Despite the fact that they were on the other side of the wide central square the palace seemed to fill the sky, easily a couple of times larger than even Zaibach's largest floating fortress. It hadn't gone unscathed by the riots, though. The gold-sheened metal bore marks of flames, and paint had been flung at the walls, graffiti scrawled everywhere. Even the Zaibach crest adorning the front gate was tilted, listing after something big had smashed into it.

Trading a look, the pair crept through the gates, which hung unsteadily on hinges that had been bent by the rounded shoulders of Alseides melefs. The generator was still working, albeit fitfully, and only every third or fourth light was lit, casting gloomy shadows along the windowless entrance hall. It's probably a good thing we're here now. The energists in the generator probably won't hold out much longer, Duv thought, straining his hearing for sounds other than the loud hissing of the rain against metal and their own footsteps.

"Halt! Identify yourselves!" A voice from out of a shadowed corner of the entrance hall made both of them start. One shadow detatched itself from the others, revealing a tall soldier carrying a glaive. There was a smudge of grease or ash on one cheek, as if the soldier had been camping rough for a while, but he handled the big polearm like he knew how to use it. Duv dropped to a defensive crouch, one hand on his sword. He felt more than saw Esther mirroring the gesture, though she kept the cloak closed over her sword.

"Name yourself, Corporal," Duv snarled, recognizing the rank bars on the bit of uniform peeking out from under the soldier's gorget. Taking a chance, he slipped the knot of his rain cloak free and let it drop to the floor, revealing the distinctive black-and-blue of his Dragonslayer armor. Maybe we can bluff our way out of this. I don't think this guy has any troops from the Copper Army with him.

The corporal blanched a little bit, but held firm. "Impersonating a Dragonslayer is a capital offense. I'll not ask you again. Identify yourself. Both of you."

Crap. Duv took a deep breath, stretching to his full height, which wasn't much more than chest-high on the corporal, and glowering. "I am Dragonslayer Duv Lavariel. Now make yourself useful and get out of my way before I show you just how genuine a Slayer I am!"

"And I'm Esther Lavariel. And I'll gladly take a turn kicking you myself when my brother is done with you," Esther said, resettling her cloak so that her arms were free to fight.

"Sir! Ma'am!" That got the corporal to stand down, almost dropping the glaive in a hurry to salute. "I apologize! There have been so many crazies trying to break in here with stolen armor, and with General Adelphos off his nut and all, well, you just can't be too careful."

"So.. you're not with Adelphos?" Duv asked, relaxing a bit out of fighting stance.

"Oh hell no, sir. I swore an oath to protect Zaibach and her people, not run off to go stomping around 'cause we lost a fight," the corporal said, "'Cept, well, it's pretty hard to do much when it's just you left over."

"Well, now there's three of us, so maybe we can get a bit more done," Duv said, grinning a bit despite himself. "What's your name, Corporal?"

"Thorne, sir. Griffin Thorne. Bronze Army, but I guess that doesn't really matter now."

"Oh, cut out the sir-and-ma'am crap," Esther said. "It's ridiculous to insist on ranks with an army of three. Just Esther is fine. And Duv does answer to his given name."


"Nah, Esther's right," Duv said, picking his cloak up. "We have more important things to worry about. Like finding some supplies. Our current hosts are out of a lot of key things, and they've been trying to keep an entire borough running besides."

"I hid a few things that the Copper Army didn't take," Griffin said, falling into step as the trio headed deeper into the palace. "There's a shipment of energists that never got properly tagged. I just don't know enough about machinery to guess at how to slot them into the palace generator."

"Energists are a little much for just us to move. We'll have to ask later," Duv said thoughtfully. "What else did they leave?"

Griffin launched into a description of the hoard he'd managed to amass since the army had rolled through. It was an impressive, if eclectic, stash of practical equipment, down even to crazy things like dress tack for cavalry mounts. While there were stores of foodstuffs to last the whole borough through the winter, there didn't seem to be any medicines. Which meant a trip into the Sorcerers' Wing was still in order.

"Are you sure about this?" Griffin asked, shining the lamp they'd acquired over Duv's head into the darkened corridors of the Sorcerers' Wing. The shadows that lurked throughout the palace seemed deeper here, and Duv almost swore he saw some of them trying to slide around out of the corners of his eyes.

"Dr. Abernathy needs medicines. We've managed to dodge the pneumonia bullet so far, but without something stronger than tea it's going to start tearing through the camp," Esther said firmly. "Besides, it sounds like the Sorcerers split with Adelphos. Nothing to worry about."

"Except the killer death projects. And the magical traps. And the ghosts," Griffin said, "Wait.. what was that?"

The lamp swung crazily as Griffin tried to pin down a moving shadow, but Duv didn't see anything.

"New rule. No ghost stories or rumors until we're back out of the palace," Duv said, one hand on the hilt of his sword as they crept down the corridor, a little more on guard. He could hear skittering, and something that sounded suspiciously like voices, though it was impossible to pinpoint the sound with the weird echoing.

