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Seisen Engi - Romance of the Holy War (Completed)

 
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10/26/2008 19:01:31   
Argeus the Paladin
Member

Romance of the Holy War (Now Completed!)

(Comments go here, folks)

Prologue
The Prince Paladin's Ascension


For as far as mankind was concerned, for as long as the flow of history ran undisturbed, few man had died with more mourners than those nearest and dearest to him. Fewer still enjoyed the last rejoice of being followed to their graves by a substantial crowd who admired his deeds as a living, and those whose deaths would turn an entire nation to tears numbered less than the fingers on one's hands, for every nation yet to exist and have a name and civilization of its own. Prince Argeus Elmarian Sunrise of the Kingdom of Hadrius was one of those vast minorities.

It was a Sunday like any other. When the church bells rang in unison and the nation's activities were brought to a standstill altogether for the sake of the Sunday Service of the Holy Church of the Light all over the entire kingdom. When the pious chanting and the silent prayers all over the lands replaced what normally were the relentless bargaining and arguing of a busy life, cities and countryside alike. And when one could find nobody without a proper outfit for the service, or with their hands and feet soiled with a day's workload. However, that Sunday was far from normal in its own way. Amidst the bell tolling, the chanting and the silent prayers, there were the strange, strangled sobs and sniffs, neither known to congregations nor to services. The shade of white seen not just in the outfits of monks and nuns, but also the common person, and the omnipresence of bouquets of white lily wherever a church stood was far from normality. Together with the similarly, deathly white flags flown at half-mast in the courtyard of Hadrius Castle, the seat of the royal family of the kingdom, the atmosphere around the kingdom could suggest only one thing.

Prince Argeus Elmarian Sunrise, the only son and heir-apparent of King Ryuan III of Hadrius, had passed away a few days prior, at the age of twenty-nine, leaving behind the kingdom promised to be his to rule in due time, and the people to whom he had promised a benevolent king and a wise ruler. A young Prince whose intelligence and wisdom far overshadowed even his own father, Argeus' affiliation with the Paladins of the Holy Church of the Light not just as a royal prince, but as a pious and benevolent knight, as well as his unprecedented bravery and his decisiveness in military-related conflicts with the various neighboring kingdoms and the numerous war achievement the Prince had had over the years had only strengthened his popularity with the people and their trust in his leadership in a foreseeable future.

Needless to say, the people of Hadrius had great hopes in the prince. They dreamt of magnificent economic growth as well as glorious military triumphs in the prince's reign to come, a beautiful dreamt abruptly brought to an end by the prince's death. And now, the entire country was mourning for their lost prince and a promised dream now untimely destroyed as well. As a result, though the prince's funeral officially took place at the Holy Cathedral in the capital city, the mourning certainly spread far beyond the scope of the cathedral, or even the city.

Another bell toll echoed over the capital city, signaling the recital of the prince's funeral eulogy to the thousands of mourners in front of the cathedral. Amidst the air thick with incense, the deep and emotional chanting of the congregation and the ubiquitous sobs and sniffs all around the cathedral, a white-robed figure, bent with the weight of the crown on his head and the unbound sorrow in his heart, none other than the unfortunate father, King Ryuan III, stepped forward on the main pulpit to deliver the speech. The sudden silence that eloped the place as the king ascended upon the steps, when the congregation and the choir promptly stopped their chanting and singing, was sorrowful, solemn and haunting all at the same time. Even though the king has spent days to write the eulogy, trying his very best to put his feelings to words, it was understandable that no amount of words could sum up his feelings, his sadness and emptiness at the moment.

"Today we are here," the king began the speech, and even though he tried not to cry before the public, his blackened eyes due to loss of sleep and anguish were still wet with those tears he could not hold back, "to see my dearest only child, our people's beloved prince, our nation's pride, as well our kingdom's promised future to the eternal happiness he deserves in the afterlife. In this sorrowful hour, we are all here to mourn for the demise of the greatest hope of our country, the future of our kingdom and the lost promise that our people have always been hoping to. Even though everybody among us wants to believe this is just a terrible nightmare, that the God of Mischief is just playing a prank on our mortal mind, that none of this has ever happened, we still have to brace ourselves for the truth. Yes, the Crown Prince of out Kingdom of Hadrius, the Paladin Order's foremost champion, as well as my dear son, Prince Argeus Elmarian Sunrise, has passed away."

The pain-laden voice of the sorrowful king devastated by the loss of his only son reciting the speech was moving enough to bring even the most steel-hearted man to tears, and the king's innate rhetoric talents, ironically, just added to the weight of the speech. After a short pause, the king continued.

"As you have known, for his whole life, Prince Argeus has been a courageous knight, an honorable soldier and a respectable general who thought of his homeland first and foremost. We all know that during his short time as a Paladin, he has led various campaigns to defeat our nation's enemies and restore peace to his motherland. Five campaigns against the barbarians of the North, six decisive battles against the various maleficent denizens of darkness, as well as the final blow against the rebellion of the demon-worshipping cultists, all of which has demonstrated his great bravery and military talent. No enemy could turn him away, and his appearance would make even the most voracious of foes cower in fear of the strength and justice of his sword. However, the deed that put him amidst our greatest heroes was the destruction of the vile invading hordes of the Altaren Empire just last year, effectively halting their advance on our kingdom, ensuring peace and prosperity for our people in many years to come. That deed, anyone who calls himself a Hadrian, would know, would remember and would appreciate, and so would his children and grandchildren to come."

"Prince Argeus' talents lay not just in conquering the enemies and crushing anything that would threaten the peace of our motherland. His various deeds in administering the Southern Counties, as well as his diplomatic mission to the Westerian Union, and a multitude of innovations and ideas in ruling our homeland, for the sake of our people would no doubt bring about many benefits to our country in many years to come. After all, who could forget about the irrigation of the Bronze Fields when tens of thousands of tons in surplus grain is harvested every year in a place where only weed and wild grass grew? Who could forget about the construction plans for the Eastern Sea Harbor, when millions worth of goods is now being transported every day, even to the furthest of countries away?"

Another short pause passed, and the king continued, his voice trembling in what could be readily translated into a fine mix of both rage and pain. As the scroll shook in his grasp, King Ryuan's voice thundered with conviction amidst the silent air solemnized even further by the complete silence of the surrounding.

"Our cowardly enemies are afraid of our glorious Argeus. They feared that his ascension to the throne of our godly Kingdom of Hadrius would bring about the end of their treacherous ambitions. Alas, our fair and just prince has fallen victim to their treachery! Their armies, frightened of stepping up to our prince, our champion face to face, resorted to ambushing his hunting convoy! O Argeus, woe be with your unyielding bravery, that you single-handedly defeated all but one of your enemy, only to be shot from behind by the coward trembling in fear of the Prince Paladin's judgement! The lesson of your courage and valor shall never be forgotten, and let the tale of your last stand be engraved in the heart of every Hadrian soldier, whose blades of steel shall bring doom to those responsible for your death! Rest in peace, my child, that you have my word that our sworn enemy, Altaren, shall pay for their crime!"

There was yet another pause, whether or not on purpose, the mourners would never know. However, one thing was certain, that while the King was pausing his speech, the ceremony's silent background until now was filled with the notable sound of teeth grinding in anger, and the flare of vengeance was clearly visible in the eyes of every mourner, regardless of gender, age or social background as tears quietly rolled down their cheeks. Finally, the mourners looked up again, wiping their tears, as the king's voice raised again, bringing his speech to a final conclusion.

"Argeus, no matter how much this father's heart bleed, no matter how much tears we shed for you, no matter how much we regret a future that could have been ours, it is the gods who have made their judgement on your demise. Even though I know that we all resent the gods' decision for you to die such an untimely death by such cowardly hands, there is nothing we can do about this except to mourn for you, and pass judgement on those who has caused us this irreplaceable loss. The gods' verdict has been made, and we must abide by it and live on. However, Argeus,if you could hear me from beneath the cold earth, I would like to say that your father, your mother, your friends and comrades, your brothers-in-arms and your people would never forget about you, your glorious deeds and what you have done for us. You have fallen, but your spirit will live on for as long as Honor, Courage and Justice still have their say in our nation's way."

It appeared that for the bleeding heart of the king, handling the speech as the Head of State was too much. The aging monarch difficultly stepped down the pulpit, and just as he was about to take his last step, the father lost hold of himself finally, and broke down into tears, almost slumping on the ground had it not been for his close aides, who propped him up fairly well. The crowd of mourners, both inside and outside the cathedral, upon seeing the state of the distraught father, similarly reacted, with no exception. The triple white flags flown at half-mast at either side of the cathedral, the white outfit of the mourners and the congregation, as well as the late winter's snowflakes showering upon the roads, painting the whole surrounding in an overwhelming color of sorrowful and deathly white, summed up the mourning of Prince Argeus, as the Prince was escorted to his final destination- the Asgardian Mausoleum, where all the great heroes and heroines of Hadrius were buried. For three days and three nights after the prince's burial, the heavy snow went on, bringing a grim shade of frozen tears to the streets and fields alike, as if even the gods were weeping for the death of a great hero.

However, the events that followed showed that the intentions of the gods were often beyond the comprehension of mortal humans. And that the passing away of a hero may be the harbinger for even more achievements of that very hero...

******


About at the same time when the Prince Paladin Argeus Sunrise's funeral was taking place with utmost solemnity in the capital city of Hadrius, when the entire population of the nation was, in one way or another, mourning the passing away of their hero and their hope, in a certain place in existence, a certain figure was lying still, face down on a floor built of solid, shining, silvery marble. A medium-built man, with a mass of medium-length, black, slightly brown hair, hanging in a big mess over his forehead, for some reason, perhaps a battle prior, the figure was clad in a full set of scale armor. A sword hanging loosely from his half-closed hand and a shield a couple of inches from his other hand somewhat proved this hypothesis.

He seemed to have been there for a very long time, and time flow seemed almost stopped as he lay there, motionlessly. Not that it seem there would be anything worth waking up- There was nothing in the background except for the fluffy, white tuffs of misty, cloud-like substances hanging about in the air, surrounding the figure, blanketing him, virtually covering him in a blanket of silver lining, while blocking out anything possibly of interest from sight, giving rise to both a celestial and mysterious air. The figure lay still, amidst the thorough silver shade that covered him from all sides, without seeing, smelling, seeing, or hearing anything...

In due time, finally there was some change in the seemingly static picture. A gentle, resounding and echoing voice sounded firmly in the horizon, as if waking up the sleeping figure.

"It's time for you to wake up, Argeus. Much is left to be done."

At just a distant hearing, one could realize that the said voice was nothing ordinary. The voice echoed all over the place as the newcomer spoke, just as the way the sound of thunder resonates, even though there were nothing in the background capable of physically reflect sound. The loudness suggested that a thousand people had spoken, and yet the texture of the voice as it echoed in the air was mild and gentle, if not soothing. Nothing within the human realm could have produced such a sound, obviously.

Partly due to the strange voice and partly owing to the fact that he had probably slept enough for a whole life, the figure slumping on the ground slowly wriggled, twisted, turned and shifted a few times before starting to blink. As the sign of life started to return to his almost dead form, the figure blinked more rapidly, attempting to clear his sight off the fatigue of a prolonged slumber. In due time, he could open his eyes again, and from then, standing up was not much of a problem. In a matter of seconds, the warrior figure was up on his feet, and the first thing to come to his sense from then was a jolt of pain in his back. Though by now it had been dulled a great deal, the pain was still sharp enough to cause him some discomfort. Soon, however, he managed to remember what had happened.

"Damn... I must have been hit," the figure swore mildly as he sprang towards his shield, sword in firm grasp, "Now where are those cowards?"

"There are no cowards here any more, Argeus," the strange, out-of-this-world voice sounded again in an explanation.

At once, the man called Argeus reactively turned back, and to his unprecedented astonishment, before him stood a eight-feet-tall male human-like creature, with long, silky golden hair, and a set of golden plate, longsword, and shield to go with it. A platinum corona of light hung a couple of inches above the figure's head, and as far as Argeus' knowledge was concerned, that was doubtlessly the sign of a top-ranking divine being, to whom even angels would have to bow. Before long, his attention were drawn to what lay behind the golden-clad figure, which confirmed his assumption- three pairs of golden wings were spreading at full span, just behind his figure, dwarfing even his already oversize body itself with their magnificent reach. As Argeus slowly regained full conscience, he could see the dazzling aura light generated from the figure was immense. Even angels of the highest order could never afford to maintain such an aura. The more Argeus thought, the more it appeared that he was, indeed, encountering a divine being of the highest possible order.

Being the god-fearing and pious man he was, Argeus' first reaction to that realization was to kneel down to show his respect, before giving more thoughts to the subjectof whom he was facing. However, it wasn't long before the lost prince had his share of revelation.

"The golden armor, golden aura of light, and three pair of golden wings... According to the Holy Book of Light, this angelic being could only be..."

"Are... are you... Aurorus, the God of Light, the incarnation of the Holy Light, the immediate commander of all Light Angels and the patron god of the Order of Paladins?" Argeus shivered as he stuttered his thoughts.

"Very well. You certainly are an exemplary Paladin," the holy figure slightly nodded in approval, "Yes, I am Aurorus, the God of Light, often known as the One Archangel of the Higher Heaven."

Those words, for reasons obvious enough, frightened Argeus to no end.

"Your Divinity, please pardon me for my blasphemy," Argeus spoke hastily as his head touched the ground, "I didn't mean to..."

"Very well, Argeus Sunrise, I understand your reasons, and am not offended in any way," the golden-clad, winged figure replied, "Stand up, Paladin, so we can speak."

Slowly and respectfully, Argeus stood up, keeping his head low down. Even when he had stood up straight, he dared not look straight into the celestial being's eyes for fear of offense. It was only when Argeus was standing upright that the God of Light began.

"I suppose I owe you an explanation, son of King Ryuan the Third," the celestial being went on, "I am afraid you are not on the mortal plane of existence any longer. In other words, you have died."

"Died...?" Argeus repeated with understandable astonishment, "Was there a mistake, your Divinity? I am still standing here and..."

It was then that Argeus Sunrise took a thorough look around him, and it wasn't long before the Paladin realized that he was standing on what appeared to be a temple built of marble and clouds in the middle of the sky. The layout of the temple became clearer to him as Argeus' eyes became used to the misty clouds all around him. The entire temple consisted of only a main hall, with two rows of marble columns supporting an ethereal, transparent roof above. In the middle, far north corner of the temple was a large, yet perfect crafted golden throne, with an engraved symbol of the sun for the headrest- no doubt, the God of Light's seat. The fact that Argeus was now in a temple in the middle of the air, if anything, confirmed the worst.

"I see you must have realized the bitter truth, my Paladin," the God of Light spoke sympathetically.

"Your Divinity, I wonder if it is possible if you could possibly..." Argeus tried to calm himself up as he spoke.

"You have been ambushed by the assassins of the Altaren Empire during a hunting trip. You managed to kill most of your attackers, but the survivor was able to deliver a fatal blow. And you lost your life as a mortal human before aid could arrive. That is all what happened to you, as it happened," the God of Light replied calmly.

"But... I... I mean... I have so many things unaccomplished in my life," Argeus was almost completely taken aback by the notion, as he struggled to survive the fact, "And... my father and my people... what shall become of them? I mean... my country needs a strong hand to guide it in these days..."

Seeing that the God of Light said nothing as he mumbled, Argeus decided to voice his request,

"Your Divinity, is it possible that I return to life to complete the paradise for my people and..."

"You don't have to explain further. I understand how you feel, being snatched from your life and the plans you have made for those you hold dear, yet to be fulfilled. And I understand, as an observing God, how your people need you as king and leader in a near future," the God of Light's voice turned suddenly from gentleness to sternness at this very point in his speech, "But being returned to life? I think not. You are a great Paladin as a living, but I am not going to make an exception and revive you just because of that."

Argeus' heart sank, and as the Paladin stayed silent in his own stream of thoughts, trying to cope with reality. The prince even shed a couple of tears, something he always frowned as a living. Finally, Argeus took a deep breath as he asked the most important question.

"Your Divinity, in that way, I am willing to depart to the afterlife at your command. Where should I go next?"

"I dislike saying the same thing twice in a row, but you can see that you are not going to pass onto the afterlife either," the God of Light smiled, his voice turning back to the previous mild form.

"W...why?" Argeus asked, being thoroughly puzzled by now, "I am afraid I don't get it, your Divinity..."

"Being as well educated a prince as you are, you should know more than any of your comrades and compatriots where you are standing, don't you?"

Argeus was once again brought to racking his brain by these words.

"Where I am standing? I am standing in a temple made of clouds in the middle of the sky... and obviously this sacred site belongs to just the God of Light, looking at the golden throne... Isn't this the..."

"Your Divinity, please forgive me for my limited knowledge, but if I am right, this is the Hall of Victory that I am standing," Argeus replied, his mind still not cleared of his previous blankness.

"Very well. This is indeed my Hall of Victory. My personal corner where I entertain my guests and carry out other... businesses independent of the decision of the other gods," the God of Light spoke comfortably, as he warped himself to his golden throne and sat down.

"But, your Divinity, isn't this place restricted only to your most trusted angels...?" Argeus asked.

"You have just gotten the words right out of my mouth, Argeus Elmarian Sunrise, Prince Paladin of the Kingdom of Hadrius," the God of Light smiled, "Normally the appointment procedures of an angel would take a much longer time, judging how many eligible lesser celestial beings there are. But you are an exception. As a human, you have earnt your right by your virtuous life."

"Your Divinity, do you mean that I..." Argeus had probably reached the peak of the day's surprise, "I... am now eligible to become a Light Angel?"

"No. You ARE now a Light Angel, and a special one indeed," the God of Light said coolly, and before Argeus could react, the God waved his right hand, and in a matter of seconds, a column of golden light from the very top of the sky suddenly came down on the puzzled Paladin, totally covering him in a golden aura of the purest light. The intensity of the light soon grew to the point at which Argeus had to close his eyes completely, and yet the golden beam still completely dazzled him, followed by a feeling of the light being absorbed into his skin, one that he had never seen before. Argeus unconsciously braced himself to ease the strange feeling of sudden power rushing into his body, only to realize an unseen itch behind his back, which intensified quickly enough as pure light kept shining on his shape.

As the column of light slowly faded away a couple of minutes later, so did the queasy feeling and the strange itch in Argeus' back. In its place were an unprecedented power that the Prince Paladin could feel running in his form, hundreds and thousands times more than that of even the Foremost Paladin, even being somewhat of an edge over demi-godlike beings. As Argeus stretched himself to recover from the "ride", the Paladin realized why there was such a strange itch before. Now the fallen prince was fashioned with a pair of silver wings, each around ten feet in length, and when they stretched out fully, were enough to cover his entire body from the back. No doubt, the wings had been constituted in just a matter of seconds as the God of Light's power rained down on him just now. Looking at his armors and weapons, Argeus was given another pleasant surprise to see that they had all been "painted" with a layer of golden glare, that which symbolizes the Light.

"Argeus Elmarian Sunrise, Prince Paladin of the Human Kingdom of Hadrius, from this day, you are officially a Special Class Light Angel, an angel who would report directly to me, the God of Light Aurorus," the God said ceremoniously, "I hope from these days you would continue striving for the good of the people and our world as a whole, like you have been doing as a human prince."

"Your Divinity, I am forever in your debt!" Argeus knelt down before the God of Light's throne as soon as he realized the full scope of what changes had been done to him, with extreme grate, "Please, your Divinity, what is your wish? I will do everything I can to..."

"Well, you don't have to be that hasty," The God of Light smiled tolerantly and said casually, "There are a couple of rules that applies only to my angels that you should keep in mind. Firstly, during offerings or ceremonies, all of the gods, including me, are referred to by your compatriots as Your Divinity or Your Holiness. However, now that you are one of my angels, you are advised to call me Lord Aurorus. That is not really a rule, though."

"Yes, your Divini... I mean, Lord Aurorus," Argeus replied, as he struggled with his newly grown wings.

"Now, the second rule, and I hope that you would never forget this, because it is very important," the God's expression changed back to sternness, "As a Light Angel, you are not allowed, I repeat, not allowed to directly interfere in the business of the mortal world. This means that you are not allowed to, in any circumstance, use what angelic powers that I have granted you in the world of the living. The reasons for this rule are numerous, and it would take days for me just to explain why, so I would cut it short here. In short, discreet appearance in the mortal world, and strictly no angelic intervention, and you will be just fine. Disobey this, and even I could not guarantee your safety."

"Yes, Lord Aurorus, I understand," Argeus answered firmly.

"Well then," the God of Light said, "I believe we can discuss the business at hand now."

"The business at hand?" Argeus asked puzzlingly.

"The very reason why you are promoted to the status of Special Class Light Angel," the god said calmly, "There is one special mission I would like you to take care of."

"Lord Aurorus, I am ready right here and right now!" Argeus replied spiritedly.

"This is actually a top secret mission that, as of now, in the Higher Heaven I am the only one to have knowledge of. And it is advisable that you, as a special agent, keep this a secret for as long as possible."

There was a brief pause, as the God of Light gathered rhetoric weight. And what the God said next was a great shock to the newly promoted angel.

"Our world is under threat, Argeus. And when I say world, I mean our world and everything in it."

"What could probably threaten the world, Lord Aurorus?" Argeus opened his eyes widely in astonishment.

"The threat comes from a distant world of Earth, and as of now there is not yet any significant proof to voice this threat before the Higher Heaven Council. However, according to the reports by my special operatives there, the Valkyrie Aegina," the God of Light waved his left hand this time, and a large assortment of documents fastened together in a large file materialized and fell down on Argeus' arms, which the God seemed to be glad enough to get rid of, "the situation is worth further investigation. I hereby appoint you to that mission. You are to come to Earth, link up with Aegina, and then, by any means necessary and legal, eliminate the threat. Any further details are in the reports that I have given you."

"Yes, Lord Aurorus," Argeus said, "But still, I..."

"I know. This is your first mission, so you are not alone. Apart from Aegina to help you with, the native deities have agreed to help. Judging from the delicateness of the matter, they have issued an army called the Valhallan Regiment, which will be under your direct control. If there is any other difficulty, be free to ask them on arrival, tell them that the Terran God of Light Aurorus sent you, and they will help."

"If that is so, Lord Aurorus, I am ready for operation. When must I depart?"

"Immediately."

******



< Message edited by Argeus the Paladin -- 2/6/2009 3:52:34 >
DF  Post #: 1
10/30/2008 0:23:00   
Argeus the Paladin
Member

Chapter 1
Demigod Advent


“British Airways Flight BA 189 from London to Sankaku is landing shortly. The weather at destination is slightly cloudy with estimated temperature is approximately 15 Celsius. Please remain in your seat and fasten your seat belt, and please do not leave your seat until the plane has come to a complete halt. Thank you.”

Zaelro Samuel Fastoff took one last sip of iced orange juice from his cup, before leaning against the armrest of his seat with a satisfactory and relaxed smile, though a slight shade of dismissal was still far from hidden beneath his jet-lagged grin. Even now, when he was only a couple of minutes from his expected destination, the young man known by his friends as “Lady Luck’s Favorite” still couldn’t fully bring himself to the fact that he won that competition. The Northern England Japanese-speaking Society’s prize for the annual Japanese language inter-school competition was regarded both as a blessing and a curse to the 17-year-old Briton. A one-and-a-half year exchange scholarship to Japan is the good news. But a non-transferrable, non-refundable one to a rather nameless school in a new urban two hundred miles from the nearest major population hub is something the teen would rather not have.

In fact, strictly speaking, the prize was incoherent with Zaelro’s streak of born fortune. Born into an upper-middle class family, although the familial fortune was never enough to satisfy extravagance of any sort, Zaelro could certainly afford most things that his peers could not, including various entertainment gadgets and gizmos, expensive bikes and last but not least, a happy-go-lucky lifestyle. The streak of fortune, however, did not just stop there. Lady Luck’s Favorite had always been among the top students wherever he went and however he studied, as well as the tendency to do extremely well in key competitions and exams for reasons only attributable to luck. And when it came to his record winnings in whatever games of chance there were, no one could possibly deny his unfathomably fabulous fortune. A long list of admirers of the opposite genders as well as people driven green with envy of the same gender was just the icing of Zaelro’s cake, though Zaelro cared about neither. If there were something Zaelro considered unfortunate in his whole life until that point, they were his rather small constitution compared to a standard Caucasian, and this trip to Japan.

Zaelro scratched his neatly-combed mass of brown hair idly as the plane’s landing gears touched the runway. Was it just him, or was it his limited height of five feet, seven-point-five inches that was causing the discomfort of a loose seat-belt? In any case, back to reality, Zaelro had already been pre-dominated by the thought that the trip to Japan would by no means be his cup of tea, and he might as well throw up, scrap the entire scholarship worth two hundred and fifty iPhones, and go back home, given the right amount of dismissal. The vibrant life of Manchester and an innate allergy to sleepiness and quaintness was to blame, after all. The pessimism followed Zaelro, as he wondered how he could stand a boring life with little media access, no interesting happenings in a year, and an early bed everyday following a not-so-comfy bath with excessively hot water, until the plane halted and he gathered his belongings to depart from the cramp of a twelve-hour flight.

However, Zaelro’s trip was destined to be far from unsatisfactory, and his pessimism took a major blow as soon as the copper-haired youth took the first glance at the outside world.

”What on Earth? Is this the suburban experience that they were preaching to me just now? Or is this New York and I have taken the wrong plane?” Zaelro gasped at the first sight of the township of Sankaku. His astonishment was well-founded, as from what he could see judging from the size and activity level of the local airport, the city which he was going to stay, school and spend his spare time in for the next eighteen months were not far from being a second Tokyo or Osaka. As the transfer student strolled along the various immigration and quarantine procedures, Zaelro’s astonishment grew into fascination, and finally admiration. Everything around him, the service, the people, the infrastructure… everything was simply fantastic beyond words.

“Looks like the day when Lady Luck would desert me hasn’t yet come,” Zaelro thought out aloud, almost grinning, while walking with his crates and trunks towards the exit. The heavy luggage felt unbelievably light now, and so does his conscience. It was high time he became optimistic.

The teen didn’t have to wait long on the taxi platform, as it appeared that the Japanese-speaking Society had prepared everything for him. In this case, the service came in the form of a bright green Toyota with a professional chauffeur included. For a moment, Zaelro got the feeling of being treated like the Prince of Wales, an honor he was more than eager not to turn down.

“Fastoff-san? I have been assigned to take you back to your host, sir,” the chauffeur called out, with a standard Tokyo Japanese accent, “I hope you enjoyed the flight, and welcome to Sankaku, sir.”

“Thanks, I am fine. Save for a bit of a jet lag,” Zaelro’s reflex was to return the favor in the native tongue.

“I’ll sort out your luggage, sir,” the driver said enthusiastically, and before Zaelro could react, half of his trunks and crates had already been packed up within the car’s cargo hold, neatly and carefully.

“Wow,” Zaelro dropped his jaw in astonishment, “How did you do that?”

“That working habit is part of our tradition, sir,” the driver replied as he worked, “We try to do things as quickly and carefully as we can, all the time. Please don’t be astonished.”

In the same steady and quickly method, within minutes Zaelro found himself sitting in the rear seat of the car, buckled up and upright, as the green car zoomed away from the bustling airport. Silently, the young man mildly cursed his normal slacker and happy-go-lucky personality, which obviously brought him to shame in comparison to the hyper-productiveness of the people in this country.

In a matter of minutes after that, the still astonished youth was already in the very center of the urban area, as he eyed the place with utter admiration. A thoroughly well-planned mix of modern architecture signified by the omnipresence of skyscrapers, office blocks and a magnificent landscape tower, and classic, traditional housing, as seen in a large assortment of Meiji-era buildings every here and there was something Zaelro was didn’t expect. After all, the Manchester of the Victorian times had faded all too well into the 21st century city’s much more vibrant and automated modern and post-modern background. With that background knowledge in mind, the fact that a Japanese city of little global significance was able to keep up what Manchester could not was more of a great fascination than a pleasant surprise.

“How did your country plan this all out?” Zaelro asked at the climax of his pleasant astonishment, “I mean… it is insanely difficult and darn close impossible to coordinate the different parchments of a city this well, let alone a city miles from anywhere noticeable on the world map.”

“As far as I know, Sankaku is planned to become the next Osaka in a decade, sir,” the chauffeur replied, “Urbanization happens rather quickly here, and the local governors are encountering some difficulties with balancing different aspects of architecture. That is why part of the city is far from perfect. Please excuse us.”

“This is imperfect?” Zaelro gasped. He was about to make further remarks and comparison with his hometown of Manchester, which was every bit as modern, but nowhere as traditional as this, when the well-established national pride of a born Briton held him back. However, the charm of the beautiful city was captivating enough to make him forget about the comment.

A few moments later, the green Toyota finally came to a stop at the doorway of his host’s home, and by now, the young Briton had had a marvelous experience felt thoroughly satisfied. The arrival didn’t help much to reduce that satisfaction, but rather heightened it even more. As Zaelro rolled his eyes at the place he was expected to stay in and consider his home for the next dozen-and-a-half months, he was at a complete loss for words. It was a traditional Japanese estate with an extremely beautiful garden, massive, traditional wooden living quarters, as well as a modern brick-and-cement, three-storey additional building, apparently for the household’s not-so-traditional inhabitants. Either place, Zaelro would be more than happy to stay in.

The driver moved on to do just the opposite of what he did a couples of minutes ago at the airport, but this time, Zaelro felt rater compulsory for him to take action. Needless to say, unloading the goods with two people made the entire process a breeze, and it was as well the first time in Zaelro’s memory that he really enjoyed manual labor. With the luggage and stuffs all neatly lined up on the pavement against the very building’s stone wall, it was then time for the British brunet’s stay in Japan to officially begin.

“Your hosts are waiting for you at the steps, sir,” the driver said politely, as he straightened up the last trunk, “Thank you for your coming, and I hope you would enjoy your stay in our fair Sankaku.”

“My pleasure,” replied Zaelro.

The following evening was much like a festivity to Zaelro, as he was greeted by his host family like the most distinguished of all guests, with a hundred and fifty percent ceremony even for a standard Anglo-Saxon aristocrat. Being welcomed from the doorstep by every single member of the host family was something Zaelro normally wouldn’t pay much attention to, but in this one occasion, what his hosts gave him at first sight satisfied his normally suppressed vanity a great deal. His host family’s head, a middle-aged Japanese gentleman, who looked every bit as traditional as he was modern and entrepreneurial, led him into the domains, which sparked the beginning of an unforgettable night. A large supper that was more like a Roman all-you-can-eat than a normal dinner and a hot traditional bath nothing as uncomfortable as previously imagined was more than enough to keep a non-stop smile on the face of the lucky youth. His bedtime surprise was even greater: he was given a room whose everything was nothing short of a hotel suit, except for the lack of luxurious decorations. The last reminder from his host was not to oversleep the day after, as school in Japan began earlier than his school in Manchester.

Perhaps it was jet lag or rather the discomfort of a new bed in a new environment of new people that was working against the youth’s sleep that night. Zaelro was unable to sleep for a good length of time, allowing grounds for pointless and aimless wandering of his mind, whereas Zaelro attempted to make heads or tails out of his current situation. So far, everything had been nice and well. Too well, as a matter of fact. For some reasons, that might be an alarming sign. However, wasn’t he, from the start, “Lady Luck’s favorite”? His fortune was probably because he was born under a marvelous constellation, and anything this length would probably only be an implication of that.

Another thing was slightly bothering him. His host family, in all understanding, was slightly abnormal in a way: There was a grandfather, a grandmother, a middle-aged father and a mother figure, but no kids. That was the sole disappointment to Zaelro, as he had, in a joke with his buddies prior to leaving, promised to “hit on the host family’s daughter”. Too bad he was expecting that as well. Another thing was the massive size of the building in comparison to the relative size of the family. Those four people inhabited two buildings that could make enough room for a family three times that size, and normally that would be the sign of something really weird, scary, revolting, or all of the above. A haunted house, stark and dark family secrets, or some other otherworldly things that a normal human would usually steer clear of were among the first hypotheses that came to his mind. It was then that the tiredness and fatigue of the day set in, and the lucky youth drifted to sleep, the sleep that he much needed now…

******


Zaelro’s slumber took his conscience far, far away from Sankaku, from the country of japan, leaving him in an unknown location, which the teen soon realized, from his geographic lessons, to be Russia. It was snowing rather heavily- not fascinating weather at all. In this part of Russia, it was normal for the torrents of snow to continue much until near the end of Spring. Often the snow would go on for days, whitewashing the background in the color of chill and frost, covering everything in sight. The weather’s intense harshness meant that only the steadfast pine trees of the taiga could stand up and flourish- just like the children of those lands of ice and snow. In that background, under the thick veil of snow that denied any possible sign of life, and under the further cover of the taiga, two figures silently approached a hidden site beneath the pine forest with unknown intentions. For some strange reasons, Zaelro was able to observe everything and anything they do.

The first figure appeared to be a large, muscular man in his late fifties, dressed in a thick leather trench coat that covered his entire body for both warmth and defense. His aristocratic background was obvious, as the leather cloak appeared to have been custom-made by very skilful hands just for him, fitting his form perfectly, and as it was seen, a golden emblem with the engravings of a Russian white bear roaring ferociously was stitched into the left chest of the coat. The same emblem was also dominant in the heavy mink skull cap the man was wearing. The thick layer of mostly white hair and beard added on even more to the feral look of the figure. Fashioning a two-handed axe over his shoulder, from afar, he looked somewhat like a hybrid of a proud Russian general and a bravely ferocious Nordic berserker of the ages long past.

The second figure, appeared to be a young woman, at most in her early twenties, and were every bit the opposite of the old warrior. Only half to a third the hulking old giant’s size, her most striking appearance was a beautiful, well-kept mass of shoulder-length, purely golden hair fluttering about in the snow romantically. Her feminine beauty was further augmented by the long dress and the medium vest that she adorned with grace- a beauty combining the finest of that of Asian and Caucasian blood in all aspects. However, she was by no means frail, as she seemed to be picking up the pace with the old, war-hardened aristocrat with no problem at all, in spite of the cold and her rather lacking clothing.

It was unknown for how long the duo had been walking in the snow, but it seemed obvious that they would not rest before they had found what they needed. In due time, however, they suddenly came to a complete halt in a large forest clearing, before a magnificent, towering spire that rose almost a hundred feet above the ground. It was a completely black monolith untarnished by the continuous snowing, having probably endured hundreds and thousands snowstorms vastly stronger than the current snowing throughout history. In stark contrast with the white and hazy environment, the spire stood there, pitch black and deadly sharp in its shapes, majestically and imposing, as if waiting for a potential challenger to attempt to topple its current position. Whatsoever the two travelers were looking for must be somewhere within the bowels of this towering monstrosity, or so it seemed.

“This is it, Florine, this is it,” the old aristocratic figure exclaimed as he faced the power with unspeakable pride, “The Teleport Tower, the pride of the Alexeyevich Family for many a centuries, is here before you.”

The old man then turned back to the girl, patted her gently on the shoulder, as if taking care not to hurt her with his battle-harden, callous hand, and then went on,

“You know what you have to do now, don’t you, Florine?” the old man’s voice sounded a little trembled somehow, but still as firm as a general’s commandment could get, “Enter the tower, say the magic word and make a run for it. With your current power, you would be safe among the humans, wherever you settle down.”

“Lord Yefime Alexeyevich, I… I still can’t believe that you would choose to…” the woman called Florine replied reluctantly after a long pause, “I would like to stay with you and fight like my father did…”

“I know how you feel, girl, I know,” the warrior Yefime shook his head gently, but decisively, “However, as retainer of the Great Lord Hector, it is my duty to make sure that his daughter will live through all of this. And prosper. Someone has to carry on Lord Hector’s legacy; that is out of the question.”

“My father shall not run in this kind of position. I know he wouldn’t,” Florine retorted, “Why can’t I live up to his standard?”

“That bravery of his was respectable, but bravery alone is bravery wasted,” Yefime stood ground firmly, “As of now, even as a Prime Maiden that you are, Regley and his vile dogs would tear you apart in a matter of seconds if they could lay their hands on you. I will not allow that.”

“They have already found this place, Lord Alexeyevich, even you are not strong enough to fight them all!” exclaimed Florine defiantly, “Why don’t you take your leave as well?”

“The blood of the proud Alexeyevich clan and the honor of a loyal general of the Great Vampire Warlord Hector shall not let me abandon a fight that the enemy has brought unto me,” Yefime said as if reading a decree, “Besides, I am, even as a vampire, an inseparable child of Mother Russia. Five hundreds years before I was born in these lands, and five hundred years later in these lands I shall breathe my last.”

”Vampires?” Zaelro thought as he continued this observation, ”Wow, this sounds interesting…"

“But…”

“Now, Florine Silverlance, you are on your own. If anything, you are the one who must bring about the accomplishment of Lord Hector’s ideals,” Yefime shook his head, as decisively as he could, “You probably know more than me. None of the vampires still alive has the heart or the potential to fulfill Lord Hector’s visions. You whose heart is pure, whose hatred against humanity is almost non-existent, whose power pales in comparison to your own kindness… you must live on for that dream which your father has died for.”

At this moment, the vampire lady realized that nothing else could be done to save her father’s trusted retainer. After a long pause, during which she tried her best to hold back her tears, as she voiced her last question.

“Lord Alexeyevich… Uncle Yefime… For as long as I remember, you have treated me as if I were your own child. And now to think I have to leave you like this… Is there probably anything else I can do for you?”

“If anything, I just have one last request. Our family was cursed enough by the higher heavens to be devoid of children,” replied Yefime Alexeyevich solemnly, “This day next year, if possible, please remember to burn some incense for these old bones, so that my soul could rest in peace. That is all what I could ask from you.”

“Today is 21st January, Uncle Yefime, 21st January,” Florine Silverlance said, and, being able to control herself no longer, broke into tears, “I will never forget this day. Never.”

With those words, Florine approached the spire, muttered some unclear, abstract incantations, and in due time, her entire form was sucked into the black, imposing body of the grisly contraption. A couple of minutes later, the very top of the tower, marked by a sharp spear-like shape bearing strong resemblance to a polar bear’s spiny nail, started to illuminate itself with a multitude of lightning bolts jolting out from all directions. For a moment, it looked as if the entire forest was covered in a type of flash beam like the radiating, guiding light of a lighthouse. In a matter of seconds, another column of pure lightning bolts suddenly raised itself from the tip of the tower top, shooting straight upwards, like it was going to pierce the sky itself. The sound of the light charging and shooting for the duration of the ritual was deafening enough to overshadow even the ferocious whizzing of the winter snowstorm itself. Having been doing nothing but just observe from the start, Zaelro was forced to gasp out loud out of astonishment because of the sheer greatness of this demonstration of power.

In just a couple of seconds, the tower had completed its mission, and as far as the Russian vampire lord was concerned, it would be a long time before Reglay van Gendamme and his vile mavericks could discover the precious Prime Maiden, and until then, she should have woken up her powers and be powerful enough to end their threat once and for all. Yefime Alexeyevich sighed of relief at such a thought. As of now, what he should do was to return home to his estate and prepare its defense. As much as he knew there was no stopping his defeat, as a familial saying goes, “a proud Russian white bear never goes down without a dozen of its foes”. Thinking so, Lord Alexeyevich returned home as fast as he could, to prepare for his lost cause…

The next thing that came to Zaelro Samuel Fastoff’s mind was the bright, fiery imagery of a large, stone castle being consumed by the vicious flame, as its master, an aged aristocratic berserker with a signature great axe, one whose broken, bloody figure suggested to be of great strength and valor, lay dead in the audience hall, around his corpse lay the mutilated remains of dozens of lesser vampires. All over the castle’s ruin there were similar bodies- hordes of zombies and vampires laying dead all over the place the apparent result of a foolishly courageous life-costing last stand. In the end, the fire became so hot that the foundation of the entire castle had been consumed, and the stone architectural masterpiece was starting to come down, burying beneath it the attackers and the defenders, as well as the unsuspecting observer, or so Zaelro thought, when a huge column of stone collapsed right on the spot where he stood.

With a terrified scream of dismay, Zaelro snapped, springing up from his current location, only to find himself covered in sweat, thoroughly drenching his brand-new suit of pajama. Rays of sunlight at dawn from the half-closed window shone upon his terrified face as the youth slowly came to his sense. Gazing at the alarm clock, Zaelro realized that it was almost half past six- the ideal time to get ready for school.

”It’s just a dream, I am still alive,” sighed Zaelro, wiping sweat off his face, “There goes my new pajama. Oh well, at least, the dream stopped me from oversleeping on my very first day in school.”

******


DF  Post #: 2
10/30/2008 23:25:05   
Argeus the Paladin
Member

Chapter 2
School, Gangsters, and the Valhallan Regiment


The fresh air of a bright spring morning and a touch of warm tea in his tummy after another hearty meal for Zaelro meant that he was as ready for school and a new environment as he could be. It was now time for the Briton transfer student to depart for school, and when the word “school” came to his mind as Zaelro left his accommodation, the nearest problem Lady Luck’s Favorite could think about was language. The staffs specifically reminded him that as the best Japanese language learner at his own school, Zaelro would have no problem communicating with friends and classmates, and from the experience at the dinner table the night before, that line of reasoning could be very well justified. However, when it came to Japanese as a language to be used academically at school and to excel in, like the brilliant student he always had been, it would be a completely different scenario.

"Relax, Zaelro, no need to worry, in the worst-case-scenario when slangs and street language is spilling all over the place, use your mother tongue!" Zaelro thought, calming himself, "They will understand!"

Being lost in his own thoughts and speculations, before he could realize it, school was already in sight. As his leaflet went, his school, Akari High, was the educational pride of the city of Sankaku. There was merit in that statement. From Zaelro’s point of view, it wasn't far off his own school in Manchester, in fact, nearly as "promising" as his old one, which was remarkable, judging from how much money his parents spend on his education every year and how his school retained the bragging rights for the best school in North England for five consecutive years. Other than that, there was not much to say- after all, no playful teenager could be fond enough of school and/or architecture to actually rate a school building in terms of fascination.

Taking a deep breath, he took his first step into school, thus beginning his first day in his new environment. The first problem soon came into sight - his brown hair and his Anglo-Saxon appearance was more than a sticky note "I am a transfer student who came from the country famous for yeomanry, Sherlock Holmes and the Industrial Revolution" pasted on his face. That certainly arose some problem with his fledging self-confidence in the new place, judging from how Japanese were portrayed to be Anglophobic in his favorite childhood novelty. Basic wisdom told him that if he was to get started, the best person to seek out first was a teacher, and fortunately this time, he met the right person just before the bell rang- a very helpful and respectable middle-aged teacher waiting for his lecturing session outside his class.

“Excuse me, sir…” Zaelro asked after summoning all his courage, “I am a transfer student sent to Akari High by…”

"Ah, I see. You are Zaelro Fastoff, are you not? Well then, you are in my class," said the teacher enthusiastically as he smiled to the confused student, "A nice coincidence, isn’t it?"

“I am in your class, sir?” Zaelro’s voice rang, indicating a fascinated astonishment.

“I believe all the changes in environment has made you anxious, am I right? Don’t worry,” the teacher continued as he signaled Zaelro to follow him, “It’s my duty to introduce you to your new class, anyway.”

Before he knew it, Zaelro was entering the classroom with his new teacher, and upon his first contact with his new friends, Zaelro was instantly able to tell that there was more to his class than it caught the eyes. Something rather weird was going on in the air, for good or bad, he wasn't able to see just yet. Nor was it readily available to be view- a fishy, yet subtle sense of something out of the ordinary was in the air, or that was what Zaelro thought. At least, nothing particularly special happened during the procedural introduction sequence, except for the warm, enthusiastic and satisfactory welcome that the transfer student got from his new mates. Slightly buffed, Zaelro decided to take a random seat.

Almost instantly after sitting down, Zaelro started to doubt his decision. In his personal store of superstition, when his tablemate happened to be a six-feet-five, basketball dunking, lady-killing athlete, good fortune is going to pour forth and vice versa. This time, the vice versa was true as a matter of cruel fact. The boy sitting with him now was the complete, utter opposite of Zaelro’s model of a lucky table mate. Though he showed no sign of malice or lack of interest or friendliness, he was certainly weird. Or weak, Zaelro thought, as his complexion was pale and unhealthy, and the pair of nerdy glasses he wore certainly didn't help his appearance at all. A mass of clean but messy and sickly black hair, covered half of his face from below his eyes, or so it seemed, as all the while, he was silent, slumping on his crossed arms in tiredness, as if resulting from chronic lack of sleep. To add on to it, it is also notable that nerds and guys with a laughable heath condition was never Zaelro’s ideal of a friend. Being the sociable teen as Zaelro was, however, he felt obliged to take some action, even though he didn’t feel like it at all.

"Hey, partner, could I know your name?" Zaelro asked, trying to keep a warm and friendly tone.

"Ug..." his tablemate raised his head a bit, and spoke as he tried to smile, "Yeah, I'm Takashi. Minamoto Takashi"

"Okay, and..." Zaelro was about to ask another question, but Takashi's dreadful look signaled that he should ask no more.

A couple of seconds later, Zaelro realized how wise it was not to push his new friend further, as he apparently collapsed on the table, seemingly comatose. Had it not been for Zaelro's quick shoulder grab, Takashi would have slided off the table and hit the ground. His face turned white as a sheet, and then purple, as if strangled by an invisible garrote. From the look of things, he seemed to be on his last legs.

"H...hey?" Zaelro stuttered in astonishment as he tried to shake Takashi back to life, "Hello?"

"Oh, there he goes again. Better take him to the clinic," The teacher shook his head in disappointment as he looked at a particular student sitting in the above table, "Shion-san?"

"Yes, teacher," the said boy stood up from his seat, pulled out from his bag a small inhaling device and stuffed the mouthpiece into the victim’s mouth. In due time, Takashi’s complexion returned to its usual pale, but more lively color, signifying that the life-threatening danger had passed. Before Zaelro could tell what was happening, Takashi was already dragged from the room and vanished behind the door.

"My apology, Mr. Fastoff," explained the teacher to a rather puzzled Zaelro Fastoff, "Minamoto-san here suffers from acute chronic asthma and can faint anytime in class. He could probably die, if he doesn’t receive his anti-asthma inhalation treatment on time. Since the beginning of the year, he has been missing class often because of his illness. However, we have grown used to this, so don’t mind it."

"That can't be good," Zaelro blurted.

After that, the first period at school passed without much happening, yet Zaelro was certain that one classmate fainting the very moment he arrived in class could mean nothing good in terms of omens.

*****


Zaelro Fastoff's first day, apart from the fact that there was a music lesson, which he thoroughly enjoyed, and that his tablemate fainted in action, could be considered a pinnacle of boredom. Never did he expect they would send an English-born native speaker to Japan and have a Japanese teacher teach him his mother tongue. Nor did he expect they would shovel his own country's geography into his notebook, something he had, ironically, learnt for a thousand odd times. No, that would never do anyway. At least to a teen who hated school and boring knowledge as much as he loved pure knowledge itself.

The only thing remarkable in the remaining of the school day was lunchtime, after his new tablemate had been able to leave the clinic and join the meal. It turned out that the weak and fragile Takashi Minamoto, being far from the fittest himself, was actually one of the friendliest and most helpful that Zaelro had ever met in his whole lifetime. With a bit of a native help from him, Zaelro at least managed to get a picture of what was going on, what was going to happen, and what he needed to prepare for the next few days. To his astonishment, scholastic activities were more plentiful than he thought... or so was what he was told during lunch.

"Next Monday we will have the chance to repick our extra curricular activity club or clan," hinted Takashi over his cup of tea, "But in your scenario, I believe you'll have to begin everything anew. Unless you are not interested by that kind of activities."

"Extra curricular..." Zaelro replied, "I don't have anything in mind on THAT for now. But anyway, next Monday I'll choose something really cool."

"Before that, take note that we'll have quiz every Thursday," continued Takashi, "And trust me, it is not very nice to get a bad score in the first few days of the year."

"Which means tomorrow, am I right?" Zaelro said without a bit of discouragement, "My second day, I suppose. Lemme just see how tough all of these are."

"One last notice, Fastoff-san," Takashi reminded, "Try to keep off darker lanes and passages in your first few days. Sankaku is a relatively peaceful place, but that doesn't means you will be 100% safe walking around in the street. Muggers have been reported around the place, to be precise. As well as a few other grisly rumors that could basically ruin your impression of our town."

Takashi’s meaningful blink signified something rather dark and sinister that Zaelro had better stay out of, at least for the time being. However, it is worth noting that words of warnings normally doesn't stay in Zaelro's head for too long, even dying quicker if he saw something going on his way. This time, it was the instance of one particular lane, running parallel with the road he took to school that morning, splitting out from the main street out of school. "Oh yeah? What if I want to try out those streets myself?" thought Zaelro as he glanced with a visible degree of interest at the new path, "Anyways, it seems that this bypass is a more direct way back home... unless my sense of direction is wrong"

Directionally, he wasn't wrong. Taking that particular route was indeed a faster way home, distance-wise, as the straight line is always the fastest route. But again, not listening to warnings, especially sensible and justifiable ones, is another completely different story. Sooner than enough, Zaelro started to regret- when it came to him that he had been waylaid by a group of rogue-like, baseball bat-wielding people that didn't seem to be up to anything good halfway through the stroll.

"Err... excuse me?" Zaelro spoke as he approached the strangers, shivers somewhat recognizable in his voice "Could... could I pass?"

The simultaneous grins of malice from the gang, however, meant the answer was definitely negative. And a closer look at what appeared to be dried blood on the tip of one of the iron bats revealed something really nasty in the air.

"Hmm... you doesn't seem like a tough guy, and your bag seems heavy," one of them said, pitting the bat, "Does THAT sound like a deal?"

"Or we could just teach you a lesson on how to behave here in our land, outlander," the second rogue swung his weapon, as if getting ready for a hit, “Look, punk, Anglo-Saxons are not welcome here.”

"Err... I just have books and notebooks here..." Zaelro replied, with another dose of panic added, as he tried to back off from danger, "Really, I... have to go now..."

"Suit yourself, we could just smash your skull apart and take what we can," the third attacker grinned, grabbing Zaelro by the neck, thoroughly stopping him from proceeding with any escape plan.

"Oh no, I really should have listened to Minamoto's warning!" the British transfer student really panicked and jumbled up his thoughts, "If only I'd have a legion of fully-armored Paladins here at my disposal..."

Zaelro's random thought was attributable to his being a keen gamer and a brilliant Age of Empires strategist, to a point of near obsession. As a result, often the in-game images of fancy Teutonic Knights and Frankish Paladins would follow him into any of his random mind games- including times of great danger. For good or bad, no one could tell for sure, but what did happen next was more than believable for both the attacker and the attacked, and coincidentally appeared to have been caused by such an outlandish thought.

"You shall not harm Lord Fastoff!" thundered a stern voice from nowhere, and before anyone could significantly realize what was happening, the small lane found itself quickly ladened up with the last thing on Earth that those present could think about: a dozen Frankish-armored, longsword-wielding cavaliers on purebred, healthy and kicking Arabian horses, as finely armored as their riders. Something that could normally be seen in a museum, was now galloping at full speed at the handful of men down the lane.

Zaelro didn't know what kind of impression did the newcomers had on his attackers, but he himself, for one second, actually came to grip with the delusion of a middle-aged battleground. The loud battle cry from the mounted unit in the front line could but signal him to sidestep, and it was wise to do so, as the very moment he rolled aside, the contingency of riders had already overwhelmed the lane. Unfortunately, his waylayers weren’t so smart or attentive, and before the street thugs could come to grips with the actual current event, each and every of them had taken a good, solid, incapacitating blow that forced them on the ground.

Before Zaelro could have time to assess the damage done, the deed had already been done, and his attackers were lying there, unconscious- a blow by the hilt on the head was more than enough to bring each of them down. After all, a small group of disorganized thugs, in good conscience, could never match the strength and valor of a full detachment of cavaliers in full combat outfit. The scale and ferocity of the cavalry charge was so epic in his eyes that Zaelro was left speechless. Had the mounted fighters attacked with the actual blade and drawn blood, the archaic sense of a medieval battle would be so real that Zaelro would undoubtedly get the feeling of being caught in the height of a middle-age skirmish, like Crecy or Agincourt.

The loud clattering of plate armor approaching quickly shook Zaelro back to reality. His danger may NOT be over yet, though his most immediate threats had been dealt with. Who could know what those people would do to him after saving him from a thorough disaster? "It may as well be a worse disaster," shuddered Zaelro. He actually was about to panic when one man amongst the armored group slowly dismounted and advanced towards him. His rather awkward walking pose suggested that had it not been for his heavy full plate armor, he would have ran straight towards the puzzled transfer student, triggering a reflective reaction of self-defense in Zaelro, as the student clenched his fists tightly. But the sense of being attacked could never appear to him, as no sooner than Zaelro started to feel imminent danger did the said six-feet-five figure of the armored man kneel down before him as if paying due respect.

"Sire," his low-toned voice sounded even lower due to the presence of his helmet as he leaned on his longsword, "My most sincere apology for our late arrival and letting your life be in peril. Please issue our due punishment"

"Wh... What?" stuttered a mystified Zaelro, at a loss for any other word, and only after a while could he regain particular calmness to ask the armored man back.

"Who are you?" Zaelro straightened his voice, and upon realization that the contingency of armored men were actually treating him with respect and protection rather than scorn, malice or threat, his confidence came back even more as he struck another question, "I demand an immediate explanation of what is going on right here and now."

"Sire, we have been sent by Lord Oredin to keep a close watch on you and protect you from harm's way," answered the armored man respectfully, still kneeling on the ground, "It was our failure that we did not come earlier, and we are ready for any form of punishment you may issue."

"Wait. Just who on Earth is this Lord Oredin?" asked Zaelro in astonishment, "And why must I be protected?"

"It is not in our power that wean tell you about it, sire," continued the armored man, "Lord Oredin is waiting for you at your homestead, and he and only he can tell you about everything."

"At... home? You mean, my host family?'" Zaelro gasped, "Is he an... armored man like you?"

"We are unable to reveal, sire," replied the armored man persistently, "All we can say now is he is waiting for you in your room."

"No... way!" Zaelro’s voice stuttered in complete bewilderment

"Sire, we have spoken all what we are permitted to. Now we await your punishment, sire," the armored man replied sincerely.

"Hmm..." Zaelro paused for a short while, before speaking again, "You really want to be punished, do you?"

"Yes, sire, we await your judgement"

"There will not be a punishment, my friends," Zaelro replied comfortably now that he had realized a bit of his own importance, "You saved my life, remember? That would more than enough pay for all your wrong doings, and that is if there were any at all. You are free to go, if you have no other things to speak for yourself"

"Yes, sire, we are on our way," the armored man stood up, bowed once more to Zaelro, before getting on his horse again. Strangely enough, before Zaelro could realize what was happening, the entire unit of cavalier had disappeared into thin air, as if they had never existed there in the first place.

Zaelro mentally smacked himself. Was he dreaming? Most probably. Never had he seen a group of men that large and bulky disappear in a nick of time, not to mention the extremely slim possibility of armored knights existing at that time in history wholly, apart for cosplaying. And as a side note, cosplayers never put up a fight in that manner, so much as no one would include a full-fledged warhorse in a suit of costume.

"Maybe I am hallucinating," thought Zaelro as he tried to figure out the fact from the myth, "Maybe I ate too little this lunch, and maybe I wasn't even attack...ed?"

No, it was not right. What happened to him was very real. The smell of freshly painted steel and the gallops of the horse, the flash of the longswords... all were very, very realistic. And to add up to everything, there were now three comatose rogues in the middle of the street, their baseball bats broken and left their hands- a state of being utterly beaten up. Zaelro's own limited strength and agility could never have allowed him to do that himself, even if he were sleep-walking or being hypnotized.

"This is getting messy," thought Zaelro as he departed without having the previous question answered, "Maybe I really have to get home and lay my hands on a cool drink."

*****


A little ceremonial greetings at the doorway signified that Zaelro had made it home safe and sound. As much as he knew how rude and impolite it was to just speak a couple of simple words with the host before moving back into his room, Zaelro's current state of mind could allow no more talking. Quietly he left the living room, and slid into his own quarter, locking the door. He needed quaintness and solitude if he was to understand anything from the mess that was happening that day.

"You have been back, sire," all of a sudden, another low-toned, but enthusiastic and caring voice sounded right behind him, startling Zaelro, "My greetings and salutations, sire, and my apology for my men's lack of credibility"

"Who... who are you?" Zaelro almost screamed out of horror, which was very justified. Never did he expect he would lock himself in a room with another occupant other than him, especially in his current disturbance. Involuntarily, he turned on the light and turned face to face with the strange voice.

The sight of the stranger was as much a surprise to Zaelro as that of the armored men he met in the streets, only that this time he didn't feel as endangered. What was most striking about his uninvited visitor was that he was carrying an oversize oval shield that covered the entire left side of his body with a piece of bronze muscled armor visible beyond. Zaelro could not see the guest's visage- a heavy bronze helmet with cheekplates hid most of his face. Under the armor was a crimson robe, and a cloak with matching color hung from his back. Had he carried a spear, he would look absolutely combat-ready. The fierceness of the guest's outfit nearly made Zaelro back off in panic, had it not been for the former’s assurance of friendliness.

"Sire, to introduce myself, I am Oredin Kaledon of Sparta, Commander in Chief of the 25th Valhallan Regiment of War," replied the man solemnly, as he bowed down to the British transfer student, "My comrades and I have been sent here on the sole mission to aid you, sire"

"What? Of Sparta? No way!" Zaelro exclaimed, "Sparta is now but the past! Everyone not ignorant of history could know that! And, assume that it still existed, why must I be aided? I am just a simple student who is trying to live peacefully!"

"Sire, it seems that you haven't realized the fact that," the man named Oredin replied, "You are a demigod. You have been born one and is living as one. There is no denying that fact.”

Zaelro could no longer believe his ears.

"What... what was that you just said?" Zaelro asked back in downright horror, "I am a what?"

"I must repeat myself, sire, if you wish to, that you, Zaelro Samuel Fastoff, was, is, and always will be a demigod," Oredin said calmly and clearly, "Although you may not know it, nor sense it, but it is very true."

"If this is intended to be a joke, Mr. Oredin, please end it now. You are freaking me out," Zaelro replied, beginning to sweat, "Besides, there is no reason that I must see myself as a demigod. Let alone the blasphemy."

"I am not entitled to telling you the details, sire," Oredin said solemnly, "I am, however, allowed to guarantee with my life that what I am speaking here is the truth, just the truth and nothing more."

"Okay, give me a proof," Zaelro said impatiently, "Once you do I'll take your words for granted. And remember, nothing Harry Potter-ish has happened to me since my birth."

Oredin said nothing more, but instead, slowly pulled out a carefully wrapped package from what appeared to be his military bag. It was nearly as big as a computer monitor, and from the look of it, Zaelro could guess that whatever it was, the stuff had been wrapped in a dozen-odd layers of dark-colored paper and cloth. And yet, upon revelation, it glowed with a blue, glimmering light as brightly as that of a medium-sized street light, enough that the neon light in Zaelro's room was completely outshone.

Carefully, the Spartan warrior unwrapped the package, layer by layer. The more he removed, the brighter the light grew, and until the last level was finally removed, what appeared inside the cover emerged with such blinding light that Zaelro had to cover his eyes.

"What... what is this?" Zaelro asked in horror, as he tried to look at the artifact.

Oredin still remained silent. The Spartan then scoured the room, grabbed the nearest electrical appliance that he could find, being a powerful hairdryer, and brushed the plug against the surface of the newly uncovered artifact. To Zaelro's astonishment and predictable horror, the hairdryer literally burnt up- something that could normally only happen when it was vastly overcharged. Then Oredin dropped the poor experimental guinea pig on the ground with a loud clang, resulting in the totally carbonized appliance breaking into a multitude of broken, charred plastic.

"What have you done?" Zaelro, having gotten quite used to the light now, uncovered his eyes and exclaimed out of utter terror.

Only then did he realize what was within the package- a wedge-shaped, seemingly crystalline hammer, with a silvery handle that fitted the luxury extremely well. To match the quality of the material, the weapon was obviously crafted with the highest possible degree of craftsmanship, with such perfection that even the best sculptor could not find a fault with. Beauty was topped with power, signified by bolts of lightning emitting from the blade of the hammer that alternated along the surface, as if orbiting the azure, crystalline masterpiece. However, anyone in their right mind would realize that touching such a thing would be mortally dangerous, even with protective or insulating gloves, something that Oredin's experiment had demonstrated all too well.

"Sire, my apology for being rude," Oredin replied politely, "Please, hold on to the hammer."

"WHAT?" Zaelro screamed, "Are you mad? This is no joke, you know. Didn’t you see how lethal it was? This thing is not anything short of 500 kV worth of electricity that you are asking me to hold on!"

"I have no other choice, but to ask you to do that," Oredin shook his head, calmly, but decisively, "Please, sire."

"Okay then," Zaelro replied, as though surrendering, "If you want to acknowledge me as a demigod, do so. This is suicide, and I am sure I have a lot to accomplish in my life before dying."

"Please, sire," Oredin said defiantly, "Sooner or later, you must hold on to this artifact. That is a matter of fate."

"If you want to kill me, do it now, and make it quick," Zaelro shouted desperately, "I don't want electrocution!"

"My apology, sire, but this is a must," Oredin bowed to his master, and then, with a sudden and swift movement of his hand, grabbed Zaelro's arm, and brushed it against the weapon, to his unspeakable horror.

For one second Zaelro thought he was finished. But the resulting contact, however, proved the opposite. The powerful electrical pulse that could "kill" the hairdryer in less than a split second not only seemed harmless to Zaelro, but also glowed stronger as he touched it. Not only that, upon his grabbing the hammer, the bolts of lightning that used to orbit the blade shifted polarity, and encircled him instead. His hairs stood up on end, and Zaelro's feeling could best be described as that of a person receiving a deadly electric shook, and yet doesn't die or feel any pain at all.

In addition, the hammer, which looked rather heavy as Oredin pulled it out of the package, now felt almost weightless in his hand, as if it had become one with his arm. In excitement, Zaelro started swinging the hammer a few rounds, letting the energy bolts covering his body like a shield of bolts, until Oredin signaled that it was enough, taking back the hammer.

The excitement and adrenaline pump left Zaelro speechless for a few seconds as the muscles on his face tingled rapidly, before he could finally bring himself to calmness.

"That was... absolutely awesome," remarked Zaelro.

"I believe, sire, that this alone is the proof that you are looking for," Oredin said solemnly, "I hope I have cleared all your doubt"

"Wait a second," Zaelro asked curiously, "You must first tell me what this is before I can further believe in anything else that you have to speak"

"Very well, sire," Oredin said ceremoniously, "Despite your disbelief, this is indeed Mjollnir, the Thunder Mace of the god Odin. Few are worthy to stand in its presence, even fewer could comprehend its significance. And those who are actually able to use it like you did numbered no more than a handful, all of whom are deities"

"That means... I am a deity as well?" Zaelro asked in disbelief

"True, and false, sire. Since Ragnarok, no new deities had been born. Demigods, however, are not that rare. Some of them had the divine bloodline to call upon, others were heroes so great that they gained their status. Still others were granted godliness because of an important mission." explained Oredin, "And you, sire, falls in the third category"

"I see. That means I am now in the middle of something important, am I not?" Zaelro asked excitedly, “Sounds like Greek mythology, it seems. So what do I have to do?”

"Sire, what you have to do now, I am afraid, is to win a race," Oredin said, “As unlikely as it may sound.”

"I don't get your... metaphor too well," questioned Zaelro, "What exactly is this race?"

"Let me explain, sire" Oredin spoke, wrapping the last layer of paper around the Mjollnir, "Do you happen to have, in any way possible, known of this man named Reglay von Gendamme?"

"I am afraid this is the first time that weird name has gotten into my ears," Zaelro replied, racking his name, before a sudden bell rang in his mind, “Wait… I heard this name once in yesterday’s rather… weird dream. He appeared to be after this young lady called Floria or Florina. What about him?”

"Very well then, sire. As of now, what you need to know is that Reglay is a dangerous vampire who wished for immortality above all else," clarified Oredin, "True immortality at its root."

"Aren't vampires, according to legends and lore, immortal already?" Zaelro looked puzzled as he asked.

"If they can get blood, yes. But with the Church's nameless vampire killing agent around, no. In other words, vampires cannot live freely so long as vampire hunters are still there." Oredin explained as he tucked the Mjollnir back in his bag, "But there is one way to get around this limitation, that is to become a deity, even in another dimension... another world. That is where we come in"

"Does he actually think that it is that easy to become a god?" Zaelro blurted, "It makes me laugh."

"Somewhere in this vast universe stands a world called Terra, a fertile world with a variety of races apart from humans, and powered by the Gods of the Council of Higher Heaven, the Lords and Masters of the very essence of the basic elements making up the world," said Oredin, "Their only limitation is that they are not real omnipotent gods. They are, though divine, not perfect beings. Therefore, their powers and immortality are not strictly invincible and unchallenged. They can be deposed if one is powerful enough to challenge them."

"You mean, like, god killing?" Zaelro replied in astonishment, “Deicide?”

"In a nutshell, yes, sire. Thusly the condition for becoming a deity is much less complicated in Terra than in this world," continued Oredin, "All what one needs to do is to gather all the parts of the fabled Will of the Gods set, ascend Mount Riviera, enter the Sacred Keep high atop the dire mount, and defeat the particular god’s avatars. If he could do that, he would become a god himself, and would immediately become vitrually unstoppable. Out of an unfortunate coincidence, Reglay von Gendamme has learnt this."

"I kind of see that now. Our mission is to stop the vampire from becoming a deity." Zaelro nodded, "Now... in particular, what do I have to do?"

"Essentially, sire, our job is to discover and assemble the Will of the Gods before Reglay does, and then return it to its resting place in the Sacred Keep," continued Oredin, "Defeating Reglay and ending his contemptible life is optional, though."

"Sounds easy enough, except for the part that I haven't even seen what the Will of the Gods set looks like," Zaelro turned solemn at the very thought.

"We at least have one part of Will of the Gods here with us- Mjollnir," Oredin corrected, "We just have to look for the other three parts of the fabled armor, the Will of the Gods Plate, Odin's Shield, and Einherjar Helm."

"Alright then, Mr. Kaledon," Zaelro said enthusiastically, "When shall we start?"

"There is another limitation, sire," Oredin said, shaking his head "No one can assemble the Will of the Gods Set before securing all the Six Prime Treasures, not even a god."

"Now, what a well-sounding name," Zaelro asked excitedly, "What ARE the Six Prime Treasures, then?"

"They are the lost and hidden artifacts of the world of Terra that are more valuable than the throne of a wealthy king," Oredin described, "They are the Geigar Set, the Chlorophyll Set, the Gespenst Set, the Aurora Set, the Wisdom Set and the Colossus Set. All must be uncovered before we have a chance to get Will of the Gods."

There was sort of a pregnant pause as Zaelro clutched his head in what appeared to be a headache before the seemingly endless list of things to do.

"And, to help you with the difficult job, we have been sent here to aid you in this search,” Oredin continued after a long pause, “As you can see, sire, you are amongst the very few who can effectively handle Mjollnir. You are the only person, save the gods that can save Lore from the clutch of a power-hungry vampire."

"Wait a second, who is the we here?" Zaelro asked without thinking.

"My brothers have assembled as well. They are awaiting your command to enter this room," Oredin said ceremoniously, "Please issue your order, sire"

"Alright then, tell your brothers that they can come in," Zaelro said.

As soon as the order was given out, Zaelro was almost shaken off balance. The reason was simple, as all at once, four large, overwhelming figures tore apart the fabrics of space and time, and teleported into his very room. When Zaelro finally regained his lost balance, his guests have all been in place, in full battle armor and military, albeit archaic ones, uniforms. Very politely, Oredin asked Zaelro to sit down, and his four "brothers" started to bow down to show their respect when Zaelro had assumed his position.

Only now could Zaelro take a close look at his new guests. One of them was wearing Gothic plate armor, with a cross-decorated kite shield and holding a battle mace, and his visage at first totally concealed by across helm, which he removed promptly upon arrival. Another was dressed in quite the same heavy armor style, except for that his armor was a lighter and more flexible chain mail and chain hood to go with, and the longsword replaced the battle mace. The other two were less armored, as one was wearing just a cavalry cuirass and leather cap with a sheathed cavalry saber, and the last one had apparently discarded all armors in favor of aristocratic robe and a rapier to top the outfit with. Normally, the presence of such soldiers in his room would be more than shocking, but on that particular day, when so many weird things had happened, Zaelro started feeling accustomed to the strangeness in dressing code.

"I would like to introduce to you, sire, my most trusted lieutenants, those I would trust as much as my own siblings," Oredin proudly said, as he pointed to each person in turn.

Stopping in front of the gothic-plated knightly figure, whose brown beard and reddish hair revealed immense strength and savageness as much as his stalward look suggested nobility and loyalty, Oredin started.

"This is Sieur de Aquitaine, loyal retainer of the French Kings during the Hundred Year War, one whose bravery and sacrifice had saved the French Army from total annihilation in the Battle of Agincourt. His bravery and unyielding sacrifice had secured him a high position in the Valhallian Corps"

On behalf of the chain-mail armored knight, whose sharp, keen eyes flaring with infinite loyalty reminded Zaelro of that of the Arthurian legends he used to hear as a child, Oredin continued,

"This is Lord Jonathan of Norfolk, a brave English Knight in service of Edward, the Black Prince. His brave demise in the battle of Poitiers had played a vital role in the English victory of the battle. The British Royal Family never forgot him, and neither will we."

Then he went on to the cuirassier with cavalry saber, red, savage beard and lips that seemingly readied the words "I await your commands" any second of the minute,

"This is Count Schwagger of Hamburg, a courageous Prussian cavalry commander whose life was lost in the struggle against Napoleon in Waterloo. His contribution to the allied English and Prussian victory could not be denied, and that is why he is here with us today."

Finally, he stopped in front of the aristocrat-dressed man, whose pale complexion did little to conceal his innate bravery and unyieldingness, and finished his speech,

"Last but not least, here I introduce you, sire, Lieutenant-General Nicolai Maximovich Peshkov, a Russian patriot who devoted his life fighting for his country against Ottoman invasion. Being the only one who didn't die in battle amongst us, but in Turkish prison due to torture and starvation, his unyieldingness till the last minute had won both our trust and a position in the Corps nevertheless."

"Wait, wait a second," Zaelro exclaimed, "Do you mean they are all dead?"

"Normal people die, sire, but heroes don't. Rather, they become eternal," corrected Oredin, "Their names live on in the lips of their compatriots, and their spirits shall be highly decorated by Asgard as they spend their eternity in Valhalla. Some of them, like those present here in front of you, sire, have been so decorated that we are now generals and commanders of the armies of Valhalla."

"What about you?" Zaelro blurted.

"Sire, I myself am very proud of my own death in the battle of Thermopylae. My three hundred brothers and I will always take pride in our last combat for our fair Greece and for our noble King Leonidas," Oredin Kaledon replied proudly.

Zaelro said nothing more, a slight taste of morbidity running down his throat. Seeing that, Oredin went on.

"As of now, we have led our armies here to help you with your quest as well as our raw power. Sire, our armies and ourselves are at your disposal, and we will do whatever you order us to. Also, if there is anything that you would like us to help with, to ease your daily worries and anxieties until victory day, we would be very proud to lend you our capabilities and soldiers."

"An army?" Zaelro said, "What army?"

"We now have a 2000 men-strong-army in various corps that have been issued to help you. The Frankish Paladins who saved you earlier this morning, sire, are just a small part in it. A small detachment."

After all the shocks and trembles he had got that day, the message Oredin conveyed was still a greater shock. Zaelro, a weak, physically unremarkable transfer student, is now the head of an army made of heavenly soldiers and deceased hero spirits? They didn't want to do him any harm, but would the temptation for power ruin his innocence? Two thousand men and great generals at his disposal, as well as a thunder-calling hammer to top all those powers with meant he could go against half of Japan already... which never was morally acceptable, in any situation. Even if it wouldn't, and he would progress earnestly with the task at hand, would he let them down by being unable to complete the mission? Whether that was a blessing or a curse, Zaelro couldn't tell for sure at that moment.

"Alright..." Zaelro finally said after a pregnant pause, "Let me think about this for a while. I will tell you... after dinner tonight. I will decide this tonight, at this very room. Would you come?"

"Sire, we will heed your call wherever you are, being that we are now spiritual in body and mind. In other word, whenever you call on us, we will be there," Oredin answered with strong certainty.

"Very well. You can go now" Zaelro said tiredly.

Before Zaelro could see the difference, though, the five warriors of the lost ages had teleported away, as suddenly and quietly as they came. The room in which so many had happened in the past one hour became quiet again as Zaelro slowly slipped into a slumber from all the tiredness...

******


< Message edited by Argeus the Paladin -- 11/4/2008 19:13:12 >
DF  Post #: 3
11/4/2008 23:49:23   
Argeus the Paladin
Member

Chapter 3
The Blunder of Higher Heaven


Argeus Elmarian Sunrise sighed, before him a large wooden table filled with a large pile of documents of all shapes, sizes and fonts were more than sufficient to tell the tale. Ever since becoming an angel, Argeus’ health, if it could be called so, had been consistently deteriorating, mainly owing to the offending pile aforementioned. As much as he was concerned, the whole mess weighted at least five times his armor, and that was to mention that the standard Paladin Armor of Hadrius was your everyday heavy-duty plate mails devised for near-perfect protection.

“If I can give anyone an advice at this moment, never be an angel,” the paladin angel stretched his shoulder, “Or at least, never become an angel in this time of the year.”

His notions were well founded. Contrary to his popular belief, the welcome that the local deities gave him was more than ceremonious, and in due time, the greenhorn was able to gather all the help he could to learn the ropes of angelic duties, from all sources possible. His current accommodation, a deluxe lodge in the sky ten times more spacious and luxurious than his own palace back when he was a prince, the various hotlines with the respective officials of the local theocracy, and the ever-helpful and knowledgeable assistant called Aegina always being around when he needed anything meant that no excuses could be made for failing whatever his mission was. Neither did the ex-prince thought he would, before the mountain of to-does fell upon him and buried him completely until then.

Wearily, Argeus reached for a random letter in the nearest paper file among those coming in the previous day.

Top Secret Report
By Dagren Swiftsole of the Secret Service Department of Light Angels.


To: His Divinity the God of Light Aurorus
CC: Secret Service Department of Light Angels
BCC: Argeus Elmarian Sunrise, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Terra in Earth.


The prince paladin grinned at the title of the letter. Interestingly enough, the day he ceased being a prince was also the day he started being an ambassador. Not that he wasn’t skilled enough for that kind of diplomatic activities; the Paladin still hadn’t yet gotten used to the title. Mildly shaking his head, Argeus flipped the page.

To whom this may concern,

Yesterday, a shocking and seemingly impossible attack has been launched against Eric Laslow the Gespenst Gatekeeper lodged in the Shrine of the Consuming Shadow. The solitude attacker attacked the Laslow family with great ferocity, with the sole intention of robbing the Gespenst Set. Eric and his wife, Jean, fought back bravely, but were overpowered and finally slain by the attacker. Their two children, Nina and Gem, are reportedly missing, but are likely dead. The Gespenst Set has been stolen as a result of the battle, and likely to have been brought to the planet of Earth.

Regardless of the perpetrator, it is well seen that the invader was up to something malicious, and our frontier intelligence has reliably drawn the conclusion that this attacker is tied in one way or another with the threat from Earth detected three months prior. Therefore, we would humbly request the following in response to the dire circumstance:

- First, enforce means of blockade between Earth and Terra to avoid the rest of the Six Prime Treasures to follow suit.
- Second, embark the Gatekeepers to Earth to search for the lost set, and intercept it from falling into the wrong hands.
- Third, the ambassador needs to further maintain an effort to keep in close contact with the local officials to track down the threat, and coordinate action with the rest of the Gatekeepers to recover Gespenst and all of its parts in the shortest time available.

We hope to receive your reply in due time,

Your sincerely,

Dagren Numidia Swiftsole, Signed


Argeus’ eyes rolled at the last lines with mixed feelings, as he read, reread, double-checked and triple-checked the letter, hoping that he had read something wrong, sighing in the end upon finding that his eyesight hadn’t deteriorated that badly. There were apparently more disturbances in that message than just an excuse to pour more paperwork on him; having read all the myths and legends of his country and his world with utmost scrutiny since the time he learnt to differentiate between a pen and a feather, the ex-prince knew all too well what was happening. The Gespenst Set, one of the Six Prime Treasures representative and symbolic of the six Gods of the Terran Council of Higher Heaven, has been stolen. And less than a child’s brain was needed to infer that the orchestrator was also the source of the threat that had brought Argeus to Earth as an ambassador.