Soon the patchy light from the generators gave out, leaving only the meager glow of the lamp. The Sorcerers' Wing had been cleared out in a hurry, shards of glass everywhere and once what Duv was relatively sure was a cloak-wrapped body half-in and half-out of the door to one of the laboratories. The dark seemed even more oppressive as the trio blundered around, looking for a storeroom.

"Ack!" Esther squeaked, whirling and nearly tripping Duv. "Something touched me!"

"I'm touching you!" Duv said, exasperated.

"No.. Hey!" Esther kicked out, knocking into Duv and hitting something that let out a high-pitched squeak. Griffin turned around enough to shine the light where Esther was flailing, revealing a mouse-girl crouched on the floor and rubbing her shin. The mouse hissed, brandishing a dagger that was big enough compared to her slight frame to almost count as a shortsword.

"What do you want? Come to rob the dead?" the mouse said, another dagger flashing towards Esther in a feint. Before Duv could do much more than call a warning, Esther had drawn her sword, locking with the blade of one of the daggers. Griffin backed off, the light swinging again, to give them all more room to move.

"Like you can talk, thief. I caught you trying to steal my weapon!" Esther said, dancing back from the blade-lock so that she could take a swing at the mouse. Duv drew his own sword then, using it to block Esther.

"Don't be stupid. We don't need to fight," Duv said, trying to keep the mouse in sight. With a growl, Esther backed off, eyeing the mouse like a particularly irritated cat might.

"Don't think you can treat me like a slave just because you're a Zaibach human," the mouse spat, ears almost flat against her head. "You're no better than the Sorcerers who left us to die!"

"Time out. Who's us? I just see you," Griffin said suspiciously. "Don't tell me this place is overrun with mice."

"I'll show you overrun with mice, you meat-headed ape!" The mouse leaped at the wall in a powerful jump, using the extra height from her jump to attack from above, lunging at Esther with daggers drawn. Esther shrieked, dodging out of the way of most of the strike and deflecting the rest with her sword. The mouse landed just next to Griffin, too close for him to hit her with the glaive, but for all his size the corporal was fast and managed to dodge a strike before tackling her to the ground. One of the daggers went clattering down the hall as Griffin pinned the mouse, though she held on to the other with grim determination. Esther leaned down to claim the dagger.

"Enough," Duv barked, returning his blade to its scabbard and kicking Esther so she'd follow his lead. "Look.. I'm Duv. This is my sister Esther and the guy on top of you is Griffin. We're here looking for supplies. Who are you? And who's us? Maybe we can help."

"I have no reason to trust humans," the mouse said primly. "Though get this ox off me and maybe I'll talk."

"The ox has a name," Griffin groused, looking to Duv, who shrugged a bit. After a moment, he backed off. The mouse sat up carefully, rubbing the wrist that Griffin had locked to keep her from using her remaining weapon.

"My name is Eulia," the mouse finally said. "I used to be a slave here. The Sorcerers... they kept a lot of beast people here. Some of us got used in experiments, and the rest had to watch and wait on the bastards hand and foot in the meantime. Those who weren't out doing chores were kept locked up in the dungeon with the rest of the experimental subjects. I was lucky.. I was on an errand when the Sorcerers decided to leave. But a lot of us are still trapped in the dungeon. I've been getting the others what I can, but it's not enough."

"Sounds straightforward enough. We'll go down and let everyone out," Duv said, shrugging.

"It's not. If it were that easy, I'd have let them out by now. But only a Sorcerer can undo the locks on the cells in the dungeons. And they are all either dead or fled with Adelphos," Eulia said, spitting when she mentioned the general's name.

"Then it's a good thing we have a spare one of those laying around," Esther said into the uncertain silence following Eulia's pronouncement.

"You have a what?" Eulia said, staring at them in blank disbelief.

"Long story. Come back with us.. heck, both of you come back with us. We'll tell it on the way," Duv said, nodding to Griffin too. "I think even our army of three needs a little help, and I don't like the idea of a bunch of people being trapped in here one more night."

Griffin scratched his head before grinning slowly. "Wouldn't miss it for the world. Lead on."

Folken hummed absently, watching over Arian's shoulder as she scowled fiercely at the puzzle box sitting on the ground before her. She had pulled him into sitting with her on the rug, claiming that his wings would hog all the space on the low couch of the sitting room. Behind them, the fireplace crackled merrily, the heat a welcome respite from the chill damp that had run through the house all morning. The splints were also finally off, though Folken had strict orders to stick to basking in warmth to unlock his flight muscles and not think even of drawing his wings in until the last of the swelling was down.

"I don't get it," Arian whined, looking up at Folken appealingly. "Can't you show me how?"

"This is something you have to do yourself. It's as I said.. the box will show you how to open it if you look at it," he said, ruffling her hair a little with his good hand. "It's called the Initiate's Trial for a good reason, you know. Until you can do this, there's very little I can teach you."

Arian sighed, resting her chin on her hands and glaring at the box. "I don't get it. I can already alter fate! Why do I need to open a stupid box?"

"You have power, but power without control is dangerous," Folken said, "To you and to anyone near you."

"You sound like Mr. Kade."

"He was my teacher. I should hope so," Folken said. Arian paused to digest the revelation before poking the box halfheartedly with a finger.

"So how long did it take you to figure out the box?" she asked, looking up at him slyly.

"Three days, only he didn't complain as much as you," Kade said, coming down the stairs. "Morning Folken, Arian. Have either of you seen the lovely Lavariel twins? Esther's missed morning round with Hazel and I can't find Duv in any of his usual practicing spots."

"No. I thought they were with one of you," Folken said, frowning.

"Ai, I knew it was a bad idea to remind them of their birthday the other day," Kade said, running a hand back through his close-cropped black hair. "Likely they've gone to do something stupid in the name of helping us."

"There's a limited amount of trouble even they can get into," Folken said, rising only a little awkwardly to his feet. "I'll join you. They can't have gone far."

"Nah, nah. I don't need to catch hell from Hazel if you soak your wings, and I don't need Arian taking a hammer to that box in your absence, either. It's an heirloom," Kade said, though he smiled a bit. "I'm sure they'll turn up."

Folken was about to reply, but there was a tapping at the door before it finally flew open and the twins tumbled in. Close on their heels were an oddly matched pair-- a corporal of the Bronze Army, by uniform, and a mouse-girl clutching a wicked pair of daggers like a talisman. Both of the newcomers stared around curiously.

"Folken! We need your help!" Esther called, pitched to carry upstairs before she spotted him.

"So I've heard," Folken said, "Come in and hang the cloaks up. You can stand to warm up again while you explain."

It took more than a little coaxing to actually get them all to sit, even after Folken resumed his spot on the rug and directed Arian back to her job of solving the puzzle box. Even so, the mouse-girl, Eulia, half-hid behind the tall Griffin, eyeing Folken warily once he had been introduced as the "spare Sorcerer" that Esther had mentioned. He could, however, understand her trepidation, especially when she had been prodded into telling her story.

"Esther said you could break the lock on the dungeon," Eulia finished. "The others aren't going to last much longer.. everyone's been crammed in there for weeks, and a couple of the littles are already sick because of it."

"I can. Though if we're going to make it back before nightfall, we need to leave soon," Folken said, thoughtful. Aside from setting the puzzle-box for Arian, which was more knowing the knack of the set-spell than an actual act of will, he hadn't touched actual magic since the ill-conceived attempt to alter fate and pull Van away from Hitomi... longer, if one only counted magic worked without the enhancement provided by a Fate Alteration Engine.

"I can do it too," Kade said from his spot by the mantle. "Should be simple enough."

"No. You've never been permitted into the Sorcerers' Wing, and the last thing any of us needs is for anyone to get lost in there," Folken said. "It was already sheer luck that none of you were trapped, though from what you described it sounds like most of the low-level Sorcerers set off most of the traps down there already."

"You have an apprentice to watch," Kade said, frowning as Folken got to his feet.

"You know as well as I do that anyone can supervise the Initiate's Trial. I'll accept any consequences from Hazel myself."

"The streetcars aren't running. We're going to have to walk," Duv said as the quartet piled on the couch started getting to their feet as well.

"You don't need to come," Folken said, frowning.

"There's other stuff in the palace that we need, especially since we're going to have a whole lot of guests. Besides... if there's anything creepy down there someone's going to need to fight it," Duv said firmly, brushing by to take his still dripping cloak.

"And I don't trust Sorcerers!" Eulia added, arms crossed and glowering. Folken shook his head, ignoring Kade's laughter.

"It seems they have you there, Folken."

"Fine. But stay close to me," he finally said as Griffin mutely handed him a rain cloak that would hopefully be large enough to shield his wings from the rain.

As it was, the thin light was starting to fade by the time they made it back to the palace, which bore marks of heavy fighting. His odd escort fanned out protectively, Eulia leading the way into the darkened Sorcerers' Wing. Folken itched to have a weapon of his own, but his sword had broken in the reaction of fate, the aftereffects of which still lingered over the palace like a fog. It seems the Zone of Absolute Fortune backfired even here.

"It's just down this way," Eulia said, darting into a side corridor.

"Wait!" Folken said, lunging for Duv before the boy could follow her in. He managed to yank Duv back just in time, twisted energy hissing hungrily and visibly after its lost prey. "Trap spell."

"A little warning would have been nice," Duv said, voice breaking high for a moment before he cleared his throat.