Even thought Argeus was not responsible for the robbery, the Prince Paladin felt as if the kingdom’s crown jewels had been stolen right under his nose and he could do next to nothing about it. Revving up the issue of responsibility, it could be even a worse issue for Argeus’ conscience. After all, wasn’t he chosen as a special envoy to this place and enjoy such life standard that even kings would turn green with envy just to prevent such things from happening? And right now he was sitting at the table like a useless duck with a high tendency to fall down and snore any time now…

”No, no, no, no, no, this is not the way it should be!” Argeus physically slapped himself hard to keep awake, “Now, Argeus, think, think! What can I do to…”

“Lord Argeus, your morning coffee, sir,” a warm, clear yet somewhat playful, feminine voice suddenly echoed in the distance, promptly halting the self-flogging of the paladin in distress. As startled as he was, Argeus wasn’t quite surprised- every day since his second day in his new office, the angelic ambassador would expect such a call by midday, and get it. Quickly hiding his hand like a child after being caught misbehaving, Argeus looked up, feigning normality.

As per usual, before him appeared a beautiful, winged maiden, with light, silver plate and a lovely cloak flowing down her shoulder like a steady stream of mercury. In one of her hand lay a tray with a cup of dark, black liquid the size of a beer pint, which she skillfully balanced on her fingertips, and on her other hand was another assortment of files neatly tied up, only waiting to be read. In only the three months following his arrival, Argeus had gotten addicted to the former, especially since he realized how the local beverage could help him stay awake to struggle with the mountain of paperwork that kept piling up day after day. And the latter was becoming more of a burden on him- a simple calculation, if every day Argeus could read, process, and respond to ten pounds of paperwork of all sorts, and twenty came in on a daily basis, he was destined to an early death, that is, if he could die once again.

“Thanks, Aegina,” Argeus sighed, as he slung his hand at the monstrosity of a cup, and slurped it all down in one massive mouth, completely ignoring the sharp bitter taste of the brackish liquid. It was then that he realized he had reached his limit- a glass of the sleep-preventing beverage that the clever people of Earth invented of that size should normally keep a normal person awake for half a month. And now it wasn’t of much use to the paladin as his eyes sunk deeply as the black liquid gushed into his gullets.

“You look awful, sir,” Aegina remarked sympathetically as she stared at his labor-devastated shape, to which Argeus nodded. Ever since his appointment, he has found his predecessor the feisty valkyrie an immense help, in almost all fields of work, ranging from things like local information and customs to daily chores like the daily behemoth of a cup of coffee.

“And I still wonder how you could possibly survive all those years here with this much of paper littering all around?” Argeus replied, trying to crack a joke, but his clearly sunken voice betrayed him all too well.

“Maybe it is because I am not an official representative, which means the only paperwork I had to do was a weekly report home, and which I slacked off all the time,” Aegina smiled smartly, after which her voice suddenly turned serious, “And maybe I was in luck for not being in office in such a dire time.”

Dire is a mild word,” Argeus blurted, “This is an utter crisis!”

“You must have read the newest report from the top secret department, sir,” Aegina said, lowering her voice.

“Apparently this means no good at all. We all know that each of the Six Prime Treasures hold power enough to beat a ten-thousand-men-strong army with ease,” Argeus sighed, the third time in the past half an hour, “And to say that a vampire owns it…”

“That is why Lord Aurorus has err… scheduled a meeting with us today, to sort this mess out, sir,” Aegina’s voice turned into a soft, but ardent whisper, that came to Argeus like a lightning bolt across a clear sky.

“What? Why didn’t you tell me earlier?” Argeus almost jumped from his chair. However, it seemed that his inquisition was too late.

“I was certain that I sent the notice to you two days prior,” a loud, echoing voice sounded right behind the duo, and as both agents turned back, they found themselves faced by their very lord and master, the One Archangel of Light, the God of Light Aurorus, who had apparently materialized into the place while they weren’t paying attention. And from the looks of his expression, as well as the out-of-this-world aggressive flare on his golden plate and corona, the deity was far from content.

“Lord Aurorus!” both angels quickly fell to their knees upon realizing the presence of the deity, their heads almost touching the floor.

“Stand up,” the god said gruffly. As Argeus rose to his feet, his head sank again upon coming into eye contact with the god. He was definitely extremely cross that day, and the first reason that came to the greenhorn angel was his own incompetence.

“Your lordship, my apology for all this… mess…” Argeus said, slightly trembling in visible fear.

“Do you know why I have come here myself today, Argeus?” the god ignored the prince paladin’s words, and went on, his voice thundered with what appeared to be a fit of extreme rage, “Have you any idea of what has happened?”

“Yes, my lord, the Gespenst Set has been stolen, assumably by the very source of threat that I have to eliminate,” Argeus bowed, “My humblest apology for failing this mission, your lordship.”

“And have you done anything to help it?” questioned the god angrily.

“I’m afraid… no, Lord Aurorus,” Argeus said humbly, dropping to the ground once more, “For failing you, I deserve a severe punishment, your lordship.”

“That is not fair, Lord Aurorus!” to Argeus’ horror, Aegina sprang up as she retorted, “Prince Argeus Elmarian Sunrise had done his very best to sort out everything here to the best he could, I can testify it! Just look at the table and see for yourself!”

“Oh. My. Goodness. What is that girl thinking?” Argeus shuddered, immediately thinking about what kind of divine punishment would come down on the two of them as a result of that. It thusly came as a massive struck of astonishment to the paladin when he realized the god’s expression quickly changed for the milder, as if the valkyrie’s voice were a soothing cream to ease whatever discomfort the god had.

“Ah, Aegina. Always the never ending source of thrill and suspense in my little assortment of angels,” Argeus’ astonishment morphed into amazement sooner than enough as he saw the god starting to smile. Glancing at the ambassador angel’s table filled to the top with all sorts of paperwork, the god turned away with a shake of disgust for the monstrosity and a nod of sympathy for its owner.

“You are right this time, Aegina. If I were in Argeus’ post, I could have done no better. Much worse, to say the least. This amount of paperwork is beyond even my belief.” the god said gently, signaling Argeus to stand up, cracking a joke in the meantime “Were I to do this all by myself, I’d rather resign as the God of Light.”

Argeus rose up to the ground, his legs still somewhat trembling. It was only then that the god realized his faithful angel’s much devastated form due to heavy overworking, to which he said sympathetically.

“I am afraid I have to say sorry myself, Argeus. By no means could I have imagined such a massive amount of work set out for you,” the God of Light said. Then, with a signature rise of his golden sword, the god summoned a column of small, but powerful and concentrated healing light that rained down on Argeus, and in a matter of seconds, completely eradicating all the signs of caffeine overdose and insomnia from him, fully fixed the angel to perfect health.

“Thank you, Lord Aurorus,” Argeus said, bowing deeply, refreshed both from the inside and the outside.

“Okay, back to the business at hand,” the god said abruptly, clearly startling the still-bowing Argeus, but not at all surprising to a giggling Aegina, having understood the god’s habit of sudden change of topic without warning from one side to another, “You must have read the latest report from Dagren Swiftsole, haven’t you?”

“Yes, your lordship, I have. The Gespenst Set has been stolen,” Argeus replied, “I was unable to do anything about it…”

“Not that you could,” the god remarked, “But in the past three days the Higher Heaven Council has been on fire. Now that Eric Laslow is dead, we can no longer keep this secret. And the debate around this matter was such that… I could only say I regret keeping the entire business a secret from the other gods.”

“What is your wish, your lordship?”

“It is rather embarrassing, but I can say nothing short of I don’t know. This is unprecedented in Terran history. Of course, we tolerate heroes’ quest for the Six Prime Treasures, and once every so often would even aid a worthy hero on his quest. But I reckon you know that this is an entirely different story. Firstly, it is not a noble hero that would carry out the quest. It’s a vampire, with a deducible goal most despicable of them all, who is after the treasures.”

With a pause, the god walked around Argeus’ monstrosity of a table, shook his head, leaned his blade against the ground, and said,

“Worse still, we cannot afford to intervene in Earth’s business. The local gods would see this as a sign of invasion of sovereignty and that would mean the end of our thousands of years of diplomatic friendship. And if we don’t in a matter of months there will be so many changes in our pantheon that mortals could no longer recognize heaven as they used to,” the God of Light sighed, “I, for one, see this as a tough dilemma to tackle.”

“Lord Aurorus, what is the Higher Heaven Council’s resolution?” Aegina asked.

“This discussion has lasted three days, Aegina, and has just ended. The only resolution that holds water is to immediately close the gateway between Earth and Terra to stop the treasures from leaking to Earth.”

“Leak?” Argeus asked in amazement, “Please forgive me for my ignorance, your lordship, but how could the Six Prime Treasures leak?”

“Well, I don’t blame you. Only the few most enlightened mortals know that the Six Prime Treasures are far from ordinary equipment,” explained the God of Light, “They are semi-autonomous, in the sense that they have their own spirits and souls. They could love, hate or be angry or sad. They have emotions, and they can autonomously act upon those emotions. In fact, the heroes who had successfully wielded them were approved by them first before being approved by us.”

“So… they are like living beings?”

“And brothers,” the god added, “Now, Argeus, knowing that you have a younger sister, I would ask you: What would you do if she were abducted by your sworn enemies?”

“Your lordship, I would make every attempt to see her to safety and… wait,” Argeus gasped, “Your lordship, do you mean that… the rest of the six treasures would walk into the hand of the one who got one of them?”

“As insane as it may sound, yes,” the god nodded, “Even as we speak, the other five sets are attempting to leave our system for Earth, in an attempt to rescue their brother, the Gespenst Set. And those treasures hold power so vast that the only way to stop them from moving to their destination is by our divine intervention, which, unfortunately, cannot be done without alerting the entire mortal world about the chaos that is on the verge of happening. Imagine what would happen then.”

Absolute silence reigned across the chamber as Argeus racked his brain. In this argument, his lord did make a very important point that Terra would tend to self-destruct in chaos if the gods should reveal any sign of apocalypse.

“A tri-pronged dilemma,” Argeus remarked, “No wonder…”

“However, if the pros and cons of an extreme action are weighted, I myself believe that it would only be a matter of time before we have to do something critical,” sighed the god of Light.

Just as Argeus was about to speak, a loud thunderclap, followed by a large and loud explosion cracked in the distance, and before anyone in the room could understand what was happening, a figure clad in dark clothes with a pair of pitch black wings to go with burst into the room. Folding his wings, the figure knelt before the god and his two angels.

“Lord Aurorus, sire, and Prince Argeus and Lady Aegina, I have come to bring news,” the figure said in a sullen tone, but rigged with urgency.

“You must be a Dark Angel of Solus,” the God of Light remarked, “What could have probably brought you here?”

“Your divinity, dire complications has happened in the hours while you were away,” the Dark Angel kept his head low as he spoke hastily, “First, another attack against the Gatekeepers had happened, this time involving a much larger vampire forces. The guardians of the Colossus Set have fought bravely, but couldn’t prevail over a hundred-to-one odd, and all thirteen of them have been slain, their treasure stolen.”

“What? Not Colossus Set as well?” gasped the God of Light, “How could they have come so fast? And what about the gateway to Earth?”

“Your Divinity, it is best that we do not mention that good-for-nothing mockery of a Gatekeeper God any longer,” the Dark Angel said with extreme sardonic criticism.

“Silence!” the God of Light roared, “Even though Zorun the Gatekeeper God is a lesser deity, I shall not tolerate such blasphemy in my presence!”

“You should think otherwise if you had known how Lord Zorun utterly failed his mission and let loose all the Prime Treasures except for Aurora Set to Earth, Your Divinity,” from the tone of the Dark Angel, Argeus believed that he was smirking, and then let loose an enraged comment, “He failed us all!”

More silence came by as the God of Light dropped his golden sword on the ground with a clear twang. The sound of metal clattering against the marble ground summed up most of the astonishment and horror that weight heavily in the air. It was moments before the God of Light slowly regained his self-control and spoke.

“This is not something to be joked around with, Dark Angel,” the God of Light said firmly, “In lights of recent events, you know what you are talking about, don’t you?”

“You were not there to see how the horde of vampires tore through the gateway to Earth, and how Zorun abandoned his post and ran to save his own skin, Your Divinity,” the Dark Angel snapped sarcastically, “Even now His Divinity Solus is commanding our combined forces to fend off the vampires and their pet zombies, and winning, but we are unable to save the Prime Treasures. The most we could do was to prevent them from actually recovering the items.”

“This is a nightmare!” blurted Argeus.

“An unprecedented nightmare, if you’d allow me, Prince Argeus,” said the Dark Angel, after which he bowed to the God of Light, “Please excuse me for now, Your Divinity, I must return to the aid of Lord Solus.”

Then, with another loud bang and thunderclap, the Dark Angel vanished into the cloud of smoke, presumably to return to the aid of his master the God of Darkness. Yet the air of terror and disappointment that he brought upon the room only dispersed a few moments after his disappearance.

“That insolent…” Aegina remarked angrily, “How dared he spoke in that way to Lord Aurorus?”

“In that position he just couldn’t be blamed,” Argeus said, “But if he was right, we are in for a huge mess this time.”

“A double failure this is. We both failed to hold on to the treasures, and this battle would more or less alert the mortal world of what is happening,” the God of Light cupped his forehead, his teeth gritted firmly together, “And all this is partly my fault. I should have informed the rest of the Higher Heaven Council in the first place.”

“Your Lordship, that is why you have us angels!” Argeus said firmly, “We are here to help you with anything you need!”

The sudden speech filled with bravery, trust and courage from a fellow angel seemingly struck the god with awe, as he raised his eyebrow a little, the typical reaction of one having received a pleasant surprise. The God of Light then said nothing, but rather stuck his right hand out, magically drawing his golden sword back to him. As he grabbed the hilt of his beautifully crafted ornamental blade and sheathed it forcefully, the god turned to Argeus,

“Yes, there is no point crying over spilt milk,” the god said spiritedly, “We have to do something.”

“We shall do whatever you ask of us, my lord,” Argeus swore.

“In that case, I suppose this kind of crisis would call for spontaneous decision,” smiled the god, as he drew the blade over Argeus’ shoulder, in the manner that kings and emperors would knight a warrior of great valor, “Argeus Elmarian Sunrise, I hereby entitle you to an unprecedented degree of freedom in your activities in the world of Earth. For this instance, your only limitation would be solely diplomatic in nature, in that you are not allowed to do anything that could potentially harm the diplomatic relationship between Terra and Earth. Other than that, you can do anything within your power to make sure the vampire lord called Reglay von Gendamme is dead and buried, and this threat is neutralized.”

“I will, Your Lordship,” Argeus said, bowing deeply, “Please trust me.”

“Also, from today onwards I relieve you of all the boring, day-to-day paperwork that you have been struggling with, knowing that you are capable of many things greater than that,” concluded the god, “I believe you, Argeus.”

******


A couple of hours later, a completely new atmosphere had fallen over Argeus Elmarian Sunrise’s working quarters. With a lot of help from his valkyrie secretary, Argeus had completely cleared up the whole room, gotten rid of all the paper, and, most of all, the sack of coffee beans whose taste he had been so fed up with. As the ex-prince slumped on his chair comfortably, his assistant was far from such comfort.

“Err… Lord Argeus?” Aegina asked softly, “Are you sure that was the most appropriate of a promise to make to Lord Aurorus at this time?”

“Well, in all possibilities someone has got to rev things up, right?” smiled the Paladin angel.

“Still, this is pretty hopeless for us. We don’t have any clue at all of what to do next, or do we?”

“We do, as a matter of fact,” smirked Argeus, “I bet all my savings on the demigod child that you have told me of the last time.”

“Zaelro Samuel Fastoff?” Aegina dropped her jaw, “But… how can he…?”

“Life is full of coincidence, Aegina,” a relaxed Argeus stated, “And from the looks of some seemingly minor report from the local pantheon’s Department of Foretelling, Foreshadowing and Fate, I have every reason to believe that this… child is the bearer of the fate of both worlds. You should see for yourself as well.”

Standing up, Argeus took a leisurely few steps towards the bookcase, and pulled out a neatly tied up file of paperwork from what little of those kinds still remained in his domains at that time…

******
DF  Post #: 4
11/6/2008 0:19:10   
Argeus the Paladin
Member

Chapter 4
Zaelro’s Inauguration


A tingling cold in the back as well as the shimmering moonlight through his bedroom window upon his face finally woke Zaelro up. With a sour taste in his mouth, the transfer student wriggled, stretched, and gave a big yawn before finally pulling himself up to an upright position. The cold-damp feel on his back suggested that he had completely soaked himself in sweat during his slumber, which was fairly understandable, seeing how he went straight to sleep with his full school attire and a large woolen blanket that blocked ventilation even further. The young man frowned a little- everything around him was completely silent and covered in darkness, not at all healthy for someone having undergone the chill and thrill of his life some hours ago. He had only the wrist watch to blame: the offending gizmo displayed the number of 1130, pretty much summing up the scenario.

Zaelro shook off his think blanket and stood up. An uncomfortable sense of hunger was the next thing he could clearly feel, responded all too well by the agreeing growl of his tummy. Apparently he had skipped dinner, supper and a late-night snack in his sleep, not a common sight for the monstrous appetite of his. Naturally, the teenager’s first thought after turning on the nearest artificial source of lighting was a snack attack.

”Now, where were we?” Zaelro racked his mind, ”Where could I find the kitchen or the fridge to save my life?”

That sort of snack attack normally wasn’t unfamiliar with him. At home, Zaelro would raid the fridge at midnight once every week or so, knowing that his parents always stuffed it full with goodies, and the art of fridge-raiding had been upgraded to an art of strategy under the leadership of Zaelro Samuel Fastoff. However, now he was on foreign territory. How to nicely launch a “raid party” without causing too much noise, being impolite or eating what he shouldn’t presented an unprecedented difficulty. Zaelro pulled a chair from under his table and sat down, pondering. Weighing all pros and cons, in the end, his hungry tummy got the better of him, and Zaelro slowly made his way towards the door.

As the hulking wooden door creaked to a rather noisy opening, revealing a finely carpeted, yet dark, mysterious and haunting hallway, the last hardship came to Zaelro’s mind. In the excitement of the first day in his host family’s mansion and the immense thrill of the second, Zaelro had forgotten the most important thing about living in this place: its layout. After all, how could he raid the fridge when he didn’t even know where it was?

However, Zaelro was blessed with an innate tendency to adventure, especially for a reward. In his days as a seven-year-old devoid of fear or fright, he had even ventured around his neighborhood in Manchester, without friends or relatives, with a pen in one hand and a notebook in another in an attempt to be a cartographer. The fond memories of those days as well as the constant call of his hungry stomach in unison pushed him forward in the end, with the only clue in mind being the kitchen was the only room in the mansion that smelt of teriyaki chicken instead of aromatic incense.

Twenty-five minutes, a hundred meters of hallway, fifty meters of cobbled pathways and ten dead-ends later, Zaelro finally arrived safely at his destination: the household’s kitchen. The tasty aroma of food and the hope of quality edibles to brighten up his day pulled the hunger teen straight into the room, almost drooling. To his astonishment, the chamber, a ten-by-five-meter behemoth of a household’s kitchen, was alit with the standard, bluish-white beam of a king-size fluorescent light, showing a shadowy silhouette of a person sitting at the dining table, consuming something. Another closer look revealed that the figure wasn’t alone, but rather being waited on by two other as well. That makes three people, in the vicinity of the kitchen at that moment.

For some reason, presumably his thrill-filled days and the tendency of meeting with mysterious events in only the past few days, Zaelro decided it was wiser not to enter at that moment, but rather to wait, and run, if need be. He didn’t have to wait for too long either, as within half a minute since his arrival, the person seated at the table started speaking.

“Grandma, so we have a transfer student staying in our house, right?” the voice, definitely male, healthy, and spirited, sounded clearly.

“You mean Fastoff-san?” Zaelro recognized unmistakable voice of the grandmotherly figure of the household at once, “He arrived two days ago, and is overall a nice boy.”

An abrupt stop told the eavesdropper that the male speaker had displayed a gesture of disapproval.

“Don’t worry too much, Suuichi,” this time, the voice of the household’s grandfatherly figure spoke, “I believe he is just another transfer student; you know that our family host one of those every so often.”

“I am not sure about that as well, grandpa, grandma, but yesterday, Commander Mina said that we must keep watch of any Caucasian newcomer to our town in the past week. Apparently the White Princess has come to Sankaku, but we aren’t sure of where yet,” the youthful voice went on, this time rather distorted by a mouthful of food, “Commander is dead serious about this business. So… our guest is a guy?”

“I said, he, dear,” the grandmother replied.

“So that’s one possibility down. In any case, I think I should ask you for a favor, grandpa, grandma,” the youthful voice spoke proudly, “Could you please keep a close watch on him for me? It would be really bad for the reputation of Number One Junior Vampire Slayer of Sankaku to house a vampire right under his roof.”

”What on Earth? Are they talking about me?” Zaelro rolled his eye in amusement, ”Me, a vampire? This should be the joke of the century!”

“You are getting this vampire-phobia, dear,” the grandfather voice spoke, half sarcastically, half seriously, “But we will help you to the best we can.”

“And, grandpa, grandma, remember if you see any sign of his vampirehood, inform me at once,” the prideful youth went on, “For your own safety, and for my reputation as well.”

There was a large slurp in the background, signaling the conclusion of the meal, followed by some clattering sound of metal colliding on a leathery surface. For all what Zaelro knew, whoever the figure was, he had finished the meal and was getting ready to depart. And from the sound of the conversation, the transfer student knew all too well what kind of situation he had gotten into. And from his experience with the game Castlevania, the teen understood pretty well that being impaled by a vampire slayer’s daggers wasn’t at all comfortable. Nervously, Zaelro pressed his ear against the wall even harder.

“Alright, grandma, grandpa, I am off now,” the voice confirmed Zaelro’s thought, “We are a bit short on manpower recently, so I’ll have to work double or even triple in the next few days.”

Common sense immediately pulled Zaelro into the nearest bush to hide himself, but in due time, realized it was unnecessary. The sound of a metal door being unlocked and opened as well as the rhythmic, prideful footstep presumably of the vampire hunter signified that he was safe where he was. The next minute saw no sound leaving the room, implying that it was now safe for him to make his entrance and ask for some food to quell his hunger. However, as always, Zaelro’s more adventurous and curious self had gotten the better of him, and in the end, he decided to sit down to eavesdrop further.

“Suuichi, dear Suuichi,” sighed the grandmother, “He doesn’t even know a least bit of the dangers that awaits him.”

“Our grandchild has grown,” the grandfather said, “He has made his own choice, follows it, takes pride in it, receives its blessing, and should similarly suffer from its curse. I don’t think we should worry too much about him any more.”

“Kano and Rei may not know all about the mystery of this town to save their child, but we know all about it and we know what he is walking into!” retorted the grandmother, “The myths surrounding the Minamoto clan should be enough to turn away any demon hunter that this country has ever seen, and now there are vampires as well.”

”Minamoto… wait a sec, that Takashi guy’s surname is Minamoto as well!” Zaelro lifted his eyebrow, ”This sounds extremely fishy to me…”

“Our grandson is with good people,” the grandfather said mildly, “The church and the vampire hunters of this town are strong and determinant. They would help him in his chosen career.”

“I, for one, don’t trust that Mina,” the grandmother went on, “How could you trust dear Suuichi’s life in the hand of a complete zealot like her? And what is worse, our dear foolish boy seems to have fallen heads over heels with her!”

“Regardless, she is the Church’s foremost option for a slayer,” the grandfather concluded, “And I trust the church, for as long as I am religious.”

A deep sigh from the grandmotherly figure concluded the short but highly disputing conversation. A couple of seconds later, Zaelro sensed imminent danger- the old couple was exiting the chamber, and that meant where he was standing. A quick dive into the bush completely hid the boy from the old couple’s aging eyesight, and only when the light was off and the silhouette of the wearied couple faded into the consuming night that Zaelro breathed of relief. He was safe, at least for now, although the notion of being under suspicion of being a vampire and the fear of being suddenly impaled by holy-water-blessed hunter knives weren’t at all attractive. However, his revolting tummy wasn’t that satisfied, and every now and then he felt as if it was pinching him from the inside, asking why he didn’t barging and ask for food when he still could with loud grumbles.

”Shut up, you hungry thoughtless stomach of mine,” scolded Zaelro mildly, ”You could have had both of us framed as vamps, or worse, killed!”

However, it was time his tummy got its share of indulgence as well, as Zaelro slipped quietly into the dark kitchen, turned on the small red light, and tiptoed towards the fridge. The next day, his host family would be amazed to see half of the fridge gone for no apparent reasons…

******


Normally, Zaelro’s midnight snack would often end him up in a state of finger-licking pleasure and sweet dreams, but obviously he had overdone it that night. One whole fried chicken, two packs of instant noodles and a full glass of milk meant that he wouldn’t able to sleep any time soon, due to an immense cramp in the tummy. Furthermore, an eight-hour sleep that he had sported previously was sufficient for him to keep bright and awake for another twenty four hours, and there was simply no way he could close his eyes again. It was then that his childish urge to explore got hold of him, and Zaelro quietly tiptoed back to his room, but not to get a sleep. Rather, he silently grabbed his scratch notebook, his pencil, an eraser, tugged them all into his enormous jacket pocket, and crept out of the place as silently as he went in. This time of day, he would expect all the would-be-muggers and thugs to have gone to sleep as well, and thusly, a great time to go exploring. His innate supreme sense of direction also meant that even if he got lost, he could easily retrace his way home before sunrise without anyone else’s help.

To an explorer like Zaelro, nothing was significant enough of a barrier. The three-layered lock on the main door of the building was overcome by climbing up to the first floor, sliding down the slanted roof carefully, grabbing a branch sticking out in his reach, and dropped down safely on the ground. And the massive lock on the front gate of the mansion was bypassed simply by climbing over the wall with the aid of a thrown-away earthen pot. In due time and without any injury apart from a tiny bruise caused by careless monkey-barring, Zaelro was out and ready to roam. To avoid instances as what happened yesterday, Zaelro was determined to map down every single bypasses and side passages in the neighborhood before dawn and the thugs woke up.

However, it didn’t take too long before Zaelro strayed from his original purpose, completely entranced by the beauty of the city at night. In some way, the patriotic Britons could but admit that the town he was staying in was even better than his beloved Manchester in some ways. The quaintness of the streets at night, with just sufficient light to keep the place illuminated, as opposed to the flaring light and bustling nightlife of a Western city, as well as the light fragrance of flowers in the horizon… all was extremely mesmerizing to the Western traveler looking for a change. Zaelro by now was even surer than on his arrival that he would be a jackass if Japan wouldn’t make millions of pounds in terms of tourist revenue per year from this paradise of a town.

As the soft, bluish moonlight shone in unison with the balanced, man-made street light on the lone figure of the traveler, Zaelro quickly found a need to discard his cartography equipment, take a sit, and observe the beauty of artificial scenario at its best. Quietly relieving himself of the bulky equipment, Zaelro sat down on a sideway bench, and took a deep breath. For a moment, he was relieved of all the other discomforts and scares that the day had given him. No longer did he care about a certain bronze-clad hoplite convincing him that he was a demigod on an important mission, or about a bumbling vampire slayer whose zeal, and perhaps love as suggested by his grandparents, were watching him or even about the mysterious “vampire” stuffs going about around him. It was time to ease them all, and start enjoying the scholarship that he earned justly…

Or at least that was until he heard a scream in the surrounding, resounding in the midnight atmosphere like a haunting howl.

Completely startled by the unexpected noise, Zaelro was still able to somewhat analyze it to try to get a general picture. It was a loud, terrified scream, at the top of the voice of whoever it was from, and just about any watcher of classic horror movies could know more than well what could possibly have caused that scream, either a life-threatening situation, something extremely frightening, or both. In this case, judging from the tone and loudness of the voice, Zaelro could conclude that the last scenario was most probable. However, Zaelro didn’t have to speculate for too long, for in a matter of minutes, the situation had quickly become clear as day, with an unmistakable sound of hasty footsteps approaching, followed by a vague, but sharp laughter in the same direction. For as much as his imagination could take him, Zaelro was convinced that someone was being killed, and taken over by curiosity, Zaelro ventured towards the direction of the various sounds to investigate, in spite of all possible dangers.

It was only when he had turned into a dark, shadowy corner of the street touched by the light of neither the lampposts nor the shimmering moon that Zaelro began to see what a big mistake he had made. There, on the ground just a couple of yards from him, lay the corpse of a middle-aged businessman, his horrified expression hidden in the dead of night, but deducibly his last moment had been filled with untold terror. Yet, the worst thing was not that he was dead, but rather what killed him. Apparently the offender was there as well, slumping over the carcass of the unfortunate, his face over the victim’s head. The bloody liquid dripping from the neck of the slain on the ground could only suggest one thing, according to Gothic legends…

“Vampire!” Zaelro made the biggest mistake by saying out loud, and by the time he realized his mistake and covered his mouth, he had already alerted the murderer to his presence. A second later, Zaelro was made conscious of what kind of blunder he had made. The vampire, unmistakably representative of his kind, with a dark black coat, fangs shining in what feint light that illuminated him, and a visage sparkling with murderous glints, slowly rose from his feast of blood, and responded to the realization of an unexpected guest with a malicious grin. A cold chill ran down Zaelro’s spines, as the British teen realized what kind of trouble he had gotten into this time.

“Another prey,” the sullen, malicious and bloodthirsty tone of the vampire alone was enough to scare an average person half to death, and as he spoke, the blood dripping from the tips of his fang was even more frightening, “See what kind of luck I have ran into this time…”

With extreme speed, before Zaelro could realize the movement, the vampire had taken off and flew to Zaelro’s back, effectively cutting his only retreat to the light, leaving his only choice being to turn deeper into the dark alley to save his neck. Unconsciously Zaelro backed off into the shadow, with the hunting beast moving slowly and menacingly towards him at exactly the same pace, as if feeding on his unspeakable terror at the moment. It was now that Zaelro realized the one biggest mistake of a new town. Yes, it could be quaint and peaceful. Yes, it could be free from the bustles and hustles of a busy city. But when something bad happened to you, you could scream for a day and a half and no one would come to save your life. As a matter of fact, Zaelro had touched the alley’s dead end far before he realized that screaming for help wouldn’t help at all.

“Nowhere to run, human?” grinned the vampire, “I suppose two doses of yummy, tasty blood in a day wouldn’t hurt…”

At the moment, Zaelro was standing, alone and with his life almost on the vampire’s dish, in a large, dark, haunting cul-de-sac that smelt faintly of the blood from the last kill. Without anywhere else to go, Zaelro could but helplessly look towards his untimely and not at all attractive demise in the form of a bloodthirsty inhuman creature of the night...

"As of now, we have led our armies here to help you with your quest as well as our raw power. Sire, our armies and ourselves are at your disposal, and we will do whatever you order us to. Also, if there is anything that you would like us to help with, to ease your daily worries and anxieties until victory day, we would be very proud to lend you our capabilities and soldiers."

The thought of what the mysterious Oredin had told him the day before suddenly sparked to Zaelro’s mind as the deathly figure of the vampire closed in on him. As little as he believed in what the so-called Thermopylae hoplite spoke, at that life-and-dead scenario, hope may lie within the faintest idea of it all. Without thinking more, Zaelro called out aloud, almost at the peak of his voice.

“Oredin? Oredin! Help me! Quick!” further fueled by massive amount of adrenaline pumped into his veins, Zaelro’s voice became so strangely powerful, it actually startled the attacking vampire for a split second. And in that split second, what may appear to have been a tasty meal turned out to be a complete and deadly nightmare for the inhuman beast. A loud, spirited, invigorating trumpet blew in the distance was the first sign of what was to come. Before the vampire could further respond, another voice, three times louder and infinitely more threatening than Zaelro’s distress call, sounded in the same direction, signifying something disastrous to himself.

“Children of Sparta, attack! Hetairoi on the left, Peltasts on the right, the rest, follow me! For Lord Zaelro Fastoff!” the voice sounded, ordering his comrades, “Show this vile creature the power of the proud Phalanx of Greece!”

The unaware vampire turned back, only to meet the horror of his life: In seconds, the empty alleyway the minute before was full of troops, ready to charge at any time at him. A closer look revealed that the ranks of soldiers before him were divided into three distinctive lines. The frontline, on the left, was filled with a dozen fancily dressed, swift yet lightly armed and armored cavaliers, whose strong and healthy steed conveyed a message of extreme speed. At the back, in the right flank, were another rank of shielded skirmishers armed with bunches of lightweight, yet sharp and accurate javelins ready to launch any time. But what awed the vampire the most was the center of the block of newcomers. There, a solid, five-by-five block of heavily armored infantrymen were standing shoulder by shoulder, in a close, combat-ready formation. Distinguished by extremely heavy bronze armor, thick, intertwining round hoplon shields, and heavy fifteen-feet long spears held in a row that resembled a spiny wall of blades, the power and discipline of the main combat force was unspeakably imposing.

This time, overwhelmed by the number of the attackers, the vampire was the one being driven back in fear. Realizing his chance, Zaelro quickly dashed towards the rank of warriors to seek protection. Upon seeing his move, from the ranks of soldiers, the commanding figure, a hoplon-wielding, spear- brandishing, bronze-armored warrior moved forward, bowed on one knee, ceremoniously stood his spear upright, and spoke, still bowing deeply,

“Sire, we have come late once again, please forgive us,” Oredin’s low, yet responsible and spirited voice gave Zaelro the message of complete safety, “We shall apologize by bringing you the head of this vampire!”

“Well, I can say that you guys saved my life twice today,” Zaelro breathed deeply, wiping the sweat off his forehead, “Thanks a great deal!”

Looking at the vampire, apparently quite shocked by the sudden change, Zaelro spoke loudly, like giving an order,

“Soldiers of Oredin’s! As you can see, this vampire has slain an unfortunate, innocent man today. If left unchecked, he would go on killing people, leaving their children and spouse weeping in pain of irreplaceable loss, leaving the people in terror, wrecking havoc on the foundations of the human society! We must deal with him, here and now!”

Coincidentally, most of Oredin’s soldiers originated from the Spartan martyrs of the Greco-Persian wars of the ages past, and they knew all too well what it was of a town to be razed by Persian raiders, of the innocent being slain and of their lands and people ravaged by inhuman invaders. The inspiration that Zaelro’s speech brought about was more than enough for them to swing into battle with the top spirit. In a matter of mere seconds, with nowhere else to run, the vampire succumbed to a quick defeat. His superhuman strength was of no use this time, since the celestial soldiers of the 25th Valhallan Regiment were themselves far from the ordinary.

In the end, the quick clash resulted in the vampire being struck down, his body slashed by hundreds of cavalry sword swings and impaled by twenty-five hoplite spears and dozens more of javelins empowered by Greek fire. With the last bit of strength flowing out of him in the stream of blood flowing out of his body through the hundreds of holes punched in by Oredin’s soldiers, the vampire collapsed to the ground, his eyes still bewildered from the sudden happening.

“This… can’t be… happening… to… me…” was the vampire’s last word as he collapsed on the ground. Oredin promptly ended his despicable existence by a quick swipe of his gladius, severing the creature’s head.

“This is for those who would harm Lord Zaelro,” spitted the Hoplite in spite as he tossed the vampire’s head on the ground.

Then, turning to his lord, Oredin knelt down again. Following his example, the proud Companion Cavalry under his leadership quickly dismounted and followed suit, after which the rank of his armored Hoplites and Peltasts did likewise.

“Please issue your punishment, sire,” Oredin spoke in a self-criticizing tone, “We have failed you twice this day, and that cannot be forgiven.”

“Punishment? Forgiveness? What are you talking about?” Zaelro, after a short moment of confusion at the sudden movement, burst out laughing, “I mean, come on, you guys, you saved me from being beaten to a bloody pulp this morning, and now you saved me from having all my blood drained from my systems and/or being turned into another parasitic blood-sucking monster! If anything, this was caused by my being such an idiot to not follow instruction and stick my nose into other people’s business! Stand up!”

Loud clattering of metal followed Zaelro’s “stand up” as the soldiers slowly rose to their feet. If anything, no precedent event in his life had satisfied his ego as much as that.

”C’mon, Zaelro, don’t you EVER let that come into your head!” Mentally pinching himself, Zaelro thought out, almost aloud, as if reminding himself. Zaelro then realized that the group’s commander, Oredin, was still down on his knees.

“Lord Zaelro, I hope you have had your consideration of our offer,” not standing up, Oredin spoke ceremoniously. Being caught off guard, Zaelro was speechless for some seconds. As he thought before, the decision was difficult to consider, let alone to make.

Zaelro’s mind quickly flew back to the major happenings of that day. He was unintentionally warned that vampires were on the loose. He had seen a victim slain by one of those, and almost got killed by that very beast. If anything, the town that he felt he had grown so attached to only in the few days he was there was being threatened. Surely he could not turn away from its plight, even if he didn’t have any power at all. But he had great powers, and he knew it.

”With great powers come great responsibilities.”

Those lines, as he could remember from a comic book he had read, still echoed in his head. The problem was, would he be able to take on that responsibility? Zaelro pondered for a long time, and time seemed to have frozen has he bent his neck, cupped his forehead and racked his brain hard. Surely someone had to do something, but who, and what? What if he took on that responsibility? It wasn’t at all an impossibility, let alone…

”You are a demigod, sire.”

It looked like there was no other choice. He didn’t become a demigod for no reason, did he? Regardless of the risks and dangers, it appeared that his path was already set, and there was no turning back now. Zaelro then bent down, signaling Oredin to stand up, and then, looking straight into his eyes, spoke with the most conviction he could garner at that point in time,

“Oredin Kaledon of the 25th Valhallan Regiment, I accept your offer. I will take control of your units and your brethrens, and lead you on whatever mission fated for me to take, and I shall do my best to make sure that I fulfill my role, as a demigod, and as a regiment commander.”

“Very well, sire,” Oredin said, and then removed his sheathed gladius, the same one that had just beheaded the offending vampire, before ceremoniously handing it over to the teenage demigod, “This blade is the Gladius of the Regiment Commander, symbolic of your commandment and leadership of my brethrens and myself. We truly wish that from this moment, our unit, the 25th Valhallan Regiment, shall have a glorious tale of great deeds and exploits under your leadership!”

Then, turning to his soldiers, Oredin shouted,

“Hooray for Lord Zaelro, Commander of the 25th Valhallan Regiment!”

“Hooray! Hooray! Hooray!” was the resounding exclamation of joys of the various units in the detachment. It was the first time in his life that he had felt such feelings of pride and specialness in his life. It was also the beginning of Zaelro’s fated war against the feared vampire lord called Reglay von Gendamme…

******

DF  Post #: 5
11/7/2008 1:52:38   
Argeus the Paladin
Member

Chapter 5
A Grim Revelation


Zaelro came to class the next day with a sleepy, sunken pair of eyes and a continuously yawning mouth. No surprise, he wasn’t able to sleep the previous night, nor was he able to afford one. For the two hours following his being attacked by the vampire and his soldier’s slaying of the latter, Zaelro was busy discussing the business at hand with his five lieutenants including how to effectively keep the army under control, how to summon them, and what missions to use them on. And for the last three hours of the night, the Briton was unable to get into the room he called his. Having resorted to go out exploring too hastily previously, Zaelro forgot the vital issue of getting back into the house. Climbing the stone wall to get into the complex was no problem, but flying up the fifteen-feet-high window from which he slid down earlier was a different matter entirely. All what Zaelro could do for all that time was to sit down on the cobbled path of the household’s vast garden, shone upon by a moonlight that was no longer romantic, and left to ponder with the various stuffs he had to do in the days that followed…

”According to the Archangel Argeus Sunrise, the valued Gespenst Set has been stolen by Reglay’s henchmen. He is also rumored to have taken the Colossus Set, defeated the Terran Gatekeeper God in battle, and made his way back to Earth with all the Six Prime Treasures save for Aurora Set,” reported Lord Jonathan, “The only thing that he didn’t manage to complete in the latest development is to gather all the prime treasures into his possession.”

“Believe it or not, I didn’t understand a thing you have said,” Zaelro scratched his head, “He made it away with five out of six Prime Treasures, right? How come he couldn’t gather them all?”

“The skirmish with the Terran God of Darkness after this grand theft was indecisive, and the vampire unit dispatched to gather the treasures lost hold of them. As a result, scattered through the gateway between Earth and Terra, now the lost pieces of the Prime Treasures have found their way here, and precisely, in the vicinity of this township,” Oredin explained, “The entire process is difficult to fully comprehend, sire, but in short, as of today, whatever pieces of the Prime Treasures that Reglay has failed to cover are all around us, in this small city.”

“Not sure if I get it all,” Zaelro spoke, hand still scratching his forehead, but his voice much closer to understanding than before, “But that must mean we must act quickly to gain ground.”

“Precisely, sire,” Oredin replied.

“But where should I go first? I mean, there aren’t even the tiniest bits of clues, are there?” Zaelro questioned hastily, “How could we probably play the detective game without clues?”

“The angel has spoken, sire, and his will is that he would give you the precise hints and instructions when needed,” Oredin concluded, “Before that, even us do not have much information of use to you.”


At least, Zaelro knew no angel would help him well enough when he came to class without 100% of his mind. Worse still, if he was in class and not armed with 100% of his right mind, that is.

“Today our lesson is on Geography of Northern England,” the old, wrinkled teacher’s boring voice sparked a series of yawns and mocking expressions from the class. Not too bothered with those lessons, Zaelro slumped down on the table, his head between his folded arms in a classic telltale look of absolute exhaustion.

“Hey, Mr. Englishman,” Zaelro felt a sharp pinch on his arm, even though the lack of sleep had doused his senses a great deal, followed by a rather mischievous and playful voice from the table above, “Still awake?”

“Sure,” Zaelro replied unconditionally with yet another large yawn, “What’s the matter?”

Having been to school for but a day, Zaelro had already known all too well whose voice it was. The “number one skirt-chasing, teacher-mocking, class-ditching loudmouth in this class to have as my best friend,” as so reported by Takashi, known by the name of Nataka Shion. His flamboyant red hair and pseudo-stylish appearance could but escalate the impression of a faux player, or maybe that was just Zaelro’s opinion, which stood in stark contrast with his tablemate. Apparently, the girl he called a tablemate was the representative of anything Westerners found attractive in Eastern ladies: long, silky black hair, cute eyes that almost always opened wide innocently, and a tendency to stay introverted yet passionately caring. Whosoever arranged his place right beside the best looking young lady of this pandemonium of a class, in Zaelro’s opinion, must have been either blind or equally mischievous.

“Lucky you,” grinned the redhead troublemaker, as he batted his eyes at the eye candy beside him, his low and soft voice purposely lengthened, “Tsubame doesn’t seem to understand this boring-as-hell lecture and needs your help.”

Zaelro gave out an even bigger yawn, or so he thought he did. Yes, Tsubame Hitoshi was definitely cute, but at this time of the day, he couldn’t care more about her, or lesson, or anything. After all, had girls ever been his concern since birth? Video game, warfare and history, yes. Girls and flirting, no.

“Look, guys, I’m tired. Gone out exploring the brilliant streets of Sankaku for the duration of last night, and got locked out of home when I came back,” Zaelro said tiredly, “Had it not been for the quiz in the last period I would have called it a day, quit class, grab a pillow and play Garfield until late night.”

Zaelro then rose his chin unconsciously, and the next thing that came to him was that his three neighbors, Takashi, Nataka and Tsubame were staring at him as if he were an escaping experiment object straight from Area 51 or a strange beast that has broken into class- that is, both with horror and admiration.

“Hey, guys, what’s wrong?” this time it was Zaelro who was confused, “Why look at me like that? Is there dirt on my face?”

“You… you… you went out last midnight?” Takashi gasped, and had it not been for his perceivable astonishment, Zaelro would be forced to believe he had another of those common asthma strokes again.

“Yeah. Climbed out of the window and couldn’t climb back in, and that’s all,” shrugged Zaelro, still not getting the picture, “What’s so surprising?”

“Fastoff-san, you are not lying, are you?” when those words escaped Tsubame’s lips, Zaelro realized that the whole business was getting out of control.

“Of course not! Do I look like a liar?” Zaelro spoke coolly, trying to brush the talk aside, but failed.

“Man, you have any idea what is happening in the streets these days at night, Mr. Englishman?” Nataka raised his voice sharply, “They say there are vampires on the prowl, sucking blood off those who wander around at night! In the past week alone the cops had found like, a dozen corpses drained of blood lying all around the place, and the rumors of an evil being preying on this city of our is spreading like wildfire!”

“You shouldn’t so frighten Fastoff-san,” Takashi chastised mildly, “Don’t ruin the newcomer’s expression of our town.”

”Reglay von Gendamme?” Zaelro thought silently, gritting his teeth and clenching his fist as his everyday holier-than-thou attitude kicked in, ”That is what I call unforgivable.”

“Really, Fastoff-san, you should not go out at night these days. You could very easily get yourself among the victim count!” Tsubame spoke softly and caringly.

“Maybe it is just common homicide…” Zaelro said somewhat loudly, trying to drive the conversation elsewhere. It was then that he learnt that speaking loudly in a lesson taught by a grumpy old Japanese teacher would be the least thing on Earth that he should do.

“Fastoff-san!” roared the old teacher at the peak of his voice, “Come up here immediately!”

The sudden, threatening tone of the man in charge thundered across the room like a sudden atomic bomb blast out of the blue moon, and before Zaelro had enough time to comprehend the situation and assess his damage, the whole class had diverted their peering stares at him, and to top it with, the menacing glare of sheer communicable evilness of the lecturer was spine-chilling. In various corners of the class, small mutterings ranging from a commentary “He’s in trouble” to the humorously ridiculing “Bye bye, Englishman” to the advisory “say sorry to save your life” could be heard in the silent background, but to Zaelro, all of them mingled together in a disturbingly ear-aching way. Being half-asleep and half-awake at that time, Zaelro couldn’t differentiate between them, nor could he draw up a sufficient amount of fear to start shuddering and stuttering before the threatening teacher like the old man thought he should.

“Fastoff-san, could you please,” the old teacher said sarcastically, “tell me and the rest of your honorable classmates, what are the primary demographic features of the city of Manchester?”

Only the heavenly beings could understand what had come over Zaelro at that time, but from what he displayed after that, anyone could readily translate his behavior as defiantly calling it quit. Looking straight into his teacher’s eyes, Zaelro began his speech.

“The city of Manchester, which I call my place of birth, has a total area of 44.7 square miles, or 115.65 kilometer squares. We have a total of 458,100 people living within that area, which sports a density of 9880 per square mile. Whites are the majority, with 77.5% of total population, and the rest is divided disproportionately between Asians, Black and other minorities, among which Southern Asians are the norm,” Zaelro recited like reading a poem, based entirely on his lessons at home that he had read more than he could remember. Little did he realize that his teacher’s jaw dropped almost flatly on the ground as he continued his recital, having apparently expected him to stay silent and thusly accuse and chastise him of talking in the class.

“And…” Zaelro went on, but the grumpy lecturer had certainly had enough.

“Okay, enough, enough! Shut up already! You made noise in my class, and now you… you…” yelled the teacher, this time in the form of an uncontrollable scream, “Get out of this room! Now!”

With a firm movement of the arm and eyes opening wildly in anger, the teacher forcefully pointed at the classroom door, triggering a vast, resolute gasp within the various denizens of the room. Zaelro slightly flinched, but what he did next was to just coolly follow the command anyways.

******


If anything, being asked to get out of the lesson was yet another excuse for Zaelro to reclaim his lost hours the previous night. In seconds following the departure, Zaelro found himself leaning his head against the wall and fell asleep-standing. The sweet scent of the potted flowers on the corridor as well as the complete silence in the surrounding made falling asleep even easier, and in due time, the British teen was thrown back to the realm of dreams, which had pretty much drifted off his control in the past few days. This time, it went even further.

Unlike the last few dreams in which the teenager was playing the role of an observer of sort, this time, Zaelro was brought into a vastly consuming ground devoid of anything significant. Looking closely at where he was, the dreamer could see that the ceiling, the floor and the wall were completely white, adjoining together such that Zaelro felt he was being trapped in a chromatic sphere of the color white. The solidity of the color and the feeling of being alone in a vast space of a prison were claustrophobic at most, and haunting at least. It wasn’t long before Zaelro started to panic and run around looking for a way out of that vast meadow of emptiness. No use- like a hamster’s wheel, the white background devoid of any beings seemed to follow him indefinitely without any possible way out. However, a sudden voice sounded just when Zaelro was on the verge of complete panic, shaking him back to his senses.

“Zaelro Samuel Fastoff,” the voice echoed upon the background, “I am glad that you have come.”

“Wha… Who, or what are you?” Zaelro spoke, not being able to well conceal his shivering knees, “Where am I?”

“I used to be known as the Prince Paladin of the Terran kingdom of Hadrius,” the voice went on, resoundingly powerful, yet still mild and comforting, “But now I am referred to as the Special Class Light Angel, Ambassador of the Terran God of Light to Earth. They call me Argeus Elmarian Sunrise.”

“Argeus Sunrise? Aren’t you…” Zaelro turned around and back again, trying to orientate the speaker, “Hey! Where are you?”

“The situation hasn’t yet allowed me to show myself completely,” Argeus’ voice spoke calmly yet decisively, “Every now and then, I would come by to drop you a notice or so, and I would like you to keep in mind just that.”

“Why do I have to believe you?” Zaelro questioned defiantly.

“Do you believe Oredin Kaledon and his men?” Argeus asked rhetorically.

“I… I do, somehow… the pieces do fit together.” Zaelro replied, between short pauses of hesitation, “What they spoke made some sense, at least.”

“Precisely. I see you have taken the Commander’s Gladius of the 25th Valhallan Regiment,” said Argeus, “You must have had your decision. And I congratulate you for making a sound one.”

“I was just doing what I should do,” Zaelro replied, slightly blushing, “Those vampires are running around sucking blood off people and I think I should do something about it.”

“But you don’t know what to do yet,” said Argeus preemptively, “Nor do you have a clue of how to intercept the lost treasures of Terra and stop Reglay from laying his hands on them.”

“Why… why did you know?” Zaelro rolled his eyes.

“Zaelro Samuel Fastoff, I am the one who dispatched the Valhallan Regiment to help you on your quest,” reminded Argeus, “I know far more than what you may think, as of present.”

“Why don’t you get rid of Reglay von Gendamme instead, if you know so much?” questioned Zaelro, still looking around fruitlessly.

“That is among what you need not know at the moment,” Argeus replied, “All what you need to know now is that we are on the same boat.”

“Could you possibly give me a hint or two on how to solve this difficult problem?” asked Zaelro, staring at the ceiling.

“I can give none as of now, but I promise you will get your hint when you need it. For now, I am your informant, and you are my executor. That is how we shall work together,” explained Argeus, “Currently, there is just one thing you must know on your mission.”

“What is it?” Zaelro asked hastily.

“Regardless of what you are told, assume, or even see with your own eyes, remember that the sickly boy named Takashi Minamoto is not one of your enemies, and will never be,” Argeus spoke, “He would make an extremely valuable ally if you know how to act, but he could totally ruin everything we have been planning if you don’t.”

“What? What has Takashi to do with this?” Zaelro dropped his jaw in complete bewilderment.

“You will find out, Zaelro, you will find out about him in due time,” Argeus said, “In due time, take care, and as I said, never, EVER forget that Takashi Minamoto is your friend, not foe. Under no circumstance are you to forget about it.”

“But… but…”

“I can say no more as of now, Zaelro. You must find out the rest, until further notice,” Argeus said bluntly.

Zaelro opened his mouth, prompting to speak, but all of the sudden, his mumbled voice no longer sounded clearly for some reason. No sooner had Argeus the Paladin Angel muttered his last word than the solid white background started to melt into a stream of semi-liquid substance that collapsed on Zaelro, flushing him away. The sudden flood took place so quickly that Zaelro’s only possible reaction was a mouth wide open with a large gasp. Before long, Zaelro in the dream had been totally washed away by the violent tsunamic torrent of the unknown substance…

“Fastoff-san?” a feminine, soft, trembling voice pouring into Zaelro’s ears pulled him back to reality. The teen in question slowly opened his eyes, and even when it was still blurry from a prolonged dream, the silhouette of a kind, caring and anxious face still appeared rather clearly before his eyes. However, it wasn’t before a couple of blinks and a head shake to clear up his view that Zaelro recognized the slick-black strands of long hair signature of his beauteous neighbor on the front desk. Another blink to clear off the excess fluid off his pupils revealed that he was just right.

“Tsubame?” Zaelro asked, pushing himself up. Only then did he realize that he was lying on a white, warm sheet, in a similarly white surrounding analogous to his dream.

“Where am I?” Zaelro clutched his head to counter a sudden surge of pain.

“In the clinic, idiot!” a cheeky and mischievous voice signature of Nataka Shion answered in the girl’s place, “You literally passed out while carrying out your punishment. Almost made me think you are another Takashi.”

“Passed out?” Zaelro rolled his eyes, “I thought I was just taking a short nap to get Furosawa-san’s lecture off my mind…”

“Talking about that old sucker,” Nataka replied full of enthusiasm, “You saved us all from that boring old piece of cheese, Mr. Englishman! You maddened him half to death, and that old sack of bones couldn’t take it much longer than that. If only you could see how absolutely hilarious it was for the most distinguished Geography teacher of Akari High,” he deliberately sarcastically emphasized the phrase most distinguished Geography teacher of Akari High, “to barge out of the room as red as a beetroot without being able to say a word! I’d bet all my savings that he would get a heart attack or stroke very soon!”

“Anyway,” added Tsubame, “When Furosawa-san rushed out of the room, he tripped on you and fell. It was then that he realized you were barely breathing at all.”

“Yeah, you beat me on that one, Tsubame-chan. That old cheese turned from red to white as a sheet in mere seconds!” laughed Nataka, “I was really hoping that he could turn blue so that we could have a neon shop-window light on display in midday, but oh well.”

“And so I was brought here?” Zaelro asked curiously.

“Mmm,” nodded Tsubame, “They were about to send an ambulance to rush you to the City Hospital had you not waken up.”

“Get out of the way, students,” the call of who appeared to be the head nurse basically brushed both Tsubame and Nataka aside. Zaelro was then faced with a middle-aged, short, plumpish and overweight sphere of a nurse, pushing a trolley filled with countless medications of all sorts. A swift wave of the hand signaled the two visitors to take leave, as Zaelro underwent the last of all medical procedures…

Five minutes, two colorful tablets and a spoonful of semi-brackish, semi-sweet medication later, Zaelro was finally discharged from the clinic. His head still swirling somewhat, Zaelro walked past the door, and towards his two unexpected visitors chit-chatting happily by the wall.

“I’m out at last,” sighed Zaelro, “Yet that medication is making me puke.”

“Can’t help it,” shrugged Nataka, “That global nurse would give that nauseating liquid to just about anyone hospitalized. The biggest barrier to feigning stomachache and skip class, as it is.”

“Global nurse, you said?” Zaelro gasped, “So that plumpish lady did get a Harvard degree or something as well?”

“No, Fastoff-san,” giggled Tsubame meaningfully, “When Nataka-chan refer to any woman at all as global, he meant that she looked like a globe.”

A hearty laugh ensued between the trio, but so long as Zaelro had other thoughts, he just couldn’t laugh comfortably. It was just moments before he realized something abnormal going on.

“Wait a second,” Zaelro spoke, looking around, “Where on Earth has Takashi gone to?”

“The park,” Nataka lifted his eyebrow, “He goes there every afternoon. The air there freshens up his lungs a bit, he said. But today he is leaving really early. Almost makes me question his absence.”

“Which means this afternoon I have fair Tsubame-chan all for myself!” Nataka looked at his female friend and blinked meaningfully, resulting in a knock on the head followed by clear, innocent giggle from the latter.

Totally oblivious of the event, Zaelro sank his head deeply. Certainly, what had happened in the past twenty-four hours were more than disturbing to him to find such jokes funny any more. And something else about Takashi that he had heard was definitely worth a look.

“The myths surrounding the Minamoto clan should be enough to turn away any demon hunter that this country has ever seen, and now there are vampires as well.”

“Hmm… I was wondering if anyone could tell me about the curse of the Minamoto clan,” Zaelro asked in a sullen tone that stood in stark contrast with the youthful and playful voices of his two new friends, immediately extinguishing the latter. The resulting silence and the piercing stares that his friends gave him almost made Zaelro regret having spoken.

“Where did you get that into your mind?” gasped Nataka.

“Rumors travel kind of fast,” Zaelro avoided the question, “And as of now I have heard at least three different, distinctive people talk about this curse. Just wondering if Takashi is related to it in any way at all.”

“You know what you are talking about, pal?” Nataka said, his tone now concentrated into a dense, dead serious tone, “We would like to avoid those things if we can.”

“But the whole town knows about it.” Zaelro spoke without thinking twice, “So what is it that required that much of secrecy?”

“Those talkative people are going to utterly spoil Takashi-chan’s life, I tell you, as if they didn’t know what kind of hell he is living in,” Nataka almost yelled, “But no, sir, this entire town knows that he’s cursed, his sister’s cursed, even their pet puppy is cursed, and that they could go join their parents in the underworld any minute now, and they wouldn’t give a damn and would like to make the whole world know it. As if, sir, as if.”

“Sorry,” Zaelro said, genuinely regretful, “I just wanted to help.”

There was a moment of silence as Nataka and Tsubame blinked at each other, followed by a certain nod of approval.

“There is a particular reason that Takashi-chan was arranged to sit in the back table,” Tsubame finally said, “Yes, you are right, he is cursed. And yes, most of our classmates are afraid of him, his family, his family’s curse, or all of the above. Except for us.”

“So what was it like?” Zaelro asked.

“The Minamoto clan of Sankaku, in contradiction to this town, has hundreds of years of history. For some reason, every member of this clan, since the year eighteen-long-ago, has been a genius and a money magnet. Extremely successful business, constant wealth, and a large mansion to live in, what’s not to envy?” Nataka spoke lowly, “But none of them lived more than fifty years. And remember that Japan’s life expectancy is tipping the 80s these days.”

“That’s not proof of a curse,” remarked Zaelro, “A hereditary disease may be at work.”

“If you call something in their blood that can cause them to turn into random monsters at certain times of the year and go around killing and dismembering random people a hereditary disease, you could actually win a Nobel Prize for ignorance,” Nataka shook his head, “but that pretty much sums up what was wrong with Takashi-chan. In their generation, as of today, they haven’t displayed much of that side of the curse, as we have been living here for almost a decade now and there haven’t been any weird or unexplainable gruesome murders yet. But the other side of the curse did appear to both him and his younger sister”

“This may be connected to his strange case of asthma,” concluded Zaelro.

“Think for yourself, Mr. Englishman,” nodded Nataka, “Takashi-chan’s father died last year, and left them a mountain of wealth. The best doctors and physicians of this country could wait on his sister and himself until they get rid of all the crappy symptoms they have, if he wanted. And here he is, going to class every day with a lung ready to collapse any minute now. See the absurd lack of logic?”

“Fastoff-san, as you see, Takashi-chan has his own difficulty,” Tsubame said softly, “I hope you would help him as well- he is lonelier than you could believe.”

“I shall do what I can,” Zaelro replied quickly with his signature confident flare on the eyes, “You have my words”

******


As much as Zaelro had promised that he would do whatever it took to help Takashi, what Argeus the Paladin Angel had told him earlier still rang around his mind. Coupled with a strange feeling of restlessness, Zaelro decided that something should be done about that friend of his before any more complication took place.

”Sorry, guys,” Zaelro thought, ”This may not qualify as helping, but we have a lot at stake here around Mr. Minamoto.”

A good distance from his school, in a small, dark alleyway away from any possible peering eyes of the public, Zaelro decided to carry out the ritual without delay. Laying his bag down on the dirty floor, Zaelro retrieved the short sword from the bag’s back compartment, the place where he and his four lieutenants had agreed to keep the Gladius of the 25th Valhallan Regiment. Taking a deep breath, he drew the weapon and rose it parallel to his face, such that its broad blade covers his nose and the middle half of his mouth, so that from a frontal view, the blade would divide his visage into two equal parts, and started speaking like chanting some otherworldly incantations,

“Oredin Kaledon of the Spartan Battalion, 25th Valhallan Regiment! I summon thee, as the commander-in-chief of the 25th Valhallan Regiment, to this place of existence immediately!”

As soon as Zaelro spoke the last word, the space around him started to bend, as the flow of air around the place began to ripple, like what would happen when a pebble is thrown on a previously completely still water surface. In due time, the ripples widened and strengthened in both size and intensity, as if disturbing the very existence of the material and the non-material around the vicinity. Before long, there was a loud thunderclap as a human figure tore through the fabrics of existence, materializing into the space in front of Zaelro. By now, the British teenager had known far too well what the bronze breast plate, bronze hoplon and bronze spear that the newcomer stood for.

“Lord Zaelro, sire,” Oredin’s voice sounded like a bell under his Greek full helm as he bowed deeply to the demigod, “What have you summoned me for?”

“Ah, Oredin Kaledon, I’m glad that you have you have arrived, for we’ve got business cooking now,” Zaelro said firmly upon seeing his faithful comrade appearing, “I need some more information about Takashi Minamoto, the seemingly frail and asthmatic classmate of mine. For many a reason I am extremely convinced that he has something to do with our mission. Do you suggest anyone for a good scout?”

“I suggest Lieutenant General Nicolai Maximovich Peshkov’s company of Don Cossacks, sire,” instantly replied Oredin Kaledon, “For hundreds of years their kind had been prowling the steppes of the Don River with pride, and as a result their speed, agility and sense of tracking is better than anyone else among us.”

“Well then, please summon Nicolai Peshkov as soon as possible,” Zaelro said, “Please tell him to bring along his best, I repeat, best scout for this matter.”

******

DF  Post #: 6
11/10/2008 23:34:31   
Argeus the Paladin
Member

Chapter 6
Life and Death of the Unfortunate Don Cossack


The Valhallan Regiments were semi-autonomous combat groups devised by the deities to carry out missions of top-notch importance in the most direct and effective way possible, whose soldiers were strictly soldiers who had died valiantly and courageously in the various conflicts of the thousands of years of history of warfare. Those soldiers now existed beyond time and space, lodging in their extra-dimensional barracks that transcended all planes of existence, ready to be summoned at any time by their designated commanders. Zaelro was seized by awe the moment he learnt of this- a devout history student keen on the study of warfare throughout the age would know all too well how much this system of extremely advanced logistics could help in long campaigns, if any were to come at all.

Within seconds of his summon order, another time-space rift started to appear in the fabrics of existence of the small, dark alleyway. This time, materializing from the warp rift was a rather familiar face of an early middle-aged, rapier wielding Russian lord, whose rugged features signature of a battle-hardened general completely betrayed his finely groomed aristocratic mustache. Lieutenant General Nicolai Maximovich Peshkov’s appearance on that occasion was drastically different to his previous presence in Zaelro’s room, now that the nobleman had adorned a light breastplate engraved with a familial coat of arms, feathered cap and had a brown, healthy steed to accompany him. Zaelro raised his eyebrow in sheer interest. Apparently that was the commander’s standard battle outfit.

Dismounting upon full materialization, Nicolai Peshkov ceremoniously bowed deeply to the commander-in-chief.

“Sire, greetings and salutations,” the Lieutenant General spoke clearly. “My men and I are ready for operation. Vassiliyevich?”

His words were concluded by yet another warp opening, albeit less rigorous and distorting in terms of magnitude and effect on the surrounding. In significantly less time, from this lesser warp gate emerged another mounted warrior, inferably of minor position in the Valhallan Regiment. A quick glance showed significant differences between this newcomer and the aristocratic general. In sharp contrast with the air of elegance surrounding the battle-hardened general, the first impression of the cavalier was that of savagery and warfare. Reacting to this newcomer’s arrival, Zaelro almost gasped aloud in amazement. The guardless cavalry saber hanging on his side and the army uniform consisting of navy-blue tunic, striped blue pants and crimson-red fleece hat was more than enough distinctive and suggested well enough who he was.

“Red fleece hat, cavalry saber and blue uniform?” with sheer professional interest, Zaelro said enthusiastically even before the soldier had fully materialized. “You must be a Cossack!”

“Sire,” dismounted the cavalier, bowing down upon full manifestation, his voice thundered in a military style, echoing all over the narrow alley. “Sergeant Gregory Korsakov Vassiliyevich reporting in.”

“Stand up, both of you,” said Zaelro. “This is not quite the time for the ceremony.”

“Sire, Sergeant Vassiliyevich is my right-hand man, a loyal soldier, as well as an avid scout, thanking to his Don Cossack heritage. I would trust him with my life that he could complete whatever mission that you give him,” Lieutenant General Peshkov said upon standing up, “Please issue your orders.”

“No doubt. I myself am highly fascinated by the zeal and courage of the Cossacks throughout history,” Zaelro turned to the Sergeant and said sincerely, looking straight into the soldier’s eyes. “As much as I understand that our people had fought vehemently, it was but a conflict of the age long past. I hope that we could leave the past behind and work together to serve the purpose at hand.”

”A natural leader, our commander, a natural leader,” Lieutenant General Peshkov muttered quietly, having been totally taken by surprise. No doubt, Zaelro was talking about the Crimean War, in which their people had been bitter enemies, in which, as the nobleman could recall, he had cut down dozens of British light cavalrymen, and in which Zaelro’s compatriots had been responsible for the demise of his entire unit. Little as the Battalion commander expected his superior to do that, it was no surprise that Nicolai felt an even greater respect for his leader, who was far from the average seventeen-year-old. He blinked to Oredin Kaledon, to which the latter nodded in complete approval.

His Sergeant reacted to that sign of friendliness and mutual understanding even more fiercely, as the Cossack almost immediately slumped down on the ground in grate.

“Sire, my sword, my skills and my life is yours to command!” exclaimed the Don Cossack with extreme fervor, “Please issue your orders!”

“As I said, stand up. Ceremony is not required in this situation,” Zaelro spoke calmly, and didn’t continue until the rugged form of the Cossack had risen to his feet, “Let us go back to the business at hand. I hope that you have got some idea of what you have to do, don’t you?”

“Yes, sire!” replied the cavalier, “I am to track down the man named Takashi Minamoto, who is probably in the Sankaku City Park as of now, and see what he is up to! I am ready for this mission right here and now!”

“That sums up everything,” nodded Zaelro. “There is just one problem to consider though. With your uniform and your horse, you would be more likely than not to draw the attention of pretty much everyone in this town born with two eyes and curiosity long before you could even reach the park.”

“We have our way to deal with that during missions of espionage, sire” Oredin Kaledon stood forward and spoke. “A cloaking device that we employ would thoroughly disguise our warrior so that to the bare eyes of normal human beings they would appear like what they expect to see rather than what they are.”

“Once again, Oredin?” Zaelro asked in amazement, “So in this case what does it do?”

Oredin Kaledon snapped his finger, to which the Don Cossack nodded, and produced from his pocket a small circular orb, which he then promptly pressed into the hollow point in his overcoat button. To Zaelro’s surprise, nothing happened.

“I don’t see any changes,” questioned Zaelro, “Are you sure it is working?”

“My mistake, sire,” Oredin replied, “as this device only disguises our soldiers from the peering eyes of the average, everyday human being. However, you are a demigod, and are therefore innately capable of seeing through this disguise. Please take this, sire.”

Oredin then produced a pair of seemingly average goggles and handed it to the commander. Mystified, Zaelro took the object, and what a surprise! Upon wearing it, the first thing that came to him was that the magnificent and savage Don Cossack had disappeared without a trace together with his trusty steed, and in his place now stood a playboy-type Japanese teen mounting a deluxe Honda motor scooter. A bicycle helmet replaced the red fleece hat, and a brand-name leather jacket and jeans appeared where the traditional Cossack uniform was a couple of seconds ago. Finally, the broad, proud and pompous smile stretching upon the visage of the teen, and strands of blond-dyed, neatly combed hair flowing under the bike helm almost managed to convince Zaelro that he was standing in front of a genuine playboy rather than a battle-hardened and valiant Don Cossack of the two centuries past. Zaelro stood there, awed and speechless.

“This is just trickery of the mind, sire,” notified Oredin, “which would be removed as soon as you use your original eyesight of a deity.”

Zaelro removed the glasses, and gasped once more. The playboy had vanished into thin air as if he had never existed in the first place, and the Don Cossack’s heroic form instantly came back into Zaelro’s sight. A few more tries gave the same results: Gregory Vassiliyevich would turn into a Japanese playboy whenever the glass was on, and back into a Cossack as soon as it was off.

“If what I saw shall be what the average citizen of Sankaku would see, I would have no other worries,” smiled Zaelro after the final try. “Sergeant Gregory Korsakov Vassiliyevich, I leave this mission in your hand. Lyubo, bratsi, lyubo!”

A quick nod on behalf of the Cossack meant that Zaelro’s message had been conveyed successfully. With a loud, determined cry, the Don Cossack rode out of the alley, into the twilight of Sankaku, for the mission at hand. Promptly dismissing his two lieutenants, Zaelro now stood alone in the alley; a triumphant smile reigned across his face. Even now the young commander couldn’t believe that he had pulled off such a magnificent performance before two native Russians, for such a perfect outcome.

”See, Mom?” Zaelro thought proudly as the wind blew against his face, ”Who say that learning Russian history, language and culture is useless?”

******


Gregory Korsakov Vassiliyevich sat comfortably on horseback in a dark corner of the park, silently humming a Cossack folk song. In that place, he was absolutely safe- in the form of a playboy Japanese teen smoking cigarette, he and his trusty horse Komandir would no doubt be dismissed as a good-for-nothing kid waiting for his date on a state-of-the-art dandy bike should an oblivious passer-by came. The Cossack patted on his horse’s mane, lighting a cigarette, apparently enjoying whatever he was doing.

However, anyone who was convinced that he was having fun was dead wrong, for a close look would reveal that the soldier’s gaze was completely fixed upon a park bench a dozen yards across from his place, in which a pale, slender and rather unhealthy figure in standard Japanese high school uniform was sitting, or rather, slumping tiredly, his face only propped up slightly by his palms. Whether he was waiting for something, or someone, or anything, Gregory would never know. The only thing he needed to was that this boy was his mission, and with all the honor of a Cossack he would point a pistol at himself before he would see the figure slip away. Not that he should, after all.

It was not difficult at all for the plains dweller to locate his mission. The layout of Sankaku was too easy for Gregory to figure out, and upon reaching the park, Takashi Minamoto’s sickly form sitting still on a bench all alone for hours on end was something difficult to miss. The ease of the mission’s first step was such that Gregory almost felt insulted.

However, completing a mission is normally a completely different matter than just getting to the mission, because in due time, Gregory realized that it was being more of a test of patience that he was taking than a genuine, standard, traditional tracking operation that he was used to. Takashi had sat there for so long, as motionless as a clay statue that Gregory was almost convinced that if he abandoned his post for a couple of minute for a traditional round of vodka, nothing would have happened. However, the call of duty was excessively strong in Gregory, even compared to his peers, and he shrugged off that impression with ease. As a result, by then, Gregory had been sitting there observing for quite a long time, and the lack of activity on behalf of the observed was starting to become boring.

A shimmering, yet faint and weak beam of light shone upon the boredom-ravaged Gregory reminded him of the time. In terms of hours, no less than three and a half should have passed since he first set sight on his target, and nothing had happened yet.

“New moon,” the Don Cossack spoke, temporarily diverting his gaze to the sky, where a shimmering crescent hung high above the starless sky, small, but bright and beautiful, relieving him of the boredom a little. “It was in this kind of night that we all left home and never once returned. It’s been more than a century and a half, right, Komandir?”

The horse slightly nodded, the kind of animalistic approval that a child of the steppe understood more than well. Gregory smiled. To the Cossacks, especially the more seasoned riders, their war horses were anything but a mere ride. And to the spy of the Valhallan Legion, whose horse had charged into battle, won, lost, died and was redeemed with him, the relationship was more brotherly than any other.

“Oh? You are telling me that something important and dangerous will happen tonight?” Gregory asked his steed, upon hearing the soft clopping of its hoof against the cobbled ground. “Worry not, this sword of mine has ran through many enemies, were those Mongols, Turks, Franks or Britons. Rest assured, Komandir, for few could threaten the Cossacks, and fewer could threaten this proud son of the Don!”

Saying so, Gregory drew his shashka so that the faint light of the moon shone upon its silvery surface. It was still sharp after all those years, and certainly the Cossack wasn’t afraid of just about any foe when he had his trusted horse with him.

Gregory Vassiliyevich then returned to his post, and to his astonishment, a drastic new development had taken place. While he was gazing at the skies, a new actor, or rather actress, had entered the scene, strolling leisurely along the cobbled path, enjoying every bit of the late night air about her. By the time Gregory saw this newcomer, she had walked quite a distance, bringing herself within a couple of yards from the silent and motionless Takashi. The first thing Gregory realized was her beauty- she was so stunning that the valiant Cossack scout almost fell off the horse.

The effect was escalated, when the young Cossack, in his early thirties, was reminded that it had been years since he last saw a young woman every bit the opposite of the Cossack’s warlike and savage appearance. The beautiful, well-kept mass of shoulder-length, purely golden hair freely flowing in the late winter wind that the young woman sported, when coupled with her well-defined facial expressions and snow-white complexion proved to be simply mesmerizing. Her wondrous, slender form was further stressed by her gracious long, winter dress and a light overcoat, that which fluttered in the wind in pretty much the same way her hair did. All in all, the gorgeous creature of pure beauty emerged from beneath the faint moonlight as if the early moon had cloaked her in the purest of ethereal silver, like the scenic appearance of beauteous princesses and maidens in Russian folk tales.

Gregory almost drooled when he began an automatic comparison- none of the women in his village, at least when he was alive, could maintain such a slender, Asian form like her. And yet her golden hair and snow-white skin completely destroyed any impression of a native Japanese lady. As much as he realized that he had to keep an eye on the mission object, Gregory couldn’t help but divert ninety percent of his attention to the passing lady instead. It was then that the night’s surprise came crashing on him like a massive avalanche.

To Gregory’s surprise, the seemingly petrified Takashi Minamoto, for some reasons, suddenly opened his eyes wide, such that from a distance the Cossack almost got the feeling that his eyeballs were popping out of their sockets, as blood vessels beneath his pupils started to take shape, visible from a mile away. So threatening the new development was that Gregory unconsciously reached for his sword for self-defense. Yet, no sooner had the Cossack grasped the hilt of his saber than another gasp escaped his lips. The seemingly sickly schoolboy could never have done what he did next, according to Gregory’s perception.

With a swift movement of his arms and lower body, the schoolboy pushed himself out of the bench as soon as the girl was a stride’s length from him, and the next thing that Gregory realized was Takashi, seemingly possessed, lunged at the beauty without saying a word, diving past her figure like the wind, gliding across the path for a couple of yards, before landing on his feet as skillfully as a professional acrobat having just completed an easy trick. Rolling his eyes at the radical development, Gregory was no doubt astonished, but the feeling of surprise quickly turned into horror when he realized the terrified look on the woman’s face as she looked down at her lower abdomen, where blood was trickling down slowly, droplet by droplet.

Time froze as Gregory realized what was happening: the trickling droplets of blood turned into a stream as the woman collapsed on the ground- in halves. As the dead young lady lay still in the pool of blood, Gregory managed to make out that whatever Takashi had done, it had apparently cleaved his victim cleanly into two in a split second, in the way his parents used to tell him how a mysterious Japanese samurai figure by the name Musashi Miyamoto would carry out his katana attacks for one-hit-kills.

There, Takashi stood, a malevolent grin now covering the entire of his lower face, as if taking great pride in the slaying, as if enjoying the scent of blood and death from the brutally murdered. The weak, faltering moonlight upon the pool of blood staining the ground as well as the suddenly inhuman look on the offending visage of the killer added a sense of morbid ghastliness to the atmosphere. Had Gregory not been a warrior so attuned with blood and death, so much of the red liquid glaring under the deathly silver shimmer of the new moon could have made him puke.

For a moment, Gregory didn’t know what had taken over him, but the next thing he realized to be doing was reining Komandir hard on the side, a signal for full-power gallop forward. His sword draw and in hand, the Don Cossack let loose a battle cry as he charged at the sickly murderer at full speed. Perhaps he was afraid of suffering from the same fate and attacked first to gain the upper hand, perhaps his sense of justice had kicked in and ordered him to take action, or maybe it was just the average Cossack’s response when he saw an extremely beautiful lady killed right before his eyes. In any case, in his entire one hundred and seventy nine years of existence, that was the worst, most stupid and last mistake that he had made.