"It doesn't react to demihumans," Folken said, closing his eyes and centering himself for a moment before looking again. The spell's energies traced themselves dimly along the corridor's walls and floor as the material world went out of focus, magic designed to hide the corridor from the eyes of those not specifically looking for it and to drain and confuse those who managed to blunder into it anyway. Almost elegant for ensuring that the rumored experiments remained only rumors. After studying the spell for a few moments, Folken took the bag that had held the apprentice's silver out of his pocket, picking the knot of the cord loose carefully.

"Don't move until I give the word," he said, holding the silk cord in front of him and cautiously stepping into the corridor. The twisted magic hissed again, drawing back into itself as Folken advanced, looking for the raveling-point of the spell so he could disarm the trap. It pulsed in the floor a few feet in, reaching out hungrily for the tentative thread of power Folken sent towards it. He let the spell draw it in, crouching to get a better look at the trap with sight as well as power. Not very well built... probably forced into place with an Engine. Satisfied, Folken yanked the thread of power that the trap was trying to consume, looping the physical cord around the heart of the trap as he did so. The energies running through the corridor winked out with the trap confined, and a murmured invocation later the trap spell was no more, magic fleeing harmlessly back into the earth. Satisfied, Folken pocketed the cord against any other traps that needed to be contained.

"It's safe," Folken said, straightening and looking back at his little escort once he had refocused his sight on the real world. All three of them were looking at him with wide eyes, but after a prod from Esther, Duv edged forward. Folken breathed a sigh, turning and following Eulia's path into the dungeon, trusting the others to follow.

The dungeon itself was untrapped, though it reeked of both fear and death in addition to the stench of too many trapped in too small a space for too long. Eulia was crouched by one sturdy door with the lantern, talking through the small opening built to allow food and water to be given prisoners without opening the door. The mouse-girl looked up when Folken entered, though.

"What took so long?" Eulia said, getting to her feet.

"Trap spell," Duv piped up from behind as the rest of the little company filed into the dungeon. Folken strode forward to examine the doors, which had no visible lock system. Given the quiet whispering about experimentation on children that took place in these halls, undoubtedly the physical locks had been removed to prevent an attack of conscience from interrupting anything.

"I was talking to Braxis.. he's kind of the oldest of us," Eulia said, almost dancing in agitation. "He said if you can get everyone out, we'll let you have all the supplies and help transport them. Sorcerer or not."

"There aren't any locks," Griffin said, impressed, from his own examination of one of the other doors. "How the heck did they get these open? The latches are stuck tight."

"Magic, what else?" Esther said, using a dropped bit of paper to light the other lamps left in the dungeon. Soon the room was bathed in a dim gold glow, revealing a set of five doors.

"Can you do it?" Eulia said, looking at Folken, who was mutely studying the spell of lock and ward.

"I'll need a key," he said finally.

"There aren't any locks!" Eulia squeaked. "What good's a key?"

"A key.. like the cord?" Esther said. Folken nodded.

"An invocation is easier with materials that echo the nature of the effect desired or the powers being raised. Any key will do," Folken said. And I am sufficiently out of practice that I doubt I could finesse the locks without a focus in anything like a timely manner. The spell is layered and starting to tangle on itself.

There was a knock from within one of the doors, and Eulia crouched again. "Yes?"

"Any key?" rumbled a deep voice, muffled a little by door and spell.

"Seems like," Eulia said. There was a pause and some scuffling before a massive black paw slithered through the bottom opening. Cupped inside was a small brass key on a chain, more decorative than functional after the fashion of Zaibach's ladies just before the beginning of the war.

"This do?" the paw's owner said, offering the key to Eulia.

"Yes. Thank you," Folken said, accepting the chain from the mouse-girl. "Stand back from the door, just in case the spell is trapped."

The paw withdrew. Folken waited a few breaths anyway, letting the key swing as he began carefully unraveling the spell. It was easier than the trap spell, though he had to keep repeating the invocation since each door had been ensorcelled separately. The glow of the lamps dimmed for a moment as the freed energy slipped past to ground, ruffling through Folken's feathers.

"That's it?" Duv said after a few moments, blinking.

"That's it," Folken said, putting action to words by unlatching the nearest door. It swung open easily to reveal a blinking badger, who was rubbing his eyes against even the dim light of the lamps, and a handful of the graceful, leonine dogs from near the eastern desert. Eulia shrieked past, leaping on the big badger to give him a fierce hug.

"Braxis! I did it! I promised I would!"

The badger, Braxis, returned the hug one-armed and nodded gravely to Folken. "I never thought I'd be saying this.. but my thanks, Sorcerer."

"Folken. I have no desire to be counted among the Sorcerers."

"Folken.. Strategos Folken?" Braxis said, eyes going wide as he abortively moved to bow, hampered by Eulia still hanging off his neck. Folken shook his head, stopping Braxis with his good hand on the badger's arm.

"Just Folken. The empire is gone, and I see no need to cling to its formalities."