“I see. So we’ve got an eavesdropper, right?” was all what Gregory could hear from the convicted. It was also the last thing that he could ever hear…

******


Zaelro Fastoff walked straight home after the short meeting. After all, the past few days’ experience had shown him that the streets of Sankaku might be more dangerous than it looked or than he would like. In any case, his arrival at home was marked by overhearing the grandmother of the host family rambling about a missing chicken and a plethora of other food from the refrigerator, to which Zaelro snickered and silently tiptoed up his room. It would be quite a long time before they could discover that he was the thief, unless they called the cops, which they wouldn’t.

He had quite a lot of things at hand to do behind the closed doors of his chamber, homework being just one of which. Another thing he needed to do, according to what the “global nurse” reminded him of, was to write up a report to the school’s disciplinary council about what had happened earlier that day. So freaked out he was by that chore that the teen postponed it until very late at night, after dinner and everything else had been done. After all, receiving anything of a disciplinary action against him on the very second day in a new environment was by no means agreeable, and the best Zaelro could do to avoid most of the trouble was by phrasing the report so that it seemed that he carried only half the blame for the unfortunate confrontation with the geography teacher.

”And I do,” Zaelro thought angrily as he bit his pen, ”Yeah, sure, I shouldn’t speak that loudly, but it was Nataka’s fault for raising the matter so lousily!”

Writing the fact out, however, was not as easy as it seemed. For one, the skirt-chaser of his class did start the conversation altogether, but it was his loud mouth that was to be blamed eventually. And more importantly, he knew all too well that it was much easier to destroy a friendship than to build one, and he was now on the first step to build a positive relationship with everyone in the new class. Apparently putting the blame on someone else was not exactly the best way to build his reputation with his friends. But neither would accepting a second-day disciplinary action do well to his reputation with the teaching staff. Basically it would boil down to a matter of choice: Friends, or teachers? A difficult dilemma for the average and not-so-average high-schoolers alike, Zaelro had to admit. As a result, it was almost one hour, and the report-writer hadn’t been able to add a word to his work.

Zaelro was on the verge of throwing his pen and ignore the chore when a whizzing, distorted sound of materials in the background being forcefully displaced sounded right behind him. As much as he had gotten used to this new sound after a variety of confrontations with his Valhallan Regiment, such a sudden development still took him aback slightly. Turning back, Zaelro saw that a soldier of the Valhallan Regiment, probably one under Nicolai Peshkov’s command, as foretold by his Russian fleece cap and cavalry saber strapped to his side. With utmost urgency, the soldier dropped on the ground, kneeling before the commander-in-chief, before removing his cap and sword, and spoke, panting, signifying that something really important had happened.

“Sire, I bear ill news!” exclaimed the soldier, between his breaths.

“What has happened?” Zaelro left his table and turned towards the messenger.

“Sire, we have lost contact with Sergeant Gregory Korsakov Vassiliyevich!” declared the messenger. “His last known location was somewhere in the Sankaku City Park, and it’s been two hours since we received his last report!”

“Two hours?” Zaelro pondered, “Still, no conclusion could yet be deduced…”

“Sire, according to General Nicolai Maximovich Peshkov, in any mission of major importance, we have to report back to HQ on an hourly basis. And for Sergeant Vassiliyevich, his amazing diligence is well known, and normally he would report back to base on a half-hour basis!”

“A report every half hour?” gasped Zaelro. “In that case, maybe your general is right!”

“Sire, he had readied his rescue team,” stated the messenger. “We now await only your command to commence the search for Sergeant Vassiliyevich!”

“You have my words,” Zaelro spoke spiritedly, “We should do whatever we can to save a fine soldier like Sergeant Vassiliyevich!”

In any case, Zaelro realized that he was unable to leave the room. A vision of something like the past night was not really attractive, and besides, he had some other work to tend to. If anything, the only thing he could do then was to stay home and hope them good luck.

“Tell General Peshkov that I am not able to come, but he has my good-luck wish,” Zaelro said quietly, in a tone readily translated as disappointment. Just waiting for that, the messenger quickly disappeared from the room, leaving the place quiet and quaint again. Still, the uneasiness in Zaelro’s mind couldn’t quite be quenched, and the teen’s reaction was to turn on the radio, hoping for a good program on air. If anything, the radio broadcast confirmed the worst.

We interrupt this program to bring you the special report from the Sankaku Police Department. Today, at 9.16 pm, the police patrols of the Central Park district had discovered an abnormal sight in the park. Along the benches in the southern walk, the patrols had found two pools of blood with various blood trails that lead to nowhere. The blood suggests that some extremely violent crime has taken place, but no dead body or body parts have been found. Among the messy scene, the police also found the heavily mutilated and beheaded remains of a Siberian breed stallion of unknown age. Why the horse was there at the crime scene and why it was brutally murdered was also under investigation.

According to our newest report, the blood in the park is confirmed to be human blood, thusly the police has concluded that a violent, likely spree-killing homicide had taken place. Commenting on the significance of today’s new incident and its relationship with the so-called “vampire” rumors in town in the past fortnight, the Sankaku Police Chief, Mr. Fukuo Sanada, stated that there is no clear relationship, but further investigation is still under way. In the meantime, citizens of Sankaku are advised not to leave home at night, unless for absolute necessities…


“A Siberian breed stallion of unknown age? Two pools of blood?” Zaelro asked himself and pondered, before letting out a sigh. “It appears that we have lost a fine soldier…”

******



< Message edited by Argeus the Paladin -- 11/11/2008 0:46:47 >
DF  Post #: 7
11/11/2008 23:55:55   
Argeus the Paladin
Member

Chapter 7
Zeal and Misconceptions


Zaelro switched off the radio and sat down, speechless for a while. Speechlessness soon turned back to anxiety. Maybe it was a mistake. Maybe the Cossack scout was still alive and rescued on time. Or maybe he had left the place entirely before the deed was done. Whatever happened, when there was no news, there is hope for the best.

To calm his worries a bit, Zaelro turned back to his current work at hand concerning the incident report that he was supposed to hand in the next day. However, it didn’t take long before the news of Sergeant Gregory Korsakov Vassiliyevich’s demise officially reached Zaelro Fastoff, for barely had the teen returned to the report than another of General Peshkov’s Cossacks arrived in his chamber with the usual fanfare of distorted dimension.

“Sire, I have arrived to deliver news,” the soldier bowed down deeply upon arrival. The cold, sad and anguish-soaked voice of the Cossack before Zaelro sounded almost haunting as it echoed within the chamber, suggesting that something utterly terrible had taken place.

“Sergeant Gregory Vassiliyevich is… gone, I believe,” Zaelro asked, having already guessed the outcome from the looks of things.

“Yes, sire,” the soldier removed his fleece hat and said solemnly, “We obviously arrived far too late to save him. He was slashed by a blade so sharp that his body was literally dissected into four pieces, and his faithful steed Komandir suffered from the same fate. As of now, we have gathered all of his body parts, as well as the head of his horse, but we were unable to recover the rest, as the Sankaku police have made their move and we were forced to evacuate.”

“Cut to pieces?” Zaelro gasped at the horrid imagery, “Who could probably have the strength or guts to do that?”

There was no verbal answer, but what the soldier did next probably answered the question itself. As he kept his head down, the soldier searched his vest, and finally produced a cloth-wrapped package from his blue vest. Carefully unrolling it, the messenger then revealed what was concealed within the package: A blood-soaked cavalry saber, cleanly sliced into half in pretty much the same way a piece of clay could be dissected by a metal cutter.

“What is this?” Zaelro asked, quite taken aback by the horror as a couple of crimson droplets dripped on the floor.

“Apparently Sergeant Vassiliyevich was taken by surprise. Whosoever that killed him must have had a weapon so strong that it cut right through his blade and his body alike,” explained the messenger, “It is his blood you are seeing, sire.”

“How gruesome,” Zaelro bent his neck, examining the property of the deceased. To think that the blood that drenched the weapon belonged to a man that had been standing before him just a couple of hours ago, totally healthy and very much alive, a feeling of deep regret took over the teenage commander rapidly as he gazed at the broken blade. “This is partly my fault. Had I not sent him on this mission he wouldn’t have…”

“Sire, worry not,” the messenger said, sadly, but determining, “Lord Peshkov has already started the investigation on Sergeant Vassiliyevich’s tragic passing. We hope that by next morning, we would have enough evidence to bring this terrible murderer to light and deal the required punishment.”

A short pause ensued as Zaelro racked his brain. Apparently, the Cossack soldier was waiting for a nod or any other sign of approval on behalf of Zaelro Fastoff for an act of retaliation once the murderer had been found out. In the normal case, yearning for vengeance for the death of a comrade is thoroughly within the norm of a normal human being. However, in this case, neither was the mission at hand an average, earthly one, nor was Zaelro a normal man. His intelligence and his mission specifically forbade him from making any mistake at this stage of the operation.

“Stay right there,” Zaelro said calmly, the content of the speech thoroughly shocked the messenger, “Don’t we have a mission at hand that is far more important than seeking retaliation against Gregory’s murderers? As much as I would like to pass judgement on the culprit, I must ask you to tell General Peshkov that the commander-in-chief would not approve of any hasty action that disregards possible consequences.”

“But… sire…” stuttered the soldier, astonished beyond words.

“I believe I have made myself quite clear, friend,” Zaelro replied slowly, but decisively, “Please send Lieutenant General Peshkov my regards, and my condolence regarding the tragic passing of Sergeant Vassiliyevich. As for now, you are dismissed.”

Still shocked and somewhat disbelieving, the Cossack soldier picked up his hat, bowed to the commander once more, then quietly stepped three steps backward. The dismissal took place rather quickly, and before Zaelro could take his mind off the various happenings in just a few hours, the soldier’s silhouette had vanished in a veil of thin air. Maybe it was just Zaelro, but the pace at which the Cossack disappeared from his sight almost made the young commander regret his decision against spontaneous retaliation.

Knowing that two consecutive sleepless nights would not result in anything good for the mind, the newly appointed commander was nevertheless restless that late night. As much as Zaelro had put up a strong front before the messenger, and as much as he trusted his decision of ordering his general to hold ground, no doubt the passing away of a loyal soldier of his right in the first operation was more than just a shock. It was a thorough disappointment, especially for a young man so proud of his intelligence and strategic thinking like him. Not to mention the guilt- like someone had told him, any failure of the subordinate is partly accountable to the superior. And for a trusted leader, sending his men to their death is clearly not an option.

As the long night dragged on, Zaelro began to doubt his tactical planning prowess, something he had not once doubted ever since he started playing strategy games. As his train of thoughts went on and on, the image of the blood-soaked blade broken in half came back to Zaelro’s mind from time to time like a haunting phantom. When one’s decision could affect the life and death of so many other people under his command, it clearly wasn’t a game any more.

”This is not a game, Zaelro Fastoff. Not a game at all,” the young commander chastised himself, ”You had better learn how to differentiate real life warfare from games before you lead another dozen or hundred more to their doom because of your ineptness.”

Zaelro shook his head hard, as if trying to throw an insect off his hair. The way he had always thought and set out his strategy in video games before was now to be crossed out totally. The “develop a strong economy, expand quickly, and then overrun the enemies with a ten-to-one odd regardless of casualties” tactic that he was so used to was now going to be the bane of his new army, those people who trusted him with their very lives. Would that mean he had to completely eliminate everything he had mastered before?

”As in how real life differs from games,” Zaelro’s inner conscience went on, ”Nobody praises war leaders who make every battle a Pyhhric Victory.”

For all those who had trusted him and those who would leave their lives in his hand, Zaelro felt a steel-hard obligation to better his thinking even more. So that there would be no more Vassiliyevich in the following battles. So that those whose stake was with him would not have to regret their choice. So that the classic “good shall prevail over evil” would not be failed in his hands…

******


The total restlessness on behalf on the young commander drove Zaelro to school early the next morning. Evidently, so much was the teenager taken over by the death of the Cossack officer that he totally forgot about his new friends at school and what might have probably happened to them. It was only when he arrived in class, took a seat and a good look around that Zaelro realized that the sickly, asthmatic, always-ready-to-collapse new friend of his, Takashi Minamoto, was nowhere to be found. That was an abnormal sight, as the latter had, as the rumors in class went, a saintly reputation for arriving in class early and cleaning up the place pretty much before anyone else showed up, thoroughly spoiling those on cleaning duty in the meantime.

“Hi,” Zaelro tossed his backpack on the table, calling out to the girl in the table above, “Class is strangely quiet today, right?”

“Hi, Fastoff-san,” Tsubame’s soft and feminine voice rang, as she revealed an extremely anxious expression, “Did you happen to hear anything about Takashi-chan yesterday?”

“So he didn’t show up in class after all, did he?” gasped Zaelro, “What could have… wait…”

We interrupt this program to bring you the special report from the Sankaku Police Department. Today, at 9.16 pm, the police patrols of the Central Park district had discovered an abnormal sight in the park. Along the benches in the southern walk, the patrols had found two pools of blood with various blood trails that lead to nowhere. The blood suggests that some extremely violent crime has taken place, but no dead body or body parts have been found...

Zaelro’s outstretched self control could barely stop him from letting loose another louder gasp at the thought. The sheer shock from Gregory’s death meant that Zaelro had completely forgotten that there were obviously two victims during last night’s incident. One was Gregory Vassiliyevich, as confirmed by the messenger. Could the other be… Takashi Minamoto?

Seemingly oblivious of Zaelro’s notion, Tsubame went on,

“Yesterday there was something really disturbing in the news about a murder in the park,” the girl went on, “I am really worried about Takashi. I wonder if he is alright…”

“Very unlikely…” Zaelro said, a serious glare visible from his eyes. Logically, if the person Zaelro ordered to keep watch on Takashi was slain, it was close to impossible that his friend survived the ordeal, whatever it was.

“What?” Tsubame exclaimed in horror, “What do you mean, very unlikely?”

“I err… came by the park at dusk, last night. And at that time, Takashi was still there, sitting by himself,” lied Zaelro after a quick thought, “If he didn’t get out of there on time, he could very well have been…”

A quick look at the beauty in the table above revealed to Zaelro that she was anything but calm. Personal experience told Zaelro that whenever a girl’s translucent eyes started to become water-logged and her face petrified, he could expect to find tears and sobs very quickly thereafter.

”Oh, no, there I go again,” thought a bewildered Zaelro, ”If there is anything I wouldn’t like to see now, this is it.”

“Hey, Mr. Englishman!” the cheeky, happy-go-lucky voice of Tsubame’s womanizing neighbor sounded all of a sudden from the direction of the classroom door. The duo flipped back at the voice, to find a cheerful, carefree Nataka leaning against the door frame, smiling like there was no tomorrow. “Hitting on Tsubame-chan, are you not?”

“As if,” shrugged Zaelro, “I am trying to find a way to…”

“You heard anything about Takashi?” Tsubame asked with utmost haste and fervor, as if clinging to the last straw that her childhood friend was okay.

“Oh, him,” sighed Nataka. “Maybe not, but relax, he is far from dead. Went to his house today on the way to school, and know what? His maid said that he came back home really late last night, and seems to have taken quite a beating. He should be absent from school for, like, half a week or so. But he is /definitely/ alive and kicking.”

The table was completely turned at the new development: Zaelro’s jaw dropped squarely on the ground, while Tsubame, being the feminine and shy type of girl that she was, instantly sprang up, threw herself at the messenger, and wrapped her arms around Nataka’s neck for a big hug. For that brief moment, Zaelro could swear that the smile on Nataka’s face broadened triplefold. Or maybe it was just him.

“Heh,” Nataka said proudly with a mischievous grin after Tsubame finally released him, “I suppose I am enjoying a very good luck with the fairer sex today.”

“Eh?” Tsubame asked back, “Is there going to be a storm today or what?”

“You bet! Being smiled at by the hottest girl in school and hugged by the hottest girl in class within fifteen minutes is more than a dream comes true.”

”I get that priority everyday back home,” smiled Zaelro silently. ”Maybe except for the hugging part, that is.”

“What? Mina smiled at you?” Tsubame grinned, “Let’s hope today’s hurricane wouldn’t be so destructive…”

“Who is Mina?” Zaelro asked curiously.

“Oh, yeah, Fastoff-san, it is quite amazing that you haven’t heard about her even after two full days in school,” explained Tsubame enthusiastically, “She is both our school’s pride and the wink of every one in school who is not female.”

“That is, including some of the younger and unmarried teachers,” added Nataka, “Like Mr. Hitoshi, our PE teacher, and a whole lot more.”

“This is almost a surprise, eh?” Zaelro said, “And what is so special about her?”

“She is beautiful, gorgeous and extremely se…” hardly could Nataka finish his endless string when Tsubame stretched her arm and covered his mouth. For good reasons, or so Zaelro thought.

“Ignore him,” Tsubame grinned mischievously, “because she is not all eye candy. A woman who is beautiful and intelligent AND knows how to use both to craft a perfect public image of herself is more likely than not to get all the attention. A little haughtiness helps a lot, too.”

Turning to an awkwardly silenced Nataka, the girl continued,

“And thusly, I fully believe that there will be a cyclone or something similar today when she smiles at this world-class skirt-chaser…”

Zaelro would really want to learn a little more, but what appeared to him next was not something he could readily ignore. From the back compartment of his backpack, the Gladius of the 25th Valhallan Regiment was pulsing rapidly, until it was recognizable by all those present.

“Fastoff-san?” Tsubame said, upon hearing the strange buzzing of the vibrating blade, “Is it your mobile phone?”

Zaelro was thoroughly startled by this movement. As briefed to him by Oredin Kaledon two days ago, the gladius would act both as his weapon and his channel of communication with his soldiers. He would summon them by the blade, and they would communicate with him in the same way. Whenever a messenger was sent to him, but for any reason could not materialize in the material plane of existence, the blade would pulsate in pretty much the same way a mobile phone shakes when a call is received. This appeared to be one such case. And from the rigorous pulsation, Zaelro could readily deduce that something important was happening and his participation was a must.

Zaelro quickly realized that he should do something. Grabbing his bag, leaving only an “Excuse me” behind, Zaelro swiftly zoomed out of the classroom, and in a matter of seconds, made himself safe in the vicinity of the lavatory, the only possible place away from the peers and stares of possible bystanders. Sighing, Zaelro produced the blade, and almost instantly, the disturbance in the material surrounding due to an opening warp gate resulted in the manifestation of a Valhallan soldier, albeit a different one than those he had previously seen. This soldier, unlike the Spartan bronze-armored hoplites, the Frankish plate-armored paladins with cross-helms or the Cossack cavaliers with cavalry long saber, was a lightly armored archer, with an iron skull cap and a distinctive English longbow to go with. Nevertheless, the degree of solemnity that he displayed upon full manifestation was not lagging behind his foreign comrades in any way visible.

“Sire, I carry an urgent report from Lord Jonathan of Norfolk!” the longbowman said, kneeling down.

“Lord Jonathan… the English lord commander of the Regiment?” Zaelro asked back, “Did something happen?”

“Yes, sire. The investigation of Sergeant Gregory Korsakov Vassiliyevich’s demise has concluded,” the soldier said.

“Well? So who is the culprit?” Zaelro asked hastily.

“Sire, all available evidences point out that the murderer of Sergeant Vassiliyevich is,” the soldier went on after a dramatic pause, “the Akari High student by the name Takashi Minamoto.”

No word could possibly describe the astonishment that Zaelro was experiencing upon hearing those words. So shocked he was that the commander of the Valhallan Regiment was at a loss for words for a good couple of minutes.

“What?” Zaelro exclaimed eventually. “How could that be? I mean… is there a mistake or anything along those lines? How could Takashi possibly kill anyone, let alone in such a grisly manner?”

“Sire, there is clear, graphical evidence against Takashi Minamoto,” the soldier explained. “There is absolutely no doubt on the validity of the result. But here is the urgent news: Based on those results, General Lord Peshkov is calling for instant retaliation against Takashi Minamoto and his family. He has assembled all the Don Cossacks and the Muscovy Partisans of his battalion, and is about to leave our barracks to carry out the campaign independently!”

What went on in Zaelro’s mind at that very instance could readily be translated as both amazement, disappointment and sheer anger.

“I thought I have ordered him not to take any hasty and thoughtless actions, haven’t I?” Zaelro gritted his teeth. “So General Nicolai Maximovich Peshkov is purposefully ignoring my order? Is there anyone who could possibly stop him among you?”

“Sire, the most influential commander, Lord Oredin Kaledon, is away on a special mission today, and all the other commanders are known to be somehow intimidated by General Peshkov’s temper,” the longbowman explained with a visible degree of utmost urgency. “Even now our Lord Jonathan and Sieur de l’Aquitaine is trying to convince the Lieutenant General to calm down, but it is highly unlikely that either of them would succeed.”

“Looks like I have to tell him to stop myself!” Zaelro exclaimed angrily, “This is going too far!”

“Yes, sire, that is the message that Lord Jonathan would like me to pass on to you,” the soldier concluded, “Please use your gladius to travel back to base, so that we can deal with this misconception.”

“Oh great. You are dismissed, by the way,” sighed Zaelro, looking extremely blank as the soldier bowed down ceremonially, and then disappeared with another space warp.

”So much for school today…” Zaelro thought helplessly.

*****


In the first briefing session, Zaelro had been taught all too well on how to effectively use the Gladius of the Legion, and by now he had understood quite well what to do in which situation and how, regarding the aforementioned weapon. Raising the gladius above his head for a couple of seconds and then chanting a “password” would be all what needed to be done to transport a non-Valhallan wielder to the base of the regiment. It was quite something even a little boy could do, and in a flick of time, Zaelro Fastoff realized that his body was beginning to bend and twist, in much the same way the soldiers of Valhalla got de-materialized before totally vanishing. As he went on chanting the password, the vanishing accelerated, and in due time, Zaelro could no longer feel a thing in hiss body. For quite simply, his existence in the material world had now been eventually reduced to nothingness as his entire figure was transmitted to a far, far away dimension. Before long, Zaelro’s shape reemerged through the warp gate, leaving him in a rather queasy state- after all, it was only his first time of taking this special ride.

Zaelro Fastoff’s first impression was a magnificent one. Before Zaelro now stood a majestic, stone-built castle, no less than a hundred feet in height. The construction was not particularly distinctive of any nation, but rather so devised as to serve the defensive role as fully as possible, as it adopted the Chinese rampart, the English drawbridge, the Greek parapets and the Teutonic murder holes, all in one. Atop the parapets and along the ramparts, Zaelro could somehow make out the blur, yet distinctive features of the garrisoned English longbowman taking sentry duty. Two stout, strong, bronze-armored Hoplites stood guard before the main gate, just between the drawbridge and the portcullis. A little further away, Zaelro could see the vague figures of a couple of heavy cavalryman, no doubt Frankish-born. In all possibilities, the base of his regiment really lived up to the image of a multinational, trans-historical army ready to enter the most unconventional battles at a second’s notice.

It was quite some time before Zaelro could straighten himself up from the profound awe, draw his sword and advanced straight towards the interior of the Headquarters of the 25th Valhallan regiment. Recognizing their commander-in-chief, the sentry immediately lowered the drawbridge, rolled up the portcullis, and stepped aside. Zaelro made his way into the belly of the castle without any obstruction at all. Had it been just a tour, it would have been perfect. However, this time, Zaelro was there on a rather important mission.

“Where are General Peshkov and his army?” Zaelro asked a sentry.

“Sire, they are currently on assembly in the main courtyard,” replied the sentry. “General Peshkov looks as if…”

“I know. Someone should stop him, shouldn’t he?” Zaelro said calmly.

Saying so, Zaelro went on straight into the castle’s interior. Hardly had he been able to see the courtyard clearly when he was startled by a strong, ringing, determining voice from two layers of stone beyond.

“So, General Peshkov, this is the way you have chosen to react to this tragedy?”

“He killed Vassiliyevich, Lord Oredin! He absolutely killed our Vassiliyevich!” roared another voice, similarly piercing and firm, albeit laced by anguish, “That crime shall not go unpunished! My brothers and I shall make sure that his house shall be bathed in blood!”

“I completely understand your anger. And indeed, I have seen things like that aplenty in the two thousand years of my own existence,” the low, ringing voice went on, “but that is no excuse for your reaction like this.”

“He killed my BROTHER, Oredin! MY BROTHER!” General Peshkov’s voice went wild.

“No intended offense, General Peshkov, but you are acting like a completely pathetic, sniveling woman. No more than that,” Oredin Kaledon’s voice accused. “And yes, I am completely serious with what I said.”

“How… how dare you!” shrieked General Peshkov. “This is a complete insult!”

“Do you know why women cry at the sudden death of a family member the most, General Peshkov?” Oredin said calmly, in stark contrast to General Peshkov’s roaring voice. Silence ensued, which Zaelro guessed was because Nicolai couldn’t find a satisfactory answer.

“My comrade, the reason why a woman cries when her relative is killed in battle is because she is nearly completely oblivious of the constant dangers of the battlefield. As such, she always hope for the best, that her relative shall return with medals to decorate and sparkling gold and silver as reward. She cannot bring herself to the fact that in everyday’s battle, people falls down like sheaves of wheat during harvest time, and so whenever her relative dies, it would strike her as a complete tragedy. As if the higher heaven has abandoned her and her family,” Oredin explained, his voice lowered, and for a moment, Zaelro was thoroughly convinced that it was a philosopher who was speaking rather than a battle-hardened, spear-wielding powerhouse. Oredin paused a little, and then went on.

“But we are different. We are soldiers. We have sold our lives to our cause so that we are the diers when the time comes. We soldiers befriend death, General Peshkov. We know all too well that every now and then, a good friend, a comrade, or even a sibling would fall, and we have to live up to it. We take it for granted, we know that it will happen, and we know that it happens all the time. And that is why we don’t cry. If you do, not only you are not a soldier, but also you are not a man.”

“So, are you telling me that we have to let go of the criminal who killed my brother?” General Peshkov retorted, “What kind of justice is that?”

“What kind of justice is that when you would seek to squander the lives of your soldiers on a personal vendetta when we have the fate of not one nation, not one continent, not one world, but TWO world at stake?” Oredin countered, “Is it fair for your soldier whose life may be loss in this meaningless run of vengeance? Is it fair for the people who shall suffer because we are unable to get rid of Reglay von Gendamme on time? Is it fair if the two worlds should fall into the hand of a blasphemous black vampire because of that complete failure to assess the situation on behalf of a top general of the 25th Valhallan Regiment?”

“Would Sergeant Gregory Korsakov Vassiliyevich’s spirit be pleased in the nether world if he knows that his brother-in-arms leads his Cossack brethrens to their death to avenge his, and in the meantime leave the ultimate mission at a failure?” Oredin concluded, softly, and fully persuasive, “The proud blood of Mother Russia in your veins shall not allow you to toss away your honor in that kind of blind vengeance. We all know it, don’t we?”

It was then that Zaelro felt a need to show himself. The Commander of the 25th Valhallan Regiment slowly stepped out of the light to assess the situation. Before him, in the wide courtyard, a full unit of Don Cossacks and spear-wielding partisans was lining up, before a military stage, the venue of the exchanges. Zaelro could see exactly what he was expecting on the stage: The bronze-armored figure of the legendary hoplite and the breastplate-clad Russian aristocrat must have had the debate of a lifetime. At such a sight, Zaelro couldn’t help but started clapping loudly, drawing the attention of all those present towards his appearance. As soon as his figure came into recognition, the entire rank of Russian soldiers started to bustle with mutterings of “Komandir! Nash Komandir!” alerting the two arguing leaders of the current happening. Almost instantly, they climbed down the stage, presented themselves before Zaelro Fastoff, and bowed down.

“Stand up, friends,” Zaelro said. And as the two generals went back to their feet, Zaelro turned to the Russian aristocrat.

“You know why I have come here, don’t you, General Peshkov?” asked Zaelro rhetorically, to which the Russian replied by a silent bending of the neck.

“I would say that what Mr. Kaledon said pretty much summed up all what I would like to tell you,” Zaelro went on, “But yes, as much as I wouldn’t want to spit it out, your reaction in the past few hours was anything but acceptable.”

“Lord Zaelro, I…” said General Peshkov, with a tone readily translatable as both regret and defiance. “Sergeant Gregory Korsakov Vassiliyevich meant more to me than anyone else. He was like… a brother to me. I… I just wanted to bring his murderer to justice…”

“Like Mr. Kaledon said… this is not the time for this kind of action. As much as I respect your noble intention, that is not the way that needs be,” Zaelro slightly shook. “Besides, I have received the first message from the angel Argeus Sunrise. He stated that our enemy can be anyone but Takashi Minamoto.”

“Are you sure, my lord?” the Russian jerked, “How could it be…”

“I have no reason to lie, General Peshkov. Even if that weren’t the truth, I believe Oredin Kaledon has already presented you will all the reasoning why this is not the time for you to carry out such radical actions,” Zaelro turned to Oredin. “As for you, Mr. Kaledon, your timing couldn’t have been better. Something deleterious could have happened if you haven’t returned.”

“It is my duty, sire,” Oredin bowed, “Lord Jonathan sent me a messenger, and I went back as quickly as I could. It turned out that I was barely on time, in the end.”

“I thank you for your diligence, Oredin Kaledon of Sparta,” Zaelro said, before turning to the Russian general.

“As for you, general,” Zaelro concluded to the still angry Russian. “As of now, I haven’t fully believed that Takashi Minamoto has truly killed Sergeant Vassiliyevich. Nor would I have anything to compensate you if that claim is true. But, I promise, that once the main business is settled, if it is proved that Takashi is the murderer, he shall be dealt with accordingly. During the duration of the operation, I must ask of you not to be hostile towards Mr. Minamoto, by any means and in any way. Is that agreeable, General Nicolai Maximovich Peshkov?”

“Sire, I agree,” after what seemed to be almost an hour, Nicolai finally nodded.

******


< Message edited by Argeus the Paladin -- 11/11/2008 23:56:26 >
DF  Post #: 8
11/21/2008 1:40:12   
Argeus the Paladin
Member

Chapter 8
Rumors, Investigations and the Coronus Speedus


With their leader finally agreeing to yield, the loyal Cossacks of General Nicolai Peshkov had no other reason to press for an expedition, and within minutes, the army readying to depart into bloodshed just a while ago had been dismissed, and once again the courtyard was relieved of the commotion that wasn’t. When the last Valhallan Don Cossack vanished within the castle’s inner keeps where they were garrisoned, only Zaelro and his faithful hoplite Oredin remained in the yard.

“I have said this once, but I feel obliged to say this again,” Zaelro said joyously. “I owe you a really big thank-you, Mr. Kaledon.”

“It is my duty, sire,” Oredin humbly responded, “because General Peshkov’s unstable temper is more than well known all over the unit, and his fierce loyalty to whatever he holds dear would just add to his temperamental behavior.”

“In any case, I admit that if I were him, it would take the best of my self-control to stop me from doing anything radical,” Zaelro nodded sympathetically. “Especially when his brother was brutally murdered like that.”

“Sergeant Gregory Vassiliyevich is just General Peshkov’s milk-brother, breast-fed by the same woman, sire,” corrected Oredin, “When both of them were alive, they were lord and servant or general and soldier by status. But in the various battles of that they have undergone, they have grown to be something more than blood brothers.”

“Wow,” Zaelro said in awe, “How so?”

“One was a benevolent landlord, the few of his kind who actually put the people’s sake first, and the other was a fine warrior loyal to both his lord and his people. They joined the army in much the same day, participated in major battles in the same unit, and fought equally bravely against the common enemies of their people, although one was a general and the other was a low-ranking officer. In the end, they both fell into Ottoman hands following the same battle, were chained up in the same cell, and passed away within hours of each other,” explained Oredin. “Sire, the connection between the two of them is seemingly fated, and they have been closer than brothers could ever be, for the past one hundred and eighty years.”

“If that is so,” Zaelro finally said, “I shall do my best to make sure that the truth about the demise of Sergeant Vassiliyevich is uncovered.”

“Sire, please forgive me, but it seems that you still haven’t believed in the fact that Takashi Minamoto was the murderer,” questioned Oredin.

“Well, nobody has seen him kill the unfortunate man, right?” Zaelro asked back, “As long as there isn’t an affirmative proof, I cannot, both as his friend and commander of this army, jump to any conclusion.”

It then came to Zaelro that his faithful soldier suddenly bent his neck in utter silence, as if in a complete retention of a pre-rendered thought. The next thing that came into Zaelro’s mind was that he was being deprived of some information rights.

“Why the silence?” Zaelro rolled his eyes in bewilderment at Oredin’s behavior, “Do you know something I don’t?”

“Sire, we have got exact, visual proof that Takashi Minamoto is the murderer. I have seen it as well,” Oredin took his time, and then replied slowly. “I haven’t told you this yet, but in fact, the disguise device that our soldier adopt in all espionage missions also doubles as a last-minute information storage device, which works rather analogously to what the 21st century people call black boxes.”

“So that tiny marble can basically give us an idea of what happened to Gregory in the last minutes of his life?” asked an awed Zaelro. “Where is it now?”

“It is being hidden away at our information center at the basement of the castle,” Oredin replied. “However, I suggest that you do not view it, sire.”

“Why so?”

“Poor Sergeant Vassiliyevich’s death was much more gruesome than what General Peshkov’s messenger had told you of,” Oredin said, and even beneath the voice-distorting Greek full helm, his voice still sounded rather troubled, “For one who isn’t attuned to the flow of war yet like you, sire, it would be… extremely disturbing.”

“Now you are being self-contradictory,” Zaelro shook his head decisively, his voice echoing like thunder, sharp, loud, concise, but strongly determined. “You have just given an awesome speech on how true men and true soldiers should behave when a comrade has passed away. I may not yet be a soldier but,” Zaelro emphasized his every word, “I am a man.”

Oredin stood silent once more, this time not out of a need to conceal information, but rather out of sheer positive amazement. Apparently Zaelro Fastoff had learnt the ropes of a commander’s work faster than his retainer could possibly imagine. What was more, his rapid growth in spirit and experience was not fully out of the intelligence and cleverness of a bright learner, but rather rooted in a genuine wish to help their noble cause and a will to excel in the job he now assumed to be his duty, as well as a dutiful and almost flawless level of responsibility that he had taken to achieve the aforementioned. Maybe it was just the Hoplite’s outlook, but as time passed, the leader that he now served was becoming more and more like the Spartan king that he had served till death, strong-willed, motivating and ever enthusiastic to work, struggle and even die for the cause he had chosen.

“If so,” Oredin finally said, “I wouldn’t stop you, sire. However, according to reliable intelligence sources, if I am not mistaken, your class is in session, and your real life in Sankaku may be jeopardized if you are to miss class once more in this week and the week to come.”

“What did you say? And…” Zaelro lifted his eyebrow, and, upon realizing his position, took a quick glance at his wrist watch, only to let loose a loud gasp. “Oh. My. God! It is almost eight! I am late for sure!”

“If you need any escort, sire…” Oredin spoke.

“Well, in this kind of cases, escorts only mess things up even more,” Zaelro promptly answered, “Looks like I am off for good! I’ll see you when needed!”

A quick wave of the gladius and a warp gate opening and closing later, Zaelro Fastoff had disappeared from sight. It was high time Zaelro realized that Japanese high-schooling was not all tea and crumpets like previously preached by his otaku friend back when he was in England.

******


Zaelro snickered at his luck as he zoomed down the stairways from the toilet where he disappeared to the schoolyard where PE class was taking place, for good reason. It appeared that Lady Luck’s Favorite got away with his coming to class late that day- from the look of things, no one had even noticed that he was missing. His physical education teacher, apparent from his simply blank stare and expression, was too busy eying a hot young lady in the nearby garden, and his classmates were too preoccupied with all sorts of gossip and discussion surrounding the previous evening’s incident in the central park to realize that “Fastoff-san” was late for more than twenty-five minutes. Zaelro snickered at his luck as he zoomed down the stairways from where he had quietly disappeared to the schoolyard where class was supposed to be taking place.

“Hey, over here, Mr. Englishman!” waved Nataka when Zaelro’s tiptoeing figure entered the scene. Somehow the fellow had learnt how to act more reasonably after yesterday’s incident, as his voice sounded just right this time, not too loudly so as to disturb the fantasizing coach, but still significant enough to draw Zaelro’s attention. Immediately, Zaelro bent low down and dashed towards his new friends.

“Well, sorry, I’m late again,” Zaelro lowered his voice as he sat down, feigning innocence should the teacher turn back, “Did anything happen while I was away?”

“Counting the teacher’s eyes being pinned to the school’s hottest lady out, there was nothing really,” Nataka blinked, “Did I tell you that Mr. Hitoshi was, is, and shall be head-over-heel with Mina in the foreseeable future?”

“And for today, it seems that Mina-senpai got a free period, so she came down for a walk in the schoolyard, conveniently next to our exercise ground,” whispered Tsubame with a tiny giggle, “We got a free period as a result.”

“Nobody told me that she is older than us,” Zaelro shook his head jokingly. “This should make it even more unfavorable for a certain someone, right?”

“She is in her last year,” resumed Nataka, obviously ignoring Zaelro’s last words. “Makes it even easier for that wolf,” he shook his head at the PE teacher, “to get a hit after this year.”

Zaelro shrugged. At least he had learnt something new that day- it took less than an illness or a risk of disciplinary action to ditch physical education if your teacher was a young, unmarried gentleman hungry for female companionship. The sheer thought of that discovery was enough to make the Englishman laugh quietly. If that was just a small enjoyment he had got, the next thing the English transfer student heard was a big relief in its own right.

“Anyway, Fastoff-san, according to what the class teacher said earlier, when you was away, you are exempted from disciplinary action for this occasion,” Tsubame said quietly, yet not concealing a glint of relief, “But he emphasized that if that behavior persists, there would be no quarters next time.”

“What?” Zaelro almost gasped out loud, had it not been for the realization that class was still officially in session, “Exempted? Me?”

“Yeah, you lucky jerk,” Nataka spoke out in a teasing hostility-feigning manner, “Apparently your status as a transfer student got you a free getaway from the principal’s office. But I’m not that lucky…”

“… He got a good share of discipline today,” Tsubame explained, her voice bright and slightly mischievous. “But don’t worry, he’ll be just fine.”

“Oh well,” shrugged Zaelro again, just as the thought of a certain missing classmate struck him once more, “In any case, you guys were talking about Takashi when I had to leave, right? So what was it like? I mean, how did he get out of the whatever-on-earth-that-happened in the park and only take a good beating as a souvenir?”

“We have another lucky jerk, Mr. Englishman,” Nataka remarked, making no attempt to hide his own joy. “Well, for some particular reason, those people in charge in his household didn’t say what happened to him in particular, but somehow I managed to,” the high schooler’s voice became doused in fathomable arrogance, “talk one of the maids into giving an account.”

“So what happened after all?” Zaelro asked, unconsciously shuddering.

“She said that he returned home quite late last night, bloodstains all over his clothing. She also said that he collapsed within a couple of steps into the foyer, and had it not been for the handy medication he always had with him, he could have gone to meet the Great King Yama right yesterday.”

“I suppose he saw the murderer, and was forced to run away at top speed,” guessed Tsubame, “and keep in mind that extreme physical exertion is usually dangerous to an asthma patient like him…”

”Extreme physical exertion?” Zaelro rolled his eyes as the logical reasoning half of his brain started working at full throttle, “As in, the kind of exertion needed to behead a full-grown purebred warhorse and dismember a full-fledged rider of the Cossack? Now this is beginning to sound logical…”

“But hey, Takashi’s luck is insane. Not only did he get away from a terrific death, now he gets at least two days of medical leave, a warm bed, and two lovely maids to look after him for the duration of the leave!” sniggered Nataka, stressing specifically at the twelve last words.

“You are saying as if he enjoyed his disease,” Zaelro spoke without thinking, his brain now full of speculations.

“What I call a… positive side effect of a bad thing,” Nataka snapped his finger, “Have you ever seen his housemaids? They surely make good eye-cand… OUCH!”

Barely managing to keep his scream within the acceptable level of noise, Nataka flipped himself back, facing his tablemate, the evident perpetrator of the offending pinch on his backside.

“Hey! Why did you do that?” Nataka growled, nursing his injury. The half-crossed, half-teasing look on Tsubame’s face was quite sufficient an answer, though. It would usually be good fun trying to tell if the assault was due to jealousy or was simply just a harmless poke, but Zaelro neither had the interest, or the free mind. At that one moment, it turned out that whenever he tried to find an evidence to support Takashi’s innocence, he would stumble over another that would prove otherwise.

”So this guy didn’t have any alibi at all, came home with garments in questionable condition, and seemingly all visual evidence works against him, if I am to trust Oredin Kaledon. Looks like that is sufficient information for a conviction,” Zaelro finally sighed, completely ignoring the slightly noisy and rather silly chitchatting and pinching between the unlikely couple next to him, ”How could I answer General Peshkov’s pleas without convicting Takashi?”

“It looks like class is rather noisy today,” Zaelro promptly changed topic, “So what’s the heat?”

“Looks like the happenings of yesterday had drawn more public attention than needed,” Nataka replied, each of his hand nursing an injury, “There’s been all sorts of strange stuffs going around the place about the murders, or so it seems.”

Zaelro could testify that not long after that, because in due time, the English newcomer were engulfed in the seemingly endless stream of gossip surrounding the unexplained incident. While the period lasted, Zaelro had to hear all sorts of rumors and strange, pointless speculations about what had probably happened in the park. Accounts and rumors that his classmates were talking about all over the place were so diverse and multi-faceted that the unlikely investigator was almost overwhelmed. All sorts of guesses were given about the culprit, anywhere along the lines of absolute absurdity, ranging from more reasonable ideas a flesh-eating demon, a crazy swordsman ghost from the battle of Sekigahara or a masked, knife-tossing, axe-wielding sorcerer to such complete insane streaks like a reincarnated Zaku the Ripper, evil Luke Skywalker or the ET. Zaelro himself almost laughed his head off at the last two suggestions for obvious reasons.

It was no time at all before the discussions abruptly changed direction, and by the time the next period began, the words vampires had returned to every chatter’s lips. Apparently, the murder of two people in relatively conventional method were nothing close to the dozen strange, unnatural deaths in the preceding week that still lacked any formal explanations from the police or official investigation at all. After all, when dead bodies appeared all over town, devoid of any blood at all and with only one visible wound in the neck, only the supernatural could be responsible. For as much as everyone knew, that was the signature sign of vampirekind as dictated by popular culture and gothic myths. In any case, Zaelro wasn’t too surprised by neither the finding nor the discussion, having been previously convinced of the vampires’ existence and activities by more events than enough in just a matter of days. In due time, though, Zaelro would have to come in contact with their kind closer than he had ever imagined before…

******


School ending meant that everyone could go back home, have a bath, have dinner and web-chat with friends. This should also have been Zaelro’s favorable choice of relaxation after school, but his being now responsible for a regimental combat corps had made it a different matter entirely for him. His heavy responsibility to both those who laid their swords in his hands and those who expected him to do great things meant that he would now have to proceed to designing what he and his men should do next, and make it sound. Planning wasn’t difficult in the first place, and giving orders was supposed to be the easiest thing on earth, but doing so in a beneficial and effective way in view of success was a consuming process that had been bringing numerous leaders to an early grave in droves due to cardiac failure or stroke ever since the word “politician” was invented.

As far as the unlikely commander was concerned, the condition of the neighborhood was working against his cause very much. He had many a packages to fetch and assemble, and he hadn’t even had a slight clue of what to find and where. Vampires were apparently on the prowl, and though he did have some soldiers to attempt to do anything, he should resolve the discontent of his top lieutenants first before setting on anything radical. Worst of all, he was supposed to form an alliance with a person of untrustworthy presence and who was allegedly the reason for the death of one of his soldiers and the rage of a couple of hundred others. For the first time in the whole lifetime of the proud self-proclaimed strategist, Zaelro began to feel that everything was rapidly falling out of his control, unless something would happen to clean up the mess, at least partially.

With his brain flooded with thoughts of all kinds, Zaelro made it back to his room safe and sound in due time, taking almost crashing into a lamppost, getting ran over by a car and tripping on the doorstep out of the context. No sooner had he walked into his private corner, closed the door, leaned his back against the wooden wall and got ready to take a deep breath of relief when his backpack rang again, vibrating itself against the teak wall of his chamber. And the sound of a metal gladius knocking against a wooden surface wasn’t exactly noiseless and comforting.

”Not again…” sighed Zaelro as he quickly slipped his hand into the back compartment and produced the hidden blade, ”If Nicolai Peshkov creates another mess I’ll go insane for sure.”

Expecting another messenger, it was fully fathomable that Zaelro Fastoff was thoroughly surprised by what came next into existence. As the warp gate between the transdimensional and the dimensional opened up again as it had numerous times throughout his adventures, in came not a messenger, not a general of the Valhallan Legion, not even a human. Instead, as the warp gate dissipated and the shape of the newcomer was imprinted materially into the existence of his world, Zaelro realized that there, in the middle of his room, appeared a full-fledged warhorse of unknown breed and design. Its appearance was accompanied with such illumination that the oblivious demigod was fully dazzled.

Zaelro rubbed his eyes. Certainly, the appearance of a horse within the vicinity of his room was a huge astonishment in itself, but the steed itself was a magnificent wonder to the beholder in its own rights as well. Its fur was, if anything, golden, as each and every of its hair was illuminating the room itself, literally drowning out the faint sunlight at near dusk. Its tail hair and mane, therefore, looked like bundles of perfectly refined and stringed gold tied together by hands of godly craftsmanship. Its emerald eyes resembled flawless crystals rigged with both immense intellect and loyalty, and even its hoofs were shining with such bright lights as if made of silver. Aside from its beauty, Zaelro could insist that it no doubt bore great powers within its healthy shape, as the immense, static sense of unknown power that he had experienced when Oredin unpacked the Mjollnir in their first meeting had came back to him as he encountered the creature. That feeling tingled his skin, as a high voltage current, and became more and more intense as he approached the creature. Bolts of golden light swerving around the creature’s head and torso, creating a godly aura of pure marvel only fortified Zaelro’s assumption.

As Zaelro approached the horse closer, its majestic and graceful shape began to move, as it neighed and stamped its two front hoofs as if greeting a new master. Still astonished by its appearance and dazzled by its grandeur, it took a stunned Zaelro almost half a minute to come back to his senses.

“Wow…” was the only word that could escape Zaelro’s lips, before the horse suddenly collapsed on its feet, in a position analogous to a human’s kneeling down before a sovereign king.

“Sire, I await your commands!” an echoing, otherworldly voice suddenly sounded in the horizon, resounding all over Zaelro’s room, startling the teen and for a brief moment, confused him even more.

“Did you… just speak?” Zaelro believed that the next best thing to do was to ask the sole other living being in the room, and he did so.

Zaelro’s question was followed by another, definitely unexpected, warp gate opening in his room, and unlike his past experience with the Valhallan warp device, this time the teenage demigod could hear a voice clearly coming out of the warp before a figure had even materialized.

“I see… Argeus was right about you, then,” the voice spoke, in a female, soft, but extremely clear and resonant tone, not to mention no less otherworldly than the first.

Zaelro dropped his jaw in sheer astonishment, but not for too long was his enquiry unanswered. The second speaker was quick to show herself, and before long, before Zaelro hovered a female being in silver armor, with one pair of fluffy, feather wing fully stretched behind her shoulder. The combined light of her light breastplate, wings and aura was even more blinding than that of the golden steed. Together with a silvery halo hovering a few inches off her head as well as the unearthly aura surrounding her, her presence dictated only one thing. Before Zaelro now a celestial being was flying and about to give guidance.

“Err… hello?” Zaelro spoke solely to counter the loss for words in awe. Even with all sorts of weird things happening to him in the past three days, this was way more than he would expect. “You’re an angel, right?”

“It’s valkyrie, Mr. Fastoff,” the winged being’s voice made it extremely had to say whether she was serious or joking. However, the latter is heavily implied, as the being slightly smiled as she finished her last word.

“Oh… uh… yeah, my bad,” Zaelro replied, his voice clumping together.

“Well, no need to get all worked up, I’m just coming to deliver a parcel as well as conduct a small test,” the valkyrie smiled rather tolerantly.

“What parcel? What test?” Zaelro asked more out of instinct than curiosity.

“I see you have received the Coronus Speedus, haven’t you?”

“Coro-what?” Zaelro asked back. “I don’t understand uh, Latin so well.”

Coronus Speedus or Sunlight Steed is the golden warhorse of the Light Angels of Terra. It has vast power beyond the dreams of any mortal, and as such only angels of high rank are granted one of them. What power it has, you will find out in due time,” the valkyrie explained. “Lord Argeus has granted you this Sunlight Steed of his for your use in your campaigns against the threat of Reglay von Gendamme. It is my duty to make sure that the steed is delivered to you safe and sound. And here it is, in the middle of the room for your convenience.”

“Wow, so you are a heavenly horse, right?” Zaelro turned to the steed still slumping in the middle of the room, “That is plain… cool!”

The horse nodded its head in approval.

“And yeah, I think I should conclude this by giving you the result of my little personal test as well,” the valkyrie went on, “At first I doubt your identity and capability, but now I have been able to confirm that you, sir, are a demigod, beyond reasonable doubt.”

“What made you think so?” as attuned to the fact by now as Zaelro was, the declaration still took the teen by awe.

“Mortals could only hear its neigh, but only an angel of high rank or a god could communicate with the Sunlight Steed meaningfully,” the valkyrie concluded. “And you could, as you have demonstrated.”

“Oh… yeah. Oredin Kaledon the leader of the 25th Valhallan Regiment told me of this not long ago, and the angel Argeus somehow confirmed it, but I didn’t fully believe in that even now,” Zaelro replied. “So it seems that I must live with the fact from now on now that it has been confirmed. It is not going to be easy, I suppose.”

“I respect you for that realization, Mr. Fastoff,” the valkyrie said, lifting her eyebrow in a noticeable surprise, “Most of those I knew thought of becoming a god like a walk in the park.”

“It is, and it would have been, had it not been for this vampire whose henchmen have been prowling the streets every night and draining blood off people,” Zaelro blurted. “As a result now I have more work at hand than I could probably manage.”

“Oh, I see,” smiled the valkyrie. “Good luck with your vampire-hunting then.”

“Hey, wait a se…” Prompting to ask for some basic advices on how to sort out his current mess, Zaelro’s speech was cut short, as his messenger had fully dissipated before he could react any further. However, her trip was a success in a sense- the parcel had been delivered, and was now sitting obediently in his room. It then came to Zaelro that the Coronus Speedus was now his to command and ride.

“Oh, hi. I forgot to introduce myself. My name is…” Zaelro turned back to the creature.

“… Zaelro Samuel Fastoff, sire. Lord Argeus thinks very highly of you, as it seemed,” the horse answered in the same resounding tone. “As a result, I am now here to serve you on your quest for the Prime Treasures of Terra.”

“Oh, am I that famous?” Zaelro asked.

“Maybe not really, but… Lord Argeus was extremely confident in your capabilities,” the horse replied.

“Let’s leave it at that,” Zaelro said. “Do you have a name?”

“I was brought to existence to serve Lord Argeus, but because of his confidence in you, sire, I am, as a result, given to you instead,” the gorse spoke slowly. “Thusly, I haven’t yet had a name for myself.”

“Then I’ll give you one, is that alright?” Zaelro said, amusedly as he worked his brain. “Let’s see… you are a horse, and one to be use as a mount, right? And you being the steadfast mount that you appear to be… I’ll name you Steady Steedy the Sunlight Steed! Or just Steady Steedy to avoid the confusion of a long name. Is that alright for you?”

“So shall it be, sire. From today onwards I shall be known as Steady Steedy.”

It was Friday. And while he was at it, the acquisition of a new asset as well as a good deal of time to calculate and plan his next course of action somewhat made Zaelro more relaxed. After all, he needed the relaxation badly. For unprecedented and terrible things were about to unveil in a near future…

******



< Message edited by Argeus the Paladin -- 11/21/2008 1:44:03 >
DF  Post #: 9
11/24/2008 2:46:35   
Argeus the Paladin
Member

Chapter 9
“Caution: Fragile Good that can Kill Vampires”


Two restless nights and a whole batch of problems to tend to and plans to make would be more than certain to dump one into a good, carefree sleep whenever the chance came. And thusly, the first weekend in Zaelro’s life as a Japanese student arrived a little late to him- it wasn’t before near noon of the next day did he wake up. And admittedly, nothing could beat a warm bed and blanket when it was nearly freezing point just beyond those windows.

Zaelro yawned in both satisfaction and slight drowsiness. The sleep he had been entitled to was so deep and relaxing that for one moment, the newly conscious teen had been prompted to believe that the past three days had been but a dream. At least, that was before he inadvertently kicked the gladius symbolizing his power, position as well as serving as an important communication device, knocking down on the ground. The sound of the sharp metal edge crashing on the wooden ground wasn’t too tolerant of his still numb senses, and the crash nearly made him jump off the mattress. Still, it took a good moment for the startled teen to scramble out of the blanket, straighten up his pajama and look over the matter. Recognition of reality in such a case was necessary, yet uncomfortable nonetheless.

”Oh well, there it goes again,” Zaelro thought as he recovered from the noise shock and glanced at the offending blade lying flat on the ground. ”Looks like there hadn’t been anything too new or interesting yet. That means relaxation, if nothing else changes…”

Another glance at the next most remarkable object in the room, if anything, almost made Zaelro jump again. The king-sized alarm clock on the table showed 11 am. Which means it was then too late to begin any morning activities and too early to get lunch. And it was also, somehow, too late for a certain something that he had previously planned for in his agenda for that particular morning.

”Oh no, this can’t be good!” the unlikely victim of sleeplessness panicked. ”I dearly hope they have taken good care of it by now, or we’re toast!

The next bit of thought entering Zaelro’s mind was about his newly acquired prized possession, the Sunlight Steed that he named Steady Steedy. The word “prized possession” was more than accurate to describe the acquisition, as from what he had learnt from his comrades in the previous night, there was much more to it than just a lovely coat of golden fur and an innate ability to speak. As Zaelro promptly, and with a clearly obvious degree of feverish haste, changed into his smart, outdoor-appropriate outfit of belted and buckled brown khakis trousers and striped shirt whose long sleeve was smartly rolled up to elbow length, the instructions that his brothers-in-war mentioned, or rather, what he had instructed them to do, began to replay in his mind…

”Sire, for as far as my limited knowledge on horses of all kinds are concerned,” the bearded knight in full plate mail said as he examined the steed still residing in the middle of Zaelro’s chamber, presumably for any defects or visible disabilities, “Your steed is worth much, much more than its weight in gold,” he proceeded after laying his cross helm on the table. “Even among the Sunlight Steeds of the world of Terra this one is exceptional.”

“Is it because he can speak?” Zaelro asked eagerly.

“Among all the celestial steeds in Terra, the two most significant, most sought and most powerful in terms of magical potential and compatibility are the Sunlight Steed and the Night Mare,” the knight did not answer directly. “Their innate affiliation with light and dark magic, respectively, allows them to carry on feats that no other horses, even heavenly ones, could ever achieve. As for this steed,” the knight glanced at the horse again, met by its spirited neigh. “The pure golden mane it has dictates that the power of light within its even is even more powerful than its brothers and sisters. Sire, your steed is unique in its own rights!”

“Well, Sieur de l’Aquitaine, could you please tell me what he could do in particular?”

“My apologies, sire, for my limited knowledge, but as far as I know, this steed has three major and best documented abilities,” the said knight-commander of the Frankish Battalion, Sieur de l’Aquitaine, ceremoniously bowed down as he took a deep breath, before embarking on a rather long and tedious lecture. “Firstly, it could channel its own magic in unison with that of whosoever rides it, resulting in the manifestation of a golden blade of pure elemental light, which could be used as a devastating weapon for the magically adept. Secondly, it offers healing and protection to its rider, and as long as he recognizes one as its owner, it would continually summon holy bolts of healing light to shield, heal and protect its master. And finally, its affinity with light gives its rider an arguably overwhelming advantage over creatures of the night or of darkness.”

“Amazing!” remarked Zaelro. “If those facts are true, Steedy here would be a great help indeed for whatever lay before us! Are you completely, absolutely sure about what you have declared, Sieur de l’Aquitaine?”

Hardly had the French paladin commander replied than the bronze-armored Oredin spoke up on his behalf.

“Sire, as of today, the French knight-commander is the highest authority in terms of horses, breeding and cavalry tactics in our regiment,” declared Oredin Kaledon. “He knows more about those powerful, noble war animals than any one of us. I could find no reason to doubt his reasoning.”

“If so, I hope I could ask you for another favor, noble Frankish paladin,” Zaelro said after the confirmation. “There is rather a limitation in space and grooming here in this place, and it wouldn’t be pretty nice if someone sees a golden horse right here in a room on the second floor of a Japanese mansion. I suppose I could leave him in your hands, could I?”

“No, sire,” the Frankish Paladin’s reply made Zaelro’s heart sank, as well as striking a good deal of anxiety into his heart. “The Sunlight Steeds are an extremely loyal breed- they would not leave their master in any case and under any circumstance.”

“Then, what should I do?” Zaelro asked, making no attempt to conceal his anxiety, “You see, for many a reason this room is not the place to keep a full-size, full-fledged, golden-furred warhorse of the highest order. And not to mention the constant need for forage, which is completely unavailable here.”

“Worry not, sire,” the French knight smiled heartily, “A Sunlight Steed eats and drinks exactly what it is named after. As long as you bring it out into the sun once a day, or keep it where the sun could shine, you can forget about feeding it.”

“Also, Lord Zaelro, concealing Steedy wouldn’t make too much of a difficulty, as I would bring you back to the unique cloaking device of the Valhallan Army, as demonstrated during, forgive me, the beginning of Sergeant Vassiliyevich’s mission,” Oredin calmly continued. “By using the device, anything smaller than a Persian war elephant and larger than a Corinthian turkey could be well disguised as what would logically be in the setting according to the beholder’s perception.”

“That applies for Steedy as well?” Zaelro asked back enthusiastically.

“This is just a suggestion, sire, but you could move the steed into the front yard among the various plants in the surrounding,” Oredin said, painstakingly attempting to lower his battle-toughened voice, “and the device will trick the mind of any observer into believing that he is just another statue in the garden.”

“Man, why didn’t I think of this before?” Zaelro almost exclaimed, had it not been for the notion of the night drawing late and the need of secrecy that seized him at the very instance. “A motorcycle! He could appear as a motorcycle! As long as I tell everyone that my parents are shipping me my sports bike from England here tomorrow, and everyone would be tricked into perceiving that Steedy is a high-engine-displacement, custom made, stylish Harley-Davidson bike!”

“That could work kind of well, sire,” blurted the French warhorse expert. “After all, a modern motorcycle or whatever they call it is apparently inspired by the good old warhorses.”

“Well, if the plan is to be carried out, I need your help,” Zaelro said, completely ignoring how blatantly absurd Sieur de l’Aquitaine’s statement was. “Well, then, I need you guys to take Steedy away for tonight. Tomorrow, bring him back to me, in the form of a delivery service or something along those lines. You could disguise yourselves as delivery servicemen or something like that to greet my hosts, and as soon as Steedy is within the bike shed, it should be alright for us all.”

Zaelro then confidently walked up to his now trusty steed and said, half like giving an order, and half-humorously.

“Well, Steedy, you had better behave yourself tomorrow when you arrive. Please refrain from neighing or making any sound reminiscent of your kind at all for the duration of the transaction, if you could help it.”

There was no answer, but Zaelro was clear that the horse did explicitly nod

“Okay, partners,” Zaelro took a deep breath, before concluding, “if nothing changes, I would expect any capable member of the army to arrive here with Steedy by ten tomorrow, dressed up as service people and delivery men, and there we’ll have it.”


Apparently, Zaelro had forgotten the appointment that he himself had set up due to two continuous sleepless nights! The worst case would be some bumbling soldiers of his could have aroused suspicion from his host family, or worst, gotten his cover blown, which was definitely not good for the mission at hand, or even for the horse. The worst of the worst could probably spoil pretty much everything he had been setting up for the mission. With the self-proclaimed case of “mild Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder” that Zaelro had, it was no surprise how much terrible fantasies he had drawn up in his mind as he dashed down the wooden stairway, silently praying that nothing too bad or too ruinous had happened. If anything, the creaking noise as he zoomed down the century-old steps only freaked him up even further. Had it been nighttime the adrenaline rush could be somehow comparable to that kind of feverish and haunting fear and anxiety as a teenager running about in an old, haunted mansion with a butcher knife-wielding, untouchable serial killer hot on his trail. It was just within comprehension to see how he jerked up and almost screamed on instinct when he heard a voice right next to him as he took the last step down the staircase.

“Fastoff-san,” said the offending, middle-aged female voice, “You have just got a parcel from home.”

It took Zaelro almost three seconds to recognize the voice of his host’s wife, the household’s internal manager in just about anything unrelated to her husband’s work and career. In the past few days, he had heard her voice all too often- the sharp, intelligent, but no less understanding voice of a woman who had given up all her dreams in favor of her husband and children. And yet on that occasion that voice seemed to have stabbed his ear in the same way a skilled assassin would slit his victim’s throat from behind, giving him an essence of both utter astonishment and a visible degree of horror, not to mention a little embarrassment, just like a thief being caught red-handed.

“Rei-sama?” Zaelro took another five seconds to reply in kind, albeit with a rather slightly trembling voice for many a reason, “What did you… just say?”

“You have just got a parcel from your parents, or so it seems,” the woman repeated. “A brand-new motorbike it is.”

“A… a motorbike?” Zaelro spoke, his voice now clearly distorted because of nervousness. However, fortunately, the hostess must have taken his voice’s sudden distortion as well as his questionable attitude for a complete astonishment and gratefulness for such a present.

“Your parents must think a lot about you,” remarked the woman, continuing on her fully valid, albeit completely wrong, line of reasoning. “You should try your best in order to make them proud of your achievement here in our country.”

Zaelro was speechless for another quarter of a minute. From the way things looked, it appeared that whoever the deliverers were, they had pulled off the trick perfectly. Apparently, his host doubted nothing in the entire process, and if everything was up to plan, the horse should be alive and revving by then in the bicycle shed. It then came to the puzzled boy that he should really get a swift getaway.

“Really?” Zaelro finally said, successfully feigning an innocent, childlike rejoice, “See, Rei-sama, my parents are so sweet! Could I have a look at the bike now?”

“Sure, it’s yours, after all,” the woman named Rei replied with an encouraging smile. “The delivery men have already laid the bike where it should- in the shed. You could go right now if you want. Do you need me to take you there?”

“No, thank you,” Zaelro replied hastily. “I have known the way around here, so I guess I can get my goodies myself.”

“I can get my goodies myself”. How Zaelro’s heart flew at that notion! As fast as his legs could carry him, the teen rapidly swept along the corridor, opened a side entrance, and in a matter of minutes, found himself dashing across the cobbled path of the well-groomed garden. A short walk into one of the more obscure corners of the yard revealed the prized bicycle yard, and even from a distance, Zaelro could recognize the blazing golden light emitting from the very body of his treasured steed. Looks like they have made it after all, despite his blatant blunder!

“Sire, I am present,” the echoing voice of Steady Steedy the Sunlight Steed could be heard even in the distance, which cleared off the last of Zaelro’s anxiety.

Zaelro swiped his legs as quickly as he could into the shed, and there, just as it should be, the marvelous Sunlight Steed was standing graciously, waving its tail as it neighed quietly enough for just its owner to hear, and yet still loud enough to declare its relief to whom that might concern. In the enclosed quarter of the shed, the golden beams emitting from every single hair on Steedy’s body was enough to illuminate the whole background, so that the shed appeared to be thoroughly gilded with gold in its presence.

“Hello there, Steedy,” Zaelro spoke. “Sorry I was late.”

“It is fully understandable, sire. From your tired look last afternoon, it was rather an obvious fact,” Steedy replied, slightly nodding its head in approval.

“Any problem during the transaction?” asked Zaelro.

“There was one remarkable difficulty, sire,” the horse said, slightly discontented. “Apparently, the two soldiers in charge of delivery as issued by Sieur de l’Aquitaine had been too polite and spoke in, when translated into Japanese, too archaic a language for the host to remain oblivious.”

“So what happened next?” Zaelro asked, pretty much intrigued as he slightly shuddered.

“I, like my brothers and sisters, have substantial psychic power, sire. We can read, evaluate and alter the thought of a mortal being at will and with absolute impunity,” Steedy replied. “And that was exactly what happened. Some altering of conscience worked in tandem with the Valhallan Amulet of Disguise and there was no way the hostess could doubt any more.”

“That was great, Steedy,” Zaelro spoke sincerely. “And again, my apologies for the complete lack of punctuality on my behalf, and yeah, I do owe you one this time.”

“I live to serve those who stand for the light, sire,” Steedy replied firmly. “You need not worry about that.”

“Well, now that you are here safe and sound,” Zaelro said, taking a final breath of relief, “I should inform you that we have another thing to keep in mind.”

“Please state your orders, sire,” was the steed’s firm response.

“Well, this is what I mean. Basically, a typical motorbike doesn’t sit around in the shed for a whole day, especially a new one. A motorbike goes around and around and around town, which is especially true for a new one and for a teenage owner who should have tons of free time on hand,” explained Zaelro. “We wouldn’t want to arouse suspicion and have you mind-tricking us out every time, would we?”

“Are there any solutions to that, sire?” the horse asked, somewhat revealing anxiety in its resounding tone.

“Simple, to be recognized as a bike, you must be a bike!” Zaelro replied, smiling, his eyes glaring with a slightly mischievous tint, “That is, every day from now on I’ll use you as my primary means of transportation, to school, back home, or anywhere else when the need arises. The only problem is, would it be fine with you?”

“I was born to be rode, sire,” maybe it was just Zaelro, but the steed’s tone really did bore some relief. “I could take you everywhere, even if you would like to go to the Antarctic and back.”

“If so,” Zaelro concluded, “Would it be possible if I take you out for a test drive?”

******


The streets of Sankaku weren’t exactly crowded during Saturday, or rather, almost the exact opposite of crowdedness. With the new, king-sized mall just a little from the town center to cater to everyone and anyone’s shopping needs, the majority of the youth population of the town would be completely occupied for the duration of the day, while the middle-aged and elder population were enjoying exactly the purpose of their moving to the new town- peace and quaintness. Combining with the fact that Zaelro’s hosts lived some distance from the business center, the whole place was almost empty, or at least, in relativity to Manchester’s ubiquitous traffic and activities of all sorts. As Zaelro led the so-called “Harley-Davidson bike” from the main gate, the feeling of a sharp early February chill started to tingle his skin, and the lack of traffic around his place didn’t much helped it too much. It was fortunate that he had remembered to bring along his wool coat, or else it would have been much worse for him.

As the teen toured the streets, the emptiness feeling turned quickly from a slight, unconscious sense of discomfort to downright disturbance. For some reason, there was no one in the streets. At all. Rather disheartened, Zaelro gazed at the surrounding, only to realize even less attractive prospects. The haunting, grayish-white sky of Japanese late winter was by no means attractive, and had there been snow it would have been a better scenario for as far as that mattered. In the background of ghastly white horizon, light yet chilling winter breeze, leafless branches rattling in a symphony of frost and lifelessness and an absence of anything that moved and was alive. The breeze didn’t howl terribly like the Arctic wind, and yet the occasional curls of dust dispensing from the white brick pavement that it threw up, when coupled with everything else, created a grisly morbid environment most closely paralleling the “samurai duel mood” as coined by one of Zaelro’s friend, who was a keen Kurosawa fan.

”What happens is simple: Two samurai enter the horizon, sword sheathed, eyeing each other with such rage as if they were to devour each other when the time comes. The wind blows gently in the background, hurling leaves off the trees and off the ground. Then both warriors would glance at one single leaf, and when it touches the ground, they would unleash their blades and go for each other at full speed. SWOOSH! They each ends up having dashed across the other, and then, when the tragic Japanese flute plays… one would crumble down like a tree being cut down, while the other sheaths his blade again, and leaves in the compelling air of death and sorrow. Tragic, haunting, and beautiful.”

Even at the time he heard that speech, Zaelro would wish never to encounter such a scene in his life. All other factors considered, the overall tone about in the environment somewhat discolored Zaelro’s expression, for a reason most closely related with perceivable fear. Yet, it wasn’t exactly due to his being a coward being frightened just by the average winter sky. Brave as he would self-proclaim, and as much as the trauma of almost being devoured by a vampire had been pierced from end to end by sharp Hoplite spears and utterly vaporized by Greek-fire-empowered javelins, the notion of that missed appointment with Death, when conveniently placed in this environment, was still sending chills down his spine at intervals.

”I am not afraid. I am not afraid. Duh… I said I am NOT afraid!” Zaelro smacked himself mentally. Still, the air around him didn’t cease giving him uneasiness, and he was, from time to time, prompted to cancel the trip and go back home. Yet, to the proud Britons, to admit fear wasn’t quite an option to his ego. Let alone fear of vampires, judging that from that point onwards, he was to consider them his worst enemies and start hunting them down, albeit in the non-conventional vampire slayer methods. After all, his 2000-man-strong army would ill like a commander who was afraid of their enemies, would they? And yet the ghastly cold was anything but comforting.

“It’s rather cold here, isn’t it?” Zaelro finally asked as if to break the ice.

“Sire, I could warm you up with my powers if you need to,” offered Steedy.

“Nah, you had better conserve what power you have for now, just in case we run into something resembling a vampire in the meantime,” Zaelro stated firmly, the genuine reason being to avoid losing face, only to reveal his paranoia even more.

“Sire, there is little evidence that vampires would appear right out of the blues” Steedy replied confidently.

“Well, we just cannot know everything, can we?” Zaelro said rather aimlessly, as if just speaking for the sake of speaking and company. The horse’s reply with a knock of the hoof was perceivably equivalent to a shrug of disbelief were his companion human.

“Or maybe it’s just me…” Zaelro said, breaking the topic as he braced his coat more tightly to avoid the chill and to artificially generate a sense of self-assured safety. Little did Zaelro and Steedy realize that a couple of real vampires were brawling just a couple of city blocks away from their current position, and that they would run into the fighters sooner than expected…

******



DF  Post #: 10
11/25/2008 2:48:15   
Argeus the Paladin
Member

Chapter 10
Steedy’s Debut


The cold, dreary streets of Sankaku was deathly haunting and depressing, but for that particular instance, was far from unpopulated. In one of the wide and spacious pavements devoid of any normal pedestrian, the blurry, clouded and discolored sunlight of a winter noon still shone rather clearly on the single silhouette of a lone traveler striding the sidewalk in a perceivably unhurried state. Yet, there was more to the figure than just an everyday traveler who had to brave the streets for everyday, nonchalant reasons, as just a glance at the traveler would open up a host of inconsistencies and contradictions that would force the beholder to look even closer.

The primary impression was that what garments the traveler bore seemingly contradicted one another. While her dark-blue skirt and navy shirt as well as a small, self-customized schoolbag she carried with both hands by the handle dictated her high-school student status, the huge, oversize, unbuttoned trench coat she adorned effectively proved otherwise. It was the kind of grimly colored, abnormally thick coat whose surface, most likely from the effect of cruel time, had been marred with a host of unfeminine scratches. Still, the overcoat even more monstrous than the war memorabilia of World War I trench runners could not hide behind it the delicateness and youthful loveliness of its wearer. Yet, with the old coat fluttering in the cold breeze like a grim banner, her appearance was both otherworldly and rather intimidating. Not to mention threat, as the heavy cloak would give ample space for her to hide anything from a tiny dart to a full-blown Tommy gun that could be whisked out in short notice.

The traveler smiled as she moved slowly as if prowling the winter background for anything of notice. Even that smile carried a rather unfathomable and unbelievable depth. Half of her slightly stretched lips were partially covered by the veil of shoulder-length, silky black hair, as was the left half of her whole face. In stark contrast to the deep, telltale black tone of her hair, her complexion was of such whiteness and flawlessness that at the first sight one would be tempted to believe that it was a goddess he was eyeing. Nonetheless, as the wind slashed through her hair, revealing the rest of her face every now and then, mingling the perfect white façade of the beauty with the overwhelming pale background, her visage gave an almost overwhelming impression of ghostliness.

But it was her eyes that told the most to those who would be attracted to her outstanding beauty. Her eyes, as clear and beautiful as a still autumn lake that always looked forward with strong conviction seemingly possessed the kind of mesmerizing power in it that could both drive men insane as well as strike fear into the heart of those who needed be. Her glance pierced through the thick hair, as sharp as a steel katana edge and as charmingly innocent as a little girl’s pure outlook. And still, concealed behind it was an incomprehensible and unbreakable wall of mystery, coupling with a strange, out-of-this-world flare of what could be most reliably translated as tragic anguish, for whatever reasons, the beholders would never know. And there was malice, albeit to a lesser extent, of a young woman who had suffered and who would wish to repay in kind to her oppressor, the malice that would, in essence, betray the innocent beauty that her windows to the soul originally showed. The contradiction, and also the great wonder, was how both innocence and conviction, both youthfulness and sorrow, both lively sharpness and depressing sorrow could coexist in such complete harmony in just a single woman, and more, in just one pair of eyes that seemed to both allow and refuse communication.

And there she strode, a perfectly built statue of flesh and blood as well as mystery and anguish reminiscent of all the beauty, grace and mystery of womankind, along the streets of Sankaku where no one else was traveling. With nothing else known, it could only be said that she was either an angel or a beautiful demoness, but slightly slanting towards the latter. What she was looking for or why she was out in the street, no one would know, and the thick coat she covered her slim, shapely form would prevent anyone from wanting to further look into her own business. Her steps were both aimless and purposeful, like a dutiful patrol taking a random turn at any crossroad, but with a sole purpose to detect crime and evil and eradicating its agents in the way without quarters.

When one sets out in search of trouble, usually trouble would find its way to the seeker in due time. And so was in this case. It wasn’t long before she took a certain turn into Akira Street- one of the main street’s branches on whose side constructions were taking place along its entire length- that something remarkable entered the stage. There was a loud and distinctively recognizable cutting sound of an oversize bat-like wing slashing into the cold air just in the distance as the young lady stepped into the dusty pavement. The young woman instantly raised her eyebrow, indicating alertness and recognition, which was needed just a couple of seconds later, as a volley of three razor-sharp throwing daggers flew from the vicinity of the sound straight at her location without warning. The whizzing sound of the sharp blades was distinctive and deadly- normally, a human with no special talent would be impaled the moment he noticed the projectile cutting into the air. But she was different than what she looked like…

Calmly and decisively, the young woman dug her right hand into her large trench coat, instantaneously producing three daggers of her own, thusly confirming the fact that her coat was there for a purpose, and without even taking aim, tossing them back at the direction of the hostile projectiles. While her aim was taken only on the sense of hearing, it proved to be extremely accurate- three consecutive twanging sounds went home as her daggers collided against the offending weapons in much the same way a missile defend system was designed to intercept and destroy hostile targets. The result was clear- the six weapons fell on the ground with six light, yet still resounding crashes in a breathtaking display of both skill and sense.

Slowly and with her normal impression left much unchanged apart for the pair of eyes that grew from indifference to alert, the young woman turned back at the direction where the attack came from, and, as accurately as an eagle’s sight, pinpointed immediately the attacker’s place. There, on the top of a steel column of a building under construction on the sideway stood a black-cloaked figure, eying interestingly at the attacked. As gazes fixed, the stealth attacker realized that it was high time an encounter was to take place. Swiftly, the figure leaped from the top of the high column, and glided down with his cloak in an outright impossible manner, reminiscing a hang-glider’s venture, albeit with much more freedom, comfort and accuracy. In seconds, the figure had landed before the young woman in question, exchanging glares with the latter.

The young woman eyed the attacker with a certain degree of contempt, like how a human would look at a worthless insect pestering hiss pantry that needed eradication. The figure, as it appeared, was a woman as well, with stunning beauty and almost irresistible charm, with blood-red lips and blue, hypnotic eyes that were born just for seduction, although far outshone by the traveler’s. Unbuttoned just like the traveler’s trench coat, her cloak was also left open, giving the impression of a multitude of possible hidden weapons within it. From the looks of things, it appeared that the newcomer made her arrival on a ground of peace, but would not hesitate to use force if necessary.

“Greetings, Princess,” the newcomer said, breaking the ice, her tone sounding both ceremonious and evidently sarcastic at the same time. “How fares you?”

“Black cloak and standard vampire hunter daggers, huh?” remarked the traveler with despise. “Only Elena Soulrender’s elite handmaidens would bring the weapon of their greatest enemies into use effectively…”

“You haven’t forgotten your… origin, Your Highness,” the newcomer spoke, heightening the sarcasm a little. “His Majesty spoke of you often, and your master always stated that you have been, are, and will always be her best student.”

“Cut the long tale short. I have no father and no master,” the ‘princess’ replied. “If you are here to attempt to kill me, I can say that I have a logbook of the ninety-odd unlucky assassin wannabes ever since I came here attempting to take my life. Ninety-nine, in fact. You’d make a fair hundredth.”

“Your Highness, I am here today mainly to bring a message from His Majesty,” the newcomer said, adding a bit more weight on the ceremonial side. “He gives you a final chance to return to his side and be a good girl. He has also given a generous offer- if you would ill like to return to your crown, you have two days to leave this town and lay low. If you choose to do so, he would let you live and forget that he has ever had a daughter.”

“Since when has Reglay von Gendamme become generous?” the traveler burst out laughing. “What if I say I vow to do everything in my capability to stop him with whatever plan he is concocting?”

“Your Highness, you are still His Majesty’s flesh and blood, and he would like to give you a last chance for repentance because of that connection,” the messenger said, suddenly dropping the sarcasm, which was logical. After all, she was there to preach, not to stir trouble.

“I have spoken my heart. I have no father and one enemy, not the other way around,” the traveler addressed.

“Please, Your Highness, do not forget that you are not really human. No, you are not human in the first place. You are one of us, and nothing could possibly deny that. Why not join your kind in the war that would make this world ours rather than fight against your own bloodline?”

“I am not a vampire,” the traveler heightened her voice such that it almost sounded like an exclamation, “Not any longer, you hear that? Not any more!”

“You really think that the Church accepted you because they would like to ‘convert’ you?” smirked the newcomer. “They are just using you against your noble father! They are the sly and contemptible slave drivers… just like the rest of their lot.”

“I am tired of this propaganda,” the ‘princess’ shook her head impatiently. “However hard you preach there is no way you can convince me that vampires can slaughter humans in much the way you have been.”

“It is we, Your Highness,” said the messenger. “After all, the bottom line is, you are on the verge of falling into a bottomless pit, and your noble father has given you a hand to draw you out, like the flawless father he is. If you fail to take your father’s last demand, he would disown you forever and make you one of our worst enemies. You wouldn’t want an army of us to shred you into bits, would you?”

“As if it is that easy,” the ‘princess’ replied. “I hereby officially turn down Reglay von Gendamme’s ultimatum.”

“If you have so made up your mind, we would have no other choice…” the messenger said. All of a sudden, she chopped her hand into the air, like giving an order. And indeed.

“Soldiers of the Black Emperor! Today we are here in the hope of convincing our princess from her foolishness, but her arrogance has blinded her!” shouted the messenger. “We would have no choice but to kill this traitor and bring His Majesty her head, right here and now! Her death would make His Majesty’s heart bleed, no doubt, but he would be even more heart-broken should he have to kill her himself!”

The vampire’s call was well replied. As her ghastly howl resounded all over the dusty and messy path, from all over the place, on top of the unfinished buildings, balancing on top of steel support bars and scaffolding, appeared not one, not two, but almost two dozens fighter, dressed in black just like the messenger. The stench of vampirekind hanging heavily in the air as the traveler knew it could mean nothing but trouble, as the group of ambushers glided down from their watch-posts as skillfully as their female commander just a while ago and assembled themselves before the offending ‘Traitor Princess’. No doubt, the apparent orchestrator of the action, Elena Soulrender, must have summoned a large portion of her elite guards for the task. The scale of the assault almost made the traveler back off- ever since she became a full-time vampire killer, she had never encountered a force of that size of elites.

“This…” the ‘Traitor Princess’ blurted, somewhat taken aback.

“Lady Elena has authorized the use of deadly force in the case of your failing to capitulate, Princess,” the messenger said. “Still, if you are afraid, surrendering now isn’t too late. You wouldn’t stand a chance against an army of this size of His Majesty’s best troops.”

“I plan on neither surrendering nor dying today,” the ‘traitor’ said firmly in a self-reassuring manner. “Come, do your worst!”

With the three last words, with lightning fast the princess produced from her trench coat another bundle of throwing dagger, and spread them in the space in front of her, focusing on the nearest target. There was a loud scream as the unlucky fall guy of the attacking army was turned into a hedgehog within seconds, impaled by a multitude of specially blessed vampire slayer daggers. Signaled by this aggressive move, the remainder of the attacking army immediately made their move, and lunged at the offender at full speed. The ‘traitor’ only had enough time to produce from her coat her close-range weapon of choice, a pair of modified steel assassin’s claws to defend herself…

******


Zaelro Fastoff’s ride through the empty streets of Sankaku was finally coming to an end. After a good couple of streets from his place of current residence, Zaelro decided that it would be better for both his health and his rather questionable courage at the moment being to return home. In any case, in the next day he had decided to summon a full meeting between him and his five generals to plan on his next move, now that vampires were appearing more and more around town, as the news and rumors went. Being predetermined that there must be something he could do for this beautiful township, Zaelro decided that the agenda should include anything from a regular patrol in terms of his own troops to a quick-alert system that should allow him to send small detachments to aid people in need.

“We are returning home now, Steedy,” Zaelro said, after ordering his horse to take an about-face. “Much needs doing tomorrow.”

“I hope you have had a good time taking a ride, sire,” the Sunlight Steed replied, which was a true fact. Having previously rode a couple of times in his grandparents’ farm in Suffolk, Zaelro had to admit that Steedy was far better than any of his lesser kind, at least in terms of maximum speed, riding safety and ease of control.

“Alright, Steedy, let us go…” Zaelro said, but hardly could he finish his sentence than a loud sound of metal entering and rending flesh followed by a scream of pain and terror sounded in the distance. The notion immediately stopped Zaelro dead in his track as he began to listen, and what he could make out from the background, if anything, confirmed something really bad. The sound of weapons clashing against one another as well as footsteps and battle cries in the horizon could prove only one thing- a battle was taking place, for some reasons, and a violent one indeed with the use of deadly, albeit cold, weapons.

“Did you hear that?” Zaelro lowered his head to the steed’s ear and asked with a low voice, while trying his best to gather additional information from the constant clashing of weapons and battle cries. There was another scream as Zaelro spoke, indicating that someone had been hit, injured, or worse, killed.

“I do, sire,” Steady Steedy replied. “And I reckon this battle has to do with vampires… the smell of their kind is all over the place.”

“We HAVE to take a look,” Zaelro said, instantly forgetting his paranoia just a couple of minutes before. “What are you waiting for, Steedy? Let’s go!”

“Wait, sire, it may be danger…” Steedy was going to say more, but didn’t have the chance to. The solid kick on the side was the order of instant advance, and he wouldn’t too much want to be recognized as a disobedient horse right from the start.

Half a minute and a couple of turns later, Zaelro and his trusty steed had arrived where the battle was supposedly taking place. From even one end of the street lined up with building materials and pre-imposed with massive construction projects under construction, Zaelro could see quite clearly what was happening- around fifteen to sixteen black-cloaked figures wielding a multitude of weapons ranging from the standard swords, longswords, axes, broad axes and spears to the more exotic tonfa, nunchaku and whip, were surrounding the slender silhouette of an apparent high-schooler, engaging in close-range combat. What amazed the demigod, though, was that Zaelro’s arrival marked one of the attacked being struck on the forehead and fell face-up on the road, with a loud thud, and his bloodied and mutilated face told all what needed be. Apparently the ‘high-schooler’ was holding her own so well, Zaelro could barely believe what he had seen. The couple of corpses surrounding the place confirmed that instance far too well to be doubted.

With absolute caution, Zaelro ordered Steedy to press on slowly into the street to have a closer look at the situation. As he drew closer, the intelligent boy that was Zaelro immediately realized that the attacked could probably defend herself, but she was probably at her limit. With a couple of misses and near hits, it was visible that her pace had been slowed down too much for safety, due to apparent fatigue and being outnumbered. If nothing else would be done, the victim would probably die before she could even take down a quarter of the rest. Something needed to be done, but how? Steedy’s next speech almost dashed away all hopes for the lone fighter, or so it seemed.

“Sire, these vampires are not the normal types,” the horse hummed lowly and quietly, “Their aura is much blacker and more evil than the norm, which means a proportionately increased strength and agility. If we join the fray even we may not survive.”

“Mmm… and calling Oredin isn’t too good an idea. This is, after all, broad daylight,” considered Zaelro. “Let’s just approach closer to see if there is anything we can do.”

As Zaelro and Steedy moved in closer, the next thing that came to Zaelro’s mind carried an immense effect. As the Britons glanced at the victim, his eyes rolled, and his jaw could probably drop flat on the ground had he not remembered where he was standing at the moment. Apparently, it took more than the average high-schooler’s beauty to make Zaelro react in such a way, but the attacked had a beauty that was, according to the British teen, unparalleled. Keeping in mind that Zaelro was not a teen easily swayed by beauty, it was an extremely rare instance that just a slight glance could have such an effect on the demigod like that. Even in that dire moment, her beauty shone like no other, completely mesmerizing the rider, and in just the split second that the rider realized that, he was determined that something must be done, even radical ones, to save her from the dire situation. For a second, Zaelro sat on Steedy, silent and seemingly frozen solid.

“Sire? Lord Zaelro?” whispered Steedy. “What have happened to you?”

“She is such a beauty…” Zaelro spoke softly, yet dreamily, before suddenly raising his voice a little to show decisiveness. “Letting her die is not in my agenda, not today! We have to rescue her!”

“It is suicidal, sire! It would take more than a hundred elite phalanx hoplites of Lord Oredin to possibly…” were the horse human, that statement would have been accompanied by a gasp of complete disbelief and disapproval.

“Well, who told you that we shall tackle them head-on?” Zaelro said slowly, with a sly grin. “The strategy of a cavalry charge is put to use here. The primary purpose of a cavalry charge is for the enemy to break rank, and it is even more likely than 99.99% that the enemy would do if they are unprepared! Then I’ll quickly grab the girl, and there we have it.”

“Sire, Lord Argeus would be sorely disappointed if he learnt that you sacrificed both our lives to save a girl of minor importance…” sighed Steedy.

Zaelro eyed Steedy with a serious glare. They didn’t have time, for no sooner than Steedy uttered the last word than the victim took her first blow, and quite a bad one. An axe managed to sink into her left shoulder, knocking her backward in pain, and knocking Zaelro with anxiety and rashness at the same time. As the victim backed up a little and staggered to maintain her stance, blood seeping through even the thick trench coat of hers, Zaelro realized that there was no time to quarrel with Steedy.

“I hope you would comply, Steedy,” Zaelro said, immediately kicking Steedy’s side hard, an order for full-speed galloping. In such a case, the horse had no other choice but to reply to that order.

“Just a last issue, Lord Zaelro. On my back you can find a Golden Blade of Light, the magic sword symbolic of my power. It may help you on this suicide run.”

Zaelro swiftly turned back, and there, just behind the horse’s saddle almost instantaneously manifested a golden sword, or a sword that was so coated in the brightest and purest of light that it appeared almost golden to the beholder. As Zaelro grabbed the blade, the hilt and the blade alike flared up signifying great light elemental power- essential and perfect for killing creatures of the night, although Zaelro’s primary mission was not to kill, but to save. Quickly nodding, Zaelro then resumed his order with another kick, and that was the point of no return.

With a loud war cry of his own, Zaelro charged directly at the heart of the enemy contingency, where six to seven attacking vampires were holding ground getting ready to deliver the final blow. Though reckless, the cry did have its purpose. As soon as the attackers heard the shriek and turned back only to be met with a full-fledged golden war horse with a rider of unknown power and capability charging at them at full speed, their first reaction would be to move out of the way, and they did exactly just that. Uniformly, all of the enemies in the region, taken by surprise, started to panic, and if anything, the blinding golden light of the Sunlight Steed struck fear into their hearts even more, as they quickly sidestep as fast as their legs could carry them. The unfortunate vampire who failed to do so on time suffered the most- Zaelro’s golden blade pierced him, and with a stroke of luck from the so-called Lady Luck’s Favorite, the blind attack by the non-weapon-proficient Zaelro, carrying with it the momentum of a war horse galloping at top speed, hit the unfortunate attacker squarely in the very middle of its heart, killing him at once. The resulting mess was beyond the expectation of even the most pessimistic vampire, as the entire remainder of the attackers began to cower and sidestep, leaving the zone wide open. It was the chance for the quick actor, and Zaelro would not miss that chance.

“Hey! You there!” Zaelro called out, looking straight at the wounded young lady as Steedy galloped onwards. “Get in and hold on!”

The wounded girl answered with a nod of approval, and with the remainder of her strength, launched herself at the ground just before Steedy’s path, and with a skillful somersault, tossed herself, and in just a blink of an eye, had lodged herself in position on Steedy’s back saddle, unconsciously wrapped her arms around the rescuer’s waist, turning his face almost as red as a tomato.

However, danger was far from over. Their departure for the other end of the street was not without notice, as it was the same time that the group of vampires began to realize that the threat wasn’t that great, and their prey was getting away. Almost instantly, the three nearest vampires instantly charged towards the two riders from the back. Such attacks are extremely dangerous to mounted soldiers, and in the worst case, could possibly knock the riders off the horse with ease, especially in the case of a not very experienced rider like Zaelro was. Yet, it was worth noting that though being a rookie rider, Zaelro was by no means a rookie when it came to micromanagement.

“Steedy, activate Holy Bolt attack! At the three targets behind us!” exclaimed Zaelro, and the horse did likewise. Three powerful bolts of pure lights rained down on the three pursuers as a result. The result was more than clear- the attackers shrieked in complete agony, as if being doused by hot, condensed sulfuric acid, holding their faces in pain and to avoid further damage from the blinding light. The attack was more than enough to incapacitate, albeit far from fatal. Yet, it gave enough time to compensate for a good getaway, and the chance was taken very well by the smart Briton, and with a good kick replied by a quick and reassuring nod on behalf of Steedy, the trio zoomed off out of the street at top speed, disallowing any chance of pursuit. A couple of seconds later, all what Zaelro could hear from the passing battle was just an angry shout from the distant battlefield.

“You fools! She got away!” shouted an angry, apparently responsible vampire.

******


< Message edited by Argeus the Paladin -- 11/25/2008 2:51:29 >
DF  Post #: 11
11/26/2008 3:21:29   
Argeus the Paladin
Member

Chapter 11
An Almost Epic Failure


As much as the getaway had been a complete success, and Zaelro’s plan, thanks to his incredible affinity with luck, was carried out flawlessly, the degree of seriousness of the incident as well as the closeness to failure still make the orchestrator fell unbelievable in his own feat. Even when they had been almost half a mile from danger, Zaelro still hadn’t fully come back to his senses. The breathtaking escape had been enough to make his heart stop for a moment, although the proud teen would never admit that in his life, especially to the young lady he had rescued without a second thought. Finally, realizing that danger was over and far off, Zaelro patted on his horse’s forehead, signaling him to drop pace, while he himself was far from recovery. Even when the horse had come to a complete stop, the courageous rider was still at a loss for words with senses quite numbed off

“Sire, did we make it?” was the first sound that came to Zaelro’s ears, undoubtedly from his trusty teed. The horse’s breath was clearly out of pace due to the excessive galloping followed by unprecedented mental ordeal, Steedy panted, his heavy breath distorting his echoing voice and tainting it with much trembles. “We are still alive, aren’t we?”

Zaelro remained silent as he tuned his own breath and heartbeat. The trauma of the sudden incident had dealt a heavy toll on his mental integrity, and it took him more than five seconds to recover and come back to his senses.

“Well, I have to admit that we almost had it, but now we are alive and kicking for sure,” Zaelro said, his voice still doused in disbelief.

The next thing that came into his agenda was, as a matter of course and like any Anglo-Saxon gentleman would do, to see what had happened to the maiden he had just saved from peril. Lady Luck’s Favorite frowned for a split second as the image of the last known event came back to his mind. With such a heavy blow by an axe on the shoulder, it would be miraculous if she hadn’t died from blood loss or shock, let alone conscious. Zaelro brushed aside that anxiety the very moment it was born, as the next thing he could feel thoroughly denied the worst. The young lady’s warm and lively breath was warming up the back of his neck, and unintentionally, his entire body, the notion of which somehow made his just reconditioned heartbeat jump out of tone again, while strongly and certainly confirming her survival at the same time. It took the rider another few seconds to control his breath and voice before clearing his throat to speak again.

“Err… Miss, you can let go now. We are definitely safe and sound where we are standing.” The valiant rescuer stated, although judging from his beetroot-red cheeks, his still abnormally heightened heartbeat and body heat as well as his tell-tale, stammering and seemingly mesmerized voice, what he really wanted was the complete opposite. As he spoke, the British teen twisted his shoulder, turning his head backwards to the most that his neck could allow, still failing to catch a glimpse of the delicate flower he had picked up. The mild frustration of the failure almost drove him to cursing his own skeletal formation, but not for long, because his hitcher was rather quick to answer.

“Oh, yeah. My apologies.” The young maiden’s voice rang beside Zaelro’s ears like a nightingale’s tone, soft, yet still sharp, passionate and feeling-conveying, leaving the hypnotized teen dazzled even more. As her arms unwrapped from his waist, the lady paused, and then went on, sounding genuinely apologetic. “Did I hurt you in any way?”

“Huh? Oh… no…” Zaelro rolled his eyes in astonishment, and then when he looked at the region just above his belt, the disbelieving teen realized what had probably happened. There, on each side of his coat, a series of four long, sharp gashes parallel to each other appeared where the perfect leather surface once was, effectively tearing its lower sides into shreds. The haste in which the young lady had been in when he stuck hiss arm out to take her on Steedy had resulted in her failing to take off her steel, razor-sharp battle claws from her wrist, and as she clutched at his coat, the offending weapon had, though unintentionally, completely ruined his most prized apparel.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to…” the lady’s voice sounded again, her warm tone thoroughly washed away all the notion of possible anger and annoyance that might have materialized in the victim. Amazingly, Zaelro’s mood settled down almost instantaneously as she spoke, as if she had given him not a word of apology, but a jar of chilled and extra-sweet honey in return.

“Well, that’s okay. I was going to get rid of this old coat anyway,” Zaelro promptly answered on impulse. How astonished he was when he finally realized what he had spoken! As much as he didn’t care much about his own clothing, the complete destruction of an item that he knew all too well was a farewell gift from a close friend was not a comfortable happening at all.

”Honestly, what is taking over me?” was the last thing that the teen could hear from his inner conscience, promptly brushed aside as Zaelro leaped off horseback to help his hitch-hiker off.

“You seem to be badly hurt,” Zaelro said as the damsel laid her feet on the ground. From the looks of things, her injuries were such that ‘seriousness’ was a euphemism at best. The immense blood flow from the wound seeped through even the thick, monstrous trench coat that covered the victim’s body, forming a long, brown-reddish line of dried blood on the side of her coat, and undoubtedly some of which had inevitably smeared on Zaelro’s coat as well. Normally, with that much blood loss, a normal human could expect a coma and either an emergency blood transfusion or imminent death, whichever comes first. Understandably how amazed Zaelro was to see that the victim was at most slightly hurt- apart from a mild grimace showing some pain, she was completely fine, standing firmly on her feet, and smiling graciously, as if what she had received was a bruise rather than a gash caused by a full-fledged battle axe.

“In my dictionary, the words hurt and heal are adjacent to each other,” the girl said rather proudly as she gave a brief explanation. “Normal injuries of mine heal in a matter of minutes. However, this may take slightly longer, but I believe I’ll be alright and fine by exactly midday tomorrow.”

“How could you possibly do that?” Zaelro gasped.

“Wordy explanations has never been a woman’s specialty, have they?” teased the girl. “In any case, thanks a lot. Without you or your horse, I mightn’t have survived the onslaught.”

“Thanks!” Zaelro said spiritedly with a broad smile. “It’s just what I think I should… wait a second…”

Zaelro’s smile faded as soon as he realized what he had just heard, in its place a disbelieving mouth and look came into view. Did the lady say that she saw Steedy as a horse rather than a motorbike, while the steed was, under the effect of the cloaking device as Oredin preached, supposed to appear as a Harley-Davidson before the world?

“What did you say it was again?” Zaelro said, as if questioning. “A… horse?”

“Unless it is a mule or a donkey, which is unlikely,” the girl laughed quietly in an amused tone as she eyed Zaelro and Steedy with a high degree of entertainment. “But as far as I know, that mane and tail belongs to a horse… perhaps a warhorse. Which is logical, because we wouldn’t have gotten away with the speed of a donkey or a mule, right?”

“How could you have seen… it?” Zaelro asked, filled with curiosity and anxiety at the same time. After all, he was supposed to keep his identity and mission a big secret, and revealing his riding a golden horse right in the first day was by no means desirable. And strangely enough, it was supposed to be hidden far too well to be seen outright!

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” the girl ignored the question, and remarked. “It’s rare to see a horse with such a vibrant color in this world.”

“Well… yeah. I was just wondering how you could see it…” Zaelro asked, rather confused.

“Sire, this woman is not a normal human! Being able to keep up with that many powerful vampires and having taken just one injury… she must have powers beyond our understanding!” blurted Steedy. “That is why she could see me as I am!”

“Wow, your horse could speak?” the young lady rolled her eyes in a rather cute and captivating way as soon as Steedy finished his last word. “This is fascinating indeed! I mean, we don’t see speaking horses everyday other than in a circus, do we?”

“You could hear him as well?” Zaelro said, even more surprised than before. For a moment, he almost doubted what the valkyrie who delivered him had said before.

“Mortals could only hear its neigh, but only an angel of high rank or a god could communicate with the Sunlight Steed meaningfully. And you could, as you have demonstrated.”

Unless the person standing in front of him was an angel or a god, there was no way she could have seen that much.

“What… did he say, then?” Zaelro asked back, his voice rather puzzled.

“I couldn’t make it,” shrugged the young lady, her eyes opening widely in wonder at the animal. “He sounded as if he was egging something, but I couldn’t make out a word from another. Did you hear what he said?”

“Not really,” lied Zaelro, feeling somewhat relieved. “I could sometimes understand some of his words, but most of the times I am like deaf.”

Zaelro felt something biting him in the inside as the young woman looked at him with a rather disappointed look, resembling a young child when denied of a present. As much as he would like to pick a bench and have a good chat with her now that danger was over, the strong sense of duty that he had felt attached and obliged to ordered him to stop. There were way too many mysteries around that girl, and the prospect had darkened a good deal now that she could see what he was riding was a speaking horse rather than a spanking new high-capacity motorbike.

“Anyway, how did you end up being in such a mess?” Zaelro changed topic.

“Well, in much the same way the rumors go in town recently, but I suppose I was more fortunate,” the girl replied, still smiling, “You don’t see vampires attacking a normal schoolgirl en masse everyday, don’t you? I am a lucky survivor.”

“Talking about the scope of the attack and the kind of vampires that attacked you,” Zaelro remarked. “Just enough for me to see that you are far from normal yourself.”

“As if you knew everything about vampirekind… Ouch!” the girl snapped, though her reply was suddenly interrupted by what appeared to be a sharp pain in the wounded shoulder. To Zaelro’s horror, the girl’s corresponding hand was quickly changing color, from a perfectly white to a lifeless shade of purple resembling spontaneous necrosis. A split second passed as Zaelro racked his storage of medical knowledge. No, there was absolutely no way an injury could create such a side effect. Unless it was poisoned or otherwise contaminated by toxic chemical, or so Zaelro’s knowledge said.

“This doesn’t look so good,” Zaelro said urgently. “You need medical attention, and quick!”

“No, I’m alright…” the victim said, her voice quickly losing vitality. “I can take care of it.”

Zaelro felt like snapping himself, and was about to, when his intention was promptly interrupted by what appeared to be an all-too-familiar swoosh of the wind, like being glided upon by bat-like wings. Sensing something abnormal in the air, instinctively the demigod wrapped his arm around the victim’s shoulders, and rolled both of them out of the way, taking even the female warrior by surprise as a gasp escaped her lips. His sense of evasion couldn’t have been better- no sooner had they moved out of the way than a volley of knives rained down on where the two of them had been standing chitchatting just a second ago. Pushing the wounded girl aside and standing up to cover her injured form, Zaelro glanced at the ground thanking his quick reaction. The one-by-one meter square area where the two of them had stood had now been pierced by a multitude of daggers in the same manner a team of Welsh longbowmen would bombard an area with a hail of arrows. Launched with such force that even the tough concrete pavement was punctured, those projectiles could make one frown just by sheer look.

The attacker was quick to show himself, or rather, herself. From the sky dived down a female black-cloaked figure, with a huge pouch of daggers in each hand, with every intention to unleash them all at the duo. Another elite vampiress had shown up at the stage, apparently to end what the previous group had started. A sinister grin of the hunter toying with its prey reigned across her face as she eyed the helpless young woman losing vitality quickly for unknown reasons.

“My sister has been so kind to leave this trophy to me,” snickered the newcomer. “And also thanks to Lady Elena, had it not been for her ingenious plan to douse the frontrunners’ weapons in heavy toxin, I wouldn’t have been able to win big that easily!”

For some reason, Zaelro started to feel his body twitch and his stomach turn. No longer did the paranoia go on- now his foe was right there before him, and from the looks of things, was going to lay claim on the damsel whose life he had tried so hard to save. As the attacker took leisurely steps towards her prey, Zaelro felt strongly that he needed to do something- a feeling he had hardly felt since birth. All what he knew at that time was that he would save that woman, and with whatever he had.

“So I was right. You vamps are despicable enough to use poison,” Zaelro said, standing up straight. “Next time, pick someone who can fight back!”

“Oh, so this cute little puppy would want to be a wolf huh?” ridiculed the dagger thrower. “I was about to set you back to your mommy, but… On second thoughts, you’d make a nice dinner to add on to the reward that Lady Elena would give me for the bigger fry.”

“Leave her alone! I’ll take you on!” Zaelro exclaimed, and instantly leaped on Steedy, “Steady Steedy, attack formation, set!”

Zaelro then tugged at Steedy’s saddle, producing the blade of light that was responsible for one instant kill of a vampire elite just a couple of moment ago. As the teen tugged at the golden hilt, the blade started shining brightly, as lustrous auras of golden sunlight started to materialize and cloaked the blade with a beautiful, extravagant shade of ethereal gold. Zaelro then pointed the blade straight at the ambusher, signifying a battle-ready formation. In response to that movement, the proud vampiress only raised her eyebrows a little, showing a little interest.

“As if you could really hit me with that toy,” grinned the vampiress. “Go ahead, try to do what you can!”

“You don’t have to dare me!” Zaelro exclaimed, tugging once at Steedy’s mane hard with his left hand. At that single order, Steedy made its move, lunging at full speed at the slender figure of the attacking vampiress in the distance. In response, the vampiress smirked once, before quickly sidestepping and tossing a dagger in the opposite direction at full power, and that meant where Zaelro was coming. Startled, the knight-to-be Britons could only turn his blade to tackle the dagger. As the two bladed weapons clashed, there was a loud clanging sound, indicating a safely parried projectile. Yet, Zaelro’s hand was thrown quite badly off balance, as even when the dagger had been successfully parried, the impact was still enough to make Zaelro’s sword hand shake. Rolling his eye in astonishment in an attempt to keep his balance on horseback, Zaelro ended up charging a long way past the primary target- a completely failed attempt at jousting.

Barely able to turn back, Zaelro’s ever-increasing fury drove him to unleash another charge, and much the same way, the vampiress nimbly avoided the impact of his cavalry rush with utmost impunity. And a third charge, failed. And a fourth failure. And a fifth. And sixth. Nothing out of the foreseeable happened. What was worse, in the last three attacks, the vampiress seemed to have been so bored by Zaelro’s poor performance that she didn’t bother to launch retaliation any longer. The seventh attempt ended up with a miss, just like the previous six, but by now Zaelro had been quite badly nailed by both fatigue and frustration. As the disbelieving teen struggled to sit up straight on the horse, panting, the vampiress landed swiftly on the ground, grinning maliciously.

“Well then, that’s enough toying. Or should I say that even if I wanted to toy with you some more that would be unneeded?” sneered the vampiress, throwing a ridiculing glance at the youth’s blade. “Even if you could hit me now with that rusty blade, it would be as good as useless.”

“What?” Zaelro panted, but astonishment could be barely hidden from his estranged visage when he glared at what was supposed to be his powerful blade of elemental light. To both his horror and loss for understanding, the blade had, in the duration of the joust, shifted from a shade of pure gold to a pale, almost plain whitish shade. Whatever golden coating surrounding it had somehow disappeared completely as if it had never existed in the first place, as swiftly and without warning as water evaporating from a puddle after sunrise. As of present, the golden blade’s quality was nothing more than an average butcher’s knife that housewives all over the world adorned in their kitchens.

“Steedy? What does this mean?” Zaelro asked rather frantically, looking at the quickly fading light.

“Sire… I forgot to inform you, this blade draws power from your arcane energy. If the arcane force in you is strong and abundant, this blade would be as powerful as even a Prime Treasure,” said the horse in a rather apologetic tone. “But… because you are not too far from the ordinary as of now, that is the blade’s limit we have hit.”

“This is insane!” Zaelro almost shrieked.

“So let’s make it quick, shan’t we?” smiled the attacking vampiress. “You’ll die quietly and painlessly…”

Then, with an extremely high speed representative of vampirekind, the attacker dashed at the mounted cavalier, and with a swipe of her claw, exerted a force that could have torn Zaelro into half had he not had a blade to parry the fatal blow. However, her second attack was not one that could be avoided, because the vampiress’ stance at that moment allowed her to leap right over Zaelro’s head, flipped to his back, and delivered a heavy kick at point-blank range. Such attack, in any circumstance, was the bane of even the most skillful equestrian. Zaelro was far from that status, and as a result, it was no surprise that he was totally fallen by the quick move, being thrown off the horse and landing on the ground flatly on his back.

Still recovering from the impact and scrawling to get back to upright position, Zaelro’s standing up was market by a dagger right next to his neck. Apparently his being knocked off the steed had given a perfect chance to be disarmed, and his adversary did just that. There, behind him, the vampiress stood, clutching his shoulder tightly and holding the sharpened steel edge on his neck in a standard holdup position, which meant that any effort to struggle free would end up with a totally lacerated throat beyond cure. As optimistic as he would like to be, a cold, clawed hand on one shoulder and an even colder and sharper dagger on the other shoulder could only signify that all was over.

“Bye-bye, cute kid,” teased the victor. “You would have a peaceful passing as a reward for such hearty entertainment.”

For a brief second Zaelro thought he had had it. As he shut his eyes and mentally braced for impact, however, an unexpected event suddenly happened. From behind him, Zaelro could hear the whizzing sound of not one, not two, but likely a whole dozens of sharp knives being flung simultaneously, and the next thing he heard was a series of sound distinctive of metal rending flesh, followed almost instantly by a gasp originating from just above the back of his neck. A deathly, tell-tale silence ensued for a brief moment as Zaelro was caught by surprise as well.

In a matter of seconds, Zaelro could feel the hand holding his shoulder as well as the dagger hand holding him up quickly loosening. The instinct of survival did not allow Zaelro to remain static further to investigate though. Rather, the hostage took all his might into his right elbow and delivered an extremely powerful, in ordinary human standard, blow at the creature behind him. As much as he had sensed it, Zaelro still felt a little disbelieving as the powerful vampiress attacking him was tossed backward, losing control of him totally. Quickly dive-rolling towards his now-almost-useless sword in an instinctive movement of self-defense, Zaelro soon realized that that sort of action was no longer required. Before him, the maleficent attacker was now standing in a lifeless posture, her eyes opening wildly in the bewilderment of her life. As she slowly turned back to see what could have probably happened, Zaelro could already guess what had happened. From behind the attacker, blood was dripping down off her garment and onto the ground, trickling like early raindrops of crimson, signifying death even to the supposedly immortal.

“You…” said the bewildered vampire, as she turned backwards. Apparently, the victimizer had been turned into the victim in short notice. The beautiful woman she was about to take the life of had made her retaliation, in the form of a dozen blades of focus-fired throwing daggers. Zaelro could not see what had happened, but he could actually pictured how the attacker’s back was turned into an used dartboard in no time. And there she stood, the true victor, ironically holding under one arm the very packs of throwing daggers the ambusher had brought into battle, and made her drink her own medicine.

“How… cowardly of you…” in great anguish and pain, the fallen attacker said, and from the look of her face Zaelro knew she had lost all her senses and would collapse any minute now.

“Never underestimate a vampire slayer with a full magazine of daggers… Didn’t Elena teach you that?” with one eye closed and sweat covering her face, both of which resulting from the poison-induced pain, the dexterous beauty said proudly, albeit slightly difficultly. She, as Zaelro could tell, was no better than her victim, in terms of health and integrity.

And yet, the fight was far from over, as apparently the attacker would not give up. With all of her remaining strength, the crestfallen ambusher lunged at full speed at her primary target, with two of her remaining throwing daggers in hand, readying a final blow to settle the score once and for all. As she approached, a smirk seemed to override the immense pain in the female slayer’s body, and she reacted to the desperate forlorn hope with her standard melee attack. Confidently and accurately whipping out her steel claws, a slash followed by an uppercut aimed at the head with absolute precision went home as the attacker was knocked down into a bloody mess with a totally deformed face to bring to the underworld. The sound of flesh being ripped and the vision of blood splattering all over a six-feet radius from the beautiful vampire slayer’s position as a result of the final blow was so frightening that even Zaelro had his stomach almost turned.

”Not for the faint of heart,” thought Zaelro, as the final droplet of the crimson liquid splashed on the ground. Only now could he feel assured that the battle was truly over.

Quickly and enthusiastically, Zaelro sprinted to the vampire slayer’s direction. His timing couldn’t have been better- no sooner had he arrived in front of her than her slender form collapsed into his arms, her infected arm totally numb and thoroughly discolored.

“Hey, hey! Are you alright?” Zaelro asked, shaking the girl in his arms rather frantically. “Are you still alive?”

There was no answer. Instinctively, Zaelro placed his left thumb at her nostril, and finally breathed of relief. She was alive, though the prospects were rather slim. But she would stop breathing sooner than enough if no cure was devised, looking from her extremely pale look and badly discolored flesh. Was there probably anything he could do to save her?

…Secondly, it offers healing and protection to its rider, and as long as he recognizes one as its owner, it would continually summon holy bolts of healing light to shield, heal and protect its master…

Zaelro snapped his finger. Of course, Steedy was the best cure, according to Sieur de l’Aquitaine! Thinking so, still carrying the girl in his hand, the British teen dashed back to his still standing ground steed with a feverish haste.

“Sire, what would you ask of me?” Steedy asked upon seeing Zaelro’s figure entering his sight, to which Zaelro blinked.

“Any way at all to heal her?” Zaelro replied with another question, laying the female vampire slayer across the horse’s back.

“I’ll try, sire, but her chances are kind of slim,” Steedy replied rather lowly, and his complete pessimism was brought to shame due to what happened just a split second later. Lying across the horseback, the female slayer weakly raised her head, and called out.

“Hey! I’m not dying just yet!” said her, although her voice was far from complete healthiness. Slightly taken aback for a second, Zaelro knew just what to say next.

“Mmm… you do look a little pale, don’t you?” Zaelro’s voice sounded rather teasingly. “If another of those guys come we are toasted for sure.”

“As much as I’d hate to say so, I have to admit,” the girl said, her voice rather trembling weakly. “You need to get out of here quickly and lay low. At this time of the year they are all over the place.”

“Well, I didn’t save you to just leave you lying out here with an arm that needs amputation in short notice with all those vamps around the place, did I?” Zaelro replied. “Somehow I get the feeling that I should really take you to somewhere safe. Wanna hitch-hike to my place?”

“Yeah, you are right.” The girl said reluctantly after a moment of silence. Certainly that was a wise choice- her health was in no status for further self-endangerment. “If you could possibly take me to the city’s central church…”

“Hmm? I thought that the age when churches offer healing services has gone past for quite some time now, hadn’t it?” Zaelro gasped in astonishment.

“They can help,” the girl said persuasively. “I’d be very grateful if you could just drop me by the church’s side entrance on Shimbu Street.”

Zaelro shrugged. He was slightly religious himself, but anything along the lines of churches can heal better than doctors was so off that he couldn’t help pinching himself at the thought. Still, if she was that determined, doing otherwise might not be too wise.

”She must have her own reasons,” Zaelro thought, before mounting once more and got ready to move on.

“Would you like to sit or lie down like that?” asked the British rider.

“I can sit up, thanks,” even without facing her, Zaelro could sense a warm and seemingly innocent smile from the wounded girl behind him as she twitched to an upright position. After all, a beautiful lady’s warm smile had been the source of literary inspiration for a whole breed of writers, combat motivation for another breed of warriors, as well as a major incentive for another breed of politicians and leaders of the age long past.

”Who said that such instance of absolute beauty as a fair lady’s smile doesn’t take place in today’s world, that person is an absolute idiot,” the errant-knight-wannabe smiled as he patted gently on the horse’s mane, departing from the bloody battlefield. Little did he know how big a role the girl he had rescued would play in the pending conflict...

******



DF  Post #: 12
11/27/2008 2:54:47   
Argeus the Paladin
Member

Chapter 12
A Meeting’s Impact


On slightly wearied feet and with a full-blown train of thoughts encircling his head, Zaelro Fastoff bent his back a little, hands grabbing Steedy’s mane, feigning the posture of a motorcyclist pulling his bike into the domains of his current accommodation. Blunt, yet extremely persistent jolts of pain ran along the muscles of his back, his arm and his neck as the rider led his steed back to the shed. Apparently, the escape and the battle that followed had strained his not-yet-battle-hardened more than his limits. On his left shoulder, where he had received a knockoff kick and his right side, where he hit the solid ground, the pain was especially bad, and as a matter of fact, never since his birth had he received such a beating. Coupled with his badly tattered coat not just by an inadvertent clawing but also owing to an unprecedented slide along the rough road following the fall, Zaelro looked as if he had just fought a war all by himself.

Miraculously, tattered and deformed his clothing was, the worst injury he had received after such ordeal was only a couple of bruises and strains, none of which were serious enough to require medical attention. Judging from his fledging combat talents, that was good news. The reminiscence of what razor-sharp, sparklingly lethal knives the vampiress and the slayer were using eventually made him shudder, now that everything had been over. Had he been hit with just one of those, with the endurance of an everyday teenager who went to the gym on a monthly basis and who took no interest in muscle building, the result would have been a foregone conclusion.

The first thing Zaelro did when entering the domains was to discard his tattered coat. The only thing that could sensibly cause that much damage to a brand-new tough leather coat was probably a fatal traffic accident, and in what situation and mission he was in, he had better eradicate all such suspicion. As he slowly pulled Steedy into his shed-stable in a mild but completely noticeable agony, the awe of the miraculous getaway had fully taken over him; visibly even the hand holding Steedy’s golden mane was shivering, less of the cold weather and much more out of probable fear, and the lack of a good coat to cover them all up seemingly added on to the magnitude of the shiver.

“And how could that girl have probably made it?” Zaelro thought out loud, switching his thought to the beautiful vampire slayer.

Certainly, an average human armed with just common sense could never have understood how it could come to pass. With a bleeding shoulder, a massive blood loss, an infected wound and not to mention the effect of unknown venom, she could have died well three times over. And yet, judging from the way she dismounted and ran into the premises of the city’s central cathedral with quick and childlike, although slightly limping steps, inferably the pain she felt had been minimal. The bewildered teen could still remember what it was like when she pushed herself off the saddle and leaped down from horseback- so quickly and so lively, as if fully understanding that nothing could probably go wrong once she had made it inside.

The more he thought, the more he wondered how that could ever turn out to be alright- just the sight of her black-purplish palm revealing through the tattered sleeve of her coat made the unlikely rescuer felt nauseous. How the victim completely turned down professional medical attention in the form of a hospital visit was beyond Zaelro’s understanding as well. Unless the priest at the church would turn out to possess a Nobel-winning universal healing medicine, there would be probably no way she could make it through the day without visiting the hospital’s emergency department and kissing her infected arm goodbye. And the most interestingly wondrous flick of it all was that she still managed to smile as she left. As if the smile could wash away all the pain, suffering that she was probably having and cleanse all the infection from her discolored arm, disregarding how that notion would defy the most basic of logic. If any human could smile at the face of pain and death in that way, that person would, according to Zaelro, be either insane or had lost all sense of touch.

“She is not a normal human, sire, and that is the only solution I could think of,” Steedy replied as Zaelro released his mane. “Do you remember? She could see me, and could make out that I was speaking!”

“Wait… didn’t the vampiress realize your true form as well?” Zaelro asked, pondering.

“Actually the Valhallan cloaking device doesn’t do that much wonder. Only the everyday, standard humans without any special skills or power would be deceived by it,” explained Steedy. “It appears today that whoever claimed that this device works against vampires had made a huge mistake.”

“What about the speaking part?” Zaelro looked completely puzzled.

“As well said, only higher beings could hear me speak. Gods. Demigods. Archangels.” Steedy said solemnly. “However, beings with godlike powers could hear me as well. But the non-deities’ limit is, just as that girl described, hearing me egging something, and that’s about it. Her being able to hear my words proved just that.”

“Okay, so what you are trying to say is,” Zaelro clutched his head in an attempt to sum everything up, “we have here a young lady who has power nearing the limit of a god?”

“That pretty much sums up what I would like to say, sire,” Steedy confirmed, “Did you realize how she… ran into the church? And with that kind of injury that could kill with ease? I could have dropped my jaw at that sight…”

“I can testify that,” Zaelro said, propping his chin. “If so, it’s best that we leave it at that, isn’t it?”

It then came to pass that the hour was getting late, keeping the lunch hour in mind. Looking at his wrist-watch whose surface had suffered quite a large scratch following the big fall he had had just now, Zaelro gave out a gasp of revelation.

“Good grief!” exclaimed the teen in a mild shock. “Had my clock really died because of the fall, or is it really a quarter to two by now?”

As a result of the realization, the demigod then turned around, promptly leaving the shed, in the hope of not having missed another meal and having to resort to raid the kitchen. As his figure limped slowly across the garden and vanished into the safety of the house, the warhorse was left in the shed to wonder for himself about all what had happened on his inauguration day, the attack, the rescue, as well as the most humiliating defeat he had ever seen since his birth. It appeared to the mount then that the master he had sworn to serve now was far from the golden-sword-toting, wing-weaving, magic-brandishing Seraph-type divine beings that his kind had been serving since time immemorial. In contrary, he was first and foremost a teenager, both in look and at heart, a high school student who was at that age for extravagance, sky-high self-esteem, a taste for finer things in life and an earnest interest in the fairer sex, although, for his own reasons, those impulses of his were not as strong and driving as that of those in his group. Even as the teen left the place with a superficial It’s best that we leave it at that attitude, a hint of anxiety could easily be captured from his complex look, the culprit being none other than the beautiful wounded vampire slayer.

“And here we have Noble Lord Zaelro Fastoff, who almost gave his life up to save a girl whom he hardly knows,” the horse muttered silently in its new home, swaying his head from side to side with a long sigh and mixed feeling, obvious from the perplexed glare in his emerald pupils. “I wonder if that was a good, a bad or a foolish thing for a demigod to do…”

******


It turned out that his host and hostess were kind enough to leave the absentee’s ration untouched even in a traditional lunch. Suffering the only consequences being just a mild reminder and a rather cold teriyaki, Zaelro was quick enough to gobble everything and anything edible on the table in a matter of minutes, proving perfectly how exhausting physical exertion could speed up metabolism and appetite.

Yet, the food, though very well cooked and extremely satisfying to the taste, could do next to nothing to ease what sort of injuries he had been having. Zaelro’s limping figure climbing up the wooden stair with obvious difficulty, one hand clutching the other shoulder was the most undeniable proof for that shortcoming of good food. Only when the adrenaline of the moment’s danger and romantic encounter, if it could be called so, had died down completely that his bruises, strains and worked-up muscles started to come into effect in full swing. His battle-messed mass of brown hair seemed to add on to the sense of fatigue, and Zaelro could but thank his Lady Luck for not letting anyone see that worn and run-down state he was in at the moment. Tiredly staggering towards his room, the first image to come up in his mind was a warm mattress and blanket to rest his sore back, although, according to personal experience, it would do little to eradicate such kind of injuries as his. With a motion depicting clear lack of strength and power, Zaelro reached for the doorknob, twisted it, and momentarily stepped in, prompting to get bedded in short notice.

To his astonishment, Zaelro entered his bedchamber only to find it being filled almost to the brim with people in full combat uniform and armor, namely, chain-mail and longswords in one section, leather jackets and fleece hats in another, and bronze armor and broadswords dominated the rest. Rolling his eyes at the huge astonishment, Zaelro could well notice the smell of newly oiled armors and weapons filling the air rather than the soft smell of the lavender room deodorant placed in it everyday, distinctive of a large “congregation“ of warriors. As he took a step inside, the entire mass of battle-ready soldiers suddenly collapsed on their knees with a huge rumble, almost prompting him to believe that it was yet another of Japan’s constant earthquake, had it not came to him that it was armored men before him, numbering up to dozens. While he was still dazzled and taken aback, somewhat almost frightened and thinking about running away, from the ranks of soldiers, five figures advanced towards him- on their knees. A second, closer look revealed that the thought of running off was a folly at best- it was the five of his trusted lieutenants of the Valhallan Regiment that were presenting themselves before him.

“Sire, our sincerest apologies!” exclaimed the low, helmet-distorted voice that Zaelro now realized all too well whose it was. “Our ignorance has endangered your life once again!”

“Mr. Kaledon? What on Earth is happening here?” Zaelro rolled his eyes once more, in both a not-yet-faded astonishment as well as a newly arising annoyance. “What are all these… men doing here?”

“We are staging our apologies, sire,” the aristocratic, yet devoted and sincere tone of General Nicolai Peshkov quickly followed. “We have received news of your being attacked by a group of powerful vampires and…”

“Oh, that!” exclaimed the addressed teen, nearly laughing out loud, now that the truth had come to him as both entertaining and humorous. “Well, whoever informed you of my being attacked must have either been a faulty informant or a bad liar. I would like to tell you everything, but…” Zaelro let loose a rather mischievous pause.

“Sire?” Oredin asked anxiously.

“Please dismiss all these soldiers,” Zaelro said, half seriously. “This many men in full armor standing here may bring this entire storey to a total collapse, which wouldn’t be too nice.”

What Zaelro said had been regarded as orders by his followers ever since his inauguration, and it was no wonder how all of the full army vanished in a matter of seconds, one after another through miniature, personal warp gates, and dissipating even the not-so-pleasant smell of polishing oil, to which the demigod sighed in relief. Only the five commanders were left, though still kneeling and heads kept low.

“Well, that’s about that,” Zaelro said, taking a chair in his reach and sat down, his breath returning to normal. “You should stand up as well- this kind of ceremony isn’t required.”

The generals stood up, but their necks still bent, totally convincing Zaelro that his trusted knights have been too harsh on themselves. It was high time he find a way to deal with this being treated by a royalty while he had done barely anything noticeable. Thinking so, Zaelro stood up from his comfortable seating again, and, to his five generals’ astonishment, dashed to the corner of the room next to the window, and pulled out a stack of plastic chairs from behind the curtain. Before any of his subordinates had the time to gasp, let alone react, the demigod had swiftly unloaded the entire content of the stack into a row of seats, although not quite properly arranged in line due to his still painful muscles. Zaelro then returned to his seat, meanwhile signaling his comrades to sit down.

“Sire… this is…” Oredin said in the astonishment of his life.

“Before I accepted the post that I am now, I was an everyday schoolboy with a taste for games and a prejudice against authority,” Zaelro said sincerely, “As far as I am concerned I hope you could all treat me as the person I am rather than the authority I now stage. As a first sign, please sit down.”

A moment of silence reigned as the five generals looked at one another in an extremely perplexed manner. Apparently the lords and masters that had commanded them ever since their joining the Regiment had never had such thoughts, not one of them. It was not after another moment of consideration and a meaningful, sincere blink on behalf of their now-commander that they proceeded to sit down, albeit with a little hesitation.

“Well, now that you are seated,” Zaelro began, not after all of them had been fully down, “allow me to ask, who had told you that I was attacked?”

“Sire, the transmission from the cloaking device that the Sunlight Steed of yours was bearing showed us,” Oredin said slowly, “a clear image of you confronting a vampire soldier of a high rank, and was almost killed by it.”

“Correct, but far from perfect,” Zaelro said. “Did you know why I was attacked? And why I stood and fight while I could have run away?”

“We are ordered to watch over your safety, and we would ask no other question, nor is it necessary,” Oredin bent his neck.

“Well, then, in this case, you have missed out a major plot device,” Zaelro said, shaking his head. “This is what happened, in reality.”

The next fifteen minutes was spent with Zaelro’s monologue as he retold all what had happened to him in the ordeal. For the entire duration, the only response from the audience had been listening, and the room was filled with a veil of silence for the duration.

“And thusly,” concluded Zaelro, “if anything, I am the one who have to apologize. What I have done might have been my biggest mistake.”

“As much as your action was questionable and not advised, sire,” the youthful, un-helmet-impeded voice of the English Lord Jonathan broke the ice, “I could say for sure that my respect for you has grown with that decision of yours. Though never a knight yourself, you have acted just like a real member of the knighthood!”

“The same goes with me, sire!” Sieur de l’Aquitaine’s hulking voice went on determinately.

“I thank you for those words, my friends. Yet, that confrontation had given me a bad impression,” Zaelro said, holding his chin. “As of now, I am no warrior. I am not even a good rider, or at least, not good enough. Judging from the enemies we shall have to confront in the future, this is as bad as it could get.”

“Sire, there is no need for such unneeded anxiety!” declared the Hoplite. “We are all here to serve and defend you whenever needed!”

Zaelro shook his head as he looked at his followers both sternly and with a certain degree of request.

“No, Mr. Kaledon, that would never work. I don’t know by how much our regiment defy the law of physics, but if the answer is no, then I can concluded that each and every time our soldiers are summoned to the battlefield would cost a lot, in terms of whatever resource used,” Zaelro said firmly. “Of course, that vampiress that you have seen on whatever transmission you have received could probably be owned with just a small detachment of our forces, but constantly summoning and un-summoning them even for the slightest of skirmishes may not be a solution in the long run.”

Zaelro gazed rhetorically at his commanders, making all of them implicitly nod. Clearly, Zaelro had pointed out the one major weakness of the Valhallan Regiment’s logistic system, and even Oredin had to admit that not many of his predecessors could realize that.

“Still, we are ordered to serve you to the best extent, sire, and cost is not really a matter,” Oredin said, his argument now abnormally weak.

“But wouldn’t it be better if the commander of a full-blown regiment of fine warrior to be a fine warrior himself?” Zaelro asked, his tone confident and reassuring. Another moment of silence veiled the room as the five generals looked at each other, exchanging glances, blinks, and finally, nods.

“Sire, have you any slightest idea of how tough it is to master a weapon, let alone use it effectively against the enemies, to crack their defense and break their armor and impale them by the heart?” Oredin finally said, his tone both persuasive and serious, “It would take years before a non-combatant Spartan youth becomes a full-fledge hoplite, and more years, sweat and even blood and battle trauma for him to become a master of lance-fighting in the Phalanx!”

“I know this. However, Mr. Kaledon, please keep in mind that it doesn’t take much to recruit an everyday teenager and train him into the basic self-defense art. If he has talent, the training may only take days,” Zaelro stated with no less persuasion. “I have many things to learn, but as of now, the only thing I would like to learn would be to control Steedy well. As you have seen, what riding pride I have had via my experience on my grandparents’ farm had been put to shame just through the last skirmish.”

“I couldn’t blame you,” blurted Sieur de l’Aquitaine, “With the kind of attack you received as we have seen, it would take nothing short of a master rider to balance and keep himself mounted.”

“In that case, make me one!” Zaelro snatched those words, making the French rider unconsciously cover his mouth. “I have learnt what a good warrior you are around horses. Would you mind taking me as an apprentice?”

Those words, short, powerful and unexpected, almost made the French knight tremble.

“Sire, did you really mean what you said?” stammered the unexpected knight. “Did you truly mean that...”

“Sieur de l’Aquitaine, Commander of the Frankish Paladins of the 25th Valhallan Regiment, I am now requesting you to take me, Zaelro Samuel Fastoff, as a squire, so that I could improve my horsemanship and become a cavalier in my own rights!” Zaelro repeated each word powerfully. “Please accept my request.”

The next thing that came into Zaelro’s sense was nothingness. The room was so silent that one could hear a pin drop after his last four words, as if the world of sound had collapsed before Zaelro’s declaration. For a second, Zaelro had thought that everyone had gone deaf and dumb, and it was not before the addressed knight dropped his mace on the ground with a loud clang that sound returned to the meeting again. The solid blow of the steel mace against the floor followed by the rhythmic clattering of the metal handle meant that playing deaf, for that instance, was not an option.

“Sire,” the Frenchman said finally, but difficultly, “training as a cavalier is not easy. In fact, it took me almost four-fifth of my lifetime to become the rider that I was at Agincourt. And yet that talent alone couldn’t save us from defeat.”

“I know. But clearly, had you been fighting against the vampire I was, you could have done better, could you?” Zaelro shook.

“Sire, if that decision of yours was, please pardon me, just owing to a girl, as I could infer,” Oredin said in a sullen tone, “is it worth it?”

Zaelro’s face suddenly turned red. Always denying such things as teenage love and angst, it was no wonder what an embarrassment Oredin had driven him into by mentioning just about what he would like to avoid. Yet, it was undeniably that his feeling especially attracted to the female vampire slayer he saved was more than just the average “Hey, I did a good deed!” but something more. It was too early and unreliable to jump to the L-word, but Zaelro’s intention, putting it frankly, was far from pure. Absent-mindedly Zaelro turned to and fro to avoid the enquiring eyesight of his hoplite, which, though partially hidden by his full helm, was still every bit as convicting and questioning as needed to drive him speechless.

“Please answer my question, Lord Zaelro Fastoff,” Oredin asked again. “If I am, pardon me again, correct, I would strongly advice against your choice. As of now you have got many things to do, people to meet, orders to give, plans to make… you don’t have time for such things as picking up a new skill that could probably never be fully learnt.”

It was now Zaelro’s turn to bend his neck and think. Oredin’s rhetoric and debating skills was among the best that he had ever seen, and although he knew far too well that as both a demigod and a direct superior, his order could totally override Oredin’s advice, the teen in authority felt an abnormal shun from doing so. He had sworn to himself the day they saved his life, the day he accepted his post that he would never abuse what power he had been granted. If he were to get what he wanted, Zaelro thought, he would have to win it by persuasion rather than authority. However, he did not have to worry for too long about beating the behemoth of a debater that was Oredin, for aid came unexpectedly from an unexpected member of his cadre.

“Lord Oredin, I must beg to differ,” the young, ringing tone of Lord Jonathan was quick to raise and deny. “I myself chose to become a knight not because of my bloodline- let me bring you to the fact that my father had five children, and I was the youngest- but rather because of a lady that I loved with all my heart! It was she that had secondarily fueled my motivation to serve our King’s just cause! Without her, I would never have been the hero that I was, to join all of you, noble sirs, today!”

“As much as I understand and respect your view, Lord Jonathan, I must bring you to the fact that,” Oredin shook his head, “Or Commander would not really benefit from what he asked for. Neither shall we.”

The English aristocrat’s next statement almost made his compatriot clap in respect.

“If I remember our primary objective well, Lord Oredin, our Commander must gather all the Six Prime Treasures of Terra. Let me ask you, would those artifacts that only the greatest heroes could lay their hands on accept a new master who knows, forgive me, next to nothing about martial combat?”

“You, sir… You do have a point,” Oredin conceded, making Zaelro’s heart leap skyhigh. Yet, the next words of the leader of his five commanders didn’t bid too well to his own wellbeing.

“Sire,” bowed Oredin, “if you would persist with that option of yours, I would like to inform you that your work in the foreseeable future would be double. It is likely that you wouldn’t have time to sleep like you have been. Let alone physical training is no mean feat. If you would insist, though, you should be prepared.”

“I…” Zaelro hesitated. Certainly, learning a new thing for the sake of both the mission at hand and self defense, and even a vague romantic dream likely to not be realized was attractive enough. Yet, losing sleep was one of those things that our hero was most afraid of, due to his inability to think straight without proper sleep, which would bring a full host of consequences, one of such instances his new Geography teacher had known all too well. The mission at hand would ill need anything along those lines any more, judging from how much duty he had to take.

Still, there were reasons against denial, and for this instance, it was the dominating thoughts. Just as he was about to say no, the instance of a deathly sparkling throwing dagger as sharp as could be placed on his neck, and the notion of being saved by just about the very woman he would like to save came back to him. Such moment would certainly come back, as the mission went on, and only getting worse and worse as more powerful foes came into the way. And to Zaelro, self-assured safety and self-esteem were extremely important. All of which, as inferable, could be gained by becoming a full-fledged fighter rather than a pseudo fighter with a sword that turned itself off in no time at all and a singular cavalry charge that couldn’t hit anyone…

“I agree,” was his final response.

“Excellent, sire,” Sieur de l’Aquitaine stood up, clapping as soon as the word “agree” left Zaelro’s mouth. His gauntleted hands made rough, yet undeniably ringing and cheerful, sounds as it clapped, like a festival’s drum.

“I hope to find you a good sensei, Sieur de l’Aquitaine,” nodded Zaelro, whisking out from his mental notes a full list of things he would like to discuss. “As of now, I have a few things to ask of you…”

“Sire, please excuse me for now,” interrupted the Russian aristocrat as he promptly stood up. “I cannot attend this meeting as of now.”

“What’s the matter?” Zaelro opened his eyes wide in astonishment. “General Peshkov, did something go wrong?”

“Gregory’s funeral rites shall be held tomorrow, and as a friend and comrade, I have to make sure that his departure to the way to the Great Beyond is well taken care of, sire,” Nicolai Peshkov replied solemnly, his voice deep and consuming.

******

DF  Post #: 13
11/28/2008 2:59:02   
Argeus the Paladin
Member

Chapter 13
The Unlikely Detective’s Call


“Gregory’s funeral rites shall be held tomorrow, and as a friend and comrade, I have to make sure that his departure to the way to the Great Beyond is well taken care of, sire.”

The Russian lord’s words still rang like a bell beside Zaelro’s ears even when the shadow of the general had vanished together with his body form through the now all too familiar warp gate, striking a sense of sudden, unfamiliar void in the commander-in-chief. Even when the last vision of the absentee had vanished completely and the space of his chamber returned to its normal, undisturbed and undistorted condition, his eyes were still opening widely, his mouth half-open, half as if regretting, half as if pondering. As the pin-drop silence returned to the place, a consortium of feelings rushed into the commander’s head to fill in that void, neither of which was particularly comforting.

Gregory Korsakov Vassiliyevich, the first soldier whom he had given orders directly, dead, in an event pretty much his superior’s fault rather than his own, by a hand that his superior was supposed to shake with genuine friendship and alliance, in a questionable manner that his superior had ill known of or been prepared for. Obviously, Zaelro was not the only one to lay the blame on himself. The tone of the general on leave, both protruding and accusing, as if a rhetoric question demanding his responsibility for such an unfortunate happening, had done its purpose more than well. Never had the self-blame weighted so heavily on Zaelro’s heart as heavily as after his trusted Russian lieutenant’s farewell speech.

“He killed my BROTHER, Oredin! MY BROTHER!”

Unknowingly, the roaring, air-rending shout of anguish he had overheard from the little discussion not too long ago surrounding the casualties returned to him no sooner than the general had vanished. If Zaelro Samuel Fastoff had had a brother, and if that brother died in that way, away from home and by vile hands, certainly he would have done much the same thing as the Russian aristocrat had been planning on and thwarted. Thinking so, the young commander looked at his feet in deep regret. After all, had it been a right thing to do criticizing his general for something he had not the required idea to assess?

“Lord Zaelro, I… Sergeant Gregory Korsakov Vassiliyevich meant more to me than anyone else. He was like… a brother to me. I… I just wanted to bring his murderer to justice…”

Yes, all he wanted was just the very well justified vengeance that even law would have been, by default, allowed, had it not been for England’s termination of the death sentence not too long ago. Could he justify his course of action in telling the vengeful general to stop and stay right there?

The combination of both ponder and regret seemed to have casted frost on Zaelro’s numbing lips. As the leader stayed silent, lost in his own thoughts, so did his subordinate maintain the ice. The resulting silence was no longer rhetoric- it seemed to have chilled the entire atmosphere and turned whatever droplets of words into frozen frost.

“I wonder if I have done the right thing for General Peshkov…” Zaelro finally said with a deep sigh, his tone not making any attempt to conceal the regret within. Temporarily, the commander’s sentence froze the lips of all his followers, as although they all should have had a good idea of what he was thinking, had no particular idea to answer that farfetched question. Even the age-old wisdom that Oredin had won through the ages proved rather useless in that one instance, its owner sitting there, hand propping his chin, thinking rigorously.

“Sire,” the wise Spartan finally felt the obligation to speak. “We must know what is important and what is not, and when. As soldiers, our duty stands first and foremost. Were my own brother among my enemies,” Oredin’s eyes shone through his helmet’s eyeholes in decisiveness, “for the glory of my homeland and the duty of a soldier, I would cut him down myself.”

“No martial law would forbid a man to grief and demand vengeance for his loved ones, even the strictest code of practice,” Zaelro shook his head. “Everyone, please tell me, did I… happen to have taken from Nicolai Maximovich Peshkov that right?”

“We would not question your decisions, sire, but,” the quiet German Count of Hamburg, whom had hardly spoke since the meeting commence, “the truth is, Sergeant Gregory’s passing had stirred up resentment among my cuirassiers and dragoons. My mounted warriors have been regarding the exemplary Don Cossack as a role model ever since his joining our regiment, and...”

“A portion of my Paladins as well, sire,” Sieur de l’Aquitaine said, rubbing his steel gauntlets together in a slight hesitation. “Although they don’t go as far as demanding vengeance, but they clearly would support any action along those lines.”

“While some of my best knights are still discussing about this matter in the camp, and some of them, the more radical ones, sire,” the English Lord Jonathan also spoke up with no less hesitation, and with extra added anxiety, “talked about readying themselves to deal with the murderer in a knight’s way at your orders…”

Oredin shook his head meaningfully, as if confident in some kinds of information advantage he still held. And in fact, he did know something that everyone else did not.

“That is precisely the reason why the Archangel Argeus Sunrise sent for me the night the murder took place,” revealed Oredin. “Sire, he specifically ordered me to help you stop all such kinds of notions, and reconfirmed that an alliance with the person named Takashi Minamoto is a necessity for this mission to succeed.”

“You heard that as well?” Zaelro raised his eyebrows. “So it seems that whatever Argeus is thinking, he must have a lot of faith in Takashi, for some reason.”

“We have heard of his countless military and political exploits while still being a prince in the distant world of Terra, sire, and from those achievements,” Oredin said confidently, “we can conclude that he must have his own reason for his decision.”

“Yet, I can’t help but feel rather…” Zaelro said, giving out another deep sigh. “You know, when you see a suffering right before your eyes and could do next to nothing to help ease that agony.”

A series of three consecutive nods from his three remaining commanders at the end of his sentence could mean only one thing.

“Sire, we must also say that we would not like to ally with a murderer, ourselves,” Count Schwagger shook his head firmly. “We feel quite the same difficulty as well.”

A slight chill ran down Zaelro’s spines. In any way possible, it was not how he was expecting his lieutenants to react that they are reacting in. Certainly, to his best interest, what he would expect was to neither deny the victim’s comrades from returning retaliation nor convict the alleged murderer. In the deepest of his heart, the Briton still refused to accept that the weak, disease-confined, yet friendly and slightly humorous new friend of his could be a cold-blooded serial slasher that all evidence was pointing to. In fact, had there not been his supposed curse or whatever allegations directed towards him, Takashi Minamoto could have very well been into his list of good friends from the start. As Zaelro threw his glance across the room, searching for agreement but only meeting with returning conviction, tension started to build up once more with bent necks and another wave of silence.

“Good sirs, I wonder if you have noticed this?” Lord Jonathan’s voice sounded, breaking down the tension. “The last transmission from Sergeant Gregory was… way odd. Different.”

“Different? How so?” Zaelro immediately grabbed Jonathan’s words as if they were a life-jacket in a life-threatening situation.

“If you had seen the footage, sire,” Jonathan said, a Sherlock Holmes-like look of deduction filled his face, “you would have realized that the murderer’s eyes weren’t the same at the beginning and at the end. Nothing out of the ordinary at the beginning but… when he started cutting and slashing away, his eyes became almost blood red. Like that of a demon or a malignant spirit.”

“I’ll take over that then,” Zaelro demanded upon hearing those words. “I’d like to see that for myself.”

“It’s too gruesome for someone of your…age, sire!” shrieked the German general. “Unless, of course, you would not be turned away from watching people being ripped apart…”

“It is the commander-in-chief you are addressing, Count Schwagger! Show some respect!” reminded Oredin rather sternly, “And on the other hand, Lord Zaelro has already requested the viewing of this material, and I could see nothing too wrong with it. After all, this is an army he has been given, not a bunch of battle-unready women!”

“Please stop, good sirs,” Zaelro demanded. “I think I, as the person responsible, have to have at least an idea of what had happened and how. Show me the footage.”

Oredin nodded, and turned back to his comrades, about to tell them to pack up and get ready to move out.

“Looks like I just happen to have one of the copies with me,” just as Oredin turned to the young commander-in-chief and declare departure for the regiment’s headquarters, the English lord gave a childish smile as he produced a small orb from within his doublet.

Oredin glanced at his younger comrade, his forehead crumpled due to a sudden lifting of the eyebrow in sheer interest. Among the generals under Zaelro’s command, Jonathan was the youngest by age at death, only half a decade or so older than Zaelro then, and his youthful resourcefulness in many occasions would prove to be more useful than Oredin’s experience or Sieur de l’Aquitaine’s hulking strength. And this was one such occasion. The pleasant surprise, somehow, managed to bring the smile of relaxation back to the room just a second ago filled to the brim with serious looks and strained, almost bloodshot eyes.

“When did you sheave that in?” Zaelro rolled his eyes in astonishment as well.

“Soldiers have always been trained in getting ready for even the most unlikely of happenings. And as I have brought forward an idea, sire,” the young general replied coolly, “I should bring along something to prove it. Now, we should actually get started.”

With the last five words, the English knight promptly set the orange-sized orb on the table, balancing it with his two palms so that it wouldn’t roll off the smooth surface, and activated an unseen level just beyond Zaelro’s view. And then, the quick-witted knight ran back to his seat, signaling everyone else to look up, with such kind of eagerness and enthusiasm of a cinematographer just about to watch his own piece of debut blockbuster. To the unknowing Zaelro’s surprise, the small, colorless orb at origin started to swirl around, enlarging itself as tiny yet extremely bright arcane bolts of magic started to form around it, elevating it off the surface of the table, and finally being absorbed into the object’s formation. The energy-gathering process went on and on until the orb had grown three times the size of an average fortune teller’s crystal ball, and its color switching into a crystalline, bluish shade, at which point the ball stopped enlarging and began to spin around at a speed tantamount to that of a full-fledged spinning top. The Valhallan equivalent of a modern world’s portable projector with a built-in cinema screen had finally completed setting itself up, ready for viewing.

As the first image started to visualize on the spherical surface, Zaelro felt like gasping out loud in awe, but managed to stop himself. After all, what was of interest to him was not the device itself, but rather what was behind it, and he had better save his awe until he had seen what the object had to show.

“Sire,” declared the English knight, “For ease of following, I decided to show you just the last two minutes of the unfortunate Sergeant Vassiliyevich’s life. Please watch closely.”

Zaelro did just that, apparently finding the new cinematography device to be of a higher quality than that of his neighborhood cinema. Awing at how clear and highly detailed the footage was, Zaelro was absorbed into the spherical screen since the first second. Zaelro quickly had to regret that absorption- what he saw after that moment almost made him sick. Just a couple of seconds since the newsreel commenced, the reel quickly switched to one of the most stomach-turning moment that he had ever seen on cinema, that of a beautiful, innocent blonde-haired lady taking a walk in the park being sliced into two parts cleanly by just a flick of the culprit’s hand, and amazing in a twisted away, he did that feat unarmed. As the crimson liquid seemed to have filled the screen, Zaelro’s face unconsciously discolored to an almost lifeless pale color.

As much as he felt something awful running in his neck just at that instance, Zaelro’s next experience was truly the most gruesome, and had it not been for his quick response against primal reaction, he would have emptied his entire lunch in the floor in the most embarrassing way possible for a war commander. For there, on the screen, appeared the image of his soldier emerging from the cavalry charge he must have launched on instinct- in pieces, literally. The culprit had done whatever dismembering trick he had just carried out a moment ago once more, only that this time, whatever kind of attacks he had used, he must have released it more than five times, judging from how badly the unfortunate Cossack was cut up. An arm of his flew pretty much ten yards from the point of impact, and the other was displaced well four yards away, before his cut up torso collapsed into a jumbled mass of chopped-up flesh in the most barbaric display of execution.

The reel came to a close with an unintentionally artistic glimpse of the Cossack’s blood- soaked fleece hat rolling off into the pool of blood, dyeing the innocent object in the same crimson shade of red, followed by a close-up of the murderer’s face, with a maniacal laughter that could beat all of those of sinister villains in popular culture pitched together. That moment could have definitely defined the two-minute clip, had it been for sale commercially. A minor muttering entered the background as the clip faded out in a surprisingly artistically gruesome and dark manner.

Disregarding his own queasiness, Zaelro could still make out two things from the clip. Firstly, the scream of the woman murdered in the first place was strangely similar to a voice he had heard somewhere in the past three days, but he couldn’t recognize her all too well, for simply her beautiful strands of golden hair had unintentionally blocked her face completely as she walked by and fell into the pool of blood. And secondly, the English knight was right. The inhuman shape of the murderer’s face, although recognizably that of his new friend, could not conceal a pair of blood-red eyes as though possessed by a mysterious, murderous force beyond understanding. Nowhere could he recognize the pair of friendly and kind eyes, albeit slightly sorrowful and doused in despair that the Takashi Minamoto that he knew always displayed. But investigation was not the priority at that time, for the feeling of discomfort had filled his interior with disgust materialized to the point of no return.

“If I had known that that… kid was such a demon, I would have done away with him close and personally,” Count Schwagger remarked, showing a visible degree of anger. Zaelro could not stop him, though, as the sort of disabling queasiness he had felt through the whole experience was not one he had seen before. Barely turning his face off the ground as the final moments of the unfortunate man came to a complete pass, Zaelro could only do one last thing to save his face- immediately running towards the restroom to relief him of the overflowing sickness in his throat and all along his tummy…

******


Barely recovering from the torrent of outflow of half-digested material from his gullet into the toilet seat, Zaelro’s eyes rolled up as his vision blurred slightly. There, down the drain, his much enjoyed lunch had been over and done for, and so was his sudden feeling of disgust. He was now free from the disturbing upsurging sense at the base of his throat, and also, conversely, the comforting, warm and fuzzy feeling of satisfactory fullness of a filling Japanese lunch. Now that his sense of normality and his critical thinking proficiency had returned to him at long last, the commander-in-chief leaned against the restroom’s doorknob, pondering.

”Aah… it is true that all proofs are against Takashi, unless I can prove that something must have taken over him at that time and in that place,” Zaelro racked his brain hard, as he remembered the frightening last scene. ”Those red eyes are too inhuman to be his, that’s right, but what if he isn’t human in the first place?”

Currently, there was nothing that could either prove or disprove either of those hypotheses. In the meantime, the relieved teen quickly realized that it was better to not stay in the restroom for too long for obvious reasons. Quickly flushing his toilet, Zaelro then promptly unlocked the door and rushed out into the premises of his room, taking a good breath, filling his lungs with the soft, comforting smell of lavender to ease off the smell of imaginary blood filling up his system just a moment ago.

“Sire?” Oredin stood up as soon as he saw Zaelro’s figure exiting the restroom with a yet-to-recover face still pale from the impact and the horror.

“I’m alright…” the commander-in-chief replied with a warm, light remark. “Looks like I am not really skilled at watching horror shorts and get away with it, aren’t I?”

“My apologies, sire,” bowed the show’s conductor. “I shouldn’t have shown you that. There was also another short bit, but I was not sure if it was necessary, so I turned the device off before the footage was over.”

It was then that the Holmesian heritage found in every Englishman with a view to mysterious crimes turned up in the teen in question. In his memory, although badly blurred by the cataract of half-digested substance outflow just now, the sound of Takashi’s last words before the showcase came to an artistically abrupt end was highly questionable, to think of it.

“There was a last part, right? Would you please show me that?” Zaelro asked, his voice rather firm and assuring. “I believe we must have missed off something, definitely.”

“Sire, are you sure that you could…” the German general asked with genuine anxiety.

“Heh, what happened just now was just a bit of professional accident,” Zaelro said, half as a light-hearted comedic relief, half as a reassurance. “Furthermore, I fully believe that we must have missed something in the last part, as things did not seem to make too much sense to me. Would you mind, Lord Jonathan?”

“Sire… Yes, sire!” the Englishman nodded after a moment’s hesitation.

The entire process of picturesque and seemingly epic setting up and self-installation of the crystal showcase repeated itself once more before Zaelro. However, this time, his focus was no longer at the highly out-of-this-world performance of the item, but rather what it had to show itself. As calmly as he could, Zaelro clutched his throat just enough to stop any possible vomiting while not disrupting his already heightened breath, as he glued his gaze at the display about to unveil.

The commander-in-chief was right. What happened after the dramatic laughter of Takashi, or whatever creature was taking over him, was his eyes returning to normality no sooner than he laughed his last, as he gazed at the corpses with such a look as if he had just drunken blood or something similarly nauseating. His eyes opened at full width, as if the eyeballs were about to tear its lids off and pop out of the sockets, and his mouth trembled as he muttered something that couldn’t be made out. For a second, it appeared that whatever muscles of his face that could move were vibrating, or more like it, trembling at full extent. In due time, his mouth opened wide as he gave out one loud, deafening scream, his hands gripping the stray strands of disheveled black hair on the two sides of his head, as if a tormenting beast had just broken into the innermost chambers of his skull and struggling to get out. Had Zaelro ignored the fact that he had just committed the crime of the century and was now looking at his own deed, he would have been forced to believe that the Japanese schoolboy was suffering from the last attack of brain cancer and was about to die. From the beginning to the end, the encore lasted no more than five seconds, and yet, that scene alone concluded one thing- his friend, or at least, his friend’s soul or whatever they call the part of him that existed beyond his physical body, was innocent. The final thing that entered the spherical screen was the bloodied figure of an unbeknownst murderer running away from the scene, with the same hand-clutching-head-in-agony posture as he vanished into the dead of night.

As the scene concluded, the English general moved towards the showcase, in view of turning it off.

“Lord Jonathan, did you see what I did?” Zaelro quickly stood up and suddenly asked, almost throwing the knight off balance due to the startle.

“Sire, what did you mean?” Jonathan asked, genuinely astonished.

“Now I can conclude with a 99% confidence that the Takashi I know did not kill Sergeant Vassiliyevich,” Zaelro declared, almost making the other lieutenants of his jump from their chairs.

“Sire?” the English knight looked at his commander with such bewilderment as if it was someone other than Zaelro standing in his place rather than himself.

“And the other one percent would be confirmed if you would,” Zaelro said confidently, “reroll the last clip. Although… does this device have a function to increase the sound volume as well as increasing the zoom and focal length?”

“If I have understood what you said well, then yes, it does have such functions, sire, but…” came the disbelieving answer from the camera master.

“Please increase the volume to the max and zoom into Takashi Minamoto’s face closely. You would see what I mean.”

With a shrug of probable disbelief, the knight went on to carry out the requested function. It turned out that even the magical device of the Valhallan Regiment could not escape the common error of everyday cinematography- a lot of dissonance and interfering ambience sounds would come into the background when the volume was turned to max. Before the rather distrustful eyes of the Valhallan Regiment’s commanders, the newsreel at the third view, if anything, proved just what Zaelro believed.