There was a renewed round of squealing as Duv and Griffin started opening doors around them, the stuffy room filling up with a gaggle of mice who all swarmed Eulia, a shy mole who ducked her head quietly at Folken and offered him a smile, and a couple of high-strung squirrels who practically bolted from confinement. All of them had seen better days, fur patchy and showing ribs in the case of a few of the older demihumans, who had likely give their share to the littlest, some of whom were barely past being babes in arms.

Braxis snorted, peeling Eulia off his neck so she could properly greet what was likely to be her family. "We owe you our lives, Folken. Whatever you need us to do, we'll do it. It's the least we can offer for getting us out of this hell."

The milling demihumans stilled at Braxis's words, and Folken felt his wings twitching under the concealing cloak, breath catching to be the center of such sudden, unnerving regard. Not again. I don't need anyone else pledging life or death to me. Not ever again.

"Enjoy your freedom," Folken said softly, returning the key and chain to Braxis. "That is enough repayment for me."

"But we could use some help moving things," Duv said. He had been roped into carrying a tiny mouse-child, who was sucking its thumb and regarding the entire event with wide, grave eyes. "Griffin's found enough stuff here to support a regement. We can't use it all, so we could give you a share for helping us."

"Done and done," Braxis said, nodding. "Perhaps we could get some help finding somewhere to settle that's not the palace dungeon? No offense, but I could go the rest of my life without having to come back here again."

"You can always stay with us. It'll be tight, but we can manage," Esther said as the group started moving out of the dungeon room in silent accord. Folken let himself get carried along with them, listening as plans were sketched for the relocation of the demihumans and the distribution of supplies, speculations made about where medicines might be located. Eventually the younger and more excitable had taken the lead, following Griffin to the hanger where most of the supplies had been cached. Braxis hung back, matching Folken's slower pace. He was starting to tire, the trip being the longest since his however-temporary death.

"You're not what I expected, you know. M'lord Strategos," Braxis said once most of the others were out of earshot arguing how best to move things.

"I am not Strategos," Folken said, looking at the badger sideways.

"Maybe not. But either way, I think I'm glad I was wrong about you. It's nice to know there are some humans in Zaibach who see people when they look at us instead of animals."

"It's not so rare as you think."

"Then it'll be a pleasure working with you," Braxis said, favoring Folken with a grin at whatever he saw in the madoushi's expression before joining the others in distributing the packages and boxes to be carried. Folken watched him depart, frowning thoughtfully.

What have I gotten myself into now?

"Shit shit shit," Celena hissed, tossing hay wildly in the predawn darkness of the stable. Hellbane was saddled and ready, practically dancing in her stall as Celena had finished strapping saddlebags packed against the long trip to Zaibach into place. Her armor had to be left behind for the most part, tailored for someone without her newly-developed curves, but the coat and boots still fit well enough. She regretted the necessity of leaving the heavy red shoulder guards that marked her status as Dragonslayer commander behind, but standing out was last on her list of priorities. The black dragonleather was warm and familiar, and it would just have to be enough.

But her sword was missing. Without it, she'd be left with a bow and a few arrows, a sling for hunting, and a couple of knives, none of which she was especially practiced with. Not enough to fight trained soldiers with, if it came to that. "Where the hell is it..?"

"Looking for something?" Allen's calm tone made Celena freeze, and she turned to her brother, standing in the wide-open door with her sword held loosely in one hand. He was turned out pefectly as usual, ridiculous Knight Caeli uniform crisp as if he was presenting himself for evening court rather than lying in wait for her in a stable at dawn.

"Allen," Celena growled, tensing. He was a difficult opponent in the best of circumstances, having been apprenticed, she'd learned, to Balgus himself. She would likely have only one chance to surprise him and escape, though it would mean abandoning the sword, which had been a gift from Folken for her fifteenth birthday.

"I can't say I'm shocked. I've been expecting you to make a break for it for a while now," Allen said conversationally, before tossing the sword to Celena. Shocked, she caught it purely from reflex and was surprised again to see her Zaibach identification tags wrapped around the hilt, unmistakable even if she couldn't read the text in the darkness of the stable.


"I can't wish for my sister to be happy?"

"I'm not a gentle, delicate flower, brother," Celena said, though she reverently untangled her tags and put them on. "And I'm certainly not going to collapse and apologize for Fanelia, or your stupid fort, or Pallas, or any of the rest of it. I'd gladly do it again, if war came calling."

"I know," Allen said, a shadow silhouetted against the beginnings of the sunrise. Celena half-wished she could see his face, if only so she could figure out what he was thinking.

"Then why?" She buckled the swordbelt as she talked. Time was too precious to let him distract her too long, especially since she would soon be racing the winter itself.

"I learned my lesson about putting the people I love in birdcages," Allen said, "And even if I wasn't sure you'd try to burn the house down around me if I tried... I do want you to be happy. I'd like to have a chance to be your brother in truth rather than just name. And we have to start somewhere."