Just as the screen zoomed into the murderer’s face when the deed and the maniacal laughter was done with, almost instantly, the adjusted screen instantly zoomed into Takashi’s eyes, where the red, demonic glare of a professional, bloodthirsty murderer almost instantly transformed back into an innocent, unhealthy schoolboy’s delicate gaze, and no sooner than that gaze touched the blood than his eyes opened wide in horror. Only at that close range could one probably classify it- it was not the kind of terror of a manslaughter having just killed people on impulse and now regretted it, but rather the complete puzzled and frightened blank stare of a person just having woken up from a nightmare and see it visualizing in the real life just before him.

“Stop right there!” Zaelro ordered, and the crystal sphere came to an abrupt stop, closing up exactly at the precious evident moment of such terror of the accused. Zaelro then walked towards the sphere still suspending in the air, and pointed directly at the moment’s captivation of Takashi’s worst nightmare.

“Gentlemen, here we have the accused Takashi Minamoto’s eyes, the tell-tale look of a nightmare-downtrodden victim rather than a murderer. Having existed in this world for hundreds of years, I believe that you know this better than I do, don’t you, my friends?” declared Zaelro in a triumphant voice, looking at his generals one at a time, “Would a cold-blooded murderer ever have that look in his eyes?”

Silence once more resumed as the generals gazed at one another again, but this moment’s hesitation ended rather swiftly, as the four generals came to a conclusive, resolute nod at one another.

“And this old bull happened to have missed that out, sire! I must really be getting old!” exclaimed the French cavalier, in a joyful, yet rather embarrassing discovery. “Lord Oredin, Count Schwagger, Sir Jonathan, you all saw that as well, didn’t you?”

“As much as I’d like to deny that, I must concede that we must have let a moment’s rage as well as our age-old persistence blind us,” said the German commander. “You are nothing short of a genius, sire!”

“That was half a percent proved. And the remaining part of the clip,” Zaelro continued, in an extremely decisive and confident tone, “shall prove the other half. Please go on, Lord Jonathan!”

The large orb continued rolling in its orbit as soon as Zaelro finished his order, and this time, the zoom focusing on the schoolboy’s mouth. Zaelro was right once again- Takashi was speaking, albeit in the tiny, stereotypical whisper of an unhealthy and timid teenager he was. Even at the maximum volume, all what the room could make out was the repeated ”Oh no, what have I done?”, at an extremely soft and distorted voice that seemed to have fully blended in with the ambient sound of his hands squeezing his tuffs of messy, blood-stained hair and the grimly morbid sound of late winter breeze in the background. Each time, the sound grew a little louder, sharper and more frightened than the last, and no sooner than the last was uttered than the entire series of mumbles climaxed with a loud, deafening scream. If that exclamation had already been loud and deafening at the normal level of volume, at that maximum level of sound volume, it created such a huge sound wave that almost thrown all of the audience off their chair backward.

For a moment, Zaelro had thought his entire ear drum had collapsed, and his heart prompting to leap off its position at any time. It took the entire room an entire half a minute to recover from such a huge sound shock. By the time silence returned to the room and Zaelro’s senses returned to the point where he could clutch his chest to stop his heart from jumping out of the chest in case it could, the reel had ended. Yet, the result was fully visible and clear as day by that time.

“I guess I forgot to tell you to set the volume back to default on time,” Zaelro said, closing the suspense with one huge gasp, before returning on topic. “You must have heard what I did, didn’t you?”

“Yes, sire,” Oredin’s cautious look changed into a relieved revelation. “It appeared that no killer would look at their victims and say such things as what have I done when the deed was over.”

“I could declare this myth BUSTED now,” Zaelro smiled triumphantly. “The Takashi Minamoto that I know is as innocent as can be!”

“Yet, one thing was still bugging me, sire,” the English cinema master said, clutching his head. Apparently his proximity to the source of sound had made him the worst victim of the accident.

“What is it, Lord Jonathan?” Zaelro asked.

“Let me guess,” the French knight interrupted. “Sire, as you could see who, or what had turned Takashi Minamoto that way had claimed more than one victim. We would never know who his first victim was.”

“Hold on… the police of Sankaku announced that they saw no dead bodies at the scene, or that was what I heard,” Zaelro propped his chin. “Wait a second, her screaming voice and her golden hair were amazingly familiar, but I just can’t remember where I saw them. But maybe it isn’t that important as of now.”

“Actually, my concern was different, sire,” the English knight said, disrupting Zaelro’s stream of thoughts. “I was trying to say, unless we know who, or what, was responsible for turning the innocent schoolboy into such a berserker, there would be no guarantee that there would be no risk accompanying allying with him.”

Zaelro snapped his finger. That thought had just entered his mind as well.

“Exactly,” Zaelro said. “That is why I am planning to pay my friend a little visit. The only thing is, barging into his homestead and asking him something along the lines of ”Hey, Taka-chan, did you happen to have murdered anyone in the past few days?” doesn’t seem to be a good idea.”

Just as Oredin was about to open his mouth and speak, another sound quite foreign to the Hoplite suddenly sounded within close proximity to him, and in a soldier’s undoubted reaction, the Greek commander grabbed his bronze broadsword in pure instinct, followed by similar reaction from his companions. Zaelro turned back, and gave out a small grin at the realization. There, in his jacket pocket, his iPhone was playing the all too familiar theme song of the video game series Age of Empires that he had chosen as his ringtone, signaling that someone had sent him a text message.

“Please pardon 21st century technology, my friends,” Zaelro said as he produced the offending music player, clicked a series of button to mute the sound, and held the screen where he could see it clearly. He had just received a text message from one of his new friends, the sender being none other than the “skirt-chasing, teacher-mocking, class-ditching loudmouth” on the table above.

”Yo, Mr. Englishman, care to have a run around town? I mean, we (Which means Tsubame and I :)) ) are going to come by Takashi’s house tomorrow, and see if he’s still breathing. If he is, we’ll get a wheel-chair somewhere and escort him downtown for a pizza and a round of Pepsi or two.

Since Taka-chan is heavier than he looks, so we may need a secondary hand to toss him on a wheel chair if need be. If you would like to come around, we’ll be waiting at the school gate, tomorrow, at nine. See you around then.”


Slowly closing the application after reading the message, Zaelro sheaved the device into the pocket with another triumphant smile in a row.

“Consider ourselves lucky, my friends. Tomorrow I’ll go see Takashi and make heads or tails out of this.”

“Sire, what about…” the French cavalier asked.

“I could have forgotten that, thanks!” Zaelro exclaimed rather joyfully. “Tomorrow when the meeting is over, I hope you could give the first lesson to me. Although, depending on the situation, the meeting could be unbelievably long and tedious, so… I beg your pardon should there be a complete failure in terms of punctuality.”

******


Somewhere high above the blue skies of Earth, where a luxurious palace built of silver bricks and golden tile hovered among the cloud, mingling itself in the gracious golden light of the midday sun, sat a winged figure in silver armor in front of a wooden table piled with reports of all sorts, although neatly placed in files and classified piles. Argeus Elmarian Sunrise the angelic ambassador yawned at the new pile of to-does. Apparently he hadn’t seen the last of paperwork when the One Supreme Archangel relieved him of his glue-to-a-table duties. No longer did he have to process reports from his own world as well as interpreting reports from Earth back home any more, but the planning and decision making procedures of a supervisor would itself bring in a lot more work than he had expected. However, everything was in much better control than before, and the ex-prince was rather contented.

As far as things had been set on their courses, Argeus could not be more pleased with his “apprentice” if Zaelro Samuel Fastoff could be called so. The boy had been taking care of things in his own way, and rather effectively. Although nowhere near to his own experience as a strategist and diplomat, in due time, Argeus thought, Zaelro would turn out to be the best leader that the 25th Valhallan Regiment had ever seen. If he went on taking care of his issues in that way, Argeus would never have to regret having selected him in the first place, or having given him his treasured Sunlight Steed as a gift. The price, however, weighted a little against his own self-esteem- as of then, he was probably the only Special Class Light Angel without a steed of his own.

A light, feminine knock on the door all too well told Argeus who was coming in. Ever since his arrival, and even until that day, the feisty, ever-optimistic, extremely efficient, although slightly flirtatious Aegina had been a big help for him. The last thing she did for him, as he could remember, was to deliver the steed to the one who needed it the most, which she carried out with perfect discreet. The ex-paladin could only feel extremely proud and lucky to have such a lady as an assistant.

“Come in,” the paladin angel called out.

The door flung open, and in came the said persona, her waist-length silver hair in tone with the rest of her attire and corona fluttering in the light breeze following her gracious steps. However, unlike the last times, when a cheery smile and an optimistic, tell-tale glare in her eyes would mark her arrival, this time, her lips was tightly shut as her amethyst eyes revealed a certain bit of anxiety that would, by default, seriously mar her otherwise flawless beauty of youth.

“Lord Argeus?” the valkyrie asked, her voice rather hesitating.

“Is there any problem?” Argeus stood up at the realization of abnormality, “I thought everything was going nice and well and…”

“You didn’t tell me that you are planning on allying with a… a… a demon, did you?” after a while of hesitation and indecision, Aegina finally spitted the burden out loud. “And… did you know that that demon is lethal?”

A genuine look of anxiety filled her beautiful expression as Aegina stared at her superior, with an assortment of feelings, her gemmy eyes locked on Argeus, as if demanding an immediate answer.

“Who told you that?” Argeus stepped off from his table and approached his assistant.

“Didn’t you know that already he had claimed a life in the 25th Valhallan Regiment?” Aegina opened her innocent eyes in pure astonishment, “He has killed and dismembered Sergeant Gregory Korsakov Vassiliyevich and…”

Argeus’ eyelid lifted a little. It looked like his assistant had found ways to find out about the happening that he was in every motive to keep from her for both official and personal reasons.

“Well, certainly I didn’t expect you to know about that,” Argeus said, shrugging both his shoulder and his wings. “What can I say… consider it a diplomatic accident.”

“Do you still insist on keeping your decision, sir?” Aegina asked, “I mean… It’s rather strange for a paladin like you to collaborate with demons while your kind is supposed to hunt them to the end of the earth.”

“I don’t mind it, and neither would my comrades were they in my position. In our time now, paladins have grown to be far more than the overzealous we-kill-everything-that-moves-that-does-not-honor-the-light of the past ages,” Argeus gave a hearty grin of revelation. “I myself, for instance, know quite a few interesting personalities from the Westerian Guild of Dark and Forbidden Magic, as well as a couple of Grendenian assassins, have a long-standing friendship with one of the most well-known pirate captains of the Altaren Gulf, or a couple of bad-robbers-turn-good in the Hadrian Bronze County, and a whole lot more.”

Then, in a perfect display of secrecy, Argeus folded his wings in such a way that their tips completely covered Aegina’s shoulders, completely covering both of their heads. As the valkyrie rolled her eyes in utter disbelief, Argeus bent down and whispered in her ears.

“Just so you know, my closest friend in the living world was one of the most, no, the most powerful necromancer in existence!” Argeus grinned in pure pride.

Aegina dropped her jaws in awe at the instance. However, the extremely smart and playful valkyrie was not one to be taken by surprise, or so it seemed. Immediately wrapping her arms around his neck, she raised her head and whispered into his ears in a heightened, playful voice.

“Is that a woman?” the valkyrie asked with an assortment of hints hidden beneath her voice as she braced his neck.

Argeus unveiled his wings and turned back, a smile across his face dictating a complete obliviousness to his assistant’s hints.

“You’ll get to know him in no time,” Argeus said, his voice suddenly returning to seriousness as he reached his table. “I’ve filed the invitation. In another week at most he would be right here, in Earth, to help us. In the meantime,” the paladin angel turned back to the secretary, whose look revealed a visible disappointment for reasons he couldn’t understand, “I have my full faith in Takashi Minamoto, and… wait, what’s with you again?”

“Oh, nothing, sir,” the valkyrie hastily replied, before departing through the still opened door, her stance revealing no hint of agreement or contention.

”What’s with her?” Argeus shrugged in obliviousness, before, being the extremely diligent workaholic he was, sat back at the table and began scribbling his notes again…

******


DF  Post #: 14
12/2/2008 3:25:01   
Argeus the Paladin
Member

Chapter 14
A Twisted Vengeance


Gelanor Woods, Terra. In the mid-winter chill and the specs of snow fluttering about in the horizon, the leafless trees creaked, as if shivering from the legendary cold of the southernmost tip of the world's inhabitable continents. From the look of just how desolated and ravaged the forest was amidst the howling wind and the snowflakes scattered about by the former, no one could recognize the lush, green and healthy glades that was itself in summer, just a couple of months ago. The only evidence of a lively season passed in the frozen and desolate grove were clear steadfastness of the grandmother oak trees, still defiantly standing regardless of the frost and aridity, with its undaunted survival bearing its distinctive mark on their firm and far-from-lifeless trunks and barks. Only when spring came would their frozen, craggy exterior give way, as though by magic, revealing the young barks tinted with the color of life to the fullest extent, and the circle of nature would begin all over again. But at present, the slashing wind through the frosty air was all what a traveler could see within the glade.

The emptiness of the place, devoid of any human life was primarily because of its seclusion from mortal life. The isolation that Gelanor Wood enjoyed was immense- not only did a majestic mountain range separate it from the southern Wheat County of Hadrius almost completely, but a huge, crocodile-infested swamp set it aside from the sights of most of the forest-loving elven inhabitants of Westeria. A stormy sea with a dangerously huge number of craggy rocks hidden perfectly under the gracious hand of the ocean would pose too great a threat to even the ironclad battlecruisers of Altaren wrapped up the tale of complete isolation of the forest with a death threat to all those who would like to evade the arrangements of Nature.

It was here that the Deity of Light Aurorus had chosen to keep his share of the world's six most prized treasures safe - the Aurora Set, golden sunlight manifestation into a battle-ready combat armor just for the heroes who deserved it, in the crusades to uphold the name of the Light. For good reasons, those who had seen it with their own eyes are extremely numbered, and even the most steadfast Paladin Lords of Hadrius had only known of the existence of this wondrous set primarily through myths and folk tales. Even fewer were those who had actually laid a finger on the set and feel its power for himself, let alone use it for his cause. Not only was it because of the forbidding nature, but because of an implicit fear of those guarding it.

The only inhabitants of the woods, who would stay there day and night, regardless of weather or the flow of time or the season, were the Gatekeepers of the Aurora Set, a sub-division of the god’s elite Gatekeepers. The mystical guardians, clad in their signature long silk cloak and heavy plate armor colored to match that of which they would protect, had a long history. Unlike the guardians of the tombs of dead rulers, entombed with their kings and queens and charged with protecting their wealth for all eternity, delivering the punishment of death to any who would trespass, the Gatekeepers were very much alive, and not too far off from their nearest equivalent in the mortal world- heroes. They were the humans and elves whose ancestors had sworn to protect the weapons of the gods with all their and their descendents' lives, to punish the jaywalkers and the unworthy, as well as aid the destined heroes on their ascension to godliness when such dictated by divine wish.

The Gatekeepers were never numerous- in fact, all the Gatekeepers of Terra numbered less than the standing unit count in a standard Altaren platoon at any given time in history. Yet, what power they wielded was far from the dreams of all warriors and mages abound. With no limitation on what they could do and how, the gatekeepers employed a myriad of magic and weapons, many of which were forbidden, to make sure their mission is fulfilled to the most they could. Needless to say, throughout history, many tyrants and evil rulers had wished to snatch the treasures away from their sacred hold, none of which had succeeded or enjoyed a life without divine punishment in one way or another.

And yet, the reputation of the Gatekeepers that they had garnered through the ages had been shattered in a matter of hours following the assault by an Earth vampire’s forces. Never before had a fighter single-handedly defeated, and killed, an entire gatekeeper’s family, and got away with the ill-gotten gains. And yet that event was just the beginning for the biggest crisis that their kind had ever seen. In just a couple of days, their pride was crushed like an insect as one after another of the treasures they were supposed to guard fell into unworthy hands, and worse of all, even their order itself was on the verge of annihilation.

Amidst the grim background of the harsh winter and the shadow of defeat and uncertainty hanging like an invisible veil over the sacred Gelanor Woods, a lone, traveling figure trod hastily across the frozen path, leaving especially deep footprint wherever he stepped into the snow. A thick coat covered the majority of the figure’s body and its hood half his face, the only thing noticeable was the deep, consuming black shade of his coat, a color that not even the most skillful of dyers could produce. In stark contrast with the snow-laden breeze, the tail of the black cloak hung behind the traveler, leaving a trail of flowing black, almost turning its wearer into a walking shadow to the unaware beholders. His hasty steps along the pavement of dried leaves left angry, rustling sounds of a seemingly unfathomable anguish in its wake, as if the traveler purposefully trampled anything below his heels in a fit of consuming anger.

Taking a deep breath, letting the cold air of the surrounding mingle with the warmer interior of his lungs, as if drinking the frost in a rigorous ritual, the traveler looked around. He had covered a good many miles in that day, crossing the natural barriers of the forest and trudging through the frozen ground, just for one reason. And his destination was there, right before him. In the forest clearing a convenient twenty yards or so from where he stood was a marble structure that bore strong resemblance of a temple, with ornately sculptured pillars and perfect marble floor, decorated further by a multitude of symmetrically placed limestone slabs of uniform size and shape standing in a circle around it. In great harmony with the surrounding the structure stood, and had it been summer, it would have appeared just like a magnificent diamond in its velvet casing, shining graciously to whomever entranced by its presence.

In the middle of what appeared to be the structure’s front yard, the traveler could see its most striking feature even from a good distance way. There, on a raised pulpit stood the golden statue of a humanoid being with three pairs of wings, a platinum-colored corona above his head, and a similarly golden sword held with one raised hand. The most perfect picture of the Divine God of Light Aurorus, as maintained with utmost care and respect by his believers; in this case, the Gatekeepers of the Aurora Set. Nodding to himself, the traveler knew that he had reached his proposed destination. His footsteps against the flawless marble ground signaled his arrival at a place somehow conceived to be not his.

Hardly had the traveler walked past the statue of the One Supreme Archangel than the notion that he was not alone alerted him. Immediately looking up, the man in black robe confirmed his sensation as his gaze fixed on another figure standing firmly on the top step leading into the premises of the temple, and his eyes went wild at that single realization. The figure there looking down at him was cloaked in a long cloak the same as his in terms of size and style, but in a starkly contrasting shade of bright gold.

Nothing happened in around five seconds as the duo fixed gaze; their eyes, however, told contrasting stories. A slight surprise doused with resentment filled the native’s eyes, while the visitor’s eyes were completely hollow of all feeling except for a rage that has consumed everything human in him. In due time, the gold-coated figure removed his hood, revealing a middle-aged face, somehow devastated by sorrow, anxiety and deep resentment, but still maintaining the calmness needed for one of his stature. Looking at the newcomer with as much friendliness and helpfulness he could gather, the man started speaking.

“I never expected you to come, Frasden Laslow,” he said, his voice showing clear astonishment.

“But I did,” the man in black coat said rudely, throwing his hood off the top of his head, revealing beneath it the face of a young man in his early 20s, and from the look of his furious visage, it seemed as if steam was discharging from his ears even as he spoke.

“I don’t know what I can say to you regarding your parents’ death. Eric was my closest comrade in this life although we serve two different gods,” the man said, showing genuine sincerity. “I understand what you feel, but this is no time to dwell on sorrow,” he shook his head gently, “and forget what we have to do.”

“I’ve had enough of this, Harlen. Enough is enough,” the youth boomed.

“We are bound to this course, son,” said the gold-coated man named Harlen. “Regarding the recent attacks on our comrades and the increasing threats from the vampires of the world of Earth, this is the time we should stick together and defend the last of the Prime Treasures with our very lives. Now that you have come anyways,” Harlen descended down the steps, “even though this is not something in service of the God of Darkness, as a Gatekeeper that you are, I believe you would help me man the Temple of Golden Sunlight and defend the Aurora Set with our brothers.”

“No, Harlen, you are mistaken. I am here not to defend the Aurora Set,” Frasden said blankly, “but to take it from where it stands!”

Like a lightning bolt across the clear sky, Frasden’s speech hit Harlen like a heavy, stunning blow, and the older Gatekeeper stared at him as if he had turned into a monster of sort.

“Take the Aurora Set?” shrieked the awed Gatekeeper. “Have your family’s losses driven you insane, son? Do you have any idea what blasphemy you are saying?”

“I understand all too well what it means,” Frasden shook his head, “but there is no other choice. I need the power of Aurora to kill to the last of those Earth vampires to avenge for my parents and my sisters! The power of its light would more than enough kill all those who swore allegiance to Reglay von Gondar or whatever he is called!”

“That is an action that would make the gods anger more than you could imagine!” Harlen said, emphasizing each and every word. “Are you god-fearing any more, son? Or has the trauma blinded you into this kind of heretic?”

“The gods?” Frasden smirked ironically. “Where were they when my parents were killed in the first place? Where were they when the killer took my sisters away and virtually devoured them alive? And yet my parents have devoted all their lives for the gods, and this is what we get? Is there any logic in this after all?”

“Duty calls, Frasden, it is duty that makes its calling,” Harlen replied, apparently quite cross at the moment. “Have you forgotten my lessons?”

“The gods won’t help me take vengeance for my little family,” Frasden shook his head violently, drawing his blade from beneath his black cloak, “so I’ll have my own way to do it. Stay out of my way, Harlen!”

“I can’t believe it was you that has said those words, Frasden. It is a big disgrace in Harlen Graminor’s life to have raised a student who proceeds to forget all the moral lessons he has learnt and thrown away all his beliefs just at a moment’s crisis!” at this point, the older Gatekeeper’s voice turned wild as he eyed the younger with extreme prejudice. “Now I give you one last chance to call back what you have said, and the gods will be forgiving. If not, I’d rather end your life with my own hands than let our order suffer the added shame of having a heretic traitor among us!”

“If that is the case, master,” Frasden’s pronunciation of the word ‘master’ was ironically and sarcastically long and accompanied with a underlying sneer, “Allow me to cut you down instead.”

“I have taught you everything you know, son,” the old gatekeeper said fiercely as he unleashed his own weapon- the standard steel longsword of the gatekeepers engraved with the crest of their respective Divine God; in this case, that of the God of Light – and pointed at the offending student. “Your last mistake is to believe that you can defeat me.”

The next thing the old gatekeeper realized was his student returning him such a gaze as if he had officially been named Frasden’s worst enemies. Sighing, the gold-cloaked gatekeeper saw that there was just no hope for the junior Gatekeeper by now. Shaking his head for one last time, as if struggling to free himself from the last bound of relationship, Harlen Graminor charged forward at his former student, and the youth in question followed suit quickly after that.

For a good ten minutes the master-student opponents exchanged blows, to no avail. With the strength and agility of a mighty youth as well as fueled further by a flame of rage and hatred, Frasden hacked away at his master’s defenses, forcing the older fighter to focus primarily on defending himself. Yet, the wisdom of old age and a good two decades’ combat experience allowed Harlen to organize his defenses flawlessly, giving his student not a chance to break through. The clanging of steel blades and the occasional exclamation from either of the duelists were the only major features in the clash.

It was in due time that the old teacher realized that with the faltering strength of his age he would sooner or later let his defense loose and suffer the brunt of the consequences. It was due time for something more dramatic, although never would he want to unleash such techniques against his deceased friend’s only son. But the moment’s emergency would leave no such room for sentiment, and thinking so, the old gatekeeper quickly made his move. Dodging an incoming stab from the enraged youth’s blade, Harlen leaped backward three steps in a somersault, so that by the time he landed, the golden statue of Aurorus was right behind him.

As his opponent charged at him once again, the old gatekeeper shook his head in dismay for one last time, as if requesting the youth to drop the issue and go home. Needless to say, the request went unanswered. Having no other options, Harlen raised his blade to the sky in the same posture as the statue of Aurorus, whispering some incantation, raising his voice gradually. His prayer was well answered: from the tip of the statue’s sword rose a beam of concentrated, golden light, ascending upright at such a speed as if it was rending the Higher Heaven itself. What happened next explained far too well why all the invaders attacking the temple wishing to get a piece of Aurora for themselves would get nothing but death. In a few minutes, Harlen’s longsword became cloaked in the same golden shade that made up the sunlight beam, and when he pointed his fully-charged blade at the offending student, a huge column of damaging, seemingly solidified light came down the designated target like a huge, solid blow of a sledgehammer, as if the sky itself had collapsed. There was a loud slam, followed by dust and broken pieces of marble being thrown in random directions, totally covering the target in a veil of mist. Seemingly, whoever was beneath the hammer of light at the time of collision must have been blown to bits, or at least, beyond recognition.

“Frasden… and that is just about why it is suicidal to fight a Gatekeeper in the temple he is supposed to guard,” the older gatekeeper said, lowering his blade as the pile of dust settled down.

To his surprise, the fading veil of dust revealed an absolute nothingness where his student stood- not even a fragment of his body, as was sometimes the case when the ultimate temple-defending technique of the gatekeepers was unleashed. The next thing that came to his sense provided an ample answer, albeit a second too late. An unbearable pain suddenly erupted in his back, and then his chest prompted the temple guardian to look down, and there, from his chest emerged a bloody blade- soaked in his own blood. Shocked, the old Gatekeeper moved his neck sideway, only to hear senseless, barbaric grins behind him as his blood tricked down his wound, soaking his leather plate, marring the pure gold color of his cloak, and dripped onto the ground in a deathly rhythm. He had been stabbed from behind and impaled from one side to another, and behind him, the culprit was grinning triumphantly. How his student blazed through the attack unscathed, he would never know. Regardless of how and why, he had lost the fight.

The realization of fatality came to his pain-distorted mind a second thereafter, and in no time, the weight of the pain had weighted on his knees sufficiently enough to dismiss his trembling knees once and for all. Barely able to turn back, the last thing the old gatekeeper saw before returning to his ancestors was the blurring image of his once smart and docile student, now overwhelmed with maniacal frenzy, laughing hysterically at his new, inhuman triumph.

“You have made one fatal mistake, master,” concluded the murderer, retrieving his weapon. “You don’t know everything I know.”

With open eyes the Gatekeeper of Aurorus passed away, and just beyond his bloodied form, his once-student had made his way into the inner sanctuary to lay claim on the very treasure he had sworn to protect with his life. There, in the innermost chamber, Frasden Laslow, son of the most distinguished Gatekeeper of them all, Eric Laslow, had finally thrown away the last bit of his membership in the gatekeepers of Terra together with the black cloak he discarded in favor of the four parts of the Aurora Set- the Solar Helm, Shield of Faith, Golden Plate and Borelias Sword.

Donning the armor, wearing the helmet, holding the shield and brandishing the blade, the traitor could feel solid power rushing through him, the godly power replica of that of the God of Light. The dormant thirst for vengeance surged upon him, covering up all his senses of guilt and remorse, and he walked out of the building, past his once-master’s corpse, only throwing back a crooked grin.

“Father, Mother, Gem, Nina,” muttered the fallen Gatekeeper as he marched out of the domains, his golden armor in stark contrast with the evil darkness his soul had grown into in exchange for it, “Your vengeance is imminent…”

******


The news of the traitor Gatekeeper’s heist spread like wildfire along all levels along the chains of command of any organization reporting to the six gods of Higher Heaven. In a matter of hours, every Light Angel, Dark Angel, Valkyrie, Grand Knightlord and the likes had learnt of the terrible crime, and it then came to pass that not only was Frasden Laslow a traitor but also a foolish one. In his thirst for vengeance, the fallen gatekeeper had traveled to Earth via the ruptured gateway, with a view to a one-man genocide against the vampires of Earth. While the six supreme gods of the Higher Heaven Council did not seem to have had any official response, needless to say what a chaotic air had thrown up at the Lower Heavens Council as a direct result of the dramatic event.

“This is insane!” was all what could escape the normally active and talkative Aegina’s mouth when the news finally reached Argeus’ private corner somewhere in the sky in Earth. Her superior, on the other hand, was taken aback for a second, before returning to his usual, tactical calculations as seen in a battle-hardened general in his own rights.

“So Frasden Laslow has left Terra,” Argeus remarked, after pinching his forehead in a calculative move, “Where is he headed?”

“As a gatekeeper he should be able to pinpoint outright where the other of the Six Prime Treasures are, and it needs less than a child’s logic to realize that at this moment, the Prime Treasures are drawing vampires to them like magnets.” Aegina said, virtually biting her beautifully groomed fingernails. “By now he should be prowling the streets of Sankaku looking for vampires to kill!”

“Aegina, how do you assess his capability in doing so?” Argeus asked in plain strategic interest.

“He is one of the finer Gatekeepers, and has a lot of potential, but if he is alone on some kind of I-kill-anything-with-a-black-aura quest that he is on now, Frasden wouldn’t last too long,” Aegina said, racking her brain. “By now Sankaku must be rigged with vampires of all sorts disguised as everyday office people, and not to mention the local authorities wouldn’t react too kindly if someone turns up in a weird outfit and starts cleaving people into half at random.”

“I see…” Argeus replied, and within seconds of his last words, the ex-paladin began smiling mysteriously, which quickly evolved into a full-fledged laughter of joy and enlightenment. That reaction was within an inch of making Aegina worry for the mental health of her superior, for good reasons.

“Sir? What do you mean by…” Aegina gasped at the sight of Argeus’ reaction, “I mean, this is so going to absolutely spoil everything! This is like putting the Aurora Set on a pole and call out ”Come and get it!” to all those who would want a piece of the last of the Six Prime Treasures…”

“We have this nice boy named Zaelro Fastoff to help us, don’t we?” Argeus promptly stopped his laughter and replied with a rhetorical question, “And aren’t our ultimate mission to get all the Treasures into his hands so that he can keep it safe from Reglay von Gendamme?”

“Of course we do, but… what’s about it?” Aegina looked extremely puzzled.

“I’ve just had the newest report from the Sunlight Steed. And from the look of things,” Argeus tossed a scroll of paper at Aegina haphazardly, “it seems that we’ve got the right person on the job.”

“I’m afraid I’ve lost you, sir,” Aegina muttered as she grabbed the scroll.

“Okay. What we need here is vigilance. If we’ve got a young man with a bright future ready to sacrifice his life to do something right, as he did- the details on how he virtually risked both his life and that of the Sunlight Steed to save someone he barely knew- he’s got the vigilance needed to intervene into just about anything that would stir up a mess. If Frasden Laslow would like to go on a killing spree, I believe, with ninety-nine percent confidence, that with the kind of alertness and nosy attitude of his, he would get into the mess and set things right before the news of a walking Aurora Set has even reached Reglay,” Argeus explained. “That would be a good chance for the 25th Valhallan Regiment to get some target practice too!”

“Still… sir, it is the Aurora Set he is dealing with!” Aegina exclaimed. “For your information, the last Paladin who had taken up that sword, shield and armor…”

“Gariel Frolansus, First Foremost Paladin of King Henry the Six of Hadrius, twenty-sixth monarch of the House of Direbright, circa 1323 Benetian Calendar, at the Battle of Shallowton Bridge in the First Hadria-Altaren War” Argeus recited as if reading from a book. “The result was thirty dozens and five casualties on the Altaren Imperial Army owing directly to the Aurora Set alone. Had the Altaren Army not utilized ironclad mobile artillery and personnel transport, their casualties would have been even worse.”

“Doesn’t those statistics frighten you, Lord Argeus?” Aegina said in a rather nervous state. “And not to mention when a Gatekeeper of his caliber is so consumed by rage and anger, he could do more damage than those number!”

“There is one key difference, Aegina,” Argeus shook. “Gariel Frolansus was accepted by the Aurora Set as its master, at least for the duration of the war. But Frasden, on the other hand, is not.”

The look that Aegina showed up as a result of that revelation was extremely complex- a fine mixture of disbelief, confidence, anxiety and admiration all brewed together in her garnet eyes as she gazed at Argeus, completely bedazzled.

“Okay, let’s get things started, shall we?” Argeus’ half-encouraging, half-commanding words struck her all of a sudden, almost making her jump up. “I’ll have to contact Zaelro Fastoff as soon as possible. As for you…” Argeus produced from his table another sheet of paper, and started scribbling in short-hand notes at lightning-fast speed, before giving it to his assistant. “Sorry if that hurts, but I’ve got an entire to-do list here.”

Staring at the list, almost as long as an average housewife’s weekend shopping list, the disbelieving Valkyrie frowned. Had it been some other superior who issued her that workload, she would have retorted, or, in the case of the God of Light himself, talked him into reducing it by a little bit. But it was Argeus Sunrise she was reporting to, and it was different, as if there was an unknown devotion unbeknownst to her before she met him. Before she knew it, Aegina found herself nodding in approval, a reaction she still couldn’t believe even after she left and the door closed behind her.

A feeling she had never had before…

******

DF  Post #: 15
12/7/2008 23:45:43   
Argeus the Paladin
Member

Chapter 15
Crestfallen Takeda


Returning to the busy Lady Luck's favorite, it was both a blessing and a curse to see him being totally oblivious of what was brewing in the other world. In spite of his heavy injuries in an ordinary schoolboy's standard, Zaelro was able to sink into a deep and conforming sleep that night, temporarily putting all his commanding business and his agenda into temporary hibernation. Yet, for one so unfamiliar with the brutality of battles, it was fathomable how disturbing the bruises were. Finally, an unconscious twitch of the neck succeeded in ending the teen's sleep with an abrupt, sharp and highly traumatic jolt of pain on the backside of his neck. In a matter of seconds, Zaelro was fully awake and in thorough discomfort - his hand touched the large bruise and a quiet grimace beneath the shadow that still covered the room demonstrated it all.

With all his willpower, Zaelro attempted to conform to the injury. Yet, just as he was trying to get used to the pinching sensation as if his collarbone was being twisted and deformed, the rest of his body followed his neck's example, as instances of pain started to materialize everywhere on his body involved in the rescue operation earlier. Almost twenty full-power swings, a good deal of balancing on horseback in the middle of a jousting-like combat, as well as the record-length skid along the road as he fell off Steedy were beginning to take their toll on his rarely exercised physical body. The resulting trauma was far from comfortable, and coupled with the dormant neck pain, Zaelro felt as if he needed urgent medical attention as soon as possible. Understandably, never before had he undergone such pain before. Apparently when he came back from the previous day's danger, he didn't fully come to grip with the seriousness of the damage - it felt just like a mild form of ataxia he was suffering from.

"Okay, so I did run a full round all over Manchester last summer in a pamphlet distributing part time job," quietly groaned the teen as he difficultly sat up straight, "At least it didn't result in this kind of pain..."

The teen shivered a little. Apparently, when fatigue took over his overworked form the previous evening, Zaelro had gone to bed without turning on the electric heater, and as a result, currently his room was as cold as a frozen icebox. Grabbing his blanket, wrapping it around himself and shiver, it then came to the injured teen that the cold air actually helped him a little, dulling his multitude of pains all over his body. Zaelro then glanced at the carelessly drawn curtain in front of his main window. The sky was still dark, and it seemed as if it would be hours before sunrise, although - Zaelro glanced at the alarm clock on his table - he could expect to see dawn any time now judging from the number on the clock. At a distance, probably in the rural area just a mile or two from the city limit, Zaelro could even hear a cock crow echoing across the quiet sky, fortifying the alarm clock's statement.

"It's too early to get anything done," the newly awaken said quietly in a habitual talking-to-himself manner. "What do I do now?"

Certainly the teenager had more idea than that. Common medical knowledge soon informed him that the best way to cull the pain, or at least, dull it down sufficiently enough to start a new day, was to get a medicated bandage, followed by a dose of generic painkiller, both of which his mother had placed in his luggage before departure just in case. As much as he would hate to admit it, it came to him that his mother's anxiety had turned out to be some sort of foresight, in a manner the teen could never imagine before leaving his cozy homestead.

The next thing he did was just a simple routine to an ordinary, healthy human, but with all the bruises and sprains he had been suffering, the teen felt such incredible difficulty weighing down on him as that of an epic exploit. Scrawling and pushing himself up from the bed with the only fully functional limb, Zaelro finally succeeded in getting himself into upright position, and once so, started limping towards the light switch. What should usually take no more than ten seconds now extended itself into a toiling minute as Zaelro scrambled amidst the darkness, waving his arms about just like a blind man, feeling for possible support along the path. His kicking on a chair halfway through both added an additional injury to his battered form, as well as almost tipping him over, had it not been for the nearby wardrobe handle he quickly grabbed on. In the end, the painstaking effort was well rewarded. The light was turned on, and the next thing to do was nowhere as hard - find the medicine and wash down the pain by any disposable means necessary.

Or maybe not.

It then struck Zaelro with awe as he opened the half-closed trunk that his prized possessions were in a complete mess. Clothes and towels were tumbled up, in a disheveled manner, thoroughly covering any digital accessories that he kept at the bottom of the crate, as well as pretty much anything else he didn't sort out on his first day. The Valhallan Regiment and the truckload of duties that he had taken up might be held responsible for the mess, but if any single person was to be blamed for mislaying everything and anything, it was the procrastinating owner himself. Granted, leaving the clean-up and reorganization of his stuffs and belongings until tomorrow for everyday that passed was a nice idea, but when it came to an emergency, it was a different matter entirely. Understandably, struggling to bend himself down in the position that would least likely trigger additional pain on his already strained body, it took Zaelro almost ten minutes to search for the needed medication. Even that task was not fully completed - the medicated bandages were nowhere to be found.

"Talking about bad luck coming down in torrents..." Zaelro muttered in complete dismay, which quickly transformed into an obvious frustration as the next instance of bad luck came down on the boy whose ridiculous good luck had been legendary since birth. His room didn't have any water to dissolve the painkiller tablet, not even a drop. The next thing Zaelro realized was almost tossing the tablet down the drain in sheer fury, had it not been for his dominant common sense.

"The nearest substitute is the kitchen," a bell rang in the downtrodden teenager's head. Shuddering a little to think of leaving the room for the cold hallway, and not to mention the good deal of walking across the near frozen courtyard, Zaelro hesitated a little. However, the immense pain all over his body called for some painkilling drug, and quickly. Fueled by the pain, Zaelro soon found himself putting on a warm coat, slipping into his slippers and walking out of the room, staggering.

The late night medicine taker's prediction was right - the night was abnormally cold, and tiny snowflakes were fluttering about in the breaking dawn like little butterflies amidst the boundary of black and white. Were a romantic movie to be shot at that night, the natural beauty would be priceless. But to a wounded man scrambling all across the light snow and freezing temperature just in search for a simple cup of water for medicinal purposes, that beauty was more of a nuisance than a delicate romantic scene. Without even looking back, Zaelro pushed across the cobbled path, the tablet in one hand and an empty cup in the other. However, he was not going to get his share of medication that night. Or at least, for some time.

"You mean Commander Mina was hurt?"

Zaelro was startled by the voice, only to have conformity washed down his throat forcefully a moment later. Realizing that the kitchen light was on and the sound of cutlery clanging within the interior suggested that he had got company once again. How coincidental it was that whenever he was going to raid the kitchen, someone would inevitably show up as if mocking his painstaking attempts to get what he deserved.

"Yes," another voice sounded, pausing briefly to leave room for a large slurp of what Zaelro supposed to be soup or noodle. "This is the first time that I have seen her that badly hurt."

Zaelro realized both voices, slightly astonished by how much they had changed since he last eavesdropped. It was the caring, yet rather fear-filled voice of the elderly grandmother of the Takeda family - his host family, followed by the slightly over-confident voice of her grandson he had never met face to face. This time, their voices seemed to have been weighed down a great deal by an unknown and unclear anxiety, which, if anything, only fueled Zaelro's already dominant curiosity.

"You told me she is as good as immortal, didn't you?" the rather stern and fearless voice of the Takeda grandfather entered Zaelro's perception almost instantly. "You don't have to worry about her that much."

"You didn't know what happened to her yesterday," the implied vampire slayer's voice resumed. "When I got back to the church to report... she looked as if she was going to faint. And her left arm... never have I seen such a terrible infection that could discolor human flesh in such a manner."

"How is she now?" the grandmother asked with no less anxiety.

"The Bishop said she will be alright, but I'd have to take on extra patrolling tonight and at least tomorrow night on her behalf," with sheer fatigue the young vampire hunter breathed out loudly, "and that is exactly why I went home late, grandpa, grandma."

There was a moment of silence and implied tension in the chamber as whoever was eating laid his bowl on the table with a noticeable thud, and Zaelro's heartbeat consequently heightened.

"I believe that your job is only getting harder and harder as time passes," the grandmother's voice broke the silence. "Considering town recently..."

"As far as I know, grandma, the death toll in town accountable to the new upsurge of vampire activities has reached the two dozen milestone, and increasing with time," the vampire hunter said tiredly. "We have been trying our very best to save lives and kill the demons, but... for some reasons, their number has seemingly increased exponentially, and now they outnumber us by at least twenty to one. It would only be worse and worse as time passes, if this trend is to go on."

"Isn't the Bishop doing anything?" the Takeda grandfather growled angrily. "Unless he would like to disappoint believers like us. If that were the case, he has succeeded."

"Grandpa, please don't blame him. We know all too well that this is a lightyear away from ordinary pest control," the vampire hunter said, taking another slurp, his fatigue spewing out of his every word. "As knowledgeable as the Bishop is, he is not a fighter by trade and could do almost nothing to aid us apart from giving us timely directions. He has had enough blame to take in just these two weeks..."

Silence ensued once again, and Zaelro reckoned that in any way, a serious mental struggle was taking place within at least one of the speakers. He was proven right by what the vampire hunter said next.

"Grandpa, grandma, I would like to ask of you something," the vampire hunter said reluctantly and difficultly, as if reaching an issue never to be discussed.

"Have we ever refused you anything since your birth, Suuichi?" the caring grandmother replied.

"Alright, grandpa, grandma. I would like to say that I may not... no, probably will not live to see the end of this," the young vampire hunter said finally, after seemingly wrestled with his own conscience, for good reasons. If Zaelro, an outsider who knew next to nothing of the Takeda family, had already felt rather startled and slightly shocked by the ominous tone and the abruptness of the declaration, needless to say what the speaker's blood relatives felt. The eavesdropper was promptly answered - by the distinctive sound of a glass object falling on the ground and being splintered in short notice. The sharp, piercing sound of broken glass clattering against the granite ground almost freaked Zaelro off. And then came a complete silence.

Unlike the last moments, this time, the silence that ensued after the final splinter of broken crystal had settled down was so haunting and consuming that for that brief moment Zaelro almost felt sucked into the resulting void. It was minutes before any of those in the room could put himself together and speak once more, and in the meantime, the bystander's heart seemed to have stood still.

"What... what did you say again, Suuichi?" the grandfather said, half terrified, half furious, and his roaring, yet extremely trembling voice, that sounded as if it could collapse any time now, declared just that. “Did I hear wrongly or did you really mean you are going to die?"

The blank silence that stood for Suuichi's answer implied a positive nod.

"How could you be dying?" the grandfather roared again, but his voice's sternness had now almost completely subsided in favor of a much more terrified shiver in his every word.

"I should have told you earlier, grandpa, but I didn't have the courage," the vampire hunter said solemnly, yet in extreme anxiety and implied sorrow. "I didn't return to Sankaku just to visit you. I returned to this town to be part of a suicide squad, and to warn you that Sankaku is not safe any more."

"Sui… suicide squad?" the grandfather asked back, thoroughly dissuaded that such a thing still existed in the modern world.

"Yes, grandpa. Sankaku is going to turn into a full-scale battle zone between humans and vampirekind in no time, and if, no, when that happens, as the Bishop stated, we would be lucky to find even a handful of survivors among those who live here today. So instead of organizing a huge army of hunters to face off against the threat and attract immense media attention, the Organization has summoned just a handful of us to carry out this duty," Suuichi said. "I am one of them."

"Have you lost your mind, Suuichi?" the weak, feeble shivers of the grandmother's voice sounded with a similarly feeble accusation. "We haven't seen you for six long years, and now when you come back... you say you are going to die?"

"You have always respected my choice in life, and I hope you will my choice in death," the vampire hunter's voice sounded with high conviction, "But before that time comes, I would like to ask you for two favors."

Silent sobs in the background told Zaelro that the unfortunate, heartbroken old woman must have broken down at last. It was not before a couple more minutes had passed with plenty of sighs and sobs that Zaelro could hear the grandfather's voice, thoroughly distorted by a mental shock not for his age.

"We have never refused you anything. So we shall not turn you away now, Suuichi. What is it that you would like to ask?"

"First, grandpa, when the time comes, please inform my parents of my choice. They didn't approve of my ideals in the first place, yet I know that they are the ones who love me with all their heart, and I cannot be less grateful. Basically, I dare not face them again with these news. Secondly, I hope that our family could move out of Sankaku before the cataclysm begins, because I would rather see all of us, save for me, survive this ordeal and tell the tale to whoever would like to hear," Suuichi said solemnly. "When those two things are done, I could very well move to the other world without any regret."

"Have this world run out of people already that they are sending a perfect young man with a perfect future to his death?" the grandfather appeared to have finally reached his mental limit, and his furious explosion almost knocked the eavesdropped backward literally. The vampire hunter, however, seemed to have ignored his babble completely.

"Sorry, grandpa, grandma... but this is probably the last time I could see you," if anything, the last thing the vampire hunter said could have driven Zaelro himself to tears had he been a girl. But he wasn't. Still, the impact was as good as incapacitating to the hearer, and for a moment Zaelro actually feared for the old couple.

"Where are you going now," a similarly distorted sob from the grandmother made Zaelro's heart twitch, "that you would intend not to come back again?"

What came out from the old woman after that point Zaelro could not hear. Even if he were a native Japanese speaker he would have had to give up, anyway, for the words were doused and marred by so much sorrow and distraught that they clung to one another like a massive, incomprehensible chain, drenched in tears and sniffs.

"The Bishop has received a special message yesterday - from the King of the Black Vampires Reglay von Gendamme himself. Apparently the vampire lord is coming to this town himself for some personal purposes, and he would likely drench the streets in the blood of the innocent that he and his kinds hasn't drunk," Suuichi said. "The increased vampire activities are actually due to his frontrunners going out hunting to satisfy their thirst. We must stop that atrocity... by any means necessary."

"What?" Zaelro's having heard so much about the vampire lord Reglay von Gendamme in the past few days that he had seemingly been saturated, but that was definitely something new. "Getting his dirty hands on the Six Prime Treasures of Terra must be his personal agenda, or so it seems..."

"Are you just going to go like that?" the anguish-filled voice of the quick-minded grandfather sounded again, this time having lost all of the previous fierceness and savagery. "What about your grandmother, your parents, and many other who hold your life dear? Or is it that fox Mina has blinded you? If that is right you have to get out of this madness! Is it worth it to die like that just because of a woman?"

"No, grandpa, you are wrong. I'd rather, if possible, you stop accusing Commander. She has her own way as much as I have mine. If I can let this life be forsaken for the better good," a sad, but firm Suuichi replied, "I would do so without any speck of hesitation."

At that point, Zaelro decided to stand up and leave. If he went on listening to the exchange, there would only be two possibilities. Either he would kick the door, barge into the room, tell the vampire hunter to shut up and reminded him that he was acting in the most irresponsible of ways. Or he would just break down and cry like a girl, the limit of which he was pretty much an inch from. Both ways of reacting were equally unacceptable in the normal man’s common sense.

Standing up from the doorway, Zaelro walked back along the cobbled path. His injuries still hurt, but the instance that he had just caught was now occupying so much of his sentient mind that he no longer paid much attention to his own physical pain. And those bruises had a precise rule - the more they were ignored, the less they hurt. In due time, the entire attention of the teenager switched completely, just as the sun was rising in the horizon, and the first rays of daybreak shone upon the still dark earth like an enlightening litany.

"I can't believe I will have to fight to defend this beauty one day..." Zaelro pondered as he gazed at the slowly emerging golden disk. He's got to do something... but not with the pain and discomfort he was experiencing.

In the end, Zaelro got the medication he deserved. It turned out that the Takeda household would turn off all water supplies by midnight and back on around seven or eight in the morning, to avoid wasting the precious resource. The result was that Zaelro had to do without any painkiller for two long hours after that. The side effect wasn’t too enjoyable as well – when his appointment was due in some half an hour or so, the teen was still suffering from a slight drug-induced dizziness, an impairment he would rather not have.

Yet, the teen could still realize the major change in the atmosphere of the household as he strolled along the corridor. An abnormal silence reigned within the premises, a deathly, contained silence of sort. The sense of silencing morbidity increased as Zaelro approached the living room door. It was a mile different from the silence when the entire household went out. The occasional sighs and a couple of repressed sobs in the horizon gave an outright, vivid picture of a family of four on the brink of derangement over a tragic event regarding a nearest and dearest, even though Zaelro never got to see the exact scene. It took but a child’s logic to figure out why such scene had come into existence in the first place. Apparently either the grandmother or the grandfather, presumably the latter, had finally gathered the courage to tell the tale.

As Zaelro stood back, trying to make out further what was happening, a strange scent entered Zaelro’s sensation in the form of a white, thin cloud of smoke exiting from the various ventilation openings near the ceiling. If anything, the aroma was as if it was made to make people cry – as the thin smoke wrapped around the teen and entered his eyes, the bystander found his eyes flooding with tears, for some reasons, and the air thick with the scent seemed to have weighted even more on the spirit of all present.

Oriental incense – as burnt in memory the fallen. The wonder of Eastern funeral rites as a scholar put it.

”Hmm… Whatever that grandson was doing, he has taken it too far,” Zaelro told himself, wiping off the artificial tears, deciding not to disturb the strangely solemn, yet highly depressing congregation. Yet, the effect that the occasional sighs and sobs had on the general atmosphere of the place was poisonously contagious, as if his suffered side effect wasn’t bad enough on its own.

In any case, that was no time for his curiosity. He had an important task to carry out in another half an hour, and there was absolutely no way he could miss it out, for all what at stake. Thinking so, in spite of whatever depression and discomfort he was experiencing, Zaelro shuffled quickly towards his makeshift stable, ready for his next move…

******


Steady Steedy the Sunlight Steed proved to be far more useful than his owner primarily expected. As previously stated by the master of horses of the Valhallan Regiment, Steedy was capable of summoning the healing power of the light to save its master and cure even the most extreme of wounds. It turned out that every ailment Zaelro was suffering from by the time he entered the stable had completely evaporated, including the bruises and whatsoever ailments he had contrived in the unlikely battle the previous day. If there was anything Steedy was unable to do, it was curing the slight dizziness caused by the painkiller – ironically, had he known of the horse’s amazing healing factor he wouldn’t have to take it in the first place.

“You really should have cured me earlier,” Zaelro said, releasing the rein and patting on the horse’s forehead in a half-joking tone as he rode out of the building. “That could have saved a lot of troubles.”

“My apologies, sire,” came the repentant reply. “I was too preoccupied with the events of yesterday to realize that you were hurt that badly.”

“In any case, now that I’m back to normal,” Zaelro smiled as he pulled the rein once more. “We’ve got a lot to do today!”

As Zaelro braced the steed and sped off, the cool breeze beneath the warm sun of that day promised an enlightening revelation for the investigator and commander. Letting his conscience off for a few moments to thoroughly bath himself in the grace of the surrounding, the teen felt an even more binding responsibility to make sure that mornings as that were not going to be the last…

******



< Message edited by Argeus the Paladin -- 12/7/2008 23:47:41 >
DF  Post #: 16
12/9/2008 3:01:33   
Argeus the Paladin
Member

Chapter 16
Curse of the Minamoto Clan


To the teen’s acknowledgement, his new school displayed two completely different and contrasting pictures during weekdays and weekends. To spite the noisy courtyard pretty filled to the brim with groups of students gathering around cracking jokes as he saw when he first entered the place, upon his arrival that day, Zaelro realized that the entire school was pretty much as empty as the streets around it. There wasn’t even a janitor or security guard along, as if no one would care if thieves broke in for a big heist.

Though he had grown quite used to the near-forsaken state of the streets and just about any major public premises during the weekend, it didn’t help his comfort too much. Even though the sun was shining and it was quite warm, Zaelro still felt rather spooked by the thorough lack of human presence in and out of the place. Had it not been for the rather bright sun overhead, he would have expected a morbid and haunting air about not much better than the previous day.

The first thing that came into Zaelro’s agenda was to get a place to park his horse. After all, it would be rather impolite to show up before his new friends on a brand new motorbike if they walked. The task itself was nothing difficult – an empty schoolyard with scores of trees and plenty of open space without anyone around meant an excellent place to stop by.

“Now I know why this town has to be the scene of whatsoever going on,” Zaelro remarked, as he rode into the schoolyard, eyeing around for a suitable parking slot, Steedy’s rhythmic steps marking his waypoint. “This kind of almost empty town would make it pretty much a piece of cake for any vampire worth his salt to get out there and grab a bite.”

“Fate has its own way, sire,” was Steedy’s reply, to which Zaelro nodded.

At last the teen found a good corner to stop by. There, below a large maple tree a little left from the building’s main entrance was an excellent place where anything from the size of a full-grown purebred horse to an adult African elephant could be kept rather well hidden from the peering eyes of the public, if any. Smiling at his good luck, Zaelro pulled the rein, ordering the steed to proceed into the excellent parking slot.

“There,” Zaelro said, patting the horse’s back as he dismounted. “This is the place in which you would be least likely to be caught and towed away for jaywalking. But if someone does come by, you would know all too well how to get out of hot water, right?”

“As long as I can still run, sire,” slightly nodded the steed, “I’ll make sure no one hostile can even touch me.”

“Excellent,” Zaelro said. “I hope you could… entertain yourself when I am away, is that alright?”

A firm nod at the largest possible magnitude considering the neck structure of a warhorse was the only reply Zaelro required. Reciprocating the nod, the teen quickly dashed off, heading back for the school gate. Taking a deep breath, the teen’s steps became even more invigorated realizing that his tormenting, pressing pains had fully faded off. Now, he was as ready as could be for his first trip with new friends in a new environment, although that was just the tip of the iceberg of purpose.

His timing couldn’t have been better- no sooner had he made himself present at the school gate than he found himself company. There, approaching him were two teenagers, adorned in everyday, casual garments. The male figure donned a blue jean and a pitch-black shirt with an overt skull being the most striking feature, reminding the average 21st century citizen and the average Arthurian paladin of a death metal rocker and a morbid necromancer, respectively. The female teen let her waist-length hair loose, so that it fluttered in the air like the essence of the wind itself, and in the beautiful purple dress and blue jumper she wore, a beholder could be prompted to believe that it was a Greek forest nymph rather than an everyday high school student he was facing. Miyazaki Nataka and Kuniyoshi Tsubame had arrived, pretty much later than the person they were supposed to wait for.

“You guys were exactly three minutes, twenty-six seconds and three hundred and sixteen milliseconds late,” Zaelro remarked humorously as the coming duo entered range, mockingly gazing at his wristwatch.

“Never thought you would be so eager to go,” Nataka replied, drawing in closer, with a broad smile that contradicted the grim look of his shirt completely.

“Let’s just say I am just about curious enough to get up before dawn,” Zaelro said, half-seriously. “Pretty intriguing, or so it seems. Anyway, where are we going next?”

“We’d drop by Takashi’s place first, Fastoff-san” Tsubame said, readjusting her flowing mass of hair, “And then, depend on the situation.”

“Depend on the situation?” Zaelro asked back in disbelief, “What does that mean exactly?”

“Well, from the past experiences with outings like this,” Nataka grinned heartily, “there is a fifty percent chance that we can actually get into his place with no problem, twenty-five percent chance that we’ll be locked out but an alternative way in can be found, and twenty-five percent chance that we are out for good.”

“You are speaking as if we are paying the Prime Minister rather than an average student a visit,” Zaelro shrugged.

“In this kind of situation the chance is even worse, Fastoff-san,” stated Tsubame with a vehement nod. “His sister so overprotects him that many of us respect Taka-chan just for enduring it. And his close call this time means that we are likely to be kept out.”

“Lucky I don’t have an older sister or brother,” Zaelro shuddered.

“It’s his younger sister we are talking about, Mr. Englishman!” reminded Nataka, drawing a large gasp from the addressed personnel. “If you know what I mean.”

“In any case, we should just try our luck out,” Tsubame said, extinguishing the bewilderment on Zaelro’s face. “It’s just a ten-minute trip from this end of town to his place.”

******


Fifteen minutes, a relaxing bus ride from one end of town to another, a truckload of rather silly chitchat on behalf of his two companions and a five-minute nap later, Zaelro Fastoff was notified of their arrival with a pinch on the ear.

“You didn’t come all the way here just to get a nap, did you?” Nataka’s voice boomed over Zaelro’s still numbing ears, almost traumatic in its own right. Nursing his wound and looking up to find a mischievous smile from the offending culprit, followed by a hearty snicker from their fairer companion, it came to the dozing teenager that he was about to be kicked off the ride if he wouldn’t get up and get going. Discomfort and annoyance soon disappeared, making way for a more positive eagerness, as he cleared off his last yawn and stepped down the bus with the others.

“Where are we headed?” Zaelro asked after the last thing that remained of the bus was a distant engine rumbling, turning his head back and forth unconsciously.

“Be ready to gasp, awe, roll eyes, faint or perform whatever dramatic actions you can come up with,” mocked Nataka as he turned around and eyed a specific building within range, “for the humongous structure before us is our destination.”

Zaelro chose the first option. A loud gasp escaped his lips as soon as he made the realization – never before had he expected such a huge surprise, in a literal sense. Before him, where Nataka pinpointed, stood a large, imposing structure of abnormal size and elegance, and at the first sight, had it not been for his realization of where he was now, he would have believed that it was the Buckingham Palace he was seeing. The entire area of the place must have been three times that of an average office block, and the built ground itself alone could easily house a hundred or more if need be. Never did he expect to see anyone other than the British royalties or the extremely rich internet tycoons to enjoy such a lustrous degree of luxury.

What perfect condition the entire place was in – it seems that the whole compound was repainted and refurbished every year judging from the near-brand-new coat of paint it adorned – was as stunning as its size. With elegant structures and fine sculptures visible through the French-styled walled fence, further embossed with a full-scale water fountain that looked as regal as that of the Louvre, as well as a wide garden kept well trimmed and watered, the compound was as elaborate in beauty as it was dominating in scale. The owner of the estate somehow managed to keep a remarkable-sized hedge maze and a multitude of hedge statues as well. As far as his knowledge of real estate and economics went, to maintain such a house in the country where housing prices were higher than anywhere else on Earth, the owners would have to cough up a fortune each year, and that was not to mention opportunity cost. Thoroughly awed in any given way, Zaelro stood there, speechless for a couple of seconds.

“You look thoroughly surprised, Fastoff-san,” Tsubame’s soft words woke Zaelro back into reality.

“Wow… just… wow,” Zaelro muttered, “Is my eyes deceiving me, or we are in the wrong place?”

“That was just the superficial sign of the wealth of the Minamoto family. No doubt you are awed,” Nataka remarked, “However, this palace had been here long before we were even born, so we’ve gotten used to seeing it once every so often.”

“Whosoever owns this place must both be extremely wealthy and extremely artistic,” Zaelro remarked with as much professional knowledge as his father had passed to him in an attempt to keep himself calm, “Not to mention a sense of scrutiny brought to the extreme.”

“Believe it or not, Taka-chan’s sister runs the place,” laughed Nataka. “In fact, she does the job even better than their parents for some reason.”

The last thing Zaelro could do was to roll his eyes with his jaw almost dropping squarely on the ground – he had apparently depleted his supply of dramatic expressions. It took a good minute before his critically analytical mind returned to its full functionality as Zaelro directed his glance at the imposing, gilded steel gate just a few steps from where they stood.

“Okay, so how are we going to get in?” Zaelro asked, as the steel gate bore a striking resemblance to the structural firmness and impregnability of an ancient English portcullis to the young historian.

“Let’s just try our luck first,” remarked Tsubame, before making her move, stepping forward, approached the gateway head-on and pressed what appeared to be the doorbell.

The instance of a disproportionate device in comparison to its purpose almost made an amused Zaelro laugh out loud, fully prepared if nothing at all happened. That was precisely the reason why the young visitor was slightly amazed when he realized that the call actually went answered. Just half a minute later, the empty courtyard was timely populated by a single figure – a female maid, or so it seems, judging from her standard dress-and-apron uniform and a lovely pink cap to go with.

“Hi, Megumi!” Nataka was quick to respond when the silhouette of the answerer had become clear enough to recognize, his voice a fine example of an attempt to draw the attention of and hitting on whomever he was addressing. His attempt was given some credit – at least the said female nodded and smiled at him, before signaling the trio to move forward.

“So, what’s up?” Nataka shrugged, trying to sound cool.

“Greetings, everyone, please come in,” the maid replied with a bow, “Master Takashi is waiting for you in his room.”

“Whoa, what kind of luck have we run into this time?” Nataka said, whether he was feigning astonishment or genuinely so was beyond the superficial.

“Err… is Hanae-dono home?” Tsubame’s voice sounded rather timidly behind Nataka’s pseudo-majestic coolness. “I wonder if it is alright to…”

“Mistress Hanae has gone to Osaka to sort out some family business,” the maid replied, not changing her expression a least bit, “and Master Takashi expects us to let you in whenever you arrive. So, please feel free to enter.”

“It seems that everyone is afraid of Takashi’s sister, right?” Zaelro asked his friends, thoroughly interested.

“Ah,” Megumi said, not after gazing at Zaelro from top to toe, “you must be the English gentleman that our master has been talking about a lot lately. Please forgive my rudeness, sir.” She then gave another deep, apologetic bow – the sort of ceremony Zaelro had gotten fed up with ever since his inauguration.

“There is no need to – I am far from a peer,” Zaelro replied, with a mild snicker.

“Thank you, sir,” the maid replied, before turning her neck slightly towards the main building. “Anyway, please allow me to take you up to Master Takashi’s room.”

“We’ve been here like, dozens of times,” Nataka replied, smiling triumphantly. “We can still remember the way.”

“Master Takashi just changed his room three days ago,” the maid explained quietly, “and moved to a rather reclusive corner, so you may not know the way around…”

“Not again?” gasped Nataka. “How many times has he moved this year? Five? Six?”

“… Exactly seven, sir, including this.”

Before either Nataka or Zaelro had the chance to gasp, awe, roll eyes, faint or perform whatever dramatic actions they could come up with further, the maid had turned around and started walking slowly towards the building, implying them to follow.

“One word – mysterious,” Zaelro said, unconsciously timidly as he treaded along the cobbled path leading up the doorway. “Is his household always like this?”

“Well, only now you know, don’t you?” sniggered Nataka with an unfathomably proud smile. “Epic win, period.”

******


Zaelro lost count of how many times he actually gasped aloud as he and his companions entered the interior of the gigantic construction. And it was apparent that the owner of the house had no intention to conceal their vast wealth. The first room he entered just a little further than the doorways, a large hall with two flights of stairs on each side leading to a surrounding walkway on the second storey, was a miniature museum in its own right. As the party ascended the left wing flight, Zaelro’s amazement only grew as the extravagant luxuries entered his vision in streams. Almost all of whatever he saw on his way in, ranging from the design of the carpet to the vast collection of antique lining up the maze-like corridors was exotic decorations and artifacts that the teen was uncertain if even the Queen of England could enjoy, let alone the commoners. Naturally, Zaelro’s steps became softer and more hesitating as he walked further, knowing that if his clumsiness resulted in the damage of just one of those precious artifacts, it would take his parents more than half a year toiling away to pay for the damage. In due time, even his voice became meeker as well.

“Hey, are we there yet?” asked Zaelro, after an unbelievable five-minute walk around the house.

“Please be patient, sir,” was the maid’s gentle, yet firm and conclusive answer. “We are almost there.”

Yet the almost as mentioned cost Zaelro and his mates another five minutes, sixteen turns and around six dozen encounters with rare artifacts before they came to a halt, at which point the English had completely lost his sense of direction. The maid turned around and bowed yet again, signifying that they had arrived at last. Before them now stood a large, dark brown wooden door, polished to a mirror-face degree of perfection, yet rather dull and undecorated, compared to the rest of the household.

“Is this it?” asked Nataka. “Dull brown color without any decoration at all… no one but Taka-chan adores such design.”

“Yes, sir,” nodded the maid. “Our master is waiting for you inside. You can just enter.”

The next thing Zaelro realized was the silhouette of his greeter had vanished beyond the mazy, long corridors of the building, leaving him and his friends there alone.

“Well, I guess we should go in now,” Nataka shrugged, “unless you have some other unfinished business to tend to.”

Without waiting for an answer on behalf of the awe-silenced English, Nataka opened the door, revealing whatever inside it. In terms of lighting, the room was as dull as the door itself, as only a small, bluish light on the ceiling illuminated its interior darkened by a fully drawn curtain. Contrary to the hallways, the room was more like a living quarter, as there were only a couple of artifacts worth noting apart from the everyday items that any teenager would have – a disc player, some posters on the wall, a medium-sized bookshelf housing textbooks and manga alike, and a rather messy study table with books and notebooks unclosed. The air withint he room was strangely stuffy – perhaps whoever staying in disliked, or worse, would be somehow harmed by the cutting wind.

There, as Zaelro saw, on the oak bed in the middle of the room, sat the person in question, leaning against a pillow, a blanket covering the entire lower half of his body. Recognizing his visitors, the figure promptly sat up straight and nodded, signaling them to enter at will.

As they entered the room, Zaelro had a closer angle to examine his new friend – he looked excessively pale, even more so than in his first day in class. However, his eyes had grown more lively and brighter after the few days at rest, although fragments of unavoidable depression still stayed, and as Takashi gazed at each and every of them, it appeared that the host had been resting without relaxing until they arrived. From the way he smiled, Zaelro readily deduced that if there was one thing he hungered for, it was good company.

“Hey, Taka-chan,” Nataka said, approaching the bed. “Don’t tell me you are bedridden like this already after just a close call! Are you sure you don’t need a wheel chair?”

“I’m not dead yet, am I?” joked Takashi, standing up, staggering a little from the sudden exertion. “Though all those medication I had to swallow in the past few days and their side effects were far from bearable.”

“Then you really should rest in bed,” Tsubame said quietly and caringly. “Don’t push yourself too hard.”

“Well, if you are this sick, I suppose we should call of our plans today,” in a rather rhetoric tone, Nataka said, blinking at the staggering patient.

“When I said I am well enough to go out, I mean I am,” smiled Takashi, shaking his head a little. “Just that I am still not quite comfortable on my feet.”

“You really don’t look well,” Zaelro said, staring at the sick-feigning-well shape of his unhealthy tablemate. “Does this happen to you often?”

“Pretty much once every so often,” shrugged Takashi coolly, as he grabbed the edge of his bed for balance, in an attempt to crack a joke. “But worry not, the Grim Reaper is my buddy, and I would come around his place every now and then and come back without a scratch.”

Zaelro remembered that line almost by heart. He once had a friend in primary school suffering from a heart defect who said exactly those words every time he had to take sick leave, only in English rather than Japanese. He died before he could even enter secondary school, and it was not funny at all. Needless to say, that joke not only didn’t make the English feel less tense, but rather triggered a glance of reconfirmed anxiety at the speech maker.

“Anyway, where are we going today?” Takashi asked, shrugging away Zaelro’s glance of disbelief with a completely innocent smile, “I’m sick of staying at home alone in this manner.”

“You have quite a crew catering to your every need, don’t you?” Zaelro asked. “Or so it seems.”

“Try stay at home for a day, locked in a room with an assortment of medicine shoveled down your throat, with exactly nothing to do, and you’ll see what I mean,” the sick teen replied, shivering a little, “I really need some fresh air.”

“And that takes us back to our purpose today,” concluded Nataka, “It’s but a five minute trip to a perfect escape downtown.”

“Just what I needed,” Takashi replied, his face thoroughly shone with a bright smile.

A genuine smile of enlightenment appeared upon the asthma patient’s lips, and stayed there. That instance almost turned Zaelro away from the mission he had assigned himself to for good reasons. There was simply no way in heaven, earth or hell that he could summon enough conviction to question him about the thing someone of his type would least likely do. It felt, for a moment, as if he was to bring a five-year-old child who could barely distinguish a dagger from a bowie knife to court for a murder involving the two said weapons.

“You should get some warm clothes first, Taka-chan,” reminded Tsubame, “It is quite cold out there.”

“Oh, yes. I must have completely forgotten the weather,” Takashi nodded, somehow blushing, before limping into the restroom. “Just wait here, I’ll get my share of change.”

”Duty, please don’t force me to do the impossible,” Zaelro told himself, effectively puzzled and comfounded, as the sickly and almost handicapped figure of Takashi Minamoto disappeared beyond the doorframe.

“Lord Zaelro, I… Sergeant Gregory Korsakov Vassiliyevich meant more to me than anyone else. He was like… a brother to me. I… I just wanted to bring his murderer to justice…”

Even now, those words still haunted his mind. No, in any way possible, the truth must be let known, for the living and the dead alike.

******


To Zaelro’s surprise, downtown Sankaku was a completely different story compared to the outskirts, further fortifying the belief that people tended to flood into the city center for warmth and socialization during the cold months of winter. It appeared that the five-block area surrounding the central mall was almost as bustling as Manchester city center on a busy Monday - packed with people, mainly youngsters on a date or on a shopping run. For a teenager not quite far from the average, having just been bitten by a vampire, almost killed by another and thoroughly spooked by the haunting silence all the way in between, that discovery was quite a relief.

However, going from one extreme to another was always a bad thing to suggest. This time, the highly crowded town center had proven to be rather unfit for a gathering of friends for fun. After all, what could be fun when a host of people are around, blocking up all the possible scenic beauty of a new town, and causing huge amounts of noises enough to cut short even the most enthusiastic of conversations? If that was normally just a disappointment, to Zaelro this time it was a downright failure. The whole trip would have been useless if he could not find a chance to, frankly put it, interrogate Takashi Minamoto.

“Hmm… town is becoming too overcrowded, isn’t it?” Nataka snapped before Zaelro had a chance to voice his opinion. “This would pretty much ruin any outing we are planning.

“But I am sure that our usual place is still unoccupied,” an optimistic smile flared on Takashi’s face, “I think grabbing a pizza or two and make the run for it wouldn’t be a bad idea after all.

“The usual location?” Zaelro asked with every bit of curiosity he could summon, “Mind if I ask?”

“Somewhere along the southern bank of the nameless lake,” blinked Tsubame, “We always hang out there whenever there is nowhere else to go. It’s been like that ever since we knew one another.”

A resolute nod was the clear result of the agreement. Before Zaelro knew it, tagging along the childhood friends trio finally took him across the crowd, skillfully maneuvering the different lanes and shortcuts around the city center and grabbing three solid, steaming cartons of pizza in the meantime, before arriving at the rim of the activities. As Zaelro left the bustling district, the atmosphere changed with as much abruptness as when he entered – the cold, desolate air of mid-winter was quick to make its return. When the party drew close to their suggested destination at the lakeside, the chill actually worsened, as the cold vapor from the water did not help at all. The only bright point was the presence of a warm sun, bringing a feeling of warmth and relief into the cold air.

The group was quick to make their way to their escape. The entire south bank of the lake, mostly due to the fact that few buildings had been constructed there, was thoroughly unpopulated. A full line of benches stood along the bank, and with no one around, the teenagers were free to pick the best seats. The tingling sensation of an ice-cold stone bench was as much a new discovery to the English transfer student as the environment itself. No sooner had he sat down that the full view of the lake showed itself, revealing a magnificent concord of mirror water surface reflecting the tranquil surrounding, and the occasional rays of sunshine through the leaves, ricocheting off the water surface and bouncing on the paved banks were ardently dreamy, conforming to the most romantic of minds. Still more astonishing was how the scenic beauty was so unmarred by urbanization just a couple of dozen yards away.

As much as his primary purpose was neither to socialize nor to have fun, in the events that followed he got both. For almost two hours they ate and chatted the time away, with tales ranging from how class was like on Friday, how they literally got a free period to almost anything else Zaelro could lay his mind on. Participating rather actively as he did, Zaelro did not fail to notice one interesting aspect – Takashi Minamoto spoke little during the entire conversation, almost sharing nothing of his own while listening attentively to everything else. The more they interacted, the more the English student realized that Takashi almost had no life story of his own – his world was brought to him majorly through what his childhood friends had to share. Though it was common sense that those whose lives were marred by chronic diseases had little knowledge of the world, Takashi’s silence was as if what he knew was not to be shared. For any reason, Zaelro could barely guess. The mystery was too comfounding to figure out just by plain logic. His best, and most likely only, bet was to ask, but how?

And then his chance finally came in the form of an intriguing move on behalf of Nataka Miyazaki. With a second’s notice, the said teenager quickly pulled the only female member of the squad away from the other two, as if to share some secrets of their own, leaving Zaelro with a small gasp of astonishment and Takashi with the closest equivalent of a facepalm.

“And so I knew it from the beginning,” Takashi said, half amused, “that a good share of the reason why they actually pulled me along is to have a chance to spend time with each other,” he concluded with a light snigger of envisage. “I would expect to attend their wedding in less than half a decade, if I am right.”

“It seems so,” Zaelro replied half-heartedly, before suddenly throwing in the brunt of the mission at hand, “Would you mind if I ask you something?”

“Mmm, go ahead, I’ll see what I can tell you,” nodded Takashi, his smile was still as friendly and childlike as a couple of days ago before it all happened. Zaelro dared not look at those smiles, at least when he was about to pass a certain judgement. Duty and common sense fought fiercely as Zaelro paused. Finally, duty won, and Zaelro stood up, turning away from Takashi, and spoke without looking back.

“There had been two murders in town lately, did you hear about that?”

Even without looking directly at him, Zaelro knew that his speech must have thoroughly startled the unprepared youth, judging from the sound of a slice of pizza sliding off his hand onto the ground followed by a binding, confessing silence. Whatever smile Takashi Minamoto had had just a second before must have completely vanished together with the pizza slice he dropped. Zaelro promptly turn back, look straight into his friend’s eyes, and asked, in the same manner as the police interrogating the most hardened of criminals.

“Do you know anything about it?” Zaelro asked, stressing each and every word.

Takashi was as white as a sheet, and the rest of his gestures were anything but normal – his hands trembled like those of an Alzheimer patient, and his eyes opened wide, gazing straight into Zaelro’s eyes in the fearsome manner of a netted animal. The suspect then stood up, in a deathly trance as his eye quickly transformed to the brink of unrecognizability. For a moment, those eyes appeared to be as far as inhuman – as if the demon in him had awakened, readying its claw for a kill, bearing a dangerously strong resemblance to those eyes of the Cossack Sergeant’s killer. It appeared that whatever commanded him to kill that day was about to continue its murderous order once more.

Just as Zaelro remembered what happened to the unknown girl and Sergeant Vassiliyevich could also happen to him and was about to withdraw himself, what he realized next was the murder suspect lifting his heads to reach his forehead, squeezing his skull with every ounce of strength he could summon, as if attempting to crush the seed of evil tightly embedded inn his cerebral chamber. His face grimaced – the agony must have been astounding. After that painstaking process, it appeared that he had won over whatever was trying to take control of him, and his eyes returned to normal, somehow. Having lost a lot of his own strength in the process, Takashi bent his neck, panting, in a complete exhaustion.

“Are you alright?” Zaelro asked, patting the downed Takashi’s shoulder sympathetically.

Suddenly Takashi glanced quickly at Zaelro, startling the Englishman. His glance, though, seemed to carry no malice of his own, but rather a quick skim for any possible damage.

“I am the one who should ask that question,” Takashi sighed of relief, falling back on the chair. “I thought…”

“You thought of what?” Zaelro asked, feeling as if the mission was thoroughly within reach.

“I thought I could have killed you,” Takashi breathed out, giving out the horrible truth he was hiding.

“Just like how you killed the two nameless victims that night, am I right?” duty won again in Zaelro’s inner struggle, and those words escaped his mouth with almost half of his mind resenting the decision. To that question Takashi nodded, looking at the ground, in the same manner a convicted criminal would bend his neck before a Supreme Court.

“Are you… from the Interpol?” Takashi asked, exhaustion having shaded away all of a human’s normal instinct of survival. “If so… I think this confession should be enough, shouldn’t it?”

“I am not from the Interpol, or Scotland Yard, or SIS, or FBI, or CIA, or anything along those lines,” Zaelro said, his resentment of the rash decision reconverted to sympathy and his comforting words represented just that, “so you can rest assured that no one is going to arrest you, ever.”

“I…” Takashi hesitated, “I really don’t know what to say to defend myself.”

“You don’t need to,” Zaelro said, “for it is clear that it wasn’t really you that did the killing, was it?”

“I am not sure,” Takashi said, still trembling somewhat from the ordeal, “but it was certainly by my hands that those people died.”

“I have heard a lot of people speaking about the Demon of the Minamoto clan,” Zaelro suggested. “Does it have anything to do with this… murder?”

“So you heard of that as well,” sighed Takashi, his voice slowly returning to normal, although the cheerfulness of his speech earlier I the day had been displaced and replaced by an ominous degree of depression. “I thought I could hide this from you…”

“Would you like to share?” Zaelro asked, with every bit of persuasiveness he could muster. “You would feel more relieved when you have been able to open your heart, a little at a time.”

Another inner struggle ensued, but this time, the asthmatic murderer was the one being tormented. From the way he kept biting his lower lip, rubbing his palms together and sighing in long intervals, Zaelro could see that he was at wit’s end weighing the pros and cons. Silence hung in the air in a rather daunting manner, and from the past few day’s dramatic moments, the English was just about to drop his request when Takashi opened his mouth without warning.

“Fastoff-san, I am a demon,” Takashi breathed out, as if a large chunk of his existence had been blown out of him with just those five words. “Not only me, but everyone else in my family. Every one of them.”

Zaelro’s subconscious mind commanded him to gasp at the instance of those words. Still, his mother had been teaching him that any dramatic expression would not bid well when he was to comfort or persuade someone, and that teaching halted him from letting even the slightest sign of astonishment escape his interior.

“I see,” Zaelro said, keeping himself as calm and reasonable as possible. “How did it all happen?”

“It is a long story, Fastoff-san, and to say the least, our ancestral curse had been there long before my grandfather and great grandfather had even been born,” Takashi said, sorrow veiling whatever part of his face not hidden by his long, messy mass of hair. “As of now, I can only tell you that we are both blessed and cursed with three blessings and curses, depending on how you look at it.”

“Three?” Zaelro asked, completely absorbed in whatever was about to be revealed next.

“We have powers. Not the kind of superheroic power that comics and manga show the public every day, but the raw power to kill and destroy. We can kill a person within seconds, with bare hands, or blow up an entire building with no need of all the likes of heavy weapons. If we want, we can make sure that any army with less than five thousand soldiers be vaporized in a matter of minutes,” Takashi said, leaning against the bench tiredly.

“That power could be used for good or bad,” Zaelro remarked, “and what was your choice?”

“We don’t get to choose,” Takashi’s words amazed and frightened Zaelro a great deal at the same time. “It is not like we have the power to kill and destroy, but rather, something within us, something maleficent that we cannot shrug off, has both that power and the capability to use our bodies as a medium. Imagine you have a parasite with its own will and enough power to bend your will to its.”

“And they call that… parasite the Curse of the Minamoto Clan?” Zaelro asked.

“That name is true, but nevertheless just an understatement,” Takashi shrugged, “And so in this town, every so often you would hear a strange murder, with people being ripped apart, incinerated, blown to nothingness or anything along those lines. Whenever it happens I would have to believe that one of my relatives has done it.”

“Let me guess…” Zaelro said, after a good pause to rack his mind. “It was this being that actually commanded you to kill.”

“I try to keep it under control… until lately.” Takashi nodded. “I have no idea what I could have probably done, but the murders at the central park this Thursday was the event which I am certain it was my hands that committed the deed.”

The story soon boiled down to a matter of morality. In that case, not just himself, but his entire family of three had agreed on the sole solution.

“I get it,” Zaelro concluded, before standing up. “Now I am thoroughly convinced that you are not to be blamed in any circumstance.”

“But…”

“Listen, partner,” Zaelro said, looking straight into the innocent, yet helpless eyes of the Minamoto youngster, as he gave another Zaelro-trademarked lecture, “you must convince yourself that you did not do it. It’s like, you cannot be blamed if a murderer steals your penknife and ends up using it to slit the throat of a dozen people. Nor if a terrorist steals a gas tank from your house and use it as a bomb to blow up Sankaku Central Mall. You did not do it. Period.”

“I’ll try, but…”

“Worry not, you have got excellent friends on your side, right?” Zaelro glanced at the chatting couple a dozen yards away as he spoke. “They will remain by your side in whatever situation.”

Takashi Minamoto remained silence. His eyes had totally returned to normal now, and so did his sickly form stopped trembling, although Zaelro’s moral challenge had succeeded in bleaching off all the cheerfulness and carefree obliviousness that Takashi had cropped up earlier on. Depressed, though slightly relieved, Takashi tiredly looked up at the English transfer student, and opened his mouth, only to hesitate and closed it again. The circle of hesitation went on for a good half a minute, before he actually summoned enough courage to ask.

“Could I ask you something, Fastoff-san?” Takashi asked finally, his voice still doused in a hesitation that had yet to fade. “Could we… continue to be friends now that you have known our secret? And that maybe one day you will perish by my hands?”

“Did you expect a person to listen to your whole story only to stand up, shrug everything away and just say ‘I am just going to abandon you’?” Zaelro asked back rhetorically. “No way, partner, no way in heaven, earth or hell, anywhere!”

Zaelro then gazed at his friend, with a smile of both trust and encouragement. Although he knew that whatever unknown trauma Takashi had undergone as a child would not fade away with just words, but he would, now that he know the truth, uphold his part of the promise with full confidence. The Minamoto youth’s relaxed and relieved, although still slightly depressed, smile would mark just that.

******

DF  Post #: 17
12/10/2008 3:25:10   
Argeus the Paladin
Member

Chapter 17
Intelligence and Premonitions


It finally turned out that Zaelro Fastoff did not enjoy a healed body for too long, and by the time he reached bed that day, his entire body was in complete shamble once more from fatigue, overstretched and overworked muscles and an additional sprained ankle. And that was after his trusty steed had had his healing duty fulfilled, without which Zaelro would be barely crawling home with a multitude of bruises, and a couple of shattered bones. Now his right arm was barely movable, and his legs were not far off. His neck would have suffered from the same ailment had it not been for Steedy’s steadfast medical service, and his back was anything but flexible. Unfortunately, his stiff muscles wouldn’t likely get back to normal any time before he had had a good night’s rest, as the amount of physical workout he had to endure was far beyond any exercise he had had prior.

Apparently his duty did not end after talking Takashi Minamoto into confession. Rather, a grueling jousting exercise still remained, and it was not until he was really into the fray that Zaelro realized that asking for a serious equestrianism lesson from a top ranking French cavalier was anything but comfort. The process was so extremely rigorous and consuming that the teen expected to continue dreaming about the ordeal even when it was far over and he was within the safe shelter of his blanket once more.

”What is THIS?” Zaelro asked, staring at the steel bar that the French general just threw on the floor before him. It was somehow shaped like a sword, with a handle, a long guardpiece and a blade – only that its blade was extremely thick and did not seem to have any cutting edge at all. If it had been made of plastic rather than heavy steel and a foot shorter, Zaelro reckoned it would make a good toy for a ten-year-old boy role-playing as a medieval knight in a war game.

“Sire, this is the training sword of a standard Squire under my command” Sieur de l’Aquitaine said solemnly, his footsteps weighing heavily on the stone ground of the castle courtyard, and for good reason. Apart from the knight’s signature steel plate armor, Sieur de l’Aquitaine had further burdened himself with a massive cross helm and a thick, heavy kite shield adorned with a Christian cross, both made of the same durable and heavy material. It seemed to the amazed teen that even if his faithful knight was to stand under a stream of machine gun fire, his imposing shield and armor could just shrug the bullets all off. The suit of protective plate mail he was given prior to that was rather thick and weighty, but nowhere close to the heavy duty plates that Sieur de l’Aquitaine was bearing with pride and fortitude.

“Let me see,” Zaelro proceeded to pick up the blade on the ground, and, to his surprise, it took him two hands and half a minute to just lift up and brandish the steel bar that his general had just manipulated with ease and skill, in one hand. The suit of plate armor that he had to wear himself added on to the cumbersomeness of the trainee.

“What is this made of?” an astonished Zaelro asked, his face grimacing in an attempt to fully control the weight in his hands. Holding it upright was already a big problem, let alone swinging it and doing so with accuracy.

“This training stock is made of an alloy of iron and lead, in a certain proportion so as to make the blade as dull and as heavy as possible. It weights almost forty pounds, sire, almost three times an average sword of its size and composition,” the instructor said. “In order to utilize your weapons well in real time battle, it is highly suggested that you are acquainted to such heavy substitutes first.”

Then, Sieur de l’Aquitaine picked up his own training sword, and leaped on horseback with absolute ease as lightly as a feather, almost disregarding the bending weight of his bulky equipment. The sound of metal plates clattering together brought Zaelro back to the fact that not only was his general clad in armor, his horse was also steel-clad from head to torso, with the only unarmored part being its freely mobile legs. The multitude of clanging sounds after the knight had fully mounted and was firmly seated suggested that the steel straining stock and the twelve-feet-long lance that the French cavalier explicitly brandished was just the icing of the cake.

Zaelro’s equipment weighed him down more than he believed. After all, he was bearing on his body at least fifty-five pounds of equipment, including armor and a light shield to couple with the training stock. Nevertheless, after a minute or two struggling with his own horse and another minute to balance himself with the weight in hand, the over-encumbered apprentice managed to root himself, at least a little, on the saddle. Only then did he realize how difficult it was to actually be mounted and armed at the same time, as his weight kept switching from one side to another as he struggled to balance the blade, challenging him with a constant threat of being thrown off horseback with just a faulty motion of his arms or legs. In the end, even after he had balanced himself, the teenage rider was far from flexible in terms of motion.

“Sire, now that you have been mounted,” the Frenchman said, “Let the lesson begin.”

The knight then pointed towards a couple of large training dummies molded in the shape of a mounted knight in the distance, at the end of the training ground. An iron bar had been tied firmly to the dummy horseman’s right arm and a round steel plate to the other, replicating the position of a mounted knight at the beginning of a jousting round. To make the situation even more realistic, both the dummy and its horse were armored in real, steel plate mails that could render weak attacks useless. As much as the dummy wouldn’t attack, just running in the wrong line or positioning himself or his weapon wrongly could easily result in the trainee crashing against the iron bar and be thrown off horseback by means of momentum.

“At this moment, you are not yet qualified to use a cavalry lance, sire,” Sieur de l’Aquitaine said, glancing at a struggling Zaelro, “but the task would be not much easier. You are to hit the training dummy until you can knock him off horseback, like this.”

The French knight then rode forward, pulling the rein, raising his blade above his shoulder, aiming directly at one of the two dummies. Never before did Zaelro believe that such a fully armored cavalier could move that swiftly, and the result of the charge was more or less of a foregone conclusion: with a flash of steel, a swing of the blade and the distinctive sound of metal surfaces crashing against each other, the armored hay dummy was ripped off from horseback and fell on the ground with a loud thud. Zaelro gasped in awe as he realized what had happened to its weapons – the steel plate was blown out of its hand and flew backwards in the direction of the cavalry charge a couple of yards before crash landing on the ground like a tiny flying saucer, wile the iron bar, together with what appeared to be the dummy’s severed hand, fell with a dull thud right next to the ‘carcass’ of the ‘victim’. Had it been a real knight that Sieur de l’Aquitaine was facing, such a charge would have certainly resulted in a clear victory.

Riding back victoriously from the charge, the instructor looked at Zaelro with every bit of due respect and sternness at the same time, signaling him to follow suit. What the trainee had seen from the beginning was enough to wash away the majority of his groundless confidence at the beginning, and with both awe and premonition of failure Zaelro rode forward, trying his best to mimic what his instructor had done so successfully…


“…What a great fall that was,” Zaelro thought out aloud as the instance of what followed that blind charge returned to his conscience. As much as mounting and controlling Steedy was as easy as giving orders to a sentient adult who knew what he was doing, Zaelro’s unfamiliarity with the weight on his shoulder and arms made him lost control of the ride when he was merely a couple of yards from the target. And in a moment’s panic, the inexperience of the trainee went home as he lunged straight at the position of the dummy knight’s lance, and what Zaelro feared most became reality just a second after that.

The bedded rider looked at his side. Although the resulting ribcage fracture had been mended by his steed/medic in no time, the mild pain of the crash still hadn’t left him yet. What was worse, that was only the beginning of the trouble. It took him another three falls and another close from falling charge before he could effectively land just a single blow on the dummy’s torso, and even so, he could find no way to rip the dummy off its horse like Sieur de l’Aquitaine had done so smoothly and effortlessly. It was not before fifty successful charges that the dummy knight tilted from the upright position visibly and another hundred more before he fell on the ground. Hypothesizing that the dummy was alive and could attack, Zaelro would have probably been killed a couple of dozen times before he could claim the kill.

And that was not to mention falling off quite a few dozen times after the first blow was landed. Thinking back to the moment, Zaelro felt he couldn’t thank Steedy enough. Without him, the English teen would now be bedridden and on his last legs with a leg broken into three, a shattered wrist, two completely displaced and nearly crushed ankles, a dozen broken ribs, an exposed broken arm and a displaced neck as well. Although now he suffered from neither, Steedy’s efforts could not cure the fatigue and the muscle strain. The physical damage, now that Zaelro had time to reflect on those, could, and usually would, turn him away from that sort of practice indefinitely. And yet, this time the English teen felt as if nothing could stop him from picking up the art of riding finely and with both skill and deadliness.

Was it the duty of a commander of a two-thousand-five-hundred-man strong army that was implicitly driving him, or was it a certain delicate flower that had…

”Oh, shoot!” Zaelro gasped, as only then did the disaccomplishment of two days ago enter his mindset filled to the rim with a seemingly endless agenda. “I forgot to ask for her name!”

For a moment, Zaelro felt like kicking himself. Understandably, in the deepest of his heart, he didn’t risk his life to save someone just to let it pass. As much as he was good-natured and kind at heart, not even a knight-errand of the ages past, let alone a young teenager, would give up the chance to acquaint himself with a fair damsel-in-distress.

“And I did,” Zaelro thought out aloud, followed by a deep, disappointing sigh, feeling as if he had lost something precious with no chance of recovery.

The self-cursing and lamenting did not last too long for the thoroughly dismissed teenager, at least, when he had a truckload of injuries, sprains, bruises and otherwise overstressed muscles to torment. Snuggly wrapping himself up in the position that would allow for the least stiffness, Zaelro closed his eyes, and deep sleep came naturally to him, although his subconscious mind was still shrieking and cursing his sentient one for failing to take into consideration such an important fact.

******


The English teenage commander opened his eyes and wriggled in the lying position. He was covered by no blanket, and clad in the everyday garment rather than the bedtime pajamas he was certain to have worn to bed. Slightly intrigued, Zaelro slowly stood up, and was subsequently greeted with a completely empty space, painted with the whitest of color and devoid of anything. Amidst the white background and nothingness, after a moment looking around and define the location in his mind, it quickly came to the teen in question that he had somehow entered the realms of dreams once more. This time, it seemed to him that he was being referred back to the instance when Argeus, an angel he barely knew or even seen, first came to him to deliver crucial information.

Unlike the previous instance, this time Zaelro had had the experience and calmness to take a full look around. As he looked, the teen took a few unconscious steps in various directions, and in due time, realized that the walls and ceilings were moving the opposite direction of his footsteps and at exactly the same speed as his own wherever he moved. It appeared that whatever he was in, it was a mounted, freely turning spherical structure, like a fortune teller’s crystal ball or the snow sphere that a child is often given as a Christmas present or as a souvenir.

“It certainly doesn’t feel too good being trapped inside a ball, is it?” Zaelro unconsciously thought out aloud. Astonishingly, he got an answer and the just credit for that discovery, as in the background, no sooner than he had spoken the last word than a loud, resounding clap echoed across the vast background of white as if applauding whoever had just made that discovery. Zaelro turned back and forth at the realization, trying to see for himself the source of the sound, but it wasn’t until the applause had ended could the teen in question figure that out.

A now-all-too-familiar distortion of the fabrics of space emerged before Zaelro, and when the warp finally closed, materializing from it was a winged, heavenly being, with dark brown hair and a smile of implied comradeship, stepping into the white room with the demigod teen. A golden aura surrounded the figure, suggesting an undoubted affiliation to the Light as well as the astounding, otherworldly power of the newcomer. This obvious power actually took Zaelro a back a little bit, and it was not before his understanding and friendly eyes had fully materialized did he feel safe and stood at rest again. With winds neatly folded and in a rather diplomatic trance, the angelic being stepped towards Zaelro, each steps he took embossing a glowing golden aura of its own on the ground.

“Who… ARE you?” Zaelro asked with a voice filled with both curiosity and ecstasy. His question was answered as soon as the newcomer said the very first word.

“You seem to be surprised to actually see me standing directly in front of you like this, aren’t you?” the newcomer said in a voice Zaelro had had imprinted deeply in his mind.

“You are… Argeus Elmarian Sunrise, the angel in charge of all this,” Zaelro snapped his finger in a fit of realization, “and the one who contacted me in this place three days ago, am I right?”

“And for that perfectly sharp and perceptive mind of yours, you deserve some more applause,” smiled the angelic figure, “but I’m afraid neither of us is interested in such superficialities.”

“Well… I was sort of… not expecting you out there,” Zaelro said, somehow caught in a loss for better words. “The last time you gave me the necessary information without even showing up.”

“My fondest apologies,” Argeus said sincerely. “But it was true that I was unable to show up the first time we met.”

“Could I ask why?” Zaelro asked eagerly, being the curious teenager he always was.

“It was actually plainly a safety net,” Argeus replied. “The nature of the mission at hand requires me to take every action necessary to make sure that I have the right person on the job, and, if the first condition was unfulfilled by any unfortunate circumstance, I need to make sure that I haven’t revealed too much to the wrong person. In short, at that time I could not appear there because I need some more proof that you are exactly and undoubtedly the man for this.”

“You didn’t trust me?” Zaelro asked back in a rather disbelieving manner, as something began to tickle his anger management mechanism.

“Not that I don’t. We know all too well what kind of mission we are on this time, don’t we?” Argeus said slowly and calmly. “We are not allowed to fail, and it was just about why I had to take all the precautions.”

“Well, then I think I have disappointed you,” Zaelro said, feeling a little crossed. “Should you just give up on the idea of trusting a dude who would forget not just his mission at hand but also his safety to…”

“…Save a damsel in distress,” Argeus interrupted. “Falanor, the Sunlight Steed that you now mount into battle, has already informed me of your actions, and to say the least,” Argeus eyed Zaelro understandingly with a smile of approval, “that is precisely the reason why I have chosen to show up before you today as a token of trust and belief. Now I have fully believed, without the tiniest speck of doubt, that I haven’t judged you wrongly. You are, in fact, our only hope.”

Zaelro dropped his jaw as he looked up at the angel with as much disbelief as he could summon. If anything, he was almost one hundred percent sure that his reckless action that day to fulfill the foolish teenage heroism under the mesmerizing effect of a gorgeous young lady should disqualify him fully from any credibility that he was supposed to take.

“But… why?” Zaelro stammered. “I almost screwed everything up, and…”

“If I were you, I would have done the same, Zaelro Fastoff. And even worse than that,” Argeus said, as if confessing. “What you have done under that circumstance proved to me that you have the two most needed virtues for the duty you are bearing.”

“And what are they?”

“As far as I know, Zaelro Fastoff, the armies of the Vampire Lord Reglay von Gendamme is vast, numerically. Coupled with the power of their kind, it is likely that there is no way an army less than a hundred thousand men strong can face off with his corps and return,” Argeus explained. “To effectively contain the threat, we need a brain that can devise the most incredible of plans in the most extreme of circumstances, and a gut that dares to carry out those plans. Through the rescue that you have successfully pulled off, I could say that, apart from the significant contribution of luck, the success was majorly attributable to your spontaneous thinking and daredevil courage as you have demonstrated- just about what I am looking for.”

“Aren’t you worried that one day I may blow it all because of that?” Zaelro asked back.

“Where I was born there was a proverb that goes, Choose not a bride for fear of her shortcomings and end up with a divorce,” Argeus said, his voice scholastically distant. “There is no guarantee that we’d ever find someone more qualified than you, and not to mention it has already started.”

“What?” Zaelro asked in amazement. “What has started?”

“Something terrible happened in Terra just two days ago,” said Argeus. “As Oredin and his comrades have probably told you, Terra’s Six Prime Treasures are guarded by a team of defenders known as the Gatekeepers, whose ancestors had been hand-picked by the gods themselves, who would go as far as sacrifice their very lives to defend the sacramental weapons of the gods.”

“I have heard about them,” confirmed Zaelro. “They also told me that the Gatekeepers have taken a good beating recently by Reglay’s strike team.”

“They were almost eradicated from the face of the earth – sixteen out of an original twenty-four Keepers were murdered in just one day,” nodded Argeus, “And while the last few either retreated into seclusion to recuperate, or clustered together to defend whatever is left of the Six Prime Treasures, an unfortunate cataclysm took place…”

Argeus Elmarian Sunrise then proceeded to narrate the tale of how the vengeance-thirsty Frasden Laslow broke into the Temple of Golden Sunlight, killed the last remaining Gatekeeper of Light Harlen Graminor, stole the Aurora Set from its sacred hold, and was now brandishing the power of the full Aurora into the vicinity of Sankaku, hoping to pass judgement on those who had murdered his family.

“And thusly,” Argeus concluded, with a glance of sternness and righteous fury glazing his eyes, “That traitorous action was no different from handing the Aurora Set on a platter straight into the jaws of the one who wants it most.”

“But it’s the full Aurora Set he’s holding!” Zaelro said disbelievingly. “Do you mean that Reglay would own him with ease and seize the set for himself? Isn’t the Aurora Set extremely powerful in its own rights?”

“Contradicting as it seems, even if we are to tolerate Frasden Laslow’s actions, it is unlikely that he would be able to fully utilize the power of the Aurora Set,” Argeus said. “Let me bring you to the fact that Frasden was born into the Laslow family of Gatekeeper of Darkness. There is no way the pure sunlight of Aurora would accept a wielder affiliated to the opposing element.”

Argeus paused, as if giving time for Zaelro to digest all the information, and then went on.

“Judging from his previous history and his incompatibility with Aurora, the best thing Frasden could sensibly do, if he were to face a full-fledged vampire unit,” remarked Argeus, “would be to kill off a couple of weaker soldiers, injuring a few others and then get the Aurora Set ripped off from him when the more advanced of their kind enters combat. We shall not allow that.”

“Yeah, I don’t feel too sympathetic to a traitorous fool either,” Zaelro nodded. “But then, do you mean I have to find Frasden, defeat him in battle and take the Aurora Set from him?”

“Exactly,” Argeus said, flapping his wings once in approval. “In the point of your Prime Treasures collecting, this news is more of good news than bad, because instead of having to face off a full vampire unit to secure the set, you need only defeat a traitorous Gatekeeper who has lost all sense of sound judgement due to both his enraged hatred and power-induced overconfidence.”

“I still have trouble with that,” Zaelro looked rather puzzled as he asked. “How am I going to find him? Unless you mean he would start entering the street, declaring that everything that moves is a vampire and cleaving down people at random and alert the police, that is.”

“I’ve take care of everything for you on that part,” Argeus said, firmly and confidently as he gazed at Zaelro, conveying a message of clear success. “Reliable intelligence suggests that he will come to you himself tomorrow, with the Aurora Set, of course.”

“Do I look like a vampire that much?” Zaelro said, slightly sniggering.

“There are reasons, Zaelro Fastoff, some of which you should not know now, some others I am not allowed to tell,” Argeus shook. “But you should rest well tonight, because tomorrow would only promise more work for you.”

“I can see that, but…” Zaelro asked.

“As of now, that is your priority,” Argeus slowly turned away, and before Zaelro could react, opened an exiting warp gate. “As of now, I would trouble your sleep no further. I wish you a good night, and good luck for whatever may come up tomorrow.”

In an all so common way, Argeus’ figure quickly veiled itself beyond the distortion of time and space, and in due time, Zaelro was left with himself once more.

“This is starting to get weird, isn’t it?” Zaelro muttered, “Hopefully…”

The Commander of the 25th Valhallan Regiment could say no more, as his consciousness faded away as soon as the last speck of Argeus’ form vanished from the snowy white spherical meeting space. Peacefully and without warning, Zaelro Fastoff was returned to his warm mattress and blanket in his room in Sankaku, where his sound, undisturbed slumber resumed. He would need it – The next day would mark the first milestone in his acquisition of the Six Prime Treasures of the world of Terra.

******


Monday, the first day of the working week. As with the mesmerizing lavender scent still hanging about the street at dawn, the promise of a lucky and eventful five days seemed to have covered the entire of Sankaku, with smiles following everyone to school or to work. Zaelro Fastoff could see the cheerful activeness everywhere along the road, as he rode Steady Steedy the Sunlight Steed on the path to his new school. As much as he was absorbed by the magnificent sight of sunlight gilding gold on every texture of the fabric of life, the young commander’s mind still pondered about the revelation he had had just a couple of hours ago.

“You should be ready from this point on,” Zaelro patted on the horse’s forehead. “Frasden Laslow can appear anytime now, and we should really be prepared.”

“Even so, sire, I believe we should prepare ourselves to summon Oredin Kaledon and his armies,” suggested Steedy. “Taking down a Gatekeeper wearing the Aurora Set is no mean feat, and with your current combat prowess it is unlikely that we can handle him all by ourselves.”

“Point taken,” Zaelro said, scratching his head. “If so, we must make sure that as few people know of the summoning as possible.”

“What are your plans, Master Zaelro?” asked Steedy, rather anxiously.

“I think I should confess that what we should do is highly dependent on the situation at hand,” Zaelro said, almost as anxiously. “In any case… Hey, stop! We are at school already!”

With all the thoughts going around their minds, both Zaelro and Steedy were unaware that they were approaching school, and had Zaelro not realized, they could have ran past the building without knowing it. A resulting sudden halt on behalf of the Sunlight Steed almost tossed Zaelro off horseback. It could have, had Zaelro’s riding skill not improved by means of the painstaking training of the previous day. Patting the creature’s neck both triumphantly and proudly to commemorate that feat, Zaelro promptly dismounted and led the steed into school. In the form of a motorbike, Steedy would be safely stuck up a student parking slot around the corner.

The first thing Zaelro realized upon coming to class was that the seat next to him was occupied again. There, sitting, or rather, slumping on the table was Takashi Minamoto’s not-so healthy form, his bag spreading out on the surface, spilling onto Zaelro’s table. The young master of the Minamoto family had somehow recovered from the illness, and though he was far from acceptable health, his extremely pale complexion suggested that it would be better for him to get out of bed and socialize for a fresh change than lie half-dead in a stuffy chamber.

“So you’ve returned to class,” Zaelro called out, taking his seat. “Are you sure you are alright?”

“Ah,” Takashi coughed as he raised his shoulder and gazed sideway to Zaelro. “Yeah. As I said, I am not dead yet, am I?”

“Glad to see you alive and well,” Zaelro said with a visible grin.

“Err… About yesterday,” Takashi asked, keeping his voice low, but from the fabrics of his voice the Englishman could still sense the hesitation and some specks of fright, “I hope you didn’t…”

“You gotta be joking!” shrugged Zaelro coolly, considerately lowering his tone as well. “First, I understand all too well what it would be like if others were to know of what you told me. And second, I doubt anyone would believe it at all if I did. Long tale short, you had better keep that horrible instance from marring your life. Convince yourself that it was but a dream. A horrible nightmare, if you prefer. It’s over and out, for good!”

“Okay, I’ll do that,” Takashi replied, smiling brightly, the kind of smile analogous to that of a young child having broken the window and then convinced that nothing was too wrong, before suddenly changing topic. “Anyway, today is, as I said, the day when we can either reset our extra-curricular club, or, in your case, choose a new one if you like.”

A single “Ah” escaped Zaelro’s lips. The workload of the past week had apparently wiped away all memories of that event from his mind. Although the duties he had on his shoulder at that time was heavy, Zaelro thought, there was no point in missing out the chance for some more interaction with the local folks.

”And then when things get hairy on duty’s behalf I’ll just take sick leave from the club,” Zaelro mentally convinced himself. “It wouldn’t hurt, would it?”

“Okay, I’ll take that one,” Zaelro said, having been fully convinced. “So how do I register?”

“Hey, Tsubame-chan!” Takashi did not answer, but rather called out to the girl on the table above, “You still have one of those registration forms with you, right?”

Tsubame turned back, and, with a loaded smile to go with the load of forms she had under her desk, said meaningfully.

“We are all in the Botany club, but it appears that there is no vacancy there now, so it seems that you’ll have to look for a new one…”

“And you had better choose it soundly, Mr. Englishman!” Nataka whisked himself backward and poked in as well. “I suffered for the whole of last semester because of a wrong choice, you know?”

“I’ll take it from here,” Zaelro said. “Where are the forms?”

“You’d better take one of those,” Tsubame said, handing Zaelro the said document. At a quick glance, it turned out that registration was but a minute’s burden – all he needed to do would be to tick his option. The list itself was rather long, and in all, Zaelro could see no less than thirty to forty clubs, clans and student organizations of all sorts. And then it struck him that he should try his luck with a random selection. With his eyes closed, Zaelro scanned his pen over the sheet, until he placed a tick on the sheet completely at fate’s mercy.

“There, I’m done,” Zaelro said, reopening his eyes and turning the form up. “Do I need anything else?”

“No, Fastoff-san, that’s all what you need to do for now,” Tsubame grinned, taking back the form. And then the drama started - No sooner had she glanced at the paper than her grin disappeared completely as if erased off her visage by a giant rubber.

“Oh. My. Goodness!” Tsubame exclaimed, her voice heightened, dictated by both absolute amazement and astonishment, and some other notions Zaelro could not make out, before saying softly, so as only Takashi, Zaelro and Nataka could hear, “You seriously chose Culinary Club, didn’t you?”

******

DF  Post #: 18
12/11/2008 1:58:28   
Argeus the Paladin
Member

Chapter 18
The Aurora Set


In a split second, the air in a three-meter-radius of Zaelro seemed to have abruptly transmuted, as if some hyperactive catalysts had taken its due effect. The next thing Zaelro realized was that everyone was staring at him, giving him the odd feeling of being the center of attention. Glancing at everyone in an attempt to figure out what was happening, the only answer he got was even more confusion from his friends’ expressions. While Takashi appeared to be genuinely amazed, Tsubame shuddered as she stared at him, with an all-too meaningful underlying ‘I never thought you are that kind of guy’ blink. And Nataka, for some reason, looked as if he could spring at and strangle the life out of him in short notice. The astonishment from all parties climaxed in a strange lapse of any perceptible sound for a couple of seconds.

“Hey, what’s going on? Why the strange look?” Zaelro’s astonishment, as large as the summation of theirs, spewed out of his lips as he finally gasped out after a few seconds of speechlessness. “Could anyone tell me what is going on here?”

“You are SO dead,” taunted Nataka, whether or not he was serious was unknown.

“Why so?” Zaelro stared back. “Look, come on, it’s just a club!”

“Mmm… Listen to Nataka, he is right, at least for this once,” Takashi coughed as he tried to maintain the calmness in his explanation. “Chances are you would not make it through the day in that club. On the contrary, if you make it through for more than a day, half the boys in this school as well as a couple of teachers as well would pay any price within their monthly allowance or salary to have you dead.”

Takashi’s voice was as serious as it was light-hearted, and needless to say from that kind of tone Zaelro could hardly understand a thing.

“Hello?” Zaelro leaned towards the above table, reaching the only girl in the group. “Tsubame, what is going on here?”

“Fastoff-san, had I not known you prior,” Tsubame shivered a little, and from the look of astonishment finely mixed with mild disappointment in her eyes, Zaelro could expect no more helpfulness on her part, “I would have been forced to believe that you were another of those incurable perverts as well.”

“Look, I don’t understand ANYTHING!” the English boy’s patience was drying up fast as he almost yelled. “Could anyone just tell me what is going on?”

And then some realization struck Zaelro with the might of a sledgehammer.

“Wait, that’s the culinary club, right?” Zaelro propped his chin as his sense of logic sprang to activity. “Don’t tell me that only girls attend that student club.”

“Let me bring you to the fact that it’s not girls, but rather a girl,” Takashi smiled, “Simply put, the ladies in this Akari High has interests other than cooking. Sports, video games, music, fashion… and the list goes on and on. And so coincidentally the only girl to actually take interest in that activity was…”

“Misagi Mina,” growled Nataka. “The dream of us all.”

Zaelro gave an ‘Ah’ of realization, before Takashi resumed his words.

“Consequently, any boy who attempt to take membership in that little group, for as long as Mina-senpai is here,” Takashi said, quite amused himself, “would instantly be looked at by the whole school as making an attempt to hit on her. With the sort of fanboyism you see around here, you are guaranteed to have a hard time.”

Takashi’s glance at Nataka told Zaelro that his warnings at least had some degree of credibility.

“You sound as if it is serious,” Zaelro said, shaking his head in an attempt to shrug the notion off his mind.

“Well, of course the boys in this school wouldn’t go as far as attempting on your life, but,” Takashi’s you-cannot-make-it expression doused Zaelro’s attempt with ease, as he went on, “Mina-senpai has her own share of self-defense. And, as Nataka has tried last year – and failed, she would make every lawful and annoying attempt to make sure that any guy who registers would quit after the first day. The VERY first day.”

“For instance, Nataka’s skirt-chasing habit is known far and wide,” Tsubame said, throwing a glance of acknowledgement at the said persona, drawing back a retaliating glare, “and he only survived three days, having only learnt how to make half-burnt and half-raw scrambled eggs.”

“Wow,” Zaelro remarked, “It sounds more interesting than it looks, doesn’t it?”

“Nothing but a friendly advice, Mr. Englishman,” Nataka concluded, having discarded the zealously jealous front and returned to his usual carefree look, “You really should consider that again. Otherwise a nightmare is abounding.”

Zaelro had a quality just like any Western teenager fond of superheroes comics and tabletop role-playing games, that is, he would give no second thought to entering a fenced up place with a Danger! Do not cross sign painted in bright red block letters. Perhaps not really that far, but the tendency to ignore warnings just for the sake of curiosity was one of his more dominant streaks. And the fancy tales Takashi had painted was as good as a warning sign in red block letter in this case. Consequently, Zaelro’s reaction to the tale was, in contrary to his friends’ words, a loud clap and a highly confident smile, followed by a declaration of defiance.

“What a fine tale,” Zaelro said, an optimistic and challenging flare radiating from his eyes. “I’d like to give it a try as well.”

“Well, you are hopeless,” shrugged Takashi. “Anyway, best of luck to you, though I can say you are out of luck before it has even begun.”

And thusly the discussion over Zaelro’s decision came to an end, although its effects were far off. Was it just him, or was it right that for the whole duration of class thereafter Tsubame was looking at him as if he was some kind of flirtatious guy because of that choice? Not to mention every time he looked around in class he caught at least one boy staring at him with sheer amazement, admiration of courage, displeasure of his sudden approach to the school’s brightest flower, or any combination of those notions.

As much as the intrigue and fuss over the newcomer’s choice of extra-curricular club drew a good portion of his attention, the task at hand still occupied the majority of his mindset. And so Zaelro sat there in his place for the rest of class, refraining from any drama, waiting with ardent eagerness, both for the beginning of the club session after school and for the arrival of Frasden Laslow as Argeus promised.

”A Gatekeeper clad in Aurora Set,” Zaelro thought, ”I should ready some more painkiller just in case…”

******


It turned out that class ended later than Zaelro had expected that day. Even though there was no class after lunchtime, his constantly watching for the two events seemed to have made time pass by in a snail’s pace, and only when lunchtime was over and extra curricular time started did Zaelro breathe a deep breath of relief. For whatever reason, Frasden Laslow did not turn up for the duration of his lesson or lunchtime, which was a fortunate thing indeed. Had he appeared at any point along those timeframe, Zaelro would have had a huge difficulty fending him off while maintaining the secrecy of his mission or his secret identity. With a slightly lightened heart, Zaelro picked up his backpack and hurried out of the cafeteria, his attention temporarily diverting from the challenge of the Aurora-clad scourge back to that of the haughty angel of the culinary club as the rumor went. His club meeting, as the schedule went, was due in another fifteen minutes, in a certain room in that block.

Sound eagerness and barely repressed curiosity filled Zaelro’s mind as he approached the said room – a section of the school kitchen so converted as to serve its purpose. Naturally sliding the door sideway and promptly stepped in, his sport shoes making rather loud noises against the paved ground in the meantime, the English was duly amazed for good reasons. Whoever had designed, or rather, refurbished that room, must have been a master architecture, a well-conceived artist, an arrangement adept, or all of the above. Careful hands had refurnished and redesigned an entire section of the kitchen into a hybrid between a miniature lecture theatre, a chemical laboratory and a Japanese kitchen. Neatly arranged tables and chairs stood in line, each equipped with a small gas burner, a similarly miniature rack of cutlery and knives and a handy little oven for baking cookies or other snacks. Originally, those must have been prepared to cater to the cooking need of a dozen or so users, but it appeared that in the current state the club would never reach that number of memberships.

If anything, the culprit was the young lady seated at the table at the opposite end of the room from where Zaelro stood. With an open issue of the local newspaper standing upright on the table covering almost all of her face, only revealing her silky black hair worn in a ponytail, rising above the upper edge of the fully stretched newspaper, the lady sat there, seemingly reading attentively. That was a sign of explicit rudeness in Oriental culture, judging that Zaelro’s approach was noticeably noisy. And she seemed to be doing that on purpose. If Mina Misagi would want to shake any and every guy off her club, that behavior was quite understandable.

If there was something Zaelro explicitly expressed his dislike when he was back at home, it was bratty girls putting up a haughty front for whatsoever reason, and he was the last person on earth to take a back seat to such an action. And the same went for this time. Zaelro’s reaction was quite different from what the lady sitting there could be expecting – swiftly he walked forward, confidently and with measured steps. As the sound of his footsteps cracked rhythmically following his empowered pace, the English smiled especially triumphantly. Subverting Zaelro Fastoff was not something everyone could do, and that held true specifically to girls.

“Hello there!” Zaelro said rather loudly and spiritedly. “Zaelro Samuel Fastoff, a transfer student from Great Britain, at your service.”

The Englishman was wise enough to spice up his introduction a little with a touch of sarcasm, so as to let whoever in charge know that she was in for a hard time if she would like to shrug him off. His tactic worked – the young lady sat there, seemingly taken aback a little. However, she was quick to retaliate. Without looking up, the girl in charge took her time to fold the newspaper in half, revealing her face little by little in the same time, and spoke.

“For some reason I know why you took your time to enter the Culinary Club,” she said, sarcastically polite. “But should I tell you that whatever you are looking for, you wouldn’t find it here?”

Zaelro was as astonished as he was startled. No, it was clearly not from the hostile and acerbic tongue that she had put up. Beneath the superficial spiny layer, Zaelro recognized a warm, passionate voice, like the invigorating chirping of spring nightingale, one that had apparently made his day just a few days ago, one that he swore he would never forget although the name of its owner he had failed to get. Unconsciously, the English teenager rubbed his eyes, and stared at the young lady as she folded her newspaper and looked up. The resulting meeting of the eyes resulted in the duo each getting an equal share of the suspense and surprise, and simultaneously gave out a gasp of thorough disbelief.

It was her. The beautiful wounded vampire slayer clad in the heavy trench coat smelled of blood and mothball at the same time, all the while sitting behind him on that intrepid rescue that almost cost him his life. Zaelro could not have mistaken. As much as she had put up a scornful face, beneath it the English could not miss out the crystal clear eyes whose innocence was somehow tainted with tragic premonition or the repressed smile of a kind nature hidden beyond the purposefully twisted lips to give an impression of disdainful disrespect. That beauty that had driven him to an action defying all common sense and notions of self safety was something he had had imprinted in his mind and gilded in gold, so that he would not forget it any time soon.

And it seemed that he was not the only one to have made the revelation, and how the young lady stood there still, her eyes fixed on his, her mocking front quickly fading to make way for an honest amazement told the tale in its own rights. The unexpected reunion’s impact was such that it took each of them a good moment before they could unlock their necks and jaws again from the fixture of astound.

“You…” Zaelro finally summoned enough control to begin, “You are the vampire slayer from the last time, are you not?”

Mina Misagi did not answer, but rather turned away, as if trying to conceal her face from his peering eyes for reasons Zaelro could only guess, her face slowly turning red. Either she was unaware of and did not expect someone in her school to know her true trade, or she was abashed at the thought of having nearly crossed the line of verbal abuse to the very man whom she owed her life to. In either case, the reply that Zaelro got was a silent nod. Feeling rather uncomfortable and embarrassed himself at that sight, Zaelro followed suit, and in due time, the duo was sitting exactly opposite to each other, but their eyes facing different directions. And another veil of silence encroached the entire room, until Zaelro summoned enough courage to break the ice.

“You seem to have recovered, have you?” Zaelro asked, stealing a glance at her left hand. The look was self-explanatory – the purple shade of necrosis had disappeared from her flesh magically, and as her hands rubbed against each other nervously, her fluid motion showed no sign of further impairment. The fact was further reinforced by Mina’s nod thereafter.

“I am fine now, thanks,” she replied. “And… I’m sorry for that behavior just now. I thought you were one of those wolves who chase me around everywhere I go save for the Church and patrols.”

“All in a day’s self defense, so that’s okay, I suppose,” Zaelro said without thinking much, while having gained enough confidence to turn towards her. “In any case, I’d least expect to see you here.”

“Me too,” reciprocated the girl, as she did likewise, and it wasn’t long before their gazes fixed back again. “I’d never expect a person in school to know my true identity. But…”

Her hesitating eyes and the rapid looks that she threw around at random suggested a visible distrust, and having known how important it is for a person with an important mission at hand to keep his or her secret identities from the public, Zaelro realized that he should acknowledge his share of

“I’ll make every attempt to keep that a secret between us,” Zaelro declared in the manner a knight would swear an oath of chivalry. “You can rest assured that this secret shall follow me to the grave.”

The next thing he knew was a bright smile blooming on her face, as if blasting all notions of doubt to smithereens. And then Mina gave a nod of approval, followed by the trusting smile Zaelro had seen back when he pulled her from the jaws of annihilation. She said nothing more, but the kind of look she gave him quickly changed the color of his cheeks to a shade of obvious bright red. She had given him her trust for sure, but Zaelro felt much more than that. Did the normally alien and unknown element of love entered the life of the English teen?

It was then that the call of duty struck him, this time with the might of a full blown heavy artillery shell and the pressure of the wooden door being blown out of its place and then shredded to tiny splinters, buffeting all within the room with a mighty gust of artificial wind. As much as Zaelro had been slightly bound and taken off guard by the early feelings of a possible love, his reflex was sharp enough to keep him from danger, at least in that instance. As soon as he realized something had gone badly wrong, he unconsciously ducked to avoid the worst effect of the hail of wooden fragments, and when he could feel no more of the threatening gust, the English realized in his horror that the slide door to the room had vanished into thin air as well as part of the wall surrounding it. There, at the gateway, stood a hooded figure, with a black cloak surrounding his entire form, fluttering ominously in the disturbed air following the blast. Rubbing his eyes to clear off any dust around it, Zaelro now could still make out a pair of vengeful eyes shining threateningly at all who behind the veil of the black hood. Even before any logical sentience came back to him, he could see that the appearance of that new figure was anything but good.

“I sense… dark powers at work here,” slowly walking into the room, making clear sound of metal clanging against the tiled ground, alerting Zaelro to the fact that he was clad in full armor beneath the robe. As his eyes scanned to him, Zaelro unconsciously clenched his fist in self-defense. But it didn’t stop there.

And then his eyes turned to Mina’s figure behind the front table.

“You there,” the figure said, with every ounce of prejudice he could call up. “You are to be exterminated, like anyone else of your kind. For all those who has fallen in recent days.”

“What?” Zaelro gasped out loud, “What are you talking about? You are insane!”

The robed figure did not answer, but instead pressed forward. For all that Zaelro knew, it was next to impossible to try and reason in this case with the menacing figure. The atmosphere changed so quickly that even though his superficial reaction was tough and challenging, the teenage English was obviously unprepared. Whisking his neck backward, Zaelro was slightly relieved to see that Mina was far from surprised. Even though she was not prepared and armed, the firm look in her eyes and the stance she took on the ground made it safe for Zaelro to assume that she had got every trick ready to defend herself. That, along with the kind of prowess Mina had demonstrated before was enough to guarantee that she would be alright.

And then the battle came to an abrupt beginning as the assailant suddenly sprang towards the vampire slayer, ignoring Zaelro wholly, as if he didn’t care about his existence at all. Unbelievable as it was, his speed was comparable to the fictional impossible pace of comic superheroes, trailing his own shadow behind him as he shot forward at his target. Barely Zaelro had time to turn back when he heard the dull sound of a metal weapon slashing on a solid wooden surface, reducing the unfortunate object into a pile of chopped timber as the blade swiped across. A split second later he saw just exactly what he had heard – where Mina sat a minute ago, a beautiful wooden chair and table to fit her small and slender form had been well sliced into pieces.

Realizing the failure of his preemptive attack, the assailant turned back, menacingly whipping the tail of his cloak in the exact opposite direction, only to realize the said schoolgirl standing right behind him, poised for the strike. Hardly had he got time to ponder why his opponent was so fast, a volley of standard, razor-sharp vampire slaying daggers had homed in to him at point blank range. Even with his own speed, the cloaked assailant could only parry two of the projectiles, allowing the remaining five to tear right through his cloak, transmuting the flowing, blobbing apparel into a messy lot of torn rags, revealing all what the attacker hid beneath its cover. It was at the sight of what lay beyond that actually made Zaelro gasp.

The first thing the English saw was a blinding flash of gold, like a miniature sun had just been born within the room, coming to existence as the black cloak started to come apart. And when he got used to the light, Zaelro became even further dazzled. It was not anything that created that strange illumination, but rather the armor that the attacker was wearing itself – a suit of flawless, master-crafted plate armor made of pure gold, or so it seemed, glaring in unison with a magnificent shield, and winged longsword of the same material, in the color of the purest of lights. Adorned with multiple references to the knightly lion and the celestial angel, with lion head decorations and an angelic, winged longsword tucked at the side, even going as far as including a set of golden wings whose feathers were golden as well, no doubt the plates were made by the most luxurious and artistic of armorsmith. But that was not all. From the interior of the plate, Zaelro could somehow sense immense power – that of breaking dawn vanquishing the depth of darkness, that of the legendary paladins slaying undead and demons as usually described in medieval romances, that of the element of light itself, embodied in every shard and pieces of gold making up the armor that he was now beholding with both awe and nervousness.

Realizing the now-uselessness of the tattered cloak, the attacker promptly discarded it with one swift swipe of the hand. With that motion he revealed the last apparel of the golden set of battle armor – a helmet decorated with a lion’s mane and with an artificially hovering halo at the very top. By now the attacker had emerged in the same light that a classic paladin would make his appearance, in a set of golden blessed armor, with an unstoppable zeal and the fanaticism to destroy the forces of evil till his last breath. And yet his face, his eyes, the way he twisted his mouth in anger and the words he muttered silently all revealed the opposite, that of a crooked, maleficent soul bent on destruction of anything that stood between him and the goal he sought. It was then that realization struck him in terms of a mission briefing.

“You… you are Frasden Laslow, Gatekeeper of the Temple of Consuming Darkness,” Zaelro asked out loud, now that he has had the needed clues to be convinced and to condemn, “the last survivor of the Laslow family of Dark Gatekeepers, and the betrayer of the faith your comrades have been upholding for generations! Am I right?”

Zaelro was right. The shadow abruptly halted in his track as he heard those words, turning back to face his inquisitor, on his face the enraged mouth changed swiftly into ridicule and insult.

“Looks like I am both blessed and cursed this day to have seen another of Aurorus’ foolish believers,” smirked the golden-clad assailant. “For the faith that I upkeep, no, have once upkept, I give you a chance to get out of this place to save your skin just like how those fools you worship did. You are not one of my enemies. Vampires are.”

“I am not one of his believers, but,” Zaelro said with emphasis on each and every word, “I would try my best to not tolerate betrayers!”

“I give you a second chance, fool,” said the fallen gatekeeper. “I have come here to destroy all what had taken my family, what I cherish the most from me. Interfere and your fate would be no better than them.”

“And you killed the master who had taught you pretty much everything you know,” Zaelro asked rhetorically, “and threw away your faith just for that?”

“Faith neither saves people nor punishes the evil,” Frasden Laslow’s voice boomed in anger. “Why maintain what is useless and hinder the dead from receiving their justified vengeance? For them, I am willing to discard everything and anything!”

“I have got a specific mission to get you,” Zaelro said each word with dire contempt, “but now that I see you and understand the way you think, I will try my very best to make sure you will not leave this room alive, in my own will!”

The dire assailant rolled his eyes.

“You are no ordinary believer,” he concluded, his facial expression switching to extreme rage. “Very well then. The lapdog that you are deserves the worst of death in the power of the full Aurora Set when it has grown to represent pure vengeance!”

“You wish,” Zaelro said, calling out loud to a certain horse ‘parked’ in the vicinity. “Steedy! Here comes our mission!”

If anyone at school were able to catch a glimpse of what happened next, Zaelro and his horses could have made headline the next day. After all, not everyday would one see a motorcycle, like gaining sentience on its own, suddenly breaking free from its parking lot, automatically engaging top gear, launching itself into the building, along the corridors, up the stairs, finally zooming into the room in question, and standing majestically before its master in the trance only a well-trained warhorse could pull off. In a matter of minutes, Steady Steedy the Sunlight Steed had made his appearance, to which the attacker raised his eyebrow in a fine mixture of slight astonishment and amusement.

“A Sunlight Steed, eh?” Frasden said, “The sacred horse of Aurorus’ Light Angels that not anyone could ride. That is quite a bit of impression.”

“Knowing its power,” Zaelro said as he promptly leaped on horseback, reaching out for the Golden Blade of Light at the saddle, and pointed the blade of gleaming gold at the offender, “why don’t you give up now?”

“Give up?” the smirk on the attacker’s lips soon bloomed into a full-scale laughter. “The power of the Sunlight Steed is but a pawn in the realm of Light! And the highest in the realm’s hierarchy of artifacts and treasures is nothing other than what I now wear – the full Aurora Set!”

“Sire, may I remind you that as much as it sounds awful, he is right,” Steedy’s voice slightly trembled. “The Golden Aurora Set is the pinnacle of the element of light, and even the most powerful of my kindred would be trampled beneath its raw power…”

“Even so, this is not a battle to lose!” Zaelro exclaimed. “We’ll just have to charge forth!”

”If there is a next life, please let me have a master whose berserk button is not a beautiful girl…” sighed Steedy as Zaelro grabbed the rein forcefully.

It so happened that the avid cavalier had to learn his lesson the hard way. Frankly speaking, the enraged Frasden was nowhere as lenient and playful as the vampire lady Zaelro had fought a few days prior, and in the very first charge that the amateur cavalier threw, his blade simply glanced off the solid armor to his complete dismay. And then, with the same unbelievable speed and seemingly godlike trance his enemy took the chance to launch a counterattack, a devastating blow aimed solely for fatality that, had Zaelro not been under the protection of his steed’s defensive aura, he could have had his head hacked off in no time. In this case, he was generally unharmed, if being thrown off balance and skidding on the ground, colliding against a whole stack of shattered tables and chairs before crashing shoulder-first against the brick wall following the wake of the blow was to be considered harmless, that is.

The whole process happened so quickly that the feeling of a blunt, yet excruciating pain came to Zaelro’s form before he could even realize his failure. Scrambling upright with a badly bruised shoulder, his blade ripped from his hand and pinned on the ground a good yard or two away, his horse still panicking at the loss of understanding of what having just happened as well as his rider, the English cavalier was now as clear as could be, defenseless. And there, on the other side of the room, the betrayer stood, sniffing in contempt.

“Go get yourself some skills and some better equipment before challenging someone wearing a Prime Treasure,” mocked the victor. “But I guess you wouldn’t have that chance anyway…”

With a blade shining in a strangely sinister gleam, Frasden Laslow charged forth, poised for the kill. Unlike the last close-to-death experience, Zaelro understood, to his horror, that his opponent this time was nowhere near the playful and flirty vampiress of the last time, but rather a nearest equivalent to a mentally deranged mass murderer that the world of Terra had to offer. There was just no way he could get out from the attack alive, or so it seemed.

Until another dagger flew forward and hit the murderer squarely on the helmet. Doing almost no damage at all to the fallen Gatekeeper, the quick assault nevertheless tossed him slightly off balance, forcing him to a sudden halt as his blade was just within feet of his victim-to-be. Then both men in question turned sideway towards a female figure standing forgotten in the corner all this while, the lady who owed the English her life once and to whom he owed twice. As unarmed as she appeared to be, Mina Misagi’s pouch of slayer daggers seemed to be endless, and that was another of those standard slayer weapons she just launched.

“Mean demeanor, troubled mentality, and the willingness to kill just about anyone,” she said, a mysterious smile beaming across her extremely confident face. Amazingly, her beauty actually intensified as she looked that way, the same kind of arrogant gorgeousness that had been driving his new schoolmates crazy. “Just about the kind of men I cannot stand.”

“So… this is getting a little more interesting, doesn’t it?” in replying to the new development, the fallen Gatekeeper took two leaping steps backward to the other end of the room, pointing his blade to the other end where Zaelro and Mina stood. “Very well then. Let the power of Aurora destroy you all!”

“His power is insane…” Zaelro clutched his wounded shoulder as he difficultly remarked. “So this is the meaning of the Prime Treasures of Terra?”

“You had better stay back,” Mina said, whipping a quick smile at her partner. “You are no match for him as of now. Let me do it.”

“Unfortunately, that is just about what I will not do for obvious reasons,” Zaelro smiled in an attempt to conceal the grimace of pain beneath it as he called out to his horse. “Steedy! Let us try it again!”

Once more leaping on horseback, Zaelro got himself back to battle-ready position, although, as obvious as could be, his bruised shoulder added even more to the odds against him, is if it weren’t biased enough. Before the vampire slayer could say no, Zaelro gave out a blink, signifying his move, and rushed forth again. More or less obliged, the vampire slayer followed suit, her dagger brandished as a primary arms weapon, as both of them lunged at the gold-plated figure simultaneously. To this move, Frasden’s evil smile glared, and the betrayer’s sword similarly flashed as he held it forth.

The answer was a foregone conclusion – a roundhouse circular slash with such force that it ended up sending the vampire slayer flying backwards upon contact with her knife, and for Zaelro it was even worse. Barely able to involuntarily turn back to avoid the worst of the attack, the English rider suffered a square blow across his back with the might enough to cut a path through a whole platoon, once more tossing him off horseback, and seemingly in two pieces.

Mina stared at Zaelro’s collapsed form at the bottom of the wall with absolute terror, the same shape that drew a nasty laughter on behalf of the fallen gatekeeper. For a moment it looked as if she could scream out loud at the sight as she dashed towards him, the stature of which drew another laughter from the clearly deranged Gatekeeper. Glancing at the golden blade in the wicked belief that blood was tricking down the perfect metal surface, the Gatekeeper then sent out a visible gasp. Powerful as his attack was, it did not draw blood at all. Unreasonable as it seemed, to both of their surprise, Zaelro slowly rose up from the ground once more, albeit suffering from a couple more bruises.

His mind was still blank and dizzy as he stood up – apparently the defense of the Aurora Set was legendary, such that almost nothing could pierce through that shield and that plate. Little as he had considered his prospect for defeat, the current tide of the battle called for something called a tactical retreat if he would like to just stay alive. Then he glanced at the vampire slayer lady next to him – as much as her eyes showed relief upon seeing him standing up fine and well, a certain, though by no means dominant degree of doubt could be finely read from her crystal clear pupils. Dizzy and rather confused, Zaelro clutched his forehead and leaned against the wall, tingling pains all over his body preventing sound movement almost totally by now.

“You really should back off,” Mina said as she gazed at him with a half sympathetic and half displeased stare, followed by a comforting and sweet tone incoherent to the scenario concerned. “Don’t worry, I can do it myself.”

Hardly could Zaelro believe that statement - with the kind of attacks she was carrying out from the beginning, unless something dramatic happens, there was no point in believing she could do it alone, and more likely than not would perish trying. Zaelro would not allow that. And so he struggled to stand upright, thanking the heavens that no bones had yet been broken. Slim as the chance for victory was, he must do something.

It was when he was about to signal for Steedy that his savior came in the clanging sound of a sword falling on the ground. And then the realization of his backpack having been squarely ripped into two pieces and the sudden change in weight of the said object brought Zaelro to the fact that that it was the gladius of the 25th Valhallan Regiment that he had kept in the back compartment of his school backpack that had both saved his life by blocking the brunt of Frasden’s attack just now, and by showing itself to him right now, when he could think of no other means to triumph. Needless to say, his knightly-knight behavior picked up from the world’s most chivalrous civilization’s heritages would convince him that fighting his enemies one on one would be the noble way to set things right. Yet, when survival calls, there were just no other options.

To the astonishment of all other parties, Zaelro promptly ducked, and from the messy pile of shredded canvas from the remains of his bag, pulled out the stout, shiny and razor-sharp ceremonial weapon of his corps. Reactively dive-rolling sideway, shoving his form further away from the source of imminent threat, Zaelro raised the blade high in the air, and, with his signature voice of commandment, called out for help from his faithful soldiers.

Before anyone else could react, a multitude of dimensional warp gates had opened in the room, and from those, a full unit of soldiers – English longbowmen, Spartan hoplites, Prussian dragoons, Frankish Paladins and Russian hussars - poured forth in such a quantity that well fits the available space of the room for combat. And as the distortion in time and space dissipated, the figures of his five faithful retainers emerged, quickly marching forth to the top of their respective ranks.

“Sire!” the stalwart and echoing voice of Oredin Kaledon rang at the top row. “We are ready for action!”

And Oredin was not the only one, Behind him, Sieur de l’Aquitaine, Sir Jonathan, Count Schwagger and General Peshkov had made themselves available for combat. It was a relieving sight to the commander, especially after the beating he had taken. Reinforcement had arrived to brighten his day.

“Very well!” Zaelro said, his tiredness and pain seemingly vanishing as he spoke with both pride and conviction, in the signature inspiring tone he was gifted with. “Now we’ve got the thief of the Aurora Set in this room, let’s make sure he doesn’t get out of here alive! Victory to the 25th Valhallan Regiment!”

A resolute “Yes, sire!” sounded as a result, at such magnitude that even the arrogant Gatekeeper unconsciously took a step backward. Yet, it was too early to conclude that he had been awed into fright. In fact, the opposite was true.

“So, more fools to come by for me to slaughter, or so it seems,” the Gatekeeper heightened his voice. “That’s okay… I need to rack up my kills, so that vampires will tremble before my coming!”

“Let us just see who would slaughter whom,” Zaelro said. “Soldiers of the 25th Valhallan Regiment, charge forth!”

What happened next was essentially the first battle on the scale of knightly romance that Zaelro had seen in real life. For a good ten minutes, shouts, screams, cries of pain, battle orders as well as the distinctive sound of weapon clanging against one another or occasional musket shots from the rank of Prussian dragoons filled the room. Had it not been for the fact that school was half-empty at the time of battle, and that most of the students had been dispersed onto other buildings to participate in their own extra-curricular, that kind of noise would undoubtedly attract his schoolmates in droves to the sight.

Battle didn’t go exactly well, unlike the minor skirmish with the hunting vampire on Zaelro’s second night in Sankaku. This time, it was a full-fledged warrior they were pitched against, with almost impregnable defense, proven by the myriad failed attacks at the various parts of his armor, all with no impact at all. In due time, what the gatekeeper said was becoming the truth as casualties began to roll in on his side of the battle, as before him a dozen or so soldiers of all factions were laying there, either dead or half-dead, which was anything but good. Their leaders were no better – the regiment’s battalion commanders were struggling on their parts, in the meantime not being able to land a really credible blow on the target. As yet another Prussian Cuirassier got tossed off horseback, flew backwards, across the commander’s frustrated and disbelieving façade, and crashed against the wall following another of the Gatekeeper’s blows, Zaelro realized that if that was to go on, all what he would get was his men being consumed needlessly.

“Alright, soldiers, that’s enough!” Zaelro soon found himself shouting a retreat order, the credibility of which was seemingly questionable. “All units retreat! The Five Battalion commanders, remain in the field!”

It was a relieving order for the rest of the soldiers. Apparently, if the battle went on that way, sooner or later all of them would be either killed, maimed, or otherwise permanently deformed. As the sizzling, psychotic bleeping on warp gates fading in and out of existence, signifying a rapid transition, the room vacated itself once more, leaving but the five said figures in the room to Zaelro’s command. At the meantime, the fallen Gatekeeper stood there, apparently having drained a good portion of his strength, but still firm and most importantly, impregnable.

“Given up so soon?” sarcastically remarked the Aurora-clad Gatekeeper. “This game should come to a close, shouldn’t it?”

“Sire?” Sir Jonathan was the first to voice the question. “Why order the retreat?”

“This just wouldn’t work,” Zaelro said. “With this kind of defense he puts up, there is just no way we can break through even if we send more soldiers. There must be another way to break that armor!”

“Useless,” came Frasden’s speech. “The Aurora Set is known for being unbreakable!”

“Unless, of course, we use the right thing,” Zaelro blinked at Oredin meaningfully. “Mr. Kaledon, did you say that we still have it after that first day?”

At first Oredin was more or less oblivious, but with the sound of the word ‘it’ being so specifically stressed, realization struck the said Hoplite with the might of a huge war mallet. At that understanding, Oredin’s eyes shone, even visible through his helmet.

“Still, sire, I am not sure if it is appropriate to use it now…” Oredin hesitated a little as the importance of the implicitly discussed object came to his mind.

“Well, it has to start somewhere, right?” Zaelro blinked once more. “If I have the rights to lay claims on it, I should also both have the right and be able to use it in times of needs!”

Oredin gazed at his master, and then at his enemy. Certainly, with the kind of defense that the most impenetrable of the Prime Treasures had to offer, the only way to crack it open was by using another artifact of greater power. Now that they had nothing of its level in possession, the only choice was to use what Oredin had been watching over with keen eyes and absolute fervor in the months following his order to serve this new young master. Taking another brief glance at both parties once more, Oredin sighed, and then from his doublet produced a package enveloped in a multitude of wrapping cloth and paper. No sooner had he produced the package than a blue gleam came into existence, a gleam so abnormally strong even under the various layers of package that it would no doubt outshine even the Aurora Set if it were to be fully unwrapped. With both hands and all due respect, Oredin knelt down before the young commander, handing him the package with as much care and solemnity as a retainer handing the last prince of a lineage to a trustworthy hand.

“Please be watchful, sire,” was Oredin’s last word of warning. “This is our last hope as much as you are, and we can afford to lose neither you nor it.”

Promptly, with slightly trembling hand, but visible decisiveness, Zaelro unwrapped the package with needed haste, discarding the cloth and paper down at his feet in a large pile, while his enemy still staring at him with a visible degree of interest. Frasden’s interest, however, quickly morphed into awe, real awe this time, as the artifact within the layers of paper and cloak revealed itself – a wedge-shaped battle mace made of the most potent of energy crystals, crafted by grandmasters’ hands and so blessed by the force of lightning that the pure power of thunder and storm bolts materialized as a multitude of imposing energy bolts surrounded it as Zaelro waved it about. Apparently that was the first time in his life that Frasden had seen something of that power and that illumination, that of which threatened to outshine even the pinnacle of light itself.

“This… this is…” stammered the fallen Gatekeeper.

“Let us see how you fare against this!” Zaelro said, brandishing the weapon, spinning it above his head a few times, letting lightning bolts rain upon his form in a highly intimdating manner, before whistling to Steedy once more, “Steedy, let’s do it again!”

“Foolish,” Frasden said, although his heart was beginning to feel the fear induced by the item in Zaelro’s hands. “You’ll never beat the power of Aurora!”

“Or so you believe, which may or may not be right. Not in this case,” Zaelro said, now fully seated, patting on Steedy’s mane. Almost immediately, bolts of healing lights radiated from the horse’s origin, and in seconds, covered the rider within the mist, healing him back to good health, readying for the next charge. Before anyone could realize what was happening, Zaelro’s smile immediately faded, as a harbinger for what was coming up next.

Clenching his fist around the mystical blue mace’s crystal handle, Zaelro kicked the horse’ side, forcefully pulling the rein in the meantime – the order for a charge without turning back. It was at this point that the first visible change in Zaelro’s form became obvious - his eye color changed from vivid brown to a transcending shade of crystal blue, and shone like a translucent beam light itself, in an unearthly manner. In due time, his whole body, including the horse he mounted, began to illuminate itself as well, in the same bluish halo suggesting powers untold and capabilities unmatched. As he rode forth, his stance no longer told of an amateur horseman with the strength and experience that nearly equaled zero, but rather that of a war god on the path of righteous destruction. The Gatekeeper quickly switched to defensive stance, believing that the attack would just glance off the surface just like every other wimpy attempt to get through his massively overwhelming defense until that point.

But no.

Whatever Zaelro was holding was clearly empowering him, past the point of his own self. Or more likely, it was reacting with a certain component of the previously normal English boy, in the meantime giving him strength beyond his wildest dream, the kind of strength needed to rip apart the golden shield from the hand of its proud wielder and tossing it into the air at the helplessly amazed eyes of the victim. The dry, solid sound of the golden disk falling on the ground and the bedazzled look on Frasden’s face in its own right told the essence of the tale. Silence ensued as awe reigned the room following the moment Zaelro rode past the Gatekeeper and the shield disappeared from his guarding hand.

“What…?” uttered Frasden long after the shield had laid at rest on the ground. “How could this happen?”

“Let me introduce you to Mjollnir, the lightning-calling mace of the Will of the God set,” Zaelro said. Strangely enough, his voice had ascended to a new dimension, echoing and all-containing, as if the old Zaelro with a witty, teenage tongue had totally vanished from the world, and the new, godlike and divinely powerful Zaelro had made his debut. “Keep in mind that the power of all the Prime Treasures would fade in comparison to the Will of the Gods!”

“The Will of the God?” it was now Frasden’s turn to drop his jaw. “How could an ordinary agent of Light use the Will of the God?”

Zaelro did not answer, but rather about-faced towards the amazed Gatekeeper, and charged again. Without the shield, the defensive capability of the Aurora set was reduced by more than half, and the result of the new charge was more than obvious – the first credible blow was land on Frasden’s armored form, giving such a nasty trauma that it sent the offending killer-to-be backward, writhing in pain. The might of the blow could have easily dented the armor, had it not been for the indestructible nature of the Prime Treasures. However, Frasden’s form was nowhere near indestructible, and he suffered the brunt of the hit.

“Surrender,” Zaelro ordered, his voice thundering, like the divine commandment of an almighty deity. “You can still turn back now – your blasphemy and betrayal can still be forgiven.”

“Never! I have sworn to kill to the last of vampirekind! I shall not give up before that day!” growled the gatekeeper, straightening himself up, preparing for another attack. His attempts were trashed totally, as, for some reasons, Zaelro just nimbly evaded his lunge with complete ease, although everyone could swear that he had charged with the same degree of ferocity and speed as when he entered the room. As retaliation, Zaelro whisked the mace around, and hit Frasden on the back, with such force that the Gatekeeper was thrown forward in the direction he was charging, and crashed against the wall. Frasden promptly got up, ignoring all his newly gotten injuries, as though having completely forgotten about them. As rage took over him completely, the fallen gatekeeper launched three successive attacks at the mounted figure, each time ending with a worse failure and a more devastating retaliation. It was as though the game had been reverted totally by now.

In the end, the fallen gatekeeper knelt down, crestfallen and downtrodden, leaning on his blade as he panted. Whatever reserves he had probably got, he had blown them in the last attempts. And then his opponent rode forth, the hammer flaring in his hand, being ready to strike down at any time but was not inclined to.

“I repeat my offer,” Zaelro said once more. “Surrender.”

“I shall not!” defied Frasden.

“You have probably used up what power you have, and you could not return fire on me even once,” Zaelro stated. “Pushing on means death for you.”

“I care not! I must kill them all!” Frasden roared like a wild beast.

“I am not objected to eradicating the threat from evil vampires, but you are not going to kill any of them in this way,” Zaelro said. “Even the tool you assumed yours has denied you.”

“What do you mean?”

Instead of answering, Zaelro gazed at the offending Gatekeeper’s armor, drawing his attention to his plates as a chain effect. It was then that Frasden’s enraged eyes turned to disbelief and then horror – his golden armor was slowly detaching from his body. At first the detachment looked just like regular cracks, until Frasden realized that the Prime Treasures could not be destroyed. The cracks then widened at an accelerating speed, until the joints and plates started to come apart literally, detaching from his body, pieces by pieces, until there was nothing left, and the gatekeeper was left with but a threadbare robe and his standard Gatekeeper longsword to defend himself. The pieces then gathered up, assembling themselves into the shape of the Aurora Set in the standard ceremonial posture of decorative armors in European castles, right beside Zaelro, before, as if having gained sentience of its own, knelt down and bowed to the cavalier.

“What… is this… supposed to be?” a stripped Frasden muttered in total astonishment.

“As the lore of Terra goes, any hero can use the Aurora Set, but the set will only accept those pure at heart as its master. You are neither. That is why it denies you, a contemptible betrayer blinded with rage and unjustified vengeance,” Zaelro explained like a full-fledged lore master, in the same ascended and distant voice unfamiliar to the old him. “If I want to take your life now, it would be too easy. But I still have my own share of mercy. I thusly offer you another chance to turn over a new leaf.”

Frasden stayed silent. For a brief moment, all of those who beheld felt as if he was going to submit and surrender.

But they were wrong.

With a loud growl, Frasden grabbed his longsword, holding it with all his might, and then lunged forward, and, before anyone could make out what was happening, had seemingly vanished into thin air, leaving but a trail of dust behind. To the dismay of all who beheld, the murderous glare of Frasden’s beastly eyes and blade only emerged a split second later right behind Zaelro, poised for the kill. With all his might, the element of surprise, as well as a rage that had pretty much consumed every bit left of his humanity, Frasden cried out loudly, and stabbed at Zaelro on horseback at point blank range. For a brief moment, the fallen Gatekeeper thought he had done away with it. After all, his master, a top-ranking Gatekeeper of Light had been killed in a matter of seconds when he launched that attack prior.

This time it was different. With an unbelievable nimbleness, Zaelro evaded the blow with such absolute ease, it could have spited whatever training the Gatekeepers in general and Frasden in particular had gotten, and then, with a quick turn of his palm, locked the attacker’s blade with the prongs of the war mace with impunity.

“I see you have secretly learnt the Unseen Step technique of the Dark Elven assassins of Westeria, have you not?” Zaelro smirked with contempt. “You must have killed Harlen Graminor with this move, no doubt. Yet, you have forgotten something…”

Zaelro then stared at the murderous Gatekeeper, reading every feature of his expression of dismay, astonishment and fright as he finished his speech.

“It takes more than a stolen Prime Treasure and a stolen technique to fight a god – and win!”

This time there was no more mercy. A rapid swipe of Mjollnir made sure that Frasden Laslow, the contemptible betrayer of the Gatekeepers, fell down on the ground with a smashed skull beyond repair. For as much as everyone knew, the murderer was dead for good before he could effectively murder even a vampire…

******



< Message edited by Argeus the Paladin -- 12/15/2008 3:20:47 >
DF  Post #: 19
12/16/2008 1:12:05   
Argeus the Paladin
Member

Chapter 19
Mystery of Mjollnir


Night fell quickly as the hours flew by without warning. Sankaku’s signature evening breeze glided through the wide open window, filling the room with the soft smell of the various night flowers in the garden, a soothing sensation to whomever within its reach. By default that was Zaelro’s kind of weather, that which could eliminate even the most profound of fatigue in minutes. Yet, the kind of weird things that had happened that day had gone so far off his wildest expectations, to such an extent that he could no longer shrug it off and say an indifferent ”That’s just a passing thing” like he would usually. The first time in his life, the teen felt sympathetic to those people claiming to be suffering from schizophrenic identity disorder. For that was exactly what he thought happened to him earlier on.

”Sire, now there could be no more doubt… your appearance, your voice, your power, the way you passed judgement on the sacrilege… only a higher being, no, only a full-fledge god could possess what you have demonstrated just now!”

Those words came as Oredin’s answer to his innocent ”What just happened?” question when it was all over. The scene of the battlefield at that time was both odd and foreign in a sense. The woman he wanted to protect was alive and well, and all his lieutenants were not too badly hurt, which was a good sign. But the weird thing was the seemingly impregnable foe just a second ago had been humiliatingly defeated, his armor stripped, his skull smashed, his menace broken, and the culprit appeared to be no other than the bloodstained, crystalline mace on the ground. He didn’t even remember when or how he dropped it. No, he didn’t remember clearly anything happening since he took hold of the majestic Mjollnir and leaped on horseback. Strangely enough, his memories of what happened before and after he launched that charge with Mjollnir in hand were both extremely clear and vivid, but what happened during that period seemed to have been erased from his memory, leaving but minute traces for him to dwell on.

It was all just like a dream.

Zaelro leaned his head on the pillow, sighing out loud. What came next to his mind after he ‘woke up’ from that oddly dreaming state was the golden Aurora Set, no, everyone in the room save for Mina, who was as dazzled and clueless as he himself was, kneeling before him, as if paying tribute to an almighty deity just descending to the mortal plane. Needless to say what disbelief he was thrown into at that sight alone. No, disbelief was but an understatement. The correct word should be extreme astonishment to the point of almost unspeakable horror. Had he been afraid of blood like many girls he knew was, he could have easily broken down at just the plain sight of what was laid out there for him to behold, let alone the shock of a moment’s loss of understanding.

And then he got that answer from his trusted general.

The troubled teen turned a little on the mattress, as his ponders went on. He was one hundred percent, or extremely close to that, sure that Oredin never lied. And if he was to believe in what statement the Hoplite made, then he had been a god, or at least, acting like one, without even knowing it.

”A god,” Zaelro pondered. ”This is going too far.”

The Enslish teen had never once considered himself a deity of any sort. The title of demigod that he was forced to accept that day, Zaelro had been considering it but an over-the-top honorary title. Even when he was forced to hold on to Mjollnir, swing it and feel the tingling sensation of high voltage electricity dancing through his veins without suffering from any life-threatening consequences, he passed it off for some innate power rather than godliness in him. After all, according to superheroes comics, there were truckloads of people born with one paranormal power or another. Before that day, if anyone would address him as a god or anything along those lines he would shrug it off without a second thought.

But now he was being forced to believe that. There could be just no other sensible explanation for him, a total greenhorn in terms of battle, to completely crush a menace that had killed, maimed or otherwise injured almost a dozen of the Valhallan Regiment’s professional celestial warriors with ease just now. And what was more, he crushed that Aurora-clad madman of a Gatekeeper in a matter of minutes without even breaking a sweat, as his men later informed him. There was no other explanation save for his being a god.

Yet that was not all what the mystery was about. If he had been acting like a god, or gaining divine power like they said, why on Earth did he not remember anything? According to any mythology he had read, and that should be universal as well, a god is supposed to be omniscient to an extent, and there had never been anything along the lines of a deity not knowing what he was doing. That was a no-go not just in monotheistic mythologies, but in polytheistic myths and paganism as well, if he was to trust his researches. And as far as his sense of logic went, there would be nothing more disastrous than a being with divine power losing his sentience, regardless of world or religion. Even if Zaelro was to assume that he was the god they claimed he was, it wouldn’t make sense as well.

And then another hypothesis came to him suddenly, and yet within it the teen found an amount of terror he would never dare to face.

“We don’t get to choose. It is not like we have the power to kill and destroy, but rather, something within us, something maleficent that we cannot shrug off, has both that power and the capability to use our bodies as a medium. Imagine you have a parasite with its own will and enough power to bend your will to its.”

As much as Takashi’s revealing words frightened Zaelro a great deal the day before, the instance that exactly what the cursed child of the Minamoto clan was facing was happening to him as well, of all people, was even more of a shock. Gaining immense power to destroy anything in the way all of a sudden? Check. Not knowing what had happened in the meantime? Check. Having no knowledge of or capability to control the destruction in him? Check. That should be enough evidence to conclude that his case was slightly similar to that of his tablemate. Yet, with that kind of strange power running rampant, even the ‘slight’ resemblance would be enough to get him into deep trouble. That appeared to have been the most logical of hypotheses, as terrible and scary as it was.

The only thing he could hope was his ‘parasite’, if that was at all the case, was not the crazed serial killer that possessed Takashi – should that be the right word. Fortunately, he had good reasons to believe in it – according to what his soldiers told him after the ordeal, he, or whatever was taking over him, talked, acted and delivered judgement in an extremely calm and collected way only expectable of an old wise king or a sage, a loremaster or anything along the lines of legendary wise men. At least, that was a good sign.