"I'm not taking you to Zaibach with me," Celena said, swinging the stall door open so she could mount Hellbane. "And I don't need your charity."

"Who says it's charity? The crown planted several guard among the crew to make sure you didn't try to run back to Zaibach," Allen said, "They'll probably try to bring you in the second they realize you took off. All I can give you is a head start before I'm ordered to try and drag you back."

"Gee, you're too kind," Celena said, nudging Hellbane forward a few steps. The mare responded beautifully, shaking out her mane.

"Look. I know you probably don't like me. I'm not sure I like you very much. But if you can, send word that you made it."

Celena considered it, taking in Allen's earnest expression now that she was close enough to actually see him. I suppose turning out to be related to him isn't as bad as I first thought. And he does seem to be genuine in giving me a head start.

"Fine. I'll see what I can do," she said, "Until next time, Allen Schezar."

"Jichia speed you, Celena Schezar," Allen said, grinning a little and offering a salute. Celena snorted and kicked Hellbane into a canter, setting off for the fence. There was a game trail that led to the main road after a few miles, some of which involved fording a few streams that would throw any pursuers off her trail a bit.

The dawn saw her on the main road, which wound through quiet fields, past an antique windmill big enough to hide a melef in. Hellbane was holding pace well, though considering that she was bred to carry a fully armored man and heavy barding for miles, that was hardly surprising. Despite herself, Celena found herself whistling cheerily, if not exactly on-key, notes rising with the mist that had settled over the fields as the frost slowly melted. It was good to be out, no one charge of her fate but herself.

I think I might be able to get used to this open road stuff. It's not as rousing as a good fight, but it's got its own charms.

Trying and failing to imitate birdcalls, Celena almost missed the distant thunder of approaching horses, only a change in the wind saving her from being caught unawares. Turning, she could see the characteristic blue barding of Asturian cavalry, though the riders themselves were too far to make out clearly. Shit, that was fast. I guess he wasn't lying.

Celena kicked Hellbane into a gallop, thinking furiously. Good breeding or not, Hellbane had been on the road all morning and heaven knew when the soldiers had started the chase and how fresh their mounts were. I'll have to find some kind of cover and lose them.

There was a river ahead, judging by the line of trees that cut across the fields. Without hesitation, Celena wheeled Hellbane for the trees, intent on losing her pursuers in the woods. If the river was shallow enough, she could even follow it upstream for a while before venturing out for another road.

Branches whipped into her face as they crashed through the underbrush, but Celena urged Hellbane to hold her pace as much as possible. The trees looked old, easily large enough to hide behind, and Hellbane wove among them sure-footedly as the undergrowth disappeared to the shade of the trees. The leaves were thick enough on the ground to help muffle their passage, hopefully thick enough to help hide their tracks as well.

About time my luck was good!

Yelling in the distance warned Celena that pursuit hadn't let up just yet. Growling, she coaxed Hellbane into moving a bit closer to the water, trying to assess if she could use it to her advantage. The sun was brilliant against the river's meandering expanse, slow moving and wide enough that fording would take too much precious time. A little dazzled by the light off the water, Celena turned back to the trail before her.

"Ahhh! Stop!" There was a shriek, and Celena spotted someone in pale clothing standing too close for her to swerve very far out of the way. The crashing from behind her was gaining, though Celena didn't dare turn and look.

"Shit!" she growled, grabbing the shrieking stranger and hauling the struggling form up onto the saddle in front of her just as an arrow whistled by, her pursuers so close that they likely would have run the stranger down. I take it back. My luck is shit!

"Stop struggling and hang on!" Celena barked, shifting a little so there was enough room for both of them to be stable while Hellbane darted through the trees.

"Oh my god!" the stranger, a girl from the sound of her voice, moaned, half clutching the saddle horn and half clutching Celena, threatening to unbalance them both. I can't keep this up.. Shit shit shit.

Up ahead in the river was a tangle of brush caught on a sandbar, almost enough to make a makeshift bridge to the other side. Cursing under her breath, Celena angled Hellbane for it, hoping to cross and get cover from the arrows before one of them did more than whistle by and scare her unwilling passenger. Hellbane took the direction fearlessly, whinnying and putting on a burst of speed as she understood her rider's plan.

"Oh, let this work," Celena muttered as Hellbane leaped, hooves clattering and slipping on a tree trunk among the brush. Hellbane hopped and squirmed for stable footing, picking her way across the brush-bridge as fast as she could, Celena leaning to try and help as much as possible around the whimpering limpet clinging to the saddle. The brush was starting to break up into the river behind them, though from the sound of things at least one of the pursuers was trying to follow.