Zaelro’s every muscles numbed as he stretched himself on the warm mattress. Regardless of what power took over him, the amount of physical activity he took that day was far beyond the acceptance of the body of the teenager he was. Sleep came naturally to him, especially after the vast amount of thoughts that had flown through his mind just now.

And then everything went white, instead of black. The now familiar spherical space filled with the color white signature of the angel Argeus made itself presence before Zaelro’s sentience no sooner than his consciousness in the material world temporarily ceased to function. By now the English teen had gotten used to the endless white background that it aroused panic no longer, but rather slight boredom, as in, “Why aren’t there anything else to make this place more colorful to the eyes?”

However, as soon as Zaelro’s subconscious mind associated the white space with the appearance of his more-or-less-Guardian-Angel, boredom subsided almost immediately, replaced by a profound eagerness to share. After what had happened that day, he would need someone trustworthy to share his anxiety and problems. Or better still, some sound guidance and enlightenment to help him figure out what he should do next. His heart suddenly squeezed as the space distorting warp gate materialized in the distance, a well-founded nervousness tinted with slight dismissal and mild fright. In due time, the gate opened and closed, leaving in range the winged figure of the higher being who now watched over his every steps. As Argeus stepped towards him, Zaelro’s heart felt as if a weight was lifted from his heart. Though little he knew the angel, this new acquaintance of his had a natural aura of trustworthiness around him, that could almost immediately eliminate the anxiety of even the most troubled of souls. That dignified smile he upheld on his lips was the highest proof of a righteous, traditional paladin, who would do just about anything to help the meek and needy.

“Greetings and salutations, Zaelro Fastoff,” came the angel’s greet, as he strode towards the English teen, wings neatly folded together.

“I am glad that you have arrived, Mr. Sunrise,” Zaelro breathed a deep breath of relief, before saying hastily. “You cannot believe what has happened to me today!”

“Yes, I have heard that as well,” Argeus replied with a broad smile. “You did more than well with your first task. Now that we have secured the Aurora Set, we have our first weapon to fight against Reglay von Gendamme. And without Aurora, he is safely considered to have lost his first match, for without it there is no way he could gather the Will of the Gods without having to fight us to take it back.”

“Yes, it is true that we have finally recovered the Aurora Set, and I am glad as well, but,” Zaelro said, somewhat annoyed, “something awful happened to me at the meantime.”

And then, without giving the angel a time to let a word in, Zaelro immediately emptied his mental weight on his guardian angel, on how he actually had to resort to using the mystical Mjollnir to defeat Frasden, and what happened to him as a result. All the while, Argeus listened and smiled, as if convinced that he had not chosen the wrong person for the job. As he told the angel of his hypothesis, however, the listener’s smile vanished almost immediately, an instance that brought back anxiety to the story teller rather than take it away.

“And thusly,” Zaelro said, throwing a glance of disbelief at the angel, “I am not sure what had happened to me, or who, or what had taken over me. I just know that when I got my mind back, it had all been done.”

“Do you remember exactly what had happened?” Argeus asked.

“Listen, at the meantime my brain was just… numb. You know, like when you have played too much video games and was about to collapse due to mental strain, at that time you wouldn’t even know what you are doing!” Zaelro analogized, “No, in this case that would just be an understatement. The experience was more like… sleepwalking.”

“Hmm… have this happened to you ever before?”

“No, never. I was a perfectly normal schoolboy until just a week ago, mind you, sir!” Zaelro almost yelled in dismay. “I didn’t even know about all this power until this afternoon!”

“Then I am forced to believe that the most sensible explanation to this happening was that whatever was taking over you while passing judgement on Frasden Laslow must be accountable to Mjollnir itself,” Argeus said, propping his chin as he racked his brain. “I’d be inclined to think that it was the spirit of the weapon that had seized control of your body. For good or bad, I cannot tell. As ominous as it may seem, it may actually be a good thing. Or otherwise, I am not sure.”

“What do you mean you are not sure?” Zaelro asked back, astonishment spewing out with his every word. “You are an angel, aren’t you? An angel is supposed to know all sorts of things about magic and enchantment and the like!”

“That depends, Zaelro Fastoff. I was a Paladin before I became an angel. As much as I am proud that my knowledge of ancient lore is exquisite among my peers, what I know is a tiny portion of the mysteries that encircles my world,” Argeus said rather regretfully. “And, for good reasons, you should be aware that the legendary Will of the Gods is the most mysterious and under-documented artifact of the world. Those who have successfully wielded the set numbered to four, and while one of them was killed in the act, the other three has all become gods, and they would not want to share their knowledge of it, comprehensibly.”

“Now you are telling me that I am being asked to use an item that I don’t even know what is in store for me?” Zaelro yelled, this time without holding himself back.

“Yes and no,” Argeus answered. “I am sure that there are documents on the Will of the Gods, just that I have no knowledge of them. It is supposed to be mythical lore of the highest order that we need here to unlock the secret of this object. Only the most knowledgeable of Elven Loremasters would know of this sort of secrets, or so it comes to pass.”

“Which means that… what should I do now?” Zaelro looked extremely puzzled.

“Well, what I am going to say next is not a divination, but rather just an advice – a friendly advice, and taking it or not is up to you,” Argeus paused a little, before saying, his eyes filled halfway with doubt. “You should stop using the Thunder Mace Mjollnir, at least for the moment, while I try to make out what is with this set.”

“Well, what happened today is more than enough to persuade me to not use Mjollnir any more. Who knows, it may devour me without me knowing it,” Zaelro said half-heartedly, “Still, are you sure you can figure out what is behind this thing?”

“I don’t have access to the lore,” Argeus blinked meaningfully, “but I have friends who do.”

“Try not to forget it, alright?” Zaelro unconsciously asked.

“This mission is now my top priority,” Argeus nodded forcefully as he spread his wings. “I’d die before I forget something of that importance, so you can trust me with that.”

******


It so happened that the impact of the battle on Zaelro was beyond just a morphed personality, some minor and fully healable injuries and some casualties on his soldiers. Because of Frasden Laslow’s attack, the Culinary Club meeting room was battered beyond short-term repairs, with all but one tables and chairs smashed into pieces, walls broken and dented in, ground tile smashed and smeared with blood, as well as a whole lot of other irreparable damages that anyone could see just be a gaze. Such ravages of a battle could not be easily hidden, and, if anything, the first innocent person to come across the site would be instantly inclined to call the police on sight. And superheroes comic had taught Zaelro all too well that anything along the lines of police or official investigators could mean nothing but more trouble and the threat of blowing up his cover.

However, the next day the teen was still able to come to class without any such anxiety, thanks to the quick thinking of his new friend. No sooner than Oredin and his lieutenants retreated from the site than Mina Misagi came up with an unbelievable solution.

”Looks like the gas tanks are still intact,” said Mina as she gazed at the gas containers across the rooms, seemingly undamaged from the battle. Her blink suggested a brilliant, yet extremely risky idea. “If we can feign a cooking accident…”

“Don’t tell me you’d like to blow up the whole room, do you?” Zaelro gasped. “That could set the entire building on fire!”

“Mmm... but getting interrogated by the police on why we have bloodstains in the room would not be any better, would it?” Mina smiled. “Don’t worry, I have my own ways to make sure things wouldn’t spiral out of my palm.”

She did exactly what she said. The magick of a vampire slayer coupled with the help of more than a hundred pounds of cooking gas meant that the entire room was engulfed in fire following a loud explosion no sooner than Zaelro had got himself to safety. The immense amount of lame and the loud bang, if anything, reminded Zaelro well of the methane explosions in many Asian coal mines as publicized in various medias recently.

Yet there were more to be done than just sit around there. Mina quickly emerged from beyond the veil of fire, and before Zaelro had time to question how she made it, opened her fist, revealing a palm blackened by charred ash, and to his horror, rubbed it against his face. In a matter of seconds, Zaelro’s face had been dyed black, the same color as a piece of burnt charcoal.

“What did you do that for?” Zaelro rolled his eyes, opening his mouth wide, only to meet a forbidding finger placed on his wide-open lips, prompting him to keep silent.

“We have to feign an accident, right?” she said, closing her eyes in an innocent smile. “Let’s make sure that we look like people just having had the run for our lives from a blast.”


Their plan was a success. Not only did the blast consume all the bloodstains and concealed the true reason behind the furniture being smashed and broken to bits, it also provided a legitimate reason to end that day’s cooking session. The loud bang ended up attracting more students to it than the whole of the fighting did, proving all too well how things that went boom could easily garner a crowd of hundreds in no time.

Zaelro got away safely as a result, but Mina did not. As the president of the club, she had to account for anything that had happened, and thusly was taken, if that was the right word, to the Principal’s office to report the incident. Dismissed immediately after that, as much as Zaelro felt fortunate to have shrugged off trouble on his behalf, just thinking of what could have happened to Mina as a result made him hold his breath as he approached school that day.

He did not have to ponder for too long.

In the breeze of the early morning when hardly anyone had arrived in school, the slim, shapely silhouette of Mina Misagi appeared in the horizon, distinct and unmistakable, as she slowly made her way up the steps of the office building. Before his more subtle consciousness could tell him to stop, Zaelro found himself running after her subconsciously. The sound of footsteps and his mild pants as he leaped up the steps, though not so loud as to alert anyone else, still drew her attention. Mina turned her neck, and looked rather astonished - a positive surprise.

“Are you alright?” asked him, genuine anxiety glared as he gazed at her face. She was a mystery in her own rights, and this instance proved just that – her delightful smile as she returned the gaze was pretty much unfathomable for one in her situation.

“Apart from having to pay a small fee to refurbish the room we ruined, I am as fine as can be,” came her answer. “They just can’t dismiss me – otherwise the club would be empty for pretty much the entire year, which the school wouldn’t like.”

“They actually made you PAY for it?” Zaelro rolled his eyes. “Why didn’t you tell me? We are through this together, right?”

“But I blew the room up, didn’t I?” Mina replied. “And furthermore, with the kind of boys you’d see in this school,” she looked around the place to see if anyone caught her talking to him, and only went on when she was sure the place was clear and safe, “you’d get yourself in some sort of… let me just say unfriendly rumors, if people catch you doing something for me, or me not shaking you off as vigorously as I did to some other nasty guys before, or just simply seeing us together.”

“That is a little too far, isn’t it?” Zaelro shook his head in disbelief. “No one told me of that kind of stuffs before I came here.”

“So it’s high time you learnt that for survival and convenience,” smiled the girl. “If anything, if you would only keep my identity a secret, I would be most grateful.”

“I have sworn that I will, have I not?” Zaelro replied his voice slightly trembled in abashment. “And… how can I put it… I hope you would do the same to my secret as well.”

“It would be devastating if I don’t, right?” Mina giggled heartily. “With that many soldiers you pulled up from nowhere and that golden armor your men confiscated, the whole of the Sankaku Police Department, no, the whole of the Japanese Defense Department would home in to you should they know it.”

“That’s about it. Not that I enjoyed the work that much, but yeah, that’s duty that calls,” Zaelro said breathing out, completely relaxed. “So that is a mutually assured secrecy, I suppose?”

“You’ve got my words. Nobody knows Mina Misagi is a vampire slayer, and nobody knows Zaelro Fastoff has a body of soldiers coming from nowhere to do his bidding. Mina doesn’t care about Zaelro’s business, and vice versa,” Mina gazed at Zaelro, her eyes shining brightly. “Is that alright?”

“That’s perfect,” replied the English, and in no time it came to the more adolescent side of the commander to take the chance to make his advancement. “By the way, would it be possible that… we see each other often?”

“Don’t make me think that you are like those good-for-nothing, skirt-chasing wolves as well,” Mina replied, and although her voice was rather harsh, the light smile that accompanied it suggests otherwise.

“Err… maybe not?” in all honesty, Zaelro could think of no better words to fit in that situation. Almost immediately, the English bit his lips. If anything, it was just the wrong thing to say in that situation. In a total loss for any better words, Zaelro was forced to stay silent for fear of saying something worse than that.

“I’m just kidding,” Mina burst out in a mild laughter, realizing that he had missed her point by a mile. “But honestly, if I see you often or not appear to be superficially harsh to you, then rumors will start rolling in and… you know the consequences. That wouldn’t benefit you, or me, or anyone else. Oh, and, to avoid those things from happening, you should resign from the club as soon as possible, or… you get the picture, don’t you?”

“I do understand,” Zaelro said, “as much as I’d like to see you around more often. You… are the kind of friend I have always wanted to have.”

Mina flashed a compromising smile, at which Zaelro’s heart flew sky-high. At least, she had come to accept him, at least as a friend rather than one of those pesky fanboys she unwillingly had to accept who would take any chance to ask her out.

“You know what?” she said, as she looked at his face, eyes fixed horizontally – she was at most only an inch shorter than him. “You are among the two people who had risked their lives to save mine, not once, but twice.”

******



< Message edited by Argeus the Paladin -- 12/16/2008 1:41:48 >
DF  Post #: 20
12/17/2008 1:36:46   
Argeus the Paladin
Member

Chapter 20
Sankaku no Uta


As much as the idea sounded rather absurd and seemed to more resemble a desperate escape than a wise choice, Zaelro followed Mina’s advice. It was true that if there was anything he would ill like to be caught into in the current state of mission he was in, that would be anything along the lines of thoughtlessly harmful rumors that the carefree guys and girls of his age would take extreme enjoyment in creating and spreading. Fortunately he still had some control over the matter, and could actually pre-empt some of the worst impacts. The first thing he did upon entering class later, consequently, was to seek out Tsubame and put forward the decision.

“Wow, so you have to quit after all,” came the girl’s rather awed voice, tiled with slight disappointment. “Well, that was rather a foregone conclusion, but what you two did yesterday was plainly…”

“Complete awesomeness,” Nataka’s reply bashed in mid-sentence, as he leaped into the conversation. “So far we’ve seen a dozen or so making their attempt to hit on Mina-senpai, and up till today yours has been the most spectacular! I mean, others went in, asked for a date, and got a slap, while you went in and friggin’ blew the place up!”

“You sound as if blowing up the room was cool,” smirked Zaelro. “I almost freaked out.”

The English spoke the truth. It was not the battle that led to the decision to fake the explosion that freaked him off, but basically how that girl decided to put on that act. Even now, sitting alongside with friends and in the safety of the classroom, the imagery of the entire room becoming a fireball within seconds, right before his eyes struck him clearly and profoundly both as a moment of unprecedented, spectacular ‘awesomeness’ and a rather frightening experience. Had it not been for his knowing of her true identity and what kind of unconventional battle methodologies she probably had to undergo as part of everyday’s work, he would have been forced to believe that all the while he was setting his eyes on a professional arsonist.

“Sure you did,” Nataka nodded. “A kitchen accident leading to that kind of a blast is no mean feat!”

“Consider that another lesson in cooking safety,” Zaelro’s sarcastic sense of humor came to the act. “I’d keep it in mind NEVER to ignore a gas burner’s safety lock once again. Next time it could cost me my life, or worse!”

“You mean you caused the explosion?” Tsubame rolled her eyes at those words. Naturally Zaelro nodded out of reflex, only to regret a split second later for having taken the blame of something he did not even think about doing in the first place.

“So you are in such luck,” Tsubame commented, her second last word purposefully lengthened so that it sounded surprisingly sarcastic. “Mina-senpai took the majority of the blame, or so it seemed. Well, she had to pay the damage, but you got away with that, didn’t you?”

Tsubame’s voice was unfamiliarly harsh and condemning, for a good reason, or so Zaelro felt. He must have been looked upon as some kind of despicably nimble deserter running away from his responsibility, as the scenario would have suggested all too well. The sheer sight of Tsubame’s lips stiffly closed as she gazed at him with the highest order of verdict was nothing too comfortable to look at. The innate nobleman blood of the standard Anglo-Saxon gentleman flowing in Zaelro’s veins boiled in a fine combination of annoyance, embarrassment and self-disappointment as he bent his neck to avoid her peering accusation. When the playful womanizer realized what was going on with his friend’s speech, his lips froze solid as well, essentially stopping any conversation in the two bottom tables of the classroom. The result was a stressful, contained sound chasm lasting for a good half a minute.

“I did,” Zaelro finally said, as he looked up, returning the gaze, both his voice and the glare in his eyes genuinely regretful. “But that isn’t as comfortable as it may sound.”

“Even so,” Tsubame replied. “I must say I am quite disappointed with you, Fastoff-san. You should never, ever have allowed her to take the bulk of the accusation for what you have done like that! I mean, you are a man, aren’t you?”

“But I…” Zaelro spoke rather weakly, with a strong hesitation holding on to his tongue.

“I really wonder if there are any excuses acceptable, Fastoff-san,” Tsubame shook her head violently in extreme denial. “Did you know that Mina-senpai was in deep trouble for what you did?”

At that point the English felt a most ardent temptation to throw a tantrum. It was not like he ran away from his responsibility, or did not apology, or just shrugged everything off. In reality, even compared to the standards of a medieval cavalier, in both senses of the word, he had done everything he could. Although his better judgement was still in control and extinguished any tendency to spring up and roar and defend himself with extreme survivalism, it could but interfere with his facial impression. And the way he slightly opened his mouth to reveal tightly clenched teeth, rolled his eyes, lifted his eyebrows and wrinkling his forehead with the most annoying of all grimaces were the tell-tale implications of a fit of rage getting out of control. Had Nataka not been there and interfered with a timely change of topic, his fury could have very well spiraled out of control.

“Hey, you guys,” Nataka said, looking around, and whether he was genuinely interested in the topic or was only finding a way to end the mindless pressure, Zaelro could not tell, “is it just me or Taka-chan has taken French leave again?”

The notice was far from importance, but it managed to divert the attention of the duo about to lose their temper in short notice for a brief moment, and the notion was enough to sip in a little cold water to chill down the heat. Takashi hadn’t yet arrived, and class was going to be in session in another couple of minutes.

“Sick once more, I suppose?” Zaelro asked. “Do you happen to know anything?”

“Absolutely no,” Nataka shrugged, and as much as his eye glaring a little with the deserved pride of having just relieved a heated argument all by himself, some anxiety could be heard from his tone. “Haven’t seen him since school ended yesterday for some reason.”

“But if he’s in bed again with more illness we can expect a letter from his household asking for leave soon,” Tsubame said. “Unless something absolutely special happens like the last time, of course.”

Tsubame promptly ended her speech by throwing Zaelro another condemning ”I haven’t forgiven you yet” gaze, that somehow sent a chill of sort down his spines. As much as his anger has been far from quenched, he was starting to succumb to the thought that there is nothing more annoying as well as frightening than making a Japanese lady angry, for obvious reasons.

”It doesn’t even matter if I did nothing wrong,” the English had no choice but to brush aside his ego for now to maintain the peace. And the secret.

Periods and hours passed by quickly, and school time came to an end before they knew it. In the midst of another boring, far-from-special school day, it then came to pass that Takashi Minamoto did not come to class for the entire session, and strangely enough, neither did the expected permission-asking letter. Curiosity and interest quickly switched to anxiety and nervousness as his close friends wondered what could have probably happened to him in the meantime.

“This is probably the first time in known history that Taka-chan would vanish without a trace in this manner!” exclaimed Nataka as they walked down the cafeteria following the end of the last period. “And he didn’t even let us know! What on Earth could he be up to?”

“I am not too sure, but, according to a random survey by the Oxford University,” Zaelro recited from pure memory as he strode along the paved walkway, “Forty-five percent of high school absentees drop class to spend time gaming or surfing the net, and another other fifty percent to follow some… romantic or social commitment of sort. And when all other contingencies fail, whatever remains, according to Sherlock Holmes, must be the truth, however improbable.”

“I’d commit seppuku before Taka-chan gets a girl for himself, without us knowing it,” Nataka burst out laughing as he understood Zaelro’s hypothesis. “Actually, both phrases of the above sentence are equally improbable. He wouldn’t get anything done without us knowing it.”

“This may actually be more serious than it should sounds, but…” Tsubame said, slightly hesitating, for good reasons, “Taka-chan almost never skip classes without saying why. And judging from what happened to him recently, you know, witnessing a horrible murder and ran back home half-dead, I wonder if he had…”

Purposefully the girl paused, leaving the last few words aside for a full moment, before spitting them out ominously like a grim revelation.

“… done something foolish,” she concluded, slightly trembling as she said. Her face seemingly darkened with a strange, frightened glare tainted with both fear for the worst and hope that the worst hadn’t yet happened.

“He seems to be too calm and collected a person for such rashness, or so it seems,” Zaelro blurted. Almost at once a self-denial notion collided against his argument with the force of a full-fledge meteorite, shattering his previous statement within seconds of impact.

”But murder is another, totally different story, right?” Zaelro told himself as he abruptly stopped in his track, racking his mind. “He didn’t sound too healthy when I questioned him two days ago, did he? What if…”

The silence resonated as both Zaelro and Tsubame both stopped walking, heads bent in a simultaneous line of ill-omened belief. It wasn’t too long before Nataka realized something unhealthy in his comrades’ line of thought.

“Hey, why the silence?” Nataka’s voice rang in a thought-disrupting manner. “It’s not like anything that bad could happen to Taka-chan, you know. After all, the fortune telling woman downtown had divined that the lucky dude will live a long and happy life!”

Takashi’s voice was abnormally loud, even to the standard of the loud-mouthed jock he was, as if trying to brush away the contagious, negatively morbid thought of the other two that had, by now, taken place in his own mind as well.

“But if it was me witnessing a murder, I’d be unable to sleep for a good couple of month myself! And I am as healthy and optimistic as can be!” Tsubame yelled out, at the top of her usually gentle and passionate voice. “And Taka-chan… No, that wouldn’t be right! We should check him out as soon as possible!”

As much as Nataka tried to keep a healthy, optimistic air about the discussion, it was getting harder and harder to convince himself, let alone others to believe in the best. To the above argument he nodded reasonably – had the carefree womanizer been in such a tough situation he knew he would have suffered from some permanent mental scar as well. And then unconsciously his steps also halted, his head lowered and his eyes gazed at the ground, trying to figure out a more positive answer, and unfortunately finding none.

”Mortality rates is even higher among juvenile first-time murderers and manslaughterers than enlisted English soldiers in the First World War, according to yet another research by Oxford,” Zaelro’s mind came across another piece of information picked up not long before he left England, adding even more to the morbid fear that was slowly taking shape in the group. ”And a vast majority of those who did not commit suicide suffered from permanent mental disorders that would most probably last for a lifetime. That is not the fate anyone would want, isn’t it?”

“Okay, now you guys have convinced me to think negatively,” Nataka finally sighed, looking up straight. “We will have to pay him another visit to see what on Earth is Taka-chan doing to make us all guessing and worrying like this.”

******


Zaelro took measured steps down the street of downtown Sankaku, steps that were visibly laden with both anxiety and the effort to shake it off, both of which had their reasons.

Takashi Minamoto was, if anything, nowhere to be found. One of the Minamoto servants had informed them that he was not in, and from the look of his eyes, that filled with no less anxiety and questions as their own, Zaelro could see that he had spoken the truth. The only comforting sight was that there was yet any confirmation that anything absolutely horrible had happened to him, and in cases like this, no news was good news. Or maybe not, in the just case that the missing person was a chronic asthma patient with an almost dysfunctional pair of lungs that would stop working at any time.

”He’d be in deep, life-threatening trouble if he goes on without his medication for a couple of days, you know that?” Nataka’s warning words to the servant still hang about in Zaelro’s head. ”If you guys don’t find him soon he’d be dead anyway!”

But right then, Zaelro had other things to keep in mind. Regardless of the questionable state of mind he was in following his acquisition of Mjollnir in the last battle, or all the trouble and whatnots in school just now, or even a missing friend who might need medical help very soon, his Regiment considered that battle a great victory, and would not care more even if Takashi Minamoto died of asthma-induced asphyxiation tomorrow. He couldn’t blame them though – after all, their sole mission was to gather the Prime Treasures by any means necessary and without giving any thought to anything else. In terms of a commander, what he should do was to give them the due credit, especially his five loyal generals. Yet, the reward he was supposed to give them was not something he really had the heart for at the moment.

”Let’s see… As for celebration, I’ll take you guys out for coffee tomorrow, all five of you, and get the finest Cappuccinos in town for the sake of our first win,” Zaelro frowned at how foolishly he could have issued a promise at the time of victory. Not that he didn’t have the cash, but rather the kind of anxiety over all sorts of things he had by then would forbid him from deriving any due enjoyment from the dark-brownish, bittersweet liquid that he could normally wash down in pints.

In any case, a promise is a promise, and before Zaelro knew it, he had thought his way through the more bustling streets of Sankaku city center, and standing in front of the most renowned haven for the coffee lover in town according to the tourist guidebook, also the biggest hotel in the whole place – Song of Sankaku, a four-star hotel that acted both as the town’s primary dinner outing and a tourist attraction in its own rights. There the professional bartenders served, as quoted directly from the book, the most gorgeous and luxurious of creamed coffee that the city has to offer, at a more than acceptable price of two thousand yens a shot. With the kind of allowance his parents give him, he could have afforded one such every two days, had his addiction for collector’s games and computer accessories not superseded the addiction to legal caffeine. The sole reason why he could treat his generals so generously that occasion was because he had found no such sources to eat away his cash just yet.

Quietly Zaelro turned into a side alleyway away from the sparkling and dazzling neon lights of the main street at dusk, and slowly produced the Regiment’s gladius from his new backpack – a secondary replacement to spite the old now listed among the killed-in-action following the last battle. Five minutes later, the regimental commander came out of the alley, behind him a group of five teenagers in stylish suits and polished shoes, trailing in single file slowly along the road, as if showing off their brand-new, brand-name apparels. Zaelro could now laugh at just about any person who thought that way, knowing that the leather coats, black shoes and tight-fitting T-shirts they appeared to be wearing were respectively, in fact, commanders’ war cloaks, heavy steel boots and chain plates for fortified protection. With a cadre fully cloaked and finely disguised, mingling perfectly well into the crowd of every day businesspeople on their way to an official dinner, or teenagers and young grown-ups on a date, Zaelro led his trusted lieutenants into the bar, sat down, and loudly ordered six king-sized cups of creamed cappuccinos.

The bar was an excellent place to enjoy a caffeinated drink, aesthetically speaking. As the entire contingency took their seat, the soft, warm velvet surface of their sofas seemed to have removed a large part of the fatigue of the day just by itself. A dim, bronze-colored hue hung amidst the soft music and the fragrance of fresh flowers was the signature sight of the room, the needed romantic atmosphere so as to cater for such romantic occasions as dating. For those having come for other purposes, the multitude of artistically drawn oil paintings on all sides of the wall depicted scenic beauty ranging from the deep desert to the bustling cities nicely provided the kind of aesthetic pleasure that every wearied businessman or office person would like to dwell in. Amidst those superficial decorations, the professional manner that the barkeepers took order, brewed the beverages, and acrobatically mixing them to awe even the hardest to please struck Zaelro as a bottom line to why the business was such a success.

And within that gorgeous sight, within minutes, a waiter in red had delivered their drinks in a tray balanced on three fingertips with no less acrobatic talent, to which Zaelro could hear quite a few genuinely honest gasps of admiration from his generals. To the best of his power Zaelro attempt to conceal the various anxieties he had had in the day to avoid marring the celebration, with little success. Even though he had tried his best to appear relaxed in that scenario, the stressful eyes that he gazed at everyone when the steaming, creamy beverages made themselves available to them dictated the complete opposite.

“Well, I said this was my treat, right?” Zaelro said, throwing his glance across the table again at the realization that everyone else was silent. “What are you waiting for?”

“You appear to be highly anxious, sire,” replied Oredin. “Was something troubling you?”

“Well, I have my own stuffs,” Zaelro coolly answered. “Teenage love, schoolwork, peer misunderstanding… I can name a whole lot of them and you guys would be unable to solve it anyways.”

“May we remind you, sire, that we are at your command anywhere and any time!” exclaimed the German Count Schwagger. “Name your enemies and we will smite them with the might of steel!”

“My Cossacks and I have known few defeats, and we could overwhelm any foe you have, sire!” ardently continued the Russian general.

“Mmm… I don’t know if anyone has told you guys this, but,” Zaelro calmly took a sip, letting the warm, creamy liquid wet the lining of his throat, “not everything can be solved by sending in a whole unit of heavy cavalry. And there are things that can be solved in many ways except fighting.”

“So it looks like your anxiety today is within those limits that we cannot reach, sire,” Oredin nodded. “Is there anything we can help you with?”

“Well, yes,” Zaelro flashed a smile to keep the warm air. “We came here to celebrate our first major victory and the acquisition of the Aurora Set, right? Let us just forget about this and get drinking. The coffee here is… I could say that it is better than even the genuine Italian cappuccino I’ve tried.”

A resolute nod of agreement flashed, as each of the five generals picked up their cups, and took a measured sip. A sight of duly satisfaction appeared on each of their faces as soon as they swallowed, and reasonable as well. For when Zaelro said a certain drink was great, being the gourmet he was, it was great.

“By the way, could you tell me a little bit more about the Aurora Set?” Zaelro said after another sip. “I am still wondering why we couldn’t land a hit on Frasden last time. It was like we were hitting a block of granite.”

“Pardon me, sire, because I am no expert on Terran mythologies,” Oredin replied. “As far as I know, each of the Prime Treasures is associated with a Major God of Terra, and each possesses unique capabilities. The Geigar Set represents the God of Death Valkon, and his venomous fumes of oblivion. The Chlorophyll Set personifies the God of Life Grenalus, and his gift of eternal sustenance. The Gladius Set bows to the God of Strength Colossus, and his power to carve rivers and move mountains. The Wisdom Set owes its powers to the fair Goddess of Mana Etheria, and with its presence comes untold intellect. The Gespenst Set pays its due respect to the God of Darkness Solus, and represents his unknown shadow in combat. Finally, the Aurora Set, that which we now have, belongs to the God of Light Aurorus, and every plate and chain of the armor carries the Light God’s blessing of faith and defense.”

Pausing a while and taking another sip, Oredin then carried on.

“That is why the wearer of Aurora cannot be hurt by ordinary weapons. Even the most masterly crafted of swords and spears would not make it through that legendary defense. It can only be damaged by other Prime Treasures or the Will of the Gods’ Mjollnir, as you have done and see yourself, sire. At first, I myself did not believe that the defense it offers would work against our weapons as well, but it did.”

“In short, if I wear it, I will be as good as untouchable by ordinary vampires, right?” Zaelro asked back.

“I am not very sure about this, sire, because vampirekind has a thoroughly different hierarchy of weapons than humans in both Terra and Earth,” Oredin shook his head. “And it seems that whatever information the Terran mythology had to offer in terms of vampirekind is even less adequate than our own urban legends. The word vampires simply did not exist in their dictionary until, say, two weeks ago.”

“Looks like Terran folks are pretty crazed around the vampire folks recently, or so it seems,” Zaelro smirked amusingly. “Haven’t they any vampires of their own?”

“According to the Archangel Argeus Sunrise’s briefing, the nearest equivalent to Earth vampires on Terra was a breed of blood-sucking demons of minor strength and magical prowess, and needless to say has been slaughtered into extinction by Hadrian Paladins a good three or four centuries before today,” said the English knight. “I believe they are vastly luckier than us, sire.”

“I don’t know, but these vampire stuffs are really giving me a headache,” Zaelro said. “As far as I know their strength is insane, judging from what happened in the last battle against their kind. Unfortunately I have left the only other eyewitness at home so he couldn’t testify that, but you can always ask Steedy the next time you see him.”

“We have nothing to fear, sire!” exclaimed the French Paladin leader. “As long as we are slowly recovering the Prime Treasures bit by bit we should no longer be afraid of any…”

Never could Sieur de l’Aquitaine finish his sentence, for the barbaric, distinctive sound of a creature of bone and flesh being ripped into two without warning had entered the background, almost completely dousing the sound of the soft music. There was a brief, two-second moment of utter silence as everyone in the ground floor of the hotel attempted to figure out what had happened. And then, when they finally managed to understand what had happened, the next thing that Zaelro and his comrades could hear was a terrible, grotesque, trembling scream of both unspeakable horror and a gruesome experience, originating from the hotel’s reception lounge just downstairs. No doubt, whatever was happening down the ground floor must have been so out of the ordinary that the people involved were hardly believing it was happening to them.

“What was that… scream?” a dazzled Sieur de l’Aquitaine asked out loud.

“I smell blood. A lot of blood, no less than an Ottoman torture chamber,” sniffed Nicolai Peshkov, promptly standing up. “Sire! We’ve got trouble at hand!”

Zaelro immediately sprang up and sprint out of the bar at the notion. Positioning himself at the first floor balcony looking directly at the ground floor and reception tables, the Englishman knew immediately what was happening. There, on the ground, amidst a crimson pool of blood, lay a corpse of a receptionist in red uniform, having been torn into two halves horizontally. His bewildered eyes opened widely even as he lay there dead – clearly what terrible fate having befallen him must have been so sudden and out of the blues that he couldn’t believe his life would end there at its very last moment. Judging from the jagged wound, Zaelro could only gasp at the notion that he had been so murdered by bare hands. As the blood spilt across the granite ground, and the screams and shouts extended from the lounge to all parts of the first floor and second floor, followed by panicking people making the run for their lives, it was obvious that the normal, run-of-the-mill evening was being transformed into a living nightmare in no time.

Zaelro’s first thought at that scene was to call for his trusted generals to see what they could do. Yet, before Zaelro could run back to Oredin and his comrades to issue orders, the next thing that entered his sight, if anything, petrified him completely. Just next to the corpse of the unfortunate receptionist, he saw a faint, shadowy figure with an almost blinding aura of complete darkness encircling his origin, holding another receptionist up into the air by the neck, almost choking him, in an attempt to extract some answers. And then, when Zaelro assumed that the violent killer had gotten what he wanted, he proceeded to virtually rip off the head of the second unfortunate man, as easily as picking a wild flower, before tossing both the head and the still wriggling carcass on the ground with a maniacal laughter. To Zaelro’s increasing horror, the shadowy attacker then glided up the staircase with unfathomably graceful steps, and the woman who did not get out of his way on time was dissected as he air-skated past her– diagonally. In just mere seconds, the place had become more like that of a human slaughterhouse than a hotel where people went out and dine.

It then came to Zaelro that if the murderer, whoever he was, was allowed to move past the staircase, the result would be even bloodier, for on the first floor stood the largest gourmet diner in the whole of Sankaku, filled almost to the top with people at that time. And the kind of power he demonstrated was not one a normal human could stand up again. This was one such time when a full battalion was needed to prevent further loss of life, Zaelro thought. Promptly, Zaelro turned back about to run back into the bar to inform his generals of the sudden development.

He didn’t need to – his faithful, ever vigilant Oredin and his comrades had already been there, waiting for his orders.

“Sire, what are your commands?” Oredin exclaimed, as if knowing what Zaelro was thinking.

“We must stop this… beast from getting up to the first floor at all costs! Lives are at stake here!” shouted the commander. “Mr. Kaledon, what are the most defensive units of our regiment?”

“I will summon my own Phalanx Hoplites, sire!” affirmed his lieutenant.

Another second passed, and a full, ten-by-ten Phalanx, fully equipped and ready for combat, had made themselves available before Zaelro, through some more space distorting warp gates. They were about to ceremoniously bow to him as per normal, but the commander’s quick turn to the menacing mass murderer on a death roll told them to get into formation as soon as possible. Fortunately for the Phalanx, the serial killer was at the moment being quite distracted by a couple of young children trying to run out of the building. With a wicked grin he turned back, having made it certain that he would see no human exit the building alive that day. The result was a foregone conclusion - he proceeded to slash them all into bloody piles of chopped flesh, to Zaelro’s gruesomeness. The scream of the poor children, a boy and two girls, were such that it both made Zaelro feel sick and clench his fist in extreme anger. Yet, in the meantime, the gruesome actions of the merciless killer had given the phalanx enough time to assemble around the stairway, and by the time he could turn back and see for himself, there was no way he could get by the stairway without having to fight his way through a full-fledge Spartan unit setting up a wall of long spears to block his advance.

Only then did Zaelro have a chance to see what the murderer was made of. In terms of size, he was more like a giant than a man, towering at least eight feet and a half over the ground. A thick, pitch black hood covered his entire face, save for his eyes, and a similarly black cloak his body. Not only did the cloak shroud his origin in a veil of mystery, in terms of battle tactics, it prevented Zaelro and his generals from analyzing what weapons and armors he was using and wearing to designate the appropriate tactic. All what the commander-in-chief could tell was that his physical strength alone was enough to crush everything in his path. If anything, the inner dark aura of the beast was imposing in its own rights, and even one unfamiliar to magic or mystical forces like Zaelro could feel the existence of that sinister, inhuman force radiating from his beastly form. Unconsciously Zaelro started to fear for his soldiers – the Hoplites’ armors and shields might be strong, but… maybe that wasn’t sufficient in this once case.

“What is this?” his dark, twisted voice sounded in a sneering ridicule from beneath his dark hood as he gazed up. “Some children playing war games?”

“You are not getting anywhere, monster!” Zaelro shouted, having gathered all his courage in the addressing call.

“Well, well, well, more humans to kill,” laughed the beastly creature. “I cannot deny myself such a treat!”

Then the murderer glided up the stair again, aiming straight towards the historically renowned Spartan wall of spears. The resulting clash was probably a surprise for both parties involved. With a quick swipe of his arm, and whatever weapon he concealed under his cloak that Zaelro could not see clearly, a full rank of Hoplites were thrown off formation and flying in various directions due to the impact, but in the meantime the other ranks pulled out a counterattack, heavily spearing the enemy with their standard sixteen-feet pikes. Although the retaliation did not do any major damage, it actually punctured the attacker’s cape in various spots, even puncturing his skin here and there. As the attacker dashed backwards and the Phalanx resumed guard position, a puzzled pause ensued. The attacker probably never believed he could have been even grazed by normal spears, and the Hoplites’ commander never could believe the beast could wipe out a full line of the most exquisite of Greek soldiers in just one charge.

“Sire, please be watchful!” Oredin exclaimed, almost panicking, having now realized a crucial fact. “That monster… Judging from that unmistakable aura, he is probably wearing the Gespenst!”

******

DF  Post #: 21
12/18/2008 0:36:34   
Argeus the Paladin
Member

Chapter 21
The Defense of the First Floor


“He is probably wearing the Gespenst!”

At first Zaelro could not believe in his ears. The teenage commander turned back to his second-in-command, giving out a loud gasp of thorough disbelief.

“What did you just say again, Mr. Kaledon?” Zaelro hastily exclaimed, his voice tangling together in a state of near panic. “This monster is wearing the Gespenst Set?”

Oredin hardly had any time to reply. No sooner than Zaelro had his final word uttered than the monstrosity, having fully recovered from the impact of the wall of spears, dashed up the staircases and launched another devastating cross slash. Chaos ensued, as another full line of elite Hoplites were swiped off their feet, thrown in random direction in the wake of the slash, their weapons and shield shattered as they were tossed all over the place like marbles when their pack was punctured. The remaining Valhallan Hoplites immediately launched their retaliation, piercing the attacker like a porcupine’s spines, but the impact had much decreased compared to the last time due to inevitable loss of manpower and morale. Dashing backwards to avoid further damage only to charge up a mere second later, the murderer’s next charge ended up with yet another layer of the Phalanx being crushed with ease. In this third time, the counterattack was barely grazing him at all, and in the fourth, damage was no more than tiny scratches that even a three-year-old could ignore.

A downed Hoplite flying right across Zaelro, past him, and colliding against the wall with a loud thud, followed by the dull, morbid clattering of a shattered spear and a Hoplon rendered useless against the ground struck the commander as a signal of red alert. If anything, the long sneer that the murderer gave out as a result of his obvious winning streak came to Zaelro as both disturbing, frightening and threatening. If the tide of battle was to continue in that way, it would be no more than minutes before he had no Hoplites left to defend himself, as well as the crowd of people still stranded in the restaurant behind them.

”The people,” a sudden thought emerged to the commander as he glanced backwards through the restaurant’s glass windows, at the crowd of unarmed, defenseless ordinary people trying to get away. ”Damn, if they keep pushing each other like this, they’d get themselves killed before that monster had even broken through!”

Zaelro’s anxiety could not have been timelier. As the hundred odd crowd rushed towards the tiny emergency exit made for single-file exit, each trying their best to push through, what lay before Zaelro was an exact replica of instances when people trampled one another to death as would make headlines every so often. The noises were extremely demoralizing, and had it not been for the Spartan Hoplites’ celestial existence and their war and time-hardened mental stability, they could have just well broken ranks and run at the sheer frightened cries of young children, shouting and cursing of adults trying to break through, the coughing and sobbing of old women fearing for their lives, and the tragic and desperate call of mothers out for their children. Just as Zaelro feared, casualties would start to roll in any time now if no action was taken to control the outflow of people.

”With great power comes great responsibility,” the commander quietly recited a line from his favorite comic book, ”And with what power I have now I shall take that responsibility!”

Without giving a second thought, Zaelro immediately turned to the French Paladin commander, logically the general with the loudest voice under his command. Perhaps, as Zaelro’s common sense rolled in, the years spent shouting orders to his squires and arbalesters, while having a heavy, extremely voice-inhibiting cross helm over his head all the time would put the Frenchman in an unfair advantage over all of his peers in that particular field.

“Sieur de l’Aquitaine! I hereby charge you with helping those people,” he glanced at the chaotic scene of the restaurant through the looking glass, “and make sure that they get out of here orderly, safely and without any casualties! Speak at the top of your voice that the situation is under control, and they have ample time to make their exodus! No, wait, do whatever, and I do mean whatever you think fit to save as many of them as you can!”

“I am on my way, sire!” said the French general as he dashed into the restaurant. In the disguised form of a teenage Japanese, Sieur de l’Aquitaine ran into the room, and shouted at the top of his voice.

“Everyone! Stop!” his advantage finally paid off, as his thundering voice boomed across the room with no less force than the striking thunder itself, “Don’t panic! We’ll all die faster if you keep pushing through!”

His voice had merit in just its origin alone. Sieur de l’Aquitaine’s shout, by its sheer magnitude and firmness, silenced the room in seconds. People stopped running, pushing, crying and calling out in the wake of his order, and each and every turned back to see what was happening. Only then did the French Paladin realized that had he shouted just a second later, an old man could have been trampled to death at the very exit of the chamber of death. Now saved from a terrible death, the said old man trembled to crawl up from his fallen position, and the Frenchman waited until the almost victimized gentleman had stood up on his legs before speaking once more, in the same booming voice, firm, decisive and assuring.

“Now, ladies and gentlemen, we still have some time to vacate the place,” he then glanced back to the balcony, where the battle was still taking place, “as we’ve got some fine men to cover our exit. If we now push through,” the ‘teenage’ Sieur de l’Aquitaine glanced at the group of yound, able-bodied adults extremely active in pushing through just a second ago with an eye of disciplining, forcing them to bend their necks in abashment, “we’ll waste this chance and die even faster – in our own hands. So let us not panic and move through, one by one, women, children and the old first. WE STILL HAVE TIME SO DON’T WORRY!”

Even outside Zaelro could hear the Frenchman’s last shout of commandment, thanking fate for having had such a fine leader with him in such times of emergency. However, things weren’t too bright on his side, and Zaelro had no time to breathe of relief. Because as the French knight marched off to issue the needed life-saving command, yet another row of Greek lancers had been knocked out, leaving Zaelro and all those present only a tiny ten-by-four phalanx to defend themselves. The rest of the lancers, regardless of their age-old wisdom and experience, were starting to tremble as well – after all, who wouldn’t at the presence of such overwhelming devastation?

“Sire, he… he cannot be touched!” a trembling, panting voice could be heard from the rank of defending spearmen. At last, a soldier had summoned the courage to admit the losing situation.

“It seems that direct combat is not the right way, sire! We must find another way!” Sir Jonathan acknowledged with a nod filled with anxiety. And then realization of the next most sensible way out came to Zaelro in the form of the distinctive Welsh pronunciation of the English lord.

“I am just right there, fellow Briton!” Zaelro exclaimed in revelation. “Lord Jonathan, where are your, I mean, our trademark Welsh longbowmen? Gather them all here, and I mean, ALL of them, and let the renowned British hail of arrow do our bidding!”

“Yes, sire!” nodded the English lord.

All the while, the situation had become urgently dire – another rank was cleanly swiped off their foothold, leaving only three rows to go before Zaelro and everyone else on the second floor became wide open. But that loss was going to be the last row of Greek spearmen that the attacker could breeze through easily. For just before he could back off and ready himself for another charge, the murderer’s reactive turn of the neck brought him to the fact that the long, circular balcony embracing the reception lounge empty a second before had been, suddenly and without a warning, filled to the brim with a multitude of Robin Hood-esque English longbowmen. With bows twitched and bowstrings stretched, their quivers bulging and weighting their leather straps down with the sheer number of oak, finely fletched arrows they brought into battle, the longbowmen were now ready to launch their deadly arrow hails, the same ones that had frightened their French enemies back into the protection of their castle walls since the Hundred Years War a long, long time ago.

“More, huh?” laughed the monster hysterically. “As if that wasn’t enough entertainment…”

“Let our compatriots teach you the meaning of entertainment!” Zaelro exclaimed, and waved his arm. Instantly, a three-hundred-or-so-arrows volley left the outstretched bows of the keen English archers, aiming straight at the singular, cloaked target at the bottom of the stairway. Zaelro saw to his relief that even as seemingly untouchable the murderer was, he had nowhere near estimated the impact of a full volley of longbow shots launched in that manner and number. At least half of the shots went home – pinning onto his figure from all direction, and for a moment, the enemy seemed to have been transformed into a spiny echidna with all those wooden shafts sticking from his origin.

But the most negative sense Zaelro could see from his deathly alit eyes were neither pain nor distraught, but rather pure, amusing astonishment. From the way things appeared, he must have taken some impact from the attack, but that was barely enough to knock him a step aback. To his dismay, the enemy’s laughter just went on, and he promptly removed the layer of clothing rendered unusable by the piercing power of a hundred odd arrow heads. His pitch black cloak and hood fell on the ground heavily, bearing with them the weight of that many arrows, revealing his grim visage as well as his inner protective gears, at both of which Zaelro gasped in utter, slightly terrified astonishment.

The figure had no face. All what could be seen on his head was a pair of eyes shining in a bluish, demonic beam, lusting for blood and destruction. It was rather like the fabled mouthless and noseless visage of an alien arriving in an UFO according to urban legends and dramatized television series, one that Zaelro never believed in the existence of. The only difference was, now this creature was now standing right in front of him, in a menacing manner and with the sole purpose to annihilate his soldiers and those innocent people he was trying to protect just for the fun of it.

“That saves me the need of discarding this old cloak,” hysterically spoke the creature, shrugging off the impact of the volley completely. “I was going to get a new one anyway.”

And then Zaelro glanced at the suit of protective armor the faceless creature wore. He was almost immediately mesmerized as a result, for a simple reason – it was nothing less beautiful and exquisite than the Aurora Set, just that its color was as black as, or even blacker than the creature’s discarded cloak and hood, and the air it gave was the chilly, swallowing touch of late winter night rather than the warm breath of sunlight aura of Aurora. Different from the golden plate of the Prime Treasure of Light, the pitch black suit of armor adorned the symbolic raven, with black wings and beastly beaks spreading out on its breast plate, and another symbolic black panther mouth shaped the helmet. Both figures combined in the engravings of the shield he carried, with the warlike, savage panther mouth roaring in the foreground and two outstretched black wings in the background. Its blade was yet another wonder – a hybrid blade of sort comparable to both the Arabic shamshir and the Japanese Katana, and as much as its design favored lightweight and speed, a significant, large and spreading raven wing decoration was still added in harmony with the rest of the armor’s design. As its black tint reflected in Zaelro’s eye, the commander started to shiver unconsciously. It was this very blade that had killed, wounded or otherwise neutralized seven full rows of elite Spartan Hoplites. The sight of the mastercrafted armor alone was enough to drive Zaelro numb and speechless in awe, and so were the rest of his generals.

“Sire, there is no doubt,” Oredin finally said, his voice alarmingly heightened. “It is the full Gespenst Set! The Shadowcast Helm, Nocturnal Guard, Black Armor… and even the mighty blade Vjaya is in his hands!”

Zaelro slowly nodded, having no other word to say. Even if the attacker were just another straggler like Frasden Laslow, that set alone, being part of the famed Prime Treasures, would have been enough for him to tear everything and just about anything in his path to infinity and beyond. Let alone, the beast’s strength, in his own rights, was obviously much, much more than that of the fallen gatekeeper.

”Wait a second,” Zaelro twitched his eyebrows as another new development entered his logical analysis. ”When I first came here what did Oredin tell me? According to the Archangel Argeus Sunrise, the valued Gespenst Set has been stolen by Reglay’s henchmen. So this monster must be one of them, and likely to be…”

“One of the most powerful of Reglay’s sidekicks,” Zaelro spoke out loud in revelation. “If so, we’d have little chance of a victory, now that he has the full Gespenst.”

“Sire, what did you just say?” a shocked Sir Jonathan questioned. “Are you… saying that we cannot win?”

“It looks like we cannot seek to actually defeat him. Sorry if I said anything wrong, comrades, but it seems that in this one case we should seek a tactical victory instead of a direct victory,” Zaelro said decisively. “In all cases, we must hold the line until all the dining guests have evacuated! Keep the arrows flying and the spear wall up!”

The next five minutes was less destructive to the Valhallan Regiment than the last five, as the volleys of English longbow shots were, although unable to do anything further than glance off his armor, a big obstruction to the attacker charges that he could not overlook. As arrows rained down on his position, the killer had to slow down to ward them off, otherwise once every so often a stray arrow would hit him squarely on the face, where unprotected by neither the helm nor the plate, and that would hurt, at least a bit. As a result, the hoplites had a much easier time to fend off his weakened charges, and even offering back some really nasty retaliation as well, knocking the opponent back and going as far as stunning him for a couple of seconds with their powerful spearheads. How the menacing attacker began to taste frustration was a delightful sight to see, as the longbowmen escalated their attack rate to maximum. That movement pinned the monster even further down with the shower of projectile covering almost every inch he could advance.

However, as time passed, the side effect of enhanced firing rate began to show itself - the longbowmen’s quivers began to lighten at an alarming speed. At a rate of fire of ten-arrows-per-minute, within the said five minutes, almost half of their ammunition was gone, and their quiver started to appear slack to the eyes. It wasn’t long before Zaelro’s cadre realized this with a nasty surprise. It was a warning sight, an ominous premonition of sort - when the last arrow was fired, they’d be slaughter for sure, judging from the speed and power the enemy possessed if unimpeded by arrow fire.

“Has the evacuation been done yet?” Zaelro asked, looking extremely anxious as he turned around at the rank of bowmen and back at the enemy. “We are almost out of ammo here!”

“Sire, it seems that there is still another couple of dozens left, and that includes some old people and children as well,” nervously replied the Russian Lieutenant-General.

“If anything, sire, I shall send forward my Dragoons and Cuirassiers as well!” suggested Count Schwagger, eying the field with no less apprehension. “We shall matchlock and saber him back to where he came from!”

“This long corridor is built solely for elegance, generals,” Zaelro glanced at the slender pillars supporting the corridor with a shake of disapproval, “and that means supporting three hundred longbowmen and two dozens Hoplites is already too much for it. Any more soldiers over and we are going to have a painful freefall!”

“Why don’t we dismiss the longbow and…”

“Useless,” Oredin replied before Zaelro or any other general could say any more. “Dismissing and summoning this many men should tae anywhere up to half a minute, and by then the entire rank of Hoplites would have collapsed, leaving both ourselves and any newly summoned troops…”

Oredin’s last word was the most frightening one.

“… defenseless,” said him.

“We’ll just have to make do for now,” Zaelro tried to say coolly.

Even as Zaelro said so, he could find no other alternatives. Gazing backward at the heavily armored French Knight rather awkwardly helping an old lady down the emergency stairway with another crowd behind him, including a handicapped middle-aged man on a wheelchair, the commander-in-chief could not help but sigh. Apparently Sieur de l’Aquitaine was doing his best and couldn’t evacuate the crowd faster. But at that rate, he would need at least ten more minutes at hand before the whole crowd was evacuated, which the limited magazine would not allow for.

“How many arrows have we shot?” Zaelro absent-mindedly asked to keep himself occupied, almost immediately regretting for such a foolish question.

“Sire, that was eighty-two – this one is the eighty-third,” came the English lord’s answer, to Zaelro’s astonishment, and right after that, dismay. “Our longbowmen are equipped with exactly one hundred and eight arrows, so… we have three minutes before their quivers are emptied.”

“We should find some other ways,” the commander stopped to think; in the meantime, five more volleys had been shot, lightening the quivers even further.

As if the situation wasn’t bad enough, the attacker seemed to have gotten quite used to the rain of arrow, and the power he used in the latest two attacks were progressively more powerful, knocking out another three front-line Hoplites in each turn. At this point, the famed Spartan Hoplites had also appeared to be at its limit, as the soldiers slowly and passively stepped backward, as if to avoid the fullest impact of the consecutive assaults. Zaelro could not blame them, though. Few armies in history, save for the Biblically fictionalized Philistines, had to face such an insanely powerful warrior for their enemies, who not only could barely be grazed by weapons, but was also striking them down by the dozens. And then another reckless thought came to Zaelro.

“Hey, we still have the Aurora Set with us, right?” the English teen snapped his finger. “It is not like we don’t have any Prime Treasure with us, is it?”

“Sire, but there are… restrictions,” Oredin promptly replied, “that would make it impossible to use our Aurora Set here!”

“Any restriction save for, no, even including a death curse,” Zaelro stared at yet another volley, “will be finely ignored in this kind of emergency!”

“We are not accepted by the Aurora Set, sire, and thusly cannot control it,” Oredin ignored Zaelro’s words and said. “And… you may not yet be able to fully control the set at your current prowess, sire.”

“I’ll take the chance,” Zaelro said. “If he breaks the siege and gets up here,” he pointed at the killer at the bottom of the staircase, “we are down, and not just us. Those people as well!”

Zaelro’s last swipe of his hands pointed directly at the barely evacuated restaurant, as if reminding Oredin of how urgent the situation had become.

“Worry not, Oredin Kaledon,” Zaelro said firmly, and the words he said next, later he didn’t understand why he had the courage to, “I have once beaten an Aurora-clad madman. I don’t think this time I cannot beat another Gespenst-clad murderer!”

As he spoke, another six more volleys were shot. Now there were barely fifteen rounds in every archer’s magazine, enough to keep up with the murderous faceless monster for at most one and a half more minutes. There was apparently no time to quarrel over weapon safety, or so Zaelro’s stern eyes told Oredin. Succumbing to an agreement, Oredin nodded, and waved his arm. Another time-space warp opened in the space, hovering over the air at shoulder height, before materializing from its bowel a pure color of light as manifested in a set of similarly pure gold. A set of armor had made its arrival at the battle scene, the golden armor courtesy of the Terran God of Light Aurorus and the apparels that accompanied it, the Aurora Set. The winged, lion-gilded breastplate, the golden helmet covering all the head but for the front-most part of the face, the kite shield glittering with the embedded imagery of a roaring and charging griffin, and the long, knightly long sword with a distinctive halo, all made of gold, were now at Zaelro’s disposal. The horrified and mystified Zaelro of the day before did not manage to catch a full view of how beautiful and absolutely radiant the Aurora Set was, and only now did he have the chance to give a small gasp of admiration at the marvelously crafted set. They were weapons and armors no longer, but rather works of genuine art.

But that was no time to be awed at the sight of the armor. He had to wear it, and the plates seemed to be too rigid to push himself in.

“Err…” Zaelro asked unconsciously, rather puzzled. “How do I put this on?”

“My apologies, sire,” Oredin quickly spoke. “As the Aurora Set has recognized you as a master, it will automatically put itself on you at your command. All what you have to do is to say something, anything, that indicates that you need it now, and it will be there for you. Any sentence at all.”

Needless to say Zaelro didn’t understand the last sentence too much. But it looked like there was no time for turning on such trivial things. Around him, the archers had shot the one hundred-and-fourth arrow out of the one hundred and eight available. He had to take a random roll.

“Let’s take blind luck, shall we?” Zaelro closed his eyes, and unconsciously spoke the first order that came across his mind. “Aurora Set, let us ride forth!”

This time, Zaelro’s blind order worked. Or perhaps it was attributable to the armor’s being rigged with the nearest equivalent of a modern intelligent voice recognition device that the Aurora Set rumbled, and then, to Zaelro’s wonder, started to dismantle itself, just like how it ridded of the unworthy Frasden Laslow the last time. And this time, instead of gathering up into a kneeling and bowing figure before Zaelro’s feet, the set automatically assembled on his body, strapped itself in place, wings folded, sword and shield in his hand, and helmet conveniently over his head. There were multitudes of clicking sounds as the final pieces of the armor finally locked themselves in place, signifying that the equipment process was complete. Although the plates were a little too wide and slack on him, he could still move fairly well in the set of armor, if not no different than when unarmored. Twitching his body a little, swinging his arms and legs and turning his neck, finding no impedes in the process, Zaelro took a breath of both relief and confidence. He was now equipped with the legendary Aurora Set, and ready to do damage.

He couldn’t have been timelier – the English longbowmen ran out of ammunition the very moment his preparation was complete. Immediately the hail of arrows stopped, and judging from the look on their face, both friends and foes could know what had precisely happened.

“Out of arrows,” the faceless monster burst out laughing again, as he stopped and gazed at the panicking face of the now-useless archers. “You can’t be more dead now.”

As son as he finished his last word, the menace immediately rushed up the staircase, about to slice cleanly off another row of phalanx spearmen. But instead of a clean swipe this time, the dark blade in the killer’s arm was stopped in its track by a forbidding blade sticking out from behind the ranks. The contrasting color of gold and black collided against each other as the two blades clashed. And then, a swipe at the top of his strength on the intervener’s behalf resulted in the Gespenst-clad menace being tossed backward, landing safely on the ground, but with a look of astonishment.

“You have been meddling with human life far enough,” Zaelro appeared, in the righteous air of nobility radiating from the Aurora Set, as he stepped down the staircase and confronted the killer. “We’ll make sure you won’t step out of here alive!”

The menace glanced at Zaelro in Aurora Set from top to toe, before burst out laughing.

“So THIS is where the last of the Terran Prime Treasures is! We’ve been looking for them for ages!” he said in a highly ecstatic tone. “I could NEVER believe I can get both the White Princess and the last of the Prime Treasures in just one day!”

“As if you can take it easily,” Zaelro roared.

“Thanks, kid. You made my day!” was the last drop of ridicule that the attacker had, before charging head-on at Zaelro, forcing the commander of the 25th Valhallan Regiment to defend himself.

The battle was rather quick. Within just a minute, Zaelro had been slashed twelve times, tossed into a wall six times, kicked or punched a further sixteen, and hit by another mysterious beam of strange magic power at least once. The force that was unleashed upon him was such that had he been unarmored, he would have been killed well a hundred times over. This once, though Aurora blocked practically all damage to his system, Zaelro was unable to even land a counterattack. For good reasons – his opponent was vastly more experienced, faster, stronger, larger in term of body size, more magically adept, in short, superior than he was in practically all field regarding combat, except for the quality of their armors, which were supposedly equal. As much as the armor had defended him flawlessly on behalf of a protective garment, the battle-unready teen could still feel the clear impact of the attacks, although the slash felt no more than a whip and the punch at super strength no more than a normal hit. It still hurt, and what was worse, the enemy didn’t seem to have used his full potential strength.

Just recovering from another slash, Zaelro suffered an additional blow, this time by being double-kicked into the staircase, causing the unfortunate object to crack and break under his weight and the impact of the fall. He could barely stand up when he realized the attacker was just a yard away from him, sneering in the same sullen tone.

“Still not down yet?” the monster said. “Now that golden armor is really thick. I believe it would be a fine trophy for all the troubles of today…”

Zaelro felt his left arm, and realized to his horror that was he was scrawling up, the shield had left his hand and was now a good distance away from his reach. As told by his men, as the majority of the defensive power of Aurora lay in the unison of the plate and the shield, having lost the shield now meant that he was as good as wide open for the next attack. It was the worst time to find himself at a sword’s edge, and from his opponent’s eyes – the only way the faceless monster expressed himself – he had been tired of the game and would want a quick end. Loud gasps from above the corridor on the first floor he could hear – his men had apparently seen the foregone conclusion. There was too little time to get out of the way and save his own skin, as it appeared to a horrified Zaelro. Still, he refused to believe it was his end…

And his belief was correct.

Zaelro’s savior this time came in the form of a column of fire coming from seemingly nowhere, collapsing directly on the attacker’s head, carrying with it not only the heat to roast a target but also to throw it off the ground, and that was exactly what happened. When Zaelro opened his eyes, the column of fire had mostly subsided, leaving a large, charred circle of burnt granite and incinerated dirt on the ground as a proof of the awesome attack. And a distance away, the attacker was kneeling down, recovering from the sudden attack. Like Zaelro himself, had it not been for the Gespenst he wore, he would have become a French-fried monster just from the blast alone. As he recovered, however, the monstrous bluish glare of his hollow eyes turned to an expression of positive, amused surprise. Zaelro’s wild guess was that probably whoever that saved him was the person the monstrous murderer was looking for in the first place. That person appeared to be standing right there, with a visible silhouette at a particular point on the third floor of the building.

“You are such a fool, Princess,” to Zaelro’s surprise, his opponent looked upward upon standing up rather than at himself, and called out loudly, as if he had already known who was behind that timely intervention. “You should have run away while you still could. Not only did that attack reveal that you are here, it also,” to Zaelro’s surprise, the monster clasped his hand, and out came another bolt of negative energy, once more, not at him, but rather upwards, a little diagonal, so that the bolt flew past Zaelro and hit the balcony of the third floor – a rather long way upward. As Zaelro dropped his jaw at the quick move, the small third floor corridor sector where the monster hit quickly crumbled, broke into pieces, and fell down onto the ground, bringing whoever standing there with it. The only difference was the occupant of that struck-down balcony didn’t freefall down, but rather skillfully air-glided downwards from the original position, and then landed safely, on two feet, right in front of the attacker.

“I will hide no more, Faceless One,” in a femininely soft but determined tone, the figure replied, swinging her head around the foreground. “It’s high time you stopped atrocities such as this.”

******

DF  Post #: 22
1/4/2009 23:33:00   
Argeus the Paladin
Member

Chapter 22
The Unexpected


The consecutive explosions had caused a lot of unnecessary ruckus. Hardly had the dust and charred granite fragment as a result of the column of fire subsided than the rubbles of the collapsed third floor balcony section cast another layer of dust and gravel upon the scene. It took Zaelro's blurred eyes quite some time to adjust to the sheer amount of dust before he could actually realize the figure of the new actor, or rather, actress, in that day's play of war. And the realization of the newcomer's existence alone made the Aurora-clad commander blink almost a dozen times our of astonishment and disbelief.

"Florine?" Zaelro found himself mumbling.

His mindless mumbling had its own reasons - the lady in the foreground was the same person as noble lady as he had seen in his first dream sequence in Sankaku before this all happened. Florine Silverlance she was called, if he can trust the faint memory of a dream a week ago. Naturally the English commander rubbed his eyes in addition to the numerous blinks in clear surprise. But again, as he looked at her from top to toes, he had to admit that there could be no mistake. That hair, that form, that style of clothing, even the brisk and confident steps she took with eyes always fixed, there was just no way someone could imitate them all, especially the last.

She hadn't changed since Zaelro saw her in that first dream, except for the forced discard of Russian-styled heavy winter apparel - Japanese weather was not tolerant of that kind of heavy cloak and woolen scarf. Or maybe that was just the minor difference. In real life, she was far more beautiful than the fully mink-clad figure whose slim shape blended into the falling snow well enough to spite her innate beauty and charm. White dress, golden shoulder-length hair and an air of elegance auring from her very origin, the dazzling brilliance of her presence alone almost brought time to a halt. Her steps on the broken granite floor, regardless of the unlikely background, was nowhere far off actual dance steps in terms of grace and charm, a petrifying sight to every male in the radius. In this aspect she was at least Mina Misagi's equal, and Zaelro could later swear he could hear loud gasp of both awe and admiration from the crowd of soldiers upstairs who, just a second ago, were sweating in profuse apprehension as their quivers dried up quickly.

Having been rather used to extreme beauty after meeting, speaking to, and being on a rather rough date with Mina- if it could be called so, Zaelro's attention immediately switched from an inevitable awe to an everyday keen and perceptive eye as he closely observed the new development. And there he noticed, the eyes that the faceless monstrosity gazed at her as she approached him was neither those of a lustful maniac drooling at her sheer feminine glamor nor a bandit lord observing with full curiosity at what she had in store for him. Rather, it was the soulless, keen peek of a hunter looking at the carcass of his newly hunted prey. If Zaelro's instinct was true, it certainly was not a wise option for the young lady in white to appear at that time.

"You will hide no longer?" the faceless humanoid beast chuckled inquisitively. "Should I take your words for real, or should that be implied as the daughter of the great," the word great trailed off sarcastically, "Hector of the Whites has run out of option and is finding a way to preserve her last bit of self-esteem in the way her retarded father always did?"

The name Hector did ring a bell in Zaelro's mind. As much as he didn't know who he was, or what he had done, judging from what little clues the claimed vampire Yefime Alexeyevich dropped in his dream, that name must have been associated with an extremely high-ranking and supposedly honorable figure in their world. And from the fact that the said vampire had most likely died to ensure this girl's safe getaway in a fierce loyalty comparable to the Knights of the Round Table in Arthurian legends, even without the faceless beast's revelation Zaelro could fully believe that she was the said Hector's daughter, granddaughter, or anything along those lines. Her next reaction confirmed this for one last time.

"Silence!" scowled the lady as she heightened her voice alarmingly. "Faceless One, you shall not insult my father!"

"Whatever," the Faceless One, as the woman called him, shook his head amusedly. "Regardless of why you are here, I'd be pleased to let you know that you have given me enough trouble to let you go now. Emperor Reglay, after all, did promise a hefty reward on the head of the famous Florine Silverlance."

Pausing a little rhetorically, the creature glanced mockingly at the ceiling.

“Had this human construction not been in the way I'd have been able to see the moon, White Princess,” he said, in a pseudo-professionally analytical voice, “but regardless, everyone knows that the moon is young today. Still you think you could challenge me?”

"Moon or no moon, that is not important," retaliated Florine as she pointed at his featureless visage. "I have come here today to make sure the Demon Butcher you are will kill no longer to find me, regardless of the moon. You shall not leave this room alive today, Faceless One!"

The monster rolled his eyes at her slender figure for a couple of seconds, before bursting out laughing, genuinely entertained. As far as Zaelro knew, he had good reasons - apparently Florine Silverlance knew nothing of the Prime Treasure he wielded, the most blissful and self-devastating ignorance available when it came to mind.

"Whatever it is you are smoking, you really should cut down on it," the creature said difficultly between his laughters. "Drugs doesn't bid well to your mental stability."

"Your kind must have forgotten the power of the White Prime Maiden, Chaos Vampire," Florine spoke in a highly confident voice, one that Zaelro had by now learnt to not use, as the fallen forms of eighty odd elite Spartan Hoplites, both dead and wounded in the background, reminded him rather too late. "In case you have, I have readied a special gift for you!"

Florine did not wait until she had finished her taunt than she rose her right arm above her head, revealing in her palm a certain object deserving a great deal of curiosity. As Zaelro saw, its closest equivalent in a standard fantasy RPG would be a sorceress' staff, made of a shiny metal that glittered endlessly beneath the dimmed crystal lamps high above. It seemed to have all the fanonical components of such a weapon as well, and if it wasn't for its size being no more than a standard ball-point pen it would have been highly intimidating in its own rights. Before Zaelro could wonder if such a small object could be of any use, the young lady began to charge up that tiny staff, or so it seemed, as the staff, closely followed by her hand, were glowing at a rapidly increasing magnitude, discharging buzzing bleeps, vaguely reminiscent of those of standard Tesla coils omnipresent in the mishmash laboratories of any comic book mad scientist worth his salt, in its wake.

In seconds, the effect of the action became more visual, as the glow quickly transformed into a full-scale, radiant illumination that covered her entire fist and the upper part of her arm in a ball of semi-aural, semi-volatile ball of both fire and light. And then, with a loud cry, she flung her hand in a gracious, ceremonial crescent downward, flinging the molten mix of deadly magic at the faceless menace. The fireball hit the Faceless One in just a second's notice, with its victim still staring at its beautiful caster with an eye of both keen interest and amusement. There was a huge blast, followed by several lesser explosions as follow-ups, as the collision went home, throwing up a performance no less flashy than the column of flame accompanying Florine's appearance. It vaguely reminded Zaelro of the epic end-series scenario in which the generic comic book superhero would blow up the mad scientist's lair. The blast and its subordinates were clearly of a lesser magnitude, but the amount of dust, gravel and broken granite they tossed into the air was no less than that. The incendiary effect, as Zaelro coined it, was no less than a procession of firework, as the smaller explosions clustered around the target in a perfect circle, as if devouring his entire from with the raging blaze. And the heat – even from a distance, Zaelro's face, the only part of his body unprotected by the Aurora Set seemed to have been slightly scalded by the intense searing heat in the wake of the assault. After the cluster of incendiary explosions had subsided, once more the space in front of Zaelro was clouded in the veil of particle debris, with seemingly no sign of activity beneath it. And that was not to mention a good deal of smoke to add to the drama.

For a moment Zaelro thought he had judged her wrong – with a magical weapon of that caliber, the lady in white might actually be able to liquefy the faceless menace after all. And no later than another moment later he realized that he had been right after all. For when the last speck of dust settled down and smoke fully dissipated from the epicenter, the Faceless One still stood there, his featureless head hidden well behind and flawlessly protected by the raven shield of the Gespenst Set. The rest of his body clearly wasn't even touched by the flame, all owing to the legendary defense of a Prime Treasure.
By then the very visual extravagance of the attack had turned into but a sour insult for its caster, and the faceless monster knew exactly this from the look of confusion, amazement and horror in the woman's eyes. The sneer he gave back was nothing short of a bitter insult, while carrying elements of revelations as well. For reasons she didn't know, the opponent she now faced was not the one she had expected to see.

“Ah, so you have become a full-fledged Prime Maiden by now, I suppose?” the Faceless One shook his head as he began closing on the young lady's position, his pace measured and unhurried. “Not many can contain the Ancestor's Third Order of Flame, let alone use it with the degree of ferocity you have just now. However,” he picked up his pace as he spoke, “in this case, ancestral magic alone is not enough.”

Pausing a little, as if feeding on the dread and surprise on the beauteous features of his opponent, the Faceless One sneered in mild contempt.

“Face it, Princess,” he said. “Even if there were a full moon tonight, with the petty magic of the long-lost age you would still be a mile from even grazing me. And you would want to defeat me, of all people? Just look at yourself and think twice.”

He was right. Florine's position was far less than optimistic. Eying him with both extreme rage and consuming fatigue, Florine must have poured out the majority of whatever she had in an attempt to steam-roll the faceless maniac. If anything, the way she bent her neck and panted heavily strengthened that claim even further. And Vjaya's swallowing glint of darkness mirroring on the less damaged granite tile appeared to be even more murderous and bloodthirsty than before, as its wielder approached the now-defenseless woman with psychopathic calmness and a careless, yet completely focused gaze – both of which not too unfamiliar in the classic cult horrors that Zaelro had the chance to acquaint himself with. At this point Zaelro gasped. Being a good half a dozen yard away from her and slumped on the ground rather awkwardly, there was no way he could make it to save the poor lady on time. Unconsciously he shut his eyes, his subconscious mind fearing for the worst while the conscious one reminded him that the worst was going to happen anyway. The last thing Zaelro saw before giving in to that instance of childish cowardice was the ghastly, pitch black blade of the Darkness Sword Vjaya rising above the murderer's head, as he precisely aimed for a kill...

And then reality smacked him on both ears with the sharp, brief sound of metal clashing, both preceded and followed by clear gasps of awe and amazement from the mass of soldiers on the first floor balcony. Uncovering his eyes and throwing a glance at the commotion, Zaelro immediately understood the reason for such gasps. There, right next to the tall, large and physically imposing figure of the faceless killer, stood a slender, rather pale figure, with a mass of hastily combed hair and the black uniform signature of an average Japanese high school student, having dashed to the rescue from virtually nowhere. As the commander's gaze trailed off the figure's head and down his arm, interest turned to a half-pint horror. The figure, whoever that was, had apparently stopped Vjaya dead in its track with... nothing at all, or so it appeared. The Darkness Sword seemed to have been stopped in mid-air for no conventional reason, as it was suspended dangling just over the male figure's head. From the pose the figure took, one arm raised at the same level as the dark blade and the other supporting it from below, the most logical inference was that an invisible weapon had come into the stage to do the newcomer's bidding.

Zaelro's hypothesis was well-founded. No sooner than the English commander had a chance to rub his eyes yet again that he noticed a strange, out-of-the-ordinary glow around the fingertips of the figure's raised arm. Its purpose was explained with keen eyes – a closer look revealed that the mass of air protruding from those glows were strangely distorted, glassy and sparkling, seemingly solidified into the shape of a cutting blade. That blade did somehow blocked Vjaya well enough, as if the everyday mixture of oxygen and nitrogen had mutated into a metallic material by the command of the new figure, manifesting itself into a perfect parody of steel, nowhere as heavy, and yet every bit as hard, sharp and durable. Most importantly, the Faceless One's deadly blade could find no way to breach that non-material defense to sink into either him or the fair maiden he shielded behind.

And then with a speed beyond the ordinary, the newcomer flung the air blade at the faceless attacker before he could realize the failure and withdraw Vjaya to defend himself. From astonishment to startle the attacker's ghastly gaze grew, and reactively he dashed backward to avoid the blow, but only slightly. A scratch appeared across his ghostlike empty visage, letting blood. He had been hit, and clearly had it not been for the legendary defense of the Shadowcast Helm the damage would have been worse. The newcomer had somehow done what took four hundred soldiers, ten minutes and a couple of hundred pounds of arrows to do, in a split second – injuring and knocking back the armor and offense superior Faceless One, though only slightly. The resolution took place so quickly that the selected soldiers of the Valhallan Regiment as well as their commander were stun-struck for a couple of seconds as this happened. Needless to say, the supposedly invincible faceless attacker was even more shocked, and from the way his eyes froze in total disbelief, it was evident that never before he had taken such a blow.

The uniform-clad intervener then turned back to face Florine, eying her with a mild, friendly reproach. In doing so, he revealed his own visage to the observant English commander. At that sight, Zaelro Fastoff no longer believed his eyes. It was Takashi Minamoto standing before him now. As if his face was not recognizable enough, that pale, unhealthy complexion of a chronic lung patient, that glance of an unfounded, self-mantra optimism in the face of impending death an imminent danger, even the sudden, incoherent cough getting into words' way, Zaelro knew not of another.

“You should never have,” coughed the newcomer as he shook his head at the lady in white, “left me behind in that way, should you? Running down four storeys is tiring.”

From his tone Zaelro had cleared the last speck of doubt. That speech was unique to Takashi – both cheerful and joking and serious and critical at the same time, as well as always reminded people of his illness with a distinct cough sounding as if tearing his bronchi apart.

“Sorry, I... I just couldn't resist the urge to...” came Florine's reply, as she smiled bashfully at her rescuer.

“You are still weak,” commented the rescuer, his voice rang with a strong degree of concern. “It wouldn't do too well for you to...”

Zaelro was strongly intrigued as he listened on with even stronger astound. At this moment, no longer did the astonishment resolved in a mild whisper; this time, the full extent of disbelief spewed out of his mouth in a full-blown exclamation, interrupting the duo in mid-sentence.

“Taka-chan!” was the single word Zaelro uttered, in a rather muddled revelation. His call was effective enough – the newcomer whisked towards his voice in an instance. And from the stare he gave, his astonishment could only be equal to or greater than Zaelro's own.

“Fastoff-san? What are you... doing here? And... for all what is sacred,” as his eyes trailed off Zaelro's face and down on his apparel, the astonishment grew in intensity even more, proportionate to his voice and the awed look in his dark brown pupils, “what are you wearing?”

Zaelro did not answer for good reasons – their enemy was far from vanquished. When the first impression of astonishment had died down and the fury and bloodlust returned to the usual beast in the faceless monstrosity, it was his time to launch a counter attack. With a thunderous cry and a flaring edge, he lunged at the duo in an instant, and to Zaelro's horror, Vjaya's deadly glint was within yards of Takashi's position before he could even react. It looked as if Takashi did not understand the sudden change in Zaelro's expression as he looked over his shoulder with clear horror, and that misunderstanding was placing him at blade's end now. The only thing that came to Zaelro's mind was to defend his friend at all cost – from a distance. And then came the most unconventional idea that had ever come to Zaelro. With a hasty step, he leaned backward, the Borelias sword of the Aurora Set loosely in hand, before throwing himself forward, letting go of the weapon, sending it flying at the attacker from an angle.