"Jump!" Celena shrieked as another arrow came dangerously close, Hellbane slipping a moment before running straight for the end of the brush-bridge's last tree trunk. For a breathless moment it looked like the horse wasn't going to have enough room or enough footing, and then they were flying across the water to splash into the shallows near the opposite bank. The water was freezing, but Celena was laughing as Hellbane climbed the bank in a few great strides and took off into the trees, weaving among them without any need for direction from her rider.

The sounds of pursuit quieted after a few moments, and cautiously Celena reined Hellbane in, slowing to a walk and letting the horse catch her breath. Laughter threatened to bubble up again at the narrow escape, adrenaline a sweet sensation in her veins.

"I swear as soon as I find an apple tree I'm giving you every last one," Celena crooned to Hellbane, patting the mare before nimbly dismounting to give her a rest. It was then that she belatedly remembered the narrowly-rescued passenger, who was still clingingly grimly to the saddle. The girl looked vaguely familiar, dressed in a short brown skirt and a bulky coat that hopefully hid more practical clothing for the late fall weather, both of which were soaked with river-water from the dangerous crossing. Her shoes didn't look like any Celena was familiar with, though they did look more practical than most of the ladies’ footwear people had tried to get her into. There was a pack on the girl's back with writing on it that Celena couldn't decipher. Circling Hellbane, Celena finally got a look at her face. Her brown hair, plastered against her skull from the wet, looked shorter than Celena's own, and her eyes were scrunched shut tightly.

Celena was strongly tempted to find a stick to poke her with. As it was, she settled for talking, leading Hellbane forward at a slow walk as the horse's breathing slowed.

"Hello. You know, you're extremely lucky that you haven't been shot or trampled by horses or drowned in the river. But we're not being chased anymore, and I'd appreciate it if you stopped acting like you're going to die in the next five seconds so that you can get off my horse and give her a break from carrying you," Celena said.

That got the girl to open her eyes, which were a startling shade of green. She blinked at Celena blankly before staring around as if she hadn't seen the woods before in her life. Then the girl looked up, the moons barely visible through the tops of the trees.

"I'm on Gaea," the girl said, finally letting go of the saddle and sliding off Hellbane's back. She didn't land well, falling right on her butt in the leaves.

"Where did you expect to be? The Mystic Moon?" Celena said with a snort, stopping. Hellbane sighed gustily, dropping her head to nose around the leaves for something to eat.

"I.. maybe," the girl said defensively. Celena's eyes narrowed as she studied the stranger, recognition dawning like a bolt from the blue.

"You! You're that bitch from the Mystic Moon!" Celena said, advancing a step before she was quite aware of it, though her hand tangled in Hellbane's reins kept her from jumping at the girl. As it was, the girl from the Mystic Moon jumped, scrambling to her feet.

"I don't even know who the heck you are! I didn't even do anything so you can leave me alone!" the girl said, bristling. That got Celena's attention, and she looked at the girl thoughtfully.

"You have no idea who I am?"

"It should be obvious! Though you seem to know me so spill!"

Celena hummed thoughtfully, scritching Hellbane. Where the girl from the Mystic Moon was, Van Fanel wasn't too far behind. Probably the smart thing would be to ditch her at the nearest village as fast as humanly possible-- the absolute last thing she needed was to get into it with the hotheaded Fanelian king again... Not that it hadn't been fun in its own way, but he could hurt her a lot more than she could hurt him these days. On the other hand, the Emperor and the Sorcerers had been intensely interested in the girl, and she might be valuable enough as a hostage to trade for Celena's freedom and that of her last Dragonslayer.

Either way, I'll be stuck with her in my hair for a while. And I don't think I can just call her bitch from the Mystic Moon the whole time, she thought with a sigh.

"My name is Celena. Celena Schezar. What's yours?"

"Hitomi Kanzaki. Do you know Allen Schezar?"

"Unfortunately," Celena said, glad now that she had elected to leave most of her armor behind. If Hitomi didn't recognize her as Dilandau, it wasn't likely anyone else would either. "He's my brother."

"I didn't know he had any siblings," Hitomi said, frowning a little bit.

"It's a recent development. I wasn't raised in Asturia, and we only recently met," Celena said smoothly, tugging Hellbane back into a walk. They both needed a chance to rest after the wild ride and to change out of soaked clothes. Hitomi fell into step easily enough, walking on Hellbane's other side.

"So where are you going? And why were those guys chasing us?"

"I was going home. Asturia's nice but who'd want to live here? As for those idiots, they were suffering under the delusion that they could hold me prisoner," Celena said, smirking a bit.

"Guess Allen's still trying to stick girls in birdcages," Hitomi said, snickering a bit under her breath.

"He's learning, but I wouldn't hold my breath," Celena agreed. Hitomi grinned, and the two of them lapsed into silence as Celena looked around for a relatively sheltered spot to stop and build a fire. They found a spot not long after, one that was a frequently-used campsite judging by the ring of stones around an old firepit in the clearing and the logs that had been dragged over to serve as seats. There were ashes in the firepit, but they were stone cold, and Celena found herself letting out the breath she'd been holding as she hobbled Hellbane and started digging into the saddlebags. Even with the coat, her pants were wet and enough water had trickled in to make her shirt uncomfortable. Hitomi didn't look much better, rubbing on her arms and hopping from foot to foot to keep warm.

"I don't suppose you know how to start a fire, do you?" Celena said after a moment.

"Not really. I don't go camping much," Hitomi said. "Sorry."

"There's not much of a trick to it. Look, I'll show you. Then you can take a turn next time," Celena said, digging her firestarter out of the bag. With the extra help, it didn't take long to rake out the firepit and gather up enough dry branches and leaves to get a blaze going.

"Please tell me you have a change of clothes in that thing," Celena said, watching Hitomi almost lean into the fire with a small measure of amusement.

"I.. er.. yeah," Hitomi said, looking at Celena in confusion.

"Good. I don't have to lend you any of mine," she said with a sniff, spreading her coat on the ground near one of the logs and starting to skin out of the wet clothes.

"What are you doing?!" Hitomi squeaked. Celena peered over her shoulder from unlacing her bodice to see the girl from the Mystic Moon was beet red and staring.

"What? It's not like you haven't seen any of this before," Celena said crisply, "And I, for one, am not going to suffer squelching around all day. Do what you want if you're that squeamish."

Celena did keep her back politely turned until she was in a fresh shirt and trews. Unfortunately, she'd only brought one bodice with her, so she had to shrug on the damp thing and start re-lacing it. By the time she'd turned around again, Hitomi had changed into a pair of oddly-colored pants and a heavy looking shirt with more of the strange writing on it, her other clothes spread near the fire to dry. Celena did likewise, settling on her coat across from Hitomi and studying her curiously.

"So what are you doing in the middle of the Asturian countryside almost getting run over? I'd have thought you'd be in Fanelia, all married off and popping out heirs to the throne by now."

"Ew, no! I'm not ready to have kids! I.. well, I went home," Hitomi said, fidgeting with the hem of her shirt.

"Why? I thought you and Van Fanel were supposed to be close. True love and all that shit," Celena said, stretching out to soak up the heat from the fire.

"How do you know so much about that?"

"Allen blabs. So answer the question."

"It's.. how things go, right? I mean, I love Van. And I know he loves me. And none of that's ever going to change. But I don't really belong here. Half of the crazy things that happened to us ended up being my fault, and my feelings were holding Van back and almost got him killed a few times. I'm not even out of high school. I'm not cut out to be a queen or whatever Van needs in an actual partner. So I did what everyone does in these situations. I went back to my old normal life," Hitomi said, "I kind of thought that maybe when I'm older, maybe finished with college, I'd think about coming back. I do like Gaea even if being here doesn't seem to get any easier."

"So then what are you doing here?" Celena asked, frowning a bit.

"I.. it was weird. I was helping my friend Yukari set up for track practice. She went in to get something and the next thing I knew it was like time just froze. There was a creepy guy in black in the middle of the track field. I couldn't really see his face, but his eyes were creepy. Mismatched and dead. He asked me to come with him. Said that he understood how miserable I was and that if I went with him it would all fade away. I might not like having a totally long-distance relationship and being treated like a kid, but it wasn't that bad. But the next thing I knew I could see Gaea in the sky and there was a flash of light and I was about to get run over by you."

"Yeah, that's weird," Celena said into the silence that followed.

"Well, since I'm not really sure how I got here, I'm not sure how I'm going to get back," Hitomi said with a sigh.

"I wasn't planning on diverting to Fanelia, but the next village shouldn't be too far away. I'm sure you could find someone willing to take you, or at least to contact somebody," Celena said. I don't think I want to mess around with all that if I can help it. I have enough of a headache as it is without strange Sorcerers with dead eyes having a reason to look for me.

Hitomi hummed, looking into the fire. Celena sighed, trying to think of the next village on the map so that she didn't have to get up and fetch it.

"If it's all right with you, can I travel with you a while?" Hitomi finally said, so quietly Celena almost missed it.

"What? Why?"

"I have a feeling I ended up almost getting run over by your horse for a reason," Hitomi said, "And I don't think I want to drag Van into my problems just yet if I can help it. He has enough of his own."

"I'm not on a pleasure trip. I'm going to Zaibach," Celena said, sitting up. "It's a couple of weeks even on horseback, through dangerous territory. Probably more dangerous with most of the army gone."

"I had a feeling you were going to say that," Hitomi said, fixing Celena with a look. She snorted, shaking her head at the girl from the Mystic Moon. She's either braver than she looks or crazy. Or both.

"I'm not going to babysit you like your King Charming might. I have no use for an appendage. I can show you how to do the things you don't know how to do, but I expect anyone with me to pull their own weight. And that includes learning your way around a weapon," Celena said firmly.


"Fine. We set out again as soon as Hellbane's rested."


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