Like a gigantic throwing dagger, Borelias flew across the hall, spinning around directly at the faceless' path. Only after he had thrown the sword haphazardly did Zaelro realize how fortunate his friends had been – had he been standing in line with them, the blade could have sliced them both into halves before the attacker could even be hit. But he threw it from an angle, and what appeared to have been the most random of decisions had worked at least. The blade homed directly at the faceless attacker, and when the blood-crazed Faceless One realized its presence, he only had enough time to swing Vjaya at the coming projectile to defend himself.

And then there was a blinding flash as Borelias and Vjaya collided. And, as if there hadn't been enough incendiary effects since the beginning of the evening, another explosion ensued on impact, as if what Zaelro had thrown was not a sword, but rather a grenade made of the most volatile of gunpowders. The next thing Zaelro realized was columns of black and golden flames forming around the target in tandem, leaving the Faceless One trapped in the middle and in thorough confusion. That confusion did not last long, however, as the blazes soon closed on him to his utter horror. In seconds the entire of his form was engulfed in a dual-colored pillar of flame, much more potent and destructive than Florine's first demonstration, swathing a clean circle in the blast region. Had Takashi and Florine not realized the coming blast and dashed off on time, the blast would have similarly made short work of them.

To conclude the devastation of the explosion, gusts of wind threw up from the origin of the blast, tossing randomly ground tiles, shattered bricks, ruined furniture as well as any stray arrow from the longbow barrage in their way around the battle zone at a lethal speed, buffeting whatsoever caught in the crossfire. Fortunately, both Takashi and Florine managed to duck on time, while Zaelro was practically untouchable with the protection Aurora offered. The remaining of the hall's decorations, however, were not so lucky. As a result, after the storm of debris, the king-sized picture of the hotel's founder hanging over the great hall could only be recognized as a grand archery target with the multitude of arrows pinning on it. Suffering from the same fate were the collection of Ming vases and European sculptures all around the place. Not a single one survived the explosion's aftermath.

When the last arrow had pinned on the unfortunate picture, the last vase collapsed on the ground and splintering, and the cloud of smoke and lighter debris settled down once more, what lay before everyone was a scene of mass destruction. Tiles broken, ground charred, any remaining decorative item torn into pieces and shattered, and part of the first floor balcony railing had also been blown away as well. Zaelro would have worried about the well-being of his soldiers garrisoned up there, had the next thing not occupied him wholly. The next scene, if anything, was more of a nasty realization. The Faceless One knelt on the ground, apparently scorched beyond his belief in the inferno, signifying a defeat, but at a price to Zaelro's forces. There, pinned on the ground was the Borelias, or, more accurately, splintered fragments of Borelias. The famed Winged Sword of the Aurora Set itself did not survive the explosion it initiated, while its Gespenst counterpart was still intact, slightly singed by the flame at most. Its golden form lay in shamble on the ground, its glittering glint broken, and needless to say, that revelation came at the disbelief of the entire Valhallan crews. Although the fragmented Borelias was quick to return to the commander, its pieces, shattered and utterly useless, now appeared a mockery of the power it was supposed to hold.

Difficultly the faceless menace stood up, although his powers had apparently been culled a great deal by the soaring flame. Still, his defiant form suggested anything but giving up. That was, until he suddenly realized the loss of weight on his left arm and glanced at it. His eyes looked as if it would burst out of its socket at the realization he made next. The Nocturnal Guard had been knocked off his had, presumably in the blast, and as he threw his panicked glance around the hall to see what had happened, his eyes caught the glimpse of the item, although it was far from usable by then. The mighty impact of the blast not only knocked it off his control, it also slung the item across the hall, pushing it into the wall a dozen yards away, locking the metal plate sunken halfway into the masonry. From the way half the shield stuck out of the wall, it was evident that only a force nothing short of a hundred horsepower could remove it from the orifice.

The way two Prime Treasures were trashed in mere seconds were nothing like any Valhallan soldier or officer had ever seen or heard. For a good moment, the veil of silence reigned across the hall, leaving the oblivious Takashi and Florine looking around, their eyes reflecting the lack of understanding thoroughly. Only when the relieved, hearty voice of the French general on the second floor sounded than the silence came to a close.

“Sire!” shouted Sieur de l'Aquitaine. “We made it! The last man has been evacuated from the second floor!”

The leader instinct in Zaelro Fastoff awakened with that shout. As he broke out of the hypnotic trance and glanced around the room, it became a matter of course that they should not linger around any longer. Suppressing the shock with all his mental strength, Zaelro shouted back.

“Alright everyone, let's pull out of here!” Zaelro's voice carried the decisiveness of a full-fledge general, one not known to him before the last week.

But certainly things hadn't ended yet. The new complications, namely, Takashi and Florine, as well as a broken Prime Treasure and another lodged on the wall and needed recovering, meant that they couldn't just simply warp out of the room. And there was always the Faceless One to mind. And the latter, as the silence broke, started to show a threatening sign beyond the previous. His eyes changed in a nick of a moment – the sarcastic, advancing sadism as seen in his phantom-like glare before had vanished as if it had never existed, and in its place a sign of manic rabidity, like that of a mad dog with an urge to bite to death anyone and everyone in its rampage. Even when he went around the place snapping heads and slicing people into halves just some minutes ago, that sign of craze had not been seen. It seemed as if his sanity had been put off-line for the moment, and for someone of that kind of power, that sign could be anything but good.

The realization served as a warning sign to Zaelro in an extremely timely manner. No sooner than Zaelro had decided to shell himself up behind the golden Shield of Faith than the wounded beast gave out a terrible, savage roar from its very origin, as he immediately lunged at the sword-tosser. Zaelro's muscles stiffened as the creature charged at him, hoping for the best with the golden guard.

The best, in this one case, did not happen. There was a recognizable shredding sound, followed by a real, cutting pain on the blocker's shield-wielding arm as the beast crossed his position. The sound of blood tricking on the ground in its wake followed by a weakening sensation of his arm prompted Zaelro to look down. And there before his terrified sight lay the first major injury he had ever taken since this all began, no, since the beginning of his life. Somehow, the Faceless' attack had sliced through the thick golden shield, cutting through even the layer of armor beneath it, resulting in a debilitating gash on his left arm. The shock damage and the profuse amount of blood loss resulted in the commander losing his touch and sense around the cut before feeling pain, and in due time, the paralyzed arm dropped the golden shield on the ground with a square clang, to the dismay of all his subordinates. Apparently he was out of commission for good.

Needless to say how astonished Zaelro was – the plate and the shield supposedly impregnable, both sliced through with one single stroke. However, he had no time to try and figure out the answer for himself - the ravager's carnage drive hadn't yet ended. As the charge ended the faceless killer halted and about-faced almost instantly, before diving back at the weakened foe with the same degree of ferocity. Without a shield and with his body beaten up rather badly, Zaelro would not survive a direct hit. The commander's survival instinct did not allow that to happen, and barely he managed to dive roll sideway before being skewered by the blade when the killer ran past him.

In that moment, he still had enough time and curiosity to steal a glance of the murderer. And at this point Zaelro realized that if his previous impression of the Faceless One was just that of a sadistic murderer, now on the featureless visage of the beast, there was nothing left but insanity. His bluish, glowing eyes had lost their tints almost totally, turning into two blood-shot sockets with barely any touch of sanity, whatever hair he had on top of his head was standing on ends, and from an unseen orifice his relentless roars sounded, like a berserker's battle cry, as he rushed into combat without any more consideration to his own well-being. Zaelro shook his head rather disbelievingly at the next analogy that came to his mind thereafter. Bullfighting was fun, but not when you are a bumbling bullfighter, like he was, or when the bull happened to be a seven-feet, Gespenst-clad monster with far superior speed, offense and technique, like his opponent was.

There was no time to think any more. The time had come for the faceless beast to launch the third offense, and Zaelro was now in no position to dodge. Crawling on the ground and struggling to get afoot with an injured arm and a heavy armor the hero was, Zaelro could barely, if anything, avoid even the haphazard punch from an amateur brawler with unruly techniques and horrible accuracy. In that dire moment, the only part of Zaelro's brain still functioning was his primitive survival instinct, though the only remedy it could issue was by ordering his body to roll sideway, which wouldn't help too much – the slow and cumbersome getaway guaranteed but a fraction of a percentage in terms of survival chance. And with the murderer charging head-on at him in the same reckless, raging-buffalo manner, Zaelro's seconds seemed numbered.

Before the Faceless' cruel blade could sink into the downed commander's flesh as he wished, another column of fire – yet another one – collapsed on his head with the full stopping power and scorching tempest of a raging wildfire. The sudden impact of the blast engulfed the killer with ease, saving Zaelro yet again. Unlike the last two times, when the Faceless One dryly shrugged off the fireballs, this time he was certainly taking damage. The shield gone meant that he was open for a lot more damage than before, and his haphazard berserkergang was anything but helpful in terms of defense. As a result, when the fire subsided and the smoke faded, the faceless ravager was significantly scorched, smoke rising from various parts of his plate, as he knelt on the ground, letting out clear panting sounds. Yet, the look on his face was only more threatening than before – now his bloodshot eyes seemed to have swelled in rage, seemingly popping out of the sockets at any time. And judging from how rage powered him up following the black-and-white-flame explosion, going as far as cutting through the Shield of Fate and the Golden Aurora Plate simultaneously, Zaelro's semi-functional common sense dictated that it would only be foolhardy, not to mention suicidal, to remain and attempt to test out how far he would go on with his madness.

“All units, move out!” Zaelro faintly gave an order. Though weakened by injury, astonishment, a good deal of horror and a huge amount of confusion, Zaelro's voice still sounded quite firm. “Archers and hoplites, warp back to HQ! Commanders, remain in the field for further duty!”

Zaelro's idea of further duty was more than understandable – he was nowhere near readiness to run off with that kind of injury hampering his every move. And not to mention Takashi and Florine. As much as the former had demonstrated some crazy combat skills unbeknownst to the world of conventional warfare as well as saved the day once with them, the asthmatic teen seemed to have reached his limit, from the way he bent his neck difficultly just to breath now. And the latter had exhausted the last bit of her strength with that attack just now. She looked as if she could barely stand any more, her face bewildered, gasping for breath, looking as if she could collapse at any minute. Survival demanded that they get out of there before the mad sword beast could regain his combat capacity and start bull-running them again.

From the first floor balcony, the Hoplite commander nodded at his superior in approval, immediately turning to his brethren and signaled them to get the job rolling. The solidarity in terms of thought and mutual understanding within the Valhallan Regiment was more than satisfactory – at just a signal's notice, the four other commanders had each summoned their own trusty war-steeds while the soldiers still alive after the action warped their way out of danger. Conveniently hopping on Count Schwagger's white Bavarian stallion, Oredin nodded at the others, glancing at the battered commander and his friends down on the ground floor. With a blink of an eye, the four healthy, battle-hardened steeds leaped down the battered, bloody flight of stairs, galloping straight towards the downtrodden English commander-in-chief.

“Sire! We are out of here, now!” Oredin's decisive voice rang below his helmet, in an urgent tone.

“Beautiful, partners!” Zaelro exclaimed in relief as he clumsily clambered up Sieur de l'Aquitaine's steed, the injured arm kept getting in his way. When aloft the saddle, he immediately gazed at Takashi and his new acquaintance meaningfully. “We need to get them out as well!” he said.

“Sire, but...” Zaelro realized that General Peshkov could barely look at Takashi without a glint of disgust, and that, if anything, the general would vote they leave the asthmatic high-school student for dead at the place. As much as he understood the majority of his thoughts, Zaelro could not, and would not tolerate such a thought, let alone that was by far no time for vengeance to get into the way of humanity.

“You heard me, General Peshkov,” weakened and slightly dizzy now due to the remarkable loss of blood Zaelro was, his voice still sounded calmly and decisively. “Get them out of here as well. You may avoid having to give Taka-chan a lift if you want to, but that is just about it.”

“Sire... yes, sire.” was General Peshkov's final answer, and the said commander ended up riding to the maiden in white, offering her on horseback with the chivalrous courtesy of a true Russian nobleman, while Sir Jonathan proceeded to help Takashi up his own steed, although he would much more prefer to have a fair maiden rather than a diseased youth behind him for the rest of the trip.

As little as the duo knew about the origin of the cavaliers or their motives, Zaelro's friendly and trustworthy presence persuaded both of them of his benevolence. They glanced at each other, before sharing an affirmative nod and get themselves mounted. With Florine well-seated on the nobleman's saddle and the Minamoto young master balancing behind the English, the escape convoy quickly assembled in formation. However, assembly time was cut short as soon as Zaelro realized that the Faceless One had finally been able to stand up. With another ferocious roar he dashed at the mounted rescuers, blade in hand, ready for the kill. Weakened as he was after the myriads of explosions, the craze in his eyes were seemingly prying his eyes off the sockets in pure bloodlust.

“Run!” Zaelro exclaimed, resulting in the four riders shooting off through the open door into the street, horses in full gallop. They left the killer trailing behind promptly thereafter – the lightning-fast pace of the celestial steeds of the Valhallan Regiment would give no chance for pursuit at all, unless the pursuer had anything the caliber of an F1 racing car, which the Faceless One hadn't. As he glanced back, the last thing Zaelro could notice was the downtrodden, disappointed and enraged shadow of the killer gave out a loud, savage roar, before he somehow vanished into thin air. The assassin had finally been forced to admit defeat, or so it appeared.

“Where do we go next, sire?” came his riding instructor's voice, when the menace was safely detached from their rear.

“Let's see. The safest place now to regroup is on the Southern bank of the lake south-east of the town center!” the image of the quaint corner on the lakeside that Takashi and his friends called theirs came to Zaelro's mind as the nearest equivalent of a fine place to escape to. There would likely be no enemies, no curious eyes, and most of all, no police around the place.

”Yes, those uniformed investigators could be a real pain in the butt if they catch us,” Zaelro thought.

******

DF  Post #: 23
1/4/2009 23:34:08   
Argeus the Paladin
Member

Chapter 23
Tragedy's Aftermaths


With an injured arm and a broken Borelias, finally Zaelro Fastoff and his comrades made it away safely. They were in particular luck – when they arrived at the regroup point, the lakeside was completely empty. After all, no one would have the reason to brave the vicinity of the lake, pitch black at night and without any sound security, when there was an infinitely safer strolling area for the elders and distinctively more romantic dating spot for the teenaged just a mile away – the central park.

The English commander got off the horse with even more difficulty than getting on with the slight dizziness worsening a little. Shielded as he was, the Faceless' attack still tore through his defense and caused a remarkable wound. Though the long, horizontal gash across his left arm was by no means fatal – otherwise he would have been dead by now - the loss of blood until that time still gave Zaelro a nasty feeling of sluggishness, not to mention a shredding pain and a cold chill running down his spine, now that he had time to rethink. Had the shield not been there he would have possibly had to kiss the limb good-bye, or even worse – not a beautiful sight at all.

And what was even more uncomfortable, his armor was getting in the way, trapping all the sweat in the vicinity of his arm within, soaking his wound, adding itchiness and stinging pricks to the cutting pain. Removing it was an impossibility – he had tried twice on horseback and once more as they stopped, to now avail. The arm plates were stuck to his appendage as if glued and scotch-taped for extra security, and forcefully removing it would mean anything from skinning himself to tearing out his own injured limb, as the increased serrated pains with each of his unsuccessful attempts warned him not to attempt any further.

“Why wouldn't you,” Zaelro grimaced in sheer frustration as he shook his head at the offending arm guard hopelessly, “just get off?”

Had the novelties and dramas of the past few days not revved him up and attuned him gradually with the flow of a supernatural lifestyle he would have possibly jerked once more at the sight of what happened next – the solid arm guard's locks and hatches slowly clicked, one by one, and in a couple of seconds, fell to the ground into a disorderly pile of golden, individually ornate plates. A light eyebrow lift of surprise refreshed his mind, leaving ground for explanation – the Aurora Set was controlled by voice recognition, as demonstrated earlier.

His hair almost stood on end as he gazed at the result of the attack, now clearly visible. The wound was even longer than he had felt earlier, resulting in a good outflow of blood that had totally drenched his sweater, also similarly sliced by the attack. Fortunately it was the kind of injury often coined “flesh wounds”. Zaelro stared at the battle wound with a visible awe of fright - had Vjaya struck a couple of millimeter deeper, it would have ruptured his major blood vessels, which would, at least, leave him comatose, and at most, kill him squarely.

In any case, he had more concerns than just his own safety or the artfulness of his equipment in this special occasion. The battle just now, the first full-scale battle he commanded in real life, was nowhere near a victory as he wished. In fact, had it not been for Florine and Takashi, they could have actually failed miserably. In a sense, judging from the casualties his armies had suffered alone, that fight could have been actually flagged as a downright defeat. The Greek were clearly the hardest hit in the storm, and by the time it was all over, the primary detachment – Oredin's sworn brethren - had been almost totally battered. With a look filled with condolence, he glanced at his trusted Hoplite.

“Mr. Kaledon,” he finally asked, a genuine apologetic look sparked in his eyes, “It appears that our Hoplites have suffered from major... casualties in this one battle.”

“To be precise, sire, out of the one hundred brothers having taken part in this battle,” bowed Oredin as he reported, his voice dragged low down in a similar manner, “we have lost twenty-three, while another sixty-one were wounded to varying degrees. The wounded had been teleported back to base, and our medics are doing their best to save the worst wounded and to bring back the less severely injured to good health as soon as possible.”

“Damn... who could have thought that monster had so much power?” cursed the commander, as his voice became deeply concerned following the next sentence “What about the dead? Is there any way to recover their bodies? You know, in case that beast comes back and... not to mention the cops as well.”

“Sire, we Greek consider it a vast dishonor to leave our martyrs lying strewn around the battlefield so that our enemies could strip their armors and humiliate their remains,” Oredin explained. “Fortunately the Valhallan units are issued with a system to allow for the recovery of our late brethren's bodies. Sire, there remains are now, I can assure you, safe with us.”

Zaelro said nothing, although his glance showed a certain degree of approval. Fathomably he was still stunned by the vastly overwhelming power of the attacker even now that he was within safety's reach. If his memory served him well, even Alexander the Great's famous Cataphracts were by themselves unable to charge a full detachment of Greece's most elite soldiers and win, not to mention the Valhallan Regiment's Hoplites had been extremely beefed up compared to their historical brothers. How a monster could rush that world-famous wall of spears and send dozens of them to the afterlife and dozens more confined to the hospital bed was, if anything, a gross display of unbelievable superpower. Stun-struck awe gave way quickly for regret – undeniably it was his defensive strategy that placed them in the frontline to face the scourging edge of the dark sword Vjaya.

“Mr. Kaledon, please speak your mind,” Zaelro finally said, almost turning away from his general as if guiltily avoiding his eyes, as sharp as the bronze spear he wielded. “Could those deaths be avoided had I not... chosen the tactic I employed?”

“Sire, I understand that we are facing an enemy unlike any other we have come across in the entire of our previous life, and if we hadn't come to the field today we would all have no idea of what we are going to face. And while our enemy possesses such power, I myself believe, sire, that no other strategy could have reaped a better result,” Oredin replied calmly and analytically. “At least, you can rest assure that the death of those unfortunate brothers of ours haven't been in vain. They have saved lives with their deaths, and that is all we can hope for as warriors – to die a meaningful death.”

Zaelro nodded, having run short of better things to say in that situation. His injuries, on the other hand, would not allow for a better conclusion of the exchange – the sharp shredding pain across his calf was now escalating by the minutes. And yet his injury and ailment was by no means worst within the group. Takashi was as white as a sheet as he got down from horseback after lingering there for some time, apparently to regain his breath. Apparently his physique was cut out for neither his attack in the battle nor the mounted high-speed getaway just now. With one hand on his chest and the other left dangling downright, his neck and back bent gasping for air, he basically had to struggle to control his trembling hands to produce his life-saving talisman from his pocket, in the form of a finger-sized medicine tube which he then placed in his mouth and inhaled deeply. His color got back on soon, but throughout all that ordeal his eyes appeared rather sunken in fatigue as he stood back upright, breathing heavily to signify the difficult accomplishment of the self-resuscitation.

All the while, Florine was sitting on horseback without moving the least bit, silent as a statue. She finally got off in the most awe-inspiring way available - by essentially falling off the saddle with eyes firmly closed to her carrier's horror. Had Takashi not been there and react quickly, throwing his arms in range to break her fall, General Peshkov's disoriented gasp alone would not save her from a worse injury upon dismounting. The innocent Japanese student's face blushed slightly as her slender, feminine figure collapsed on him, his arms strapped around her waist, her bosom brushed against his in a seemingly compromising position. His reddened face quickly turned into dismay as he looked down. His left hand supporting her weight was wet and somehow reddened - she was bleeding at waist-level, effectively drenching the teen's fingers in the bright crimson liquid. She was as white as, or even paler than Takashi just a minute now, and her figure slumping over him was anything but optimistic.

“What is happening here?” Zaelro exclaimed as he heard the sound of her falling over on top of his friend.

“She need,” Takashi shouted at the top of his voice as he held the girl tightly in his grip, in spite of the series of coughs that held it back. “urgent medical attention,” there went another series of coughing, “immediately!”

“Is this... blood?” Zaelro shuffled towards the duo with due urgency, “Damn... when did she get hit?” as he spoke a mild, but visible grimace appeared across his face, “If only Steedy were here... Ouch!”

His last exclamation of pain was understandable. His own wound was nowhere near healed, and his every running step inflicted more pain along its edge, as well as threatening to tear it apart. It became clear that Florine was not the only in need of healing. Needless to say Oredin, being the loyal retainer he was, could not stay put any longer.

“Sire, I will send for the medical team immediately!” the Hoplite commander spoke quickly.

“But still,” Zaelro responded without thinking, “we have more severely wounded brothers to tend to, don't we?”

“Please allow me, sire, it seems that this young lady has received an injury no less than our Hoplites,” Sir Jonathan promptly spoke as he threw a glance of deep concern at the fair maiden, signifying one rare occasion when the English lord and Oredin's thought coincided. In approval the Greek nodded, along with a reactive shrug – Sir Jonathan's motives were more obvious than the midday sun, with his gaze fixed at the steady stream of blood oozing out of her waistline anxiously.

But it was not before Takashi threw him a stare of both pleading and distress, biting him no less than the tingling pain around his physical injury that Zaelro was finally persuaded.

“Alright then,” Zaelro leaned against a nearby tree tiredly. “Mr. Kaledon, please summon your best medics here. But try not to leave our own soldiers unattended.”

“I trust my experience in dealing with these emergencies, sire,” With the supreme commander's approval, Oredin replied with fortitude, before quickly flagging for the 25th Valhallan Regiment's medics, arriving in just a minute through the now-common warp gates.

Needless to say how awed Takashi was at the sight of a team of half a dozen men in Victorian-era doctors' garment, each with a briefcase presumably filled to the brim with curative medicines and medical equipment, teleporting into the quiet lakeside surrounding with whizzing, time-and-space-distorting warp gates. The bleeping noises of warps opening and closing simultaneously shredded the silent night, and to an everyday student who never knew of the existence of such things, their appearance meant more threat than promise. His eyes rolled at the medics in sheer confusion and fright as they approached him, or more like it, the lady he carried in his arms, tentatively. His horrified look was as if he could have actually ran away, had the weight of the woman not stopped that thought dead in its track. Or he could have actually took all he had into his hand and proceed to attack them preemptively like a wild beast, had Zaelro's trustworthy eyes not convinced him otherwise.

“Who are these... people?” Takashi finally turned to the English commander-in-chief rather frantically, figuring out that to be the best option.

“Worry not,” Zaelro coolly replied. “These are my, err, friends as well.”

“We have been entrusted with the medical care of wounded soldiers throughout the ages, sire,” said the seemingly senior doctor standing in front. “Please pay us no mind – we come to save lives, not to take them.”

The head doctor then signaled Takashi to leave the girl in their care. The teen was rather reluctant, for good reason. But then, her immense bleeding suggested that there would be no better way than letting the professional take care of it. With extreme care, he laid her across a nearby stone bench, before turning to the medical practitioners with a pleading, rather pessimistic look in his eyes. The pessimism was explainable, as the young woman was still bleeding non-stop as she laid on the bench, eyes closed, breaths weak, almost lifelessly pale in complexion.

“I don't know what to say, but,” he said, perplexity and anxiety lining his expression, tinted by hints of disbelief as well, “please save her. I... I really don't know what else to say, but...”

“We'll try our best, sir,” the doctor told him. “Rest assured – she will be fine.”

The medics quickly set to work. Quickly split into two detachments of one and five respectively, the medical practitioners instantly proceeded to patch up their two patients, their commander-in-chief and the bleeding girl. As much as Takashi looked at the doctors in disbelief at first, his attitude quickly changed when it came to them how efficiently and effectively the medical wizards armed with what appeared to be antiquated 19th century herbs and tools healed the wounded. The result: Fifteen minutes and a good amount of bandage and medicine later, both of the patients had significantly recovered. Zaelro no longer felt any clear pain, being now able to move his arm about freely as before, and his dizziness faded away rapidly. Meanwhile, Florine had stopped bleeding, and her face returned to normal, colored and healthy in look once more. What the doctors did, Zaelro and Takashi were in no position to know. All what they needed to know was that it worked miraculously well.

“Sire, danger has passed for the woman,” the head doctor said, after tying up the last sterile strip around her waist. “Although, even I am not sure how she had taken such a blow and survived. What injuries she had sustained could possibly send a healthy adult Indian white elephant to the grave.”

“Is it?” Zaelro lifted his eyebrow absent-mindedly, as if not giving a least bit about the discovery, followed by a shrug of dismissal. “Still, I thank you for your timely service. You are dismissed.”

Florine Silverlance's stabilized breathing came into the surrounding as a sign of relief as the squad of field medics departed from the zone, one by one. They had, apparently, done their job perfectly well, and what started out as a blood-loss-induced coma ended as an all-too-normal, everyday sleep for the young lady.

******


The young-but-wise English commander's next order was rather incomprehensible – with prompt speed and determined voice he dismissed General Peshkov back to base no sooner than the last medic vanished from the background. As a matter of course the general wasn't too happy with the option, and from the look on his face as he turned away Zaelro actually felt sorry for him.

“I hope I haven't insulted him too much,” Zaelro thought, his scrambled mind somehow still clear enough to be decisive. “But it is for each's best interest that he and Taka-chan stay away from each other for the time being.”

He didn't have much time to think though. No sooner had the last fragment of dizziness faded from his system and General Peshkov's silhouette became a fading shadow disappearing from the surroundings than Takashi Minamoto's peering eyes focused on him, widely opened. Looking at those eyes, glaring with curiosity and inquisition in its purest form, Zaelro could tell for certain that he owed his friend a sound explanation just as much as Takashi had much to explain himself. Yet, the overwhelming lot of revelation to be made by either side was such that both of them ended up staring at each other, never once losing eye contact, but not a word escaping their lips. There were so much to ask and answer that neither knew where to begin.

“Err... Nice armor you have got there,” Takashi finally said, after a fair struggle as of what to ask first.

“This thing has a long history, it'd take a whole day to just narrate the tale,” Zaelro replied “Anyway, it isn't exactly normal for you to stay out of home this late.”

“Well, urgent call, it was, really,” the Japanese blushed as he explained his situation. “Something unexpected popped into my agenda in the middle of things.”

“Is that responsible for your ditching class this morning as well?” with a light-hearted voice Zaelro joked. “Our head teacher would be far less believing, you know. Even less if he knew that you hadn't been at home yesterday evening as well.”

What Zaelro said last was a wild guess, from the anxiety visible across the face of the Minamoto servant back in the afternoon. He was apparently correct this time, and Takashi immediately lowered his head, bending his neck apologetically as he heard the last sentence, almost making Zaelro resent his rather accusing speech. His face turned slightly rosy as his visage were slightly hidden beneath his hair. Whatever kept him from school must be something he would not want to admit, for fear of trouble or unfavorable gossips in its wake. Yet, the way he stuck around Florine Silverlance for the entire duration of the encounter, as well as the anxious look on his face as she collapsed was more than revealing itself.

“Is it because of,” Zaelro paused a little as he turned his neck to the figure slumping on the stone bench, “her?”

“It's a little too obvious, right?” Takashi breathed out. “I have to admit, yes.”

“You have any idea who she is?” Zaelro questioned rhetorically.

“I have some, but not much,” Takashi said, seemingly puzzled. “The tale is long, but, in a nutshell, she stopped me in the street just yesterday afternoon.”

“To ask for help?”

Ask is an euphemism in this situation. Yes, she did demand help, and believe it or not,” smiled the Japanese schoolboy with some degree of relief. “she actually threatened to take violent resolves if I didn't comply, but, well, as I stayed close to her I saw that,” he stole a glance at her peacefully sleeping figure on the bench, “she was the type of person who would want nothing less than violence.”

“Even though she is a vampire?” Zaelro spewed out his own knowledge, which, needless to say, amazed Takashi to a maximum extent, such that he was struck silent for a good moment.

“You... you have already know about that?” finally he said, not making any attempt to conceal the jaw-dropping astound, after which he purposefully switched topic with haste. “She doesn't look anything like one, though.”

“With all the vampire incidents as reported by popular rumors around town recently and the cops being able to do nothing more than watching like sitting ducks,” Zaelro shook his head in disbelief, “if you stick around with a vampire for a whole day either you are crazy or retarded, which I am sure you aren't.”

“I thought so at first as well, but then, with the time we spent together since then,” answered his friend, “if she had wanted to have a piece of me I'd have been a carcass drained of blood by now. But here I am, still as healthy as ever.”

“Don't tell me that you spent last night with her,” Zaelro rolled his eyes, and although he had tried his best to keep the accusation tone to the minimum, his disbelief still spewed out in a rather harshly astonished voice. The reply was a foregone conclusion, with his friend's slow and reluctant movement of the neck downwards, clearly a nod. The English teen's response to that might have been a little more dramatic than his friend would like – his eyebrows almost tearing themselves from the eye, and his mouth opened wide in a big gasp.

“It... it is not like you think!” Takashi hastily corrected, his face now turning redder than ever before, as if all of the blood vessels over his face had burst in a second's notice. “We didn't... do anything wrong!”

“You are lucky I am not Nataka-chan, or you would be in a huge mess when you go back to school, indeed,” Zaelro shook his head, dismissing it as a joke. “But seriously, for all what is holy, you have no reason to actually... stay with her for that length, did you?”

“You heard the doctors, didn't you?” Takashi silently spoke.

“She apparently been hit by something with such powerful force that she could have been sent six feet under several times,” paraphrased Zaelro. “Are you related to it in any way at all?”

“Yes. I am the one who... did it to her,” Takashi confessed, his head still kept low, only to throw up and stared at Zaelro with some degree of desperation in the next speech. “I won't be surprised if you don't believe me, but I kind of... sliced her into halves, and she had to use all of her reserves just to heal herself, leaving her completely defenseless.”

“I believe in everything and anything with a sound explanation,” Zaelro shook his head, hiding away the astound of the moment with a neutral, cautious speech. “Just how could you have done it?”

“I know this is as unbelievable as the moon blowing up, but,” Takashi spoke too sincerely to be responded with disbelief or doubt, “she is among my two victims in the slaughter in the central park last Friday. Again, you may or may not believe it, but it is the truth.”

That statement rang a bell to the English teen, as the imageries of a horrifying footage of carnage returned to his mind with the needed shock effect. And the image of the girl collapsing in a pool of blood as Sergeant Vassiliyevich charged to his death was highlighted as the soundest of proofs in this case.

“In this case I can but believe,” Zaelro said at last. “There is nothing I know that can disprove it.”

“And so, well, it was kind of an obligation,” Takashi went on. “She appeared to be in genuine need of help, and I thought it would be better if I just lend a hand.”

“Nice,” Zaelro said, stomping his amazement into the ground with all his might – when had an asthmatic patient possessed by an evil spirit fond of slicing both friend and foe into thin bite-size pieces be useful in physical combat engagements, after all?
But then, Zaelro's amazement stopped abruptly when he realized that his dream sequence meant anything but good in that situation. In his dream, she was being hunted, and if anything, the event in the hotel just now confirmed the predicament with a hundred percent confidence. It could even suffice to say that the murderous demon's primary purpose in coming there and commit that atrocity was to look for her. In other word, the innocent lady sleeping peacefully near them was passively responsible for all those deaths and destruction.

“Anyway, this looks more serious than it may seem,” Zaelro concluded his thoughts with a bent neck and a hand propping his chin, “From what I knew, her life would be in danger if she just stay in this place, let alone walk around like she was doing.”

“Well, what do you know?” Takashi returned the question.

“Quite a few. I know her name, her identity, at least partially, and the fact that she would get herself killed quicker than a flying arrow if she just stay here,” Zaelro replied.

In the next fifteen minutes Zaelro narrated his dream on the very first day he set foot on Japanese soil, clearly explaining how he got to know of her existence, her familial tragedy, how her retainer traded his own life and wealth for her safety, and how she barely got away from doom a couple of hours before the hammer fell. He specifically mentioned his own speculations – the town was literally crawling with lurking vampires and their undead minions just waiting for a good chance to grab Florine Silverlance by the neck and hand her to their supreme leader. Takashi nodded to each and everything Zaelro said, with increasing amazement with each nod – apparently their tales fitted perfectly and doubtlessly.

“Just how could so much coincidence be there?” he finally gasped. “Your account was anything from a retelling to a mild paraphrasing of what she told me. Just that she almost cried when she spoke, and you didn't.”

“I vote against such dramas,” Zaelro snickered, “But that means that logically she was you telling the truth.”

Takashi smiled as he breathed deeply in the cool evening air, releasing his stress with the rhythmic cleansing of the lungs.

“There have been a lot of surprises tonight, haven't there?” he said with a sound exhalation, to which Zaelro replied with a look of agreement across his smile. “But it was your presence that most surprised me of it all,” his next sentence backfired the question fully. “Where did you get that armor, those soldiers and become involved in that fight?”

Zaelro nodded as his friend threw a careless look around the place where his four generals stood guard. If he were him, living a peaceful life in a peaceful town without much suspense until suddenly one beautiful day his good friends turned into superheroes of sort, wearing fancy clothes and wielding fancy gadgets into a battle of unprecedented brutality he would have reacted the same. Yet, the sheer amount of information he had been poured with over the past week was nothing he could share, at least, not fully – its volume was as forbidding as its content. And he didn't feel like lying in this case.

“Now I must beg your forgiveness for further puzzling you,” Zaelro finalized his puzzle in a restricted revelation. “I am, in a way, on a massive treasure hunt. This armor is part of what I have to collect, and these soldiers,” he glanced at each of his generals, “has been dispatched to help me on that hunt. And, well, we are supposed to be snatching those stuffs from vicious vampire hands, and thus the huge army. Neat, I say.”

“Mmm,” Takashi listened attentively. “So how have you been along with the collection?”

“I'm supposed to collect six,” Zaelro shrugged, “and now only one is in my hands. However, the mission is supposed to be very secret,” he rhetorically lowered his voice, “so that is all I can tell you.”

“I understand,” Takashi nodded. “We all have our own little secrets, don't we?”

Zaelro blinked in approval. After all, Takashi had far from revealed everything he knew to him, and even though quite a lot had happened since they met, they were far from close enough to share the most secretive and decisive of information. Especially when so many things were at stake.

There was a bit of silence as both speakers turned from each other to face the tranquil evening lake. The soothing air was uniquely stress-relieving, and the frequent cricket chirping in the bushes took their mind away from the current events for some time, as the fresh scent slowly replaced the deathly smell of caked blood poisoning their mind during the battle.

“Anyway, as I said,” Zaelro eventually whisked back on topic with a deep breath, “what are your plans now? Florine Silverlance would endanger both herself and everyone around her if she stays in this town, in all logic.”

“We've been discussing this since this morning,” Takashi stated. “And Florine wants to stay in town, even if she will have to run around indefinitely. She hopes that one day the Black Emperor Reglay will come here himself, so she could personally deal with him.”

“As if she could,” Zaelro said with pure doubt. “Her 500-year-old retainer was completely and thoroughly owned by just a detachment of that vampire lord's forces, if I am to trust my dream. She is, one, weakened, two, inexperienced, three, has limited capabilities, and finally, likely to be clouded by rage which is anything but good. She'd make an excellent punching bag for the opposing faction, or even the Sankaku Police Department if they feel up to it, in this shape.”

“Not that she can leave, can she?” Takashi said, his voice slightly depressing, “It may be a little too emotional, but she doesn't seem to have another place to go to. Home gone, family destroyed, father's friends slaughtered to the last, herself being on the run ever since then...”

Takashi then moved next to her sleeping form, gazing down on her beautiful, slender body, his eyes fixed on the stray strands of gilded hair, though disheveled, flowing freely in the wind, covering a good portion of her fairy-like splendor with a thin, gentle curtain of gold. His eyes showcased a combination of both admiration and empathy as they trailed along her mastercrafted features.

“Your reaction now can very well be misunderstood, if that is the case, partner,” Zaelro said with a lightened tone, at which Takashi immediately and reactively turned away from both Florine and Zaelro, as if hiding his offending crimson cheeks.

“Just kidding,” Zaelro finally watered down the tension, before turning serious again. “But you should really find a place to put her up. Her abnormally gorgeous beauty alone would draw half the town to her location before the vamps could roll in to have a look if she keeps wandering all over the place. Which means trouble, and a lot of it.”

“Now that is where the problem was,” Takashi leaned against the bench as he resumed gazing at Florine's lovely features once more. “I could think of nowhere. My own home is large, but there are way too many people for convenience. And her previous hideout had been found out by her pursuers, and is no longer safe.”

“Let me see,” Zaelro dug his forehead into his right palm as he thought hard, before the regular clattering of Oredin's heavy bronze armor entered the quiet surrounding, ringing him a bell.

“Mr. Kaledon!” he called out in rejoice, to which the bronze-armored Greek warrior advanced to his location with due haste. “We need to put up a young lady somewhere accessible. Do you think the Regiment headquarter would fit this purpose?”

Contrary to his belief, Oredin's face turned red out of embarrassment as well, visible even through the full helmet he wore. From the way he awkwardly stood his spear on the ground and the echoing sound of his bronze hoplon hitting the ground shortly thereafter, Zaelro was certain that his most trusted general had been caught in a fit of both extreme abashment and unprecedented perplexity.

“Sire, that... that is impossible!” Oredin finally summoned enough spirit to speak, although the restricted, choppy voice he spoke in was as atypical of Oredin Kaledon as it could be.

“Why the amazement?” Zaelro asked. “Was there something wrong, Mr. Kaledon? I believe that there is plenty of space back at HQ...”

“Space is not the matter, sire,” the general spoke in the most genuinely apologetic and ashamed tone possible, as if he had been hit squarely where he was weakest and had to account for the defense failure, or confronted by a moral problem of questionable solution. “I cannot guarantee her safety if Lady Silverlance stays with us in our base.”

“Tell me why,” Zaelro rolled his eye, half astonished, half annoyed. “Unless you are not the righteous army that you claim to be, which I would least expect.”

“Sire, however you may view us, there is one thing that would likely never change,” Oredin lowered his voice, resonating within the vicinity of his helmet into a sunken echo. “We are soldiers. Men enlisted into the armies of our respective time from all walks of life, devoting our lives to war and the glory that the battlefield brings about. Yet we are humans, have been humans in our past lives and now will stay human even when ascended.”

“So?” Zaelro asked impatiently.

“We need female companionship as well, sire,” Oredin spoke even lower than before, as if disclosing a terrible secret. “More or less, we need that which had always been dismissed by poets and historians alike as an unnecessary luxury of war.”

Zaelro could hear a large gulp on Oredin's behalf, as if he just had to swallow whole an oversize, bitterly sour piece of putrid morsel.

“But alas, our deaths and ascension, as glorious and splendid as they were, effectively deprived us of that necessity for all eternity. Some of us have gone along for centuries and millenia without even seeing a single woman,” the Hoplite's speech was cloudy and doubtful, naturally. “And... such a beautiful woman like Lady Silverlance would definitely rack up some serous troubles in camp should she stay with us for even a day. The least would be distracting our soldiers in the important time of our campaign. The worst would be some of the men, or precisely my men, may, against all codes of honor and military discipline...” he gave a long, dreadful pause as he gazed at both Zaelro and Takashi. “You get the picture, sire.”

Oredin's rhetorical pause was powerful indeed – it almost made Zaelro jerk as he “got the picture”, while Takashi's complexion turned white as a sheet as he imagined the worst case scenario.

“Shoot, I totally forgot that,” Zaelro facepalmed as soon as the sense of the situation entered his system, before looking at his general apologetically in response to that realization, “That would be a bad case of scandal, I see. Mt apologies, Mr. Kaledon. I shouldn't have jumped to conclusion like that.”

The Greek did not answer, but rather bowed deeply, before recovering his ornate hoplon and slowly backed off. His face still hadn't recovered from the blush as he withdrew, a sign that made Zaelro feel odd as much as it upset him and fed him with more knowledge. On the positive side, it made him realize one important difference between a real-life Hoplite and a Real Time Strategy Games Hoplite, albeit a little late. The real one is made of flesh and blood, not pixels, and had desires and wants that were every bit as down-to-earth and unknightly as every other battle-unready city dweller, and nowhere similar to a pixilated and rigid movement and emotionless electronic command response when this was concerned. Failure to recognize that would bring about certain disasters, which Zaelro almost had to learn the hard way.

“Nope,” Zaelro shrugged. “If that wouldn't work as well, where else safe we can let her stay for the time being?”

A moment of dire silence reigned across the location as the duo sat down on the grass, thinking. Often, group thinking produces far better results than working alone – this being one such instance. No later than five minutes since they took their seat than idea made itself available to one of them.

“Wait a second,” Takashi almost leaped up, struck by a most timely discovery. “I have the perfect place in my mind!”

******


It turned out that the first official investigators to arrive at the crime scene after the Valhallan Regiment made their exodus were not uniformed detectives with badges, notebooks, professional cameras and a plethora of other sparking clean and shiny evidence-gathering tools. Instead, the messy scene caused by Zaelro's holdout was first tend to by a shadowy, three-man squad, arriving just a couple of minutes after his army had successfully evacuated. The broken automatic door crumbled to the ground as the two men and one woman moved into the scene, behind it the scene of unspeakable destruction.

From the way they approached, professionally silent and with tentative thoroughness, they had come there to do exactly what the police were expected to – investigate. The woman, small and agile, walked briskly into the premise, and the two others, a hulking, muscular mustached man of remarkable height and size and a bright youth with eyes flaring with attentive observance trailed after her. It would be quite the mistake to dismiss these 'investigators' as uniformless, because each of them wore a large, leather trench coat, without any insignia or badge, but clearly imposing and unmistakable. For the two male members of the squad, that garment didn't seem too out-of-place, but to the one female member, the apparel clearly swallowed the majority of her petite shape, as if wearing an inappropriate hand-me-down. In the wind gushing in through the shattered gateway their cloaks fluttered, adding even more to the already baleful sight of death and ravage that was spreading before their very sight.

It didn't take too long for them to realize that they had arrived far too late to actually save anyone. The scent of death hung heavily in the air as they entered – the piles of chopped-up corpses of those unfortunate enough to be caught in the serial killer's way and the various splashes and pools of blood across the hall finally took their toll. There were no less than a dozen dead bodies, many of which dissected into so many fragments it would be difficult to even identify. Not even the most psychopathic of killers would normally commit such atrocities – it was almost as if the killer was grossly fascinated with dismembering his each and every victim. The dead were extremely diverse, judging from the remaining fragments of their apparels. Old, young, businesspeople, hotel registrar, teenagers on an evening out, even children. Apparently the killer did not think twice of who he killed – he just proceeded to slash everyone in his path to pieces.

Between the gushing, strong smell of violent death were the instances when the putrid, burnt stench of semi-incinerated bodies. The ground had charred quite well by powerful, bringing with it a significant portion of body parts. Those most deformed of remains were littered with fragments of granite tiles, stripped from the ground by powerful explosions and chargrilled to perfection. No sooner than that atrocious sight had made itself fully known to the group than winces and grimaces of disbelief and disgust appeared on the features of the two male members of the group.

“This is... gross,” the large, bulky man said, as he glanced around the room, trying to find an inch square not splashed with blood, finding none. “Who could have done this?”

The woman did not answer. Instead, she approached the nearest pile of mashed remains, gazing at the semi-homogenous nauseating dump for a long time. Her eyes fixed completely upon the last remnants of the unfortunate, at the jagged, serrated wounds of some and the smooth, clean slices of others, from all angles around, as if her own eyes would make do quite well for a professional camera. All the while, the two men stood frozen in place, having apparently been grossly awed in a disgusted way. Never had they seen that much death before, and never to them had death appeared so utterly bestial and barbaric as it did now.

“It must be him,” the woman raised her voice upon finishing her painstaking surveillance. “No other vampire could possibly both possess the strength to rip a living man's head off and take great enjoyment in doing so.”

“As much as this crime is beyond the ordinary, young commander,” the large man said in disapproval, “I, for one, don't believe that vampires could have done this. This is so... unorthodox.”

“Uncle Jan, I didn't say that an ordinary, run-of-the-mill vampire was responsible for this,” the 'young commander' shook her head, her face stiffened in dire seriousness. “Even the elite of their kind would not possess a scent this strong. It was distinctive of a Chaos Vampire. A failed Vampire Lord. A rabid beast in humanoid form.”

“What?” the older man gasped. “How illogical! If this entire mobilization owes to the Black Emperor Reglay von Gendamme, then there is no way a Chaos Vampire could join the fray!”

“Well, as illogical as it is, all available proofs point to that conclusion,” the woman propped her chin conclusively. “Besides, I know just the kind of... monster who could do this and derive the most twisted of enjoyment from it.”

“This is no mean business, commander,” the large man snapped. “If a Chaos Vampire is here to complicate things up we are in for a real mess.”

“True. Our situation here would be even more pessimistic if a Chaos Vampire has joined Reglay regardless of reason,” she lowered her voice back down, as she threw her glance randomly across the room “But then, that was apparently not the only thing worth noting in this ruined place.”

“I see it as well, Commander Mina,” the younger man said. “Scorched tiles, broken railings all across the stairs and long balcony, shattered paint and all that... a battle must have taken place here. And also, look at those.”

He then pointed at the monumental remains of Zaelro's longbow barrage just some minutes ago. English longbow arrows were littered all across the hall, some pinned on the ground, other broken into halves and laid trashed on the floor, still more piercing the wall, lying amidst the splintered jars and statues or stuck in the curtains. Not to mention a large number buffeting the grand picture of the hotel founder, a sight as shocking as it was humorous. And that was not all. Shards of broken Spartan shields and long spears also lay strewn all over the place, a sign foreign to both vampires and vampire hunters, even more so to the bumbling police should they come. Had it not been for the modern setting they were in, the investigators would have been forced to believe a medieval battle had taken place there rather than a one-sided vampire massacre as they had been informed of.

“Arrows,” the woman said dryly.

The sheer number of those broken equipment were such that it overshadowed even the scorched ground, the broken granite tiles and the incinerated earth beneath those stripped tiles. And for good reasons as well – ever since any of them began their vampire hunting duty, they had seen plenty of death and destruction by magic, both dark and elemental, but never once seen bows and arrows and other classical weapons playing a dominant role in any vampire-related incident.

“There must be hundreds, no, thousands, no, tens of thousands of them,” remarked the young man. “Since when did vampires use bows and arrows and spears and shields and all of those so-old-history-had-forgotten stuffs to do battle?”

“The nearest equivalent is an axe,” Uncle Jan said in an attempt to crack a joke. “Only the weirder vamps in Eastern Europe use them, but those fascinated with it are aging and getting out of commission in droves.”

Mina said nothing – after all, the older vampire slayer's joke often were dull and uninspiring. But that was not the only reason, for in all honesty, she had her own share of anxiety over the seemingly insignificant items on the battlefield. From the way she looked at the arrows strewn all around the war zone, she was definitely anxious for unknown reasons. Immediately she strolled to the nearest wooden shaft, picked it up, removed the metal tip, and, with a hand slightly trembling, produced a similar item from her jacket pocket – another arrow head. As she compared them she gasped slightly. The two objects, though found in two totally different scenarios, were identical in both shape, size and design. The look in her eyes in the next couple of seconds was that of both disbelief and disappointment for reasons unknown as she stood there, mysteriously speechless.

“Commander? Are you alright?” the young man said, his bronze-colored hair almost stood on end as he gazed at her with both curiosity and anxiety.

“Yes... I guess,” Mina said, snapping out of what she was thinking. “By the way, Suuichi, would you mind checking the first floor for survivors? And Uncle Jan, please take care of the second,” her voice returned to a commanding, decisive tone quickly thereafter, “I'll take the ground. As much as the chance is minimal, we must take the initiative.”

“Roger that!” the young man replied heartily as he zoomed up the stairway, and the older, large man followed suit, leaving only Mina on the ground floor. She hesitated a little, before gazing down at the two arrow heads in her hand.

“Zaelro Fastoff,” she said to herself, rather unconsciously. “After all, are you a friend or an enemy?”

She also had her own share of searching as she thought. Although, judging from the devastation and the termination of human life with extreme prejudice as she had seen, she could not help but believe that if the search went on, she would find anything but survivors. Trudging among the broken ground and the bloodied, charred tile, if anything, she only managed to discover more corpses as she gazed along the destruction's edge. If her foresight and sixth sense served her well, the one responsible for all the atrocious murdering was supposedly the most infamous of vampirekind of all, in terms of extermination.

Fifteen minutes, two dozen corpses and a multitude of trailing bloodstains later, it was clear that the worst had happened. Like normal, the culprit had been thorough and relentless in leaving no survivors. She was supposed to get going soon as well – like all other unconventional investigators, if the decreed, official ones came by, her very presence in the red zone would reap nothing but trouble.

Then it struck her that the unconventional battle had left more than a truckload of arrows and debris all over the horizon. As she walked along the western wall back to the entrance, the vampire hunter realized that something was blatantly abnormal with the decorations, or rather, what left of them. She was quick to notice what it was - There, on the wall some distance from her, a disc-shaped object was fixed into the wall in the most unnatural way possible, protruding from it diagonally downward, defying all senses of aesthetics. It was basically suspended at least ten feet from the ground, after taking off from a relatively wide angle, now hanging above the bloodied hall, direly looking down on the scenario as if being a silent witness of the unspeakable terror. Half-sunken into the wall like a crossbow bolt lodged into the flesh of an unfortunate victim, the object must have been forcefully flung at it from below, before colliding against it with such force that an entire slab of brick and cement had been well displaced from its natural place. Whatever the object was, it must have been tossed there as a result of the undefined battle. But why?

Mina bit her nail as he gazed at the plate. No human strength could possibly have such force as to deliver such a magnificent throw, not even a standard, rank-and-file soldier of the Black Emperor's army. Yet the creature most likely to accomplish the crime himself, the Faceless One, as the infamous vampire lord wannabe driven insane by his own ascension ceremony, didn't have the habit of throwing frisbees as she recalled. Not even the lightweight shurikens appealed to that beast – it was general knowledge that his murderous pleasure was explicitly derived from gripping a prey by the neck and literally tear its head from the trunk. There was only one way to find out – by removing it from the orifice.

The job was harder than Mina thought. So deeply entrenched into the neighborhood of the wall in such an awkward height the disc was that even when she had leaped to its height, her pull was nowhere near the level needed to remove it. She would have been able to remove it had it not been at such a height – without a feet support there was no way she could exert the pull she needed. Three successive attempts were three successive failures, one worse than the last, with the last time climaxing with a heavy fall that would have badly maimed a normal person, to which Mina responded with a mild grimace as she stepped back and gazed at the plate with visible frustration. It was high time the business was done, nice and clean.

Her attention shifted to the various bulges on the belt across her shoulder, what appeared to be a standard issue, military ammunition belt. She was no soldier, but the purpose of the apparel was no less explicit. As she carefully opened one compartment and unloaded the content on her arm, a confident smile bloomed across her face, as she raised and examined them at eye level. A handful of strangely colored vials reminiscent of random, highly volatile chemicals in any mad scientist's Tesla-coil rigged lab was what the compartment concealed. Their purposes came to the eye sooner than enough, when Mina stepped backwards with careful, measured steps, before whipping her hand carelessly upwards, sending the vials flying towards the disc. What happened next was firework – pure awesomeness packed in a good number of flashy explosions in a chain reaction-like series around the offending artifact's location. Mina covered her head a bit as up to a dozen clustered blasts resounded above, throwing even more debris around the surrounding, as well as a good amount of smoke, as if there hadn't been sufficient of their kinds in the surrounding already. Even among the sound of explosions settling down and various bits and pieces of splintered bricks collapsing on the ground, Mina could hear the confirmation of success in the lines of a solid, metallic clang of a heavy item falling onto the ground, bounding up once or twice, before settling down with a softer, nevertheless still significantly loud, series of rattles and clatters.

And as the smoke finally dispersed, before Mina lay the prize of her painstaking efforts – a pitch black kite shield with an ominous raven wing decoration, ever generating a similarly black aura around its origin. At the first sight, Mina's reaction was a sigh of dismissal – one she would always give at the sight of any artifact of the night that the malignant vampire race utilized. She would take no more interest in something that they used to harm people except for throwing another vial of holy water at it and watch, with a grin of reprisal, as the sacred liquid do its job. Her prejudice was even more so in this case, as even as strange as it was, clearly the Faceless One had used the object – his stench of corruption of the mind and body was distinct all over the object. Thinking so, she opened another compartment on her belt, dragging out another vial, this one crystal clear and sparkling with the blessed sanctity of holiness, and haphazardly tossing it on the object, waiting for a sizzling disposal.

She was wrong.

As much as the vial had landed on the shield, instantly bubbling to work perfectly, as it sizzled on the surface and evaporated, the only thing the sacred holy water could do was to wipe off the foul smell of the corrupted Chaos Vampire. The raven shield, to Mina's dismay, was still lying there, seemingly immune to the water's purgatory effect. Astounded, Mina began to throw more vials on it, with increasing astonishment and growing anxiety as she whipped her hand. The result was a foregone conclusion – the water just splashed off the surface of the plate, just like ordinary water.

Only then she gazed at the object with more attention, noticing, with astonishment growing into almost ardent fear, that what power it held within its fabrics was far more than any other dark artifact she had come across. More than, but different from - As if the pure darkness itself, the neutral darkness, tainted by neither evilness nor malice, housing neither demons nor malignant spirits, carrying neither evil curses nor deadly enchantments, that of the solemn and quiet, starless sky and just that alone, had manifested within that two-feet-by-three metal plate.

Its black aura was still there, both inviting and imposing, at a degree Mina had never known, promising both unknown power and untold darkness to whoever taking it up and wield it in battle. Whether it was a blessing or a curse to the wearer, Mina didn't know as she picked the object up and stared at it with utmost perplexity. The artifact was anywhere from ghostly to demonic in appearance, yet if her senses was correct, its aura, now free of the Faceless One's stench, even though pitch black and consuming, was nowhere near the damned temptation of Black Vampire demonic artifacts that she and her comrades had demolished in droves in the passing years. And yet the darkness in its very texture was so imposing and vast that she dared not wield it. She had dismissed her own darkness. There would be no way she would take it back again.

And yet, so tempting the artifact was that the vampire hunter could not simply discard it. Instead, she whipped out an oversize cloth sheet from yet another compartment in her standard leather uniform, wrapping the heavy shield in a couple of layers, as if afraid of the darkness within, before lugging it along. At least, the officials at the church could tell her what it was, and how it came into existence.

But that was work in the future – as her conscience came back to the everyday common sense, she realized that the bumbling, questioning Sankaku cops who neither knew of nor believed in tales of supernatural creatures came into the scene. Hurriedly she called out to her comrades, noticing them of the need for departure. Their coming back to the hall were marked with shakes and shrugs of dismissal – apparently there were no survivors, not that they'd expected any. Nevertheless, it was not the time to linger on any longer.

The three shadows left the building shortly after just in time – no sooner than the three leather cloak-clad vampire hunters had departed from the piles of debris and corpses than the all-so-familiar sirens sounded in the surrounding as half a dozen police patrol cars braked to an unneeded arrival.

******

DF  Post #: 24
1/5/2009 3:27:00   
Argeus the Paladin
Member

Chapter 24
Illus Brothers


“I see. So that is what has happened,” Argeus Sunrise breathed out, perplexity filling his speech. “Looks like Oredin Kaledon’s visual report is just the incomplete floating iceberg of tonight’s events.”

The white background of the surrounding, if anything, only accelerated the clear perplexity all over the features of the celestial winged being standing before Zaelro Fastoff, and about the first time too. In any prior meeting with the mysterious being, Zaelro could easily notice the calmness and collection of Argeus Sunrise the paladin angel, as if he owned everything and was in control of every single thing that he came across in his missions. But today, it was different.

The strange air came to Zaelro’s subliminal conscience as soon as he dropped asleep that night. Having been subject to an extremely tiring day, with plenty of fighting, not to mention a couple of injuries in the meantime, Zaelro found himself falling asleep immediately after turning back to his cozy room, failing to even eat up the delicious dinner the host family had left in perfect condition for him. What happened next was everything went black, then white immediately after.

By then he had been quite acquainted to the fact that if he woke up in the middle of sleep to find himself among a spherical space painted white in all dimensions, his mentor and intelligence supplier was to come and brief him. Normally, as in the last briefing sessions, he was brought to the spherical briefing theatre signature of Argeus a noticeable some time after losing consciousness in the real world. But this time, he got the feeling that no sooner had he fallen asleep than Argeus brought him there, and showed up immediately instead of giving the ample, dramatic silence he usually utilized in the previous meetings, with utmost urgency as if something grave had happened.

The angel looked differently in his appearance as well, in a rather negative way: His wings flapped hastily and his eyes blinked in a rather impatient rhythm as he made himself present in the white chamber, telling Zaelro outright that he had somewhat lost grasp with the newest development in Sankaku. Quite sensible, Zaelro thought, as whatever happened in that night was out of the ordinary even to the battle-hardened Paladin.

The reason for that sudden and negative change in attitude was fathomable. Apparently he had received intelligence on Zaelro’s close call against the Faceless One earlier and how the golden sword Borelias shattered without warning. With visible anxiety and perplexity Argeus questioned him on that incident, and Zaelro’s reply only succeeded in adding more to Argeus’ deviation from calmness, escalating as Zaelro narrated how the sword came to pieces, and how Vjaya pierced Aurora’s almost indestructible defense.

“Well, I… Even I didn’t expect Borelias to break down that easily. The first moment it was still sharp and shiny, and then it just… splintered,” Zaelro added apologetically. “It happened so quickly that I couldn’t see anything other than that column of fire go off, and then the blade was down the next moment I saw it.”

“I am the one who have to apology, Zaelro Fastoff,” Argeus spoke, after a brief pause following enlightenment. “I failed to inform you of a crucial weakness of the Aurora Set, not having realized that such an unlikely and unfortunate event could happen.”

“A Prime Treasure… has weaknesses?” Zaelro could not believe his ears.

“Even the gods have their own strengths and weakness, Zaelro. Their weapons are even further from perfection,” Argeus explained. “As far as my meager knowledge on ancient lore and mythology goes, the Aurora Set, in this case, is virtually untouchable by any mortal weapon or magic, but does not offer too reliable a protection against the other Prime Treasures. And Gespenst, unfortunately, is the exact bane of Aurora – the weapon that works best against the golden weapons of the One Archangel of the Higher Heaven.”

“No wonder it pierced my defense with that degree of ease,” Zaelro rolled his eyes. “But then, is there a way to fix the broken weapon?”

“That is not difficult to us,” Argeus said. “Considering that Aurora was Lord Aurorus’ own treasure, the god will repair it without any hassle at all, although he would not be too pleased with its current state. Still, would you mind if I take it from here?”

“I left the blade in my room, splintered as it was,” Zaelro didn’t know if he should be relieved or depressed, judging from this present situation.

“Very well then,” Argeus nodded with agreement. “I’ll get it as soon as possible.”

“Still,” Zaelro absent-mindedly shifted the topic. “I wonder how could the sword probably exploded like it did.”

Little did Zaelro realize that those words brought about a frozen silence, as Argeus propped his chin as he hovered in the air upon hearing it, thinking hard for a moment. And then, the next thing Zaelro knew was the angel’s discovery blew up in a loud gasp, startling his audience a little. His eyes shifted from perplexity to a shade of mild, but noticeable fright.

“That is what I am not extremely certain about, but if your description is correct,” Argeus replied, relief passed through his voice with a slight shiver, “then you must have been fortunate enough to see a fabled Prime Clash at its peak and live to tell the tale.”

“If you call that fortunate,” Zaelro snorted. “If you were at the scene and see how that blast tossed loose arrows haphazardly all over the place and turning random objects in the room into porcupines you will change your mind.”

“Devastating, yes, but it is rare,” Argeus explained, or, rather, recited from his reserves of Terran lore, “As the lore goes, when two Prime Treasures, held by two powerful heroes accepted by them as their rightful owners, clash with each other at the peak of a battle, whence the emotion and battle lust of each fighter are at their top, they will react with each other, and the result is an extremely volatile outburst of pure elemental magic, proportionate to the comparative strength of their owners.”

“Sounds like a nuclear chain reaction to me,” remarked Zaelro.

“The mechanism sounds simple, but devastating to both the fighters and the observers,” Argeus went on, “The last time such an event was recorded was in the First Crusade of Fire, four hundred years ago, in which the clash between Chlorophyll and Colossus resulted in the devastation of a whole Grendenian city of Vlasburg, killing thousands. Fortunately, such clashes are rare, and no one except the eldest of elves in Westeria has witnessed such an event.”

Only then did Zaelro understand Argeus’ seemingly out-of-place shudder just a second before – it appeared that his inexperienced protégé had almost ignited something horrible primarily due to his lack of knowledge and rash reaction.

“Please correct me if I am wrong, but,” naturally Zaelro shuddered at the angel’s account, “does that mean I could have been responsible for the destruction of this town today…”

“Had you been as a mighty warrior, no, just a trained warrior, like a run-of-the-mill Hadrian Paladin under my command,” Argeus continued, “you could have ignited an explosion that would wipe out half this town in an exact replica of the 1023 Benetian Calendar Vlasburg Disaster, if my estimation serves me well.”

“So… in this case being a 17-year-old paper boy with no real physical training throughout the years is a blessing?” Zaelro asked back, in a reactive confirmation.

“Like I said, I should have warned you before,” Argeus spoke after moving his neck up and down slowly in an affirmative nod. “Managing Prime Treasures in a full-scale war involving others of their kind is no mean business.”

Zaelro was dumbfounded for good reasons as he listened, eyes opened widely in both disbelief and well-founded, logical fright and post-ordeal trauma. His lack of speech resulted in a good moment of silence that veiled the place, leaving a tensed, dreary air in its wake.

“Drifting off-topic a little, from your account I see that the opponent you faced this night was exceptionally tough as well,” Argeus broke the silence with a purely professional-inclined remark. “Even if supported by another Prime Treasure, not too many warriors could survive even a miniature Prime Clash, and only a tiny minority of these could stand up and fight again immediately after impact like he did.”

“If you were there you would have seen how he... ripped those people’s heads off,” Zaelro replied. “Even now that sight leaves a bad taste in my mouth.”

“That is why, Zaelro Fastoff, it is high time we discussed alternative methods to deal with these powerful figures of Reglay von Gendamme’s armies,” Argeus went on, calmness having returned to his face, though urgency was yet to fade. “The visual account from Oredin Kaledon’s point of view shows that even the mighty Hoplites were no match for the faceless monster’s assault, and the famous longbow barrage, respectable as it is, could but hold him back.”

“Well, that’s because he had Gespenst with him,” Zaelro blurted, “Without it…”

“…nothing would have changed,” Argeus interrupted. “From what I saw, even if he did NOT have the Armor of Darkness to back him up this day, the best that your troops could do is to maintain a prolonged stalemate with him,” at this point Argeus looked at Zaelro directly, as if confirming that the English was still with him. “Simply put, the Valhallan soldiers are simply not trained enough to suppress an overwhelming powerhouse – a high-ranking vampire commander or general, perhaps.”

“Maybe...” Zaelro’s voice trailed off in partial dismay and partial confusion. In this case, realization was not sweet at all.

“Not that I am condemning you or your trusted soldiers,” Argeus explained. “Just that, mob tactic is almost useless and self-devastating when an enemy with astounding power and the ability to wreck massive havoc on the crowd enters the fray.”

“You are speaking as if I can do something on my own against these supernatural bad guys,” Zaelro sighed. “Look, I almost got myself a one-way ticket to the afterlife just last Sunday!”

“You need two things,” Argeus slowly said each word. “Foremost, you need some battle experience and training. The difficulty is, this is not something that can be done in a day or two.”

“Like, it takes years or so to train an amateur squire into an average, acceptable mounted knight of the French army?” Zaelro rephrased Oredin’s words. “Correct me if I am wrong, but we don’t have a year with us.”

“Exactly,” Argeus confirmed. “That is why we shall now take the second solution instead.”

“So what is that second thing?” curiosity spoke for Zaelro this instance.

“Good equipment,” Argeus said emphatically, “that you can use without too much difficulty.”

“Is there just anything that is better than Aurora and usable?” Zaelro’s skepticism flared in his eyes.

“I dare not say it is better – that would be blatant blasphemy as well as a foolish distortion of truth,” Argeus explained. “But it may be more suitable to you than the legendary Aurora Set, clearly much less dangerous, and has a flatter learning curve. Something you can immediately bring into use, and can defend you well in times of need. Maybe the blade shattering this day is fate’s sign, suggesting that you should use other weapons in the battles to come.”

“Just so you know, Argeus, Steedy’s Sword of Light was a solid disappointment to say the least,” Zaelro shook his head in retort.

“Understandably a Sunlight Steed is bred just for angels to mount,” Argeus smiled tolerantly, “But this weapon I am about to give you is that given to every rookie Hadrian Paladin to hone their skills with. Those newcomers to the Order include several who are even more physically insignificant than you are.”

Before Zaelro’s curious and doubtful eyes, Argeus slowly drew out a small, long package from his cloak, wrapped in a couple of layers of white cloth. Slowly he unraveled the package, and in due time, when the last layer was unrolled, in the hovering angel’s hands lay a standard warrior’s treasure – a longsword, made of excellent steel, both light, sharp and durable. Finely designed it was as well, with a leather-wrapped hilt, further beautified by the silver guardpiece, modified to resemble a rapier’s, to offer perfect comfort and control together with an impeccable sense of aesthetics. In a nutshell, it was a next-generation melee weapon of sort, a fine cross between a knightly longsword and a lordly rapier. The standard-issue Paladin Sword of the Hadrian Paladins – a solid proof of social status, combat prowess and bravery of the wielder where it belonged.

However, the teenage fighter-in-training was not impressed at all. Zaelro’s eyes switched from skepticism to disappointment as he saw the weapon. After all, when one was used to a golden sword so lavishly designed and so dauntingly, divinely powerful, an average, run-of-the-mill weapon, even the best and most innovative of its kind, would appear as useless as a broken lead pipe.

“No offense, Argeus, but,” Zaelro barely stopped himself from snapping rudely, “I doubt if this would be of any use at all – if it is an everyday iron blade I needed I would have used the Regiment’s gladius in combat as well.”

The angel did not reply, but instead tossed the weapon at Zaelro’s grabbing range. Unconsciously the English teen grabbed the hilt, throwing around a random swirl immediately thereafter. His eyes opened widely as he got a feel of the weapon – it was like no other he had used. In a fit of newly-acquired ecstasy like a child just receiving a new toy, Zaelro performed some other roundhouse slashes and thrusts as well, only to confirm the second impression. Of course, in terms of look, luxuriousness and power, it was nowhere close to both the Sword of Light and Borelias, but neither of those treasures were a match to the lesser beauty when it came to maneuverability. The blade was so light and smoothly flowing that Zaelro felt as if he was holding a plastic toy sword rather than a lethal edge capable of wounding and killing.

“Wow,” Zaelro let out an exclamation of amazement following the last swipe, “this blade weighs, like, a third of what a normal steel blade should!”

“Imbued steel, imported directly from the only known dwarf-elf partnership that Terra is blessed with resulted in this magnificent weapon,” Argeus smiled proudly. “From this weapon both powerful Paladins and mighty Mage Knights of the Order have grown throughout the aeons. I, too, began my career with one of this.”

“This is much better than the Regiment’s ceremonial word!” Zaelro remarked as he made another swing.

“Well, that blade is not built for war in the first place,” Argeus smirked. “When Oredin said ceremonial, he meant it. Certainly, it could block, slash and thrust, but the blade is far too blunt to penetrate any armor worth its gold.”

“Just one question,” the commander’s swing stopped in its track as he sheathed his weapon after a quick idea struck him. “Is this all what is to it? I mean, is there anything special in it apart from maneuverability and lightweight?”

“This, my friend, brings us back to the briefing at hand,” the angel replied instantly as if he knew Zaelro’s reaction from the very start.

And then the celestial being folded his wings, landing on the ground, before producing from the vicinity of his cloak a tiny object that his palm swallowed completely, only revealing itself as Argeus opened his wrist. It was a golden orb, or rather, a crystal ball reminiscent of a fortune teller’s unmistakable tool, just of miniature size, gilded with a thin layer of the metal iconic of the Paladins. Before Zaelro had time to lay a question on what the item was, his sight was forcefully redirected to Argeus’ whole hands, where the marvel was unraveling. Thin layers of air churned up around the angel’s palms, forming a wavy veil around them as his body started to light up, covering in golden light. What he was doing Zaelro didn’t know, but it was implied that he was manipulating magic around, into, out of the orb, or all of the above in a ceremony the teen had never seen before.

Curiosity paid off – just in a couple of seconds, the lighting effect climaxed, and Argeus’ hands looked as it was made of gold itself, as he released the orb, at which point the golden toy jerked once, before basically splitting into two fragments to the observer’s wonder. The split resulted in another release of light across the chamber, blinding Zaelro for a couple of seconds as he instinctively withdrew his arm to cover the eyes, still being unable to shield off all of the glaring effect of the sudden burst.

And when it was all over, Zaelro opened his eyes, still somewhat dazzled, to realize that beside Argeus now stood another figure, although it was doubtful whether this newcomer was human at all, or stand was the right word to describe his stance in the space. He was ethereal and spirit-like, forming his shape in the background transparently, hovering over the ground a couple of inches light as the air itself. It was the easily recognizable tint of gold around his origin that persuaded Zaelro that it was not a maleficent ghost he was standing before, but rather a creature of the realm of light. Still, Zaelro had neither expected this appearance nor the ghastly spirit, and for a couple of seconds after the realization, he was still short of words to say.

“Zaelro, let me introduce you to Illus Grungedale, a loyal companion of mine throughout my military life,” the angel was quick to fill in the void of speech with a needed introduction, “Illus, this is Zaelro Fastoff, the demigod entrusted with our most important task,” his voice became tinted with a light degree of joke as he said the next sentence, “although it will be some time before he can realize his potential.”

“So this is Master Fastoff,” the spirit bowed ceremoniously before speaking, his voice respectful and deeply-toned. “Lord Sunrise had mentioned you countless times since his arrival here in this world.”

“Err, thanks,” Zaelro stepped forward, almost sticking his hand out to shake with the newcomer in an educated manner, only to have his realization of the spirit’s non-materialness stop his action in the track. “So, your name is… Illus, right?”

“Illus Grungedale here is the Chief Spirit of the Paladinian Cross,” Argeus spoke after Illus’ affirmative nod. “He is the one you will need to count on to realize the true potential of the Paladin Sword.”

“Sorry for this lack of knowledge, but what is the Paladinian Cross?” Zaelro looked genuinely puzzled.

“Master Fastoff, the Paladinian Cross is, simply put it, both an artifact and commendation,” Illus replied. “It is the weapon of the most powerful and most decorated members of the Hadrian Paladins. A medallion sought by all who had entered the Order, but only those who has reached the status of Foremost Paladin could have it as his own.”

“So why did you say that you are its Chief Spirit?” Zaelro scratched his head.

“This is a little complex, Master Fastoff,” Illus explained. “You must have heard of weapons imbued by spirits, haven’t you?”

“Not much, but as far as our own folklore goes,” Zaelro bit his lips, “a weapon may be possessed by a spirit, and that usually bestows a fatal curse.”

“The Paladinian Cross is one such weapon, Master Fastoff. Although, the possession as you speak is entirely positive in this sense. It is a mutual agreement between the Paladin wielding the blade and the spirits that dwell within it, in perfect harmony.”

“So basically you are the spirits that live within the Paladinian Cross?” Zaelro curiously asked.

“My brothers and I, Master Fastoff,” corrected Illus. “We are the Spirits of the Grungedale, one of the four Paladinian Crosses in existence.”

“My weapon when I was a Foremost Paladin in the mortal plane,” Argeus added, not concealing a harmless bit of warrior’s pride in his smile. “Grungedale and Illus’ brothers have been a huge help to me ever since.”

“Prince of Hadrius, Foremost Paladin, and now Special-class angel,” Zaelro rolled his eyes at his mentor with a due amazement. “You sure have a lot of custom titles, Argeus!”

“You forgot to mention Governor-General of Bronze County, Chief Irrigation Official and Hadrian Navy Grand Marshal, my friend. Although, by now, most of those titles have expired” Argeus spoke, his ringing voice well accompanied by a good laughter, leaving Zaelro in a clear astonishment, before quickly turning back to seriousness once more. “Anyway, now that I am… gone from the living world, I reckon it would be wise to leave Grungedale in the hands of someone who needs it and who would make good use of it.”

“Do you mean me?” Zaelro asked, both nervous and slightly proud as well.

“Yes, and no,” Argeus shook. “After all, I am in no position to actually give you the Paladinian Cross.”

“But… why?” Zaelro asked, shrugging.

“Because, Master Fastoff, it is not Master Sunrise who chooses who uses Grungedale and who does not,” Illus said emphatically. “We, my brothers and I, are the one who do.”

“Now this is getting confusing, isn’t it?” Zaelro stared at the spirit. “Does that mean that I have to be, uh, tested before I can get to use the Paladinian Cross?”

“This, Master Fastoff, brings us to the Sword’s Honor ceremony of the Hadrian Paladin Order, the final phase of selecting a Foremost Paladin,” the spirit slightly nodded. “It is a series of tests that we would issue the Foremost Paladin candidate, and only if he passes shall he be promoted, becoming both the pinnacle of the Order and our rightful owner.”

“What kind of test would you issue?” Zaelro asked.

“I’ve discussed with both Lord Aurorus and Illus regarding this matter, Zaelro,” Argeus stated. “Normally, the Sword’s Honor includes a very rigorous series of near-impossible tests and challenges for the toughest Paladin Lords, such kind of challenges that could easily kill, maim, or otherwise permanently damage someone of a lesser prowess than those. But in your case, we have agreed that because time and the current circumstances would not allow it, Illus and his brothers will issue a lesser, but still highly challenging gauntlet for you to run. Grungedale shall be yours when you complete this challenge.”

“So what kind of test is it?” Zaelro was eager in his words.

“Master Fastoff, your mission will be to recover all my four brothers, the spirits of the blade, the hilt, the guardpiece, and myself, the spirit of the rune aura,” Illus explained. “Prior to this conversation, my brothers have already departed – they are now located in various parts of the small town of Sankaku together with the parts of the Grungedale that they guard. It is up to you to find them, accept their tests, and complete them.”

“I’ll try my best,” Zaelro said confidently as he heard the conditions. “After all, it is just another treasure hunt, isn’t it?”

“Not quite, Master Fastoff,” Illus shook his head. “Please keep in mind that some of my brothers are kind of… mischievous when it comes to testing for new wielders of Grungedale. I am not saying that they are bad-natured, but they like to twist things around to make life shirk further to the hard side for the candidate. You should keep that in mind before accepting any of their challenges.”

Though friendly, Illus’ tone was rather sullen and slightly threatening when he was at it. And when he said it, he meant it – even Argeus was struck still by that warning, the reason being that he, too, had suffered a good deal during his own gauntlet just four years prior. The angel’s gaze at his protégé, tinted by that bad-tasting memory, somehow cast some unwanted tension upon the scenario.

“As long as it doesn’t involve slashing my arm off and put it back in,” joked the English commander, shrugging away the heavy air of anxiety, “I don’t think I will back off.”

******

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